Richard Whittall

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Manchester United v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final First Leg

So it appears Man United already have their eye on summer improvements, and their pursuit of Bayern’s star midfielder Toni Kroos is intensifying per Jamie Jackson:

Manchester United are offering Toni Kroos £260,000 a week as they continue to try to prise the midfielder away from Bayern Munich this summer. While David Moyes understands it may be difficult to take the 24-year-old from the German club as Bayern maintain he is not for sale, the United manager believes that if Kroos is minded to push the deal through he could still join.

Wayne Rooney is United’s highest earner with a total package worth around £300,000 per week, but Kroos’s prospective terms would put him in the top bracket of earners at the club, alongside Rooney and Robin van Persie.

This move, at considerable cost, should raise some wider questions about United’s transfer strategy, particularly in the wake of David Moyes’ less-than-stellar debut season as manager.

Does Kroos represent one of several transfer targets for the club, or is he a sole, marquee signing? If it’s the former, is the sky the limit with regard to strengthening a squad Moyes identified as in need of additions as early as September 2013? Is the move for Kroos in tandem with an overview of United’s player development and recruitment strategy? Is the board seeking to improve results at the academy level to ensure greater depth in the team?

How long has Kroos been a target of Manchester United? What key weaknesses does Moyes or any of the back room staff feel he will address? Does the club feel their dogged, public pursuit of the player will increase his wage fee? Has United explored what an unexpected injury to Kroos would cost the club in competitive terms? Financial terms?

These questions are outside the scope of day-to-day transfer reporting, but they would form the basis of an interesting investigative piece, should someone decide to follow through…

Liverpool v Manchester City - Barclays Premier League

1. Steven Gerrard burst into tears

One of the most iconic images in English football is that of Sir Bobby Charlton weeping at the final whistle after England beat Germany 4-2 to win the World Cup in 1966. He later said the tears were spurred by memories of playing football as a child—”I never cried when we lost.” That feeling after an incredible, long sought after win is what players wait their whole careers for.

Steven Gerrard has played his whole career at Liverpool. Against age, a more withdrawn playing role, and much cynicism, particularly outside the red half of Liverpool, the 33 year old midfielder is still at the heart of the club. He has won every honour except that which defined Liverpool going back to the Shankly era—the league itself.

On Sunday against one of their major title challengers in Manchester City, who fought back in the second half after conceding twice in the first 45 minutes, Liverpool earned a narrow 3-2 victory after Coutinho took advantage of a Kompany error to score in the 78th minute. Moreover, the win came on the 25th anniversary of one of the most horrifying days in the history of the English game, Hillsborough, which took the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters who went together to see a football match and never came home. Whatever the outcome, Sunday’s post-match celebrations will cap Gerrard’s legacy.

At the post match huddle, Gerrard urged his teammates: “Listen, this is gone. We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. Come on!” There are four games left…

2. Sterling’s opener against City

A simple thing of beauty.

3. Fabianksi’s penalty performance for Arsenal against Wigan in the FA Cup semi

Yes, Arsenal should arguably have been nowhere near needing extra time or penalties against Wigan following a narrow 1-1 draw, as talented as Uwe Rösler’s side have been in the FA Cup this season (they’re also battling for a promotion playoff spot in the Championship). Yet keeper Lukasz Fabianksi reasserted Arsenal’s dominance in one of the less dramatic shootouts in recent memory, no doubt helped by some crap spot kicks from Caldwell and Collison. A good day for second choice keepers everywhere.

4. Dortmund play for pride against Bayern and win 0-3

Bayern Munich’s long victory lap in the Bundesliga hasn’t exactly gone spectacularly well, with a draw and two losses since the German giants won the league. Perhaps buoyed by a stellar performance against European favourites Real Madrid in the Champions League, some of the old Klopp magic kicked in for their visit to the Allianz as Dortmund knocked three past Manuel Neuer before the hour mark. Oh, and it was also the worst loss of Pep Guardiola’s career.

