Category Archives: World Football

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Bale is a little fish in a big pond: thoughts on the Champions League final

Good morning everyone, quick post today, nothing well written or interesting. So, you know, like the old days.

I’m excited for the Champions League finals for the first time in a while and it’s because of Juventus. For me Juve embodies the perfect combination of attacking and defensive football. They kinda park the bus, but they do it with style.

Someone will read that I just said that Juve park the bus and get all angsty but what I mean is that they are a well organized defensive team. I like that. I think it’s a thing of beauty to watch a well organized defensive team. Not just in the way that they move as a unit but with Juventus there is also a certain attitude which hearkens back to the old days.

I’m not calling Juventus’ defense the C¹ word. They are just a good team who play a well organized brand of defense.

They are also an exciting attacking team and Pogba, Pirlo, and Vidal are three of my favorite midfielders in the world right now. Pirlo plays passes that make me wish I’d started paying football when I was a kid. Pogba is probably the best in the world right now at turning defense into attack. A lot of players get labeled as “the new Patrick Vieira” but he’s the real deal. And Vidal is very similar to Pogba. Those three compliment each other very well.

It’s a misnomer that watching a team like Juventus put on a defense-first performance isn’t fun, exciting, or entertaining. Once you realize what they are doing, the excitement is in every moment of build-up play, every tackle, every block. It’s like NASCAR, the excitement is in the idea that there might be a crash.

And when the defense-first team does break away with the ball, everyone is on their toes. No one breathes for that 30 seconds as the attacking team is suddenly countered.

I should say, it’s exciting for the neutral. For the attacking team’s fans it’s a combination of frustration and heartbreak. For the defensive team’s fans it’s a combination of panic and bliss.

And so, this Champions League final, pitting Italy’s Juventus versus the Spanish Barcelona, with the Spanish side’s star attack of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, is going to be 90 minutes of fun. That’s what I hope anyway.

In my heart I suspect that Barcelona’s attack is going to be too strong and that Juve won’t have an answer.

I suspect that because let’s face it, Real Madrid probably should have scored at least another goal. But for Bale there went Real.

Bale had 7 chances in that game, more than any other player, and only got one on target — a long range, speculative effort. He also had two “big chances”, shots right in front of goal, which he failed to get on target. And where the Bale of last year finished those chances, the Bale of this year looked a bit like a headless chicken.

I haven’t watched him enough this season but his dip in stats, plus reading the reports and hearing the Real Madrid fans voice their utter disdain for him, makes me wonder if he isn’t quite at the level of a club like Real Madrid. You know, a little fish in a big pond. You put him at a small club like West Brom, West Ham, or Tottenham (all the hams), and he looks remarkably good. You put him next to Ronaldo and Benzema and he looks remarkably ordinary.

My guess is that when he moves back to a smaller club he’ll look like a world beater again.

That’s it for today. Les will have a column out tomorrow and I will make some comments about Walcott/Bale in the comments section at lunch.

See you then.

Qq

¹Catenaccio

Steven Gerrard

Steven Gerrard is the last of a dying breed

By Tim Todd, Global Arsenal Reporter

“(Mourinho) is the best manager in the world for me. I’d have signed for him if I wasn’t a Liverpool fan, if Liverpool weren’t in my heart. He is the reason why my head was turned on a couple of occasions but he understood why I couldn’t do it and it’s because I love Liverpool.”

Asked if he ever still wondered what might have been, Gerrard added: “I did at the time but I always said to myself, when I sat down with my dad and my brother, that if I win a couple of trophies at Liverpool it will mean an awful lot more to me than if I won 10 at Chelsea or Inter Milan or Real Madrid. It always means more when you win for your people.”

In the build up to the match between Liverpool and Chelsea last weekend, the main story was about how much respect Jose Mourinho had for Steven Gerrard. Mourinho apparently respected Gerrard so much that he tried to take him away from Liverpool on three occasions; for Chelsea, for AC Milan, and for Real Madrid. Each time, Gerrard refused, electing to stay with “his people” in Liverpool.

Gerrard willingly gave up trophies and money to play for Liverpool. In the age of the modern footballer where great clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool are seen as pit stops on the road to Barcelona or Real Madrid, it’s incredible to hear that a player turned down money and trophies and that he did so because he’s a fan of the club and because the club are his people.

