Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Updated Goalkeeper stats available

After some happy-fun-time data entry, we can now present you with a fully updated list of European goalkeeper stats, including all players who started a game in the four major European leagues this season.  You can get there by clicking the link below.

European Goalkeeper stats, 2011-12 season

Balanced Sports also offers other collections of stats, like Key Man analysis and Invidivual/Team efficiency measures.  Feel free to take a look at them as well.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Overachievers/underachievers: 2011-2012 EPL

 After compiling a cumulative Premiership table over the past twenty years, one comment suggested an alternative method of comparing lasting football league performance.  It suggested comparing club-by-club seasonal performance against their average league position (ALP).  As history only provides a certain precedent, the we can also use multiple time periods: say, five, ten or twenty years. This also serves as a reference point for season 2011-12: did your team outperform, meet or fail to live up to expectation?

The following table lists the 2011-12 Premier League clubs by final league position and compares it with their average league position over both 20 years and five years.  Performance arrows suggest how well the club's past season achievements compare to their recent and mid-term history.

Club (by league position) ALP 1993-2012
ALP 2008-2012
Manchester City
16.7
˄
5.6
˄
Manchester United
1.6
˅
1.4
-
Arsenal
3.6
˄
3.4
-
Tottenham Hotspur
9.9
˄
6.4
˄
Newcastle United
9.0
˄
13.6
˄
Chelsea
5.1
˅
2.8
˅
Everton
10.9
˄
6.4
˅
Liverpool
4.6
˅
5.4
˅
Fulham
31.7
˄
10.6
˄
West Bromwich Albion
26.9
˄
16.8
˄
Swansea City
58.5
˄
26.8
˄˄
Norwich City
27.6
˄
31.6
˄˄
Sunderland
20.3
˄
13.4
˄
Stoke City
32.4
˄
14.4
-
Wigan Athletic
42.0
˄
14.4
˅
Aston Villa
8.8
˅
8.6
˅
Queens Park Rangers
30.8
˄
27.2
˄
Bolton Wanderers
19
˄
15
˅
Blackburn Rovers
11.7
˅
13.2
˅
Wolverhampton Wanderers
26.3
˄
20
-

*Some context: the only club to even approach Manchester United's 20-year form is Bayern Munich, who in the two decades to 2012 boasted an ALP of 1.9.  They also won three fewer league titles (9) than the Red Devils (12).  During the same period, Barcelona won 9 Liga titles with an ALP of 2.15; rivals Real Madrid won 7 titles with ALP 2.35 while A.C. Milan managed only 5 titles and ALP 3.4.  Love or hate them, their consistency is admirable.*

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Chelsea find themselves; win Champions League

Chelsea's win over Bayern Munich during Saturday's Champions League final is a triumph that only three months ago was utterly inconceivable.  The club was desperately short of form, many/most/all players had decided unilaterally that Andre Villas-Boas had no business coaching them and the team played with purposelessness rivalling beheaded chickens.

This is certainly due in part to Villas-Boas' methods and the uneasy conflict they created when combined with his remit: beautiful football, better results and a younger, growing team.  That the Portuguese manager attempted a root-and-branch reform in the back rooms of Cobham within months of arriving was certainly ambitious; with hindsight, it appears unfortunate and a little misguided

Chelsea's progress towards a high defensive line and a team composed of rapiers rather than broadswords created a definite schism in the playing staff.  Those players with bucketfuls of personality and credibility - Terry, Drogba, Cole, Cech and Lampard - were still key to this iteration of the team, both on- and off-field; yet the club's future identity was shifted instantly and without consult to a shot-happy Daniel Sturridge, the pitiable Fernando Torres and other youngsters.

This situation wasn't helped by player purchases made by club executives rather than by the man in charge of dictating the squad's sense of collective self, the manager.  Torres, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibault Courtois, Johnny Kills and Gary Cahill were all young, highly sought-after and supposedly ├╝bertalented superstars of the future.  Unfortunately they only exacerbated the personality crisis within the club: were Chelsea a young, fluid, passing team or a team of blunt but supereffective veterans?

