Tagsoccer

pity the poor referee

There were so many bad calls in the Arsenal-Burnley match I just sweated through that I can’t figure out whether Burnley got hosed. Certainly Arsenal’s late penalty shouldn’t have been granted — Koscielny was clearly offside — but the Xhaka red card was debatable (though I think justified), and earlier in the match Jon Moss clearly missed Mustafi being fouled in the box.

Meanwhile, the outcome of yesterday’s Spurs-Man City clash would surely have been different if Kyle Walker had been appropriately punished for shoving Raheem Sterling in the back as the small man was racing all alone towards goal (that should have been a penalty and a red card). And Mike Dean, recently demoted to the Championship for ineptitude, seems to be continuing his inimitable stylings in his new setting.

All that said, Mark Clattenburg is clearly right when he says that the refs get the overwhelming majority of calls right and that disproportionate attention is given to the ones they get wrong — though he might have noted that some decisions have disproportionate effects: Jon Moss’s decisions today could possibly affect Arsenal’s hopes to stay in the Champions’ League (and maybe even Burnley’s ability to stay up, though I expect that they’re quite safe).

In any event, I think the most important point to note about this ongoing brouhaha is this: The refs are as good as they’re going to get. A great many people want to referee football at the highest level, and they go through considerable training and intense competition to get there. It is highly unlikely that there’s a substantial group of people out there who could do the job better than Clattenburg and Moss and Andre Marriner et al; or that the current crop of refs could be trained in new ways that would significantly improve their performance.

No: the athletes are better-conditioned and faster than they have ever been, there are 22 of them on the pitch, and the pitch is vary large. Calls will be missed, and the percentage of calls missed is highly unlikely to decline. So the moguls of international soccer effectively have three choices: they can shrug and tell us all to deal with an imperfect world, they can add one or more officials, or they can look for technological means to implement in-match corrections of errors.

But there’s really no point in complaining about the refs. They’re not just doing the best they can, they’re probably doing the best anyone can.

soccer Saturday

I’m looking forward to the Gunners’ inevitable draw with Swansea this morning (presumably with a Giroud equalizer in extra time). I don’t know how I became an Arsenal supporter, which may help explain why I don’t know how to stop, but I often wish I could stop, given the peculiar frustrations of Arsenal fandom: no club raises hopes in order to dash them with quite the style that Arsenal manages every. single. season.

When I first started following the Premier League I decided that, since I am from Birmingham, Alabama, I should support Birmingham, England’s Aston Villa. Somehow that just didn’t stick. And looking at how things have turned out for Villa fans in the past few years, maybe being an Arsenal supporter isn’t the worst thing.

my Premier League mid-season awards

  • Goalkeeper: David de Gea 
  • Central defender: David Luiz (can’t believe I’m saying this) 
  • Fullback/wingback: James Milner  
  • Defensive midfielder: N’Golo Kanté  
  • Attacking midfielder: Kevin de Bruyne  
  • Forward: Alexis Sanchez 
  • Striker: Diego Costa 
  • Manager: Antonio Conte 

how the Premier League has changed Jürgen Klopp

we have to talk about Mesut

Mesut Özil creates an impossible situation for his manager. He can go for long periods — and by “long periods” I mean several weeks — in a kind of fog, trotting aimlessly up and down the pitch, rarely seeking the ball when the Gunners are in possession and rarely presuming to interfere when the other team is on the attack. But then, even in the midst of one of those funks, he can do what he did today: make the inch-perfect cross — or through-ball, or reverse pass, or surprising incisive run — that creates the goal that wins the match.

You just never know what you’re going to get from Özil. Wenger has to be greatly tempted to sit his ass on the bench for a couple of games … but, especially with Santi Cazorla out, he really doesn’t have anyone else who has that level of creativity. Heck, there aren’t ten players in the world with Özil’s level of creativity. (Creativity in this case being the imagination to see a possibility on the pitch and the technique to make that possibility happen.)

