Hello! Welcome back to Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s look back at the last seven days in kicking balls into nets.
The Martinez Gambit
Of all the little staging posts on the road to a World Cup, the announcement of the squads is perhaps the most significant. This in when the cast of characters assembles, and the vast cloud of possibility becomes a little more focused. Every World Cup takes place millions of times, in millions of minds, before a ball is even kicked. And every squad makes this process of conjecture a little more refined.
Anyway, unless you’re one of these wonderful optimists still convinced that Joe Hart is a functional goalkeeper — we admire your faith; we crave your drugs — the biggest surprise so far has come from Belgium. You may remember Radja Nainggolan for having lots of tattoos. You may also remember him for playing really well as Roma underdogged their way to the Champions League semi-finals. But you won’t be remembering him for his work at the 2018 World Cup, because he isn’t going.
Presumably Belgium’s coach, Roberto Martinez, has his reasons. He’s a professional football manager, and we’re just a weekly column feeling very pleased with ourselves because all this week’s sub-headings sound like airport thrillers. But nevertheless, we’re happy to go on the record as saying this omission is an appalling and incorrect decision. Further, we call for Belgian police to raid Martinez’s home and impound all his favourite brown shoes, as punishment for offences against the state.
Worse, offences against the collective imagination. It’s not just that Nainggolan’s great fun (though he is) or that he’s really good (though he is that too). It’s that this funness and goodness was integral to the edge cases. Most imaginary runs through the World Cup end with one of the obvious favourites winning it, and that’s fine. But every now and then, the neurons throw up something strange. One of the outsiders comes through. A nation like Belgium.
Now, without Nainggolan, the already-hard-to-imagine just got a little harder. It’s bad enough that Belgium aren’t going to win the real thing, when we finally get round to it. Now they’re hardly ever going to win the pretend thing either. Thanks, Bobby. You monster.
The Mourinho Inversion
Football isn’t all about schadenfreude, but a little bit every now and then helps keep things seasoned. And Jose Mourinho getting Jose Mourinho’d at Wembley is exactly the kind of thing that works nicely. For there is a deep and rich satisfaction that comes from watching a man — a proud man, a vainglorious man, a frequently quite irritating man — brought low by his own iniquitous methods.
So kudos to Chelsea, who won the FA Cup by keeping their shape, defending stoutly, and breaking with purpose and pace. And no kudos at all to Manchester United, who went all in on Phil Jones and never really recovered. They spent the entire second half trying to remember how to attack, and almost managed it. It might have been adorable, like watching a bear cub trying to juggle, but ultimately it was just kind of sad.
(Like watching a bear cub trying to juggle when you know that, for the last couple of years, that cub has been under strict instructions not to try any juggling themselves, but simply to wait for some other bear cub to try to juggle, then use that moment to nip in and steal their honey? Yeah, a bit like that.)
Anyway, Mourinho with trophies makes sense: they are the ends that justify the often tedious, occasionally uncomfortable means. Mourinho without trophies is a nagging headache. United’s preferred solution to headaches is to throw money at them, so that’s what will be happening this summer. And the next. And the one after that. Perhaps, at some point in that process, a coherent team playing coherent football will emerge.
Perhaps Mourinho will be in charge of it and Paul Pogba will be at the heart of it.
If not, though, then an awful lot of people will do an awful lot of pointing and laughing. Buy shares in schadenfreude now, dear readers. This stock’s only going up.
The Roman Implosion
Fair play to Serie A. The title race might have melted out of existence a couple of weeks ago, but they still managed to put on a show right at the end. Lazio and Internazionale faced off for the final Champions League place, with the Romans knowing that all they had to do was not lose, and they’d be playing in the big cup next season.
Did they lose? Course they lost!
Did they lose in a manner that was deeply amusing to all neutrals, and perfect for anybody of a conspiratorial bent? Course they lost in a manner that was deeply amusing to all neutrals, and perfect for anybody of a conspiratorial bent!
Lazio took the lead, thanks to a comedy own goal. Inter equalised. Lazio took the lead again. Time passed. And then, in one of the finest collective losses of heads we’ve seen this season, Lazio managed to concede two goals and have two players sent off in the last 12 minutes. Even tastier, the first goal was a penalty, conceded by Lazio captain Stefan De Vrij. Who is joining Inter next month.
Serie A. Still the best.
The Allardyce Conundrum
Sam Allardyce was brought into Everton to do a job. Sam Allardyce did that job. Sam Allardyce has now been sacked by Everton. Job done?
What appears to have doomed Big Sam is the double-pronged assault he has made on the eye, and on expectations. Playing boring football is forgivable in certain circumstances, such as a struggle against relegation. Continuing to play boring football once that was over, all the while insisting that boring football was (a) no more than Everton fans deserved and (b) the most they could really expect? Not so good.
It’s always heartening to see football clubs prioritising aesthetics, and perhaps this is going to become a theme in the Premier League. After all, the grip the Big Six have on the trophies is almost total, and it takes a Leicester-style miracle to change that. So why not try to build a football club that people enjoy coming to see?
Sure, circumstance and money may conspire to keep Everton out of the penthouse. But while they wait for a global financial collapse to level the playing field, or a European Super League to cut the head off the league, they might as well try and do something nice with the mezzanine.
The Imperial Misstep
Come on now. Let’s not do this. And apart from anything else, one World Cup is hardly an empire. It’s barely a gunboat.
The Argentine Malfunction
We’re not calling this World Cup Weird Sex Corner for two reasons. One, we’re really wedded to this paperback thriller thing we’ve got going. And two, we hope (against hope) that we never need to come back here again.
Story the first: One enterprising Russian brothel has decided to embrace the future, and is offering a range of “humanoid robot dolls” at prices ranging from $24 to $40. According to the proprietor, Dmitry Alexandrov: “This is not only a legal and safe way to improve your sex life, it is also a step toward fighting one of the oldest problems in Russia — the violent exploitation of women.”
Good, solid, feminist praxis, in no way undermined by the fact that one of the robots is called “Lolita.”
Story the second: The Argentinian Football Association issued a manual on the “Idioms and Culture of Russia”, and included a chapter on how to pick up women.
El curso fue hoy en la AFA. Tengo el cuaderno. Nos lo sacaron para cortar esa hoja pero yo la guardé cuando supuse lo que harían. pic.twitter.com/gBeG9xWsWZ— Nacho Catullo (@nachocatullo) May 15, 2018
Most of the advice was fairly bland stuff: wash, dress well, try not to let your institutional misogyny show in official documentation oh wait not that last one. They even note that Russian women don’t like to be treated as objects! A shame that this noble sentiment is immediately undercut by the suggestion that Argentine men can deploy their exotic foreignness to gain an advantage over Russian men.
The AFA have apologised, claiming that the material should never have been printed. In that, at least, they are correct. Now, go wash your hands. Then maybe scream into the void for a bit.