Although game tactics were (probably) clear, the entire squad - by dint of confusing statements, puzzling purchases, genuinely odd team selections and an unfamiliar, unsuited gameplan - were a team without an overwhelming sense of purpose or identity.
Courtesy: Telegraph.co.uk
In sport, identity is important.  Not only does it provide a tactical map, but it also generates a sense of certainty in both management and playing staff which helps inherently on a psychological level.   Perhaps one of it's ultimate consequences is with player acquisition.  Rather than plugging in stars from other teams who may not fit the team's  psyche or tactics (a la Liverpool), they can bring in players suited best for their club (say, Blackpool or the latter-day Newcastle United).  A standout example can be taken from this year's promoted teams: after having played the same style in three divisions, Swansea City and Norwich City have succeeded by employing cheap, second- and third-tier players who fit their club's on- and off-field culture.

Since Roberto Di Matteo assumed control, he has created a sense of unity and identity lacking during Villas-Boas' reign.  Even though they finished one position lower in the league than they were when AVB was fired, this too helped: Chelsea became cup-focused and able to coalesce behind an "underdog" persona.  While this worked well against bogey-team Barcelona, it was taken to the nth degree in Munich: talisman captain suspended, best defender suspended, two centre-backs recovering from injury, backups of questionable quality, key midfielder suspended ...  the pervading instability and queries over the quality of replacement (who'd have though Jose Boswinga and Gary Cahill would start the final only two months ago?) only contributed to a "we'll show 'em" mentality.

Chelsea absorbed tremendous amounts of pressure and then punished both Barca and Bayern when their limited opportunities came.  With some notable exceptions, the Blues have struggled since Mourinho's departure to find a common identity.  Saturday's result came as they found themselves after years of looking.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Twenty-year Premier League table

The following is the cumulative Premier League table dating back to the inception of the Premier League in 1992-93.  Although I'm among the first to admit that English football hardly began with that league's debut season, the twenty year mark create an anniversary feeling, allowing reminiscences and us to compile this table.

Movers this year include Manchester City, who climbed from eleventh to fifth, and Wolves, whose inept displays after Mick McCarthy's dismissal left them at the bottom of the table.  Two consecutive strong seasons from West Brom has finally allowed them to climb from the bottom to their current position.  Click here to view last year's table.

Team
Years
Title
Range
Top 4
Top 10
Relegations
Pts
Avg
Avg GD
Man Utd
20
12
1 to 3
20
20
0
1663
83.15
44.05
Arsenal
20
3
1 to 12
17
19
0
1449
72.45
31.85
Chelsea
20
3
1 to 14
11
16
0
1402
70.1
26.95
Blackburn
18
1
1 to 19
3
11
2
969
53.83
1.28
Man City
15
1
1 to 18
2
8
2
783
52.2
2.33
Liverpool
20
0
2 to 8
15
20
0
1314
65.7
25.05
Leeds United
12
0
3 to 19
3
7
1
692
57.67
5.67
Newcastle
18
0
2 to 18
2
9
1
1017
56.5
6.83
Aston Villa
20
0
2 to 18
2
15
0
1091
54.55
3.15
Tottenham
20
0
4 to 15
2
14
0
1086
54.3
2.25
Everton
20
0
4 to 17
1
8
0
1033
51.65
0.1
QPR
5
0
5 to 19
0
3
1
250
50
-6.2
Norwich City
5
0
3 to 20
0
1
2
248
49.6
-13.2
Sheffield Wed.
8
0
7 to 19
0
3
1
392
49
-6.88
West Ham
16
0
5 to 20
0
8
2
764
47.75
-9.81
Derby County
7
0
8 to 20
0
2
2
274
46.6
-21.29
Fulham
11
0
7 to 17
0
4
0
511
46.45
-3.6
Stoke City
4
0
11 to 14
0
0
0
183
45.75
-12.5
Coventry City
9
0
11 to 19
0
0
1
409
45.44
-11.44
Southampton
13
0
8 to 20
0
3
1
587
45.15
-10
Charlton Athl.
8
0
7 to 19
0
2
2
361
45.13
-12.5
Ipswich Town
5
0
5 to 22
0
1
2
224
44.8
-18.6
Bolton
13
0
6 to 20
0
4
2
575
44.23
-13.08
Sheffield Utd
3
0
14 to 20
0
0
2
132
44
-13.33
Sunderland
10
0
7 to 20
0
3
3
440
44
-17.2
Middlesbrough
14
0
7 to 21
0
2
3
611
43.64
-8.57
Birmingham
7
0
9 to 19
0
2
3
301
43
-12.43
Leicester City
8
0
8 to 21
0
4
3
342
42.75
-12.75
Wigan
7
0
10 to 17
0
1
0
295
42.14
-20
Nottm Forest
5
0
3 to 22
1
2
3
199
39.8
-11.6
Crystal Palace
4
0
18 to 21
0
0
4
159
39.75
-18.75
Portsmouth
7
0
8 to 20
0
2
1
293
36.63
-12.57
West Brom
6
0
10 to 20
0
1
3
216
36
-21.83
Wolves
4
0
15 to 20
0
0
2
136
34
-30.75

