Addition by Subtraction, Messi and Fabregas

Would Barcelona be better off if Cesc were still at Arsenal?

Ousted from the Champions League by a single heartbreaking away goal, Paris Saint-Germain’s David Beckham was philosophical in an interview with Télam News from Argentina (wish he’d slipped an Iron Lady reference in somewhere). He ruminated on the effect Lionel Messi had on that game, which seemed to break firmly in Barca’s favor when their hobbled star made a 61st minute appearance.

To Beckham there is no greater player than Leo Messi.  And like the oracle at Delphi, he pronounced that it was so:

“He [Messi] is alone in his class as a player, it is impossible that there is another like him. He, like Cristiano Ronaldo, who is not at his level, are both above the rest.”

I wonder what the wonderful midfielder, Wesley Schneider of Galatasaray, would say to that having just seen Christiano score 3 of Real Madrid’s 5 goals in their excellent quarterfinal series. Madrid advanced on a 5 to 3 goal superiority after splitting home victories.  I am not here to debate Messi’s greatness, which is as close to a settled fact as you will find in this kind of conversation, but at the moment, Christiano is playing at his absolute best and very possibly a fraction better than Messi.  So now I am the Oracle, I guess, except I am using my Yarrow sticks with the I Ching hexagrams as evidence for this assertion (my regular fortune teller is in Reno for the week).

Point here is that reducing soccer to a system of binary oppositions like Messi vs Christiano is fun, especially after a few beers, but deadening.  It kills a real exploration of the game, which is Gordian and resists flip analysis.  Beckham’s pronouncements were made on the heels of Messi’s decisive influence over PSG’s demise. They followed a proof that looked more or less like this:

1. PSG is winning and in tenuous control.
2. Messi enters.
3. The game shifts decisively in Barca’s favor.
4. ergo Messi’s contributions were decisive.
5. Messi is the greatest Q.E.D. (for Beckham anyway).

Except for one thing… statement two is only half true. Events were not simply that Messi entered, but that Fabregas exited. Messi’s greatness overshadows an obvious flaw in the premise of this proof.  The absence of Fabregas might have had as much to do with the shift in the game as Messi’s presence.  Or if not as much, enough to have been essential to its outcome.

I think this was exactly the case. Messi is not just a great player technically, he is one of the most sophisticated players tactically in the world.  he is very sensitive to the effect his position on the field produces on the alignment of his opponents as well as his teammates.

Specifically, in the last 24 months, Messi has been drifting further away from the goal moving up the field and out to its right side. The effect is to open of critical spaces in the middle of the field, especially in the box, for players like Iniesta to exploit with timed runs and combinations.  When Messi is on the field, the penalty box is anyone’s territory as long as they duck in an out to receive passes or make dribbling attacks, as Messi does himself to such effect, rather than setting up inside it.  This is essential to Barca’s style of play.  That space needs to be the vacuum that pulls players in at key moments.  Messi does more to keep that space open than anyone.  One almost feels that it his primary objective these days.

A Gordian tangle. Can you untie it?

Look at the heat map and “action areas” on CNNFC’s analytical tool for this match and you will see  that Fabregas kills that space by occupying it. He uses it twice as much as Messi on a percentage basis.  Not only that, and this was obvious to anyone watching, With Messi out and Fabregas in, David Villa sees himself as the key scorer and competed with Fabregas for that space.  There they were, clogging it up for chunks of time, like a hairball in the shower drain.  The difference is stark for Villa’s positioning after Messi’s arrival. Villa vacates that central area in front of the goal and the game becomes much more dynamic offensively for Barca.  Before Messi,  Barca suffers from stasis as Fabregas and Villa battle it out for that lovely goal-front property with the excellent back-of-the-net view.

No one benefited from Fabregas’s departure more than Iniesta.  He became the primary offensive cog in Barcelona’s works, using the penalty area again and again to dart in and threaten the goal.  And it was ultimately Iniesta, combining with Messi, that sprang Pedro for that decisive goal.

So I would argue that Messi’s presence was decisive, but by taking Fabregas out, Barcelona removed the wrench from their works, and their machine could resume it’s normal smooth operation.

One day in Europe, Five Legendary Midfielders

The quarterfinals of the European Champions League allowed us to see possibly the five greatest midfielders of this generation play in critical games in a single day:

1. Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona
2. Andres Iniesta, Barcelona
3. Andrea Pirlo, Juventus
4. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern Munich
5. David Beckham, PSG, (Paris Saint German)

I will focus on Xavi, Pirlo, and Schweinsteiger, and Beckam in a series of posts over the next couple of days, starting today with one on Beckham and one on Xavi.

