The Long Ball Tactic

What Kind of Manager is Nigel Adkins?

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on September 12, 2010

The saga of Nigel Adkins’ departure from Scunthorpe to Southampton this week has had as many twists and turns (and been just as unnecessarily drawn out) as an Eastenders plotline, but just what sort of manager are the south coast club getting?

When Adkins took over from Brian Laws in November 2006 many Scunthorpe fans were surprised by the bluster and freshness exuded  by the ex-physio. In contrast to the normally dour Laws, Adkins seemed to overflow with a cheery demeanour and positive attitude. He dealt often in clichés and slightly ambiguous psychobabble – “the lads have to go out there and express themselves” was an oft-repeated phrase throughout his tenure. Whilst this was the subject of a good bit of humour at his expense an affection soon grew for Adkins due to the good results he continued to provide. His CV is an impressive one and, no doubt, the reason Southampton wanted him. Even measured against the league title and playoff win, his most impressive achievement so far may well be last year’s feat of keeping a low-spending team of players mainly gleamed from the lower ranks of the football league and non-league, with an average gate of around 5000, in the Championship.

The tag of “ex-physio” is a myth that has grown around Adkins as his managerial success continued, most famously in the Iron fan’s chant “who needs Mourinho, we’ve got our physio”. In truth, Adkins is much more than an ex-physiotherapist who tried his hand at football management. He holds a diploma in sports psychology, a degree in business and finance and UEFA coaching badges. Before joining Scunthorpe as physio he was manager of Welsh side Bangor City, who he led to two League of Wales titles in 1994 and 1995 and managed them in the qualifying stages of the Champion’s League. His rise through football management has been impressive, rarely suffering major setbacks, and whilst joining Southampton is, in practical terms, a step down a division he has sadly always been destined to manage teams with bigger ambitions than Scunthorpe United.

As far as tactics are concerned, if Saints fans expect a new, revolutionary way of football then they may be disappointed. Adkins’ teams have, by and large, been built around a 4-4-2 system, typically using two wide players. In the 2006/07 season that saw Scunthorpe win League One Adkins made great use of Billy Sharp’s instinctive fervour for goalscoring by using creative players such as Ian Morris, Matt Sparrow and Kevan Hurst to feed him the ball, alongside the pacey wingplay of the rather underrated Cleveland Taylor. Sharp’s strike partnership with Andy Keogh, broken up in January 2007 with Keogh’s sale to Wolves, was, however, the key to success – proving to be an explosive and exciting double act. Keogh would sit deeper than Sharp, allowing the striker to play off him, which in turn freed Keogh to do a lot of running and be the creative engine in the partnership. Fortunately for the Iron a ready-made replacement for Keogh was found in Jermaine Beckford, who partnered Sharp for the rest of the year after arriving on loan from Leeds.

The ugly side of Adkins’ tactics showed itself at Scunthorpe’s lowest ebb in their first Championship season. After a strong start, the team were pulled into a relegation battle – one that they would ultimately lose – in the second half of the season and both team and manager looked, at times, unsuited to the division. With a handful of games to go Scunthorpe played particularly unattractive football, mainly built around long aerial balls to either Ben May or ill-advised new signing Geoff Horsfield. One of the most lacklustre, luddite performances I have ever seen from Scunthorpe came in a 1-0 away defeat to Leicester in March 2008, which featured both Horsfield and the woefully inept May playing  up front. The Iron spent the game hammering long balls to the two targetmen who failed to create much of anything, whilst 37-year old assistant manager Ian Baraclough toiled as a less than convincing makeshift left-back. In Adkins’ defence, this was mainly brought about by an injury to key striker Martin Paterson and as the season drew to a close Paul Hayes was restored to the starting lineup, bringing a far less aerial style of football.

The last two seasons, though, have seen Adkins switch to a more fluid, passing style which has yielded fantastic results. A deeper squad was perhaps the key to staving off relegation last year, able to adapt to the injuries that saw Gary Hooper sidelined at various points, but the Iron were also a pacey team who could produce devastating counter attacks and defend well.