What’s rare about Gerrard’s statement is this idea that he is a fan, a true and loyal fan, of the club he plays for. A lot of players say that they are fans of the club, and some of them even dress up in the club’s shirt when they are kids, but when the chips are down and there is a big money offer from a rival club and the manager is dangling a chance to win a trophy? They will leave.

Robin van Persie did that. When he was a boy, he was photographed wearing his Arsenal shirt. Arsenal were his boyhood club. He was supposedly a fan.

But in our modern condition, when things tend to be more superficial, when we can pull on a shirt and assume an identity, grow a silly mustache, wear an ironic tee-shirt, and take on a loyalty, what really ties us to these clubs?

In Gerrard’s case it was friends and family. It was growing up in Liverpool and taking his first training session as a 9 year old at the Liverpool Academy. Those kinds of ties bind, making it impossible for him to simply turn his back and leave.

I was talking to a friend, and Arsenal season ticket holder, in England a few years back. Arsenal were at a low point in the club’s recent history, struggling to finish fourth, and under threat from rivals Tottenham. It was a strained moment between fans and club: ticket prices were (and still are) a huge problem and people were giving up their season tickets. So, I asked him what it would take for him to give up his season ticket. His answer was swift and sure: “if my friends stopped going.” He’d been a fan through the bad seasons, he’d seen much worse than a few years of finishing fourth, and what maintained him through all that was his community.

That’s why Gerrard couldn’t leave Liverpool. It didn’t matter what riches Mourinho offered because Gerrard won the Champions League, in one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport, at Liverpool. And he shared that victory with “his people.”

I reckon that after this generation of footballers retire we many never see another Gerrard again — and I don’t mean just in England. The idea that family, friends, and loyalty means more than trophies and money is quickly dying all over the world. Look at Cesc Fabregas. He turned his back on his boyhood club, on friends and family in Catalan, to join Arsenal. After Arsenal turned him into a star he claimed that Arsenal were his new family, Wenger was his father, and he promised Arsenal fans, “If some day I leave Arsenal it will never be to sign for another English team. I’m very sure.” But after a stint back at Barcelona he ran into the open arms of both Arsenal and Barcelona’s arch rival, Jose Mourinho. Imagine if Steven Gerrard left Liverpool to play for Sir Alex Ferguson and Man U. That’s what Fabregas did.

To keep players of Gerrard’s ability at your club, you now need to pay them huge salaries, build the team around them, and promise them trophies. We may never see another player of Gerrard’s ability elect to stay with his boyhood club if it so much as drops out of the Champions League places or fails to meet his expectations.

It’s not just the players. The fans aren’t loyal to the players either. And neither are the clubs loyal to the fans or the players in some cases. It’s part of the globalization of the game. The world is more interconnected than ever before. People are able to move more freely. Money and ideas flow across borders faster than ever before. People are less interested in authenticity and more interested in style. The game is less and less about a group of friends from North London who have attended every home game since 1995 and more about the millions of voices across the world who watch the games in pubs or on their couches with their family.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse this way. I see many sides to that argument and all make valid points. But we all know that the game is no longer the same and guys like Gerrard, they are a dying breed.

Qq

Sterling

Raheem Sterling get out while you still can

By Tim Todd, standing on platform 8 yelling at players to “get out while they can”

Raheem Sterling has played in 50 games for Liverpool this season, that’s one less than Jordan Henderson. And in those matches he has scored 13 goals, more than any other player, including Gerrard and Henderson who mostly score from the penalty spot. He’s also Liverpool’s most adept dribbler, averaging 3.1 dribbles per game, and because he dribbles so much he’s also Liverpool’s most fouled player with 2.6 per game. And to cap it all off, Sterling creates more shots for his teammates and himself than anyone else on the team, leading Liverpool in Key Passes with 63 total and leading Liverpool in shots with 74.¹

And Sterling is just twenty years old.

Liverpool are not a tiny team. This isn’t a young man coming through the ranks at West Brom, this is a young man who has wrestled the starting spot away from big money signings like Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic. According to transfermarkt.com those two players cost Liverpool €56m. Liverpool also spent 20m Euros on Ballotelli. That 76 million Euros worth of attacking players have combined for 7 goals and 4 assists in League play. Sterling has 7 and 7.