Xavi Hernandez: the indispensable man

Barcelona without Xavi is like a car without a steering wheel

Recently a hamstring tear to Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez gave me a chance to test a pet opinion that, while a fantastic player, Xavi rated behind several other midfielders in today’s game. These included Iniesta, Pirlo, and even Bastian Schweinsteiger.  I was very interested to see how club and country could do without the injured  Xavi, whether we would see a drop in quality. Xavi sat out against Real Madrid in their final league “Classico” on March 2nd and he also missed Spain’s recent World Cup qualifying match against small-fry Finland.

Let’s start with the game against Finland. With all the great options Spain has in the midfield apart from Xavi, I thought their offense might pick up, that we would see the Spanish unleashed and the goals would come fast and furiously.  Santi Cazorla, who has been excellent for Arsenal this season, started in Xavi’s place.  Cesc Fabregas and David Silva started as attacking players, but both can and often do play in the midfield.  The sensational Juan Mata, who has scored 18 goals this season for Chelsea–the majority out of the midfield–was available off the bench in order to supply instant offense.  And sure enough, I was right.  Spain was unleashed.  They played like an overly excited puppy that has slipped it’s collar. What we saw was a chaotic, very un-Spanish effort without the kind of order Xavi supplies.

Specifically, one thing Spain missed was Xavi’s great ability to slip into narrow seams in the attacking third.  This is a menace to defenses because when he gets a ball at his feet inside or around the penalty box, defenders are pulled to him like steel shavings to a magnet.  The space evacuated by those defenders opens up for Xavi’s teammates.   And there is no one better at exploiting this advantage.  Regardless of how frantic the defensive pressure, he always to seems to find the most dangerous play possible in those fractions of a second, the kind of play very few players can imagine much less execute.

That penetrating presence out of the midfield was just one of several of Xavi’s qualities sorely lacking against Finland.  The team looked impatient and out of synch and they unexpectedly drew, 1 to 1.

Watching Spain against France a couple of days later in a critical qualifying match, Xavi was in the lineup and he tormented the French with his cleverness, especially when he found those seams inside the box.  Spain took  a 1-0 victory in Paris which launched them into the critical top spot of their qualifying group, dropping a very very good French team to second.  Spain looked like its old calm and confident side.  The difference was Xavi.

Same for the Real Madrid game, where Barcelona played without Xavi and lost 2-1 to a weak Madrid side and played in a way that did not resemble Barcelona at all.  Ten days later they had Xavi against AC Milan and needed to score 3 goals at a minimum to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals.  They scored four in a spine-tingling display of offensive soccer against a famously organized tactical team.  And Xavi was critical to staging Barca’s attacks.  Against PSG yesterday, it was Barca’s back four that let them down.  Their midfield, led by Xavi Hernandez, dominated the game.

My opinion of Xavi is higher now than it has ever been and I feel silly to have doubted him. It is a good reality check.  For people like me, it’s good to be reminded that there is nothing easier to form than an opinion.  But that there isn’t a single thing easy about what guys like Xavi do, no matter how routine they make it look.

Beckham: A master in any part of the midfield

Not just another pretty face and set of exotic tattoos

Of course Beckham is no longer in the same category as the world’s greatest central midfielders, but he nonetheless deserves recognition for his play for PSG (Paris Saint Germain).  He has completed his transition from being a right side midfielder for the likes of Manchester United, where he won a Champions League title, and for Real Madrid, where he played on the right side of what usually lined up as three player midfield, the other two being Zidane and Figo.  Can you imagine?

Perhaps the experience of playing for the LA Galaxy, where he could play with absolute confidence in every game,  helped Beckham make his transition to a deep lying center midfielder a success. Now he collects the ball from the back four and links back line to front with incisive passes.  Maybe playing for the Galaxy slowed the game down so much for Beckham that he now doesn’t just have the vision to see the entire but he also has the composure and confidence to use it with a kind of ease that has Pirlo-like moments of effortlessness.

Beckham  played with Pirlo and Kaká at AC Milan.  Add those two to the above-mentioned Figo and Zidane as well as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Roy Keane at Manchester United and you have a group of midfield teammates that reads like a roster of all time greats.  Throw in Donovan for the Galaxy–who isn’t on that level of course, but is a unique and cerebral player, whose cleverness Beckham has praised–and you have to wonder, has any other midfielder played beside so many greats?  Beckham seems like a thoughtful athlete, the type to take advantage of a chance to learn from these great players. If he has, then he must be the most knowledgeable man to ever play his position.

He was marvelous in the first half of the game against Barcelona yesterday, before getting lost or tired out or both in the second half.   His sharp long passing out of the back was excellent and Beckhamesque.  But what impressed me was his ability to shut off service by clogging key passing lanes from the Barcelona midfield to their two most advanced players, Alexi Sanchez and David Villa.  This was enormously important given what seemed like an aggressive lineup from Barca (it is unusual for them to start Sanchez and Villa, perhaps their two purest attacking players, together).

