I could try and christen this blog with a systematically familiar introduction (even though you could hopefully argue I don’t do dull remakes). Personally, however, I don’t feel 2016, in this round-up of the year, in all of its performance-enhanced brilliance and misery, deserves a blasé headline, nor an exuberant slapdash of a summary, seeing as its 366 days have drastically distorted the way we will view, and partake in the running of a politically divisive and morally questionable world, moving forwards. Sure, any year, in the concepts that the Gregorian calendar define it, can do that, but in the eyes of the wider public, there is certainly a heavy sentiment that 2016, through its unrelenting, record-breaking, concept-smashing, meme-spawning oddity, bitterness and commotion, has become the daddy of all 12 months in recent times, an era-flipping, rather than defining, period of absolute unpredictability.
One of the regions in which this has been exemplified, to no small extent, is the ever-changing, yet always dependable, mega-microcosm of football, a sub-culture’s sub-culture in that it leads the field in the extremities of its evils, yet endless profitability and appeal, possibly in world sport, certainly in British sport. Seeing as we are focusing our spotlight on football here then, let’s encapsulate the year into chapters, in which we will take a glance at, and dissect, the events, theories and quirks of the past 12 months, in what I hope to be bitesize morsels, for your very entertainment and pleasure on what may be the very last day of the year if you’re hitting the site early doors, New Year’s Day if you’re that way inclined, or perhaps later into the distant future and curious of the past. (How is it to be in a different year then guys?)
Who’d be a Pundit?
Considering the big-hitting headlines, the chief action which unfolded in front of our eyes this year, there is surely no better place to start than with the numerous shocks we witnessed on the pitch throughout. Obviously, there was the unrivalled, likely unconquerable, miracle of Leicester City and the Premier League, the largely unforeseen success of Portugal in the European Championship, which came in tandem with the unprecedented accomplishments of previous minnows Iceland and Wales, and the less publicised consecutive Copa America-winning exploits of Chile, which lighted our year each in their own way. And you know what each of them had? It was heart, teamwork and an unrelenting desire to achieve the impossible which eventually took each to their unthinkable goals. They proved each of these cheesy Facebook quotes, ludicrously overused by non-league football coaches, right; teamwork makes the dream work.
Every team has teamwork to a certain degree though; the difference was that while other teams, foolishly, if understandably, overhyped by large sections of the media, the pundits and the fans present, had the pressure to win, and to win in style; therefore laying vulnerable to unique tactical stylings; namely the counter-attacking masterplans of Messrs Ranieri, Santos, Coleman etc., which defied such plans. With the attacking, typically rewarding 4-2-3-1 strategies of classically ‘top’ sides, with far more considerable physical and financial muscles, proving ineffective and nullified by primarily defensively compact sides, who only had to take one chance on the counter to win a match, apparently world-class managers were openly mocked on the biggest stage. Since, however, these same top managers have reworked their tactical systems, for example Antonio Conte and his 3-5-2/3-4-3, perfected in his previous work with the Italian national team - who modelled their system upon his work before that with the all-conquering Juventus, who on a weekly basis had to face sides attempting to counter – it seems such miracles have faded. For now maybe, but I wouldn’t put it past another Leicester City to ruffle a few feathers in 2017, possibly not on the biggest stage, but in the wider scene, at least.
The Greatest Continue To Amaze…
Throughout the notable shocks we witnessed, there was a visible constant on display; these underdogs’ reliance on their star attacking names. Leicester had Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez; perhaps not regarded as world-class defensive lock pickers, but still well-respected leading men for their side. Portugal had captain Cristiano Ronaldo on hand to chip in with vital goals – remember his brace against Hungary which saw his side finally escape from the group stage – Wales had fellow Galactico Gareth Bale, and Chile had Alexis Sanchez to lead the line. While other attacking forces made telling contributions come the time of the final whistle blowing for each of these sides, particularly Eduardo Vargas in the final example, they would have had such opportunities had such feared, iconic players not been present to make the decisive runs, through balls and most vitally shots to wrap up matches for their sides.
This is where the ever-improving Real Madrid flourish with such ease. In the outspokenly, if impressively, attacking La Liga, their tactic of signing top names, on most occasions attack-minded individuals, to bolster their ranks and strike fear into the hearts of others, is an undoubtedly and ruthlessly effective plan towards the downfall of their opposition. In Ronaldo, Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodríguez, Álvaro Morata and Isco lies one of the most potent forward lines around, which, arguably with most in their prime, beats even Barcelona’s selection dreamscape-turned-reality between Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer and Rafinha. Alongside a settled defence, this array of starlets have led Madrid to their most rewarding year in recent memory, claiming three major trophies across 2016 under a resurgence with Zinedine Zidane at the helm, also going 36 matches unbeaten in all competitions, running back to their 2-0 defeat away at Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarter-final first leg back in early April (still not as impressive as Welsh club The New Saints’ record-breaking 27 consecutive wins if you ask me).
