Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thomas Dimitroff: Mr. Jones and me Tell Each Other Fairy Tales

Here is the abstract of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler’s academic article regarding the value of NFL Draft picks:

A question of increasing interest to researchers in a variety of fields is whether the biases found in judgment and decision making research remain present in contexts in which experienced participants face strong economic incentives. To investigate this question, we analyze the decision making of National Football League teams during their annual player draft. This is a domain in which monetary stakes are exceedingly high and the opportunities for learning are rich. It is also a domain in which multiple psychological factors suggest teams may overvalue the chance to pick early in the draft.. Using archival data on draft-day trades, player performance and compensation, we compare the market value of draft picks with the surplus value to teams provided by the drafted players. We find that top draft picks are overvalued in a manner that is inconsistent with rational expectations and efficient markets and consistent with psychological research.

Massey and Thaler conclude that the most valuable picks in the Draft are second round picks because the players taken with those picks are closer to first rounder than one would think in terms of quality and they are significantly cheaper.  (Note: changes to the salary scale for rookies might alter the analysis.  Always in motion is the future.) 

Massey and Thaler’s conclusion is consistent with what our own senses can tell us about the most and least successful teams in the league.  Which teams are the best run teams in the NFL?  The Patriots and Steelers immediately come to mind.  Do those teams trade up into the top ten?  No.  The Steelers generally stay put and take players in the late first round spots that they invariably occupy; the Patriots actively try to trade down, as they did last night.  Conversely, the Redskins are probably the worst run team in the NFL and what is their usual strategy?  Mortgaging a quantity of picks for a few stars.  How does that work out for them?

With that context in mind, I have a simple question for Thomas Dimitroff: what the f*** are you doing?  You just traded two first round picks, one second round pick, and two fourth round picks for one player?  It’s painfully clear that the Falcons’ brass went down to the dealership, fell in love with one particular car, and let the salesman jack them for it. 

This approach would make sense if the Falcons were truly one player away from being a Super Bowl team, but their brass are letting a lucky season cloud their judgment.  The Birds were outgained on a per-play basis.  At best, they were a ten-win team masquerading as the #1 seed in the NFC and they were ruthlessly exposed as a pretender by the Packers.  There are needs all over the roster, starting with the fact that they have only one defensive end who can generate pressure and he is about to turn 33 years old.  Assuming for the sake of argument that the Falcons would have batted 50% on the fourth round picks, the Falcons just traded four players for one.  In the modern NFL, this is a smaller scale equivalent of the Herschel Walker trade or Mike Ditka giving up the Saints’ entire Draft for Ricky Williams. 

And the worst part is that Dimitroff is a good evaluator of talent.  I wouldn’t care about the Hawks giving up draft picks because they are going to waste those shots anyway.  Dimitroff knows how to grade players.  Unfortunately, it also appears that he didn’t learn everything about pick value from his former employer.

Look, I’m the same guy who thought that the Falcons were making a huge mistake when they drafted Matt Ryan, that Arthur Blank was overreacting to Vickkampf by rolling the dice on a great white hope because Ryan made good eye contact in his interview.  Three winning seasons later, it’s safe to say that that assessment was wrong.  However, I’m also the person who didn’t jump on the bandwagon when the team was winning in November and December.  I think I have a good handle of where the Falcons are as a team and they are not at the stage where they can sacrifice five picks for one player. 

Are you Arsenal in Disguise?

OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: sorry.  As a member of FC Barcelona, I want to apologize for the way some of the Barca players acted last night.  What should have been an advertisement for Spanish football turned into a farce, at least for the first half.  At their home ground, Real Madrid played as the most expensively assembled parked bus in the history of football.  Failing to break through, Barca’s players – mainly Busquets and Pedro – put on the worst acting job since Sophia Coppola in Godfather III.  The instances in which Barca players went down clutching their faces were just embarrassing.  I’m not going to sugarcoat a display that wouldn’t have convinced any American on the fence about footie to become a fan.

I’m also willing to acknowledge that the red card on Pepe was questionable.  It wasn’t as bad a call as the two English announcers claimed; I’m not willing to accept the judgment of commentators who come from a league where leg-breaking tackles are viewed as just getting stuck in.  However, it wasn’t an obvious red. 

All that said, Real Madrid folded like a cheap suit after going down to ten men, almost as if they wanted to be martyrs.  I’ve watched enough football to know that teams can respond to going a man down by playing harder and achieving the same level of performance with ten that they accomplished with eleven.  Hell, you only have to go back to the first game of this series to see a team respond with determination.  That’s why it was so strange to see Real roll over and let Barca end the tie in the first leg.  (Maybe they knew that Pepe is the linchpin of their approach to negating the Blaugrana, so without him for the remainder of the first leg and all of the second leg, they were f***ed.)  I expect Arsenal, a team that has made collapsing on the precipice of achieving something an annual event, to fold.  I don’t expect a Jose Mourinho-coached Real Madrid side to do the same.

The fact that Real played differently last night than they did in the first two matches was a theme even before Pepe was dismissed.  Los Merengues were strangely passive from the outset, allowing Barca time on the ball everywhere outside of the last third of the pitch.  Part of my pessimism going into the match was based on Real’s performance in the first half of the Copa del Rey Final, when Real were attacking Barca’s players with the ball, forcing turnovers, and creating scoring chances.  That aggression was absent last night.  I started asking myself “what is up Jose’s sleeve?  Is he killing time until he brings on Kaka with 20 minutes to go?  Is he playing for a 0-0 and will then turn his players loose at the Nou Camp?  Why is he taking that approach when he is facing a Barca side without Iniesta or any of its three left backs”  It occurred to me that I was assuming that every performance is the result of the manager’s decisions and pre-match speech, which is a fallacy.  Maybe the Real players were simply on top of their games in Valencia and are not in the same place at home?  Maybe players’ performances just vary from match to match and I’m trying to put order on a universe that rejects it.

Other random thoughts:

  • Barca and real have now combined for five goals in three matches.  Every goal has been scored by Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.  Not bad for two guys who at one time had the reputations of guys who don’t come up big in big games.


  • The most encouraging development for Barca going forward is that the last two matches have featured the return of David Villa to form.  Villa scored over the weekend and then he looked legitimately dangerous last night.


  • Real are a much deeper team than Barca.  Everyone assumed going into the match that Real stood a better chance of introducing a game-changing sub in the second half.  So naturally, the break-through was provided by Barca sub Ibrahim Affellay beating Marcelo and putting in a slick cross for Messi to touch under Casillas for the winner.


