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.

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

First, a reminder that football can be fun, as if last night’s fixtures weren’t enough to convince you. But here in the face of our own understanding of the game in which players and managers are in perpetual show down over rivalries, playing opportunities, perceived snubs and all the rest of it, a pleasant moment between two monsters of the game:

Second, do we need to haul out the small sample size song again?

Demba Ba likely felt this was his moment after he had secured Chelsea’s future in the Champions League by scoring Chelsea’s second, knocking out PSG last night. In response to Mourinho’s remarks after the 3-1 result in the first leg, in which the Chelsea manager claimed his side don’t currently have any “real” strikers, Ba said:

“I wasn’t out for revenge. Maybe he [Mourinho] doesn’t have the strikers to his liking, but I know that we have three great strikers and I think that a lot of clubs would like to have them. I’m happy to have liberated us. I haven’t been given my chance much this season, but I’ve taken this one.

And yet this year’s tallies remain on the books, and it shows a club in which Eden Hazard is the top scorer and the only Chelsea player on double digits. Samuel Eto’o, brought in as a stop gap, is second on 8, tied with Oscar. Compare to City with Aguero and Dzeko on 15 and 11 goals respectively, both trailing Yaya Toure’s 18.

So good on the night, but it would seem that Mourinho may be onto something. Quite whether Diego Costa is the solution is a topic for another post…

Northampton Saints v Leinster - Heineken European Cup Pool One

It is a graphic perfectly suited for the split second, scan and upvote experience that often defines Reddit.

Under the presumptuous and awkwardly worded title, “Who has the best value season ticket?”, we see pounds fans paid for home team goals scored, the idea being that the enjoyment of watching a football match is entirely defined by the ball crossing the line for the good guys. This is a more absurd, more dangerous reduction than all the advanced stats analyses could ever dream of coming up with.

But then how would one define the value of a season ticket, realistically speaking? Could we encapsulate everything that goes into it? Let’s try!

1. Accessibility Is your park accessible by transit? Is there an elevator at the adjacent subway/underground station? Is there ample parking? Surely your “match day experience” comes in part from an enjoyable and uneventful trip from home to the park.

2. Ample clean bathrooms Any match day is made better by the availability of clean toilets without long lines in front of them. Stalls with stainless steel doors with working locks? Toilet paper dispensers with smoothly rotating wheels and a full back up roll for those game day emergencies? This is the stuff of football dreams.

3. Smell of ground Is the football ground adjacent to a pig farm or a paper mill? A big no no. Chief executives might consider perfuming grounds in order to charge more for their season tickets.

4. Covered stand Do you know who likes rain? Plants. Definitely not humans, and certainly not humans who wanted nothing more than to watch people play some football.

5. Throw-ins Throw-ins are a nice change of pace in football, and the only element of the game wherein players who are not the goalkeeper can touch the ball. Plus your kids can dream of discovering the next Rory Delap. Another graphic idea might be to calculate the number of throw-ins your club performs for the price of a full season ticket. Executives may want to think of recruiting players along some “throw-in” based metrics.

6. General attractiveness of the players Sure, you want to see all those silky tricks, but what about those assorted gobs you’ll have to stare at during the lulls in play? An amazing goal scored by a genius is a good, an amazing goal scored by a genius with a symmetrical face framed by a hip, neo-Rockabilly haircut is great.

7. Pre-match and half-time musical choices : Does your park DJ (or whoever it is) still play tracks from Arcade Fire’s Funeral for the pre-match warm-up? Why are you paying hard-earned money to listen to 2003? This isn’t why England gave football to the world.

8. Colourful corner flags: Everyone loves the moment when a young sprite, having ended the career of some awful second string keeper, runs off to celebrate by boxing a corner flag to death. But what if the flag itself is nothing but a drab piece of coloured plastic? For shame. Teams may want to consider hologram flags or flags adorned with QR codes which redirect users to season ticket renewal sites.

9. The intrinsic value of supporting your beloved football club through thick and thin Overrated. Why not offer imported ales and gourmet poutines in the tea stand instead?

Manchester United Training

Subtext is everything!

As in, the subtext of David Moyes first declaring on Friday, without a hint of subterfuge to be fair, that Rooney was “touch and go” for the Champions League second leg quarter final this week:

Moyes said: “Wayne is injured. He has a badly bruised toe so he won’t be involved [against Newcastle]. It will be touch and go for Wayne for Wednesday. With a lot of toe injuries you have to make sure there isn’t a hairline fracture or crack in your toe. We will have all that checked.

“It is a toe injury and they are never easy when you get one. You could see him limping in the game towards the end quite badly. There is not an awful lot you can do with a toe injury – sometimes you can feel better quite quickly with them and sometimes you need an injection possibly to play with it if it is bruising.”

And then reports today, like a biblical miracle, of Wayne’s last minute recovery and the slim but real possibility he will indeed play against Bayern. Pep Guardiola knows what’s up:

“He is going to play, 100%. He is going to play – I bet you a big, big glass of beer. I believe he is going to play, and Valencia too. Rooney is going to play. He is a big player.”

Apparently he plans to do so hepped up on “powerful pain killing tablets.”

