Monday, September 24, 2012

Three things: Chelsea may regret Lukaku absence

Three things we noticed from the EPL this week:

Chelsea might regret loaning out Romelu Lukaku

Romelu Lukaku arrived at Stamford Bridge before last season at a significant cost: a reported 18 million pounds from Belgian club Anderlecht. Barely eighteen when he arrived, the boy-mountain spent most of last season on the bench and hated it. Despite impressing on the Blues' pre-season US tour, Lukaku found himself “gaining first-team experience” at West Brom this year and the Blues look like they may regret his temporary departure. His spell in the Midlands has so far been telling.

The Blues pulled out a 1-0 win against an uncompromising Stoke City at home on Saturday where none of their myriad new tricksy attacking types were able to really trouble the brutally efficient Stoke defense. While this new look can produce some wonderful football, the Blues appear to be missing a second look.

If those short-ish types aren't firing in the goals then the club – like the team they've attempted to emulate, Barcelona – seems to lack offensive versatility. Barca had to pay heavily to get Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as Chelsea did for the talented Lukaku; it costs money for big, strong and skilled. Perhaps with their dearth of options, it's time to explore what Lukaku can create for the Stamford Bridge unit.

Arsenal are looking good

Despite needing a late goal from Laurent Koscielny to snatch a draw, the Gunners played impressively at the Etihad Stadium. Champions Manchester City were penned back time and again by a quality combination of youth and experience; indeed, they may not have scored themselves if not for a mistake by third-string goalkeeper Vito Mannone.

Lukas Podolski, while not scoring bagfuls, has been impressive while Gervinho, not new signing Olivier Giroud, may eventually be the cetnre-forward to replace Robin van Persie.

Key to this solid start has been the central defensive partnership of Per Mertesacker and Koscielny. Only weeks ago we were suggesting Mertesacker's greatest contribution may come as stability from the bench, but he's been the Premiership's outstanding centre-back throughout the first four games and the club hardly missed resident Belgian Thomas Vermaelen.

Aston Villa – relegation fodder?

Maybe Paul Lambert began drinking his own Kool-Aid, but the world's most boring man may have bitten off more than he could chew in Birmingham. Even though last weekend provided some encouraging signs, Aston Villa struggled mightily in their 4-1 defeat to the defensively-inept Southampton. This year, Lambert just doesn't have the talent to work with in order to avoid a relegation battle.

This season's reinforcements have mostly come from lower divisions, like Matthew Lowton who only months ago was playing in League One. Although they may end up becoming quality players, these lower-tier recruits have acclimatise to the Big Show. After shedding most of the high-earners from their wage bill, Villa appear shorn of quality all over the park – comparing their squad from now to five years ago is simply amazing.

Unless you're Roberto Martinez, you can't sell your best players each year and expect to maintain your Premiership status. Hang on – now their constant inquiries as to his availability suddenly makes more sense.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Short pitch: World T20 offers more than entertainment

I make it a practice never to feel that sorry for professional athletes: they earn spectacular coin for doing what they love.  There are attendant sacrifices, but that's inherent in any achievement.  Perhaps the most obvious of these is a limited career length: even the best only sustain elite standards for ten, fifteen years at best.

Twenty/20 cricket is one of those sports which doesn't seem to demand as much sacrifice as others.  The time taken, preparation required, energy expended or in learning a perfect technique.  In many ways, this might be part of why it's yet to really draw me in.  I'll watch it quite happily, and one of my favourite MCG moments was seeing Shaun Tait hit AB de Vililers - but of cricket's three formats it doesn't have the slow burn, the pacing that makes a sporting event most compelling for me.  There's very little sensation for the viewer of teams necessarily building something of value.  T20 is to cricket what tittie-bars are to meaningful relationships: on the outside their methods can appear similar, but it takes time to build something of real value.

However, watching Brad Hogg in the T20 World Cup has made me consider the role of T20 in the cricket landscape a little differently.  Hogg bowled well this morning, claiming 1/30 from his four overs.  He fielded as energetically as a forty-one year old could, and has been doing so at the highest level - well, Australia's highest level, anyway - for nine months since his unretirement in February.

