Kuper, Messi, Pele, pressing, Barcelona and historical revisionism

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Champions editor Paul Simpson might be on a well-deserved summer holiday but you can't keep a good writer down...

On the plane to Verona, I took Simon Kuper’s The Football Men, a work of dogmatic genius. Kuper is such a gifted writer he almost creates his own football universe. In Kuperland, the Dutch are always right – even when they’re not. So, mysteriously, are Olympique Lyonnais.

The virtues of the French club’s approach to transfers was praised to the skies in Why England Lose, Kuper’s last book – which was published, with brilliant irony, at the very point Lyon’s approach to transfers jumped the shark.

In this new collection, Lyon’s fitness coach Robert Duverne is “brilliant” while director of football Bernard Lacombe is the “owner of one of the best pairs of eyes in the game”. With the club oozing genius from every department, Lyon’s failure to win Ligue 1 since 2008 is utterly baffling.

Kuper reveres most Dutch footballers but usually views English footballers with patronising contempt. His anatomy of the five stages of an English international’s career is telling, revelatory and funny – I hadn’t realised that Ashley Cole reprints his wedding speech in his autobiography – and he predictably blames the players not Fabio Capello for the debacle in South Africa.

The England players should take their share of the blame but Kuper’s verdict ignores Carlo Ancelotti’s revelation, in his entertaining memoirs, that even footballers as technically astute as the Milan squad of 1993/94 sometimes found it hard to understand Capello when he discussed tactics.

"Just smile and nod, George, smile and nod"

Sometimes, Kuper’s certainty leads him astray. In a fascinating profile of Franck Ribery (which reveals that he once picked up a 100kg club doctor and put him in the wash basket), he says: “There are two types of attacking players. The one type – the passer, Zidane – wants the ball to his feet so he can pass it. The other – the runner, Henry – runs deep so the passer can give it to him in space. Ribery, uniquely, is both types in one.”

Hang on, doesn’t a certain Barcelona No.10 do that as well?

And then there’s the profile of Florent Malouda which includes the startling sentence: “Malouda has no weaknesses”. As any Chelsea fan can tell you, Malouda can drift so completely out of a game that his very existence becomes the subject of abstruse philosophical debate.

All of which may sound like I hated the book. But I loved it. Kuper’s collection is so opinionated, interesting and challenging it will have you arguing with yourself. It has taught me more about football – and what I think about football – than any book I have read in the last five years

Total Barça!
When I’m on holiday, I conduct an informal census of football shirts as a crude popularity index. This July, on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy, I spotted seven Barcelona shirts (five of which bore Messi’s name) and two Argentina shirts (both with Messi on the back).

Only Inter – we were staying in Salo, only 65 miles from Milan – came close to Barca’s dominance with four shirts. After that came Bayern (three), Milan (two) and Spain (two), while Ajax, Brazil, Juventus, Manchester United and Mozambique had a shirt each. The other players to be honoured were Arjen Robben and Pato (both twice), Alessandro del Piero, Nigel de Jong, Fernando Torres and David Villa.

On a ferry, I was astonished by one Dutch family’s allegiance to all things Nike. Dad wore a Nike T90 shirt, the eldest son had an insipid pale blue Nike KNVB shirt, while his little brother wore a Barcelona shirt and a Manchester United cap. The bad news for Florentino Perez is that I didn’t spot a single Real Madrid shirt in 10 days in Italy.

Does this mean anything? Yes and no. Barcelona are now as ubiquitous and as inescapable as Elvis in the 1950s or the Beatles in the 1960s. I’d be prepared to bet that if you walked down the main street in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, you would probably find a boy running around in a Barcelona shirt with Messi’s name on the back.

Mini-Messis in Palestine

You can’t blame Pep or Messi, but Barcelona’s supremacy is so marked it has almost become oppressive. In the latest Champions, the likes of Gabriele Marcotti, Ian Hawkey, Uli Hesse and Phil Ball debate whether the current Barcelona team are the best in the history of the European Cup. They certainly look like the team most likely to retain the trophy since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990.

Pele, Brazil 1970 and the joys of historical revisionism
On ESPN the other night I stumbled on a rerun of Brazil 1 England 0 at the 1970 World Cup. I hadn’t seen the match in years and was impressed anew by the intelligence of Bobby Moore and his ease on the ball as he drove England forward in search of the equaliser.

What I hadn’t noticed first time around was that the Brazil side, as beautifully as the played, were not averse to the darker arts. Pele was so sublime it was a shock to see him tumbling theatrically in the penalty area, just as I was stunned by how often some of his team-mates – including the gorgeously talented Jairzinho – left their foot in longer than was necessary.

Jeff Astle’s miss still astounds. It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened if Sir Alf Ramsey had stuck to his original plan and used Peter Osgood, the one England player who, in training, seemed to thrive in the heat, rather than wilt in it.

I was struck too by Martin Peters' selflessness as he diligently pressed Brazil on the edge of their area. England’s pressing wasn’t as concerted as Milan’s under Sacchi – Peters did most of the harrying in what was presumably a deliberate ploy by Ramsey to restrain Carlos Alberto – but the sight did raise the question: who invented the pressing game?

"Come on Peters, get after 'em"

Sacchi perfected it but admits he was inspired by Rinus Michel’s Ajax in the 1970s. The Dutch school certainly lies behind Barcelona’s pressing, but as Jonathan Wilson has pointed out the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi wrote an authoritative tome on pressing, The Methodological Basis Of The Development Of Training Models.

Steven Johnson’s brilliant new book Where Good Ideas Come From suggests that many discoveries are made simultaneously – the classic case being sunspots, found by scientists in four different countries in 1611 – and this may be true of pressing.

By hounding Brazil in their half, Peters was pressing in a way of which Lobanovskyi would approve. It wasn’t a tactic England deployed as a team – it might have been impossible in the heat of Guadalajara, even though the game was often played at walking pace – but the match left me wondering whether the evolution of pressing might be more complex and interesting than the orthodox history which draws a straight line from Michels to Sacchi and then on, via Cruyff, to Guardiola.