El Clasico: Real Madrid 1 Barcelona 1 – Madrid’s makeshift back 4 plays a high line & forces Barcelona to play on the counter.

Teams shilajit resin

Real Madrid had multiple problems with key defenders missing. Marcelo and Pepe were injured while Sergio Ramos was suspended. Jose Mourinho picked Michael Essien at right back, moving Alvaro Arbeloa over to the left. Two holding defenders kept close, not counter attacking, and keep defensive and get away with it, even at home, due to their selections.

football formations

Stand-in Barcelona boss Jordi Roura had much less problems to deal with, recalling the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba who were all rested at the weekend.

football formations

Observations

  • This was a fantastic game of football. Being out of the title race and being forced to play a makeshift back four, I expected Jose Mourinho to tighten things up in this game but the match played out in the exact opposite way.
  • Played at a breathtaking pace, it was stretched for the entire first half with both teams taking it in turns to attack their opponents.
  • Finding space in wide areas was the key. Michael Essien vs Jordi Alba was a fascinating battle and neither full back was ready to give in and stay deep. It was no surprise that the Spanish left back worked hard to bring width to his side but Essien’s ambition countered some of what his opponent could bring and played a large part of Madrid’s best attacks.
  • Madrid, typically, pressed high and quick immediately. Barcelona were dispossessed inside their own third four times in the first half, including 30 seconds in when Cristiano Ronaldo got in behind Dani Alves and was chopped down by Gerard Pique.
  • Barcelona were guilty of this charge once again after 27 minutes, allowing Jose Callejon to supply Karim Benzema with their best chance of the half.
  • It is practically impossible to put Barcelona’s system into a formation (they did start the way the graphic shows above) due to their movement and Cesc Fabregas started to play a key role in the change of momentum late in the first half. The former Arsenal man covered for Sergio Busquets as the deep man in midfield between the two centre backs early but would soon move forward, often running on past Lionel Messi, something Messi’s false nine required.
  • To counter the runs from deep positions, Madrid’s back four played much higher up the pitch to stop the opponents playing close to the box. Barcelona responded by pressing much higher than they did previously and it was that which led to their opening goal on 50 minutes.
  • Messi pressed Xabi Alonso, won the ball back and supplied Fabregas with a great pass before the Spaniard slotted the ball past new man Diego Lopez.
  • Barcelona were now in control and should have scored another when Andres Iniesta sent Fabregas in, only for the exceptional Raphael Varane to intercept. The 19-year-old defender was marvellous from start to finish and would later get a goal to cap a complete performance.
  • Entering the final third of the match and still down 1-0, Jose Mourinho had seen enough. Callejon paid the price with Luka Modric coming on in his place to played in the Ozil role with the German immediately going over to the right.
  • The change forced Alba to stay deeper a little but on 67 minutes he advanced too far forward and left his team vulnerable. Sami Khedira broke forward, played a great ball to Ozil who then crossed for Ronaldo in the six yard box to do the rest. It looked a certain goal until Pique swept in on his magic carpet and performed a true goal-saving tackle.
  • Six minutes later the visitors should have doubled their advantage when Pedro was sent in all alone but shot just wide after Lopez never left his line. It was the second time the goalkeeper stayed very deep in his goal by not cutting down the angles and the second time he wasn’t punished for it.
  • Madrid took advantage of Pedro’s poor finish when Ozil – again on the right – sent in a precise cross for Varane to head home with eight minutes left. It was quite fitting that the defender got the goal as he was their best player even before he scored. His pace in the backline allowed Real to play higher up the pitch, he never lost concentration against arguably the hardest team to defend against or and kept his composure throughout, which is something that can rarely be said about Ramos and Pepe.
  • On a night when many top players excelled, Varane was the best, leading a makeshift back four that never looked out of sorts. Their strategy of a higher line forced Barcelona into playing more on the counter than they usually do and for this Mourinho’s men probably just about deserved a draw, despite Barcelona missing key chances.
  • The draw sets up an intriguing second leg at the Nou Camp in three weeks time to see who gets to the final of the Copa del Rey. If it is anything like this one it will be a real treat and Varane has left his manager with a decision to make.

Aston Villa 1-2 Newcastle: Three at the back for 45 minutes costs Villa the game.

