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Despite a somewhat sluggish start to the season, new manager Andre Villas-Boas already appears to have made his mark on the Chelsea side. After stumbling to narrow victories at home to Norwich and West Brom, as well as a single point away at Stoke, Chelsea put it in what was their best performance of the season at Old Trafford on Sunday, contrary to the story the score line tells, more than matching their in-form opponents for the 90 minutes. It can even be argued that Chelsea were the better side, just undone by a combination a bad luck and poor finishing. The performance was unlike any other in recent Manchester United-Chelsea fixtures, and has drawn [largely undeserved] criticism from certain quarters, but has left the majority of Chelsea supporters enthusiastic about what is to come.

One of the most notable features of Chelsea’s play this season has the been the speed at which the side gets the ball back into play in nearly every opportunity, whether it be through quickly taken throw-ins or by Petr Cech releasing the ball early. Chelsea’s goalkeepers – both Henrique Hilario and Cech have featured in the league this season – have averaged 16.8 successful distributions per game over the course of the start of the season, compared with 9.4 last year, illustrating a tendency to roll the ball out early and simply, rather than hitting the ball long in the hope of forwards winning the ball in the air. This number (16.8) is comfortably the highest in the league.

Another significant change from seasons past is the introduction of an extremely high defensive line, a tactic that Villas-Boas used successfully at Porto. While in the early season games Norwich and West Brom exploited this significantly, the same cannot be said about Sunday’s game at Old Trafford, despite the extraordinary pace United are blessed with across their attacking line. With neither captain John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic being the quickest of centre backs, it was to be expected that the tactic would take some getting used to, and David Luiz appears to be key to Chelsea’s prospects for the season. Villas Boas was quick to praise Luiz after his match winning contribution against Bayer Leverkusen, describing his an ‘amazing talent’, as well as rubbishing any suggestion that he is at all susceptible defensively.

Two of the major criticisms of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign as Chelsea manager were his inability to affect games with telling substitutions, as well as reluctance to veer from his preferred starting 11, even during periods of poor form, refusing to drop underperforming ‘stars’. In yesterday’s game against United, Villas Boas showed he was more capable than doing each of these, by substituting Frank Lampard at half time [for Nicolas Anelka] and switching from a 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea scored within a minute of the change, with Anelka providing a wonderful through-ball for Fernando Torres.  Whilst Chelsea didn’t actually play particularly poorly in the first half, Villas Boas’ willingness to change formation and personnel with immediate affect was very encouraging.

What to do about Frank Lampard is a notable conundrum that Villas Boas faces over the course of the season. One criticism that could be actually levelled against Villas Boas from the United match is actually starting Lampard in the first place (especially as not doing so would have allowed Raul Meireles to play further forward, with John Obi Mikel – much more competent defensively than Meireles – tracking Rooney) given the midfielder’s lack of form and the inevitable high intensity of the game. In the first half Lampard was nothing more than a passenger, unable to match the energy of Ramires, Fletcher and Anderson in the middle of the park. A quick look at Lampard’s distribution from the first half highlights a clear tendency for sideways and backwards passes, despite him supposedly meant to be the ‘creative’ player in the middle of the Chelsea midfield.

Fernando Torres’ now infamous interview detailing Chelsea’s “slow” players, as a reason for his poor form, appear to be a direct criticism of the likes of Lampard, who unquestionably haven’t been able to provide Torres with the sort of the creativity from midfield he thrived on at Liverpool. A problem identified by Miguel Delaney back in April, long before Torres’ comments.

While Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were (and still are in the case of the former) able to contribute significantly to the success of United in recent years, despite being well into their thirties, is Lampard capable of doing the same? As a player who’s built his career on his phenomenal levels of natural fitness, rather outright footballing ability, it seems unlikely, at least certainly not to the same extent as Giggs and Scholes.

Recently dropped by Capello, will Villas Boas follow suit?

