22 November 2006

Arsenal 3-1 Hamburg

Isn't it great when a loved one gives you a pleasant surprise?

Now, it's no surprise for Arsenal to win over Hamburg. They started the night at 0-0-4 in Group G and had nothing to play for. Which of course gave them every freedom to attack the game. And they did so, taking the early lead through a killer shot from Rafael van der Vaart at 4':

This was a plot that every Gunner will recognize from this season: lower-ranked team gets an early goal at the Grove. Arsenal fight hard, and work a goal to equalize, but are never able to take the lead. (See also: Boro, Everton, Newcastle.) It is always incredibly frustrating, not least because Arsenal has had dozens of chances in these games, with tons of pressure but not enough end product. This game was no exception, with Alexander Hleb hitting woodwork and Robin van Persie going just over the bar in the first half alone.

The Gunners got the requisite equalizer soon after the half, on a fine goal from van Persie. But the goal was created by the excellent pass from Cesc Fabregas. Watch how Cesc never looks at van Persie before putting the ball right at his feet. Simply magic.

So, 1-1 with 38 minutes to play. But Arsenal fans have seen this before, and we're not fooled by extended possession or near misses. We know that 1-1 is in the cards. Even for an optimistic guy like me, the sour taste of disappointment began to take hold around 80'.

But fortunately, Emmanuel Eboue didn't read the script. At 83' he cut into the box and fired a low, hard shot that skipped past keeper Stefan Wachter. It was a tight angle and might easily have been saved. But note this: for once, the box is filled with Gunners attacking the goal. Cesc, Adebayor, Baptista, and Henry are all in quality attacking positions, and that's going to give the defense fits. And instead Eboue takes the shot. Hard. It was a high-quality goal despite Wachter's miss, and no less than Arsenal deserved (though perhaps more than we expected).

To their credit, Hamburg continued to fight for a goal, but that's bread and butter for the Gunners and led to their third. Theo Walcott continued his super-sub performance by hanging a pinpoint cross for Baptista to thunderously head home. It's a classic Premiership-style goal and hopefully a sign of things to come for both Walcott and the Beast.

And there you have it, 3-1 to the Arsenal. It's good to see them finally overcome the frustration they've faced with other disappointing results. Time and again they've threatened to score, only to see wasted chances and bad luck. What was different this time?

Tactics. Arsenal started once again in the 4-5-1 (really a 4-1-4-1) they've used so often this year, but at halftime they switched to 4-4-2. I'm not against using the 4-5-1 in many situations; it was the key to our run to the CL Finals last year and it's worked well at other times too. But it's been less effective against the more workmanlike formations of less polished teams. In those situations -- and particularly if it's clear that the opposition is looking to close shop and get behind the ball, such as when they score a goal -- we need that second striker in the attack.

Scrappiness. Look again at the Eboue goal and notice two things. First, Eboue is willing to take an imperfect shot. Wachter had a good chance to save it, and Eboue didn't try for either the far post or high at the near post. But he did put the ball on frame, with a hard shot. He got lucky... but he made that luck. Second, it's great to see the other attacking players in the box. Even if Wachter makes the save, there's a very good chance the ball would spill to another Gunner well positioned to hammer it home.

In normal Arsenal play, I would expect to see several of those players dropping back or making horizontal runs to open themselves for passes. That kind of unselfish play can result in the kinds of beautiful Arsenal attacks that we love to see. But sometimes you just need pressure.

Egalitarianism. Thierry Henry is perhaps the best pure player in soccer right now, and one of the all-time greats. He can do amazing, wonderful things, and at times can carry the Gunners on his back. But. If Arsenal rely on him to score their goals, they won't win many games. He can do a lot, but if he's the only significant scoring threat, the defense can adjust to (usually) stop him. So we need other players to pick up the slack.

And we saw this last night. Look at the Baptista goal. Henry is making a great run down the throat of the defense. And they're forced to react -- after all, it's Thierry effin' Henry coming at them! He's been in that situation before, and it's his genius that he can sometimes work himself open even with two defenders shadowing him. So he was still looking hopefully for the pass from Walcott. But Theo had a better idea, spotting Baptista's unmarked run.

Think about it -- who's going to criticize a kid like Theo if he passes to Henry? It takes a lot of confidence in yourself and your teammates to overlook him for another option. It's a combination of things: other players having the aggressiveness to seek out chances, the confidence to take them, and the willingness to look at all the options. When guys like van Persie and Eboue and Baptista are scoring goals, that will just open things up for Henry. And that's when Arsenal will be at their best.

