Poland’s Dreams of a Generation


Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told that Poland’s national sport is football, not a surprising thing for an European country. However, from my perspective, we might as well admit that our national sport is disappointment.

The early 90s were quite the time for Poland. The communist regime has been finally overthrown after over 40 years of horrors, everyone was getting used to their newly found freedom, the newly opened world ahead of them, and in August 1992, the Polish national football team finished with a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Granted, the Olympics aren’t the most prestigious international competition, and certainly haven’t been ever since they essentially became a glorified youth tournament (quite fittingly, the Barcelona Olympics were the first to adopt such a format), but it was certainly something. For a nation that was a dwindling football superpower, a team that had won Olympic Gold and a World Cup Bronze Medal in the 70s, and repeated the latter feat in the 80s once more, this was hope of a new generation to carry that legacy.

The Poland side of old, the Poland that played beautiful, free flowing football, was something my parents experienced and told me stories about. Me? I was born a bit over month after the Barcelona Olympics Final. Poland hasn’t even reached a knockout stage of a major tournament stage since.

Mind you, this drought up until 2002 wasn’t really down to incompetence or mismanagement. Poland simply lacked any kind of proper talent. Sure, there were some standouts during that time, mostly on the defensive end, with Jacek Bąk, Tomasz Hajto and Tomasz Wałdoch playing at solid clubs in Europe, and Maciej Żurawski slowly establishing himself at Celtic. All these players were, however, a far cry from Zbigniew Boniek, Grzegorz Lato and such.

In 2002, Poland even managed to secure their first World Cup qualification in 16 years with the help of the aforementioned gentlemen, and Polish-Nigerian sensation Emmanuel Olisadebe.

American readers might remember that Poland team as the team that almost cost them a knockout stage spot, beating the USMNT 3-1 after losing both of their opening games. This sort of party-pooping has become a signature of the 00s Poland team, to the point where it created a running joke about their group stage fate: “Match number 1 – The Opening Match, Match number 2 – Do or Die, Match number 3 – The Consolation Match” we’d say to each other in school corridors and  later on internet message boards. Despite a boatload of support for the team, there was a certain conditioning that lead us to stop ourself from believing that the team can achieve anything. Belief was a disease. Belief only lead to disappointment.

And it didn’t take long to prove us right, either. The 2004  Euro qualifiers, is when the seams on the national team started tearing. Olisadebe disappeared back into obscurity, the team was incapable of performing properly and the Euro qualifiers were always the nation’s Achilles’ Heel. Even the giants from the 70s and 80s never qualified for a European Championship. It was at this time, however, when Poland decided to miss out on a certain very talented attacker.

You probably know him as Lukas, but out here we call him by the non-Germanized version of his name – Łukasz, even though it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it if you try to sing the Podolski song. Between 2002-04, he was playing in the German youth teams, as well as impressing in Koln in the Bundesliga. Poland manager (and noted joke punchline) Paweł Janas, however, decided that we had better strikers on our team, and we didn’t need a player who hadn’t even finished a full Bundesliga season, even though Podolski was very willing to represent Poland. Never called up, Podolski became another Pole to represent Germany. (Miroslav Klose, never quite as willing to play for Poland being the other very notable one)  The strikers Janas was referring to? Maciej Żurawski, Mirosław Trzeciak, Ireneusz Jeleń and Grzegorz Rasiak, a man so legendary for his inability to play football that he not only had a song and video about his horribleness but also an entire Polish Uncyclopedia page dedicated to mocking him in the cruelest way possible. Essentially, the anti-Chuck Norris. All in all, skipping on Podolski may have been a great decision for comedic purposes.

However, despite being – and I don’t say this lightly given some of the men who followed him as national team managers – an absolute nincompoop idiot of a coach, Janas managed to qualify into the 2006 World Cup, where Poland would face old foes Germany, which, quite frankly, has become an annoying trend in various competitions in recent years. The build up to the tournament was embroiled in controversy when Janas decided to not take Champions League winner and all around talisman Jerzy Dudek, deciding that Artur Boruc and Tomasz Kuszczak should be the top goalkeeping dogs. While it was hard to really argue with Boruc, who was really at the top of his game, Tomasz Kuszczak did this during one of the pre-World Cup friendlies, leaving us all saying “Oh, no, not again.”

And wouldn’t you know it…

Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland Loses 2-0 to Ecuador looking way out of their depth in the process.

Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland loses 1-0 to Germany after Artur Boruc performs his best Donald Trump impression, building a wall for 90 minutes. Poland fell in the 91st, after a red card and some horrible substitutions from Janas.

Game 3 – The Consolation Game
Poland wins 2-0 over Costa Rica with centre-back Bartosz Bosacki scoring both goals.

Janas was fired shortly thereafter and then… A miracle. Poland decided to hire a foreign coach, as Leo Beenhakker, notorious international overachiever came into the squad. The results came quickly. Poland absolutely dominated the qualifying stages, including a glorious 2-1 victory over Portugal, with Euzebiusz Smolarek (quite ironically, named after PortugueseEusebio), the son of highly respected 80s player Włodzimierz Smolarek leading the charge alongside a young Kuba Błaszczykowski. Despite finishing first in the group, Poland’s coefficient lead it to end up in a group with hosts Austria, Germany and Croatia. You know the drill.

Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland loses 2-0 to Germany, Łukasz Podolski scores both goals. Doesn’t really celebrate. Reportedly, his grandma was very disappointed with him.

Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland draw 1-1 after a late penalty is called against them by Howard Webb. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be allowed in the country after this.

Game 3 – The Consolation Game
I had to check the result on Wikipedia because at this point, nobody really cared. It was 1-0 Croatia, by the way.

The 2010 World Cup qualifier was really disappointing as Leo totally lost the team. Smolarek’s form was dwindling, and the only hope was a young, very raw Robert Lewandowski. With a large chunk of the midfield also retiring, the team failed to qualify, with the highlight being a 10-0 trouncing of San Marino. Literally, the only highlight as well. As such, Leo was fired, and in his place came Franciszek Smuda, one of the most successful Polish club coaches with a German know-how and toughness.

Euro 2012 was actually hosted by Poland, so at least the team qualified for that one. Poland also got drawn a relatively easy group with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, and coincided with the rise of Borussia Dortmund and their three-headed Polish beast of Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek, we had a right to drop our guard and feel confident of the knockout stage this time. What could possibly go wrong?

Game 1 – We’re gonna do it!
Game 1 vs Greece, Poland had an absolutely dominating first half, coming out of it leading 1-0 after a Robert Lewandowski goal. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, until Smuda’s half-time team talk seemed to zap the energy out of the team. Greece got one goal, later Wojtek Szczęsny got sent off, conceding a penalty that was saved by new national hero Przemysław Tytoń. Poland just barely got a draw out of that game.

Game 2 – Not over yet
Game 2 vs Russia, after a dominating Russian performance in the first half, Kuba Błaszczykowski came up with an absolute GOLAZOOOO to make it 1-1. This 1-1 was sweet. It meant that the last game will be do or die this time.

Game 3 – We’re at home, come on!
Game 3 vs The Czech Republic, should’ve been easy, looked to be easy. Poland dominated the entire match, but Rafał Murawski decided to give away the ball for a Czech counter right as Poland were looking to finally score. 1-0. A loss. The only consolation being that us losing screwed the Russians out of the group stage as well. Franciszek Smuda was fired shortly after.

The 2014 World Cup qualifiers were just a continuation of that Euro form under domestic coaching revelation Waldemar Fornalik. Nothing interesting happened, Poland just failed to win with inferior opposition, Robert Lewandowski was being called out for choking on the big stage, a wholesale collapse that had Poland finishing 4th in their group. Our eyes once again turned to the Euros.
With Fornalik quickly gone, in steps Adam Nawałka. Disappointing friendly results were met with cries of international coaches again, as Poland faced a hard qualifying group including Germany, Scotland and Ireland. Mind you, I haven’t mentioned this earlier, but Poland has NEVER beaten Germany in a competitive game prior to these qualifiers. There was a friendly where Poland was winning 2-1 in the 90th minute, and everyone was prepared to celebrate as if we won the World Cup, when the Germans got a late equalizer. This wasn’t really a rivalry, more like a mandatory whipping. So, as we approached the Germany game, having seen them just win the World Cup, none of us expected what happened next. Poland won, despite the Germans bombarding the goal, with Wojciech Szczęsny taking up the mantle of saviour this time. Arkadiusz Milik and way-past-his-prime Sebastian Mila scored the two goals, and once again, we’re doing that stupid thing, we’re believing.

