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Theyab Awana’s death may have cost us more than we realize. September 26, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Uncategorized.
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The video of Theyab Awana’s disallowed, backheeled penalty for the United Arab Emirates against Syria is embedded right in the Guardian obituary for the Bani Yas winger killed in a car crash today.

Like most people outside of UAE soccer, I knew nothing of Awana outside of what was contained in that video. I’d also hazard a guess that, if it weren’t for the penalty against Syria, the Western media would not have reported on Awana’s death.

Embedding the penalty is appropriate. We remember the moment of joy Awana gave all of us and it gives us a moment of sorrow.

But undoubtedly there was more to Awana. The penalty kick video suggested to us a player of the kind of technique that inspires supreme self-confidence. It also embodied wild-eyed audacity. There is a quality of footballing joie de vivre that’s tragically rare these days, that Awana seemed to epitomize, the sense that he, unlike so many footballers, did not see reason to take himself entirely seriously.

The above is the only other clip of Awana I could find. It also shows the same delightful qualities. The winger beats two men on the right side, then looks up. What he does next may be motivated by dissatisfaction with his options, but it might just be that the temptation to have a little fun is too much to resist.

Awana turns back into traffic to beat his man again, draws two players to himself and then turns breathtakingly to leave them for dead, accelerates along the byline and startles the goalkeeper with a shot in at his near post.

That puts Bani Yas in the lead, but strangely Awana doesn’t seem to do much celebrating. I like to think that’s because the goal itself was a celebration. If this is the kind of thing the 21-year-old winger would have spent the rest of his career giving the football world, then his loss really is a loss to all of us.

6-4-0? Not likely. September 26, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer, War on ESPN.
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ESPN’s Team of the Week columnist Chris Murphy called Everton’s formation against Manchester City over the weekend “6-4-0.” This leads me to believe he is probably no tactics expert (considering the formation he picked for his team, probably a safe bet).

Here are the Everton players who started ordered by squad number: Tony Hibbert, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Tim Cahill, Phil Neville, Leon Osman, Seamus Coleman, Tim Howard, Marouane Fellaini, Jack Rodwell.

So that’s a goalkeeper, three right-backs, one left-back, two center-backs and four central midfielders. Technically, kind of, six defenders and four midfielders. But Phil Neville has pretty exclusively played at the back of midfield in recent seasons; Tim Cahill has been deputizing as an emergency center forward; Seamus Coleman has been seen primarily as a right winger for some time.

Murphy is maybe getting a bit carried away with himself, so desperate to make a point that he vomits obviously misleading sentences on us.

Is that a misspelling or does the Little Mermaid play for Man Utd? September 26, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer.
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The Guardian’s Football Chalkboards feature contains a category for “Ariel” tackles. I assume this means contests for the ball between the player in question and the central character in The Little Mermaid. I didn’t even know she played for Manchester United. I thought feet were required to play soccer. Seems strange that she’s so pervasive that she requires a specific category in this feature.

Also, possibly it is a misspelling of “aerial.”

We need to talk about Peter Crouch. September 25, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in English soccer.
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Little-known fact: before Peter Crouch was a soccer player, he fought crime.

We need to talk about Peter Crouch. People are in denial about the man. They think he can’t head the ball.

That idea is a myth. This has been proven. People who believe the myth are acting like philistines and cynics.

Face it: Peter Crouch is an excellent header of the ball. Don’t let the fact that he’s funny looking fool you.

That’s why Stoke City is the right club for him. This team is full of superb bulldozer forwards, all of whom are excellent in the air. Crouch is different. He is the world’s weakest target man, but somehow that is to his advantage. The problem he presents is too freakish to get one’s head around, much less solve. What he lacks in brawn, he makes up for in suppleness.

Tottenham Hotspur was not a team that played to his strengths. Oh sure, there were crosses aplenty, but it was a team built around short, quick passes and quick development of moves. Vertical football does not mean vertical footballers. At Stoke, on the other hand, Crouch will get the kinds of balls he needs to thrive and, unlike at Spurs, he won’t get left behind by moves.

The idea of a partnership with one of Stoke’s other unconventional strikers is also appetizing. Kenwyne Jones is maybe the league’s rawest footballer, combining animal brawn and explosive speed with unpredictable lightning-bolts of technique; even he doesn’t always appear to know how his immense gifts will manifest themselves next. Jon Walters is a member of a dying breed clubs have forgotten how to defend, a true second-striker, a late arriver with a uniquely opportunistic brand of creativity, but also possessed of the physique requisite to Stoke players.

