More Defense

July 15, 2012

“The defender’s point of reference should never be his opponent but a team–mate.”
— Arrigo Sacchi

To build off of my previous post, I like what Arrigo Sacchi says here.  Defenders can dictate how and where and offensive player receives the ball through their own positioning, and that has to be the priority.  If you use the opponent as your point of reference, you are already allowing him to dictate the flow of the game more than he should be able to.

A few years ago I bought an Italian tactical book on defensive positioning, and it was interesting how they’ve made defense into a science.  Depending on where the ball is, there is a precise position on the field for each defender that maximizes support for each other as well as covering the most dangerous space.  It matters less where your opponents are in this schema.  You look at where the ball is and where your teammates are.  Many big name coaches, like England’s Roy Hodgson for example, spend hours walking their midfielders and defenders through scenarios to drill down how exactly to position themselves.

What can get a bit frustrating about my pick-up games is that there isn’t much discussion about who plays where at the start.  It just evolves naturally, and often as the game goes on people get tired and either don’t go back on defense or they just decide they want to play forward and move up there.  But that’s the price you pay for such a casual game.

I would like to play on a real team in some regards, probably as a left back.  But that’s probably a few years in the future, since right now I have too much going on to commit regularly to a team.  I also have reservations about how bloody competitive guys on these teams can get.  There were a few games going on at the old field where my pick-up game used to play, and the games were mean, card-filled affairs.  Not what I want to do with my free time.



Some Ideas

July 15, 2012

I played in my pickup soccer game yesterday.  We have been getting kicked off all of fields lately, making the organization of the game more difficult.  When I first started going to this group’s games, they were always on Saturday morning at the same field.  We were always coping with other pickup games, baseball teams, flag football teams, etc., so you never knew how much room our game would have (nor did we know how many of our guys would show), but it always worked out somehow.    Then we got kicked off for not having a permit, so we went to another field.  Then we got pushed out of that one, and ever since we’ve been all over the city.

Yesterday we were on a turf field with three small fields.  We started out playing 5 vs. 5 in a little corner of a field with the earlybirds.  I was playing well as forward who started high up in the middle and shuttled to the wings to get the ball.  After giving me the ball on the wing one or two midfielders would push forward and I would feed them and move to space.  We dominated the game, and I had a terrific assist that I flicked to a teammate through my legs.

When more people showed up and one of the other games ended we moved to a larger field.  I started out playing the same position up front, and things were fine, but then the other team scored two goals on us.  At this point I decided to go back and help on defense.  I usually do this at my pickup games.  Once the game has been going for ten minutes, I pick out our team’s tactical weakness and play in a position that shores up the weakness.  We had a strong player in the middle of defense as a sweeper and two weaker players on either side of him, so I ended up playing in front of him as a stopper.

The interesting thing about this position it isn’t glamorous and you don’t get many chances to do exciting things with the ball, but it is absolutely critical to performance of a team.  Even a less technical player can function effectively in this position through positioning, since a big part of it is identifying the strongest players and areas of the opponent’s attack and occupying those players players or areas.  Just being in the right place ensures that passes are not played into these players and areas, and that alone disrupts their rhythm.

In my case the main creative force was a big German guy with good ball control and massive shot.  I essentially made him my focus, and not didn’t even so much deny him the ball but push him to other areas to get the ball. A few times I intercepted passes or too took the ball away from him, but more often he beat me off the dribble or I was passed around.  But because I was there, and because my presence required time and energy to bypass, my teammates were able to organize themselves around me and our opponents didn’t have the easy path to goal they had been using before.  And if I was passed around, usually this meant that a less-skilled player on the opposing team handled the ball for a time, and he either lost the ball or made a bad decision on a pass, etc.  If the big German got the ball, I made sure it wasn’t in a dangerous position, and if he beat me off the dribble it was only because I knew I had help behind me.  A team of excellent players wouldn’t have been as troubled by me or our defense, but I did just enough to disrupt this particular group of players.

This is an example of how a blog post veers all over the place.  I can see now that there are two pieces in one here, and that I can take these two ideas in different directions.  One is the idea of defensive positioning and how resistant it is to definitive statistics.  I can link this to some things I’ve seen in the news lately too.  The other idea is related to economics, and how our pick-up soccer game is valued by all of us because we don’t have to make a commitment, either financial or time, every week, but because of that we can’t lock down a playing field.  There is immense value to our game for all of us, but we aren’t willing to put up the money to secure a more orderly time and place, because that would cut against the tradition and DNA of the game.

Earthquakes, Ctd.

July 11, 2012

Sigh.  San Jose may not have their new stadium for the Earthquakes ready for the 2013 season.  More relevant for me than the seating capacity or number of luxury boxes is the new stadium’s accessibility to public transportation.  I would have put the stadium somewhere closer to downtown San Jose, but I guess there is more room out by the airport.  That is not ideal, but you work with what you have.