With the loss of Hooper, alongside Paul Hayes and Grant McCann this season Adkins has, again, assembled a team almost from scratch. The start of the year saw a different system being used by Scunthorpe, employing a diamond formation in the midfield, with Jonathan Forte and Gary Thompson linking up up front. This system would usually see either Thompson or Forte drift out wide as a kind of winger when attacking, whilst the ‘tip of the diamond’ Chris Dagnall would push on up front. With the injury to Gary Thompson, Adkins has been forced to change yet again, switching to what looks like a 4-4-1-1 with Dagnall playing behind Forte. One other key facet of Adkins’ tactics recently has been to have a holding midfielder sit in front of the back four, allowing the other midfielders to play slightly higher up the pitch. This seems to signal a change from the more traditional 4-4-2 – the team that started in yesterday’s 2-0 defeat to Bristol City is listed by Football Lineups as a 4-1-3-2. All this perhaps goes to show that, given the changing dynamic of the Scunthorpe team over the last few years, with big names leaving each close-season, one striking characteristic of Adkins tactics and managerial style is his ability to adapt.

If Adkins and his assistant Andy Crosby do join Southampton – and it seems, despite the drawn out negotiations between chairmen over compensation, that it will happen – then Adkins will be dropped into a very different football club with a different set of expectations.  Whilst Adkins dramatically overachieved at Scunthorpe, given the club’s size and finances, the minimum expectation this year will be to be promoted from League One. Instead of dealing with a young squad of players who he can mould and instill his own philosophy into, he will be working with a squad of more experienced players that have been assembled at a high cost for the division they are in.

The key to Adkins’ success will perhaps not be his tactical game – he has already demonstrated he can play the sort of football required to get out of the division – but, rather, getting the team behind him. He can be eccentric in interviews, not quite Holloway-esque, but his positivity is often cringeworthy. Most recently, in a press conference this week, he characterised his positive outlook on life by saying “I wake up in the morning, open the curtains and say ‘hello world, what a great day to be alive!'”. He has also developed the worrying characteristic of referring to himself in the third person – “it is an honour for Nigel Adkins to be linked with the Southampton job”, etc. His references to “soccer” rather than football have also been known to rile fans. When you are winning, these traits can be endearing; when you are losing they can be infuriating. If the Southampton players and fans buy into the Adkins philosophy then I have no doubt they will achieve a lot this year. If he fails to get the respect of the players then I fear he may suffer the first setback of his sterling managerial career.

Despite the ignominious end to his stay at Scunthorpe, Iron fans have a lot to thank Adkins for. Personally, memories of the Adkins era will stay with me forever, particularly the ridiculously dramatic playoff campaign of 2009 – a lifetime’s worth of late goals, comebacks and penalty drama stuffed into two weeks. Southampton fans should embrace their new manager and remember, despite the pseudo-psychological patter and third person pronouns, that he is a talented young manager who, above all, should be given time.

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The Day My Pad Went Mad

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on September 6, 2010

Massive, massive thanks to the excellent Zonal Marking for tweeting my football and doping blog today. The tweet prompted an unprecedented number of visits to this site which was quite amazing. If I’d have made everyone who visited a cup of tea I’d have got through a few boxes by now. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and took the time to read, hopefully it’ll inspire me to write more frequently in the future. Now go read Zonal Marking, cos he’s awesome.

Il Drogati: doping and football

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on September 5, 2010

Portugal’s national coach Carlos Queiroz was last week banned for six months after ‘disrupting’ the work of anti-doping testers during his team’s preparation for the 2010 World Cup. Whilst it would be wholly spurious and unfounded, if not downright libellous, to link the story to this event, which happened around the same time and was the subject of many rumours, there certainly remain many unanswered questions around the subject of doping in football.

Cycling, one of the continent’s other great loves, was rocked by the revelations that occurred after the arrest of a Belgian by the name of Willy Voet in 1998.  All of a sudden cycling fans had to come to terms with the fact that the sport’s top stars were not supermen, they were talented athletes who had learned how to enhance their performances through the use of a series of pharmaceuticals, notably erthyropoietein (EPO) a stimulant which can increase the amount of red blood cells in the body to aid recovery and build stamina. EPO was not detectable through any kind of doping test throughout the 1990s and was thus used widely in cycling during this time, every Tour de France winner from 1996 until 2006 has either admitted to doping or failed a drugs test.

How does this effect football? Well, in the wake of the 1998 cycling scandal Roma manager Zdenek Zemen cast doubt in Italian magazine L’Espresso about the physique of certain Juventus players. Zemen believed that the increase in muscle bulk in players including Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro del Piero was likely achieved through doping, a problem he claimed was rampant in Italian football. The allegations were dismissed by everyone from Marcello Lippi to Vialli himself, who called Zemen a “terrorist”, but the claims were significant enough to be investigated by a Turin magistrate named Raffaele Guariniello.

