Monday, May 31, 2010

Thoughts on U.S. Soccer before the big dance...


If there’s one thing that’s clear to me at this point, it’s that Jonathan Spector shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the field in South Africa. Other than trying to throw Landon Donavan into a jet engine when getting on the plane to Johannesburg, I don’t know what he has to do for Bob Bradley to realize he ISN’T VERY GOOD RIGHT NOW!

Perhaps at some point he may have value (since he does play in the EPL), but for the moment he’s become a serious liability. Dating back to the second half of the Confederations Cup final, Spector has gotten torched by a myriad of skilled players who’ve found themselves lined up against him.

And the U.S. play at right back was a microcosm of their play overall this past Saturday against Turkey: a second half change led to a victory. Indeed, Spector’s removal and Steven Cherundolo’s insertion was a key substitution. (That said, Cherundolo had a mediocre game against the Czech Republic, making it painfully clear how thin the U.S. is at that position.)

As bad as Bob Bradley’s team looked in the first half, the second half was a reassurance. Jose Francisco Torres’s emergence off the bench proved a critical part of the fight back against a well organized Turkish side.

Elbow room for the engine room

The key to U.S. success on offense seems to be in creating space for playmakers Landon Donavan and Clint Dempsey. When these two (especially Donavan) can get seriously involved, America can look a formidable unit. When, however, they are squeezed out of play (like what happened for the majority of the first half against Turkey), then the U.S. looks like an intramural team.

The first half against the Turks was a failure because Turkey compressed the space with ease, confident that neither U.S. forwards (Jozy Altidore or Dempsey) could stretch play vertically. This is because neither prefers to make the deep runs into the corners that Charlie Davies perfected.

Just like in football, a lack of a deep threat allows U.S. opponents to play press coverage. The result of this is that both Donavan and Dempsey are effectively taken out of the game.  The only real chance created by the home side in the first half was by Altidore’s moment of magic (splicing between two defenders before sliding in a cross that was just out of Dempsey’s reach).

The second half saw the entry of Robbie Findley. As much as he may resemble a headless chicken from time to time, the man can run like the wind. His speed gave American offense a dimension it hasn’t had since. Charlie Davies was injured.

The natural reaction by any defense to the mere threat of this speed is to sit deeper than before. This, in turn, alleviates the space issue for Donavan and Dempsey (who had taken up his more familiar role at outside midfield by this point). Once this is achieved, the offense springs to life.

The tying goal was proof of this. Findley was allowed an eternity to make the chip over the top to an onrushing Donavan who then set up Altidore. That kind of time was afforded to someone like Findley (not known for his ball control) only because gaps had been forced open between the Turkish midfield and defense. Space creates time (as my old coach relentlessly said). And with that time, Findley created a goal.

The inherent problem of 4-4-2

One thing that’s becoming clearer and clearer is that Bob Bradley will not deviate from his system. This could prove problematic for a number of reasons. Yet it’s in game number one of the World Cup that the folly of Bradley’s stubbornness could be shown up.

Wayne Rooney, England best player, is not a traditional striker. Though he is fully capable at being a traditional front man, Rooney appears most comfortable in dropping slightly off the front line and searching for space in the gaps between the opposition’s midfield and defense (“in the hole” as it’s known).

This could expose a large flaw in Bradley’s system. A proponent of the standard 4-4-2, the American coach could run into the same problems that English Premier League managers dealt with in the late 1990’s. This happened when the introduction of non-traditional strikers like Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp wreaked havoc on a league dominated by 4-4-2.

The “problem” that I’m referring to is a question of marking. In a 4-4-2, the two central midfielders are tasked with marking the other team’s central midfielders (a manageable 2 v 2 matchup). However, when an opposing team has a striker who drops off like Rooney, then it creates a man advantage in the midfield (3 v 2).

The natural logic is to have the spare central defender step up to cancel this advantage. Yet, this in turn creates a hole in the back line. It’s the kind of hole that England’s outside midfielders (especially Steven Gerrard) could exploit.

The solution?

Giving 4-3-3 a try! Why not experiment in the last warm up game against Australia on June 5th? Move Donavan and Dempsey outside of Altidore in the front. Then insert the powerful Maurice Edu as a holding midfielder in the “Claude Makelele role” sitting just in front of the back four.

