Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Back to the San Siro

It's been a while since I wrote about the Catalan Futbol Colllective and we are coming down to the business end of the season, so this seems like as good a time as any to spill a few words.  Barca go to Milan for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal.  This is not an unfamiliar venue, as Barca played Milan at the San Siro in late November, taking a 3-2 decision that cemented first place in the group.  That win allowed Barca to play Bayer Leverkusen - a team that was more interested in getting Leo Messi's shirt than actually trying to tackle him - instead of Arsenal in the round of 16.  In addition, Barca played at the San Siro against Inter twice in 2009-10 (a 0-0 draw and then the famous 3-1 defeat to Mourinho's Inter that led to Ibra's now-famous "you have no balls!" insult directed at Pep Guardiola) and once against Milan in 2006 (a famous 0-1 win in the Champions League semifinals en route to Barca winning their first Champions League title in 14 years).  In short, the San Siro is a familiar place for Barca and most of their memories there have been happy ones.*  It's certainly better than playing Milan in Athens.

* - Along with Tiger Stadium (the one in Baton Rouge), the San Siro is my favorite backdrop for a televised sporting event.  The design is distinctive, the mist/smoke that envelops the place during a match gives it an otherworldly quality, and the noise is outstanding because of the vertical stands.  It's not always full, but it will be tonight.

In terms of this match-up, Milan present a pair of weaknesses that Barca should be able to exploit.  First, Milan don't have the type of aggressive defensive midfielders who can give Barca trouble.  Massimiliano Allegri, the Milan manager, said that his team is more "technical" than physical, but there is no team in the world that can compete with Barca on technical ability.  While teams have had some joy coming out and attacking Barca this year, no longer afraid of putting pressure on Barca's defenders (Real have had success with this approach), this Milan side doesn't have the front players for that sort of task.  After all, if you cut away all of the bullshit from Zlatan, the big reason why his stay in Catalunya was so short was that he was a bad fit in this Barca side because he isn't much on pressing opposing defenders when not in possession.  If Robinho is his partner, then you have another player who isn't exactly know for his work-rate.  Thus, the two favorable approaches to playing Barca - parking a narrow bus to congest the middle or pressing Barca at the back to force turnovers - seem to both be beyond Milan's grasp.

Second, Milan have weak fullbacks.  If you don't believe me, read The Guardian's minute-by-minute of Arsenal's demolition of Milan in the round of 16 at the Emirates.  Some highlights:

24 min: Arsenal attack down Milan's right flank again, having clearly identified Milan left-back Djamel Mesbah as a weak link. The link-up play between Song, Gervinho and Walcott is marvellous, releasing ... oh my word!

39 min: Theo Walcott sets off on a gallop down the right flank and is taken out by beleaguered full-back Djamel Mesbah, who he's been tormenting all night. The Arsenal winger goes down holding his thigh, but is fit to continue after receiving treatment.

44 min: You'd have to say Arsenal are the favourites to win this tie at this stage, as long as they don't lose the run of themselves and forget to defend stoutly. They've been making hay down the right wing, where the visitors' left-back Djamel Mesbah looks like some supporter who's won a competition where first prize was the opportunity to play for AC Milan in a Champions League match. He's having a shocker.

Second half: And we're off ... there don't appear to be any changes on either side. That seems odd to me, as I'd suggest Milan would be better off playing with 10 man rather than 11 including Djamel Mesbah.

54 min: Theo Walcott picks up the ball on the right flank, waltzes past the hapless Djamel Mesbah and tries to square the ball across the face of the Milan goal. At the near post, Thiago Silva clears.

88 min: Milan substitution: Djamel Mesbah gets put out of his misery and walks off very slowly - his first worthwhile contribution to his team's cause this evening. He's replaced by Daniele Bonera.
While the La Masia has struggled to produce top defenders in recent years, it has had no such issues producing tricky wingers.  Thus, Guardiola has Pedro, Isaac Cuenca, and Cristian Tello to throw at Milan's fullbacks, not to mention Alexis Sanchez and the now-fit Ibrahim Affelay.  If Barca's play-makers - Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi - have time to operate between the defense and midfield, then they will be able to find the wingers cutting in behind the fullbacks all day.  Additionally, the wingers ought to be able to beat the fullbacks and put passes into the box.

Against all of this, Barca's big weakness is at the back.  With Eric Abidal out for the year and possibly having to retire because of his impending liver transplant and Adriano also injured, Barca don't have depth at fullback.  Additionally, Gerard Pique's form has dipped this year, leading to all sorts of analogies between his girlfriend Shakira and Yoko Ono (or, if you are a Man United fan, Posh Spice).  Milan have terrific attackers.  If they can get the ball to their forwards (the big question in this match), then I don't have the same confidence in Barca's defenders that I have had in recent years.  I have this mental image of Pique deploying his befuddled face as Zlatan wheels away to the corner flag to celebrate a vindicating goal. 

