I’ve run out of puns for Mata’s name, okay?

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Photo from ESPN

Last year, I caught an article in The Blizzard about how the Roy of the Rovers cartoon series negatively affected English football because it fostered a football culture that depended too much on the solitary hero or the talisman. Sure, other nations put a premium on talent and great players, but victory is a much more collective pursuit. It’s a team sport after all. Recently, I’ve become afraid of a Chelsea squad living and dying according to Mata’s form, like City rely on Silva and Toure, or Manchester United have relied on Rooney, or Liverpool relied on Gerrard in the past and Suarez now. What’s important moving forward for Chelsea, and I hope Rafa sees this (he probably does), is that the moving parts around Mata continue to make those important runs and passes to unlock the uncanny ability that Mata possesses. He’s been a vibrant, brilliant part of an all together bummer of a season for Chelsea. So far this season for Chelsea, he’s made 29 appearances with a return of 13 goals and 15 assists. Pretty darn good, if you ask me.

I was a big fan of Mata when he was at Valencia [btw think of how sick that Valencia team was for a while], and I’m glad that he’s adjusted well to the Premiership over the past 18 months. He’s scoring and creating for others in a team that has struggled for years to find an identity outside of Didier Drogba — it always seemed like an attempt to distance the team away from him in order to make it easier to move him on or sell him. Drogba just kept coming back.

For a long while, the answer to Chelsea’s attacking problems consisted of lobbing the ball up to Drogba and letting the players around him benefit or get the hell out of the way. Through the years, managers implemented variations of Mourinho’s 4-3-3, which worked REALLY well when you had an in-form lone striker with the quality of Drogba become the focal point in the attack. Obviously, he also worked great in RDM’s 4-2-3-1 — another system that played to Drogba’s strengths. Torres in these variations, under Ancelotti and RDM, was never effective. At times he’s a passenger. In other instances, he’s been a liability in attack. Really, he’s just been “Roger” ala Sister Sister out there. He just needs to go home.

Anyway, with the change in shape and philosophy forced through the departure of Drogba, the team has come to rely on the strength of its attacking midfielders. Mata has come to be the most productive of the rotating three behind the lone striker that typifies Chelsea’s attack in 2012-2013. On his day, Mata is unplayable. He cuts teams open with his passing and movement. Complimented by the intelligent play of Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, and Oscar, Chelsea can swing with anyone if they’re playing motivated. Motivation has always seemed like a problem at Chelsea since Mourinho left, but we can talk about that another time.

The most important piece at Chelsea for the past few months has been Juan Mata. With Drogba gone, Mata has become the focal point of the attack. Of course, he’s a completely different player than Drogba. He does things like pass. I believe the most important thing about this development is that when Mata has the ball, as our playmaker, he has players in front of him moving and creating space. With the focal point moved back a few meters, the field opens up more for Juan, Eden, or Oscar. Distribution isn’t as much of a problem anymore. The focal point is just outside of the box and not IN it. Players have access to more options in attack. Mata has been able to find those options and work off them to either score or create for others. Of course, this system was implemented by RDM, but Rafa has put an impetus on regaining possession and incisive attacking movement that perhaps Robbie Di Matteo did not.

Lately, at times, Chelsea has been amazing to watch. However, they HAVE been awful as well.

What I’m most worried about with this team is Mata becoming too much of a focal point. Teams will be able to find him and mark him out of a game. I feel this is what’s happened to Manchester City. I attribute their lack of being able to put away “lesser” clubs in matches to teams being able to focus on the strengths of a few players which successfully derails the entire City team. That’s where that whole reliance on a talisman comes into play. They do not have enough quality alternatives to Silva or Yaya Toure. Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Moses, and Marin do switch positions on the field often during the course of a match, and it helps a lot, but against top teams, I don’t think it has been as effective. Against poorer, unbalanced teams, it works like a charm.

Chelsea’s 8-0 demolition job on Aston Villa showed us that Chelsea have goalscorers and creative types all over the field. If Mata picks up an injury or gets marked out of a game, Chelsea can survive. Survival doesn’t mean they wouldn’t suffer. I am afraid of a Mata-less Chelsea. Eden can play that position, but he hasn’t had the success of Mata. Oscar is still getting his sea legs. We all haven’t seen enough of Marko Marin, and Victor is an industrious, incredibly useful player, but he is not the type of passer nor does he possess the vision of the other four. Mata is crucial to a successful Chelsea.

I hope this turns out to be a banner season for Mata. I’m fearful that Juan’s masterful work in 2012-2013 will eventually turn out to be fruitless in terms of trophies. Chelsea are in 3rd and 11 points back (game in hand) from United at the moment, out of the Champions League, and lost in the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup finals already. A few chances for silverware remain for Chelsea, and I, as a fan, want to be able to point out a trophy and proudly state that was the season everyone began to fear, respect, love(?) Juan Mata.

Here’s a shitty GIF!

The Rafalution Will Be Televised

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Two weeks removed from the controversial signing of Benitez, the anti-Rafa chanting and baying still continues from Chelsea supporters. ‘One Di Matteo’ still rang out at the 16th minute in today’s match against Sunderland, and after Chelsea went up 3-0, the travelling fans reassured Rafa that it didn’t matter what he did. They do not want him.

Like any good despot, enlightened or not, Roman will not back down from his decision. Rafa ain’t goin’ nowhere. There are rumors that a group of supporters met with Abramovich to discuss their disappointment with the hiring of Rafa Benitez. As lovely as this gesture was, it was really just lip service to a manic public that wanted answers. After the firing of Di Matteo, interviews of Chelsea players and people close to Chelsea’s management kept creeping in nuggets about how shy Roman was and how great he was to work with. He has an image to reconstruct, and in this modern society, keeping that image maintained is as important as the work you do. Also, as a semi-autonomous sovereign, Roman, the benevolent dictator, needs to ensure that his axe falls hard on the necks of those that fail him and his people. He really is gentle until it comes to the well-being of his estate.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve struggled with this Rafa situation. I’ve wanted to just give up on Chelsea and this league. Everything was spinning and changing. Constantly, I asked myself, “Can anything or anyone be trusted?” It’s a dumb question to ask, since it’s just a sport. It’s not that important! Yet, I asked it, and many Chelsea fans asked themselves the same question.