For Brad Hogg, playing in the World T20 isn't about money but the chance to represent Australia again and compete at a high level at an age where most cricketers who aren't Eddie Hemmings are relegated to the park.  While his appearances for Cape Cobras, Rajasthan Royals and even the Perth Scorchers were/are presumably all about extending his earning capacity, the World T20s are about love of the game and country.

Many sports value the new and untested.  Commentators, coaches and other players get excited about where rookies and younger players can take teams and the game - Australian cricket has decided to plunge headlong down the path of youth, expunging effective players like Simon Katich in order to blood relatively unproven youngsters.  But not T20: shortest format leagues around the world rely on ageing heavy hitters who can still contribute to wins.  Rather than T20's bimodal age distribution being a negative, it should be celebrated as the opposite: it allows players like Brad Hogg to extend their Australian careers in a sport when retirement is so ... definite.

So well done Brad Hogg for choosing to play for Australia again.  And well done Australia for selecting him.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vale, Matthew Scarlett

Matthew Scarlett has retired from AFL football.  By doing so, we must farewell a brilliant - if genuinely odd - champion of the sport.  He is joined in retirement by Premiership teammates Joel Corey and David Wojcinski.  The trio - Scarlett especially - leave behind many fond memories of the wonderful Cats era of 2007-2012.

And as Scarlett ambles into the Torquay half-light, the accompanying sound you hear is the death rattle of greatest era in Geelong Football Club's history.  Any player in the 2007 and 2009 Premiership sides was replaceable, bar him.  In fact, when the Cats won the 2011 flag to make it their third in five, many of the original entertainers had already been superseded: Cam Mooney, Darren Milburn, Tom Harley.  Even Little Gary.  The only legatees of a team that was both truly great and startlingly deep are James Bartel, Joel Selwood, Corey Enright and - for another year, anyway - Paul Chapman.

Scarlett the Younger came to the Cats in the 1997 draft.  I had the pleasure of witnessing his first game, in the last round of 1998, where he played Matthew Lloyd straight up.  He was overmatched by the spearhead ascendant, but fought gamely and was rarely - if ever - beaten by the Lloyd again.  By 2000, Scarlett was integral, the ultimate answer to Geelong's perpetual full-back problem.
He started as a resolute stopper but as his younger teammates matured, so did his game.  No longer required only to defend, Scarlett developed into the game's most effective offensive full-back, without any decrease in defensive responsibility (or result).  Several factors helped this evolution, including a possession-heavy game, a swarm of tacklers, the Cats' zonal marking and outstanding teammates like Tom Harley, Darren Milburn, Matthew Egan and now Harry Taylor.

It was this ability to produce wave after wave of attack while not sacrificing positional defence that made Scarlett the best full-back of all time.  No full-back has combined attack and defence so perfectly.  He was precise in disposal, had the ability to gut-run and understood when to do so and the bodily strength to wrangle down opposing power forwards.  He was also clutch.  Ask Buddy Franklin, who from 2008 to 2011 dominated Geelong defenders - until it was Scarlett's turn to stand him.

Or ask St. Kilda.

For over a hundred years, full-backs were nothing but stoppers.  The player selected in that position in the AFL's Team of the Century in 1996, Steven Silvagni, could barely kick forty metres.  Let alone run, bounce and deliver a pinpoint pass.  The position changed because of Scarlett and his contemporary Dustin Fletcher - full-backs are now so much more than taggers who stand next to the goals.  Although their methods differed - and, obviously, my preference was Scarlett's - the influence they exerted across the entire ground rather than just within 35 metres of the goals, make them the best the game has seen.

No-one can replicate what Matthew Scarlett has done for his club, nor could they redefine the position the way he did.  He was the ultimate full-back.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sixteen Is in one post make you seem rather egotistical...


For much of the past two-plus years, I've been unemployed.  Hardly revelatory news, I know, but there it is.  This time next week, that status officially changes as I begin graduate school and re-training as a Physical Therapist (or Physiotherapist).  It'll be nearly three years at a world-class school in a completely new education system, a challenge I'm very much looking forward to and think I will enjoy.

Over the existence of Balanced Sports, I've really tried to avoid talking about me.  So why change this now and tell you all that I'm going back to school?  Partly, because it's liable to effect you, my readers.

