Tag Archives: Luis Suarez

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Arsenal v. Barcelona: what if?

You already know how Arsenal are going to play Barcelona: sit deep, hit them on the counter. It’s a plan Wenger has used against them for almost a decade and it’s almost worked each time, almost.

For example, 2006. What if Arsenal had held on to the 1-0 lead in Paris and won the Champions League in 2006? Despite being a man down, thanks to a foul by German keeper Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell put the Gunners ahead with a magnificent header off a Thierry Henry free kick. Arsenal then held that lead for 40 minutes, a man down, against one of the best teams in world football.

Even within that game there were so many what ifs? What if Lehmann had just conceded the goal instead of fouling Eto’o? What if Wenger hadn’t subbed off Pires and instead taken off Hleb? What if Thierry Henry converted from a chance right in front of goal after an Eboue cross? What if Freddie Ljungberg scored when he was clean through in the second half? What if Almunia didn’t allow Eto’o to score on his near post? And what if Almunia didn’t block Beletti’s shot into the roof of the goal? The entire course of Arsenal football club would have changed: Henry, Pires, Campbell, and Lehmann would have won the Champions League with Arsenal and that team would have been crowned the best defense in Champions League history.

Then in 2011, what if Nicklas Bendtner had scored when clean through on goal instead of dribbling into Javier Mascherano? The score was 1-1 after an own goal by Busquets and because Arsenal had won the first leg 2-1, thanks to this curling pearl of a goal by Andrey Arshavin, the Gunners actually led the aggregate 2-3.

Barcelona were playing with their now customary man advantage because the referee sent off Robin van Persie. It was perhaps the most annoying refereeing decision I have ever seen in my years of watching football: in the biggest match of the season, the referee issues a second yellow card to a player, for shooting after the whistle. The noise inside the Nou Camp is deafening. How, van Persie was supposed to hear the whistle is a mystery. And more to the point, van Persie was just doing what all players are told to do: play to the whistle.

But despite being down 2-1 (aggregate 4-4) Nicklas Bendtner was played clean through by Jack Wilshere and instead of taking a touch to his right, he dribbled right into the path of Javier Mascherano’s now famous tackle. If only he’d have taken the shot first time, or dribbled some other direction, he could have scored the winner.

What if Bendtner had scored? What if the referee hadn’t sent off Robin van Persie? What if Fabregas hadn’t back-heeled the ball to Iniesta? What if Szczesny hadn’t gotten injured and Almunia forced to play against Barcelona again?

And now we come to this season and Arsenal have to play Barcelona once again. This is a Barcelona team who have an even more deadly front three than the other times Arsenal have played them. Now they feature Messi (the best player in the world), Neymar (the best Brazilian player in the world), and Luis Suarez (the best player to ever bite someone in the world). And I’m left asking again, what if? What if Liverpool had honored the contract and sold Luis Suarez to Arsenal?

The Arsenal-Liverpool-Suarez story has created a lot of angst down the years. People say Arsenal should have bid more. People complain that the contract didn’t have a clause. Or that the clause wasn’t rock solid. Or that the PFA (who supported Liverpool in not honoring the clause) was doing the bidding of the club, not the player. People say that Liverpool owner John Henry was only bragging when he claimed that the clause was there but that they simply refused to honor it. But the fact in this case are plain, and as I have maintained all along, it was Suarez who got cold feet and refused to sue Liverpool to force the deal through. He didn’t really want to come to Arsenal.

You won’t believe me, so read Sid Lowe. There was a clause, Arsenal triggered the clause, Liverpool refused to honor the contract, and despite his publicly stating that he wanted to come to Arsenal, Luis Suarez was convinced by Steven Gerrard and Liverpool management that if he stayed at Liverpool he would eventually earn a move to his dream club, Barcelona.

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There is still that “what if” though. What if Liverpool had been an honorable football club and respected Suarez’ release clause? Many believe that Arsenal would have won the League and I find it hard to argue against them. Suarez could be with Arsenal right now, winning things and challenging for the Champions League.

But Arsenal didn’t win any of those battles. They lost in 2006. They lost again in 2010 and 2011. They lost the Fabregas battle. They lost the Suarez battle. And once again, it looks like Barcelona come to London the stronger team, and it looks like Arsenal are going to get pricked by the Barcelona trident.