That would give Michael Bradley license to go forward and be the true “box to box” midfielder that makes him so effective. Whoever the third midfielder would be (my votes for Jose Torres) would also have the ability to get forward and help link with the offense.

This solves the problem of Rooney dropping off the front line because Edu can deal with him safe in the knowledge that Torres and Bradley will not be outmanned in against England’s two man midfield. It also means there's a spare defender (which is never a bad thing for the occasionally shaky U.S. defense.)

Donavan and Dempsey are not true wingers either, but their versatility makes them more dangerous starting out wide (Brazilian Nilmar put a scare in England's back-line playing this wing role in a friendly last year.) They could, in the very least, pin back England's outside backs (Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole). Being free to drift out wide also makes them more apt to find space and be involved in the game (which, again, is a key.)

This version of 4-3-3 (which is basically a 4-1-2-3) is the same formation that Jose Mourinho used so effectively in his time at Chelsea (2004-2006). The Portuguese manager espoused the use of 4-3-3 against 4-4-2 in saying:

“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”

So I leave it to you Bob Bradley. I’m clearly not the only one who recognizes our serious flaw heading into the most important game for U.S. soccer this year. Even Jose agrees with me. And frankly, they don’t call him “The Special One” for nothing…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The false victory of two max contracts...


The final buzzer had barely sounded on the Cleveland Cavalier’s season and already the sports-media machine was gearing up to deal with the real issue left in the NBA season: what (if anything) was LeBron going to do? Not even the remarkably unpredictable Celtic-resurgence could spoil the unleashing of the best NBA free agent related story since Shaq in 1996.

And no one was paying closer attention (and secretly fist-pumping Boston for the only time in their lives) more than Knicks fans. I guarantee, as a fan base, they’re 90% confident that they’re getting LeBron. That the current Knicks roster is atrocious doesn’t seem to matter.

No, instead they’re telling themselves (and with some justification) that given their newly acquired cap-space, the Knicks will not only be able get The Chosen One, but another superstar to boot.

As fans that have been starved of nearly any good news in a decade, no one can fault them for seeing light at the end of the tunnel (unless you’re Reggie Miller). You’d have to credit a group of fans for remaining loyal through some of the worst management spells in recent NBA history.

Best Case Scenario

Supposing LeBron does decide the Knicks are the one and signs on the dotted line, what then? The prevailing wisdom is that New York would have to get another max-contract guy (i.e another superstar) to satiate LeBron’s fixation with “having enough help.”

Hence we can safely say that in order to get LeBron, New York would be (one way or another) committing no less than 45% of their salary cap space for only two players (since they’re effectively having to sign two players in acquiring LeBron.)

Now remember that the current Knicks roster has no more than two and a half quality players (and none of them play guard.) Where does that leave the team? Even if the second superstar is D-Wade or Joe Johnson, they’d still need a lot more depth in the backcourt, especially at point guard.

Where will these reinforcements come from? The Knicks are bereft of a first round pick (they traded the sixth overall pick to the Utah Jazz in a deal where no one remembers what the Knicks got). And with most of their cap space gone after the two big-name signings, additional free agent signings will be tough.

The natural counter argument to this is the 2008 Celtics, who were themselves up against the cap after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Yet it’s worth pointing out that the Celtics had a number of aces in the whole.

While they too had traded their first rounder that season (in the Ray Allen deal), GM Danny Ainge took Glen Davis in the second round (a comparative steal in retrospect). Furthermore, the Celtics previous drafts had produced quality players like Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo (unlike the Knicks who have had a dearth of good drafts in the last ten years.)

They were adding superstars to a roster full of potentially great role players. In other words, it was a totally different scenario then what the Knicks are staring at.

Beware the Galactico

Now I’m not saying the Knicks wouldn't win a championship if they got LeBron and another superstar. After all, they would be adding the best player in the league as well as another top 10 talent. Yet that’s missing the point: the idea of slapping superstars together in a completely inorganic way is not the way to assemble a championship team.

If you don’t believe me (which I’m guessing that you probably don’t) then think about it in terms of precedent. As there is no precedent for this sort of thing in the NBA (adding multiple superDUPERstars in one off-season) then think about it in a more broad concept across all sports.

Baseball:

In baseball, we see this sort of thing all the time. The Yankees have tried this on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success. Following the success of their largely homegrown championship teams of the late ‘90s, George Steinbrenner famously wrestled control of player acquisitions from his large array of personnel evaluators. This led to Jason Giambi, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano etc. None of it worked.