…While new heroes emerge
It was not just the trophy-laden year of realisation for Ronaldo, nor the La Liga-Copa del Rey-Spanish Super Cup treble and 51 domestic calendar goals for Messi, as in previous years, however, as many of the previously unproven talents, at least at the top stage, and some totally fresh faces, came to the fore to provide us our dosage of entertainment.
Take Antoine Griezmann, for example, who previously hadn’t even arguably been regarded as the best French player, let alone the third best player in the world according the year-ending Ballon d’Or – since separated from FIFA, but more on them later – who led, as an attacking tour de force, his Athletico Madrid side to a gut-wrenching defeat on penalties against inner-city rivals Real in the Champions League final. All this, just a month before starring as a Spanish-trained rampaging winger on the international stage, even with the pressure as a beacon of hope for Didier Deschamps’ side, eventually bagging a Golden Boot award and, unluckily for him, a runner’s up medal in the final, against the aforementioned plucky Portuguese. While Griezmann missed out in Paris, down in Rio in August, Neymar, usually a sideshow to his elder strike partners Messi and Suarez, was realising his international ambitions at an emotional home Olympics. Downplayed by many (including us here) the Games, usually the highlight of every leap year, helped, in a slightly understated fashion to those outside of Brazil, the Barcelona starlet make amends for the 7-1 thumping his side – without him after suffering an injury in the quarter-finals - were served by Germany two years previous, scoring the winning penalty in the Maracanã against, you guessed it, the Germans.
Dimitri Payet, too, stepped up on this biggest of stages, while also leading from the front on domestic duty with West Ham, while Paul Pogba, yet another of the squad with such hopes for their home tournament, recovered from his questionable return to life at Manchester United, this time as the most expensive player in the world, to begin showing signs of why the £89.3 million spent on him was mandated.
Pogba’s new teammate at United, Marcus Rashford, led the contingent of explosive, uber-confident teenagers grabbing our attention this year, well-noted to have scored on his debut in the Europa League, Premier League and League Cup, while also repeating the trick with both the senior and under 21 England sides. If the mercurial Mancunian’s trademark was in bagging goals, then the Portuguese prodigy who beat him to the European Golden Boy title this year, Renato Sanches, had his energetic playmaking skills exemplified on the top stage at the Euros this summer, while fellow bloomers, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Joshua Kimmich, Kingsley Coman, Gabriel Barbosa and Munir included, also came on in leaps and bounds. With each of these prodigious talents safely secured of game time at some of the biggest clubs in Europe, I think it’s safe to conclude that the future of the game, at least on the pitch, is in safe hands in the near future.
Familiar Villains Remain
2016 has certainly not been without its controversy in any section of society, and in football, you can always rely on the old guard to ensure an expletive-laden contemplation of the footballing hierarchy from disillusioned fans, and not in a positive fashion. Yes, the likes of Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner, Michel Platini and Jerome Valcke all lost their positions at the helm of international football in 2015, with Gianni Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin recently ushered in to respective positions as Presidents at FIFA and UEFA, handed the reins for an almighty cleaning up act, but still, there are many evil forces blighting what should be such an empowering and progressive game. Public enemy number one; well, in the latter half of the year, it may have seemed that, alongside their success in the Bundesliga, RB Leipzig, but more widely Red Bull, were the main perpetrators targeted, with good reason too. But over the course of a long twelve months, we’ve pointed the finger at; the Chinese Super League/Government, Joleon Lescott, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, brawling fans, cheating players, Sky and BT, FIFA, UEFA, the FA, chief executives, hipsters, over-critical supporters, tabloid newspapers, Sports Personality of the Year, and, in no uncertain terms, mega-rich owners, the Class of ’92, Mike Ashley, Vincent Tan, the Allams, the Oystons, the Venky’s, Sheikh Mansour, and, harking back to our very first blog, Massimo Cellino, just to name a few. No shortage of talking points then, if you’ll excuse the pun.
While there may have been a few new faces there on the end of our critical eye, Sam Allardyce, previously only particularly on the end Newcastle and West Ham fans’ antipathy, as that from Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho come to think of it, and his rags-to-riches-to-rags story must surely have stolen the villain of the year title for sheer drama. His peculiar rise kicked off after he staved off relegation for Sunderland, witnessed Hodgson well and truly spoil his chance with England, and jumped onto the sinking ship as quickly as a suicidal kangaroo, charming the press with all of the ease of a bull in a china shop. As soon as he had pocketed the win bonus from a dodgy 1-0 win in Slovakia, he had the sense to completely dissolve any credibility English football had left by being caught in the act exchanging information about illegal transfer dealings in front of the national media, completing his self-destructive cycle, or at least we thought, with a shameful denial of guilt, before getting his grubby hands on the job at desperate Crystal Palace, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, if you ask me.
If there’s one thing sure for 2017, it is that villains, including the many that we’ve covered this year, will not stop disfiguring and exploiting the sport for all that it’s worth; as ever in football, there will still be those to spoil our fun.
