NYCFC Diaries, Vol. 6: Pirlo Parties, Orlando CIty Almost Spoiling Them

Courtesy of soccerpro.com

Courtesy of soccerpro.com

30,042 people showed up to see Andrea Pirlo’s historic “baby blue” debut. Every once in a while, NYCFC’s PR department opened up certain section of the nosebleeds, something they usually do for Grade A games, and Andrea Pirlo’s first game for NYCFC was certainly that. They were filled, as was the entirety of Yankee Stadium.    

Pirlo Jerseys…EVERYWHERE:

I’m not even exaggerating when I say this, but I’m pretty sure 90% of Little Italy showed up to the biggest game of the season (after the second New York Derby).

It’s great to show your true colors: Milan’s Opel kits are some of my favorite football kits ever produced (any kit with Opel’s sponsor is a jewel); Juventus’s 13-14 kits are alright, I guess (they’re just jet black, like Elvis’ slicked back hair).

But when it’s 85 degrees out with humidity, and you’re being crowded around at the security gates (almost longer than one NYC subway unit at one of the gates), heat exhaustion is a possibility when wearing those black kits. Wearing black in blistering heat means that you’re setting yourself up for heat exhaustion.

Strangely enough, I didn’t spot a 2006 World Cup jersey. I’m sure there were tons of them, but I somehow missed them. Shame on me, right? Yes, shame on me for not spotting a Mauro Camoranesi jersey either.

Pirlo Didn’t Start?!?:

*”Vienna” by Billy Joel starts playing*

There was the Summer of ’77, where the Son of Sam generated mass hysteria by preying on young women with dark hair, brandishing a .44 caliber revolver. Then, there was July 26, 2015, where one of the greatest deep-lying playmakers of all-time was going to set foot on the minimized (by, like, two feet) Yankee Stadium pitch.

Sports are a great thing, but sometimes, certain people take it way too seriously. They didn’t quite have the mindset of David Berkowitz – actually, by definition, that’s a Lazio fan – but boy, some of these so-called “Pirlo fans” got on my damn nerves.

During pre-game training, some random guy watched from one of the many stadium gift shop kiosks. I’m in line buying food, the vendor being placed right aside the kiosk.

“Eyyy, where da fuck is Pirlo at?”

Pardon my stereotypes, but this guy had the voice of Joe Pesci (there’s nothing wrong with that), the looks of a Jersey Shore extra (there’s something wrong with that), the mindset of a casual Yankee fan (definitely something wrong with that) and the ignorance of most Yankee fans that never shut their mouths about winning 27 World Series titles. Don’t you just wish that these people could be banned from existence?

The Pirlo hysteria was only getting started. Once NYCFC announced their starting XI on the PA (and on Twitter 5 minutes beforehand, like the PR department does 95% of the time), people discovered he wasn’t starting. Boo hoo, there’s no favoritism in soccer (eh, actually, that’s not true).

One guy sitting behind me with his girlfriend was desperately refreshing his Twitter feed to see when the starting lineup was being released.

“Pirlo better start or else I’m done with this fucking team.”

Ahh, what else is new? Certainly isn’t the first time I heard that one in New York.

Pirlo not starting is exactly what people weren’t expecting riding into the Bronx. Despite legions of overly optimistic presumptions, the much anticipated debut of Andrea Pirlo was not happening in the starting XI. He was debuting as a substitute, which is all fine and dandy, because he was guaranteed to play no matter what. But only the people that don’t care about NYCFC as a franchise cared about Pirlo.

Don’t get me wrong, avid NYCFC fans care very much about Pirlo, but it’s not like he’s the only guy that exists on the team. Even Mix Diskerud is left out of the picture at times because of his Gold Cup call-up. I guess people would have thought their money was being wasted by actually seeing NYCFC play.

I mean, I too wanted the maestro to start. But would you rather see him start and see him get subbed out for someone else? He’s not fully fit yet. Or would you rather see him finish the game in the second half?

*”Vienna” by Billy Joel stops playing*

First Half: Massively Boring, But Good Enough:

The first half of this game was very similar to waiting at a fancy restaurant for a long period of time: annoying, impatient, and you end up losing your mind over time. Nothing was happening, and it was more like waiting after you just took a long test in class and waiting for everyone else to finish so class can finally end.

The “We Want Pirlo” chants started about 25 minutes in, and they seemed a bit forced. And although the fans have played a role in Jason Kreis’ substitutions (sorta, with Kwadwo Poku in particular), Kreis stayed put until Chris Wingert injured himself again. Jefferson

Courtesy of nysportsday.com

Courtesy of nysportsday.com

Mena, NYCFC’s new center back signing, came on for Wingert less than 10 minutes in.

A scoreless half seemed imminent from both team’s styles of play: rugged, all fouls blazing, possession-based soccer the not-so main attraction. There were no significant moments – at least there didn’t appear to be.

After what felt like a millennium, stoppage time had arrived and newly groomed Manchester City youth product Angelino (he’s number 69, which is #nice) placed a perfect ball, followed by a fairy-like touch by David Villa, who finished near post past a tightly marked Sean St. Ledger and hoodwinked Orlando City goalkeeper Tally Hall, who stayed flat-footed.

Perfect. Just perfect. No more scoreless deadlock going into the break. Breathing room was given and the Pirlo chants seemed premature, until…

PIRLO PARTY COMMENCE!:

Courtesy of Eurosport

Courtesy of Eurosport

As Andrea Pirlo stood up to leave the bench at around the 53rd minute, raucous cheering took place. It really felt as if the Pope was approaching the Vatican balcony. It was NYCFC fans’ version of Jesus’ “sermon on the mount.” And he didn’t even enter the pitch yet.

Three minutes later, a yellow-carded Mehdi Ballouchy, Jason Kreis’ first half substitution whipping post, started jogging towards towards the sideline, where Pirlo stood by the fourth official, eagerly waiting to enter the pitch.

