Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dempsey behind Seattle Sounders' decline

(c) Author's collection
Rumours persist that Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid needs at least an appearance in the MLS Cup Final to retain his job. 

He won’t get it.

Despite boasting – on paper – the best forward line in the seventeen-year history of MLS, the team has almost completely failed to gel and enters the playoffs with form that can only be described as calamitous.

The downturn can be traced to what seemed the Sounders’ zenith, the capture of USMNT talisman Clint Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur and his presentation to the throng as all-conquering Caesar.  The crowd thrummed as “The Deuce” emerged onto CenturyLink field to his rather overstated rap, all expectant that the best-credentialled outfield player in American soccer would complete Seattle’s reformation from inertia-bound locomotive into filthy, filthy machine.  Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales?  Heaven help Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ian Holloway: Don't you think he looks tired?

“Six little words that could bring down a government … don’t you think she looks tired?”

Those words and a couple of questionable decisions ousted the fictional Harriet Jones from the Prime Ministership of Great Britain.  So powerful is one’s appearance that all it takes is speculative criticism and fading appearance to lose a grip on authority.

In related news, everyone’s favourite jumble-a-quote man Ian Holloway has left Crystal Palace by mutual consent after winning only one of his team’s eight Premier League games so far this season.  Former Bristol City manager Keith Millen will take over as interim boss as the club investigates possible new blood; names mentioned so far have included former Stoke City manager Tony Pulis, a re-hired Neil Warnock and Western Sydney Wanderers manager Tony Popovic.

This may genuinely be one of those rare situations in football where the term mutual consent isn’t simply a kinder synonym for sacked.  A man whose straightforward nature and Worzel-type accent sometimes drew attention away from a keen football mind, Holloway was visibly exhausted only three months into the season and as he failed to balance a squad that boasted plenty of players but only a few of even an average level.  His flowing, offensive tactics have plenty of merit in the Championship but have now failed twice to transport to Premier League standard.

The travails of managing a club unprepared for life at the top level were apparent on his usually smiling features.  Recent pictures – including this one, usually a bog-standard "manager shot" – show a defeated man, albeit one who hadn’t yet surrendered.  When even the involuntary parts of body language betray a manager so quickly, doubts build about his ability to make effective decisions; as the stress increased, it became increasingly apparent that Ian Holloway’s future lay away from Selhurst Park.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How much impact do individual players have on their team's performances?

Click to enlarge
The chart above details something of the relative contribution made by individual English Premiership players to their team performances: it maps the amount of goals scored and conceded per ninety minutes with each player on the field this season.  In effect, this chart mimics the plus/minus stat used in hockey*, adjusted for time spent on the field.

The sample size is relatively small – teams from five teams were included, one from each of five categories: last year’s champions, Manchester United, a top-four contender in Tottenham Hotspur, two suspiciously mid-table teams in Aston Villa and Southampton and promoted Cardiff City. 

A player’s contribution can be surmised from how far he is from a large cluster of teammates – these represent the players a manager thinks of as the core of his team.  Examples are easily found in the defensive units of Spurs, Villa, Southampton and Cardiff. 

The spread also represents the amount of squad rotation favoured by certain managers – the northwest regions of the graphic indicate Manchester United have a core that manager David Moyes is currently coming to grips with simply by virtue of the player spread.  Southampton, however, are far more congested.

We can see that the player who represents the greatest forward boon to his side is Wayne Rooney, who after a slow start, has made a startling return to form at Old Trafford.  While it’s no surprise given his team’s relative miserliness, Nathaniel Clyne of Southampton seems to have proven the difference between the Saints scoring or not.

(This ongoing project began as an attempt to keep plus minus records for individual Premier League players; you can find the results here: so far, the player with the worst plus/minus ratio is Kim Bo Kyung of Cardiff City followed by Ashley Young of Manchester United; the player from the five teams selected with the best plus/minus stat is again Nathaniel Clyne).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Postecoglou must be new Socceroo manager

Holger Osieck ended his association with Australian soccer an unpopular coach whose side capitulated 6-0 twice in succession.  If anything is liable to have a manager fired, it is a pitiful loss against reasonable opposition and the German was dismissed in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s match against France.

According to the normal chain of events, speculation is gathering as to the identity of his successor with the most high-profile names being Socceroo Swami Guus Hiddink, ex-Chile and Athletic Bilbao boss Marcelo Bielsa and – for some unknown reason – Roberto Di Matteo.  Were Australia focusing solely on the World and Asian Cups of 2014 and 15, an “impact signing” excelling at tournament football – and hopefully at pulling strings at European clubs – would seem a wise investment.

However, none of the three “names” above would be inclined to hang around to create a platform for future development; to an ambitious non-Aussie, the most appealing aspect of the Australia job is almost certainly its potential for a quick profit

Australia has lacked footballing identity since the 2010 World Cup. Until that time, the boys in Gold were a lineup of predictably loveable maulers: their backline boasted Craig Moore, Lucas Neill and Scott Chipperfield while the midfield was manned by uncompromising sorts Brett Emerton and Vince Grella.  The team’s only lightweight, Harry Kewell, flitted about behind man-mountain Mark Viduka and his unsettlingly-physical Boy Wonder, Tim Cahill

With the Green and Gold army clamouring for generational change and the press conferences of some of the Socceroo elite seemingly endorsing such claims, Football Federation of Australia Chairman and all-around-Daddy-Warbucks-figure Frank Lowy has narrowed the association’s focus and suggested the biggest hire in Australian soccer is likely to be from the FFA’s back room, the A-League

The Australian national team needs to be the pinnacle for any Australian footballer. While the A-League has strengthened, the player pathways that produced the Golden Generation that peaked in 2006 have become overgrown.  A strong Socceroo side with structures based around player development both at home and abroad is an absolute necessity for football to become more deeply rooted in the antipodean sporting consciousness.  The coach best able to implement such a program must be employed.

For the first time in a generation, an Australian is almost certainly the best person for the position.
Lowy has effectively narrowed the field to three candidates – Tony Popovic of nascent Western Sydney Wanderers; former interim Socceroo manager Graham Arnold, now of the Central Coast Mariners; and Melbourne Victory kingpin Ange Postecoglou.

All the candidates present convincing resum├ęs despite high-profile failures.  Of the three, Arnold probably comes with the most baggage due to his underwhelming Asian Cup leadership of 2007; however, he has developed a consistently good Mariners outfit despite a tight budget even by A-League standards.  His appointment may be seen as a reward to a company man. Popovic has a jaw-dropping level of natural talent for management and served an impressive apprenticeship before taking a journeyman bunch of Wanderers into the league finals in their first season.  Questions remain, however, as to his experience.

Even with these negative aspects, were Arnold or Popovic to earn the position, Australia could feel confident about the Socceroos’ future. 

However, the most compelling choice is Ange Postecoglou.  After turning the Brisbane Roar from also-rans into dominant Premiers, he is currently re-shaping the A-League’s biggest club into a younger, more vital side; his modus operandi is to turn young footballers into disciplined and productive units.

This is based in part about his coaching philosophy: his teams hold the ball and use it rather than Osieck’s haphazard, “needs-must” approach.  In an age where Australian youngsters have struggled to claim positions for the National side, pragmatism has few uses even focusing solely upon next year’s Cup.  If a player – especially a youngster – knows ahead of time what is expected of a Socceroo, he is in far better position to prepare.

Despite the short lead-in to the World Cup, the FFA is in an enviable position.  They can finally choose a manager to mould a team with the future in mind rather than employing someone they hope is able to bring about short-term results.  The Round of Sixteen would of course be nice, but the Socceroos can no longer afford to focus on the twilights Schwarzer, Neill and Cahill.  The outlook must now be on the retirements of James Holland, Tom Rogic and Matthew Spiranovic.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Osieck not long for Socceroos' top job

With Australian football trying to regain its feet after a 6-0 pasting against Brazil last month, speculation has intensified over the future of Socceroo coach Holger Osieck. The German manager has appeared a man unable to take forward steps in the past twelve months, with his players effectively playing according to inconsistent tactics; even his greatest moment in 2013 was tarnished by a poorly-timed sexist joke. The only thing Osieck has definitively delivered for Australia has been PR calamity: perfunctory football run by a quasi-unlikable boss.

The only things in Osieck's favor - significant though they may be - include a truncated lead-in time for any new manager and the $1 million he's still owed by the Football Federation of Australia Frank Lowy. Although he remains unpopular, it still remains more likely than not that the manager incumbent will lead the likes of Brett Holman, Tommy Oar and Archie Thompson (!) to South America and, ultimately, disappointment.

Strangely, the single greatest reason for the appointment of a new boss might be a limited talent pool. With Australia's best 20 players almost set in stone, the only way a new gaffer might impact the side during the year-til-Brazil would be to engage players and encourage tactical buy-in. This is an aspect of management Osieck has found difficult, because his iteration of Australia simply hasn't had the identity of past sides. For years, Australia was a burly, physical outfit capable of controlling games through brute strength. As players like Oar and Tom Rogic replaced the Mark Vidukas and Scott Chipperfields of the world, the Socceroos lost some of that identity and therefore Osieck has settled for an inconsistent style.

A new manager - Leo Beenhakker, perhaps? Or Johan Neeskens? - might help develop a national team with an identity and a definite idea of how to play to type. However, with Lowy burnt twice by international bosses (neither Osieck nor his predecessor Pim Verbeek have been a real success), the inclination is that Osieck will retain his post for the Fiesta World Cup, but only that long.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Man United's Januzaj makes right choice: not to choose

The international break approaches us like the semi in Duel – from a speck in the distance, it sneakily becomes overwhelming. Today’s World Cup Qualifiers include important matches between the Euro 2012 hosts in Kharkov and a Sweden/Austria matchup that might determine Group C’s playoff entrant, while the contest in Mexico City could keep the hopes alive of both Panama and Mexico.

The European confederation enters the week’s festivities in a curious manner: five separate national Football Associations are “keeping tabs” on a single player, Adnan Januzaj, a winger helping to dispel Manchester United’s Moyesian malaise. It emerged on Monday that all of the Belgian, English, Serbian, Turkish, Albanian and embryonic Kosovar Associations feel as if the Premiership’s most babyfaced star might be tempted to play for their country.

It’s not unknown for a player to choose his nationality based upon his residence or passport in many sports, but football is undoubtedly the most high-profile. To take two higher-profile examples, Croatia forward Eduardo spent the first sixteen years of his life in Brazil, while James McCarthy was born and raised in Scotland but represents Ireland, the country of his grandparents. Tug-of-loves in International football occur about as regularly as they do on Coronation Street.

However, Januzaj’s situation is different. The player is only eighteen and hasn’t represented any country in youth football; although on the exterior it feels … unwholesome for him to play for the Three Lions after two years in the country, should he feel the appropriate affinity for England, Januzaj should be entitled to cast his lot in forever with them, after he has served the requisite time. The same goes for Belgium, Serbia, Turkey (who are notoriously convincing) and even Kosovo, pending … well, a bunch.

Adnan Januzaj should be absolutely allowed – and encouraged – to choose whoever he wishes. Unlike days past, nationality is a now a fluid concept; perhaps even it is a decision that young men should take more seriously than who they play their club football for. What would have the impact been on Wilfried Zaha – and the Ivory Coast – had he opted to play from them instead of England? For Januzaj there might be even more stark implications, what reaction would there be from Kosovars should he choose to play for Serbia?  Choosing a nationality, even just for a chance to play at the World Cup, should not be easy. Therefore, Januzaj is wise to take the time he needs rather than accepting whichever call-ups hit his door first.

The same choice has recently been faced by the likes of Victor Moses, Wilfried Zaha or Raheem Sterling. If only they had the foresight and wisdom to simply make a statement to the effect of Januzaj – I’ll play for who I like, when I’m ready – they might have saved themselves a significant amount of confusion. 

Plus/minus, Tottenham Hotspur, 8th October 2013

Plus/minus, Southampton, 8th October 2013

Plus/minus, Manchester United, 8th October 2013

Plus/minus, Cardiff City, 8th October 2013

Plus/minus, Aston Villa, 8th October 2013

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Plus/minus, Tottenham Hotspur, 1st October 2013-14

Plus/minus, Southampton, 1st October 2013

Plus/minus, Cardiff City, 1st October 2013

Plus/minus, Aston Villa, 1st October 2013

Plus/minus, Manchester United, 1st October 2013

Moyes' Manchester United honesty both helps and hurts

So David Moyes thinks that the team that won the Premiership by eleven points last season doesn’t have enough top-class players.  He also apparently kens that things might get worse for his Manchester United mob before they get better.  And that qualifying for the knockout round of the Champions League is far from guaranteed.

What do you really think, Dave?

Blind Freddie on the trams could tell you that United haven’t started well – the club has three losses in six league matches, or sixty percent of all the club’s misses last season.  They’ve looked staid, boring and bored; the weekend loss to West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford a Picasso of listlessness.

Yet Moyes seems remarkably verbose.  In earlier times he’s bastardised the fixture list before in the past week publicly: searching for reasons for an apathetic derby performance, (understandably) finding the loss to WBA “a concern”, that Champions League progression wasn’t going to be easy, reinforcements were required at the club and – perhaps most gallingly – that the Red Devils face “more blows to come”.

All of the above statements are almost certainly entirely true.  In another situation, Moyes might be congratulated for his candor.  However, when the man who bosses a club with the size and repute of Manchester United makes such a concerted effort downplay expectation, he wields a blade that cuts both ways.  While he may temper fan demands or media speculation as to the quality of his side or the security of his position, what he also does is slowly erode his players’ confidence.  If the manager – their leader, the one with the brains, supposedly – isn’t convinced his team is good enough or able to calculate why they’re playing like crap, what are the grunts to believe?

Every United player will already be slightly down as a result of consecutive haphazard displays in Manchester; public statements that they might not be good enough to achieve what they did last year are hardly likely to inspire faith in a gaffer who’s still trying to win them over to playing his way.  Whether reasonable or not, the single-minded but brittle psyche of the professional athlete responds to someone who totally backs them, or for spite of them.  Moyes is shakily walking a very thin path alongside a steep drop; few are convinced he can navigate it successfully.

What should concern David Moyes, more even than a home loss to West Bromwich Albion, is sending out the wrong message to his players.  With every honest comment comes a certain amount of respect from one corner, accompanied by the opposite from the other.