Change is nothing new to Chelsea fans, and it’s become part of supporting that club. The changes, however drastic they have been, seemed to always ride the wave of discontent among the club’s support. Meaning, things got bad, Chelsea fans turned on the manager (almost NEVER the players, mind), and Roman would fire them. It was almost like professional wrestling when the evil, awful guy that would ruin everything would get beaten down by everyone’s favorite character. Order restored!

With every extinguishing of a manager’s flame, Chelsea’s list of possible top drawer managers shrunk, but the Chelsea supporters felt they had a man that would be by their side regardless of who would or would not come. Together in tandem, the two, public and owner, would rule English football and Europe. This whole “We want our club back!” backlash comes down to the destruction of an illusion of shared power. The maintenance of this illusion if how many dictatorships can guarantee impunity for whatever they do.

Over his first five games, the new company man has given supporters a sampler of the highs and lows of life under Benitez. The draws against Manchester City and Fulham felt avoidable. Benitez came in criticizing the players’ fitness, and perhaps because of the inability to finish matches, Benitez refused to let the Chelsea attack loose. They were instructed to defend first and make sure to not let the game get out of control. Then, the loss against West Ham happened.

Chelsea folded under the weight of a determined West Ham team in the second half of last weekend’s game. It was an embarrassing loss for a team whose payroll could pay for West Ham’s wage bill about 5 times over. Granted, it was against a decent West Ham team, away, and against the utilitarian and, if nothing else, effective Allardyce. Chelsea fans lost their goddamn minds.

People were giving up their tickets to upcoming games. They were refusing to go to any more matches. There have been calls to get behind the team, but nothing seems to be able to quench the bloodthirsty Chelsea fans.

Certainly out of necessity, Benitez has let loose the Chelsea team. Against Nordsjaelland, Chelsea opened up, got scored on once, but put up 6 against the weakest defensive team in all of the UEFA Champions League. Of course, there was nothing really to celebrate, as Juve’s win in the Ukraine secured Chelsea’s exit. However, Rafa encouraged Chelsea to play higher up the pitch. As the play moved up, chances were created, and Chelsea ran away with the match. Torres even scored! TWICE! We saw much of the same against Sunderland this morning. Pushing up left Chelsea vulnerable to a committed Sunderland team, but adjustments and defensive-minded substitutions by Rafa made sure Chelsea got their first win in the Prem since mid-October.

What we’ve seen so far is a manager that can make the right in-game decisions to secure points or a result that we’d like. As much shit as I may get for this, RDM wasn’t able to do that. Rafa’s rotated the squad a bit because of either necessity or suspension, and he will continue to do so. The return of Lampard to the side will do a lot of the strength and leadership on the field. Terry’s automatically back in the side once he’s fit. Looking to the future, under Benitez, Chelsea may be able to turn things around. They may get fitter. They may start clicking defensively and in attack. All is not dark in Chelsea land, it’s just sometimes, you don’t always get what you want when you live in a dictatorship.

This was never a democracy.

I know many won’t, but maybe it’s time to bite your lip, get behind the team, and watch what happens instead of jumping to early conclusions about the ability of a decent manager that said some negative things about a club he wasn’t managing — this being possibly the biggest charge against Rafa by Chelsea fans.

Steve McManaman said something interesting on ESPN’s coverage of today’s Chelsea match against Sunderland. He said something to the effect of talking negatively about other clubs is something a manager is SUPPOSED to do when he’s managing a side. He has to back his team. At the time, as Liverpool’s manager, he did just that. Just hearing that from someone took the edge off a little bit.

I’ve been guilty of calling for his job — getting swept up by the fury in the Chelsea camp. Ultimately, we are better than this. Give the guy a shot. If anything, he’s gone by the end of the season, and Chelsea are one step closer to getting either Pep or Mourinho.

Onto Japan.

Send your threats to @tehdago on Twitter.

The Craziest Show On Earth

I suppose I’ve been hesitant to write over the past month or so about football because it’s just gotten so out of control all of a sudden. I feel like no matter what I do I can’t get my feet under me. Everything is moving and constantly shifting in the Premier League. It’s causing a sort of fan’s fatigue. The sad part is the players seem to be all the same, and it’s all a bunch of mistakes repeated.

Mark Hughes is a mistake that keeps being repeated for sure. Honestly, Fulham dodged a bullet when he left for QPR. A year and a half later, and Hughes is out of a job for the same reason he was forced out of City. He completely mismanaged his squad and the buys that were supposed to get his team to their goal. As true as the sun rises in the east, Harry Redknapp is there to pick up the pieces like he did with Southampton and Tottenham. Maybe he’ll leave this team in tatters like he did Portsmouth, but who knows. There are plenty more examples, but let’s move onto the worst offender.

There’s Chelsea who, since the last time I wrote, have managed to pack about 16 terrible things in the span of a month — the Clattenburg accusation, Terry’s knee injury which resulted in a huge drop in form, losing to WBA, losing to  Juve, Roman firing RDM and hiring Benitez. I cannot keep up with the clusterfuck that is my own team.

I can speak at length about each of these topics, but so many have over the past month, that I’ll save myself the trouble. Most people have their minds made up where they sit in regards to Chelsea. They’re either the worst thing ever or a wonderful example of what corporate structure and dictatorial can achieve for a club that 10 years ago was on the verge of collapse. So, it never really matters what someone says about Chelsea. It’s just never going change. Somehow, Chelsea manage to deepen the divide between the two camps. The canyon between the two widens with each cock up on and off the field. They do have their saving graces — Mata, Oscar, Hazard, Ramires, David Luiz, and other likeables. Yet, it’ll never be enough as long as Chelsea continue to make it so easy for others to pile up on them.

Mistake after mistake plagues Chelsea’s squad and management in pretty much every aspect of their lives. If it’s not infidelity, it’s calling someone a black so-and-so. We let players like Ashley Cole shoot interns with an airsoft gun. We let transvestites that look like John Terry get photographed. We get rid of a club LEGEND who has served the club as both player and manager for one of the most hated figures in recent Chelsea memory. Enough is enough.