Table is arranged by order of:
1. Premiership Titles
2. Top Four Berths minus Relegations to zero (ie. can't go negative); clean relegation sheet outweighs more Top 4s and more Relegations.
3. Average Points
4. Average Goal Difference

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Australia - lacking an identity

Despite two consecutive series wins in vastly different circumstances, the Australian cricket team still tricks the eye. In one Test, Ed Cowan resembles a doughty old-school opener, capable of withstanding the best attacks in world cricket; the following, he disappears into the sheds at 1/11. During one match, Shane Watson fights indomitably for a hard-earned 80; the next, he plays over and around a nothing-ball and departs meekly. In any one series Australia is likely to employ seven different bowlers.

With victories against India and the West Indies under his belt and a reasonable layoff before their next Test, it's time Michael Clarke examined his team. They aren't super talented, abounding with youthful promise or even stocked with journeymen. The Australian team, or even the thirty-man CA contract list, has no defining single characteristic which unifies them. And it shows.

Ed Cowan - (c) Balanced Sports
Australia are a team without an identity. Without that unifying factor and devoid of knowledge of who they are as a team, the country's Test players will continue to play inconsistent cricket.

The greatest teams in world cricket history have rocked an identity which was the personification of their most dominant collective character traits. The Australians of the first half of the last decade epitomised arrogance. The West Indians they replaced as ostensible World Champs exuded a fearsome, calculating vibe. For years, Pakistan has been content with being unknowable. Flower's England has committed to twin attitudes of professionalism and preparation. Look back at every great team in history and adjectives spring quickly to mind.

With the current Aussies, those adjectives are less defining and more descriptive. Inconsistent. Journeyman. They (mostly) try hard.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Where to now for Bolton Wanderers?

The Premier League season concluded with one of the more exciting final days in recent memory. While it was certain that either they or QPR would drop to the Championship, the manner of Bolton's ultimate demise was unexpected but eventually deserved. Since a promising start to 2010-11, the Trotters slid rapidly from an FA Cup semi-final appearance to a horrible 2011-12 season.

There was bad luck, such as key forward Chung-yong Lee breaking his leg or Stuart Holden missing most of the year; lack of form and age plagued Kevin Davies and Martin Petrov; decisively the Bolton defence was so leaky one imagines the architect planned it that way.

That Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at Spurs was again an incident even the best planning couldn't anticipate.

Coyle, only a year ago rumoured as a potential Arsenal manager, has an almighty job to lead his club back to the Premier League. Considering Bolton's rather unsound fiscal state, it is a task he'll likely be expected to complete at the first attempt. Here are four steps which will allow Bolton to earn back their Premiership status:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Kobe vs. Jordan - a tale of two flu games

Kobe Bryant has played a careerlong game of one-upmanship with the NBA's greatest. This is most pronounced with Michael Jordan, the player with whom he is most often compared. It's no secret that Kobe wants to be the greatest ever and that he's almost painfully aware that to be so considered, he has to surmount Jordan in achievement and legacy.

There is no end of comparison. Their careers cross over on many levels, from skills, to gifts, desire and even career achievement. Despite his stated protests, by so patently aiming to dethrone the NBA's all-time greatest, Kobe actively invites the Jordan comparison. And he can't ever hope to win. This futile struggle, perhaps more than any other, is the core of his narrative. He will never be as universally respected and admired as Jordan; his presence in the internet era (where naysayers proliferate) and the simple fact that he is so often compared to his motivation underlines that.

