Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CEO Chizik

WarBlogEagle has an interesting post on where Gene Chizik fits in the realm of CEO coaches. Chizik is an interesting case to me. He became a head coach on the strength of good work as a defensive coordinator for Central Florida, Auburn, and Texas, but the defenses of the teams for which he has been the head coach have been underwhelming. This raises a few possibilities.

The first possibility is that Chizik hasn't figured out to involve himself in the defense while still handling all of the tasks of being a head coach. After all, Nick Saban's Michigan State defenses weren't overly impressive, nor were his initial defenses at LSU. Mark Richt would also seem to fall into this category, as he won at Georgia in his first five years despite underwhelming offenses. Richt was either spending all of his time on other head coaching functions or he was overrated as an offensive coordinator when he was at Florida State.

A second possibility is that defense is more about talent than coaching (it's easier to scheme around talent issues on offense because the offense has the initiative) and Auburn is suffering for Tommy Tuberville's diminished recruiting in his last several years on the Plains. Again, the Saban example is instructive. Nick's defenses weren't great until he had time to recruit at LSU, at which point his career took off. (He won a national title in year four.)

The third possibility is that Chizik was overrated as a defensive coordinator. Yes, he won a national title with Texas in 2005 and produced a very good defense, but is it really that hard to produce a good defense with Texas's talent relative to that of its opponents? His 2006 defense was pretty good, but nothing special. (The Horns finished ninth in the Big XII in pass efficiency defense that year. I'll admit that I don't remember Texas's defensive talent in 2006 and that would be a major consideration. Even in Austin, it's possible to have to make chicken salad from chicken s***, relatively speaking.) Chizik's defenses were very good at Auburn, but he was coaching under a defensive ace in Tommy Tuberville. WBE makes this very point:

Tubby was widely regarded as a Miles-type CEO (and Elkon seems to echo this viewpoint) whose success rested on whoever he happened to have hired as his offensive coordinator, but I think this does a disservice to Tubby’s incredible defensive record. When you consider that it didn’t matter who the DC was–Chizik,
Muschamp, Rhoads, whoever wasn’t David Gibbs–the defense was going to know its business. You ask me, Tubby was quietly more Saban or Meyer than Miles in his affect on his team’s on-field performance.

I am often leery of coordinators who are successful on the side of the ball on which the head coach has obvious expertise. (For this reason, I was not as enamored by Kirby Smart as many Georgia fans were. Dan Mullen will be an interesting test case for this.) If this is the case, then Chizik falls into the George O'Leary category: a coach who isn't especially good at his specialty, but who succeeds anyway because he has a great coordinator in his weak suit. Chizik will therefore be defined by how long he can keep Gus Malzahn and then whether there is a good replacement when Malzahn gets a head coaching job. The luck/timing element comes into play again.

WBE's discussion of Tuberville is interesting because he is going through the same re-evaluation of Tuberville that I am. Several summers ago, I started (but didn't finish) a series of posts comparing SEC coaches to World War Two generals. Tuberville was going to be Eisenhower: a successful general whose skill lay more in managing the egos of his subordinates than in directing divisions here and there. After the Tony Franklin debacle, a different picture emerged. Tuberville and his position coach buddies had asserted themselves to the point that Franklin wasn't able to do what he wanted. In retrospect, Tuberville's consistently good defenses indicate that he had an active role in that area. If I had to do the series now, Tuberville would be Hitler (minus the whole genocide thing): had success early, gained the reputation of a gambler, ultimately undone by meddling too much.

And for the hell of it, here is the rest of the SEC (minus the coaches who have not yet coached a game at their schools):

Spurrier/Guderian: an innovator, but exposed when faced with opponents with more of everything.

Saban/Zhukov: ruthless, brutal to subordinates, headstrong, very successful, saved an empire on the verge of collapse.

Meyer/Patton: great offensive mind, sharp at understated parts of the job, successful in multiple theaters, problems with the media.

Nutt/Wingate: crazy man on the periphery

Petrino/Rommel: top offensive mind, doesn't always pay attention to defensive issues, questionable loyalty.

Richt/Bradley: unassuming, competent, likable, loyal to subordinates, upstaged by Patton.

Miles/Montgomery: early success, followed by strange vacillation between conservatism and aggression. Market Garden and the last drive of the Ole Miss game seem to fit together in the realm of disasters.

Mullen/Ridgway: looks promising for the next war.

I'm drawing a total blank on Chizik.

