Fernando

An incredible, incredible game at Old Trafford today.  It was like a pantomime at times.

I’m sure there will be plenty of Chelsea fanatics in the bars around the Fulham Palace Road who want to throw Fernando Torres to the lions.  Hopefully there’ll be enough sane voices around to realize that today was the first time he looked like his old self!

For the goal he scored his run was sublime and it was a neat composed finish.  Between that goal and his quite unbelievable miss, he came alive again.  He looked dangerous running in behind and also energetic and lively on the ball.  Hopefully that miss doesn’t reset his confidence.  Arm chair fans all over the country will be screaming that their grandma could have slotted that one away with the goal gaping.  The reality is, however, there aren’t many Premier League strikers (let alone octogenarian ladies) capable of the intelligent run that Torres conjured and the ease with which he rounded De Gea running at full pelt.

I’m not sure he choked either… I don’t think he really had enough time to think about it to choke.  Just one of those one in a thousand anomalies. 

Chelsea fans might well be looking to blame Torres for this defeat because of the headline grabbing miss, but you have to look at Lampard’s decision not to run with Smalling for the first (so difficult to rely on offside from wide free kicks like that, especially as the rule has become more complicated over the years).

On the whole for Chelsea though, it was just too difficult to defend against a United side that is streets ahead of them.  More than any other United side in the past, this team is awash with pace as well as quality.  When they won the treble in 1999 I thought they had the best midfield in the world at the time in Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs. Aside from Giggs though, there wasn’t explosive pace there.  Now they have Ashley Young and Nani playing wide (or Valencia). Anderson is not necessarily electric, but I think he’d outpace Scholes and Keane in their prime with a fair amount of ease, and before his injury Cleverley looked rapid in the center of the midfield as well.  Where that 1999 side had Neville and an ageing Irwin at full back  to push on and support, this one has Evra to support on the left and, when fit, Raphael on the right (although Smallling seems to have plenty of pace in the locker as he fills in).   

Fletcher didn’t trouble the Blues too much in terms of pure speed, so God knows what Sir Alex’s first choice team could do to Chelsea! 

Begs the question, front to back, who is the quickest team in the Premier League right now?

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Football/Soccer – one game divided by a common language

Borrowing the famous phrase by George Bernard Shaw, America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.”  While the Brits like to get aggresively punctilious about misuse of the Queen’s English by their special allies across the pond, it is often over quite sensible adaptations the Yanks have made to the language that has Blighty’s denizens spitting out their Earl Grey.  

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t create difficulty for the Englishman over here. Aside from the unfortunate diverging meanings between phrases like “fanny pack”, the terms used in soccer (or football) can also be confusing. I’m trying to get by playing and watching soccer over here without having to resort to a pocket phrasebook, so I thought I’d showcase some common misunderstandings.

Centre Half – Even in England, a centre half is an anachronistic throwback to the period in and around the war, where the fashionable formation seemed to resemble a migrating flock of geese and positions such as “inside forward” existed.  But it persists today and, in the UK, it is is used interchangeably with centre back.  A center half (note altered spelling) in the U.S. is apparently a central midfielder! This caused a fair amount of confusion when my coach recently told me to play center half and couldn’t understand why I was unwilling to cross too far over the half way line. 

Stopper/Sweeper – Europeans will know all about the sweeper position made most famous by the likes of Franz “The Kaizer” Beckenbauer.  But how many will be acutely aware of the stopper/sweeper system?   The British Isles is resolutely proud of the flat back four – organized, not flashy, in unison… almost like the sporting embodiment of the stiff upper lip… “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…with our flat back four!”

In the Land of the Free, such rigid constraint could never stand, so they play the stopper/sweeper system. This basically means three at the back (two full backs and the “stopper” in the middle) with the sweeper both dropping deeper than the three to cover but also stepping forward to play the ball in midfield. I’m not used to it yet but I’m seeing the advantages of when you have possession of the ball.  At the same time, it makes it impossible to play offsides, so it is taking some getting used to for a full back that is a seasoned/brainwashed adherent to the flat 4!

Cleats – Back home we call them Footy Boots.  There is something rugged and manly about “boots”, even warrior like. You would strap on boots to march into battle against the enemy of all that’s good and true.  Cleats, on the other hand, sounds like something you would wear to do a Dutch country folk dance. I’m going to stick with boots.

