The insignificant spectator

So, farewell to the dispassionate observer.The football World Cup has begun in earnest and as an armchair-Indian supporter of football, you are committing treason if you’re not supposedly backing one particular team to win. Gone are the days when you are merely a watcher, an avid conoisseur of sport in general. Now, it is imperative to wave plastic flags, flaunt you’re recently acquired [insert the team you’ve decided to back] related paraphrenelia, cause affront to fans of other teams. Add to all that the most annoying recent trend of feigning intelligence on twitter-pretending to know in-depth knowledge of the team you supposedly support, be the first to proclaim an alternative point of view however absurd it may be -and we have the spectacularly Indian phenomenon of attaching disproportionate significance to having a world view. You will see tweets along the lines of “Rooney almost looks bored …wonder why he is still picked”. Delving deeper by pointing out why that might be so -whether he is being played out of position on the left of a midfield three or he has had only four touches in the box- and you will find that these mutterings are cursory observations of a glib bandwagon-jumper. Or the standard analysis from national newspapers as the one “Balotelli completed 84.2% of his passes” stat in The Times of India. It is akin to L.Sivaramakrishnan, the Indian cricket commentator famous for his bland utterances, purring that a batsman has a strike rate of 600 runs/100 balls after he has hit his first ball for six. Such analyses cease to be that, because it provides little value in any context. Why is that particular statistic important; how does that foretell what’s going to happen next. One might wonder why I bring commentators into such a discussion-unfortunately it’s an indictment of what they have become, fanboys. Not only have these fanboys seeped into our collective understanding, they are starting to resemble a cult with scores more wanting to join. While these fanatics become increasingly rambunctious, the purist following begins to dwindle. In a decade’s time, it will be hardly plausible for one to reminisce about VVS Laxman’s monumental 281 vs Australia and be taken seriously. India as a country might be a fair distance from becoming a genuine sporting culture but as far as fan following is concerned, we have been expedited to the world’s current lowly standards. As a nostalgist, I long for tales of the flamboyance of the WestIndian cricket team during the 1960s in one of those landmark test matches at the Corporation ground in what was then Madras- when a single sport occupied the vast reservoirs of sporting memories in our consciousness. Indian sporting fandom has assimilated seamlessly into global sporting following- a milieu of outrage and mindless partisanship.

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Moyes inculpable in United’s post-Ferguson era wobble

Robin Van Persie warmed up next to the Old Trafford home team section itching to come on, while David Moyes and Steve Round deliberated on who to take off in what seemed an interminable few minutes. On the pitch, Wayne Rooney whipped in a precision freekick- the sort where any touch in the box from a player on either side could deflect the ball into the net. United’s polarizing superstar then claimed the goal as his and allowed Moyes to haul Javier Hernandez off to introduce the current cherished one of the Stretford end, RVP. Any of Moyes’ detractors pining for a return of United’s dominant displays would point to that as indecision, yet there was a deeper issue unfolding.

In what already seemed an insurmountable task of replacing the Premier League’s longest serving manager, United’s top brass did very little to bring in the calibre of player that could help Moyes return United to their deserved place among Europe’s elite. Although the transition from David Gill to Ed Woodward was never going to be easy, the decision to afford that in this particular summer of change was baffling. Moyes invited some deserved criticism in trying to bring in some of his former Everton players, but his pursuit of Fabregas is evidence enough that he knows the kind of player capable of playing for Britain’s biggest club.

A lot has been made of the #FreeShinji campaign and the continued upbraiding of David Moyes for a lack of sophistication in his constant omissions of Shinji Kagawa and not playing him in his suited position in the hole behind the striker. Even if we disagree with some of those decisions, apart from a promising initial burst from Kagawa against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League, he has looked distinctly short of match fitness. Evidently, giving the Japanese more game time would sort part of that problem, yet, can the United manager really afford a bedding in time for one of his players in this pivotal phase of his tenure?

Even taking into account United’s consecutive defeats in the Manchester derby and against West Brom, Moyes’ revival of Rooney has been remarkably underplayed. Not only did he keep the mercurial striker away from the clutches of Mourinho-who considered him to potentially be the most important cog in his second spell at Chelsea, but has evoked the spirit and verve of that display against Fenerbahce earmarking his arrival at Old Trafford. Had Ferguson been able to reinvigorate Rooney to realize his prodigious talent, I doubt whether any of his managerial nous would have been understated.

