Friday, April 27, 2012

The Final No One Expected

Well, I guess we aren't going to see the 8957th El Clasico of the year on May 19th in Munich. Or Barcelona beating Bayern Munich to solidify their claim as one of the greatest squads of all time, earning their third Champions League title in four years. Or Real Madrid firmly defeating Chelsea as viewers were pummeled with storylines like "Mourinho's Revenge" or "Mourinho Makes Case for Return" or any other over-hyped angles that run the risk of making those exposed physically ill. No, none of these outcomes transpired and now we are left with the least likely of all the championship matches: Chelsea vs Bayern Munich (I wonder how many people will mistakenly describe it as "Chelsea at Bayern Munich"). I managed to work 6am to 2pm both Tuesday and Wednesday in order to avoid the DVR enabled belated viewing, so I was sitting comfortably at home watching all of the madness unfold. Due to said levels of madness, I'd like to briefly recap these semifinal Champions League matches before returning you to your regularly scheduled Arsenal programming.

Pragmatism Beats Identity... For Now

Though I have probably hit my quota of discussions of the nature of soccer with my last entry on the chaotic elements and what it means for viewers, this needs to be discussed because to avoid talking about the way that Chelsea and Barcelona played the game is to avoid talking about the game at all. Though I have great amounts of respect for Michael Cox (@zonal_marking) of Zonal Marking tactics are usually not my thing. I can speak them well enough to hold a conversation with Harry Redknapp but stop short of Andre Villas-Boas territory. However, tactics, positioning and form were so apparent in Tuesday's game that it became part of the commentary naturally. Chelsea, owners of a 1-0 home win, obviously went into Camp Nou with the understanding that they would have to play a completely defensive game against Barcelona if they were to win. In an open game where both teams ran at each other, the Catalan's passing game would shred the Blues and leave them with no chance, so utilized instead was basically an updated version of the "park the bus" strategy that worked so well for Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan against Barcelona back in 2010. And though it looked for a while like Barcelona would break them down, especially the early second half culminating in Messi penalty kick attempt (more on this later), Chelsea's ten man defense held and pragmatism triumphed over the culture of Barcelona soccer.

But before we go overboard about how style was more important to Barcelona than winning the match, or how Chelsea proved that winning comes above all else, let's consider the circumstances surrounding this win. If this match is played ten times, Barcelona most likely wins seven, if not more. Let me be clear: this is not a dig at Chelsea. What Chelsea did defensively in this match was incredible, they deserved to win because they did what they needed to do, and this is not an apology for Barcelona. Just a statement of the talent levels on paper and the situation (Chelsea on short rest, home game for Barcelona, statement game after Real loss, etc.) involved. So if Barcelona is more likely to win and they did not, is that really a commentary on Barcelona's pride in culture? Is it perhaps more a statement of how much unique emotion matters during a match? Or clutch play by big players (it's coming!)? Or proof that Barcelona was lacking certain elements of their team rather than it be the style that was lacking? Let's also remember that in two out of the last four years, no one has been able to contend with Barcelona's culture and in the two other years, they went out in the semifinals of the best club tournament in the world, meaning they were no worse than fourth best on those occasions. So Chelsea should be praised for their adaptation, grit, and determination. No doubt and without question. But let's please hold on a bit before calling their victory the death knell for Barcelona and identity based soccer.

The Resurrection of Chelsea

If you had told a Chelsea fan two months ago, a month ago, two weeks ago, that they would be in the FA Cup final, in the Champions League final, and holding a chance to retain a Champions League spot due to their position on the Premiership table, I tend to think they would have laughed in your face. And yet, here we are. The point of departure is obviously the firing of Andre Villas-Boas but it is unfair to think that he was everything wrong with the club. Under Roberto Di Matteo they are once again relying on the veterans; Terry, Lampard, Drogba, etc. Villas-Boas was brought in to change the culture of soccer at Chelsea. He was allowed to do this for a while with Ramires, Mata, and Meireles, but then the wins dried up and he was fired. Was he really given a chance though? How would you like to be given a job constructing a brand new stadium based on your new, innovative building techniques, only half your staff are guys from the last attempt who have no interest in learning how to do things your way? Oh, and even though you made it clear you needed three years to finish, your timetable was moved up to less than a year in the middle of the project. Have fun.

All of this has very little to do with how Chelsea played against Barcelona though. Di Matteo has gone back to the old, adaptive Chelsea tactics, building his system around his players rather than making his players adapt to the system, and he is getting results. But the question is for how long? This year, certainly. Even if he loses in both finals and fails to make the top four in the EPL, he's done his job based on where he inherited the team versus where he finished. But even with the job he's done so far, he doesn't seem to be Roman Abramovich's first choice as Chelsea's next full-time manager. And even if he can stay, everyone is a year older, players like Mata don't seem to be allowed to play to the best of their abilities, and it's another year in this awkward transition from the old guard to some kind of new guard. Chelsea have absolute gobs of money so they can spend to get an all new team to suit whatever style. But it may be another year of another new program and more confusion about direction. But hey, if you can win two trophies while rudderless, you take that year in and year out.