Kagawa’s Move

July 11, 2012

Manchester United recently signed Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese midfielder who has won two titles with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund.  I think he’s a terrific player, and I wish Arsenal had signed him.  He’s also a terrific business move, an area in which United’s shrewdness in player acquisition seems to outpace other teams:

Kagawa could be a game-changer.

That impact is sure to have commericial tentacles, as when any big European clubs signs an Asian player. The Red Devils may not have the support of 10 percent of the entire planet, as was claimed recently, but on the world’s biggest continent, it is the most popular overall. In Japan, whether that was the case before was debatable, but soon there will be no doubt.

The Manchester marketing men have been here before with Park and Korea — a three-way relationship that serves as a textbook lesson on how to achieve something approaching domination in one country. Not long after the appearances and medals started to flow then, more than one million club credit card holders, two major sponsors and regular and lucrative exhibition games followed.

Manchester United signed Javier Hernandez of Mexico and Ji-Sung Park from South Korea, and I have to think marketing was a factor in both decisions.  What is particularly interesting relative to previous discussions here about the strength of leagues in foreign markets, is how the presence of the English Premier League on Japanese television influenced Kagawa’s decision:
Klopp has given up hope of the 23-year-old changing his mind, believing that Dortmund simply cannot compete with the lure of the Premier League.

“We cannot take away Shinji’s childhood and his Japanese culture,” the 44-year-old coach told Suddeutsche Zeitung.

“Where Shinji was born, our league means nothing, there is only the English Premier League.

See my earlier post about La Liga shifting game start times as a means of challenging the EPL’s dominance.


MLS International Media Coverage

July 11, 2012

As an addendum to the previous post, it’s interesting to note that a London-based newspaper has a more extensive MLS coverage than San Francisco Chronicle.  Would it kill the SF Chronicle to do a weekly round-up like the Guardian does here?

Earthquakes Local Media Coverage

July 11, 2012

If you look at the online Sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle, I think you notice one of the problems of MLS right away.  In the heading section the San Francisco sports teams get headings, as do the Oakland Raiders and A’s and the San Jose Sharks.  But the San Jose Earthquakes aren’t mentioned.

The NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and College get headings, but there is no MLS.  You have to click the “Other” heading to be taken to a page where soccer lumped in with auto racing, cyling, horse racing, and other specialty sports.

There are reasonable justifications for this omission.  If you look at this write-up of the Earthquakes most recent game, you see that the Chronicle didn’t even assign a beat writer to the game and just took the story from the AP.  You also see a dreaded 0-0 tie in the scoreline, and empty seats close to the field in the photo accompanying the article.  And not a single entry in the comments section.

Clearly, MLS still has some ground to conquer in basic media coverage.  One of the frustrations for the league is that I think with some justification they could claim that with more media coverage they could deliver more fans.  Living here in the Bay Area, the talk is all Giants, A’s, 49ers, Raiders, Warriors, and Sharks.  There almost isn’t room for another team.

Somehow the San Jose Earthquakes need to differentiate their fan experience, because the roots of baseball, football, and basketball are simply too strong in this area.  Two key demographics to go hard after, to my mind, are immigrants from soccer counties and the worldly, hipsterish wing of the sports fan spectrum.  I’m not entirely sure how to synchronize two such fan bases.  But make soccer cool and different.  Make it a unique experience, tap into the soccer traditions that exist in other counties and give them an American spin.

It seems that the success of MLS in Portland and Seattle has roots partly in this vein, where they are coming up with kinds of traditions and rituals like Seattle’s walk to the stadium, Portland’s lumberjack sawing logs, and the unveiling of giant banners.  But these cities also have less competition from other sports.  Seattle has two large teams (Mariners and Seahawks), and Portland has one (Trailblazers).  The Bay Area has six big teams.  It’s a heavier task.

When Leagues Compete

July 11, 2012

The English Premier League is the most watched soccer league worldwide.  Manchester United is the biggest team in the world, and though Barcelona and Real Madrid might be 2nd and 3rd, the other big teams in the English Premier league (Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and now Manchester City and Tottenham) are more popular than any in the Spanish league.

The Spanish league has made an interesting attempt to combat the EPL’s popularity in Asia in particular by doing something daring: moving its games to start times of 12 PM.  This is interesting because Spain famously has a late-night culture, and placing a game so close to the AM could dampen the attendance and enthusiasm of the fans in the stadium.  But the early Asian TV market results appear to positive:

While this early kick off may have been a problem for viewers and fans in North America for whom it would have been early morning, it was the perfect setting for fans in countries like Indonesia, China and Japan who otherwise are accustomed to setting alarms for ungodly hours in the middle of the night to see their favourite teams and stars in action.

