Friday, February 19, 2010

Tempering excitement about Rooney

Many writers of English football generally don't need too much ammunition to exalt Wayne Rooney into the echelon of elite practitioners in their sport.

After scoring twice against AC Milan midweek, his name was omnipresent in editorials on and offline making arguments for his graduation.

Before each season, pieces invariably surface with angles conjecturing just how and why this year will be different than every other when similar claims were also made.

However, the United gunner tends to succumb to inconsistency with only patches of good form interspersed between drawn-out periods of varying averageness on the field.

So it's all just a big, fat lie, then?

While always being projected as one of footballing's elite, Rooney has rarely shown enough consistency over the years to gain any credible foothold for individual awards or world-class status.

And similarly, while being vaunted as the next incarnation of Christ prior to—and throughout—this season, the young Scouser was patchy in its first half and particularly nauseating in December.
He's only been rested for two United matches all season. So he's bagged the goals commensurate with such playing time, regardless of how well he played at the time, which was never exceptional. Many of his goals were examples of profiting from his teammates' endeavours, finishing after defenses were exploited.

Only now, in mid-February, after six months of overstated prophecy, Rooney has finally begun to fulfill all the hopes and dreams of his Anglo-centrist promoters and worldly well-wishers.

From mid-January—when he attacked confidently in a losing effort against Man City—the Shrek look-alike has been reliably positive and occasionally brilliant for a month on the trot.

This is exceptional because, throughout his United career, rich veins of form for the young Englishman usually haven't lasted more than a couple weeks. At least on the field, they tend to last longer in the papers.

Another "Beckham effect"

To be fair, even when he is at his best, Rooney is not the most obvious of great strikers.

Didier Drogba turns and fires inside and outside of the box with aplomb during veins of fine form. Lionel Messi's dribbles are masterfully balanced, passing multiple defenders. Ronaldo chops and bursts his way towards the net before booming shots from all angles.

These players do so with flashes of skill apparent to fans of all cores and ages.

However, indications of Rooney on song aren't always as evident.

He doesn't dribble past or generally overwhelm defenders. His dependence on his right foot is telegraphed. When he does fire in front of defenders, his shots are often deflected or go through the opponents legs by chance. He doesn't use tricks and isn't particularly two-footed, especially when controlling the ball.

When he's playing well, he does little things. He makes runs behind defense. He hustles and harries, but stays in a forward position. He gets off shots from range with both feet. He niggles into the right space to head home from close. But he's rarely flashy.

Like United fan-boy David Beckham, a lot of Rooney's virtues stem from his indefatigable engine and vague platitudes about his "desire", "heart", or "dedication".
And like his former club and current English teammate, Rooney's false reputation as a glamorous, dominant player often precedes him with casual fans.

They tune in expecting either to be a world-beater, when both Becks and Wazza can aesthetically appear average, even in form.

Sycophantism breeds complacency

The hollow nature of many plaudits regarding Rooney can stifle the growth of the sport in America and elsewhere. Casuals tune in with unrealistic expectations only to be let down by reality.

But furthermore, constantly projecting a player's greatness not only fosters casual fans' over-expectations, but it can also stunt the player's growth.
Not only do overrated or over-marketed players have more pressure on them, but they're more liable to lull into complacency when they're constantly being proclaimed world-class too soon.

Complacency can be cited as a reason Rooney has not grown at nearly the same rate as another former United teammate—now at Madrid.

Nor much at all. Over the last four or five years is there any facet of his game that he's clearly improved? Beyond controlling his temper more, or heading better this season?

There is little excuse for a player in his early twenties to add virtually nothing to his game after training with one of the world's best clubs and managers for several years.

Theoretically, criticism is as equally useful as reinforcement when motivating sportsmen. It becomes even more necessary when players are put on pedestals early in their careers as they suddenly grow rich and powerful.

If his form so far this year becomes the norm—not the exception—into and through the World Cup, than he may climb the final rung into the rightful elite of the sport.

Consistency shows final maturation

Not only will he join an imaginary group of pound-for-pound best players in the world, but if England can conquer all this summer at the World Cup, Rooney would be a shoe-in for individual end-of-the-year honors.

In fact, FIFA's World Player of the Year award has only gone to World Cup winners in years involving the famous tournament.

Whether or not the swarthy Englishman ultimately deserves such hype, pressure, and accolade, he would at least be more deserving than in seasons' past.