Not Bad for a Terrible Baseball Town

I don't want to talk about the Braves' performance last night against a last-minute fill-in for the Nats, so let's talk about local TV and radio ratings. Through Sports Media Watch, I found this article, which lists how teams have been followed in their local markets. The Braves' ratings are up this year, although they're still only in the middle of the pack in baseball. I did find it interesting that the Braves, who play in the sometimes-proclaimed worst sports city in the Milky Way, are one place in the local ratings away from the Yankees, who play in a city that some in the media (usually based in New York, a shocking coincidence) proclaim as the best baseball city in the country. As a national proposition, the Yankees are a more popular team because of their legions of bandwagonistas. If we are just judging sports towns, in 2010, they aren't penetrating their local market any better than the Braves are and they are behind 11 other teams in that regard.

(Two counters. First, the Yankees have to share their market with another team. Second, this might be a particularly good year for the Braves because they are in first place and they have unleashed Jason Heyward on the world. Then again, the Yankees are the defending champions, which one would think would cause a bounce in the local ratings. I'm not sure how a team wins the World Series and then sees its local ratings go down the next year. Maybe New Yorkers have figured out that only October matters? Viva college football!)

The Braves are also doing very well in the local radio market. They are fifth in baseball (behind four Midwestern markets) in local radio ratings among men 25-54. 680 the Fan has to be thrilled with that development. 680 has done a great job of developing Braves programming before and after the games such that they have a pretty seamless product. Their Braves coverage is probably a large reason why 680 is killing 790 the Zone in the ratings. 790's fundamental problem is that they don't appear especially local (the hiring of David Pollack for the afternoon spot - a great defensive end and a great guy, but not an especially interesting radio personality - was an overcompensation for this problem), whereas 680 figured out quicker that this market is about SEC football first, the Braves second, the Falcons third, and then everything else coming behind. Landing the Braves, especially in a banner season for the team, has turned out to be a coup.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mandel Weighs in on Parity

So after Dr. Saturday and I riffed on the idea that parity may or may not have left the SEC, we had an offering by Stewart Mandel that this season promises to be a return to parity. I'd be interested to see if Mandel can square a return to parity with the fact that most members of the media are predicting Alabama and Florida to win their divisions again, as well as Ohio State winning the Big Ten, Oregon winning the Pac Ten, Texas and Oklahoma duking it out in the Big XII, and TCU and Boise State positioning themselves as the gate-crashers. I'd also be interested to see Mandel address this issue: if 2007 was the year of parity and it started with USC as a massive favorite, then doesn't that indicate that the it's hard to tell before the season whether we are going to see a season of parity (or at least that the herd that forms conventional wisdom has a hard time seeing an unstable season).

Personally, I agree with Mandel that this year shapes up to be unpredictable because I don't see a single team that has the makings of a dominant team. But then again, all that means is that every team has question marks. It's possible that two or three teams will see all of those question marks answered with positive answers and we'll end up with another year like last year. Maybe Florida's young defenders mesh from the outset. Maybe Landry Jones turns into Sam Bradford 2.0. Maybe Virginia Tech's offensive stirrings last year are paired with a typically excellent Hokie defense. Maybe Ricky Stanzi will learn to throw to the guys on his team. There are more maybes this year about the major contenders this year than what we would normally expect and that indicates an unpredictable season, but we're only talking about probability here.

Another interesting question about parity is this: will we see a relatively new champion this year? After all, if an NFL season of crazy upsets ended with the Patriots or Steelers winning the Super Bowl, that wouldn't feel like a crazy, unpredictable result, would it? 2007 is the gold standard for a year of parity, but in the end, the national championship game was contested between the teams that had won the national title four and five years previously. Likewise, if we have a crazy year and then Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, or Ohio State end up with the crystal ball, then that won't exactly be a glowing endorsement for the topsy turvy nature of the sport because every one of those teams won a title last decade. I'm thinking out loud here, but maybe we should be rooting for someone truly out of left field? Wouldn't that be a nice antidote to the relatively staid 2009 season?

Bobby Good, Bobby Bad

Continuing with a semi-regular Sunday tradition, Bobby Cox inserted Jesse Chavez into a ties game in extra innings and watched Chavez lose the game with alacrity. Against the Dodgers in June, Chavez recorded one out. Yesterday, he didn't record a single out. Literally any option would have been better than Cox putting Chavez into the game. At this point, blame has to go to Frank Wren for allowing Chavez to continue to occupy a spot on a major league roster in which he can do damage.

