Friday, March 27, 2015

Breaking Away

Ah, the international break. Those precious, innumerable weekends where crap football is crammed into the schedule, football personalities make jingoistic and often racially-insensitive remarks, and debates about which of England’s mediocre footballers should make it into the mediocre squad reign supreme (if you really think Danny Ings is the answer, you’ve got the question wrong). It’s everything that is wrong in football compressed into a long weekend. And yet, somehow, it remains popular. I personally know people who actually look forward to international friendlies, and of course the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. Still, we can’t keep lying to ourselves. International football is an anachronistic relic that enables petty nationalism and breeds corruption. The quality of play is lower, and it detracts enormously from club football and the players’ welfare. In order to improve the game, the whole enterprise should be scrapped.

Roberto Mancini just gave the perfect example of why international football is so out of place with the world today when he stated his preference that only people born in Italy should play for the Italian national team. In one sense, he’s absolutely right. It doesn’t make sense that players who were born in a country and came through that football system should play for another country. It doesn’t make sense that Diego Costa plays for Spain, or that Deco played for Portugal, or that Camoranesi played for Italy. However, in another sense, he’s dead wrong, as someone who is a citizen of a country deserves to represent that country. How can you tell an American citizen born in Germany whose father was in the American military that he is not eligible to represent the USA? And that is the problem: in today’s globalized world, people are increasingly likely to have overlapping national identities, which make it impossible to have a “national” team. At this point, it is just as probable that someone will choose to play for a given national team because the football circumstances there are particularly favorable as they are to choose the team based on a genuine feeling of national affinity. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that FIFA continues to classify certain political unions as separate, individual nation states. This is seen most glaringly with the home nations and the overseas French departments. In this day and age, nationality is not a particularly good way to organize a team, and tournaments populated with such teams don’t make much sense as a result.

Despite how much the concept of national identity is in flux, international football does serve to inflame intense nationalist sentiment from both fans and political leaders. Football has always had connections to right-wing (and left-wing) nationalist movements, and those elements are still present in club football as well. However, in the larger leagues, that has been tempered by the increasing diversity of footballers representing club teams (although it should be noted that lots of people are fighting this). Fans are often more able to identify with the color of the shirt the player wears, not the colors of his flag. In international football, those colors are the same, combining the tribal identity of rooting for a team with national identity to create a potent mix. This is why events like the Serbia-Albania drone incident continue to happen. Politicians understand the power of this phenomenon. There’s a reason that authoritarian regimes tend to bid to host the Olympics and the World Cup and it’s to take advantage of that patriotic fervor, much more so than any perceived economic benefit.

Unfortunately, the only true economic benefits of international competition go to FIFA, by virtue of having a monopoly on international football. FIFA is able to set aside dates throughout the year when only international games are scheduled, which serves to make them the only product on the market. As any customer of Comcast will tell you, holding a monopoly gives companies no incentive to improve their product or their service, and both are obviously true of FIFA. As an organization, FIFA has reacted slowly to efforts to improve the game with goal-line technology, improved concussion treatment, and the removal of third-party ownership. It is synonymous with corruption, whether it’s the Jack Warner scandal or the Qatar World Cup. The success of international football generally and the World Cup specifically gives them a sense of immunity: no matter what they do, people will continue to watch.

What makes continued viewership so surprising is that the quality of play is often so poor. It’s inevitable that when you put restrictions on what players can play for a team, you’re going to end up with worse teams. Qualification for tournaments features matches with countries such as Liechtenstein, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Bhutan, countries which haven’t produced that many star footballers over the years. Even at the World Cup or the Euros, the average roster is probably worse than the average Premier League roster, and that’s before you take into account that the national teams have less practice time with each other and are therefore less prepared. It’s true even at the top: sure, Germany-Spain is pretty much guaranteed to be a good game, but it’s not going to match Bayern-Barca. You can’t build a team in the same way you can a club side, you’re stuck with the players available to you. If you need a striker, you can’t just go out and get one, and if you have three quality left backs and no right backs, you have no recourse.  As a result often players are forced to be square pegs in round holes to fit into the manager’s system (see the England reign of Sven Goran-Eriksson).

Not only is the quality of international football lower, but its existence lowers the quality of club football as well. It is increasingly obvious that the amount of rest athletes receive dramatically affects their performance levels. FIFA steals four weeks of the domestic calendar for most European leagues which could be used for rest (maybe for the elusive winter break in England) and has players travel greater distances than they would for club teams in order to play multiple matches each week. In a World Cup year, players have to play in the summer, which affects their sharpness on returning to their clubs in August. There are also the continental tournaments, the U-21s, the Olympics, etc. It all adds up to a lot of extra football that takes a toll on players. This in turn contributes to loss of form and injuries in the domestic competitions, hurting the quality and integrity of those leagues.

