Saturday, August 28, 2010

Manchester United-West Ham United: Player Ratings

Manchester United comfortably downed visiting West Ham 3-0 Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford.

It was all downhill for West Ham. The game started with a little give-and-take before it slowly and steadily shifted in favor of the Reds. West Ham held out for some time, but United's pressure was always rising.

In the 32nd minute, just around when you'd expect, United struck first. Ryan Giggs beat former United right-back Johnathan Spector forcing the American to lunge in from behind. Wayne Rooney stepped up calmly and confidently to dispatch the spot-kick into the lower-right corner, celebrating as if he'd done it before and'll do it again.

The red United continued to out-hustle the purple and teal version, controlling more of the ball with ultimately failed ventures inside West Ham's half.

After the break, Man Utd struck early on the counterattack. Rooney played Nani through, who ultimately finished the sequence left-footed from 15 yards after a little dilly-dally.

West Ham never really gave up completely. Parker, Dyer, Cole, and Noble showed good energy at various times, but every attempted conjuration fizzled before production. Just the one shot on target for the West Londerers.

Berbatov deserved a goal and he got one in the 68th minute. Fletcher played forward to O'shea who feigned the compulsory cross from the right, instead deeking and shifting inside to Nani. Nani chipped in a precopis, curled cross—deliberately!—right into Berbatov's wheelhouse, who jumped and side-volleyed from inside six yards.

That scoreline would hold after each side made several substitutions and perfunctorily concluded the already foregone result. Manchester United 3, West Ham 0.

Player Ratings

Manchester United

van der Sar: 6: What score do goalies most often get? Six. Because they didn't need to really do anything, but still got a clean sheet.

O'shea: 6: Earning anything higher will always be difficult for the lumbering Irishman. His rough touch ensures daily turnovers. Directly contributed to United's third, though, and, I should be fair: it wasn't his only positive
contribution. Would prefer a da Silva on the wing. Most United fans seem to agree.

Evans: 6.5: Sort of just let Vidic do everything. Evans was stuck-in when he needed to be, but that wasn't very often. More will be needed from him by harder opposition, but at least he should benefit from an overall leisurely 65 minutes.

Vidic: 9: The Serb determined very early in the match that he could do anything better than Carlton Cole and Luis Boa Morte. Vida teased them at times, giving them a few steps into the box only to crush their souls with last-second tackles, sometimes neatly, sometimes brutally. Games like this were the norm for Vida two years ago when United conquered Europe. Coincidence?

Evra: 5.5: Quiet game. Still ran a lot. Looks unfocused. I grant him that after the World Cup he endured.

Nani: 6.5: Poor first half saw him doing his usual routine: bad ideas but nice touches, good ideas and bad touches. He played much better in the second half and scored a decent goal. His form is so up-and-down I don't think he's reliable as a top-class winger, but he can still prove me wrong. Seems to have a growing fanbase among your average lay United supporter.

Scholes: 7.5: Again the ginger midfielder controlled the game going forward. He perhaps looked overwrought here and there, but if he can at least play this well throughout most of the season it'll be much more than anyone could have otherwise rightfully expected. His role is pivotal this year for Ferguson who doesn't have ample cover in that spot, especially someone as currently as effective as Scholesy.

Fletcher: 6.5: Still looking to discover his season long fine form from last term. He did more than enough today to snuff out West Ham when it mattered, despite being in fourth gear most of the match.

Giggs: 6.5: Was surprisingly sprightly today, which makes sense as he hasn't started yet this season. He was both tricky and wasteful, though, at times. Earned the breakthrough goal with his run into the box, drawing a foolish tackle from West Ham's right-back. Not very physical, but displayed a good gas tank and leadership by virtue of presence. Some nice passing.

Berbatov: 8: Berbatov was popularly undervalued the last two seasons. Fortunately for my credibility I wrote precisely that sentiment over the period. United play their best football with him as their lynchpin. He reinforced it today. It must be said, though, that today he added an extra amount of hustle, attacking 50-50 balls and headers with just a modicum more desire. That marginal difference is all it takes to convert his widespread detractors. Deserved his goal and the applause he garnered as he was substituted after a complete performance.