Yesterday's game also illustrated the flip-side of Cox continually trotting out a reliever whose function in life is to make us all angry. The Braves found themselves in extra innings because Melky Cabrera doubled in the eighth inning with two outs and then came around to score the tying run when Chipper shot a ball into the gap in left-center. I was certainly not alone in complaining about Melky when he started the season in a major funk. Cox, a more patient man than just about any fan, stuck with Melky. Cabrera is now producing for the Braves, maybe not at an all-star level, but he is a league average outfielder (if you take out his terrible April). After the problems that the Braves have had in the outfield over the past several years, league average is nothing to sneeze at.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Les Miles and the CEO Head Coach

A friend e-mailed me after my post last Monday night to ask why my opinion of Les Miles had changed. As the sidebar will remind you, I created the "LesCrush" tag in 2007 when it appeared that Miles would be the next head coach in Ann Arbor. I defended Miles against all manner of charges. Now, I've swung along with most LSU fans to think that the guy isn't a great head coach. It's not that coaching in the same division as Nick Saban has exposed Miles. If LSU were having great seasons and just coming up short against the Tide, a la Fulmer's Vols against Spurrier's Gators in the 90s, then Miles' reputation would be on safer ground. Rather, LSU has been poor over the past two years, especially considering their talent. 9-4 last year wasn't the end of the world, but LSU was a lucky 9-4. I don't know too many other teams that finish 9-4 when they are dead last in the conference in total offense.

The regression of LSU's offense seems to be a coaching issue, mainly because the Tigers deploy offensive starters whose recruiting profiles would suggest that talent isn't the issue. Whether LSU struggles with player development, offensive schemes, or playcalling, a fair amount of legitimate criticism has been directed at Miles and his offensive coordinator, Gary Crowton. Crowton came to LSU with a reputation of being strong in his first year at a program and a disappointment thereafter. His time in Baton Rouge has been no exception.

Crowton's struggles are especially interesting to me because one of the major selling points for Miles in 2007 was that he appeared to be a successful CEO coach. Miles is not an offensive expert like Urban Meyer, nor is he a defensive guru like Nick Saban. However, he did seem to have a knack for hiring the right assistants and then ensuring that they had the right talent and environment to do their jobs well. Who cares if Miles is no expert if he has Bo Pelini running his defense and Jimbo Fisher handling the offense?

The regression of the LSU offense could mean one of several things: (1) the perception of Miles as a keen evaluator of coaching acumen was misplaced; (2) Miles made a mistake against type in hiring and then retaining Crowton; or (3) the skill of picking assistants is highly overrated because just about any sentient head coach can figure out which of his colleagues understands offense or defense, so the "successful CEO" types are really just lucky that the right guys were available and their budget allowed them to hire those good fits. I have to admit that I'm leaning toward #3. Was Steve Spurrier smart when he hired Bob Stoops and dumb when he hired John Hoke? Was Pete Carroll smart when he hired Norm Chow and dumb when he promoted Lane Kiffin? Was Mark Richt smart when he hired Brian Van Gorder and dumb when he hired Willie Martinez? Was Mike Bellotti smart when he hired Chip Kelly and dumb when he hired Crowton? Were Tommy Tuberville's revolving door of offensive coordinators evidence of alternating episodes of genius and insanity?

So, coming full circle, isn't Les Miles just one (hopefully obvious) offensive coordinator away from being smart again? Aren't Georgia fans hoping that Mark Richt is going to look like a better coach because of Todd Grantham? We like to brand coaches as good and bad. Lord knows that I do enough of it in this space. But when we are making these snap judgments, shouldn't we recognize the outsized role that luck and timing play in our evaluations? When I write that Miles and Richt seem outgunned against Saban and Meyer, what I'm really saying is that they both have/had one sub-standard coordinator who will almost certainly be replaced. Actually, I'm also saying that having a coach like Meyer or Saban is better because they really only need one ace coordinator instead of two, although the Steve Addazio experience would be a sliver of evidence that this is not always the case.

(Michigan fans, there is an implicit defense of Rich Rodriguez in here. Unless you think that Rodriguez has forgotten how to coach offense, he may be one or two hires on the defensive side of the ball [and not necessarily the defensive coordinator] away from looking smart again. Well, that and finally getting to coach an offense with freshmen quarterbacks.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Parity in the SEC

Matt Hinton made an interesting point today: if the preseason consensus is correct, then the depth of quality about which we SEC fans brag is overrated. Florida and Alabama have dominated in the last two seasons and there is no reason to think that 2010 will be any different, as evidenced by the fact that every entity offering a prediction have the Tide and Gators meeting again in the Georgia Dome. There are a few potential responses to this phenomenon:

1. The predictions are wrong. I feel like a voter who generally wants to throw out the bums inside the Beltway, but always votes for the incumbent senator and representative. Florida and Alabama shouldn't be the runaway favorites in their divisions this year. Alabama lost nine starters off of the defense that carried them to the national title and there have to be doubts as to whether a Saban team can win with the emphasis on the offense. Plus, national champions tend to have a slight hangover in the following season, otherwise known as regression to the mean. Florida lost even more than Alabama did, they have a coach who retired at one point last December, and they are transitioning to a 3-4 without the defensive coordinator who was their unsung hero over the past two years. These two teams look anything but impregnable. Prognosticators tend to assume that past results are likely to continue into the future, hence the fact that preseason top tens usually look suspiciously like the end-of-season rankings from the previous season. College football doesn't work that way. In December 2008, I decided that it was inevitable that Florida and USC would meet in a title game to settle the question of who is the dominant program in college football. In December 2009, Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer both left their programs. Things change.

2. Coaching in the SEC isn't as good as I thought. When bagging on the Big Ten, I like to point out that the resumes of the coaches in the SEC are far better than those of their friends to the north. Arkansas hires Bobby Petrino; Minnesota hires Tim Brewster. In practice, the roster of coaches in the SEC right now do not look great. Mark Richt and Les Miles have developed chinks in the armor. There's a case to be made that Miles won with teams assembled by Saban, while Richt's heyday coincided with Ron Zook at Florida. Steve Spurrier might be more resume than coach at this stage. Bobby Petrino might establish the same lesson that Michigan may be learning: success in the Big East was a non-reproducible mirage in a defense-free bubble. Moreover, Auburn and Tennessee strayed from the resume-based hiring requirement in tabbing underwhelming candidates. Thus, as good as Saban and Meyer are, they might be benefiting from a trough in the quality of SEC coaching. If this is true, then we can expect some significant upheaval over the next two years.

3. Unipolarity or bipolarity are the state of nature in modern college football. For whatever reason, there is little uncertainty in college football right now. Virginia Tech dominates the corpse of the ACC, Texas and Oklahoma are the automatic picks in the Big XII, Ohio State and Penn State dominate the Big Ten, and USC dominates the Pac Ten (although that's obviously subject to change with Hello Kiffin pawing at the controls). Why should the SEC be different?

4. Unipolarity or bipolarity are the state of nature in the SEC. Florida and Alabama met in the first three SEC Championship Games. Florida and Tennessee dominated the conference in the 90s. Alabama dominated the conference in the 70s. The SEC is always good, but it often has periods in which one or two teams run away from the pack.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Reaction to Trading Yunel

For once, I wish that Terence Moore were here to weigh in on the Braves clubhouse being too professional. We can only assume that the Braves trading Yunel Escobar for Alex Gonzalez relates to a locker room issue about which we don't have all the facts, because on the numbers, this trade makes no sense at all. Gonzalez is a 33-year old shortstop who is terrible at getting on base and has durability concerns. Gonzalez has never finished a season with an OPS above the league average. Escobar is a 27-year old shortstop who has never finished a season with an OPS below the league average. In short, Gonzalez is a below average player who is leaving his prime, while Yunel is an above average player who is entering his prime. Either Yunel did something appalling behind the scenes or Frank Wren has forgotten everything that he should have learned over the first three months of the season about the importance of baseball players who don't make outs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Random College Football Thoughts on a Beautiful July Morning

Riffing off of Blutarsky's post about the inane "First Four" concept being floated by the NCAA, every mistake made at the world's biggest sporting event by a referee from Mali or the Seychelles is an illustration that a sport run by the major powers in a less-than-egalitarian fashion is not a bad thing. When you have hundreds of minnows making demands that have to be honored, then you end up with the First Four or a ref in a big match coming from a league that averages 500 fans per game. The NCAA and FIFA are not especially dissimilar in the political issues that they face as a result of having a broad-based membership, although the NCAA can't approach FIFA's level of corruption, so here's to small victories. The BCS is run as an old boys' club, but the old boys who run it happen to be stakeholders in the sport, so you end up with a structure that maligned, but maligned by people who miss the bigger picture.

I used to be chomping at the bit to buy Phil Steele when it first hit the newsstands and then EA's NCAA [INSERT YEAR HERE] when it would arrive at Best Buy. This summer, I bought Phil on a lark weeks after it came out and I have no interest in NCAA '11. The latter can be explained by having kids, as I haven't played a video game in over a year. The former is harder to explain. The World Cup is obviously one factor. A second is that after years of buying Steele's previews, I feel like I can predict what he is going to write before I ever open the pages. A third is that after reading the Pro Football Prospectus, Steele's use of stats comes across as outdated. I'm quite certain that he has more sophisticated ways of measuring players and teams, but he uses vanilla numbers in his preview.

