Category Archives: World Football

Old Hipsters 4-3 New Hipsters: Liverpool win battle of the bands

I was at my local a few weeks ago when I overheard a man with an English accent right next to me. I politely waited for a break in his conversation before rudely asking “I couldn’t help but notice your accent, where are you from?”

“Wales,” he said.

“Oh, so you’re a Liverpool supporter, then?” I replied announcing clearly that I am an Anglophile.

He is a Liverpool supporter and we talked about him coming to America and what he likes about living here compared to England. “Pretty much everything” was his response; great job, beautiful wife, and he even loves my city. That last bit I can’t figure out if it’s an endorsement of Tacoma or if it’s an indictment of Wales.

Then I asked the question I was dying to ask: “any chance Liverpool will beat Borussia Dortmund?” Before he could answer, the guy next to him – who is a local football hipster and known loud mouth – answered as loud as he could, “Borussia is going to destroy Liverpool!” Typical loud American, right?

It took me a minute to tell the football hipster that I didn’t want to hear his answer, I wanted the Liverpool fan’s answer. And eventually he gave it, “It’s going to be a tough match but if there is any manager in the world who knows Borussia’s weaknesses it’s Klopp, I think they’ll edge it.”

Later that night I created a poll for my twitter followers, I asked who they thought would win the match, 90% said Borussia Dortmund.

Dortmund are the team that have what many fans of the former big clubs crave:  they have a hip young manager in Thomas Tuchel, they have a star playmaker in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, they have the Rolls Royce of second strikers in Marco Reus, and they have a forward who is so hot right now he just goes by “Auba” among the interneteratti.

Just three years ago, this same Borussia Dortmund were also all the rage. The difference is that then they were managed by the rock star coach Jurgen Klopp and reached the Champions League final with defensive midfielder Ilkay Gündoğan, attacking midfielder Mario Götze, forward Marco Reus, and center forward Robert Lewandowski. They lost the final, despite playing their self described “heavy metal football”, to Bayern Munich who then in subsequent seasons poached away Götze and Lewandowski.

After losing two of their best players, Borussia struggled to regain their old form, teams started getting hip to their style, and eventually Klopp left Borussia for Liverpool: the club that was the it club 36 years ago and has been trying to put together a reunion tour ever since.

And in the first 9 minutes the hipster club showed why they are more popular than ironic trucker caps. Pressing Liverpool all over the pitch, Dortmund forced turnovers in midfield and then cut Liverpool’s defense to shreds with incisive passes. To be fair to Liverpool, most of their problems lay with their center back, Sakho, who struggled to stay in good defensive positions and looked ungainly when he had the ball.

For the first goal, Liverpool’s Coutinho turned the ball over and Borussia caught the entire Liverpool side napping. With no one defending in midfield Kagawa (himself a former hipster prodigy who left Borussia for Man U, only to return) drove forward, passed to Castro, and Castro spotted Aubameyang wide open. Castro played a little chip to Auba on the left, Sakho played both Auba and Mkhitaryan onside, and Auba fired a volley at Mignolet. The Liverpool keeper parried the shot but Mkhitaryan was first to the rebound on the right as Sakho spun in circles like that cartoon Tasmanian Devil.

The Dortmund second came just a few minutes later. Liverpool’s Firmino was dispossessed but Liverpool had better balance and Marco Reus had to dribble into three Liverpool defenders before releasing the ball. But Reus is such a rock star, the original Dortmund rock star, that he was able to spot Sakho again playing Aubameyang onside. This time with acres of space, Reus slipped an inch perfect pass on the inside of Sakho, Auba ran around him, collected the ball, and finished high into the roof of the net.

The score was 2-0 to Dortmund and since the match was being played in Liverpool, with the away goal rule in effect, Liverpool would have to score four three if they were going to go through to the next round. It seemed an impossible task.

After Dortmund scored the second goal a friend messaged me “do you think Arsenal should just buy all of Borussia Dortmund?” to which I replied “Only if we get their fans too.”

There were signs of Dortmund weakness, however.