In recent years, United’s kryptonite has been superior midfields dominating possession resulting in some of their premature exits from Europe. Ferguson’s refusal to address such a blatant concern attracted far less scrutiny than some directed at Moyes in United’s present state of crisis. While his willingness to overpay for Fellaini might admittedly have been misguided, Moyes’ appraisal of United’s lack of quality to win European trophies shows the necessary alacrity-so prevalent among the successful continental managers, to address prevailing issues swiftly. Additionally, the generosity in allowing certain players like Nani, Anderson to coast through seasons was also not befitting of a manager possessing Ferguson’s aura. Moyes had this to say when asked about United’s chances of winning the Champions league, “If you look at Bayern Munich, they have five or six nearly world-class players. Look at Barcelona, who had it in the past and Real Madrid have maybe got it now. That’s the level you have to get at to win it. We’ve not got that yet but what we have got is experience and several players who are in that category or close to it.”

Another myth consistently propogated about Ferguson was his ability to attract every player he wanted to United. Well documented ones such as Ronaldinho and Lucas Moura aside, players like Adem Ljajic have moved to different clubs. The revisionism around Ferguson’s know-how in the transfer market, can also be extended to his powers of persuasion in securing younger players to longer term contracts. Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba would have plugged many a gap in United’s current squad.

Whether Moyes is out of his depth still being a moot point, the Glazers would do well to provide the necessary backing in the transfer market as well as grant him sufficient time in the uncertain muddle that is United’s short term future after their twenty six year spell of stability.

Why Everton must allow the quality of football to dictate where they go

“We are looking to play very good football, very beautiful football. When we are playing good football, then we will win.” Ferran Soriano had that to say when he was asked about whether Manchester City’s lust for attractive football can be matched by an equivalent trophy haul. He might as well have been talking about Everton even though the Merseysiders’ brush with trophies have been as frequent as an asteroid traversing our atmosphere.
Marouane Fellaini’s long protracted move to Manchester United allowed Everton to make an unusual splash in the transfer market on Deadline Day. The arrivals of James McCarthy, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry look to have significantly changed the nature of the window Everton have had.  Although the uncertainty over the futures of Fellaini and Baines seems to have affected their start to the season, Roberto Martinez can have no excuses about the quality of squad he has inherited.
While the Moyes reign at Goodison park has been marked by stability in terms of league positions and frugality in terms of spending money on players, one can make a case for a lack of ambition in either. The traditional British manager is often characterized by an acuity in man management and a deficiency in tactical understanding, and the Glaswegian’s time at Everton was no different . David Moyes’ stint as Toffees boss was also conspicuous by an inability to beat teams expected to finish above them in the table. Roberto Martinez’s experiences in the lower leagues with Swansea and in perennial relegation strugglers Wigan should serve him well against bigger teams and also place an emphasis on tactically outwitting managers with greater resources.
On Martinez’s unveiling, much was made of Bill Kenwright’s revelation about the Spaniard’s promise of Champions League football during preliminary talks before his appointment. To be fair, as a manager of a team worth around £20 million to have conquered one worth £200 million, he is entitled to an outrageous claim or two. Whether Everton make a concerted challenge within the next two years or more remains to be seen, but success should definitely not be to plateau around 5th or 6th.
Another area which Martinez could be an upgrade on Moyes is the type of footballer  signing for Everton. Even though the Scot was lauded for his ability to find bargains, the subtle sophisticated footballer like Deulofeu must be the template for the scouting department.
With the strength and quality of Premier League teams in contention for a Champions League place, the only way Everton can compete is to discover technically gifted footballers, impart a tactical understanding within the squad’s younger players and develop a coherent system akin to some of the successful clubs in the lesser leagues across the continent. A step back for a few steps forward can be acceptable for Everton considering the lack of considerable incentives for being in the Europa League and finishing midtable.
Given Martinez’s penchant for youth, innovative coaching methods and a track record of winning the FA cup, time and backing are essential to the direction he takes the club. Despite the apprehension of many a journalist in Britain, Martinez’s reign should positively reaffirm the club’s commitment towards trophies but with attractive football.