Sometimes, I think it’s too much to ask for a successful club and dignity. The way the Premier League has taken shape over the past 5 years, it seems almost impossible. Perhaps it’s England or just the way money, power, and the unattainable can corrupt people, but it just seems like this will never end. I sound pathetic to myself just writing this, but can the season just be over?

The Day After: Bad Decisions and Lots of Them

In the world of sport, there are those that will tell you there are no moral victories. They don’t give out trophies for goodwill, and three points don’t always accompany hard work. Fine. That’s cool if you want to be a dick about it. Chelsea lost on Sunday, but what they showed was the determination and grit necessary to win a title. 

Sunday evening was the first Chelsea match played which did not have either Terry or Lampard in the lineup since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 [1]. As remnants of the old guard that relied heavily on a siege mentality and strength to win trophies, it was my concern that Chelsea would lose the chip on their shoulder that bound the squad so tightly since the beginning of the Mourinho Era and after Moscow 2008 and Ovrebo 2009. Over the past 12 months or so, Chelsea’s squad has had specific junctures where the team has grown tighter. There’s the AVB Era, Barcelona, Munich, and now this match at the Bridge. 

I won’t get into the specifics of the match and what occurred. It’s been overdone, and you can all get onto ESPN and read the match report. The most important thing to take away form this match has to be the reaction to going 2-0 and the resolve they showed right after the first and second red cards. It was the reaction of a champion side. A team that will not be told no. 

We can chalk it up to pressure, good coaching, or the culture, but that is who Chelsea Football Club are again. They won’t just sit there and take it. I think the league may have its hands full. They’ve always had the parts in place. Chelsea have just needed fuel to keep the engine running. That match was a whole heap of coal.

Thanks, Mark.

PS: Big ups to Berbatov and Cisse for holding it down for my fantasy team this week. One Love. 

[1] Lampard is suffering from a calf strain that will have him out for 4 weeks. Terry is suffering from racism which will have him out for 4 domestic matches. 

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Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea by dm_508326be1084f

Chelsea’s win at White Hart Lane showed us a couple of things we didn’t know about Chelsea and Tottenham before Saturday’s match. First, Chelsea have created a pain carousel in attack. Round and round, Mata, Oscar, and Hazard go. They never stop changing positions with one another which leaves defenses unable to focus on one player or one side like you can with other teams. They create this whirlwind with their movement. It’s just awesome to see.

I’m curious to know how much this has to do with the plan DiMatteo and management had for Chelsea or if it was just circumstance that forced the had of RDM to encourage his players to move with such fluidity up top. Taking into account other players like Marin and Moses who can play anywhere in attack, it seems like Chelsea have the depth to continue playing this way if Oscar, Hazard, or Mata (HEAVEN FORBID) become injured or are a bit exhausted from running around teams. 

Bale missed out on this match due to personal reasons. Dembele also missed out on the clash. These two, I believe, would have made Chelsea’s life more difficult on Saturday. Dembele could have helped break up play and begin attacks. Bale would have pushed Branislav Ivanovic back and have perhaps warranted double-teaming — much like what Aaron Lennon faced on the right side from Ashley Cole and Ramires. Regardless, it became clear to me that Tottenham do not posses enough depth to compete with the likes of Chelsea at the moment. Sure, if Chelsea’s left back, left winger, and a crucial central midfielder were out, they would play differently, but they have enough depth to perhaps cope with that type of adversity. Spurs do not. 

In the end, Tottenham were unlucky in this match. They couldn’t finish their changes, and the Chelsea defense, for the most part, handled the Spurs attack for the better part of 90 minutes. Chelsea were more clinical, and more importantly, they were more creative in their pursuit of goals.

Tottenham also brought out a side of Chelsea that we hadn’t seen all season. Chelsea were down on the road to a top-quality opponent. For a few years now, this would have caused the Chelsea players’ to put their heads down and accept defeat. Recent matches against United and Liverpool come to mind. Perhaps, the overall character of the team has switched with their recent achievements. Chelsea got their heads up and started to attack relentlessly. From my perspective, they gained focus instead of accepting defeat. That may have been the most gratifying part of this victory. 

I believe Chelsea are terrifyingly close to becoming unstoppable if they continue to play with belief and character. However, football is elastic. Circumstances and attitudes change weekly, monthly, and yearly. It’s all about what you’ve done lately. Lately, Chelsea have been flying on the field.

Off the field is a different story, isn’t it? 

Too soon.

Bob Bamber of Own Goal Podcast asked the other day what our Premier League team of the season so far is. We’re only 6 games in, but I think this would be a great way to talk about how the Prem is shaping up and the impressive individual performances this season. Also, it’ll be a good way to redeem myself for the outrageous team I suggested to Bob on Twitter. I tried to fit just about every center mid in the league in my initial team. What can I say. I likes what I likes. Let’s go with a wide 4-2-3-1, aye? It’s what I play in Football Manager.

Goalkeeper

Petr Cech, Chelsea 

Call me a homer if you want, but I’m going to go with the guy with the most clean sheets at the best defensive record. Cech has been one of the top 10 keepers in the world for years. Last season, he got Chelsea out of some tight jams. This year he is doing much of the same with his intelligence, stature, leadership, and ability. Lovely to see a player with so many years left to give play so well. Some may consider Cech’s game a bit debilitated by his massive head injury, especially in set pieces. I believe it’s made him a smarter player, and the hat’s really cute.