But only if he managed to continue his current form; finally establishing the consistency his better play has otherwise been lacking.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

AC Milan-Manchester United: Player Ratings

AC Milan dominated the first half but a fortuitous Scholes equalizer set the stage for a United recovery in the second frame. Rooney headed home twice in the second half on United's first two truly serviceable crosses. Ronaldinho later combined brilliantly with substitute Seedorf to peg one back. Milan pressure at the death but United win 3-2.

Van der Sar (7 ) Fairly busy game. Made one top-class save from Pirlo. Showed good distribution and ball control. Charged decisively to meet crosses when necessary. Let two by but was not greatly culpable for either.

Rafael (8 ) The young Brazilian had a tall order in covering Ronaldinho in such a huge European tie. Though Dinho had a quality game, so did Rafael, playing with a maturity that Ferguson will be well chuffed by.

Ferdinand (6 ) Looked a little squirrely at times. He's an odd choice for England captain because of the physical failings and mental instability he's shown this year. He can become rattled when forwards drive at him. Off form.

Evans (8 ) Another youngster expected to really step up in this classic tie. He was reamed by his manager for one instance of naivety but otherwise was stalwart against a star-studded Milan attack. If United's finances are in truly poor order they'll be thankful to have youngsters like this to plug possible transfer departures.

Evra (7.5 ) Arguably United's most consistent player over this season. Rarely puts in a bad shift. Showed good sportsmanship in avoiding a stamp against Ambrosini in the second half, and otherwise was a more than useful outlet when United transitioned from defense to attack.

Park (6 ) Too slow. Like his wingman, Park had a couple decent games in January but is still having a bad year. Didn't do much on offense; he appears off-balance often. His utility for the side has always been to harry on United's side of the field which he did so today only averagely.

Carrick (6 ) Sent off late for time-wasting, so he loses a half-point. Otherwise, he did just enough to spare criticism I'd otherwise be more than willing to spew. He is too content to be a supporting player, never really inspires anyone or thing with his play. However, he was economical enough to warrant a slightly above-average rating for his day.

Scholes (7.5) When he started to make forwards runs and occupy advanced positions in the second half, United played better. There's no point having him lying deep when Carrick and Fletcher are more suited to. Mishit the first goal as it came off his standing leg, but to his credit, he was unmarked. Otherwise marshaled the game wisely. His manager likely would have opted for Giggs if the Welshman was healthy; let's be glad he didn't.

Fletcher (8 ) One of the few United players to show improvement, week-by-week, over the season. Some players dip into and out of form; some players actually grow and get better. At 26, he is entering his prime. His engine is inexhaustible; he tackles willfully, turns and holds the ball, and always tracks back.

Nani (5 ) Tales of his ascension were greatly exaggerated, and not by me. Continues to flatter and deceive. Had two good games in January and people wanted to anoint him reborn. Cooler heads prevail: Nani is still rubbish. His passing is still awful. As soon as he left, Valencia dinked in a cross for Rooney to convert; perhaps the firt cross of the game finding the striker's head. Nani can occasionally bust out a trick that woos casual fans, but certainly all the poor decision-making, bad passings, and ostentatious dribbling he's displayed over the last three seasons are not lost from memory? They shouldn't be on today's evidence.

Rooney (9) Finally playing as well as everyone's been saying all year. Not because he headed in nicely on two occasions, but because of the decisions and touches he's making on the field. Had a great turn-and-shoot in the first half with his left foot. Drove through the middle of the park and fired from distance several times in the second half. After finally getting a decent cross he converted skillfully from Valencia and again from Fletcher. The time he spent in the offseason heading the ball is clearly paying off. Since United's first January match against Man City Rooney has excelled into perhaps the best form of his career. He can and hopefully will still get better. When he dips his shoulder, drives at defenders, makes runs in behind, and shoots from range, he is confident and effective.

Valencia (Changed the game with his first cross, should always start instead of Nani)
Brown (Did not touch the ball)

Dida (5 ) Does not inspire confidence.

Thiago (6.5 ) Getting better as the season goes on. His partnership with Nesta is blooming but the pairing is by no means foolproof. At sea during Rooney's headers.

Nesta (6 ) Let's be honest, I don't pay nearly as much attention to the Milan players. But, intuitively, I think if I say that Nesta didn't look especially good or poor today I won't be far off the park.

Antonini (5 ) Substituted in the first half after injury.

Bonera (6 ) Unremarkable.

Pirlo (7 ) Nifty in the middle as Milan controlled the first half. Forced a good save from Van der Sar from a dead-ball. Legs are looking heavier as the years race by but his creative mind is still sharp.

Ambrosini (6.5 ) Poor man's Fletcher. Good first half. Faded in the second. Clumsy with the ball, but willing.