Teams

Paul Lambert chose a 3-4-1-2 formation and the big surprise was the inclusion of both Christian Benteke and Darren Bent together for just the second time this season, and the first since September.

football formations

In the buildup to this match Newcastle boss Alan Pardew talked about the need to turn the corner on the past and he did that by handing debuts to new signings Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko, while welcoming back from injury, defender Steven Taylor for the first time in two months.

football formations

Observations

  • For a team who hadn’t won away at all this season, Newcastle started the game in a confident manner and their two new signings made a significant impact right away. Much was made about Sissoko’s debut (more on him shortly) but Gouffran was lively from the beginning, interchanging with Jonas Gutierrez regularly.
  • The movement of both wide men become contagious as Cisse, when Newcastle had the ball, would also swap with each player to create overlaps and bring any of Villa’s back three out of position. The movement of the two wide men, in particular, created a massive problem for Villa’s full backs who never got forward and gave them licence to stay forward.
  • Matt Lowton and Joe Bennett spent the entire first half pinned deep worrying about the movement of Newcastle’s front three, offering nothing in attack. With no width coming from Villa’s front three at all, it meant Newcastle completely dominated the first half pushing Villa’s centre backs deeper. Ashley Westwood and Barry Bannan were outrun in midfield and were clearly under instructions to not get too deep, which meant the area between the lines was exposed.
  • This is where Sissoko took control. As early as the sixth minute he found himself with a lot of time on the ball, only to blaze it over. Four minutes later he again picked up the ball up in that area of the field and sent a delightful chip over the back three defenders on to the rushing Papiss Cisse who was clear on goal, only to be wrongly adjudged offside.
  • Nine minutes later Villa weren’t so lucky as Sissoko again got into space, supplied a brilliant diagonal ball that took out all of the defenders and into the path of Cisse who did the rest.
  • On 31 minutes it was 2-0, this time Yohan Cabaye got into the area exploited by Sissoko, took a touch after Ron Vlaar’s clearance and hit a curling half volley into the corner of Brad Guzan’s goal. It was a brilliant strike that ensured their dominance was reflected in the scoreline.
  • Villa were lifeless in their 3-4-1-2 and incredibly, in the first half alone, allowed 78 passing attempts in the final third, with Newcastle completing 42 of them. Villa’s passing in the final third in contrast represented the dominance from the visitors.

  • The home side clearly needed a change. Paul Lambert waited until half-time to do it, bringing on Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor for Joe Bennett and Darren Bent. The change of system led to a change in tempo and a massive change in momentum for the second half. Westwood and Bannan sat deeper to take away Sissoko’s threat, while the substitutes brought much-needed pace and direct play out wide.

football formations

  • Their introduction immediately pushed Gutierrez and Gouffran deeper. Jonas is actually very good at defending his flank and Pardew stopped rotating them, keeping him on the left side up against Weimann. This meant most of Villa’s successful attacks in deep areas came down their left through Agbonlahor. Gouffran showed little appetite for the fight but right back Mathieu Debuchy had a fantastic game, despite losing the occasional one-on-one battle and harshly being called for a foul in the box on Agbonlahor. 
  • Benteke stroked home the penalty and suddenly Villa Park was rocking. The change of system helped, by taking away Newcastle’s strengths, but the goal lifted Villa, a young side who ride momentum both ways more than most, and they went on to dominate the second half.
  • Tim Krul produced a wonderful save on Weimann after Benteke had sent an intelligent cross field ball into his path and Nathan Baker saw his header blocked by the excellent Fabricio Coloccini.
  • Pardew did what he could to alter the flow of the game, sending on Shola Ameobi for James Perch and pushing  Sissoko into a deeper role but the Frenchman tired and eventually was replaced by fellow new boy Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. After a fantastic game-changing performance in the first half, Sissoko drifted out of it in the second but it was still an all-around impressive debut.

  • Ultimately, though, Newcastle couldn’t muster anything going forward and the pass completion stats, much like the first half (only in reverse) showed just how the game changed in the second half.

  • Incredibly, despite getting dominated in the first half, Villa ended the match with a better accurate passing rate in the final third (55%) than Newcastle (50%).
  • Newcastle held on despite being outplayed in the second half and that will give them tremendous confidence going forward. Pardew will have concerns about how his team struggled to cope with Villa’s intensity and pace in wide areas but all-in-all this is the result he has been looking for to turn the tide.
  • Lambert’s Villa have now lost four straight games at home and scored just one goal, a penalty. They could have scored more in the second half but once again another slow start cost them in another crucial league match. It would be very brave if the Scot goes back to a formation of three at the back again in the near future.

Mario Balotelli: Why wasn’t it you?

58-Mario Balotelli

There were seven Manchester United players in the box. Mario Balotelli stood casually ten yards Southwest of the penalty spot waiting for the ball to be crossed to him. James Milner made the run and then delivered what Mario wanted. As it came towards him he moved forward, fixing his eyes squarely on his prey. The ball rolled across him, he then rolled his leg back, pointed his toes to the right and hit the ball with the side of his foot, precisely into the far corner of the net. After 21 minutes and 21 seconds, the 21-year-old had given Manchester City the lead at Old Trafford.

