20 December 2005
The first controversy surrounded the Newcastle match referee Dermot Gallagher. After only 14 minutes, Arsenal had a penalty appeal for handball when Gilberto's shot hit Titus Bramble. But the real problems came after the half, when Gilberto was sent off for a second yellow on a marginal foul on Jean-Alain Boumsong. Both of the Brazilian's cards were debatable; to receive two (and a sending-off) was undeniably harsh. Adding injury to insult was the lack of attention paid to Alan Shearer's reckless tackling, including a nasty challenge on Sol Campbell.
Arsène Wenger complained after the match, saying "...they decided to go more physical and the referee allowed more fouls, sent a player off and I don't know why." Surprisingly enough, the officials' board agreed. They demoted Gallagher from Premiership games, at least temporarily, and sent him all the way down to a League One match between Swansea and Doncaster. (Where he promptly crafted another controversy.)
Of course, the result this Sunday had its share of controversy too, most notably for the disallowed Arsenal goal. I wrote at the time that I thought the linesman must have judged Robin van Persie offside. As it turns out, he judged Thierry Henry to have taken an active role, making him offside and bringing up the flag. We know this because the chief referee Keith Hackett said so. What's more, he said that the call was wrong: "When you examine the video many times you can see Henry is not active." In other words, Arsenal should have been up 1-0, completely changing the game.
And how much does this matter? Not a bit. Arsenal still have their two losses. The only possible response is to hold the referees to account for their decisions. Evidently that held true for Gallagher, probably for a history of poor choices, which is appropriate. I am not a fan of video replay even in American stop-and-start sports; I think it would be hideously obtrusive in soccer. I do however think that the rules need clarification; both these decisions rely on interpretations that can prove difficult to make in the flow of play.
Disciplinary punishments will always be difficult; it's fundamentally a judgement call. One problem though is that the gap between yellow and red is immense. The yellow carries very little sanction in itself, while the red puts a team at tremendous disadvantage. That leaves the referee with little room for discretion. I have seen proposals for a penalty box similar to ice hockey or rugby. I'm sure there are dozens of proposals; I would suggest an "orange card" that would result in a 5- or 10-minute penalty.
The orange card would also provide the referee with an additional disciplinary option. Another controversy from Sunday -- though completely normal -- is to compare the yellow cards awarded to Robin van Persie and Michael Essien. Essien drew a yellow for his violent swing at Lauren (knocking out a tooth), while RVP drew the exact same penalty for pounding the ball in frustration. That's all according to normal interpretation, of course. But perhaps an orange card would have offered referee Rob Styles an intermediate option that would allow him to differentiate between the two offenses. Of course, none of this helps out Dermot Gallagher, who was wildly inconsistent. Some folks can't be helped.
As for the offside rule, FIFA continually tweaks the interpretations, trying to add clarity but only making thing muddier. The current rule adds the criteria of "active play", stating that a player is only offside if he is:
- interfering with play or
- interfering with an opponent or
- gaining an advantage by being in that position.
I've seen several proposals to fix the offside rule. I can see merits and problems with many of them. But in the end I think the right approach to take would be to simplify things as much as possible. Remove complexity from the decision, and at least everybody will know what's going on. The logical consequence of this is to do away with the offside rule entirely, and I'm not completely convinced this would be a bad thing, or that it would in the end be a huge change. It would definitely reduce the ability for teams to pack the midfield, since they couldn't rely on holding a high line to keep strikers away from the goal. It's still probably not a good idea, but I'd love to see a competent league try it out for a few matches to see how things go.
These are all improvements around the margins. The game will always have human referees making decisions, and that means potential for interpretation, misjudgement, and error. There are fixes (not necessarily mine!) that can address some of the worst problems, and FIFA would be foolish to ignore them. But in the end, we'll always have referees making mistakes, and teams upset about them. It's a normal part of the game.
But, oh man, I sure would like to have had that early Arsenal goal on Sunday.