  • This game is going in Carles Puyol’s pantheon.  With Barca suffering a series of injuries to its left backs, Puyol was drafted into the position and barely put a foot wrong all day.  In the first half, Mesut Ozil – the player opposite Puyol - became a ghost, such that he was hauled off at the half.  In the second half, Puyol combined with Pique to snuff out any threat that Ronaldo might have presented.  Puyol’s performance also illustrates a factor that allows Barca to thrive with a short squad: the players are versatile.  Puyol can play anywhere on the back line.  The defensive midfielders can both play center back, as can left back Eric Abidal.  Iniesta can play midfield or forward.  Adriano was bought specifically because he can play anywhere.  This is how a team fights on three fronts with a relatively small band of participants.

Reactions elsewhere:

It’s rare that I’ll find myself agreeing with Marca after a Clasico, but kudos to that publication and its readers (I can smell Sandro Rosell showing up at my door to claim my card after typing those words) for not falling for Mourinho’s displaced anger:

Roberto Palomar referred to Mourinho's "Jurassic football" and claimed: "Mourinho has perverted history and has lost the emotional boost that used to go with taking the field at the Bernabéu in the European Cup. Before they played with a 12th man. Nowadays, with 10."

Fernando Carreño suggested that rather than complain about the refereeing, Madrid fans should question Pepe's studs-up challenge and Raúl Albiol's grabbing of Pedro Rodríguez's throat, ask why Kaká and Gonzalo Higuaín were left on the bench after dazzling against Valencia "or if the best that Real Madrid with a squad costing €500m can do is to leave the ball with the best ball-playing side in the world and play on the counterattack".

He went on: "To be forever complaining, and especially with complaints of this nature, doesn't seem to be a credible or acceptable posture" for someone in Mourinho's position. "Real Madrid, in my opinion, is a great club that deserves something better. If your approach is results-based and you don't get the result, what's left?"

In an online poll more than 72% of Marca's readers disagreed with Mourinho's comments that referees favoured Barcelona. (Some 78% felt Pepe's red card was correct.)

Jose, if your team is making no effort to score, then how much of a difference should it make if you are playing with eleven or ten for 25 minutes?

Michael Cox notes that Barca’s injuries worked to their advantage, forcing Guardiola to field a tougher, more defensive side:

Puyol and Keita were drafted into the side as something of an emergency, but in a tough, physical game like this, their strength came in handy. Puyol and Keita are much more physically imposing players than Adriano and Iniesta, and though there was less technical quality from those positions, it didn’t turn out too badly.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ese Portugues…

We all interpret events through our own experiences and emotions. That little truism partially explains why I like sports analysis that focuses on stats and x’s and o’s, as opposed to armchair psychology and moralistic judgment. (That one sentence explains why I barely listen to sports talk radio anymore.) It’s hard to infect a diagnosis of the Braves’ issues getting on base or the proper shape of Barca’s attacking three with personal biases. Anybody can prattle on about a team’s motivation going into a game; not everyone can do the intellectual heavy lifting to explain in technical terms whether that team is a favorite or an underdog.

Sometimes, however, a story comes along that begs for a little Herbstreitian coverage. Pep Guardiola’s verbal fusillade directed at Jose Mourinho yesterday is one such story. Here is what Guardiola said regarding Mourinho:

Tomorrow at 8.45, we will meet each other on the pitch. Off the pitch he has already won.

In this room [press room], he's the f*****g chief, the f*****g man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don't want to compete with him at all. It's a type of game I'm not going to play because I don't know how.

I won't justify my words. I congratulated Madrid for the cup that they won deservedly on the pitch and against a team that I represent and of which I feel very proud.

Off the pitch, he has already won, as he has done all year. On the pitch, we'll see what happens.

Guardiola usually takes a measured approach in his comments to the media. He rarely complains about officials, even when his team ends up on the short-end of the refereeing stick. He also rarely takes shots at opposing players or managers. Until yesterday, Guardiola had mostly ignored Mourinho’s typical bullshit.

Given the uncharacteristic nature of Pep’s remarks, my first thought when I read them was “on crap, the pressure is getting to Pep. Mourinho beat Barca in the Copa del Rey and now he is under Guardiola’s skin. It makes no sense to get in the mud with a pig.” Later in the evening, I read a few tweets from Guillem Balague and Sid Lowe, both of whom took the position that Guardiola is sending a message to his players: “we’re done with Real being the aggressors. I am going to stand up to Mourinho; you stand up to Pepe, Xabi Alonso, and Sergio Ramos.”

I came to the realization that my initial reaction was colored by my own pessimism about the match today. Barca are without all three of their established left backs, which will mean that Carles Puyol will have to be shifted out to the left and one of the team’s two defensive midfielders will have to go back into the center of defense. (Putting Puyol at left back addresses the weakness that Ronaldo exploited for the goal in the Copa del Rey Final. Ronaldo came in from the right win and outjumped Adriano to head in the winner. Puyol is much better in the air than Adriano or Maxwell.) Additionally, Andres Iniesta is out, which weakens Barca in the midfield and reduces their tactical options as the match progresses. Barca haven’t looked good for several matches, whereas the Real reserves just pummeled Valencia at the Mestalla, illustrating the gap in squad depth between Spain’s two giants. UEFA have picked Wolfgang Stark to ref the match, which isn’t a good draw because he is a relatively permissive ref. And looming over the proceedings is Mourinho and two painful memories for Barca fans: the 4-2 loss at Stamford Bridge in 2005 and the 3-1 loss at the San Siro last year.

Maybe it’s recency taking over and I’m ignoring the fact that any team bringing Messi, Villa, Pedro, Xavi, Busquets, Mascherano, Puyol, Pique, Dani Alves, and Valdes into a match stands a pretty good chance of winning. The last time that Barca went into a match as the underdog (as Guardiola has portrayed them) was the Champions League Final in 2009, a match in which the Blaugrana produced a performance that will go on this team's "Best of All Time" application. The last time that the Blaugrana were eliminated by a Mourinho team in the Champions League, they won the rematch the next year with a famous 1-2 win at Stamford Bridge and then a 1-1 draw at home. Either of the results of the last two matches against Real over 90 minutes - 1-1 and 0-0 - would be good, so it's not like Real have shown anything other than the ability to play on even terms with Barca. Still, I can’t shake feelings of dread and that was the filter through which I heard Guardiola’s remarks. The (banal?) point here is that what we hear is determined by where we are intellectually and emotionally.

Now, go out there and shut Jose up, will you boys? To paraphrase Senator Martin from Silence of the Lambs, send this thing back to England.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quick Thought on the Braves

The Braves' three-game winning streak ended last night at Petco Park. Likewise, the team's improved patience at the plate that saw them walk 16 times in three game against the defending world champions disappeared, as the Braves managed to go for an entire 13-inning game without getting a single free pass. The series against the Padres matches the teams with the two lowest on-base percentages in the NL. Not surprisingly for two teams that can't get on base, the Braves are 14th in the NL in runs per game and the Padres are dead last. Also not surprisingly, two teams that combine to average 6.71 runs per game were 3-3 at the end of nine innings.

