Monday, April 30, 2012

Futbolr Manchester Derby Contest

Futbolr Manchester Derby Contest: 1st to Predict score & scorers wins free Futbolr Shirt Enter

Manchester derby figures to be one of biggest in history

Sandy Macaskill of the New York Times writes of the Manchester derby between Manchester United and Manchester City, and how this football match is bigger than any in recent memory.

MANCHESTER, England — Slanting rain and a vicious wind sent ripples and eddies across the puddles forming outside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Workers spilled out of two satellite television trucks, ferrying cables and cameras into the stadium to prepare for what could be the most anticipated match in Premier League history.

On Monday, those cameras will broadcast the game between Manchester United and Manchester City to 650 million homes in 203 territories. Sixteen overseas broadcasters have applied to cover the game, seven more than worked the recent Clásico in Spain between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

More people are expected to watch Monday’s match between City and United than the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich in May, and yet this is not even a title decider. With United only 3 points ahead in the standings, and with two matches left for each after Monday’s showdown, the winner is not guaranteed the title.

Derby matches in British soccer are always frenetic affairs, but this is no normal squabble over the garden hedge. Henry Winter, a writer for The Telegraph, called it “the most seismic local tear-up in the history of English football.” He added, “This is neighbors at war, fighting for the right to be regional and national champions as the world watches.”

United and City first played, under different names, in 1881. But for the first time since the late 1960s, United’s rule over the city is in question.

United’s record of success has made it a team that is easy to dislike, but that has not always been the case. On Feb. 6, 1958, an airplane carrying the United team crashed on takeoff in Munich, killing eight players and three staff members. Public sympathy and support snowballed as United completed the 1957-58 season without its seriously injured manager, Matt Busby, and with a patched-together collection of crash survivors and new players. Incredibly, the team almost won the F.A. Cup, losing in the final.

United suffered a downturn in the ’70s and ’80s, but Busby’s torch was taken up by Manager Alex Ferguson in 1986. Under Ferguson’s leadership, United has won 12 league titles and 2 European Cups. This season United is competing for its 20th league title over all.

City enjoyed a period of success in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it has long lived in United’s shadow. It has not won the highest league in the country since 1968, “but the pendulum is swinging,” according to Peter Spencer, sports editor of The Manchester Evening News.

While United is owned by the Glazer family, Americans who have saddled the club with debt, City has been taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the brother of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

City has spent more than $1 billion on player transfers, and was rewarded last year by qualifying for the Champions League and winning the F.A. Cup, the club’s first major trophy in three decades. Times are good in east Manchester, but they may not last. Next season, UEFA, the game’s European governing body, is introducing Financial Fair Play rules, which stipulate that clubs can spend only what they earn. If properly enforced, the rules could slow City’s revival significantly.

For supporters on either side of the Manchester divide, these are issues to be dealt with when the time comes. Their horizon is set at Monday evening.

“Going in to work next Tuesday morning will be the most important day of their lives, for both sets of supporters,” Ferguson said.

The anticipation has been swelling ahead of a match filled with plot lines. Foremost among them is the tale of Carlos Tévez, the former United striker who transferred to City in 2009, squabbled with Manager Roberto Mancini this season and went AWOL to his native Argentina in November. Tévez returned in February, made peace with Mancini, and has scored four goals in his last three games.

And then there are the mind games. Ferguson has finally acknowledged that City is United’s biggest rival, rather than Liverpool, after calling City “a small club with a small mentality” in recent years. He called the match “the derby game of all derby games.”

If it was meant to get Mancini ruffled, it did not work. On Saturday morning, he was radiating relaxation. “We don’t have pressure; we don’t have anything to lose,” Mancini said.

How is it possible to stay so cool, calm and collected in the spotlight? a reporter asked. After all, by Monday, The Manchester Evening News will have written 100 pages on just this one game. Forget former glory; the paper has told both sets of players that they will be “legends or losers.”

“It is impossible to worry about a Monday game” on Saturday, Mancini said. “On Monday, it will be different.”

At Etihad Stadium, City fans emerged out of the deluge for tours of the stadium. Among them was Peter Reid, who made 103 appearances for City as a defensive midfielder, and who managed the team from 1990 to 1993. Now 55, Reid was escorting dignitaries from Abu Dhabi around the stadium.

A former England international, he played against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico, the match in which Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in soccer history: a shimmering run through five players for the so-called Goal of the Century, and the infamous Hand of God goal.

“I’ve played in the World Cup,” he said, “and honestly, this match is up there.”

Bulls and Basketball an Obsession for Thibodeau

Greg Bishop of the New York Times writes about the life of Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, and how he got to where he is today.  Coach Thibodeau’s dream to become an NBA head coach became true two years ago when he became the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

Ever since the first coach forced players to run wind sprints, the profession for grown-ups who work in track suits has produced an inordinate share of the obsessed, the eccentric and the paranoid. Consider Thibodeau at the extreme. One of his former players, Nate Bryant, described the way Thibodeau approached his craft as an “addiction, without question.”
And the most prominent manifestation of that addiction, as described by two dozen friends, family members, former players and associates, always comes back to video. Every person Thibodeau ever met, it seems, has a tale of the tape.
First story: when Bryant arrived early at Salem State in the early 1980s, his dorm was not ready. He stayed in Thibodeau’s apartment, which was mostly empty, save for a couch, a TV and a VCR. The athletic department did not install its own video system for 10 years. In that time, Thibodeau watched many hundreds of hours of tape. And perhaps even a few movies.

Fifth story: An assistant at Thibodeau’s alma mater, New Britain High School, went to visit him at Harvard, where he was an assistant after leaving Salem State. He could hardly see Thibodeau behind the tapes stacked atop his desk.

Fourteenth story: when one of his Harvard players visited Thibodeau in Minnesota, where he first entered the N.B.A. as an assistant in 1989, the player found the refrigerator empty. The player and his wife went to a Timberwolves game, then returned to the apartment, where Thibodeau taught the player’s wife how to break down game film.
The player was Arne Duncan, now the secretary of education. He pushed Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ chairman, to interview and hire Thibodeau.
“This is his life,” Duncan said. “For better or worse, he doesn’t have a lot of other interests. Maybe he has no other interests.”

HOW we communicate is as important as WHAT we say when building successful teams

Alex "Sandy" Pentland is the director of MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory, and he wrote a fascinating article on communication and effective patterns of communication. Through enormous amounts of research, Pentland makes an impressive case for the importance of communication in building successful teams.

Our data show that great teams:

•Communicate frequently. In a typical project team a dozen or so communication exchanges per working hour may turn out to be optimum; but more or less than that and team performance can decline.

•Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members. Lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don't do both.

•Engage in frequent informal communication. The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as "asides" during team meetings, and increasing opportunities for informal communication tends to increase team performance.

•Explore for ideas and information outside the group. The best teams periodically connect with many different outside sources and bring what they learn back to the team.

You'll notice that none of the factors outlined above concern the substance of a team's communication. As I said, our badges only capture how people communicate — tone of voice, gesticulation, how one faces others in the group, and how much people talk and listen. They do not capture what people communicate.

This is purposeful. From the beginning, I suspected that the ineffable buzz of high-performing teams wasn't more about the how of communication than the what. My hypothesis was that the ancient biological patterns of signaling that humans developed in the millennia before we developed language — which is a relatively recent development — still dominate our communication. I was buoyed in this idea by research on just how sophisticated non-verbal communication can be across the animal kingdom. Bees, for example, use a marvelous system of dancing competitions to decide where to get their pollen.

According to our data, it's as true for humans as for bees: How we communicate turns out to be the most important predictor of team success, and as important as all other factors combined, including intelligence, personality, skill, and content of discussions. The old adage that it's not what you say, but how you say it, turns out to be mathematically correct.

Just how powerful these patterns of communication are can be surprising. For example, we can predict with eerie precision whether a team will perform well or not, and we can predict with a high rate of success whether or not team members will report they've had a "productive" or "creative" day based solely on the data from the sociometric badges. If this seems like a statistical parlor trick, it's not. By adjusting group behavior based on this data, we've documented improved teamwork.

Many people are uncomfortable with this. It suggests that a kind of biological determinism, that people who naturally display the good communication patterns will "win" and anyone not blessed with this innate talent will drag a team down. In fact, that's not the case at all. In our work we've found that these patterns of communication are highly trainable, and that personality traits we usually chalk up to the "it" factor — personal charisma, for example — are actually teachable skills. Data is an amazingly powerful tool for objectifying what would normally seem subjective. Time and again I've seen data become an incontrovertible ally to team members who may otherwise be afraid to voice their feelings about the team dynamics. They can finally say "I'm not being heard" and they have the data to back them up.

People should feel empowered by the idea of a science of team building, The idea that we can transmute the guess work of putting a team together into a rigorous methodology, and then continuously improve teams is exciting. Nothing will be more powerful, I believe, in eventually changing how organizations work.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Guardiola set to step away from Barca

Paul Kennedy of Soccer America reports on the resume and results by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, who is reportedly going to announce his stepping down from his post at Barca today.

