on red cards

I would like to go on record with the following statement:

If, under the official FIFA Laws of the Game, it is deemed not a sending-off offense to run at full speed toward an opponent, lift one’s leg 5.5 feet in the air, and plant one’s studs into the face of said opponent while making no contact whatsoever with the ball, then the official FIFA Laws of the Game should be amended so that it is henceforth a sending-off offense to run at full speed toward an opponent, lift one’s leg 5.5 feet in the air, and plant one’s studs into the face of said opponent while making no contact whatsoever with the ball.

defenders, false hopes, expectations

Brian Straus:

Cameron was a goat at the World Cup, then he was an option at multiple positions, then clearly the USA’s best center back, and then back on the bench after the Costa Rica loss. John Brooks was imperious — perhaps the best prospect at the position in national team history — until he was exposed last November. But then his stock climbed again. And then he got hurt again. Gonzalez was good at the World Cup, then inconsistent with the national team, then a champion at Pachuca, etc. Ream was out of the picture then became the flavor of the month. As Ream rose, Matt Besler — who was very good in San Pedro Sula — seemed to fall. Fans, coaches and media anoint and then unanoint American center backs with regularity, but the fact remains that none have remained good enough or healthy enough to seize obvious and permanent control of the position. If the USA had world-class center backs, it would be Germany or Italy.

Well … No. not Germany or Italy. (Midfield creativity continues to be wholly absent, and finishing inconsistent at best.) But surely not struggling just to arrive, breathless and exhausted, as one of the last passengers on the World Cup Bus.

Straus’s overall point is absolutely right, though: the inconsistency of USMNT defenders is of long standing and is rather remarkable to behold. Nobody plays well on a regular basis — nobody even plays well a third of the time — but everybody back there has an occasional good game that casuses supporters to think Maybe he finally figured it out. However: hopes are dashed. Every hope for USMNT defending — and for the national team more generally — is dashed.

We are who we thought we were: a mediocre soccer nation whose fans — and, more important, whose players, coaches, and leaders — are perfectly happy if we make the World Cup, and tickled pink if we get to the knockout round. Until the expectations change, neither will the player performances or the results. Those truths can be seen most clearly in how the team defends, but apply elsewhere as well.

Estadio Centenario

The Centenario seems curiously aware of its own legacy. It exudes importance from the moment the visitor enters its impeccable museum, tucked under one of the lateral stands. Rather than the hagiographic story-telling of a club or nation’s triumphs one usually receives when entering such establishments, the emphasis here is on a celebration of the game itself, in Uruguay and across the world. Images of Obdulio Varela’s winner for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup decider against Brazil, therefore, sit comfortably alongside a replica of the shirt Sir Geoff Hurst wore when he made his own piece of history sixteen years later. It is as if the tiny South American republic can afford to be magnanimous in its telling of the football tale, secure as it is in the knowledge that as four-time world champion it has already played its part in making the game the universal behemoth it is.

The above sentence needs no correction. Uruguay, it is true, have lifted the World Cup on two occasions, that debut victory over Argentina in the partially completed Centenario followed with the famous Maracanazo that destroyed the hopes of neighbours Brazil. On the Celeste shield, however, four stars shine proudly from players’ chests. To understand the reason for this anomaly of arithmetic, further inspection of the nation’s most illustrious sporting arena is required.

Dan Edwards, in The Blizzard 

Šuker’s moment of genius

Steven Scragg writes,

Peter Schmeichel frantically back-peddled as Aljoša Asanović sent a wonderfully precise diagonal pass from his own half, a pass which Davor Šuker, situated on the far left, took effortlessly within his outrageous stride, dragging the ball across his body with the inside of his right foot, and sending it towards the left-hand angle of the Denmark penalty area. One further touch took Šuker and the ball into the penalty area. As Jes Høgh closed, and Schmeichel planted himself just outside the angle of his six-yard box, Šuker dug out the most beautiful left-footed chip.

This is not quite right, and it misses the mark in an important way. Asanović did not send a wonderfully precise diagonal pass. Šuker was making his run down the left flank and the ball was not hit far enough forward, not nearly. (Wonderful vision, wonderful idea, not the best execution.) So Šuker had to slow, slow, slow himself almost to a stop and then, when the ball arrived, indeed he did drag it “across his body with the inside of his right foot” — it’s one of the most beautiful first touches I have ever seen, but perhaps more to the point, one of the most effective, because the dragging movement sent the ball well ahead of him so he could then resume a full sprint towards it. One more touch goalwards and then the chip that left Schmeichel sprawled on the ground in disbelief.