Lampard’s future could also be affected by Villas Boas’ apparent willingness to incorporate younger players into the side. While he is still far from the finished article, Daniel Sturridge’s involvement in the Chelsea starting XI, even at Old Trafford, highlights this focus on youth, much unlike his predecessor. It’s a refreshing change from watching the hapless Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou struggle away on the wings. Even 18-year-old Romelu Lukaku was preferred to Malouda and Kalou as Chelsea strived for further goals at Old Trafford. Villas Boas’ confidence in Sturridge bodes well for the likes of Josh McEachran, an immensely talented young playmaker, who certainly seems more Villas Boas’ style of football than Lampard.

Chelsea’s two major summer signings, ignoring the many younger players signed in the summer, have both made an immediate impact. Since the introduction of Juan Mata and Raul Meireles into the starting line-up, Chelsea have progressed from a side struggling to beat Norwich and West Brom at Stamford Bridge, to a side who’ve cruised past Sunderland – the scoreline, again, didn’t reflect the dominance – and Bayer Leverkusen in the past week, as well as more than matching the much hyped Manchester United at their home ground. Both players have added a different dimension to Chelsea’s play, allowing the ball to move much faster through the midfield – with the help of the extraordinary energetic Ramires, a far cry from the ponderous football played under Ancelotti, and many of his predecessors, with the midfield trio of Mikel-Lampard-Essien.

So long as Villas Boas continues to get things right both on and off the pitch, Chelsea fans have every right to be optimistic about the season(s) to come under their new Portugese manager.

Joel Sked addresses the Hairband culture of football.

What does British football need to do to improve? A question that has prompted much discussion amongst professionals, the media and public. A topic examined to the point of boredom after constant failures of both England and Scotland on an international (and club – yes Scottish clubs I am looking at you) level.

Conclusion. We are obese, drink too much, play too much computer games and are still stuck the prehistoric age when it comes to technique and tactics. In short we are useless. Or so we are told. Criticism has only been heightened by the all too perfect football of Barcelona; who in their first league game of the season fielded one defender and no ‘out-and-out’ striker and still won 5-0*.

All aspects of football have been scrutinised with many concluding, and rightly so, that more has to be done at youth level; more time and effort spent cultivating technical and tactical aspects of the youngster’s game rather than looking for the biggest and fastest 12 years olds; the same players who ten years later are playing Sunday league football, still the same height although now accompanied with a large central area and exterior with their pace, ironically, left behind.

This article however is not another strategic outline of what kids need to do to better their technique and understanding of the game. This is a call to football players to revert back to older times to meet the new times.

I re-entered the world of competitive football action last season after taking a sabbatical to follow an unnamed football club each Saturday. The six year long break saw me ‘reinvent’ myself from an indecisive goalkeeper to a mercurial winger after a few years of running around men twice my age at 5-a-sides. It made me feel is as if I could seamlessly fit into the high octane world of under-21 football. Yet a handful of games in and my friend was right (yet again); 5-a-side is to 11-a-side what pool is to snooker. Anyway this isn’t about my struggles acclimatising to 11-a-side football. It is about players attitudes.

Going into a changing room full of 20 and 21 year-olds you expect the atmosphere to be boisterous, players fuelled with adrenaline moments before a football match and at that age semi-intelligent discussion about tactics, positional play and movement. Nope. Sat there, one of only few changed, I look round at players bargaining for tape, admiring a team-mates new multi-coloured boots and getting themselves into a sweat over which thermal, baselayer, call it what you will, to wear. It’s September. AND mild.

Now too old for under-21’s I have moved onto Sunday amateurs (and right back – the fall back option for all those not so good). The Sunday leagues – or pub leagues – have a notorious reputation for being no-holds barred wars – the less admirable side of British football. Pumped up, shaven-headed ogres ready to part your ankle from your leg. Your shin from your knee. Your knee from . . . you get the idea. They are not to be messed with.

On arrival I expect my nostrils to be assaulted by a combination of stale alcohol – the last remnants of the night before – and deep heat. Instead it is players failing to hold down the previous evening’s alcohol intake. Then there is the bargaining again . . . this time over a ‘good-fitting’ strip, talk of new £120+ boots and tape. What is up with footballers and tape?

A little bit to hold the socks up is often required. Fair enough. But you look at players ankles and they’ve been mummified. Whole rolls are used because it helps keeps their socks and shinguards in tact. Who are they kidding? They are doing it because it makes them ‘look good’. It started with ‘flashy’ wingers. Now there are ‘flashy’ defenders. Give me a break.

