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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.

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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.

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For many years children, teenagers and adults have taken to parks and pitches on a Saturday and Sunday morning, the length and breadth of the country, to partake in the ‘beautiful game’. A ritual almost. Enthusiastic players, card-happy referees, and managers barking instructions as if their job hangs on the line. . .

It is the start of a new season and players have convinced their parents to separate with the best part of £100 for brand new, shiny boots they see their heroes wear on television, trying to emulate their success.

The parks and pitches are green after a summer of inactivity as the council have taken the goal posts away; new players have arrived as others departed and teams are either looking to build on last season’s success, improve on last season’s failure or playing because it is football. There is the new season feel.

Fast forward four months and the new season feel has been replaced. Replaced with the numbing feeling of winter. Mud up to your ankles and aching neck muscles as the ball flies overhead, defenders not contemplating playing out from the back on the marsh-like surface. Head to toe in mud; it is meant to be ‘character building’.

Even when the surface starts to harden it brings about all the crevices of the pitch. We have all been there right? A ball is passed out to you on the wing, you take a glance, survey the options available to you but just as you go to control the ball a horrible bobble lifts the ball over your foot and out of play. The look of disapproval from your players and coaches, while you can hear the sniggers of mockery and derision from the opposition. Embarrassing.

It’s about time this changed.

Parks and pitches all over Britain do not receive the regular required maintenance to keep them at their best. Instead most are neglected, minus a cut and re-lining every now and then. This is compounded with substandard drainage systems and over-use, with most towns and cities not having the requisite number of pitches in relation to the number of teams in the area.

The answer is in artificial surfaces. Not the ones that your school have invested in which are covered in sand – you finish playing and empty your trainers of what looks like half of Copacabana beach. But 3G (or even 4G) surfaces which are flat and infinitely better than the majority of natural surfaces that grassroots footballers have to deal with week in week out.

North of the border Henry McLeish discovered in his investigation of Scottish football the game needs investment from bottom to top. And the insightful David Conn has recently looked into the situation of Grassroots funding in England. Adequate investment in artificial pitches needs to feature high up on the priorities. The benefits will be plentiful, short, medium and long-term.

I may be simplifying the matter but a better surface will encourage better football which produces better footballers. Players will know that they can play football, pass and then move without worrying about divots, bobbles or any undulating features of a grass pitch.

Having played on a 3G pitch earlier this season, when all other games in the league structure were off, you could see the benefits. Our team have two 6 foot plus centre forwards so when the surface gets tough we have an appropriate and useful out ball. But this game, despite the height both teams possessed, was largely played on the ground, culminating in arguably our best performance of the season. In fact there is no arguably about it. We went through the midfield and down the flanks. We won 4-1 against a team a division higher. It proved we could play football. The surface gave us the confidence to play football.

Our captain, a couple of months shy of 22, is a fierce advocate of direct football. ‘Traditional football’. Growing up watching the lower leagues of Scottish football does that to you. But even he was full of praise for the surface, eager to play on it again.

These pitches may have their sceptics but once you have played on them you will never want to go back to a public park. The surface allows you to get your head up and search for a pass while still dribbling or waiting for the pass to reach you. No worries about unexpected bobbles. The sceptics then might say it is ‘unnatural’ to play on a surface so flat it is like you have went into your living room and started spraying the passes about on your carpet as if you have taken over Andrea Pirlo’s ‘regista’ role in the Milan midfield. But if professionals can play on carpet like pitches why can’t we?

After all both Stenhousemuir and Alloa Athletic, Division Two in Scotland, play on artificial pitches as do Spartak Moscow in their Luzhniki stadium while Novara Calcio in Italy’s Serie B are the first professional side to install an artificial surface. However after Queens Park Rangers installed a ‘plastic pitch’ in 1980 the ‘un-true’ bounce brought about a number of criticisms and the type of pitch is still held in disdain by many. But times and technology have changed, drastically, since then.

I should make it clear that I am not saying artificial pitches should be implemented in professional football at the top level. Clubs have the means and the funds to look after and maintain their pitches to an immaculate standard. Artificial pitches should be implemented for grassroots, amateur, senior and lower league football.

Every time England fail at an international tournament or a debate arises about the quality of Scottish football, player’s technique, or lack of it, is at the crux of the argument. But if youngsters are given the facilities and the surfaces these pitches possess it will encourage greater focus on passing and the retaining of possession that has so often been lacking in British teams playing on the international scene or clubs participating in Europe. The opportunity is there to combine our traditional energy, strength and determination with a finer touch, passing and control.

Weather has played havoc with the football calendar over the last two seasons, especially at grassroots level, increasing the volume of those calling for summer football. There is nothing you can do about Arctic conditions and when these will strike, anytime between November and March. However rain often forces postponement as pitches are easily waterlogged due to inadequate drainage. Properly built and properly maintained artificial pitches lessen the chances of cancellations and postponements considerably while still providing a quality surface.

A traditional calendar can be followed and consistent cancellations can be a thing of the past allowing players to do what they are desperate to do; play. It allows for use all year round which benefits the whole community. Stenhousemuir and Alloa, along with their partners, invested significantly in their surfaces. It is an investment that is being returned as the surface allows activity seven-days-a-week for most of the year.

It is not just the clubs that are reaping the benefits, other football clubs and other sports can make use of these facilities.

For these facilities to take shape and become common in towns and cities throughout Britain significant investment is required. As Conn alluded to in his investigation for the Guardian here and here, the Premier League, despite all the riches they receive from TV rights which have been increasing, have stagnated if not regressed in their funding to grassroots football.

It is solely not their prerogative to fund the grassroots game but, along with clubs in Scotland and the rest of Britain, it is in their best interests to provide finance to the grassroots level. After all this is where they will be getting most of their academy squad from. As I have mentioned higher up, better pitches can encourage better football which in tandem can help mould better players. So by the time they arrive in the academy squads they are at a more advanced level than they are at just now entering the system.

It can’t be said that better facilities and better pitches are the be-all and end-all to instantly changing the players for the better. For a start better coaching is also imperative. But better facilities are just part of the puzzle as British teams and players look to close the gap on their Brazilian, Argentinean, Spanish, French, German, Italian etc counter-parts.

If football clubs and their national organisations combine along with funding from charities and local councils to provide better pitches and facilities it may encourage children, teenagers and adults back into the game who were fed up getting changed outside or playing on a neglected pitch covered in holes or dog muck. It should increase better football. It will increase enjoyment.

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