Friday, February 26, 2016

Gary Neville: redefining the role of football criticism

With four straight wins, Gary can breathe a bit easier. Between breaths, he is beginning to find his own voice, up to this point lost in translation. Not only must he navigate linguistically from English to Spanish and Valencian Catalan when finding that voice, until now hardly more audible than a whisper, he must also apply what he knows when translating between roles: from critic to artist. Ideas must be transmitted to the field of play. Creative solutions must be spoken more emphatically to gain weight in the form of commands communicated to the players, no longer the off-hand remarks to distant audiences on screen. The much needed results will give Neville the confidence to finally begin to speak. His latest chapter needs time. The paragraph Gary Neville is writing as manager is one that begins indented.

While it is unclear who the smartest of the class 92 is, there is no question that Neville was always the most vocal, the nerdiest of the six. In other words, his success as a player was down to obsessively studying the game (à la Bielsa, à la Pep). His leadership was always rooted in communication. That is still the case as he looks to make the jump from celebrated pundit to successful first division manager. 

Off to a terrible start, it became difficult to celebrate his decision to take a chance on managing, most viewing that as inseparable from his actual results. The decision he made should be supported, continued to be viewed with excitement, and interpreted as the critic taking an artistic risk. We must not succumb to the short-term thinking so commonly plaguing our thoughts on the managers of today. Buried in the commentary was precisely this difference between supporting his decision to coach from how well he was actually doing.

When asked if he was thinking of resigning, the answer was always a resounding no. Contundente, as they’d say in Spain. No- a word the same across languages. That much was clear.

The criticism of the critic was too simplistic, former players too eager to wring out a bit of revenge. The banner unfolded against Valencia was too superficial and insulting to be rendered meaningful criticism.

In many ways, Neville (and his ultimate success) has come to embody whether analytics and in-depth tactical knowledge hold any validity in and of itself, whether it is more than just a niche and if it has any actual influence on performance. Curiously enough, this comes at a time when his parent club Manchester United face the young leaders of the analytical revolution, football’s newest frontier, tactics long having been well established and grudgingly accepted. Is this way of viewing the game more than just something that allows those obsessive enough to analyze post-mortem? Is it all overdone? Does it influence actual performance before the fact in significant enough ways to justify those who support it as an innovative and novel approach to the game?

And so once again Gary has become a mouthpiece- not just for a generation but for a movement. Hoping to take football to new heights, his professionalism and seriousness represents a general trend. Football journalism has become football criticism. It is worthy of study. We’re not just fans, but students of the game.

This frustration with the state of football has disrupted the field in two major ways:

1) A rebirth in lyrical, poetic style of commentary (historically somewhat more common in Spanish language match reports), reconnecting football to its cultural roots and origins. This involves making references to art, music, architecture, film, or whatever is representative of the city in which the club plays.

2. A modern statistical approach that began as tactical and is now combining economic modelling to encompass all sorts of analytics, some of which predictive in nature. The rise of data science meets football.

On one side, the Madrid based Revista Libero argued in its opening editors note, mapping out the vision for the magazine: “Our aim is to make football retake its proper role amongst other cultural mediums. To culturize the game if you will.”  Barcelona based Panenka similarly looks to the past, both Spanish magazines similar to Jonathan Wilson’s The Blizzard. They all explore football’s literary qualities as forms of cultural commentary, criticism and self expression. 

On the other side of things, German tactics site Spielvelagarung has taken and expanded Michael Cox style ZonalMarking and continues to dissect what is going on with utmost precision. A site like the popular Spanish blog Ecos del Balón falls somewhere in between this critical divide. In football as in chess, there is a combining of the exciting inventive sacrifices of Mikhail Tal and the positional play of Magnus Carlsen: there is room for both science and art. These two paths will eventually converge.

Perhaps the cultural medium football is most starting to resemble is film. Globalized capitalism is the defining feature of both the film and footballing industries. The infatuation with modern coaches has likened them to auteurs- the principal author responsible for the project’s direction. Actors became secondary to the director’s overarching vision. What was once expressive and socialistic now feels bland and globalized. Great things are still being made, not all has been created, if one knows where to look. 

In an era of unlimited access to information, critics are more vilified than ever. Ironically, they never have been more essential. Which is why those who love the game can’t help but feel a strange sense of attachment to Gary Neville as a figure. Going beyond Manchester United and the club’s current post-Ferguson woes, Neville’s ambition feels necessary in a general sense too.

Important because of his criticism, his background as former player, television pundit, writer, and now manager means he has approached the game from many different perspectives. He is redefining the role of football criticism with each and coming game. Whether he wants to use this newly developed knowledge he’s gained these past few months to return to criticism or further his career in the thick of it, as if a creative director, alongside the minds pushing the game forward, is unclear and continues to be up to him. There is no question, however, that his time at Valencia so far has already given him an even greater appreciation for the medium.