Bryant is certainly admirable: his desire to be the best and to work hard to achieve is laudable; his blatant pursuit of the title “Greatest Ever” even lays bare an honesty not normally associated with pro ballers, least of all the enigmatic Bryant and calculating Jordan. However, that honesty works against him: Jordan never felt the need to publicly state his ambition/case for being the best baller ever; it was unstated and dignified.

It is telling that Kobe has felt – and at times appears to service – that need.

Cardiff City - football's "Indecent Proposal"

How much money would it take for you to compromise your principles?

Courtesy: itv.com
Cardiff City Football Club, who lost in the first round of the English Championship playoffs this week, were the recipient of just such an indecent proposal: 100 million pounds to permanently re-brand the club, changing the club jersey from blue to red and dispensing with their Bluebird nickname. City would have been permanently “rebranded” in efforts to market the club better in Asia.

Plans for the changeover have been shelved after a leaked document led to uproar from fans.

This is hardly the first time that clubs have dispensed with tradition for the sake of finance. In Australia, Carlton Football Club once changed their navy blue strip to royal blue because M&Ms wanted to introduce Blue M&Ms to Australia. Fans puked (the club's nickname is the Navy Blues) but swallowed the sponsor dollars. Only a year or two later, Geelong footballer Garry Hocking changed his name to Whiskas (a popular brand of cat food) to earn his debt-ridden club a hefty sum.

While both these instances were temporary, occurred half a world away to clubs who seriously needed coin, Cardiff City's financial situation is hardly tip-top. This means the failed re-branding could have serious implications for the club's continued stability in the future. Cardiff's Malaysian owners have suggested as much in an open letter to fans.

The thought of such “branding” makes one only too aware of the pure economics underlying the sport. I would hate to see the club changing to a red dragon motif simply for the sake of it; even typing the word “rebranding” in a sports paradigm makes me feel dirty.

But the commercial reality is that Cardiff City (like many football clubs) have already marginally compromised the integrity of their kit by selling it as a billboard for sponsors. As we can see with Barcelona, Unicef and the mysterious Qatar Foundation, once changes like this are made – no matter how laudable – the game becomes less about crosses and more about balance sheets.

Teams have almost always used their strip to generate income. The site Historical Football Kits describes the changing face of team uniforms over time and you watch a match or visit a football website without multiple ads asking you to “support your club and buy their 2012-13 kit NOW!”.

In reality, what Cardiff City's owners planned to do was just a more clumsy and blatant version of what almost every league club already does: subtly changing and altering their team kit every season to generate revenue. These kit changes are driven by a market – and so was the idea behind Cardiff City Dragons (no matter how potentially flawed that market research may have been).

While not wanting to see the Bluebirds disappear, the industry realities behind the supposed change are immutable. It was pleasing to see fans “win out” and keep their Bluebirds blue; however, the change that didn't happen may end up being a watershed, looked back upon as a great “what if”.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Justin Langer by Glenn Mitchell

As part of our continuing series, World Cricket Watch and Balanced Sports invited Glenn Mitchell, sports broadcaster and mental health advocate, to write about his favourite cricketer, Justin  Langer.  Glenn's website is glennmitchell.com.au and he tweets @mitchellglenn

I clearly remember standing in the middle of a rain-soaked Sinhalese Sports Club in September 1999 as the third and final Test of the Sri Lanka-Australia series came to a very wet conclusion and the hosts on the precipice of a historic 1-nil series win.

Beneath the light drizzle that day I had a chat with Justin Langer near the heavily covered pitch.

Like many of the Australian batsmen during that ill-fated series, Langer had struggled for runs, scoring just 51 in four innings. Those lean performances took his then 23-Test career aggregate to 1261 runs at an unflattering average of 33.

Having taken almost six years to compile those numbers, Langer’s long term place in the team looked precarious – in fact, his short term viability at Test level looked decidedly uncertain.

As we were chatting, I asked him what his goals were for the future. He looked me straight in the eye and said he wanted to play 100 Test matches.

I smiled back, but behind the smile I was thinking that such an ambition was more than likely a quixotic dream, the misplaced desire of a young man who loved the sport and with it, representing his country. In short, I doubted his future while Langer believed firmly in his.

History will indicate that one of us got it right and I am happy to state that it wasn’t me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Where to now for Blackburn Rovers?

