Why VAR?

Barney Ronay doesn’t like VAR:

The fact is, for all the expertise, the manpower, the money spent, VAR just doesn’t work in football. It diminishes the experience of watching in the stadium. It skews the game decisively one way. It is one of those ideas, like bendy buses, or communism, that would simply be better off abandoned.

As that passage suggests, Ronay’s focus is on the experience of football for people actually at the grounds:

At Stamford Bridge the time spent watching a middle-aged man stand very still looking sad while another middle-aged man watched television in a bunker brought a kind of dissolution. In those moments the air seemed to have been sucked out of the ground, a drowsy numbness falling across the crowd, an awareness of being subject suddenly to invisible outside influence. Whereas, for so long the whole point of the spectacle, the thing that has always marked it out, has been the chance to lose yourself in that communal experience, the joy of complete abandon that for so long was the essence of English football grounds.

He acknowledges, though rather dismissively, that people watching on TV may have a different set of priorities: “In the end a lot of this boils down to what you think sport is for. If it is to be a distantly consumed third person spectacle, a series of coloured blobs moving on a screen, just one part of the digital leisure experience, than perhaps it does make sense to analyse endlessly the precise, elusive mechanics of why a man has fallen over.”

I think Ronay is correct in much of this, but perhaps he should remember that being able to attend the level of football that gets video review is a privilege reserved for only a few (and not just because of economic resources: distance is a factor too). I may believe sport is “for” actually being present but that belief won’t get me to the grounds. And if I have to watch my favorite team on TV that will not necessarily be for me “just one part of the digital leisure experience.”

Anyway, it seems to me that the major factor missing from Ronay’s analysis is simply this: money. Everyone formally involved with a club — from owners to coaches to players to social media managers — can benefit (or lose) financially from the success (or failure) of the club. In a relegation battle tens of millions of dollars can be at stake. For supporters money is rarely involved, except through lost bets, but social credit can be at stake, and that is sufficient to generate anxiety. Given these various kinds and degrees of investment, it can be extremely difficult for people to accept refereeing errors as simply “part of the game.” The pure pleasure of being at the game is unlikely to outweigh all those other investments — nor can I see why it should.

Team of the Year

EA SPORTS has named candidates for the FIFA Team of the Year. There are some oddities about the nominations: Coutinho is listed as a forward when he ought to be a midfielder, Robben is listed as a midfielder when he ought to be a forward, Busquets is missing altogether … you’ll probably have your own list. But given the established parameters, which mandate a 4-3-3 formation — though I might call it a 4-1-2-3, but I digress — here are my 11 (one keeper, two centerbacks, two fullbacks, one holding midfielder, two attacking midfielders, three forwards) — and not in the usual order by position, but in order of my confidence in choosing them:

  • Lionel Messi
  • Kevin de Bruyne
  • Marcelo (the best left back in the world by fifty miles)
  • Cristiano Ronaldo
  • Harry Kane
  • David de Gea (I might have chosen Navas or Oblak if I’d seen them more)
  • Sergio Ramos (we are not in an era of great centerbacks)
  • Gerard Pique
  • Luka Modric (barely ahead of Dybala and Kroos)
  • Casemiro (he’s amazing, but I hated leaving out Kante)
  • Joshua Kimmich (just squeezing out Dani Alves)

Your alternatives are welcome in the comments.

Arsenal’s future

Of course, since I am no longer an Arsenal supporter, I look upon the sufferings of the club and its supporters with what Samuel Johnson called “frigid tranquility” — really, I do, I am totally tranquil and frigid when I contemplate the Gunners’ performances — like, there’s no way I would’ve leaped up out of my seat and punched the air when Wilshere made that pass to Alexis — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have thoughts about the club.

Everyone knows that the second half of Wenger’s career has been far less successful than the first, though there is some disagreement about why that is. And he has become relatively less successful still at the very point when many observers think the club should be climbing back to the top of the mountain. About that, here’s my take, which combines a few points that are common knowledge:

  1. When the club bosses decided to abandon Highbury in favor of a new stadium, that ushered in a lengthy period during which Wenger simply did not have the resources to sign the players he most wanted or to keep his best players (Fabregas, RVP, etc.).
  2. For a few years, his players were good enough, and Wenger coached them well enough, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League.
  3. Another factor contributing to Arsenal’s (comparative) success was the failure of other big clubs to maintain consistent excellence in the first half of the 2010s. Somebody was always slipping enough for the Gunners to claim that last or next-to-last Champions League place.
  4. But changes were in the offing, and they were pioneered by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. The Russian plutocrat proved that it was possible to buy big success in the PL and in the process to generate a massive return on investment. This brought more foreign investment into the league, especially at Manchester City, and into other European leagues (see: PSG).
  5. Further changes were happening in other venues: an increasing awareness in many clubs of the value of analytics, structural changes that separated the role of the manager from that of the “director of football” or “technical director.”

So by the time that the plan of the Arsenal bosses was complete — the stadium paid for, funds for players liberated — the environment had changed in ways those bosses hadn’t anticipated. Wenger was still determined to run the club as an old-fashioned “gaffer” and in that capacity to spend what he thought of as generous sums of cash — but other clubs were willing to pay more. And, to make things worse, in those several years of finishing third and fourth, Arsenal had come to be seen by players and their agents as a second-tier club. So even when Wenger is willing to pay as much as another big club, that other club is typically perceived as bigger and therefore the kind of place a truly ambitious player would want to go. (That’s how the whole Mbappe saga played out.) Arsenal has become a destination for those who are willing not to win the Premier League or the Champions League.

I’m not a WENGER OUT guy, but I have to admit that none of this is going to change until Wenger has retired. And I can imagine no circumstances in which he would voluntarily leave before the end of his contract, and very few circumstances in which the bosses would force him out. Also, it would be very surprising if a new manager could put a strong mark on the club immediately.

So I think those of you who are Arsenal supporters have to anticipate a few more years, at best, of hovering in that Europa League range: finishing each year somewhere between fourth (if everything goes as well as possible) and seventh. And after that? — even the Pacey Winger cannot guess.

“We all know what’s coming”

David Rudin:

We all know what’s coming: A slight bump in form, plenty of ingratiating interviews with friends in the press, a modest win streak that provokes talk of moving on to better jobs, pining for players from the 2012–13 Newcastle side, and the inevitable, months-long slide that Pardew has repeatedly proven incapable of arresting that will eventually lead to his ouster. Been there and done that. We all know this script just like we know the corresponding ones for David Moyes, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and all the usual suspects repopulating technical areas in the lower half of the Premier League.

the inevitable

I speak here not as an Arsenal supporter, mind you, but simply as an interested observer of the Premier League. Here are the facts:

  • Several of Arsenal’s chief rivals dropped points yesterday;
  • Arsenal have an excellent chance to make up ground, since they are playing an inferior club;
  • But Arsenal never make up points when they have a chance to;
  • And Burnley is a very tough opponent to break down, especially at Turf Moor.

Therefore a draw is inevitable. The question is, what kind of draw?

The dreary 0-0?

A piece of clownshoes defending by Arsenal leading to an early Burnley goal, followed by 80 minutes of the Gunners pounding on the goal’s door, which finally yields a Giroud header in the 89th minute?

A brilliant early goal for the visitors, total dominance throughout the match leading to no further goals, and a late equalizer by Burnley on a poorly-defended set piece?

I’m gonna go with number 2.

Gattuso on Pirlo

My son and I have been musing for the past couple of weeks over something that Lee Dixon said on a recent Premier League broadcast. Lee commented that his strategy as a player was to stop the other team from scoring and then pass the ball to players who were better than him.

Let’s reflect on that for a moment: Stop the other team from scoring and then pass the ball to players who are better than you. Such simplicity! Such beauty! Think how the (currently catastrophic) defending in the top leagues would be transformed if defenders made that their mantra, their daily bread, their Jesus Prayer.

You know who understood that? Gennaro Gattuso. Speaking the other day about his longtime teammate, the magnificent Andrea Pirlo, he said, “I played with him for about 20 years when you consider the national youth teams, in difficult moments I just gave it to him, I always felt assured when I was next to him. I understood what I had to do, and he was taking care of the rest. He helped me much more in my career than I did him.”

In difficult moments I just gave it to him. You are a wise man, Rino. A wise, wise man.

inches

Brian Straus:

Russia may be thousands of miles away, but on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team was mere inches from getting there. Watch the replays, if you can stomach them. It’s technically true. Clint Dempsey hit the right post with a long-range bouncer in the second half down in Trinidad. If his shot goes in, the USA almost certainly escapes with a 2–2 draw and is on its way to the World Cup. The margins on Omar Gonzalez’s early own goal were even finer. The beleaguered center back couldn’t hit that slice again if given 100 chances.

