ManU 0 Chelsea 0: The Very Essence of the Modern Game

By Paul Gardner

You can be pretty sure that the sort of game churned out yesterday by Manchester United and Chelsea is not what NBC is looking for.

Rather odd, that. Because the game highlighted all the most prominent features of the sport of soccer as currently played at the top level. Money, for start -- two of the world’s richest teams on display. With a money-inspired sub-text: how much money will Chelsea have to pay to lure Wayne Rooney away from ManU? And because of that, the money-inspired sub-sub-text: given the tug-of-war between the two clubs, would Rooney even play in this game?

After money, we have: the coaches. Much of the hype during the build up to the game concerned the two coaches, both new to their clubs -- David Moyes at ManU, Jose Mourinho returning to Chelsea after a five-season absence. OK, the hype can be blamed partly on the media, determined to sensationalize the battle between the morose-looking Moyes and the melodramatic Mourinho.

Consider the opponents: David Moyes -- a boring man who has, for 11 years, been coaching an occasionally less-than boring Everton that failed to win anything during that period. And Jose Mourinho who has won plenty, but not lately, fresh from a contentious flop of a season with Real Madrid, a childish showoff who likes to play equally childish mind-games with referees and opposing coaches. You might find it hard to envisage how this game could be turned into, could be sold as, a Moyes vs Mourinho epic. You would be right.

We didn’t get an epic. We got a thundering bore. From these two much-respected and certainly much-hyped coaches, we got a thoroughly tedious, unadventurous 0-0 tie. NBC commentator Arlo White described it as “intriguing,” which was a pretty astute verbal way of avoiding the unacceptable (for the television mind, that is) truth that NBC was transmitting boredom. Two hours of it.

Considering the mountain of talent -- world-class attacking players -- that festoons the rosters of both teams, what was the trouble here? Briefly: the coaches. Not because of all the hype that surrounded them -- that is merely an irritation, though a highly visible one. No -- at last we have to look at what happened on the field, which was not much -- an overall torpidity for which we can certainly blame the coaches.

Well, yes, mostly, but also no, slightly. We can blame the money and the modern game again. With so much money at stake, it is no doubt unreasonable to expect coaches to do anything other than protect their jobs, and to play it cautiously. This is particularly true at the top clubs, and Moyes and Mourinho laid it on with a trowel.

Mourinho sent out a formation without a center forward, arguably without a full-time forward at all. With ManU as the home team, Moyes evidently felt obliged to do some attacking, but it was rarely sustained and, let’s face it, rather easily dealt with by Chelsea’s defensive formation.

Yawn, yawn, and yawn again. Then, when the merciful final whistle sounds, the modern game strikes again. The moment arrives when the coaches come on TV and tell us how great, or at least how interesting, it all was. And so the modern game, a brainless, cumbersome creature that traps everyone involved with it, forces the coaches to stand up before a microphone and try to provide vaguely relevant answers to largely irrelevant questions.

Poor coaches -- except that they have been going through this charade for quite a while now, and have become experts at supplying answers that go way beyond “vaguely relevant” and soar off into the solidly fantasist. Replaying an 4-0 loss into a game that “we dominated,” hammering the referee, claiming non-existent penalties, lamenting the red cards that weren’t given to the opposition, and whatever.

So no sympathy to the coaches, they join in too wholeheartedly with the boring intricacies of the modern game, with their negative tactics and their silly-clever attempts to justify them.

The players, too have bought into this corrosive nonsense. So have the TV commentators -- I have again to say, it’s as though there’s no choice here. The modern game gives us anemic action that needs a blizzard of words to cover its inadequacy -- hence the euphemisms, the “lack of clear-cut chances,” and the supposedly positive “there was a lot of respect between the two clubs.”

To say nothing of “We both wanted to win, and both did not want to lose,” -- that comes from Mourinho. Of course that sounds sturdy and it contains a tangled truth, but it is still an empty utterance. Do we need to be told that neither team wanted to lose? But we might be seeking to know why the coaches and the players should choose to cheat the fans and the viewers out of a game worthy of the occasion, and one worthy of the many skillful players who could -- we know this -- have given us something so much better. Of course we didn’t get anything like an explanation. Mourinho had the final self-satisfied platitude -- “tactically it was a good match.”

We might also be wondering what on earth is wrong with this sport when two of its strongest -- dare I say best ? -- teams can produce, in a season that is barely one week old, such a frightened, timid mouse of game?