Finally, the outrageous spending strategy secured a title in 2009. Yet was this the best way to win? Was one title in nine years worth the hundreds of millions spent on an army of supposed “final pieces to the puzzle” who fizzled? Other teams have also tried this. 

The Mets famously loaded up on stars in the winter of 2001 only to see it blow up in their stunned faces  (they‘re probably still paying Mo Vaughn for all we know.) The (then) Devil Rays signed up a slew of stars (Jose Canseco, Roberto Hernandez, two-time World Series winner Juan Guzman, Greg Vaughn etc) in 1999.

They hoped this would jump start a winning season and set the tone for their fledgling franchise. Instead, their franchise got set back by a decade. Tampa only achieved success after such a prolonged period of crappiness allowed them to stockpile draft picks and build from within.

Football

There aren’t as many solid examples here as you might think. The Redskins are probably the longest running one though. As I love to say, Daniel Snyder operates like a spoiled teenager who forgot to take his Ritalin.

His signings have been as short term as they were ill-advised (Antwaan Randell-El? Deion?) Even Albert Haynesworth, an undeniably quality player in Tennessee’s system, was added with no thought to how he would mesh with the scheme run in Washington (with predictably bad results thus far).

Soccer

This is the best example by far. In no other sport are the best players able to migrate so often. And no other comparison works quite as well as the infamous “Galacticos” (meaning "superstars") experiment in Madrid at the turn of the 21st century. There, at Real Madrid (known universally for their money almost more than their trophies) the most flagrant display of sport commercialization took place.

Using the unlimited money at their disposal, Real signed Luis Figo (former World Player of the Year), Zinedine Zidane (World Cup winner and former World Player of the Year), Ronaldo (all-time World Cup leading scorer, former World Player of the Year) and, of course, David Beckham.

On paper, this looks even better than what the Knicks could potentially do. Yet it failed miserably. After adding Beckham, the team became too unbalanced and has not been past the quarterfinals in the Champions League since.

Former Real Madrid advisor (and ex A.C. Milan coach) Arrigo Sachi hit the nail on the head when he noted that “The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

This observation was no doubt born from frustration. Sachi, like the merry-go-round of managers Real had in that time, were appalled at the necessity of having to play all the superstars all the time, none of whom thought they should be treated like equal teammates.

The idea that James Dolan should be thinking of (…instead of a way to rehire Isaiah)

Sachi had it right about soccer and the same applies for basketball (as it does in any sport.) When the 
team has to cater too much to its individual pieces and the “collective is trumped”, the ultimate goal of winning also takes a backseat.

Sure LeBron and the second big gun would bring an immediate increase in regular season wins (and, pending injuries, a guaranteed playoff spot) but would they stand up under the microscope of a seven game series in June?

Without any semblance of depth, what happens of if LeBron gets into foul trouble and D-Wade goes cold? There is no third option to lean on because the Knicks had to cater to their superstars (in terms of salary cap space) while neglecting the depth of their team. And what of the defense? A team can afford one player moving freely (as both LeBron and D-wade like to do) but two? That creates holes.

As Sachi noted, that causes the coach to be reactive and not proactive. He went on to say that this “doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplying effect on the players abilities.”

Amen Arrigo, couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s good to have talented players, but it’s better to have balance. The Knicks should sell LeBron on that, not star-power.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Why Tim Tebow might not suck...and the rise of Socialist Football


Everyone’s so caught up in whether or not Tim Tebow was drafted at the right spot that they forget how bad we are at actually predicting young quarterbacks. Why should I trust these supposed analysts and “experts” telling me Tim Tebow won’t make it in the NFL?  It’s the same misplaced trust that caused us to jump onboard the Tim Couch and Ryan Leaf bandwagons and off of Joe Montana’s and Tom Brady’s.

The simple fact is that the system makes the player to a much larger degree than vice versa. And no Glenn Beck, this does not make me a socialist (completely anyway), but I’m convinced that in a modern league, individuals can no longer manipulate their own outcomes’ over the course of an entire season.

The obvious counterargument for this is the classic: “what if you took Peyton Manning off the Colts?” And predictably, I’ll concede that point. Without someone making excellent and accurate decisions within Tom Moore’s system, Indianapolis would finish 3-13.