19 December 2005
Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea
The match itself was a frustrating affair. Arsenal clearly should have been up 1-0 on Robin van Persie's goal, ruled out for offsides. The overall assumption is that he was judged offsides, which replays clearly showed he wasn't. As it happens, Thierry Henry was clearly in an offside position... but now we get into the esoteric realm of what constitutes "involved in active play". I'm tempted to go off into a discussion of that point, but it's probably irrelevant as it seems likely that the judgement was on RVP's position and not TH's.
In any event, if you let Chelsea get into the net twice, you're unlikely to win the game; they just don't give up that many goals. I was too depressed to watch the replays, but my initial impressions of both goals were that they weren't huge mistakes by anyone. In both cases, a small mistake (of timing and offside-trap position) gave Chelsea an opening, and both Arjen Robben and Joe Cole were able to take advantage.
Arsenal are just not in sync on either side of the ball. Soccer is such an improvisational game that everybody needs to be absolutely sure of what their teammates will do. Some teams -- Chelsea, for one -- accomplish this by being dead simple. Arsenal however are a team that thrives on improvisation and creativity. When it works, it's an amazing thing of beauty. But if the team loses its cohesion, the result is what we see today: poor passes, mistimed runs, defensive breakdowns. A portion of this is caused by the players themselves. The young players are still not as masterful as they need to be, and the older players are finding that their skills are slowly departing. More importantly, the team just hasn't been stable. How many lineups have we fielded this year? (I may look it up later if I'm bored.) More importantly, how many changes have their been to the side from game to game? If we look back to 03/04, it would be easy to name the first-choice side. This year it's a true challenge.
That cohesion will return as the lineup stabilizes (and some help for central-mid in January would be nice). But Arsenal are going to have to get used to winning ugly again. That means winning some games simply by being more determined than the other team. And that was the one heartening element of Sunday's game: the team looked like they cared. Everyone was aggressive and committed, and threw themselves into the game. Of course, Chelsea were too, and our effort wasn't enough to overcome theirs. But against some teams -- the Boltons, the Middlesboroughs -- that effort would have been enough. And I think much of the fans' unease has been from not seeing that effort. The Gunners still need to show that they can be motivated for their mid-table opponents, and that needs to start on Boxing Day against Charlton at the Valley. Still, yesterday's effort was well appreciated, and it was gratifying and appropriate to hear "we love the Arsenal" echoing through Highbury in the 88th minute. Because, in the end, if a team gives its all and still loses, you'll be disappointed in the result... but you'll still be proud of your team.
16 December 2005
Champions' League Knockout Draw
The full draw:
Arsenal v. Real Madrid
Barcelona v. Chelsea
Liverpool v. Benfica
Villareal v. Rangers
Juventus v. Werder Bremen
AC Milan v. Bayern Munich
Lyon v. PSV Eindhoven
Inter Milan v. Ajax
- Arsenal have a tough challenge. The galacticos of Real Madrid will not go down easily. But their threat is a bit lessened this year, falling to fourth in the table, and shedding a few points in the group stage too. Of course, Arsenal is in a similar situation, at least domestically. As I said previously, there aren't really any easy draws, but I would probably rather face Real Madrid than the German teams, for instance. If nothing else, it should make for exciting soccer. As things stand right now, Arsenal and Real Madrid are probably two of the top four teams for scintillating attack... and both have corrseponding defensive holes, too. With such a classic matchup, I finally have hopes that ESPN will cover this match. I'd better plan for a vacation day or two...
- Chelsea will be challenged too. Barcelona have been very good all year, and look extremely dangerous of late, winning their last 11 games. This is a repeat of last year's matchup, and it was a classic, with Barcelona winning 2-1 at home, followed by a 4-2 win for Chelsea.
- There are some other classics, too: Lyon-PSV should be excellent, as well as both German-Italian matchups. Inter-Ajax could be interesting too, though Ajax in particular are not on their best form this year.
- Liverpool have an interesting draw with Benfica. On paper it's a winnable tie, but Benfica certainly gave Man Utd fits. If nothing else, Liverpool will have a chance to add insult to Man Utd's injury, if they easily handle the Portugese side when United couldn't.