A few games later, Robert Lewandowski started scoring like a maniac, including a 4 minute hat-trick vs Georgia, a suitable prelude to his act against Wolfsburg a year later, despite some disappointing results against Ireland and Scotland, and an away loss to Germany Poland managed to qualify with an emotional win over the former in Warsaw. Poland’s playing well again. Poland’s playing as they should, again.

And now we’re here. Poland finally got the monkey off their back, they won a game at the Euros, after 90 minutes of constantly running into an aggravating wall of Northern Irish green, with Robert Lewandowski subject to triple coverage the entire game on Sunday. A lot of good things came out of that game, including a breakout performance for 19-year-old Bartosz Kapustka. A few question marks, as well, with an injury to Wojciech Szczęsny and a shaky performance from centre-back Michał Pazdan.

But now, comes the real challenge. Germany, again. Will this be a familiar story? Or did Sunday’s breakthrough, and last year’s historic victory change anything? I truly don’t know. I just know that this isn’t going to be any other game. A draw virtually guarantees Poland a knockout spot. A win will give them immeasurable confidence. A loss might see them go back to their old ways.

Thursday night’s game in Paris may very well define the tournament for two important teams – one, an underdog looking to validate their dark horse status, the other, the World Champions looking to show their true might. It will very likely be an open, entertaining game, and you should watch it for that reason. And when you do, I hope you will recognize that for 40 million people living in Central Europe, this is more than just another football game.

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Leicester are a Freak, and That’s it


Hi there,

Sit down, grab a seat, make yourself comfortable.

So if you have been hiding under a rock, Leicester have won the Premier League title. Leicester who had the 17th best odds to win the title at 5000-1 actually did it. The same club that were hanging by a thread at this time last year will be hosting Champions League matches next year and at the very least will play host to one of the biggest clubs in the world. Even the most ardent of Leicester critics will acknowledge that this is the greatest team achievement in PL history. Hell it’s the greatest team achievement in English football history when taking into account the rigidity of the PL hierarchy. This feat should be celebrated, told as a sort of folk tale for generations to come. We should all tell our kids that we once saw Gary Lineker host Match of the Day wearing only his underwear.

I was watching Monday Night Football yesterday and they obviously talked about Leicester winning the title. One of the remarks being made was about how smaller clubs will now have the belief that they could do a Leicester, which almost made snort with laughter. Let’s get this out of the way: There’s almost nothing in Leicester’s title run that teams can take and replicate. Certainly you can look at their scouting for talent and maybe pick up some hints here and there on how to scout on the margins but outside that, this was built on variance of the highest volatility.

Leicester’s penalty differential of +8 is the 2nd highest mark that I could find on record in the PL over the last decade, with only Chelsea from 12-13 beating it. There have been numerous clubs who achieved that +8 mark, with 13-14 Liverpool being the last one. In some ways that Liverpool side were a template for how so many things can go your way in one season. While not to the same extent, they did have injury luck in the sense that their major players were pretty healthy (I mean they somehow coaxed over 2000 league minutes from Daniel Sturridge that season). Liverpool had sky high conversion rates, had no European football to deal with and were eliminated from domestic cup competitions early. Add to that their similarities in how they attacked with pace and both sides being powered by goal scoring duos, and Liverpool were almost an older brother to Leicester. And look what happened to them the next year: Their conversion rates dropped from sky high to borderline rock bottom, They lost the best PL player since Ronaldo in Luis Suarez, they suffered from numerous injuries including Daniel Sturridge and bottomed out in the Europe League spots. It isn’t hard to see how Leicester who were built on similar methods could break down in the same way going forward.

The idea of teams now thinking that they can move upwards in the PL is somewhat naive. Want to know how hard mobility in the PL is? Look at Southampton. Southampton were pretty average in 12-13 finishing lower midtable. And then boom: 8th in 13-14, 7th in 14-15, and as currently stands 7th again this season. Going from bad -> decent for a small club is hard but isn’t inconceivable. Going from decent -> very good is damn near impossible. Southampton have been stuck in 7-8th for three seasons with no end in sight. Everton were experts in the adage “close but no cigar” when it came to breaking the top 4 barrier. Don’t we all remember the year when Alan Pardew nearly pulled the greatest magic trick in getting Newcastle into the Champions League? This is my way of saying that your team won’t do a Leicester. Your team probably won’t even do a Southampton/Everton. Money talks and the correlation between wage bill and points is damn strong. Does it suck? Yes it does. But that’s life in the PL and it’s not changing just because Leicester pulled off the heist of the millennium. This isn’t a sign that the times are changing, this is just literally a freak thing that happened.

I don’t want to have this post just be demeaning Leicester because this is the greatest sporting achievement by a team I’ve ever seen, and it’s the greatest one of modern time. We can pick and choose other ones that vaguely resembled this. Atletico winning the double in 2014 was astounding, although Atletico did win the Europa League in 2012 and the Copa Del Rey in 2013. The USA men’s ice hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in 1980 was a huge shock, but it also was only a one game final and not a 38 gameweek marathon. Similar things can be said about Greece winning Euro 2004 and Denmark winning in 1992.

The closest comparison that could be made to Leicester is Montpellier winning Ligue 1 in 2012. Montpellier were a small club that previously only had domestic cup victories in 1929/1990 to their name, and they held off big bad PSG when they were in the beginnings of their Qatari rich era. It was wonderful, great and all that but now ask yourselves, did Montpellier really change French Football and usher in a new era? Or were they just an outlier that took advantage of what was in front of them and everything maintained its status quo afterwards? Now I’m not saying Leicester are going to be Montpellier because they have things that Montpellier don’t, mainly money. With the TV deal and Champions League money coming in, Leicester are in a much stronger state to keep all their players and add more in the summer to beef up for their contest in multiple fronts next season. Meanwhile Montpellier in the years after that miraculous title win basically sold everyone relevant from that team. That same fate probably won’t happen with Leicester.

Also we should get this out of the way: Leicester aren’t a bad team. I know that a lot of this post has been spent yelling about how this isn’t sustainable but it has to be mentioned that Leicester were a good team. This isn’t that Newcastle side from 2012 that performed some form of dark magic to nearly sneak into the CL. By looking at their shot numbers, their expected goal numbers and the overall talent of the squad they would project as somewhere between the 5-7th best team in England, which if that had happened still would’ve ranked as one of the 3-5 best achievements in the PL era. But instead that caliber of club got the breaks that propelled them from the Europa League Spots to something much more grander. Despite the luck, it is impressive that they were built in a way to take advantage of a lot of the big teams in England who were susceptible to high flying counter attacking football. Their performance versus Manchester City was extremely vicious and efficient, one of the great counter attacking exhibitions in years. Their ability to grind out one goal victories was commendable, even though its not really a repeatable trait to have.

There’s also the tiny chance that Leicester can learn from this season and have another great summer to gain stronger depth. Perhaps in the next two seasons, Leicester will have somehow clawed their way into being a club that could challenge for the top 4 like Liverpool/Tottenham and we’ll have a different discussion on them as a club. None of this is written in stone, but merely educated guesses. I’d have no problem raising my hand by 2018 and saying I was wrongly pessimistic about what Leicester could be as a club. I’m just skeptical that enough of what’s happened this season is strong enough on its own to be used as a springboard for future success along the same lines.

Leicester are a freak team. For a demanding style of play they were one of the healthiest teams in the league. No one of note on Leicester missed significant time due to injury. Their penalty differential was very favorable and if we took a hard look at penalty decisions throughout the year, you could argue that Leicester were perhaps even more luckier than their raw differential would suggest. They’ve had stretches when literally every shot they took went in, and other stretches where the opponent could take a shot from the 6 yard box and somehow miss. Combine all that with a league that saw Chelsea collapse, Manchester City meander around and Arsenal doing another Arsenal, and you had the recipe for something like this happening. Leicester should be celebrated (to a relative amount, they do employ Jamie Vardy after all) for achieving the possible, for creating the greatest sports story in modern history. Just don’t make them out to be some shining example on how football is moving in another direction.

Your team isn’t going to do a Leicester next season and that’s no shame, because Leicester probably won’t do this again next season

Posted in Analytics, English Premier League, Features | 3 Comments

Dyballing Out Of Control

image via espnfc.com

image via espnfc.com

“Besides Gonzalo Higuaín, this man right here has been perhaps the best player in Italian football this season,” the beIN sport commentator remarked during Sunday’s Juventus vs. Roma match.

However, he wasn’t speaking about Juve superstar Paul Pogba.

Instead he was referring to Paulo Dybala, the 22-year-old Argentinian who has been a revelation for the Bianconeri this season after being bought from Palermo for €32 million.

Last season Dybala had a breakthrough campaign and finished the year with 13 goals and 10 assists.  He was the talk of many transfer rumors to larger clubs such as Arsenal, PSG and others, but he only wanted one: the Old Lady.

Dybala signed quite early in the transfer window as it became a summer of upheaval for Juventus, who finished as Italian champions and runners up in the Champions League.  Their talisman and leading scorer from the season before, Carlos Tévez, announced that he would be leaving to play for Boca Juniors while Andrea Pirlo decided to take a victory lap playing for New York City FC in MLS.

While Juventus were able to keep ahold of Pogba for another season after reportedly turning down a giant bid from Chelsea, they did part ways with midfield engine, Arturo Vidal.

The Chilean had been the force behind the Bianconeri’s four-straight Scudetto’s and was perhaps the best box-to-box midfielder on the planet.  In a deal that materialized in just days Bayern Münich bought the Chilean for a fee of €37 million.

When Dybala was bought many fans thought that he would be joining this prolific squad and playing alongside Vidal and Tevez.  Instead he was now expected to have a larger role and help Juventus continue their reign in Serie A.

While Juve started off the season slow, they have clicked over the last couple months and much of that has to do with Dybala’s emergence as a genuine superstar.

stats via Squawka

stats via Squawka

Paulo has started the last 11 games in Serie A for Juventus and has delivered big-time.  He has scored 7 goals and delivered another 5 assists.  He will often drift far back and start the attack deep in the midfield.  He dribbles and moves effortlessly around the pitch and is also dangerous from set pieces.

The Argentine had perhaps his best game of the season against Udinese on January 17.  In just half an hour Dybala single handedly won the game for Juventus as he put them ahead 2-0 with a perfect curling free kick and a calmly taken penalty.

Against Roma the week after he scored the only goal in the game off a no look pass from Pogba in the 77th minute.  In a second Dybala has the awareness to receive the pass from Pogba while staying onside to immediately fire a perfectly placed shot at a tough angle with a defender alongside him.

This season has just shown the immense talent that Dybala possesses.  If Juventus manage to win their fifth consecutive title the Argentinian will be one of the main reasons why.  This 22-year-old has taken the leap from talented youngster to budding superstar and can make a case to be truly one of the elite players in the world very soon.

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Lukaku’s Rise To Europe’s Elite

image via sportzwiki.com

image via sportzwiki.com

When Romelu Lukaku hangs up his boots at the end of his career, he may look back and realize that one of the defining moments was his last appearance in a Chelsea shirt.  In the 2013 Super Cup vs. Bayern Munich, Lukaku came on as a substitute and ultimately missed the deciding penalty as Bayern triumphed over the Blues.

Just a few days later Jose Mourinho decided his young striker wasn’t ready to play for Chelsea and sent him to Merseyside on a season-long loan for Everton.  The Belgian striker has spent the previous season on loan in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion where he made 20 appearances for the Baggies and scored 17 times.

During that season with West Brom, Lukaku was the Premier League’s sixth-highest scorer and outscored all of his teammates at Chelsea.

Even more impressive was that the big Belgian was just 19 years of age. Because of this he earned a loan to a more reputable club in Everton.

During the 2013-14 season spent on loan at Goodison, Lukaku had an up and down campaign and scored just 10 Premier League goals with 5 assists.  Despite that, Everton decided to make Lukaku its club record signing as they reached an agreement with Chelsea for £28 million.  Big Rom had now found a permanent home and he has quickly settled in.

At only 22 years of age Lukaku is making his claim for one of Europe’s best striker’s.  As he scored on Monday against Crystal Palace in a 1-1 draw to save a point for Everton, the striker had reached 50 goals for the club in his 100th appearance.

He became the fourth-youngest player to score 50 Premier League goals behind only Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, and Wayne Rooney — who was at Goodison Park on Monday to watch his former team.

In fact, no man in the top flight this season has been involved in more goals in this calendar year than Lukaku with 27.  With all the success and headlines that fellow strikers such as Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski have garnered, its time to realize that Lukaku is right there with them.

stats via Squawka

stats via Squawka

Due to his big, powerful frame, Lukaku was most often compared to former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.  However, Drogba was playing for Le Mans in France at the age Lukaku is right now and didn’t sign for Chelsea until age 26.  He went on to score 100 goals for Chelsea in 226 appearances for the club.

The rate at which Lukaku is going is a beautiful thing to behold. He is at the age where his incredible natural talent has combined with his experience and confidence needed to create a lethal goal scoring force.

He could be the best striker in the world by the time he is 26.  There isn’t a thing he can’t do.  He is good in hold up play, much faster than people think, and a willing passer.  He can score with either foot and also can be a deadly header of the ball.  His scoring rate of 1 goal every 2 matches for Everton is also elite.

Everton supporters should cherish this talent while they can because the big Belgian will soon be spoken of in the same breath as Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski.

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Manchester City 1-4 Liverpool: What a Successful Gengenpress Looks Like


Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Manchester City and the manner in which they did it harkened back to their magical 2013-14 season when Liverpool obliterated Arsenal 5-1 in February via the trio of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. It was an incandescent performance in a season full of them. Saturday was obviously different in the most simplest sense, none of the three players from that 13-14 Liverpool side started against Manchester City but the performance by Liverpool was arguably better when taking into account a host of different variables.

Liverpool played what could be best described as a 4-3-2-1 with Roberto Firmino playing at striker. Coutinho and Adam Lallana played in behind Firmino while the midfield three continued with Can, Lucas and James Milner, who was the most advanced of the three. City played their usual midfield two in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

City V Liverpool

Attacking Benefits of Counterpressing

Counterpressing (or Gegenpressing to others) has become a buzzword of sorts to describe Liverpool’s pressing ever since Jurgen Klopp became the manager of Liverpool. In the most simplest of descriptions, gegenpressing is immediately pressing the opposition right after losing possession. The goal is to regain possession and in some cases, creating quick attacking moves from it. (Again, it’s a really simple description of the tactic and here it is in much greater detail). It’s something that gained a lot of publicity since Klopp’s arrival – not just because of his prior success in Germany but to how suitable and potentially revolutionary an effect it can have in the PL.

So far through Klopp’s tenure Liverpool have executed very well in terms of regaining possession immediately, it’s just that it hasn’t always created high level of chances afterwards which speaks to the mishmash talent Liverpool have. When Liverpool beat Chelsea, they were able to press Chelsea and regain possession which led to shooting opportunities but even the goals scored weren’t high grade quality

Against City though we saw the great attacking benefits of counterpressing, with the own goal from Mangala being an example.

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

Truth be told, Manchester City were already showing some defensive fragilities (we’ll get to that shortly) before the sequence of events leading up to Mangala’s own goal and it only got worse afterwards. Liverpool were more than willing to create these attacking moves from very deep positions on the field.

What was particularly impressive was how quickly Liverpool would try and suffocate the center of the midfield whenever one of Fernando or Yaya Toure received the ball

City Liverpool

The second and third goals weren’t truly created by gegenpressing as those goals were more built off of a successful string of broken plays that fell Liverpool’s way – which then turned into wonderful team goals, particularly the second Liverpool goal from Firmino who got control of a loose ball situation and turned it into Liverpool’s second goal. But the first goal and a few near offside decisions immediately afterwards that could’ve been clear goal scoring opportunities were created from the principles of counterpressing and Manchester City had no answers to cope with it.

Firmino at Striker:

Normally when attacking midfielders are played as a #9 whether due to injury or by choice, they’re most likely given the label of being a false 9 and the team in question is playing a strikerless formation. Some of this is actual truth as we’ve seen teams play midfielders whose sole job was to come in deep and help out the midfield. Firmino’s performance deviated a lot from that because he didn’t just play like a false nine, he played like a genuine world class striker. Firmino has had experience playing as a striker during his time at Hoffeinheim but he was outstanding in numerous ways.

When Firmino wanted to help the midfield, he did so and at times in unusual yet very effective ways. Look how deep he comes to help Liverpool spring a counter that leads to the third goal.

City Liverpool

It wasn’t just dropping deep to receive the ball, Firmino was also more than able to run behind the Man City offside trap and create chaos. On the offside decision just before the own goal by Mangala, you can see Firmino try and keep himself onside with the defensive line from City and be in position for a potential close range opportunity.

City Liverpool

City Liverpool

The goals and opportunities afterwards were a mixture of his willingness to come deep and receive the ball along with the movement of a striker to seek holes within the defense and make the perfect runs to cause massive danger. It was a brilliant performance and one that Liverpool have starved for from their strikers. Divock Origi has been terrible since getting playing time at striker, Benteke has been hit or miss and Sturridge is able to make the runs consistently that Firmino made but he’s often injured.

Firmino doesn’t project as a fulltime striker and long term, his future in Liverpool looks to be as one of the midfield two or three behind the striker depending on the formation but he’s shown that in certain situations, he can perform the duties of a #9 very well which speaks to his multidimensional skill set.

Manchester City’s Defensive Imbalance

Outside the early season defeat to Tottenham, Manchester City have been dominant defensively and coming into the weekend, they were statistically performing at levels that haven’t been seen before in the Premier League over the last 6-7 seasons. Obviously this was a terrible performance and it showed one of the Achilles heels for their squad, which is the imbalance of their team defensively without Fernandinho.

Multiple times, the balance of Man City would be lacking. With Kolarov’s role to play high up the pitch combined with Toure’s lack of effort to track back, City more times than not looked like they were playing a 3-1-5-1 formation which played right into the hands of Liverpool’s pressing.

City Liverpool

This have always been longstanding issue for Manchester City, it’s just that more times than not the imbalance domestically hasn’t been taken advantage of by opponents because either the monopolizing of possession led to goals or most opposition counter attacks would start so deep that it would eventually peter out when they got into their final third. The good news for Man City is that Tottenham, Liverpool and at times Arsenal are really the only teams that could punish them for instances like this in the PL.


This was by far Liverpool’s best performance of the season and it’s arguably the best performance by a Liverpool side over the last 3-5 seasons, including the near title incarnation of 13-14. Liverpool were brilliant in the way they were able to both create dangerous attacks from winning the ball high up the pitch and make goal scoring opportunities from recovering 50-50 loose balls. The latter isn’t the most sustainable over a 38 game season but it’s certainly devastating in one game scenarios. Coutinho played his best game overall not only as a goal scoring threat but as the talented playmaker that he’s capable of being while Lallana is playing his best stretch of football since his breakout 13-14 season for Southampton.

For Manchester City, this game was both a one off and a concern going forward. Man City played their backup CB’s and a back DM against Liverpool which contributed to their defensive issues and exasperated their problems. We have a decent sample size this season that Man City domestically are one of the top two defenses and they’ll be fine on the total aggregate. But against teams that press high up the pitch and expose the spaces in-between the back four and the midfield two, City have struggled and perhaps slowly but surely, PL teams will start to use a variation of what Liverpool did to create havoc instead of simply conceding possession and hoping to play counter attacking football from deep in their defensive third.

It’s only been less than six weeks since Jurgen Klopp was hired by Liverpool but already we’re slowly starting to see his vision of a gegenpressing high octane team come to the surface, which is a far cry from the static Liverpool side that was present in the final days of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure.

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The World’s Best Decoy

If you haven’t noticed it because you’ve been transfixed by Neymar doing his best Ronaldinho impersonation, Luis Suarez has been on a tear this year. He’s currently tied for second in La Liga in scoring with eight goals, with only Neymar (oh hey!) ahead of him with nine. But a lot of the things that Neymar is doing are only possible because of Suarez, the world’s best decoy.

Barca fans imagined the worst when Leo Messi went down a month ago with a knee injury. The rest of the world thought they’d be fine with Neymar and Suarez, but culers thought Barcelona was doomed. (We always think Barcelona is doomed.) Having the best player in the world go down with a two month injury on an already thin as bones squad will cause even the most optimistic fan to shout crisis, but with two of the trident in the fold, Barcelona have been doing fine.

Barcelona have played 8 games, winning 6, drawing one, and losing to Sevilla without their Argentinian talisman. Since Messi went down, Barcelona have scored 14 times. Neymar has seven, while Luis Suarez also has 7. The rest of the team has had none.

That’s basically the formula Luis Enrique has utilized without his best player: just let the other two do their thing and get out the way.

And while Neymar has gotten all the plaudits for his performance – rightfully so, I might add – it is the understated brilliance of Barcelona’s number 9 that has allowed the Brazilian to thrive.

In many ways, Barcelona’s striker is an update of Real Madrid’s striker, Karim Benzema (without the sex tape blackmail bit). And in all of the ways that Real Madrid’s offense stutters when Benz is injured, so too does Barcelona’s. I’ve pointed this out before, but one of the best things Luis Enrique has done last season is not try to pigeonhole Suarez. He lets Luis do what he wants, and what Luis does better than most footballers is attract defenders’ attention. As long as Suarez is occupying center backs and making runs, Neymar can be devastating. If Suarez wants to direct the other forward and tell him where to go (as he did when he scored the 5th goal against Rayo Vallecano a few weeks ago), well then that’s just icing on the cake.

This is not the Luis Suarez of Liverpool. Even with Messi out of action, Luis hasn’t minded taking a back seat to Neymar and helping the Brazilian develop. Sid Lowe wrote about this in the Guardian, about how both players have stepped their game up in Messi’s absence:

“….this is a different Neymar now. He has taken on responsibility to lead the side creatively: it is not just the talent that is often mind-blowing, it is the willingness to go at people, the determination to lead, the nerve.”

The star of this show is most definitely Neymar, but its a dynamic that Suarez is more than comfortable with. “We know our roles: I don’t dribble round three or four players like Ney does,” said the Uruguayan.

And if folks are too busy watching Neymar do his thing, too busy worrying about when Messi is coming back, then they are missing perhaps one of the best displays of understated brilliance in a long time.

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Kalinić Fueling Fiorentina’s Scudetto Push



The most fascinating Serie A season in years is just over two months old and has a clash between top-three sides on Sunday afternoon. Roma, in third place, are no strangers to these high-profile fixtures. Say what you will about the Giallorossi’s Champions League woes, but Rudi Garcia has a good squad that thrives when not stretched to the limit as it is in Europe.

Roma will visit the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Sunday to face the surprising table-toppers, whose vibrant brand of football may not be doing wonders in Europe but has certainly rejuvenated their domestic prospects. Fiorentina reached the summit after a 4-1 win away at Inter last month, and despite losses to Napoli and Lech Poznan in the past week, are still top thanks to that demolition at the Giuseppe Meazza.

The Viola’s surprising start followed a tumultuous close season, which peaked when the club sacked the otherwise-successful Vincenzo Montella after he showed the club a “lack of respect.” Aside from severing ties with Montella, the club lost several key players between January and August. Juan Cuadrado transferred to Chelsea and subsequently secured a loan move to Juventus. Mohamed Salah left for Roma under inauspicious circumstances. Neto made the 280-mile trek to join Cuadrado in Turin. Mario Gomez had his struggles, but he left too, for Beşiktaş. Stefan Savić moved to Atlético Madrid, and Joaquín went home to Real Betis. New manager Paulo Sousa had won trophies in three other countries – impressive enough, but he never stayed very long. Viola fans issued a collective “gulp.”

If Sousa’s Fiorentina keep this up, however, he’ll be at the Artemio Franchi for a while. The Viola made some shrewd signings to replace the dearly departed and all have played roles of varied importance at the club this year. The reliable Davide Astori arrived on loan from Cagliari. Winger Jakub Blaszczykowski also arrived on loan after eight years at Dortmund; he scored the eventual winner against Bologna last month. Former Steaua keeper Ciprian Tătărușanu has stepped up to take over for Neto. But most importantly, Fiorentina acquired the services of ex-Blackburn and Dnipro striker Nikola Kalinić. The 27-year-old Croatian has provided the goalscoring touch the Viola desperately needed, because relying on Khouma Babacar and (sigh) Giuseppe Rossi  is for teams that want to finish seventh.

(Look, I know Federico Bernardeschi is going to be good, but he’s still a wee lad.)

The 3-4-2-1 is the vehicle through which Sousa is developing a new and devastating brand of football at Fiorentina: heavy possession (second in Serie A in average possession at 62.6%) with quick, incisive midfield passing (Milan Badelj and Borja Valero appear back to their best) and ruthless Kalinić finishes. It’s worked to the tune of six wins in eight and a +9 goal difference. Only Roma and Napoli have scored more than Fiorentina’s 15.


Kalinić and Slovenian international Josip Iličić bear responsibility for more than half these goals. Iličić is a key piece playing as a CAM/pseudo-second striker, but Kalinić’s remarkable efficiency is the bigger talking point. Kalinić has recorded 17 shots over his eight Serie A appearances, which of course is a low total for a center forward. However, his shot accuracy stands at 65%, and of his 11 shots on target, five have gone in. Kalinić is producing at a rate unlike any he’s produced at before and is already very important to the Viola.

Whether he continues at this rate remains to be seen, though. Obviously, the concern here centers on who assumes the scoring load once the former Dnipro sniper cools off (which is somewhat inevitable), but in the meantime, Sousa’s formula is working wonders for him and his team so far. A victory against Roma on Sunday would be yet another statement in this topsy-turvy Serie A season and continue to push Fiorentina’s Scudetto credentials – unlikely as those may seem.

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