Monday, April 29, 2013

An overblown Eden Hazard love-in

The start of Eden Hazard’s career with Chelsea might best be described as bimodal.

After a £32-million summer transfer from the 2011 French Champions Lille, Hazard began the season lauded as perhaps the best Belgian in a league full of ‘em.  But his form slumped around the time his club entered the mid-season depression that cost Champions League winning manager Roberto Di Matteo his position and recovered only in the early months of this year.

Yet when one takes a look at the nominees for the PFA Player of the Year award and now that same organisation’s Team of the Year sees him line up behind Robin van Persie.  He has been touted for a superlative season, but hasn’t produced at the same level we expected after his glistening start.

Both seem a bit rich.  Hazard is unquestionably an incredibly talented player, but has performed rather inconsistently in the English Premiership – he is capable of outstanding performances but has remained somewhat anonymous in other matches, perhaps a function of Chelsea’s attempt to shoehorn three pesky creative types into one outfit.  While statistics only tell half the story, Mata has indeed had the superior season.

Was his selection in the Team of the Year a product of a lack of alternative options?  Given his peers voted him one of the best six players in the country, that’s a long bow to draw – it’s clear that the Premier League rank and file deem him a player to be respected.  Nevertheless, he made the celebrated team at the expense of players of whom it could be easily argued had better seasons like Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla or Swansea City superbargain Michu. 

The love-in surrounding Hazard’s debut English season has begun and history will say that it was a fine one, replete with awards.  But that doesn’t do him justice – he could be one of the five greatest players in the world and that hasn’t been reflected in the totality of his performances this year.  This year, he has been very-good-but-not-great, perhaps only displaying eighty percent of his formidable skill.  But does a player who only engages (even) a fraction of his ability truly deserve a position in such an esteemed team?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Agüero’s curious "tackle" lays bare need for rule change

Following Sergio Agüero’s … enthusiastic … challenge upon David Luiz’s hindquarters during this weekend’s FA Cup Semi-Final, the issue of crude tackles has once again been thrust into football’s spotlight. 

Agüero, who scored a decisive goal in City’s 2-0 triumph, appeared to drop-kick the Chelsea centre-back in the posterior at about the 82-minute mark and escaped without serious censure from referee Chris Foy.  
The incident – which you can view below – appears to show the Argentine beaten for a ball by Luiz, who goes to ground.  Agüero’s response is to go to ground himself, cleats first and no matter whose butt was lay in his way.  The result: a free kick to the Blues.

Should a player commit a poor foul, it is FA policy – barring “special circumstances” – to avoid further punishing players for such infractions.  It is their position that retrospective action would undermine a referee’s control of the game.  This posture assumes of course that the referee had control (and adequate sight-lines) in the first place.

It’s time for that rule to change.  To avoid serious injuries as a result of unduly rough play, the FA needs to seriously consider retrospective punishment.  That Agüero – and Callum McManaman – escaped serious punishment for poorly executed or deliberate feet-first contact is galling and it’s fortunate that their victims weren’t more seriously injured. 

It is a paramount duty of Football Associations to ensure player safety.  In order to do so, perhaps inspiration can come from the Australian Football League.  In the late 1980s, this competition instituted a “trial-by-video” system to eliminate rampant behind the play violence and to compensate for incidents the officiating umpires might have missed.  In so doing injuries as a result of player violence by dint of negligence or vindictiveness has been reduced markedly. 

In the AFL, each case is judged according to a penal matrix which assigns a points value to the incident’s intent (which can be graded intentional, reckless, negligent or accidental), impact (deemed severe, high, medium, low, negligible) and point of contact (was it to the head, groin or body?).  Players who score highly – for example a deliberate punch to the face of an opponent – are in line to receive far harsher sanctions than someone who negligently knees a player to the ribs.  Penalties are then meted out according to a similar system, with good or bad behavior bonds and early guilty pleas serving as multipliers.