Will Bayern resting on its haunches have consequences for Bayern’s semi against Real Madrid? Well, the defending on Mkhitaryan’s opener was awful, leaving the player with the expanse of Bayern’s right for him to shoot. Bayern also didn’t track back well to defend the second, neatly slotted in by Reus on the counter. Finally, Jonas Hoffman practically waltzed in space a la 2001 to score the third, from an over the top pass. So, maybe there are few issues?

5. La Liga blown wide open at the top

After a 1-0 loss to Granada, several cules boldly predicted the end of Tata Martino’s tenure as Barcelona coach. But the loss also opened up the possibility of an even stronger lead for Atletico at the top of La Liga, should they beat Getafe later in the weekend. Which they did, courtesy of two goals from Diego Costa, who was stretchered off the pitch after a collision with the goal post, putting his future in doubt and possibly Atleti’s chances. Real Madrid for their part destroyed Almeria 4-0 at the Bernebeu, with Benzema providing some of the missing link up play during Real’s 2-0 midweek Champions League loss against Dortmund.

So, the net result of all of this? I have no clue who’s going to win the league. Wouldn’t bet on Barca though.

6. The best moon shot of all time

7. Hernanes crawls on all fours against Samp

Walter Mazzarri’s Inter haven’t had a stellar season by any means but they put in an excellent effort in a 0-4 victory over Sampdoria, with two goals from Mauro Icardi. Particularly good was Inter’s midfielder Hernanes, who promised earlier last week that Inter’s downslide would soon be over. So dedicated was he literally crawled on all fours to retrieve the ball in the midfield.

8. Robbie Keane scores a lovely winner against the Vancouver Whitecaps

I like this goal because it demonstrates the key necessity for the long ball—a player with the skill set of Ishizaki who can take it down in two touches and cross with pin point accuracy.

1126920 copy

Earlier this morning I made the bold claim that Champions League semifinals were often, if not usually, better than the final itself. So for some proof, let’s look at a few CL semis from recent years.

1. 2012-13, Bayern Munich vs Barcelona (7-0 agg.)

Bayern’s incredible performance against Barcelona solidified the moment when the locus of power in European football shifted from Catalonia to Bavaria. This was even before Pep Guardiola took over as head coach, a masterful two leg destruction of one of the most legendary sides in football history. The other semi was just as compelling, as Dortmund took Mourinho’s conflicted Real Madrid by surprise.

The final? Alright, but a rote victory for Bayern over their German title race challengers.

2. 2011-12, Chelsea vs Barcelona (3-2 agg.)

A game that Chelsea should not have won, and arguably wouldn’t have if you played the game again. Outshot, hemmed in, lead by the former West Brom coach Roberto Di Matteo, Petr Cech and the Chelsea defense put in a desperate performance only to pounce on the break, setting up one of the more memorable colour calls in football history.

The final? A last minute equalizer from Drogs was fun, but Chelsea barely scraped through. Plus penalties…

3. 2009-10, Inter vs Barcelona (3-2 agg.)

Though it didn’t produce the loveliest football at times, Mourinho’s triumph over Barcelona, despite playing a man down at the Camp Nou in the second leg after the hilariously dubious sending off of Thiago Motta, was one of the Portuguese manager’s signature victories. Mourinho’s defiant celebration with the club’s supporters despite Victor Valdez’s intervention was magic.

The final? A kind of dull 2-0 Inter victory over a Bayern team in transition.

4. 2007-08, Chelsea vs Liverpool (4-3 agg.)

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea: UEFA Champions League Semi Final from Connor Milligan on Vimeo.

Goals in extra time! Drogba scoring for Chelsea! Fernando Torres scoring for Liverpool! A questionable offside call against Michael Essien, even though his Chelsea teammates arguably didn’t interfere with the shot in question! An assist from Benayoun! Ah, those were the days.

The final? Hmm, it started slow but got going after Ronaldo’s initial strike. Still, mostly remembered now for John Terry falling on his bum.

5. 2004-05, Chelsea vs Liverpool (1-0 agg.)

A tense pair of semifinals through which Liverpool just progressed through the ghostiest of ghost goals by Luis Garcia against Chelsea in the incredible second leg at Anfield. It was the first of the infamous Chelsea-Liverpool meetings in Europe, with all the tension and controversy. This one obviously doesn’t top the Istanbul 3-3 final, but man was it memorable.