If it wasn’t aware before, NBC should now know the nature of the game it is embracing. It suffers from self-inflation. Maybe that is true of all major league sports. But soccer seems uniquely vulnerable to distortion by money. The effects are felt, deeply, on the field, right there where the ball rolls. Where we can see -- as we did yesterday -- the truth of the matter. That soccer scares itself by being overhyped, overpriced, and overcoached. And when it is scared, soccer is all too likely to be underperformed.
25 comments about "ManU 0 Chelsea 0: The Very Essence of the Modern Game ".
  1. Cody Patton, August 27, 2013 at 7:59 a.m.

    Good points, and was generally thinking the same thing while watching. Would also like to see some articles on how the 'laws of the game' don't help soccer's case either. Offsides: even is not on! The law needs to be changed so that if any part of an offenders body is in line with the last defender, he is on. Take a page from NFL forward pass rule, or the hockey blue line...if a player is 'on the line' he is ok. If goals and out of bounds require the ball to be entirely over the line, offsides should require a player to be entirely 'over the line'. Not to mention linesmen are typically so bored, they feel inclined to call offsides too tightly, almost always giving the benefit to the defensive side. As far as I am concerned, 'even is off'!
    Substitutes: Why only 3? Half of a team sits on the sideline, knowing they aren't going to play. Ridiculous. I am not suggesting free flowing substitutions like hockey, but possibly allow one sub for each player starting a game? Something needs to be done to get the entire 'team' involved. Soccer is a taxing game with many injuries. More than 3 subs need to be allowed to prevent games from grinding to a halt with injuries and tired players. Some of these 'laws' can, and should, be changed without hurting the game or its history. They would probably even, dare say, improve it.

  2. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, August 27, 2013 at 8:17 a.m.

    COMPETITION-MANIPULATION + MATCH-FIXING / DISGUSTING! Both Clubs went out with the ‘instruction’, ‘the least that happens here is a NIL – NIL goal. And the players conspired to do exactly that.

    Manchester United and Chelsea knew a defeat on Match Day 2 / 38 would spell disaster for both Managers.

    Now you know why I have been saying for years, ‘THE CORRECT POINTS SYSTEM is ZERO POINTS for a ZERO / ZERO result and Plus O.5 Points for the Team SCORING THE FIRST GOAL!

    I wonder how the English Premier League is going to manage their FIRST BLATANT CASE OF MATCH-FIXING and COMPETITION-MANIPULATION ALL IN ONE!

    It is bad enough when the Asian syndicates are ‘working’ with Wilson Raj Perumal, Michel Platini and others to match-fix ……… but when two opposing managers EPL managers have ‘THE SAME INCLINATION’, that is a disaster.

    Ok, when does Richard Scudamore or Greg Dykes punish David Moyes, Jose Mourinho and all the Manchester United and Chelsea players involved in this MATCH-FIX?

  3. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, August 27, 2013 at 8:26 a.m.


  4. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, August 27, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.

    Match-Fixing = THEFT. A NIGHT OF SHOCKING SHAME / Monday August 26 2013

  5. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, August 27, 2013 at 8:35 a.m.


    Team 'instructions' : 'DON'T LOSE 6 POINTERS, DRAW THEM'. And then we'll get the points off the minnows. THEFT!

  6. Kent James, August 27, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.

    While I don't disagree with PG's analysis, I am surprised he didn't mention the controversial interaction between Lampard's arm and the ball inside the penalty area. As there is pressure on teams not to lose, there is also pressure on referees not to decide the game. A pk unjustly awarded generates much more criticism than an unpunished foul worthy of a pk. But each has the same value (a goal). And certainly, had the pk been awarded, the nature of the game would have changed (probably for the better, as Chelsea would be forced to attack more). But the incident with Lampard does highlight the need for clarification of the rule. I'd say at least 60% of referees would have awarded a pk; heck, even this same referee called Oscar (?) for handling about 5 minutes later on a play in which his arm was much closer to his body. And while there will always be gray areas, FIFA needs to reduce the amount of obscurity in this area. In Lampard's case, though his arm was away from his body, it was not in an unnatural position (it was out for balance), so I'm okay with the ref not calling it. But FIFA should clarify the rule; as long as a player's arms are in a natural position, and the ball strikes them, it should be no foul (no different than striking the player in the chest).

  7. ROBERT BOND, August 27, 2013 at 9:34 a.m.

    & such lousy officiating! Evra got jobbed, should been a red card on the player, think it was Ferdinand, who got away with sticking his boot high up on a thigh-if the refs erred on the side of the foul with more PKs & DFKs, there would be more scoring & less brutal challenges, even more so if more sides had to play 10......