Is there anything more tired than the summer ritual hand-wringing over the drinking and driving (although not necessarily drinking and driving at the same time) habits of Georgia football players? If there is a bigger "who the f*** cares!?!" story out there, I'd like to see it. Did I miss the announcement that July is Petty Soapbox Moralizing Month?

Sitting here seven weeks before the start of the season, the most interesting potential story line is how Nick Saban will coach a team that is heavily skewed to the offensive side of the ball. Here is one of the two reasons why Football Outsiders ranks the Tide #1 going into 2010:

The offense could be ridiculous. Despite the fact that they have a Heisman winner in the backfield, it is almost easy to forget about the Alabama offense. Their defense was just that good last season, ranking first in both FEI and S&P+. But this year it is the offense projected to rank first. It's certainly not hard to see why: eight starters return, including almost all skill position players. Heisman winner Mark Ingram and his almost-as-capable backup Trent Richardson grace the backfield again, receiver Julio Jones returns, and underrated signal caller Greg McElroy is back as well. There is solid depth on the line, and the Tide lost only nine draft points as a whole from this unit. As with teams like Ohio State or Virginia Tech, they could compensate for defensive regression with offensive improvement. This is just a scary, scary team.

Has Saban ever coached a team with a "ridiculous" offense? The only one that comes to mind is his first SEC Championship team, the 2001 LSU team that survived an appalling pass defense to win the conference and the Sugar Bowl on the strength of Rohan Davey throwing to Josh Reed. Just as the 2007 LSU team was the weakest in recent memory to win a national title, the 2001 LSU team was one of the weakest in recent memory to win the SEC (unless you think that losing 44-15 at home to Florida is a sign of strength). Since 2001, Saban's teams have come off of an assembly line: functional offenses with quarterbacks who don't make mistakes, a rotation of athletic running backs pounding away, and a superlative defense highlighted by defensive backs who demonstrate the fruits out outstanding coaching. If the defense is a notch below that (and I'm not expecting TOO much of a regression), then the Bama offense will have to improve for the team to be better than 10-2. Can that happen? Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer met in the 2006 national title game with teams that played against their coaches' types. I'm fascinated to know if Saban can do the same.

Monday, July 12, 2010

If there are Chelsea-supporting Dutchmen out there...

Then this guy is surely your least favorite player of all-time. I'm eagerly looking forward to the update to the I Scored a Goal at the FIFA World Cup Final documentary that riveted me last Saturday afternoon: "my nombre es Andres, y meti gol en la final del mundial."

I'm going to start my collection of unhinged thoughts with a predictable shout-out to Spain's players. I got a text from a friend last night asking "is it me, or are Spain's players more humble than most?" (This friend supports England. Do with that fact what you will.) Iniesta chose what is surely the biggest moment of his life to pay homage to Dani Jarque, a friend who played for Barca's cross-town rival, Espanyol, and who died of a heart attack last fall. Sergio Ramos went to the podium with an homage to Antonio Puerta, a teammate with Sevilla who died of a heart attack in 2008. Maybe I'm especially sensitive to athletes thinking about people other than themselves after the LeBrongasm of the past few days. Or maybe I'm just a fan of these players and I see character in mundane places. That said, it's not just that the right team won yesterday on merit; the right players won, as well.

Other thoughts:

OK, it's probably not a lottery: Was I the only one who was thinking that the Dutch would have been favorites in a penalty shootout? Spain had taken off its two penalty takers: David Villa and Xabi Alonso. The prospect of Fernando Torres taking a penalty when he is shorn of confidence was not an appealing prospect for Spain. Plus, the Spanish would have been under more pressure because they were the favorites, both in the tournament and in the match itself. Spain’s only advantage in penalties would have been Iker Casillas, who saved Spain’s jamon against Paraguay, as well as the shootout against Italy in ’08.

About those first 45 minutes, guys: To steal a term from The Guardian’s podcast, I’m a member of the Tiki Taka Taliban. I love the way that Spain play football because I love passing and teamwork. The patterns that Spain weave are hypnotic in a good way. In a test between technique and industry, I’ll take the former every time. That said, it’s hard to explain why Spain struggle to score goals. The most obvious and partisan explanation is that opponents bunker in against them, which depresses scores. However, that doesn’t explain why Spain struggle to score, especially in first halves. Spain played seven knock-out matches in Euro ’08 and this World Cup. They did not concede a goal in any of those seven matches. However, they scored only eight goals, seven after halftime. It’s hard to pick on a team that just made history in all sorts of ways, but if Vicente del Bosque is looking for an area of improvement heading into the Euro ’12 cycle, he should be thinking about how Spain can get on the board in the first 45 minutes. Maybe the maturation of Pedro and Navas will give Spain the direct dribbler that the team needs on the right wing? Spain need something so they can score without having to wear their opponents down like the Red Army.

