Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mario Balotelli joins AC Milan, continues to confuse

Many teams have improved themselves this transfer window.  There have been short-term additions like Sporting KC forward Kei Kamara’s six-month audition with Norwich City, bargains, as well as deals with a view to a long term future (see Zaha, Wilfried and Shea, Brek). 

There has even been the odd case of addition by subtraction.

The most prominent deal of this type involves Mario Balotelli.  His two-plus years playing for Manchester City had exhausted his employers and yesterday he was sent to the red side of Milan for a fee approximating £17 million.

That such a talent as Balotelli was released by City without argument is a sign of the disdain in which he is held at the Etihad campus.  The negatives finally outweighed the positives, with the final straw perhaps coming four weeks ago as the temperamental forward became involved in a physical altercation with coach – and his most prominent backer – Roberto Mancini.

While the deal may help the City dressing room coalesce and focus on overhauling crosstown rivals Manchester United, it also rids the club of their most gifted player.  With Balotelli, there are no absolutes – he every statement about him must be accompanied by a “but”, an “if” or a “when”.

Mario Balotelli is a player with a presence so large that you can’t judge anything he does from only one angle.  He is a colourful, 3D character in a world that paint its characters like Steamboat Willy.  This might be his greatest hurdle in keeping popular sentiment positive: football media often portrays its subjects in unforgiving black and white.

He is the most talented Italian striker to emerge since Antonio Cassano (at least) and also a man who exemplifies persistent problems with authority.  He’s a genius, and a madman.  A word or a sentence isn’t enough to articulate the truth of Mario Balotelli.

A three-dimensional outlook is also the only way to evaluate his transfer to the Fashion City.  He will win games for the Rossoneri, but also frustrate.  It’s a win for Manchester City, but also a loss – talents like Mario emerge twice a decade.  How very Balotelli.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Short pitch: Unexpected consequences of rotation

There are many sequelae to Cricket Australia's revolving door selection policy, but one that has gone unnoticed until now is the volume of run-outs seen in all formats of cricket.

It stands to reason: every player has their own style of running.  They might call early or late, be hesitant or direct or pigheaded.  Seeing as batting practice occurs mostly in the nets where partnership running is difficult to trial, there is a consequent lack of training afforded to running between wickets.  This is only magnified when viewed through the prism of inconsistency: how can a player know the running tendencies of his teammates when so many partners are dropped in and out of the lineup?

In International cricket this season, David Warner has batted with 13 different partners ranging from Ed Cowan to Nathan Lyon.  With the paucity of First Class games available to international teams - tour matches being a thing of the past - and a crowded schedule, communication suffers and run-outs quickly follow.

It takes time for players to bed into a team, both emotionally and stylistically.  The flurry of players we see short of their crease is just testament to the changing environment batsmen particularly are forced to endure.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cricket Australia sits and rotates

Cricket Australia and their coaching staff have come in for criticism regarding the policy formerly known as rotation, Strategic Player Management (SPM).   With precocious – but premature - talents like Steve Smith shunted into the canary yellow as Usman Khawaja is given his leave, rotation has become another rod with which to beat the national body.

David Mutton wrote recently that the rotation policy favoured by CA isn’t so much pragmatism but an ideology – something to be sought after, an end rather than the means.  With their infatuation with newcomers, Australian administrators seek a panacea to remove them from this time of trial.

The fact that SPM has been labelled a policy doesn’t help: while governmental policy is a plan with funding attached, its corporate counterpart pure risk-management, less about governance but a get-out for those unable or afraid to make decisions.  Sounds perfect for faceless bureaucracy that is Cricket Australia.

Rather than being a long-term benefit to Australian cricket, the recent policy of haphazard squad rotation undermines team cohesion and actually does just the opposite. 

In theory, player rotation makes perfect sense.  It allows tired players the rest needed to reduce injury and fatigue, while simultaneously allowing the outstanding youth talents with opportunities to see what the top level is all about.

Easily forgotten is that the results haven’t yet been proven.  Rested players still break down (c.f. Cummins, Pat and Pattinson, James), perhaps making Strategic Player Management (SPM) the cricketing equivalent of echinacea: a commonsense medical management that gained widespread uptake on the open-market uptake but was really just bollocks.  Rotation may or may not work.