When a club is relegated from their country's top division, any attempts to remedy that situation are based upon a number of key principles.

Firstly, one can most often safely assume that the club's owners want the club to succeed. Pursuant to this, those same owners must also be capable of understanding the ramifications of relegation both on their balance sheets and fan emotions. An ability – and willingness – to change what isn't working has usually led these owners to become one of the more wealthy people in the world; it should be expected owners can bring the same flexibility to sports business as well. As we well know, the last point is hardly a given.

Which brings us to a confusing point: how do we understand Venky's, the poultry-farming owners of relegated Blackburn Rovers? Since coming to power in October 2010, the company has almost wilfully alienated Rovers' proud fanbase with a procession of curious statements, odd transfer dealings and, most damningly, casual negligence.

When an autocrat has their subjects' best interests at heart, guessing their next move becomes a mite easier. So obscure have their methods been, predicting Venky's next move would have made Nostradamus rich beyond counting. However, it is obvious that with a prodigious fall from relative safety and a last-ditch escape from relegation last season, that changes must be made at Ewood Park lest the one-time Premier League champions recede into irrelevance.

With that said, here's some suggestions how Blackburn Rovers can move forward:

Keep Yakubu and Grant Hanley

Given Rovers' reluctance to commit to new or significant salaries, to think that Yakubu can stay at Rovers is extremely optimistic. The slowly-self-inflating front man had a great year for his new club, scoring 16 EPL goals this season in a return to form that would have surprised Everton and Nigeria fans alike. If he was able to produce that many goals from a team whose major creative sparks, outside Junior Hoilett, were David Dunn and Mauro Formica, he should own the Championship. His salary should be the one expensive one Rovers wear in hopes of a quick springboard back to the elite league.

Hanley is opposite: a young central defender who progressed through the Rover youth system and earned his position with a string of encouraging performances. He's good, and even better, he's cheap. With Hanley on board – and perhaps even Scott Dann, whose relegation record suggests some clubs aren't likely to touch him – Rovers should have one of the better central defensive duos in the second tier. Which brings us to …

Stop the bleeding

Both literally – they've allowed 76 goals so far this season despite the presence of Dann, Hanley and former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson – and figuratively. Rovers, through the actions and words of ownership, manager, ghost-managing player agent and even vociferous fans, have shown an alarming talent for scoring PR own-goals with a Richard Dunne-like frequency.

The one thing you can say for Rovers management is that they have (until recently) presented a relatively united front. However, squad faith in the manager varies from non-existent to excellent and fan faith in anyone attached to the club is like finding last night's thunderstorm. Make of West Ham and Messrs Gold and Sullivan what you will, but on relegation last term they clearly laid out their plans for a return to the Premiership. Rovers fans need – and deserve – the same clarity.

On-field, the situation is much easier to remedy: in direct opposition to his predecessor, Kean has promulgated an intriguing ability to keep Rovers scoring. However, it has come at the expense of any defensive stolidity at all – a fact highlighted by the departures of Phil Jones, Christopher Samba and Ryan Nelsen. Even Steven Nzonzi, who for the last two seasons has exhibited a lot of promise, was expelled from the squad as Rovers gazed at relegation. He defines rangy and can deconstruct many opposition forward moves – he needs to play.

Freeing the beast within Nzonzi comes with the one, eternal Rovers caveat: everything depends on if they can afford to keep him.

Publicly define Jerome Anderson's role

Only three years ago, Jerome Anderson was a football agent. On his books he had Steve Kean, amidst a plethora of middling-to-impressive football names. Also, he fronted his son Myles. Many of Blackburn's signings are alleged to have derived from Anderson's dealings; he is also rumoured to have been behind the firing of Sam Allardyce and subsequent installation of Kean. Suggestions of his intimate involvement with ownership only strengthened when Rovers signed Myles Anderson despite the player failing to make an impression at SPL side Aberdeen.

No-one outside the Rovers hierarchy is fully aware of how deeply Jerome Anderson's tendrils infiltrate the club. One thing is certain: such opacity suits him, but damages the club's credibility. Venky's need to prioritise either their relationship with Anderson or the club's public face.