Based on a subjective feeling that the Braves are hacking at everything, I expected to look at the league offensive numbers and see the team at the bottom of the NL in walks. That's not the case. The Braves are fifth in the NL in walks, while the similarly punchless Padres are second. The problem with these teams' offenses is not that they are hacking at everything; it's that they aren't getting hits when they put balls in play, as they are 15th and 16th in the NL in BABIP. Now, I only know enough about advanced baseball stats to be dangerous to myself, but doesn't this imply that both teams are a little unlucky? I know that BABIP isn't a luck issue for batters the same way it is for pitchers, but there has to be something of a luck element going on here. The Braves are second in the NL in homers, they're fifth in walks, and they're right at league average in strikeouts. Their three true outcomes are indicative of a team that should be a little above average in offense, not scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Anyway, these are the things I tell myself after they scored three runs in 13 innings.

Barnhart Unloads

So Tony, what do you really think about Ohio State's descent into NCAA hell?

As of this moment all of my friends from the Big Ten are on notice. And you know who you are. You are the ones who call and write constantly about the (expletive) Southeastern Conference and claim with such confidence that the only reason the SEC has been so successful (five straight national championships and counting) is that its schools are ethically challenged and have their priorities misplaced.

You are the ones who talk about the Big Ten schools in hushed, reverent tones and use terms such as "greater academic mission." Your schools are not football factories like ours in the great, unwashed South. Your schools would never cut ethical corners like we do down here, where you believe our motto is: "If you ain't cheatin' you ain't trying." You look down your collective noses at us.

Give me a freaking break.

I don't want to hear any more lectures on ethics or morals or accountability from that part of the world -- not if Jim Tressel returns as Ohio State's football coach this season.

If a Southern football coach did what Tressel did, which was to engage in an orchestrated coverup of potential NCAA violations, the calls for his firing would have been immediate and would have come from sea to shining sea, especially from the Big Ten. And they would be right.

I can’t really disagree, although I would add one point that Michigan fans - in our snooty, ivory tower, condescending manner – have made for years: Ohio State is the school in the Big Ten that would fit in perfectly in the SEC. Same uncomfortably rabid fan base. Same prioritization of winning over all else. Same “screw yer book-learnin’!” mentality. I suspect that Penn State fans would make the same criticism. How much of this criticism is grounded in reality and how much is just displaced anger that the Bucks have been clobbering Michigan and (to a lesser degree) Penn State on the field is anyone’s guess. That said, the overall point is that Ohio State’s scandal does not reflect a systemic problem in the Big Ten; it reflects a systemic problem at Ohio State. The Big Ten has other systemic problems (mediocre coaches, declining talent base, Gerry Dinardo), but a casual attitude to NCAA compliance isn’t one of them.

Barnhart’s column also has a whiff of a preemptive strike. There isn’t so much smoke coming from the Plains as a plume of radioactive waste. (Happy 25th anniversary, Chernobyl!) If prior history is any guide, Auburn will go down and take everyone they can with them. Every little morsel of dirt that they can find on their rivals (especially that rival in Tuscaloosa) will come out. What Mike Slive had successfully avoided for most of his tenure, but is now confronting is a repeat of the 80s and 90s where SEC teams turned one another in in a never-ending spiral of allegations. With media interest in the SEC at an all-time high, the prospect of multiple scandals looms. Barnhart knows this, which is why playing the “you’re dirty, too!” card, early and loudly, makes sense.

Monday, April 25, 2011

That was Great, Part One

I got a kick out of going for a run and listening to Bill Simmons' playoff preview podcast yesterday. Much of the discussion was about how great the Heat-Celtics and Bulls-Magic series would be in the East. Simmons was incredulous when John Hollinger gave the Hawks a chance against the Magic, even when Hollinger explained that Jason Collins gave the Hawks a chance because of his ability to get under Dwight Howard's skin. I'll admit that incredulity is the right response whenever Jason Collins is mentioned as the key to anything, but lo and behold, the regular season was not a fluke. The Hawks went 3-1 against the Magic in the season and are now up 3-1 in the playoffs.

Despite the regular season series, this playoff series is still jarring to me. The last Hawks game I attended was game three against the Magic last year. That game (combined with the resulting decisions to keep the roster intact by mortgaging the future for Joe Johnson and to promote Larry Drew to head coach) killed my affection for the team. Judging by attendance this year, I'm certainly not alone in that feeling. It's quite a turn of events to go from being swept by 101 points to being 3-1 and having been in charge for most or all of all four games. Again, I'm not the only one who has this feeling, as the crowds for games three and four have been outstanding. Hawks fans aren't consistent in our support, but if the team gives us a reason (like, say, winning game one in Orlando), we're perfectly capable of making Philips a hostile venue for a visitor.

(Related point: Joe Johnson had some nerve to criticize the fans after his woeful performance against the Magic last year. He evidently didn't learn his lesson because Ric Bucher relayed in a sideline report on Friday that Johnson told him that Johnson was hoping that there would be more Hawks fans than Magic fans at the game. I can say from first-hand experience that there were not a lot of Magic fans at the series last spring. The Magic fans might have seemed louder because it's hard to cheer when you're down 52-33 at the half.)

To me, the 180 degree reversal is down to three factors. First, as mentioned before, the Jason Collins effect is significant. Atlanta Spirit gets rightly criticized for not rounding out the roster with useful bench pieces, but Collins has proven himself to be useful against Orlando, so that's something. Second, Larry Drew's decision not to double-team Howard has been a good one. Mike Woodson had Collins available and never used him in this role, instead employing the double-teaming strategy that never worked against the Magic. Third, going from Mike Bibby to Kirk Hinrich has been a major improvement defensively. The Magic got open threes against the Hawks in part because of doubling Dwight and in part because Jameer Nelson could get into the lane at will. The latter avenue is now gone. Nelson's assist numbers in this year's series are almost the same as his numbers from last year, but his shooting percentage has dropped from .565 to .355. That seems relevant in a series in which most of the games have been tight.

Random Thoughts:

Just when I thought that I couldn't love Zaza any more, he goes and does this:

The leaning quasi-headbutt is a classic Euro soccer move. Jason Richardson never received the memo that the correct response would have been to throw himself to the floor as if hit by a cross-bow and then wait for the stretcher/blanket combo. I suspect that Zaza delivered three headbutts because he was so shocked at the lack of victim theatrics from Richardson after the first delivery. In the end, the Magic were denied their second-leading scorer for game four. The best part is that the whole fracas started because of a punk move by Howard, so the Hawks get to claim a piece of the moral high ground.

