Thursday, November 29, 2012

UEFA to force-feed the Golden Goose

The President of UEFA, Michel Platini, has hinted that the confederation is considering dropping the Europa League competition altogether in favour of an expanded Champions League. The move, mooted for some time between 2015 and 2018, would see the unpopular continental second-tier system removed as and football's big money spinner double in size to 64 teams.

Platini has proved somewhat of an egalitarian leader: throughout his presidency, he has championed the expansion of the UEFA European Championships (the Euros) to 32 teams – or over 60 percent of the continent represented. Should the Europa League actually be canned, the Golden Goose Champions League credibility will be damaged: removing exclusivity from anything makes it far more commonplace.

The simple laws of physics state that increasing an object's size doesn't necessarily increase its impact – in fact, often it has the opposite effect.

That's not to say that the Europa League is great, because it really isn't. One of the principal failings of the Europa League has simply been the effort it demands, especially when players must front up in local leagues two days after lengthy trips abroad. Bigger clubs – especially in fixture-full England – have been known to simply send reserve sides overseas, sacrificing the competition for the sake of league position.

Rather than removing the Europa League or expanding the Champions League (which can't possibly hope to bring in more money now that ostensible top clubs are admitted almost by default), a better solution may be to simply resurrect the old UEFA Cup – a true home-and-away cup competition requiring less travel, less meaningless Thursday night encounters and each club having a true puncher's chance of advancing to the next round.

Think about it: Armenian champions Neftchi Baku look set to complete their Europa League experience this season with two points from a possible eighteen, both from draws with Serbian side Partizan Belgrade. The highlight of their continental football this season will almost certainly be a trip to the San Siro to play Inter Milan – in a reinstated UEFA Cup, the players retain their highlight and even have a chance at pulling off the unbelieveable.

A return to a continental cup competition is unlikely to proceed – the extra home dates afforded by a mini-league are simply too valuable for administrators and owners to give up. However, the romance afforded by smaller clubs taking on big money earners would certainly be hard to ignore. It's these realities which make a return to a Cup competition unlikely at best. But we can still hope.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fernando Torres is not a time-traveller

I don't read much baseball - the odd seminal work like Moneyball, usually - but I make a habit of reading Lookout Landing, the SB Nation coverage for my local major league team, the Seattle Mariners.  Check it out - it's intelligent and funny stuff.

Hot on the topic of now ex-Mariner Chone Figgins trending on Twitter last week (after rumours of his long-impending demise proved true), the Landing's lead blogger Jeff Sullivan came up with the following statement to describe the serial underperformer:

I don't think 2009 Chone Figgins is ever coming back, because 2009 is one way in time and we go the other way and things that happened before often don't happen again. In sports, anyway. 

Does this remind you of anyone? It certainly did for me - so much so that even the dates match.

2009 harkens back to Fernando Torres' last season in his pomp at Liverpool and given the current state of affairs at Chelsea, Sullivan has once again proved remarkably prescient. Whether Roman Abramovich employed Rafa Benitez with the primary aim of helping Torres rediscover his form or simply because there are no more "names" available to him matters little; as Sullivan so rightly described  Figgins, Torres has been so out of form for so long that any last semblance the Fernando Torres of 2004-2009 has become only the fodder for pleasant Kop memories.

The player who once was Fernando Torres - the only man in England to give Nemanja Vidic nightmares - just doesn't exist any more.  He is an echo to a bygone age.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Abramovich, Benitez and Guardiola: bizarre love triangle

In 2007, Michael Voss, a former Brownlow medallist, inspirational club captain and widely-touted Premiership coach in waiting, had announced he wanted a head-coaching gig for the following season.  In quick response, three AFL clubs fired incumbent coaches to obtain the hottest leadership property available in years.  

When fallen league heavyweights Carlton effectively vacated their coaching staff only days after arch-rivals Essendon dispatched their coach of twenty-seven years, Essendon officials were overheard leaving Pagan’s final exit interview saying “They want the same guy we want”.  No-one had to clarify who that guy was.  Perhaps unwittingly – but probably not – Voss had cast a shadow over the entire league landscape that eventually cost three coaches their jobs.