Time and again, the Borussia right back, Piszczek, kept drifting inside and leaving space on the far post. Meanwhile, no one on Dortmund was picking up Coutinho and whenever Piszczek did pick up a player, Coutinho seemed to have a free role slightly deeper. Liverpool noticed this problem and tried to pick out players on the left side of their attack but the crossing was poor and often too long or too far inside. With Liverpool unable to get the ball in to dangerous places in the Dortmund defense, the teams went in to half time with Dortmund comfortably in charge.

In the second half, Klopp turned Liverpool’s amps up to 11. The normally sedate Anfield crowd were politely quiet when Klopp stood on the sideline, and like Pete Townsend, did a single windmill guitar chord and electrified the crowd.

Klopp must have pointed out the problem because in the 48th minute, Emre Can found Origi between Piszczek and Sokratis and Divock Origi, who is often maligned by English fans, slotted home with a decent little finish.

Dortmund struck back. Reus was played clean through and, one-v-one with Mignolet, slotted into the far corner easily.

The score was 3-1 to Borussia and seemingly out of reach but the aggregate was 4-2 and ever since Dortmund had gone up 2-0 in the match, Liverpool needed 3 more to advance. So, in a weird way it was a meaningless goal from Dortmund.

It should have put the match out of reach. They could have shut up shop. They should have shut up shop. But they didn’t or maybe they couldn’t.

Since Klopp arrived at Liverpool he has been working on their build-up play in midfield. Liverpool’s second goal on the night showed how his team have been working on intricate passing and movement in midfield to pull the opposition out of position. And sure enough, Milner, who was derided as too old for clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool before the season started, created a small pocket of space for Coutinho who dribbled right and fired in a long range shot that curled out of the keeper’s reach.

Borussia were tight now. This was their game to lose. But they still had to concede two goals. Which is (SPOILER ALERT) what they did.

The third Liverpool goal was from a corner. Completely shambolic defending by Borussia’s right side. Still, the corner was so poor the the ball bounced inches from Mkhitaryan, who didn’t even pretend to defend, and straight to Sakho, who bundled the ball home.

And the fourth was coming. Borussia Dortmund are a beautiful football club but they look lost on defense (the same could be said of Liverpool). All they needed to do was play the basics for the last few minutes, and they would have survived Klopp and the Kop’s aural blast.

As soon as Milner collected the ball, I looked at Borussia’s right side. The Liverpool players were queued up like planes landing at Heathrow and the Dortmund players seemed to be cowering. Milner stood the ball up and Lovren nodded home the easiest and probably most meaningful goal of his career.

I’ve called them hipsters throughout this piece but that style – which values being first to like something, surface over meaning, and the ironic over the iconic – doesn’t apply to either team. The reality is that these are two of the biggest teams in Europe who played one of the most electrifying matches in UEFA Cup history last night. And it was as much fun to watch as that one time when I saw Dave Grohl’s band Dain Bramage play at my High School.

Ahem..

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Atleti v. Barcelona provides nice contrast between Arsenal v. Barcelona

Yesterday’s Champions League featured a nuevo-classico between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. As expected Barcelona dominated possession with an astonishing 77-23%. In passing terms, Barcelona completed 594-122 passes. But we should ask what Barcelona created with all that possession? 13 shots, while Atleti created 9. And if we look at shot quality Atleti got 6 on target, to Barcelona’s 4 and Barcelona only got two shots on target inside the 18 yard box compared to Atletico’s 4. It wasn’t just possession and shot quality or finishing and organization but from top to bottom this was two radically different teams pitted against one another for a chance to move on in the Champions League. And on the night, it was the most efficient team, and not the most expensive, nor the most vaunted, team that won.

Atleti scored both goals in a fashion that should be familiar to any Arsenal fan who grew up watching Arsenal in the Cesc era: the opposition capitalized on a mistake for the first, then doggedly defended, and hit them on the counter for the second.

For the first, Barcelona failed to clear properly, Gabi collected, and passed a poor ball to Saúl. Saúl took the pass and on the half-volley, with the outside of his left boot, played an outswinging cross to Griezmann. Griezmann was completely unmarked, the defense had fallen asleep, and headed in an unsaveable goal.

It was a goal that was a long time coming. Atletico’s game plan in that first half was to set to and harass the Barcelona players. B

arcelona, for their part, were flustered and managed just three shots total and one shot on target in the entire first half.  Atletico did this by limiting Barcelona’s penetration. And so despite the 72% possession advantage, both teams went in to half time with 60-67 passes in the opposition final third and thus explains the problems Barcelona had creating shots.