Van Bomination: I’ll repeat what I said on Saturday afternoon: this was the least likeable Dutch team of my lifetime. 13-year old Michael was captivated by Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten, and Koeman; I seriously doubt that there were many 13-year olds watching the match yesterday and deciding that they would cheer for the Dutch going forward. Jonathan Wilson nails it:

A fourth 1-0 win in a row doesn't tell the full story; Spain had none of the control it had possessed in the previous three rounds, as the Netherlands effectively kicked it out of its rhythm. An open extra time gave the game some credit, but this was a match ruined by Dutch brutality. Referee Howard Webb was booed by the crowd and will no doubt be harangued by pundits, but the greatest share of the blame belongs to the Netherlands and its negativity. The goodwill built up by years of attractive football was severely depleted by 120 sorry minutes. A more defensive approach is one thing; borderline anti-football is something else.
Rafael Hongstein hits a similar note:

For once, the Dutch will not be remembered as gallant losers but as the team that conspired to steal the World Cup from its rightful owners and nearly got away with it. It's a new sensation for the Dutch, an ample reflection of their new self-awareness as a team with obvious limitations. You might say it’s progress, of some sort. But it won't feel that way in Amsterdam on Sunday night.

Because I'm American, I need to think in list form: so where does this Spain team rank in terms of the best of all-time? I usually avoid discussing teams that came before I started watching the sport, so we're going to leave '70 Brazil, the Magnificent Magyars, and the Austrian Wunderteam out of the discussion. Before this tournament, I would have said that the '00 France side was the best international team that I have ever seen. (Cue an angry e-mail from Klinsi about '90 West Germany in 3, 2, 1...) The '98 side was very good, but lacked a little punch up front, as evidenced by their punchless performances against Paraguay and Italy when Zidane was suspended. The '00 side had the solidity of the '98 back line, but it added a more confident Henry and Trezeguet up front. This Spain side is right up there with the great France team. Yes, Spain won every knock-out game by a single goal, but thinking back, the '00 France team beat Spain 2-1 (with Raul missing a late penalty after some typical insanity from Fabien Barthez), Portugal on a penalty in extra time, and then Italy on an extra time winner from Trezeguet after a late equalizer (and a bad miss from Del Piero that would have put the game away for the Azzurri). The point is this: the margins in football are narrow and even the best teams play close games in the knock-out stages of international tournaments.

One final note: I bought Phil Steele on Saturday. Normal programming is right around the corner.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

It's the Netherlands and Spain, so I'll be Switzerland

I feel very conflicted as to whom I will root for tomorrow. This is the problem that a sports bigamist can have. I have rooted for Holland since 1988, when I watched the Dutch play in Euro '88. (The tournament wasn't on in the U.S., but we were in Israel for three weeks and then in London for several days, so I saw everything but the final. I read about the final in The Manchester Guardian, which my parents got for the crossword puzzles. And you wonder why I'm an Anglophile.) The Netherlands played attractive football, they had cool uniforms and players with cool hair, and most importantly, they beat the Germans in Hamburg. If I would have known at the time that Ronald Koeman celebrated by wiping his rear with a West German jersey, I might have moved to Amsterdam right then and there. My affection for the Dutch was cemented when we saw them three times in USA '94 in Orlando, concluding with a 2-0 spanking of an Ireland team that I detested for aesthetic reasons. (I defy any human being to watch Ireland-Norway from 1994 without falling into a coma.) The Dutch fans were outstanding. They were a singing carnival; everything good about SEC fans without the nasty side. I was humming the tune from the Aida march for the whole drive back to Macon.

Side note: for years after the tournament, the expression that my brothers and I used for ripping a shot from outside the box was "give it a bloody Jonking."

