Berba, Heskey, Ronaldo and a wet hen – quite a motley collection, but wrapped up in this riddle are two important lessons. First, a trap that United need to avoid to make best use of Berbatov; and second, the only thing our beloved Cristiano needs to do to improve on last season’s performance.
The Heskey Trap
Back in the mists of time, before Rooney had established himself, Emile Heskey was one of England’s first choice strikers. Bear with me, all those of you who are about to switch off because I’m talking about the England team – there’s a moral here. Michael Owen played off him, and behind him was a midfield containing Scholes, Gerrard and Beckham, all in their pomp. Ashley Cole and Gary Neville provided energetic attacking support from the wings.
This was an embarrassment of riches, a pool of talent that should have been able to shred all but the most Italian defences. When they got in right, the speed and intricacy of their passing and movement was impossible to live with.
But they got it right only once in a blue moon, because of Heskey. Not even because of what Heskey did – he wasn’t in the same league, but he didn’t actively hinder the passing football played behind him, he just milled around the area hoping for a cross – but because of what his presence made others do.
Knowing they had a big, powerful physical presence up front, the English defenders started to lob long balls up to him. Not just occasionally, but all the fucking time. The keepers followed suit, launching o-zone puncturing kicks, hoping that Heskey would either win a free kick or some scraps for Owen to feed off. They simply bypassed the superstar, fantasy football midfield in the hope that some over-enthusiastic big bloke would scare and hustle international defenders into mistakes. No crosses from the by-line from Beckham, no intelligent through balls from Scholes, no fearless bursts from Gerrard, no using Owen’s pace to stretch the play – just long ball after long ball to Heskey.
Now, I am an England fan (second, obviously). This had me banging me head against the wall, game after game, to the point that I could no longer watch and that even the merest inkling of this tactic is enough to get me going. And there was the merest inkling of it on Saturday against Liverpool.
Yes, we needed some height up front, and a physical presence – those attributes were oft repeated on this blog and elsewhere during the tortuous summer search for a striker. And yes, occasionally good things will come from high balls to Berbatov, like the free kick he won in the first half. Despite this, the long ball should be a last resort or a surprise tactic – not, I repeat not a staple to fall back on whenever we’re under pressure.
We have the players to play some of the best football going, from back to front. A feature of our play is how cleverly we recycle the ball from our defensive third into quality possession in midfield. Nobody’s interests will be served (least of all Berbatov’s) if we add a higher percentage of hopeful punts into our repertoire.
Let’s hope I never have to mention this again.
Cristiano’s Wet Hen Routine
Moving on, I don’t need to recap Ronaldo’s record from last season, no to regurgitate the entirely deserved praise that his many match-winning performances received. Let’s take that as a given, and understand that I am making the only recommendation I can think of to improve his (on-field) game.
No, not to stop diving. I don’t think he dives all that much, and certainly nothing like how much he used to. He will always be accused of diving, because he is always seeking to beat people and always being kicked at – sometimes he is caught, sometimes he goes down expecting the tackle, and on the odd occasion he goes down anyway. I contend that the reason for the dives you do see is his level of frustration with the number of blatant free kicks that he does not get given – whether consciously or subsconsciously, he is trying to even up the balance.
What he must stop doing is showing that frustration in the way he does. You can all picture it – he has just been blatantly brought down, and for some unfathomable reason has not been given the free kick. He sits down on the floor, arms waving up and down at the referee, then he looks up at the heavens, ostentatiously pulls his socks up and drags himself to his feet. The next couple of minutes are characterised by a bemused, “what do I have to do to get a decision from this ref” smirk.
All of which makes referees absolutely hate him. They get visibly bored of having to give him free kicks all the time, so occasionally they turn a blind eye to a foul just to even up the averages. I mean, one player can’t get fouled that often, can they? So some of them must be dives (after all, I know Ronaldo dives, don’t I?), so I must have given him a free kick for a dive somewhere along the line. Then they see him go down easily to do some averaging-out of his own, and that makes them hate the whole process even more.
Ronaldo needs to view the ref as a goodwill project in each game he plays. He needs to ref to be his mate, to sympathise with him when he is on the receiving end of all the fouls he draws. When he goes down, he needs to get back up again straight away and wait to see if he’s got the free kick later. He needs to shift his image in the eyes of refs as a diver and a whinger who makes them look as bad as defenders half the time.
Last season, it was quite clear that a few refs turned up at the game with the specific intention of “cracking down on Ronaldo’s antics” – not all the time, just some of the time. Others started neutral, and got more and more bored with him as the game went on.
From what we’ve seen over the summer, I doubt Cristiano has the necessary mindset to pander to a sub-species such as referees, but I hope I’m wrong. It would be the last major breakthrough for his game.
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