You can be easily forgiven for not remembering the goal, after all, many of those at Old Trafford that day lost it in their memory banks the moment the goalscorer pulled his shirt up to reveal the now famous ‘Why Always Me?’ message underneath.

Balotelli would go on to add another goal in the 6-1 rout by City, netting goals number five and six on the season in just his sixth game.

The next day Balotelli was the footballer the world talked about. The millions of young fans who loved him for his brash, no-nonsense attitude chased down the thousands who questioned his every move. The minority lay quiet admiring what they had seen and wondering what his next move would be.

In his Champions League debut against Villarreal he scored a penalty and gained more fans with his now trademark stare-down celebration. Then came a substitute appearance at Liverpool where each of his weaknesses came to light in an 18-minute cameo appearance. Asked to play on the left of a front three, the Italian simply couldn’t defend his flank, struggled to hold the ball up in deep positions far away from the goal, lost his temperament and committed two stupid mistakes to get booked and then sent off. The majority of his fans screamed he was the victim but the minority knew it was a fruitless argument.

A goal with his shoulder on the line against Norwich was laughed at by his adoring followers while others were appalled at the level of showboating in a 5-1 game. Then came a game against Tottenham when his manager Roberto Mancini gave him another shot to make a difference with another second half substitute appearance. Balotelli would go on to show tremendous composure, brilliantly scoring a penalty with the last kick of the match to win the game but, typically, the match would be remembered for his stamp on Scott Parker, missed by the referee, for which he would later get suspended four games for.

Upon his return he’d help City fightback from 3-1 down against Sunderland in a crucial home match but he fueled the non-believers again by pushing his skipper Vincent Kompany when arguing with team-mate Aleksandar Kolarov over the taking of a free kick.

balotelli stats

At Arsenal in April, less than six months after his world class showing at Old Trafford, his stomp on Alex Song went unseen by the officials but his pathetic performance and overall poor attitude was seen by most. Mancini, for whatever reason, left him on for 90 minutes, before the forward lost his cool again and was handed his fourth red card of the season. As Manchester City’s season obituary was being written across all the papers in the land, Balotelli’s backers distanced themselves. The minority were becoming the majority.

The game of football was more forgiving. With many expecting Balotelli to be given as much as a nine game ban and City to be firmly out of the title race, the sport answered back, giving him one last act of the season, as he supplied the pass for Sergio Aguero’s kick heard all around the world that won City their first title in 44 years.

The beautiful game had given Balotelli exactly what he needed in his hour of need. Despite being shunned, mistreated and being felt that he didn’t even like it, the game embraced Balotelli that afternoon in the hope he’d fall in love with it all over again.

Just over eight months on, and fifteen months after his Old Trafford brace, Balotelli’s time in England appears to have come to an end. ‘Why Always Me?’ took on a life of its own in late October of 2011 and it now represents the peak of Balotelli’s time in the Premier League and a stark reminder of what he could have become. Since then he has scored 14 goals in 47 matches for Manchester City, starting and finishing just 11 of them. Stats that tell the story of an average player with an average strike rate.

Balotelli was supposed to be better. He represented the youth of today who embraced cool and had the swagger, charisma and, most importantly, the talent to be the league’s greatest maverick since Eric Cantona, the Frenchman who also divided opinions but regularly performed at a high level for his club the moment the game started.

In those rare moments of brilliance, Balotelli seemed ready for the Premier League and through his struggles, the Premier League, 20 years on from its birth, seemed ready for him. In its early years it didn’t get along with Italians, the likes of Andrea Silenzi and Massimo Taibi departing as quickly as they came, but Chelsea’s triumphant trio made Italy cool again in the 90s and in the wake of recent busts such as Alberto Aquilani and Andrea Dossena, Balotelli had the chance to pave a path of gold fellow Italians could confidently stride down for years to come.

Somewhere along the way, the game, the only thing left that could, humbled Mario Balotelli. As he moves on to a new part in his footballing career the man who teased us with the moments that once made the vocal majority go wild needs to give back what he has been given. A supreme athlete with incredible strength, a gifted eye for goal and a fearless attitude in front of the net, the Italian, still only 22, could still be great, but his two-and-a-half years in England will go down as a massive missed opportunity for him, the league and the sport itself.

Oh what could have been, Mario.

Arrivederci.

A diary from Indianapolis: The day Canada took over the MLS SuperDraft.

mls draft 2013

Parts of the city were still dark. The steam from the buildings nearby showed how cold it was as Indiana’s largest city woke up. From my hotel room, I watched the cars drive into downtown Indianapolis this Thursday morning and, for the workers behind the wheels, it was just another ordinary work day – one they’ll likely forget by Saturday.

