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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Benito Mussolini has returned to the Italian throne, declaring the 4-1-2-1-2 as the official formation of the corporate state on the football pitch! Any alterations, variations, or opposition of any kind will be eliminated!

Okay, not really, but seriously Serie A—What’s up with the 4-1-2-1-2? Apparently, these days, the latest trend in “the boot” is the 4-1-2-1-2, and the Italians have beat this set-up to a pulp.

Such a formation is difficult to maneuver, as it requires precise execution from all parties involved. Crucial to its success is relentless activity coming forward from the outside backs, and thus structure in the defensive midfield to make up for its susceptibility to counterattacks with width. Also, given that the formation is designed for squads with a surplus of central midfielders, it is important to resist clogging the middle of the field.

The issue is that the requirements of the 4-1-2-1-2 are much more complicated and interdependent in comparison with some of football’s simpler formations. Consequently, its overuse in Serie A has resulted in inconsistency for those who employ its services, occasionally ineffective attacking schemes, and even horribly boring play.

Take, for instance, Inter Milan, 4-1-2-1-2 regulars. Coach Jose Mourinho loves the 4-3-3, but at Inter, he does not have the width to build such a design. Instead, the reigning Italian champs are abundant with central midfielders and have two attack-minded backs.

On paper, this is perfect for the 4-1-2-1-2. However, with an all-too compact midfield, the Nerazzurri rarely escape the middle of the pitch. Their player most apt at providing offensive width, Wesley Sneijder, is positioned at the tip of the diamond, as he is keen on finally attacking from the center midfield after playing on the flanks during his tenure in Madrid. Thus, Inter Milan are left ineffectively trying to force their play down the middle of the pitch, as was no more evident than in their 2-1 struggle over Cagliari on Sunday.

Then, you have AC Milan, who might as well have signed a contract with the 4-1-2-1-2. Despite starting a 37-year old left back (you know, the guy that’s supposed to get forward a lot) this past weekend, the Rosseneri remain intent on sticking with their trademark formation. And how does Milan look? Terrible—so terrible in fact that they probably deserve more than a paragraph of abuse.

Juventus, however, is a rare exception from this theme of structural failure in Italy. Unlike many of their competitors, the Zebras are able to employ the 4-1-2-1-2 and stretch the field. Thanks primarily to Fabio Grosso and Camoranesi, Juventus are able to widen their attack from the defense and midfield, respectively, and open up their formation to a bit of creativity.

As demonstrated by Juve, the 4-1-2-1-2 recipe can certainly work, but only with all the necessary ingredients. And even with a shortage of resources, teams like Bologna, Siena, Chievo, and Palermo persist to employ their country’s national football formation.

So why is Serie A so keen on the 4-1-2-1-2? It might have something to do with the style of Italian football and the make-up of today’s typical Italian footballer.

Italian football, in terms of both the national squad and the country’s professional league competition, is famous for its technical play. Unlike, say, the English Premier League, which stresses speed and quick attack, Serie A endorses structured, precise football.

Thus, Serie A is naturally inclined to develop a more technically-sound player. Technical skill makes for a strong player in the middle of the field; the best players technically often play the center midfield (versus those who excel athletically, players prone to wider positions). As a result, Italian football is home to a surplus of center midfielders, not coincidentally the first disposition in 4-1-2-1-2 employment.

The analogy makes sense, but all in all, is too simple to be accurate. It’s not like the Serie A winger is an extinct player; come on now.

So Italy, what's the deal? Your top-flight has no width and a lack of creativity. The issue is clear and the solution is not difficult. What's up Serie A?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Real Madrid: A Work in Progress

            A month into the 2009-10 campaign, Europe’s most anticipated team is fulfilling exactly what it promised: winning games and tallying boatloads of goals. 

            We’re talking about Real Madrid, of course.  Four games into their season, this summer’s big-spenders are undefeated, averaging an absurd four goals per game.  Impressive.

            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.   The Spanish giants have been scoring like bros at a frat party, while featuring a squad that quite honestly may rival FIFA 2009’s World XI. But reading score lines does not equate to watching play—And that is where Madrid’s scoreboard dominance becomes deceiving.

            In observing the inaugural month of Los Galacticos II, what cannot be looked past is that the Real Madrid squad do not look fluid.  Their play is tainted by static motion and a lack of structure, and most notably does in fact resemble that of a World XI—no chemistry.  Nor have Madrid established a consistent line-up.  Depth is crucial, but rotations can be disruptive and must not be overused.