This little shadow act is an old gambit, but perhaps Man United are right to give it a try, particularly with the perception that Bayern are “rattled” after a less than stellar midweek performance at Old Trafford and their 1-0 loss to Augsburg on the weekend. But this match will not be won or lost on the performance of Rooney.

Everton v Arsenal - Barclays Premier League

The Premier League

The Winner: Everton! Literally, and in the spirit of this little mini round up piece as well. Arsene was right: with glory in football basically having boiled down to qualifying for tournaments that pay big TV money, the race for fourth is a distant but important side show to the incredible three way dogfight up top.

As far as that goes, Everton are now a single point behind Arsenal who are still clinging to fourth, after defeating the North London side 3-0 in a game where Lukaku scored a fairly decent goal and Everton looked fairly comfortable throughout. If you want to boil down the game to a single moment (not possible but let’s pretend), this would be it:

That’s Seamus Coleman forcing Santi Cazorla to question his purpose in life.

As for the future fortunes of both sides, a certain graphic has been making the rounds supposedly hinting at future form. Everton though face the (slightly) tougher opposition in the weeks ahead, though I’m being charitable and including Man United in that group.

The Loser: Chris Hughton, sacked after Norwich lost 0-1 to West Brom. And here too is an unfortunate case of a manager falling victim to the high variability of shot and save percentages—Norwich City are 11th in the league in TSR but dead last in PDO. In short: Norwich aren’t as crap as a miserable squad replete with a dour faced Ricky van Wolfswinkel often appear to be.

Oh sure, there are probably other things Hughton could be doing better, but with the Canaries now five points off the drop, the idea that the now ex-U18 coach Neil Adams will offer a marked improvement between now and the end of the season doesn’t seem to be part of a deeply thought out long-term strategy. Football!

The Takeaway: With Liverpool still top of the table after a badly reffed but solid 1-2 win against West Ham this weekend, and with City with a pair of games in hand, all eyes will be on Anfield when the sides meet next Sunday (on rather poignantly the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough).

Also, that business about Chelsea not being good and needing strikers will get a waiver as they ran through Mark Hughes RED HOT STOKE three nil (you get “red hot” affixed to your team name if you win three times in a row). As for the relegation battle, it could be that the incompetence of the lower mid-tablers will be saved by the consistent awfulness of Sunderland, Cardiff and Fulham (despite the latter’s 1-2 victory over a sorry Aston Villa).

La Liga

The Winner: Atletico Madrid. Without Diego Costa, who is now apparently being carved up like Solomon with a baby for a transferin’ by the money twins Chelsea and Monaco, Atleti could have stepped into the match against the 7th place Villarreal and slipped up ahead of Barca’s weekend fixture (they defeated Real Betis 3-1).

Instead they overcome a slight shot deficit to beat the Yellow Submarine 1-0 via Raul Garcia and remain top the league with the Champions League still very much in play. Do I write this every week?

The Loser: The Spanish national team. Things are looking ugly as the season progresses between the usual Barca/Madrid suspects, and now Iker Casillas has promised to “slap” Busquets next time they meet over his alleged head stamp on Pepe from the last El Clasico. It’s ridiculous.

The Takeaway: The Mexican standoff continues at the top of the table as the three contenders face fairly mundane competition next weekend after their midweek Champions League deciders. Elsewhere the battle for fourth continues to be interesting, with Sevilla winning 4-1 against Espanyol after having dropped all three points the week before.

Bundesliga

The Winner: Bayern. Despite all the empty headlines about the shock 1-0 defeat to Augsburg ending a 53 match unbeaten run, a game in which they outshot their opponents 16 to 11, they are still, somehow, champions. Moreover, Pep’s side have sowed the seeds of doubt after the first leg Champions League quarterfinal tie with Manchester United, only to further give their opponents false hope.

The Loser: Sami Hyypia. The Bayer Leverkusen boss and former Liverpool defender was sacked after a 2-1 defeat to Hamburg on the weekend. As quoted in the Guardian:

“After a lot of thought and because of the ongoing crisis we reached the conclusion that a change at this point could help us turn things around urgently,” the Leverkusen chief executive, Michael Schade, said.

Which is totally how this works. Football again!

The Takeaway: The battle for the final CL spot is intense, and perhaps even more up for grabs by Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Mainz. That, and the relegation battle, is all that is left to care about in this league, essentially.

Serie A

The Winner: Unknown. I mean, Roma perhaps for staying in it with a 1-3 win over Cagliari (a Destro hattrick!), adding to their midweek spoils against Parma. Then Parma for knocking off Napoli to stay in the hunt for the Europa League. Fiorentina for stopping a short skid by beating Udi 2-1. But I can’t tell you until after the Juventus match against crappy Livorno tomorrow.

The Loser: Managers. Diego Lopez was sacked by Cagliari after the above defeat, and Catania fired Rolando Maran for the second time this season.

The Takeaway The sackings likely aren’t done yet…Walter Mazzari may be ready to go after Inter’s 2-2 draw with Bologna. Other than that, Roma will need a miracle to press Antonio Conte’s Juve as the season winds down.