And then Wenger has to be thinking, Maybe, just maybe, I can find the key that will turn his motor on once and for all. Indeed, earlier this year it looked like he had found that key, as Özil went on a kind of scoring spree, producing a series of skillful and beautiful goals. But now he has lapsed back into his fog — and the fear now has to be that he will never come out of it.

All in all, and I have to say that I’ve gone back and forth on this point, I don’t think he’s worth the money he will command when his contract is up; whereas I do think Alexis is worth the money he will command. So I say: sign Alexis, let Özil go, use that money to buy two or three players, at least one of whom has a chance of replacing the aging Santi.

bad soccer

I’ve read a number of stories this morning about last night’s MLS Cup final between Seattle and Toronto, but none of them have said the the most obvious thing, which is that it was an appallingly bad game of soccer, “won” by a team that did not manage a single shot on goal in one hundred and twenty minutes of play. The nearly complete absence of technique, creativity, and imagination on both sides was something soporific to behold. (The only player who manifested any of those virtues, Giovinco, was of course withdrawn by his manager in extra time.) It’s hard to imagine a worse advertisement for MLS than that match.

Farewell, Michael Bradley?

Not so long ago, Michael Bradley was a young, rising, dynamic midfielder who was making a real name for himself in Serie A. Then he came to Roma and discovered that, in the eyes of the coaches, he was not nearly as good as Miralem Pjanic and not quite as good as Kevin Strootman — which made him the third man in a two-man central midfield. So he left for MLS.

In retrospect this does not seem like a good decision. Strootman has been injury-plagued and Bradley surely would have played regularly over the last couple of years — and now Pjanic has moved to Jventus. There is a real chance that had he stuck it out Bradley would now be a central figure in one of the best Serie A clubs.

But he chose to leave, and his game has been in decline ever since. Never much of an attacking threat, he has ceased to attack at all, especially with the USMNT, and what was once his greatest strength — patience and reliability on the ball — has become a notable weakness. With club and especially with country his passing accuracy has dropped noticeably and he gives the ball away with distressing frequency; moreover, he often shows little interest in working to get back the balls he loses.

Bradley has been an important figure in American soccer for many years now, but I am inclined to think that, whatever happens in the clubs he plays for, the USMNT needs to look beyond him. He has long been assured of a place in the side, but it is a place he no longer deserves. I think it may be time for the USMNT to say Arrivederci to Michael Bradley.

But I hope tonight he makes me seriously question this judgment.

Klinsmann and the blame game

Some thoughts about this interview with Jürgen Klinsmann:

  1. He’s remarkably explicit about the players who have disappointed him and why they have disappointed him. E.g.: “The Czech game, we gave the first cap to Emerson Hyndman, he disappeared.”
  2. I don’t know whether I should call that explicitness “commendable honesty” or “throwing his players under the bus.”
  3. He agrees with the interviewer — and most other observers — that American soccer players don’t get an early enough start, don’t commit to the game at an early enough age: in Europe and Latin America “they select the kids very early and you have to swim in the cold water very, very early.”
  4. But in this particular interview his emphasis seems to be on the players’ lack of progress between their late teens and their mid-twenties. His message is that they look great when they’re first being folded into the USMNT but then they fail to live up to their promise. “We drive an amazing amount of young talent in all different ways and then once they turn toward the professional level, from 17 or 18 until 22 or 23, that is where we kind of lose a lot of quality kids, because they don’t find their right footing.”
  5. He sends mixed messages about the dominant cause of this disappointment. At one point he says “That talent is not there yet when it comes to the national team,” but he places a great deal more emphasis on a lack of will: “They don’t fight their way through into the club teams. Whatever they choose, wherever they go, whatever their direction is, they find ways to accept it instead of saying I’m not accepting it.”
  6. At no point does he suggest that coaches — at the club or the national level — bear any responsibility for players’ failing to live up to their potential. Players who disappoint either are not talented enough or not committed enough. Period.

my best blog posts of 2015

Different Managers Use Pressing in Different Ways

Different Managers Use Pressing in Different Ways

What we learned from USA’s friendlies with Brazil and Peru

What we learned from USA’s friendlies with Brazil and Peru

How I Became a Soccer Fan

How I Became a Soccer Fan

DAY 1: Let there be light, God said, and there was light.