- Villareal have the lucky draw in facing Rangers, but then again, Rangers could have faced much worse teams.
14 December 2005
Hoosier At Highbury Pt III: The Tour
Following the Wednesday match against Sparta Prague, I took Thursday off from soccer, to see the London sights. But Friday saw me once again traveling to Islington, to take part in the Arsenal America tour of Highbury. And a fantastic tour it was. We got to see a lot, really spending time with an absolute classic sports stadium.
|Of course, once again I got to Highbury well ahead of time. (After all, the 9AM meeting felt like noon, thanks to the five-hour time difference.) So again I walked around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful morning, and there was plenty to see.|
|Above: North Bank entrance from just outside the Arsenal tube station; view down Highbury Hill towards the tube station.|
|Above: AFC West Stand and North Bank entrance, on Highbury Hill; East Stand from Avenell Road.|
|Above: View down Avenell Road towards East Stand; another look at East Stand; the front doors... opening to let us in!|
After walking around, I met up with the Arsenal America crew as we waited near the front entrance. We didn't wait long; the Arsenal staff were quick to open and let us in.
The tour was limited due to the next days' league match -- we couldn't visit the locker rooms, unfortunately. Otherwise, though, we were able to see a lot. Notable spaces included the entrance lobby, with the Hugh Chapman bust and the marble cannon; a look at the trophy case, including several commemorative items from various European matches; a view into the board's lounge; and a visit to the media room. I haven't included many photos from this, because I don't think they're that interesting (or good). If anyone is interested I could post them onto Flickr or something.
|Above: Hugh and me; the special Prem trophy for the New Invincibles; the marble cannon.|
We had a couple opportunities to visit the field. First, we saw the board's seats, at the center of East Upper. Not bad. These seats include the boxes for the visiting club, and would also be shared with any visiting dignitaries (as when Sven visits). Later, we were able to exit through the players' tunnel and see the field at eye level. The staff were incredibly protective of the field itself, and got extremely nervous if anyone even came close to stepping on the grass. We were however able to visit the seats used by the team during matches. (Highbury is too small to have dugouts like most soccer stadiums.)
|Above: West Stand as seen from East Upper; a look at the southwest corner, including the police control box and a view of Ashburton Grove (sorry, Emirates Stadium) in the distance.|
|Above left: preparing the pitch for the Sunderland match. Above right: a closeup of the hallowed turf of The Home Of Football.|
Left: an imposter in Arsene's seat!
Right: The North Bank turnstiles.
|After all this, we visited the Arsenal museum. There's a lot to see there, but I was most interested in the memorabilia.|
Above: kit from various memorable matches, and tropies, including a replica of the Premiership trophy.
Left: Michael Thomas' boots from the last-second goal at Anfield in 1989, that handed Arsenal the league championship.
Afterwards, we of course had to visit the Arsenal store, which offered us a substantial discount. Nice! I didn't go too nuts, contenting myself with a van Persie home jersey, a Farewell to Highbury scarf, and a ski cap. We ended the morning with a trip to the chippy down the road, for the most authentic English meal I can think of.
So it proved to be a fantastic day at Highbury. I'll have two more Hoosier At Highbury posts to come, including the Sunderland match and my final impressions. (Of course, those might not arrive until well into 2006!)
13 December 2005
Arsenal 0-0 Ajax; Newcastle 1-0 Arsenal
But news on the soccer front was not nearly so good. Either Landry or I will post on the US draw in the World Cup, but for now I'll talk to the Arsenal results on the week. I won't comment in too much depth, since I haven't seen either match, but I can offer a few thoughts.
Arsenal 0-0 Ajax
The game was essentially meaningless, so perhaps a 0-0 draw was appropriate. Thierry Henry's missed penalty was disappointing, as it would have given the Gunners all three points. But the cost was so low that it's difficult to worry about it. Arsenal still finish top of the group, and will be well positioned for Friday's elimination-round draw. Arsenal finish the group stage with 16 points from the six matches, and there's no way to be disappointed with that result. Only Barcelona and Lyon have done as well.
