Oh, all right. It’s not so much that they won, so much as how. The manner in which they
dismembered Brazil was one of the all-time great World Cup events, a real
“Where were you when…” type of moment. The pace from the flanks was outstanding
– especially from super-sub Schurrle and future great Thomas Muller, while they
were along with France the most potent attacking force in the competition. The
key elements of the home World Cup team from 2006 were able to finally summit
the hump that’s been their seemingly-eternal undoing, while several of their
squad seem set for 2016 and beyond – the Germans had an average squad age of 25
years and nine months, and the two senior citizens (Miroslav Klose and Roman
Weidenfeller) ranking as two of their more expendable players.
Villa finished the season in
fifteenth position on the EPL table, when, pre-season many expected them to
challenge for a top-half berth.
2013-14 was hardly a success for
Aston Villa. After assuming control of the midlands club prior to 2012-13, Scotland’s
entry for World’s Most Charismatic Man Paul Lambert orchestrated something of a
revolution-on-the-cheap by marginalizing the overpaid stars who had taken Villa
to the brink of Champions League football and then almost to relegation. Little
was heard of Alan Hutton, Darren Bent, Charles N’Zogbia and Jean Il Makoun,
while young players from lower divisions like Matthew Lowton and Ashley
Westwood came in as accoutrements to centerpiece Christian
Benteke, who was acquired from Genk.
While some Villans – not least captain
Ron Vlaar and central midfielder Fabian Delph – had solid seasons, many of the
players who finished 2012-13 so promisingly regressed or struggled to impact
games in 2013-14 as they had the previous season.
Plus/minus = The amount of cumulative goals over the course of a season a club scores with a particular player on the field. For example, should Manchester United score 50 goals over a season with Ryan Giggs on the field while conceding 34, his Plus/minus score would be +16.
Scored/90 = The amount of goals scored per 90 minutes a player is on the field. This varies slightly from goals scored per game, as often football players don't play entire games. Scored/90 allows us to observe the rate at which a team scores goals while a certain player is on the field.
Using the same example as above, were Ryan Giggs to play every minute of every game (ie. 3420 for the season), his Scored/90 and Goals-per-game rates would be the same at 1.315. However, if Giggs played only 3000 minutes for the year over those 38 matches, his Scored/90 rate rises to 1.5.
Conc/90 = As for Scored/90, only tracking the rate at which a team concedes while a certain player is on the field. Any of these numbers adjusted for rate allows us to compare players within teams - if Giggs' Conc/90 is 1.0 and Nani's stands at 1.1, we can suggest that United are better off defensively on the wing with Giggs on the left wing.
Goal Difference = As calculated by leagues for years, Goal Difference (sometimes here you'll see it denoted as Team GD) is the season-long difference between goals scored and goals conceded. Adjusted slightly, it becomes GD/game, or how many goals on average a club scores or concedes than their oppositon per game. You (really should) know how it works.
+/- per 90 = Adjusts Plus/Minus for rate, allowing us to judge a player by his compatriots. Using Ryan Giggs again, with a Scored/90 rate of 1.315 and Conc/90 rate of 1.0, his +/- per 90 stands at 0.315.
Perspective is a funny thing. A respected
older friend once told me “Your perspective is your reality”; it’s an adage
I’ve often tried to fault without ever managing to do so.
While listening to Subash
interview with Sir Curtly Ambrose, I was struck by one of Sir Curtly’s
remarks about his seriesmirabilis, the 1992-93 five-Test stoush
away against the upstart Australians.
“We were a young team; we were
not expected to win”.
That doesn’t make his statement
any less stunning to much of his audience, because while Australia had some
victories under their belts against India at
home and, with the first glimpses of Warne-spun mastery, away in Sri Lanka,
this hardly gave them a claim to the title of World’s Best.
While Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge had
retired, the West Indies of 1992 had last lost a series in 1980 and had conceded only 7 of 34 Tests – never more than one in a series – since
Ambrose’s debut in April 1988. But Sir Curtly’s interview tells of an interior
perception of a team not expected to win.
This is somewhat odd, because the
Australian crowd expected nothing else. The locals were talented and might put
up a fight, but victory for the home side was nestled in next to a Geelong
Premiership and dating Elizabeth
Berkley in the most teen of dreams. Our perception of the West Indies was
of an implacable machine, a viewpoint reinforced when Keith Arthurton made the
highest score of his career in the first innings of the first Test.
Local perceptions formed our
reality – the West Indies were coming and they would almost certainly win. How
could two viewpoints on the same series be at such crossed purposes? The answer is relatively straighforward: a unique perspective narrows the visual field, for better and worse. What is gained in the detail is lost in the scope.
As heralded best (amongst
others) by the documentary Fire in Babylon, the
West Indies began life as a handful of colonies who existed almost solely to be
taken advantage of. It took independence for these colonies to really coalesce
around an oval and some of the best players of all time waged private battles
against against racism and imperialism,
not just intimidating their cricketing opponents but demoralizing them. While
the forefathers of that revolution had moved on, their progeny – Richardson,
Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Haynes and Lara – remained.
The West Indies of 1992 thought
of themselves as underdogs because forty years of being enjoyable non-threats (to
1975-76) had taught them how to be exactly not
To outsiders, in no way should the West Indians
have been anything other than favourites – if only due to the mental barriers faced
by Aussies still scarred from years of Marshall, Garner, Colin Croft,
Holding, Walsh, Roberts, Ambrose and Patrick
Patterson. The tourists were still a generation influenced heavily by
revolutionaries like Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Clive Lloyd and
Sir Vivian Richards; their self-perception was of a team that would continue
fighting because otherwise they once again risked being marginalized by the actions
of cricket’s off-field establishment.
