Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Quarterfinal Previews: Game One

Portugal v. Germany

0-0: On one hand, Portugal has been one of the most fluent sides in these championships, capable of holding the ball for long periods of time. On the other hand, they have precisely two players who are above-average at defending set-pieces (to be fair, C. Ronaldo has the physical abilities to be in this group as well, I'm just not sure if he can mark somebody), which is not exactly where you want to be against the Germans, who have quite a number of players who are good in the air (assuming that Friedrich plays at right back and Schweinsteiger replaces one of Podolski/Frings, I count 7 out of 10 outfield players and a minimum of 4*).

Another problem for the Portuguese is that they don't have a particularly dominant center-forward, which they only play one of, meaning that if the Germans play smart and play defensively-oriented players at the wing midfield position, they could effectively dictate where the ball has to be played. This could possibly mask the fact that the center of the German defense, Metzelder - Mertesacker - Lehmann, has been decidedly shaky in the group stages and are eminently capable of giving up a soft goal.

If Portugal Scores First: Not completely lights out. Germany has shown an inability to break down a determined and bunkering opponent; however, Portugal lacks the physicality of the Croats or Austrians, they should concentrate on keeping on the ball and getting a second.

If Germany Scores First: Should be interesting, as Portugal will have to pour players forward and the German defense is shaky. Will depend on a great extent as to whether anybody other than Ronaldo or Deco can score.

Portugal - If I Were Doing It: Drop Nuno Gomes, play C. Ronaldo as the nominal "center forward" with Simao and Nani on the flanks. Play similarly to Manchester United, relying on possession and pressure to crack an unsettled German defense. (Although, if Portugal were truly to play like Man U, they would have to play C. Ronaldo, Nani, Simao and Quaresma in a rotating mess of wingers/attackers and have Deco and Moutinho playing out of midfield. Which would be tantamount to defensive suicide; however, it would look pretty cool.)

Germany -- If I Were Doing It: Continue with Lahm at LB, Friedrich at RB, play Fritz and Schweinsteiger as the wide players and then bring in Hitzlsperger for Frings. Drop Gomez and play Neuville (or Podolski, if available) between the midfield and Klose. Play on the counter and concentrate on overwhelming the Portuguese on set-pieces. If you go behind, move Friedrich to CB, Fritz and Lahm become wingbacks, with Ballack playing a free role.

Prediction: Portugal 2-1 Germany, with Germany getting a consolation goal in the last 10 minutes just to keep things edgy. Portuguese goals will come on a bullshit penalty and a breakaway on the counter that Ronaldo will roll into the opposite corner.

* - Ze Germans could bring out a (relatively) lightweight lineup of: Lehmann; Lahm, Mertesacker, Metzelder, Jansen; Fritz, Ballack, Frings, Podolski, Neuville, Klose -- that's still a big (no pun intended) ask for the Portuguese in terms of bodies on bodies though.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Domenech the Donkey

In World Cup 2006, we piled on Jose Pekerman for not going for the jugular against Germany with a wealth of attacking talent on his bench.

Well, as ill-advised as that was, poor Jose should feel more than a bit put out by our remonstrations, since after today, he's not even in the same galaxy as the Ultimate Donkey, French coach Raymond Domenech. Not only did Domenech not bring David Trezeguet, one of the top French strikers, not only did he substitute like-for-like against Romania instead of going for the jugular, he, after Eric Abidal had been sent off for giving away a penalty that put the French down 1-0, took off attacking midfielder Samir Nasri (who had come on minutes earlier for the injured Franck Ribery) for a central defender. And not just any defender, he brought on Boumsong, who arguably shouldn't even have been in the squad.

At this point French fans could be forgiven for venting their spleen in his general direction, as it is primarily his baffling approach to tactics that has gotten the French where they are now, sitting bottom of the Group of Death, looking upward at the cavalier Dutch, who have swashbuckled their way to the quarterfinals.