Neither team succeeded in employing Voss, who went on to take over his former club, the Brisbane Lions.  This is perhaps to their benefit, as Voss’ five-year coaching record stands at 32 wins, 53 losses and a tie.
Once in a while, a coaching property so desirable enters the marketplace and every club with delusions of grandeur fall over themselves to acquire him.  Proverbial dead men walking walk no longer.  The spectre of the available coach stalks the landscape until he commits to a contract – usually at the club of his choice.  His resume is so powerful, so compelling that any destination club hedges their personnel bets ... just in case they get a chance to employ that one mystical, alchemical coach.

No, that coach is not Harry Redknapp – no matter how much he’d like it to be.

It’s Pep Guardiola.  Despite currently “on sabbatical” in New York, his avatar haunts the high-paid underperformers.  This week, interim Chelsea boss (come on, admit it – was he really anything else?) Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed only months after leading Chelsea to their first Champions League title.  While his team had underperformed in November, the phenomenon is hardly unusual.  Where Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was in love with Mourinho, fascinated by Andre Villas-Boas and is infatuated by Guardiola, he barely even liked Di Matteo.

The new Chelsea manager is Rafael Benitez, a former Champions League winner himself, who agreed to coach the Blues only until the end of this season; in so doing, he has embraced his destiny as Abramovich’s rebound fling while the oligarch continues his unrequited love affair with the former Barcelona manager.

It’s not just the Blues of London who find themselves sweaty with anticipation of a glance from Pep: Roberto Mancini should probably look upon Txiki Begiristain’s appointment as Man City football director with dismay, Guardiola’s “philosophy” apparently mirrors that of Arsene Wenger, while Sir Alex Ferguson is thought to prefer Guardiola as his successor at Old Trafford.  Quiet overtures have been received from the Milan twins, AC and Inter and reports have emerged today that Brazil kind of fancy a dapper bald guy to succeed Mano Menezes.

Guardiola has unconsciously cast an enormous shadow over the entire coaching landscape that won’t be dismissed until he signs a contract.  And for this reason, the likes of Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo, Benitez – or indeed anyone managing a club with money – will find themselves victim to the whims of chairmen everywhere.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

International break? Give me a break!

It’s international week again and, for the fourth time in as many months since the Euros, the football world lets out a collective “meh”.

Today’s friendlies mean nothing to anyone.  Except apparently FIFA, who decided to schedule a round of non-competition internationals to fuel their dual fantasy that International friendlies are as important to crowds as the local stuff.

It’s not that friendlies aren’t important, but poorly timed.  English Premier League clubs have managed eleven league matches each since the season began in August.  By today’s end, we will have seen seven international matches.   Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper, has already played 26 matches since June.
In November, you can be certain of three things: that some domestic seasons are just getting interesting (like the English Premiership or the A-League, where league saviour Alessandro Del Piero’s coach has just resigned), that playoffs are in full swing (as with the Asian Champions League and MLS) and that Chelsea  have begun their annual holiday.

In arranging this new slate of games, FIFA’s reasoning is almost sound.  They finds themselves trapped in a corner of a world demanding constant attention: with a six month break between matches, the administrators risk the International game being even further overshadowed by local affairs.   It’s not too long a bow to draw to suggest a random football fan from Jamaica, Uzbekistan or Egypt knows more about this year’s UEFA Champions League machinations than their home nation’s last friendly result.  Their half-baked solution?  More international football.

The fact is that the marketplace is flooded with football.  You’d think the market is so large that flooding it would be something of a logical impossibility, but you’d be wrong.  Almost without exception, every domestic league in the world has operated within the past month; not only were the European Championships this summer, but also the Olympics and the annual Carlos Tevez transfer saga. 

Football fans have had no respite from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sasa Ognenovski and Ashley Cole’s Twitter account for over a year.

International football is, simply, a wonderful product.  The World Cup is a celebration of football the Champions League Final can never replicate.  Almost every major International tournament comes with a wholesome quality lacking when players are bought or sold for exorbitant sums.  You can think of International football as Organic football, taking time and care to mature.

Those who control future international fixturing now face a decision.  When controlling such a unique (organic) product, you can approach the market in one of two ways: make your offering boutique and desirable, or compete against products which are different/plastic/a billionaire’s playground (delete as appropriate)

International football should always be relevant; however, competing with a glitzier – but not necessarily better – product, it has fallen into byline territory.  It’s time for football federations the world over to market International football as what it is: a boutique product that offers much that the domestic game cannot.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Graphic: European football conversion rates

The following chart displays the efficiency of European football forwards my mapping their conversion rate (goals per shot) against the number of shots per game.