Sterling is the best player at Liverpool.

And Sterling is just 20 years old. He’s going to get better.

So, it’s no surprise that Liverpool are eager to keep him and have offered to make him one of the highest paid players on the team. But it also should be no surprise that Sterling wants more. Not more money, he wants to play in Europe. And despite all of their spending this summer, it doesn’t look like Liverpool are going to get there.

If you’ve been following the Sterling contract saga story then you probably know three things: Sterling is greedy, he smokes, and he does whippits. I mentioned (on twitter) how fortunate it is for Liverpool that these three stories all came out at the same time because they seem to improve the club’s bargaining position.

It improves their bargaining position if they want Sterling to stay, which they do. They want to force Sterling to stay despite the fact that they can’t offer him Champions League football, which is what he has publicly stated that he wants. With his reputation tarnished that destabilizes his ability to get offers from other clubs. Arsenal, Man City, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are going to be reticent to plunk down £50m on a player who has a reputation for drug use. His own manager even said as much in his most recent press conference:

“You’re a professional sports person at the top of your game, I don’t think it’s something you should be doing. Simple as that. But I’ll speak to him on it. I owe him that.

We want players here who are super professional. Focused on football. And I know that he is. He is very much focused on his football and improving as a player. But like I said before, young players make mistakes. As long as they learn from them that’s important.”

Rodgers hasn’t even spoken to the player, but he’s already condemned the player, while also praising the player. It is almost as if Brendan had some talking points he needed to hit and jumbled them up: Sterling is a model professional but he made a mistake, though we actually don’t know if he made a mistake because I haven’t spoken with him, and I owe it to speak with him before I condemn him, but still I condemn this kind of behavior, I mean “in general”.

What surprised me was the response to my tweet. I tweeted out something to the effect of “hey this is fortunate for Liverpool that all this bad press comes out against Sterling” and I expected people to tell me that I was wrong. But the overwhelming response was “that is how Fenway Sports Group (FSG) do business.”

I knew that FSG played hard ball over their contracts. Arsenal bid £40m+1 for Louis Suarez a few years back, thinking that there was an iron-clad release clause in his contract. Liverpool fired back with “what are they smoking” at Arsenal and essentially told Arsenal and Suarez that if they wanted that release clause to stick, they were going to have to sue in court. Later, after the deal fell through, Henry bragged that Liverpool knew Suarez had a release clause and simply refused to sell:

(Suarez) had a buyout clause of £40m. Arsenal, one of our prime rivals, offered £40m plus £1. What we’ve found … is that contracts don’t seem to mean a lot in England – actually, in world football.

It doesn’t matter how long a player’s contract is, he can decide he’s leaving. We sold a player, Fernando Torres, for £50m, that we did not want to sell, we were forced to. Since apparently these contracts don’t seem to hold, we took the position that we’re just not selling.

John Henry is bragging here that they got one over on a rival team and forced a player to stay who really wanted to leave. Proof that Fenway Sports Group play hardball over contracts.

But what I didn’t know is that FSG has a reputation for throwing dirt on former players and in the worst case of character assassination I’ve seen, on former manager Terry Francona. The Francona story is particularly harrowing: Keith Olbermann summarized the treatment Francona received thus;

The newspaper essentially printed an ownership implication that Francona had a prescription drug problem, that he was distracted by worry over the safety of his son and son-in-law, serving overseas, and that he lost focus because of marital problems.

Drugs and a bad marriage are one thing, but Olbermann accuses John Henry and others of risking the lives of Francona’s children, who were serving in Afghanistan and who could be targeted if it was known that they were the kids of a millionaire baseball manager, just so they could have a scapegoat for the crumbling Red Sox.

