Southgate’s moment

I wrote this to my friend Adam Roberts this morning

As extra time drew on, I really didn’t think England were in any danger — and then that Uribe shot out of nowhere that Pickford just tipped away, and I thought: No. It can’t be happening, can it? So when Colombia equalized I simply knew it was headed for penalties and then of course we know what happens then….

Like you, I’m thinking much of Southgate, who seems such a grounded, solid guy, and who handles his penalty infamy with absolute class, neither denying the way it has marked him nor allowing it to ruin him. I think if I were him I would’ve reacted to Dier’s winning penalty by going into full Psychotic Stuart Pearce Mode. And for Pearce the trough between miserable failure and glorious success was only six years….

Not that Southgate was stoic, of course:

firing Lopetegui

Should Lopetegui have been sacked, just a few days before Spain plays its first match? I’m inclined to think so. If you’re managing a team that’s one of the favorites for the biggest tournament in sports and, instead of devoting yourself fully to preparing your side, you’re secretly whiling away the hours negotiating a contract with someone else … how is that not a breach of trust? Especially if you don’t tell your bosses even when the deal is done — Luis Rubiales got the word from Real Madrid five minutes before they made a public announcement. 

But isn’t this classic Real? They don’t care how much confusion this sows in the national federation or among the Spanish side; they wanted their man and they got their man and, for them, there are no other considerations. Real Madrid are the Donald Trump of football clubs. 

As for Lopetegui himself, I am betting that he is absolutely thrilled to have been canned. If under his leadership Spain had a bad tournament, or even just a bad game, the Spanish (and for that matter the international) press would have been in a frenzy. Headline: THE WRONG MAN FOR THE JOB?? Lopetegui has to be thinking that he is well out of that

 

P.S. You know who’s got to be thrilled about this outcome? Tottenham. I bet they were terrified of losing their manager to RM. 

Foxification

Aaron Timms:

It’s perhaps to their credit that, even with interest in this tournament likely to be lower in the absence of the USMNT, the Fox execs haven’t retreated into a shell of self-pity. On the contrary, they’ve gone harder, deeper, further than anyone could have expected in the search for “hooks” to get the US public excited about a tournament from which the US itself will be absent. Sadly for them, the hooks are no good. If ESPN, in its slightly soft, Michael Ballack-friendly coverage of previous World Cups, tried to embody The Quiet European, Fox is going all out to be The Dumb American.

Promoting the promo, Fox has described the World Cup as a “fist fight for the championship of the planet,” and it’s poetic in a sad way that the network has seen fit to use a boxing analogy to advertise its coverage of a sport in which players can’t use their hands.

World Cup preview

I think four and only four teams have a legitimate chance to win this World Cup. I rate them thus: Germany, France, Brazil, and Spain. Every other side has major weaknesses that will, I believe, at some point in the tournament be exploited. Belgium is quite weak in midfield (especially with Nainggolan out) and Argentina is topheavy with forwards — forwards who tend to be unproductive for their country in contrast to consistent club brilliance — and shockingly undermanned in defense. If De Bruyne can be the constant creator for his side, and Messi for his (Argentina have zero chance unless Messi plays largely as a creator and provider for his teammates, and they finish their chances), then maybe those teams could get to the semifinals. But I doubt it.

Among those four I have identified as having the best chance, Germany is the most complete. At first glance they might seem to be a little thin at forward, with the elderly Mario Gomez and the youthful Timo Werner being the only classic forwards on the whole squad, but Thomas Müller always Müllers his way to goals, and have you seen that midfield? Khedira, Reus, Gundogan, Brandt, Özil, Draxler, Goretzka, Rudy — there are plenty of goals in that group. I don’t see any worries there, or in defense, or in goalkeeping. It would be an unmitigated catastrophe if Germany didn’t make it at least to the semis, and I think anything less than an appearance in the finals would be a disappointment.

France has a few more worries. LLoris is a magnificently athletic keeper but also mistake-prone, something you have to worry about on a stage with lights so bright. Varane is one of the best defenders in the world, but I am not as confident in Umtiti or any other centerback. But my greatest worry for Les Bleus involves the transition from midfield to attack. They desperately need, but do not have, a principal creator — if not a metronome (there are few of those in the world of soccer today) then at least someone who can consistently receive a pass from the defense and distribute efficiently to this side’s terrifying roster of attacking talent. But who will that be? You certainly can’t count on Pogba to do anything of the kind. Could Tolisso possibly step up and handle the job? If so, this tournament could be a star-making turn for him. But I have my doubts.