The higher on the Y-axis the forward, the more efficient the player in front of goal; the farther to the right on the X-axis, the more shots they generate.  Only players with four goals or more this season were considered (ie. forwards with a goals/game ratio higher than .364).  Players are colour-coded according to the league in which they play: red for La Liga, orange for the English Premier League, green for the Bundesliga and azure for Serie A.

Finally, a statistical category in which Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo don't lead the pack!

Click to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Huntelaar a great fit at Liverpool

Reds fans must be salivating.  Liverpool have today been linked with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the 29-year old Dutch goalpoacher extraordinaire of Schalke 04.  Should the transfer come to fruition – which is eminently possible, but a long way off – it would remedy perhaps Liverpool’s greatest failing so far this term, converting on-ball dominance into goals.

So far this year, Liverpool rank sixth in the Premiership in possession, spending over 52 minutes per game with the ball.  They get shots off, too – averaging nearly nineteen a contest.  However, the Reds have managed only 13 goals all season for a conversion rate of 7% - a modest figure when compared to other teams who dominate the ball like Manchester City (9.5%), Arsenal (9.1%) and Manchester United (16.8%).  Expect these totals to regress to the mean somewhat – City managed 12.6% last year, the Gunners 11.6 and United 13.8% – but such a low total help throw Liverpool’s lack of consistent goal scorers into sharp relief. 

(Liverpool managed to score on only 7% of their chances last season as well, however this was under the system employed by then-boss Kenny Dalglish).

Some of these numbers are surely attributed to the systems each club deploys, no doubt, but as Robin van Persie has proved at United, you can always find room for a forward with spidey-sense.

Liverpool have been almost universally praised for their industry and creativity so far this term; however, the improvements in game style have yet to materialise as the wins the fans – and Rodgers himself – expect.

 This is where Huntelaar should help.  While Luis Suarez has been in sparkling form and was described by manager Brendan Rodgers on Sunday as “unplayable”, accuracy isn’t necessarily his strongest suit: his conversion rate of 11% this term is up from 8.6% last season. Huntelaar’s past three seasons has seen his cumulative conversion rate reach a stellar of 20.5% – over 2 percent greater than van Persie’s over the same period.

Transfers are never really done until they’re done.  Just ask Fiorentina.  They should always be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.  However, if one rumour gets Liverpool fans licking their chops, it should be this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Juan Mata leads (another) Chelsea revolution

It's hard to be mad at anything that scampers. Likewise disdainful, jealous or irritated. As a word, scamper is used generally when something flits about in a light-footed manner, implying that the observer receives some kind of pleasing entertainment just from the sight.

No-one scampers with malice – it can't be done. Any attempts veer quickly towards scurrying, or it's less desirable cousin, scuttling. A list of things that scamper almost invariably begins with Lionel Messi, kids or puppies; while any of this trio may not be your cup of tea, active disliking toddlers, Messi or puppies is almost always taking things too seriously.

Scampering almost perfectly describes the New Chelsea. After years of solid – but hardly light-footed – play won them a few titles but few friends outside their considerable fan base, the past twelve months has earned them new admirers. Abramovich's ultimate dream has finally become manifest: a team of artful dodgers able not just to compete, but win the Champions League.

This cheekiness isn't just paying off on the pitch: after nearly a decade of being England's pre-eminent “guys you love to hate”, Chelsea Football Club are suddenly somewhat likeable.

There are several reasons for a general mellowing of feeling towards the Blues, even despite their remarkable talent for attracting (and washing off) negative press. Part of this can be put down simply to success; another possibility is the final and extended dissolution of an inner sanctum far more unsavoury together than in its individual parts. But chief among these reasons has been the youthful personification of West London forward play: Marko Marin, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar.

The latter three may be the most talented players in the Premier League, an on-pitch aria of insightful, constant scampering – with the ball or without, ability (and desire) to pass the ball and technical skill. Over the past decade, professional sport has verged towards an atmosphere of black-and-white tribalism; the intrinsic wit and dextrous nature to the football of Mata, Hazard and Oscar has brought Chelsea and some former critics closer in mutual appreciation.

While there are still some elements at Chelsea the casual observer must tolerate rather than enjoy, Roman Abramovich's mob has moved a long way from the days as the archetypal black hat villains.