Domenech must be hoping that the French can sneak one on the counter or on a set-piece (and as I write, Henry pulls one just wide); however, how do you expect to do this with a minimum of attacking options, with still two defensive midfielders?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Euro 2008 Days 3 and 4; Rooting for the Underdog

France v. Romania

Oh, how I love it when a coach is bitten on his ass because of his own trepidation. Faced with a Romanian team that was concerned completely with defense, Raymond Domenech brought on a forward for a forward, then a midfielder for the other forward. Ridiculous. If you are the better team, if you are in a situation where you are in a group with two other tough teams and you are playing the Weak Sister, you will probably need a win. Now, it may be that France will still go through; however, leaving things up for chance leaves you where Italy was last Euros, claiming collusion between the Swedes and Danes as they flew home.

Italy v. Netherlands AND Spain v. Russia

Both of these games are similar to me because they represent the essential nature of the sport. While both the Netherlands and Spain enjoyed victories that were generally represented as routs, that doesn't accurately describe how the games played out. Both games could have conceivably been victories for the other teams, had chances been/not taken. Actual domination in soccer is a rare thing and although both the Spanish and the Dutch are sentimental favorites at TMFF, these performances are definitely not an indication that they are ready to rampage through the rest of the field.

Sweden v. Greece

That was a pretty nice goal.

On Rooting for the Underdog

I also wanted to talk about Rick Reilly's recent article for ESPN regarding rooting for the underdog. Under the viewpoint of liberated fandom, rooting for somebody or some team simply because they're less likely to win is just as formulaic and insipid as bandwagon-jumpers are to those who always pull for the underdog. To consistently choose one side of an equation regardless of the character involved is dogmatic blindness. It's taking the side of the working man in the same sense that totalitarian Communism was all about the proleteriat.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Euro 2008, Days 1 & 2 Analysis

The first two days of Euro 2008 featured matchups that paralleled each other well -- in the early games, the presumably overwhelmed host nations would play against countries considered to be dark horses for the title. In the late games, a team considered to be one of the favorites played against teams that would have a shout at getting out of the group stages and not much more than that.

In both of the early games, pre-tournament analysis* was proven to have missed one of the canonical rules of soccer -- host nations are invariably lifted to at least one level higher than their talent due to the homefield advantage. Although Austria and Switzerland lost their games, both were the dominant team and were unlucky not to get at least a point.

In the later games, a 2-0 scoreline was paralleled as both contenders managed to control their games and either could have scored more. Portugal and Germany identified themselves as having a significant amount of influential players in their sides as well as a quality in depth that is lacking from many other squads in these championships. While the late games were more one-sided that those than game earlier, they were also more entertaining, as the greater technical abilities of the contenders created a more open, end-to-end game, as opposed to the cageyness of the early matches.

Switzerland v. Czech Republic

The Czechs lacked any sort of fluency in midfield, consistently turning the ball over 30-40 yards from the Swiss goal. They took the one clear chance that they had, otherwise it was extremely forgettable. Having Rosicky, Nedved and Poborsky removed from the team that looked so good at Euro 2004 is a let-down; however, I was surprised that Milan Baros was not on the field at any point in the match. Although he is a flawed and limited player, one of his major attributes is his willingness to run at players with the ball at his feet, something that the Czechs were lacking and which might have opened up the game.

One odd moment was near the end of the game, with the Swiss pushing for an equalizer. The camera cut to the Swiss bench and showed Liverpool-bound Philippe Degen sitting next to the injured Alexander Frei. With his team down 1-0 and struggling to make anything happen, as well as sitting next to the captain of the team that was injured near the end of the first half and struggling not to break down, Degen was laughing and smiling, apparently trying to share some sort of anecdote to Frei, who appeared to be studiously ignoring him. Considering that reports out of Borussia Dortmund around the time of his leaving were accusing Degen of having the intelligence of a rock with developmental issues, I'd be wary of him if I were a Reds fan.

Portugal v. Turkey

In the second half, Portugal took off Gomes and went to the formation that many people had been suggesting they adopt as the default, using three attacking wingers up top (in this case, Ronaldo, Simao and Nani) switching positions with no real center-forward. This type of formation has been used very effectively in club football by Manchester United and Roma and with Portugal not having a stand-out classic forward, it's a very attractive idea for them to adopt the fluid and interchangeable style that is currently the cutting-edge of modern soccer tactics. That said, it is worth noting that the winning goal was scored by a center-back, Pepe, who was put through on goal by a one-two played by Nuno Gomes, who started the game leading the line.