The second half started much better for Barcelona as Atletico conceded the midfield and set up the wall for Barcelona to try to pummel. But this was also part of Simeone’s game plan: knowing that he had Griezmann in the team, and the crucial away goal at the Nou Camp from the first leg, the Atletico manager sent his team out with one command “hold what we have”.

It wasn’t easy. At one point Gabi was forced to clear a shot off the line that literally could have gone anywhere and Barcelona were unusually profligate with crosses, seeing the ball dribble harmlessly in front of goal, rather than Messi or Suarez latching on for a tap in.

But the second goal was coming for Atletico and they had struck a few warnings earlier that called on Mascherano to nip in on the lively Griezmann. But eventually, Atleti hit Barcelona on a rapier like counter in which Iniesta was left guarding two Atletico attackers. When the ball was crossed to Griezmann, who would have been through on goal, Iniesta stopped the play with a handball. It was a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity and by the letter of the law Iniesta should have been sent off. Any foul that would result in a free kick or penalty kick that denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity is a red card. But the referee showed just yellow as he pointed to the spot.

Griezmann stepped up and by my account looked nervous. He seemed to mis-hit the penalty and it took an age to dribble past Ter Stegen who had guessed the correct way but still couldn’t get to the shot. Two-nil and there was no way back for Barcelona.

Well, there would have been a way back. One minute after Griezmann’s penalty, Gabi handled the ball inside the Atletico box and the referee instead awarded the spot kick outside the box. Barcelona players swarmed the referee and in their yellow strips looked like a flight of angry bees but the referee wouldn’t be swayed. Barcelona will no doubt point to that decision as the one which cost them the match but Atletico could point to the Iniesta handball and to the red card shown to Torres in the first leg as evidence that they too suffered from poor referee decisions.

As the match wore down, Diego Simeone cut a fiery figure on the sideline as he visibly encouraged the home fans to support their team. While Simeone was whipping the crowd and his players into a hot lather, Luis Enrique’s quiescent Sad Keanu on the other bench was a stark contrast. Two vastly different managers, two vastly different teams, two vastly different playing styles.

This is where I would normally end this article but I was curious how Arsenal and Atletico stacked up against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League.  The contrast is interesting and we can see what Arsenal did well and what Atletico did well against the reigning Champions League champions.

atleti-barca-Arsenal-barca

First, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played most of the first leg down a player owing to Torres’ red card. Second, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played defensively for roughly 135 minutes over the two legs. So, I expect to see more shots against Atletico, more passes for Barcelona, and more tackles and fouls by Atletico. All of those are true.

What’s interesting, though, is that while Arsenal were clearly the better attacking team between Atletico and Arsenal, it was Simeone’s side who were better at controlling the Big Chances. As we all remember from watching Arsenal v. Barcelona and the reverse fixture, Arsenal made some huge errors on both legs leading to a lot of great shots for the Catalan team. This is how Barcelona created 12 big chances against Arsenal over the series but only three against Atletico. Many pundits will say that Arsenal’s attacking philosophy is exactly what gets them into this situation with teams like Barcelona and it’s hard to disagree.

Meanwhile, it’s also a problem that Arsenal created almost as many chances as Barcelona but did not have nearly enough quality to score more than the one goal. It’s encouraging that Arsenal have spent the entire season creating great chances but also frustrating that Arsenal don’t have the quality to finish them. Perhaps if they did, the season would have turned out different.

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Leicester serve up a season worth savoring

Leicester City are going to win the League and are going to break the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea. It’s going to be a dream come true to see Cesc Fabregas giving Claudio Ranieri a guard of honor. Especially since Ranieri was fired by Chelsea in order to bring in the Mourinho era.

Since I have been writing this blog only three teams have won the League. Those three teams have spent the most money on transfers and wages and essentially built the model of spend, spend, spend.

Before the arrival of Chelsea and Man City, Arsenal were the team that broke the mould. We were the team that didn’t spend, that sold our players for enormous prices to Spain*, that bought cheap and sold high, and who had a large salary but certainly nothing like what Ferguson had at Man U. That’s not to say that Arsenal weren’t a big team, we were the famous Arsenal, but rather that in those days a team could challenge for the League without spending obscene amounts of money.