While I think I'll be able to handle the academic workload and balance my life well enough throughout the next three years, one of the first areas that will need to be streamlined will likely be my writing.  As much as I enjoy it, and it's been - and will continue to be - a productive hobby, over the next three years passing grades are going to be more important than the perils of Pauline Manchester City.

Writing is my a hobby.  Much of what I produce over the next three years will fulfill my continuing work with the Montreal Gazette's Goal Posts blog (and then re-posted here).  Sadly, the result is likely to be a reduction in content based around sports other than football.  I'll continue to comment on whatever sports-based stuff takes my fancy on Twitter - @balanced_sports.

Rather than discarding Balanced Sports, I'm actually hope to use the opportunity to take a fresh approach to composition and use each post as an opportunity to experiment and grow as a writer.  However, I expect a reduced frequency of postings: quality over quantity and all.

Thanks for reading my stuff.  Some of it - I think, anyway - is pretty good.  Some of it, well, at least it tries to be good.  I hope you'll enjoy the next eleven consecutive quarters of reduced portion - but hopefully very rich - content.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Three things: Handshakes are still important

Three things we noticed from the Premier League this weekend:

Handshakes are still important

Queens Park Rangers fronted up against Chelsea – and John Terry – in the West London derby. In the pre-match handshake line, Anton Ferdinand, who accused Terry of racially abusing him on the pitch last season, refused the proffered hands of the former England captain and left-back Ashley Cole. Next week, Northwestern rivals Liverpool and Manchester United face off in the first match since Luis Suarez refused to shake Patrice Evra's hand.

Handshakes still matter. Just ask Mark Hughes, who's gotten into rumbles about the tradition with practically everyone.

PFA President and handshake advocate Clarke Carlisle says handshakes are “a statement of intent to play the game in a certain manner befitting a professional”. In a perfect world, this would be so – however, we live in a football society where tribalism runs rampant and songs about tragic events have become so commonplace that managers and administrators rightly condemn their own fans for singing them. The game has often become more important than basic civility. The game's landscape is now so merciless that the handshake feels meaningless, a relic from past times.

Ideally, handshakes – gesture that perhaps began when two parties used their weapon-hand to greet an opponent, rather than kill him – would actually mean something – that the game isn't worth some costs. Hopefully, some footballers still think that way. However, in today's dog-eat-dog football culture, expecting players to make a honourable motions before a game is sadly a stretch. The stakes – and competitive desire – are just too great.

Berbatov's wages are (probably) worth it

Dimitar Berbatov made his first start for new club Fulham on Saturday and led the Cottagers to a win, scoring twice against the previously undefeated West Bromwich Albion. Despite sharing the league's Golden Boot with Carlos Tevez in 2010, the Bulgarian never appeared totally settled at Manchester United; this was partly because Sir Alex Ferguson rarely trusted him leading the line in big games and because his style is far more suited to a two-man front.

Fulham entered the season in a state of flux. Forwards Andy Johnson, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey departed during the summer, replaced by Berbatov and Hugo Rodallega. The highly-salaried Berbatov has immediately shown his class and efficacy in the 4-4-2; paired with Rodallega – the archetypal runner lacking end product (the Colombian averages a Premier League goal every 5½ games and takes 100 shots to register six goals), Berbatov and his understated ability to hold the ball up looks crucial to a re-built West London side.

The "new" Dembele - last year's Costa Rican big buy, Bryan Ruiz - should have ample forward options to pass to - Berbatov's silky scoring and Rodallega's natural athleticism should keep the Cottagers firmly in mid-table.

Southampton need to work it out at the back

They can put goals on the board against the best teams in the country. They've got pretty fair trust fund backing them in the transfer market. They raided Scotland for the best player in that country. Rickie Lambert celebrates a goal better than anyone in creation.

Still, Southampton sit winless at the bottom of the Premier League table. Part of this can be ascribed to their dauting fixture list: they opened the season against Manchester City, Wigan Athletic, Manchester United, Arsenal. Despite boasting more exciting talent than their promoted brethren – and, arguably, more total talent – the Saints have made a habit of conceding, shopping six to Arsenal over the weekend. To make things worse, the Gunners only scored four as Nathan Clyne and the calamitous Jos Hooiveld both put the ball into their own net.