  8. ROBERT BOND, August 27, 2013 at 9:37 a.m.

    agree, Kent, your post came up while I was typing, letting the players play is not an excuse for the D to try to get away with stuff-at this level, the players should be athletic enough to be twisting around on close block attempts..

  9. Bob Escobar, August 27, 2013 at 10 a.m.

    I predict a longgggggggg season for all the EPL teams playing in the Champions league this coming season, very longggggggg....the "special one" Mou, will be the star of the EPL league this season, with his moaning, cheap acting on the sidelines, his stupid childlike behavior during post game interviews, etc etc.....the press will be attacking him from all angles, Chelsea owner will be watching games with a bag on his head....the EPL is falling behind the German, Spanish and Italian leagues, in skills, ball possession, creativity, you name it...sadly, but true.

  10. Albert Harris, August 27, 2013 at 10:01 a.m.

    If we're going to allow players to extend their arms out for 'balance' as far as Lampard did on that play, I predict ever defender in England is soon going to resemble a berserk stork on any pass into the box. I don't like Man U but that was about as clear cut a PK as you're likely to see. I'd say 60% of referees calling it is low, Much more likely to be 80 or 90%. Kent's point is well taken though about timid referees hesitate to call PKs because they don't want to decide the game, thereby, paradoxically, deciding the game.

  11. David V, August 27, 2013 at 10:12 a.m.

    Paul said "...when two of its strongest -- dare I say best ? -- teams ..." Paul, you dare not say that, should you say that, you would lose respect, credibility. There of course is a simple answer.. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona... that's why. By the way, it is inconceivable to me why, after seeing the antics of a thug for 3 years at the club of the 20th century, coercing many of the world's best to be despicable cutthroats, and wedging himself into, and attempting to destroy the world's greatest team ever, by wedging himself between those he managed, and those who secretly desired he could have managed... it is inconceivable that the blues from London would desire to have such a repugnant character, "The Especially Repugnant One" for a manager. It speaks volumes to me about the Chelsea management... unless of course they realize the error of their ways and run him out of town faster than Madrid did!

  12. Millwall America, August 27, 2013 at 10:22 a.m.

    Before we get too over the top, this was the first scoreless draw at Old Trafford in 4 years. So rather than being "the essence of the modern game", perhaps this match was just the understandable if disappointing consequence of a nervous new coach (Moyes) plus a visiting coach who was happy to get a point away at the home of the reigning champions. Demanding changes to the points system or the offside rule just because Old Trafford saw its first scoreless draw *in 77 games* seems like it might be a bit of an overreaction.

  13. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, August 27, 2013 at 10:29 a.m.


    Both David Moyes and Jose Mourinho and their on-field MATCH-FIXERS should be charged with the crimes of MATCH-FIXING and COMPETITION-MANIPULATION

    Both Clubs went out with ‘instructions’, ‘TO DRAW THE MATCH AT THE VERY LEAST’.

    And a ZERO / ZERO FIX is the result.

    Both match-fixers were ‘happy’ with ‘the result’ and hyped-up the crime by making-out that their FIXERS had played well.


  14. ROBERT BOND, August 27, 2013 at 10:32 a.m.

    Ivan, calm down-it's only a game. Didn't lose a bet, did you?

  15. Charles O'Cain, August 27, 2013 at 10:44 a.m.

    Spot on, Millwall. I did not find the match to be boring at all. For an early season encounter, I thought the play (especially of Man United) was at a rather high level, though the defensive Chelsea setup was always likely to inhibit scoring by either team (did Lampard, Chelsea's all-time leading scorer, even make it into the attacking half during the first 45 min?). And with a timid ref failing to award the handball PK, there was nothing to force Chelsea out of its shell. As for scoring, I don't think there is any published correlation between number of goals scored and popularity (measured any way you want - attendance, TV money, Ad money, followers on Twitter, etc). Those calling for wholesale changes in the Laws are seriously misguided, and for their own personal satisfaction should perhaps choose another sport (or league) to watch rather than messing with "mine".

  16. ROBERT BOND, August 27, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.

    Fine with me, Charles-I'm a Bayern fan. Our fans get mad at low scoring. Believe we were only asking about enforcing the rules on risky challenges & hand balls....