Then there are the players with hairbands. This is not Anatoly Tymoschuk hair we are talking about. It’s slightly long hair. Boyband hair. Not enough for a hairband but hey! It makes them ‘look good’. Supposedly.

Hairbands should be left to the exotic goal-getters with their luxuriant locks. Tape, fitted strips, £100+ fancy boots, more tape and hairbands. What is going on in the lower levels of British football?

It is here where we meet the crux of the problem. Players have almost become more interested in football ‘fashion’ and looking good. Playing and improving has taken a back seat. It is a trend that I noticed with younger age groups over the last few years where boys who could barely stand on their own two feet, never mind kick a ball, were wearing boots their parents would have had to fork out the best part of £100 for. As mentioned it has crept into older age groups and even adults.

Trying to stay away from the nostalgic cliché of ‘football was different in our day; it has gone soft’ there is a grain of truth in the argument. As a coach of an under-11 side I now see some boys shirk from any sort of physicality and go to ground under minimal contact. Not to try and win a penalty or free-kick but to feign injury and ‘look injured’.

It comes back around to replicating what they see when watching football on television. Players with their scientifically developed baselayers and football boots. The perfectly wrapped tape and perfectly placed hair. Then of course there is the going to ground and ‘feigning injury’ but that is a story for another article. Soon players will be sticking Kinesio tape – the blue tape strapped on players to help give support and stability to your joints and muscles – onto their body without any inclination of what it does, again with the reasoning it makes them ‘look the part’.

It seems over time football in Britain has struggled to imitate and reproduce the technical and tactical elite of Europe while losing some of its steel the British game was admired for.

There is of course need for better educating of players in this country as shown by the anecdote provided by Steve McLaren from his time in Germany. British players need to strive to become more intelligent. But it should not come at the price of the famed resolute British fortitude and tenacity which has pulled clubs through ties against more skilful and tactically adept opposition. Currently there is no middle ground. Or any ground at all. Coaching and technique has improved but it still lags behind European and South American counterparts. Shouts of ‘get it forward’ are still prominent in every, with the exception of a few, grounds in Britain. While at the lower levels, youth and amateur, players have perhaps lost ‘something’ in their desire for football, yet increased in their desire for the latest football fashion.

So I ask, call, plead you to get yourself to the shop and buy shorts, t-shirt, socks and a pair of Copa Mundials and get down the park and focus on becoming a better player.

*A lesson here for those ‘traditional’ football fans. You don’t need to always have ‘two up top’ to play good football and win games.

The Roma Revolución

Allie Gamble asks what’s going on in the Italian Capital….

On the 16th of April this year, Thomas DiBenedetto made Italian football history by signing a takeover contract to buy AS Roma. By doing so, the Bostonian, a partner in the Fenway Group which also owns Liverpool and the Red Sox, became the first foreign owner of a Serie A team. His arrival was greeted with approval by the fans, who hoped for a more aggressive or ambitious transfer policy than that of the Roma of the past, and the Italian press, who saw it as an important step forward for Italian football as a whole.

For Roma, this was a chance to move up in the world of Italian football, an opportunity to break the Triumvirate of Inter, Milan and Juventus (hugely weakened post Calciopoli). For the rest of Serie A, it represented the possibility of a stronger, more marketable, modern league that would attract future investors. Even the disappointing results of that season for Rome’s yellow-reds didn’t dampen the air of excitement that hung over the Capital as the season drew to a close.

The American takeover was met with enthusiasm by Romanisti

The first move of the American regime was the hiring of Director of Sport/Transfer Guru Walter Sabatini, who arrived from Palermo. This move was widely applauded. Sabatini is regarded as among the best in the business at what he does. He was the man responsible for bringing Pastore to Europe, among many others.

This was followed by the addition of Director Franco Baldini, who will not officially join until later this year due to his obligations to the English National Team, where he assists Capello. These ‘signings’, while hardly the sort of thing to get most fans starry eyed with rapture, were smart moves in harmony with the new direction and ambitious mentality the Americans are looking to install in a club famous for near misses and organisation-wide meltdowns.

