TheSecondBall.com is going on hiatus as I've been asked to write for NBC Sports' ProSoccerTalk (prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com) and have happily agreed to do so.
Someday I may return to TheSecondBall.com but for now please catch my musings over at ProSoccerTalk. Thanks for your continued support!!!
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Is it time for the Premier League to reinvent itself?
With Arsenal's exit from the Champions League, England is left without a representative in the last eight of the competition for the first time in 17 years. The situation was summed up perfectly by Arsene Wenger, who noted that the exit of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal prior to the quarter-final stage is "a massive disappointment for English football."
From 2006-09 the Premier League's dominance in Europe was undeniable as three of four semi-finalists were English clubs. Liverpool, Chelsea and United were top dogs in 2006-07 when AC Milan raised the cup. During United's triumphant campaign in 2007-08, Chelsea lost out on penalties after knocking off Liverpool in the semis. And when United lost to Barcelona in the 2008-09 competition, Chelsea and Arsenal each performed well enough to make the final four.
But in 2009-10, Premiership clubs began to struggle as only two clubs (United and Arsenal) made the quarter-finals. The following season three clubs reached the quarters where Chelsea and Tottenham lost and United advanced to the finals before losing 3-1 to Barcelona. Last year it was only Chelsea, the eventual winners, who qualified for the final eight.
The slide confirms the fact that despite popular notion, the Premier League is not the "best" league in the world. It's arguably the most competitive and/or entertaining, but it is certainly not the "best". Coming to grips with this fact is important because it begs the question - what's wrong with the Premiership?
For me, the homogeneous nature of English clubs inflicts a deep wound. Yes, some clubs like Arsenal and Swansea City have adopted styles that are distinctly more 'European' than 'English' but the majority of football in England is played with the same style.
If we're being honest, aside from the vast differences in talent there is little difference in the style of play (or philosophies) of United, City and Chelsea as opposed to, say, Everton, Norwich and West Brom. The same parallels can be made for clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two - the talent pool differs but the culture does not. It's not that the furious English style is a bad brand of football - I obviously find it completely intoxicating - but it definitely shelters clubs when playing in Europe.
Fixing this problem is a whole other can of worms.
Perhaps it's time to scrap or revise the format of the League Cup, a tournament that (along with the FA Cup) forces Premier League clubs to regress deeper into fish-and-chips, Sunday league football. Or, maybe Premier League players need an extended winter break a la the Bundesliga. Or, possibly English clubs need to recruit even more foreign managers, players and technologies.
One way or another, the Premier League and its clubs need to do what any smart business does when global competition begins to pass them by - innovate, educate and reinvent.
Did you watch Arsenal last night? I mean, did you really watch them?
After Bayern Munich knocked the stuffing out of the Gunners in the 3-1 first-leg home defeat, Arsenal needed a miracle at the Allianz Arena to see them through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Though the miracle didn't come, something entirely different transpired, as Arsene Wenger's side put forth its best performance of the season - a rabid yet stylistic display of attacking football that thrashed the Bavarian giants 2-0. The two goal margin, while enough to put the Gunners level on aggregate at 3-3, fell short on the away goals rule, sending them out of Europe's biggest club contest.
In a season dominated by an English media with a hard-on for taking the piss out of Arsenal, the reaction of Wenger & Co.'s dissenters was surprisingly quiet on Thursday. No rumblings about tight financial policies, toothless defenders, wingers who can't score or a manager past his prime. Even the Arsenal loving pundits were surprisingly quiet. All around England the reaction to Arsenal's display - which, don't kid yourself, was the type of performance that could have taken down Barcelona in the Nou Camp - was the same. Crickets.
Yes, Arsenal failed to advance and reconfirmed their apparent inability to find consistency over 180 minutes in the Round of 16. But if you were really watching Arsenal last night then you witnessed something invigorating.
They were told that no team in Champions League history had overturned a two-goal deficit away from home.
They cared not.
They were without their fat-bottomed-small playmaker (Jack Wilshire) to injury and their captain (Thomas Vermaelen) and starting goal-keeper (Wojciech Szczęsny) to poor form.
It mattered not.