Soccer itself – This one is for the U.S of A (God bless America!!!)… yes, that’s right, my oft rained upon brothers in Britain look on you Americans with disdain for using the word soccer, as if it indicates that you made up  the word because you wanted to call your cross between sumo wrestling and rugby, football. 

When an American says soccer, it brings out the most arrogant of sneers from many a U.K. based fan.  Since starting this blog I have received no end of flak from my countrymen for using the much loathed term.  What they fail to grasp is that soccer was actually a word popularized in England in the late 19th century.  Much debate exists about where it came from. One popular tale is that Alfred Lord Kinnaird (yes, he, the pioneer of association football) was asked which kind of football (rugby or association) he was off to play and he responded “soccer”. 

In summary, the British can harldy blame the Americans for using a word popularized by the British themselves! It made logical sense in the 19th century to differentiate from rugby football (long before that game became known as simply Rugby).  It makes sense today to differentiate from American Football as well.

Nasty – In common U.S. soccer parlance this means someone is very good. In England, it would only be said on a soccer field (translation – football pitch) by a six year-old to another boy who just did something mean.  It reminds me of when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out in the 80s and my brother had to explain why being bad was actually good. MJ really upset the moral equilibrium.

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Top 5 Vertically Challenged Players Who Are Good in the Air

I’ve been inspired by a recent spate of headed goals from my amateur team’s diminutive midfielder Mike Bouton and it got me to thinking about small players who punch above their weight in the aerial side of the game. As the Australians would say, Mike is knee-high to a grasshopper, but he’s scored three headers in two games, ghosting in between defenders and powering it into the net.  Many pro soccer players in recent memory have a similar knack of defying the cut and dry statistics of the measuring tape. So who are the best sub six-footers when it comes to attacking the ball at altitude and putting it in the onion bag. Here’s my countdown:

5. Javier Hernandez (5″9)

Chicharito’s first goal for United was the most bizaare header I’ve ever seen as he shanked it off his right foot against his noggin and it rebounded into the net.  Since then, however, he’s displayed an incredible knack of finding  space between defenders and guiding the ball at goal with glancing headers.  It helps having the kind of service that Nani, Valencia and Giggs can provide, but the little Mexican is a force to be reckoned with in the air, even for teams who have towering center backs.

4. Lionel Messi (5″7)

It just doesn’t seem fair does it? The true master of all skills pertaining to “playing it on the deck”, Lionel Messi is not content to rest there and insists on being good in the air as well. It’s a bit like Napoleon conquering most of Europe and then deciding he fancied a bit of Russia too. 

I remember watching the 2009 Champions League Final from my flat in North London with some friends.  Already spell-bound by the little Argentinian I dropped a slice of pizza in amazement when he looped a header over Edwin van der Sar.  He had to stretch every sinew in his body to reach Xavi’s cross on the corner of the six yard box and arch it over the Dutchman into the far corner.  I can’t really remember Maradona ever being much use in the air (then again he was even shorter at 5″5) – over time, it could be this attribute that differentiates the two Argentinian number 10s.

3. Robbie Fowler (5″9)

I never thought of Fowler as being short and maybe that’s just because he is slightly taller than Michael Owen (see below).  He just knew how to score in any and every way possible, including with his head.  If FIFA had changed the rules to only allow scoring with the back of your neck, I’m pretty sure Robbie would have been the first to master it.  He scored some scorching drives from outside the box, he scored some crucial tap ins with his feet… but he also scored some fantastic headers in his days at Liverpool (no wonder they called him God).  He might still be doing so in Thailand for all I know but there’s not much call for the Thai Premier League on U.S. television.

2. Michael Owen (5″8)

Michael Owen has been interviewed and talked about how he has always struggled with high balls, and who can forget when Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto waded in and started calling him a midget.  But what Carlos Alberto might not have noticed (especially as it was in Owen’s Real Madrid days where he spent most of his time in a tracksuit), Micky was, and is, actually very good attacking the ball in the area.  A bit like Chicharito he has the knack of judging the flight of the ball from hard crosses and finding that space in between defenders.  The two headers he scored in an England friendly against Argentina back in 2005 spring to mind. Or the perfect hat-trick (right foot, left foot, header) he scored for Newcastle against West Ham in 2007.

Clearly the vast majority of his goals came from being played in behind and getting in one on one situations, but he was always a fox in the box too and seemed to make room for a free header an awful lot.  