Yet without the tight-knit play of the rest of the personnel within their system (especially the blocking), Peyton Manning is worthless. In fact, you could argue that without the rule changes regarding defensive contact in 2006, Peyton Manning would not have been able to overwhelm the defensive systems that were consistently baffling him in the playoffs (particularly the 3-4 defenses of the Chargers, Patriots and Steelers).

Not surprisingly, the Super Bowl this past January exonerated this apparently radical principal. The superior system (New Orleans) trumped the best individual (Peyton). Defensively, the Saints mustered three different game plans. Such a complicated strategy was too much even for the cerebral Manning. The clinching play of the game was when Saints cornerback Tracy Porter read Peyton and picked off a would-be slant, taking it 74 yards to score (the icing on the cake).

Joe Mo…

It’s not that NFL draft analysts are bad at what they do, it’s that they’re mentality is flawed. They’re constantly looking for players who fit last year’s league. Since football’s evolution is impossible to predict, there’s no way they can forecast what kind of player will be the most effective down the road.

In the case of Joe Montana, he was not surprisingly valued very little by every team except the 49ers. His college stats weren’t overwhelming (he threw more interceptions at Notre Dame than touchdowns). His build and appearance weren’t impressive (he was listed just under 200 lbs but was so skinny that 49er teammates nicknamed him “bird legs.”) Thus, if Mel Kiper Jr. (or as I like to call him, Buddy Garrity) was around in 1979, he would have been mortal lock to scold 49er Coach Bill Walsh for taking Montana even in the third round.

Yet (and this is where the experts opinions become distorted) they could not see what was about to happen. The right coach had come along in the right situation (when new defensive contact rules were just being exploited) and was able to instill a revolutionary offense. The traditional rules about what made a “good quarterback” didn’t matter to Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense. Quickness, not strength, was what counted and Montana was plenty quick.

Four Super Bowl wins and a Hall of Fame induction later and Joe Montana looks like a no-brainer as to what a good quarterback should be.

Back to Tebow…

I would like to distinguish at this point that it’s not my intention to compare Joe Montana and Tim Tebow. Merely, I’d like to point out that at different points in NFL history; an unnecessary value was placed on certain attributes (arm strength in Montana’s case, throwing mechanics in Tebow’s).

With the evolution of the Wild Cat Offense, I’ll then ask this: aren’t Tebow’s strengths perfect for the NFL? Doesn’t the trend seem to be towards rapidly changing the point of attack on offense through the use of motion of many versatile players? And isn’t Tebow’s main strength his versatility?

Think about the Wild Cat as a system for a second. It works only when the defense has to stay honest in their passing coverage (which then creates a man advantage for the offense.) Yet if they know that the players on the field cannot pass the ball, they simply narrow down the running lanes, confident in their knowledge that they won’t get beat deep.

Throw in Tebow (a physical runner who can also pass) and you have a solid Wild Cat weapon. Certainly I realize Tebow’s passing skills (especially downfield) aren’t what they should be. Yet when running the kind of misdirection offense that he ran at Florida (that’s becoming more prevalent in the NFL), Tebow’s perfectly capable. He might fail completely in the NFL, but it won’t be because he doesn’t have the talent for that specific system. Most likely he will fail if Broncos Coach Josh McDaniels tries to make him into a traditional pocket passer (which I personally don’t think he’ll do).

And think about Josh McDaniels as a coach: his best season was running the 2007 Patriots offense. They were the best in NFL history because of they’re versatility. People forget this but they were a team that ran all sorts of personnel sets. In the opening game of that year against the Jets, Randy Moss’s first touchdown catch occurred because Jets safety Kerry Rhodes expected a run (since New England was lined up in a three tight end set.) McDaniels loves to have versatile personnel, having been mentored by the king of versatility (Bill Belichick.) Shit, the name of his offense is “the amoeba.” That doesn’t sound anything like something that's traditional or straight forward.

Call it socialist football, but just know that it literally is recognition for what football is: a winning approach that’s best derived from using versatile players plugged into a system that forces the defense to be strong in every area. So make no mistake, Tim Tebow is certainly versatile enough to make it in the NFL, it’ll just take him landing in the right system to justify his draft status. In the end though, don’t expect to hear this side of things from the gregarious Buddy Garrity and the NFL draftniks, since the concept of innovation has nothing to do with arbitrary 40 yard dash times or cone drills.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Special One's finest hour...