Australians knew nothing of the financial
climate in the West Indies. Nor were we aware of the difficulties faced by
many – or most – of our vanquishers, such that cricket was only a route to a
comfortable lifestyle for those who managed to secure major sponsors or County
Our perception – bouncers fired
in at 155 clicks and Viv swatting Tony Dodemaide for six (again) – meant antipodean
audiences could see only a small fraction of the macroeconomic picture. For
generations, the West Indies knew nothing but being entertainers. For nearly
twenty years, the Australians could only couple this particular set of
opponents with impending defeat.
Twenty-one years later, and we
can begin to reconcile these opposing perspectives. Both viewpoints are still
absolutely valid; if swayed a little by the Kenobi principle (“What I told you
was true. From a certain point of view”). Even though world cricket is still plagued
by nepotism and self-interest that threatens to further marginalize boards
such as the West Indies, the accessibility of information has never been
greater and as such we have more facility to appreciate the situations of our
rivals. Unfortunately cricket’s never been really good at that.
We have our final eight teams and
with one major exception, they are much as expected: Brazil, the Netherlands,
France, Belgium, Germany, Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica. According to
FIFA, who are wrong
about nearly everything, even Costa Rica isn’t that great a surprise - the
surviving teams are ranked no. 2, 3, 5, 8, 11, 15, 17 and 28 in their pre-tournament
Among many stories of the Cup so
far – including the success of incisive attacking, the failure of Asian teams
and (sigh) Luis Suarez, one key factor that’s been overlooked has been the
success of the understated. The ever-increasing queries as to Suarez's psychological capacity to cope with big occasions now creates even more questions for one-day fantasy sports owners.
Arguably the three most
impressive teams this cup – the Dutch, French and Colombian outfits – are all
helmed by managers with impressive track records yet who have been (remarkably, in some cases)
quiet about their team’s chances. No sweeping statements, no auspicious team
selections – simply an almost-implacable certainty in their players and
It helps that all three teams
have enviable talent pools from which to draw – albeit reduced by the absence
of some of the world’s best – but managing precocious talent requires
more than rolling the ball out and saying “Let’s play” (sorry, ‘Arry). All
three teams came to the Cup hopeful, but hardly expecting Finals berths – the
Netherlands were tipped by many not to exit Group B, France took years to right
their imposing battleship the friendly-fire that was Raymond Domenech, while
the 2014 World Cup is Colombia’s first in nearly two decades.
Not only does a tournament
tactical plan need to be suited to his players (Spain) and capable of defeating
their opposition (Chile or Mexico), but that plan also needs to be communicated
That communication then
influences – and is in turn influenced by – a coach’s public persona, which
governs their interactions with the slavering world media. Louis
van Gaal, Didier Deschamps and Jose Pekermann have done that in spades. France’s
clinical forward play and late-game Dutch heroics are contrasted by Colombia’s
languid brilliance, but the players are obviously playing for a coach and a
system in which they collectively believe. The message is good – but its
communication might be even better.
The ECB deploying cricketers born
hardly new*. The ranks of proxy Englishmen have swelled even recently as players from five
countries turned out for the Three Lions in the series defeat by the Sri
Lankans. Even poaching Aussies isn’t a new one; however, the biggest difference
Robson and Martin McCague (or Alan Mullally, ad infinitum) is that Australia
desperately wanted him in a Baggy Green.
At 28 and fending off Jan Vertonghen for his place
beside Vincent Kompany at the heart of Belgium's defence, it’s logical to
assume that Vermaelen wants first-team football; United certainly have money to burn that may raise his earnings above what the Gunners are willing (or
able) to offer.
While possible, it’s unlikely that van Gaal would sanction
such a move for several reasons. Both Smalling and Cleverley fit into the
coach’s modus operandi as young players malleable to his
methods; the Englishman is also four years younger than his supposed upgrade. Smalling is also United’s
emergency right-back, while both midfielder and defender are English and therefore come at a
While data rarely drives a transfer, especially in the case of Louis van Gaal, let's examine why the numbers don't like a Smalling-for-Vermaelen swap straight up – let alone with a
transfer fee involved. Most of the data
that follows comes from a pilot project that tracks each player's individual plus/minus throughout the course of the season. How each player’s team performed during those minutes give us an idea of how he compares to his team (and teammates).
World Cup winners: Let’s
just say it – Spain are great, they have been for years and over the past five
years or so and despite being short a centre-forward they find ways to win.
They truly are a team with no holes (especially with the acquisition of Diego
Costa) and their manager knows how to get the most from them. The inability to
win that plagued them for fifty years before the 2008 Euros has now been utterly
Boasting probably the
iconic player of the tournament in Neymar, a fine
supporting cast and a manager who borders on genius, the reason I haven’t
selected them isn’t so much commentary on them but a reflection on how much
faith I have in Spain (and Spanish football in general). However, this team
depends more on three players (Thiago Silva, Luis Gustavo and Hulk) than you
Third-place game: Germany
vs Argentina, with Argentina coming out on top. The quality going forward that
the Argentines have is mind-boggling: the best player on the planet, perhaps
the fourth-best player on the planet (Aguero), and – according
to the Guardian – the criminally-underrated 72nd best player on
the planet (Angel Di Maria – he may be the 72nd “best”, but may rank
in the top 20 in terms of actual impact).
This trident are backed by the wiles of Martin Dimichelis,
Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano, while the elegance of Ezequiel Garay will
shine in South American conditions. Unfortunately for Germany, a reliance on a
goalscorer who is only two years away from using a Zimmer frame is just too
great to achieve their lofty – and
now increasingly tempered – ambitions.