Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Grand Slam Snoozefest

Stats of the Week No. 1: Aston Villa have missed 4 of their 7 penalties this season.

Stats of the Week No. 2: Since Stephen Hunt’s goal for Hull on the opening day of the season, Chelsea have scored 26 goals at home without reply.

Stats of the Week No. 3: Before this season, Jody Craddock had scored 3 goals in 140 Premier League appearances. This season he's got 3 in 8 games.

Stats of the Week No. 4: Cesc Fabregas has been involved in 15 Premier League goals this season – a league-high. He has scored 6 times and assisted 9 goals.

Stats of the Week No. 5: Steve Bruce has failed to win in any of his last 17 trips to London as a manager.

Stats of the Week No. 6: Stoke have lost 12 points from leading positions this season, more than any other side.

Stats of the Week No. 7: Chelsea’s winner against Manchester United was the first set-piece goal United have conceded in the league this season.

Stats of the Week No. 8: Carlos Tevez has scored 2 goals in 764 minutes of play in the Premier League, both in the same match against West Ham. His goalless streak currently stands at 5 games.

Stats of the Week No. 9: The last time Liverpool started a league match without either Gerrard or Carragher in the starting XI was in a 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in April 2008.

Stats of the Week No. 10: Liverpool have now won only 1 of their last 9 matches.

Sweet Plays of the Week: Pedro Rodriguez got Barcelona underway against Mallorca. However, while Pedro finished smoothly, it was the tremendous backheeled through ball by Zlatan Ibrahimovic that made it a truly outstanding goal. Ibrahimovic possessed the vision and awareness to spot Pedro’s run with an exquisite backheel that outfoxed at least six defenders and sent Pedro through one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

After winning the ball in defence, Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna quickly gave it to Fabregas and surged upfield. Fabregas then returned the ball to Sagna on the right wing and started making his way into the box. Sagna’s cross found the feet of van Persie, who perfectly laid the ball off into the path of Fabregas with a single touch, allowing Fabregas to finish easily past Wayne Hennessey.

Kevin McDonald earned Burnley a surprise draw at Money City with a sumptuous team goal. David Nugent found Steven Fletcher at the far post with a perfectly weighted chipped pass and Fletcher, who had timed his run perfectly to find himself in behind the City defence, delicately headed the ball back across the face of goal for McDonald to run in and finish confidently into the corner.

Bukharov chipped Igor Akinfeev from 35 yards in Rubin Kazan’s 2-0 away win over CSKA Moscow. Rubin are pretty sweet.

Sweetest Play of the Week: There was plenty to choose from in Lyon and Marseille’s 5-5 draw but Lyon’s fifth goal from Michel Bastos was the pick of the bunch. It was a perfect demonstration of swift, one-touch counter attacking play. Pjanic ran the ball through midfield towards the heart of the Marseille defence. He laid it off to Lisandro Lopez and continued his run. Lisandro knocked the ball into the path of Bafetimbi Gomis with his first touch. Gomis then sent a defence splitting through ball to Pjanic who had broken beyond the defence. Pjanic ran onto the pass and sent the ball across the box to the oncoming Michel Bastos, who finished emphatically with his left foot.

Sour Plays of the Week No. 1: Faced with Gonzalo Higuain on the edge of his own box, Atletico Madrid’s Luis Perea decided the best course of action would not be passing to a team-mate or clearing his lines. No, he decided to take Higuain on with a dribble. Higuain tackled him, won the ball, dribbled past Perea with ease and scored a third goal for Real Madrid. The match then ended 3-2 in Madrid’s favour. Atletico Madrid have the worst defensive record in La Liga. I wonder why.