Here’s what Yankee Stadium felt and sounded like when Pirlo jogged on:

(Pardon me for my crappy zoom-ins and the unnecessary quasi-voice crack in the last second.)

The PA announcer’s voice was muffled. That’s how loud it was. Every single ounce of heavy anticipation flew out of everyone’s insides. He ran on, immediately shook Kaká’s hand, and there he was, ready to make an immediate impact.

Just a few minutes before, Tommy McNamara whipped a nice low cross to Javier Calle – who hasn’t started since April – to put the score at 2-1. That certainly opened things up in terms of scoreline, but also in terms of crowd participation (props to The Third Rail for keeping it going throughout the whole game).

That made Pirlo’s entrance even better. The crowd’s energy was already running off of that goal and boy, it got pretty damn loud. Some people were covering their ears, and a couple of little kids were complaining, “Mommy! It’s too noisy in here! Tell them to stop!”

Pirlo made an impact within seconds of his entrance.  Each time he touched the ball, the crowd raised hell. By the time the 60th minute came around, it was time for the “Rush Hour Rally,” (the Third Rail’s version of the wave, only a million times better) and Yankee Stadium was semi-shaking. Shorty after, unfortunately, Cyle Larin struck again in the 61st minute to level the scoring at 2-2.

Minutes later, Pirlo started performing spin moves and located Kwadwo Poku. Poku then sprinted with the ball, eventually finding David Villa on a run. El Guaje found a little pocket of space and it looked like a fantastic possession was going to be wasted with an audacious shot through three defenders. The shot deflects and goes bottom right corner; 3-2 in favor of NYCFC.

A few minutes later, Pirlo was at it again. He does the same thing – spin moves and all – in the same place of the field, finding Poku. Poku doesn’t fail to find McNamara, and West Nyack’s own buried it upper 90. 4-2, Blues. I almost tripped on myself after jumping up and down in the slim stadium walkway aisle.

Freakin’ Cyle Larin…And Kaká Almost Replicates The Inaugural Fixture: 

Once Pirlo came on, he controlled the passing lanes. However, Cyle Larin was still around to pick up the pieces. Larin scored his hat trick clinching goal in the 85th minute. Just like

Courtesy of spacecoastdaily.com

Courtesy of spacecoastdaily.com

that, it was 4-3. He couldn’t miss, especially on his second goal. Josh Saunders went full-extension and couldn’t get a tip on the ball.

NYCFC’s late game execution had failed them yet again. They had given up their second hat trick in two weeks, the other being at the feet of Sebastian Giovinco when they faced Toronto FC. Recently signed Jefferson Mena was suspect in the setting up of all three of Larin’s goals, but the hope is that it wasn’t indicative of him being bad, just a reaction to jumping on the field for the first time with his new backline.

Stoppage time arrived and, just like the first game, Kaká was about to take a free kick right outside of the 18, after a terrible foul was committed. Great.

There was no Jeb Brovsky this game to deflect the free kick into the net. But this was just as scary; Kaká takes the free kick, the ball hits the post, and a colossal gasp echoes throughout Yankee Stadium. Mix Diserkud darts out of the box with the ball, finds David Villa reinforcing him in the midfield, plays one-two with Mix, passes to Poku, who fools Tally Hall and crosses to Mix, sealing the game with the much needed insurance goal. 5-3 the final score.

Holy shit. Orlando had almost thwarted NYCFC a second time in two matches in the same season by, funny enough, the same guy, in their inaugural season as an MLS franchise. Most importantly, the Pirlo party wasn’t spoiled, thankfully.

Out Of The Bowels Of The East…For Now:

Andrea Pirlo’s debut was the chief headline of Sunday’s nationally televised matinee. But there were huge implications regarding this game, with NYCFC has been trying to dig themselves out of the bottom of the East. They were in ninth place going into the afternoon’s game, with Orlando at seventh. With the win, NYCFC are now tied with Orlando, amassing 24 points each and a 6-6-9 record with 21 games played.

Sure, there are tons of questions about whether the backline will ever improve in the future. Picking apart their defense is like tearing grass out of the ground. But for that day, we were celebrating the debut of Andrea Pirlo.

And nothing else mattered.

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The Parisian Angel

It looks like PSG's Twitter account post something similar to this in the next couple days.

It looks like PSG’s Twitter account post something similar to this in the next couple days.

Ángel Di María, the world-record signing by a British team, didn’t exactly settle in in his first, and from the looks of it only, season in Manchester. Brought in as part of Louis van Gaal’s rebuilding project, di María started with a bang, only to slowly fade and become a supporting character in Manchester United’s quest to get back to the Champions League. And while statistics show that di Maria had a good season, it never really felt like it was the case. And Ángel never felt like he belonged.

At his most productive, di María is the proverbial glue guy. He’s not quite a superstar, yet he is more than capable of having a superstar-type game. That, however, is not what he is best at, not what he is comfortable doing.

At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale grabbed all the headlines, but it was di María’s creativity and remarkable stamina that allowed them to flourish the way they did. He was the reason Real won the 2014 Champions League final, and it was his lack of fitness in successive summers that probably cost Argentina a couple of international titles.

That wasn’t the case at Manchester. He never really meshed with van Gaal’s industrious, workmanlike philosophy, which tasked him with doing basic winger things, something Carlo Ancelotti realized is not what Di María is. Ángel was clipped of his wings (sorry) and as a result, always appeared subdued, not quite there. He lost confidence and subsequently his place in the team. Now, according to major French outlets and Zlatan, he is off to Paris.

Quite honestly, this move should have happened last summer. Di María was probably always going to end up at Paris Saint-Germain, but FFP regulations  prevented the Ligue 1 champions from getting him. He will now join Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, two hardworking, energetic central midfielders much like him. What’s more, he probably keeps his place on that team, as he fits with what they are trying to do a lot more than he fit LvG’s philosophy.