If Joe Johnson put on the worst contract-drive performance in last year's Orlando series, then Jamal Crawford is putting on one of the best. If the Hawks can re-up with Crawford for a reasonable price, then they should do so, but I suspect that the price is going too high with this performance. I suppose the decision will come down to how the Hawks finish out this series and then perform against the Bulls in round two. If the Hawks give a good account of themselves against the Bulls, then keeping the team together might make some sense. If not, then it will be clear that the Hawks simply had a hex on the Magic this year and a re-tool might be in the cards.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Hawks either take the Bulls to the limit or actually upset them and make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. This ought to be a great selling point for Atlanta Spirit to get the market re-engaged with the team. On the other hand, the Hawks will have performed at a high level in the playoffs after an uninspired regular season. So how do you sell tickets for next season when the lesson from this season is that nothing matters until the team turns on the jets in April?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Question for Fredi

Like your team, the Dodgers have a top-heavy lineup. You're in the 12th inning. One of the Dodgers' two good hitters just doubled with one out. Their other good hitter, a guy hitting .411, is at the plate. The next three guys in the order are batting .221, .000 (the pitcher is second in the sequence), and .190. (My apologies for using batting averages after complaining about Mark Bradley doing the same. I am doing this on the run.) First base is open and you lose if you give up any runs in the inning, so there is no difference between having one runner on or two runners on.

So, with this in mind, how in the world do you let Cristhian Martinez pitch to Matt Kemp so he can give up the winning home run? Is there some law that says that Braves managers have to make atrocious bullpen decisions in the last game of a series at Chavez Ravine?

The Morning S***list

Comcast - I can't comment on the first 55 minutes of the Copa del Rey Final. Why? Because I ordered a new DVR receiver from Comcast before going out of town last Friday and they neglected to inform me that when they send a new receiver, they disable the old one remotely. So, when I got home yesterday, the cable box wasn't working and I did not have a recording for the Final. By the time I was able to talk to a "customer service" representative to sort the issue out, I was only able to pick-up the replay midway through. But hey, they took $5 off my bill, so it's all worthwhile!

ESPN3 - My first impulse when I realized the impact of Comcast's perfidy was to try to watch a replay of the game online, but neither of the links on ESPN3 were working. Helpfully, ESPN3 had a picture of the trophy with white ribbons on one of their broken replay pages, so I had a good idea as to the eventual victor before I started watching.

Me - I was a pouty bitch about not getting to watch the match in proper circumstances. Domestic hilarity ensued.

Cristiano Ronaldo - It's not enough that Barca had to lose a cup final to their arch rivals, but they did so to a Ronaldo goal. Playing Javier Mascherano at center back is probably the right move for Pep Guardiola because Busquets and Pique are too slow a pairing to function, especially against a fast counter-attacking side. The downside is that Mascherano is not a big guy. Thus, losing to a headed goal was not that surprising.

My Intellectual Honesty - I have evolved into a college football/European footie fan for a variety of reasons. One of the major reasons is that these are the two major sports that don't have the absurd American structure of ignoring a large sample size and putting outsized importance on a short playoff at the end of a long season. That said, Barca's season of over 60 matches is going to rise or fall on two games: the Champions League semifinal legs against Real Madrid. Win those and the season is a success (even if Barca are upset in the Champions League Final, although I suppose the manner of the match will matter). A domestic title, two cup finals, and taking two of three from Mourinho's Real would be a great season. Lose the tie and the season, while not a total failure, will come with a bitter aftertaste. The season (or at least the second half of the season) all built towards these four matches against Real. It cannot be an unqualified success if it ends in failure against the arch enemy. I hate this line of thinking because it throws away so much good work, but that's how I feel right now and I doubt that I'm alone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick Thoughts ahead of Round Two

My thoughts on the first of the four Clasicos came out in a stream on my Twitter feed. Overall, Real were the slightly better team, as one might expect when they are playing at the Bernabeu. Jose Mourinho learned his lesson in November and set out his team to defend with a central defender - Pepe - as the anchor in the midfield and then two ostensible defensive midfielders - Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira - next to him. Real were very aggressive and denied the Barca midfield the chance to impose their will on the game. As a result, David Villa was relatively quiet and Pedro was positively absent. Because Leo Messi now drops back towards the midfield to get the ball, he was able to play a role, but he didn't have the space and time that Real afforded him in the first leg.

Issues for Jose

The problems for Mourinho are four-fold. First, he showed his hand - three defensive midfielders and a long-ball strategy - in the first game without accomplishing what he needed, which was a win to keep Real in the hunt for La Liga. Second, his team got better in the later stages of the game when Mourinho put Mesut Ozil into the mix, so how does he involve Ozil while still screening his back line and choking the midfield? Who goes to the bench to make way for the one guy who can link defense and attack and thereby prevent Real from being a long-ball team? (Problems one and two are odds with one another. If Mourinho makes changes to incorporate Ozil, then he hasn't really presented a stationary target for a Guardiola counter, now has he?) Third, Real's strategy worked so well in no small part because they were at home. Buoyed by a great crowd, Real's midfielders were full-blooded in their challenges. Will they have the same edge at the Mestalla or the Nou Camp? Fourth, there is a Brazilian saying that soccer is like being under a short blanket on a cold night. If you pull the blanket up, then your feet are cold; if you cover your feet, then your shoulders are cold. (HT: Tim Vickery.) Mourinho gave his team bite by putting Pepe into the midfield, but doing so brought Raul Albiol into the team, and Albiol committed the stupid red card foul that gave Barca their goal. Now, Albiol is out of the Copa del Rey Final and Ricardo Carvalho is out of the first leg of the Champions League semifinal. Does Mourinho move Pepe back into defense or does he roll the dice with someone like Ezequiel Garay?

Issues for Pep

With a more set approach to football, Guardiola won't be thinking as much about strategic of tactical changes in advance of today's game, but he will have some concerns. First, he has another misfiring striker. I was one of those people who thought that David Villa would be a massive upgrade over Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even a slight upgrade over Samuel Eto'o (or at least a push), but Villa picked an awfully bad time to go on a ten-game scoreless run. Villa did set up the Barca goal by beating Albiol and getting dragged to the turf by the neck, but he was ineffective for most of the rest of the game. Specifically, he had a good chance at 0-1 to put the game away after a feed from Messi and he shot straight at Iker Casillas. Villa seems to be lacking in confidence in the finishing department. My saving thought is that Eto'o was in the same place heading into the 2009 Champions League Final and then scored the opener of a 2-0 win with a nice move. Second, what does Guardiola do if he has to split up the Puyol-Pique pairing? The team suffered when Busquets was moved back into defense when Puyol had to come off on Saturday. Does he make the same move again, or does he deploy the shorter, faster Javier Mascherano now that Masch is done with his suspension? Third, how much does Guardiola worry about today's match going to penalties? You think that Mourinho isn't thinking about setting out a defensive side that can get a 0-0 or a 1-1 over 120 minutes? Isn't that always the refuge of the coach in a cup final with the inferior side? All of Barca's advantages in controlling play go out the window if the match comes down to kicks from 12 meters. Does Pep encourage his team to take risks to avoid that result? Or does he comfort himself with the knowledge that Jose Manuel Pinto - Barca's designated Copa del Rey keeper - has a better record stopping spot kicks than Iker Casillas?

Dare I Dream?

In the aftermath of last weekend's events, I am starting to think about the possibility that Jose Mourinho will leave Real Madrid after one year without a trophy. As great as another Barca treble would be (or even a La Liga/Champions League double), it would be even sweeter if the end result would be Mourinho going back to Italy or England with his tail between his legs. Before last weekend, I would have dismissed that possibility. A fallow season would just cause Mourinho to dig in and try even harder. However, consider the events of the last week:

1. In one of his typically petulant displays, Mourinho refused to answer questions from the media last Friday. Dozens of members of the Spanish media walked out on Jose, so when he fielded questions after the match on Saturday, he refused to talk to those journalists. I thought it impossible that Jose could turn Marca and AS against him, but that is now a possibility.

2. Mourinho deployed a defensive approach against Barca, leading club legend Alfredo di Stefano to write a scathing column stating, among other things, that Barca played like lions and Real played like mice. This would be like Joe DiMaggio criticizing the Yankees in the 70s; it's a very big deal. Moreover, I suspect that di Stefano is in the Jorge Valdano camp at Real, so the column is likely a shot across the bow from figures at the club.

3. Mourinho has enrolled his kids at a school in Milan.

I'm not suggesting that Real are going to fire Mourinho, even if Los Meregues are kocked out of the Copa del Rey and Champions League by Barca. Florentino Perez may be many things, but he's not an idiot. However, things could get a little dicey such that Mourinho feels like he isn't getting sufficient support from the club. If that happens and Chelsea or Inter are waiting with open arms, then he might leave. At that point, I will do a one-person parade down Ponce de Leon Avenue in a full kit, chanting obscenities in other languages.

And now, enjoy a shot of Real fans with a blow-up Shakira.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Let’s Play Four

If you are the slightest bit footie-curious, I implore you to check out one of the four Barcelona-Real Madrid matches that will be played over the next three weeks.  The two hated rivals will meet on Saturday in Madrid in the league, then on Wednesday in Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey (the Spanish domestic cup), and then twice in the Champions League: April 27 in Madrid and then May 3 in Barcelona.  The first two games are on GolTV; the last two will be on Fox Soccer Channel, which will find itself in the comfortable position of having to acknowledge that the two best teams in the world play their football outside of the English Premier League. 

If you want previews, then you’ve come to the right place.  The best of the bunch is this piece by Guillem Balague, who breaks down the form of the teams coming into the four-game series.  He suggests that Jose Mourinho learned his lesson in November when Los Meregues took an epic hiding:

Mourinho learned his lesson at the Camp Nou in the 5-0 defeat when he tried to go toe to toe with Barcelona, attempting to impose their own game on the homes side as if they were visiting any team.

At that time, Madrid were top of the table and after a few short months building a side, felt that they could go out and play their own game against Barcelona. That won't happen again and if that means prioritising stopping Barcelona, focusing on breaking up their opponents game first, that Mourinho will do what needs to be done.

Mourinho has proven in the past that he has the blueprint for frustrating Barcelona and he will have a plan for every game. Barcelona will more or less approach all four games the same way. Will the same plan work for times in a row? Or will the side that mixes things up and springs the odd surprise come out on top?

If Mourinho follows suit, then we will have classic match-up between a pressing, offensive team and a defense, counter-attacking side.  The saying in boxing is that styles make fights; the same is true in soccer.  If you get two counter-attacking teams together, then nothing happens.  (See Manchester United at Marseille in the Champions League if you want a good example, or any one of the Mourinho versus Benitez Liverpool-Chelsea s*** on a stick ties.)  If you get a counter-attacking team against a team that tries to impose itself on the opponent, then you get a back-and-forth treat. 

Then again, one wonders whether Mourinho will show his full hand in the first game this weekend.  Objectively, the league match is the least important of the four.  Barca are eight points ahead of Real and will hold the tie-breaker – head-to-head scoring margin – unless they lose by five or more at the Bernabeu.  (Guardiola’s Barca have never lost a match by more than two goals.)  They can lose the match and still be in a comfortable position heading into the final six games, especially in light of the fact that Barca have played all of the other contenders in La Liga home and away, so their run-in is fairly easy.  Subjectively, the La Liga match is important for psychological reasons.  Sid Lowe ponders:

One of the fascinating thing about this series of games is that question of interdependence, the extent to which every game is conditioned by every other game. Emotionally, physically, tactically. How much does every game affect the next? Will there be trump cards that are held back, ready to be played at certain times, rather than wasted on one match? All the questions that are asked before any clásico are multiplied now. And, at the risk of reading too much into it, at going too far, there are many more. Psychologically, the intrigue, is extraordinary. The strategy is seductive. The mental battle could be mesmerizing, the pressure intense.

How different will each game be? And how different will each game become as a result of the one before -- will plans change as results and expectations do? The question begs to be asked: to what extent is the approach to each game is conditioned by the next? When rotations are employed, that question is always valid: now it becomes more pertinent than ever before. Does Guardiola trust the fact that, on the face of it, his starting XI is stronger? Does Mourinho take comfort in a bigger and better squad? Will he rotate within these games?

The first game looks the least relevant. Is it in fact, the most? The game that sets a tone for the whole series? One Barcelona player recently admitted that he thinks Madrid is under huge mental pressure because it has now lost five consecutive clásicos and was defeated 5-0 in November. How much greater that pressure must be with four in two weeks, and yet how much quicker it offers a chance for redemption. Meanwhile, if Madrid breaks that run in the first game, does it break it for all the rest? To use the Spanish phrase, would that mean the pressure catching the Puente aéreo, the flight that connects Spain's two biggest cities? How easy will the teams find it to assimilate defeats and draws as they prepare for the next match?