By all accounts, Pep Guardiola has decided to quit coaching Barcelona. At 41, age isn't an issue. Failure isn't the problem. Yes, a 2-1 defeat at home to Real Madrid in La Liga and a 1-0 loss to Chelsea three days earlier in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League mean that Barca won't defend its La Liga and European titles. But they are two of only three defeats in 57 competitive matches for Barca this season.

Just as players get tired from the long European seasons -- and Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Xavi indeed looked tired in recent weeks -- so do their coaches from the mental strain.

Guardiola never indicated he would last more than a few years at Barcelona -- “Either you get tired of the players or they get tired of you," he once said -- and he has shown no indication of wanting to do anything more than taking a break and spending time with his wife and their three children.

He has a standing offer from Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to take over Chelsea any time he wants, but that can wait.

Guardiola will go out having achieved one of the most successful four-year runs a coach has ever achieved at a major club:

-- In his four seasons, Barca has lost just 19 times in 239 matches, just 10 in La Liga and five in the Champions League. Its seven losses in 2008-09 were the most in a season. Barca lost four games in 2009-10 and six in 2010-11.

-- Barcelona won six trophies in all six competitions it entered in 2009: La Liga, Copa del Rey, Supercopa, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

-- Barcelona won five trophies in 2011. The only trophy it did not win was the Copa del Rey. It fell to Real Madrid, 1-0, in overtime in the final.

-- It captured three straight La Liga titles, the first time a team won three in a row since Barca's Dream Team of the early 1990s.

-- It has won at least two trophies in every competition except the Copa del Rey. Barcelona will have a chance to win its second cup title under Guardiola when it faces Athletic Bilbao on May 25 in his farewell game.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is Size a factor for Barca v Chelsea?

Does size matter for footballers?  According to Tony Karon, it might be - depending on whether you are a Chelsea or Barcelona supporter...
Watch the pre-kickoff handshake between the players of Barcelona and Chelsea ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal showdown and you’d be forgiven for believing the Catalans had sent a youth team to face the big men from London. Didier Drogba, the Ivorian striker whose goal last week gave Chelsea an improbable 1–0 lead in a first-leg game dominated by its opponents, is a 6 ft. 2 in. muscular colossus; by contrast, Barca’s main attacking threat, the Argentine genius Lionel Messi, is a slight and runty 5 ft. 7 in. — and he needed months of growth-hormone injections in childhood to reach even that limited stature. A player of Messi’s height would be an exception on any English team, but at Barca he’s the norm: three of his team’s four other key attackers in last week’s semifinal first leg, held in London — Xavi, the baby-faced Andres Iniesta and the Chilean Alexis Sanchez — are no taller. And the broad-chested and muscled Sanchez aside, none looks much like an athlete. On the team fielded by Barca that day, only midfield anchor Sergio Busquets was over 6 feet tall, which might have made Barca fans wince every time Chelsea won a free kick or a corner, giving the team a set-piece opportunity to loft the ball into Barca’s penalty area, where a phalanx of heavy-set 6-footers — Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and John Obi Mikel — towered menacingly over their markers.

But Chelsea didn’t get that many opportunities to use its advantage in height and heft in the English style. Barcelona, as the team’s coach, Pep Guardiola, loves to point out, is a “horrible team” when its players don’t have the ball, which is why its game plan involves making sure they rarely turn the ball over to the opposition.

When they do lose the ball, they have an extraordinary ability to win it back almost immediately. In that respect, the diminutive stature of the Barca players may actually help: it’s almost routine for Messi to be tackled by a defender and yet still come away with the ball — his center of gravity is lower than that of many of the giant centerbacks who try to stop him, leading him to regain his balance a split second faster and control of the loose ball. (You can see the same effect at work in the other semifinal, to be held on Wednesday, with Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, also 5 ft. 7 in., often managing the same thing.)

Barcelona’s tiki-taka style is based on short passing and movement off the ball to create triangles that always give the man in possession at least two passing options; even goalkeeper Victor Valdes prefers to pass his way out of trouble rather than hit a clearance into no-man’s-land, risking turning over possession. And it’s that metronomic passing and movement that systematically breaks down opposing defenses.

Consider the statistics from last week’s leg of the semifinal, as provided by the brilliant Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking is essential reading for anyone interested in tactics. Barca had 72% of possession over the 90 minutes; its players played 814 passes, of which 754 (93%) reached their intended target. Chelsea, by contrast, played just 209 passes, of which 158 (76%) reached their target. No matter, says the Chelsea fan: the only statistic that counts is Chelsea 1, Barcelona 0. And in a sense, of course, that person would be right. Chelsea players chose to defend in numbers and confine themselves to trying to strike quickly, on the break, using their physical advantages and Drogba’s explosive power (in essence, the tactics often employed by the away team). Indeed, their goal came from a move in which Chelsea made just two decisive passes to get the ball to the Ivorian in the penalty area. (Even Real Madrid, whose emphatic 2–1 victory at Barcelona on Saturday in “El Clasico” surely prevented the Catalans from winning a fourth successive Spanish league title, enjoyed just 28% of possession — but they used it more emphatically and decisively in a quick-break, counterpunching style.)

Barca players don’t play on the break, however. They hold the ball as much for reasons of defense as attack. The opposition can’t hurt you when it doesn’t have the ball, and chasing the ball tires it out. Still, last week the Catalans created at least a dozen scoring chances (to Chelsea’s one), hitting the woodwork twice and going agonizingly close a number of other times. Chelsea, in short, was desperately lucky.

Chelsea would be foolish to expect its opponents to be so profligate at its Camp Nou stadium on Tuesday, when the famous tiki-taka game is likely to be in full effect. It’s a style that puts brains above brawn, tactical awareness above speed and power, and delicate ball skills and keeping possession above hopeful passes lobbed into dangerous spaces.

It was two Dutchmen, genius forward Johan Cruyff and coach Louis van Gaal, who laid the foundations of the current Barca — and Spanish national — style. Cruyff moved to Barcelona in the early 1970s and instilled in a generation the virtues of the quick, short pass and movement game that involves expanding the space available to your players when your team has the ball and compressing the space available to opposition players when they have the ball. Watch Barca players in training and the speed and skill with which they are able to pass the ball in extremely congested spaces. It is breathtaking.

Cruyff built the cathedral that is Barca today, says Guardiola, and it is his job to maintain, renovate and upgrade it. A profoundly insightful piece by Financial Times correspondent Simon Kuper — perhaps the most astute soccer writer out there, and whose Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win remains essential reading for anyone seeking an analytical take on the game — gets an insider’s take on Barca tactics from former coaching staffer Albert Capellas.

Barca’s first line of defense is its forwards, whose capacity to win back a ball lost deep inside an opponent’s half is what keeps the team’s adversaries on the rack. Kuper explains:

“Barcelona start pressing (hunting for the ball) the instant they lose possession. That is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception, and he has expended energy. That means he is unsighted, and probably tired. He usually needs two or three seconds to regain his vision of the field. So Barcelona try to dispossess him before he can give the ball to a better-placed teammate.

“Furthermore, if the guy won the ball back in his own defence, and Barcelona can instantly win it back again, then the way to goal is often clear. This is where Lionel Messi’s genius for tackling comes in. The little man has such quick reflexes that he sometimes wins a tackle a split-second after losing one.”

If they fail to win the ball back within five seconds of losing it, Kuper continues, Barca players immediately retreat into a compact defensive unit that compresses and congests the space through which the opponent will have to move the ball. And its players take a martial artist’s cues in deciding when to resume their hunt for the ball:

“There are very precise prompts that tell them when to press. One is if an opponent controls the ball badly. If the ball bounces off his foot, he will need to look downwards to locate it, and at that moment he loses his overview of the pitch. That’s when the nearest Barcelona players start hounding him.

“There’s another set prompt for Barça to press: when the opposing player on the ball turns back towards his own goal. When he does that, he narrows his options: he can no longer pass forward, unless Barcelona give him time to turn around again. Barcelona don’t give him time. Their players instantly hound the man, forcing him to pass back, and so they gain territory.”

Perhaps the most fascinating distinction between Barca and most English teams is the fact that the sort of lightning counterattack mounted by Chelsea for its goal in the first leg is almost anathema, except in instances where the ball is won near the opposing team’s goal.

“Most leading teams treat the moment the ball changes hands – ‘turnover’, as it’s called in basketball – as decisive. At that moment, the opponents are usually out of position, and so if you can counterattack quickly, you have an excellent chance of scoring. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal often try to score in the first three seconds after winning possession. So their player who wins the ball often tries to hit an instant splitting pass. [This is what Lampard did when dispossessing Messi to set up the Chelsea goal last Wednesday. —Eds.] Holland – Barcelona’s historic role models – do this too.