But group stage means little at this point. Arsenal will face a second-place team in the next round, and that can be helpful. But there will be no easy games. The Gunners' next round matchup will come from one of the following: Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid, or Rangers. None of those matches will be walkovers. Arsenal have certainly been impressive so far in Europe; let's hope they're able to continue their impressive show.
Newcastle 1-0 Arsenal
As impressive as Arsenal have been in Europe, their Premiership form, particularly on the road, has been uneven at best and dismal at worst. Saturday saw another poor away performance, as Arsenal were first reduced to ten men, then saw Noberto Solano score the winning goal on 82'.
I haven't watched the game yet so I won't comment on the game itself. What I've read said that Arsenal were a bit unlucky and have some cause to be disappointed in the refereeing. Still, this is the kind of match that the Gunners should have drawn at the least. Arsenal have to now approach every league match with a singular focus to get points. It's absolutely imperative to reach at least fourth place by the end of the year; it's unthinkable that Arsenal would miss Champions League play in their first Ashburton Grove season. That's only a minimal goal, and Arsenal can certainly better it, but I believe they'll be better served by focusing on the specific matches than by watching the table.
This weekend will see two key events in the Arsenal season: Friday's Champions' League draw and Sunday's home match to Chelsea. The latter will obviously be an enormous match, and it will be interesting to see how the Gunners respond.
As far as my ability to jinx the Gunners, I did my best on Saturday, wearing my jersey for the morning. But as I was on the west coast -- and celebrating our engagement with my fiancée -- I wasn't up and dressed until fairly late, probably late in the second half. As much as I hate to see Arsenal lose, this is one case where soccer definitely came second, and I make no apologies.
Still, I'll do much better on Sunday.
07 December 2005
Arena Reacts to WC Seedings
As a result of the seedings, it is likely that the U.S. will be drawn into a group with two other European teams. That's a fairly daunting prospect, to face European teams in Europe on such a large stage. The European teams will be buoyed by large contingents of traveling fans. Unless, the U.S. plays it's games near a military base, it's doubtful they'll have much fan support at all. It also means that the U.S. cannot face any of the qualifiers from Asia, probably the weakest confederation, in the group stage. In addition, it is likely that the U.S. will face an African team. The U.S. have precious little experience against teams from Africa, having faced only Cameroon and Tunisia in the past five years. Given all this, Arena's devil-may-care approach is certainly appropriate.
06 December 2005
World Cup Seedings Announced
Full details on the criteria used for determining seedings can be had here, but, in short, FIFA calculated a score based on two factors: a country's position in the FIFA World Rankings over the past three years, and their final placement at the past two World Cups. In the case of the U.S., their last place finish in France '98 cost them a spot at being a top-seeded team in Germany '06.
Here's how the "pots" shake out...
Pot A: Brazil, England, Spain, Germany, Mexico, France, Argentina, Italy
Pot B: Australia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Angola, Togo, Ecuador, Paraguay
Pot C: Croatia, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine
Pot D: Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, United States
Pot E: Serbia & Montenegro
Bolton 2-0 Arsenal; Other Weekend Results
Saturday marked the first match day in quite some time when I didn't wear an Arsenal jersey. Instead, I got myself involved in foolish outdoor activities which didn't really lend themselves to jersey-wearing. Now, since I was away (again at my foolish outdoor activity), and since the match was PPV, I haven't seen it yet. But everything I've read indicates that the 2-0 loss was quite grim, and due as much as anything to a distinct lack of effort from the team. Now clearly, the team was disheartened to know that I wasn't wearing the colors. And scorning a good luck habit was a poor choice too.
I apologize for the mistake. It won't happen again.
In all seriousness though, it's clear that Arsenal are not dominant in the league this year. That does call for a real sense of commitment from the players, and it's disappointing if they're not offering it. But it also means the Gunners will have their off days. The defense right now is rather dodgy; Cygan at left back is a problem, but Campbell and Toure have had their challenges too. Until Saturday, the attack has been sound. I don't know the cause of Saturday's blank scoreline, but I'm sure that going behind doesn't help. If everyone on the team is worried about the defense, the attack is going to suffer.
We have Ajax tomorrow in a meaningless Champions League game, and then Newcastle at St. James' Park on the weekend. The latter match will be crucial; my hope is that some of the newer kids will see some time. At the least, we should have Alexsander Hleb back. I'll be out of town, but wearing the colors regardless.
In other news...
Liverpool 3-0 Wigan
Since I couldn't see the Gunners, I watched Liverpool win 3-0 over Wigan. It was my "Match of the Week" pick, and I can't decide whether I got it right or not. Certainly it was not a close match, and Liverpool had the game well in hand by halftime. But even so, most of the match was played at a frenetic pace, and Wigan kept up the attack throughout.
These are two interesting teams. Liverpool are wildly inconsistent. Certainly they looked sharp and dangerous on Saturday, with crisp one-touch passing that threatened to carve up the Wigan back four on every posession. The back four was organized, calm, and committed. But watch them another day, and they'll be disorganized and devoid of ideas. Rafa Benitez has built this team into a group that has the ability to challenge anyone, as last year's Champions League win can attest. But he's made some questionable moves too, most notably the signing of Peter Crouch. Liverpool may build thier consistency and end up a real Premiership threat; or, they could continue to bump along, mixing flashes of brilliance with unexplicable mediocrity.
Wigan are intriguing too. Preseason expectations were universally low; Wigan were to face certain relegation in their first-ever trip to the top division. Only Wigan refused to read the script. Their October highwater mark of 2nd in the Prem served as a wakeup call for the rest of the league. They've faltered in recent weeks as they've faced tougher opposition, and there's no way they will win a place in Europe next year. But there's no way they'll get relegated either, and that in itself is a huge accomplishment.
The team is well-designed for Premiership play. There are no superstars, but there's a uniform distribution of quality through the team, hence no glaring weaknesses. They play with a tremendous work rate and a solid organization. It's exactly the kind of team that will be vulnerable to the top teams, because they don't play defensively enough. But they will continue to threaten the lower two-thirds of the table, and that's enough. Their biggest risk is a crisis of confidence due to their recent form. If the players start second-guessing themselves, that will damage their organization and leave them vulnerable. But I suspect that manager Paul Jewell has prepared them well for this, as in everything else.
Worcester City 0-1 Huddersfield Town
Sadly, the Worcester FA Cup dream has ended, with their 0-1 loss to Huddersfield on Sunday. It was a thrilling match; Huddersfield went to 10 men before the half, giving Worcester hope, but Chris Brandon scored the only goal at 61' and Worcester were unable to respond.
But fear not, at least if you're looking for underdogs to root for. There are still several second-round replays to complete, with teams like Northwich Victoria, Nuneaton Borough (both Conference North), Histon (Conference South), and Burscough (UniBond Premier league, one step below Conference North) still alive. Once those are complete, I'll work through the third round draw and pass on the biggest minnow-shark matchups.
05 December 2005
World Cup Competition Already Underway
03 December 2005
More on Worcester City vs. Huddersfield Town
02 December 2005
Weekend TV Planner: 3-4 December
Lots of games on delay this week for some reason. Pity.
- Saturday, 7:30AM EST: Liverpool v. Wigan Liverpool: 4th on 25 pts. Wigan: 5th on 25 pts. An intriguing matchup. Wigan have faded a bit as their schedule became tougher. But Liverpool haven't been models of consistency either. Have to favor Liverpool at Anfield, but Wigan will attack, and a mistake or two could see them win. Verdict: Match of the Week.
- Saturday, 12:00PM EST: Lyon v. Paris Saint Germain DELAY Lyon: 1st on 40 pts. PSG: 4th on 27 pts. An interesting battle at the top of the Ligue Un table. There aren't many teams that look capable of stopping Lyon, but PSG might be one. Verdict: Watch this. Would be match of the week, if it weren't on delay.