The final? Yeah, it was good.

Bayern Munich's coach Guardiola gestures during their Champions League quarter-final second leg soccer match against Manchester United in Munich

So some quick thoughts on the Champions League semis, to add to the giant pile you may have already consumed this morning.

Overview

Some, if not most, Champions League years are defined by incredible semifinal match ups. It makes sense; at this point the best of the best meet at the summit, though there is often a dark horse in the mix somewhere (I’m talking about Chelsea of course). This will be one of the years where we will hear about “the real final” being the Bayern Real Madrid semi. And so…

Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid

This one could be crushed under the weight of its own hype, but this is the price we pay for liking football. Bayern are slight favourites, but Real’s goalscoring prowess in Europe should be a warning sign for Pep Guardiola’s team, who ran into a bit of trouble against plucky Man United in 2/3rds of the quarterfinal legs.

The question for me is Ronaldo’s fitness. Though there’s no reason to think he won’t be back for the semi (he may be back in time for the Copa Del Rey final), it was obvious against Dortmund how limp Real’s counterattack is with Ronaldo sparking the movement. Bale didn’t quite seem up to the task, and there didn’t seem to be enough heft in the midfield with Modric.

Pep as Barca coach had Real’s number with Mourinho in charge…Ancelotti is a different animal.

Prediction: Real Madrid on penalties.

Chelsea vs Atletico Madrid

This should be a fascinating match, against a tactical pragmatist like Jose Mourinho and a defensive genius in Diego Simeone. There is also the matter of Atletico’s loanee keeper Thibaut Courtois, whose contract may or may not required Atleti to pay Chelsea millions of pounds in compensation should he play in both legs, though this will be a distracting and downright confusing sideshow ahead of the first leg.

Atletico aren’t the stereotypical Spanish side in many ways, playing a counterattacking style which also relies on crossing and aerial superiority on occasion. Which might play into Mourinho’s hands (he’s seen this kind of thing before). I’d put money on a tight game, but I’m just spit balling here.

Prediction: Chelsea on pens after two 0-0 draws.

Manchester United's goalkeeper de Gea fails to save a goal by Bayern Munich's Robben during their Champions League quarter-final second leg soccer match in Munich

This was the joke making the rounds on Twitter last night after Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben sealed his team’s Champions League progress against Man United with a third goal in their 3-1 second leg win. This, of course, is the move that defines Robben as a player (outside the diving).

At the same time, a quiet voice in the back objected, that of the excellent Michiel Jongsma, who pointed out a 2010 study which claimed Robben’s movement is “…slightly faster than conscious knowledge” (translated from this Dutch news item).

So which is it?

Well, a single instance will never tell the tale, but we can least see how the Robben cut-inside-and-shoot routine is so effective. So without further ado:

Bayern United SS1

In this first image, we have pretty much the essence of Robben. Preamble: Robben had an enormous patch of space on the right flank, in which he ran in a straight line directly at a waiting Patrice Evra. Meanwhile Mario Mandzukic has made his own run, tracked by Nemanja Vidic. Brilliantly, Mandzukic has taken Vidic out of the play. And so Robben cuts inside right as he comes within a yard of Evra. A still image will not do it justice, but the speed of Robben’s pivot is incredible.

Bayern United SS2

In this next image, Evra has attempted to check Robben’s run, and nick the ball off his feet, but he’s a split second too slow. Equally impressive is Robben’s ability to overstep the challenge and continue along the gap left between Vidic and Smalling.

Bayern United SS3

Here, Vidic has turned from Mandzukic to see Robben heading right at him. His body shape isn’t ideal as he’s already tracked Mandzukic into the 18 yard box, and he’s facing the wrong way. And so…

Bayern Man United SS4

Robben cuts to his left foot again! But all is not as simple as it seems, because Thomas Mueller has made a run across Smalling’s body, effectively clearing space for his team-mate along the edge of the 18.

Bayern United SS5

And here, some luck and magic. It’s clear from the still the miniscule margin of error Robben has for his shot. He’ll have to use the space still between Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. I’m not sure he even knows it’s there, but I like to think he’s able to see through space and time.