So the Gunners surprised us all and pulled out the victory. They're now well-positioned in Group G, needing just one point to advance when they visit Porto next week. (They can even advance with a loss, if Hamburg win or draw over CSKA Moscow... but nobody wants to rely on that scenario.) Yesterday's win was crucial for that, but more importantly, it was an important victory for the mental health of the Gunners -- and their fans.

21 November 2006

Video Review

Should soccer move to using video replays?

Landry and I have debated this before, and I tend to be rather skeptical about it. But it would seem I'm in the minority. Arsene Wenger and Mark Hughes, among others, have called for it. And now the call is coming from Keith Hackett, which is pretty important because he's in charge of the Premiership referees. If the Prem wants it, it's likely to happen.

Most of the English arguments for and against video review are based on its use in rugby and cricket. I don't watch either, so it's impossible for me to judge how well it works there. But I have seen it used often in American football (gridiron) and it's clear that this model wouldn't work in soccer. (Here are the American football instant replay rules.) The key factor is that the referee has 90 seconds to review the play. In reality, it takes far longer. For one thing, the referees tend to take as much time as they need, and often will take two minutes or longer. Add to that the time that it takes the referee to walk to the monitor on the sideline, get the headphones on, and then to walk back after the review, and the whole process can take three or four minutes.

That kind of delay would be hideous in a soccer game. The arguments I've heard -- and this is from people who I respect -- say that it would never take so long. I'm unconvinced. For one thing, the referee has to travel to and from the monitor on the sidelines; there's no way around that. And if there's any situation that's less than completely obvious, the referee will need to see things several times to make a decision. That includes any situation where there's a very close decision, or a player blocking the camera, or multiple camera angles to consider. Again, other people will argue that it can be quick. But I remain convinced that a video decision would take between 90 seconds and three minutes to complete. That's all added to the existing stoppage time, of course.

So what kinds of things would be reviewed? It's important to be clear about what things the referee can and can't consider. The current discussion is around whether the ball crossed the goal line. And I can see that this would be a reasonable application. But these situations are quite rare -- maybe one or two in a season. Are there any other situations where video replay could be used?So there are a very few situations where video review could possibly be used. But in the end, I don't expect that it would make a huge difference in the quality of games we would watch. The one situation that seriously needs refereeing help -- offsides -- is not going to be reviewable. And the situations that are practical are uncommon enough that they won't make a major impact.

There is one area where I would be a big proponent of video review, however. And that's for post-game analysis. Leagues already do this to review violent play and other offenses. I would extend this practice, so that players can accumulate red and yellow cards based on events that the ref doesn't see -- as well as allowing the ref to subsequently upgrade a yellow card to a red if the incident was more serious than he realized.

I'd also use video evidence to review diving. It's much easier to see some of the blatant dives in slow motion, and retroactive yellow cards would be a very reasonable deterrent. Five dives and you're suspended for a game -- that works for me.

But perhaps most importantly: video review of games should be a regular practice -- in order to evaluate how well the referees perform. Maybe this is done already, but if so it's secretive. I would personally love to see referees held to public account for their performances. Even with a perfect video review system, there would still be hundreds of unreviewable refereeing decisions in every match, so referees will always have the ability to screw things up royally.

Which is comforting, if you think about it. Can we really afford to lose the best excuse for a team's poor result?

20 November 2006

US MNT Makeover

With action gearing up for the US NATs, what changes should we expect in the new squad? Here are some predictions:

Several players have already announced their international retirements: Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, Brian McBride. Of those who haven't, I see these as the most at risk of not earning more caps.

What new faces should the NATs incorporate? How about these:

15 November 2006

US MNT Update

Well, it's been almost five months since the US lost to Ghana to crash out of the World Cup finals, and four months since Bruce Arena was canned. And there's been little news out of South Prairie Avenue. So what's going on?

Well, I had some good news in my email inbox this morning. The US Men are close to taking action again. They'll begin with a friendly, taking on Denmark on January 20 at the Home Depot Center. I'm pretty darn jealous, given that the other Dave has just relocated to the greater Los Angeles area. (You'd better be getting tickets, boyo.) It's not a bad way to begin the recovery. Denmark are a quality opponent, yet also reasonable, and if you want a January match, southern California's not a bad place to be. (I expect a lot of sunburned Danes.) It's good to see that things are taking off again.