Beckham (6 ) Beckham is virtually always Beckham. Passes sideways and backwards usually. Occasionally dinks in some nice little through balls or inside passes. Swings in crosses that look nice and are sometimes in an ideal vicinity. Stayed out wide; substituted for Seedorf as Milan trailed 1-3.

Ronaldinho (8 ) If you've read lately that Ronaldinho is finally nearing his world-class Barcelona form, you were not misled. Over the last month or more his confidence has returned. It either results from or contributes to his stylish play. Scored the first goal after getting a helpful deflection. Drove at defenders and was involved throughout. Passionate.

Huntelaar (6.5 ) Strong first half. Underrated striker. Wouldn't have started if Boriello was healthy, rightly so, in truth. But he shares the ability with his national teammate van Nistelrooy to finish decisively in the box. Unfortunately today those efforts were blocked.

Pato (7 ) Quiet first half. Better second half. Some ridiculous turns of skill to get through and around defenders. Always willing to drive at pace against United's backline. He's a handful even if he doesn't have a great game.

Favalli (Blah)
Seedorf (Class)
Inzaghi (Provided pressure)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rooney and Kaka suck balls; the truth behind player form

Kaka and AC Milan rampaged through Manchester United en route to the 2007 Champions League trophy. Kaka was literally in the form of his life.

Literally because he hasn't played nearly as good since.

After winning World Player of the Year honors and the Ballon d'Or that year, Kaka became the odd-man out at Milan.

The Rossoneri failed to qualify domestically for the Champions League the next season. Kaka was almost instantly overshadowed on the pitch by the younger, vibrant Pato. Ultimately Ronaldinho arrived and shared Kaka's position.

There were too many cooks in the kitchen, but only one could be sold for far more than the others, and far more than he was worth.

Milan showed their hand—and their valuation of it—by allowing Kaka leave to Man City last January for a rumoured $100m. He nixed the deal, though, citing God or honor or something.

That summer, he was off to Madrid for the still inflated price of $80m.

Kaka was overrated, and Milan knew it

Milan had Pato, who is now inarguably better than Kaka, much younger, and less reliant on pace. But Milan didn't just sell Kaka to free Pato as their creative pin. They sold him because the world still thought he was as good as he wasn't.

But Kaka had won the World Player of the Year in 2007; how could he not be worth that exorbitant amount of cash? Well, rhetorical man, you just answered your own question.

Players who have outstanding seasons often become overrated. Or they simply plateau. Why?

With anything else, there are innumerable factors, of which only a finite number can be perceived and addressed.

Why is everyone so wrong and dumb?

But for starters, there is a tendency for fans to view player form inductively, deriving broad, qualitative opinions from a small sample of performances.

For instance, virtually everyone saw Kaka dismantle Man United in the 2007 Champions League quarterfinals because it was the 2007 Champions League quarterfinals and Kaka dismantled Man United.

What I'm sayin' is, the majority of fans probably all watch the same few games each year starring certain European players, but they're still more than willing to argue about why their favorite player on their team is better than every other.

Consequently, a vast majority of fans might see a few of any player's games or highlights, while the minority of fans study most or all of a player's action. That's why the minority is usually right when it comes to popular discourse about football. Also, most people are kind of dumb (like, IQ's less than 100!). Avoid the forums!

As such, unfortunately, for every insightful, risky article challenging popular culture there are thirty more recycling common consensus and regurgitating the same contrived rhetoric back and forth.

"Did you see that horribly banal and unremarkable game today? Oh."

As I said, everyone saw Kaka dismantle United because Kaka dismantled United.

When good players have Youtube-like performances, they're viewed by exponentially more people than are their lesser showings. No one makes or watches highlight packages of great players turning the ball over, making bad decisions, losing out on tackles, or misplacing passes, with the odd exception.

As such, the relationship between quality of play and quantity of viewers is directly proportional.

Players playing great attract more observation. Those players become great in the minds of many who watch.

But they don't lose their perceived greatness by then playing poorly, because most of those casual people aren't seeing or watching then.

"I looked into her eyes, but all I could remember was her cleavage."

Secondly, exceptional displays of skill and craft—like Kaka's four-touch destruction of Fletcher, Evra, Heinze, and Van der Sar then—make the strongest impressions on our minds, while the more numerable performances of lesser quality are naturally given less reverence.

Not only will more people naturally see highlights like Kaka's flaying of United's back-line, but these moments become most salient in our minds, dominating and drowning out all the instances to the contrary.