Managers are more vulnerable than ever
It’s a well know and often outspoken factor of the game in professional circumstances these days; players underperform, yet continue to get paid more (on average), while managers face the wrath of increasingly impatient and tyrannical owners, whom they have to call boss. With the impending influence of cash upon each and every sector of the beautiful game, and results on the pitch the only factor in delivering returns on this investment, it seems that those brave fools who go into club management are treading a fine line every time they step out onto the touchline. Take the case of Swansea City, who, after cowardly sacking their most deserving and productive manager in their modern history in Garry Monk, have deteriorated into oblivion, a sorry shadow of the side which finished eighth in the 2014/15 Premier League season, devoid of identity, or patience it seems, also culling the methodical Bob Bradley after just eleven matches in charge, the effect of their hungry new ownership’s unwieldy ways. Charlton Athletic, Leeds United, QPR, Aston Villa and Cardiff City, also, have a proven track record of, rather than accepting they are internally fragmented and detrimental, blaming numerous, innocent managers, before even allowing them time to regiment their methods.
This can be sure to continue as long as we, but more importantly, the respective FA’s around the world, accept these damaging breeds of owners, personified by their ruthless impatience and shocking selfishness. Personally, as much as it may haunt us, it is also down to us failing to relent in our barraging criticism of certain managerial styles. Sure, negative performances warrant action, but there needs to be some perspective put on those performances, and the pressure-cookers of conditions in which these martyrs have to cope. Unless there is some movement in either of those circumstances, this growing tide will become even more prominent heading into coming years.
Morally… There’s Still A Lot to Be Desired
I doubt football, ever the business juggernaut that it is, will ever particularly take any amount of time to reflect upon its many moral accountabilities, but it has to be admitted that many are trying to make the sport a kinder, and more responsible, broad-church for all that hold it dear. For all the ups and downs of this year in football, the memories of the Euros and of Leicester City will be the ones that burn brightest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should gloss over the aspects we would rather forget, far from it. As some crackpot philosopher or ‘deep’ millennial once said; “Sometimes in order to keep moving forward, not only must you take one step at a time, but you must be willing to look back occasionally and evaluate your past, no matter how painful it is. Looking back lets you know whether or not you are headed in the right direction.” On reflection, this year has taught us many things; that we should value what we are fortunate enough to hold currently, instead of wishing the future along prematurely, that in equal terms, we are all at fault for the same things we still lament, and that, maybe, controversy and evil is inevitable, but while it may be continually in action, it doesn’t mean that it should be ignored.
While football may not gleam the brightest, nor ever choose its words too carefully, there is no doubt that its body of sheer power has the potential to reform what is, in truth, still the same model it was decades ago, just under a separate pretence, one of nauseatingly slick efficiency.
A Realisation of State
As the year passes, it is always poignant to remember those who played roles, however small or seemingly insignificant, in the lives of many, who have passed away this year. For football, perhaps this is more important than ever in recent times, as the outpouring of emotion in support of the fallen Chapecoense players and staff, proved, a particularly reflective moment for all involved in the game. While many other defining figures, for example Carlos Alberto, have also passed away this year, I feel that the sentiment shared by many in the wake of the Chapecoense airplane crash, not just the gesture by their scheduled Copa Sudamerica final opponents, Colombians Athletico Nacional, as well as continental governing body, Conmebol, to award the trophy to the Brazilians, but the reflection that it was this, the tragic, premature loss of human life, that put into focus how ultimately insignificant such a thing as football is.
Even though, for many of us, it may be a lifelong affection, a deal-breaker, a constant – well, maybe not always - uplifting presence in a world of uncertainty and fear, football cannot be the definition of us as sentient beings, nor should we let it be, instead merely just an interesting quirk to who we are, a small part in what makes us all unique, a convenient, and timelessly, entertaining distraction, which sometimes, in a certain event, has the power to unite millions. We owe it to those Chapecoense players to remember such sentiments as we pass on into 2017, and further.
What next for Talking Points then?
In an often unpredictable world, proven by what we’ve seen in football at times this year, I can assure you that if one thing will remain regular – in circulation at least – in the coming year will be our weekly blogs here. Yes, I’ll still be planning, penning, editing and uploading in the same constant cycle, hopefully over each of the coming 52 (or less, if you’re reading this into the future) weeks of 2017 – unless some other technical faults hits me like that of a few weeks ago – with something fresh every Saturday afternoon, or more often if you’re lucky or I’m bored, so watch out for what’s to come! If you’ve got anything you’d particularly like debated, alongside a few exciting things I have planned already, feel free to comment below, as I’ll appreciate any creative input you may have over the course of what I fully expect to be another tumultuous and – at times – testing twelve months. For now though, let’s look forward to 2017 and the opportunities it will hold for all of us, as with any year, it is likely to be packed full of intrigue, perhaps not on the scale some bill it to, but certainly in patches, which will define our personal experiences. I’m fully looking forward to it, and I hope you are too, so let’s look to the clock, and count down the seconds, 5…, 4…(Arsenal), 3…, 2…, 1…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!