Part of what is so exciting about the four-game sequence is that it is a rare occasion in which soccer will be like the NBA Playoffs.  For an analytical standpoint, the best aspect of a NBA playoff series is the chess-match that goes on over a number of games.  Soccer has more of a tactical element than basketball (or maybe I just understand soccer tactics better than basketball tactics), so the back and forth between Guardiola and Mourinho will be fascinating.  With Michael Cox not yet having weighed in, here are my thoughts on the most interesting tactical issues:

1. What has Barca learned from the loss to Inter at the San Siro?  Let’s assume that Mourinho learned that he can’t go toe-to-toe with Barca and is going to play the same, counter-attacking style that he deployed with great success at Inter last year.  Mourinho kept a tight, defensive formation with two defensive midfielders protecting the back four and then he took advantage of Xavi and Iniesta not tracking back defensively.  If Mourinho takes the same approach this time around and asks Meszut Ozil to play the role of Wesley Sneijder, what is Barca’s response?  In the first clasico in November, Ozil was a spectator because Barca completely dominated the midfield battle.  So what happens if Jose concedes the midfield battle from the outset and simply looks to counter?  And when Pep responds, what is Mourinho’s counter to the counter.  I suppose you can see how this would excite me in the same way that Saban versus Meyer in the SEC Championship Game did.

2. Where does Mourinho deploy Cristiano Ronaldo?  Ronaldo can play on either wing.  Although he had been playing for Real on the left, Mourinho deployed Ronaldo on the right side of Real’s attack in the first match in November.  Jose was probably thinking that Ronaldo isn’t known for his defensive ability and he wanted his better-rounded winger – Angel Di Maria – on the left to track Dani Alves.  This move shows Mourinho’s reactive nature, but unlike most of his moves, it backfired because it neutered his best offensive threat.  Real have been playing well in 2011 and the strength of the team has been Ronaldo combining with left back Marcelo on the left.  This deployment is powerful offensively, but suspect defensively. 

Normally, that sort of left side would be suicide against Barca because Dani Alves will run rampant against it, but here’s the rub.  Barca normally get away with Dani Alves playing offensively because they have a mobile center back – either Carles Puyol or, this season, Eric Abidal – to cover.  Puyol in particular has a good history of putting Ronaldo in his back pocket and also getting under Cristiano’s skin.  Now, Puyol has been out since January with a mystery knee condition and Abidal is out recovering from a liver tumor.  (Not your every day item to list on an injury report:  Puyol, knee; Pedro, hamstring; Abidal, liver tumor.)  With Gabi Milito having lost all semblance of form and the youth team prospects – Bartra, Fontas, and Muniesa – not ready for prime time, Barca have been forced to deploy their defensive midfielders as center backs.  Sergio Busquets has revealed himself to be a tad slow for the position, while Javier Mascherano is short.  (Mascherano is also suspended for Saturday.)  Thus, if Mourinho goes with his offensive left side, he should be attacking a vulnerable Barca defense.  Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), he can pin Dani Alves back, a tactical gambit that worked against Ashley Cole in Inter-Chelsea last year and therefore denied Chelsea their source of width.  So, does Jose go for it or does he remain reactive?  And if he does go for it, does he wait for the second match?  Or the third?  Does he run the risk of waiting too long and then deploying his offensive side only after Puyol comes back

3. How much do the teams rotate?  As Lowe noted, Barca have the stronger starting XI and Real have the deeper squad.  Normally, this would favor Barca over a short haul and Real over a lengthy season, but that hasn’t played out.  (I’d argue that Barca’s offensive approach as compared to Real’s conservatism is more important, as Barca has avoided the 0-0s and 1-1s that have killed Real in La Liga.)  That said, four high-intensity matches in 18 days will test the depth of the two teams.  Barca are not going to rotate much.  The question is whether Real will rotate with the hope that by the third and fourth matches – the most important of the quartet – they are fresher and have an advantage.  Mourinho has three options at striker, he has Kaka as an extra option in offensive midfield, he has two defensive midfielders, two left backs, and multiple mix-and-match options at center back.  With the Abidal and Puyol injuries, Guardiola’s options are limited to two left backs and possibly playing Keita in midfield with Iniesta moving into the forward line in place of Pedro.  (One additional note: after looking at Real's and Barca's squad stats, it’s hard to tell a difference in terms of depth.  Both teams have six players who have started at least 35 matches.  In fact, Barca have 15 players who have started at least ten matches while Real have nine.  Do we have a possible myth?)

In the words of Ron Burgundy, let’s do this.  No comment on whether Cristiano Ronaldo would approve of the one ground rule of “no touching of the hair or face.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Braves’ Lineup and Sports Media in General

When I saw the Braves’ batting lineup on Opening Day, it didn’t take 140 characters to convey disappointment:

My first ever Fredi complaint: McLouth hitting second?

After Joe Sheehan wrote in Sports Illustrated that Gonzalez was making a mistake by putting his best hitter so low and his worst hitter (or one of his worst hitters) so low, Rob Neyer has also made this point, although he downplays the significance of the batting order:

Of course, you know as well as David Schoenfield that it really makes little difference where McLouth and Heyward bat. Granted, McLouth's will cost the Braves a few runs over the course of the season if he stays in the No. 2 slot all season. Which he won't. And Heyward might account for two or three more runs if he were batting third or fourth rather than sixth. But the odds against the Braves missing a playoff spot because of Fredi Gonzalez's batting orders -- as opposed to the players he actually uses -- are exceptionally long.

Really, this is about aesthetics more than anything. It just looks wrong for McLouth to be listed four slots ahead of Heyward. And yes, I wish Gonzalez would stop it. If only because we don't get to see Heyward hit quite as often. And because we have to watch McLouth bat more.

An interesting discussion ensued in the comments section.  As I read the article, I thought to myself that this is a good indication that sports media is far, far ahead of where it was when I was becoming a baseball fan in the 80s, let alone what the media must have been like during baseball’s glory days.  (You know, the era when the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers played in the World Series every year, because the true test for a sports league is whether the teams in Gotham are doing well.)  Not only do we understand baseball much better now as a result of the proliferation of sabermetric analysis, but that analysis has infiltrated a number of different platforms.  Thus, if I’m dissatisfied that AJC columnists still talk in terms of batting averages, I have a plethora of options, both team-specific and national-oriented.  You have a relatively minor issue like Jason Heyward’s spot in the batting order and a number of smart takes on it.

The Heyward issue reminds me of a terrific piece by James Fallows in last month’s Atlantic about the changes to political media.  Fallows is generally excellent at exploding hysteria-producing myths (his writing about China is excellent and it led to a terrific piece about America's strengths and weaknesses) and his piece on the media was no different.  He does a nice job of attacking the notion that we are somehow less informed now because of the media:

[Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard] added that since the 1940s, political scientists had tried to measure how well American citizens understood the basic facts and concepts of the nation and world they live in. “It actually is a constant,” she said. “There is a somewhat intractable low level of basic political knowledge.” When I asked Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at UC San Diego, whether changes in the media had made public discussion less rational than before, he sent back a long list of irrationalities of yesteryear. One I remembered from my youth: the taken-for-granted certainty among some far-right and far-left groups in the 1960s (including in my very conservative hometown) that Lyndon Johnson had ordered the killing of John Kennedy. One I had forgotten: Representative John Anderson of Illinois, who received nearly 6 million votes as an Independent presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, three times introduced legislation to amend the Constitution so as to recognize the “law and authority” of Jesus Christ over the United States.

