Archive for the ‘Uefa Champions League’ Category

NFL: Pro Bowl-Honolulu Views

We’re told fans love them because they’re what the game is all about. Banter. A bit of bantz. Here come the lads with the latest GIF in tow. Did a game break out? That’s beside the point. Look at Wojciech Szczesny’s making a HILARIOUS WANKING gesture on his way down the tunnel for being sent off. Did you hear Robben spat on Bacary Sagna as he lay prone on the Emirates pitch? Two missed pens, LOL, and both taken by foreigners! And look at Kroos! Proof positive in a single performance United should have nabbed him when they had the chance. Arsenal are terrible. English football is terrible. Pep is a genius.

Superlatives, let’s be havin’ you!

Banter. Talking points. They litter the Football Internet post match because none of us in the content creation business have a choice. We’re held hostage by an economy of scale that demands media extrapolation from the sometimes banal reality of a single game to a fun house of endless representation. This isn’t new of course. Brazilian radio announcers have been credited for sparking interest in football in their native country through the exuberance and artistry of their play by play, which didn’t always match the spectacle itself. But we’ve hit new heights in the race to blow up the inconsequential.

So what did Arsenal vs Bayern look like in the flesh (or on TV even)? Chances are you saw the game. Arsenal were positive in the early going, and had Mesut Oezil taken a better penalty, chances are we wouldn’t be reading about the brilliance of Guardiola in Europe. After that, Woj came out when he should have stayed in. One nil and ten men. A brillant shot from Kroos. Sustained confident pressure from Bayern splaying their geometric shapes and exploiting a weak Arsenal right flank. These things happen.

I don’t have a cure for it all, but maybe just breathe after a game. Let it sit with you for a bit before running off to the Daily Mail. Realize that Arsenal once nearly came back from a four nil deficit, and also beat Bayern not too long ago. Don’t fall for any old narrative that flashes before you. Life is too short for talking points.

Manchester City's Martin Demichelis walks off after being shown the red card during their Champions League round of 16 first leg soccer match against Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester

With another set of first leg Champions League round of 16 matches coming up, I want to talk a bit about luck. For me, the biggest problem with understanding how luck influences outcomes in football matches is the word itself. ‘Luck’, along with ‘fortune’, evokes an unexpected and inexplicable advantage. You’re late for work, you rush out the door to get to your nearby stop, and lo! The next bus arrives to pick you up right away, and even better, it’s mostly empty so you have room to take a load off. What a stroke of luck!

When an analyst refers to “luck” however, what they usually mean is random variation. Stuff happens, in other words. And so the next day you get to the bus stop bright and early, but the bus ends up being twenty minutes late and it’s so packed you have to wait for another ten. No two days will be the same, though you will roughly get to work around the same time every day.

This is the influence luck (or variance) at its most obvious. Few people have trouble understanding the concept when laid out this way. But when we talk about ‘luck’ in sports however, the conversation completely changes.

“Luck” in the colloquial sense is usually only acknowledged when John Terry slips when taking a penalty, or when Darren Bent’s shot against Liverpool deflected off a balloon giving Sunderland the lead. You can see why: sports is all about talent and intention.

Consider the Champions League. Managers foment tactics, and those tactics either succeed or fail in their objective. Teams field eleven elite players, paid enormous sums for their considerable skill. Everyone is focused on a single outcome: winning the match (or drawing it depending on the opponent and the leg). Sure, some of these people will make mistakes. But this could just as likely be the result of a lapse in concentration or confidence, or a bad decision by the manager, than anything to do with dumb luck.

And here we get into another misunderstanding about variance: that just because it appears to be random doesn’t mean that it is actually random. ‘Random’ variance is just a variable you haven’t met!

This is absolutely true. But let’s go back to our example with the late, crowded bus. Maybe the bus was late because the traffic was bad. Or maybe that stupid lazy bus driver showed up to work hungover and messed up the route schedule. Or maybe there was an accident further up the route. Or, and as is much more likely the case, the cause was abstract, the added effect of tiny variations in the speed of cars and the timing of lights and the slush on the road and the number of people waiting for their stop and the individual commuters who all decided to leave their homes at a particular time of day. If we were omnipotent beings, we could calculate all this, but we can’t. So for all intents and purposes, it is “random.”

This is what analysts tend to mean by “luck.” You can see it in any football match. The relative skill of both sides was evident, as were their weaknesses. But much of what makes these players great is adjusting to a host of changing circumstances outside their control. The Demichelis red card which led to Barcelona’s first goal against City last night in the Champions League offers a good example.