- Sunday, 11:00PM EST: Boca Juniors v. Independiente DELAY Boca: 2nd on 34 pts. Independiente: 3rd on 31 points. A real battle for the top of the table here. But 11PM? Grr. But should be a good match. Verdict: Watch this. If you can stay awake.
- Sunday, 11:00AM EST: Worcester City v. Huddersfield Town DELAY (FA Cup 2nd round) You have to love the FA cup. Huddersfield are in League One (the third tier in the English league system). And they're the higher placed team; Worcester City are in the Nationwide Conference North (the sixth tier) -- and they're currently 18th out of 22 teams there. I loved reading the Worcester City FC website; check it out if you have a chance. Verdict: Could be interesting. Why? 'Cause it's the FA CUP!
- Saturday, 10:00AM EST: Bolton v. Arsenal PPV Bolton: 7th on 23 pts. Arsenal: 3rd on 26 pts. OK, I'll say this first: this could be an ugly game. Bolton can be that way. But it's intriguing regardless. Bolton are undefeated at home since 21 August; in 6 Prem matches they have scored 6 and let in 1. So it will be their immovable object against Arsenal's irresistable force (6-0-0 in November, with 16 goals). It might end up a dreary 0-0, but I think it'll open up more than that. Verdict: Could be interesting.
- Saturday, 3:00PM EST: Chelsea v. Middlesboro DELAY Chelsea: 1st on 37 pts. Boro: 10th on 19 pts. Chelsea are the favorites in every league match they play. Boro have been known to surprise a team or two, but on the road at Stamford Bridge? Difficult to imagine. Verdict: Could be interesting.
- Sunday, 9:00AM EST: Lazio v. Siena Lazio: 10th on 19 pts. Siena: 13th on 15 pts. Two mid-table teams, fighting for scraps. But Siena have 9 goals in 6 away matches. So there's a glimmer of hope. Verdict: Could be interesting.
- Sunday, 1:00PM EST: Newcastle v. Aston Villa DELAY Newcastle: 12th on 18 pts. Villa: 15h on 15 pts. Oh, my. Probably the two most disappointing teams of the Prem so far. I know they're fighting each other for position, but this has all the appearance of a battle over who cares less. Only thing interesting is that The Sun is hinting that Souness will be fired if he loses. Hmmm. Can't believe it myself -- more's the pity. Verdict: Only if you're bored.
- Saturday, 12:00PM EST: Manchester Utd v. Portsmouth Man Utd: 2nd on 27 pts. Portsmouth: 18th on 10 pts. Portsmouth have been dismal of late, and while Man Utd have been vulnerable at times, I can't imagine that this will be one of them. Verdict: Only if you're bored.
- Saturday, 10:00AM EST: Hamburg SV v. Cologne DELAY Hamburg: 2nd on 31 pts. Cologne: 15th on 11 pts. Perhaps there is some secret knowledge of the German game that would convince a knowledgeable fan that this game will be a potential upset. To me, it looks like a bottom-table team with a mediocre road record visiting a juggernaut. Um, no. Verdict: Only if you're bored.
- Sunday, 5:00PM EST: Lecce v. AS Roma DELAY Lecce: 20th on 7 pts. Roma: 9th on 19 pts. I'm trying to find some way that this match becomes interesting. But I can't see it. Verdict: Only if you're bored.
- Sunday, 11:00AM EST: Charlton v. Manchester City PPV Charlton: 11th on 19pts. Citeh: 8th on 21 pts. Another bizarre choice for PPV. Perhaps it's some sort of experiment: "Hmm... how many people will shell out $20 for any soccer match we offer -- no matter how dire?" I'm probably being unfair; Citeh didn't get to 8th by playing horrible soccer. But I just can't see this being interesting. Verdict: Stay away.
There's your planner for the weekend. I'm still working on the Highbury trip recaps; I'll still post on the Highbury tour and the Sunderland match. It's taking a while because of the photos, but I'm about ready to go with Part III anyway. See you soon!