When I was picking a club team in the aftermath of USA '94, I picked Barcelona in part because of the Dutch connection. Cruyff had played there, he was the manager there, they played the Dutch 4-3-3, and they had won the European Cup on a goal by Ronald Koeman. Plus, in the same way that I liked the Dutch for their opposition to the Nazis, I liked Barca because of the club's history as a bulwark against Franco. Being a Dutch/Barca fan seemed to make a lot of sense.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. I've been rooting for the Dutch for over two decades. I've been rooting for Barca for over a decade, to the point where I spend more emotional energy supporting them than any other team other than Michigan football. Over the past five years, I've become especially attached to the current core of Barca players. You know, the guys who are going to be over half of Spain's starting lineup tomorrow. If Spain win, then Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta - the heart of the current Barca dynasty - are going to join the select group of Europeans who have won every major piece of silverware: their domestic competition, the European Cup, and the World Cup. Off the top of my head, we're only talking about the core of the West German/Bayern side from the 70s - Beckenbauer, Muller, Breitner, Hoeness, Maier - and the France side from the late 90s - Zidane, Henry, Desailly, and Thuram.

So here's the question: am I rooting for the uniforms or the players wearing them? My loyalty is to the Dutch. I had always hoped that they would win the World Cup at some point during my lifetime to reward a great collection of supporters and a culture that produces an obscene number of skilled players. A Dutch victory will validate that a small country doesn't need to play a conservative, limited style in order to compete, even if this is not the most expansive of Dutch teams.

However, I also have loyalty to and affection for the core Spain players. I watch these players once or twice a week for most of the year. With Michigan's football program attached to the bowl like a skid mark and Atlanta sports firmly in meh territory (subject to revision if the Braves keep playing like they have for the past two months), Barca have kept my sports sanity for the past two years. There have been more than a few occasions on which I've felt lucky that I liked Barcelona better than any other city in Europe when I was backpacking after graduating college in 1997.

This particular group of players are especially rootable. They play a passing style that is aesthetically appealing. They foul at a lower rate than other teams and rarely get carded. Their fundamental disposition is to attack, which means that they don't play boring games (as opposed to counter-attacking parasite sides that require the opponent to take risks for anything to happen). In contrast, this is harder Dutch team to love. I don't begrudge the fact that they play 4-2-3-1 in a relatively defensive fashion. Bert van Marwijk would be insane to throw everyone forward with his average back line. However, Mark van Bommel.

Arjen Robben is a diver with the most exaggerated pout I've seen since Bobby Hurley. Robin van Persie is a brat. Nigel de Jong broke Stuart Holden's leg. Jonny Heitinga is not good. I root for these guys when they put on the orange jersey, but I wouldn't choose to do so if they played for Neutral United.

So anyway, the only solution for my dilemma is not to make a decision. I'll just watch the match tomorrow with a smile on my face. I didn't like any of the teams that made the last four of the 2006 World Cup and, validating my opinion of those teams, the last three games were 1-0 on a penalty, 2-0 with both goals coming in the final five of 120 minutes, and 1-1 after 120 minutes with the most memorable event of the match being the best player of his generation imitating a Cape Buffalo. This tournament has been much better in terms of the quality of the knock-out matches and my favored teams winning, which I will of course view as being correlated. Rooting for two teams famed for getting their fans' hopes up with attractive displays and then crushing those hopes, usually in penalties, I never thought I would face the problem that has been flummoxing me for the past three days.

One final note: even though I did vote for Barack Obama, I would root for the U.S. over either the Netherlands or Spain.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

I'm Going with my Eight-Tentacled Friend

Nigel Powers’ Favorite Side

My friend Tom has two sports passions: Dutch soccer and Ohio State football. Needless to say, we see eye-to-eye on the former more than the latter. It occurred to me when I was talking to him on Friday afternoon that he should be familiar with the emotions that would be created by the Dutch winning the World Cup because this edition of the Oranje would become the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes. The ’02 Bucks were by no means the best Ohio State team of recent years. They were not especially talented (by Ohio State standards, anyway, and I’m mainly thinking about the skill positions) or impressive, but because of their Ecksteinian grit/luck, they went 14-0 and won Ohio State their only national title in the past 42 seasons. Forget the Clockwork Orange team of ’74, this Netherlands side is not as talented as the Koeman-Gullit-Rijkaard-van Basten generation of the late 80s or the Bergkamp-Overmars-Stam-de Boer-de Boer-Davids-van der Sar teams of the 90s. This team has two great players - Sneijder and Robben - and a bunch of functional parts that defend well. In other words, this team would be the last team that a Dutch fan would expect would bring the country its first World Cup, and yet here they are in a semifinal against Uruguay.

Speaking of Dutch teams of the past, I highly recommend Rafael Honigstein’s description of the myth of Total Football:

Claims that the Netherlands has now changed beyond recognition into a negative, cynical side are made only by those who wrongly bought into the opposite extreme of the Dutch as some sort of European Brazilians and eternal purveyors of the beautiful game before. In truth, they're no more defensive than 30 years ago; they've just found it very hard to break down opponents who have so far resisted from attacking them, unlike France and Italy in 2008.