DAY 2: Let there be morons, God said, and there were morons.

DAY 3: Hey, morons, God said, I created LIGHT.

DAY 4: I mean, I’m just saying, God said. None of you guys could have created light. You’re too stupid! Hey, you want me to part the earth from the waters? OH WHOOPS BECAUSE SOMEBODY JUST DID HEY WAIT THAT WAS ME.

DAY 5: [God performs subtly aggressive victory dance.]

DAY 6: What, God said, you don’t like the way I’m doing things? Oh, right, like you morons could RULE THE FRICKING UNIVERSE.

DAY 7: You … you what? God said. You want me out? You know what, FINE. I would rather rest anyway. Enjoy creation, suckers.

Typical rustic folk games involved hundreds of drunken men from rival villages rampaging through streets and fields, trying to drive, say, a casket of beer (the proto-ball) into the crypt of a church (the proto-goal). The schools distilled such testosterone-fuelled rituals into new formats involving smaller teams, sober boys and sodden leather balls. Codified by the Football Association and later disseminated to the world, this style of soccer was never the so-called beautiful game; the original purpose of educators was to instill manly and martial virtues into future imperial soldiers and administrators.

How We Play the Game – NYTimes.com. David Winner is great, but I’m inclined to suspect that there were ball-kicking games long before there were church crypts and beer caskets.

The Love Song of Mario Balotelli

I think I am a genius,
but not a rebel.
I have my life, my world,
I do what I want,
without annoying anyone.
I believe I am more intelligent
than the average person.
It is said that geniuses are misunderstood.
So perhaps genius is so different
that people don’t understand.
The talent God gave me is beautiful and wonderful,
but it is difficult
because you are always facing other people keen to judge you.
There are few people with such talent,
so there are few able to judge
what I am doing.

— from a recent interview

After the End

runofplay:

Cue the End-of-an-Era music: Pep Guardiola has resigned. But from this vantage point what seems clear is that Pep’s departure, and all the accompanying verbiage — about the intensity of his personality, his perfectionism, the hardware his team has won over the past four years, the success of the Barcelona Way, Pep as the embodiment of the més que un club ethos, and on and on — are part of a vast mopping-up operation. The story really ended almost exactly a year ago, when El Clásico descended into melodrama and handbags. Barça hasn’t been the same since, and neither has Pep.

I wrote at the time that “if I were Emperor of Soccer, I’d not allow these clubs to play each other for a couple of years.” But really, the damage had already been done. Too many overwrought encounters in too short a time had left Barcelona, Real Madrid, the Spanish soccer culture, and, hell, the whole soccer world emotionally exhausted. What had been the most exciting clash of styles in forever became instead an exercise in discovering new forms of pettiness: diving, stomping, pre- and post-match posturing, even a combination cheek-tweak and
eye-gouge
.

Read More

On Throw-Ins

runofplay:

Why are soccer players so bad at throw-ins? In any given soccer match the rate of throw-in failure is shockingly high. The problems come in three general varieties.
  
Excess of ambition. A teammate stands unmarked five yards from the thrower-in, so that nothing would be easier than to toss the ball at his feet, receive a one-touch return, and then construct a possession. But no. The ambitious thrower-in scorns so simple a solution. He spies, right at or just beyond the range of his throwing prowess, another teammate surrounded by three opposing players. Yes, that’s the ticket. He heaves the ball in that direction and the other team gratefully takes possession.
General lassitude. The thrower-in may be ready to do something sensible, but his teammates don’t give him a chance. They just stand around, usually too far away for him to throw the ball their way, keeping company with their markers. The thrower-in takes one hand off the ball to point them towards open spaces. Their chief response to this is to stare at him. After a few nervous moments one or two of them may slide an ineffectual yard this way or that. Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch and the other team gratefully takes possession.