It is not an easy thing to make the transition from a wide midfield player to a central one.  Of course a lot of players do it, but there are many more who cannot manage the lack of time and space in intensely contested central spaces and who fail to complete a high percentage of passes or who complete a high percentage of meaningless ones (Scott Parker).  Beckham has become very adept at finding space and then using it to get the ball quickly to his forwards.  At the age of 37, and coming off two injuries in the last several years, one a very serious achilles tendon tear, we can still see that he really is a special player.

The USMNT: Tragedy or Comedy? …if you wanna be technical, it’s “Tragic Irony”

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet were fated for tragedy. The irony was that Shakespeare let the audience in on that fate very early and tormented them with it during every star-crossed scene.

The comedic ironies of Klinsman’s USMNT (US Mens National Team) coaching tenure are beginning to pile up like dirty dishes next to a broken washer.  Everyone can see them, but turning a blind eye seems better, at least until there are too many to ignore.

Foremost among these ironies is the fact that Klinsman is deploying the very same system of play that Bob Bradley did, despite his promise to develop a more positive offensive style.  It is the 4-4-2 with a “bowl” shaped midfield where the two central midfielders start in front of the back line as holding players that release one at a time as needed and two wide midfielders who start further up the field and drift inside, also one at a time as needed, to support the two attackers.  The attackers usually start in more central positions.  These wing midfielders are meant to cover tons of ground, as their responsibilities include supporting the outside backs when opponents overload one side of the field by springing outside defenders or getting midfielders wide in support.

This latter defensive role was on display last week, when the US kept Mexico from scoring in their Azteca qualifier. Hercules Gomez and Graham Zusi did yeoman’s work tracking back in support of the two outside backs.  Gomez in particular helped Demarcus Beasley, playing out of position as a left back,  manage the very dangerous right wing play of Javier Aquino who was pulling Giovanni Dos Santos over to his side of the field in support of his frequent attacks.  Dos Santos also used space opened by Aquino on the right side to launch crosses and a shot or two that threatened the goal.  The USMNT had two outside midfielders who did their level best to help the team keep it’s shape in difficult circumstances–a credit to them and to the coaches who prepared them.  It also helped secure a point when none was expected.

Excellent shape notwithstanding, the irony of Klinsman’s return to Bradley’s favored system is compounded by the fact that he is not deploying strong attacking players on the wings.  Under Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan were lethal in the attack on the counter and as providers of killer final passes after a little build up.  They both played that outside role beautifully, drifting inside with effect,  supporting defenders, and screaming up the sides when the space allowed.  Now, the team is getting next to no offense from those two critical transitional positions.

Another irony is Klinsman’s expressed desire to develop an “American Style” of play and then bringing in 5 German guys with American fathers who’s knowledge of the States is probably limited to what they have seen on German TV reruns of “Dallas” and who to a man speak nothing better than halting English.  If I were to promote an American style in this way, I might look to see if we could find any Spanish players with American daddies or maybe Brazilians.  Although I have to hand it to Klinsman, Germany is a pretty darn good place to develop your American Style.

Getting back to the bowl shaped midfield in the heart of the US formation, it will not work unless we have dynamic and creative attacking players on the wing, who can play with effect inside or out,  generate offense on their own or facilitate scoring chances for the two attacking players. Do Zusi and Gomez meet these requirements?  As much as I would like to say yes, because they are both honest, quality players whose commitment and effort are exactly what any coach wants, I think the answer is no.  At least not now.

Zusi is a worthy candidate. If you watch his movement over the last two games, you will see someone who is playing his role tactically very well. He seems to know when to drift inside in support of the attacking two, when to stay wide to help open the middle up, and when to track back in defense. He does not lack the wit for this complex position.  So it is disappointing to see the team get so little offense out of his good intentions.   In particular he has failed utterly to unleash the team’s most important player, Jozy Altidore.

I know there is a legion of USMNT followers who do not believe in Altidore,  but he is a terrific scorer who happens to be in great form.  Why Klinsman has managed to get nothing out of this kind of player has less to do with Altidore than with coaching decisions.  Unless Klinsman commits to finding a system and players who can support Altidore as he is rather than as some would like him to become, then the team will not score enough to make any impact in the World Cup, if they get that far.  Altidore is NOT a hold up forward, he is someone who needs to receive the ball moving toward the goal in the final third, or in and around the 18 against a defense in any condition apart from fully settled.

If Klinsman wants a forward to hold the ball up, then he should find one.  Otherwise let Jozy be Jozy.  Afterall he has scored 25 goals this season in Holland’s top flight and seems likely to exceed 30 by season’s end.  Klinsman himself never scored more than 31 in a single season.  If Altidore exceeds that total but continues to go scoreless for Klinsman’s team, then the irony might just become too much.

Let’s hope that he is more Shakespeare than Romeo (or Juliet as far as that goes).

Back to Zusi, either he needs to take it upon himself to play with confidence and dynamism and to want the ball on every attack, or he needs to be replaced.  There is no place to hide in the international game. It may very well be that Zusi has the quality to fulfill the role effectively; he shows the signs of a superb player and goodness knows the team needs the position to be filled effectively. But so far it has not been enough.  He either needs to step up, show he can do it, or step aside.  If players like Zusi cannot find their way and Klinsman cannot detect their–or his own–shortcomings soon, then the ironies of his US coaching tenure could become tragic for players and fans alike whose eyes are wide open to the dangers a facing their national team.

If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right

It takes two to tango. But I like the old brawls better.

Oops, I mean if being wrong feels so good, I don’t want to be right.  Or whatever.  The US snatched a point at the Azteca in a civil, composed affair in which both teams played without acrimony or, apparently, hatred.  This rivalry has become so mild it makes you wish that cheating degenerates like Rafa Marquez would come back and bring a little gratuitous violence to the game. I was wrong about the US chances.  I was wrong about the US back four (they were measured, smart, and impenetrable), I was wrong about the crowd (where are the battery throwers?), and I especially was I wrong about the Mexican team.  They were toothless, insipid, and without any distinguishing features as a soccer team.

The United States, fielding a weak side, denied 3 points to Mexico and did so without seeming to break a sweat. The whole affair made me want to ask the people of Mexico, what have we done to make you not hate us so much.  I miss the bags of feces and urine being tossed at the US players.  If a D-cell battery is too much to ask, then can you guys at least throw triple A’s.  And while you’re at it, please ask Chicharito and Gio to go easy on the mascara for future games.  I mean none of our guys are in their rouge or pumps until after the game is over.

See ya in Columbus.

US Seeks Breathing Space in Mexico Tonight

Smog that makes you wish you were in Los Angeles.

Tonight is the night the United States Men’s National Team travels to Mexico City’s Azteca stadium.  For those who don’t know, it has been nearly impossible for any team to emerge with points when playing Mexico at the Azteca.  The US has only ever managed one, a 1993 1-1 tie.

The altitude–it’s higher than Denver’s Mile High football stadium–is one reason for this.  Smog is another. Mexico City is in a massive depression on the central Mexican plain. What you see driving in to the city from the northwest is a black spot on the horizon.  As you draw near, the spot grows and grows until  suddenly you realize that what you are seeing is smog gathered in and above a huge topographical bowl at the bottom of which rests the city.  This smog has the apparent weight and density of a solid mass because it is held mysteriously in place by a local climatic inversion, a stew of ground-level ozone produced by the photochemical reactions of dangerous gases, oxides, and stuff floating around like smoke, dust, soot, ash, and spores.  I remember feeling the flight impulse when I realized what it was, like a deer in a forest fire.  It is a lung-burning place to play soccer.

Also a challenge for the US tonight is the enthusiasm of Azteca’s 110,000 fans who are famous for throwing D-sized batteries as well as carefully folded sandwich bags of human waste at American players.  They have a worse than average case of that perverse quality in human nature which  causes people to enjoy the failures of their neighbors more than their own success. Unfortunately, I think they will enjoy themselves tonight.

During the last US qualifying game played there in 2009, forward Charlie Davis took a sweet pass from Landon Donovan and ran with the ball for about 50 yards before easily beating the keeper for the game’s first goal.  Davies’s  deadly combination of speed and skill gave US opponents fits; and the injuries he sustained in a car crash later that year took a striker from the US side with an invaluable defense-stretching presence.  He is a player that the US has never replaced.  With Davies the US was a different team, one that forced opponents to sit deeper defensively so that midfielders like Donovan and Dempsey could employ their very creative talents in a great deal more space than they have seen since.  One reason we did so well in the 2009 Confederations cup was precisely because of Davies.

Charlie Davies. He is still missed.

I do not think the US has much chance against Mexico tonight.  The team has too many injuries to key players, especially on the back line, which is inexperienced and has not jelled.  There is no one with the  juice to replace a guy like Donovan, who is still on vacation from the National team.  Dempsey cannot do it by himself.  And this is a very good Mexican team, even if they have not been in good form so far.  In fact it is one of the best Mexican teams I have seen in a long while, and if they find their stride at the Azteca tonight they will exact another form of Montezuma’s revenge, having fans of the US team feeling a little worse for the team’s visit to the stadium that bears the name of that doomed monarch’s kingdom.