            These struggles are largely attributed to the arrival of new personnel at the Bernabéu this year.  Newcomers Kaka and Karim Benzema are finding only limited involvement on the field and have been disappearing for long stretches of play.  (Christiano Ronaldo, however, is thriving, but he is an alien, i.e. his chest is made of body armor.)

            Madrid’s new look, though, has taken its toll on the entire squad, and right now it seems as if everyone is in transition mode.  The club has promised to build their renovation around their prized imports—and rightly so—but Bernabéu regulars are now finding difficulty in adjusting to their new roles within the team.  Featuring a creative, free-roaming attack, Manuel Pelegrini needs his squad to be structurally strong behind the ball—defensive roles Gago and Lass Diarra are struggling to stick with.  Club captain Raul also seems lost amongst his offensive unit, straying from his traditional role up top to foreign parts of the pitch.

            Okay, so already Los Galacticos is a repeat failure, right?  Not quite.  In fact, things couldn’t look better for Real Madrid.

            Building a team is no easy task.  It takes time.  But the fact that the new-look Madrid are thrashing opponents right off the bat with no team chemistry is unbelievable. It’s scary to think what they could achieve once they establish some familiarity on the pitch.

            It’s true, yes, Real Madrid have not been tested by the strongest of opposition, but there is this sense of power, this sense of the will-to-dominate when their army takes action on the field.  Quite honestly, this army looks poised to handle anything that comes its way.

            Good teams win games—no matter how the task is done.  The best teams, though, win with a process, a script currently being written in Madrid.  Real Madrid have their pieces.  I can’t wait to see what the puzzle looks like.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The USA on Mute

            In a way, you could say that there was not much noise made during the USA-Trinidad & Tobago match Wednesday night.  Yeah, a 1-0 victory was tainted by quiet showings from many of the American players and inharmonious play amongst the entire team, but literally, for most those watching the game, there was no noise. 

            In typical American fashion, United States soccer supporters were left to watch their national team from a live stream on the Internet through ESPN360.  But it was not the blurry picture or the lagging feed that was their biggest issue.  Throughout the past few years, since ESPN decided soccer was worthy of its time, American fan-faithful have become accustomed to a new TV series we call “The USA on Mute.”

            “The USA on Mute” is ESPN’s latest gift to American soccer.  The all-too-soccer-friendly sports network now provides its audience with an all-new interactive feature, one that enables those watching to personally control the volume on their very own feed!  It’s quite brilliant, really, and after enjoying ESPN’s commentary teams for the USMNT games through recent years, we now often find ourselves taking advantage of the new audio feature—turning the volume completely off.

            To put it bluntly, the commentary for ESPN’s USMNT broadcasts is awful.  The team of American soccer analysts at ESPN basically consists of former National Team players and then, recent sports-guy-soccer-converts.  Those who have represented our country on the soccer field deserve the utmost respect—but that does not mean they are shoo-ins for a job of play-by-play commentary.  Furthermore, someone new to the game should be the last person to land a similar position.  Think—Would ESPN ever assign anyone other than a basketball expert to commentate a basketball game?

            The latest culprits here are John Harkes and JP Dellacamera, the commentary duo for the T&T game Wednesday night, and for the USMNT in recent months.  For these two, the problem is not that neither lack knowledge of the game—Harkes was fantastic midfielder for the USMNT in the 90s and Dellacamera has been commentating soccer since the 80s—but rather that neither know how to present the game.  During broadcasts, Harkes is too busy trying to explain the “world’s game” in an American context, while Dellacamera is left reading off of stat sheets all night and occasionally asking Harkes for his translations.

            Harkes and Dellacamera are by no means ESPN’s worst, though.  You might remember, when ESPN first picked up the rights to USMNT soccer, before the 2006 World Cup, the infamous Dave O’Brien.  O’Brien, a longtime play-by-play baseball announcer for ESPN, was one of ESPN’s attempts at a “soccer-convert.”  But convert he could not quite do.

            Having never called a soccer game prior to the 2006 World Cup, O’Brien’s performance from the broadcasting booth was a disaster.  O’Brien polluted the atmosphere of his games with inadvertent stats, mispronunciation of players’ names, and incorrect usage of soccer terminology.  (A shot on goal was referred to as “blasting a kick” and free kicks were often deemed “penalty kicks,” for example.)  Quite comically, Marcello Balboa, O’Brien’s partner in the booth, was left interrupting and correcting the novice on air for his frequent errors.