Messi's Miss

I read plenty of commentary after the Barcelona vs Chelsea match asking what Messi's missed chance to put Barcelona up 3-1 meant for his image as the best player in the world. My response to all of these questions was: really? The miss may have meant everything for the game of course. A conversion puts Barcelona up 3-1, ten man Chelsea is forced to press forward, Barcelona rips them apart upon retaking possession, game over (in theory). The penalty kick would most likely have won Barcelona the game, so Messi can take some heat there, and deservedly so. But aside from that? Calm down, Pele. The Argentine missed an important shot, but he also is the primary attacker for a team that is increasingly relying on him to carry the goal-scoring load and despite his best efforts (assist on the Iniesta goal, struck the woodwork twice including the penalty) he couldn't secure his team the victory. Aside from the reasonable performance, it's important to remember this: he has been there and won this before. He has La Liga titles, he has two Champions League titles, he's been the best both in people's minds and on the score sheet. He is not LeBron James, waiting to breakthrough and win his first big one. He's been there before and he's only 24. He'll be just fine.

The Shootout. What Else?

If the penalty shootout in the Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich match had been a straight-forward or dull affair, I probably would have discussed the match in general first, or perhaps a particular player that had been impressive. But come on. That may be the greatest shootout (stakes notwithstanding) I have ever seen. It had everything you would want. The initial big lead thanks to two stops by Neuer including one on Ronaldo. Then the big comeback as Casillas shut down Kroos and Lahm while Alanso calmly buried his penalty. Then the abject ridiculousness of Ramos' penalty where he probably could have been disqualified for coming to a full stop before sending the ball 15 feet over the bar. And finally, the walk off (scamper excitedly off?) with stalwart Schweinsteiger putting home the winning penalty. So many ups and downs, so much drama, for once, perhaps, a fitting end provided by a shootout.

Second Half Letdown

The first half of the Real vs Bayern match was as good (or at least as wide open) a half as I've seen in quite some time. There were a plethora of chances, excellent end-to-end action, three goals including two penalties that more or less equaled out in terms of credibility, and just a very high level of play throughout. As the match went into the second half though, I remarked to my roommates (with whom I was watching the game) that I hoped that the rest of the game didn't slow down too much as the teams were tied on aggregate for the first time and no one was chasing the other. Tied, in my mind, in the second half of an elimination match was the perfect storm to see cautious soccer until the end, each team trying to sneak chances where they could without exposing themselves too much. Unfortunately, that's exactly what we were "treated" to. Sure there were chances, but it definitely wasn't the same as the pace and abandon each team displayed in turn in the first half. I won't go as far as to say it was a letdown overall because the match was still intense and the drama lasted all the way to the end, but it was a bit of a letdown compared solely to the first half. To see attacking soccer of that vigor throughout 90 minutes (and even 120) would have been the stuff of dreams.

Where Were the Substitutes?

I understand that a good amount of this has to do with the slowdown of attacking play and the conservative streak that each manager displayed in the second half, but where were the substitutes? Especially toward the end of regulation both teams were dragging, certain players were clearly out of gas, and no one seemed to want to do anything about it. Kaka on for Di Maria with 15 to play was a quality move, Mourinho gets credit there. But what about the rest? The match was clearly there for the taking (or at least an attempt at the taking) but nothing was done. Sitting on Real's bench were Higuain, Coentrao, and Callejon, any of which could have been used to exploit a tiring area of Bayern's team, or at the very least forced Bayern into making substitutions of their own. Bayern eventually put Muller in once the match was in overtime, but why not try to bring him in around the 75th (like Mourinho did with Kaka) in an attempt to influence the match? It seemed as if both managers were happy to play into the shootout, which seems like madness as that is one of the most unpredictable areas of an elimination match. Of course they were both confident in their keepers and their shooters, but you never know what might happen. When it came time, we saw four saves, one atrocious miss, and a victory for Bayern that could have come earlier or been taken away if either manager had the guts to do so.

Hope you enjoyed this wrap up of the Champions League semifinals. I'll be back sometime over the weekend to breakdown the result of the Stoke vs Arsenal match, or write a bunch of shit that is only tangentially related to the match I just watched. Hope to see you then.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Dismal Affair, Randomly Chosen

Soccer is an absolute crap shoot. Not just as a results driven sport but as a method by which to draw pleasure from something that exists in this world. There is no certain way of knowing what an individual match will be like until one has finished viewing it in its entirety, and this can lead to scorn and even outrage. Not as much, however, from soccer fans, defined as those who watch games on a regular basis, have an understanding for the strategy and technique of the sport, and have some kind of vague rooting interest. I say this without any kind of pretension or value judgment, just as a means by which to distinguish groups of people. Soccer fans have learned to put up with the drudgery when it occurs, but the casual observer or determined critic will find this to be worthy of mockery, and much of that comes from a basic misunderstanding about the nature of the sport itself. Here, to clarify again, I do not mean a lack of familiarity with tactics or what makes "good" soccer, but how the game is played out due to its core elements.