And I mean obscene. For example, in the 2003/04 Invincibles season, Arsenal had the third highest wage at £70m and the second highest transfer spend with £16m.  In the previous title winning season 2001/02 Arsenal had the second highest wage bill at £61m and the 8th highest transfer spend with £11m. There were plenty of teams spending money in those years — Man U, Chelsea, Leeds, and Liverpool were up there with Arsenal in total spend — but no one was doing what Chelsea would do starting in the Abramovich era; spend 10x the transfer money of any other team and double the wages.

Manchester United quickly followed suit and 5 years later Manchester City added their oily money to the pot and for the last 11 seasons the three biggest spending teams have won the League.

Until this season.

Leicester have a team that are well organized, they play as a team, their players are ambitious, and they play to their strengths. Leicester have also largely escaped injury, they are finishing at above normal rates, and they have gotten the benefit (early in the season) of referees calls, especially penalties, but none of those facts are abnormal for a title winning team.

Leicester have followed a simple formula for success. They don’t over complicate their system and they don’t ask players to play in ways that they can’t. For example, Robert Huth is not a ball playing center back so Leicester don’t try to build from the center back position. Their center backs are also not fast, so they don’t try to play high up the pitch where they would be exposed. They also have some of the fastest players in the League in Vardy and Mahrez so they play compact, simple football which plays exactly into the strengths of their star players, Mahrez, Vardy, Kante, Drinkwater, and Huth. This is basic stuff, I know, but there are a lot of teams who try to complicate football unnecessarily.

As for injury, there are some that want to sully Leicester’s injury record with insinuations that they are doping. We don’t have evidence of that but we do know that they have a dedicated team of physios who test pitch conditions and set up practices to maximize success. They also didn’t have to play in Europe which made their season simpler and in this all important post-Christmas period they have only played 16 matches whereas Arsenal have played 20. It’s also not that unheard of for a team to field a small team: Chelsea, for example, only used 20 players last season, just 1 more than Leicester this season. United used 23 players two years ago, Man City 21 players three years ago, United 21 in 2008, and so on.

As for their finishing, I have been looking at scoring percentages for years and I have detailed data back to 2008. I can confidently say that the top teams always finish at above normal rate. Leicester are actually not converting at a historically high rate. Their bulk conversion (minus pens) is just 11%, tied with Arsenal, West Ham, and Everton. Last season’s winners were highly efficient: scoring 13% of their total shots. And for two seasons prior to that we actually saw the winning teams convert 14% of their total shots.

The other accusation I see a lot is that Leicester have been awarded too many penalties. But 10 penalties in a season isn’t at all unusual for a title winning team — Liverpool had 12 in their title challenge season, Chelsea had 11 in 2012/13, Chelsea 12 in 2009/10, etc.

Most fans are suggesting that Leicester got lucky this season and some fans are even saying that this is the worst Premier League season ever. Both of those things ring true. Next season Chelsea will have Conte in charge, Man City will have Pep Guardiola, and Man U will probably have Mourinho. All of those teams are going to spend money to bring in new players that fit the systems that their managers want them to play. All of those teams are going to be supremely organized. And Chelsea will also not have the burden of Champions League football.

In addition, there are several up and coming teams: Liverpool are looking like a team with an interesting new identity, Tottenham play a good brand of football, and even West Ham are starting to look like a team that could challenge for 4th place.

And starting next season teams are going to reap an additional £35-40m a season in television revenue.

The League is changing. Teams are getting wealthier and will be able to attract more players like Mahrez and Kante. We are going to see all the games get more difficult from top to bottom. But the question is “will we ever see another team like Leicester win the League?” Do the fundamental changes to the Premier League mean that every team has a chance to win the League if they do what Leicester has done and play to their strengths?

I doubt it. This looks like a one-off, like Leicester were just in the right place at the right time. And if that’s the case, we as fans of football should savor this moment. Because if I’m right, the Premier League is about to revert back to the triopoly of Man U, Man City, and Chelsea winning the title every season.

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*Wenger’s magic in the Spanish market is amazing: the sales of Overmars, Petit, Hleb, Song, and Vermaelen more than make up for the cheap prices we got for Cesc and Henry.