Good vs. Evil: World Football’s Beautiful Struggle

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Published on : August 30, 2016

 

 

For the undecided, uninitiated fan, world football can seem like an overwhelming array of options. The biggest teams on the planet have distinct histories, often colliding with world politics. Did you know that SS Lazio, in Rome, was Mussolini’s team? That Real Madrid was Francisco Franco’s team?

 

The point I’m trying to make here is that good and evil really do exist on the football field. Nowadays, that doesn’t always mean that a dictator is your squad’s key supporter; aspects of the game itself, like style of play, also inform whether a team is playing good football or evil football.

 

To understand this dichotomy, let’s start with defining “good” football. Morally just football is, for lack of a better way to put it, beautiful. Think the Tika-taka of Barcelona, Spain’s national team 2008-12, and, most importantly, the Total Football of Ajax and that Dutch national team of the 70’s under Rinus Michels. In addition to Johan Cruyff and Michels, perhaps the most iconic evangelist of beautiful football was former Argentinian World Cup-winning national coach Cesar Luis Menotti, known as “El Flaco” (“The Skinny One,” or as I like to translate, “The Thin Man”).

 

menotti

 

Menotti was as much coach as political philosopher. The iconic image is of Menotti with a cigarette in hand, expounding on the core values of football and politics, and the intertwined nature of the two: 

“There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football. Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method … obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players.”

The present-day inheritor of the progressive world football mantle is Pep Guardiola, the progenitor of Barcelona’s Tika-Taka revolution and current Manchester City Coach. Considered one of the finest minds in coaching, Guardiola has won the Champions League, the Bundesliga and Spanish championships, and defined a generation of fluid, attacking football. With Lionel Messi, arguably the game’s greatest-ever player, flanked by some of the greatest-ever passers in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona under Guardiola played some of the most beautiful and controlled football the globe has ever seen.

 

 

On the other end of the spectrum is fascist football. This distinguishes itself from teams who were or are actually supported by fascists. Fascist football is a style that priorities the win by any means necessary. Often referred to as anti-football, goals come at the highest premium in favor of drilled, staunch defending. The figurehead for anti-football is legendary manager Helenio Herrera, another Argentinian who believed, with a fervor similar to El Flaco, in the primacy of the team. Herrera, however, coached the legendary Inter Milan teams (as well as Barca, later) using a now-outdated Catenaccio (meaning “chain”) formation that featured a sweeper and four defenders, relying on a rapid counter-attack.

 

Here, too, the modern game has a clear inheritor: Jose Mourinho. Jose’s track record might be viewed as the greatest of all time: Championships in four different leagues (a feat matched only by three other managers) and European championships with three different clubs. Yet the means by which Jose has achieved this inviolate brilliance has been, quite literally, an evocation of Herrera’s methodically controlled, anti-football spirit. Mourinho’s by-any-means tactics, oft-uninspiring one-goal wins, and psychological subterfuge aimed at players, staff, fans, and media alike, indicate that, unlike Herrera, Mourinho’s heart beats darkly, pumping venom through the veins of his system.

 

 

Far be it from me to over-analyze the political heart of a soccer coach, but here I go anyway: Jose Mourinho’s family has historical ties to the Fascist Estado Novo regime in Portugal. Mourinho’s political views “are believed to be strongly right wing,” and his mother was taken in by an uncle who was “a sardine cannery boss who grew rich under the far-right regime of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, [Jose’s mother] grew up in a mansion surrounded by servants and political intrigue.” Is it possible his desire to crush the very essence of human spirit stems from these hinted-at fascist leanings? Okay, perhaps that’s a bit much, but I bet if you asked Eva Carneiro she’d have a thing or two to say about Jose’s leadership style.

 

For those in search of meaning amid the tumult of club football season, just take a look at the pitch and see what’s going on. Are players making runs, crafting multilayered attacks, keeping possession, and trying to do cool stuff? Or are they just slowing the game down and booting it, spring-loading a harried counterattack, parking the bus behind the ball otherwise, and waiting for the other team to make a mistake?

 

Each of these strategies can win games, leagues, and championships. But in the words of El Flaco:

“I want to win the match. But I don’t give in to tactical reasoning as the only way to win, rather I believe that efficacy is not divorced from beauty.”

 

O jogo bonito, as they say.

 

 


Power Kings: Leceister Wins It All

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Published on : May 3, 2016

 

 

By now you’ve read the numbers, the plaudits, the hyperbole and celebration of it all. All deserved, scraped and fought for, Leceister City won the Barclays Premier League without actually playing on Monday. It was the heated cross-town rivalry between Tottenham Hotspurs and Chelsea Oligarchs that determined the champions’ fate. Chelsea roared back to tie Tottenham and hamstring the Spurs’ last hopes of keeping up with the Fearless Foxes.

 

This year’s Leceister FC was a panacea for international football. They were such a force of luck, energy, positivity, and consistency, that everything seemed to be written. They were pulled together through excellent scouting, redemptive second-chances, and hard work. There were no big-money transfers — N’Golo Kante cost less than £10 million, chump change in a league ruled by oil money.

 

NGolo-Kante

 

Even when Jamie Vardy revealed that he isn’t the greatest dude, then scored in eleven straight games, the narrative remained relentless. Although Vardy popped in the most goals, the beating heart of the team’s attack was Riyad Mahrez, whose timeliness, touch, and sense of space created as many goals. Unsurprising that he was named the player of the year in the Premier League.

 

The team had spine. The triad of N’Golo Kante, footballing golem Robert Huth, and team captain Wes Morgan all combined as a formidable shield for 2nd-generation starting Premier League goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Kante prowled the field with speed and ferocity like a Strong Safety, never putting a wrong foot or mis-timing a tackle. Huth and Morgan were mobile pillars, dominant in the air and just fast enough to survive. Austrian Bundesliga castoff, Christian Fuchs, was a learned presence on the flank and provided reliable crossing service.

 

There’s also the luck. Leceister used the fewest players of any team this season, 23. Once famed for being such a restless manager they called him “The Tinkerman,” Claudio Ranieri barely changed his lineup all year. He barely had to, sustaining few injuries throughout the year. This, more than anything, is the most un-repeatable aspect of Leceister’s title.

 

Vardy

 

Though if you saw him, Ranieri’s kindly visage might make you wonder what he was doing not feeding ducks bread at a pond, he played luck’s harp expertly. He retained the assistant coaching staff so the players wouldn’t hate him. He made Jamie Vardy not shoot in practice, so as to have more time to be racist in private. This worked out in heavenly fashion, as everyone was essentially healthy for the entire year, they all loved and fought for each other, and they turned out to be champions.

 

The solution might not be billions, or a “special” manager, or galactic star power. Sometimes it’s more about the lightning and how you catch it.

 

 


Barclays Premier League: Christmas Carousel

Written by :
Published on : December 30, 2015

 

 

For anyone interested in watching footy in America, the Christmas season is unparalleled. Many teams in Barclays Premier League play an absurd three matches in a week, eschewing all reasonable expectations for the human body to maintain itself. Luckily, teams like Arsenal have already gone through their yearly pandemic of injuries, so hopefully the Gunners are now in the clear, especially after persevering to a relatively successful holiday slate.

 

The highlight of this Christmas season was Tuesday’s match between Premiership contenders Leceister City and Manchester City, in second and third place, respectively. It was a fascinating, albeit scoreless contest, as English football’s pre-eminent economic powerhouse, Manchester City, battled the upstart Leceister City. Leceister rode in on an unlikely wave of brilliance from a trio of unheralded players in Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante. The teams were surprisingly even, as City’s big guns couldn’t find any fluid combinations. Their best chances came by way of Raheem Sterling and his highly-overrated jet boosters; on the other side, each of the aforementioned troika had various opportunities borne of Leceister’s high pressure.

 

Yet the most buzzy match was clearly Monday’s supposed clash of titans, Manchester United and Chelsea. Each team has experienced its own brand of turmoil of late, with both managers being raked over the coals by the petulant English media. Whereas Jose Mourinho was the architect of his own demise as Chelsea’s season collapsed, Louis Van Gaal has had to navigate a morass of impulsive criticism about a fairly bad, but not disastrous run of form.

 

 Van Gaal

 

Van Gaal’s problem has stemmed from the appearance that his team is bereft of creativity; similarly, many of the transfers under Van Gaal have not panned out fully (Darmian, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin) or fizzled out terribly (Depay, Di Maria). It was clear, however, that on Monday, Manchester United was a team that simply was having hard luck. Absurdly inconsistent officiating, two shots off the woodwork, and near-misses all contributed to an ineffectual afternoon. But the performance was dominant in possession and they generated far more chances than did Chelsea. Anthony Martial, arguably Van Gaal’s best signing, continues to look like the next Thierry Henry; the 19 year-old may not be there yet, but he’s special. Juan Mata similarly buzzed around the pitch. Even Ander Herrera, another holdover from the David Moyes era of acquisitions, looked like a heady contributor.

 

On the opposite side, Chelsea looked like a team that was utterly psychologically broken. Their play was so disjointed that it seemed more a collection of talented athletes who may or may not have had any experience at all playing soccer. This is the indelible mark of Jose Mourinho, the Special One, the coach with a personality (disorder) that is inexorably stamped on all of his teams. The lovely problem Jose brings to bear is that his team has been so stamped with his personality that they are now flattened into oblivion. It’s almost as if, with every basic pass misfired, every buffoonish first touch, the voice of Jose remains in the heads of these players, undermining and second-guessing every decision.

 

 Mourinho

 

Last year the Telegraph published an article about sports psychology in football, describing “positive self-talk,” a key strategy used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The idea is that the more positive things you tell yourself, the more positive influence that has on neuro-psychological functioning:

“Negativity and criticism is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively. Positive, energized language releases dopamine, which is linked to certainty and confidence, as well as noradrenaline and DHEA which enable your prefrontal lobe to fire more effectively.”

 

Jose’s lingering ghost serves an opposite function; after all, he’s the manager whose work is “betrayed” by players. A manager who berates team doctors. Jose has a flair for maddening opponents with the perfect cutting remark. Imagine the cumulative effect this type of personality has on the players; no wonder Jose flames out of every job after a few years.

 

 

This is why Monday’s listless, scoreless draw in which Manchester dominated and Chelsea looked a disaster was such pleasurable schadenfreude. The rumor mill churns, and the folks at Old Trafford are considering bringing old Jose on to replace the venerable Van Gaal, as if no manager is ever afforded the benefit of the doubt amid a run of bad luck. It’s a dangerous game to look past the picket fence and long for greener grass; there is little guarantee that anything will improve. Even with one of football’s most accomplished managers in Mourinho, the coaching carousel can be a treacherous ride. Judging from Monday’s Chelsea performance, Manchester United’s faithful may want to consider staying on their current horse for the time being.

 

 


Champ and Chump: Week 12

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Published on : December 3, 2015

 

As we flip the calendar to December, we enter championship season in college football as the conference championships take place this weekend, and we’ll get to see who makes it to the second ever College Football Playoff. The NFL enters it’s final five weeks and the Philadelphia 76ers have even decided to win a game. Can I just say, this NBA season is setting up to be the all-time worst. Aside from watching the Warriors and their quest to win 70+ or hell, even go undefeated at this point, the league is pure filth right now. But ’tis the season of giving and being nice so instead, let’s take the time to recognize this week’s great performances while also seeing who had NBA-esque moments. This week the champs and chumps all come from football and futbol, as their seasons begin to wind down. We’ve got old and young, teams that have surprised us and teams that just flat out don’t get it. To the Champ and Chump!

 

Champ: Matt Hasselbeck

26-42 for 315 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 turnovers

The Ageless Wonder, Matt Hasselbeck.

 

Statistically speaking, Hasselbeck wasn’t the top quarterback this week, but it’s what he’s done over the course of the last four weeks that gives him the nod here. Hasselbeck is now 4-0 as a starter this year while filling in for injured Andrew Luck, and has put the Colts in a tie for first place in the AFC South. At 6-5, the Colts remaining five games aren’t the toughest, and Luck is only expected to remain sidelined until around mid-December. However, Indy can wait patiently with this 40-year old arm slinging it like he’s 25 again. Hasselbeck became only the third 40-year old quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win four straight, joining Brett Favre and Warren Moon.

 

Honorable Mention:

Jamie Vardy-  From Leicester City of the Barclay’s Premier League, he scored a goal in a 1-1 draw vs Manchester United. It marked the 11th consecutive game Vardy has found the back of the net, breaking Ruud Van Nistelroy’s record.

Ezekiel Elliott- A week after throwing his coaches under the bus, Elliott ran all over the Michigan defense for 214 yards on 30 carries and 2 touchdowns in a 42-13 victory for the Buckeyes over their rival Wolverines.

Iowa football- Debate all you want about their strength of schedule, it’s about time Iowa gets their due. Following a win in Nebraska on Saturday, Iowa is one of two undefeated teams as they head into the Big Ten Conference Championship this weekend where they’ll play Michigan State.

 

 

Chump: The Cleveland Browns

This organization has continually brought shame to its players, fans and the city itself.

 

“The Mistake by the Lake” is how a lot of Michiganders like to refer to Cleveland, and with the Cleveland Browns organization the mistakes seem to happen in bunches. Being a Lions fan, it’s hard to say too much about other NFL teams and their struggles, but it is the Browns. On Monday night, Cleveland lost in a way that only a few unfortunate teams have, when they had their potential game-winning field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown. Yet that isn’t even why the Browns find themselves as this week’s Chump. Instead, it’s because of how they have handled Johnny Manziel. Sitting on the bench as a 3rd stringer, Manziel watched Austin Davis take over late when starter Josh McCown went down with a broken collarbone. While Davis did relatively well and gave Cleveland a shot to win, Manziel needs to be the guy. To make matter’s worse, Austin Davis has been named the starter for next week over Johnny Football.

 

While it’s clear Manziel has to mature and has some issues to work out, we are talking about issues that don’t even involve arrests. While Cleveland tries to send a message to Johnny, what message are they sending to their fans? After years of mediocrity, they draft the most exciting player in football, and in almost two full seasons now, he’s started just a few games. This year in fact, those few games he has started in he has actually done quite well. With 5 passing touchdowns and just 2 interceptions Manziel has a QB Rating of 88.4 which would put him 20th in the league (Cam Newton has a QBR of 89.5), if he qualified with enough attempts. Even though 20th is just the final third of the league, you have to consider he has had no chance to establish a rhythm, one week he practices with the first unit, one week it’s the second unit, and this week with the practice squad. He’s had no chance to prove what he can do on the field consistently and the Browns have put themselves in a position where they eventually are going to have to make a decision to keep him or see him get the chance somewhere else. Meanwhile for coach Pettine, who keeps sending Johnny to timeout, he’s a few weeks from being a coordinator somewhere else.

 

Dishonorable Mention:

Tommy Armstrong- The quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished with 4 picks in a loss vs the Iowa Hawkeyes and was held without a touchdown in a game the Cornhuskers needed to win to solidify a bowl game

Florida Gators- While the Gators will still play for the SEC Championship on Saturday, the last couple weeks are incredibly discouraging for their fans. Needing overtime to beat FAU a couple weeks ago, the Gators played Florida State with an opportunity to remain in the playoff hunt. Unable to score a single point on offense, the Seminoles dominated the Gators 27-2.

Todd Gurley- The St Louis Rams’ running back had a fantastic start to his NFL career rushing for 125+ yards in four of his first five games but is yet to hit the century mark since, and is averaging just 2.5 yards per carry in his last two games.

 

 


Open Letter to Eva Carneiro and Arsenal

Written by :
Published on : August 13, 2015

 

 

Dr. Carneiro, et al —

 

My name is Antoine. I live in America, and, according to my Facebook, I’m the Chief Technology Officer at Unemployed. I also write for this website, at times. Throughout my long and industrious career, my “bread and butter” has been seeing connections where others don’t see them. Of course, this has led me down enough rabbit holes that I have learned to see the limitations, as well. Not everything is tied together with an invisible string.  But when a connection screams to me as loudly as this, I must take to the mountain tops, or at least to the internet. It is so clear to me now.

 

After learning about this first Premier League controversy of 2015-16, I’ve solved a grim dilemma.  Dr. Eva Carneiro should work for Arsenal.

 

Eva Carneiro

 

Dr. Carneiro is a brilliant and accomplished physician with an excellent track record of keeping players healthy and on the pitch. For example, in 2013-14, while she was a first-team doctor during José Mourinho’s return campaign, Chelsea posted the second fewest days lost to injury, at 556. Only Stoke City lost fewer days to injury, with 555 (stats courtesy of physioroom.com).

 

In contrast, Arsenal have long been the poster children for fragility in the Premier League. Some injuries have been tragic, such as Aaron Ramsey’s broken leg; some have been absurd in their repetitiveness (see: Diaby, Abou; Wilshere, Jack; van Persie, Robin; Rosicky, Tomas). The preceding list is so long and easy to recount that it leaves me flabbergasted.

 

The Gunners have been in poor health, and they need a better doctor. I know, sure, they hired former German National Team trainer Shad Forsythe only a year ago. But if Jack Wilshere or Mathieu Debuchy’s entire lower halves have anything to say about it, I remain skeptical. Dr. Carneiro joining Arsenal’s staff as a first-team physio is written in the stars. There’s no need to sell Eva on the new locale — she already works in London! As far the working environment, well, let’s just say Arsène Wenger is clearly not Mourinho. For one, I know for a fact that Wenger doesn’t demand daily bowel movement reports, as I’ve heard rumors that José may or may not require of all his staff.

 

Jose Mourinho

 

More fundamentally, Arsène does not suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a Cluster-B personality organization that stems from central ego deficits. He won’t harangue you in front of the media for doing your job, and then ostensibly demote you (in spite of the fact that the physio’s job is apparently an impossible balancing act of knowing when your asshole players are faking it, having the full tactical acumen of a coach to know when exactly to ignore a potentially injured player, and then also deciding to not do your job sometimes).

 

Go to the Emirates, Dr. Carneiro. You’ve been treated in a ghastly manner, and surely the Gunners hierarchy could find a place for a mistreated yet excellent staff member.

 

By the way, does anyone reading remember the number of days lost to injury for Arsenal in 2014? 1,716. Yes, that’s well over three times that of Chelsea’s.

 

Good luck to all parties this year!

 

Sincerely,

— Antoine Poutine.

 


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