If you are interested in good soccer writing as well as good writing in general, I would recommend Brian Phillips (@runofplay) wholeheartedly. Phillips wrote this article for Grantland about the very subject we're discussing here, and if you don't want to bother reading through it, allow me to summarize: Phillips argues that soccer is, by its very nature, a difficult game to play and a terribly chaotic game as it plays out on the field. Because it is so difficult to execute (baseball being a close analogy because part of the skill set is so inapplicable to life writ large, but different in that confrontation is continually forced), things can often go wrong during the proceedings. Players miss passes, strikers mishit open chances on net, things get generally fucked up on a regular basis, even when the skill level of the players is extremely high. Because the game is so chaotic, in that there is no imposition of structure other than the basic rules of "can't use your hands, try to score goals," things can often happen in a way that is unfavorable to the fans, to the people who are trying to draw enjoyment out of the game. As I said, soccer fans know this and accept this. They would not be "fans" otherwise. But people not invested in the game often take this quadrant of the difficulty/chaos graph as emblematic of the game itself and cannot deal with a sport that could yield such results. This is fine as no one wants to be bored while they are hoping to be entertained, and if an observer cannot deal with this possibility then soccer is not for them, no harm no foul, go merrily on your way. But I do feel that it is unfair as such judgment removes the trade-offs from the game and instead only focuses on the downside.

The popular sports we see on a regular basis (baseball, basketball, and football) are much, much more regulated than soccer ever is, even in games where preening officials take over from the get go and slow everything to a grinding halt. This is part of the structure of each individual sport. In soccer, you get the ball, you try to score, and things are put on a brief hold if a player is fouled (physically interfered with) or if the ball goes out of bounds. Otherwise, it's constant movement with a break in the middle to receive instructions and switch ends. But in all of these other sports, the interaction is directed at a much more hands on level through the very rules that govern how you play the game. In baseball, the pitcher throws the ball in an attempt to get the batter out. If there is no dramatic outcome on a particular pitch, the pitcher receives the ball back from his catcher, chooses how to throw the next pitch, and throws again. Every confrontation has a direct result. Ball, strike, groundout, double play, home run. Rinse and repeat for three plus hours. In football, the offense tries to score a touchdown on every play and the defense tries to stop them. If there is no dramatic outcome on a particular play, the ball is reset, the offense calls another play, and tries to score on the defense. Every confrontation has a direct result. Four yard run, incomplete pass, quarterback sack, touchdown pass to the tight end. Rinse and repeat for three plus hours. I can go on like this for basketball as well, but you get the point. These sports thrive on a series of planned confrontations between players and/or teams and that is how they derive value. Every confrontation is a chance for something to happen.

Soccer runs completely contrary to this. Sure, there are confrontations between players going up for headers or a winger trying to take on a right back, but these confrontations are unimportant to how the game is won unless it leads directly to a goal, or perhaps a decisive card. In baseball, these confrontations lead to balls and strikes, in football they lead to yardage gained or lost, and in basketball they lead to points scored, but points that make up a smaller part of the whole because there can easily be over 200 in any given game. In soccer, if that winger doesn't beat his man and put a cross onto the head of a striker for a goal, then he might as well have stood still on the side of the field. This is what frustrates critics of soccer. There are hardly ever measurable, incremental gains. Possession stats can tell you who is holding the ball more, but they don't mean shit about who is going to score, if anyone is. But yards obviously and more concretely matter, as do baserunners, as do baskets. They let us know how close a team is to winning where in soccer, some teams (read: Arsenal over the last few years) make a habit out of dominating possession and chances but have nothing to show for it at the end. Not even small steps to some larger result.

But this is what makes soccer so glorious and so exciting because when something does happen it is so much more important, percentage-wise if not aesthetically or enjoyably, and it matters so much more. Nothing can quite easily lead to something at the drop of a hat. It often doesn't, but it can and that's part of the fun. Downtime in baseball is the catcher throwing the ball back to the pitcher and the pitcher deciding what to throw next. Downtime in football is players jogging back to the huddle and the play being called. Downtime in basketball is milling around on the court after a foul or a timeout. Nothing of consequence can happen in those moments, save a player injuring himself while making some mundane motion, because the game has been put on hold. In soccer, downtime is holding midfielder passing to the wing, wing passing to the creative midfielder, creative midfielder passing to the center back, and the center back passing to the holding midfielder all over again. All the short passes and ball control. Often, this happens routinely and nothing happens. But something can happen. Entire games can go by where it doesn't seem like any real progress is being made and there are no moments of excitement to cheer for. But then a Cameroonian holding middie might try a particularly audacious ball over the top of the defense and... oh my.

Phillips' argument is more aesthetic than mine as, well, he's the better writer. He makes a lovely analogy to unrequited love (or at least unaware love) and he draws out the masochist that exists in all soccer fans to some degree. I'm more concerned with analyzing the structure of these various sports to find out why we feel the way we do about what we watch. As a soccer fan, I will of course argue that soccer's highs are higher than those of other sports because we have no right to expect something decisive or even magical to happen, but then, sometimes, occasionally, dear-god-just-let-it-happen, it does. And because this was not set up or forced or dictated, it can feel amazing. I'm a fan of the other sports I mention. I watch them on a regular basis and I enjoy them as well. Greatly, at times. If you watch them and love them and only want to watch them, more power to you, I genuinely hope you have as much fun as possible. I just hope that somewhere along the way here, I explained what can be so impressive and ecstatic about soccer so that you will understand why fans of the game are willing to put up with the pain for the pleasure.