Part of confusion is that CA isn’t exactly sure why they are rotating players through the coloured clothes.  Is it to blood youth, allow player recuperation, help restore form or a happy commonstance of all?  Was Glenn Maxwell’s ODI debut an audition for a role in the lower order a la Mike Hussey or just a consequence of his form in Australia’s new, annual, December-long tee-time?  It’s injury prevention, it’s specialized coaching, it’s player wellbeing, it’s rotation it’s … just the vibe of the thing.  Such a lack of boardroom vision can’t help but bleed down to the players.

There is little evidence to back up resting as an ideology, particularly with regard to player wellbeing.  It’s hard to fault Mickey Arthur et al for resting Peter Siddle after his efforts against South Africa in Adelaide, but for Mitch Starc to suffer likewise immediately after his best Test bowling beggared both belief and common sense.  If this was done in the name of Starc’s health, we must be concerned of his durability on every tour he participates in.

Cricket Australia has obviously decided that preserving their best on-field assets is the way to happy and productive cricket.  Unfortunately, James Sutherland and his mob would be far better served deploying Strategic Player Management as part of their scheduling process rather than as an escape clause for players wedged into an overcrowded calendar.  In it’s current form, SPM is no more than damage-control.

If SPM doesn’t actually produce less injuries, then how about the youth benefits?  While players have missed games going back decades, Strategic Player Management in the twenty-first century begins and ends with Liverpool Football Club under the reign of Rafael Benitez.  The Spaniard is perhaps the greatest proselytizer of SPM there is; he is a tactically gifted coach who puts faith in young players time and again.  However, the results from his time doing so at football’s most famous club are far from convincing. Players still got injured and few of the vaunted youth allegedly inspired by opportunity have kicked on into the Liverpool first team. 
Rotation for its own sake is a flawed idiom.  It’s a luxury that mediocre teams – like the current Australians – simply can’t afford in that it places philosophy above results.  In the grating words of Marge Simpson: “We can’t afford to shop at any store that has a philosophy”.

Great teams can afford dalliances with Smith, Maxwell, Chris Lynn or Shaun Marsh because the results don’t suffer in the long term.  Anyone who thinks this iteration of Australia is anything more than functional would seem to watch too much commentary by Channel Nine.

Ed Cowan, (c) Balanced Sports
While morally virtuous, when one prefers a complex idiom to simple method, results are often sacrificed.  And by refusing to face this inherent truth, CA has perhaps missed the most important reason why casual squad rotation is detrimental: those results, no matter what they are, stimulate public interest while generating the team spirit that’s forged through shared success or failure. 

Results bring about more than revenue.  Communal trials are what builds a team from a collection of individual parts.  Australia has no narrative, no identity partly because they haven’t had the chance to share enough cricket together.  Rather than building team spirit, SPM can ramp up internal rivalries, clouding the identities that have begun to coalesce.

The fact is that rotation is here to stay.  It’s another example of Cricket Australia running the sport froma middle management point of view.  The Australians will just have to thrive in spite of its shortsightedness. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Wesley Sneijder joins Galatasaray from Inter Milan

Holland star Wesley Sneijder has permanently joined Turkish Super Lig giants Galatasaray.  The deal, reportedly for a fee of around €10 million, should be a snip for a player who at 28 years of age isn’t just still in his prime, but eminently capable of being one of the top five footballers in the world.

Sneijder’s time at Inter Milan had run its course.  His lavish wages – and perhaps his abrasive nature – didn’t fit with club President Massimo Moratti’s schemes for a leaner Internazionale; the result was his exile from the club in September for refusing a contract which would scale his wages back by a seven-figure sum.
Galatasaray’s fans went bonkers at Sneijder’s presentation, as well they might: the player is a precocious talent and is dressed entirely with the arrogance that often accompanies the artisan.

While the fact Sneijder was sold is interesting in itself, his impact on his new club will be well worth watching. While they are a quality team, Galatasaray are headlined by familiar names – Altintop, Riera, Melo, Elmander – rather than superstars.  It will be Sneijder (who will fit in slightly forward of Felipe Melo and behind Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz), Hamit Altintop and then then everyone else.  “The Smurf” will be called on to provide not only provide his trademark passing, but also a sense of the spectacular and confidence that Galatasaray are capable of beating anyone.