Unless of course, they were driving here to the Westin Hotel, sitting in the shadows of Lucas Oil Stadium and connected to the Indiana Convention Centre, home of the 2013 MLS Superdraft.

Welcome to Planet MLS, where one can’t walk fifty feet without seeing a club logo or an official from one of the 19 teams. No one walks far here as they are regularly stopped to talk to an old friend. If you are from Canada, everyone wants to talk to you.

The Starbucks inside the lobby of the hotel was the place to be up to 10am. Free coffee coupons from Fox Soccer helped of course, but in a city famous for its 500 mile race, this was the pit stop for the sport’s smartest minds. Fuel up, discuss strategy and go. The ladies behind the counter very likely have never watched a game in their lives, but if they listened, they’d have heard exactly how the afternoon draft was going to go. I decided to give it a go.

“Where’s Bekker going?” I cheekily asked the lady behind the counter.

“Beckham? Is he here?” she replied.

Bless her.

Toronto FC, holders of the third and fourth picks in the draft, after the deal with New England, were the team on the lips of the cups and a Canadian named Kyle Bekker was the trending player.

Bekker, from Oakville, Ontario, had climbed the mock drafts quicker than any player in the past month. Everyone had an opinion and an interest in where he would end up. Even the teams who didn’t plan to draft him hoped he’d go early, leaving them free to take their target.

With my Starbucks source keeping it to herself, it was time to make my way to the draft room to find out for myself. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your draft boards!

10.40am – The suits arrive. MLS teams led by their head coaches make their way to their draft tables and, for the next 80 minutes, all go about their business in their own way. Chivas USA, Philadelphia and New York’s representatives barely crack a smile while other teams look much more loose.

11.17am – As dance music blares out of the speakers as if its Ibiza at 1.17am, Toronto FC President and General Manager Kevin Payne leaves the table to take a phone call. Ryan Nelsen, the club’s new head coach, was the media’s consensus pick for being on the other end, but at the stage, he may well have just called Geico to save 15 per cent on his car insurance.

11.30am – Fans are allowed into the Sagamore Ballroom to watch the draft. Columbus and Chicago fans do their best to sing their hearts out, but they are getting drowned out by a combination of David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia.

12.01pm – Opening statements – after being told how great they are, the fans are asked to be respectful of all picks. Let’s hope there are no New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles fans in the house.

12.13pm – Commissioner Don Garber, who said Canada at least six times (told you they are a big deal here) wraps up his speech with the words: “Our vision is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022.” At least he didn’t say 2-22 like Sepp when he made that brilliant decision to send the world to football hotbed Qatar.

12.19pm – New England selects Louisville defender Andrew Farrell first overall. Absolutely no surprise.  A raw talent who has a big upside and a player they clearly ranked higher than most by moving up to get. Toronto FC, who decided to move down and pass on Farrell, will be hoping he doesn’t become Omar Gonzalez.

12.23pm – Carlos Alvarez to Chivas USA. Thank goodness – considering they just played a feature on him in the ballroom.

12.24pm – Toronto FC are announced on the clock and Columbus fans next to me chant, “Don’t screw up!” followed by, “They’re Canadian, they can’t help it!” and “Coach on layaway!”.  So a combination of funny, insightful, and complete morons then?

12.29pm – Toronto FC select Kyle Bekker and there it is: A Canadian soccer marriage begins.

12.33pm – Toronto FC call a timeout ahead of the 4th overall selection. “Seven year timeout,” chant the funny section of the Columbus fans. TFC announce a trade with Vancouver, swapping number 4 for 10 plus allocation money, and with that it is time for me to head to the interview room….

I find a smiling Bekker, who tells me he wasn’t surprised by his rise up the draft in the last few weeks but knows he is far from guaranteed to start under Ryan Nelsen in what appears to be a crowded midfield: “I have to work for any minute I can get and play where I am asked, I am an attacking midfielder but I can play as a box-to-box midfielder.”

We talk about the modern game and the need for players to be good with and without the ball and his eyes widen: “An idol for me my whole life has always been Dennis Bergkamp, a number ten, but, right now, I like Christian Eriksen and Jack Wilshere, an amazing midfielder and if you can bring any of their qualities into your game then you are doing something right. I’m always trying to move my feet (without the ball) and cover as much ground as possible, get in between the lines of the defence and create chances.”

Vancouver select Kekutah Manneh and Erik Hurtado back-to-back while I chat with Bekker and on the way back to the room I bump into Martin Rennie who talks about his team’s need for speed: “Both players have good pace and a lot of athleticism which you can’t coach, they can improve on their movement and tactical understanding. With Kekutah, I knew his PDL coach Paul Dalglish, so I’ve tracked him for some time and he is willing to work very hard to make this happen. We are starting to build an exciting group of players, we needed to be more creative and find more pace to give us a different dimension to our team.”