Yesterday, journalist Daniel Harris asked why anyone would go to play for PSG. Whisper it, but the Paris club is potentially now the second-best club in Europe. Adding di María to that midfield makes it probably the best midfield in Europe. The only other contender is Real Madrid, and I think the PSG midfield’s defensive prowess is much more formidable than Real’s. And when that attack starts clicking, it is downright unstoppable.

There are a number of ways this could go wrong for the Paris outfit, and they primarily have to do with their manager. Laurent Blanc, also known as the terrorist, is so cautious and conservative tactically that Di María may yet find himself in just the hole he was in at United (albeit without the break in). This, however, is a very extreme scenario, and what will most likely happen is that Larry White realizes the squad’s potential and unleashes it (or he is sacked).

And after a year of enduring turmoil and sadness, Ángel di María will once again (most likely) fly.

Posted in Champions League, Ligue 1 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Reacting to the FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw

 

Relive FIFA.com's Preliminary Draw Blog

Yesterday, FIFA hosted the Preliminary Draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In between jazz performances and awkward comedy bits from a Russian supermodel, the road to the next World Cup became much clearer for some of the FIFA confederations.

North, Central American and Caribbean

Given how completely ridiculous everything else was, CONCACAF’s World Cup qualification seems normal. There will be six matches in round three, the winner of those matches joining CONCACAF’s top six seeded teams in three groups of four. The top two teams in each of those groups then enter the Hex, CONCACAF’s six-team round-robin group to determine who will make it to the World Cup.

Of course, CONCACAF isn’t without any weirdness. Jamaica made the final of the Gold Cup, but is regarded on the same level as Aruba and Antigua and Barbuda for seeding purposes. The USA is fortunate to get the easiest group with Group C: Trinidad, Aruba/St. Vincent and Grenadines and Guatemala/Antigua and Barbuda. Meanwhile, Group B looks like it could be nasty: Panama and Costa Rica are the top seeds, and will likely be joined by Jamaica and Haiti. Group A should be easy for Mexico, as they’ll be joined by Honduras and most likely Canada and El Salvador. (I’d have have some fighting words for Mohamed, but he’s less optimistic about Canada than the whole world.)

Equally important for CONCACAF is they now know they’ll face the fifth-best Asian team for the World Cup playoff. It’s a lot more desireable than facing the fifth-best team in South America, but probably harder than facing New Zealand, the all-but-probable winner of Oceania.

South America 

CONMEBOL only has ten teams. Everyone plays 18 matches in a round-robin ten-team group. There were no groups to draw, but the Preliminary Draw did still provide us with interesting information for CONMEBOL: the fixture order. The most notable item from the fixture list concerned Brazil, who will be forced to face Copa America champions Chile at Chile, without Neymar on Matchday 1. Conveniently enough, Neymar returns for Matchday 3 when Argentina host their longtime rivals.

Europe

UEFA’s groups came last in the processing but were certainly the most interesting. There are seven groups of six teams along with two groups of five teams.

hi-res-4d9b12ddcc06f83829567c78f38bde39_crop_exact

The first group that jumps out at you is Group A. That group will contain France, the Netherlands and Zlatan. France and the Netherlands should be the top two teams from the group, but it’s hard to count out Zlatan in what will be his last opportunity to qualify for the World Cup. Group G is also a strong group with Italy and Spain. Israel doesn’t have a star quite like Zlatan, but they could still prove to be a team that could make those two decorated nations sweat on their way to the top of the group. Portugal and Switzerland will make a nice battle in Group B, but Hungary won’t exactly strike fear into either of those nations.

Germany’s reward for being defending champions is a very easy Group C, as the Czech Republic will be their sternest test. In Group H, Belgium only really faces a test from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Greece is also in their group, so they could manage to do that annoying Greece thing again, but right now they can’t beat Faroe Islands. England is the clear favorite in Group F, but they have two juicy ties coming up with Scotland. They’ll also play both Slovenia and Slovakia, which is bound to confuse the less geographically-minded people in the United Kingdom.

There are also three groups that seem pretty wide open. Group D will be Gareth Bale’s best chance to play in a World Cup, as Wales’ top competition will be Austria, Ireland and Serbia. SkyBet has Serbia favored over Wales, but there’s no obvious favorite in that group.

Group E is filled with parity. Denmark, Poland and Romania will be the main contenders. Poland will count on Robert Lewandowski to carry them to the promised land, just as Denmark will with Christian Eriksen. Romania doesn’t have a player on the level of either of Lewandowski or Eriksen, but likely has a better overall squad than their two competitors. In Group I, Croatia looks to be the favorite. However, Iceland, Turkey Ukraine could all pose threats to Luka Modric and friends.

The Rest

Africa, Asia and Oceania are extremely confusing at this point of the draw. The African teams don’t know their matchups yet – just that there will be 12 matches in Round 1, with 20 matches in Round 2. And it really doesn’t get exciting until Round 3.

Meanwhile, Asia wasn’t even included in this draw because of the AFC’s decision to merge the preliminary qualification rounds of the FIFA World Cup and the AFC Asian Cup. As a result, the Asian qualifiers have already begun, with Round 2 kicking off in September.

As for Oceania, if New Zealand fails to make it out of there, then the end times are near.

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Raheem Sterling & The Evaluation of Wingers

Wingers: managers love them, pundits love them, we love them.

Wingers have evolved from cross-launching specialists that weren’t fully involved in the game to the most dynamic players on the pitch. Modern day wingers run, shoot, pass, cross, and dribble at neck breaking pace and do it at a high level. They pushed out the classic ten and made a new breed of footballer we love.