Granted, I wouldn't expect you to remember thousands of inconsequential touches specifically when our memories themselves are not boundless.

But a player's objective quality results from every touch, not just the most famous or aesthetically pleasing ones. We can't be expected to recall the banal, but we should be practical enough to retain it all in the subconscious, or else our valuations become skewed to the outliers instead of the norm.

Maybe it's just easier to rationalize a Kaka or Rooney having a shit game than having to reconfigure the way we think about football, media, or culture.

"How are you? Good. How are you? Good."

Thirdly, there is a tendency in the civilized world (at least the one I'm in) to frown upon criticism and negativity.

That's right. I'm not saying my society's insufferable penchant for political correctness is responsible for the erroneous popular perception of individual player form, but I am seriously implying it, and doing so wordily.

Most people try to live unbalanced to the good, hesitant to express disapproving opinions of anything less they hurt someone's feelings.

This works relatively well for most people to manage relationships accordingly, but in football—where form is an objective truth—it fosters carebearish treatment of our heroes' reputations.

No one wants to point out each of Ryan Giggs' turnovers because everyone likes Giggs. We want to believe that he is what everyone tells us. It makes us feel safe in our rationale. Saying he isn't nearly as good as most people believe is a buzz-kill, man!

Similarly, most casual fans or hardcore fanboys aren't going to dwell on Rooney's 35 poor touches; as long as he gets a goal, he's played well.

Because that goal—that plus-1, that empirical little digit—supplies millions around the world with the stone-cold empirical ammunition they need to convince themselves and others of his marketabil...quality.

Who cares if they only watch one in three games: Rooney has 20 goals! We are all vindicated!

To the same extent, Brazilian or Madrista fans might return to their fond memory of Kaka alone destroying Manchester United instead of balancing all the datapoints to form a more accurate—but less fulfilling—rendering of the player and game.

The "Oh Shit" Moment

If Giggs isn't as good as each promo posits, or if Rooney really isn't the world-class all-beater the newspapers say, and if Kaka isn't one of the best in the world anymore, what does it say about the game and the way it's covered?

It would mean that most people who write about it are either suffering from the same distorted lens as the innocent, casual fans they fed (and feast upon), or that it is their agenda to do so; to draw in more viewers, aggregate more clicks, sell the damn t-shirts, and promote World Cup bids.

Call it wish-fulfillment, vicariousness, projection, selective memory, or just call it bad, pretentious writing; but when players, elevated in ours minds and on TV, don't play like Gods, we naturally gloss it over or otherwise defend them.

Make no mistake: Kaka's name appeared in the last two years' individual award runs not because of ability he displayed on the field throughout, but because of a wholly shared, misconstrued perception of his footballing value, in part cultivated and largely perpetuated from that brisk Old Trafford night and our own inchoate proclivities as both wishful fans and lazy opinion-makers.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Another Ode to Scholes

Paul Scholes' little legs may have life in them yet.

Often on the periphery this season and last, his appearances had been patchy both in quantity and quality. Ryan Giggs since emerged as the focal "elder knight" for the club as Scholes' fitness and career trickled down in a more direct, less romantic fashion.

However, the gingerman's unique ability and individual passing style are tailored to make an even greater impact—on the pitch—than the Welshman this season, at least in the center of the pitch where either are likely to reside, and where United need it most.

Scholes' role remembered

Many assume Scholes' displayed tendency to sit back and quarterback the team result as much from his aging legs as an intention of his manager's tactics. Presumably the savvy Sir Alex Ferguson is aware of the creative limitation this creates, but, nonetheless, employs it purposefully.

Bemusing tactical decisions aside, Scholesy has nonetheless been in good touch over the last fortnight (the minimum time elapsed required to declare someone "in form," ye over-zealous plaudits), apparently benefiting from the extended twenty-day break granted after his putrid display against Fulham in mid-December.

Since then, most namely in United's last three matches, Scholes has been on song.

As so, his long-range passes more often zero onto their marks. His crafty wiggles and turns in midfield evade younger midfielders instead of resulting in almost sad turnovers. He finds his forwards through the middle with greater frequency and predicates most of United's movements.

But besides being simply—and finally—rested and sharper, away to Hull City on Jan. 23, Scholes' early 32-yard belcher—the longest strike he's attempted in years' time—led to Rooney rebounding for United's first goal. Flood gates -> Open.

Does the audacity required to uncork from distance result from confidence or coincidence? Who knows. But good things happen when Scholes shoots from range—noteworthily an attribute devoid from Giggs' repertoire.