Sour Plays of the Week No. 2: With the ball slowly rolling towards the byline against Aston Villa, Bolton’s Gary Cahill attempted to get in the way of John Carew and shepherd it out for a goal kick. However, the ball was rolling VERY slowly, with almost no momentum whatsoever. Cahill was then too weak to hold off Carew who outmuscled him easily, stole the ball and squared the pass for Agbonlahor to score. Cahill had ample time to simply clear the ball out of play, or if he wanted to be even fancier, kick it against the shins of Carew. A professional defender must be capable of reading when a ball does or doesn’t have enough pace to roll out of play on its own. Even more importantly, he must possess the football IQ to know when it is appropriate to shield a loose ball out of play. When you’re being hunted down by 6’4” man-beast John Carew... it’s not appropriate.

Sack-watch: Phil Brown lives to fight for another week after a 2-1 victory over Stoke. Most impressively, Hull were able to come back from a 0-1 deficit to win. One can only imagine Phil was receiving good advice from whoever he talks to through his headset.

North of the border, things continue to spiral downwards for Celtic’s Tony Mowbray. Mowbray’s appointment as Celtic manager was a strange one given his bizarre preference for performances over results and his stubborn refusal (or inability) to change his approach if things aren’t going well. This attitude is all well and good when you’re trying to maintain a team’s confidence when they’re losing almost every week, but it is ineffective at a club who are expected to win every match in the SPL. Unfortunately for Mowbray, the performance was not there either against Falkirk as Celtic drew 3-3 with the bottom-of-the-table club. Mowbray has often talked about the need to improve the squad but two of the poorest performers today were his summer signings Landry N’Guemo and Marc-Antoine Fortuné. And for all the failings of the squad Gordon Strachan left behind, they are still the same players who put 10 goals past Falkirk without reply in 3 league encounters last season. Celtic were poor last season but Mowbray has made them even worse.

Bottom of the Championship Peterborough have sacked Darren Ferguson after just 16 games of the season. While they’ve struggled, this is a guy who’s taken the club from League 2 to the Championship in two seasons with consecutive promotions, with much of the squad still made up of the same players he had in League 2. The Championship was always going to be a struggle after getting there so quickly. Sacking him so quickly is a ridiculous decision.

Have you noticed? Everyone calls Darren Fletcher “underrated.” Funny that, since practically everyone who speaks his name ‘rates’ him.

Poppy Outrage: The ENTIRE WORLD, sorry, the Daily Mail was in uproar this weekend as Manchester United and Liverpool took to the field without poppies embroidered on their shirts. It is apparently an OUTRAGE that these two clubs have not joined the poppy-embroidery bandwagon which began only seven years ago and until now was practically unknown. Ten years ago this practice didn’t even exist and no-one was ‘outraged’ or saw it as “an absolute disgrace” that there wasn’t a single poppy on the shirt of a single football club in the country, so why now is it such a big deal? One caller on talkSPORT claimed clubs have a “duty” to wear them... why? Why now? Why is it a “duty” now when it was not 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago...? Apparently children will be asking why they’re not wearing poppies! What nonsense. It seems Birmingham were wearing them last week against Manchester City. Did I notice? No. Would anyone have noticed without this tedious campaign? No.

More Mail Misery: The Daily Mail also managed to write a lengthy (headline) article on how X-Factor producers ordered Dannii Minogue and Louis Walsh to swap seats. Goodness me!

Inspired Substitutions Bring Victory but why did Sam Allardyce start with one up front at home against 20th place club Portsmouth in the first place?

Raúl Madrid Update: Last week I suggested Manuel Pellegrini wasn’t brave enough to drop Raúl. I was wrong. He’s benched him in the last three games now. With Higuain and Benzema up front Madrid looked quicker and more dynamic, with better options for men in possession and better movement. This allowed them to completely dominate the first hour of the game against Atletico Madrid until Raúl was substituted on in place of Higuain, who scored a goal with his final kick of the football to put Real Madrid 3-0 up. Though the sending off of Sergio Ramos was obviously problematic (to say the least), Madrid’s ten men were not helped by Raul’s lack of pace or his tendency to come incredibly deep for the ball, leaving Kaka as the furthest man forward. It was not necessary to change a forward pairing that was working so effectively. Raúl’s presence has a detrimental effect on Kaka, on the team’s mobility and their most of all their shape. Holding possession with ten men is difficult enough at the best of times. Having Raúl on the pitch as the lone striker made it even harder.