Cristiano Ronaldo is at times the complete football machine, Arjen Robben’s darting runs through the middle makes the heart stop, Eden Hazard was the best player in the EPL, and even Lionel Messi is rekindling his winger flame while letting Luis Suarez work inside. The best offensive players at big clubs are most often the wingers. And that’s why we’re enamored with them.

Yet, they’re typically hard to value, especially if they’re not the Ronaldo/Robben/Messi spear point goal machine. It’s easy to value the direct winger. They take the ball and find ways to put it in the back of the net. It’s not about how often they fail, but if they find a way to score 20 or so goals they’re a success. These players are match winners on their own. Yet their individualistic tendencies can also be harmful; just ask Gareth Bale.

Regardless, their qualities shine through more often then not. They’re the kind of player that wows us. But some wingers, like Franck Ribery and sometimes even Eden Hazard can struggle.

While the Robben type winger is a spear point, Ribery and Hazard are more of the handle. They’re not the one puncturing the defense, but without them the spear doesn’t fly. The more playmaking winger is more reliant on his teammates. Their ability to pass only magnifies their game. They can still be match winners on their own, but they aren’t required to be. There’s nothing individualistic about their existence. They’re using their teammates to feed passes to and to play off of and create space. Their dribbles and shots are calculated by how their teammates are positioned. You get out of the spear-points way when they have a full head of steam, you run with the handle and be ready for whatever they may do.

Raheem Sterling definitely fits in the handle category. The new Manchester City signing hasn’t fully developed a finishing shot of the quality of the rest of his game. However, he dribbles at a high level, creates chances, feeds excellent crossing passes, and can on occasion shoot with success. There’s not a lot individualistic about his game, but that’s not to say he’s not a fine player for his age. He just relies on his teammates more than a Gareth Bale. It’s not a knock on his quality of a player, more an observation on the qualities he brings to the table.

The issue this creates, however, is the fact these players are hard to judge when they’re on less than world class squads. Franck Ribery is a fine example. For most of his career, it was common knowledge how good Ribery was, yet it wasn’t clear he was potentially “third best player in the world” good until he was on the Bayern Munich squad that won the Champions League. It wasn’t prevalent on Galatasaray, and he only developed some parts of his game at Marseille. Even further he was far from a big name on Bayern until the squad improved around him (when they brought in Robben to spear point the attack).

Eden Hazard has seen some of these same issues to a lesser extent. Hazard has had a pretty nice living in club football, going from a strong Lille side to Chelsea. Yet his ability has been questioned playing for Belgium, where he seemingly is unable to take control of a match and grab a win.

Raheem carries similar burdens, and those showed through at Liverpool. Sterling’s first full season as a Red went as smoothly as can be. He was one of the less important players in the first XI, and flourished due to lack of responsibility. While that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, for a 19-year-old it’s a great environment to develop.

viagraofchaos_2015-Jul-23

Stats courtesy of Squawka

The following season, Sterling played without Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge was hurt most of the season, and Steven Gerrard rapidly regressed.  Furthermore, Coutinho had a run of poor form until after Christmas. The attack around him crumbled like a collapsing monolith. Yet the winger didn’t fold. Instead he went into January with the second most chances created in the EPL (behind Eden Hazard) and ahead of the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, even though both world class players were completely on fire. Yet Sterling’s efforts went largely unnoticed.

On his own, Sterling isn’t a match winner. Or at least he’s not one yet. He doesn’t score a large amount of goals off amazing individual runs. He doesn’t have to though, as it’s clearly not his game. Because of this, he can’t shine through on a barren attack, which Liverpool’s clearly was.

Despite outpacing world class talents, Raheem’s current narrative is that he regressed last season. That seems completely wrong: he took on an entire offense and tried to make it work on a club that often has unreasonable expectations. He showed an ability and composure many 20-year-olds wouldn’t in that situation.

Yet, he didn’t have match saving goals. Then his manager started sending him messages by playing him at wing-back. Then there were the pictures of him with the shisha pipe and the contract tussle. Whether Sterling should have taken a different approach with his contract is neither here nor there. But it’s a bit confusing to say he wasn’t more impressive last year.

Sterling may not have been able to make the sinking Liverpool ship float, but with another year of maturity and experience behind him – and a better supporting cast – it shouldn’t be surprising if Sterling takes a big leap forward next season. Sergio Aguero has a better nose for those final balls than any player on Liverpool, and Raheem knows how to deliver them.

Raheem Sterling’s contributions weren’t enough to salvage and save what was a poor offensive squad last season. What they could do, however, is turn a good attack that stalled at times last season into a devastating one.

Posted in English Premier League | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Olympique Marseille’s Murky Future

It was almost impossible to ignore the 2014-15 iteration of Olympique Marseille for a number of reasons. Whether it was manager Marcelo Bielsa telling the press not even two months into the job that he had an opt out clause after one season in his two year contract, whether it was the attractive, vibrant football that made them a hipster’s dream, or whether it was the epic collapse that took them from Ligue 1 title contender (they led the league from Sept. 21 to Jan. 11) to fourth place and the Europa League, Marseille could not be ignored.

That last part was perhaps the biggest death knell for the club. Losing the third and final CL spot to Monaco meant losing even more players than expected during the summer transfer window. It was known throughout the season that midfielder Andre Ayew and striker Andre-Pierre Gignac were leaving the club in the summer because Marseille couldn’t afford their wages.

(It should be noted that Ligue 1 clubs in general, outside of PSG and to a much lesser extent Monaco, don’t have much in the way of money, so dealing with wages is always difficult.)

But finishing in the Europa League spot triggered a drop in wages for Dimitri Payet, which led to his move to West Ham. Midfielder Gianelli Imbula, a crown jewel for Marseille, became Porto’s record signing. It’s tough to say whether Imbula would’ve stayed had Marseille guaranteed themselves CL football next season but not being in the CL couldn’t have helped OM’s chances at keeping the burgeoning talent.