“But when a Barcelona player wins the ball, he doesn’t try for a splitting pass. The club’s attitude is: he has won the ball, that’s a wonderful achievement, and he doesn’t need to do anything else special. All he should do is slot the ball simply to the nearest teammate. Barcelona’s logic is that in winning the ball, the guy has typically forfeited his vision of the field. So he is the worst-placed player to hit a telling ball.

This means that Barcelona don’t rely on the element of surprise. They take a few moments to get into formation, and then pretty much tell their opponents, ‘OK, here we come.’ The opposition knows exactly what Barça are going to do. The difficulty is stopping it.”

Chelsea managed to stop it last week, of course, through a combination of luck and dogged, disciplined defending. And the London side may take heart from the weekend’s games: Chelsea started Saturday’s clash at Arsenal without eight of the players that started last week against Barcelona, resting them for Tuesday’s showdown — and still managed to prevent Arsenal from scoring. Barca, by contrast, started Saturday’s league showdown with Real Madrid with all but two of the same players they fielded in London last week, and the Madrileños’ 2–1 victory means those same players will have to lift themselves from the demoralization of losing on home turf to their arch nemesis (it was Barca’s first home defeat in 55 games in all competitions). Of course, if Chelsea were able to field a team of even half the quality of the Real Madrid squad, Barcelona might be in real trouble. But seeing as Chelsea spent most of the home leg metaphorically parking the team bus in front of its own goal (with 10 men in their defensive third most of the time), there’s no reason to expect them to do much differently when playing away.

Instead, Tuesday’s tie is more likely to be an opportunity for the Barca players to offer their fans the solace of progress toward the final, and another possible date with Real, ensuring that while the Madrileños may have captured the Spanish league title, the Catalans won’t easily cede their status as champions of Europe.

Have opponents figured out Barcelona?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Barcelona is the most flattered of all footballing endeavors.

Throughout the last four seasons of unwithering supremacy, these darlings of the soccer world have spawned the dominant ideology of our day, with their tippy-tappy passing, unrelenting runs, nifty diagonal through balls and devotion to possession. There no longer exists any question about which paradigm is the game’s best. The term “Barcelona” – for it is an idea as much as a team – is dropped again and again, by even the stodgiest and defensive of soccer minds.

Along the way, Barca has been cooed over and studied and dissected. Consequently, Barcelona and its beloved method hold no more secrets. Every minute detail of the system has been laid bare under a microscope and broadcasted to be devoured by its devotees.

While this has been a boon to the rest of the soccer world, allowing it to imitate better, it is perhaps starting to catch up to the authors of the movement itself. All innovators are eventually overtaken and left behind by those who run with their ideas and expand on and improve them. Or, through an endless process of trial and error, an antidote is found.

It seems that the latter is happening to Barcelona.

The obsession over Barcelona has meant that the margin of error offered by the superiority of its system has disintegrated; its natural lead over the pack undone by its popularity. Barcelona no longer automatically wins even on the days when its form is pedestrian like it did in the past. Knowledge of what Barcelona does and how it does it are readily available. Remedies to combat them are proliferating after years of experimenting, in which a catalogue of which ploys work and which don’t was created. Any coach now facing the Catalan super midgets has but to consult the world’s most public and exhaustive scouting report for the right solution to the problems they pose.

If other clubs haven’t by any means caught up – nobody is yet capable of regularly beating Barca in an open game of soccer – they’ve figured out how to compete with them without playing with them.

In the first leg of the Champions League semifinals last Wednesday, Chelsea cluttered the center of the park, ceding the wings, and sat deep, allowing Barca time on the ball up to 30 yards from the goal but quickly closed down once that threshold was crossed and took away the through ball by cutting off runs. It then pounced on Barca’s lone mistake, when center backs Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol miscommunicated over who would be tracking the stalking Didier Drogba and who would back up Xavi on Ramires’s breakthrough run. Both made for Ramires, who found a wide-open Drogba to register the game’s only goal.

During the Clasico on Saturday, Real Madrid did much the same thing, sitting in and venturing out on quick, concerted counter attacks or capitalizing on mistakes. That’s how Sami Khedira wrestled the ball off Puyol on the Barca goal line in the 17th minute and scored, and how Cristiano Ronaldo ran away from Mascherano in the 73rd, to simply circumvent Victor Valdes and make it 2-1, the final score.

It takes a world-class team to do it, but Barca is more beatable than it has been in years. Bunker in smartly, following a strict playbook and wait for Barcelona to commit a mistake in the back. Because for all the grandeur of its attack, there’s always a mistake in the back. Certainly, Barca was wasteful during the above games. But when it creates fewer chances than it used to, when opponents better appreciate what it takes to minimize the effect of their free-flowing offense, it can no longer afford the waste it once could. And when the chances become scarce, the mistakes matter more.

A blueprint for beating Barca has been established, it’s worked twice in four days, once an unfathomable success rate.

So what to do?

When the secret ingredients of your invention are exposed and your advantage is gone, it’s time to innovate some more. If Barca is to stay ahead of the game, it will need to evolve further or risk getting yanked back down to earth with the rest of the soccer mortals.

A Champions League final without Barca

The always controversial Paul Gardner writes about Chelsea's victory over Barcelona.

A couple of deja vu scenes present themselves. It's 1954 in Berne, and West Germany has just won the World Cup by beating the invincible Hungarians (well, they hadn't lost a game in four years). How could that happen? Or it's 1982 in Barcelona and Brazil, playing really beautiful soccer, has just managed to get knocked out of the World Cup by a rather pedestrian Italian team. Unthinkable. But real.
A couple of absurdly perverse results that remain in the memory primarily because of the outstanding quality of the teams that got beaten.
And here we go again. Another result that didn’t-oughta-happen, but we’re going to get Chelsea, not Barcelona, in the Champions League final. No, I’m not ecstatic about that. In almost every way, Barca is a better -- and certainly a much more entertaining -- team than Chelsea. Exactly as the Hungarians and the Brazilians were so much better than the Germans and the Italians. And grand finals ought to feature the best soccer around.
I was heavily critical of Chelsea in the first leg for playing a totally anti-soccer type game -- in its own stadium. But to play that same way in the Camp Nou, with a 1-0 lead to preserve, at least makes tactical sense, even if it does nothing for the spectacle.
But of course, Coach Roberto Di Matteo can now bask in the praise of getting things right -- for Chelsea is in the final. Whether it would also be there had the club been a good deal more enterprising in its play, we’re not going to know. Doesn’t matter. The soccer stats said caution was the way to play it, and Di Matteo went with the stats. Who can blame him for that?
The deciding factor in this game was much less Chelsea determination -- though there was plenty of that (“heroism” or “courage” as the Brit press likes to call it, terms invariably reserved for Brit teams, I can’t recall Brazilian or Argentine or German, or U.S. teams ever being heroic or courageous) -- than Barcelona incompetence. To have most of the possession and the play over two games, to be playing against 10 men for over 53 minutes, to miss a penalty kick -- and yet not be able to get the deciding goal is hardly a winning formula.
Of course, there was a good deal of bad luck for Barcelona (meaning good luck for Chelsea), but it’s worth remembering that Chelsea had its moment of bad luck in this game, losing defender Gary Cahill after only 12 minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, Chelsea suffered another huge blow, though this one was self-inflicted. What was John Terry thinking when he slammed his knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez? It was an off-the-ball foul, and Terry says it wasn’t intentional. Not believable, of course.
What seems quite likely is that Terry had forgotten that Champions League games are played with those extra officials on the goal lines. When they were first introduced, primarily to determine whether the ball had entered the goal (thereby avoiding the need for the dreaded goal-line technology), another advantage that was mentioned was that they would be able to immediately inform the referee when they spotted an infringement in or around the penalty area. That seems to be what happened here, though I must say this sort of decision has been a very long time coming -- I can’t recall it happening before.
Ironically, the goal that mattered in this game was a goal that had Lionel Messi stamped all over it, a beautifully judged chip over the goalkeeper. Alas for Barcelona, it was not Messi, but Chelsea’s Ramires who scored it. A Brazilian, not an Argentine. When Messi’s turn came, he misjudged his penalty kick -- not wildly, I don’t think Messi’s mistakes can ever be that glaring -- but by maybe eight inches, just enough for the woodwork to ricochet the ball back into play. I’ll admit to not being shocked by Messi’s miss -- somehow, throughout these two games (and El Clasico against Real Madrid at the weekend) Messi has looked a trifle jaded, lacking his usual crystal-clear sharpness.
I repeat, I’d much rather see Barcelona in the final, but based on what happened in the second game (and completely obliterating the first game from memory), I really can’t argue too much against Chelsea being there.
On a positive note, one can feel only happiness for Fernando Torres, who has been going through a miserable spell of inability to score, that he was able to maneuver himself neatly around goalkeeper Victor Valdes to score Chelsea’s second goal. A meaningless goal, as it happens -- but surely not meaningless to Torres.
That Chelsea will lose to its opponent -- whether Bayern Munich or Real Madrid -- now seems virtually certain, given that it will be missing four regulars (captain John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic), all suspended for receiving red or yellow cards.
The cloud that hangs over Chelsea now is that Di Matteo might well feel that a further dose of the ultra-defensive play that got the team past the formidable Barcelona might well be the best way to play the final. Or maybe, given the four absentees, the only way. Which is not a good recipe for a sparkling final, a showcase game.