Defenders

Ashley Cole, Chelsea

Another homer pick. Within the last month or so, Cole himself has claimed that Real Madrid’s Marcelo is the world’s best left back.  This week Carlo Ancelotti said Ashley was the best left back in the world. I don’t know where all this talk about left backs started. As Jürgen Klinsmann assured the American media, ANYONE CAN  PLAY LEFT BACK. Anyway, an up and down summer that began in May with the Champions League Final and included that missed penalty against Italy hasn’t affected Cole’s form for his club. At 32 years old, Ashley still works as hard for the team as anyone else on the field. His energy and his ability to defend and attack has been critical to a Chelsea team whose left side has for years lacked in consistent quality in attack. Currently, Ashley is in negotiations with Chelsea about the length of his contract. I believe Chelsea would be wise to keep him around as long as possible. His heir apparent, Ryan Bertrand, is ready, but Cole’s experience and ability would be something Chelsea would be foolish to let go. Plus, Ashley does a great job of riling up Arsenal fans — namely, massive fuckwit Piers Morgan. Honestly, I think blokes like Cole and Terry are fueled by boos and abuse. Weird to me. I would just cry.

Jonas Olsson, West Bromwich Albion

This might be an odd pick for some people. West Brom has been pretty tight defensively, and I like to attribute that to the leadership and ability Olsson displays. Every time I watch West Brom play, I’m impressed by their organization at the back. I think Clarke is doing a great job, and Olsson is the perfect player to execute his vision for WBA. One of the few internationals on WBA’s squad, Olsson is great at ushering his backline, communicating, and defending on set pieces. Also, he looks fucking terrifying, which is always a plus for a defender.

Jan Vertonghen, Tottenham Hotspur

If his form continues, he might become one of the best signings of the season. With William Gallas at the back help team him the ropes and rein him in a bit, Vertonghen has quickly become an impact player on Tottenham’s squad. His early goal in the match against Manchester United was critical to their victory at Old Trafford. His forays forward open up play. While that may leave Tottenham a bit exposed defensively. The potential is there to balance him out and make him a solid Premier League center back. (On first impression reminds me a bit of David Luiz’s first few months in England, at least in terms of impact, they are definitely not the same player, as Jan is a better defender.)

Pablo Zabaleta, Manchester City

Part of being the champ is that everyone is gunning for you. Teams throwing everything at you is part of the territory. At Chelsea, everyone wants to beat the European Champions. At City, everyone wants to take out England’s champion. Through this and last season, I believe Pablo has been one of Manchester City’s unsung heros. Keep in mind that this is the guy that is keeping Micah Richards out of the starting 11. He is effective both ways, strong, and intelligent. City’s defense hasn’t been as air-tight this season. I am confident City will find its defensive legs soon enough. Zabaleta will be a crucial part of City’s title defense this year as teams keep throwing everything they can at Manchester City. My biggest problem with Zabaleta is his male pattern baldness. It makes me think he’s much older than he is, and I keep underestimating him because I think he probably has to do dialysis daily or has done a shit ton of crosswords instead of train.

Midfielders

Ramires, Chelsea

Imagine a world where Ramires wasn’t made to play right wing the first few games of the season. Okay. Chelsea would have one hand on the title by now. Ramires’ recent (only in the last 2 matches) return to center midfield has allowed Mikel to play his game. It has made Chelsea stronger and has allowed for an attacking 4 of Mata, Hazard, Oscar, and Torres to gel over the past three matches or so across all competitions. His workrate is second-to-none. Of course his passing needs more work, but his movement both defensively and in attack is intelligent. It is obvious that he has put forth the effort while at Chelsea to improve his game. His role in the win over Arsenal at the Emirates was massive, and I expect more from him this season. Now, what to do about those braces.

Joe Allen, Liverpool 

On Being: Liverpool last week, Brendan Rodgers stated that Joe Allen might be 5’ 8”, but in terms of footballing ability, he’s probably the size of the 50-Foot Woman, at least. I agree. Joe Allen is rarely out of position. His passing has only gotten more precise and assertive since I first saw him play for Swansea in the Championship a couple of seasons ago. I’ve been a huge Allen fan, and I’m glad that he is quickly becoming a star on a Liverpool team that is looking for quality and consistency. Not only does he bring poise to the Liverpool squad, he brings an uncanny likeness to Phineas from Phineas and Ferb. That’s something we can all appreciate.

Steven Pienaar, Everton

If you’ve watched Everton play, it may be hard for you to think of a squad with a better left side than Everton. Leighton Baines and Stevie P. cut through teams easily down their flank. A lot of it has to do with the communication between the two and Pienaar’s all around control, incisiveness, and attacking nous. The guy can flat out play, and it’s wonderful to see him back at Everton after a barren and fruitless time at Tottenham.

Eden Hazard, Chelsea

In a gadda da vida, babyyyyy. Don’t you know I’ll always be fouled.

[15 minute organ solo]

He’s been such an impact player for Chelsea, it’s amazing he cost the club £15m less than Fernando ‘Can’t Say No to Suck’ Torres. His ball control is phenomenal. His vision is wonderful, and he is building a footballing rapport with Mata and Oscar, which will make him even more dangerous. Expect great things from Hazard this season and the future. Oh, and thank Christ someone got him to shave off that string of hair framing his face. His facial hair has improved since he started at Chelsea. All good things. 

Raheem Sterling, Liverpool

I’m reluctant to jump on the Sterling bandwagon because with any young Englishman, I feel the pressure of fame and expectation will stunt his development as a player. He needs to be humble and motivated. Sometimes, it’s a good thing to fly under the radar. Rodgers has obviously put his faith in the 17 year-old. He is quick on and off the ball. He makes the occasional poor decision, but who doesn’t? His potential is great, but I’m afraid of the youngster burning out. Also, I try to stay out of the personal lives of footballers as much as possible. Most of the time, I think the media is really inappropriate in how they pry into the lives of footballers in England. I don’t know how true the recent stories are of him being the father of up to 3 children, but I don’t take that as a good sign. You can’t concentrate on football if your life turns into some English, screwed up version of Bébé’s Kids. True or not, if he can focus on football and improving, I think Liverpool have found a wonderful opportunity in Sterling. Good, true wingers in the vein of Antonio Valencia, who is so critical to the success of Manchester United, in my opinion, are hard to find these days.

Striker:

Demba Ba, Newcastle 

I’m just going to leave this here.

And, that’s just normal to him. 