So move aside Barry Robson then.

1.02pm- Back in the draft room, Kesha’s awful ‘Gonna Die Young’ blurs out ahead of Toronto FC’s pick at number ten. Then, just as it is about to stop, Seattle calls a timeout so the music continues. New rule –  no timeouts allowed during Kesha songs. Make it stop.

1.09pm – Question to me in press row: “Where is Oakville?”. ‘Oh Canada’ continues to play a big part here.

1.11pm – TFC trade down again, this time to number 16. That means they have now moved from 1 to 16 for allocation money. That is a major problem for people who do not understand MLS.  Rhianna sums it up best as, ‘We Found  Love in a Hopeless Place,’ rings out from the Ibiza speakers.

1.20pm – My twitter followers ask what does all this allocation money actually mean. Wait, shock horror, my educated followers who love this game don’t know what it means? Of course they don’t – it remains a big problem in the league as amounts don’t get published. I overhear an executive from a different club say: “This is a smart move for TFC, it can help a team short term very quickly because they can buy down salaries and use it on transfer fees.”

1.35pm – TFC make it two for two with Canadians as they select Mississauga’s Emery Welshman. “I am coming home to the best city in the world, the best fans in the world,” he proudly says from the podium. Good start.

1.45pm – Montreal Impact, who earlier rose eyebrows across the draft room taking Blake Smith at eight (who isn’t here) selects a second player, Fernando Monge, who also isn’t here.

Time to go meet Welshman, whose love for Toronto FC shines through: “I know Toronto very well. I have grown up there, this is an ideal situation for me. I can’t wait to get back to the fans, which I was once and will continue to be now as a player for this team.”

The 21-year-old forward, who played with Bekker at Sigma FC, offers a glowing scouting report of his new teammate in Toronto: “Kyle Bekker is the most creative, attacking midfielder Canada has. This is a great pick for Toronto, they need some creativity in the middle, they could use some quality there for the box-to-box element, some young legs there and I’m glad he is there with me.”

1.58pm – The second round begins and Don Garber leaves his duties in announcing picks. This is basically now a game of fun between teams throwing darts at player names with little drama. Unless TFC somehow find a way to get back in. Maybe they can flog some old shirts for a pick and allocation money?

2.45pm – I am told Kevin Payne will speak to me. Payne gives a lot in our 13 minute conversation:

  • On Bekker: “He was the best player in this draft from our point of view. We would have taken him at number one if we stayed there. We were very impressed with Kyle from an early stage. He is in a great position to learn from Torsten Frings and Julio Cesar, he may play further up the field, he’s in a good spot and is the kind of player Ryan Nelsen really likes.Technically he is very good, can play quickly and tactically is way ahead of anybody in this draft. He spends a lot of the game in space, that’s a pretty good quality to have. There’s a player whose name starts with X on the B-word team who plays that way, I am not going to compare Kyle with Xavi, but he is certainly a good role model and that’s what characterizes him, how often he seems to have time and sense of space on the field.”
  • On Welshman: “We knew less about Emery because he played on the west coast more, but he does a lot of things well, superior athlete, very strong, determined, needs to work on his finishing but if he can learn to finish the simple chances he is going to be a dangerous player.”
  • On them being Canadian: “Canada is a big country. A guy from the west coast of Canada isn’t that much different from a guy from the United States. We are about Toronto. We love the fact that they are from the greater Toronto area, grew up cheering for the team. The crest means something to them when they put the shirt on and that is important to us.”
  • On trading the first overall pick: “We actually made the deal on Monday, it was embargoed until Wednesday. They approached us, frankly I may have not done that deal with many other teams, but I really trust New England. (General Manager) Michael Burns is a really honorable guy so when I said ‘Lets not talk about this’, I knew he wouldn’t. We had asked them what position they were going to draft, if they had said midfield, we would have asked who and if they said Kyle, we wouldn’t have done the deal but they told us centre-back. It was a good position for us because we got the added value and we knew Kyle would still be there at three. We were still in control of the draft at three and four.”
  • On how confident he was in getting Bekker at three: “Listen you always worry, spend the night tossing and turning, wondering if a crazy deal will happen to get ahead of you but I didn’t think that was likely. We were helped by finding what value was on the number one pick so before we did the deal with New England we talked to a bunch of teams.”
  • On how much allocation money they received in their trades: “We don’t talk about amounts but we have increased what we had by 75%, a big chunk of allocation money now that we can use to make ourselves better. Money is important, we have a bigger salary cap now than what we had when we started. We have some big contracts that I inherited and we have to accommodate so this gives us a better opportunity to build a team around those.This was a really fun exercise today, we were in a great position, in the catbird’s seat.”