From this different vantage point, Gary Neville hopes to continue to refine his voice, reshaping it, growing, adjusting and adding range. Now amplified, his voice reverberates in the press box, aided by a microphone, echoing as if speaking directly to his past.

His voice is his weapon. Sharp, with a point to prove, his aim is to communicate with analytical eloquence that he is more than just the finest spokesperson of a growing movement and a single generation.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Not there yet

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A flurry of green and red and white, almost 94,000 gathered at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, California for the Concacaf Cup playoff between the United States Men’s National Team and the Mexican Tricolores. Before what can only be described as the most important match in recent US soccer history, attendance figures were scrutinized, as if hidden in those numbers and percentages were a profound statement on the nature and health of the U.S. game.

Families’ loyalties were divided. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters were unified by the game but not necessarily the country they chose to support. This sense of familiarity and closeness, both geographical and emotional, kept the tension and animosity mostly in check, despite the stakes being so high, a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia on the line. A TV Azteca commercial using Donald Trump quotes and a controversial Fox Soccer response contributed to and perfectly summed up the palpable mood ahead of the decisive encounter. Both resorted to nervous jeering and mockery, though doing so revealed more weakness than strength. There was tension and fear behind the attempts at lightheartedness.

On Saturday night, a persistent U.S. team relied on their character, not ability, to fight back in an intense, passionate, frenetic, but ultimately one-sided encounter. The Aguilar final blow was a long time coming. It revealed how emotion and pride prevented what should have been manifested much earlier: an undeniable Mexican superiority in almost every facet of the game. Inevitably after a match of this magnitude, conclusions were reached- some premature, others pointing to the failings of the United States Soccer Federation as whole.

Despite some insisting (and hoping) for the contrary, Klinsmann’s position is hardly in question. But more importantly, the faith in grander notions of progress took another huge blow, hinting at a more systemic need for drastic change. Simply put, El Tri were dominant and in control for almost the entire match, save a few fleeting moments from an increasingly tired but proud American side. Had the Mexicans translated this superiority into one more goal before the 90th minute, nobody would have been surprised after seeing how the match had unfolded. Emotions and intensity did not hide the degree to which the USA was outplayed.

It was a fitting and completely fair end to a game based on survival. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look.


*USA-Mexico Starting XIs

Tuca Ferreti, the Brazilian interim manager who is only in charge for four games, started with a surprising 4-3-3 formation which signaled a clear attacking intent. Until then, the Gold Cup winners had lately relied on a 3-5-2. Yet keeping the arbitrary nature of formations in mind, the truth is that many times the perennial Kaiser Rafa Marquez was able to drop deep between the center backs, making the shape more of a 3-4-3 when in possession, which as turns out, was quite often the case. This hybrid formation allowed Ferreti to start the three forwards Chicharito, Oribe Peralta and Jimenez without sacrificing the type of build-up play centered on Marquez that the Mexicans had shown in their most recent matches.

For the United States, Jurgen Klinsmann could no longer count on Alejandro Bedoya, substituted last minute by Bobby Wood for a place in the squad. While having shown signs of liking the uptempo, quick combo of Zardes and Yedlin on the sides of the American midfield diamond, DeAndre Yedlin this time started from the bench. This was meant to give Beckerman, Bradley, and Jones more solidity in midfield. However, as the match itself played out, Jones being forced to play on the right was perhaps questionable, as will be discussed later in more detail. After much debate and experimentation, Klinsmann finally settled on the experienced duo of Cameron and Besler at center back, much to the relief of Yanks throughout the nation.

U.S. defensive lines unable to handle Mexican build-up, technical play, and front three

The Mexicans started the match with a lengthy spell of possession, with Klinsmann’s 4-4-2 very narrow and Mexico able to comfortably play out from the back. Rafa Marquez was able to drop deep between the center-backs to initiate play (what in Spanish is called ‘la salida lavolpiana’), leaving Dempsey and Altidore in a constant 3v2 numerical inferiority. The two Mexican fullbacks, Aguilar on the right and Layun on the left, were able to push up into midfield at will, offering a passing lane out wide which helped ElTri maintain possession.  Rafa Marquez’s recognizable long balls weren’t even necessary since possession was so uncontested and the positioning so favorable. This early example set the tone for the entire game. Dempsey and Altidore were unable to prevent a comfortable Mexican build-up, were extremely isolated, had to cover large amounts of ground defensively, and wasted energy out of possession to fight for lost causes.

* Bradley recognizes Altidore-Dempsey numerical inferiority in press, so attempts to push forward from midfield and help out. Mexico circulates possession to left wing long before Bradley gets in position to offer meaningful support, leaving Mexico in advantageous positions from the flanks.