Paralysis by analysis. An extreme form of the hesitation induced by either of the prior circumstances. Sometimes the thrower-in just can’t make a decision, either because of his own ambition or his teammates’ lassitude or, in some few cases, a deep-seated psychic disability, possibly induced by early experiences in candy stores. Symptoms here include spasmodic and incomprehensible gestures with one hand, as the other clutches the ball; swift, panicky twisting of the neck, accompanied by bulging eyes; and a crab-like creeping up the pitch (the most common variation on which resembles a beginner’s attempt to tango). Eventually the ball gets tossed semi-randomly onto the pitch etc. etc.

Read More

The takedown

Yesterday I posted a little piece over at The Run of Play on the inexplicably lousy season Inter Milan is having. The analogy that struck me was that the team seems to have something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: they’re not lazy, they’re not slacking off, but they seem somehow to be incapable of energetic and coherent action. I still think that that’s a good analogy, but I wondered if someone might be bothered by it, so I wrote to an acquaintance who has suffered for a long time with CFS. He replied that since it was obviously an analogy he had no problem with it, and added — he has significant hearing loss — that if I wanted to say “The referee turned a deaf ear to the team’s demands for a penalty” that would be okay also.

So I posted my thoughts, only to hear from three people who were deeply offended by it — genuinely hurt. So I asked Brian to take the post down, and he did. I mean, it’s just a little bagatelle about soccer, not something worth hurting people’s feelings about. I truly do not want to cause pain, and people who suffer from CFS do have the added fustration of dealing with skeptics who think “it’s all in their head.” I don’t want to add to that.

And yet, at the risk of undoing a good deed, I want to say that I’m not sure that I should have taken the post down; and I wouldn’t have done it if more significant issues had been at stake. When we write we want to be responsive to appropriate sensitivities, but people can be oversensitive, and to defer to those people is to hamstring public discourse.

There’s a time to say “I’m sorry” and a time to say “Get over yourself,” and it’s really hard to know, sometimes, which time it is. But when all we’re dealing with is a blog post about soccer, I think it’s probably better to err on the side of sensitivity. As I say, I neither wanted nor expected to hurt anyone’s feelings. But you can see, I hope, why this is a complicated situation.

And a little coda: one CFS sufferer — and I do indeed mean sufferer — quoted approvingly a person who had had both CFS and cancer and claimed that “cancer is a picnic compared to CFS.” Maybe this is just my own experience (as someone who has lost loved ones to agonizing death by cancer) speaking, but I don’t think that’s an argument people with CFS should make unless they want to eliminate every last shred of sympathy the public might have for them. CFS is a genuinely horrible thing to go through, but you don’t convince people of that by minimizing the effects of cancer, of all things.

Last week one of my Twitter followers replied in this way to one of my soccer tweets: “Why do you like soccer? Sports need to have a balance btw offense and defense. Soccer fails the test.”

Well, we’ve heard that one before. I didn’t reply, but if I had I would have said (of course) that he was failing to make the necessary distinction between offense and scoring. It’s a distinction that obtains in certain other sports — American football teams can run up a lot of yardage without scoring many points, and we’ve all seen baseball teams get thirteen hits and one run — but the distinction is fundamental only in soccer.

Consider this video: one of the most famous and celebrated moments of offensive genius in the history of soccer, which ends with a shot dragged wide of an open goal. It’s impossible to imagine a failed play having this kind of stature in any other sport.

But of course, it’s only a “failed play” according to the logic that equates offense and scoring. In the subtler accounting of soccer, Pelé’s split-millisecond decision, in one of the most heated of all possible heated moments, to let a rolling ball go right in front of his legs and past an onrushing keeper … it’s just brilliant beyond belief. And it even has its own diagram on Wikipedia.