Bayern United SS6

Robben seems to run interminably. His possession of the ball is never in doubt, but we can now perhaps fault both Smalling and Jones for not closing down sooner.

Bayern United SS7

And the denouement. Robben has gone past Vidic, has only single passing option out wide, can sense space further in the box which has been afforded by Smalling and Jones, and goes for it.

Conclusion

So, should United have anticipated Robben’s shtick? The Dutch winger indeed just ran forward, then ran to the left, then shot, something he’s done before. Yet we have to also take into consideration two other elements.

First, Robben’s individual technical brilliance—feinting Evra, skipping his tackle, running past Vidic and waiting for the precise moment to take his shot, beating David de Gea by a whisker.

Second, the movement of his teammates. Mandzukic for taking Vidic out of the initial part of the play allowing Robben a clear line along the 18, and Mueller for cutting across Smalling and preventing him from closing down on Robben earlier.

As for Smalling and Jones…they may not have closed down to avoid a Bayern attacking from running behind them to pick up a Robben pass. Robben tees up so quickly (and unpredictably) that it’s impossible to know when he’s setting up to shoot in time.

So as for whether Robben is faster than human consciousness or whether United should have tracked his predictable attacking preference better, the answer is yes.

Arsenal's manager Wenger points during their English Premier League soccer match against Manchester City at The Emirates Stadium in London

The Telegraph’s Matt Law has a bizarre piece on the site now, which begins with this saucy paragraph:

Arsenal players believe that manager Arsène Wenger’s refusal to work on the opposition has cost them a shot at the Premier League title this season.
The defeat at Everton last weekend meant that Arsenal have lost away from home against all their immediate rivals, conceding 20 goals.

This alleged difference of opinion between players and manager is reiterated throughout, except there isn’t even a “sources say,” just a vague reference to “a section of Wenger’s squad” (does this include any members of the first team?).

Far more interesting is the example of football’s wider echo chamber resonating (we presume) within the club walls. First articulated by Gary Neville in his Sky Sports 1 commentary, and generally agreed upon in the journalistic Twittersphere, it seems Spring of 2014 was the moment when the world agreed: Wenger’s problem isn’t his nose for players or his ability to motivate—rather, it’s his failure to adjust tactics based on the quality of the opposition.

This isn’t an implausible explanation for Arsenal’s faults this season, either. However, there is some argumentative ballast provided in the fact that if Arsenal had drawn or lost against all of their top flight competitors this season but, at the same time, picked up all three points against lesser competition, they’d be in first place.

Even so, Wenger is not a man usually associated with tactical versatility (the “passing it into the net” jibe still applies now as it did ten years ago). Many of the best sides in the world weren’t either, and maybe that’s the bigger problem. If Wenger isn’t going to pay for a World Beater, he shouldn’t drive his Corolla as if it’s a Ferrari.

Manchester United Press Conference

Champions League second legs would, in theory, offer an interesting case study for Game States.

A definition of Game States: Statistically speaking, teams leading by a goal tend to shoot less than their opponents but with a higher shot conversion rate, while teams trailing by a goal will shoot more often but less accurately.

And again, it makes intuitive sense. If you’re trailing by a goal, you need to score to get into the game, and so you’ll be inclined to push up and shoot more frequently. This is dangerous for leading teams, unless they work to take advantage of the effect to score on the break.

The key lesson from last night’s Champions League tie between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid involved Ancelotti’s side failing to take advantage of the counter. The incredible vigilance of the Dortmund defense with Hummels leading the way, the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, and the lack of incision from Gareth Bale and others on the break obviously hindered Madrid. Yet it wasn’t obvious that Madrid were prepared for a rampant Dortmund attack, intensified by their home advantage.

So there is a slight warning to United to avoid letting Bayern take advantage on the counter, particularly as David Moyes’ side needs only a single goal to win the tie. A conservative approach may be the best option.

As for Atletico, they have a home advantage and the “lead” on the away goal. They are in prime position to let Barca push up in the hopes of breaking in front of the home crowd. Anyway, we’ll see.