It was the culmination of months of planning and preparation, executed with precision and enthusiasm. Truly a memorable event and one that Inter Milan fans will surely never forget should they end up winning the final…

I am, of course, talking about Jose Mourinho’s post game celebration following the final whistle of the Champions League semifinal (in which his Inter Milan defeated defending champions Barcelona at their Spanish home, the Nou Camp.) It was everything that the self titled “Special One” stands for: gluttonously self serving, extremely distasteful but, at the end of the day, completely deserving.

After all, this was the man who won the Champions League with comparable minnows FC Porto in 2004. Now, having come to the home of (and stood toe to toe with) the finest team in the world, Mourinho could be forgiven for a display of unbridled emotion. Italians haven’t seen a field general of this caliber since Julius Caesar and, after all the bluster and endless posturing; Mourinho confidently put his money where his mouth was.

Now, for those who don’t much about the Portuguese manager, just know that he invented the nickname that has stuck with him throughout the last six years. After previously winning the Champions League (Europe’s equivalent to the Super Bowl) in 2004, Mourinho then introduced himself to English fans at London club Chelsea by saying, “please, don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”

The “special one” has become synonymous with Mourinho and vice-versa. And look at his track record if you think it’s ill-deserved. Countless trophies during his time in Portugal (including UEFA League and Champions League wins), consecutive Premier League trophies while at Chelsea (their first titles practically since the days of Henry VIII) and now the possibility of a second Champions League crown to add to last year’s Italian League win at Inter. That’s among the best managerial resumes in the world, considering his success in multiple, topnotch leagues in such a short span.

This past Wednesday he took his act (oh, and his team) into one of the epicenters of world soccer for what was guaranteed to be a seminal moment. Having begun his career at Barcelona as a translator, Mourinho returned to a packed house with typical theatrics were on full display. Few men savor the chore of heading into the Nou Camp knowing they have to hold the likes of Xavi and Messi at bay, but the Special One seemed to bask in the spotlight’s glow. Yet this was merely a culmination of efforts, the foundation for success having been laid the previous week in the first leg of the two-game semifinal.

In that first game, Mourinho had shown his resourcefulness and his players showed why they’re one of the best units in the world. Deploying three forwards and Real Madrid castoff Wesley Sneijder behind them, Inter were determined to fight fire with fire (at least initially) and attack. Coupled with weird circumstances (like how Barcelona had to travel from their home to Milan via bus due to the Icelandic volcano) everything went according to plan.

Their tactics having paid off, Inter snatched a 3-1 home win in the first leg. It was a great performance by Sneijder especially. Having been the odd man out at Madrid last summer after Ronaldo and Kaka were signed for a not-so-small fortune, he acquitted himself well that night at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Pulling the midfield strings like a maestro, he passed the ball in a way usually displayed by his Catalan opposite that night, Xavi.

Inter Milan have not looked this focused on such a big stage since the days of Helenio Herrera in the 1960’s, but they took their cue from Mourinho. With characteristic bluster and bravado, he took the field having already planted the seeds of controversy via his typical media mind games. He declared “for Barcelona, it’s (the Champions League) an obsession.” Who knows if this kind of thing really works, but the home side certainly looked less assured than Mourinho’s boys.

Even after the controversial red card to one of his midfield anchors (the highly underrated Thiago Motta), Inter showed a resolve not generally displayed by such a high profile team. Everyone in the forward and midfield lines hustled tirelessly on defense (a concept cross-town rival A.C. Milan has forgotten).

The forwards countered when they could and the midfield shepherded and blocked, but Inter’s defense was Mourinho’s strongest arm. In Lucio, Maicon, Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel they may have players from traditional South American rivals, but paired together they form a water tight unit.

So now it’s onto the final for Inter where they’ll face Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent Bayern Munich. The return of a German team to the final is an encouraging sign and they aren’t to be underestimated. It should make for a grounding battle in the final, where someone unlikely will probably play the hero (my votes for Inter’s Goran Pandev).

In the mark of a man who almost unbelievably matches his substance with his grand style, Mourinho will not dwell on his victory for too long, as he still has crucial domestic games to take care of. Yet somewhere deep down, I’m sure the Special One’s already thinking about how best to describe this victory when he’s talking to the directors at Real Madrid this summer about a job. If there’s one thing he’s even better at then getting results on the field, it’s his uncanny ability to get them off of it.