Walter Sabatini

Another example of the new management’s intent to break with tradition was its choice of coach. Around February, Carlo Ancelotti was considered the obvious candidate. An experienced manager with a great deal of success and a playing past with Roma, it was thought he was the man the DiBenedetto had his eye on. Maybe he was, but for whatever reason, Carletto remains without a job post-Chelsea. The interest in Villas-Boas seems to have been much more concrete, but his €15 release clause probably scared them off.

In the end, it was Luis Enrique, of Barcelona B fame, who got the job. A young coach with a winning mentality and little in common with the typical Italian management style, there are plenty of similarities between him and Villas-Boas, suggesting he was plan B in the likely event they couldn’t get Mourinho’s protege. The fact he has a great deal of experience of Barcelona’s exceptionally successful system didn’t hurt his chances either.  His inexperience was questioned though, especially going into a locker-room that has seen its fair share of squabbles, and considering he would be given the job to take a team that was less in rebuilding mode than in a state of total upheaval from the top down.

Luis Enrique

The transfer market was just as eventful as predicted, with Sabatini pulling off moves left right and centre. Spanish speakers in particular seemed to be the flavour of the month. In came Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch International, who arrived for a preposterously low €6m. Simon Kjaer was taken on loan for €2m, with the option to buy for a further €7-8m. Fernando Gago arrived from Madrid on a similar deal. Bojan was bought from Barcelona for €12m, Spanish U21 International José Ángel came in from Gijon, Gabriel Heinze was signed on a free transfer from Marseille. Pablo Osvaldo the Argentine/Italian striker returned to Italy from Espanyol for roughly €15m, a price which raised plenty of eyebrows for a player with plenty still to prove.

Sabatini also compounded his reputation for having a penchant for Argentinian attacking prodigies when he secured Erik Lamela, a star for Argentina’s U21s, for €12m from River Plate. Ex-Chelsea prospect Fabio Borini was also taken on loan, with the option to buy. The best move Roma made though, was surely the deadline day signing of superb midfielder Miralem Pjanic from Lyon for around €11m.

Out went the ridiculously talented, inconsistent, frustrating but always entertaining Mirko Vucinic (Juventus), as well as Jeremy Menez (PSG), Matteo Brighi (Atalanta), Philippe Mexes (Milan, still hurts), John Arne Riise (Fulham).

Never a dull moment with Mirko

In the transfer market, the new look Roma have enjoyed success this summer, with the botched sale of Marco Borriello to PSG the only big mark on an otherwise impressive beginning for Sabatini, as well as perhaps the amount paid for Osvaldo. On the pitch though, things have been rather less enjoyable for Roma’s fans. Granted, any team that goes through the amount of change they have, over such a short period of time, is going to have some ‘growing-pains’, as Sabatini and Luis Enrique repeatedly stressed.

However, getting knocked out of Europe by Slovan Bratislava in the Europa League qualifications, having said that they were taking the competition seriously sounds more like ‘growing-Spanish Inquisition style torture’. The saying goes that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but on the evidence so far, this team is nowhere near where the people in charge had planned by the start of the season. There is no team in Italy that has benefitted more from the delays to the start of the league season caused by the players’ strike than Roma, but even with the extra couple of weeks of preparation, the first few months of the season may well be rough for a squad so in need of chemistry and direction.

Of course, it doesn’t help (nor, knowing Roma, should it surprise) that the two most important people in Roma’s locker room, Captain Francesco Totti and the coach Enrique himself, are currently not on speaking terms. Totti, according to the Italian press, is upset by Enrique’s decision not to start him against Bratislava, and feels that he is being marginalised by the new management, a sentiment reinforced by the fact that earlier in the summer Baldini, not even arrived in Rome, went on record saying Totti was lazy.

It is also unclear if Enrique truly believes Totti can fit in his 4-3-3 formation. The fans have naturally come down on the side of Totti, the greatest legend in the history of the club, and as much a feature of the city as the Colosseum.  Both characters have reputations for stubbornness, and this controversy risks destabilising the project, unless one side or the other can swallow their pride. Of course, Enrique at this points seems to have more to lose, since if he were to back down it would likely lose cause him to lose the respect of the rest of the team.