Precedents are inadmissible evidence, meaning every player receives the same judgment.  More importantly, each player are charged with protecting player safety and made aware this duty of care is expected of them.  
For football, the point of contact might be adapted to assess how high up the “target” player’s leg impact occurs.

With such a system, Agüero’s challenge might be assessed as reckless, medium and to the upper leg, thus earning a moderately severe ban.

Football Associations across the globe must do more to ensure player safety and avoid cases like Ben Collett, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo.  This is one way to empower players in taking charge of their own on-field security.  There has been one incident too many.

Friday, April 12, 2013

10-year form chart, English Championship promotion contenders

Perhaps this year they can do it.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year that Cardiff City can break their five-year playoff hoodoo and finally earn promotion to the Premier League.  Few would argue that they're deserving - the Bluebirds Dragons have finished thereabouts in English football's second tier for half a decade as well appearing at Wembley in FA and League Cup Finals - yet seem always to develop a flopsweat of Nixonian proportions during the season's most crucial weeks.

Cardiff and their rivals for automatic promotion - at this stage, mainly a rejuvenated Hull City and Gianfranco Zola's time-shared Watford squad - are without question the best three teams the Championship have to offer.  As an added bonus and in contrast to some other upstarts ascendent, all three should also have the resources to make a splash should they rise into the the Premiership, albeit through vastly different methods.

The peloton features PYTs of management, Gus Poyet and Dougie Freedman (whose current and ex-clubs find themselves in the chase).  It should come as no surprise that a surging Nottingham Forest - with their demonstrable playoff chops - find themselves firmly ensconced in fifth position.

Each team has its own narrative: Cardiff's collection of close misses, the Return of the King at Forest and even an Egyptian connection at Hull City made especially poignant by that country's recent football history.  The Premier League will be a richer - and more curious - league for their impending presence.

Click to embiggen

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

QPR's Townsend, the £40 million man

When they loaned Andros Townsend to QPR in late January, Tottenham Hotspur sat fourth in the Premiership and could be well satisfied with their past two months.  After taking nineteen points from a possible thirty, they looked forward to a February facing strictly mid-table clubs.

With Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon offering a pincer attack in outstanding form – and Clint Dempsey, Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson available as well – the club presumably felt they could afford the luxury of allowing the youngster to grow by playing Premier League football regularly.
Townsend, 21, might actually cost Spurs more than anticipated.

He has become – without question – Rangers’ most important player; moreover, he has shown why Harry Redknapp (who, curiously, largely ignored him while at Spurs) took him on a rental across London.  Over the past month Townsend has been the dominant player in the Premiership, regularly beating opponents for pace and guile before swinging crosses into threatening positions. 

His seven games in hoops have borne out two scores, an assist and three Player of the Match nods in his past four matches.  The streak has left him, according to the reputable, with a cumulative Player Rating for his QPR spell of a stratospheric 7.83.

Left backs both experienced and fleet-of-foot have been preyed upon: his Loftus Road locker boasts the heads of Javier Garrido, Rafael, Danny Rose, Matthew Lowton, John Arne Riise and most recently, Maynor Figueroa.

While hard to fathom after a gut-wrenching draw on the weekend, Townsend could prove the difference between the Hoops’ survival and relegation.  Should Rs stay up – and save owner Tony Fernandes  at least £25 million – it will be on Townsend’s back.

Although figures that size aren’t to be sniffed at, Townsend’s true value might be felt more by his parent club.  Since rising to third in the league in February, Spurs have struggled to cement entry into next year’s Champions League.  While a lack of strikers has been implicit to this shakiness, the team has struggled more since the loss of Lennon – and now Bale – to injury.

Neither Dempsey nor Sigurdsson are as inclined to create for others as for themselves, meaning forward thrusts at White Hart Lane – and, more crucially, away from home – have lacked the incision and penetration of the past six months.  This has only been compounded by the Bale-shaped void on the left wing.  The impetus that marked Spurs’ outstanding form of early 2013 is obvious for its absence.

Should Spurs falter further in the season’s waning weeks, they risk the riches of Europe’s premier competition – which is where missing Townsend really begins to hurt.  Although estimates vary, Champions League group-stage entrants can expect to receive windfalls of a minimum £16 million plus income from extra home games.  Clubs who progress to the Elimination stages could stand to collect up to another £25 million. 

Should Spurs’ absent forwards mean they finish out of UCL contention while Townsend leads Rangers to an unlikely continued existence in the top division, the net turnaround could be as much as £42 million.  While no-one was to know Townsend was capable of replicating his QPR form with Tottenham – the game of “What if” is appropriate only in MathNet – this swing puts him alongside a certain other West Londoner as the only Premiership players worth over £40 million.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Benitez, Chelsea and the successful season

Now he's officially departing Cobham in a few weeks, we can begin to evaluate more fully Rafael Benitez's star-cross'd reign at Chelsea.

At present, the Blues are locked in a tight battle for a Champions League position, while also active on two further fronts: the Europa League and, after Monday's victory against Old Rivals United, the FA Cup.

More correctly, we ask what would constitute a a successful season for Benitez in a personal sense.  With free agency looming, Occam's Razor suggests he will only leave the club satisfied should he add trophies to his resume.  The Premiership is gone, perhaps even before he arrived, meaning a successful season for Rafael Benitez depends upon twinned FA Cup/Europa League wins.

Rafael Benitez is firmly cognizant that he has to leave Chelsea with something (or things) to show for an eventful six months.

Even were he to available to boss the Blues next season, he would have to hang his hat on Cups competition, because he has led the Blues to rather haphazard league form: predecessor Roberto Di Matteo averaged 2.0 points per contest this term while Rafa's Blues have managed only 1.72.

However, he has propelled them relatively easily into the latter stages of both remaining Cups competitions - to the extent that there are suggestions that he is deliberately focusing not on an administratively-desired Top Four position, but on collecting as much silverware as possible.

Upcoming/potential opponents in each of these winnable competitions might present some problems - but these could hardly be described as insoluble.

Should Chelsea qualify for the Big Dance next year - no matter if it's in third position or fourth - Benitez can proudly and justifiably say to any future employers that he signed off on three deliverables for his Russian plutocrat.  However, he must be well aware that multiple Europa League titles and FA Cup wins read better to potential employers than their solitary equivalents won half a decade ago or more.

Famously, Benitez was deprived of any real power by the word "interim" that hovered nebulously and forebodingly over his job title, and is now mobilising his endgame strategy using the only real power he retains - that of directing his charges.

If - and, at this stage we can only say if - Benitez is disregarding his current employer to make himself more desirable to future payors, then this is a passive-aggressive game of chicken for the ages.  Should it pay dividends, he automatically puts himself in the frame for some of the plum jobs in Europe; if not, he sleeps with management fishes.

While the Blues hold onto the all-important UCL qualifying position and remain in contention for two further trophies, Benitez's short reign must be seen as a tacit success.  However, should they drop the ball in all three competitions - an unlikely but possible "accomplishment" - then Rafael Benitez will become more toxic than he was before arriving in West London.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cricket Australia contract list: more questions than answers

Yesterday, Moises Henriques – he of three recent Tests against India – was ignored by Cricket Australia in their list of twenty centrally-contracted players.  He was ostensibly passed over for young Tasmania all-rounder James Faulkner, who earned his first Australia contract at age 22.

Although this isn't to detract from Faulkner's joy (he probably deserves the position), Henriques can justifiably feel rather miffed.  Although he struggled for much of the Border-Gavaskar series, he performed admirably during his debut Test, scoring 149 across two innings and taking 1/48 from seventeen mid-standard overs with the ball.  Although he only managed a further seven runs on tour, but he deserves some credence as these fifties were two of only twelve half-century-plus scores by Australians for the tour.  (Five of which were by players on tour for their ability with the ball – two each by Siddle and Henriques, and Mitch Starc’s 99).

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the remarkable fact that CA breaks up their centrally contracted group of 20 players relatively evenly across three formats rather than focusing on the game’s highest form, Test cricket.  Let’s instead examine the message that this contract list sends.

It is yet another example of institutional flip-flopping by the Cricket Australia selection panel.  While Blind Freddy and his dog clamoured for the removal of Andrew Hilditch, the current National Selection Panel has been just as – if not more – inconsistent: players are called up only to be discarded one or two Tests later.  All that remains is to then be completely forgotten. 

With Australia’s Test cricket history stretching to 136 years, it’s damning that over 8 percent of all players ever to pull on a Baggy Green have debuted since 2007.

This is in polar contrast to the last three occasions in which Australia has had to build a team after debilitating setbacks.  On those three occasions (post-1984, in 1977-78 and in 1964), the hierarchy set about identifying players of talent enough to build a team around.  The players identified in that most recent down period – Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Craig McDermott and Bruce Reid – ushered in those wonderful nineties.

This time, Australia has identified no-one around which they can build but Michael Clarke and a promising crop of fast bowlers.  Perhaps this is due to a lack of talent, but it’s more likely this is a consequence of an itchy trigger finger.

If the ultimate leadership of James Sutherland and the National Selection Panel are this inconsistent, the role of Michael Clarke, Mickey Arthur and Pat Howard is suddenly thrust from team-building to constant team integration – and hence, discipline like that famously which was infamously dispensed in Mohali.  Given his role in team selection – and the rather Draconian methods they favour – Clarke and Arthur are hardly blameless, but with such a shifting player base any concept of a unified team identity is just that – a concept.

That the selectors can't - or won't - narrow their player pool down to a promising, deserving touring part is damning and leaves more questions for themselves, and for Cricket Australia.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Di Canio turns up the contrast at Sunderland

In appointing Paolo Di Canio as Sunderland manager, owner Ellis Short not only fell victim to the “Contrast Theory” but has actively embraced it. 

The theory is simple, and has its origins in time immemorial.  When replacing an underperforming manager, simply make your next selection his polar opposite: freewheelers replace tacticians.  Teachers replace “player’s coaches”; experience dismissed for youth that presages change e’er longed-for.

This contrast doesn’t get much more pronounced than this week’s changeover at the helm of the Black Cats.  Martin O’Neill – dear, staid, true, predictable and downtrodden Martin O’Neill – is gone, replaced by the fiery Di Canio.  For much of the season the Mackems have appeared short of ideas: O’Neill has been chief among the bewildered as his tried-and-tested methods shuffled his emotionless team towards relegation.

After an initial dead-cat bounce, the old coaching methods that O’Neill had employed with success over two decades with Wycombe, Leicester City, Celtic and Aston Villa proved ineffectual at Sunderland.  As his men became almost entirely inoffensive, O’Neill appeared a forlorn man adhering to tactics well past their sell-by date: defenders stop the ball, forwards shoot it and midfielders move the ball between the two as efficiently as possible. 

This theory still holds water – just, and if you squint – but, in practicality, is often exposed by the more fluid systems now en vogue throughout the EPL.

Di Canio is everything that Martin O’Neill was not.  He favours a remarkably fit team of young, hungry players.  Although he often played 4-4-2 at Swindon Town, he enjoyed the most success after shifting to an unorthodox formation.  He is flexible, young and hungry: three traits which hardly described O’Neill’s Wearside tenure.

He is also unflinchingly controversial, although references to his political beliefs may be somewhat overstated.

However, whether Di Canio’s furious affect will work in the Premiership is still up for debate - the spectacular fallout from another talent of the nineties, Paul Ince, after moving from League One to the top flight ended amidst a flurry of self-styled “Guv’nor” tactics which endeared him to neither his players, nor his employers.

Ellis Short has gambled that a controversial extrovert will be more effective in dodging relegation than persevering with a man who patently enjoyed only middling success.  O’Neill was an appointment tailored specifically to the situation in which Sunderland found themselves seventeen months past; Di Canio is a man chosen directly to address this predicament with this playing group.  How that dressing-shed cadre responds is now, quite literally, the £64 million question.