And with that Payne left the draft. His team just got more Canadian and his transfer market wallet just got a lot thicker; two significant goals the club will have been delighted to fulfill here.

Whether this goes on to make them better, only time will tell. Time and the Starbucks lady, who I’m off to ask how Toronto FC will do this season.

Toronto FC finally sings from the same hymn sheet after firing Mariner & hiring Nelsen.

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC

Twenty-seven days before Christmas he shuffled in his chair in the front row of the press conference awkwardly.

“I think it’s one of the best signings the club has ever made,” he would later say but deep down he knew it couldn’t have been good for him.

Forty days later Paul Mariner was out of a job and Toronto FC, by announcing Ryan Nelsen as the team’s new Head Coach, appointed their eighth boss heading into their seventh season.

The writing on the wall for Mariner was there that day on November 28th when President and General Manager Kevin Payne arrived from DC.

With Mariner sitting in that front row watching, Payne delivered a strong and ambitious statement to Toronto FC fans and it was clear then that the coach at the time was not the one he felt would be able to do this.

Payne said: “The opportunity to turn things around on the field and repay the fans for their unbelievable amount of commitment and passion is one of the most exciting challenges I can imagine and I see no reason why we can’t be successful in doing that and make this a team that is the standard of MLS.”

It was a message from a man who was thinking clearly past this current year and didn’t want to work with a coach who represented what had happened in the past. It took Payne less than six weeks to find a new man yet his man of choice seems likely to not be ready to start the 2013 campaign with Toronto, instead assistant Fran O’Leary takes charge while Nelsen does what he can to keep QPR in the Premier League.

“I have some obligations with QPR,” said Nelsen to a quiet press room who all suddenly thought the same thing as it became clear the 35-year-old had not kicked his last ball in anger.

Nelsen appears to be a man of great integrity, a man wherever he has played who has made a lot of friends in the game and left a great impact on people.

QPR manager Harry Redknapp called him ‘one of the best professionals I’ve ever met in my life’ while Payne said Tuesday at the press conference that Nelsen has ‘better leadership qualities than any athlete I’ve ever been around’.

Those compliments come to a man who is simply not leaving a football club in their most precarious hour of need. Nelsen has started 17 of 21 Premier League games this season, 1613 of a possible 1890 minutes (85%), which is more than any player at Loftus Road. He is clearly not the player he was and has played too many minutes this season for a club wanting to survive in the league but his presence as a player is clearly still needed in London.

If Nelsen wanted to come to Toronto now it appears that they would be able to get the deal done but Payne summed it up perfectly in the scrum part of the media session, once the press conference was over: “If he just walked away from QPR, I would be shocked. That is not Ryan Nelsen,” he said.

Nelsen earlier had suggested that if his team won five in a row then maybe he could just shake their hands and leave but there seems no doubt that Redknapp’s squad are in a relegation fight that will likely last until the team’s final match at Liverpool on May 19th.

That leaves the reigns of the club in the hands of O’Leary and also sends another direct message that short term should not impact the long term direction of the club.

Smart men who run football clubs must know when they cannot worry about fan backlash. On the outside this looks bad. The football club is coming off its worst season in history (winning just five of 34 games last season) and are now starting a new race with the co-driver taking control of the wheel. However, is it really worse than the alternative?

Mariner was never going to be Payne’s man and giving him the keys for a year would suggest a further backward step than waiting until late May for a man he believes will guide the club for the next five years.

Those caught up in Nelsen’s absence from the team until May would be best served to think that the club hired O’Leary to be the head coach and Nelsen to be his assistant. For now.

O’Leary’s hire is an understated one due to the nature of Nelsen’s fame but should not go unnoticed, particularly because it was announced he will oversee scouting and recruitment for the club.

“Fran and Ryan share a great trust and a common sense of the game,” said Payne.

And in there lies the message. Too often, in their first six seasons, Toronto FC have not had people from the top believing the same as those delivering the message to the players. Whether it is O’Leary or Nelsen, what is essential is the football philosophy in which these men, and Payne, believe in and the need for them all to sing from the same hymn sheet.

As the trio walked away from BMO Field after Tuesday’s press conference they got into Payne’s Audi car and headed back to the city.

Nelsen, perhaps, incorrectly for now, sat in the front while O’Leary sat in the back but at least they all got in the same car.

The importance of looking beyond numbers & why Cristiano Ronaldo should have won the Ballon d’Or.

ronaldo messi

Who is the best footballer playing the game today?

It is a simple question and there is a simple answer.

In fact,  it is so simple there is a very good chance that your mom would give the same answer to that question as you.

It is, of course, Lionel Messi.

So let’s try this again……

Who was the best footballer in the year 2012?

If asked, again, at this point your mom’s response may be along of the lines of ‘oh I don’t know…Messi I suppose.’