Fallows then identifies four potential problems with the direction of media before proceeding to cite potential evolved responses that can address them:

If we accept that the media will probably become more and more market-minded, and that an imposed conscience in the form of legal requirements or traditional publishing norms will probably have less and less effect, what are the results we most fear? I think there are four:

that this will become an age of lies, idiocy, and a complete Babel of “truthiness,” in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts;

that the media will fail to cover too much of what really matters, as they are drawn toward the sparkle of entertainment and away from the depressing realities of the statehouse, the African capital, the urban school system, the corporate office when corners are being cut;

that the forces already pulverizing American society into component granules will grow all the stronger, as people withdraw into their own separate information spheres;

and that our very ability to think, concentrate, and decide will deteriorate, as a media system optimized for attracting quick hits turns into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole, making every individual and collective problem harder to assess and respond to.

It’s an interesting exercise to apply these elements to sports media, if for no other reason than to illustrate that sports fans seem to have fewer of the qualms about the direction of media than political junkies.

1. Truthiness – there is a certain validity to this criticism.  With every team having its own media apparatus, we have evolved into a post-modern world where all the truth adds up to one big lie.  Yahoo! publishes a heavily-researched series of pieces illustrating that USC was looking the other way as Reggie Bush got improper benefits, so the rest of the college football world nods its collective head at the Trojans’ ultimate punishment while the USC fan media refuses to go along and thereby provides its readers with the content to reject what everyone else accepts.  This pattern plays out with every college football team that finds itself under the NCAA microscope.  That said, this just doesn’t seem to be a big issue because fans can differentiate between USC’s Rivals site and credible media outlets.  At the end of the day, USC fans can think that they were railroaded, while everyone else dismisses that position as self-interested claptrap.  Is that any different than how things would have been before the media avalanche?

2. Too much fluff – yes, there is plenty of sports fluff (watch College Gameday if you disagree), but there has always been sports fluff.  The difference now is that there are more outlets competing for eyeballs, so there is far more material with substance.  AS a Michigan fan, I’m privileged to get to read MGoBlog’s UFRs after every game.  For those of us who want analysis that goes deeper than “Michigan State was the tougher team,” there are a wealth of options.  And moving away from x’s and o’s to macro issues, there is far more investigative work done now by outlets like Yahoo! than there ever was before.  The various scandals that have broken in college football over the past several months have led to several writers questioning whether the sport is destroying itself, but what we’re really seeing is the net result of an increase in scrutiny because there are more media outlets covering the sport.  A little more attention and transparency are not bad things.

3. Balkanization – Let’s see, we have ESPN, which covers just about every major sport in depth and employs a small army of writers.  We have Sports Illustrated, which has gone from a weekly magazine to a weekly magazine plus a detailed web site that has a number of talented sport-specific writers.  We have Yahoo!, CBS Sports, SB Nation, and Deadspin.  These are all national sites.  The avalanche of media includes a bevy of team-specific entities, but it has also increased the volume of national coverage.  There are plenty of outlets to suck fans into the vortex of national issues.  Fans are now like the yeoman farmers of the first half of the 19th century who feared that the national economy would pull them out of their traditional existence; for better or worse, we are pulled into a world where we all have opinions on Brett Favre.

4. The Continual Distraction Machine – Mrs. B&B is surely nodding her head right now.  On the one hand, this is a valid criticism.  As opposed to going to games and paying attention to the actual contest, we are now distracted by our smart phones, Kiss Cam, the cheerleaders, and t-shirt cannons, among other niceties.  We’re less likely to come out of a game thinking “man, we should have run more screen-and-rolls with Hinrich and Horford.”  On the other hand, if the criticism is that media is trending towards shorter, fluffier articles, then I’m not inclined to buy that criticism in a world of and

In sum, despite the fact that I devote a good chunk of this blog to media criticism, I see the progression of sports media has being very positive.  We have more choices and content from which to choose.  Moreover, with fewer barriers to entry, the current sports media universe is more likely to produce and reward superior writers because consumers can choose winners with clicks as opposed to editors choosing winners based on who interviews the best.  The question that now arises is whether these same positive developments apply to coverage of weightier issues, or if political media is inherently different than sports media.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Please Hit More

The Braves are ten games into the season and have scored 32 runs. They have scored two or fewer runs in six of those ten games. The team hasn't scored a run for Derek Lowe since the second inning of his first start. Our first baseman has a .219 slugging percentage. Our second baseman is only marginally better. Our centerfielder is hitting about how we all expected he would (.575 OPS) and yet the manager hits him second, while the team's best hitter - Jason Heyward - languishes at sixth in the order. (Joe Sheehan has a blurb in this week's Sports Illustrated about how this is an indefensible decision by Fredi Gonzalez.) The bench has provided two hits in 23 at-bats. The Braves are dead-last in the NL in on-base percentage a year after finishing first in that category.

All we can say to ourselves is "it's early." Mark Bradley chimes in with a useful reminder that last year's 91-win team also didn't hit early:

Through 10 games, the 2011 Braves are hitting .229, which is lousy. The 2010 Braves were hitting .227 as April ended, and that was a larger sample set (23 games). The 2010 Braves were 9-14 after the season’s first month and looked as dead as a team can look. Four key players — Troy Glaus, Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz and Nate McLouth — carried averages under .200.

Two issues here. One, I wish that Bradley would use a better stat than batting average. Two, while the Braves did improve offensively in 2010 after a very slow start, none of the four players whom Bradley lists ended up having good season. Glaus gave the Braves two great months and then ran out of gas, while Cabrera and Diaz played their way out of Atlanta and McLouth would have done the same if the Braves had any other options in centerfield. Maybe a little bit of panic is justified after three series.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Adam Smith and the Spread

You want to know what I love about the blogosphere?  An extended analogy between Dana Holgorsen's installation of his offense and The Wealth of Nations:

As Holgorsen says, “no one” in his offense will play more than one position; he doesn’t even want someone to play both “inside and outside receiver.” The idea is a simple one: with limited practice time and, to be honest, limited skills, kids need to focus on a few things and to get better at them — the jack of all trades is incredibly overrated. While Urban Meyer’s Florida offense thrived for a time with Tebow and his omnipositional teammate, Percy Harvin, I’d argue that this reliance on a “Percy Position” — a guy that can play most every skill position on offense — eventually does more harm than good. I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position. It’s nature versus nurture on the football practice field, and I side with nurture.