Manchester derby to decide EPL title

Manchester City's manager, Roberto Mancini, seems to be as determined to play down the significance of Monday's derby as his opposite number at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, is to build it up as the title decider.
For both managers, it seems a calculated decision to either hype or undermine the game, knowing that City faltered in March and the start of April when the pressure for them to be champions was at its most intense. While victory would put City top on goal difference with two games of the Premier League season to go and in pole position to win a first championship since 1968, Mancini is adamant that this match has no more than its usual significance.
"The derby is always the game of the year," he said. "For the supporters, a derby is always a different game to the others. It is important for the city.
"Manchester has two top teams who are in a position to play this important game. But for us it will just be one more game, not because we fight for this or for that, and after it there are another two games, very tough games."

Chelsea advances to Champions League Final

Soccer America recaps Chelsea's victory over Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semifinal yesterday.

Playing with 10 men, Chelsea came back from 2-0 down to tie Barcelona and improbably move into the final of the UEFA Champions League. Brazilian Ramires' goal in stoppage time of the first half turned the game around for the Blues. After Lionel Messi twice hit the woodwork -- the first time from the penalty spot -- Fernando Torres scored on a breakaway to dash Barca's hopes.

TRIVIA. Barcelona enjoyed a 17-7 edge in shots but only 5-3 in shots on goal. Its advantage in corner kicks (10-1) and ball possession (72 percent-28 percent) was much greater.
BARCELONA REACTION. "I told my players to attack and not to stop, because that is what we have to do. And then Chelsea's first goal came. But we are true to ourselves, we have always been this way. I will learn from this. I do not know what to feel. I look at my players and I do not know what to tell them that they did wrong because I cannot find anything wrong with what we did." -- Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.
CHELSEA REACTION. "It’s an incredible achievement by this group of players. A lot of people had written us [off] but we showed again what kind of character these players have. We didn’t expect to play with 10 men, but we knew it was going to be tough and it was even more difficult than we expected. Barcelona have some fantastic players but we showed what we’re made of. The second half wasn’t much about tactics – it was about the pressure, the pride, the desire to go to the final. We were 45 minutes away from the final and that’s what the second half was about." -- Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo

Monday, April 23, 2012

The high expectations of Barca

There are certain expectations for Pep Guardiola and Barcelona that no other club in the world faces.  Not only to win each and every match, but to do so with an artistic standard that is unmatched by any other club.

J Hutcherson of US Soccer Players writes of the potentially unfair expectations placed on Barca.

You have to feel for opponents of Barcelona. No matter what they do over the course of a game, win or lose it's still going to be about Barca. Barca, Barca, Barca, the team that can't simply have a bad game or a misplay that turns their regular 90 minutes of brilliance into an obvious reason for losing. Nope, not this season at least. For now, it's Barcelona determining the story.

We have two fresh examples of how this works. In the first, the temptation is to make too much about what Chelsea didn't do in the opening leg of their Champions League semifinal series. In the second, it's the same temptation directed at a different goal: Real Madrid playing a game that a different official might've rewarded with a sending off or two. And at the Nou Camp!

This isn't how it's done in the contemporary world of European soccer. Barcelona is expected to string together pass after pass while the other team tries to figure out which player to chase. Opportunities present themselves, Barcelona take advantage, and we all finish our day marveling at what the greatest team in the world can do.

When it doesn't work out that way, impugning the wonder that is mighty Barcelona makes no sense. Well, at least for the neutral. The English media isn't exactly neutral when the one remaining English club is taking a lead into game two of the semifinals. Chelsea were brilliant, doing exactly what they needed to do, and anything else that makes them the clear winner. Fortunately, they were. Barcelona played a lousy game in London, expecting their standard set of moves to work, for the regular options to present themselves, and to win the game.

Bradley & Egypt run unbeaten streak to 8

Ives Galarcep reports on Egypt's run of success, which sees coach Bob Bradley and the Pharaohs on an eight game unbeaten streak.

On a day when 73 people stood trial for their alleged roles in the deadly riots at a February soccer match in Port Said, Egypt, Bob Bradley was busy doing his part to restore the game in the African nation, guiding the national team in another match while trying to assess his squad before the games start to count in June.

Egypt played Iraq to a 0-0 draw in the United Arab Emirates Tuesday, running its unbeaten streak to eight matches (6-0-2). Egypt had beaten Nigeria, 3-2, and Mauritania, 3-0, in its other matches in the UAE over the last week.

Important matches for Egypt are on the horizon, as the Pharaohs face Mozambique and Guinea in 2014 World Cup qualifiers on June 1 and 8, respectively, followed by two 2013 African Cup of Nations qualifiers against the Central African Republic on June 15 and 30. According to reports out of Egypt, Bradley will hold another camp in Turkey prior to the qualifiers to better prepare his players, most of whom have been inactive otherwise after the remainder of the Egyptian club season was cancelled in the aftermath of the riots.

MIKE JACOBS COLUMN: Take it from Matheny: Big league advice works for Little League

From the Evansville Courier Press, April 23, 2012

I recently had a friend forward a link to a letter a Little League Baseball coach — a truly special coach — had sent to his team parents at the beginning of the season.

That coach was Mike Matheny, the new St. Louis Cardinals manager.

Following his retirement as a professional baseball player, Mike coached his kids in Little League. Here are the key take-aways and references to his letter to the parents on his team:

* On the role of a Little League parent: "I believe that the biggest role of the parent is to be a silent source of encouragement. I think if you ask most boys what they would want their parents to do during the game, they would say, "NOTHING!

"Once again, this is ALL about the boys. I believe that a Little League parent feels that they must participate with loud cheering and "come on, let's go, you can do it," which just adds more pressure to the kids. I will be putting plenty of pressure on these boys to play the game the right way with class, and respect, and they will put too much pressure on themselves and each other already."

*On umpiring, and how parents and players should deal with umpires: "Let the record stand right now that we will not have good umpiring. This is a fact, and the sooner we all understand that, the better off we will be.

"We will have balls that bounce in the dirt that will be called strikes, and we will have balls over our heads that will be called strikes. Likewise, the opposite will happen with the strike zone while we are pitching.

"The boys will not be allowed at any time to show any emotion against the umpire. They will not shake their head or pout or say anything to the umpire. This is my job, and I will do it well … I have taken out any work at all for you except to get them there on time, and enjoy.

"The thing that these boys need to hear is that you enjoyed watching them and you hope that they had fun."

* On teaching his players to be responsible: "The best situation for all of us is for you to plan on handing these kids over to me and the assistant coaches when you drop them off, and plan on them being mine for the two or so hours that we have scheduled for a game or the time that we have scheduled for the practice. I would like for these boys to have some responsibility for having their own water, not needing you to keep running to the concession stand or having parents behind the dugout asking their son if they are thirsty or hungry or too hot, and I would appreciate if you would share this information with other invited guests, like grandparents.

"If there is an injury, obviously we will get you to help, but besides that, let's pretend that they are at work for a short amount of time and that you have been granted the pleasure of watching."

If it's good enough for the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, it should be good enough for you and your child.


After six games, the MLS on NBC Sports Network is up 56 percent in average viewership compared to the 2011 regular-season average on Fox Soccer (106,000 vs. 68,000).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MLS hits 1 million mark in only the 6th week of 2012 season

Mike Woitalla of Soccer America writes of the continued boom in attendance for Major League Soccer in 2012.

After 53 games in the first six weeks of MLS's 2012 season, the league has announced a total attendance of 1,032,963 for an average of 19,490 per game. ... Kansas City and Philadelphia announced standing-room-only crowds and Seattle welcomed 38,360 fans for its 1-0 win over Colorado. ... For MLS team attendance rankings ...

* Sporting Kansas City, whose Livestrong Park has a capacity of 18,467, drew 19,422 for its 1-0 win Real Salt Lake. Last week, KC announced a 20,323 crowd for its 1-0 win over Los Angeles.

* Philadelphia celebrated its first win over the season before a crowd of 18,526 in PPL Park (capacity: 18,500).

* Seattle's 38,360 for a 1-0 win over Colorado was the Sounders' second biggest crowd of the season.

* The league-wide attendance after Week 6 is 19,490. It was 16,518 at this point last season.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Karl overcomes obstacles to rise among coaching elite

George Karl is a model of excellence among NBA basketball coaches. He is one of seven NBA coaches to win 1,000 games, and built the Seattle Supersonics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets into top-flite teams.

Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post writes of the 60-year old cancer survivor that has his priorities in his life in place.

His sweat shirt matched the shade of his hair, systematically grayed over the years by missed jumpers and missed chances, travel and travails, cancer and Carmelo. George Karl is 60. But don't call him a "sexagenarian," because knowing George, he'd either give you that look he gives — the one when his piercing blue eyes makes you feel like a buffoon — or he would fire off a playful pun.

On this March morning, the Nuggets coach sat in his staff meeting at the Pepsi Center, where that evening his team would host Detroit, which is a bad basketball team. Karl has been doing this head coaching thing since 1984. But this morning, when a guest entered the room and asked the obligatory how-are-you question, Karl answered honestly: "Scared to death. Normal procedure."

The passion Karl pours into basketball is comparable to that of a classical composer, maniacally trying to out-Mozart Mozart. He is one of seven NBA coaches to win 1,000 games. And he's done so recently with an infectious personality, one that has fine-wined from bombastic to lovable. But this season has been wearing on the city's longest-tenured pro coach. His Nuggets, after a fast start, are battling for their playoff lives with two weeks to go, a team plagued by injuries and inconsistent play.

"It's been a hard year. I would phrase it close to ugly sometimes," Karl told The Denver Post this past week. "There are disappointments, there are failures, but there have also been some special games and special moments too. It's a balancing act. I always talk about good-bad players — I think I've been a good-bad coach a little bit this year.

"I stay away from the excuses and the rationalizations, but I get disappointed when I don't think I pushed the right buttons. As a coach, you're always looking for that sunrise, where everything is going to be better. This year, it doesn't seem like the sun has come up — we've been in Seattle, it's been cloudy."

In the mist, he looks at life through a lens focused by decades of coaching, glass sharpened by the perspective one gets when you beat cancer, twice.

"Staying healthy and my family, I think I'm pretty clear that those are the top two in my life and basketball might be No. 3," he said.

The survivor of throat cancer (three years this summer) has a zest. He philosophizes about karma and energy and those all-powerful basketball gods who watch from above with orange rims as halos.

He sometimes wears soccer jerseys to basketball practice. He challenges his players to half-court shot competitions after shootarounds. He overlooks common statistics and obsesses about intangibles such as "play-hard" and "team-ness," words he's invented. He can be found in the arena chit-chatting with anyone from a fan in the hallway to a Hall of Famer.

And he'll famously converse with the media, off the record, for minutes following a news conference, debating political issues and cracking jokes, all to the point that a radio host sarcastically joked last week, "Yeah, I had the same types of talks with Josh McDaniels too."

Ruler with a gentle fist

The boys were at B.B. King's in Memphis, on Beale Street, where talented local musicians appease the tourists with their effortless soulful sound. The sax caught Karl's ear. It reminded him of "Tossin' And Turnin', " the Bobby Lewis hit from 1961, when Karl was 10. Playfully, Karl said he wanted to hear the song, surely they'd know the song, it's a great song!

"But those musicians up there were born in like 1989," said Jason Kosmicki, the Nuggets' radio broadcaster and a friend of Karl's, who was at the table. "I went up to see if they knew it for George, and the guy looked at me like I had five heads. But that's the fun part about George."

When Karl is with Nuggets staffers, he's the boss, but he's also one of the boys. He loves holding court, off the court. He talks trash about his Pittsburgh Steelers (not so much about his Pittsburgh Pirates). He has nicknames for everyone ("Pretty Boy" for assistant coach Chad Iske, "Redneck" for longtime trainer Jim Gillen, "Pain In The (Backside)" for his favorite reporter). And no matter what the topic of conversation, he has an opinion, he will share that opinion and that opinion will soon become the prominent opinion.

Daughter Kaci Grace is closer to Nuggets coach George Karl's heart than any win on the basketball court or cheer from the crowd. (John Leyba, The Denver Post)no matter what the topic of conversation, he has an opinion, he will share that opinion and that opinion will soon become the prominent opinion.

"He's a little bit of a renaissance man," Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt said. "I had a coach in college, Gene Iba, brilliant guy. We used to say — this dude knows a little bit about everything. We had a running joke about Mongolian bullfrogs. We were going to come to him and say, 'Coach, I'm doing a report about Mongolian bullfrogs,' and we envisioned him saying, 'Well, I'm glad you asked!' George knows a lot, he's experienced a lot, and as a staff, we all tap into George the man in a lot of different ways.

"We'll be talking about basketball and George will bring up his days in the CBA. And before you know it, somehow, we're talking about Yakima, Wash., and he's giving us insight: 'They have great cabins there. And a bed and breakfast!' "

Unlike many NBA coaching staffs, Denver's isn't made up of NBA millionaires. In fact, only one assistant coach, Ryan Bowen, played in the league. At the Pepsi Center, they joke that they have the shortest coaching staff in the NBA. The team doesn't have a huge budget for assistant coaches, so Karl grooms young coaches as well as young players.

"With George, I always say it's kind of a father-son relationship, as far as coaching goes," Iske said. "He allows good give-and-take. He's going to give you a lot of crap, but you can give him a lot of crap. If he doesn't give you crap or rip on you, then you need to worry. It's his way of showing appreciation and affection, ribbing, hitting, being a guy's guy.

"There's a lot I get away with, being able to say, that most coaches would put me in my place or knock me down a rung, if I tried to do that with them."

Nuggets assistants who have been on other staffs say that Karl's daily coaches meetings are different. It's a democracy. On that March morning before the Detroit game, the meeting was more of a dialogue, like friends at a restaurant chatting, with Karl puncturing the conversation with questions to channel the conversation:

• "How do we polish up our sloppiness without practice time and with people who play like they sometimes don't know each other?"

• "Who should start at center?"

• "How do we keep Tayshaun Prince's smarts out of the game?"

"He invites our opinions," Hunt said. "He'll go to the assistant video guy and ask, 'What do you see?' And now that video guy, he's now not just preparing a tape for one of the coaches or players — he's really watching, because if he sees something he thinks can help us win, it will be welcomed. I think it helps everybody want to do their job. Now you're not just punching the clock. You're now pouring yourself into your work. And he likes that."

When Hunt joined the staff two seasons ago, he came expecting to work for "Furious George," the coach who turned the Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks into top teams with his fiery dictatorial style. Hunt has seen little of that. Karl will playfully poke fun at, say, Ty Lawson during halftime, describing how elder reserve Andre Miller is outplaying the third-year point guard.

"He'll pump both of them up at the same time," Hunt said. "He uses everything in his tool kit. And I know the guys appreciate it, because they know he cares about them."

Staying in game, with edge

There are times when Karl's 7-year-old daughter, Kaci Grace, cries when he leaves for a road trip, saying between sobs, "I hate your job." Coaching is never a 9-to-5 job. But in recent years, Karl has proudly prioritized his life.

"I try not to put basketball ahead of my family ever now," he said. "I'm sure they still think I do sometimes. ... But when I'm at home, I try to stay grounded. When I go home, I don't do basketball from 2:30 to 8 p.m. Then I'll start with film and game preparation."

In the time between, he'll find himself at a family dinner or on a soccer sideline or at gymnastics class, watching Kaci grow.

Asked if his medical scares gave him this perspective, the coach said: "No question. There's no question. There's a point where I get too wild and crazy and I'll say, 'It's silly.' It's silly to make yourself sick or feel unhealthy because of the game of basketball, which I did many times before."

Karl's trust in his staff, he said, helps him balance his life. He has said he wants to keep coaching until his son Coby, a pro basketball player overseas, can join his staff as an assistant. Karl signed a three-year extension last spring. The front office supports him. And he adores most everything that is Denver and Nuggets, even during a season that has tested his patience.

"I don't foresee me getting out of it, as long as I feel I have an edge to be a good coach," Karl said. "To be honest with you, I think my edge is a higher standard than most coaches in this league. I tell my staff all the time — I'm not happy just being good. ... I still think I'm a person who needs to get better every day. One of my philosophies is — have a peace to what you've done and challenge yourself to be better in the future.

"My life is, come on, I can't complain about my life. I can complain about my health, but not my life. It's how do I take the next hours, days, months, years and make them special?"

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why 'Moneyball' didn't work at Liverpool

If you are interested in the science of sabermetrics - be it from the 'Moneyball' tales of Billy Beane and Bill James, or of Damien Comolli's interest in recreating the same in football - you'll like this article by Neil Ashton on Comolli, sabermetrics, and what's gone wrong at Liverpool.

When the trend for sending statistical analysis to managers on a Monday morning began, Kenny Dalglish filed them in the bin.

Back in the early Nineties, Dalglish relied on craft and confidence to spot a player rather than numbers. By the time he was appointed full-time Liverpool manager for the second time on May 12, 2011, he walked into a very different way of life.

Liverpool’s director of football Damien Comolli had been swept up in the euphoria of the takeover by Fenway Sports Group, eager to refine the mythical ‘moneyball’ system developed across the pond.

He was enthralled by the science of sabermetrics, the system developed and designed by Billy Beane to upset the odds in Major League Baseball.

Beane capitalised on the identification of under-valued players performing better than highly paid rivals, taking Oakland Athletics to the post-season play-offs four times between 1999 and 2003 in his role as general manager.

He was big business, forming a friendship with John W Henry and Tom Werner, the two main men at Fenway, despite turning them down for the manager’s job at Boston Red Sox in 2003.

Comolli became friends with Beane, travelling to the United States to watch the baseball at Oakland Athletics and mining the American for information. Beane responded, taking to football and sharing his philosophies, thoughts and ideas as Comolli grew into his new role at Liverpool.

Speaking on talkSPORT’s Press Pass show recently, Beane said: ‘He follows the As, I follow Liverpool.

‘I’m very good friends with Tom Werner as well. It’s a friendship based on our mutual interests. I watch every match I can and interact with Damien from a fan’s standpoint.

‘Even as recently as the other day when Liverpool played Everton, I watched that game and Gerrard’s hat-trick and immediately congratulated Damien afterward.’

The Frenchman has always wanted to find the edge, combing his way through reams of statistical analysis in his previous role with St Etienne in the search for perfection.

He argued with Beane about the psychological profiling, failing to be convinced that he could break another barrier in European football. Rookie baseball players are profiled at college, sharing their personality along with their skills.

Comolli cited examples from his previous clubs, bringing up the statistics for Kevin-Prince Boateng when he signed for Tottenham — Comolli’s former club — in 2007.

On paper he looked like a world beater when he arrived from Hertha Berlin, given the potential to develop under Comolli’s wing and in the first team under Martin Jol.

Although he has since done well at AC Milan, he barely made an impact at Spurs, too immature for top-class professional football, and was loaned out to Borussia Dortmund a little more than a year after he arrived at White Hart Lane.

Keeper Heurelho Gomes was signed from PSV Eindhoven based purely on statistical evidence and without specific questioning about whether his attributes would suit English football.

Beane believed there was more to talent spotting than having an eye for the game.

He said: ‘Ultimately, what you really care about when you’re making a decision on an athlete is, “How good a player is he?” Show me the information. Prove to me why he is a good player as opposed to just fantasising about it or trusting your eye.’

Fenway trusted Comolli’s judgment when he attempted to adopt a policy of buying mainly British players, a system borrowed from Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy.

At Spurs they bought them cheap and sold them on for big money. At Liverpool, they looked through the stats and signed them anyway.

Stewart Downing, Aston Villa’s player of the year, was brought in because of his outstanding record of providing crosses leading to goalscoring attempts. It didn’t seem to matter that he lacks impact on the big stage.

Charlie Adam, sold by Rangers and moved on to Blackpool, was bought because of his remarkable record in front of goal for Ian Holloway’s side and the number of chances he created from corners.

He elaborated on Craig Bellamy’s electrifying runs down the left and the statistics that appeared to buck common sense by claiming he was a willing team worker.

Andy Carroll, signed for £35million in a panic-buy deal on deadline day from Newcastle, had an excellent record for converting chances with his head.

It didn’t appear to occur to anyone whether he would fit the pass-and-move culture that began in the Sixties under Bill Shankly.

After almost a year at Anfield, no-one is still quite sure why they signed Jordan Henderson from Sunderland last summer, statistics or not.

On Comolli’s watch, Liverpool signed nine players for a grand total of £115.8m and none of them — Luis Suarez included — can be deemed a total success.

In Fenway’s final analysis, even the statistics couldn’t hide the brutal truth.

Manchester United not affected by mind games

Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed that Roberto Mancini's mind games will not affect his Manchester United players because they are too experienced as the two managers engaged in a phoney psychological war with five games in the title race remaining.

Manchester City are at Norwich City for Saturday's early kick-off conscious that victory would close the gap to two points as United do not host Aston Villa until 24 hours later. Mancini sought to ease the pressure on his squad with a mock acceptance of a claim by René Meulensteen, United's first-team coach, that City "play for themselves" and are "unbalanced", while admitting this is not the message he gives his players.

Meulensteen said: "At Manchester United everybody is used to the pressure for playing [for] the title. For the first in a long time City can become champions. That's what's breaking them. I've always thought that City wouldn't hold the race. Their squad is out of balance, they've got too many individuals playing for themselves. Against Sunderland [in the 3-3 draw a fortnight ago] you could see that they don't have team spirit."

In response, Mancini said: "I agree. That's the reason we can't win. They have experience, they are a fantastic team and we have nothing. Sometimes it's not about balance. Football is strange. They are perfect and we are the opposite. But I enjoy being with my players, I am proud of them. We make mistakes. We are not on the moon – we are normal."

City host United in the Manchester derby on 30 April and Mancini was asked why he said Ferguson's team would not lose any of their other four games, to put the title back in the balance. "I don't think this. I think they are a perfect team, they have fantastic experience. They are not like us who have players who only think about themselves," he said, again mocking Meulensteen.

Pressed, though, how his players respond when informed that they are egotistical, Mancini admitted: "When I speak with my players I say other things. I can't say to you what I say to my players."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Winning second balls is key to SKC's defense

Peter Vermes likened his team's high-pressure defensive strategy in the attacking third to a style played by a certain powerhouse Spanish side.

Steve Brisendine of wrote of how Vermes' team's ability to win second balls has aided in their ability to defend and have success this season.

“You can look at some teams around the world and the way they play,” Vermes told on Tuesday. “I’m not comparing us to them, all right? But look at Barcelona, Real Madrid and even Manchester United, the way they go. If they’re winning the second balls in very good areas of the field, that means they’re very far away from their goal.”

“Winning the second ball” comes down to another “b” word: “basics.” It’s something coaches preach as far down as the youth level. If you can’t win the 50-50 ball, get the next one before the opponent can get into a rhythm and establish an attacking shape.

As’s analysis of Saturday’s 1-0 win over the LA Galaxy showed, Vermes’ plan is for that disruption and possession to happen as far up the field as possible.

“You’re winning the ball back and you never have to worry about them getting a shot on goal because they’re just too far away,” he said.

And with Sporting off to a 5-0-0 start and riding a league-record 245-minute streak of not allowing a shot on goal ahead of Saturday's first vs. first showdown with Real Salt Lake (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online), it’s clear that he’s getting his way.

“The thing that’s been good about the guys is their commitment to winning the second ball off an action on the way forward,” Vermes said. “That helps us out a great deal, instead of them going and traveling 80 yards to our goal, getting a shot and then we build back up the field. You waste a lot of energy that way.”

That requires everyone on the pitch, not just the four in the backline and defensive midfielder Júlio César, to make defense a priority no matter where the ball happens to be.

“Our team really is a team of 11 defending,” center back Matt Besler said, “especially at home. Everyone has pressured and done their job defensively.”

The key ingredient in that high-energy style? The ability to keep it up for an entire match, which was lacking at times last season but has proven to be one of Sporting’s strengths this year.

“It’s hard to defend when you’re tired,” said Besler, who organized offseason workouts aimed at bringing the club into the season with an edge in match fitness. “If we can stay fit through 90 minutes, we’re going to be sharp, never break down and really be ready to go after the ball every time.”

Mia Hamm on youth soccer and parents

Mia Hamm is an American sporting icon, and has a unique reference point in regards to the game - as a player, as well as a youth soccer coach and parent.

Soccer America's Mike Woitalla caught up with Hamm to discuss her philosophies and advice for young players and their parents.

SA: What part of the coaching you got as a youngster helped you succeed?

MIA HAMM: Everyone talks about it being fun. And it definitely was. That needs to be the focus. Development over winning was something I felt was there. I think as kids, and especially the players who go on to play at the highest level, they’re naturally competitive. That’s going to be a part of what they do.

At a certain age, that reinforcement is important, but at a young age it’s about development and making sure that the kids really enjoy the environment they’re in so they want to come back and continue to learn and listen.

SA: How different do you think youth soccer is now compared to your early days?

MIA HAMM: The first coaches I had were just dads. And [laughs] probably wearing too small team uniform shirts and a really bad hat or visor on the sideline. And occasionally saying things they got from their days of playing football and trying to apply it to soccer, like “get to the end zone.”

It’s changed a lot. Some good, some bad. Coaching and the players are so much better at a younger age.

I didn’t specialize until I made the national team. I still played basketball and a bunch of different sports, really kind of followed what my friends were playing in the season that was being organized.

I think that helped me not burn out so early and helped my overall athleticism.

SA: In your book “Go For the Goal” you addressed the problem of youth coaches sacrificing “learning skills for winning games.” Youth soccer has continued to get more expensive and paid coaches are the norm, so it would seem that pressure on winning has increased …

MIA HAMM: You’re right, with more money and coaches being paid they feel a lot more pressure to win and parents want a greater return on their investment, whether that’s a college scholarship or an opportunity to play on the youth national team or professionally.

SA: You’ve talked about pickup games – such as soccer at recess in grade school and playing with your brother – being a key to your development …

MIA HAMM: That helped a lot. Playing against boys, against older kids who were more talented than I was -- and bigger, stronger, faster. But in the end what was so great was I put myself in those situations, and it was an environment to be able to hang out with my brother.

You don’t hear of as many kids playing pickup soccer as they used to because they’re training five days a week and play 12,000 games on the weekend.

SA: What advice do you have for parents of aspiring players?

MIA HAMM: My parents really allowed soccer -- and whatever I chose -- to be my passion and not theirs.

I heard one of my coaches say the best advice he can give to the parents is just be their parent.

As a parent myself, I can pay other people to do their job in terms of coaching my kids. I don’t want anyone but me and my husband to be their parents.

I look at that as the important role I can play in their lives. It doesn’t mean I won’t share my knowledge of soccer with them or occasionally go out and coach their teams, but I want to make sure they know I’m their parent first and they can come to me, and I hope they come to me for anything.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In search of the right manager

Ben Lyttleton of Sports Illustrated wrote a great piece this past week on how professional clubs go about searching for new coaches.

When clubs do search for new coaches, there's often contradictory philosophies . Clubs often don't have a direct succession plan in place to replace coaches, and also often take the wrong advice or make decisions based on reputations.

In one week last month, the British newspapers reported on names in the running to be the new Chelsea coach. Pep Guardiola, it was reported in some quarters, will be offered a contract worth £40 million ($63M) after tax, while The Times reported that Laurent Blanc was the front-runner. Jose Mourinho is still a target, claimed the Daily Mail, while The Mirror had Marcelo Bielsa snubbing an approach, via intermediaries, from Roman Abramovich.

Four coaches, all at the top of their profession: but each with totally different philosophies and visions about how the game should be played, how their players should be treated, and, presumably, how they would approach their role if they worked at Stamford Bridge.

That quartet, all of whom figure prominently in bookmakers' lists for the next Chelsea coach, reminded me of the shortlist that two other clubs had when they were looking for a coach last summer. On the Inter Milan list were: Gianpiero Gasperini, Fabio Capello, and Bielsa (well, he's flavor of the month right now); Aston Villa also had a list and on it were: Steve McClaren, Alex McLeish, Rafa Benitez and Roberto Martinez. In both cases, each coach seems almost seems a direct opposite of the others.

I'm reminded of these discrepancies almost every time a new job comes up.

Last Friday, for example, it was reported that the English FA would soon be speaking to two candidates about taking charge at Euro 2012: Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp. Both have their strengths, certainly, but are very different in outlook and approach.

The dilemma facing Manchester City's board this summer, if United keep their Premier League lead and win the title, might center on whether to keep Roberto Mancini in charge; who, if anyone, would do a better job, while keeping in line with the club's quest for global reach -- and acceptance?

This last point is important: as Graham Hunter pointed out in his wonderful book, Barca: The Making of The Greatest Team in the World, Jose Mourinho was interviewed for the coach's position before Pep Guardiola was appointed, but insisted that part of his role was to act as a provocateur. It was not the image that Barcelona wanted to portray, and so they looked elsewhere.

So: what goes into the thinking behind appointing a coach, and do these clubs know something that we don't? I asked two chief executives, one from the Premier League and one from the Championship, for some guidelines on how they go about appointing a new coach.

Click here to read more about how ownership of professional clubs select managers.

All for one and one for all makes Man United formidable under Ferguson

Henry Winter of the Telegraph writes of the unique relationship that Sir Alex Ferguson has with his players, and his role as the master man-manager.

Once again, as he hunts down another title, Sir Alex Ferguson has reminded everyone that the game is about heart, that a player is nothing without hunger, that a team cannot scale the heights without a unity of purpose keeping their footing safe on the rocky ascent.

Once again, Ferguson has demonstrated that football is more than cold tactics; it is a game played by humans, not robots, and nobody understands the human mind and soul better than
the master man-manager of Manchester United.

With a kind word here, a bit of banter there, Ferguson makes players feel loved, part of the family, inspiring such devotion that they give everything in every game. Few managers enjoy such a bond with their players. That relationship was captured in the way he trailed around Paris on the back of a motorbike looking for a confused Eric Cantona.

That strong connection is seen in the way he stands up for his players, recently defending Paul Scholes from comments by Patrick Vieira. United’s manager is often at his most eloquent in rare defeat, channelling criticism away from his players and on to himself like a lightning rod, ensuring that strong words take place only behind closed doors.

Ferguson’s gift is not simply motivating the team but the squad. Even those on the fringe feel wanted, being ready to deliver whenever called on. It is why United are often so deadly late in games, when Ferguson unleashes impact-making, fired-up substitutes. Remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even Federico Macheda.

The Scot treats players well. Some have left under a cloud, notably Paul Ince, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane. Some have briefly shown dissent.

Scholes was annoyed at being asked to play in a League Cup game. Wayne Rooney’s contract dispute seemed a direct, if momentary, challenge to the manager. Others such as David Beckham had issues with Ferguson and moved on, yet the midfielder frequently voices his enduring admiration.

Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid but his affection for Ferguson remained.

It is the union between dugout and dressing room that makes United so formidable. In reflecting on his greatest season, the Treble epic of 1998-99, Ferguson observed that football was more than tactics and technique; it was a game “played by creatures of flesh and blood and feeling”.

Writing in his acclaimed autobiography, the Scot noted the “constant flow of mutual support amongst the players’’ underpinning United’s charge into the record books. He enthused how “they depend on one another, trust one another”.

Ferguson added: “A manager should engender that sense of unity. He should create a bond amongst his players and between them and him that raises performances to heights that were unimaginable when they started out as disparate individuals.” All for one, and for all.

Those words that leap from the pages of Ferguson’s remarkable book should be a mantra for every manager, should be inscribed on the walls of the Football Association’s new coaching university at St George’s Park.

Those thoughts may explain why Ferguson is so fascinated by horse racing, by the way one man guides a mighty creature through so many obstacles, across so much sapping distance to the winning line. Race after title race.

Victories are not celebrated for long, rarely lasting beyond closing the dressing room door behind him. Defeats stay with Ferguson like unwanted house guests, keeping him up at night. It is this restlessness, this unrequited desire for more glory suffusing the manager that reminds the players of the high standards expected.

Even those players who have encountered Ferguson only briefly instantly appreciate the respect he engenders. While at Peterborough United, the teenaged winger Ryan Semple spent a fortnight on trial at United in 2002, similar to Matthew Etherington and Simon Davies three years earlier.

Semple played in the Milk Cup summer tournament with Kieran Richardson, Chris Eagles and Jonny Evans. He trained at Carrington and was greeted warmly by Ferguson, who asked after Barry Fry and wanted to know how Semple was doing. The trial didn’t work out but Semple, now at Boston United, has never forgotten Ferguson’s impact.

A decade on, Ferguson is being hailed for his finest achievement, for this imminent title. This is hardly his greatest ever squad; it is still developing, and has been stalked by injury all season.

Ferguson has kept United going, ensuring they withstood the loss of Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher, the absence for substantial parts of the season of Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley.

However impressive, Ferguson’s deeds need placing in the proper context of his glorious, trophy-amassing career at Old Trafford.

The thrill of those magical months of 98-99 as winter thawed into spring and the Treble dream warmed into life remain unforgettable, surely the most significant of Ferguson’s reign.

After losing 3-2 to Middlesbrough at Old Trafford on Dec 19, 1998, leaving United third, Ferguson gathered the players at the Cliff, delivered a few home truths about the need to concentrate and they reacted to his words, not experiencing the bitter taste of defeat for the remaining 33 games of the season.

As each game was faced, Ferguson kept everyone calm and concentrated, not talking about the Treble, just rolling along. He got his selections right, his tactics right but above all he got the mood right. Comebacks against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round and against Bayern in the Champions League final spoke of United’s resolve, of Ferguson’s ability to turn individuals into a band of brothers

Great crowds continue to turn out in MLS week 5

Mike Woitalla of Soccer America reports on the large MLS crowds during week 5 of the Major League Soccer Season.

Week 5's biggest crowd enjoyed MLS newcomer Montreal's first win over the season while Real Salt Lake drew big in the midweek. For MLS team attendance rankings ...

* Montreal won its first MLS game -- a 2-1 home victory over Toronto -- in front of 23,210 fans.

* Sporting Kansas City, for its 1-0 win over defending champion Los Angeles, drew its biggest crowd of the season: 20,323.

* Midweek games aren't known to draw big crowds, but Real Salt Lake sold out (20,191) for its 1-0 win over Montreal on Wednesday. RSL drew more than 16,000 four days later for a 2-0 win over Colorado.