1. Tim Cahill (5″10)

So at 5 “10 you couldn’t really call the Australian diminutive, but he is certainly a few inches shorter than the average center back picking him up on corners.  But he’s lethal in the air. Deadly. He attacks the ball with such cavalier aggression and his timing is so perfect that it is virtually impossible for defenders to stop him getting in front of them and connecting. 

There is a nice example of his aerial prowess against Newcastle in this YouTube compilation (about 45 seconds in).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1lWm7z14dI

The only drawback to his scoring great headers is that you have to watch him do that ridiculous celebration where he pretends to box with the defenceless corner flag.  

Suggestions in the compiling of this list were provided by my old Keble College teammate Richard Craig, himself sub-six foot but a very good headerer of the ball. Thanks for reading and stay strong (in the air)!

p.s. The best ever headed goal (regardless of height)… could it be this one?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWBbYhrizsM&feature=related

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Diving – it could happen to you too

When we see diving in the professional game the reaction is now one of grudging acceptance.  We’ve been worn down by its prevalence and become somewhat immune to the nauseating reality of the act. Our indignation has been vanquished by it eventually being the team we support that benefits from one of its players taking a tumble. 

But it’s a bit like getting burgled.  It’s a fact of life until it actually happens to you! Last night in an MSSL game played out in East Boston (fortunately a comfortable victory for our team) I made a sliding tackle in the box, winning the ball cleanly.  After a short delay, the subject of that rather well-timed challenge then squeeled like a stuck pig and launched himself forward in a Superman impersonation.

I was in the process of laughing at the farce of such ham acting when, in disbelief, I discovered that the referee had fallen for the ruse and pointed to the spot.  We won comfortably but it really left a sour taste in my mouth to think of the audacity and mean spiritedness of such flagrant cheating. It’s monumentally galling. The practise really does attack all that’s good and of value about sporting contest.  People say it’s part of the game, but really it’s the antithesis of what soccer should be about.

So, in summary.  It reaffirms my disgust at the habit of diving or cheating in general and I’m back being evangelical about the need for it to be stamped out of the game.   The booking for diving system is good but quite often people get booked when they were actually fouled or when they simply slipped or fell over.  It’s hard for referees to tell in that split second.  Maybe at the upper echelons of the game there should be more video review of dives and harsher punitive action when it is clear… less of this “if the referees seen the incident he can deal with it” because this means too much diving is slipping through the cracks. 

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Swap Shop – the biggest winners and losers on transfer deadline day

The old stories of managers frantically running through the streets of London to get the paperwork for a new signing to the FA in time to meet the deadline are long gone.  Thanks Internet! But the era of the munificent Arab/Russian zillionaire and the American corporate sporting franchise now lend detective novel style suspense to August 31st! And apologies for the slur against the Internet, watching it all unfold in real-time is pant wettingly exciting.  But who were the big winners and losers over the last couple of days?

Winners

Spurs. Daniel Levy is without doubt somehow an agent of the occult. I still don’t know how he pulled off that “under the radar” Van Der Vaart deal at a fraction of his real value. This time Levy/Redknapp’s objective must have been to replace quantity with quality.  They have brought in almost $25 million for Crouch and Keane which is not at all shabby and instead captured Adebayor on loan.  They might be sorry to see Palacios ($10m) go, but pretty average performers like O’Hara ($9m), Jenas and Bentley have been replaced by eleventh hour signing Scott Parker, who should be England’s first name on the team sheet at the moment. They’ve lacked a quality goalkeeper for eons, but now have Brad Friedel in net. Oh and they’ve held onto Modric.  He might sulk for a while, but he’s not going to jeopardize a future move by playing half-heartedly for the rest of the season!

QPR. Shaun Wright-Phillips is not world class, but he’s certainly a skillful, quick winger and a great signing for QPR.  Joey Barton was fantastic for Newcastle and if (big if!!!!!!!!!) Warnock can get along with him for a whole season, he’ll add some real quality to the midfield. As well as having boundless energy and aggression Barton’s technique is pretty exceptional as well for an English midfielder.  He actually has a very good touch as well as being combative.

Wenger. Not Arsenal so much. Wenger still needed to get a couple more defenders through the door for my money, but in Arteta and Benayoun he’s finally brought in experienced players.  Mertesacker is the kind of player he should have signed four or five years ago, but better late than never heh! I still don’t see them capturing a Champions League place, but Wenger pulled off a couple of eye-catching deals in overtime to ensure some more patience from the Gooner faithfull! 