So what about you? Are you going to use seven simple words to answer the question as well?

Perhaps: ‘Oh come on that’s easy it’s Messi’.

Or, like me, are you intrigued to dig deeper? Here is the case for the against:

Opening Statement

Let’s get this out of the way first. I’ve never been a big fan of individual awards in team sports. The beauty of (most) sports is that it leaves no debate. There is a clear result left on the field, track, pitch, court or wherever your eyes are fortunate to watch over competition. Winners are identified by competing against one another and the rest of the awards are simply made up to highlight those special individuals who really excelled. But who’s kidding who here, these awards do not mean more to players of any sport than championships or medals that can be won in the heat of battle. The awards are also used by the sports as a way of keeping their sport relevant during a downtime in their calendar, usually in the weeks following their seasons when no actual events are being played to occupy fans and fill space in a number of media circles. However, whether it be a Ballon d’Or winner or an MVP winner what is clear is that the media care, which forces the people to care and suddenly there becomes an historic significance to the award, a way of telling those in the future who was the best, and because of this, it is important that those voting do take it seriously and attempt to find the right winner.

Best Player vs Most Valuable Player

This is an argument sports fans in North America are all too familiar with. It doesn’t matter if its baseball, hockey, NFL football or basketball, debates and polls fuel newspapers, radio and television stations over this topic ad nauseum. In the last month of last year’s MLB regular season, it appeared more media members were interested in deciding between rookie phenom Mike Trout or big-hitting Miguel Cabrera for MVP than talking about the games that continued to be played while they argued. And now as the NFL season goes into the playoffs more examples are out there on this debate, including this one from the fine writer Troy Renck in the Denver Post, titled ‘Peyton Manning the MVP, Adrian Peterson’s the NFL’s best player.’

The debates are always generated by the wording of the award and specifically the word ‘valuable’. For example, back in 2003 the American League in baseball awarded Alex Rodriguez, then of the Texas Rangers, the award despite his team being one of the worst that season. ‘A-Rod’ was likely the game’s best player at the time yet spent the entire season playing for a Rangers team that never had a record over .500 after opening day. Those against the award countered, correctly, that Rodriguez couldn’t have been that valuable to his side as with, or without him, the Rangers would have still finished last in their division. The voters put that aside and, perhaps, read on Wikipedia about the term before writing down the shortstop’s name. Here is how Wikipedia still refers to the term today:

In sports, a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award is an honor typically bestowed upon the best-performing player or players on a specific team, in an entire league, or for a particular contest or series of contests. Initially used in professional sports, the term is now also commonly used in amateur sports, as well as in other completely unrelated fields of endeavor such as business and music.

The term is typically only used in Canada, the United States, the Philippines and South Korea, although Australia uses the term for the National Basketball League.

If the award is ‘typically bestowed upon the best performing player’ then why not, as Troy Renck has written and many people have said, simply have a ‘best player’ award?

Because the winner should be the same anyway.

The case for value

Adrian Peterson may or may not win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, but if he doesn’t win it should be because he wasn’t the league’s best player not just because a voter thinks another player was more valuable to his own team. In the case of Manning vs Peterson, both players were at an elite level all season, leading their subsequent teams to the playoffs and reaching win totals that neither side could have dreamed of without them playing. Both players played equally the same amount of important games leaving it down to those with a vote to decide. The likely tie-breaker? Who is more valuable to their team. In this case, it may be Manning, a quarterback who was involved in more plays than Peterson, a running back. However, if those voting think, like Renck, that Manning is the MVP but Peterson was the best player, then who are they to determine that the league’s best player was less valuable to his team than someone who wasn’t as good as him on another team? If Peterson, playing on a competitive team that made the playoffs, was the league’s best player, this leads him to also being the league’s most valuable player which is why those three letters ‘MVP’ are equally as insightful as they are maddening.

Rodriguez may have been the game’s most talented baseball player in 2003, but how could he be the league’s best player if he never played a meaningful game for his team after June?  There simply wasn’t enough evidence of merit to back this up. The truth is there was little competition that year from players who made the playoffs, but that still doesn’t mean the writers were correct. They were widely criticized and no player since has won the award without making the end of season playoffs.

A wonderful factor in the naming of these individual award winners comes back to what their sport is all about in the first place – team success.

Messi vs Ronaldo

Football is not an individual sport, but in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, we are witnessing two of the game’s finest individual players to ever play the game, playing in the same league at the same time, smashing records together. Andrea Pirlo and Andres Iniesta each had magnificent 2012’s, but without doubt the best two players were Messi and Ronaldo.