The US men have also recently announced their next competitions. Of course, the Gold Cup is coming up in 2007. CONCACAF is once again hosting the tournament in the US, which makes things easier for the hosts (and defending champions). However, there's a significant change in that no non-CONCACAF teams will participate. It's pitched as a move that shows the strength of the region, but it has to lower the quality of the teams in the tournament. Replacing Colombia with Haiti, or South Africa with Grenada, is a simple loss of talent. The region's teams need to face top-quality opposition if they want to improve, and so the news is a bit disappointing.

Yet that news isn't as hard to take given the other US tournament news: the Nats will participate in the 2007 Copa America, the top COMNEBOL tournament. There's nothing better for our national team than to play top-quality opponents, and they don't get better than Brazil and Argentina (not to mention the other fine teams in the region). Plus, playing in the surely hostile stadiums of Venezuela will provide a useful preparation for other harsh international venues. The US hasn't played in the Copa America since 1995, so it's great to see them get involved once again. A solid performance in Venezuela will be a good first step to taking the sour taste of Germany 2006 from the mouths of fans.

All in all, there will be plenty of Nats soccer to see next year. And that's great... but who's going to coach the team? Well, that news may only be a few weeks away. US Soccer President Sunil Gulati said "I am still very hopeful and expect that we will announce a coach in November" or early December. And who will that be? Gulati of course wouldn't say, but he did indicate that five candidates are in serious consideration, and specifically mentioned that Juergen Klinsmann (the perennial DavesOnSoccer favorite) was one of the five.

There were a few hints in the conversation about other possibilities. It sounds like a few of the candidates may be currently coaching in Europe, and there's probably an MLS coach or two in there as well. He did specifically rule out Arsene Wenger (whew!), Felipe Scolari, and Guus Hiddink. Scolari and Hiddink have been mentioned as candidates before so that does clear the picture a bit. There was no mention of Sven Goran-Eriksson, so he may still be on the list. (Oh, please please, not Sven!)

There are plenty of possibilities but hopefully we'll know the answer in a few weeks. That will really mark the transition; we can then move past Germany 06 and start thinking about the upcoming cup competitions. It's been a while since I've been eager to discuss the Nats, but that era is coming to a close. I can't wait.

14 November 2006

Dowie Out

Well, Charlton have sacked Iain Dowie. With the Addicks in last place on 8 points, it was perhaps inevitable.

Still, it's a bit disappointing to see him go. I've been a fan of Dowie for a couple years, after watching Crystal Palace in the Prem. They almost avoided relegation, but got demotion on the last day of the 2005 season -- a wild day that saw four teams fighting for the last safe spot. Palace were perhaps a bit naive, but they always came to play and produced entertaining soccer even when they lost. Aside from Andy Johnson, Palace had arguably the lowest overall level of talent in the Prem, and it was an accomplishment to even have a chance for survival so late in the year.

Palace's subsequent promotion campaign faded in the second half of the season, and Dowie left Palace and quickly moved to Charlton. The move came with controversy and court cases -- Palace felt that Dowie had misled them about a move to another London team. But from a soccer standpoint, it seemed like a good move for Charlton. Led by Alan Curbishley, they'd been stuck in neutral for years, generally unable to compete with the better clubs. Since promotion in 2000, they've finished as follows: 9th, 14th, 12th, 7th, 11th, and 13th. That's almost the definition of midtable obscurity. And speaking subjectively, Charlton have been bland and uninteresting (kind of like Curbishley, come to think of it). They definitely needed a shake-up.

Dowie is an interesting character. He has a Master's degree in mechanical engineering, and worked for British Aerospace before starting his playing career. On the sideline, he is animated and entertaining, shunning the standard manager's suit and tie for a warm-up suit and athletic shoes. And he's known for having a progressive approach to fitness and match preparation. So signing Dowie seemed like a good move for Charlton. Maybe he could bring a fresh spark that would light a fire in the team.

Unfortunately the results have been more of a wet blanket. Charlton have faced an early-season rash of injuries that left them uncompetitive, completing 12 Prem matches with a record of 2-2-8. That record wouldn't leave many managers confident in their continued employment, but still it's surprising to see Charlton walk away from a manager that they worked so hard to bring in.