If numbers after the Real Madrid game are any indication, then the early kickoff proved to be a huge success in the Asian countries. China’s CCTV5 reports 120 million viewers watched the game live on Television in China, while a further 100 million saw it online on Spanish news agency EFE quotes Beijing alone accounting for 60 million viewers as per Beijing TV.

Add to this the fact that Real Madrid is rapidly expanding its presence in emerging market countries like Cameroon and India by starting foundations which simultaneously foster the local soccer culture, do charitable works, and promote their brand, and the league may be able to grow its overseas popularity.  Real Madrid’s planned holiday resort in the United Emirates sounds to me like a bridge too far, but it shows the expansiveness of their thinking when it comes to seeing their team as a global phenomenon.


Minor League Blues

July 10, 2012

A nice article on the plight of a baseball stadium in Buffalo that was built to attract MLB but never succeeded beyond hosting AAA ball.  To my mind, the tragedy isn’t so much that Major League baseball never came to Buffalo.  The article mentions that Buffalo might not have been able to sustain an MLB team over the long haul.

The tragedy (okay, strong word) is that the people in Buffalo don’t get to watch intriguing, competitive baseball, but instead games that are just scrimmages to develop prospects or rehab players.  If AAA were comprised of independent teams who played for real championships, there could be a much healthier baseball culture in the US.  The quality of play would be high, and older players who couldn’t cut in the majors would still be able to find jobs playing baseball.  As of right now, if a player is no longer a prospect and is deemed not good enough for MLB, he is done for, even if he is a better player than many of the prospects out there.  It’s a messed up way of running a sport.

Player Profile: Xabi Alonso

July 10, 2012

Perhaps my favorite player around now is Real Madrid and Spain’s Xabi Alonso.  I prefer to watch him play for Real Madrid because he with them he plays a more central role as the deep-lying playmaker, which means he collects the ball from the defense and acts as the key transitional point through which the ball is supplied to the offense.

It never ceases to amaze me how players like Xabi Alonso are so thoroughly deferred to by the defense, in that even if a defender has the ball under no pressure, Xabi Alonso will frequently shuttle back and pick the ball up off the defender’s feet in order to begin orchestrating the attack.  This occurs even when the players are people like Sergio Ramos or Pepe, both defenders who are quite capable of passing well.  This is partly so that the defenders will not be caught out of position, but it’s more out of deference to the increased potency of Xabi Alonso on the ball.

Other players who do this are Xavi from Barcelona, Pirlo for his clubs (AC Milan and Juventus) and Italy, and Schweinsteiger for Bayern Munich.  I like watching all of those players, but I like Xabi Alonso best, for reasons known and mysterious.

The known reasons are, in nor particular order, his beard (which is red like mine), his stocky and almost ungainly legs, and his brilliant passing.  The first two are aesthetic qualities which I would probably not even care about if it weren’t for the third characteristic, the passing, so let’s start there.

As a player in my pickup games, and even dating back to when I played in school, I love to pass.  I am a pass-first player.  I don’t dribble or shoot if I have a good pass I can make.  This preference for passing can work against me if I am not careful, because it can temper the aggressiveness and diversity needed to help me play a complete game. (In fact, some of the joys I relish most in my recent pickup games are the times I have incorporated some slashing dribbling runs from the wing to the middle of the field near the goal area.  I find that if I bide my time from the start of the game and wait for the opposition to tire a bit and become complacent in their expectations of me, that it is then that I can make my move.)

As such, I love a good pass, and Xabi Alonso does so many types of passes so consistently and creatively that I love watching him play regardless of opponent.  On Real Madrid he often hits cross field passes to his wingers Angel Di Maria and Ronaldo, and despite traveling extensive distances they land with pace right on the player’s chest.

This montage from a single game when Xabi Alonso was at Liverpool showcases his long passes.  Or watch this compilation from Real Madrid.  The way he can take a ball form inside his own half and knock it out to the wing puts the team into instantly on the attack, and the defense knows it can’t rest when he is on the ball.  As the clips also show, you can’t take the ball away from him easily either.

Xabi Alonso may not have quite Xavi’s majestic touch when passing inside up the middle to his center forward or players clustered in front of goal, but he is damn close.  When the two play together, Xavi plays much higher than he normally does with Barcelona, and I think this is because he can be provided with passes from Xabi Alonso.  I noticed that when the two were in the spot on the field with the ball that Xabi Alonso deferred to Xavi.  I like Xavi, but I don’t think he can hit the long ball as well, and I find those passes the most graceful and beautiful to watch.  The through balls are great too, but there’s just something thrilling about the instant switch from dormancy to action that occurs when Xabi Alonso flings the ball out wide far up the field.

If you read one soccer article this week…

July 9, 2012

Read this one by Jonathan Wilson from a month ago.  It will help you watch a soccer game more intelligently.