* The league-wide attendance after Week 5 is 19,588. It was 16,624 at this point last season.

O'Brien talks about what's needed to implement 4-3-3

Few American players have had the career at the international level as John O'Brien. O'Brien became one of the first Amerians to make a name for himself abroad when he signed with Ajax Amsterdam, and scored for the United States versus Portugal in the 2002 World Cup.

Knowing this about his experiences at Ajax, no American probably has better insight into what it takes to be successful playing in the 4-3-3 alignment that Ajax has mastered over the years.

O'Brien spoke to Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America about what's needed to be able to successfully implement the 4-3-3.

When the U.S. under-23s failed in their Concacaf Olympic qualifying attempt, critics lambasted coach Caleb Porter's use of a 4-3-3 formation and/or the players he chose to play it. Barcelona has refined its use to an art form, yet its demands on players are especially crucial for its success. Ridge Mahoney checked in with former U.S. and Ajax Amsterdam star John O'Brien and MLS coaches for their views on the demands and benefits of the 4-3-3 formation. ...

When the U.S under-23 team surrendered a critical goal in stoppage time that knocked it out of contention for a place in the Olympic Games soccer competition, one of the few American players schooled in the 4-3-3 system it was playing was on hand to observe.

Former U.S. international midfielder John O’Brien watched the group finale against El Salvador in Nashville. He’d been working with the coaching staff at UNC Asheville and was curious to see some of the U.S. young talent as he gets ready for his next career; he has a degree in psychology and is taking his B coaching license course this week in Southern California.

He wasn’t the only one to notice that while the Americans were potent and incisive going forward, they were naive and vulnerable when they lost possession. The origins of the breakdowns aside, the U.S. players weren’t prepared for the unique demands of the system they were playing. It requires players to think defensively even when they have the ball.

“That’s the problem with the 4-3-3,” says O’Brien, who played 32 times for the United States and spent more than a decade in Dutch soccer. “You’re pretty exposed and so if you don’t keep the ball, you’re definitely very open for counters. Part of the 4-3-3 is getting used to knowing that when you’re possessing the ball, you’re ready in case the guy turns it over.

“That has to be ingrained a little bit more, what to do in transition. You’re on offense but you’re still thinking defensively. Once you lose it, in that formation you need to be able to press the ball right away and be tight to guys, because you’re so open.”

O’Brien, a native of Southern California, left home at age 17 to join Ajax, the club that refined and popularized the 4-3-3 system in the early 1970s. Injuries limited him to just 85 matches for the club and he also had brief stays with Utrecht and ADO Den Haag. He played a variety of positions, including left back and left midfield, though he’s best known to American fans for the central, holding role he usually played for the national team.

Many MLS teams have at times used 4-3-3 in the league’s history but it’s never been a preferred formation. Currently, Sporting Kansas City has utilized it to emerge as one of the league’s top teams, Toronto FC has used it extensively since Dutch coach Aron Winter took over at the start of the 2011 season, and new head coach Oscar Pareja has introduced it in Colorado. It has been extolled by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and was implemented by U.S. U-23 head coach Caleb Porter for the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers.

The formation bore much criticism when the U.S. fell short, yet O’Brien feels the players selected to play the system weren’t thoroughly familiar with it.

“You know in a 4-3-3 you’ll have a lot of players in front of the ball, and I noticed that they lost the ball easy and didn’t have guys in the right spaces,” said O’Brien of a 3-3 tie in which El Salvador scored its equalizer deep into stoppage time. “When they scored the equalizer, for a team that needs a result at that moment, we were very exposed. There weren’t many people behind the ball.”

Kansas City is the league’s top defensive team with just one goal conceded in five matches, so the 4-3-3 does not automatically translate into leaking goals. Coach Peter Vermes implemented the system, which really seemed to take root last season when Brazilian Julio Cesar moved from the back line into a midfield holding role. His play has meshed nicely that with Roger Espinoza, who handles a lot of the two-way work, and attacking catalyst Graham Zusi, who himself covers a lot of ground probing for openings. Together, they shield the back four and provide good supply lines to the three forwards.

Though the roles and responsibilities and alignment of the three midfielders change, at least one player must be ready to buttress the middle. SKC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, while not a veteran of many matches in the 4-3-3, played the holding role for more than a decade in MLS and occasionally with the national team.

“In that position, not only do you have to have the physical capabilities to cover the ground that’s required,” says Zavagnin. “Some formations require you to have a bigger engine and certainly if you’re playing with one holding midfielder you have to have the physical capability to play that position.

“The other piece is you have a tactical understanding of what’s not only required of yourself in that position but all the other players around you, particularly in front of you and to the side. In general terms there’s an education process that has to take place. The 4-3-3 is a system we’re relatively unfamiliar with in this country, so it’s still difficult for the player to understand everything about playing in that area of the field in a 4-3-3.”

O’Brien cites that element as well; once Ajax found success with the system, it searched for players to play in it. Many Dutch teams copied Ajax to the extent they played it much of the time, and adopted variants such as shifting to a 3-4-3 to better match teams in midfield that were playing 4-4-2. During a game a centerback comfortable on the ball would push into midfield to help keep possession or launch an attack.

When he introduced the Rapids to his version of a 4-3-3, Pareja immediately ratcheted up the technical demands on his players. The club signed Colombian Jaime Castrillon and Martin Rivero to get more skill in the lineup, but the sidelining of veteran Pablo Mastroeni because of post-concussion problems has at times altered the formation. The emphasis on possession has not changed.

“[Pareja] doesn’t feel like in this system anyone can hide out there,” says Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “That’s a really good thing because everybody should be able to play with the ball. It’s whether you believe you can do it and using it at the right time. Oscar is showing now that everyone has to get on it and want to be on it.”

Pareja also preaches another element of the 4-3-3 as cited by O’Brien; pressuring the ball once it is lost. In this sense the 4-3-3 is like every other formation in that mastery of it stems from the players’ mindset.

“One thing I’m asking them is I need midfielders who are committed with the game all the time, players who are comfortable with the ball and want the ball when we are in possession, but players who are eager to get the ball back when we don’t have it,” says Pareja. “That kind of mentality I want from all of them.”

Says O’Brien of the U.S. under-23 experiment: “The 4-3-3 is a possession formation. You’re going to need a lot of good, technical skill to play it, and it’s something were still working on, I think.”

Monday, April 9, 2012

RSL-Colorado coaching matchup illustrates new trend in MLS

Jason Kreis had an interesting view across the field on Saturday when his Real Salt Lake team played host to the rival Colorado Rapids.

That’s because one of his favorite former teammates — Oscar Pareja — is now the coach of the Rapids, and he’s one of the latest among a new generation of coaches that has been taking over Major League Soccer since just about the time Kreis was hired right off the field five years ago.

"Absolutely," said Paul Bravo, the technical director for the Rapids who hired Pareja. "There has been a transformation within the league."

When Kreis became the youngest coach in league history, only four of the other 11 coaches had extensive playing experience in the league.

Now, 13 of the 19 coaches around the league played significantly in MLS before moving into coaching, and they’re getting younger all the time.

While Pareja is actually four years older than Kreis, four others — Ben Olsen at D.C. United, Jay Heaps at New England, Martin Rennie in Vancouver and Jesse Marsch at Montreal — are all younger than the 39-year-old RSL coach. Another seven are 45 or younger, with the average age around the league just 45.9 years old.

Dissent is for losers and not allowed at Manchester United - Ferguson

Manchester United have won 11 of their past 12 league games and drawn the other, not only displaying the sort of precisely timed acceleration that defines champions but giving their rivals an object lesson in team unity and professional focus.

While United have moved eight points clear at the top of the Premier League, Manchester City have been one of the sides caught arguing among themselves, with disappointing results leading to signs of dissent on and off the pitch.

It could be argued that good results promote team harmony, and vice versa, though even in adversity, or the occasions such as Monday evening at Blackburn when the leaders had to wait 80 minutes for a breakthrough, squabbling among United players is rare.

"I wouldn't allow it," Sir Alex Ferguson says, speaking with all the authority of a manager who has faced down internal criticism from Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and others in his time. Even those cases tended to happen away from the pitch, in television studios or books. United players conspicuously fight for each other on the pitch, they do not turn on each other.

"There's a distinction to be made between having your say on the pitch, like Peter Schmeichel used to do when he bawled out his defenders, and squaring up to each other like the two players at Wolves did at the weekend," Ferguson says. "That can happen, particularly at the bottom of the league, because clubs who are struggling are under a lot of pressure and it is easy to understand players becoming frustrated. But really, if you don't have unity you are not playing as a team. The demeanour of a team is important, you can judge it by the way they celebrate a goal.

"We have a lot of experience in our team, and the knowledge of players like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand will be vital in the coming weeks, but we have also got young lads breaking into the side who are looking at those players and working out what they are doing right to have lasted so long. They are great examples for young players to learn from."