I've long felt that Charlton needed to see something dramatic to shake them out of their midtable complacency. A credible campaign for a spot in Europe would do that. But relegation would have that effect too. Maybe changing the management will help them avoid the drop. But my suspicion is that losing Dowie makes it more likely rather than less. Either way, here's hoping that the Addicks can find a path to becoming a more interesting team -- and that Dowie can find another club that's interested in his services.

13 November 2006

Arsenal 3-0 Liverpool

Arsenal 3-0 Liverpool
It is obvious to me that I have a finite amount of luck to share among the teams I follow. In the fall, it's a very simple equation. There are three teams that I want to win on a given weekend: Arsenal, the Indianapolis Colts, and the University of California. And I have about enough luck for 1.5 of them. This week, it deserted the Golden Bears, who lost a game against Arizona that they should have won. And Indianapolis barely had enough to get by, winning 17-16 against the lackluster Buffalo Bills.

So that leaves the Arsenal, and their fine win over Liverpool. The stories today are all about Liverpool's poor performnace, but it's important to remember that this was a tense, cagey match until the first goal at 41'. Both Arsenal and Liverpool had the ball in the back of the net earlier, but both were (correctly) ruled out. Most of the game had been played in the middle third of the pitch, with two teams scrapping for the ball and refusing to yield ground. At 35', a draw seemed a distinct possibility.

And then the Gunners broke through. I'm sure you've seen the goal, which featured both the precise passing the Gunners are known for and the scrappy opportunism that they often miss. Both Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas had great runs and sweet passes, but I would single out Mathieu Flamini for his willingness to throw himself at the goal. We need to attack the net like that more often.

At halftime it wasn't a done deal, but things turned quickly and the Gunners were soon in control. The second goal came at 56' and what a sweet goal it was. Despite a dodgy first touch, Robin van Persie hit a beautiful pass, and Kolo Toure finished sweetly. Kolo has been coming forward more often of late, regularly enough that it must be on orders from the manager. He always looks good doing it, and it's great to see his effort rewarded.

After the second goal, Liverpool went from inconsistent to consistently bad. The third goal seemed inevitable, but when it came it was due to amazingly bad defensive work from Liverpool on a corner. It understates things to say that William Gallas was unmarked. He was two yards from any defender -- and that's in the center of the six-yard box.

After the game, much of the talk is about whether Rafael Benitez should have played Steven Gerrard in central midfield. Which rather misses the point that Gerrard was worse than useless yesterday. He was rarely involved, but when he did get into the run of play, it was most often to promptly yield possession. He was also at fault for failing to mark Gallas on the corner, and when moved to the middle, promptly shot well over the goal. Gerrard is generally a legitimate top talent, but yesterday he was a liability, and it's unfair to blame Benitez for it.

The net result will be much debate and media attention for Liverpool. They are miles from contending for the title, and look like a team that's lost it's way. In the second half, they looked on the verge of collapse, with arguing teammates and senseless fouls born of frustration. Fortunately for Liverpool, their next few matches are winnable -- away to Middlesbrough, home to Man City, and home to Portsmouth. But if they take less than 7 points from these three games, I think there's a real chance that Benitez will be gone before January.

But for Arsenal, things are looking up. The previous two league games were quite disappointing, but winning over one of the Big Four will surely restore their confidence. Hopefully next week's home match with Newcastle will continue that, because the following week brings a road trip to Bolton, and Sam Allardyce seems to know how to frustrate the Gunners. They'll need all the confidence they can muster.

07 November 2006

Fixing MLS

Congratulations to the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo for reaching this year's MLS Cup. I do try to be a supporter of MLS, but Revs keeper Matt Reis' comments will tell you why I find that a difficult proposition.
"It really doesn't matter what you do during the year as long as you get into the playoffs," Reis said. "And once you're in the playoffs, that's when the season really starts."

While hardcore soccer fans have been pushing for a single table format for the MLS for years, it seems doubtful that such a system will be implemented any time soon. The primary argument against the single table is that with relegation be strictly verboten in U.S. sports leagues, bottom dwelling teams will have little incentive to play hard in the final weeks, leading to many meaningless, boring matches. And while there is some validity to this notion (just watch EPL games between mid-level teams in the final weeks), I still believe it's possible to devise a single table system that rewards ALL teams in proportion to their final position in the table, thereby providing late season incentive to teams in lower positions.

There are many ideas out there and much discussion of possible changes. Until the MLS regular season actually starts to mean something, I can't be bothered to care too much about it.

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