That he has moved reinforces again the nomadic nature of football.  While player movement has always been a fixture of the sport –Sneijder himself has moved emigrated three times – the number of truly great players who have changed club colours over the past five years is amazing. 

Scanning the Guardian’s recent list of the 100 best players in the world reveals that within that hundred, there have been 49 transfers since the conclusion of the most recent World Cup.  Twelve of these involve players listed as being in the Guardian’s Top 30.  Of those same 49, nineteen occurred before or during the current season.

Player movement is great.  It allows for a renewed interest not often seen in sports with salary caps, and provides for hope when perhaps the previous season there was none.  Even though Galatasaray are currently perched atop the Super Lig table, the addition of a world-class player like Wesley Sneijder gives their fans reason for excitement (and to set off flares) at the hope of further challenging Europe’s best teams.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rafael Benítez, Hired Goon

Chelsea manager Rafael Benítez is in a tough spot.  In fact, he’d probably be the first to admit it, though it would come with a caveat: often trial is accompanied by opportunity.

Benítez arrived at Chelsea in November, tasked with renewing a project with its genesis in former boss Andre Villas-Boas: the refreshment and gentrification of a team with roots reaching back to the Claudio Ranieri era – that is, eight years and eight managers ago.  The former Liverpool manager is neither liked at Stamford Bridge nor blessed with long-term job security: comments made of Chelsea supporters have hardly endeared himself to the Blues faithful, while Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich appears to have a thing for former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.

The first two players seemingly to be moved on are stalwarts Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, neither of whom have been offered new contracts despite their current deals expiring in June. Cole has been more vocal, as is his wont – indeed, he probably has more currency still being near the peak of his powers and retaining his position as England’s left-back.  In contrast, while both sides have leaked information concerning a lack of contract negotiations, Lampard himself has been relatively quiet, by default claiming the moral high ground as a club champion ushered out the door before his time.

Sources suggested it was Benítez’s personal relationship with Abramovich that allowed him to take the manager’s role.  After being out of work for nearly two years, it was a low-risk: do what Roman wanted and if everything works out, take control of the club in the long(er) term; at worst, Rafa could – and has, somewhat – proved his big-club bona fides after an ill-fated spell at Inter Milan

What Roman apparently wants, however is to revive Andre Villas-Boas’ youthful attacking scheme.  Rumours persist that Lampard and Cole haven’t been offered new deals as Abramovich seeks to rid the club of players he sees as implicit in Villas-Boas’ loss of control and eventual demise.

In employing an unpopular henchman with serious questions over his long-term future, Abramovich has played to Russian money stereotype, but has done so with great effect.  Benítez, a hard-nosed, obstinate – and talented – manager is perhaps the best appointment for a thankless task.  Benítez has taken on the role as a goon to shield his boss, and perhaps his replacement, from tarnishing their reputation with the fans.

It could be that Benítez wins the position full-time: there are few other managers as talented and available as he is.  However, his poor popularity level and the impending availability of entropy-generating, serial Benítez-antagonist and former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, a successful trial period for Rafa won’t necessarily result in continued employment.  This is again, to type: when did you meet a henchman who wasn’t ultimately disposable?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Shane Watson sells himself short

The news that Shane Watson will be self-limiting his bowling should come as no great surprise.  He has done so before, many times, with the first occurrence dating back nearly a decade to the year before the infamous haunted-mansion Ashes Tour of 2005.

Watson, despite his bulging physique and American Dad!-style chin, just isn’t made for bowling long spells.  He sends the ball down well and over the past decade has increased his movement both through the air and off the pitch.  He is one of the few part-timers with the ability to change a match.  However, the forty-eight overs he sent down in Hobart have likely put him out of the rest of the International summer.

In response, Watson elected to remove himself semi-permanently from the Australian attack.  This comes in spite of the rather extreme circumstances of Hobart.  Those four dozen overs were by far the most he’s bowled in a Test:  before Bellerive, the most Watson had ever bowled in five-day competition was 35 overs at Nagpur during Jason Krezja’s match.

It’s damning for Watson that rather than moderating his bowling, he has turned his back on the leather altogether.  Not so much for his character but his Test career, because flinging the leather is perhaps the one thing that differentiates him from his “competition” for a position in Australia’s top order. 

While said competition is hardly beating at the door with force, Watson has voluntarily removed his single most attractive, marketable skill.  Selectors make selections based on the amount of currency held by players: players gain those bargaining chips by accumulating runs or wickets, by boasting a legacy or a posing unique threat to the opposition.  Only two years from being anointed the next great one, Watson has none of these.

It has been nearly 2 ½ years since he made his second – and last, til now – Test ton.  Over that span, his average has been 35.7, near enough his career number of 37.  If one was to hazard a guess at what replacement-level at Test level was, 35 might well be it: capable of some excellence and a shedload of utter mediocrity.

Whether any putative successors could actually reach this theoretical replacement level is very much up for debate.  Usman Khawaja seems to have first dibs on Mike Hussey’s vacated no. 6 position, leaving Watson’s challengers the likes of of Alex Doolan, Joe Burns and Glenn Maxwell.  Not only does each of these players have some domestic currency to present the selectors, but each also hints at the unique promise of future glories.  Watson, with his pedestrian batsmanship and now shorn of his bowling, presents an argument based heavily upon incumbency and seniority.

His decision, reached in harmony with coach Mickey Arthur, robs Watson of some of his cricketing value.  It leaves him alone at the crease with only his guile to protect him.  If ever a thought should scare Australian cricket fans - and the player himself - it is the thought of Shane Watson left to survive on only his wits.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Short Pitch: Blatter's subconscious bigotry

On Saturday, Kevin-Prince Boateng did a remarkable thing.  We like remarkable things, especially in the face of bigotry.  During the first half of a friendly match against Pro Patria, the Ghanaian forward led his AC Milan teammates in a walk-off after being subjected to racist abuse from a section of the crowd.

The hope is that this could be a major blow in the fight against racism in football and Boateng has received deserved support from all corners.

Except, notably, from FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who suggested that walk-offs were “running away” from racism.  This drew boos from the chorus and for good reason: while the President could have expressed logical reservations at the long-term ramifications of walk-offs, yet again his choice of phrase was not so much unfortunate as downright harmful.  His suggestion that walk-offs were in any way running from racism in part robs any targeted player of some of the power to fight back.

It’s yet another stick with which to beat FIFA’s chief executive.  Not only does he not understand that minorities often face a struggle to get by in football, but with his subconscious bigotry extending from women to the LGBT community and his understanding of the power of racism, it’s becoming even more clear he is a man from a bygone era and completely unsuited to a position of power.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is Luis Suárez a cheat?

In English football, one of the most debated players is Liverpool and Uruguay forward Luis Suárez.  Rumours – and even some visuals – of alleged misdeeds arrived on British soil before he did in early 2011; since then, his list of perceived sins is ... notable.

Luis Suárez far more than a Black Hat bad guy or simple cheat.  He is the single best example of the dichotomy that exists between football’s rules and their on-field execution.

The latest act in Suárez’s vile reign of terror occurred on Sunday as he scored a decisive goal against 5th-tier Mansfield Town after controlling the ball with his right hand.  As always, intentionality – as fits his narrative – can only be guessed at, especially when seen by a referee at live speeds and without replay.

The dictionary definition of cheating is to act dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage.  According to that black and white dogma, if he deliberately controlled the ball with his hand, Luis Suárez cheated.   Therefore, so did Thierry Henry, when he controlled the ball to score his game-winner against Ireland during World Cup qualifying in 2010.  As has every player who ever earned a penalty by simulation or popped an opponent with an elbow and escaped unscathed.

The word “cheat” is not often used in sport.  When it is, it’s usually preceded by the adjective “drug”.  It is a label to be avoided and the gravitas of such a moniker isn’t taken lightly.  Add to this the multifactorial nature of any situation in sport, difficulty in judging intent and simple urge to avoid litigation and it’s probably for the best that the phrase isn’t bandied about.  As ESPN commentator Jon Champion found out on Sunday, the term “cheat” doesn’t provide for much wiggle room; it is a black-and-white descriptor that just doesn’t sit right.