Game Notes

-This whole article was basically a fancy way of saying that the Arsenal vs Chelsea match was excruciatingly boring for the majority. Really a low quality game, which is so strange and so seemingly wrong from two sides that are capable of playing extraordinary soccer and had every reason to at least try to play that way on Saturday. Arsenal was aiming to solidify its place as third on the table and the automatic qualifier to next year's Champions League while Chelsea was desperate to make up ground on Tottenham and Newcastle as well as the Gunners. Furthermore, individual players for each side, either due to normal starters being rested or injured, had reason to try to impress both their fans and their coaches. Instead, we were treated to a boring 0-0 draw that left viewers with a sour taste in their mouth and Arsenal in a more tenuous third place than they were the day before. Such is soccer.

-I don't mean to shit on Aaron Ramsey game after game. I really don't. I like Ramsey and I want him to succeed. In fact I think he will succeed eventually once he settles down and learns to play the game more consistently. But once again, he did not live up to expectations. In this game he was tasked with the deeper lying midfielder position (Arteta's usual role) where he was expected to be the creative force for the team, a choice that I think was at least somewhat influenced by his inability to keep composure in front of net, hence Tomas Rosicky playing the high attacking midfielder role in this juggled lineup (though that's also Rosicky's favored role). In this position, Ramsey can choose to play like Arteta and keep the ball moving, guiding the game, or he can play a more incisive, direct game looking for forward moving through balls and opportune sprays out to the wings. The problem is that he dribbles too much to do the former and doesn't have the vision to do the latter. His patience is lacking and that keeps him from serving as a suitable stopgap, Arsenal's version of a caretaker quarterback. In the offseason he desperately needs to improve one of these aspects of his game, or his finishing and touch at the top of the box, or he will find himself without a role to play in the squad.

-As I mentioned previously, Arsenal still sit in third place but in a much more difficult position now. They are three points clear of Newcastle and six points clear of Tottenham, but both of those teams have a game in hand. Even Chelsea are not completely out the picture at seven points back with a game in hand so though the Gunners hold the tiebreaker (goal differential) over all those clubs, things could get messy with three games left. This Saturday morning is away to Stoke City, a difficult place to play and a team that Arsenal have history with. Then it's a must win home to Norwich City before the season finishes at West Bromwich Albion. These are mid-table teams at best and the kinds of games that Arsenal should win, but nothing is assured. Hopefully they have what it takes to close this out and hold onto the automatic Champions League spot. As Always, Go Gunners.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Send the Bums Down

In my experience, relegation is the most curious aspect of European soccer to novice fans of the sport and often for diametrically opposed reasons. I was asked about it within the last week and inquisitive party expressed a fascination for the concept. I won't go as far as to say he was calling for its implementation in all major sports in the United States, but the very idea of a league that not only could, but always would change members was a concept that stuck with him. On the other hand, I have been told that relegation is the height of idiocy, that it is an unjust punishment for a team struggling for just one year, that it is a farce that anyone with the money to buy a team would ever voluntarily enter an agreement whereby they could lose millions of dollars by being demoted, and so on and so on. Regardless of a person's specific stance, it appears that relegation is a topic worthy of debate and discussion, so why not engage in that here? I will not lie or try to hide bias: I will be presenting you with an opinion fully in favor of relegation. I feel that it helps much more than it hurts and creates interest and tension, which is what sports are supposed to be full of anyway. Also for the record, I think that it would be nigh impossible to introduce it to American sports as it would require a radical overhaul for leagues set in their ways and (mostly) making money as it is. But with the state of sports in our country this makes as much sense as debating a college football playoff system, so fuck it, let's go.

Honestly, I think the strongest argument in favor of relegation is what occurs in professional sports in the United States toward the end of the regular season. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this is a boring time of year. Of course not. Teams are fighting for their playoff lives, doing everything they can to make that final push and get in. Day-to-day, week-to-week everything changes, and then everything changes again, and then everything reverts to "normal" except that one massive shift that no one saw coming. It's a great time to be a fan, if a nerve-wracking one. But that's at the top of the league, where the big kids and the scrappy younger siblings are battling it out. What about the bottom? The truth is that it's much uglier.

For teams that no longer have a chance at making the playoffs (and sometimes even the teams that might make the playoffs but definitely aren't going to go far) the good thing, the best thing to do is to lose and finish last, all in hopes of landing a franchise changing player in the draft. That's the name of the game, that's that goal. Losing. Not that teams would go as far as intentionally losing. Of course not. That would damage the integrity of the game, go against the nature of the competitive athlete, and all those other things that we want to agree with but actually have a creeping suspicion about. But at this point it truly is in the best interest of teams to be a punching bag for those with something, rather than someone, to play for this year.