Despite looking better than average in midfield and attack, the Saints will be relegated if they don't fix their defence. The talent simply hasn't stacked up yet. Maybe it never will.

Ian Holloway's Blackpool – and Steve Kean's Blackburn – proved conclusively that in the lower reaches of the Premiership, attack must always be balanced by defence. It's not that the Saints defenders don't try, but appear lacking in class and even perhaps Premier League ability.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Financial Fair Play: why it had to happen

No-one said that Financial Fair Play (FFP) was perfect. Even Michel Platini, the UEFA President behind the long-touted new standards, accepts his brainchild has some serious flaws. But in these days of the paradoxical austerity boom, European football clubs are going to have to take responsibility for their collective bottom lines.  FFP had to happen.

A slight shift towards prudence by some clubs – for example Newcastle United or AC Milan – has been balanced by remarkable spending by others. Nothing prompts wasteful extravagance like owning a football club. According to UEFA, almost seventy percent of all European top-flight clubs are losing money. Platini's regulations resolve to save clubs from themselves.

At its simplest, FFP penalises clubs who spend more than they earn. Opponents to the plan suggest this will keep the big clubs powerful and the small ones insignificant; they may have a point. However, it will also minimise the wealthy benefactor model made so famous by Chelsea, Manchester City and now Paris Saint-Germain.

Clubs are already beginning to implement the necessary changes. Whether UEFA enforces their laws is still to be seen.

While even Platini should accept the FFP legislation is imperfect, the overall ramifications of the legistlation should somewhat control spiralling wage-bills. The percentage of overall revenue spent on player wages by top-tier European clubs is simply bad business practice.

Within the past two years, American sport has seen lockouts in the NFL and NBA. A similar impasse has been reached between NHL owners and players. In all three cases, the warring parties struggle(d) to agree on a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which splits revenue fairly between players and owners.

The graphic below charts the revenue split between players and owners in each of the four major US sports and compares it to top-flight European football clubs. The contrast is stark. Baseballers receive about 57% of their pie – as do hockey players under the current CBA – while NFL and NBA players' shares decreased to around 50% with their last CBA. (Given the habit owners have of “winning” these negotiations, the figures below come from the owners' last offer rather than the current iteration of the CBA which will certainly change).

And this chart doesn't even take into account transfer fees that are paid on top of wages! Even accounting for cross-continental differences, the average 13-20% extra that top division European footballers earn makes them the obvious outlier. What makes this startling is that the player/owner revenue sharing scheme now in operation in Europe isn't codified but voluntary – owners don't pay this lofty percentage out of legal compulsion.

No matter how different the sports, American owners like the Glazers, Stan Kroenke and Fenway Sports Group operate teams on both sides of the Atlantic. This means that there is a basis for comparison, if not for drawing fully-fleshed-out conclusions.  It's obvious that running a business and not accumulating debt - let alone making a profit - when you pay 70% of your income to employees is hard to do.

Because of the continental ramifications of employing a salary cap, an system index-linked to revenue was the most feasible way that UEFA could harness undisciplined spending.  FFP is not perfect, has loopholes aplenty and it won't necessarily address the lack of competitive balance across Europe's top four leagues. Hopefully, these refinements will come.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Change the Father-Son rule

There great red sandy plains are rumbling.  It appears Melbourne Football Club will have to use the 3rd overall selection in this year's AFL draft to select Jack Viney, the son of former captain Todd.

Viney, courtesy: The Age
Before 2007, the promising sons of former club greats were available pre-draft to their father's club at the cost of that club's third-round selection.  That system changed to a "bid" system in 2007, where, should another club guarantees Viney selection in a certain round - say, the first - then the Demons have to match that offer and select the player with their own pick in the same round.  Melbourne has the third pick in this year's draft - meaning if another club values Jack Viney as a first-rounder, the Demons have to pick him third or lose him.