The rules of a sport are just as monochromatic, and plainly as two-dimensional.  Unfortunately, the field is green, white and most certainly encompassing not only third but fourth dimensions.  That they are enforced by humans with (one presumes) opinions, reasoning skills, no replays and imperfect positioning  mean rules can only be best implemented rather than perfectly applied.  Referees cannot be 100% correct and this means that players will accordingly risk sanctions to try and gain an advantage.

Suárez puts himself in positions to take those risks and obtain that advantage more than almost anyone else in the game.  This doesn’t make him evil, or a cheat (unless you like black and white descriptors); it makes him a pragmatist – someone who values results over aesthetics.  That he can shape matches – and debate – to such an extent is actually a compliment, of sorts.

Luis Suárez is not evil.  Well, not as far as I know, anyway.  He has a knack for being in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time.  And this rare talent gives him more opportunity to display how much he’s prepared to trade for a Liverpool win.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Commentary conundra

featuring the very welcome return of Ben Roberts, cricket connoisseur.

The recent passing of both Tony Greig and Christopher Martin-Jenkins, along with that of PeterRoebuck a little over 12 months ago has forced a reflection on the poor state of cricket commentary in Australia. Where the sound of cricket musings used to form an addictively pleasant and informative background to the summer, I find myself increasingly easily turned away.

I have almost given up on watching the cricket on TV, even with the sound down. Channel 9 constantly flits about with replays and technology, trying to ensure the viewer has no downtime whatsoever. But this counters one of the great appeals of cricket as a game, the pauses and time between balls allow for anticipation to rise, anticipation in cricket and life is often the greater thrill. The need to play with the technology means that great cricket thinkers the likes of Michael Slater and Mark Nicholas (refer their earlier work) might as well be robots.

Greig never shied away from the technology available, but he always seemed to be giving it a pinch of salt and not taking it too seriously. Funnily enough, Richie Benaud (try to find an article about where the word ‘doyen’ does not precede his name, I dare you.  Double dare you.) still inhabits the commentary box and famously advises - “… put your brain into gear and if you can add to what's on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”  Present-day producers might want to reflect on that.

Even the ABC (usually a safe option) is flagging. Their use of current first class cricketers is only ever going to produce cliché and platitude.  Does anyone really believe cricketers from states other than QLD & WA think highly of Mitchell Johnson’s selection? Not likely, they’ve gotten stuck into him (and Jessica) for years in the local stuff for being picked ahead of their teammates. Roebuck’s strong, independent analysis on proceedings is sorely missed.  As a listener, even if you didn't agree, his considered comment made you think. Kerry O’Keeffe’s comedic anecdotes are tiring and without an appropriate foil (like the straight laced Roebuck), fall flat.

Regardless of the medium, the domestic T20 tournaments have allowed sickening levels of hyperbole to enter commentary boxes. Yes, a fringe first class cricketer (who no one except his mum has ever heard of) or a past-it former international (of questionable talent then and now) has swung ridiculously hard at the ball for the sixth time straight in the over and finally connected enough for it to just clear ridiculously short boundaries. But this does not mean that you, a fringe first class cricketer (who no one except your mum has ever heard of) or caller usually employed as an “around the grounds” man during football season, sitting in the commentary box need to burst into unbridled whooping.

Granted he was afforded high cost, fee-paying education that gave him clipped tones and high command of the English language, but Martin-Jenkins could speak ten words that will be recalled for a lifetime where an infinite amount of screeching at an unimportant T20 match will be forgotten immediately; and what took more of the speaker’s energy?*  

Let the greatest game on earth speak for itself.

(Ed. - listen to the latest installment of The Cricket Sadist Hour with Gideon Haigh to hear more on how incisive and talented the ineffable Martin-Jenkins was). 

Friday, January 4, 2013

New goalkeeper stats available

After literally an two and a half hours of data collection and limited analysis, we've manage to update Balanced Sports' European Goalkeeper Stats page.  It now includes all of 2011-12 and stats from the first half of 2012-13.

Thanks must go to Blogger, whose algorithms for some reason stopped screwing up the spreadsheet inserts.

Debate away!