This patient and easy build-up then allowed Mexico to pin the United States defense extremely deep within its own half, sitting compact with their narrow 4-4-2 diamond but ultimately always in positions dangerously close to their own goal. As the match went on, and as was evident immediately at the start of the game, the USMNT was soaking up too much pressure to provide Mexico with serious problems except in isolated instances through set pieces or the very occasional counter-attack. The USMNT had trouble covering the space in front of the back four, with the two outer players in the diamond frequently dragged wide after giving the Mexican forwards pockets of space which they continuously exploited.

*Frame 1: Mexico opening goal. USA 0-1 Mexico 9’

In the photo above (frame 1), in the buildup to Mexico’s opening goal, the attacking midfielder Bradley once again is given the positional freedom to follow Marquez and go and help Dempsey and Altidore, recognizing Mexico’s possession in the early stages. This however wasn’t enough, as the ball reaches Aguilar seconds later, with far too much time and space on the right wing to move the ball forward without any sort of pressure, as seen in photo below.

*Frame 2: As a result of comfortable build-up, Aguilar is given space on right wing and has time to pick out the pass for the Chicharito opener.

Brilliant movement from Chicharito and Oribe caught the American defense off-guard since they were unable to keep up with the movement of the Mexican front three. Nonetheless, the goal itself actually stems from further back in possession.

*Frame 3 of 3: Comfortable build-up opens space wide for Aguilar on right wing and ends with excellent movement from Mexico’s three forwards, who alternated positions.

Jones switching wings with Zardes and U.S. first half response

After conceding Chicharito’s opener, what followed were the US’s best moments of the game until late in extra time. After tying the game by taking advantage of a poorly timed off-side trap by Ferreti’s side, Jermaine Jones and Gyasi Zardes swapped sides in midfield, with Jones moving to the left and Zardes to the right. While this change did stabilize the U.S., it is also true that Zardes was forced to defend extremely deep, his pace upfront sacrificed in order to help Fabian Johnson at right back. During this period, Zardes was in fact dragged so far wide that he was practically playing at right back anyways and it could be argued the United States was actually employing a back five. On the plus side, however, this did liberate Jones on the left and helped plug the holes in the half spaces that had previously been taken advantage of, thereby improving the midfielder’s collective positioning and aiding the fullbacks through tighter coverage which prevented those spaces from popping up.

*Frame 1: Better coverage with Jones on left plugs holes and leaves Mexico with less space than before.

* Frame 2 of 2: Seconds later, USA more coordinated midfield positioning forces Mexico circulation and possession back towards own half and away from danger. These scenarios previously would have been seized upon by Mexico’s forwards in space.

Similar pattern becomes unavoidable in second half

The start of the second half was exactly like the beginning of the first: all US players deep in own defensive shell with few opportunities to break out of it with Mexico controlling the game and seeking to penetrate through its possession.  The technical gulf in quality between the neighboring North American nations can already be assumed at these stages, but the overall tactical superiority through Mexico’s build-up and play on wings was much more worrisome. As has been mentioned elsewhere, off-ball work rate that translates to a sturdy organizational scheme is perfectly fine if the willingness to counter-attack is there. However, the defenders received far too little time to regroup, as the counterattacks and hold-up play were simply not prevalent enough. They were suffocated within their own half.

*Start of second half: familiar pattern with Mexican possession and US holding on in defensive shell

Jozy Altidore, as has been the case for years, is the perfect embodiment of the USMNT: strong, committed, hardworking, but technically limited, somewhat erratic, overly reliant on form. The fact that it was his hold-up play what was being emphasized shows where the priorities lie and is a direct contradiction to Klinsmann’s supposed message and revolutionary update of the American way of playing. His off-ball movements and runs were simply not sufficient and practically non-existent to justify a defensive approach of sitting so deep within own half. Altidore's inadequacy in that department was made painfully more obvious with the incredibly mobile, astute, and well-timed runs of Chicharito leading the line for the opposing team. It is true that the system itself provides few opportunities for Jozy to find favorable positions. Still, with and without the ball, it seems completely fair to expect sharper runs from him in order to do a better job of creating space for others behind him.

Dempsey also participated little, leaving Bradley with an unnatural burden of leadership the precious few seconds the US did hold on to possession. While Bradley provided the team with direction, which is obviously very much welcome from the American perspective, from the attacking tip of the midfield diamond, he was also being forced to track back on far too many occasions in defensive transition and had to correct and cover for others. Even considering Bradley’s role in the side, this individual ability can’t be relied upon on a collective level. Others have pointed to his positional freedom as an example of tactical deficiencies arising elsewhere, though perhaps after his great performance this time, now isn’t really the right time to be bringing this up.