Other teams should be wary.

Additional snapthoughts: We think of finishers as darty eyed pickpockets tolerated because their nose for goal trumps their lack of actual skill, but Robin van Persie demonstrated with his second for Arsenal that sublime creativity and technique are also required of a top-class finisher. All the people who said Newcastle didn’t sign a decent striker over the summer made me wonder who went and decided Demba Ba is crap. David Wheater used to be decent. I don’t understand why Sir Alex Ferguson picked Antonio Valencia over Fabio at right-back, considering the latter is actually a fullback. Maybe Fernando Torres is a classy finisher, but Didier Drogba is a classier one. Andre Villas Boas has the best English I’ve ever heard from a non-native, non-Dutch football man.

Three things that went through my mind during Barcelona v. Atletico Madrid September 24, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Spanish soccer.
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The man's psychic stress is palpable

1. Barcelona is ominously confident.

As the Barcelona team becomes a whirring instrument of bloodless atomization, much of the emotional resonance is sucked out of the actual football. Goals are no longer an emotional release for Barcelona’s players. There’s neither the catharsis of joy one gets from surprising himself by scoring a goal nor the catharsis of relief one gets from scoring a goal to loosen the pressure of expectation. Instead, their faces in the post-goal scenes seem to say, “Look what you’ve gone and done, you scamp.” They score, then they laugh it off.

2. Pep Guardiola’s on his last season, isn’t he?

Guardiola, on the other hand, does not look like he’s having a good time. The pressure must be crushing and the rewards minimal. Last year’s Barcelona team would already probably have been remembered as the greatest of all time if Guardiola had walked away at the end of it. If he wins the European Cup this year, there really will be nothing left for him to prove at Barcelona and no dispute about who is the best team of all time. You can tell it weighs on him. He’s essentially a nice, introspective guy. Jose Mourinho has identified making him miserable as his quickest route to a meaningful trophy. After being pretty much flawless for the last three years, he’s probably beginning to wonder what it even means to win things in soccer anyway. He looks miserable. He needs a break.

3. Dani Alves might have a future as a center-back.

It’s fairly common for players to start out as attacking fullbacks, then move inside as they age. Paolo Maldini and Ruud Krol are the most famous examples, while Carles Puyol was viewed primarily as a fullback in the early part of his career (Billy Costacurta, on the other hand, only appears to have started playing right-back in his forties, or maybe I’m showing my age). Alves has a reputation for being poor defensively and positionally though. I think that’s undeserved; Alves isn’t bad defensively, he just does less defending than most defenders. I think he’s very good at it when he does. Sid Lowe pointed out on the Guardian’s Football Weekly Extra this week that one of the big things Barcelona misses without Gerard Pique is a player who starts moves from the back. Alves is an excellent passer, even more so at center back because he doesn’t have to run 80 yards before receiving the ball, so putting him back there seems like an ingenious solution to this temporary problem at least.

Quick Barcelona-Atletico lineup thoughts September 24, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Uncategorized.
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It’s strange that Arda Turan isn’t an automatic choice for Atletico. When I’ve seen him, he’s been very good. I have the suspicion Dani Alves might be playing at center-back (or on the right of a back three, which I realize is not the same). Either that or Xavi’s the deepest midfielder. It seems like there will either be a Diego v. Alves matchup or a Diego v. Xavi matchup, which makes a Barcelona fan nervous, although it also means the Barcelona player in the matchup will have time on the ball. If Tiago’s playing on the left, it’s probably to keep Alves quiet.
There’s formation confusion for both teams. Is Barcelona’s 4-3-3 (Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Sergio, Abidal; Thiago, Xavi, Cesc; Pedro, Messi, Villa) or 3-4-3 (Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Abidal; Xavi, Sergio, Thiago; Cesc; Pedro, Mess, Villa)? Is Atletico’s 4-2-3-1 (Courtois; Perea, Miranda, Godin, Lopez; Gabi, Suarez; Reyes, Diego, Tiago; Falcao) or 4-3-3?

Three things that went through my head during Bayern Munich v. Bayer Leverkusen September 24, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in German soccer.
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The big man up front.