But.. what if? What if just this once, Arenal get the balance right as Wenger said? Arsenal finally have a world class goalkeeper. They have a starting back four who are experienced playing against Barcelona and Luis Suarez. Arsenal’s back four are also well versed in sitting deep against clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich — Koscielny has played in the side that has beaten both of those teams a combined three times. Arsenal also have speedy attackers: Walcott, Welbeck, and Alexis. Attackers who can be served up with long passes from Arsenal’s world class playmaker, Mesut Özil (don’t discount Özil’s long passing, he’s probably the best in the world at picking out a striker on the fast break).

So, what if?

Qq

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Stats I got wrong: Suarez is now the best center forward in the world

Here’s a thing you don’t read very often in the press or on a blog: I was wrong.

For example, Jonathan Liew penned a piece the other day claiming that referee Lee Mason was “relegated” to 4th official because he failed to send off Coquelin in the match against Crystal Palace. It’s a strange article from an otherwise fantastic writer. Liew knows that being 4th official is not at all like being dropped. And even a casual glance at the Premier League’s Referee Appointments list shows the reader that Mason has been doing 4th official duties on a week on, week off basis this season. One week he’s 1st official, the next week he’s 4th official, this week he is due to be 4th official.

The article also makes a huge assumption that Coquelin should have been sent off, which I don’t know if I agree with, before making the guess that failure to send him off was the reason why Mason was “dropped.” I almost think that the article gives more evidence that Coquelin shouldn’t have been sent off. The logic of the article is that Mason was dropped, which proves Coquelin should have been sent off. But Mason wasn’t dropped, he was just on his normal rotation, therefore by the logic of the article, Mason was right to not send Coquelin off. Coquelin therefore should not have been sent off.

I pointed these facts out to Jonathan Liew via twitter, he didn’t respond. I doubt we will ever hear him say he was wrong about that article.

But I don’t mind being wrong. As Jake the Dog once said, “Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.”

This is especially true with stats. I’ve had to learn to be much more circumspect about stats than I was when I first started.

Perhaps my most embarrassing use of stats was when I declared that Luis Suarez wouldn’t fit in with the Arsenal system. My logic was sound, the data shows that Suarez had been, up to that point in his career, a ball hog. He not only demanded the ball constantly, but he was horribly profligate when he got the ball. And my argument was very specific in regard to that: he would drive Arsenal fans nuts with his wastefulness.

And you can see that Arsenal fans do get driven to the brink by wasteful players. Look at Alexis. Whenever he turns the ball over (usually trying to do something in attack) people groan. But Alexis is not a bad dribbler! He completed 115 of 196 dribbles last season, that’s 59% dribbling. That’s very good. Suarez, in contrast, was a 37% dribbler going 95/255 dribbles in the season I analyzed his stats. In pure number of turnovers, Alexis had 81 and Suarez had 160. Twice as many.

And shooting is another problem. Look at Giroud’s wastefulness. People pounce on Giroud whenever he misses as proof that Arsenal need another forward. Suarez, in his first three years (really 2.5 years) at Liverpool scored just 38 goals on 370 shots! It’s absurd. No top team lets a player get that many wasted chances.

And assists as well. Suarez only had 16 assists in his first three years at Liverpool. Alexis had 12 assists for Arsenal last season alone.

Combining the stats with the biting, the committing racisms, refusing to shake hands afterwards, the public circus around everything he did, it looked to me like Suarez was a guy who couldn’t put his ego aside for the betterment of the team.

But that’s exactly what Suarez has done at Barcelona. He’s still a 43% dribbler (best in his career) but if you combine all of his stats from La Liga and the Champions League, he only attempted 123 dribbles. In his last season at Anfield he attempted 237 in League play alone. He only took 113 shots for Barcelona, at Liverpool he took 181. And he has contributed roughly the same number of goals for Barcelona, in roughly the same number of minutes, as he did in his breakout season at Liverpool; 40 for Barcelona (combining Liga and Champions League goals and assists) and 43 for Liverpool (all Suarez/Liverpool stats are league play only).

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In his last two seasons, at Liverpool and then at Barcelona, Suarez has become much more efficient, contributed much more to the team and less to himself, and has in turn won a well deserved treble at Barcelona, including the Holy Grail, the Champions League.