The "bid" system was implemented in response to Geelong adding Tom Hawkins via the old rule.  The power forward would almost certainly have been drafted first overall and arrived at a club already boasting Father-Son picks Gary Ablett Jr, Nathan Ablett, Matthew Scarlett and Mark Blake.  The Cats - who had decided consciously to re-embrace their past and locality -  were seen to be favoured so much that the rule was changed (never mind that the Abletts would have been third-round picks at best, while Scarlett and Blake probably wouldn't have been drafted if not their connexion to the Cats)*.

The Cats were rewarded for embracing their history.  Alongside the five listed above, they have also selected the sons of Andrew Bews, Terry Callan, Michael Woolnough, Garry Fletcher and Larry Donohue.  Of those five, four were busts and Bews is far from the final product.

Gary Ablett Jr, courtesy Wikipedia
The old rule was shouted down when some clubs got jealous - and with ample justification.  Adelaide is yet to select a Father-Son player in twenty-plus years of drafting, while Fremantle has only Brett Peake from seventeen.  A standard system, still at a significant cost - say, the old third-round pick - is fair, just as long as interstate clubs are able to participate as well.  However, drawing players from the SANFL and WAFL is more complex - nobody wants another Bryce Gibbs fiasco.  Perhaps an adequate compromise could be a total of games (200?) in which they play the majority (135-150?) with one of one "feeder" clubs.

The current rule places all the advantage in the hands of opposing teams, rather than the team who should benefit from their past.  At best, a bidding team gets a draft pick at market value.  At worst, they force the "parent" club into the contrived position of potentially mortgaging a part of their future against their past greats - a tricky situation.  The only sons now selected are generally "can't miss" prospects like Mitch Wallis, Joe Daniher and Jack Viney.  Without the Father-Son rule in 1997, the Cats wouldn't have unearthed the greatest full-back in history**.

The league shouldn't penalise clubs for drafting family.  It runs opposite to the family atmosphere the AFL has so successfully created.  History should be celebrated, rather than becoming a burden - it's great that the Western Bulldogs Footscray fans can see Liberatore and Wallace combine again, while the sight of Scarlett to Bews to Little Gary to Hawkins is a great callback to the free-flowing Cats of the1980s.

It isn't a retrograde step to look back fondly on history.  Embracing one's past is a concept that underlies a healthy collective - so it's time for the AFL to allow clubs to do so without penalty.

* You got me, I'm a Geelong supporter - but have felt this way since the rule was changed.
** Yes, I'm biased, but if you want I can give you a dozen reasons why.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Follow the money - and talent - back to MLS

In the August 27th issue of Sports Illustrated, senior writer Grant Wahl compiled a team of American soccer players playing abroad. Such a mainstream publication – find any dentist in the States who doesn't subscribe – publishing a full-page “lightweight” feature on US soccer is relatively rare and Wahl takes the opportunity to pull the usual names from the regular hats. It's the basic, all-purpose US men's national team.

Assembling fictitious teams is a pleasant exercise in pointlessness. Almost every blogger and journalist has done so – they stimulate discussion, can be used to illustrate a point, attract pageviews like crazy and finally, much of the legwork (ie. research) is already completed meaning a quick turnaround. (Look here and here for some examples on Goal Posts).

For writers, they're our side of an enjoyable pub debate.

However, this team made for an interesting test-case. This is because many of the best US footballers – as with Canada, Australia and several other nations – play in Europe. The Americans, however, are a special breed as the quality of their local game is improving as its popularity increases. No longer does a player have to move to Europe to fulfill their footballing destiny or monetary desires, meaning that in the past half-decade the standard of MLS has taken a quantum leap.

MLS, while of inconsistent quality, can produce scintillating football and as the standard improves, so does local talent. Due to the Impact, Whitecaps and Toronto FC, Canadian football reaps some of the same benefits.

In fact, Major League Soccer has developed the quality of US football to a standard now where players earning a quid locally could quite easily compete with – and, if the conditions were right, perhaps defeat – a team made up of “exports”. This is a major signal that the league is prospering the sport both at a grass-roots and professional level.

While Wahl's team undoubtedly boasts more class than a team drawn solely from MLS, the gap in quality isn't as different as you'd initially expect. A team derived of American players who play only in MLS could be as potent as many European sides:

US MLS XI: (4-3-3) – Rimando (RSL), Beitashour (San Jose), Clark (Houston), O. Gonzalez (LA), Pearce (NY), O. Alonso (Seattle), Donovan (LA), Davis (Houston), E. Johnson (Seattle), Shea (Dallas), Wondolowski (San Jose).