"Beautiful football is difficult against teams who don't give you an inch of space," Wesley Sneijder said this week.

The fact that the Dutch have mostly grinded out victories does not reflect a diminished ambition or change of direction at all. It's merely been a function of coming up against deep-lying teams, difficult conditions (the heavy pitch in Port Elizabeth made it impossible for Robben to accelerate against Brazil in the quarterfinals) and not quite clicking up front.

There's every chance that all the obituary writers will quickly turn around to celebrate the resurrection of Total Football if a few well-executed attacking moves come off against limited Uruguay on Tuesday. Then we'll read that van Marwijk has given the team it's "true identity" back, and other nonsense. It's high time the old stereotypes were ditched, regardless of the result. Dutch soccer itself already did it a while back. Maybe the rest of the world should follow suit.

Leave it to a German to nail the Dutch just so.

The Brazil-Netherlands match was especially interesting to me because Brazil played against their reputation. Dunga’s teams are supposed to be athletic, sound defensively, impregnable in the air, and imbued by a winning mentality transmitted by their coach. Against Holland, Brazil were undone by a pair of crosses into the box, after which they panicked and turned into a bitching, unlikeable team. Was Brazil never as stout as we thought? Should we not read too much into what happens in 45 minutes of football, no matter how big the stage? I lean towards the latter. I love the World Cup as a sporting event, but I have to admit that a lot is made of very small sample sizes.

The Condor Legion Flies Again

I’m probably engaged in a bit of wishful thinking here to support Spain (my analysis is often at its worst when my rooting interests and my predictions dovetail), but I feel pretty good about Spain’s chances. Germany cannot possibly have another gear. They have played as well as possible for the past two matches, save for a ten minute spell when they lost the plot against England. However, they’ve been up against two teams that suited their style. England are more name than merit and Argentina, while individually talented, played a disjointed style that Alexi Lalas correctly derided as “sandlot.” (Never have I agreed so vigorously with Mr. Lalas.) Argentina was a perfect mark for an organized German team, especially with Javier Mascherano cutting a lonely figure as the only central midfielder on the pitch. Yes, I wish that I would have figured this out before the match, but if I would have trusted my gut from before the tournament when I took every opportunity to mock Maradona, the warnings were present.

Spain, on the other hand, have not gotten out of third gear. Moreover, there is an obvious solution for them: remove the restrictor plate that is Fernando Torres. Vicente del Bosque has been doing his best Bobby Cox impression in this tournament, sticking with Torres despite the facts that: (1) Spain obviously play better with one striker because the players they put on in place of the second striker give them width; and (2) Torres is hurt, bereft of confidence, or both. Over a long season, sticking with Torres makes sense. In a short knock-out tournament, Spain can’t wait for Fernando to come good, especially when he doesn’t have the greatest scoring record as an international to begin with. Spain could afford to piss away an hour against Portugal and Paraguay because those teams were not very threatening; they cannot do the same against Germany. I know this. Everyone covering Spain knows this. Paul the Octopus knows this. Will Spain’s manager figure this out? I’m guessing that he will.

So, imagine that Spain deploy their 4-2-3-1 with Xavi, Iniesta, and one of Pedro/Navas/Silva behind Villa. Now, you have a fast striker running at Germany’s slow-ish centerbacks. You have a proper winger to stretch the Germans horizontally. (Look at how much better Spain played when Pedro came on against the bunkering Paraguayans.) And then you have the in-form Iniesta on the left, attacking a centerback playing left back. Del Bosque has taken a lot of criticism for playing two defensive midfielders, but his system is just what the doctor ordered for dealing with Oezil and Schweinsteiger. And in the middle of the pitch, you have Xavi.

So yes, I’m doubling down on Spain. A team that has never won the World Cup or even played in a final. Against three-time champions and six-time finalists Germany. I never said that I made sense.

Nicky Santoro, Hawks Fan

My thoughts on the Joe Johnson contract:

Nicky: What the f*** is that supposed to mean? "He will be ejected from any casino in Las Vegas. And the casinos can be fined as much as ... every time he shows up." You believe this s***?

Ace: Yeah, I believe it. You got banned.

Nicky: "Because of notorious and unsavory reputation..." Motherf***er! Is there any way around this?"

Ace: No, there's no way.

Nicky: Let's say, for instance I wanna go in a restaurant, which happens to be in the casino to get one of those sandwiches I like?

Ace: Forget it. You can't even set foot in the parking lot. That's how serious it is.

Nicky: In other words, I'm f***ed.

Ace: In so many words, yes.