Fix the Kean problem

Image courtesy: telegraph.co.uk
Kean's hands probably aren't clean of Allardyce's demise, nor have his tactics (which resemble a kitchen colander) inspired fan confidence. Despite incessant furore he remains respected as a coach, if not necessarily as a manager. He should be respected for getting the best from Yakubu, Hanley and Hoilett; this is balanced by his confusing relationship with Samba, Nelsen and Salgado.

In the Championship, he should have fewer gnarled veterans and more of his own foot soldiers; this in itself should promise a reasonable season. However, in sections of the media and much of Rovers fandom, his reputation is below basement level. He remains, though, obviously ownership's man.

Firing him would quickly remove the second-biggest trigger for fan ire, but may not actually provoke a better response from a team which could navigate the likes of Cardiff City and Watford quite well. Like transfers, the earlier a decision is made, the better for the club.

Kean credibility needs a quick and powerful salve. Much like Terry Connor at Wolves, he is in many ways the victim of circumstance, the puppet for faceless men. What stands against him is his alleged role in creating that situation. It is Venky's position to create a situation in which their man can thrive, but they have hardly done so. Clarifying Anderson's role and publicly drafting their plan for negotiating the Championship would allow much more perspective – and provide grounds to remove Kean should he continue to prove inconvenient or incapable.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Sheilas, Wogs & Poofters - Johnny Warren

by Ben Roberts

This is my second foray into Australian football literature, the first having been spectacularly less than impressive. The good news is that the now decade-old 'Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters', a seminal work by the late and revered Johnny Warren is far better.   The bad news is that Warren fell into the standard traps of all passionate Australian soccer figures.

Cover image thanks to amazon.com.au
Warren had an amazing playing career, as he grew up in 1950s Australia where soccer was third or fourth on the list of sporting priorities for most - particularly "Anglos" such as Warren.  As is obviously - but fairly - portrayed by the title, a fair amount of tasteless stigma was also cast at those who played the sport.

Given the options available, Warren managed to forge a club and international career that deserves celebration. Representing the St George (Budapest) club with great distinction, Johnny Warren had to prove himself able to transcend ethnic boundaries; this culminated in 40-odd matches for Australia (including the 1974 World Cup) and showed bagfuls of dedication in an era where football hardly provided a glamourous lifestyle.

The matches played by the late-60's and early-70's Socceroos deserve legendary status, not just for the achievements of the team but also due to the scenarios in which they played. 


The Friendly Nations cup was played as an olive branch to the Vietnamese by Western anti-communist forces and is an amazing tale for the conditions (warfare) that the tournament was played within. As well, Warren eulogises some of his contemporaries who should receive more credit for their skills by those who believe that legendary status in Australian soccer began with Viduka and Kewell et al.

For the non-devoted supporter of soccer in Australia, there are two general criticisms that are aimed at the sport in this country. Firstly, the sport is constantly racked with infighting and controversy. Secondly, that the sport needs to stand on its own two feet and fight for its place in the recreational landscape; rather, it constantly complains about the level of media coverage afforded Australian Football or Rugby League. In the last third of the book, Warren spirals violently into into these two criticisms and his argument never recovers. If those in charge of the sport (ed: I'm looking at you, Ben Buckley) believe it is the best sport, they need to rise above internal strife and complaints about the competition and simply generate a product that engages and attracts the masses.

This book is recommended for a good summary history of the sport in Australia and an interesting life story that is at the same time stereotypically Australian.  It  is, however, very different from your usual sporting heroes.   

Three stars.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Football's most operatic week

It may be clich├ę, but what a week we've seen in football. There have been more twists, subplots and stories than your average season of The Wire, passing everywhere from England, through France and Italy to the Iberian peninsula. To wit, we catalogue (briefly) the past ten days in football:

1. Chelsea defeated Barcelona (away from home, with the winning goal from a most unlikely source) in the Champions League semi-final, attaining some semblance of closure after four years railing against any and all authority figures. We bear audio witness to someone giving Gary Neville and unexpected and immensely painful wedgie.

 2. Speculation immediately mounts about the future of Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who announces three days later that he is taking a sabbatical.

3. Meanwhile, archetypal black-hat villain Jose Mourinho and his Real Madrid team are too knocked out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, failing to overcome the Teutonic genetic predisposition of excelling in penalty shoot-outs.

4. Real then proceeded to claim the Spanish league title, their first in four years; Barcelona take scant solace in Lionel Messi breaking Gerd Muller's 39-year old European goalscoring record.