  17. Dan Phillips, August 27, 2013 at 2:09 p.m.

    The game needs to move into the 21st Century. Why do they allow a sub with 30 seconds left in game? Why do players walk off when subbed instad of jogging? The referee needs to stop that stalling. Stop the clock. But he does not. We have modern electronics. Clocks can be stopped when there is no action on the field, subs, injuries etc. Yet they never do. They just approximate. And it is always never enough. Also, coaches rather than emphasizing defense so much, and not to lose, should emphasize, just score more. More offense. That would make soccer more interesting to the American fan! Yesterday's game was colosal bore, like Paul Gardner said. I agree completely!

  18. Charles O'Cain, August 27, 2013 at 2:16 p.m.

    No problem whatsoever with rule enforcement, Robert, and I agree scoring opportunities would increase if there was less defensive (and offensive) thuggery. But I don't think soccer has to "borrow" from NFL/NHL/NBA/MLB to gain popularity in this country or in any other ... it's doing well enough on its own.

  19. Bobby Bluntz, August 27, 2013 at 2:54 p.m.

    To the comment about offside, even is of course now on, if any part of the player that can score is off, he's off. Why change that? I'm also pretty sure that the ARs get it right just about every time which is usually varified by replay. It's actually pretty amazing how good most of them are at it. I also would argue that when they are mistaken, it's probably more often that an offside goal is allowed than the "bored" AR just deciding to raise a flag so he doesn't fall asleep. Give me a break bro!

  20. Kent James, August 27, 2013 at 3:37 p.m.

    Bobby, you're right about the ARs. At that level, they are about as focused as anyone can be (I guarantee they're not bored); I've been an AR on lower division professional games in the US, and even at that level, the speed of the players, and the fact that a lot of forwards consciously spend a lot of time in an offside position (because it allows them to be out of sight of the defenders; they try to get back onside just prior to the ball being played), makes that one of the most difficult jobs in officiating. As for Lampard's handling of the ball, while "the special one" encourages me to cheer against all Chelsea, I think the spirit of the game is that people should not be punished for having arms, they should only be punished if they try to use those arms to block the ball. And I don't think Lampard was trying to block the ball. So I think the rule should be interpreted that any time the hand moves to strike the ball, it's a foul (not particularly controversial). And any time the arms are in a natural position and the ball strikes the arms, it should not be a foul. And it is natural when lunging forward (or doing a slide tackle) for the arms to be away from the body, and if they are in that position and the ball strikes them, it should not be a foul. As one of the commentators suggested, players should not be forced to try to play soccer with their arms pinned to their sides.

  21. Dan Phillips, August 27, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.

    Modify or get rid of offside altogethter. Just come back and play defense like in other sports. It is a stupid antiquated rule. I would love to see 8-7.6-5 or 5-4 games. Instead of boring 0-0, 1-0, 0r 2-1. Getting rid of the offside rule would be great for offensive soccer. As well as grow the sport in offensive minded America even faster!

  22. Charles O'Cain, August 28, 2013 at 8:16 a.m.

    Why stop there, Dan? Let's have a shot clock. Let's have a PK for every foul in the offensive half (or maybe "one and one" after five fouls each half). Lets eliminate passing back into the defensive half. Let's have a instant replay challenges, TV timeouts. Let's stop the clock every time the ball is out of bounds, and after every foul. Let's have "playoffs" (wait ... MLS already does that). With just a few of these "improvements", soccer might truly become the beautiful game the world could love (as they love all other things from the USA, like McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks). Or maybe you could switch back to Basketball for your viewing enjoyment.

  23. Millwall America, August 28, 2013 at 10:59 a.m.

    Well said Charles. I've never understood the mindset that a soccer game has to have lots of goals to be exciting. Maybe it's just not the right sport for some people (sadly that often appears to include Mr. Gardner).

  24. Ramon Creager, August 28, 2013 at 10:36 p.m.

    We don't need gimmicks. People who call for the end of the offside rule don't know the rule, or the game. Gardner is right. There is too much money. It makes big teams stockpile big players, keeping them out of the hands of more modest clubs, and keeping them on the bench. And with so much at stake it makes coaches too timid. What in the world was Juan Mata doing on the bench, pray tell? He was the best reason to watch Chelsea under Benitez. Well, I suppose the Chelsea faithful got what they wanted, their Precious back. Ugh. They deserve each other. The end result of all this is bores all-around: 0-0 when the big boys meet, 5-0 when they crush the little guys. And the little guys, stripped of their best players, aren't any fun to watch either. UEFA needs to get a clue, and institute *real* financial fair play.

  25. Ramon Creager, August 29, 2013 at 7:46 a.m.

    This is really good: Mourinho meets the Spirit of Football -

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