The extra time that shouldn’t have been

With so little time spent outside their defensive shape, it is only a natural result for the team without the ball to get tired, even if it could be argued they are otherwise the more physically fit team. In fact, it is a remarkable reflection of this team’s spirit that they forced an extra time to begin with. Peralta’s goal, and Aguilar’s sensational eventual winner, were the direct result of Mexico’s complete dominance during the game. Yet, even during a difficult period for the USMNT after the surprise Gold Cup exit and the lingering questions that remain, the manner in which the Americans fought back is nevertheless praiseworthy and reason for optimism alone. Though perhaps it may not be enough to justify “progress” or to sustain the excitement, momentum, and need for such progress to keep the game in the United States moving forward.

*US narrow defensive shape finally pried open by the wide run on right for Peralta’s goal. 2-1 96’ ET

On a positive note, the fantastic performances of Cameron and Besler sustained a system that otherwise would have fallen apart much sooner. They provided defensive coverage for Johnson and Beasley, won key aerial duels, dealt with the forwards’ movement as best as the defensive structure would allow, and were absolutely monumental in clearing crosses that threatened Guzan’s penalty box. Their defensive solidity were the foundation upon which the USMNT was able to build upon to respond to Mexico’s first half goal, force an extra time, and then respond again to tie it up at 2-2 when they had no business doing so.

*Yedlin setting up Wood’s ET equalizer. USA 2-2 Mexico 107’ ET

Yedlin’s substitution provided a spark given his speed, but his decision-making still remains suspect. Likewise, the Wood substitution meant a forward more likely to make active runs, though it also raises questions over Jurgen’s squad management regarding a player that wasn’t supposed to even make the squad.

Conclusion – What Aguilar’s grand finale means for the future

Aguilar’s stunning volley shouldn’t hide the fact that the United States struggled throughout the game, except for a few notable moments, nor should making a point of the previous flaws in the United States game plan minimize the emotional impact and beautiful precision of the Mexican right back’s winner as one for the ages. The United States is left delving deeper into even more serious questions while Mexico will move on to a new manager and a calmer future.

It can seem a bit absurd that so much of the post-match discussion looks to the grassroots game to explain the aftermath of a senior team defeat. Of course, they are systematically connected, and it seems clear that the U23’s losing to Honduras earlier that day is as definitive a blow as the senior team not being able to play in next year’s Confederations cup. Yet, it shouldn’t be that a game of this magnitude be the only time that everyone involved in the US game looks to learn and improve to meet growing expectations. The media must continue to put pressure on an enormous organization and accurately convey where the current playing level stands in relation to other countries. The overarching body, the USSF, must make sure that players don’t slip through the cracks and focus more on the development of the game than the revenue it creates. The coaches must listen to scouts to select the absolute best from the pool of players available while the players have to continue to improve to a level in which they are not technically and tactically outclassed.

So where does that leave the supporters? In a frustrated stupor, they are left asking questions that have little to do with the actual performance and all to do with the intangibility of progress. When the future is involved, the debate is so much grander and important than that which encompasses just a single match or individual. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Success lies in the response

Alex Caparros/Getty Images

For Bartra individually, Sunday's match against Levante specifically, and for the season as a whole, it is all about adaptability and convincing responses. The first game of many in which Luis Enrique must balance rotations with picking up three points, here's how the 4-1 win over Levante tipped his hand and prepares for what's to come: 

Monday, September 14, 2015

With and without Messi, Luis Enrique’s Barça more than ready to compete


ATM 1- 2 FCB at the Vicente Calderón. My tactical match review and thoughts on:

- FCB's ultra-competitiveness
- S. Roberto's role in buildup play
- Iniesta finding form
- Simeone shape change and attacking options
- Messi altering the game in 30 minutes or less.

And more at:

Friday, September 11, 2015

No. 10s and the 4-3-3: What Barça’s young midfielders must learn from Iniesta

Let's take a trip down memory lane with some historical observations on FC Barcelona's 4-3-3 and how this has made things difficult for classic #10s to adapt to the Catalan club.  For Rafinha, Halilovic, and Denis Suarez- all players that can be considered #10s- they must look to Iniesta and those that came before in order to cement their place in history.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Malaga’s defensive plan to contain Barcelona falls short

- Gracia's narrow 4-4-2
- Malaga's positioning forces Barcelona towards the wings
- Amrabat's runs, and their influence on Busquets and Vermaelen
- Iniesta's positioning...

And more in my latest totalBarca tactical piece. Check it out:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Valverde’s well organized Athletic defense catches Barça’s attack unprepared


For three straight games, Ernesto Valverde and Athletic Club Bilbao largely succeeded in frustrating and stopping Barcelona's attack. Head on over to totalbarça to hear how they did it: