Friday, June 28, 2013

Book review: Let me tell you a story, by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein

John Feinstein has made a career of being a "thinking man's" sportswriter.  He shot to prominence with the oustanding 1986 Season on the Brink, which detailed a season spent with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers.  Some of his other works have been critically acclaimed as well, but have on occasion - eg. The Punch - tended to be too po-faced and serious for their own good.

Let me tell you a story, a collection of tales Feinstein could have knocked out in his sleep is the perfect antithesis to such overbearing seriousness.  It describes his invitation to lunch with Red Auerbach, the former President of the Boston Celtics and acknowledged King of Boston basketball.  What the casual fan probably fails to realise is Red's assocation with Washington D.C. hoops as well.  He was an alumni of George Washington University, his wife and children (and him, during the offseason) lived there and he maintained connections with several of the city's basketball aristocracy.

The book begins with Auerbach growing older and more aware of his mortality.  He therefore decided to invest time in his closest friends, which manifested as a regular lunch with the likes of his brother Zang, secret service agents and The Best High School hoops coach of all, Morgan Wootten.  Feinstein - who was working as a columnist for the Washington Post - smelled a story, managed to get an invitation and became a regular lunch guest.  He then proceeds to describe what the lunch became for him and his compatriots.

The book is named because even though there were upwards of a dozen regular diners, these were Red's lunches. He had the central seat, so he could hold court and opine about almost every issue - starting most of his stories with the words "Let me tell you about...".  The bill was also Red's, until the Celtics got wind of the events and insisted the team paid.  Red talks candidly (as if  he could speak any other way) about his time with the Celtics, the owners he worked for and even of his lack of malice at being replaced as Celtics President during the short-lived Rick Pitino era.

What impresses you so much is Red's reasoning - there were always completely logical reasons for every decision he made.  When he explains those reasons - even why he lit his trademark cigar when the Celtics had secured victory - he makes absolute sense.  (If you're wondering, he lit the cigars when the Celtics were up by a heap as a subconscious signal that his team was relaxed and not seeking to rub the victory in their opponents faces).  His tales stand in stark contrast to those of another Celtic great, Bill Russell.  As Auerbach became more acutely aware of his ageing, he became more congnizant of the importance of spending time with his friends; in stark contrast Russell became more and more arrogant, distant and spiky.

Throughout, you can't help liking Red.  It's obvious that Feinstein - and the entire Lunch crew - absolutely adored him.  He was fair, friendly and fun to be around, which in turn makes the book an easy read.  It is occasionally slightly stained by Feinstein's own opinions - what little he thinks of Rick Pitino is obvious, and his memorable description of Scottie Pippen as Scottie "I've got a headache when it matters most" Pippen are fine examples of unwanted editorialisation.

It's lightweight, but really enjoyable read.

Reposted from Books with Balls, a now sadly mostly-disregarded affiliate.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Short Pitch: On Mickey Arthur, Darren Lehmann and the Australian way of death

At least it was quick.

Mickey Arthur's eighteen month spell as Australian coach was terminated on Sunday, seventeen days before the first of ten consecutive Ashes Tests.  The South African has been almost instantly replaced by cult favourite Darren "Boof" Lehmann.  Arthur's reign was a fraught one, lowlighted by "homeworkgate" and four Australian players being dropped for failing to submit their reflections on a loss to India.

Lehmann has promised an improved team culture, based around three of his favourite things: beer, mates, and winning.  Arthur presided over an atmosphere of infighting and despair not entirely of his own design.  Changes had to be made no matter what the timing.  Parallels can be drawn with the AFL's Melbourne Football Club - a once-great organisation suffering off-field mismanagement, autocratic coaching with ambitious names eyeing his position resulting in the investiture of power in dubious positions.

Arthur's dismissal occurred slightly over two weeks before the largest date in the Aussie cricket calendar, an away Ashes series, when expectations are perhaps the lowest they've been for the Baggy Green since 1985. The series also provides a baptism of fire for the new guru as he helms an underwhelmingly-talented crew against one of the world's best lineups.

When the penny drops that a change is not only beneficial but necessary, making that change immediately and without mercy is a very pragmatic - read: Old Australian - way of doing things.  The reverse - often employed in world football - sees a manager sacked before a series of winnable games, allowing for a relatively easy transition into a new way of playing.  Such advance - and often wrong - forethought smacks of the current Cricket Australia thinking, making Arthur's instantaneous demise such a shock.

Facing the Old Enemy ten times over the next seven months, Australia didn't have such a luxury, so a sudden and brutal guillotining was seen as the best method to dispose of a lame duck.  The most comparable occasion occurred in 1970-71, when Bill Lawry absorbed the wrath of a (similarly) perpetually discombobulated executive panel.

It's the first gutsy move that Cricket Australia has made in recent memory.  It has installed a popular - and perhaps the best - candidate in a position where he might be able to create a positive change in attitude, fortunes and results quite quickly.  For this, they should be congratulated; however, it's also a tacit admission that this upcoming Ashes series is all but lost and focus must be cast upon the return series this summer: no coach can be expected to make such an immediate turnaround.

Friday, June 21, 2013

European Goalkeeper Stats 2010-11

The following is a list of (barely) advanced Goalkeeper stats for the four major European leagues for season 2010-11.

European Goalkeeper stats 2011-12

This post details some (barely) advanced statistics for goalkeepers from the 2011-12 European football season.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

European Goalkeeper Stats 2012-13

The following post is essentially a list of numbers, from which you can make what you will. It details each goalkeeper's individual performance over the course of the season - and, by extension, the performance of each club's defence over the season past.

Click past the byline to see the (rather lengthy) statistics.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Socceroos bound for Rio despite managerial misgivings

After cutting it far too fine for comfort, the Socceroos can finally begin to prepare for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. An eighty-third minute headed goal from Joshua Kennedy sealed a 1-0 victory against old rivals Iraq and progression from the final round of Asian Qualifying. While the display against essentially a second-string side was hardly awe-inspiring, it was enough and the antipodeans now take their place alongside Japan, South Korea and Iran as AFC representatives at the Big Dance.

Uzbekistan and Jordan will compete in a two-legged playoff in early September for the final available Asian qualifying position. Whichever squad that makes it to Brazil will certainly prove a fillip to their nation, but may not impact the makeup of the second round: of the Asian clubs bound for Rio, has Japan the shortest of the long-odds at 126:1.

While it's taken nearly three years, Australia coach Holger Osieck seems to have finally hit upon the best makeup for his side.  Over his tenure, Osieck has dithered through an extensive playing roster without ever tipping his hand towards pragmatism (and continued appearances by the likes of Sasa Ognenovski and Alex Brosque) or an attempt at an exciting future featuring Tomas Rogic, Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse. This has hurt the team, as players both young and old never seem to know whether they had roles to play in attaining a World Cup berth. Had the Socceroos not won last night, this lack of clear vision - and a penchant for sexist jokes - would have thrust the German onto perilously thin ice.

The lineups deployed in these past two crucial qualifiers suggest Osieck believes - as do the majority of the Green and Gold Army - that success lies not in wholesale youth or experience, but somewhere firmly betwixt. The crucial players in Tuesday evening's win were Oar, Rogic and resurrected thirtysomethings Ognenovski, Neill, Kennedy and Mark Bresciano. Had the Socceroos been without Al-Gharafa's Bresciano over the past six months, they would be - at best - face a nerve-racking playoff to cement next summer's Samba Tour.

After two years of curious selections, it may be that Osieck has happened luckily upon his best lineup at the critical time.  The alternate viewpoint states that Australia's mixed results are a function of rarely having an entire squad available due to the travel involved in representing Australia.

Educated onlookers favour the former, especially based on the teams Osieck selected during turgid losses to Jordan and a draw with Oman: the Socceroos relied too heavily upon a square, lateral gameplan that lacked in fluidity and impetus. The re-emergence of Oar and the boost Rogic and Kruse obtained from transfers has thrust a more joyful approach upon the men in gold, resulting in a 4-0 thumping of Jordan (the nation's biggest win in a match that mattered since their 6-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan in the 2011 Asian Cup) and now, ultimately, acceptance not just as the Socceroos' future, but also their present.

To paraphrase Napoleon: it's better to be lucky than good, and Osieck appears to have stumbled upon his most fruitful combination.

Despite the pressure of expectation, Osieck has recently displayed a happy recognition of when to make the correct substitutions at the most important moments. Last night, he got it right again - removing Australia's most effective forwards this decade (Tim Cahill and Brett Holman) and inserting forgotten man Kennedy - a man built to dominate Asian football - who scored only minutes after arriving on the pitch for the 'Roos for the first time since 2011

That he has finally, finally, seemingly integrated the talented youth into the cadre of hard-bitten vets and finally exemplified his once-vaunted game-management skills, the future looks brighter for Australian football than it did only a fortnight ago.

With the pressure now off and Australia hoping for an improvement from Pim Verbeek's ill-begotten 2010 World Cup.

Friday, June 14, 2013

When the going gets tough, Luis Suarez gets out

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Those sounds you hear emanating from Liverpool aren’t Billy Ocean’s 1985 hit*, but of Luis Suarez’s discontent.  The going’s gotten tough – and now he wants out.

The Liverpool forward – who came within a suspension of claiming the 2012-13 Premier League Golden Boot – has this week repeated his statements that he wants to leave England due to the biased nature of the Football Association and the pervasive English media. 

Amongst Suarez’s body of “proof” is the eight game ban levied upon him for making racially-charged comments to Patrice Evra when “England’s own” John Terry received a four match sanction for similar actions.  While he has a point – racial abuse is racial abuse – Luis Suarez’s situation is entirely of his own manufacture.  For him to want out now is a disrespectful to his manager, club and supporters.

Ignoring for a moment his Dutch ban for biting and the histrionics surrounding his World Cup Quarter Final handball, Suarez has repeatedly shown a willingness to operate outside the spirit of the game.  This is nothing special – you’d venture to say that most players if presented with the opportunity would embrace an advantage – but what makes Suarez’s case “special” is the public nature in which these incidents occur.

Luis Suarez, startling talent though he is, behaves badly in perhaps the most public place on Earth – an English football pitch.  It is this willingness to work so visibly outside the spirit of the game that have earned him the scrutiny he now disdains. 

Without doing the rap sheet thing again, his recent interviews in Uruguay have shown a remarkable ability to apply reason to recidivism.  Those interviews neglect to mention, however, that each indiscretion has been under his control, the result of his decisions. 

Sometimes Suarez happens upon a point of some reason – in this case that the footballing public has been unable to judge him solely on his footballing ability.  This of course is true, but simply because the player has made a judgment of independent football talent impossible because of the circus of malfeasance in which he so readily engages.  After three years of constant, tiring uproar, there is now no separation between his play and his on-field persona, warts and all.

Throughout his time on Merseyside, the Kop – and his managers – have supported him.  He has become one of the league’s best players and one of its handful of truly influential players.  For him to want out – ostensibly to Real Madrid – after having such a large and vocal supporter base back him so often reflects very poorly on him.

When faced with a sticky situation of our own design, few in life have the option to bolt and therefore we must live with our decisions.  Most realize that if our actions put us into awkward circumstance, we must make the best of it: either to make it right, or to cope (and hopefully flourish) from prior choices.  For that to happen though, there must be an awareness of how one arrives at their current position – discernment Luis Suarez apparently lacks.

*I will take any excuse to link to a Billy Ocean music video.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Summer's transfer "saga" candidates

Each year, one player’s future whereabouts overshadows the impending destinations of all others.  Over the years, that player has been Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie; each of whom left the club at which they made their name for pastures and challenges new.  It’s time to run our eye over the candidates for this year’s edition of “Summer’s Biggest Transfer”.

Candidate 1: Wayne Rooney
Most interested: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal

Rooney has all but stated publicly that he wants a change after nine years at Old Trafford, and most Manchester United fans want to usher him towards the door.  Since a breakout 2009-10, a player known for work rate and invention has stagnated and as a consequence has lost his pre-eminent position in English football.  Markets such as have Rooney at short odds to remain at United, but there has been rumoured interest from big-spenders PSG and also from the gleam in Arsene Wenger's eye.

A change of scenery might be the answer both for player and club.  Although United’s recent history is filled with “lifers”, there have also been a fair share of those who trudged off down washout lane.  The fact is that Rooney is a surplus player at United, especially if new manager David Moyes is allowed to thrust a fistfuls at a new striker and/or central midfielder.  It may well be time to go, but his past two years and astonishing wages may make a deal difficult.

Candidate 2: Robert Lewandowski
Most interested: Bayern Munich, Manchester United

Lewandowski might be the best footballing centre-forward in Europe.  He has languorous pace, scores in hatfuls and can play any style of game.  However, he earns approximately €20,000 per week at Borussia Dortmund and is ready for a well-earned payday that Dortmund can’t offer.

Enter – as per usual – Bayern Munich.  The Bavarians boast a remarkable treble-winning squad who look eminently capable of creating the next great club dynasty, reinforced by taking Dortmund’s most prize talent, Mario Götze.  There is little doubt that Lewandowski will move; the issue is simply where.

While Real Madrid have been mentioned, the two most likely destinations are Bayern Munich and Manchester United.  However, with David Moyes’ transfer habits – necessarily – tending towards deadline deals, if Lewandowski doesn’t sign at Bayern by July, expect this one to run and run.

Candidate 3: Gareth Bale
Most interested: Real Madrid, Manchester United

Not only is Bale the single-most damaging player in England, but the Welshman also made himself infinitely more valuable this year by adapting to a more central role for Tottenham Hotspur.  The likelihood is that he will move – if not this year, then next – as Spurs’ chairman Daniel Levy enthusiastically embraces the philosophy that “every player has his price” (see: Modric, Luka; Berbatov, Dimitar; Keane, Robbie; amongst many others).

The debate now is whether or not Bale thinks it best to leave White Hart Lane in 2013 or perhaps to hang around a year for another crack at Champions League qualification.  Real Madrid obviously thinks that he looks good in white, while he might form the most devastating offense in the Premiership should he join Manchester United.

It’s thought, however, that there is a mutual affection between Bale and Los Merengues.  However, he also seems a relatively grounded sort and as a result may become that rare player to value loyalty over money (at least temporarily).  Levy is another management-type for whom the deadline holds no fear, so the smart money says that Bale stays a Spur – for now.