Let’s re-set the scene. Estadio Jalisco, Guadalajara, Mexico; the semifinals of World Cup 1970. First, an utterly perfect pass from Tostão, curling slightly towards the streaking Pelé, creates a threefold convergence: the ball, Pelé, the Uruguayan keeper Mazurkiewicz. Pelé gets there just before Mazurkiewicz, who goes to ground, trying to make himself horizontally big to stop the cannonball of a shot he knows is coming. We’re all watching, we’re all doing the calculus — because calculus is what’s called for here, this is why Newton and Leibnitz invented it, to account for multiple bodies moving complicatedly in relation to one another — we’re wondering whether Pelé is going to get the shot off and whether he’ll try to chip it or blast it or take one touch to get around the prostrate Mazurkiewicz before clipping it into the back of the net … except, see, Pelé is better at calculus than anyone else and lets the ball just roll peacefully past the keeper. In an interview years later, he said, “The dummy was a moment, just something you do. You can’t plan it, it happens, it’s a reaction.” But it was more than reaction: it was a high-speed feat of mathematical calculation, done while at a full sprint with a large black-clad body flinging itself at the calculator’s legs.

The calculator then has to make a sharp turn to fetch the ball, which he does. Mazurkiewicz’s part in the tale is over, but a lone Uruguayan defender has hustled back and gotten to the near post. The goal really is open, but not as open as it looks because of that defender’s intelligent placement of himself and the shallow angle Pelé now has to work with — it wasn’t a sitter by any means. But this is Pelé: he should have made it.

However, he missed. And the really wonderful and amazing thing is: it doesn’t matter. Yes, everyone says that it would have been the greatest goal ever if he had made it, but instead, it’s the greatest play ever. The most perfect embodiment of offensive footballing intelligence ever. Scoring doesn’t enter into it, really. The goal, made or missed, is but a coda to the real story here, which is in so many ways a story that simply defines what it is we love when we love soccer.

Alan Jacobs 

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

But — and here’s the obvious answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty.

You can divide all soccer players — maybe all athletes — into two groups: the rational and the irrational. Rational players do what they look like they do. They look athletic, and they are athletic. They look balanced, and they are balanced. Ronaldo is a rational player; you could spot him on the beach and think, “Wow, dude looks like he was built to play soccer.” Irrational players come out of nowhere. They don’t instantly look like they’d excel at the sports they excel at, but somehow when they get out on the field/pitch/court, something weird clicks into place and it works. There’s nothing about Messi that says “athlete,” but put him on the pitch and magic just breaks out.

For whatever reason, the best soccer dichotomies usually involve a rational player alongside an irrational player. Pele, who was supremely rational, was always contrasted with Garrincha, who was supremely irrational, and then Maradona, who was 5-foot-5 and cobbled together like a bulldog. Cruyff was a skinny ballerina compared to the powerfully built Beckenbauer. Rational players are easy to admire, but irrational players are easy to love. They seem to need us more, somehow, and their games bring us closer to the miraculous. Not surprisingly, they tend to strike deeper connections with fans. By every measure, Pele was more important to soccer than Maradona, but ask hardcore soccer fans which star they prefer and Maradona wins every time.

It’s hard to imagine a revolution in understanding a popular sport that could entirely circumvent that sport’s followers. But that, weirdly, is what the soccer clubs seem to be aiming at: a great, obscurantist leap forward that will enable them to win more matches without anyone outside their own offices knowing precisely why. You can’t really blame the clubs for this; it’s their job to win more matches, after all. But in the meantime, fans are left looking in on a world of hidden complexity, a world in which experts sift through data we can’t see to make decisions we can’t understand. This isn’t exactly the bright beam of American math the media keep anticipating. Instead, it’s as if the more you try to quantify soccer, the more mysterious it gets.

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