Guariniello went through medical records, interviewed persons allegedly involved and, after two years, had enough evidence to make a case against Juventus. At the centre of the subsequent trial was the accusation of ‘sporting fraud’ levelled at Juve, the evidence seen in court included pages of stimulants given by the club’s medical staff to players and the revelation that the Turin club had not informed football authorities what exactly the medication was that they had been dishing out, as was the rule in Italy. After two years a sensational verdict was delivered – Juve’s doctor was found guilty of administering a series of illegal substances to footballers at the club, including EPO. In somewhat of a whitewash the court found that Juventus themselves were not guilty of anything as it could not be proved that Juve had ordered the doctor to carry out this doping programme. There then followed a lot of legal wrangling and visits to appeal courts and a new verdict was reached in 2005 – everyone at Juventus was absolved of ‘sporting fraud’ and there was no proof of EPO usage. More trips to appeal courts were made until the whole thing became a mass of confusing verdicts, retractions and reinstatements. David Foot in his superb book Calcio summarises the final verdict on the Juve doping case thusly:

“The Cassation court – the highest in the land – came to a final decision in March 2007. It was a classic Italian judicial compromise, satisfying nobody. In the first place the sentences absolving both [Juve president] Giraudo and [club doctor] Agricola were quashed. But the statute of limitations meant that nobody could any longer be convicted for the crimes of ‘sporting fraud’ and doping. So, in short, the judges had upheld the original sentence (guilty) but, in practice, everybody walked free without a mark on their criminal record.

An incredible turn of events, when you think about it. Essentially, an Italian football team was found guilty of what amounts to running a systematic doping programme and not a thing was done about it. Compare this to the reaction caused by the Festina scandal in cycling in 1998 where several riders, team managers and doctors were given lengthy bans and there was talk of abandoning the entire Tour de France and whether the sport itself could carry on. Even today the effects of Festina are still felt in professional cycling. In the Juventus case Agricola was, amazingly, even allowed to stay on as team doctor.

Outside of Italian football, murmurings about doping have not gone away. In 2004, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made the claim that “We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs abroad and their red blood cell count has been abnormally high. That kind of thing makes you wonder”. To go back to cycling again, if any rider is caught with a high level of red blood cells there is no ‘wondering’ involved,  it means only one thing – that rider is using EPO and is immediately suspended, pending further investigation. Wenger went on to allege “there are clubs who dope their players without the players knowing”, painting a rather murky picture of an underworld that seems to have gone almost wholly unreported in the world of football.

Football was, again, linked closely to doping in the Operacion Puerto case of 2006. Puerto was the case brought against Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes who, from his Spanish laboratory, administered doping products to 200 professional athletes. Although the Puerto case is most commonly linked to cycling this is solely because cycling’s governing body were the only sporting organisation to reveal the names of the riders involved in the case. Of the 200 athletes who were allegedly seeing Fuentes, only 34 of them are cyclists. Fuentes himself has said that alongside cyclists he also worked with tennis stars and footballers, cyclist Jesus Manzano also claimed that he had seen several well-known La Liga players also visiting Fuentes whilst he was there.

Once again, despite the highly suspicious nature of the links between footballers and Fuentes, nothing was ever done. Cycling remains the only sport to have named and subsequently banned those involved in Operacion Puerto, the other sporting governing bodies are, presumably, just sitting on the list of names they have, content not to take any action at all.

One of the main issues here is whether or not the doping histories of cycling and football run parallel. The Juventus case seems to prove that doping was happening at at least at one club in the 1990s, at the same time that it was taking a stranglehold over professional cycling. If you are prepared to believe that Juventus had a doping programme then it’s not too much of a stretch to believe this may have been the case at Italy’s other top clubs, if not the norm around the footballing world. Cyclings bid to clean itself up after the dog days of the 1990s took a wrong turn when the more sophisticated methods of blood doping and avoiding the EPO test came in to play in the early 2000s. Floyd Landis’ allegations against the US Postal cycling team point to a world of transfused blood and even more sophisticated, widespread, systematic doping, could football have used the same methods to avoid failed doping tests? It is all very much speculation, but the circumstantial evidence from Operacion Puerto at the very least hints that football is not as clean as we’d like to think it is.