Losers.

Everton. While Vaughan and Beckford simply weren’t up to the grade, Moyes would surely have wanted to see more enter stage right than he has seen exeunt (theater reference in honor of Bill Kenwright).  It seems like the Argentine Stracqualursi is not goal shy but I suspect he will take time to bed in. Drenthe has not been blessed with playing time at Madrid.  Time will tell, but the two signings on deadline day were the only ones of the summer, and that feels a little underdone given their patchy form (see previous post).

Swansea. Made some signings but none that brings enough quality to make a substantial difference.  Swansea will be hoping to survive on team spirit… Wayne Routledge has never been a hugely positive influence on that!

Wigan.  Just on Shaun Maloney alone.  They paid about $1.5 million for him, which might seem a drop in the ocean, but his form for Celtic recently has been dire.  Perhaps he needs a new challenge to refresh himself but I don’t think he’s going to make the difference for Wigan. 

Scottish Football.  The ealth divide was made painfully clear north of the border, where there were so few signs of life it could have been the Sahara!

 

 

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Wenger – a shadow of his former self

It is going to be hard for Wenger to survive the mauling at Old Trafford.  Yes, they had problems and injuries, but it is so evident, and it has been for so long, that their biggest weakness is the defensive side of their midfield and the defense itself. 

Even their first choice backline and center backs are average.  Vermaelen is ok, but he’s not stellar. The 2nd string are probably not even Premier League quality.  Djorou and Koscielny were an absolute nightmare trying to play a high line without any kind of disciplined shape.  The famous back four led by Tony Adams, so proficient at playing a high line and strangling attacks by how in step they were, would have been watching today in disgust.

But it wasn’t just the woefully inadequate rearguard that was at fault.  Today there were runners streaming through midfield at will with so little tracking from the Arsenal midfield, which makes it very hard for a back four to keep their discipline and shape.  It’s hard to say which was the biggest problem.

So all of this begs the question, why did Wenger spend £12 million on an 18 year old winger who has only played in England’s third tier?  He could have bought a quality defensive midfielder or center back for that. There is apparently £90 million in the coffers, so why are they playing such hard ball with the Cahill signing? Boy, they could have used him today! It also takes time for defensive units to bed in, so why wait until the season is well under way before strengthening these areas.  It is clear negligence from Wenger.  They haven’t really been strong in the defensive spine of the team (center backs/defensive midfield) for six years.  The Invincible team had Campbell, Toure, Gilberto and Vieira in these crucial roles.  Plenty of experience, strength and defensive instinct there.

Can Wenger not see that this was a bedrock of his former success?  Seems like no. I think the Arsenal fans now calling for his head have a point.  Not because of today’s result purely, but because this has gone on for far too long.

One ray of light, Szczezny was superb, even in an 8-2 reverse!

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Arms Race in Manchester

Two super powers both stock piling awesome and terrifying arsenals of attacking weaponry?  Yes, we are beginning to see the effects of the arms race in the capital of England’s rainy weather. 

Both sides look utterly terrifying going forward.  Probably an easier prospect for United today against an absolutely appalling Arsenal defense and playing at home, but Young, Rooney, Cleverley, Nani, Welbeck and then Hernandez were a nightmare prospect for an Arsenal defense that was at sixes and sevens and got little to no support from a criminally negligent Arsenal midfield.  Obviously not Arsenal’s first choice defense, but let’s not forget, it wasn’t United’s either (no Ferdinand, Vidic or Rafael. 

Magic free kicks from Rooney, exquisite curling efforts from Young, Anderson pulling the strings… just absolutely wonderful to watch. 

For City, away from home, they simply blew Spurs away, in a large part due to the power of Dzeko. Nasri leaving Arsenal behind without too many problems looked in his element playing with Aguero and Silva.  Both sides have some phenomenal attacking talent and I can’t wait until the first derby in October.  It will be a mouth watering prospect if both sides continue playing with this type of offensive spirit.

Hard to pick between them going forward. But what about defensively? City are looking solid at the back as well, but when United have their first choice back line in place, that could be the differentiating factor.  I still think United are slightly stronger here, although they would be more confident if De Gea looked slightly more solid behind the back four. 

 

 

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