Honorable Mention: Cazorla (Arsenal), Fellaini (Everton), Baines (Everton), Routledge (Swansea), Michu (Swansea), Lambert (Southampton), Mata (Chelsea), Bale (Tottenham), Dembele (Tottenham), Suarez (Liverpool), Johnson (Liverpool), Valencia (Manchester United), Toure (Manchester City), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland), 

TL;DR Chelsea are the best team in the league right now. They have the most players on my team. You’re lucky there aren’t more, and I tried to be impartial. 

My team: Cech (Chelsea), Cole (Chelsea), Olsson (WBA), Vertonghen (Tottenham), Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ramires (Chelsea), Allen (Liverpool), Pienaar (Everton), Hazard (Chelsea), Sterling (Liverpool), Ba (Newcastle)

-dago

The International Break: Clubs, Money, Dictatorships, and Just About Everything You Can Throw Into a Post

As nations compete against one another for the honor of taking a month-long vacation in Brasil come Summer 2014, fans of the other nations in football are given a moment to break from the baying and whining that comes with supporting a football club. There have been a lot of mishaps by clubs in the transfer window — all amplified by the panicky furor of deadline day. Soccer news outlets seem to have taken pleasure in haunting disaffected fans through their dissections of the successes and failures of deadline day and the transfer window. Arsenal and Liverpool were lambasted for their inactivity. Chelsea and Tottenham spent millions of pounds on players during the window. QPR created some sort of weirdo Frankenstein team over the past few months. 

Half-hearted reasoning and criticism has spewed out from everyone from players to managers to celebrities to newspeople. It’s almost too much. However, as much conjecture the media pumps out about transfer policies or internal schisms, these pseudo-nations, autonomous entities operate rather clandestinely. Tight-lipped, clubs obscure our ability to examine their inner-workings. American sports are phenomenally transparent in comparison to European and international sport. This is something I have come to learn and hate about international soccer. Clubs are managed by men (mostly men) and women that have the cultural and economic power to do as they please with the clubs and organizations they are entrusted with or have purchased with their oil/dirty money. It would probably be easier to topple a government than pry a football club from the hands of a terrible, dictatorial, or unbelievably incompetent owner.

 

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            I had a professor in my early university years that taught Europe in the 20th Century and Russian History. She wasn’t always a professor. During WWII, she spent time in the Army doing her part as much as she was allowed in the 1940s on the ground here in the States. By the time Vietnam rolled around, she had raised a few kids and almost had them out of the house. Her commitment to her country led her to volunteering to join military intelligence as an interpreter. She became fluent in Russian and French. Pretty useful during the Cold War. She later on went to earn her Ph.D. in Russian History. By the time I had enrolled in her class, she was in her late-70s, but still sharp as a tack. She was my kind of dame.

Between 2004 – 2006, I took a few courses of hers and fell in love with Russian History and Modern European History. At the same time, The United States was embroiled in two wars in far off lands. One was about 9/11 in Afghanistan. The other over some unfinished business we kind of started in Iraq. Every couple of weeks or so, Louise would take some time from her lesson to explain the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. This became really important when she explained Russian intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. She almost always ended with an explanation of how democracy can never work inorganically imposed on a culture that never knew that kind of cooperation. It didn’t come from a jingoistic, Islamophobic place. It came from an understanding of History that was peppered with examples of the imposition of ideology on a people who were not receptive or ready, depending on how your ideology informs you. Imposing restrictions or freedom on people who were not ready, who did not know the responsibility, or just plain didn’t care for it was not a good idea. This is how Louise went about explaining why the transition from an Imperial, monarchist Russia to the USSR was not so incredibly revolutionary. Sure, the ideas and motivations were different, but structurally, it was much of the same. There was a single figure that controlled everything, either by design or holy mandate; it was control from the center. Decisions would be made and there would be no deliberation. Wrong or right, the responsibility was that of the great leader to guide the masses.

 

—-

 

As this week passed, fans of Liverpool, Milan, Arsenal, and many others bemoaned their lack of signings. What were they expected to do now? Get behind their teams? As exchanges between fans began, a rueful, resentful tone arose from those felt hard done by. They resented the money and influence of the Chelseas and Manchester Citys of the world. These clubs exhibit strong leadership with drive and determination. Maybe some lack the vision. For example, Liverpool loaned out Andy Carroll without giving Rodgers and the administration enough time to get a decent replacement. The one person they did go after, Liverpool failed to meet the asking price by a couple of million pounds, after having paid £35m for Andy to begin with. He’s an expensive mistake. Leadership did not and has not worked together well enough in Liverpool for several years – under Henry or not. Liverpool fans bombarded John Henry with abuse and criticism. Keyboard warrior stuff. They forget Henry has helped get Liverpool out of the mess they were in to begin with. This impatience is exacerbated by the existence of these “sugar daddy clubs.”

Sugar daddy clubs have the ability to just buy a player at will and not have to answer to anyone. Supporters and the interested aren’t even within earshot of these guys. There are no pesky boards or even managers to say no. 

“I want Sheva. I buy Sheva. You work with him now.”

Times are changing, though. This week I read a couple of really great articles about Financial Fair Play, UEFA’s impending rules on how clubs operate financially which will potentially have competitive and financial consequences for clubs that operate in the red without a viable plan of getting out of their financial holes. Rules can become incredibly complicated. Both Gabriele Marcotti and the fellas at Swiss Ramble did an amazing job explaining the rules to simple people like me. What truly struck me was the ease a club could possibly get out of punitive payments or missing out on European competition with the write lawyers or financial experts. UEFA has not imposed a disciplinary system. Instead it’s a set of possibilities and their word that they’ll use their discretion when handing out punishments.

So, sleep well, Chelsea fans. All of the jeering about how the rules are changing and how our plastic club can’t survive is unfounded. Listen, if Chelsea got out of serving a full 18 months without the possibility of signing any new players for the Kakuta fiasco just by batting its eyelids, you shouldn’t worry. Clubs will pretty much be able to operate as they have. This new system will only act as a new way to validate the tyrannical, dictatorial, and wasteful spending of clubs. Some clubs may act irresponsibly with no accountability, but as long as they keep UEFA off their tails, everything is fine. There will be no plagues or droughts like those that affected early kings and princes as long as UEFA are as malleable as they intend to be. UEFA will act as another mechanism to maintaining the natural order that fans and owners love so much but to their own detriment. 