While the team lacks je ne sais quoi, it would certainly be enough to trouble their overseas brethren. Eighteen years removed from the iconic 1994 World Cup – the event that begat Major League Soccer – the spot in general is seeing the results of hard work put in by the USSF/US Soccer.

Teams made up of local players in many of the “second-tier” big football countries such as Korea, Japan or Mexico would rival – if not defeat – their globe-trotting compatriots. These leagues, new and old, are deep enough to compete financially and competition-wise for the country's best players. The result is Keisuke Honda spearheading Japan's wonderful 2010 World Cup and Asian Cup campaigns or a major club like Arsenal signing Park Chu-Young.

The next step up in competition is when the league produces entire teams capable of contesting the CONCACAF Champions League and eventually, competing – if not beating – South American and European clubs at the World Club Championships.

Progress has been slow, but assured. Now the league is reaping the rewards.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Andre Villas-Boas' Tottenham challenge

André Villas-Boas has a problem. His freshly remodelled Tottenham Hotspur squad isn't performing as they should, and Spurs enter this weekend's international break with two points from three matches.

 The team he now helms is very different from the last iteration of the White Hart Lane empire that Harry Redknapp and his SUV presided over. Gone are Modric, Corluka, Kranjcar and van der Vaart, while Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen added stripes to the white and beat well-worn paths to Wearside and West London. Ledley King, their captain and best defender, limped towards the sunset – and a knee replacement.

 Forty percent of the Spurs squad is changed from last year, the second highest percentage in the league.
 For the second consecutive year, AVB's resume convinced the owner of a top-six EPL team that he was the man to trim a cumbersome top-heavy unit into a sustainable future force – without sacrificing the present. The first attempt ended at the hands of the Cobham senior pros, frustrated at an ill-suited gameplan and seemingly arbitrary decision-making. As I suggested last week, identity is important – and after initial experiments with a high-line, Chelsea were basically faceless until Villas-Boas' dismissal.

 Although it's only early, Villas-Boas' second attempt has not started well. He was denied his priority transfer, Joao Moutinho, but buttered up by signing Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris – who is already reportedly unhappy. This is one example of the Spurs' faithful hushed disquiet - the most obvious feature of Villas-Boas' early reign isn't the results, but the equivocacy radiating from White Hart Lane.

 Football management can be distilled down to three roles: ego administration, reasoned decision-making and inspiring belief in subordinates – the three most public actions of a leader. These were further expanded by award-winning coach Ric Charlesworth, who in his autobiography “The Coach”, laid down five principles that every coach needed: knowledge, diligence, flexibility, consistency and honesty.

 Despite his tactical nous, disarming honesty and unquestioned devotion, André Villas-Boas is yet to prove himself fully as a leader. This is because he is yet to demonstrate flexibility and consistency in dealing with his players. In hindsight, his Chelsea reign can be thought of in two periods: one of inflexibility where he impelled ill-suited tactics on ill-tempered players, and another of inconsistency in which he employed frantic on-the-job problem solving.

 As regards Spurs, Villas-Boas can't afford a repeat of his Michael Dawson corollary. Dawson, amongst the League's better central defenders, was recently thought to be surplus to requirements and offered up for sale only days after captaining the club. Captaincy is a sign of trust from the coach, that a player should display all the attitudes of a coach who (usually) can't take the field. To then suddenly put a price on that captain's head – no matter what the need – is both affrontingly mercantile and painfully inconsistent.

 Indecision and inconsistency is easily picked up by players and a coach's credibility is eroded – slowly at first and then with increasing speed.  Villas-Boas' greatest challenge isn't getting the team to gel, but to prove himself once and for all a leader.

 Hopefully the confusion will settle now the transfer window has closed and squads have been submitted for the first half of the campaign. The new guy deserves, and will be given, time to really create something of value in North London. However, in order for his players to fall in behind him, André Villas-Boas needs the chance to prove himself – first to those players, and then the watching public.