Why, why, why...? Morrissey stormed off stage and called off a gig in Liverpool only two songs in after he was hit on the head by a bottle thrown from the crowd. Reasonable enough, really. But why was anyone in the crowd throwing stuff at him in the first place? It was a Morrissey concert, on a Morrissey tour. Why are you there if you don’t like him?

I’m Drowning In Jokealism: Almost every preview, match report or article relating to Lyon v Liverpool is filled with hyperbole. They treat Liverpool’s problems almost completely in isolation, free of the fact that – shock horror – Lyon might have had some of their own too, and most of all ignore that rather important little nugget of quality journalism... context.

The BBC once again spoke of Liverpool’s “severe injury crisis.” Robbo Robson’s BBC blog called the Liverpool line-up a “makeshift 11.” Ian Herbert of the Independent described the Liverpool defence as “makeshift and ramshackle.” Hang on for a minute here, let’s look at the facts. Three of Liverpool’s defenders against Lyon could confidently be described as first choice – Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Emiliano Insua are certainly players most would consider to be part of Liverpool’s strongest defensive line-up. Only Sotirios Kyrgiakos would have made way for Glen Johnson, who was missing through injury. In the absence of Johnson, Carragher was forced to move out of the centre to right-back, which is why Kyrgiakos came in and perhaps one reason why it might be considered makeshift. However, this was largely because Johnson’s deputy, Phillip Degen (who was fit and available), was not registered in Liverpool’s 25-man Champions League squad.

Moreover, it is disrespectful to Lyon to put Liverpool’s failings so largely down to their injury problems without recognition of the arguably worse problems that Lyon themselves faced.

Liverpool were forced to field Kyrgiakos because Johnson and Skrtel were missing. Two players. Had Johnson been available, Carragher could have played centre-back and their full strength defence would have been available. Alternatively, Skrtel would have been a better option than Kyrgiakos in the centre. The main issue was, therefore, missing those two defenders at the same time. However, at least Kyrgiakos is an experienced centre-back, even if he is fourth choice.

Lyon, on the other hand, only had one fit centre-back in their entire squad and were missing Francois Clerc, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Cleber Anderson and Mathieu Bodmer from their defence. As a result, midfielder Jeremy Toulalan was forced into the backline as Lyon did not even have four defenders available. So if we are to be besieged by reports of sorrow for Liverpool’s “makeshift” defence that still contained four recognised defenders, why not even a single word for a Lyon defence so badly stretched they had to shift their best midfielder back there? Surely throwing a midfielder into defence is more “makeshift and ramshackle” than simply fielding your fourth choice stopper? Let’s not forget also that at Anfield, Lyon played the entire second half with Toulalan and Gonalons in central defence, both midfielders by trade and the latter making only his fifth career appearance. Liverpool do not have a global monopoly on injury woes.

It got even worse for Lyon during the game, which at least the BBC acknowledged: “However, Lyon also had their problems with right-back Anthony Reveillere and midfielder Miralem Pjanic having to go off injured.” Such sympathies for Lyon lack context without mentioning their significant pre-existing problems in defence, as the phrasing implies those were the only problems they faced when that could not be further from the truth. Reveillere was already the second choice right-back and the man who replaced him, Lamine Gassama, was a 20-year-old who’s made less than 10 professional appearanes.

A number of reports blew Liverpool’s problems out of all proportion by simply exclaiming that they were missing seven players, thus making it some kind of mega-crisis. Once more, this number is meaningless without context. Two of those absentees were left-backs Andrea Dossena and Fabio Aurelio, who have this season been behind Insua in the pecking order anyway. Thus, it is hardly the end of the world to be missing your second and third choice left-backs when the first choice is fit, healthy and playing. Likewise the absence of Albert Riera, who had already been out of favour this season, was far from a major problem with both Yossi Benayoun and eventual near-hero Ryan Babel available. Liverpool’s injuries were not as heavily stacked and concentrated in one area the way Lyon’s were.