5. All the while, we witnessed attempts by simply everyone to leverage the tension inherently built up tension by Monday's City/United match, the most keenly anticipated derby since ... well ... the last one, billed hyperbolically as the “Match of the Century”.

6. On Saturday, Southampton achieved their second successive promotion and re-enter the Premiership after years in the wilderness (or at least, the third tier of English football). The rebirth of this iconic club came in the wake of administration, rumours of liquidation and away matches at Hereford.

7. Sunday left us appreciating Fabrice Muamba, who returned to a football match for the first time since his kayfabe and therefore extremely frightening cardiac arrest against Tottenham six weeks ago. Unfortunately, his Bolton Wanderers teammates couldn't rustle up a win for him – the Trotters were stuffed 4-1 by those same Spurs.

8. At the same time – still anticipating, with an ever-increasing sense of dread, the “Match of the Century” – Roy Hodgson ran-in to a one-sided contest to decide the manager of the English football team. The English FA decided that Harry Redknapp wasn't worth the cost, heartache and repeated demands to sign Lukas Podolski from ... err ... Germany. English tabloids reacted in their usual classy manner.

9. A minnow, third division club FC Quevilly, took on Lyon in the French Cup final. The result, unlike the contestants or scoreline, was predictable.

10. The same day (what a day!) saw a ghost whistle disrupt play in the decisive clash in Serie A between Champions League chasing Lazio and Udinese, allowing Udinese to score a crucial goal.

11. The much-vaunted Manchester Derby ended as many predicted – with a City victory – and once and for all reminding those in the halls of power (ie. Sky Sports, Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN etc) that the prophetic moniker “Game of the Century”, by the properties of mutual exclusion, guarantees a match which doesn't at all live up to the hype.

12. Two days after the derby-to-end-all-derbies (we can only hope), one of the odder occurrences in European football occurred when Fiorentina boss Delio Rossi attacked one of his own players, Adem Ljajic. He was, of course, promptly fired.

13. Finally, to conclude a tiring week, Newcastle United striker Papiss Demba Cisse scored two astounding goals as the Magpies maintained its challenge for Champions League football next season.

There's a defining but unspoken principal in almost all entertainment that we appreciate the consciously unresolved, but enjoy it more when resolution comes. Audiences like to be left hanging – at least for a while. This principal underlies stand-up comedy, TV story arcs and jazz improvisation among many others. The past ten days have provided almost all the twists football can offer; we've also seen some climactic moments.

It would tempt fate to suggest the season has no more surprises, but after a week like this it's hard to see from where they will come.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pep Guardiola: football's J.K. Rowling

Pep Guardiola reels into the Catlunya spring sunset punch-drunk, deserving a rest, his job well done. Most agree that he's likely to take a significant break from management – perhaps an eternal one – before moving back to the scrutiny of club control.

To witness the change inhis appearance from appointment to last week's press conference is to see what daily hour-long media sessions will do to a man. He looks exhausted, has lost a considerable amount of weight and what remains of his hair is prematurely grey.

In many ways, I hope he chooses not to manage again. Particularly, I hope not to see him at a different, less stressful club. This may seem odd, given his record of dignified success; however, for him to return would be to risk a legacy which now stands unparalleled. He's won everything there is and leaves the game at his own discretion. To come back would not gamble his reputation; he will always be loved in Catalunya. But neither would – or could – it achieve anything of real substance. Those who suggest he's yet to assemble his own squad, or should attempt management overseas to complete his resume are snidely ungenerous.

He is/was great; he now moves forward. A four year term helming the greatest club side in memory saw him astride the world; to return from this break to boss a different club would subvert his stature as a Catalan deity, achieved the remarkable with his hometown club. His narrative shouldn't need to rely on piffling things like football management for completion. He is regarded at a different level from every other manager; his story becomes infinitely more compelling by refusing to countenance further management jobs.
(c) Balanced Sports

That he represents a standard of Catalunyan success and pride that transcends sport, leads me to remember the legacy of “Rocket” Richard.

The image to the right best exemplifies what Richard means to the Quebecois: this representation is one of a parade of Quebec heroes that stops Montreal, QC every St. John Baptiste Day.