Totti's standing amongst Roma fans is unparalleled

So what now for Roma? There are many reasons for Romanisti to be optimistic for the future as their club tries to boldly go where no Italian team has ever gone before, especially with so much young talent in the squad in the likes of Lamela, Pjanic, Kjaer and Bojan, but there are also plenty of warning signs that it might be a bumpy road ahead. The club needs to keep the directors, coach and players all on the same page, or it could all fall apart. Whatever the outcome this season though, there’s no doubt that the team from the Eternal City won’t be boring.

Tom Goulding has five changes he’d like to see, as another new season begins. 

  • The source of an opinion does not determine its validity. Something people say is “Well, yeah, he would say that, because he’s a [insert team] fan”. While this may be the reason that an Arsenal fan thinks that Cesc Fabregas is the best midfielder in the league, or that a Manchester United fan thinks that refereeing decisions do indeed even themselves out over a season, it doesn’t mean those people are necessarily wrong. People have biased opinions which are right as well as biased opinions which are wrong. So when you say that an opinion isn’t valid merely because they have a vested interest in the issue, you are shirking the responsibility to respond to the point. Just because Zonal Marking says something, it doesn’t make it any more right than if a one-eyed tribalist idiot says it. It’s more likely to be true, sure, but unless you explain why something is true or false, you can’t rely on the source of an opinion to conclude anything. It’s lazy.
  • There are lots of improvements fans would like to see on the officiating side of the game – goal-line technology perhaps, or a stop to players and fans expecting referees to be infallible in games involving their team. While these changes would be very welcome, a different and perhaps more realistic change might have a greater effect. In general, officials don’t like to penalise obstructions which don’t send a player to the ground – they seem soft and incur the wrath of opposing fans. The main reason players go to ground easily however, is to obtain the free-kick which otherwise would wrongly have been denied. An acceptance of fouls which don’t send a player tumbling to the floor and you would eliminate diving. Failure to accept this, and diving would justifiably continue to exist.
  • The end of ‘football as entertainment’. Fans watch football to be entertained – that doesn’t mean that football’s ‘function’ is entertainment. Football for a player might be a passion, a way to get famous or simply a healthy wage. Football for an owner is a business to make profit. Football for the steward behind the goal is a job to earn a wage to pay the rent. The function of football is different for many people involved, so to speak of one function to which the combined forces of football must aim is misguided. If fans stop going en masse, things might change and they might have more say, but that doesn’t look like happening any time soon.
  • These leads me on to the next point – people blaming teams for defensive football. When Manchester City went to the Emirates Stadium in January to play Arsenal, they set their team up defensively to avoid losing valuable ground to a rival. They secured a 0-0 draw without having threatened the Arsenal goal much throughout the game, and this lead some people to criticise them for their ‘anti-football’, negative approach. But who are we to say how a team should play football? Football is just as much about conceding one less than your opponents as it is about scoring one more than them. City would have been far less likely to secure a result at a difficult ground had they played as if they were at home. A strong defensive performance doesn’t entertain the neutral as much as a strong attacking performance does, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t as valuable. Manchester City had no duty to entertain the 60,000 fans at the Emirates stadium that night and the fact that they eventually finished the season three points above Arsenal more than justified their approach that night.
  • Deserving to win a game of football’. Some people said that because Arsenal dominated possession of that 0-0 draw and created more chances than Manchester City, they ‘deserved’ to win the game. But why should the fact that they got past the first four lines of City’s team mean they have an automatic bye past City’s last line, their goalkeeper Joe Hart? Arsenal’s large amount of possession that night was on City’s terms – i.e. that they could do anything like with it, apart from get past Hart. Sure, Arsenal might be the more likely team to deserve to be remembered in many years for their ability to produce entertaining football, but this is a completely different issue. Most managers or fans desperately cling on to the notion of desert as a high ground when defeated, but it rarely has any merit.

Two men

A young man gets up at 5.45am and eats a bowl of chopped-up apple and pine nuts, and a whey protein drink, like he does every morning. He gets changed into his training gear and leaves his home. He sets off for the training centre on the far side of the city, and he knows that if he goes quickly and catches the first train service, he can make it there in 1 hour and 12 minutes. He has made this journey every morning for the past 4 years, give or take a handful of exceptions for a national holiday or ill health.