Simply declaring a number of injuries is misleading when at least half of them were to players who would not have featured in the starting XI anyway. Had Gerrard and one of Johnson or Skrtel been fit, there would have been little problem. Liverpool had three critical injuries. The other four players out were largely superfluous because they were backups to areas where the main players were available. By replacing Voronin with Gerrard and Kyrgiakos with either Johnson or Skrtel, Liverpool would have had what is essentially their first-choice starting line-up on the field, which is why describing their XI as “makeshift” is drastically over the top.

Skrtel and Johnson went on to start against Birmingham yesterday. Short term injuries to those two defenders was obviously a problem, but let’s not overplay their significance as if they’re serious long-term absentees. Manchester United were missing Vidic, Ferdinand, Berbatov and Park Ji Sung against Chelsea as well as perma-crocked Owen Hargreaves. Arsenal are missing Clichy, Walcott and Denilson among others. Tottenham were missing Modric, Bassong and Lennon as they beat Sunderland 2-0. Chelsea will lose a number of important players during the African Cup of Nations. All football teams must deal with injuries and absences.

I am not denying that Liverpool have injury problems, nor is this an attack on the club itself; I am simply asking for a little balance and perspective from the media. You can’t bemoan a mass of injuries as the root of their woes without considering who those injured players are and without recognising that their Champions League opposition too were facing a ‘severe injury crisis.’

Back on the topic of jokealism generally, Ian Herbert of the Independent also stated the equalising goal was scored by “Brazilian striker, Lissandro.” I’m sure an Argentine player just LOVES to be called Brazilian. In addition, his name is Lisandro. One S. Great research! We can all rely on you, huh! In addition, he described Torres’ left-footed miss in the first half as a “right foot shot.” Good to know our sports writers are really paying attention.

Egg of the Week: As if James Milner’s terrible penalty miss against Bolton was not bad enough, his team-mate Steve Sidwell succeeded in missing what can only be described as the egg of the season from the rebound. With the entire net gaping and Jaaskelainen still on the ground by the left post following his save, Sidwell blasted his shot against the right post. Why did he even hit the ball towards that side? Fortunately for Sidwell, it bounced into the path of Milner who slotted the football away but that does not excuse what was a truly shocking miss.

Buck-Buck-Brawckkkkk: In the Madrid derby, a looping cross from the right side found Karim Benzema coming in at the far post. With the ball dropping out of the air, Benzema had a huge gap at the right side of the net to direct his header into. However, being a fraidy cat, Benzema was less interested in making firm contact with his header than he was in avoiding the defender and goalkeeper who were rushing out to close him down. Benzema closed his eyes, shifted his body sideways and turned his head away as he connected with his header and sent it harmlessly over. Where’s the commitment, you big pansy? Take the hit and score a goal for your team.

Internet Thoughts of the Week: “Van Persie is a better striker than Ibrahimovich [sic]. I cannot understand how this clown is rated so high, i know that he shows off his pretty ineffective skills here and there and shows some strength to defenders, but a goal threat he isnt.

I have nearly watched every Barcelona match this season and im baffled how this guy was bought for so much money and offers so little to the team.”

“A goal threat he isn’t”? Last season Zlatan Ibrahimovic was top scorer in Serie A with 25 goals in 35 games. He left Inter Milan with 57 goals in 88 league appearances, a 2 in 3 record. This season, he has already scored 7 goals in 9 La Liga appearances. He set a new Barcelona record by becoming the first player to score in all five of his first five appearances for the club. But we wouldn’t want to let the facts get in the way of sensational claims, would we? Apparently he offers “little to the team” as well. Apart from being joint second top scorer in La Liga (with team-mate Lionel Messi), Zlatan has also provided 4 assists to his colleagues. 7 goals and 4 assists in 9 appearances? Pathetic!