Look at the NBA right now. The top two picks in the draft are seen as borderline sure things and the top five to ten (depending on who you ask) could all be difference makers for the right team next year. The teams in the lottery range (any team not making the playoffs) have no reason to do anything except move down the standings and improve their odds of being in a position to draft someone they need. It's at the point where Grantland is running an updated analysis of this tanking process and not only is it interesting, but it's valid and important work. For those teams without a chance in the NFL, where there is no lottery system, meaning that the position you finish in is your guaranteed drafting position, there is even less of a barrier to tanking as you are sure of what you are "earning." As of now it looks like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, two supposed franchise quarterbacks, will be the top two picks in the draft, and the only way to acquire either of them, aside from paying through the nose in players/draft picks/first born sons, is to be one of the worst teams in football. At one point during the "Suck for Luck" campaign Miami Dolphins fans were actually angry with their team for winning games. The sad thing is, it was the logical reaction to have. Even hockey, my second favorite sport with goalies, offsides, and flamboyant European divers, isn't immune to this phenomenon. After winning the draft lottery this year, the Edmonton Oilers will be picking first overall for the third consecutive year. Sadly, this is the only way the Oilers, a team that Silky Johnson could only describe as "bombed out and depleted," could make themselves relevant again. That's what we have. A system that encourages teams and fans to want to lose when the top of the mountain, or even that nice looking ski lodge somewhere in the middle, is no longer in sight.

So what does relegation offer that is different? Well, it's slightly different in that if you finish in the bottom three positions in the league, you get kicked out. Yup. Kicked. Out. Think of it like Major League Baseball and the associated minor leagues. There's the English Premier League (MLB), then the Championship, League 1, and League 2 (AAA, AA, and A ball) in descending order of prestige. At the end of each season, the teams with the three lowest point totals in the EPL are relegated to the Championship while the teams with the three highest point totals in the Championship (well, two highest point totals plus the winner of a mini-tournament, but let's keep our eye on the prize) are promoted to take their place. This happens throughout the league system after every season so there is a consistent danger of being relegated or thrill of being promoted. In our American example, last year the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, and my beloved Minnesota Twins had the worst three records in MLB, so they would be dropped down to AAA while the top three finishing AAA teams would move up to the majors. The Twins had just won back-to-back Central Division titles two years ago, by the way. So this process makes you scratch and claw for positioning not just if you're one of the best teams trying to make a run at a title, but throughout the ranks of the league.

That's the main benefit to having a relegation/promotion system: everyone cares about the end of the season because the price for not caring just might be moving down to a less prestigious league with smaller facilities, less money for wages, and a lower standard of play. There are some teams that have so little talent that they can't help but be relegated because their best isn't good enough to beat someone else's "disinterested" (thinking of Wolverhampton this year). But those teams are certainly going to be trying their damnedest not to be relegated, so every game they're in is going to be a fight. Right now there are six teams that have a good chance to be relegated (more if you use those who are still mathematically in the hunt, but those are a bit of a stretch), which means there are six teams playing for their league lives rather than dogging each game, trying to tank to get players, and generally being absolute pushovers for those at the top. It means that the end of the season is that much more interesting because you can't just mark wins on the schedule as a top team as the worst teams can be the most dangerous to play due to desperation. In back to back weeks, Wigan, who was in one of the three relegation spots, beat Manchester United (currently first in the league) and Arsenal (currently third in the league) to move five points clear of the relegation zone. You don't have that with the Hornets in the NBA, last year's Colts, or the miserable Columbus Blue Jackets. Survival mode brings out the best in these weaker teams and generally makes the end of the season more unpredictable, intense, and exciting. And as fans, isn't that what we want?

Game Notes

-Though I wrote this article about relegation inspired by Wigan beating Arsenal 2-1 at Emirates and thus further escaping the relegation zone, it is not just desperation that is driving Wigan forward. For a team that has spent much of this season looking sure to be down in the Championship next year, the Lactics have put together a marvelous run including the aforementioned wins against Man U and Arsenal, as well as a game that Chelsea absolutely stole from them with not one but two goals that should have been disallowed for offsides. I could provide a more detailed analysis of what has actually changed, but it would pale in compared to this excellent work by Ned, a friend of a friend who writes for ESPN Soccernet's Wigan blog and an all-around good guy. Check it out and continue to cheer on a surprisingly strong Wigan squad who look to be in the Premiership for at least another year.

-Aside from the damaging loss of three points as well as the hit to the reputation of Arsenal for losing to Wigan at home, Monday's game was painful for another reason: the loss of Mikel Arteta. Arteta went down with an ankle injury early in the match and since then it has been revealed that he will miss 6-8 weeks, or the rest of the Gunners' season. First of all, this is a tough loss for Arsenal as Arteta worked very well as a calming and directing force in the back of midfield, holding possession and guiding play. Arsenal can win without him, but the Gunners seem more composed with him in the squad. Second, I'm sorry to all other Arsenal fans because this injury can only be due to my blog post last Monday in which I sung Arteta's praises and labeled him a quality signing for the team. I had no idea that I had such abilities, so please, accept my deepest apologies. As an act of contrition, I will be preparing an in-depth analysis of the genius of Juan Mata in advance of Saturday's match against Chelsea. May I only use my powers for good in the future.