So given all of this, why does everyone (including me, it must be said) still watch? For one thing, there’s the all-star component of it. It’s a way to see the best players in the world realigned, a way to see potentially awesome combinations of players that haven’t happened in the club world. The constant debate over the England team proves that fans love the opportunity to argue about which players constitute the best 11. Those fans who are against the modernization of the game claim it’s better to see players playing for their country than for money (although that’s a facile argument: in international football the players are paid and the exposure from playing gets them paid more). There’s also the history of international football, which used to be the only way that players like Pele were tested against their European counterparts. Patriotism certainly plays a role in interest, particularly in countries that don’t have a strong domestic league or football culture (like the United States). It’s also the entertaining format of the tournament itself, when games are played in a short span of time and it’s (primarily) knock-out football with none of the two-leg crap you find in the Champions League.

That said, I think football would be much healthier (ethically and physically if not maybe financially) without international football. Giving the international breaks back to the players for rest would help their fitness and improve domestic leagues across the world. Scrapping the World Cup would reduce FIFA’s power and get rid of a large percentage of corruption within the game. Organizing a true Club World Cup to replace it would retain national pride and encourage development of football at the local level, without the potentially dangerous connection to extreme nationalism or the need for long qualifying campaigns. Perhaps there could even be a European all-star game based on voting for the UEFA team of the year to see how the best of the best stack up. What is clear is that international football is no longer connected to how the world works, it is run by an organization that desperately needs reform and will never get it, and it damages leagues across the globe. To improve the game, we need more than an international break, we need a permanent break from international football.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Toure Needs Some Kompany

In the wake of City’s defeat to Barcelona, there are a bunch of “What’s Wrong with City?” pieces floating around on the interwebs. Michael Cox writes a good piece on how it’s the limitations of City’s players, not the system, that are bringing the team down. In particular, he highlights how Kompany has struggled to find consistency and how City have never adequately replaced Nigel De Jong. While I think that City’s problems offensively have been worse (and somehow less noticed) than their defensive struggles, it is certainly clear that Toure does need a strong defensive-minded partner beside him (as I’ve written before) and that Kompany is not able to lead the defensive line effectively. I suggest that both problems are fixable with one simple move: moving Kompany to midfield to partner Toure.

That suggestion might sound odd, but remember that Kompany is no stranger to the defensive central midfield role. When he first arrived at City in 2008 he played there exclusively for half a season with aplomb, until none other than Nigel De Jong came in to that role in January and Kompany settled at center-back. Kompany is faster, quicker, and a better passer than Fernando. He is stronger, a better tackler, and more positionally aware than Fernandinho. In midfield, his efforts to constantly win the ball wouldn’t leave the team as exposed. His penchant for the occasional individual error wouldn’t lead directly to goals. And his greatest strengths - his energy, his determination, his drive – would come through more strongly. Partnered with Yaya, he would be able to provide the needed defensive cover, but would also be able to hit balls over the top to Aguero and Dzeko and drive forward with purpose when space appeared. It should also be noted that he’s in good Kompany (sorry), as a number of maverick center-backs have made a home for themselves in central midfield, with David Luiz probably the best example at PSG

Perhaps more importantly, putting Kompany in midfield removes him from the defensive line. Under Pellegrini, City have favored a tight line, and Kompany just hasn’t been able to lead it. A line led by Demichelis has fared better, which was particularly noticeable at Hull last year (my favorite game of that season by far) when Garcia and Demichelis caused about 55 offsides on Jelavic after Kompany was sent off. A pairing of Demichelis and Mangala allows the experienced defender to lead the line and the more athletic one to support. The combination has actually fared pretty well this year as well, winning 4 games and drawing one. In fact, City have won all 6 games without Kompany this year in the Premier League, albeit against a pretty weak schedule. City’s defensive stats improved as well in those games, as our Defensive Efficiency improved from 88 to 82 and our Opponent’s Finish Rate dropped from 25% to 18%. When you combine this with the fact that Kompany ahead of the back four would likely further reduce the pressure on the center-backs, I think it’s safe to say we’d see even more defensive improvement.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think Kompany is a bad defender or that City is a bad defensive team. I think we are still likely to finish second even without this change, due to the remaining schedule and the quality of the team. However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are some pressing long-term squad issues, and as I mentioned the other day it is unlikely City will be able to bring in a ton of new talent this summer. This means Pellegrini will have to get creative with his squad, and this would be one way to do so that solves a number of issues.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pellegrini Should Be Feeling the Pressure