I don’t have an embeddable version but here’s a good-quality video, with some bonus commentry from Šuker, if you’re into that kind of thing. One of my favorite goals ever.

the home of clownshoes defending

That would be the Premier League, says Jonathan Wilson. He cites several certain or possible causes, among them the uncertainties caused by rosters always in flux and basic “flaws in concentration and structure” — though the latter point is an explanation that calls for further explanation, because why in the world should such flaws exist at this level of player ability and coaching expertise? Are players not being coached well, or are they simply ignoring their coaches?

Two other major points that Wilson makes: first,

There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

And second,

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

These are very important points, and I think they help us understand some of the major shortcomings, but I still have a few questions.

  1. If you look at the chart on this page, you’ll see the an actual rise in goals per game has been quite recent, and that the overall trend of the past decade has been only slightly upward (and of course remaining far below historic levels of scoring, established when defenders were free to intimidate attackers and balls were badly made but defensive tactics were primitive at best). So do we even have a truly meaningful trend here?
  2. Can we distinguish between errors made by defenders and those made by goalkeepers? On the Okazaki goal against Arsenal mentioned above, it’s true that the short back line Arsenal played that day couldn’t get above someone as small as Okazaki, but the bigger problem was Cech’s indecisiveness: he got himself caught betwixt and between and so could defend neither McGuire’s headed pass nor Okazaki’s headed shot.
  3. My personal observation of Premier League matches — I have no data yet — suggests that the most drastic defensive errors in the past couple of years have happened in set-piece situations. Liverpool are of course reliably catastrophic on set pieces, but Arsenal aren’t much better. Much of the time, it seems to me, the problem is that you get zonal marking schemes in which players understand the “zonal” part but not the “marking,” as when Arsenal players simply ignored Jamie Vardy as he ran to a point on the pitch where none of them happened already to be standing. I need to look into this more carefully when I have time, but if set-piece goals are indeed on the rise, it would be interesting to see how much of the recent overall increase in goals they account for.

Premier League clubs, west to east

The geographical placement of each club is determined here by the location of its current ground (which means Wembley for Spurs). Currently, no Premier League side may be found east of the Prime Meridian — though West Ham would be if they still played at Upton Park — and that situation is unlikely to change until Norwich make their way back to the top flight. It is difficult to imagine that we’ll see a PL club west of Swansea, barring an unexpected rise to prominence by Plymouth Argyle.

  • Swansea
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Manchester City
  • Stoke City
  • Burnley
  • Leicester
  • Huddersfield Town
  • West Brom
  • Bournemouth
  • Newcastle
  • Southampton
  • Watford
  • Tottenham
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Crystal Palace
  • Brighton
  • West Ham

Premier League clubs, north to south

  • Newcastle
  • Burnley
  • Huddersfield Town
  • Manchester City
  • Manchester United
  • Everton
  • Liverpool
  • Stoke City
  • Leicester
  • West Brom
  • Watford (Vicarage Road: 51.6500° N)
  • Swansea (Liberty Stadium: 51.6427° N)
  • Tottenham
  • Arsenal
  • West Ham
  • Chelsea
  • Crystal Palace
  • Southampton
  • Brighton
  • Bournemouth

One down, so, so many to go

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Barney Ronay Indeed it did. As a devoted Fulham supporter, I attempted to look upon Arsenal v. Leicester with frigid tranquility, but come on, who could watch that match with anything approaching tranquility? What an electric encounter.

Post-match commentary has focused on the Gunners’ shocking defensive shortcomings, but, while I have long been sick and tired of the club’s tendency to make excuses for itself, I do have to agree that Wenger was in a tough place with his first three center backs unavailable — and then, when he took Holding off, he finished with two left backs (Kolasinac and Monreal) at center back, a right back (Bellerin) at left back, and an attacking midfielder (Ox) at right back. Under those circumstances, that the team shipped only three goals seems little less than a miracle — especially since in the first half Cech was mentally scrambled.

On the other side, the Gunners demonstrated enough individual and collective skill than four was a low result — quite a low result. They easily could have put up six or seven. When you consider that Lacazette had never before played a serious match with the club, and nevertheless managed a goal and a key pass and a general aura of threat; and that Welbeck was involved in several key combinations and scored a goal; and that Xhaka, despite some distressingly sloppy passing, ended up with two assists; and that Özil had a day of inaccurate passes and poor touches the likes of which I have rarely seen from him; … well, I think you can see why Ronay commented that “up front the combined craft of Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott kept on suggesting … a team half-glimpsed, flickering just behind the fuzziness of late-Wenger Arsenal.” It may not happen; it probably won’t happen; but hope is flirting with me, and I find myself susceptible to her flirting. That minx.

So: in the last eight matches that mattered, Arsenal have six Premier League wins, an FA Cup, and a Community Shield win. Even if you think that only seven of those matter, it’s a pretty good run.