The evidence points to the fact that Suarez takes his time to warm up to a new situation: at Ajax he wasn’t a scoring beast until his last full season, at Liverpool it was also his last full season, and even at Barcelona he took 7 games to get his first goal, a fact which had the Spanish press declaring him a failure.

But apparently, Suarez did have the right attitude when it came to football and because of his work ethic, combined with his raw talent, he has fashioned himself into possibly the best teammate, and thus the best center forward in the game.

So, I guess I got that wrong. Maybe Suarez would have been great for Arsenal.

Qq

*The reason is that the companies like WhoScored, Squawka, and 442 just haven’t figured out how to display that data. I bet if I dig around that data will be there in some sub text of some popout window that happens on a mouse-over of the event. In other words, the data is there, I just don’t know where to look yet.

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FIFA bite off a chunk of Suarez’ season

FIFA have banned Luis Suarez from all footballing activities for four months for his bite on Italy’s Georgio Chiellini. The ban means Suarez will not play for Uruguay until next year and will not be allowed to train with his professional football club or play in any matches with them until November 2014. A four month ban is a hefty chunk out of Suarez’ season and people are now questioning whether biting rises to the level of deserving such a harsh ban.

The argument that biting “ain’t so bad” goes like this: which is worse, a leg breaking tackle or a little bite? Considering the fact that Roy Keane was given just five weeks for admitting that he intended to end Alfe Haaland’s career with a knee high tackle or that Eric Cantona “oohed and ahhed” the crowd of his living room for 9 months after attacking a fan in the stands with a kung-fu kick there is merit to the argument. But for me, this isn’t an ‘either/or’ situation: Suarez deserves four months for his third career bite and leg breaking tackles deserve harsher punishment.

Players who break another player’s leg through reckless or violent conduct should be punished for more than three games. It is incongruous that spitting on or near an opponent is a 9 match ban but swinging your leg wildly in a scything motion and cutting down a young man’s career is only 3.

But what makes it easy for FIFA and the English FA to have such weird disciplinary standards is that hard tackling is part of the game and only recently even frowned upon. When Martin Taylor broke Eduardo’s leg with a studs up, over the top lunge, Steve Bruce publicly proclaimed that “some would say it’s not even a yellow card.”  That was just six and a half years ago.

It’s easy to see why the powers that be are reluctant to change tackling culture in football. For as much as certain Americans like to make fun of football as a “wussy” sport, hard tackling has a long history in the game and we all still marvel when a player flies in on the edge of control and wins the ball with a good hard tackle. Roy Keane, who intentionally broke a man’s leg, is still revered at Manchester United. I have a portrait of Patrick Vieira, who has more red cards than any other player in Premier League history (one for spitting, I might add), hanging on my wall.

But the rules for tackling need to be dealt with on their own terms. We don’t want to eliminate tackles but we want to make sure that players like Ryan Shawcross are rightly punished for scything down players like Aaron Ramsey and nearly ruining the young man’s career. And we do that within the rules of the game.

The “rules of the game” are important because all contact sports are codified violence. You can punch a man’s nose into his face until he’s unconscious in boxing. You can elbow a man in the face repeatedly until he submits in MMA. You can hit a man with your shoulder so hard that you give him a concussion in American football. And apparently, you can break a player’s leg with a reckless tackle and get away with a three match ban in football. If you want to change any of those rules, you can petition to have those rules changed. But no matter how brutal the sport, no matter how bloody the participants at the end, no sport allows players to bite.

A human biting a human indicates a loss of control in a very primal way. Primal. As in something our primate ancestors did to each other. I’m not being flip and I’m not calling Suarez an animal, he’s not. But when he was having a terrible match and with his country facing elimination, he bit a defender. The second time in as many years, under the same circumstances, and with the same result. Suarez isn’t an animal but he acted like one.

Biting indicates primal, animal behavior that humans have drilled out of them by age three. Animals who bite humans are considered wild or feral. Biting humans is behavior that we breed out of animals in order to domesticate them.

That’s why the rules of football and the rules of each sport are one thing but the rules of society trump the rules of sport. As violent as some sports can be (boxing and MMA come to mind) no sport allows biting.

And that’s why Suarez got 4 months. This isn’t a witch hunt. This isn’t about morality. This isn’t about Chiellini’s masculinity. Luis Suarez bit a man (thrice) and he liked it.

And as psychologists pointed out last year, he will bite again

Qq