-I often feel strange because I don't discuss the talent and quality of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny even though he has emerged as one of the best keepers in the Premier League this year. Strange because he's so obviously important to the team but we don't often talk about him because while he is good for a couple of fantastic saves per game, Arsenal's defense doesn't normally get peppered to the point where Szczesny is making save after glorious save, earning himself man of the match honors. And now the reason I'm talking about him is for the saves that he couldn't quite make, even though he isn't at fault. On both Wigan goals the Polish national did everything he could to shut down the excellent chances opposing strikers were presented with, but came up just short as his pounces and deflections were not enough to keep the ball out of the back of the net. The images we are left with are Szczesny's frustration at his inability to save the day, followed by that slow motion head swivel as he seeks the culpable defender and place the fear of god in him. I would be worried by a lesser keeper, worried that he would lose his cool or throw his defense under the bus. But not Szczesny. He has a fantastic attitude and though his is undoubtedly arrogant, it's arrogance begot by outstanding play instead of an overly inflated sense of self worth despite having done nothing to back it up (looking at you Nicklas Bendtner). I'm happy to have him in goal and even happier to know that we'll have him moving forward. As Always, Go Gunners.

A Quick (But Still Soccer Related) Interlude

I still owe a full post related to Arsenal's home defeat to Wigan but playoff hockey and a generally busy schedule are keeping me from getting to it. In the meantime, please enjoy some thoughts from the first leg of the Champions League semifinal between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. This match was played in Munich (the pre-chosen neutral site of the eventual championship game, FYI) and was won 2-1 by Bayern.

Bayern Munich Were the Better Team

It is at least somewhat strange to think of perennial German and European powerhouse Bayern as the underdog, but they assuredly were coming into this match. However, they acquitted themselves well at home and dominated the majority of yesterday's game. Frank Ribery was dangerous on the ball, Toni Kroos held play together well in the middle of the field, and Mario Gomez was always a threat up front to poach a goal. The true test for Bayern was after Real Madrid scored in the 53rd minute, a tap-in off the foot of Mesut Ozil. In a game the home side controlled up to that point, the "better" team had just secured a crucial away goal and could possibly ride that momentum to further tallies. Instead, Bayern attacked with renewed vigor and dominated both possession and the match from there on out. The German team was always the more likely to score and although my note originally said "Bayern better side but unlucky to draw," Gomez slotted home the winner in the 90th minute to secure the win. All of this bodes well for Bayern, however...

Real Madrid Was Playing For a Draw or One Goal Defeat

Once Real secured the away goal (an absolutely crucial factor when playing these home and home rounds), they went into shutdown mode and simply wanted to make sure the match didn't get out of hand. Let me be clear: this is not meant as an excuse for Real or an insult to Bayern. Bayern dominated the second half after Real's goal and rightfully so. However, Real was most obviously not pressing up into the attack, content to allow Bayern possession and try to keep them from putting together an end result. Of course Real would have been more pleased with a 1-1 draw, but they also knew that a 2-1 loss was far from lethal. For those unfamiliar, Champions League elimination rounds are played with a game at each competitor's stadium rather than one match at a neutral site (save the championship game). Obviously if a team wins both games or wins one while drawing the other, they advance. However, if both teams win a game or both games are a draw, the first tiebreaker is number of goals scored. If Team A wins the first game 5-0 and Team B wins the second game 1-0, Team A rightfully advances. If, however, both teams have an equal number of goals then in this specific situation, where the goal total is equal, away goals are counted as two goals. For example, if Team A wins 3-2 and Team B wins 1-0, both teams have scored three goals. However, Team B has two away goals, so they break the tie and win 5-3 "on aggregate."

What this means is that all Real needs to do is win their home match 1-0 and they will advance (2 goals for Bayern, 2 goals for Real, but 1 away goal for Real). Real must win of course to match Bayern's win, but Bayern has to keep it a one goal game (or better) and they have to score a goal as well. That's a tall order going to the Bernabeu where it seems that the only team that can beat Real is Barcelona. At home, with the fans behind them and a new gameplan, Real will put Bayern under constant pressure and try to run the German team into the ground. Real gets forward with amazing pace and players like Christiano Ronaldo and Karem Benzema are threats to score at all times. This isn't to say that Bayern cannot prevail; it just means that a 2-1 win in Munich most assuredly does not mean that things are over.

Bayern Won Because of Their Midfield Play

The most important takeaway from this game for me was how Bayern controlled the middle third of the field and kept some of Real's most influential players from making their mark on the game. I mentioned before that Kroos did an excellent job linking up with players and keeping possession, but Luis Gustavo was also impressive winning the ball and darting forward with controlled runs. Bastian Schweinsteiger was not his usual self but he definitely did not look out of place or helpless, despite being pulled off for Thomas Muller in the second half. Frank Ribery was the more dangerous wing player but Arjen Robben had his moments on the right and used his reputation for cutting to the inside to his advantage several times to reach the end line on runs. Perhaps more surprising than Bayern's solid play was the near irrelevance of the Real midfield. Mesut Ozil is a very talented and creative attacking midfielder, but save for the sequence leading to the goal, he was kept quiet. Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso generally do a good job of controlling the game with a combination of steel and insightful passing, but neither could make their mark and settle things down for Madrid. Bayern's transition and possession game were both superior to that of Real's and it will be interesting to see if this was solely because of Real's "keep it close" strategy or if Bayern's midfield is that imposing.

