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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2005

J. WALKING

Wenger shoots wide of target with new points proposal


A German journalist once commented that FIFA president Sepp Blatter had 50 new ideas a day -- and 51 of them were bad.

Jeremy Walker

But Arsene Wenger?

Usually the suave and sophisticated Frenchman talks nothing but sense, and there is no doubt his methods and philosophy have changed the English game.

But Arsene's suggestion to change the points system is way off the mark.

The Arsenal manager thinks it would be a good idea to reward teams with an extra point for winning a game by three goals or more. This would encourage teams (meaning Chelsea in particular) to keep attacking, even if they were winning 2-0 or 4-2.

But why attack with abandon when you're leading 2-0, and leave yourself open to the counter? Surely a change of mind-set is called for in these circumstances, and a more pragmatic approach required toward securing the three points, rather than risk losing two for the sake of "entertainment."

The former Sunderland manager Alan Durban once said that if people wanted to be entertained they should go to the circus, as it was his job to grind out results and keep his team in the old first division.

Points for winning, points for drawing, bonus points for this and that, even for losing, like in rugby union -- too messy?

Too right, and a bonus points system in soccer would complicate what is, and always has been, a pretty simple game and, therefore, easy to follow around the world.

Remember the J. League in the early days?

Three points for a win in 90 minutes, two for a win in extra time, and one for a win in a penalty shootout. It made the league table about 18 columns across, and more difficult to follow than an Enron balance sheet.

"One-nil to the Ar-se-nal" was the trademark chant of the Gunners fans before Wenger took over and quickly transformed "boring, boring" Arsenal into the glamour club of north London, at the expense of Tottenham.

"One-nil to the Chelsea" is not exactly music to Wenger's ears, but changing the points system to try and make Jose Mourinho's team score more goals seems uncharacteristically naive on Wenger's part.

It is certainly an interesting topic, though, and two other formats spring to mind:

Why not scrap the current points system altogether, and let the number of goals scored in each match dictate the league placings?

Here's how it would work, looking at a few results from Saturday.

Gamba Osaka 3, Kashima Antlers 3. Both teams get three points.

Urawa Reds 0, Yokohama F. Marinos 0. Neither side collects a point.

Nagoya Grampus Eight 1, Cerezo Osaka 3. Grampus one point, Cerezo three.

This method would achieve exactly what Wenger wants: teams would be rewarded for scoring goals -- both teams -- so if a match ends 7-2, the winning team would collect seven points and the losing team would pick up two, and would have every incentive to keep trying even with defeat inevitable.

Why have a fixed three points for a win and one for a draw, when goals alone would mean points?

Who can complain about that?

The other idea, which Wenger hinted at in his comments, is to award points for goal difference, game by game.

For example: Arsenal 2, Liverpool 1. The Gunners get one point, Liverpool none.

Newcastle United 5 (Owen 3, Shearer 2), Manchester United 1 (Bramble own goal). The Magpies receive four points, the Red Devils none.

And so on.

Where all this falls down, though, is the fundamental question of what is the point of the game: to score goals or to win matches?

The question is not as obvious as it may seem, after the experience of asking fans for their prediction ahead of the Italy-France Euro 2000 final in Rotterdam.

Dutch neutrals and French alike gave their scores (France 2-0, Italy 1-0, France 2-1, etc.) but the first Italian polled threw a spanner into the works.

"Who will win the final?" was the first question.

"Italy, of course," he replied.

"And the score?"

This completely baffled him, and it was several seconds before he could reply.

"The score?" he muttered, with a puzzled look. "Who needs to score a goal when Italy can win on penalties?"

On the subject of Italy, no one would begrudge the great Paolo Maldini his record-breaking achievement on Sunday.

The Milan captain made his 571st appearance in Italy's top flight, moving past the old mark set by 1982 World Cup-winning goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to deal with Maldini during his illustrious career for club and country would wish him all the best, as you couldn't hope to meet a more modest, friendly superstar.

He is a fluent English speaker -- rare among Italians, until they move to play in the English Premier League, that is -- and is always approachable and honest, even after a defeat in the old Toyota Cup in Japan.

In the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, Italy played a friendly match against Kashima Antlers at Tokyo's National Stadium and Maldini was amazed to see a full house of more than 50,000.

He was quick to express his appreciation, and also amused at the way Japanese fans followed the game: ooohing and aaahing and Cantona-ing for passages of play you wouldn't normally expect in a more developed soccer-watching country.

He found it strange that a straight-forward back-heel could prompt gasps of delight, and equally that fans would be chanting in unison when their team was attacking at full pelt, instead of merely accompanying the action with a roar.

It's always interesting how these things stand out to visitors, when seasoned J. League watchers grow accustomed to the more organized form of support rather than the instinctive, primeval variety.

Funnily enough, Maldini's 571st game ended with a 2-0 victory over promoted Treviso, which tried to sign Tsuneyasu Miyamoto just before the transfer deadline.

Miyamoto decided to stay with Gamba, which seemed a smart move at the time and is proving to be so, with Gamba at the top in Japan and Treviso predictably struggling at the bottom in Italy.

That would have been a miserable season for Japan's captain ahead of the 2006 World Cup, even in the so-called "glamorous" Serie A. He's far better off in Suita City.

Player of the Week: Hidetoshi Nakata, who was named Man of the Match in his full debut in the English Premier League for Bolton Wanderers in a 1-0 victory over Portsmouth on Saturday.

Quote of the Week: "I made one tackle to win the ball, but certain players have made a meal of it. The ref didn't even give a foul, yet all of a sudden I'm a thug."

-- Everton's former Manchester United midfielder Phil Neville, who has been accused of going for man, not ball, in a challenge on Arsenal's Robert Pires.

If any readers have their own ideas or comments on the points system, and would like to suggest a change, send e-mail to jwalker@gol.com



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