Historically, pseudo-accountability, validation from on high has served autocrats, totalitarians, dictators, kinds, and strongmen well. The game of fabricating a mandate or external force pushing the hand of the government plays well into the obscured lives of owners and chairmen.  Now owners can play the part of either in opposition or cooperating with a variable that is out of their control when it really is not. The external can bring everyone together, hold together hierarchy, and keep the peace. This is if they’re smart.

UEFA’s discretion will change from here to there, and it is unpredictable. A friend of big money clubs now, it can all go wrong very quickly. UEFA can become foe or ally quickly, and it is important for fans to understand this and push for more responsible spending the best way they can. A whim could doom a club much like the Goodell Era of the NFL here in the United States.

So what?

Chelsea had its Sputnik moment last season. The top-down thing works rarely, and the club’s future is invested in a man with a short temper and a long life ahead that may lead him out of football. Chelsea opening its continental account was an amazing story and a great achievement for everyone who supports Chelsea, but it’s not the end nor is it close. The arms race with City, United, Real, Barcelona, and PSG will continue. What clubs and fans will have to realize is global economic systems will eventually catch up with the overspent, overexerted, and overbearing clubs, much like they caught up with the Soviet Union and Communist China in the late-1980s. Sure, economies have collapsed and football has remained okay, but for how long? It’s already affecting Italy and Spain’s leagues. China got itself out of the muck, but Russia sure hasn’t. Both nations were so caught up in the need for central, strong authority after their near/total collapses, that they refused to truly change the order of things. Putin is still in power, and the People’s Republic is still run by a handful of party members.

Central authority allows people to throw their hands in the air and absolve themselves of responsibility. It also reinforces the simplistic natural order of things. No matter how much people complain about the processes in football or the money, given the opportunity, many wouldn’t take it upon themselves to help manage their clubs in whatever system available. However, this doesn’t really tell us much. Many of us like standing outside of the limelight, and we wouldn’t like people constantly speculating about our money and our private lives. It takes a madman to run a club. It takes a madman to rule a nation. No matter how mad football becomes, we’re complicit in its practices. It feeds off of us, and we feed off of it. We’re overtaken by the revolutionary fever that has claimed so many through the course of history. We’re victims and collaborators all the same.

European Football, Colonization, and FUN WITH MAPS!

I’ve been so swamped at work, and I’ve found little time to just write for myself, Own Goal, or work on The LOL is Round. I wrote this on a break at work. It took 5 minutes or so [humblebrag]. As soon as this conference is planned and done with, I’ll be ready to take on this upcoming season with lots of poorly thought out pieces and crudely drawn references to things no one gives a shit about, as such:

The critique of the systematic pillaging of the non-European world at the hands of European powers isn’t something new. Since the revolution of revisionist history in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and the study of post-colonial ERRYTHANG, English-language literature on the events between 1492 and now has gotten quite expansive. Eduardo Galeano, if you’re looking for a good book on the subject, wrote The Open Veins of Latin America in 1971. It’s wholly depressing, but is a great resource for building one’s understanding of the work that goes into creating a European empire at the expense of countless lives. From the late-15th century until about last week, European powers, at will, through war, disease, papal decree, whatever, carved up the natural and human resources of the non-European world. Europeans got pretty efficient at creating networks of colonial and imperial outposts that served crowns and governments over centuries. America even got in on the action after the War of 1812 and that lil’ Monroe Doctrine-y thing.

This summer marks another off season where European football clubs take their show on the road and hit Africa, Asia, and North America with a typhoon of lazy step overs and out-of-shape footballers. Disturbingly, the way the European and American media speaks about these tours, they seem more like crusades of conquest than anything else — a flexing of European exceptionalism. Most importantly, it’s all part of a new systematic, calculated ‘materialistic’ sacking of new world markets that can provide a place for the selling of English and Spanish goods. Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Juve, PSG these are the new global conquistadors of corporate entertainment. United and Arsenal (BTW Arsene Wenger doesn’t like this who touring thing) have their eyes set on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East (so do Real Madrid). Chelsea spends its time and money to make money in the United States and in the process cornering already sports-heavy markets with their royal blue and white, rouble-fueled charm, but everyone wants a piece of that sweet American pie.

Like European conquerors before, clubs in Europe swear that they are spreading the noble truth that is European football that these unwashed, unclothed, and backward peoples really need. It is their duty as emissaries of European football culture. This truth will cleanse the souls of these beasts and also create a uniformity that will make the European products easier to sell and pawn off to people thousands of miles from SW6 or the Champs-Élysées. These noble savages will inevitably throw away their local culture and traditions after having seen the true light that is global marketing strategies.

The winners are no longer decided in a league or cup formet; it is won in the storefronts and online shopping carts outside of Europe. South America, Africa, North America, and Asia, are the new battlegrounds for European competition. And, like the colonization of Africa in the 19th century at the hands of the English, Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians, these are both public and private enterprises that benefit the European public and private sectors. 

To be honest, the football is better in Europe. They do have the best players and the best coaches. Everyone on the wrong side of the imaginary line that divides Europe from the rest of us should be proud that their exported products — players like Messi, Suarez, Toure, Drogba, Dempsey, etc. — are repackaged and sold directly to those who helped create these and many other greats of the eternal game.

Shades of the Columbian Exchange. 

Unfortunately, here, there will be no Boer War. Even worse, there will be no Boxer Rebellion or Opium War. This time the conquered are happy to have their new masters. They are welcomed with open arms. I am, at times, that person.

Personally, it’s hard to come to terms with the way clubs, the European media, and even the American media approach these pre-season friendlies. At times I just want to say screw it and not watch a minute and burn all my Chelsea shirts. My rage against the machine usually stops because I realize how much I paid for those shirts. I also really love European football. It’s entertaining.