Other tweeters pointed out that they did something similar to Manny Ramirez when he was itching to leave Boston. With Bill Simmons penning a lengthy piece on the way that Boston’s owners played hardball with Man Ram under the title “Manny is being manipulated”:

Boston’s hierarchy (Epstein and owners John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino) basically told Manny and Boras, “We aren’t giving you an extension after the best offensive stretch in Red Sox history that didn’t involve Ted Williams, and we’re also not deciding on our 2009 and 2010 options yet. Let’s see how you do this season.” In other words, welcome to no-man’s land! By not making a decision, the Red Sox did make a decision: They turned the situation over to Boras and expected his most impressionable client to handle himself with professionalism and class. Like that would happen.

Once Manny shifted into sulk mode, the Red Sox wasted no time painting him as a malcontent. After Manny berated the team’s 64-year-old traveling secretary and shoved the poor guy to the ground, the team did everything but hire actors to re-enact the incident on www.redsox.com.7 After Manny skipped a crucial game against the Yankees, claiming he had a sore knee, management made a point of getting MRIs on both knees and telling reporters he was fine. Did the team ever suspend him? Of course not. That would have made too much sense. Once the old school baseball writers started hissing that Manny didn’t respect The Game, for many Boston fans, that was the final straw.

Does any of this sound familiar? Raheem Sterling is in the midst of a contract negotiation, the terms of the contract are made public, and suddenly Sterling is all over the press being portrayed as a money-grubbing party boy.

Maybe Sterling is all those things I don’t know. I do know that he has publicly stated that what he really wants is Champions League football and that he would have signed for a lot less if the contracts had been renegotiated last season, when Liverpool nearly won the Premier League.

It’s not about the money at all,” the England forward said. It’s never been about money. I talk about winning trophies throughout my career. That’s all I talk about.” He added: “I don’t talk about how many cars I’m going to drive, how many houses I’ve got. I just purely want to be the best I can be.”

In the interview with the BBC, Sterling also said he would have accepted less than £100,000 a week had he been offered a new deal this time last year, when the Reds were chasing the Premier League title.

“If, at that point in time, I was offered a contract, I most definitely would have signed straight away, probably for far less money than being said now,” he said.

Others around the boy say that he is shy and unassuming. But this isn’t the story that Liverpool fans are being fed. They are told that he’s a mercenary and that besides which Coutinho is better, or whatever lower-level player Liverpool will bring in is going to be better. They don’t need Sterling.

I go back to what Brendan Rodgers said above, about how young players make mistakes but the important thing is that they need to learn from their mistakes. I agree with Rodgers and I think Sterling is on the verge of making a big mistake.

I’m not talking about smoking a shisha or doing whippits, that is tame stuff compared to what I’m used to seeing from American athletes. And I’m pretty sure that’s tame stuff in England as well. I’m also not talking about Sterling asking to be paid a huge contract, he is the best player on a team who look like they aren’t going to make it into the Champions League next season. The Premier League just saw a huge increase in television money and player salaries are about to explode. In that scenario, Sterling is probably asking for the right level of salary. I know that sounds crazy because you and I don’t make £150k a week to play football, but that’s where the football economy is headed in England.

No, I think the mistake would be for Sterling to sign with Liverpool. Given the track record of Fenway Sports Group and the way they treat their former employees, combined with the fact that Liverpool can’t seem to get the right players in to push the team into Champions League football, the mistake would be to sign for Liverpool. Instead Sterling should go to Man City, they are going to be rebuilding and need young English players at the core of their team. Or go to Arsenal, they’ve been in the Champions League for 15 consecutive years. And with the Gunners in second place in the League, look like a safe bet to make that 16.

There are a number of teams who treat their star players well and who play regularly in the Champions League. Sterling should pick any one of them, sign for less than what Liverpool are offering, and get out of Liverpool while he still can — before he is unceremoniously dumped at the end of his career like Steven Gerrard.

Qq

¹These stats all come from WhoScored.com and ESPN.com. Interesting side note about Sterling’s shots: he is actually tied with Coutinho with 74 shots each but Sterling took 49 of his 74 shots from inside the penalty box while Coutinho took 46 of his 74 shots from outside the penalty box. Shoooting from distance tends to wow the crowd and especially when you score from distance, but the most ruthless and efficient forwards take the majority of their shots inside the box where the percentages are much higher. In fact, the one thing Sterling needs to improve is his finishing. He’s getting into great areas to score, he’s just not putting the ball away yet. But like I say above, he’s 20. That will improve.