Here is the newspaper narrative, chosen from a match report at random but generally reflecting consensus:

Pellegrini’s team had generally been coping until the moment, eight minutes into the second half, when Andrés Iniesta expertly picked out Messi’s run and Demichelis, hopelessly out of position, clattered into the four-time Ballon d’Or winner with a desperate attempt to recover.

We know the rest. Demichelis was sent off, and Messi scored the resulting penalty giving Barcelona a 0-1 lead and a precious away goal. But a look at the second-by-second events leading to the penalty reveal a much more complex situation.

Iniesta has the ball at his feet with Busquets ahead of him just behind Zabaleta, Messi well ahead of the play, and Kompany a littler further inside. Demichelis is a good three metres behind Messi. What happens next is crucial. Zabaleta can’t keep up with Busquets for pace. Kompany sees that and begins moving toward his running path to prevent Iniesta from sending a through ball clear on the flank. Messi meanwhile has slowed to get onside for the pass he knows is coming and receives just as Demichelis gets near him. In fact, Demichelis is the only City player aware of what’s happening. This isn’t because he’s a genius, but because Kompany took a fifty-fifty gamble on where Iniesta’s perfect pass was heading. Meanwhile the fourth City player in that backline (Clichy?) hasn’t changed his run, perhaps accounting for the Barcelona player behind him.

So who’s at fault here? Zabaleta for not keeping pace with the outside winger? Kompany taking a gamble by covering for him? Hart for not coming further out of goal sooner? Demichelis for making a last ditch, from-behind challenge on the best striker in the world? The linesman for not calling a free kick? Hart for not saving the penalty? Or is everyone on City at fault for their positioning on the break when Barcelona was in possession? Or perhaps they’re all exonerated by the sheer brilliance of Messi’s movement and Iniesta’s perfectly weighted pass?

Isn’t it safe to say that while these events were the outcome of a set of intents, they resulted in a extremely complex, ever-changing sequence of possibilities that could not be perfectly foreseen or accounted for as they unfolded in real time?

This complexity why no two games look the same, and why any team can win on their day (it’s also why football is pretty kickass). Over time, skill becomes more important (which is why analysts love the league but stay away from the CL), but in the Champions League where ties are decided on two leg matches, players can only rely on their skill, their intelligence, their trust in their teammates and a lot of good luck. Sure, variation also affects things like the bend of the ball on a shot or a bad bounce or two. But it’s more often the complexity hidden in plain sight.

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final

Last night, immediately after the final whistle which saw Bayern Munich lift their fifth European Cup on the back of Arjen Robben’s goal in the 89th minute, I made the mistake of tuning into a popular British sports talk (hint hint) radio station. Mere minutes after play had ended at Wembley stadium, one of the commentators grimly declared that Bayern’s win over Dortmund, a team with half the Bavarian club’s wage bill, was the result of financial fair play forever cementing the dominance of historical footballing giants. It’s over. Kloppo’s BvB had lost. The little guy will never win.

It was such an absurd claim I actually rewound the tape as it were (you can do this on certain radio apps) and listened to it again. Sure enough, that’s exactly what he’d said: Bayern beating Dortmund was a sign the minnows were forever shut out of the European party, thanks to FFP.

I wondered where this line of reasoning had come from, and then I recalled Martin Samuel’s interview with Michel Platini published the day before, in which the Daily Mail writer bombarded the UEFA president with questions about the supposed side effects of FFP, that the rule which forbid spending in excess of turnover (within certain limits) would forever seal the dominance of a handful of clubs and shut out the rest. The idea here is that the only way to muscle into top spots was to spend a whack of money, which invariably means excessive financial losses. Without the ability to do that, smaller teams are screwed.

This is a bold claim. At the very least, it suggests that money spent on wage bills and transfer payments has a very strong causal relationship with winning trophies, whether at the domestic level or in Europe. Samuel’s been making this argument for years now, and, alarmingly, Platini had a woeful time defending FFP from these accusations. Perhaps this was a case of Platini rarely answering his critics, I don’t know.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to defend FFP from these claims, really. The 2012-2013 Champions League provides an excellent case study, in fact.

At nil-nil in the Champions League final, Dortmund had created several great chances with shots on goal to boot. Both Roman Weidenfeller and Manuel Neuer had to be completely on their game to keep the game scoreless in the first half. Both sides had seven shots, with Dortmund edging them out on shots on target (5-3). Even with the score at 1-1, it was a close contest almost to the very end. The winning goal came in the 89th minute from a sumptuous back-heeled pass from Frank Ribery into the path of Arjen Robben, who feinted and slotted home to win it.
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It’s been said several times in the last hour or so, but it is worth repeating. That was a terrific game of football. Excellent goalkeeping, superb individual efforts and the vindication of Arjen Robben capped another year of Champions League Football. We end with some of the best pictures from a wonderful day. So many adjectives.