Sid Lowe’s recent interview with Manuel Pellegrini is fantastic and should be read by anyone interested in football. The most refreshing thing about it is the chance to see how smart the man is, which rarely comes through in the most common forum for managers: pre-match interviews. That format is limiting for all managers, but more so for Pellegrini, for whom the soundbite is anathema. He is mostly reduced to listing injuries, praising the opposition, and giving no bulletin board material for the opposing team, which means he often comes across as boring and uninspired. However, in this interview he talks intelligently about Financial Fair Play, viewing process over results (something which many football journalists could stand to learn), and City’s performance against Barcelona. I agree with him on just about everything. Unfortunately, the one part where he is wrong is likely what gets him fired at the end of the season.

Let me reproduce the most important part of that interview:

 “I have no sense whatsoever [that my job’s at risk],” Pellegrini continues. “Of course we want titles but the vision inside is different. We want development, constant improvement. You have to be able to say: ‘We’ve got better.’ Or: ‘What can we do to be better?’ And it’s not always sack the coach. Sometimes it’s reinforce the squad or bring in younger players. The way we work matters too. Not just in my case: Roberto [Mancini] didn’t continue, but not because one year he didn’t win anything. It’s not ‘lose and you’re out’.
Every statement there is factually correct. Yes, improving the team is more important than the actual results (especially in the cup competitions, which are always going to be subject to randomness due to the nature of the tournament). Improvement does not necessarily come from replacing the manager. It’s not a “Lose and You’re Out” situation. But when you look at the situation objectively, despite his not having any sense of pressure, it’s hard to argue his job is not at risk.

The problem is that his statement assumes City have shown “development and constant improvement” this season, which they pretty clearly haven’t. In comparing the numbers this year and last (see below for details), all signs are that City have regressed, irrespective of the win-loss results. Possession is up, but chances created (as measured by SOG) are down. This speaks to the sterile possession City have enjoyed against the likes of Burnley and Liverpool recently. The Finish Rate is down too, although that can partly be explained by extemporaneous factors like injuries and the departure of Negredo. Joe Hart’s improved play has reduced the Opponent’s Finish Rate, but overall goal difference and SOG difference are down from last year. If anything, City’s results have been better than their performances suggest, particularly in the CL group stages where they barely managed to scrape through and their consensus best performance (at the Stadio Olimpico) was when Roma had 9 shots on target to City’s 4.

Year Off Eff Def Eff FR Opp FR TOP% Goal Diff SOG Diff
2014-15 108.12 87.69 32.52% 25.29% 60.24 1.07 2.72
2013-14 121.15 84.30 39.66% 28.10% 57.68 1.71 3.08

Moreover, while Pellegrini is right that changing managers is no panacea, it’s probably City’s only option if they are to improve. The two alternatives Pellegrini cites, reinforcing the squad and bringing through young players, will be difficult for City to do. FFP restrictions have already limited him in getting new players this past summer, and there’s every chance it will again (despite the usual Messi rumors). As for youth players coming through, it hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of Pellegrini at City. I can count on one hand the number of players to move into the first team during his reign, and the total number of appearances on two. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marcos Lopes steps in if Milner moves on in the summer, or Shay Facey replace Boyata (or even Demichelis) if his loan spell with NYCFC goes well. But those would be changes at the margins, and a true breakthrough like Harry Kane at Spurs is probably unrealistic for a variety of reasons. In reality, a change in managers is probably the only thing that will change the direction of a team that has stagnated.

A new manager wouldn't be able to solve every problem certainly, but he could certainly help. That would begin with corner kick routines, which are just farcical at this point. Goals from corners have dropped precipitously this season and a new coach might be able to make a few tweaks (not aim each corner to the near post, inswinging corners instead of outswingers, more Silva-Milner short corners) to improve the rate of return. It would also be a signal to the numerous players that signed long-term deals over the summer that their place is not guaranteed, and hopefully that would help improve their level of performance.

Pellegrini was absolutely the right man to come aboard and steady the ship after the Mancini era. He did very well in his first season and okay in his second, and should leave with his reputation enhanced from where it was before he signed on at City. I've defended him before and believe he got too much stick for the Barcelona game (completely agree with his take on the tie in the article). But he is not looking like the man to move this team forward, and if he doesn’t have the sense his job is at risk, someone needs to impart that to him immediately.