Despite the dark, bleak atmosphere that surrounded them, White Arsenal became Black Arsenal. They dropped the innocent, fragile, good-boy routine. They tore off the conservative cloak so often donned by the red side of North London and embraced the misery before them. Their eyes narrowed, foam dripped from their incisors and a ferocious final performance was delivered over the course of 90 beautiful minutes.
If you were really watching last night, the birth of Black Arsenal would have brought you to your feet.
How long we'll be standing, however, remains to be seen.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
In case you didn't already know, Paolo Di Canio is the man. All you have to do is ask Paolo himself.
Since Reading's sacking of Brian McDermott on Monday, Di Canio has emerged as the favorite to take over at the Madejski. Never shy to sing his own praises, the Italian appointed himself "the best manager" in Leagues One and Two. After guiding Swindon Town to the League Two title last season, Di Canio stepped down as manager of The Robins last month but not before putting the club in prime position for a League One promotion playoff spot.
In staking his claim to the Reading throne the Italian stroked his own ego by squashing others. "I’ve already proven my ability in League Two and League One, where there are many arrogant and average players. I was able to turn their mentality and help them become better footballers. You can imagine if I have the chance to do the same at the top level."
Ahhhhhh yes, one can only imagine.
The problem is that while Reading is a club in need of reform, it's not to their attitude that needs adjusting. This is a group of players that show up to each match, lunch pail in hand, ready to run themselves ragged for their teammates and supporters. Whether Di Canio's ego-crushing tactics are what the Royals need to avoid relegation remains to be seen.
Other potential suitors on Reading's wish list include Brighton boss Gus Poyet, former Reading boss Steve Coppell, ex-West Ham and Charlton manager Alan Curbishley, former Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo and former Southampton gaffer Nigel Adkins.
This weekend it will be up to Eamonn Dolan, head of the club’s Academy, to lead Reading in their bout against league leaders Manchester United.
I'm no Arsenal supporter but people need to cut Arsene Wenger a break.
Whether criticizing the club's trophy drought, conservative financial policies, reliance on young talent or unappealing habit of selling their prized players, not a day goes by when somone isn't kicking Arsene Wenger square in the nuts.
Today the Frenchman was split open by pundits (and nobodies) for his decision to allegedly leave first-team regulars Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny and Per Mertesacker out of his starting line-up. This decision, combined with injuries to Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna and Lukas Podolski, spells doom for Arsenal's chances in tonight's Champions League match against Bayern Munich - as if that weren't already the case.
Having lost the first leg of the Round of 16 by a score of 3-1, Arsenal must now inflict the same damage (or more) on their Bavarian adversaries if the Gunners plan on advancing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. To give an idea of how impossible this is, Vegas is offering 2000/1 odds on Arsenal advancing to the next round.
Wenger's decision to rest Cazorla, Walcott, Szczesny and Mertesacker had famous Gooner's throughout the globe up in hysterics. America's most annoying football "personality", Piers Morgan, tweeted: 'If this is true, it's an absolute disgrace, and an insult to our travelling fans' while Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter wrote: 'Oh dear, Arsenal are not interested in pulling off a comeback like Barcelona did yesterday. Don't take your best players. Complete joke.'
Notable pundits joined in the bashing as well with Match of the Day pundit, Gary Lineker, tweeting "They have no other cup competitions to worry about, why on earth would he feel the need to rest players?" The obvious retort is that Wenger is resting his players for a furious final push for fourth place and Champions League qualification. But Lineker bulloxed such a policy, tweeting, 'Who [Wenger] plays tonight will have no baring on where they finish in the league. Rotation is a myth.'
To me, the idea that "[r]otation is a myth," is a myth. If Mr. Lineker disagrees he should feel free to review the lineup cards of trophy lifting managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, and dare I even say it, Roberto Mancini, as evidence to the contrary.
At this point in time there's only one feat Arsenal can still realistically accomplish and that's qualifying for Champions League. Keep kicking Wenger in the nuts, however, and there's no chance it happens.
"You'll be sorry when I'm gone."
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Are we really critiquing goal celebrations, Jamie Redknapp?
Following Cristiano Ronaldo’s refusal to celebrate his game-winning goal that sent Manchester United crashing out of the Champions League, most fans and pundits agreed the gesture was respectful. The reasons behind the move was twofold. Not only had CR7 spent some of his more formative years (2003-09) at Old Trafford but some gossip girls believe the Portuguese killer may make a dramatic return to the red side of Manchester this summer. Whether or not this comes to fruition, few can argue that his muted celebration was not born out of class.
Jamie Redknapp is one of those few. The former Liverpool man and current Daily Mail journalist took pen to paper to explain why Ronaldo's failure to celebrate the goal “really annoys me.” He explained:
Why don’t players celebrate goals? It’s rubbish. People say it’s a sign of respect to a former team, but I think it’s nonsense. It’s an act for the fans, to try to keep them onside. There is no emotion like scoring a goal when you are playing football. So enjoy it!
If you have so much respect for the Manchester United fans, Cristiano, don’t leave.
How Redknapp arrives at such a conclusion – except to draw the ire of readers – is unclear. Would he prefer Ronaldo to have run the length of the pitch and launch into a knee slide in front of the United supporters a la Emmanuel Adebayor? Doubtful.
The reasons behind Redknapp's theory are curious. First, the assumption that goal scoring is an event limited to “an act for the fans" disregards the fact that maybe, just maybe, the players themselves receive joy in celebrating their accomplishment.
Second, how is Redknapp sure that CR7’s lack of a celebration did not “keep [the fans] onside”? Besides the fact that few people other than Redknapp himself understand what this statement actually means, one has to assume it has something to do with keeping the fans involved in the match. Not sure if Jamie noticed, but Ronaldo’s goal came shortly after Nani’s red card, a moment that sutnned and shocked the United faithful into silence. Had Ronaldo gone ballistic, taken his shirt off and jumped into the stands in celebration, there’s a good chance that such antics would have sent the majority of the 75,811 fans at Old Trafford into hysterics. In this situation the one thing Ronaldo and Real Madrid didn’t want to do was "keep [the fans[ onside". It was just one of those Ari Gold moments where the smarter man recognizes that "silence is golden".
Third, the notion that Ronaldo’s lack of celebration indicated that he didn’t “enjoy” scoring the goal is downright comical. Without ever have spoken a word to Ronaldo I can tell you that he enjoyed scoring that goal. In fact, he freaking loved it. It was a goal (and a celebration) that will forever be remembered, which, we all know, is EXACTLY what Ronaldo wants.
Redknapp's idea that goals must be celebrated explosively is a ridiculous attempt to tell goal-scorers how to enjoy their moment. Well thanks, Jamie. While you're at it, let me know how I'm supposed to react the next time I shag a beautiful woman. Should I brag to my boys? Or maybe just shut my mouth and thank my lucky stars?
Few will argue that goals and goal celebrations are two of the best moments in football. Both are an art in and of themselves, an expression of unbridled passion in the purest form. So let's just appreciate the art in whatever form it comes - especially when it's provided by one of the greatest footballers the game has ever seen.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
'No worries, brah,' was (effectively) the response of Liverpool's managing director Ian Ayre after revealing an annual loss of £40.5 million over a 10 month period up to the end of May 2012.
The loss took the club's total debt to £87.2 million but Ayre insists, "[t]here's no panic on part. We feel that we are making progress and improving all the time. Our aspiration for the next couple of years, as the rules will dictate, is to break even and then to make a profit beyond that."
Ayre reiterated that the club are huge proponents of Financial Fair Play and will continue to pursue smart investments. "We will try and invest carefully and try and find the right deal in the transfer market," said Ayre. "If we get the deals right and I would draw attention to January when we did some good business for the club, we got two great players and hopefully we can continue along that sort of line."
The "good business" Ayre refers to is the £20 million spent on Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in the January transfer window. Curious as to how Ayre can make such a snap financial assessment. While Sturridge has chipped in 5 goals in 7 competitions and Coutinho has shown huge creative potential in just 3 matches, slapping the "good business" stamp on the investment after a little over one month is a bit rich.
If Ayre is a man of his word, however, finances won't motivate Brendan Rodgers' dealings this summer. "We won't be selling anyone because of the financial position," said Ayre. "If we are selling anyone, it will be because they are deemed by the manager to be surplus to his requirements and if that happens we will be replacing them and bringing new players in as we always do."
One player who is anything but "surplus" is Luis Suarez, who's hat-trick last weekend took his league scoring total to an incredible 21 goals in 27 matches. Nevertheless, Liverpool supporters will spend the summer wearing Depend's as clubs flush with money - ahem, Bayern Munich - start flashing their fat kitty to FSG. And while Suarez has repeatedly stated that he is happy at Anfield, money does funny things to people.