This analogy is a little problematic to me because one of the aspects of the Spread ‘n’ Shred that appeals to me is the Total Football concept of players being able to perform multiple roles.  The basis of the offense is the requirement that the quarterback is able to run the ball so as to create a numerical advantage in the box (or, alternatively, to prevent the defense from killing the running game by outnumbering the offense in the box).  Additionally, the offense thrives (and gets its name) by using three- and four-receiver sets to spread out the opponent, thereby creating running lanes.  In order to fully take advantage of the spread formations, those receivers need to be able to take part in the running game, either by motioning into the backfield or through reverses and end-arounds. 

In other words, the Spread broke down the difference between skill position players.  Quarterbacks can run and throw.  Receivers can be involved in the running game as well as the passing game. That cuts against the notion of Spread offenses being all about specialization.  That said, there can be a synthesis between Chris Brown’s point and mine.  Holgorsen and Brown argue that players should play only one position and should focus on mastering that position.  Their point is consistent with the concept that within that position, a player should be able to have an impact in multiple facets of the game, moreso than in traditional offenses.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

I Can Almost Taste the Bile: Five Thoughts on Barca-Shakhtar

1. I was very excited to see Shakhtar after they finished tops in their group ahead of some side from North London and then destroyed Roma in the Round of 16.  Oddly enough, Shakhtar didn’t disappoint, despite the 5-1 score line.  The Ukrainians created a good number of chances and if Luiz Adriano would have converted one or two them, then we would have had a game.  (Come to think of it, it’s a little odd to call Shakhtar “the Ukrainians” when their front four are all Brazilians.  If Franklin Foer takes another run at arguing that soccer is a metaphor for globalization, then he might consider writing about the front line of Adriano, Jadson, Willian, and Douglas Costa plying their trades at the Donbas Arena.)  Anyway, credit to Mircea Lucescu for playing his game at the Nou Camp.  His team deserved better than the final score.

2. After a while, Barca games start to run together in my head.  They all seem to follow the same script.  Opponent starts strong and has the better of the opening exchanges.  (Despite Barca jumping on top early, Shakhtar created the majority of the chances.)  Then, Barca’s midfield grabs the game by the scruff of the neck for the remainder of the first half.  Either Iniesta or Xavi sets up a goal by swinging a pass from the left to Dani Alves busting in from the right wing.  (This is a major difference between the Guardiola teams and the Rijkaard teams.  It used to be that massed defenses would work because Barca was a narrow team.  Now, with Alves bombing up on the right side, the massed defense in the center no longer works.  After Messi and Xavi, Dani Alves is the irreplaceable player on the team.  And if only he didn’t…)  Either Busquets or Dani Alves will embellish a challenge from an opponent.  Messi will do something wacky to set up a teammate.  David Villa will look a little out of sorts, but he runs hard and passes well, so Barca fans accept him in a way that we wouldn’t for Ibra.  Barca put the game to bed in the second half and bring on some combination of Bojan, the alternate left back, and Afellay.  The only difference is that Barca win their home games comfortably and struggles on the road.

3. I had a little chuckle when the play-by-play guy opined that Iniesta made a mistake by getting a yellow card by standing too close to a free kick.  I’m pretty sure that he meant to get the yellow so he would be suspended for the second leg (Barca were up 3-0 at that stage) and wouldn’t not face the prospect of a suspension for the semifinal against Real.  Speaking of which…

4. Despite the Manita, the fact that Barca haven’t conceded a goal to Real in over 300 minutes, Ronaldo’s dry spell against the Blaugrana, and the fact that La Liga has been put to bed, I’m worried about playing Real in the Champions League.  The experience of Mourinho coaxing his Inter team into an epic performance after Barca had handled the Nerazzuri comfortably in the group stages has stuck with me.  At some point, Real have to break through and they’ll have four bites at the apple.  Barca’s defense is just creaky enough that I could see Jose figuring out the right way to exploit it.  Also, I have fairly vivid memories of Real handling Barca easily in the 2002 Champions League semis.  I just have to channel Rick Pitino: Zizou ain’t walking through that door, Macca ain’t walking through that door, Hierro ain’t walking through that door…

5. Graham Hunter wrote a great piece this week on the underrated Victor Valdes after Valdes played a terrific game to earn a clean sheet at Villarreal.  So what did Valdes do thank Hunter for the faith?  He left his near post unguarded and nearly gave up a goal from a tight angle.  Yes, the exact same way he let Arsenal back into the tie at the Emirates.  Once is unfortunate, twice is careless.  There are few sports topics about which I can comment with first-hand experience, but goalkeeping is one such topic.  Victor, bubeleh, stop leaving your near post.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Creating a Superconference, International Football Edition

I was by no means alone in expressing the sentiment after the USA-Ghana match that it would be nice if the US played in a major tournament more than every four years:

  • After the game, I was commiserating with another fan about the fact that the Nats don't have any major tournaments other than the World Cup. The atmosphere at the Midway was electric. It sucks that we are going to have to wait four years for the Nats to play in a match that approaches the stakes of the World Cup (and no, the Gold Cup isn't the same). My solution: convince CONMEBOL to expand Copa America. Make the tournament 16 teams: the ten powers in CONMEBOL, the US, Mexico, and then four qualifiers from the remaining countries in North and Central America. Let the U.S. and Mexico host the tournament once in a while. CONMEBOL has already invited Mexican club teams to the Copa Libertadores because of the market potential in Mexico; imagine what they can do with Copa America if they can get the US and Mexico as regular participants (as opposed to being the occasional invitee). Wouldn't everybody win with a true American championship?

In a super column last weekend, Gabriele Marcotti went one step further and took the position that CONCACAF and CONMEBOL should merge completely:

That's why the best possible thing for U.S. soccer may be combining CONCACAF and its equivalent in South America (CONMEBOL) into one confederation of the Americas. With its 10 members, CONMEBOL is the smallest confederation, but it's filled with the game's historical and current heavyweights: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and others. Creating one pan-American confederation would allow the U.S. and Mexico to play more competitive games on a regular basis. Second-tier CONCACAF teams—countries that rarely meet top opposition, even in friendlies—would benefit, too.

South American teams would get something out of this arrangement, as well. They'd play a wider variety of teams and styles, which would be a welcome break from playing each other over and over again. There are also financial benefits, like accessing the television markets in the U.S. and Mexico, which would translate into an increase in rights fees and lucrative sponsorship deals. It's not a coincidence that both Argentina and Brazil, arguably the sport's biggest draws, chose to play friendlies in the United States in the past nine months: It pays to do so.

Because this idea makes perfect sense for all of the major stakeholders, it will never happen.  Keeping in mind that FIFA has been run for 15 years by a kleptocrat and the only opponent in that kleptocrat’s bid for another four-year term is the person who brought us Qatar 2022, it’s hard to imagine that the sensible solution of combining federations will happen.  As a result, the US and Mexico will keep on playing “big” matches Trinidad & Tobago and Nicaragua instead of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.  Hooray!