1. I thought Anatoly Tymoshchuk was supposed to be a bad passer. Does anyone else remember this? When Bayern dropped Tymoshchuk and then later converted him to a center back, I thought that was because he was too slow to release the ball. Against Leverkusen, he definitely got all the time he liked to pick out a ball, but I could find no fault with his vision, timing or technique. The pass of the night was his long diagonal to find Thomas Muller on the right flank. Did I remember wrong, were his critics wrong, or has he just completely changed his game since he left Shakhtar Donestsk?

2. Bayern was so dominant it was boring. Is this what it’s like to watch Barcelona if you’re not a fan? I found the wit of Toni Kroos’ deliveries, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s dynamism and the aforementioned Tymoshchuk passes satisfying, but by and large there wasn’t much to hold on to. I went and did something else during the second half.

3. Mario Gomez, near-dinosaur. The ESPN commentator claimed it would take 200 million Euros to pry the striker from Bayern’s clutches, but that’s surely delusional. Gomez lives just on the cusp of top-level obsolescence. Though he is clever and aware, he is not a creator, and he lacks the searing pace of many top big-man forwards. He only gets away with this because he is both a flawless goal-poacher and a perfect target man; that is, a composite of both the traditional roles of a number nine. But there’s a reason those two roles are both near-anachronisms. Bayern uses Gomez correctly — it takes iron discipline to avoid lumping the ball at such a willing target when the ideas dry up — but he limits the team. You get the sense that crossing the ball for Gomez is the only way they’ll score from open play. He can only stretch a defense horizontally, across its box, rather than vertically, either by forcing it to turn or by tempting defenders upfield by dropping deep. They know dropping deep would be a waste of Gomez’s time. I don’t think any nine-figure offers are going to be coming in for him.

Pele was only good in World Cups? I think not. September 18, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Brazilian soccer, English soccer.
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In a column (“Manchester United’s Rooney could yet stand comparison with Pele”) published yesterday on the Guardian’s website, Paul Wilson writes the following absurdity about Pele:

[T]he brilliant Brazilian’s fame was based almost exclusively on his World Cup performances. Every four years he would come round like a comet, then for the most part disappear from European view.

I suppose, if you consider that fame can only be “based” on the “European view,” that could be accurate. But that’s not really what fame is all about.

Of course we all remember Pele most for what he did in the 1958 and 1970 World Cups. Wilson’s drawing a comparison with Wayne Rooney, whose “career to date has been just the opposite,” he says. But in fact, I think the thing most people remember most about Rooney is his Euro 2004 performances. International performances are more memorable. The whole of England can appreciate it when Rooney scores goals for his country, but when he does it for Manchester United, it’s tainted by the fact that nobody but Manchester United fans really likes Manchester United.

And anyway, Pele gained more fame at club level than Rooney has. Rooney has won the Champions League once. Pele won the Copa Libertadores twice, and that was in the days when the tournament was open only to national champions, meaning that Pele only even got to play in the Libertadores five times, the last of which came in 1966. Pele won five national titles with Santos, all of them settled by straight knockout, rather than the league system. And he won ten state titles, the highest league system in Brazil at the time.

More than that, he toured the world with Santos, spreading his fame across the continents. It was a game featuring Pele’s Santos that is said to have stopped the Nigerian Civil War for two days. I doubt that’s an achievement Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United will equal any time soon.

A few thoughts. September 12, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in European soccer.
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Some thoughts on the games of the weekend:

  • I watched a replay of Real Sociedad v. Barcelona on ESPN3 after work and turned it off early because I had somewhere to be and thought it was a foregone conclusion. But I remember Pep Guardiola’s body language as apoplectic and didn’t really understand at the time. But I have to think he knew.
  • I was glad to see Mauricio Pinilla scoring the eventual winner for Palermo. He’s very talented and it would be good news to see him hit some kind of dominant form.
  • What hit me most during the Wolves-Spurs game was how sad it is that Ledley King can’t play more. There are no center backs in England, and few in the world, as perceptive at reading the game and composed about going about their business. I laughed out loud to see the contrast between his composure and the approach of his central defensive partner Younes Kaboul, which is essentially knowing how to apply all of his monstrous physique to an opponent’s body without committing a foul.

The most upsetting thing about Manchester City’s new formation. September 5, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Uncategorized.
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Less Balotelli. I was hoping for a Balotelli-heavy season. Are they really going to make me watch the Italian national team?

If Balotelli’s backheel against the LA Galaxy is what did this, Roberto Mancini simply hates fun and should be replaced by someone who doesn’t.

I nominate Claudio Ranieri.