He arrives at the training centre – a glorified leisure centre, run-down following a recent halt to Government funding – twenty minutes before the first employee usually arrives to open the centre, so that he can guarantee use of the only set of equipment for his training. He waits in the cold. He has stood outside this entrance over a thousand times, trying to focus on what he is going to work on when he gets inside. His fingers start to go numb.

The employee arrives and lets the man into the building. He work for three hours on the equipment, often repeating the same technique until he has it perfected, which can take months. Once he has isolated what he is doing wrong, he concentrates on correcting it. It is the only thing which occupies his mind day and night and he completely surrenders his body to this simple, narrow pursuit. He pushes his body to the brink of exhaustion day after day, until, after many months of training and competition, the skill is a matter of unconscious competence, a habit which he does not have to think about to achieve. What takes years for most people to master, he can now do without thinking.

His sole motivation, the daydream with which he occupies himself through all of this is the competition every four years. The level of dedication and training he has submitted himself to means that, in front of the world, he has a chance to compete with the best and show everyone what he personally can do. He has spent many years, especially the last four, saying ‘no’ to everything a man of his age usually does –traditional entertainment, normal food, drugs – to have his chance to demonstrate why he should be talked about, remarked upon, or remembered.

He travels thousands of miles to the competition, spending all the money he and his family have saved up over many years. After qualifying for the final round of the tournament, he is excited and confident of success. However, he doesn’t get anywhere near a medal-winning position in the finals as he completely fails to perform the technique he thought he had mastered when the pressure mounts. It is a glaring failure and ruins any chance of him challenging his rivals for honours.  The opposition finish far ahead of him and he finishes last, in 8th position. Then he goes home.

*

Another man gets up at 11.16am in his comfortable flat in Kentish Town, or Westbourne Grove, or wherever. He is a writer – a sports writer – and one of the benefits of this job is that he can lie-in on most working days. As a writer, he is a dignified, voice of truth and superiority, at a position which requires intelligence and insight. He is respected through to the furthest depths of his middle class clique for his scathing and pithy rejections of the poor and incompetent performers who have the insolence to compete in front of him. His famous rejections of those who do not produce immediate excellence for his pleasure are as verbose as they are scathing.

One summer, this man is paid to eat pizza, drink beer and type derogatory remarks with pretentious vocabulary into Microsoft word, just like every year – except this time he will be in a different city. It has been four years since the last prestigious sporting tournament and so he is paid to go to this city and watch those who have trained for many years and then write about them. He yawns his way through a press release for the opening rounds before the final rounds take place. The winner is as expected, the defending champion from four years ago. But look at that man in 8th position, he thinks. He’s awful! How on earth is he so bad? His incompetence compared to the others is actually quite amusing.

When the writer returns to his London office, he sends the clip of the final round to his colleagues in the writing office and shares the video on Twitter. “That’s incredible,” says the writer. “It really is embarrassing for him. His technique is all wrong, he’s completely mistimed his performance and his mindset is obviously too cautious. He needs to learn how to perform on the big stage when the pressure is on. Someone needs to tell him this because he’ll never achieve anything like that”.

And the writer and his colleague laugh and go back to their desks and starts proudly typing away.

On Greatness

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’, which denotes that to achieve true mastery of any skill, you need to practice for at least ten-thousand hours. After studying masters of many different fields, from musicians to sportsmen to thinkers, “no-one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time”.

Ten thousand hours is a long time. If you practiced something for two hours every day (no mean commitment), it would take you around 14 years to give yourself a chance of true, world-class expertise. Even then it would not be guaranteed of course – this amount of practice is merely a necessity. You would give yourself a better chance of achieving greatness by committing three, four five hours each day to a passion of yours. Five hours, every day, with no days off for Christmas or New Year, and it still takes you at least six years.

Could you commit that much time to something? You would have to cut a lot of things out of your life. Would you rather be a dilettante in many hobbies, with a light knowledge in a range of subjects, or a world expert at one thing and fairly abject at everything else? Of course the ideal scenario is to be widely educated on a variety of issues, with the additional athletic ability of, say, Eric Cantona. But this is a very rare breed. Noam Chomsky might be a specimen – one of the most widely respected and thus authoritative voices on Linguistics, Psychology and Political Philosophy in the world, while the ‘Chomsky Hierarchy’ is a key model in computer science, and the man’s work is the eighth most cited source of all time. But even he can’t lob Lionel Perez from 18 yards.