The same stupid smile I wear on my face when sipping a Coke or buying frivolous piece of technology I felt that I absolutely needed is probably the same smile I exhibit when the European season kicks off. It’s the same smile I have when I get to see my favorite players play against the Sounders or PSG. The smile is a sign of the state of blissful ignorance I have entered when Chelsea Blue is on the screen. I’m conflicted because I feel like I owe my local football culture more, but who isn’t? I try hard to like the MLS and my local team, but my inclination is still there to sing “Blue is the Colour” and bang on about how John Terry couldn’t possibly be racist. 

Screw it.

The MLS All-Stars v. Chelsea Football Club will be aired tomorrow, Wednesday, July 23 on NBC at 7:30PM CST. 

What we have thus far: EPL in late-2010

There were rumors of Zola taking over Wilkins' vacant post, but it was decided that Chelsea supporters would enjoy that a little too much.

The new year is two days away, and the English Premier League season is as out of control as I’ve ever seen it at this point before. As I sit in my room listening to American Football’s self-titled for the 100,000th time, I’m trying to make sense of it all, as I sink into a deep depression.

Chelsea. The apple of my eye. Pride of London. Champions. They’re now in 5th place, and a loss to Bolton away from 6th place [the game will be played later today]. They’ve become the story of the season, again, for the wrong reasons. The past couple of months have been hard as a Chelsea supporter. Injuries, tactical miscalculations, and defensive mistakes have left Chelsea with little hope of repeating as champions of England. At this point, I’m more worried about the future of the club internally. With Arnesen leaving, Wilkins gone, and the possibility of Ancelotti being removed as manager increasing daily, the future of the club’s youth development, ability to acquire proper talent, and long-term success are in peril. I might be looking too far into the future, and sounding the alarm too quickly, but this is how it begins. Before you know it, you wake up in a Russian whorehouse, looking for Shevchenko’s phone number to see if he wants to get the old band together. Times might not get that desperate, but it can happen.

Carlo on the sideline has looked more a distressed door-to-door salesman than a Dolce & Gabbana-clad, world-class manager. Instead of continuing as the team that won their first five league matches by an aggregate score of 100 to -13, Chelsea have had the worst run of form in the last 8 games than any other team in the league and the worst run from the club in a decade. The biggest sin committed by Chelsea is not having wrapped up the title race by the end of November and therefore creating no need to play the rest of the season. Awful.

The team that just embarrassed Chelsea, Arsenal, look like they finally believe in themselves. Less importantly, it seems like those outside of the Arsenal camp are beginning to believe in the young Arsenal squad Wenger has put together. There are no more excuses. This Arsenal team can win the title. Despite having dropped points to much lesser, more physical squads, over the course of the season, the Gunners definitely have what it takes to win it this season.

Their only obstacle is Sir Alex Ferguson. If Manchester United win the title, it’s another example of why Ferguson could be considered the greatest manager in the modern era. Injuries, out of form players, sex scandals, contract negotiations, threats, and Darren Fletcher, have all threatened to tear apart United’s title hopes. SAF has steered the ship, and with two games in hand, they are poised to make that late-season push to secure the championship. They haven’t lost a game for the love of God.

On the other side of Manchester, City have put themselves in second place, and Mancini looks like he might actually be getting something out of a squad overflowing with quality but lacking chemistry. Balotelli is definitely proving his worth with his goal total thus far. Hopefully, his temper won’t get the best of him. Tevez is staying, and Dzeko is on his way from Wolfsburg. Manchester City have great players all over the pitch, and it’s just a matter of time before it all starts clicking. Manchester City will round out the new big four soon enough.

Back in London, Tottenham have inserted themselves into the top four once again. Tottenham’s success might be another story of managerial success. Redknapp has wheeled and dealt himself a wonderful squad from back to front. Unsurprisingly, Van der Vaart is playing like we all thought he was capable of playing. I didn’t think it would work out because, well, it’s fucking Spurs. Again, I was wrong. Bale is having a great Champions League campaign. His form in the Premiership, although relatively not as wonderful as on the continent, has provided extra bite to the Tottenham attack on the left side which compliments Lennon’s work on the right very well. Also, shout out to Alan Hutton who I think does wonderful work at right back, but doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

I think one of the most compelling, and most likely to blow up all crazy-like, stories of the season is the descent of Everton, Villa, Fulham, and the ascension of squads like Bolton and Sunderland. Moyes, Houllier, and Hughes are all trying to pick up the pieces, as Owen Coyle and Steve Bruce have their teams picking up points and places on the table instead.

Personally, Bolton have been the biggest surprise this season, outside of Chelsea’s fall from grace. Elmander is finally playing well. Stuart Holden is making a case for his inclusion into the starting center midfield on the American national team. Petrov and Davies are having the seasons of their lives. Gary Cahill’s management of the backline is exquisite. It’s tough to tell when or if it’ll all go wrong, but I certainly hope it doesn’t. There might be a little nationalist pride involved, but I want Holden to succeed.

Sunderland’s success has to be attributed to their wonderful frontline, specifically Asamoah Gyan. Sunderland might be in danger of relegation if it weren’t for the goals produced by their forwards. In the back, they are stout, but goals get you points. There is much to be desired in the midfield, and eventually, I think this will catch up to them. It’s likely they won’t be playing European football next year, but with results like the win at Stamford Bridge, I could be very wrong. Coupled with Fulham, Everton, and Villa’s inconsistencies, they could find themselves in Belgrade or Kiev soon.

Finally, the three promoted sides are all outside of the relegation zone at this point of the season. West Brom is playing great under the direction of Roberto Di Matteo. At home they are playing great, attacking football. They beat Arsenal earlier this season. Blackpool have been doing the same under the charismatic Ian Holloway and are in the top ten. The Tangerines are probably my favorite team in the Premiership right now, and it has nothing to do with their home and third away kits. They play like they have nothing to lose, and they don’t. Everyone wrote them off as one-and-dones, but that won’t be the case this season. Mr. Holloway has the players believing and playing with confidence. Newcastle have been the most wildly inconsistent team with both huge victories and losses to their name. Nolan and Carroll are playing great, and even Ameobi has netted a few this season (wut?!). Although the back line is questionable, Newcastle will definitely be staying up this season.