This person might have watched every Barcelona match this season, but they obviously weren’t paying much attention.

Gattuso Joins Chelsea in £22.4m Deal: Yes, Football Manager is back and more realistic than ever. I started five seasons, and Chelsea bought Gattuso for that fee all five times. The transfers are just downright fantastic. Despite supposedly reworking the transfer system for last year’s edition, they are quite possibly crazier than ever. Arsenal’s Denilson to Man City for £23.5m? Sure! Luka Modric to Barcelona for £40m? Sounds about right! And those were just in the first season! Moving into the summer prior to the 2010/11 season I was seeing all sorts. West Brom bringing in Zenit’s Alessandro Rosina for £18m. Barcelona bringing Giovani dos Santos back home for £17m. Ryan Shawcross to Man Utd for £15m. Yeah, this all sounds sensible enough! Darijo Srna to Sevilla for £19m? Why not! The more the merrier! My personal favourite was Arjen Robben to AC Milan for £43.5m. Superb. I could go on and on forever, but I’ll spare you. That’s more than enough.

One of the big new features is a brand new, more advanced Editor. I had quite a bit of fun with the editor and my newfound ability to create leagues and rules and suchlike. Obviously my first port of call was the banning of filthy scum foreigners from the wonderful English leagues. It worked quite well, in fact. Sort of. Transfer fees for very average British players skyrocketed immediately, with the likes of Nathan Delfouneso going for over £30m within the first six months of the season. Alright, he’s a promising young player but that’s a tiny little bit over the top. One slight, SLIGHT problem was that the AI managers didn’t seem to quite understand the new rules. Manchester City, though not in any kind of European competition, still saw fit to spend a combined £50m on securing Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt, seemingly unaware that they couldn’t actually, y’know, play. Other teams did the same, for varying fees. Manchester United also granted Nemanja Vidic a new 4-year contract. He must have been really good in those 6 Champions League games he played in.

We’ve also got a wonderful new interface for no apparent reason. Though SI claim to have spent billions of man-hours researching ways to improve the GUI, I don’t see much improvement at all. Some features actually require more mouseclicks to access than they did before. For example, Match Stats, Player Ratings, Home Stats and Away Stats were all available on a bar down the left on the previous matchday screen, accessible by a single click, while now you must first navigate to a tab called ‘Stats’ first before selecting the specific type you want. It just seems like change for the sake of it. The new fancy-dan tactics creator is nothing more than a mask for the old sliders. And you still have to use + and – buttons to set your transfer bids when it would be so much easier if you could just type in a number.

Moving onto the most important thing, the match engine, and we encounter quite a lot of problems. Strikers are once again ultra-prolific while other positions score few goals. You have the likes of Carlos Tevez scoring 58 goals in 58 games in all competitions, Roman Pavlyuchenko with 17 in 19 starts and Ezequiel Lavezzi with 22 in 31 league games. In reality Tevez has scored 45 goals in 139 appearances since he came to Europe in 2006. In FM10 he managed 36 league goals in 38 games, more in a single season than the 28 league goals he has scored in England in over 3 years and 97 appearances in reality! Ezequiel Lavezzi has scored only 17 league goals for Napoli in total (in 77 appearances) yet in FM10 he managed to more than double that tally in a single season. Quite incredible. The likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Klaas-Jan Cupcake score an obscene number of goals too. Well, everyone does really.

