1-0 and England Spursed it Up

England lost to Iceland 2-1 in Nice after taking an early lead thanks to a Wayne Rooney penalty. But almost as soon as the net stopped rippling on the shot, Iceland gathered themselves up, remembered what had gotten them this far and took England apart with a comprehensively superior tactical display.

There was a hint of luck to Iceland’s second goal when Joe Hart reacted slow to a ball struck from deep in the box but it would be harsh to say that Iceland were lucky. They had a game plan to frustrate England and hit them on the counter and they executed it to perfection.

There is a fallacy that playing defense first is easy. It requires perfect organization and execution. All the players on the team must know where to be at all times and they have to stop crosses and through balls or their entire plan can be easily undone.

England played right into the Icelanders hands by starting Wayne Rooney and Eric Dier in midfield along with Sturridge and Sterling on the wings. Rooney was ostensibly the #10 in this set up but he failed to create even a single shot for his teammates. Technically, he was credited with a key pass, but it was a square ball back to Jack Wilshere in the 67th minute when Wilshere took a shot out of frustration.

Instead of incisive through balls, Rooney made mostly sideways passes to the wingers or wingbacks who then would look to cross or try to break Iceland down with a dribble. Sterling was particularly useless in this regard as he dawdled on the ball with nearly every possession. On the other side of the pitch Sturridge whipped in crosses but Iceland was keen to that tactic and blocked 15 crosses, with 9 blocked crosses on the Sturridge/Walker side of the pitch.

Lacking any midfield creativity for the first 45 minutes, Roy Hodgson tried to inject some by taking Dier off for Jack Wilshere at half time. Wilshere’s first pass was straight over the top and nearly created a shot for Dele Alli. With Wilshere on the pitch England went from a team with 2 through balls in the first half to a team that attempted 6 in the second. Wilshere had 3 of England’s six through balls.

Wilshere also had to make a game saving defensive play. With England parking the coach in the Iceland half Gudmundsson looped a perfect ball onto the feet of Gunnarsson who had made a lung-bursting run from midfield. The Arsenal man kept pace with Gunnarsson and forced him to turn away from goal on his shot, making the save easier for Hart.

But even Wilshere couldn’t break the funk that had settled on England. Time and again, English players simply turned the ball over or fell over in possession and made things awfully easy for the Vikings.

If England’s attack was bad, their defense was worse. They allowed Iceland right back into the game a minute after scoring a penalty. Iceland won a throw in and hooked the ball into the English box. After a scramble Sigurdsson poked home past a helpless Hart. And for the second, Hart was entirely to blame. Sigthorsson dribbled on the edge of the box and get an inch past Cahill but scuffed his side-footed shot and the ball looked an easy claim. Hart must not have been alert as he got down too late and only had time to cringe as the ball went under his arms.

There would be 73 more minutes of football, however, and while England created a few chances they only managed 3 shots on target in that entire time. All three shots on frame were taken by Harry Kane – one off a set play, one a volley that was the best chance of the game, and the last was a header that was saved.

Hodgson resigned immediately after the match thanking the players and adding “I hope you will see England in a final of a major tournament soon.” That seems unlikely with England lacking a creative presence in midfield. Though, they do have two years to try to find one. And if they want to win something, they might consider taking fewer Spurs players next time. Because as fans of the Premier League know, Tottenham are perennial chokers.



Football in the USA is an Absolute Fake

The Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.

Think about Disneyland, Vegas, Major League Soccer, Qatar hosting the World Cup, or the USA hosting the World Cup in 1994. What do all these things have in common? They are Absolute Fakes.

Disneyland is a place where fantasy literally comes to life as kids get to meet the cartoon characters they watch on TV every morning. Vegas is a similar, though more adult in nature, simulacrum of fantasy — a place where we are promised “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” a place to escape the confines of social norms and do things you would never do, even though you are actually doing them.

And like Vegas, Qatar springs from the middle of nowhere, a pile of sand, to host a World Cup. A nation with fewer citizens than the town I live in, they have no real team, they have no football infrastructure and they have no actual infrastructure to host millions of football fans. But they are set to give us all the greatest simulation of a World Cup the world has ever seen.

But before Qatar bought and paid for the World Cup, the USA put on our own version of the Absolute Fake. The USA were the trail blazers and in many ways we have always been the pinnacle of the Absolute Fakes.

The quote at the start of this piece is from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Eco travelled to America to observe first hand American culture and try to understand how this behemoth of selfishness, greed, and crassness is so effective at exporting its culture. How is it possible that something so obviously contrived, like Disneyland, can be so appealing that they have locations in France,  Japan, and China? Eco finds his answer in the phrase “hyperreality”.

What sets the United States apart from the rest of the world is that we often seek to directly replicate reality with a duplicate. And the closer that duplicate can be to the real thing, without actually being the real thing, the better.

One of the many examples Eco cites is LBJ’s library. In Austin Texas Johnson created a library that not only contains millions of pages of documents from his tenure as President but also acts as a museum, a Wunderkammer as Eco calls it, for all the relics of his Presidency. And there in the middle of this orgy of wax figures and videos is a full scale replica of the Oval Office.

It is an Oval Office that will never change. It is an Oval Office that will never be besmirched with the stain of a sex scandal. It is and always will be an Oval Office that is far more polished and far more perfect than the actual Oval Office. This is hyperreality. This is the Absolute Fake.

But Eco sees the Absolute Fake as more dangerous than simply being an exact, hyper, copy of something else in reality.

The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a “sign” that will then be forgotten as such: The sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement. Not the image of the thing, but its plaster cast. Its double, in other words.

The sign seeks to be better than the reference and one could argue that LBJ’s Oval Office has achieved that goal. The real Oval Office is where real things happen; where decisions about life and death are made, where people make errors of judgement, and it is where Donald Trump may sit one day.

In 1988, the USA won the rights to host the 1994 World Cup and it was a shock to the world. The Brazilian delegate, Guimaraes Octavio Pinto, was quoted saying that ”taking the World Cup to the United States is like taking the World Series to Brazil.”

The New York Times put the USA’s bid in perspective, one we have heard repeated ad nauseum in the nearly 30 years since:

Soccer’s lack of popularity in the United States was regarded as the one weakness in the American federation’s bid. Billed more than 20 years ago (1968) as ”the game of the future” in America, soccer has struggled to fulfill its promise on a professional or world-class level. Leagues have come and gone, and the game has prospered only at grass-roots and school levels. Americans, interested in so many other sports, have never been as attracted to soccer.

But the reason FIFA gave it to the USA was simple:

”The United States is the only unconquered continent in the soccer set,” said Peter Pullen, a member of the Brazilian bid delegation, expressing a common opinion within the FIFA family of 158 nations. ”There is a great potential for economic power, and a lot of people can make a lot of money if the games take off.”

USA went on to host the World Cup and it was the highest attended World Cup of all time.

Two years later, the USA formed a professional football league.

“Fake it ’till you make it.”

Major League Soccer was formed 20 years ago. And the new football reality in the USA seeks to supplant the reality of the thing it signifies.

I took my daughter to see the Sounders play NYCFC yesterday. I took her to see the Disneyland of football.

In our stadiums, the tannoys, and yes I used that word ironically, blare out with a British accent to remind you that this is a non-smoking stadium. In the stands our fans roll out the tifo which a tradition borrowed from Italy and has no precedent in the USA until the last few years.

Fans sings songs, like British football fans. They yell “puto” when the goalkeeper takes a free kick, like Latin American football fans. Our fans call themselves “Ultras” and they appropriate the look and attitude of “hooligans”, replete with death skull symbols, lightning bolts, and all of the imagery of the far right groups in Europe.

Even stranger is that among some fans the old, pointless, hooligan culture has crept in and there have been skirmishes between NYCFC and NY Red Bulls fans, which I assume must be a battle over which of them has the biggest claim to have the least history as a club.

This type of fan fighting is unheard of in other American sports where fans often sit next to one another in the stadiums, comfortably cheering for the opposition and proudly wearing their favorite team’s colors.

And what are these fans fighting for? On the pitch is a product that is an Absolute Fake. How else to describe a sport where retirees and wash-outs from other, better, leagues come to pick up their last few paychecks? Major League Soccer counts as its stars Kaka, Lampard, Gerrard, Dempsey, Pirlo, Robbie Keane, David Villa, and Drogba. But those are the obvious targets to pick on, the real problem is the next tier of players feature wash-outs from Europe: Nelson Valdez, who last played for Borussia Dortmund in 2010; Tim Howard, who was cut by Everton; Clint Dempsey, who was never as good as his ego; Altidore; Giovinco; Ridgewell; Higuain; Morales; and so on.

I watched Pirlo, Lampard, and David Villa play yesterday. They play for NYCFC. In a league of fakes, they are the fakest. They were formed just a few years ago using billions of oil dollars. They have no history, so they bought some history and brought in three of the greatest players of all time to play for them.  Their coach is Patrick Vieira and he was also one of the greatest of all time.

I told my daughter “see the guy with the long hair, that’s Pirlo, he was one of the best players ever.” And Pirlo did his thing, spraying long passes all over the pitch just like he did for Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006. But when he does it now it feels hollow, like he’s just a copy of himself making those passes. An automaton.

The best player on either team was in green. Osvaldo Alonso dominated the midfield. His incisive passing combined with his spacial awareness means that he is king of his area. He’s a real football player, in his prime, playing football for the Sounders. He is the kind of player all MLS team should be going for. Instead, they build around the absolute fakes.

Playing retired players on plastic pitches in NFL stadiums is the present without depth which gives rise to the absolute fake that is soccer in America.

As I watched USA flame out against Argentina in the Copa America I couldn’t help but think that this was a direct product of the missteps of Major League Soccer over the last 20 years. Our football has no depth and it gets exposed time and again.