Rod Fanni and Jeremy Morel had their contracts expire, with the former leaving for rivals Lyon and the latter heading for Qatar. Fanni and Morel were the makeshift center back pairing for Marseille last season when Nicolas Nkoulou missed the majority of the winter with a knee injury. The duo was pretty horrific in Nkoulou’s absence but they were at least there to soak up the minutes at CB, a position in which Marseille are still ridiculously thin. (It didn’t help that Bielsa banished Doria to the point of sending him back on loan to Sao Paulo midway through the season.)

Losing both Imbula and Payet in one summer window has been extremely rough for the French club. Payet was arguably one of the three best players in Ligue 1 last season, as Bielsa converted him into a centrally-based dynamo attacking midfielder. He led Ligue 1 in assists and chances created by a huge margin while ranking third in Weighted Chances Created Plus (soccer’s spinoff of Weighted Runs Created Plus). He was the hub of Marseille’s vibrant attack, an attack that in the previous two seasons lay very dormant.

Year Expected Goals For Goals For
2012-13 45.5 42
2013-14 (Payet’s first of two seasons with OM) 46.4 53
2014-15 58.9 76

At their peak last season, Marseille played attacking football as effervescent as any team in Europe sans Barcelona. A combination of quick tempo passing and high pressing instilled by everyone’s favorite wild man Bielsa played right into the hands of a creative genius like Payet.

But Imbula’s departure will be more felt across more of the pitch than Payet’s. His dribbling was a key part of initiating attacks for Marseille, especially when they wanted to set up possession in the final third. His stamina helped maintain whatever semblance the club had defensively, and his impact was felt despite the fact that he rarely ever shot the ball (1.4 shots per 90 this season).

The exodus of Ayew/Fanni/Gignac/Imbula/Morel/Payet signals a new era for Marseille. Marseille were solid last season even with their disappointing fourth place finish in Ligue 1 and the six departing players helped play a major part in this (both good and bad). Marseille ranked second in Expected Goal Ratio, fourth in Shots on Target Ratio and fourth in Team Rating. Gignac revived his career to the point where he was actually recalled to the French squad (something that as recently as two seasons ago would’ve been insane to imagine happening). Gignac finished eighth in wCC+ while posting the fifth best non penalty goal rate in Ligue 1 for players that played at least 500 minutes.

If there’s one positive to be said about Marseille currently, it’s that the age dynamic of the clubs’ players currently is positive relative to where they are in the French football hierarchy. Simon Gleave did great work on the age curve in football and how Manchester City were facing problems with their aging squad. Here’s Marseille’s age matrix for their current players with the prime years area shaded in red.

Prime

The majority of the current squad is very young with an average age of 23.5 years old, around where young stars transition into their prime years. This comes with better potential for getting decent transfer fees for the players, something that is very beneficial for Marseille considering their money crunch and Ligue 1 as a whole.

It will be interesting to see how Marseille incorporate all the wingers they have. As it stands right now, Abdelaziz Barrada seems like the most natural replacement for Payet in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Marseille leaned heavily on during the season. Perhaps Florian Thauvin will be shifted more centrally like Payet was last season. For the amount of stick that Thauvin got last season for his performance (some of which was deserved), he’s still an immensely talented winger and perhaps not having to deal with the responsibilities that come with being a Bielsa winger can free him up to be the attacking force many envisioned he would be.

Another option could be recreating what Saint Etienne did last season, when they shifted into formations that didn’t feature a modern #10. ASSE and Marseille don’t play similar football, actually quite from it, but the skeletons in terms of the formation setup ASSE used last season could be in the cards for Marseille. A 4-3-3 could work if OM find one more central midfielder in the transfer market. Perhaps a 3-4-3 is an option, as that would play into Bielsa’s wheelhouse with the three in the back setup and would allow nearly all of the wingers to play at the same time, allowing OM to not sacrifice attacking talent.

Regardless of the formation that Marseille will play with next season, the incoming batch of talent will be hard pressed to recreate the magic that the attacking players had last season:

2014-15 wCC+ of Outgoing attacking players 2014-15 wCC+ of incoming attacking players
Andre Ayew: 76.4 Bouna Sarr: 107.4
Dimitri Payet: 155.3 Lucas Ocampos: 95.2
Andre-Pierre Gignac: 121.8 Georges-Kévin Nkoudou: 52.5
wCC+ Sum Outgoing: 353.5 wCC+ Sum Incoming: 255.1

It’s a decent assumption to make that Marseille’s attack won’t be as prolific as it was last season, even with the wingers brought in. Michu Batshuayi was very good last season and will presumably be OM’s leading striker for the upcoming season, but a lot of his minutes came while as a sub, which can inflate a strikers’ numbers to a certain degree. There’s a good chance he’ll regress a fair bit from the wCC+ of 128.8 he registered last season.

A regression in the attack could mean bad news for Marseille because the defense last season was nothing to write home about. Marseille gave up the eighth most shots in Ligue 1 last season while ranking an unimpressive eighth in both goals conceded and expected goals conceded. Those numbers aren’t what you would expect from a CL contender. Some of that was due to the lack of talent that the club had defensively, but it also was due to Bielsa’s stubbornness in man-marking pressing.

The greatest example of this was during the second rendition of Le Classique between PSG and Marseille. OM pressed and pressed, leaving holes everywhere for PSG to exploit and at the end when Marseille needed to create the equalizer, they were too spent to do anything. The same thing happened versus Caen and the dreadful 3-5 loss to Lorient which all but sealed Monaco’s place in the top three.

What’s potentially scary for Marseille is that if they follow the same path that Bielsa’s Athletic Club did, it could potentially get even worse for them defensively for the upcoming season. Athletic in 2011-12 (Bielsa’s first of two seasons) ranked 10th in goals conceded and though they ranked third last in shots conceded per game, at least the opponents’ shot selection was diversified enough to not cause serious damage. That Athletic side, if you’ll recall, made a dramatic run to the Europa League Final that season.