Against Man City a few days later, the number eighteen started again, balancing power and accuracy to score the tantamountly important first goal from the edge of the box, in addition to assuming the creative mantle in a five-man midfield. United don't lose when they score first, and they look best when they score early.

In United's next game against Arsenal last weekend, in a rare paradigm shift, Ferguson mercifully deregulated Scholes, granting the minute midfielder license to get forward while both Fletcher and Carrick marshaled the middle, further contributing to arguably United's best spell of football this season.

Andy Gray remarked during United's comprehensive, whack-a-mole destruction of the Gunners that Scholes stated he still wants to play all the time and doesn't like being rotated. After starting three club matches on the trot for the first time since the start of last season, it seems he was right.

Who knows. Maybe Scholes needs more consistent playing time—not less—to stay in good touch. But even if he falls out of it, an average Scholes applied correctly—at the tip of the spear, instead of the handle—piques the current squad's potential.

A note on tactics

In 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formations, his manager is granted less of doubt in using him correctly.

Such a formation generally preclude Berbatov, who is unlikely to surpass Rooney on any United team sheet—ever, which is not necessarily his fault (see: group-think [2]). United's attacks invariably suffer in the build-up, thereby magnifying the significance of the Scholes role.

But more so, the presence of two other central midfielders in such a line-up—each better defensively, but worse offensively, than Scholes, as the case is—equates to nil reason why the ginger man shouldn't feature in front of them then.

What I'm saying is

Hopefully Sir Alex is beginning to see that Paul still has the life in him yet to get forward and do the cheeky things he built his reputation on.

Visions of Scholes' skidding into the box, dinking through balls, driving from distance, and tick-tocking an attractive United side are not necessarily lost to lore.

But the synergy of confidence and fitness is somewhat wasted if he is not allowed to attack, unsupressed by tactics, if not the attrition of age—continue from January into the new month and beyond.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Confidence is invisible

All the analysis in the world goes out the window when a top team finally begins to exude confidence, the factors for which are numerous and inabsolute.

Conjecturing about tactical tinkering, player shifting, and behind the scenes turmoil loses all significance when the side, as a whole, suddenly coalesces to finally produce flowing football and gritty maturity.

Such is the case at Manchester United. But it's hard to garner a clear rendering of their real efficiency if all you consume are the easy, prevalent headlines borne from their results.

Everyone wants to root for Rooney, and it's easy to make an argument for him being the alpha and omega, et al, when his goals are plentiful. In truth, United's most consistent players through the tortuous first half of the term were Evra and Fletcher, which is reflective of the problems they were having going forward.

The over-reliance on an inconsistent Scholes, injured Berbatov, and patchy Rooney were closest to the prime reasons United were playing unattractively. In six loses this season, United were shutout in five, managing a tally only against Man City in a 2-1 loss in January.

Most importantly, though, even when they were winning, they did so without too much aplomb, rarely scoring early, often scoring late, only then piling on goals as their opponents were stretched and beaten.

But after brazenly dismissing Arsenal away, and ultimately besting City over two legs—which sandwiched a 4-0 destruction of Hull City—the confidence in the side is visceral. But where did this new-found belief manifest?

Do individual performances—like Rooney's recent and eventual turn of form—inspire the rest of the team?

United's hood ornament has finally hit stride this year, driving at defenders and making correct forward runs, his passing and dribbling sharper, brimming with confidence. Perhaps his influence by example led the rest of the team to play in kind.

Or is this simply the culmination of a training regime specifically tailored to provide physical—and somehow—mental peaks in performance as spring unfurls?

United have always had a history—perhaps more a legend—of finding synergy as the year changes, embarking on rapacious runs to start each new year into March and April. Alex Ferguson claims their approach to training is intended to bear fruit during this period.

Maybe a brief chain of emotional results against historic rivals—Leeds, Man City, Arsenal—fosters the galvanization of the squad. Or does it result from it?

It may be mere coincidence that Rooney, Nani, and Scholes found form at the same time while Fletcher, Evra, Valencia, and Rafael continue to excel and put in useful shifts. Even Ji-Sung and Carrick look to be finally on song this year.

Perhaps United at current are simply overachieving. Only a month ago the squad looked thin, Rooney looked tired, Nani was abysmal, Park was useless, Carrick, ever average, and Scholes ineffectual.

But all that appears to change when a squad finds conviction.

Where it comes from, though, remains consigned to speculation, sure to continue here and everywhere else as we scramble to rationalize trends, derived from major stories and minor rumors, to form a cohesive rendering of player form, that, like life itself, can often appear to hinge on confidence alone.