Christiano Ronaldo Was Mostly Invisible

Christiano Ronaldo was a noticeable casualty of Real's bend-but-don't-break strategy and Bayern's subsequent (or unrelated, depending on your point of view) dominance in midfield. He had the assist on Ozil's goal, yes. But the ball only came back to him because he muffed his shot following Karem Benzema's beautiful wide pass and his set-up was simply keeping the ball in play. For large portions of the game, he was reduced to ball chasing or hold-up play, neither of which really impacted the overall flow. He did have a couple of looks at the net off of free kicks, but while his shots were far from poor, they never truly troubled Manuel Neuer. When you factor in that he couldn't draw any dangerous fouls or cards from his flopping and play-acting, it was a very quiet game from one of the best players in the world. As I said before, it will likely be a different story in Madrid due to a change in strategy, but again, let's not sleep on giving Bayern credit for what they've done thus far.

Frank Ribery is a Cheat

It's not often you can be playing in the same game as Christiano Ronaldo and somehow come across as the biggest diver, but congratulations Frank Ribery, you've done it! It started early when Ribery received the absolute minimum of contact from a Madrid defender in the box, took a step or two, realized that he was cut off from goal, and then went down as if someone had run a knife across the back of his hamstring. He didn't win a penalty for that, but he tried time and time again to draw fouls or, when the foul was called, draw cards for the fouler. If you don't understand the metaphor "rolling around like a pig in shit," by all means check the tape of Ribery from this game to see what it's all about. The shamelessness came to a head in the second half when a ball in the box obviously went off a defender's chest, yet Ribery, who was maybe two feet from the defender, dashed over to the nearest referee to emphatically whine, curse, and demonstrate how Real had gotten away with a handball in the box. Not only was the display laughable due to his over the top antics, but it was reprehensible as Ribery had perhaps the best view on the field of the play and still went through his high energy acting job. Unbelievable. It is a testament to Alvaro Arbeloa (matched up against Ribery down Real's right side for most of the game) that he never picked up a yellow card or lost his cool while dealing with Ribery's deceit. Speaking of the officiating...

Howard Webb Did a Fantastic Job as Referee in This Match

Given what's happened in soccer officiating news lately, especially in the English Premier League with fans of Chelsea acting as referees in Chelsea matches, it sounds strange to be praising an official's work during a match. Howard Webb deserves all accolades however as he kept control of a highly physical game, was neither too quick or too slow to dole out cards, and didn't miss a single important call. His assistants are due credit for their help of course, but Webb's control of the tone of the match was very important as a worse referee would have ruined the game with cards or let it get to the point where people were severely hurt on the field. Webb didn't fall for Ribery or Ronaldo's acting, but also held conversations with players or sternly told others to "cut the shit" (I'm paraphrasing here) when they started to get out of control. The result was a highly entertaining and contentious match that wasn't ruined by a terrible red, or completely slowed down by too much talking and warning, or tragic due to an injury, or laughable because of missed calls, or overly important due to players being suspended for the second leg. When you consider all of that together, Webb walked a very fine line the whole way through and came out close to perfect. Tip of the hat, sir.

All in all, it was a fantastic match to watch and I'm glad I took the time out to do so. I'm not certain due to time constraints that I will make one of these posts for today's Barcelona vs Chelsea match, but I felt like I had to for Real vs Bayern as it was excellent on so many levels. I hope you enjoyed this departure from our normal schedule and I hope to have an Arsenal post up later today to get us back on track. Thanks all.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Credit Where Credit is Due

In every sport there are positions or players that aren't noticed until they make a mistake or they aren't there anymore. It's commonly said in football that if you don't mention an offensive lineman's name it's a good thing because it means they haven't messed up. Similarly, everyone scoffs at a team who drafts a punter until their own player can't make a simple directional kick out of bounds and avoid one of the most dangerous return men in the game so he doesn't end one of the biggest comebacks of all time with a run back to the house and force you to forget the game by imbibing massive quantities of whiskey. Nope, not bitter at all. Most team sports have positions like this (middle reliever in baseball, fourth line player in hockey, etc.) but sometimes there are players that go unnoticed because of the businesslike way they attend to their duties. Tim Duncan is one of the best to ever play basketball and he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. You don't really think twice about his performance until they post the stat lines and he's got 23 points and 13 rebounds and you're left wondering how he got to that point. Possession receivers like Bobby Ingram or Amani Toomer can be seen the same way because while they perform an essential service, it's not a flashy or highlight reel-type play. It just gets the job done. Central midfielders can be these silent contributors but not necessarily by the very nature of the position. Cesc Fabregas was known league-wide when he was with Arsenal because his passing was often so insightful that you couldn't help but notice what he was doing. This year however, Arsenal have a different kind of playmaker and while he doesn't stand out play to play, it's about time to give Mikel Arteta his due.