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final Read the rest of this entry »

Well that was something else. It was only fitting Arjen Robben scored the winner. The man constantly maligned for failing to show up for big games had multiple chances to get on the score sheet in the first half. Alas, it looked like another poor performance on the biggest stage was in order for Robben. The Dutchman rewrote the script in the second half, setting up the Mandzukic goal and scoring the winner at the death. Sports. Man oh man.

Gif via @FeintZebra

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final

4:36 pm – Full Time

It’s Bayern Munich’s night to celebrate in London. From goat to hero, Arjen Robben avenges Bayern’s soul crushing defeat last year. What a game. Bayern Munich are the Champions of Europe for the fifth time.

4:31 pm

GOAL! And wouldn’t you know it’s Robben with the go-ahead marker. Hashtag Sad Robben had a nice run, but it’s time for it to die. Heartbreak city for Dortmund’s supporters.

Gif via FeintZebra
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The Champions League final has been about adverts since its inception. If you’re looking to be convinced to buy beer, a television sports package or anything else you can think of to help feel masculine, spending a couple of hours tuned in to coverage of Borussia Dortmund versus Bayern Munich will do you very little harm, aside from the fact that all of these are terrible, terrible products. But this year’s final has an added bonus: the game itself is actually going to be an advert this time, with most of Dortmund’s exciting young players being linked to other, less successful, but financially rolling in it clubs.

Pick a newspaper or television channel right now and their transfer roundup section will be full of Dortmund players. The Guardian’s football page is full of match previews and bland chatter about the game; alongside all that is the ‘buyer’s guide’ to Dortmund. Rather than being able to celebrate the moment – the brilliant achievement – of playing in the Champions League final, the most exciting team in Europe this season is being discussed as a set of assets, ready to move on to bigger things. Not bigger footballing achievements – they’re at the pinnacle there – but bigger pay-days.

Mario Goetze isn’t playing because he’s injured. Or ‘injured’, depending on how you want to think about the world. Dortmund’s best player, whether he’s not playing for this reason or because he really is injured, is playing for their opponents next season. Dortmund’s reward for bringing him up through the ranks is having him taken off their hands as soon as he starts looking a bit handy. ‘Let’s play a game. Us against you.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘Before we start, we’ll have all your best players’ ‘That doesn’t sound like a great game’ ‘You’ve missed the point of this game.’

Watching Dortmund play tomorrow should be fun, but instead it’s miserable – spelt ‘F-U-C-K T-H-I-S’. I mean, Juergen Klopp spoke about the process he’s working against earlier on in the week: “Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing! My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes. Central midfield is Shinji’s best role. He’s an offensive midfielder with one of the best noses for goal I ever saw.” Kagawa was nicked from Dortmund last season, now he’s being wasted by United. The teams Dortmund are being picked apart by have so much money that they literally can’t spend it all on a first eleven, they’ve had to start putting together entire squads of talent made elsewhere. So rather than getting to see it every week at Dortmund, the talent gets bottled up. What fun!

None of this is new, it’s just an extreme example of a footballing culture gone bad. Teams like Dortmund take all of the risks on players, either developing them for years or picking them up when they aren’t certain to be worth the money, and then get no time to enjoy the reward when those risks come off , or rather when the result of careful calculations come off.  Teams like United and Bayern, on the other hand, incur none of the risks, because they’ve got the money to buy guaranteed talent. Why’s this bad? Well, if you think things being this unequal and this unfair counts as bad, which I do, then it’s bad. But even if you don’t care about those things – even if you regularly masturbate over images of famous capitalists – you’re going to have to agree that this process is just boring, and that makes it bad too.

When Bayern play Dortmund we don’t get to watch Gotze, one of the most talented players in the world, maybe because he’s already been bought by Bayern. Worse, we don’t get to see this Dortmund team grow together, because it’s going to be picked apart by clubs who have been far less astute than Dortmund, but, largely, happen to have more money than them. And that all takes away from the spectacle of what, in terms of ball-kicking alone, could be a great final. It has to take away from it. We’re watching one long advertisement. BUT I DON’T WANT TO BUY A F*CKING ELECTRIC RAZOR.

Benteke

Christian Benteke is being linked with a move away from Aston Villa and the same principle as just described applies. When Villa signed him last summer, I remember people saying that he wasn’t even that highly rated given what Villa were spending on him. They got one season of reward for that risk and now a bigger club will take him off their hands. Booooorrrrriinnnng.