FM10’s match engine also brings with it a bizarre level of pass completion. The likes of Xavi and Iniesta can barely scrape a 70% completion rate over the course of a season in FM. In reality, Xavi finished last season’s Champions League competition with a completion rate of 91%, as well as a whopping 93% in La Liga, the same figure he also achieved in Euro 2008. Why the enormous discrepancy? Apparently SI toned down the pass completion ratios in accordance with statistics but I don’t know what crazy statistics they were looking at. I can only imagine they’ve applied some sweeping across-the-board average to the entire game which has completely screwed over the teams and players who can actually pass. Looking through the match statistics of many, many games it became clear that it was incredibly rare for any team to finish a match with much more than 70% pass completion, regardless of who it was. In reality, even the likes of Bolton and Stoke manage somewhere around that rate each week and they are hardly the world-renowned passers that Barcelona and Arsenal are. In these two matches against Tottenham, Arsenal managed only 66% and 67% pass completion in FM10, while in the real fixture this season which was won by a similar scoreline, they managed 84%. Arsenal’s 66.5% average across those two wins in FM10 was worse than the 71% Bolton managed in a 0-4 loss to Chelsea in reality.

The player attributes are of course still completely bonkers due to the inconsistent researchers with their wild opinions and inability to show reason in how they rate their team’s players. While the thousands of players in the database would make wide scale cross-referencing impossible or at least unrealistic, there should at least be a number of players used as controls and reference points for each researcher, particularly in the most well-known teams and leagues. That would at least put a stop to the bizarre examples I’m about to give below.

Lucio, the Inter Milan defender, has a rating of 19 for Acceleration. This is more than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Aaron Lennon, Darren Bent and Arjen Robben. There are a lot more, but you get the point. Mad. Totally mad. Oh, and Andrea Dossena is just as fast as Messi and Ronaldo.

Another one, Gennaro Gattuso has 14 for Pace, while we also have:
Anelka – 13. Milner – 12. Iniesta – 13. Di Natale – 14. Tevez – 13.

My Football Manager 2010 verdict: Uninstalled.

Sour Team of the Week: Bolton Wanderers. Following their 5-1 humiliation at Villa Park, Bolton have now conceded 13 goals in their last 3 games, scoring only once in that time.

Deluded Tabloid of the Week: “Barcelona are lining up an £85m summer bid for Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney - and believe the Old Trafford club's huge debts mean they would consider the offer.” News of the World.

What. The. Hell?

Barcelona are not crazy enough to blow £85m on a single player. Where exactly is Rooney supposed to fit into the team? Are they going to drop Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who himself cost over £40m? Or perhaps have Rooney take Henry’s place on the left wing, a position Rooney has ‘enjoyed’ so frequently for Manchester United?

“Up to four Premier League clubs willl try to sign AC Milan striker Klass-Jan Huntelaar for a cut-price £12m in January, with Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Birmingham all interested.” News of the World.

This is a fantastic list of clubs. Hey, Birmingham! They have money now, right? Let’s have them spend some of it! In fairness, they’re probably the most realistic team on the list, given how rubbish Huntelaar is. Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool all have better options already. What’s with £12m being “cut-price” as well? Sounds like a rip-off to me.

Expect the Expected: Sky spent all week building the hype for the “Grand Slam Sunday” encounter, only for the match to end up being the most boring contest of the entire weekend.

Classless Buffoon of the Week:
There can be only one winner in the latest edition of Classless Buffoon and that is Mike Ashley, who last Wednesday decided to rename St. James’ Park after his own sports retail chain. It was bad enough when he announced his plan to sell the naming rights of the stadium to bring in extra revenue, but to then go ahead and rename it anyway without any investor actually coming in, for no extra revenue at all, to something as downright ridiculous and hilarious as sportsdirect.com@StJames’ParkStadium is just utterly insane. I just can’t fathom the reasoning behind it. To rename it in the name of extra cash which might help the club is one thing, and something the supporters might be able to begrudgingly accept, but this is simply the ego trip of a lunatic. The Newcastle fans definitely have it the worst, but I also feel extremely sorry for the broadcasters who’ll now have to report that they’re at Ye Olde Email Stadium.

Next week: Meaningless friendlies and fixed playoffs, it’s international week!

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