Spain we know. A solid defense, especially at the fullback position, backed by the best keeper in the world; and some magnificent midfield creators (how France would love to steal just one of them). But none of their forwards has been reliable at this level. I think they’re going to struggle to score. And their central defense is aging, which also worries me a bit. I would not be surprised to see them in the semis, but I don’t favor them for the finals.

I’ve saved Brazil for last because they’re the wild card, bitches. Except for Marcelo, who despite his occasional forgetfulness of his defensive duties remains pretty much the best fullback in the world, they look just as shaky on defense as they were in their catastrophic 2014 World Cup. But … they have in front of that defense the absolute best holding midfielder in the world, Casemiro, and behind it some excellent goalkeeping in Alisson and Ederson. And with Coutinho, Fred, and the rejuvenated Paulinho leading the midfield attack, bringing the ball to … just pause for a moment and think about this collection of forwards: Douglas Costa, Willian, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar … are you kidding me? That’s terrifying. The key question for me is this: Will they be more mentally and emotionally resilient than they were four years ago? If so, they could be the surprise winner of this World Cup. I kinda hated them in 2014; I’m kinda rooting for them in 2018.

But not really. My loyalties will be divided between England and Mexico — though if either of them made it even to the final eight I would be very, very pleased.

So, officially, I have France v. Brazil and Spain V. Germany in the semifinals, Brazil v. Germany in the finals, and yet another World Cup for the Germans.

 

“tussle”

Gianni Verscheuren, writing for Bleacher Report, says that “Salah injured his shoulder in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid, as the Liverpool winger landed awkwardly after a tussle with Sergio Ramos.” No, Salah injured his shoulder when Ramos hooked his arm and dragged him to the ground. Whether Ramos intended to injure Salah may be disputed; that he rugby-tackled him may not. Let’s not alter the simple facts for fear of annoying Real Madrid supporters.

Champions League Final thoughts

1. Look: Sergio Ramos is one of the dirtiest players of our time, and deserves about fifty more red cards than he has received in his career. But I think that all he did today was something that defenders in general do half-a-dozen times a match: pull a guy down rather than let him get around you. Definitely a foul, but nothing more than that.* But I get why people are so upset: They know that if the Devil appeared to Ramos and said, “Hey Sergio, old friend, you can tackle Salah in a way that will knock him out of the game and out of the World Cup, without getting yourself sent off,” Ramos would instantly reply, “Where do I sign and in whose blood?”

2. Going into this match I was really worried about Liverpool’s defending, but they were fine throughout, and the centerbacks were great. (Lovren made several excellent tackles, including a brilliant late one on Bale, and assisted Mane’s goal.) Real got three goals that no defender could do anything about — goals in which the defense could play absolutely no role. Klopp’s defensive game-plan was superb and really constrained Real’s chances.

3. On the other side, Zidane’s defensive game-plan was clearly oriented towards stopping Salah, and yeah, probably by fair means or foul. So I think there is little chance that Mo would have scored in this match — but his presence would definitely have opened up possibilities for others.

4. Even with Mo out, some terrible luck for Liverpool, and some catastrophic goalkeeping, the Reds were clearly in this game almost to the end. They never gave an inch and, until that second Bale goal, were taking the game relentlessly to Real. That was tremendously impressive. If they can solve their goalkeeping problem and make just a couple of additional signings, they stand a very good chance of contending for the Premier League title next year.

5. I am worried for Karius. I have never seen a player more emotionally devastated than he was at the end of that match, and if he is able to recover his confidence — and no players need confidence the way keepers do — that will be a sign of exceptional emotional resilience. I pray that he has that resilience.

*Am I being too generous? Daniel Taylor

Salah looked inconsolable as he was led from the pitch and Sergio Ramos had some nerve offering a sympathetic hug on the way off. Ramos had locked Salah’s right arm and turned him, judo-style, as they lost balance going for the same ball. Television replays hardened the suspicion it was a calculated move on Ramos’s part and when Salah landed, with a hell of a thud, the damage was considerable.  