How the Suarez situation will play out is anyone's guess. In the meantime, players likely on the "surplus" list are Jonjo Shelvey, Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll, Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi, Martin Skrtel, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson. All would be well served by keeping a tidy locker once the weather turns warm.
Monday, March 4, 2013
As an Evertonian, a footballer and a fan, I have the utmost respect for David Moyes. But for the love of all that's sacred it's time to drop Johnny Heitinga in favor of Shane Duffy.
Has there ever been a more obvious time for a changing of the guard? In this past Saturday's 3-1 romp of Reading Moyes rolled out his preferred center-back duo of Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka. Hard to argue against that selection. Distin's size, ability to read the game and mastery of the art of the tackle works brilliantly with Jagielka's leadership, organizational skills and exceptional positioning. No, they aren't the paciest partnership in the league but they are sages of the center-back position and, when healthy, incredibly effective.
The key, of course, is 'when healthy'. Because when either Distin or Jagielka is unable to play - like last Saturday when Jagielka was forced off with an ankle gash - the Toffees back line suddenly becomes one of the shakiest in the Premiership. The major reason? Johnny Heitinga.
Now let's get something straight - Johnny Heitinga is the man. I love Johnny, Evertonians love Johnny and Moyes loves Johnny.
Time and time throughout Heitinga's career at Goodison he's come up with massive moments, particularly in the FA Cup. In a 4th Round FA Cup tie at Bolton this past January it was Heitinga's 91st minute rip that gave Everton the 2-1 victory. But Johnny's antics in the 2010-11 FA Cup are what established him as a cult hero for the Toffees. Stuck at 1-1 in a replay match against holders Chelsea the match went to penalties and Heitinga stepped up and smashed home Everton's fourth. As he walked back to midfield he lowered his shoulder and plowed through the oncoming Ashley Cole, who was next to take Chelsea's penalty. The barge sent Cole's focus for a loop and he missed the ensuing shot, which set up Phil Neville to score the winner. Brilliant.
Last season was one of Heitinga's finest. His spirit and determination was not lost on the club's supporters, who voted him Everton's Player of the Year. In response, Heitinga referred to Everton as his "family."
This season, unfortunately, has been a different story for Johnny. In the last 10 weeks his mistakes have resulted in the concession of 9 goals. In the 2-1 victory over West Ham on December 22nd, a slow-reacting Heitinga got skinned by Carlton Cole who pounded home the opener. Eight days later Heitinga was caught cement-footed on both of Frank Lampard's goals in Chelsea's 2-1 win. In the 2-1 victory against West Brom on January 30th Heitinga bungled his back-header to Tim Howard, which allowed Shane Long to pounce. Three days later Heitinga was beaten twice by Christian Benteke and once by Gabby Agbonglahor resulting in a 3-3 draw at Villa Park. The next week Heitinga was dusted by Robin van Persie in United's 2-0 win. And finally during this past Saturday's 3-1 victory over Reading, Johnny failed to stay tight to Hal Robson-Kanu, who headed home the consolation goal.
The precise reason behind the Dutchman's poor form is unclear. But if Everton hope to either raise the FA Cup or finish Top 5 (or both), they can't afford to continue playing a slow and seemingly disinterested center-back. They need a spark.
Shane Patrick Michael Duffy is an intelligent, skilled and composed center-back who has represented Ireland at all levels although has yet to earn a cap on the senior squad. The 21 year old made his professional debut for Everton in a December 2009 Europa League match against AEK Athens. Six months later his career was derailed when a collision forced him to undergo life-saving surgery for a lacerated liver that caused him to lose two-thirds (3.6 litres) of his blood supply. Recovery from the injury forced Duffy to spend most of the 2011-12 season on loan at Scunthorpe United where he made 18 appearances. This season the 6'4" center-back is back at Goodison and has looked strong in three limited appearances.
Moyes' reluctance to hand Duffy more time is not surprising as the manager is notoriously conservative when bringing along youth talent. But with Jagielka out, Heitinga struggling and the club in need of some new life to carry it through the final stretch of the season, the time has come to hand Shane Duffy the reins.