Richard Whittall

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Hillsborough Memorial - 25th Anniversary

Last night, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series aired Daniel Gordon’s long-anticipated two hour documentary Hillsborough. The film documents the 1989 stadium disaster in Sheffield during Liverpool’s FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest, and the efforts by the South Yorkshire Police—with an assist from the Sun newspaper—to paint what was essentially a deadly failure in crowd control as the tragic result of hooliganism.

Thought the story is not new, rarely has the moral of Hillsborough been made so clear. Hillsborough is not about football, nor is it about the place of Hillsborough in the ritualism of Liverpool fandom. These are elements of the story, but they’re not at its core. Gordon wisely focuses his lens elsewhere.

Hillsborough here is about the overwhelming, exhausting burden injustice places on the shoulders of ordinary families. It is about the parents, children and siblings of 96 victims traveling on buses to countless inquests and inquiries, carrying on in the face of the South Yorkshire Police who took blood alcohol samples from dead children even as they kept them from their parents’ final touch, constables who thought nothing of altering countless police statements to suit their ends, newspapers which printed police lies verbatim, politicians who made off-hand jokes about the death of just under one hundred people.

It is about the tendency of power to preserve itself, even at the cost of victimizing the very people that power is intended to serve.

It is fascinating to read the reactions from younger fans of football clubs of all stripes on sites like Reddit, beginning to comprehend that “Justice for the 96″ is more than a Kopite chant. It is a battle cry for all fans of the sport, and a warning for anyone who still comforts themselves with the belief that something like this could not happen again. Try and catch this doc when and if you can…

Reading v Leicester City - Sky Bet Football League Championship

This week, if the Telegraph is correct, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain will be handed down a punishment for violating rules meant to prevent clubs from spending in excess of what they earn to compete in Europe. Readers should err on the side of caution, particularly as UEFA will not comment officially on the matter.

The news comes just before the apex of the league season, around that time of year when assembled newspaper transfer hounds pick up faint scents of deals yet to be done and of struggling managers about to meet their sorry fate, the intoxicating odour of more money spent and losses cut in the endless pursuit of a few fleeting moments of footballing glory.

At the heart of all this is a central question: what does it take to win at the football? Particularly at the highest levels of the sport?

Certainly a good dose of luck, demonstrated by a Premier League title race in which the leaders are tightly packed together at the top, separated only by individual goals in single matches.

But what about winning consistently, over years and even decades? The answer, at least over the last 25 years or so, is money and a global supporters base that only history can provide.

What if you have neither?

This is less and less of an academic question every year. Should City or PSG be punished by UEFA in a way that sticks (with or without the legal help of angry third party clubs), UEFA will have made their point. If you want to compete, you cannot spend far in excess of what you earn.

Yet even without FFP, we’re reaching peak spending in European football. There are only so many oil barons interested in buying football clubs, and only so many clubs for them to buy. Spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a Premier League squad won’t give you an edge if your competitors are doing the same.

So if money can no longer buy glory, are there any means left for clubs to get an edge?

Football is a romantic sport. It is marked by passion, by courage, by luck, belief in your team, your supporters, yourself. These are the qualities that make it so compelling for the millions who have made it a part of their lives.

The problem however is when we exclusively turn to these qualities to explain why one club wins Premier League trophies every other year while another club consistently finishes in fourth or fifth place.

Think of your knee jerk, impassioned response to some poor results from your club. Sack the manager. Sell the overpaid donkey up front. Get new owners, the club is inept, run by idiots. They’re all greedy and selfish. They go out and party while the team continues to lose.

Keep in mind, it’s possible the club should do none, one, some or all of these things. If you make the wrong decision however, like sacking a manager suffering from a short-lived poor run of form driven more by variance than skill, it can cost the club even more down the line and put you in an even worse mood when you call for the head of the old manager’s replacement (the author writes this as someone who was glad when Paul Lambert replaced Alex McLeish as manager of Aston Villa).

Critics might claim there was no way anyone could have known beforehand that the problem with the team was a personnel issue or a managerial issue, but in 2014, with so much good, publicly available analysis on team diagnostics (including the impact managers have on good predictive metrics like TSR), this rings hollow (Statsbomb incidentally did a lot of good work this week on evaluating managers).

Nothing any columnist writes will convince skeptics of the value of data analysis in sports, but analytics-boosters might gain from reframing their work along helping clubs make educated decisions based on good evidence. Most of the time this is implied in their work, but here we can put data in a wider context moving from on the pitch to the front office to the board room.

Your team sucks. Okay, do they have a decent TSR but a low PDO? Can you identify affordable options to radically improve the team? Are there ways the club can plan five, or even ten years in the future to build on their current form rather than simply pray to stay up every year? This becomes less about data and more about evidence-based decision-making.

FFP has set the stage for a club to take the lead in this regard. Even if the clubs are skeptical, surely they have nothing to lose in making decisions based on reasonable, tested evidence.

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.