My doubt is this: It was clearly impossible for Ramos to calculate that if he pulled Salah’s right arm down it would lead to his landing on his left shoulder in such a way as to put him out of the game. So there had to be some more generalized malice: “I’ll pull him down and hope he gets hurt somehow and I don’t get sent off for it.” But I expect that’s a fairly common semi-conscious thought among defenders. Consider this rugby/NFL tackle by Jedinak on Mitrovic, earlier today: 

NewImage

Far more likely to cause damage than Ramos’s tackle of Salah. One could argue that Mitrovic and Jedinak are about the same size; but you can’t really expect defenders to play differently against attackers according to size — can you? 

poor Mo

That was certainly a foul by Ramos on Mo Salah, but it wasn’t a dirty play, just a freak accident. After what Mo has done for Liverpool this season it’s incredibly sad to see him going off in tears — especially since he may never get another chance to play in a Champions League final. I hope Mo is back in action for the World Cup and wins the Golden Boot.

(And now Carvajal! Good grief.)

Emery

I think it’s a very good hire. I loved Arteta as a player, but his experience at Arsenal coincided with the club’s decline, and I was concerned that that might shape, in unfortunate ways, his sense of what is normal at the Emirates. Arteta also strikes me as a calm, even-keeled guy — more like Wenger in that respect than Pep — and I don’t think that’s what this group of players needs. Wenger’s instinct was always to protect his players, to insulate them from the consequences of their poor performances, to soothe and encourage, and in the past few years that was very much the wrong instinct.

A more intense, more disciplined, more tactically rigorous approach is what the Gunners need, and I think Emery will provide that. I had long treasured the hope that Arsenal would be able to prise Diego Simeone away from Atleti, but perhaps that would have been too extreme a contrast. Emery will have the players’ respect, even their fear, but probably won’t have them cowering and quivering in the fetal position under their nicely padded pitchside seats.

Perhaps the safer pair of hands would have been Carlo Ancelotti, and since his signing by Napoli immediately followed news of Emery’s hire, I wonder if Carlo had been holding out in hopes of the Arsenal job. He would definitely have brought order and structure to the side, and improved them immediately, but I suspect that Emery is tactically more ambitious and imaginative, and that the ceiling is higher under him (even if the floor may also be lower).

I’ll wait to make any bold predictions until the transfer window closes, but if every Premier League side brought out the same players for next year, I’d predict a fourth-place finish for Emery’s Gunners.

an image to remember

Barney Ronay

There has been a lot of talk about Ronaldo’s stripped-down role in his late prime. But this was a performance of such minimalism it might have been etched on a grain of rice, a vision of the ultimate endgame some years from now whereby Ronaldo is wheeled on to the pitch by a litter of footmen, emerging from his bathing machine to patrol a roped-off zone around the penalty spot, sampling the air, occasionally dropping into a series of “muscle poses” while in the background a football match takes place.

Farewell Arsène

There are so many thoughts. But, as someone who is on record saying that it’s time, and a little past time, for this change, I want to call attention to this passage from Amy Lawrence:

Here’s the thing. Wenger’s own apparent acceptance of more modest fare is perhaps the most intriguing element of all. He knew exactly what ingredients were needed to build a conquering team. So why settle for less? He could have left Arsenal at several points along the way, not least when he knew he was in for a few challenging seasons in the immediate aftermath of the move from Highbury to the Emirates. Finances were restricted, the football landscape was changing rapidly with the arrival of oligarchs and investors from far and wide. He chose not to be tempted by offers from some of Europe’s giants, clubs with more financial muscle and stability, to oversee a huge redevelopment. There was no trophy for that even if Wenger regards that period – keeping the club near the top – as one of his successes.

It’s true, and it’s important. Wenger stayed at a club that he knew could not, for several years, compete with the wealthiest clubs in Europe, and he did it at a time when his reputation was as high as that of any manager in the world. It would have been easy for him to bow out, head for one of the giants where he would have been welcomed with hosannas, and leave any messes at the new Emirates for his successors to try to clean up. Instead, he stayed and kept Arsenal in the top four even when he was forced to feature Nicklas Bendtner and Johan Djourou as front-line players. He remains proud of this accomplishment, and he should be. 

It is really only in the last three or four years, when the quality of his squad improved but his results did not, that it became clear that he was simply not adapting to today’s game. That was sad to see — and difficult to come to terms with. 

He is one of the greats. As Lawrence writes, “He is the last of the managerial overlords, the long-term managers who dedicate decades to one club. After all Wenger’s yesterdays, Arsenal without Arsène will take some getting used to.”