Messi is a player that words do not do justice to. His 50 league goals and 73 in total for the 2011-12 season are far more impressive than the number 91 that beat Gerd Muller’s record (that no one knew about until this year) yet 50 and 73 could easily be beaten again by May. Nevertheless, this is a time for looking back not forward.

Ronaldo scored 46 league goals and 60 in total during the 11-12 club season, numbers that deserve to be outside of a shadow called Messi. In the final seven league games, Ronaldo scored nine goals including one of the biggest of his career to help Real Madrid to the title.

It is April 21st, the game is in the 73rd minute and the Nou Camp is rocking. Alexis Sanchez has just scored the equalizer against Real Madrid and the home fans know another goal could help them catch the leaders for the title. Ronaldo finds himself in an area of the pitch he loves the most, centrally, just past the halfway line, 10 metres off standing defenders. Angel Di Maria makes a run on the right and already Ronaldo’s brain is thinking three moves ahead like a grand master chess player. He sprints towards the space between the back-peddling Javier Mascherano and Carles Puyol. Di Maria gives the ball to Mesut Ozil on the touchline and instantly Ronaldo’s arm points to the space he plans to run into. He needn’t have bothered. Ozil, a supremely gifted player with great vision knows what to do. The German stops the ball with his studs and plays a perfectly weighted pass for the sprinting Ronaldo to run on to. By now, he has the beating of the defenders, who trail behind him, but now he must defeat Barcelona’s goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, in a one-on-one situation, a scenario where all great finishers in this game are measured. The Spanish goalkeeper comes out and cuts down all angles but Ronaldo, the master chess player, has thought ahead and before he even gets to the ball, glances up to see the goalkeeper’s positioning. He now knows he has to make one touch of the ball to the right to make Valdes move again and as the Spaniard skips to his left, Ronaldo already smashes the ball past him into the net at the near post. Madrid win at the Nou Camp 2-1 and secure the league and end Barcelona’s three year reign as La Liga Champions. Fittingly, it’s Ronaldo who wins it for them.

Two months to the day from that goal, Ronaldo is now in Warsaw, Poland. Four days after that goal in Barcelona, he’d scored twice inside the first 14 minutes against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi final 2nd leg but would later miss a penalty in a shootout that knocked his team out. The night before Messi had missed a penalty against Chelsea and also been knocked out. Now with Messi finally resting, fresh off a sensational hat-trick against Brazil in the USA, Ronaldo’s sulking on the pitch. He’s hit the post twice in the quarter finals of the European Championships and has that look on his face of disbelief. His two goals against the Dutch had helped his side get to this stage but now he’s frustrated with the Czech rearguard. His team-mate, the brilliant Joao Moutinho, then makes a run towards the byline on the right, the first of its kind in the game despite it being the 79th minute. Ronaldo is out on his own on the far left at the tip of the penalty area as the Czech back four narrow in the box. The moment Moutinho dribbles, Ronaldo starts to run towards the goal. Nothing special there. Yet. Moutinho then bends his foot around the ball, ready to cross it into the box. Ronaldo, still unmarked, then holds his run to see whether it will be sent in front of the defenders or behind. The ball is placed perfectly towards the gap between the two defenders in the box, at which point Ronaldo immediately attacks the space, meeting the ball with a bullet of a header that goes into the ground and up past Petr Cech in the net. 1-0 Portugal and into the semi’s, a game where Ronaldo again would shine only to see his tournament come to an end via a penalty shootout.

These moments were pivotal ones in the career of Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi had special moments  in 2012 as well, but he didn’t help his side win the league and he didn’t perform at the top of his game for his country in a major tournament.

Conclusion

Ultimately, football’s chapters start and end by season’s. The Ballon d’Or has so many flaws and its biggest may be the fact it is awarded based on player’s performances in a calendar year not in a season. If – as it should have been – this award was handed out in July 2012, and not January 2013, Ronaldo would have won due to his performances in the big games, aka the ones that had more ‘value’ to them. In the four and a half months of football played since, Messi has without doubt been a better player than his rival over 17 league matches, 6 Champions League games and a few domestic cup encounters. That – 91 goals or not – should not be enough for him to win the award. Individual statistical numbers like 50 73 and 91 are staggering but so are 46 60 and 63 and this game is far more complex and magnificent to simply become a slave to numbers. The sport that relies on them the most – baseball – learned a long time ago how to look beyond them, after all one of its greatest numbers of all time, .406, came from Ted Williams’ batting average in the season of 1941. That year, Joe Di Maggio of the New York Yankees, won the MVP. He didn’t have an iconic number in 1941 like .406 but he played in bigger games and took his team to a new level.

Messi had a wonderful 2012 that will never be forgotten, but it is Ronaldo’s year that made a bigger difference to the landscape of the game. That is why all the Ballon d’Or voters needed to say more than seven simple words to themselves when casting their vote.