Anyway, this hastily written rant has dragged on too much. I can’t wait for the second half of the season. I know Chelsea will bounce back, and I’m also certain that it won’t be enough for a top two finish. There’s still that glimmer of hope, but it might as well have died in the Emirates on Monday. I’ll try to keep you all up with my thoughts on the league as the season progresses. That might be one resolution I might be able to keep.

-dago

Mi Copa del Mundo

To those who didn't know Dani Jarque, Andrés introduced him to 750 million people.

With one swing of his favored right leg, Andrés Iniesta ended World Cup 2010.  Andrés is no stranger to late-game heroics for his club, FC Barcelona.  He and Xavi Hernandez are the engine room for the nuclear powered destroyers of club and country.  Their creativity in the midfield has been unsurpassed by any tandem the past two or three years.  Spain deserve their World Cup.  They are the most creative.  They are the most skilled.  Most importantly to me, and as an example to all other footballing nations, they showed the most conviction.  They stuck to their game plan.  No matter how “anti-football” squads became, they stuck to their guns.  Although they were placed under great scrutiny for their insistence on passing the ball into the net by Europeans and their own countrymen, they are the ones holding the trophy now.  They have the star above their emblem.  They have elevated Spain to the top of the world like Ferdinando and Isabella, like Picasso.  These artists’ work wasn’t disjointed and chaotic.  They won beautifully, gracefully and with confidence.  Something we haven’t seen at a World Cup since Italia ’90.

Alright, now. Since Americans love lists (I should know because I do too), here’s some of my favorite moments/developments from this wonderful World Cup.

  • Siphiwe Tshabalala‘s goal against Mexico was probably touted as goal of the tournament before another goal was even scored in the World Cup.  You could feel the power, fervor, and determination of Africa in that shot.  The accuracy was perfect.  When that ball sailed into the top-right corner, I thought to myself, “Fuck, this might be Africa’s tournament to lose.” How wrong I was.
  • By the fourth minute of the United States match against England, I had my head in my hands.  The ball was in the back of the net and Tim Howard had only Ricardo Clark to blame.  NO! Not again.  Not here.  Please.  What did we do to deserve this.  What lessons did we forget to learn from 2006?  Was England just toying with the world when they had put up stinkers against Mexico and Japan in friendlies before the tournament.  Maybe we were never meant to be here.  We have no right.  Then Clint Dempsey and Robert Green shared a moment that will have a special place in Anglo-American relations for a very long time.  Both our diplomats from London clubs, no not Chelsea and Arsenal, West Ham and Fulham, joined to give the United States the 1-1 victory. A victory in the strict moral and ethical sense. The English, arrogant and bloated, determined to waltz through the group could only muster a pitiful 5 points.  Only goal differential separated the small footballing nation of the United States with the inventors of the “game”.  I hope England can fix themselves before Euro 2012.  It’s always hard watching a girl who peaked in high school still trying to convince the world she’s the belle of the ball.
  • I have been the biggest Spain hater for several years now.  I was never convinced of their ability to win big matches or scrape out victories.  In their first match, Spain was on the wrong end of a 1-0 decision against Switzerland.  Fernandes’s goal, resulting from a mad, scattered dash on the counter attack ended with a bloody Pique on the ground and the ball in the back of the net.  I was certain that was the end of Spain’s World Cup.  Again, I was wrong.
  • Watching Italy lose to Slovakia and by the end of tournament-play being in last place behind New Zealand, a country known for sheep, rocky beaches, Lord of the Rings, and being named after a mildly retarded, flightless bird.
  • I fell asleep during the 7-0 Portugal v. People’s Republic of Korea match.
  • By the end of group play I was convinced this was a South American summer.  The only team to have LOST a game from North, Central, and South America all tournament was Honduras. The semis might have turned into a mini-Copa America. I’ll have to wait until next summer.
  • Not necessarily a moment but a development, the lack of African nations that made it out of group play was astounding.  Perhaps, the world was expecting too much.  The continent is in shambles after all.  Ghana was the only one to get out.  They handled the United States’s attack and countered with greater efficiency that the Americans.  The Africans were more determined that the United States.  If only determination could swat down arms that prevent a squad from being the first African nation to reach the semis in a World Cup.
  • I had the Dutch winning the World Cup in my two brackets.  One I made before the tournament.  The other one I made after group play.  As the first nation to qualify for the cup, I believed that the Netherlands were finally over themselves.  They had decided that playing harshly, with strength and power, not grace, would win them this World Cup.  They were doing it well too.  Van Bommel and De Jong bossed around teams’ midfielders all tournament.  Against Brazil, they threw caution to the wind and pushed and shoved their way to a 2 -1 victory.  They had slain the stumbling dragon Brazil.  They had beaten the favorites.  I assumed the rest of the tournament had become a formality.  The recent history of the tournament had taught me that the rough ones, the hard-nosed brawlers were to win this World Cup.  The Dutch, I felt, were this year’s Italy.  They were the Brazil of ’94.  They had the quality up top but the tenacity and hard-workers in the back.  It was theirs to lose.  They did.
  • Officiating…
  • Anelka telling that “bitch” Domenech to “fuck off”, and the French FA, not Domenech, sending Anelka back home.  Perhaps the French were more upset by Anelka’s preference of the Anglo-Saxon “fuck” and “bitch” than Domenech was at Anelka’s disrespect? The fallout from this episode was something so beautiful it could really only have been French actors in this tragedy.
  • German Youth… in black shirts. Oh, the jokes that were made.

There are so many other moments that I can’t think at this moment that I would love to write about.  This was a great World Cup, no matter how many people are still convinced that it was “plagued” by low scores.

Soccer fans, and those new to the sport. 1-0, 0-0, and 1-1 results are not always boring.  Goals do not make a match.  Tension and release.  That’s what makes good football. Like a masterfully crafted concerto there is nothing like conflict and resolution, even in its smallest and sometimes incalculable measurements.  It was just frustrating to hear people complain about the lack of quality football, when the opera was playing right before their eyes and ears.

Alright, now real football begins. Chelsea Chelsea!

-dago