People complain about the players. “The players need to be held accountable” said Colin Cowherd, demanding that US Soccer fans ask for more from their players. This follows the main strain of commentary from the pundits after USA was blown out by Argentina: that the USMNT needed to kick more, fight more, “get up the noses” of the Argentinian players. It was also a line repeated by the USMNT manager, Jurgen Klinsmann.

I disagree with all of them. Sure, ask that Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley show more spirit. Ok. Fine. But while you’re holding those players accountable soccer fans in the USA need to hold the clubs and the US Soccer Federation accountable. We have had 20 years to develop talent in this country. We have had 20 years to learn to play the game. And what we have done, instead of investing money in the grass roots, is bought players like David Beckham, a guy who spent much of his MLS career playing football in Italy so that he could earn the right to play for England.

With MLS and the USMNT set up the way they are and as long as fans, like me, keep attending matches that are the footballing equivalent of LBJ’s Oval Office football in the USA will remain an Absolute Fake.



Dear Arsene: Forget Vardy, Sign Mahrez

As Leicester were marching their way to the Premier League title last season there was one player who stood out among the rest as the best player on the team. The one player that Leicester simply couldn’t lose and still function. This was a player with speed, who could score crucial goals, who could dribble, and who could pick out an incisive 20 yard throughball for his teammates. Not Jamie Vardy, Leicester won matches when he lost his mind and got suspended at that crucial moment down the stretch, I’m talking about Riyad Mahrez.

There are only a few players in the world who would improve on Arsenal’s current crop of talent. One major place where Wenger struggled to find quality last season was on the right. Wenger played Walcott, Ox, Campbell, and even Aaron Ramsey on the right and struggled to get goals and assists from that position, with all four players totaling just 6 goals and 2 assists when they started* 35 matches. Even adding in Alexis, Arsenal totaled 12 goals and 6 assists from the right. That’s 4 players combined, starting 45 games getting 12 goals and 3 assists. When Mahrez started on the right for Leicester, 32 times, he got 15 goals and 9 assists.

Mahrez is in inverted winger, much like Alexis Sanchez. He starts on the right but he’s actually very left footed taking 75/86 shots last season with his left foot. If Arsenal were to sign him, Wenger could play him on the left or on the right and also switch things up with Alexis starting both players inverted and reverting them to their more natural side in mid-match.

Mahrez is a great crosser and can do so from either side of the field. He had 20 key passes from open play free crosses last season and 19 the season prior. This isn’t a Stewart Downing number or anything, he’s not just lumping in crosses to a big oaf (though… Giroud does take almost half his shots with his head and scored more headed goals than Heady McHeaderson the forward for Headsville FC) but it’s a good indication that he’s comfortable playing wide and isn’t just a player who needs to cut inside to be effective.

Mahrez, like Vardy, seems like a bit of a gamble. Both players have only had one season of top performances in professional football. But with Mahrez there are signs that despite formation and style of football he has inherent qualities which mark him out as a top player.

The first thing I look for is dribbling. Both two years ago and last season Mahrez made over 2.5 successful dribbles per game. He improved that skill, jumping from 2.6 successful dribbles to 3.5 per game. He wasn’t dribbling better, he has been around a 53-55% dribbler both seasons, he was just attempting more.

The second thing I look for from a wide man, or really any playmaker, is their ability to pick a throughball key pass. Last season Cesc Fabregas was #1 in that category (it’s his special talent, actually) with 13, Özil was 2nd with 12, and Mahrez was 3rd with 11. Alexis Sanchez was 4th with 9 for those wondering. This throughballery wasn’t a one-off for Mahrez. The previous season, when he struggled to produce assists in Nigel Pearson’s stultifying system, he was 4th in the Premier League with 9 throughball key passes. David Silva was 1st with 13 and Sanchez and Fabregas were tied for 2nd with 11.

Mahrez does have a bit of a weakness in that he’s not a great defensive player. He gets his team about 1.4 tackles per game (1.9 dribbled) and just 1 interception per game. These numbers, however, are comparable to Alexis who averaged just 1.6 tackles last season (a drop from the season prior) and 0.8 interceptions.

I know that’s player rater metric isn’t everyone’s cuppa but it is pretty good at picking the best players in the League: two years ago it was Hazard (League winner), the season before is was Suarez (should have won the League), before that it was Bale, and before that it was van Persie. This season, their highest ranked player was Riyad Mahrez.

Mahrez has speed, he has vision, he’s a fantastic dribbler, and he added goal-scoring to his bag of tricks last season. With Arsenal almost certainly missing out on Mkhitaryan, changing tack to go for Riyad Mahrez is a no-brainer.

Throw the checkbook at him, Wenger.


*Two things here: 1. Arsenals’ “system” isn’t rigid. Players start on the right and might move left or centrally. I used’s tally of starting on the right as the basis for these numbers because, frankly, who has time to go back through every match and see where the assists came from? 2. adds both the Premier League and Champions League numbers in here which is why some of you are probably going “hang on, where did Ramsey score three goals from the right???”