Austria v. Croatia

This match for me highlighted the problem with the traditional "flat" 442. Austria came out with an unusual 3-5-2 formation and after going behind early, the wide players in the midfield played more as wingers than wingbacks. For the majority of the match, the Croatian wide players were pinned back defending, allowing the Austrians to easily crowd and overwhelm the two Croatian forwards, who were forced to check back deep into midfield to receive the ball. In this kind of situation, it would have been beneficial for Croatia to play with one central attacker and two attacking widemen in the vein of the classic Ajax 443, since with their wide players pushing up, Austria was leaving the flanks open. However, with the Croatian wide midfielders having to spend most of their time defending, there was nobody exploiting that space. Although Croatia won the match, they were lucky to have done so and would have been better off being able to generate chances on the counter than desperately hoping their defense could hold out.

The man of the match for me was Dario Srna, who was responsible for the majority of the chances that Croatia generated and was an excellent defender down the right side. Croatia should have scored from one of his excellent dead-ball deliveries, although his one direct shot from a free-kick was poor and into the wall.

Germany v. Poland

Germany decided to go with an attacking lineup featuring Podolski wide left and Gomez and Klose up top. This decision paid off with all three players involved in the first goal, Gomez playing a tremendous flicked through-ball that sent Klose free before he set up Podolski for a tap-in. While they did not score again until the later part of the second half, the Germans were consistently able to generate a variety of chances, although neither Michael Ballack or Torsten Frings were able to get forward as much as they would have liked.

Poland played well tactically yet could not generate more than a few clear-cut chances, which they were unable to take advantage of. The best chance was a cut-back from the right side of the penalty area that was put wide of the far post, which was quickly followed by the Germans blowing the exact same situation at the other end of the pitch. Although the Poles had a great deal of shots, most of these were from 30+ yards and were either wide of the goal or easily handled by Mad Jens.

* - Sensibly missing from TMFF, of course.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Holy Balls, I am Rooting for Boston

Hell is freezing over. Pigs can fly. I can pass calculus.

I am rooting for a Boston team. More specifically, I am rooting for the Boston Celtics - otherwise known as the second most inocuous Boston pro franchise. So, really, it's not THAT bad (I like to tell myself).

This gets me thinking, if I am rooting FOR a Boston team, what then, could be bad enough to root against. Yep, the Lakers. For those that don't know - the Lakers are a bunch of sole-sucking, bandwagon fan having, pretentiously coached bunch of overachievers with one legitimate star (sorry Pau, add an extra consenant to your name, and we'll talk - but you're still a one-move exploiter with no defensive skills).

Oh, and that one legitimate star that you have - he's a bitch. He makes faked videos, has spotty defensive skills (ball hawk? sure. On ball defender? Um, sorry, not quite.), and bills himself as the next Michael Jordan. Guess what though, Kobe? No one really hated Michael Jordan.

The short of it is, these finals suck (see my post two years ago on the "fabulous" Miami/Dallas finals - where are those teams now?).

Here's why you need to root for Boston:

Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett - these guys have seen better days, but, let's give them one before they walk off into the sunset.

Rajon Rondo - I sort of pity a starting point guard that has made SO many mistakes, yet somehow stumbled his way into the finals. Wait, did I say pity, I meant despise.

Paul Pierce - for no real reason except, well, if Antoine Walker has a ring, Pierce should (maybe that'll keep him from sitting out ends of seasons).

Kendrick Perkins - actually, he pretty much sucks, and it'd be a shame for him to win a ring.

Scott Pollard - he'll do something with that ring.

Now, the reasons the Lakers should win:


Have you been paying attention? The Lakers as an organization suck - they are pure evil. If they win, the zen-minded, Hans Gruberesque coach joins the ranks of Red Auerbach. For shame! Kobe wins without Shaq. Holy Bitchfest, Batman! Pau Gasol gets an NBA ring to add to ... don't even mention it - he sucks on so many levels. Bill Walton's son gets a ring. WTF?

This cannot happen.

And I take a deep breath when I say this -

Go Celtics.