            To be fair, though, O’Brien, Harkes, Dellacamera and their studio counterparts cannot be entirely blamed for their inabilities to call soccer games.  Rather, the fault falls at the feet of ESPN.  Despite its great success as a sporting network, ESPN is the epitome of the American sports scene.  Their ignorant and naive approach to a sport foreign to mainstream America, like soccer, is entirely unprofessional.

            Take, for instance, two explanations from ESPN regarding Dave O’Briens appointment as commentator back in 2006:  For one, it was hoped that O’Brien’s “signature voice from a mainstream event” would popularize that summer’s World Cup broadcast.  And two, it was suggested that “soccer [had] been given its due to have [Dave O’Brien] delivered to the sport.”  Based on these assertions, we can only infer that ESPN is encouraging their soccer commentators to translate USMNT broadcasts to an American context, as John Harkes and JP Dellacamera are too often guilty of doing.

            What ESPN and their commentary crew must realize is that they cannot “Americanize” soccer.  The network seems to want to appeal to their average viewer by compromising between the game and the American sports fan.  In reality, however, they are merely losing attendants, because of a poor, inaccurate portrayal of the game.  For someone new to soccer, they need not to be taught by play-by-play commentary, but by simply watching the game through the most natural experience.  More importantly, for those who know soccer, the last thing they want is a commentator explaining to them what they already know.

            Soccer fans in the United States are admittedly happy, though, that unlike in the past, they now at least have access to watch their national team perform.  It would just be nice if they didn’t have to watch the USA on mute.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bittersweet Win for USA

            From scaring world-class opposition to scaring fan faithful, the United States Men’s National Team has enjoyed its own personal Halloween vacation through the past year.  After last night’s 2-1 win over El Salvador, the latter was the more prevalent.  And with the World Cup less than a year away, it would be nice if this weren’t the case.

            Inconsistency has become the USA’s theme for the year of 2009.  Let’s rewind back to January 24 when the red, white, and blue defeated Sweden in a game highlighted by Sacha Kljestan’s thrilling hat trick.  Despite the fact that this was basically a B-team clash for each side, the USMNT began the year on the right foot: A win over a quality European nation with a brilliant performance from a highly-touted up-and-coming talent.  Less than 3 weeks later, things couldn’t have been better when the Americans handily dealt with the Mexicans 2-nil in Columbus.

            Things weren’t all good for long, though.  Before World Cup qualifying took its summer vacation, the USA finished the spring at 3-2, struggling to draw El Salvador and suffering an embarrassing 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica.  At this, the Americans’ victories over Trinidad &Tobago and Honduras salvaged little satisfaction.

            Then, came the famed Confederations Cup showing.  When the USA lost to Italy and Brazil in their first two group B matches, American soccer was no further along than it was 10 years ago, nothing but an afterthought in the world’s great sporting nation.  But when the USMNT crushed Egypt, beat Spain, and took Brazil to the brink in the World Cup tune-up’s championship, American soccer was at its pinnacle, a world-class side now to be reckoned with.

            Come mid-August, approaching the infamous Azteca match, the message to the Mexicans was in: Beware.  The newly-rejuvenated USA was destined to end its winless streak on Mexican soil.  However, finding it hard to escape tradition, the Americans crumbled upon a 1-0 lead, eventually falling 2-1 to a relentless Mexican side.

            Now, despite a 2-1 USA victory last night, the post-game mood is bittersweet.  The result is nonetheless a great one for the United States, but as we put this year in perspective, there are a few distressing details that at this point cannot be ignored.  The common denominator amongst all their CONCACAF matches the past eight months is that the Americans have not won on foreign soil once.  The ability to win away from home is crucial in advancing American soccer to a higher level.

            More importantly, too often the USMNT play to the level of their opponents.  This is fantastic when our national team is taking on the likes of Spain and Brazil, but terribly detrimental when facing much weaker CONCACAF opponents, which much more often is the case.  As happened Saturday night, the Americans should not find themselves struggling through a must-win situation against a team like El Salvador.

            We do not have long of a wait to see how our national team follows up last night’s performance, however.  On Wednesday, the USMNT is set to take on Trinidad & Tobago in the Port of Spain, Trinidad.  T&T are admittedly a weak side, but the location of this match gives the USA a challenge it is in desperate need of.  A win is obviously the only option, but should America perform well away from home, its fan faithful may be able to ease their worries—just a bit.