When he first was signed by Arsenal during the summer transfer window, many fans and pundits thought that Arteta was a bail out move for Arsene Wenger and the Gunners, a fall back signing that was more of a "Plan B" than an actual goal (I use "Plan B" here in the longer standing meaning, but am now amusing myself thinking of misreadings of that sentence using the lens of the morning after pill). At the time of the signing, I understood those complaints and held them as well to a degree, but I was interested in seeing how he played on the field before cursing him as a failure. Still, voice of reason or no, I found it hard to see Arteta as anything more than a less than famous addition to the team. Signing Mikel Arteta was something that Fulham or Newcastle or, god forbid, Tottenham would do, not a "big" club like Arsenal. It had none of the sexiness of the summer long romances with Keisuke Honda and Eden Hazard and Chelsea had already poached Juan Mata out from under the Gunners, not to mention that Fabregas had already committed to his boyhood club and left London behind. Bringing Arteta at first seemed like when it was August 31st, Wenger looked around and realized there were no center mids left and thought "shit, who do we sign now?" It didn't mean that Arteta was a bad player or that he wouldn't work out, just that he wasn't the first choice over the previous two months and everyone knew it.

For the majority of the season, Arteta wasn't on my mind in a good or a bad way unless he was specifically mentioned by someone else. I would see him play and notice him moving the ball around and making passes but I would never really stop and take note of what he was doing. Part of this is the game that he plays. While he can make the incisive through ball or two, Fabregas was incredibly gifted at that specific type of pass so it's hard to get really excited when Arteta does it. If anything, you end up thinking "ok, why not do that more often?" The strength of Arteta's game is his ability to manage the ball, to spread it from side to side or up the middle, to turn away from the defense and keep possession, to generally act as the caretaker of the game rather than a flashy playmaker. This is where he so often goes unnoticed because who sees and applauds the play where a midfielder keeps the ball rather than letting the opponent break down the field? It's a small seeming play but it can make a lot of difference. I admittedly didn't see these qualities and held Arteta in my mind as a competent player but nothing to really write home about.

It wasn't until his time out with an injury in January that I noticed the quality that Arteta possessed. As I said, you often don't notice this kind of player until he's not there anymore. Arsenal's loss at Swansea City was the real light bulb moment for me. I remember watching that game thinking "my god, Arsenal can't keep possession to save their lives" and then realizing that this just so happened to be the game that Arteta was out for. It was shocking how much of a difference his absence made. There was no rhythm to the Arsenal attack, no patience or directing influence, just quick turnovers and dominance by Swansea in the middle of the field. Once I noticed this, it was hard to pull the wool back over my eyes. Game after game, Arteta settles in, keeps the ball, directs play, and makes the attack go. It shouldn't have taken as long as it did for me to recognize his contributions, but at least I figured it out in the end.

Arteta is a strong player for Arsenal, but not in the flashy kind of way that will draw Robin Van Persie kind of attention. Although he's been in the highlights more recently for his beautiful free kick against Aston Villa and his game winner against Manchester City (that winner is why I decided to write this article after all), it's his steady play and control of the ball that makes his so valuable. He still isn't Fabregas or Mata or any other dynamic midfield presence and in a perfect world, those players would be controlling the attack for Arsenal instead. But he is much, much more than a replacement player who came to London because there were no other options and even if the team upgrades during this offseason, I'm still glad he had his chance to be a Gunner.

Game Notes

-I must admit, it was strange to see Arsenal dominating Manchester City so effectively throughout this game. Granted Man City aren't the force they were earlier this season and granted David Silva was out with injury, but still the Gunners completely controlled the second place team in the Premiership from start to finish. It did look for a while like Arsenal would perform their classic play "We Look Really Great But Fail to Score in a Variety of Comical Ways" but the Mikel Arteta strike was enough to see them through. It was a game that could have easily been 2-0 or 3-0 and you'd like to see Arsenal really put it away when they were so obviously winning on the field, but it's hard to complain about dominating the team that has been leading the EPL for much of the season and moving back into sole possession of third place again.

-I do hate to sound like a broken record, but I am consistently confused with Arsene Wenger's use (or lack thereof) of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I've come to understand that he isn't going to start every game, most likely due to Wenger's strategy of bringing young players along slowly. Fine. I don't necessarily agree, but at least I comprehend the decision. But if his role is to be that of a super sub with the occasional start, doesn't he surely need more than five minutes of playing time to be a factor? Yet here he was coming in the match in the 85th minute in an attempt to put Arsenal over the edge and get the goal they so rightly deserved. What's even more baffling is that Yossi Benayoun had been replaced by Aaron Ramsey six minutes earlier, a switch that seems tailor made for Chamberlain rather than Ramsey. When you have a true game changer sitting on your bench and a need to get him confidence as well as experience, I don't see how giving him all of five minutes to work with can help much of anything.

-Know that I especially after the Norwich City game that was played earlier today, I am trying very, very hard not to openly mock Tottenham. I'm too much of a believer in jinxs to do something like that, but trust me: I really want to. As Always, Go Gunners.