Tactical Analysis; Mirallas under Martinez

A tad short of 62 minutes, Kevin Mirallas doubled Everton’s goal tally against a resolute Real Betis albeit in a pre-season friendly. It was a glimpse of how the Blues’ philosophy would evolve under Roberto Martinez for the Goodison faithful.

Mirallas arrived as a £6 million signing at the start of the 2012 campaign. While that might be a paltry sum in the modern milieu of the transfer market, it was a considerable gamble for a club that is perpetually looking for bargains and perennially under financial duress. More than financially,it was also a tactical gamble given David Moyes’ preference for wingers who track back and are positionally disciplined.

During his two year stint at Olympiakos, Mirallas scored an impressive 34 goals in 67 games. He was employed as either of two wide forwards in a fluid 4-3-3 formation allowing for freedom to roam and exploited his ability to cut inside. Although he had a reasonably successful first season, he came into his own in the second scoring 20 goals and earning himself a lucrative move to Merseyside. Under David Moyes, he was deployed as a wide man in an offensively conservative 4-4-1-1 formation. Given the stern disciplinarian the current Manchester United manager is, Mirallas was required to hog the touchline as well as provide defensive cover due to the overlapping runs of the ever reliable Seamus Coleman. Not only did this rigidity limit his creativity to cut in, it also inhibited his capacity as a  provider with Everton’s lack of prolific forwards.

In light of David Moyes’ much publicized move to Old Trafford and United’a tradition of genuine wide men, it is only logical that Mirallas’ stats be pitted against Young, Nani and Valencia. His 1.6 chances created per game in the 2012-2013 season is only bettered by Young with 1.8 while Mirallas has six more goals with the United winger failed to get on the scoresheet throughout the campaign. In terms of dribbles per game Mirallas matches the best of the United wide men (Valencia) with 1.4. With such impressive numbers in an unconventional role, it is only right to speculate how he might do in an advanced position.

Although the proverbial tactic is for a wide man to run into space from a deeper position, creative players often thrive under pressure to perform while being the focal point. Roberto Martinez has begun his Everton tenure with a slight modification to the traditional 4-4-1-1 . Mirallas has begun the season brightly in his preferred advanced wide role. If Martinez as widely  predicted does revert to his 3 man backline, it would allow Mirallas more attacking freedom and more attacking support to draw some of the defenders away. All in all it makes for an intriguing season in store.

Tiki-taka and the Swansea Jack

In the summer of 1911, Vetch-Field was a waste land on which cows fed. Swansea city’s landscape was apathetic towards the lack of a professional football team due to the dominance of rugby union. A year on, began the ascent of Swansea City AFC under its current guise with the first ever Welsh derby on September 7th. The first fixture in the coming Premier league season marks more than a 100 years of a fierce rivalry. While Cardiff City were the established Southern League side during Swansea’s formative years, the Swans have turned the tables this time around with their first foray into Europe after a span of 22 years, most of it in lower echelons of the Football league.

Although Swansea have had some famous names adorn their traditional white strip such as Alan Curtis and John Toshack, the most eminent of them all will grace the dugout and not kick a ball. Michael Laudrup took over Swansea City at the start of the 2012-2013 season after considerable progress through the lower divisions under the tenures of Mssrs. Martinez, Sousa and Rodgers. After winning promotion to the Premier League 2 seasons before , Brendan Rodgers molded them into a determined Premier League team playing in what I can unashamedly describe as a less cultured version of the Barcelona style of play. Even if signs of progress were plentiful under Rodgers, last season may well be described as the culmination of an efficient playing system buttressing an intricate cosmopolitan scouting network.

While question marks remained as to whether there was more to Swansea than a decorated manager and an attractive brand of football, a respectable ninth place finish in the Premier League along with an unexpectedly impressive League Cup win indicates more substance. Looking closely at the tactical evolution in Swansea’s play, Rodgers utilized a hybrid 4-3-3 which morphed into a more attacking 3-4-3 with the full backs pushing forward. On average, Rodgers’ Swansea averaged around 58% possession belying a mid-table finish and some early cup exits. Comparatively, Laudrup’s Swansea averaged around 55% possession, allowing the opposition more of the ball and played in a similar formation. While Swansea’s overall goals scored tally was only 3 more than the previous season, it does not take into account the eventual petering out of their season after their Cup win. But more importantly they had scored 6 more goals than their previous season after 25 games. In terms of playing style, Laudrup has taken Swansea to the next level, evidently indicated in their decisiveness in the final third.

On the account of their philosophy, having Laudrup not only meant evolution in their playing style but revolution in their scouting network. The standard price comparison for many a Premier League commentator is Michu. Brought in from Rayo Vallecano for £2million, a mere pittance by modern standards, Michu scored a season high 22 goals for Swansea. While Michu’s success can be gauged just by his goal tally, some other successful buys of the Laudrup era require deeper analysis. Chico, a center half purchased from Genoa was arguably Laudrup’s best buy. He averaged a pass completion % of 89.3 and an aerial dual win rate of 2.5 in contrast to 78.2% and 2.4 for Phil Jagielka, statistically the Premier League’s next best central defender. In addition to these two were other successful transfers in Jonathan De Guzman, Pablo Hernandez and Ki Sung-Yeung. The intricacies of Laudrup’s scouting can be demonstrated by the failures of two players who left the Liberty stadium for greener pastures. While Scott Sinclair suffered the ignominy of playing less than half their league games for Manchester City, Danny Graham has departed for Hull City after drawing a blank in his 11 games for Sunderland. On the other hand Laudrup seems to have reinvigorated Jonjo Shelvey after his spell on the fringes of Liverpool. Seemingly a talented player, his growth had stalled at Liverpool due to a lack of playing time.This emphasizes that a manager and his scouting network must not only recruit the best players for his system but also aid players with tactical understanding and giving them space to express themselves.

Finally and most importantly, Laudrup seems to have instilled the abiding Welsh quality of resilience in his Swansea players. Starkly evident was their perseverance in two tough League Cup fixtures at Arsenal and Chelsea where Swansea deservedly came through en route to a famous day at Wembley. Among all the optimism for Swansea’s tiki-taka and their enduring spirit, there were warning signs in how their form deteriorated after their Cup win. With considerably more fixtures this year in terms of the Europa League and more awareness of their strengths and weaknesses among fellow Premier League teams, Swansea must be wary of a similar scenario. But with the additions of Bony, Shelvey, Pozuelo, Canas and under the stewardship of their widely heralded manager, a stirring season for the swans might be on the cards.

Liverpool; stagnant or progressive

In football, we’re all well acquainted with the “we don’t sell our best players” rhetoric. It is usually employed by football clubs who either wish to drive up the price of a player or quell fan unrest atleast for the time being. But, in the era of the modern players, the player generally gets what he wants.

Brendan Rodgers has slowly started to put his imprint on Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has slowly started to put his imprint on Liverpool

With Liverpool, it seems like its January 2011 all over again where inspite of all the well-worded statements put out on behalf of the club, Fernando Torres ended up being a Chelsea player.While Chelsea were never really considered as rivals in that season as they were the reigning champions of England,Arsenal,the club courting Suarez are seen as a club with very similar ambitions. As is often the case, there will be little element of surprise if Suarez ends up in North London come the start of the season. If the quoted figures are to be believed, Liverpool will have atleast £40 million to spend on a replacement.It’s all well having the money to spend but which top level player is going to be available at what will be near the closing of the transfer window and is Liverpool an attractive destination without the lure of Champions league football? The second part of that question is what seems to be the main bone of contention for Liverpool in selling Suarez. On the other hand, if Liverpool do decide to sell and not spend in light of there being no value in the market there will be even more cause for worry. Looking at the transfer window until now the majority of the teams that have strengthened finished below Liverpool last season. Swansea, Norwich and Southampton have all had big money buys from across the continent in an increasing prevalent European scouting system used by teams in the Premier League. Breaking into the top four is seemingly all the more difficult with Manchester City spending more money, the return of Mourinho at Chelsea and especially if Arsenal get Suarez. The signings so far for Liverpool can described as underwhelming as they have brought in Toure who was surplus to requirements at City and two players who whose teams will be in the second tier of Spanish football.
Inspite of all that though, Liverpool seem to be one of the very few teams in the premier league who seem to be growing organically. Admittedly mired in guruspeak, the term explains teams which have a defined way of play as well as as a scouting system that operates to find players to fit certain roles in the system. It also radiates a progressive set of formations and tactics that emphasizes fluid movement of players. The signings as of now, though unknown, reflects the new scouting committee at Liverpool. While the jury still seems to be out on the first set of Brendan Rodgers’ signings in Borini and Allen, the committee’s brief foray into the transfer market so far looks promising in the form of Coutinho and Sturridge. And if the latest in football analytics have it right, losing Suarez might not be a bad thing after all. Suarez has the worst shot to goal ratios among the top strikers in the premier league and takes more shots from outside the box than any of the other premier goalscorers as explained here http://www.7amkickoff.com/2013/luis-suarez-the-selective-attention-player-of-the-year/ and http://differentgame.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/1089/. While Liverpool might have benefited until now in having a player of Suarez’s qualities, come the era of Financial fair play and with the aid of stats such as shots to goal ratios, key passes, chances created, Liverpool would do well in finding players who contribute more than just looking good in the highlights package. While the proverbial cliché of the best teams not selling their best players might be true, there are increasing instances of teams selling their best player only to improve as a whole. Napoli and Fiorentina are two instances this summer where they have sold their best player probably at their peak price only to invest the money across the board in a variety of positions. One thing to be emphasized though is that the improvement as a squad only happens if you invest wisely and not throw silly money for the sake of buying.
A little nous in the transfer market and clever management might also exploit the flux at the top of the Premier League. Although the clubs above Liverpool look good on paper, an organic team with in form players might push them into those Champions league spots. All signs until now tell us that they might surprise quite a few this year.

Dr.Stanlove: How I learned to stop appreciating movies and just love Kubrick….2001 A Space Odyssey

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“If you can talk brilliantly about a problem, it can create the consoling illusion that it has been mastered”. That was Kubrick during a rare 1966 interview to Jeremy Bernstein talking about his time in Look magazine in the mid 1940s. It was during my undergrad days while I was watching 5 movies a week,most of them not worth a mention I must admit, that I came across 2001:A Space Odyssey. And an illusion was exactly what it was. Before 1968, the entire ken of sci-fi movies was all blobby monsters and promiscuous women. To end the littany would require enormous tact and genuine imagination. NASA was desperate to give the world a sneak preview of what it would be like to see a man on the moon and Kubrick was itching to change the genre. During one of his usual marathon reading sessions, he came across Arthur C Clarke’s “The Sentinel” which proposed extraterrestrial life in a way he imagined it. So, here was the quintessential atheist,science apologist director sensing the opportunity to envisage a monumental thematic of evolution to future space weapons. Clarke went back to complete a series of stories that Kubrick wanted to tie together and got back to start filming with NASA’s technological support. At the end of 4 years of crafting the epic together, we end up with what still remains the only absolute visual experience of space. No documentary or any IMAX film has been able to replicate what 2001 did nearly 45 years ago and that in itself must reinforce the magnitude of Kubrick’s oeuvre. From hominins, revolving space stations, the mythical interstellar monolith to the stargate sequence, I was able to grasp the entirity of the experience only on my first viewing on blu-ray widescreen even be it without anamorphic transfer of the format which fanatics still wail about.The whole visual aura of 2001 is emphasized in the first 20 minutes where all you see is hominins and their social evolution which in movie terms strangely means silence which we seldom hear.  The absolute mastery of physics on the revolving space station occurred to me only when Clarke politely inquired in 2006 as to why NASA still has not put it into use. His attention to detail is evident when we see a lack of intimacy and personality among human characters while it is starkly evident in HAL. And put this all in place with The Blue Danube and Also Sprach in the background thereby pioneering the first punk rock flick and getting back classical music in the movies. The profoundness of the craft is corroborated when Jan Harlan describes his visit to a school where they play Richard Strauss and a child refers to the short piece as ‘space music’.When the Academy ignores 2001 for best costumes on hominins and passes over Clarke for the screenplay you do begin to wonder whether populism is reserved only for Michael Bay fans.The tectonic shift in the genre came about not just because of his use of technology but by his complete abhorrence of storytelling along military lines and his gall to predict future events. The movie is a visual experience of space and not linear patterns of people in space.