And then there was the phantom goal scored by Panama in Tuesday’s 2–1 defeat of Costa Rica. Had the Guatemalan officials realized the ball never crossed the line, the USA at least would be on its way to a playoff against Australia — a few thousand miles in the opposite direction but still, mere inches away.

This is Sunil Gulati’s position — though Straus goes on to say considerably more, and much of it very good. Gulati just wants to talk about the unlucky inches. But here’s the important thing: if the Dempsey shot had gone in, or the Panama “goal” had been rightly waved off, then the USMNT would be headed to the World Cup despite either (a) having scraped a pathetic and frankly lucky draw against the worst side in CONCACAF, on the very last day of qualifying or (b) having failed to scrape said draw and finishing the whole Hexagonal tournament with a mere three wins.

Another way to put this point: That the inches went the way they did forces us to confront the true state of the USMNT, and the national men’s soccer establishment more generally. Had the luck gone our way, people would be saying “Well, that was ugly, but we’re going to Russia!” And that would merely have postponed a day of reckoning that this country’s soccer program desperately needs.

So in a way, I’m glad that things worked out the way they did. Also, next year I won’t have to cringe while watching Tim Howard commit a massive howler that sends us crashing out of the opening round.

dream world

A quick thought, though one that many people have had: Can you imagine what American soccer would look like if the country’s best athletes chose soccer as their first sport? I’m imagining a world in which LeBron is a brick wall of a goalkeeper, Gronk the most terrifying centerback in the world, Chris Paul a wily deep-lying playmaker, Odell Beckham Jr. on the wing, Kyrie Irving threatening defenders with his pace and power…. But that way madness lies. Best to turn my thoughts elsewhere.

autopsic discourse

There’s a lot of this happening today:

Understandably.

I said last night on Twitter that the U.S. side in Trinidad last night had neither technique nor imagination not determination. And then I commented to my son, who was sharing the misery with me, that while Bob Bradley’s sides also lacked technique and imagination they at least worked their asses off, and had an international reputation for not knowing when they were beaten. The sheer listlessness of last night’s performance, as the players trotted randomly around the pitch without purpose or urgency, was shocking to behold. They could at least have tried!

But on reflection it occurs to me that the listlessness of last night was to a considerable extent the effect of deficiencies in technique and imagination. In an open game the USMNT can sometimes look excellent, as they did against Panama last week, but when a team — any team, no matter how limited in talent — sits very deep against them, they have no idea what to do. They pass the ball around the perimeter until they give it away, thereby opening themselves to counters, or else they loft speculative balls into the box for easy clearances or catches. And thus, gradually, the energy of the side dissipates. Most of the game last night the U.S. players couldn’t be bothered even to try to get the ball back when T&T had it. They were zombified.

I think the single biggest problem here is Michael Bradley, whose decline has been noticeable for some time — but now it’s precipitous. That widely-admired determination of U.S. sides a few years ago was driven largely by Bradley’s amazing motor and relentless box-to-box play, but he has become heavy-legged and slow in defense, and the inaccuracy of his passes and set-piece deliveries does real damage to the team’s offense. It’s time to move on from Bradley — and Dempsey, and Cameron, and anyone else who’s not young enough to bring dynamism to the side. Because if the USMNT doesn’t have dynamism it doesn’t have anything.

Still, even with young and energetic players, this team is not going to succeed against well-organized defenses until it produces a whole generation of players who have at least a goodly portion of the skill and shrewdness that Christian Pulisic does. And who knows when that will happen, if ever? So I think fans of American soccer need to accept that for the foreseeable future what we’ve been seeing is what we’re going to get: a side that will always be teetering on the brink of qualification for international tournaments, just squeezing in or just being squeezed out. Anything more than that is simply not in the cards.

available

“Is Tony Pulis available?”

“No.”

“Is Mark Hughes available?”

“No.”

“Is Harry Redknapp available?”

“No.”

“Is Big Sam available?”

(makes a phone call) “No.”

“Is Alan Par — um, is Roy Hodgson available?”

“Well … yes.”

“Roy it is!”