To be as multi-talented as Chomsky is quite an ambitious aim, but in general you can achieve mastery of any individual skill if you really, really want to. Notwithstanding the main restraint of physical demise , if you make something your top priority, spending nearly all of your time and money on becoming as great as you can be at it, you’ll probably get close to true mastery. You can become a world expert on Thomas Hardy if you read enough. You can become a professional darts player if you practice enough. If you are young enough and hire enough personal trainers and undergo enough coaching, you would probably start to master football. If you spend every single minute of the day reading Johann Hari articles, you are a world expert on objective morality. Probably.

While I’m sure most people would like to be a genius concert pianist or a famous playwright, there is wanting it to happen, and wanting it to happen so much that it takes the place of most other stuff in your life. Judging by the decisions of most people, true dedication is deemed too much of a compromise on the multitude of pleasures our standard of living offers us – relaxing after work, spending weekends with friends and family. You can forget about greatness and have a pizza on the couch watching TV every week, as well as going to the pub with friends, watching sport and listening to music as much as you want. The plethora of activites that are presented to you, which make you passive consumers, are so vast in quantity that it is easy to forget the pursuit of real, era-defining stand-out achievement and still have an enjoyable, easy life.

I asked a friend about the dilemma between greatness but compromise, and mediocrity but pleasurability. He argued on a personal level for the pursuit of greatness over variety because of a deep worry he has that he will be instantly forgotten once he has died and thus he might well have not existed. If he is not remembered by people he didn’t know, then he feels that he was no different to the billions before him, and his personal significance is virtually zero.

Of course, pursuing greatness is making the assessment that in the long term you’ll have more pleasure than all those times you drink alcohol/watch television/etc put together. This is of course not guaranteed – a long way down the lonesome road of practice after practice you might find that intense repetition has rendered this ‘passion’ of yours dull and boring, or you may find that you will never become as great as you want to, to receive the appropriate satisfaction and pleasure from your skill. The pursuit of mastery is a gamble, and the option of shirking it is put before you every day.

What do you choose?

Given I had just read and reviewed Soccernomics: Why England Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski, I looked at England’s latest catastro-fuck at Wembley (going down 2-0 to Switzerland within 35 minutes) in a new enlightened set of spectacles. One of Kuper and Szymanski’s explanations was that the Premier League is the all-consuming and exhaustive behemoth on the English players’ calendars, to which they give so much physical and mental concentration, that international matches are often no more than an afterthought.

If you are an Olympic athlete, you can plan your performance so that you peak in the Olympics every four years. If you are Rio Ferdinand, can you be expected to peak three times at Wembley in two months, in a cup semi-final, a Champions League Final, and an international qualifier, not to mention the league games in between? It is clear which are the most important to perform in. Tranquillo Barnetta played 34 minutes over two games for his club, Bayer Leverkusen, in the whole month of May. He could focus on peaking at Wembley this weekend, and be fairly confident about succeeding in doing so.

The most important football for these players stopped a long time ago. They all set out to achieve something with their various clubs over a number of many months, and they put in an incredible amount of effort to succeed.  Joe Hart and James Milner secured an FA Cup four weeks ago. John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott all failed to win the title a month ago, or more. Scott Parker’s mission to save a club almost single-handedly ended three weeks ago.

When these things finally happen/don’t happen, your mindset as an athlete changes. It must surely be very hard to get motivated for more travails. If you have just trained for weeks to run a marathon or worked for an exam for many months, the last thing you want a week after the race/exam is another one of the same. How can we expect these players to peak in a game which has delayed their much-needed holiday by a couple of weeks?

The answer is very easily, apparently. Many England fans seem to believe that England players should perform their very best for England no matter what the circumstances, given what a holy honour it is to wear the shirt. Thus when not everything goes to plan, some evil force of either incompetence or injustice, or both, has prevented the rightful 4-0 win for the brave lions. Sometimes the players are just tired. Indeed, Fabio Capello and even England’s Brave John Terry said as much.

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