In the end, this match doesn't give me too much heartburn.  Barca have been playing better in recent weeks, winning nine in a row since the loss at Osasuna.  Additionally, Barca's overall problem this year has been one of focus, as they have dropped points on the road against a number of lesser opponents.  In the toughest road games - two matches at the Bernabeu, one at the San Siro, and one at the Calderon (where they never win - they have won every time.  There are teams out there that will give the Blaugrana fits - Chelsea looked ominous last night with their ability to negate Benfica and then ground out an ugly 0-1 win - but this Milan side do not look to be one of them.

Confronting my Feelings on the Hawks

Here's my latest at SB Nation, trying to explain why I can't get as excited as I should about the Hawks' surprisingly solid season.  As usual, I start babbling about sample sizes:

This is an instance where my sports ideology conflicts with my self-interest as a fan. My favorite sports are college football and European club soccer. One of the reasons for these preferences is the fact that these sports have meaningful regular seasons. College football's two-team playoff puts a premium on winning regular season games. In Europe, domestic championships are decided in the fairest way possible: each team plays each other team home and away and the team with the best record at the end is the winner.

The NBA doesn't have this structure. It has the conventional American pro sports model that annoys me: a long regular season, followed by a reset button and then a short tournament during which the long regular season is a total afterthought. However, because: (1) home court advantage matters so much; and (2) the better team tends to win in basketball because the large number of possessions reduces variance, the NBA doesn't lend itself to upsets. If my problem with the NFL and MLB is that undeserving teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants can win multiple championships after merely decent regular seasons, then I should like the NBA. Even on the rare occasions where the NBA produces a surprise champion like Dallas last year, that team is usually a perennial contender that finally broke through from a slightly lower seed.

The NBA is pretty good at crowning a deserving champion, so where does that leave the Hawks? With the Braves and Falcons, we can be excited when they go into the playoffs because the MLB and NFL playoffs have turned into lotteries. The Hawks aren't buying a lottery ticket so much as they are facing a firing squad. As someone who tries to value the big sample over the small one, I should be enjoying the Hawks' solid regular season, but in a league where regular season success is dismissed, I find it hard to step outside of this mindset. Reduced to focusing on the postseason, I try to imagine a Black Swan world of highly improbable events, but with the Hawks, it is hard to make myself believe.
One factor that I didn't mention because it's somewhat trite is that I'm at the stage of life where I don't have as much leisure time as I used to.  For example, I got home yesterday at seven, had dinner with the wife and kids, helped give the boys their bath, read books to the younger, more rambunctious version of B&B Jr., and then had about an hour of free time before going to sleep.  I decided to watch Benfica-Chelsea instead of the Hawks game.  In my younger days, I would have had time for both.  In this instance, I chose to watch a game that had more riding on it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mes Que Un Club, Syrian Resistance Edition

You have to love embattled dictatorships:

Syria’s state-run television channel has made the astonishing claim that the Barcelona soccer team is assisting a group of rebel fighters by delivering coded messages via its tactical formations...
Al-Dunya TV aired a bizarre feature Sunday outlining how Barcelona transmitted details of effective smuggling routes that could be used to distribute arms to dissident fighters. The program repeated charges originally made in December. According to the TV reporter, the Barca side’s positioning on the field allegedly was deliberately set up to recreate a giant map, with players representing smugglers and the ball depicting a cache of arms.
A run from Andres Iniesta is said to portray the first part of the route, while the end of the move, where superstar World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi passes the ball, indicates the successful handover of the shipment, according to Al-Dunya.
All season, Michael Cox has been trying to decipher the evolution of Barca's formations away from a set 4-3-3, but he's been looking in the wrong place for explanations.  He should have been looking at maps of Syria.  And doesn't this allegation really end the debate as to whether Barca is the best team of all-time?  If they have been winning while being hamstrung by the need to send covert messages to rebel groups, then they truly are the best. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Is Georgia the most Underachieving Basketball Program in the Country

I wrote a lengthy piece last night for SB Nation addressing this question.  My methodology is to list the Rivals five-star players from the past decade in an effort to show which states produce the most top-end talent.  The results confirmed my suspicion.  Georgia is tied with Florida for third nationally in terms of production of five-star players.  Of those top prospects, Georgia has signed exactly two, one of whom went straight to the NBA (Louis Williams) and the other lasted a year and a half in Athens (Mike Mercer).

The comparison between Georgia and Florida is bad; the comparison between Georgia and Vandy is worse:

The chart above leads to the conclusion that Georgia and Florida produce a lot of basketball talent, but the flagship school of the Sunshine State has produced 17 trips to the Tournament, 11 appearances in the final AP poll, seven regular season SEC titles, four trips to the Final Four, and the aforementioned pair of national titles. The flagship school of the Peach State pales in comparison, having produced 11 trips to the Tournament, five appearances in the final AP poll, three regular season SEC titles, and a sole visit to the Final Four in 1983 led by Vern Fleming. Heck, Vandy has been in the final poll eleven times and has made 13 trips to the Tournament. What excuse does Georgia have to be significantly behind the Commodores in a revenue sport? (A note: switch Georgia's flagship program to the Flats and you do not do much better, as the Jackets have produced 16 trips to the Tournament, eight appearances in the final AP poll, three regular season conference titles, and two trips to the Final Four.)
I am working in my head through a follow-up piece seeking to explain Georgia's lack of success in basketball.  One possibility is simple luck.  What happens if Rick Pitino never blunders into the Boston Celtics' job?  Does Tubby Smith stay in Athens for ten years and builds the brand of Georgia basketball?  What happens if Louis Williams would have come along after the NBA passed its rule forbidding players from going directly from high school to the pros?  What happens if Mike Mercer doesn't tear his ACL?  What happens if both of the latter two what ifs occur and Georgia gets two solid seasons of a five-star back court?  As critical as my premise is, it's actually encouraging because UGA has the potential to be a top program if they can just get momentum going in the right direction.  The same is true for Georgia Tech, only for Tech, it's less of a hypothetical because the Jackets have experienced more recent periods of success than Georgia has.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Catching Up

Sorry for the lack of content in recent weeks, but between work and my posts at SB Nation's Atlanta site, time has been tight.  For those of you who don't visit the Atlanta page on a daily basis, hang your heads in shame ... and then click on the tab that I added to the right that goes directly to my profile there.  That has a fill list of what I have been posting, both in shorter and longer form.  Some highlights from the last few weeks:

My predictable gloating over the Saints' little bounty issue:

The last parallel between the Ohio State and New Orleans scandals is that both relate to the most pressing issues facing their respective sports. College football has been plagued in recent months with significant scandals involving major programs and improper benefits, leading many to question the continued viability of a sport that is built on a fiction. For instance, the 2010 national title game was contested between a team whose star quarterback's father was trying to sell his son to the highest bidder and an opponent currently under investigation for paying a runner in Texas to direct players to Eugene.

The biggest issue facing the NFL is the long-term health impact of the sport, a dilemma that leads to a plausible scenario in which the NFL no longer exists. Through a combination of: (1) the school firing its head coach and suspending several of its best players; and (2) the NCAA tacking on a one-year bowl ban, Ohio State has essentially had to give up two football seasons. That's the message that the NCAA and its members have to send to deter money finding its way to the players who generate it.

I don't pretend to know what is in Roger Goodell's holster in terms of potential punishments, but it is clear that he is going to have to bring the hammer down because the participation of Saints' coaches in the team's bounty system and the acquiescence of the head coach and general manager in that system touches on the biggest problem facing the league. Goodell has to ensure that current and future authority figures in the league see what happened to the Saints and take the lesson that they have to stamp out incentives to injure opposing players.
This is one of those instances where I am quite happy that Roger Goodell has given himself untrammeled power to punish league figures who "damage the shield," to quote that preposterous phrase that was bandied about by authority worshipers when Goodell was disciplining Ben Roethlisberger for tawdry conduct that did not lead to criminal charges.  Let's see him use that power when the wrongdoers are management instead of labor.  That, after all, is the big issue with the Saints scandal.  It's not that the Saints had a bounty system, as that appears to be something that happens every now and again in the NFL.  It's that this appears to be the first instance in which a defensive coordinator, a head coach, and a general manager all either participated or at least knew about the scheme and did nothing.

My predictable counter to Forbes labeling Atlanta as the most miserable sports city in America:

Forbes would never permit this terrible reasoning when evaluating companies. Financial reporting is (at least theoretically) based on reviewing the entirety of a company's record to make the best evaluations possible. That same rigor apparently does not apply to sports analysis, where we define disappointment based on a "small sample size important; big sample size unimportant" framework.

The point of sports is to provide us with entertainment. We all want an escape from the ennui of the working world and games provide us with exactly that. A team like the Braves during their heyday provided great entertainment, as they consistently won more than they lost. Day after day, we could rely on the Braves to make us happy by beating down the rest of the NL East. Losing a playoff series was a sad experience, but was it enough to overwhelm six months of happiness? No.
Personally, this has been a pretty good period to be an Atlanta sports fan.  How many other times in city history can we say that two of our teams - the Hawks and Falcons - are playoff regulars and the third - the Braves - are at least on the cusp and have a roster full of promising young players.  Maybe my expectations were beaten down by two of the city's three teams being so bad in the 80s when I was growing up, but this seems fine to me.  It's unfortunate that the Hawks have reached their ceiling at the second round of the playoffs and the Falcons can't win a playoff game, but as between playoff disappointment and finishing in last place every year, I'll take the former.

I also finished a post that I've been meaning to write for weeks on the decline of the ACC as a basketball conference.  I offered four potential explanations: conference expansion, bad coaches, the Big Dance killing the regular season, and the possibility that we are just seeing a statistical blip.  The decline of the ACC stands out for me because of the juxtaposition with SEC football.  The latter is as strong as ever, as population trends have dovetailed with the ability of athletic departments to monetize fan passion - and thereby build facilities and hire coaches that create a recruiting advantage - to put the SEC on top of college football.  Those same shifts in population should be helping the ACC in basketball, but they aren't.  That leads to a chicken-egg question: is fan intensity down in the ACC because the product is weaker or is the product weaker because fan intensity is down?