His tale also mimics that of J.K. Rowling, the Omnipresence ruling over the magical (and tremendously marketable) world of Harry Potter. After suffering several high-profile bouts with writers' block and sustaining excellence and interest in teen writing for a decade, it was only fair to expect her to withdraw somewhat to recuperate. Her novels were so comprehensively successful – on every level – that she had achieved all she could.

Rowling announced last year that she was returning to the computer to write a new, adult novel (who features a major character named Barry!) due for release in September this year. Her background, audience and profit margin are nonpareil; to return to a different genre invites criticism. “The Casual Vacancy” will break all sales records, but will never be as well-received as Potter.

A craven viewpoint? Perhaps. But rather than seeing Guardiola (or even Rowling) return, I prefer the romantic narrative of someone leaving, and moving on. For Rowling, the case is exceptional – she feels she has a story to tell. “Artistic integrity”, that most nebulous of concepts, demands producing not what is expected, but representations of what moves one at the time. Guardiola, however tactically and interpersonally adept, is less artisan than mathematician. His integrity shouldn't compel him to return to management but to seek the next steps of a journey of exploration.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Graphic: Pep Guardiola over time

The things four years of crazy media exposure and inhuman stress levels will do to a guy.  The following photo shows Pep Guardiola at his introduction as Barca coach in 2008 and compares it to an image taken at the presser last week in which he announced he was leaving the club for a sabbatical.

Click to enlarge

Photo credits: fourfourtwo.com and thesun.co.uk 

Book review: Game for Anything - Gideon Haigh

If Bill Simmons is the everyman sportswriter full of pop culture, in-jokes and homer-isms, then Gideon Haigh is his antithesis. You read Simmons as he thinks aloud, a man down at the bar with his mates. However, he's just self-aware enough to know that because he monopolises the conversation he should fling jokes about to keep his audience engaged. There's obvious research, but done on the sly; he's no stat-geek, but muses on feel and zeitgeist.

Haigh, deliberately and with culture incomparable, compiles cricketing words that evokes a history professor's magnum opus. Immaculate research, mirrored by thoughtful prose. Simmons' raison d'etre is entertaining learning. For Haigh, it is the reverse. And they're both brilliant.

Cover image courtesy: tower.com
Haigh's compendious “Game for Anything” released in Australia his collected writings for publications such as Wisden Asia and the now-defunct periodicals The Bulletin and Wisden Cricket Monthly. It features several learned insights into periods of the game about which I, a studious and informed cricket fan, knew very little. Each essay is structured magnificently, being economical yet descriptive; each word is steeped in context. That he quotes an assortment of historical figures from Jardine Machiavelli to Mark Waugh exemplifies his remarkable reading range.

In fact the stand-out point of Haigh's work is just that – his research. Articles are based not around his palpable love of the game, it's correct spirit and statutes; his writing is revolves around a prescient “angle” and why it emerges as such a story from a multi-textured background.

There are elements of whimsy as well: he defines his favourite cricketer as the English batsman Chris Tavare, decries the rise of park cricket sledging and, most beautifully of all, develops delicate snapshots of cricket history. These short trips are, unlike the footage that comprises most of our memories, full-colour and high-definition – he makes Bradman more than ridiculous numbers and grainy footage of a fourth-ball duck.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about his text is how easily he makes just the right words fit together on paper. Despite obvious labour over books, newspapers, journals and microfiche, Haigh's words appear with economic precision – as if he has the most severe of editors. When writing for a mass audience using such a scholarly approach, Haigh is to be praised and respected for balancing intellect with ease of reading. Characters like Lawrence Rowe, Richard Wardill and characteristics such as gambling are all treated with the same laconic, precise respect. A memorable example was my favourite essay from Game for Anything, concerning the late-19th century Australian captain Harry Trott and his commitment to Kew Asylum.

If you learn about politics from a book by a political master, you learn about cricket from Haigh – far more than from any other writer today. His words lack Roebuck's flair but also his occasional florid tones. He analyses the game from a removed, scholarly position; writing not because he loves the game (although he does) but because he feels it has stories to tell. In the prologue, he encourages young writers to do likewise.  

It's so utterly characteristic of Haigh - a book of cricket essays where his opinions are so subtly obvious yet with only this one proclamation.  Highly recommended.

For a different perspective, the SMH also reviewed this work.