Bilbao 1

Fast forward to the next season and Athletic got a lot worse defensively. The Basque side gave up the fourth most goals in La Liga while ranking last in penalty area shots conceded and third-to-last in shots conceded in the six-yard box.

Bilbao 2

Marseille before Bielsa were already slowly been trending towards becoming a worse defense and Bielsa helped exacerbate the decline:

Year Expected Goals Against Goals Conceded
2012-13 32.2 36
2013-14 35.1 40
2014-15 40.9 40

A silver lining for Marseille here is that as of now, Nicolas Nkoulou is still currently with the club and CB Karim Rekik signed from Manchester City as well. Add Baptise Aloe and a CB core of Aloe/Doria/Nkoulou/Rekik could actually be a sizable upgrade over what Marseille had to work with last season.

It’s very hard to see OM competing for the top three in Ligue 1 with the added fixture list that’s come with the Europa League for a club with a very small squad. In addition, Lyon have kept Alexandre Lacazette and added a capable striker in Claudio Beauvue, Monaco replaced Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Geoffrey Kondogbia with Fares Bahouli/Ivan Cavaleiro/Stephan El Shaarawy/Adama Traore, and it’s very hard to see how both of these teams will get worse unless injuries deplete their squads. Marseille are in the same bracket that Saint Etienne and Bordeaux inhabit: CL hopefuls that need a couple of lucky breaks to break into the top three.

A top six finish and a decent run in the Europa League should be attainable goals for Marseille next season. Despite the exodus of talent from the club, there’s still a healthy amount of youth that should keep OM within the top six and possibly return to the Europa League again for a second straight season. Ligue 1 desperately needs its clubs to do better in that competition and Marseille could do it if they sacrifice their league standing a bit.

It’s an interesting time to be a Marseille supporter, and with Marcelo Bielsa as manager, you’re at least guaranteed that if the season turns out to be a total disaster, it’ll be of the spectacular variety.

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The NYCFC Diaries, Vol. 5: New York Derby, Part Deux

The Twitter account campaigned to light up the Empire State Building in vibrant blue colors; it did. #WINNYCFC was the slogan every NYCFC fan went by on Twitter and even in real life. The fans’ derby build-up wishes came to fruition. #NYWasBlue. But the fixture? Well…that flung the other way. Here are some of the scenes (SCENES) that went down from the second-ever New York Derby.

James, This Is Mark. Mark, This Is James:

So Danny returned after being reported missing for three games. He actually wasn’t at the games. But you know how I am about him.

About 10 minutes before the game started, Danny walks over to me.

“What’s up bro!”

We do that handshake-shoulder bump hybrid that I do all the time. Some other guy follows behind him.

“Where have you been?!?” I asked.

“Ahhh,” sighed Danny, “Well, I’ve been getting beat up at my job.”

Danny reveals that he works on Wall Street – Gordon Gecko’s habitat – for the “big guys” for a living. And when I say “big guys,” I mean the “big guys” – the Goldman Sachs’, the J.P Morgans, the Morgan Stanleys, you name it. He didn’t specify the specific investment bank he works at, but who wouldn’t assume one of those?

“You see,” Danny said, “Working at a financial firm is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. The field of business is great, but lemme give ya a piece of advice: Don’t end up doing it for the rest of your damn life. It was the biggest life mistake I’ve made.”

“I’ve heard some scary stories about Goldman Sachs interns committing suicide because of endless hours,” I noted.

“Just picture me being in between a rock and a hard place,” Danny said. “There is no way that I’m escaping my authoritative boss of a few years nor will I get a raise, even after a shit ton of fucking major index presentations.”

Usually, I don’t continue to discuss about someone’s workplace, because, to me, it isn’t normal to respond to apoplectic lamenting about someone else’s boss. Quite frankly, it’s none of my beeswax.

But sometimes you have to go against your principles (had to stick a Brighton Beach Memoirs reference in there). This was Danny. Even though he’d only missed three games, I feel like I’ve known him forever— like that long lost best friend you had in elementary school that drifted apart from you transitioning into middle school. This guy would tell you anything and, along with that, would go on and on until someone interrupted him mid-sentence. The age gap between us is immense – I’ll assume that he’s at least 15 years older than me.

“Analyzing Wall Street is the toughest and most masochistic job in the world,” Danny continued. “Not only do you have to haul ass while making presentations, you have to make these presentations accurate.”

“So, like an Andrea Pirlo free kick?” I shouted over the plangent crowd roars. (I know, how topical of me.)

Danny chuckled. “Yes! Exactly like that! Except, you can’t sky it over the bar or kick it wide. The ball must go in. If it’s saved by the goalkeeper, doesn’t matter. You’re fucked if the ball doesn’t touch twine.”

Aside from sports, I’m an avid browser of financial markets. I’m usually up at 9:30 waiting for the opening bell. But working on Wall Street? Screw that! There goes my life. The six-figure salary? That ain’t worth it. Working 15 hours with bantam breaks while conforming to being a pathological liar like all of my other co-workers? I can’t even imagine what Danny has to go through.

via boomsbeat.com

“How many suits were here for Montreal?” Danny asked.

“Oh, not too many,” I said. “People are still filling the stadium up for two bottom table teams. It was another game filled with fun.”

Danny and I turn our heads over to the game for a second and – out of nowhere, me being totally unaware – Danny introduces me to a friend of his.

“James, this is Mark!” shouted Danny. “Mark, this is James!”

“What’s up dude!” said Mark. “Great to meet you!”

The first time I looked at Mark, I couldn’t help thinking that he’s this unabashed frat dude from some unknown social club. Turns out he was the antithesis of that, minus the raspy quasi-Jeff Spicoli voice, which is a plus. He was wearing a Mets hat (+1), a mega-small wifebeater with a $10 cup of Stella Artois in hand, colored shorts and loafers with near-knee high socks. Frat boy clothing sans the frat boy mentality. He gets a free pass.

I learned that he’s a Red Bulls fan. He constantly saluted the Garden State Ultras and the Viking Army, the Red Bulls supporters groups that occupied the front rows of the nosebleeds. He wasn’t afraid to showcase his Red Bulls fandom. I guess that explains the inaudible Red Bulls chants.

“You know,” he says, “is it me or do NYCFC and American soccer fans are trying to act like European soccer fans?”

“What I don’t like is that Americans don’t support their own league, yet they support the Premier League and La Liga while trying to act like hooligans,” I said.

“Exactly! Some people need to get a fucking grip,” he said.

Loved this dude INSTANTLY. I’ve known him for 2 minutes and we’re already agreeing on stuff, particularly on the subject of Americans not supporting their own league and hooliganism.

Hooliganism – yeah, that means you, ultras – is terrible. It’s like fans watched “Green Street Hooligans” and thought “hey guys, let’s support our club while committing assault crimes!”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “There’ll always be fugazis wherever you go. But these kinds of games are great for not only MLS, but for the national team.”

All throughout the game, Mark didn’t say one bad thing about NYCFC as a team. However, he had to stick with his roots. Still, respect for the guy. And his Mets cap.

THE PRIDE OF WEST NYACK, TOM MCNAMARA:

I’ve been a very staunch advocate of starting Tom McNamara from…the start, really. And I’m not saying that because he scored the MLS goal of the week a few weeks ago against the Union, nor am I saying it because people confused him, Ned Grabavoy and Mix Diskerud because of their copycat long flowing hair; he’s a swift midfielder that has utmost confidence on the ball. Exempli gratia, he swirls around midfield double teams with ease.

It only took NYCFC eight minutes to open the scoring via McNamara’s goal – a brilliant fusion of composure and body touches that led to a nice far post finish past Luis Robles. If you’re wondering how I reacted, here you go:

The lone NYCFC goal was a pretty good one. Too bad that they lost, but what an experience. #nycfc #redbulls #mls

A video posted by james griffo (@jgriffo12) on

In case you’re wondering who I zoomed in on during the euphoria, that’s the almighty Danny, the same Danny that is the mascot of this series. Brief, but glorious.

Lampard, Pirlo and…BALE?!?:

Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo made a very special appearance on the scoreboard. Not surprisingly, the “We Want Pirlo” chants rained down on Yankee Stadium. Lampard smiled and waved, while Pirlo gave a smirk, as if to say “yeah, I’m Andrea Pirlo. Bitch.”

(Side note: I might get myself a “No Pirlo, No Party” shirt in the future. Or maybe I won’t, because everyone is going to have one by the time Pirlo makes his NYCFC debut.)

Gareth Bale took a picture with Ferran Soriano, the CEO of Manchester City, so by the Internet’s logic, that means he’s going to City.

And on Monday, I also discovered that Bale played a round of golf at Bethpage State Park, which is about 20 minutes away from my house. So that means an initial loan to NYCFC followed by a permane…oh, who am I kidding.

Here’s what I really feel about Pirlo: he didn’t need to be signed from a playing standpoint. A defensive midfielder is the least of NYCFC’s positional needs. But in public opinion terms, Pirlo needed to be signed (just read the shit that goes on in the NYCFC supporters Facebook group). Come his debut on July 26th against Orlando City, we’ll see how much coach Jason Kreis alters his gameplan.

LL Cool J was even at the game, too. “I Need Love” turned into “I Got All The Love” after he was shown on the scoreboard. Yankee Stadium got Bigger and Deffer…after this monumental picture.

No Poku, No Party, No Presentable Style of Play in the Second Half:

Onto the derby. NYCFC absolutely dominated the first half. They rained on the Red Bulls’ parade for as much as they wanted to. A couple of minutes later, Mehdi Ballouchy almost followed up McNamara’s goal with a far post curler that just missed the post. It looked as if the only goal of the game was going to be the game winner, because the Red Bulls were incredibly disorganized. The Third Rail was euphoric, as was 90% of Yankee Stadium.

via nydailynews.com

Mehdi Ballouchy, via nydailynews.com

Most impressively, the defense was in place throughout the first half. Shay Facey made very strong clearances and – if it wasn’t for his clearances – Josh Saunders was there to pick out errant crosses and long balls that looked destined to touch the head or feet of any Red Bull, from Dax McCarty to the very dangerous Bradley Wright-Phillips.

But after Chris Wingert went down with an injury – leading to Jeb Brovsky coming on for him – the team imploded. And, as every other fan in the section said, “what the hell happened?”

NYCFC fans really can’t blame Wingert for getting hurt, but that’s where it all started during the second half. BWP split the defense and scored two minutes into the second half. Right back Chris Duvall followed suit five minutes later. Just like that, the Red Bulls were up 2-1, with two goals scored in a span of seven minutes.

This is where Jason Kreis turned frantic. When the fans chant “We Want Poku!” that’s usually Kreis’ cue to sub out Ballouchy for Kwadwo Poku. But Ballouchy was playing well enough. In fact, if he had scored that curler in the 10th minute, maybe he wouldn’t have been subbed off early. The fans were wrong this time around.

Ballouchy was indeed subbed off for Poku in the 56th minute. Poku is the club’s moxie, the prototypical “energy guy” that fuels the attack almost immediately. Unfortunately for NYCFC, this was one of the rare times where Poku – and ultimately, NYCFC’s offensive game as a whole – faltered.

via hudsonriverblue.com

Kwadwo Poku, via hudsonriverblue.com

NYCFC was never able to recover. Matt Miazga, who was sent off in the first New York Derby, slotted home in the 73rd minute. The Red Bulls hit the post a couple of times, one via BWP and the other courtesy of Manolo Sanchez, who, somehow, missed a relatively wide open net. The Sanchez attempt really should have gone in, but it didn’t. The scoreline should have been 4-1. Thankfully, it was 3-1, but still, it was gutting.

Would I consider it a rout? Unfortunately, yes. Being down by a goal in the middle of the second half isn’t a massive margin to overcome, but the two shots that clanged off the post easily could have inflated the scoreline. Allowing three goals in the second half is simply inexcusable. The NYCFC of old during the 11-game winless run returned in the second half.

What started off as a fantastic game of ball retention, chance creation and delectable link-up play turned into constant temerarious direct passing to Poku or David Villa hoping to move the ball forward with no reinforcements. Playing desperation football only down by one in the 56th minute is, well, not smart.

It Might Be Time to Settle Down:

Two New York Derbys, two losses, double the bragging rights for the Red Bulls, who are six points ahead of the Blues with a game in hand. The unmitigated “fuck the Red Bulls” and “20 years with no cup” chants won’t stop, but after Sunday, they must be put on hold until further notice – like, maybe when NYCFC surpass them in the Eastern Conference standings or when they meet in the playoffs.

Yankee Stadium was completely silent after the third goal – except for the Viking Army and Garden State Ultras doing their spiel on the opposite end. The Third Rail were probably the loudest they’ve been this season and they went silent. Not even the “Los Templados 12” were banging the shit out of their bass drums.

NYCFC’s next five fixtures are very important ones. In order: the Impact today, Toronto, New England, Orlando City and the Impact again. The two Impact matches could be six points. They trumped New England in their home opener, but they sit right above Toronto in second. And even though NYCFC beat Toronto 2-0 a couple of weeks ago, they round out the top three in the East. Orlando will probably be a tough game as well, considering that they’re in a three way tie with the Red Bulls and Toronto, with their goal differentials being 3, 2 and 1, respectively. Two top three East teams, a team fighting for a top three position and the team above them…I would say that’s a tough road ahead.

But, hey, as Edie Brickell once said, stranger things have happened. Come on, you boys in blue!

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Brazil, We Have a Problem

Brazil, the most decorated football nation on Earth, have not won the World Cup or Copa América in eight years. In fact, in those eight years, they haven’t even made the final of either tournament. Yesterday’s shootout loss to Paraguay confirmed their exit from the 2015 Copa América, and these whispers have turned into very loud groans.

In the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, Brazil were stunned by a Wesley Sneijder brace as they exited South Africa. In the 2011 Copa América, Brazil bowed out in the quarterfinals after losing to Paraguay on penalties. At the 2014 World Cup…7-1. And yesterday, Paraguay happened again.

Watching Brazil against Paraguay without Neymar just felt…off. Paraguay didn’t look intimidated in the slightest. Paraguay outshot Brazil 11-6, and notched six shots on target compared to Brazil’s three. Brazil recorded 485 passes to Paraguay’s 324, but Paraguay were much efficient in creating dangerous chances. Brazil also tried 29 dribbles over the 90 minutes, but only 12 were successful, a success rate of just over 40% (Stats courtesy of WhoScored).

Even without the stats, it was very clear that, again, Brazil looked off. Brazil are spectacularly mediocre without Neymar. Their most lively spells came through the fullback positions with Dani Alves and Filipe Luis. Alves and Luis are both very good fullbacks who have demonstrated their proclivity for bombing forward. There’s nothing wrong with those two players’ involvement in a team’s attack. There is something wrong, however, when they’re seemingly the only players there. Liverpool duo Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino had flashes of good attacking play, but weren’t the driving forces in the squad the way quality attacking midfielders should be.

Brazil are far too dependent on Neymar, but there’s no one else in the squad who is anywhere near his ability. Now, a lot of national teams could say that, but you don’t expect a side as decorated and lauded as Brazil to be in this situation.

The Seleção with Neymar currently find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If he plays (which is a question at times, given his behavior), their attacking tactics are pretty easy to stop. Brazil under the last two managers have installed a philosophy of “give Neymar the ball and hope he does something awesome.” This tactic at times has been successful. Neymar was great against Peru, where he scored a goal and provided a dazzling 91st minute assist in a 2-1 win.

However, José Pékerman and Colombia knew what Brazil were planning to do and invited anyone besides the Barcelona forward to beat them. No one could. Colombia grabbed a 1-0 win and Neymar managed to get himself sent off and expelled from the tournament in a post-match kerfuffle.

And that brings us to what happens to when Neymar can’t play. Brazil lack a spark, and despite the presence of some pretty good creative midfielders, lack imaginative, intelligent play. They managed to get past Venezuela, but Venezuela still put a scare into the Seleção. Newsflash: Venezuela aren’t very good.

Right now, this current generation of Brazilian talent – with one obvious exception – is a shell of their Joga Bonito predecessors. Neymar has the flair and ability to make Ronaldo and Ronaldinho proud, and eventually become one of the country’s all-time greats. Those footballers don’t grow on trees. The guy needs a little help.

However, this isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom for Brazil. There are three years between now and the 2018 World Cup. At Euro 2012, the Netherlands didn’t have Memphis Depay, France didn’t have Paul Pogba and England didn’t have Raheem Sterling. A lot changes over three years.

Over the course of the next three years, Brazil could see promising 23-year-olds Coutinho and Firmino develop into consistent attacking talents at Anfield. Or perhaps players like Lazio’s Felipe Anderson, Fluminense midfielder Gerson or Chelsea-linked forward Kenedy will make their cases to become integral cogs in Dunga’s system.

However, as of now, Brazil don’t have anyone besides Neymar. And as long as Brazil have that problem, they will continue to disappoint and underwhelm at tournaments. It is a problem that is easy to spot and difficult to solve.

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