While fans remain locked out of stadiums, a few of us journalists get to sit in on Premier League games, says Jim White in The Oldie. And it’s amazing what you can hear without 50,000 “chanting, bellowing, chatting” spectators. There’s the “squeal” when a player is fouled, the “chummy first-naming” by some referees: “That’s a foul, J, and you know it.” Then there’s the coaches.
“Control freaks to a man”, they deliver an “unrelenting barrage” of banalities. At one recent game, Crystal Palace’s assistant manager stood on the touchline yelling “Away!”, “Pass it!” and “Get back!”, as though it had never occurred to his players that they should clear the ball from danger. I even heard him utter the “age-old standard” of park football: “Get rid.” He’s paid “substantial fees”, but, given how pointlessly clichéd his orders were, I wonder if any of the players were listening.
Elite cricket and rugby coaches watch from a box in the stands, from which they can observe patterns of play. Football managers remain pitchside, not for the good of the team, but because, as in American sport, the “antics of the coach” have become part of the entertainment. Far better if they watched from on high. “You never know, from up there they might actually influence things.”
The riskiest shot in football
Last Saturday Manchester City striker Sergio Agüero mucked up a penalty by feebly kicking it towards the middle of the goal, where it was easily gathered by Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. He got a predictable pasting on social media, but Agüero’s tactic wasn’t daft, says Sean Ingle in The Guardian. In fact, going down the middle is statistically the best option. A study found that keepers are prone to “action bias” and tend to dive because this means less blame will come their way if they fail to make a save.
But there’s an obvious problem with taking a penalty in “slow motion”, as Agüero did in the style of Antonin Panenka, the Czech player who pioneered the technique in the 1970s. A diving goalkeeper can stand back up and catch it. Agüero’s penalty was saved when Man City were 1-0 up, and Chelsea went on to win 2-1, delaying the club’s coronation as Premier League champions.
Panenka showed the world how it’s done when Czechoslovakia were 4-3 up on penalties in the 1976 European Championship final – he scored, winning the trophy for his team and “instantly trademarking the move”. He says the secret is to run fast before you kick the ball, “because then it’s harder for the goalkeeper to read your body language”. Resolve helps: Panenka learnt later that if he’d missed, the communist authorities would have sentenced him to “30 years working down the mines”.