Rooney: 7: Rooney was well-rested and played like it. I'm not just saying that because I called for the rest last week. Rooney was refreshing in his approach not trying to be everywhere all the time, but he did characteristically track back on the most needed occasions. His assurance with the penalty was much needed and his interplay with Nani and Berbatov was often harmonic. First goal since March. Thank God.

West Ham United

Green: 6: Avoided any outrageous gaffes. Misplayed some crosses, handled others. Wasn't to blame too much for any of the goals, especially Rooney's penalty and Berba's full-volley. Shouldn't be England's number one, but is not out of place as West Ham's.

Spector: 5: A bit naive in whole. Very poor decision to up-end Giggs once the Welsham had already earned a route past him. Didn't contribute much to his side.

Gabbidon: 4: I'm not sure he touched the ball. Very anonymous.

Upson: 6: Combative with United's forwards, but outmatched by relentless pressure.

Ilunga: 5: Dealt with Nani when Nani let him. Probably conceded seven corner-kicks alone. It was always a lose-lose for West Ham's defense.

Dyer: 7: Looked twice as fast as normal today with twice the engine. Really encouraging from an oft-injured former starlet. Couldn't quite get over the hump or past Vidic and Evans, though.

Parker: 7: Reinforced why he is such a fan favorite to neutrals, myself included. Even as his side was defeated, he swash-buckled around the pitch with his characteristic blend of abandon and control. Unfortunately he was usually alone in his unbounded desire and eventually became consumed by United's community showing.

Noble: 6: Got involved on the attack whenever West Ham rarely had time to pass. Made some tackles, too, but was the fourth-best central midfielder today.

Faubert: 5.5: Flashy and sloppy. Passing is poor. He can whip in some crosses, or at times pull a rabbit from a hat, but in general his decision-making and fundamentals curb his individual progress.

Boa Morte: 3.5: Very poor. Would you blame him?

Cole: 6: Outmatched by Vidic & co. Made some niggles here and there but always muted. The tall and able Englishman has potential, with an above-average ability to hold on to the ball and turn with his back to goal. He can finish with both feet and is big in the air. Just not today.

Check out this live play-by-play I did, Mary, you hot ass bitch!

Man United win fairly routinely (in hindsight) at home 3-0.

Scholes again displayed good fitness and form. Berbatov was refreshingly positive and eager as was a rested Rooney who didn't try to do too much. Nani had a nice second half, recovering from being extravagant and wasteful in the first term. Vidic enjoyed himself; if he has another season like 2008-09, the world is in trouble.

West Ham weren't mockeries but they were never in the match competitively. They're still pointless after three games but showed enough here to warrant hope as the new season unfolds. Avram Grant is more than capable of keeping that squad in the Premier League.

Very comfortable win for United without being too depressing for West Ham. I'm inspired to go out and play today. United's next game isn't until Sep 11, for some reason. That really sucks.

Mercifully I'm outta here. Live-blogging a match means I missed most of it, so I'm looking forward to watching it later and forming some sort of conceptual masterplan.

91: They took it. They didn't score. They took another one and turned it over. There's the whistle. 

90: West Ham are jogging into United's half. Barrera sends in a hopeful cross from the right and gets a corner without earning it. Boa Morte is replaced after a haggard shift, Stanislas slotting in up front.

87: West Ham swing in a corner kick. Noble gets in another cross but United clear and counter. Carrick, Owen, and now Giggs on the right side. He dribbles and turns over to Noble who somehow escapes from the corner. West Ham neatly play out of their half finally but United's midfield holds tight.

85: Carrick just made the strongest challenge of his United career on Barrera and it ranked behind six or seven of Vidic's tackles on the day's power-meter.

83: The commentators imply Rooney is still showing good workrate today. I'm busy typing and editing a play-by-play in a word processor format without any built-in functionality.

80: This is usually the part of a game when I'd tune out and think about the consequences. O'shea plays a vertical long-ball that goes out of bounds. West Ham pass it around five or six times and Parker lung-busts inside the box. He shoots off-balance from ten yards. It was pretty ugly but his dedication was and is heroic.

78: Giggs crosses in for Nani but Upson sends it away. Ten minutes left but West Ham are walking for the most part. Except for the sub Piquonne; he flips in to Carlton Cole but Vidic slide-tackles at the last second. Brilliant defense. "He comes from Serbia, he'll effing murder ya," we're reminded.

75: The match has really slowed down now. United attack casually but West Ham scatter it clear. The Hammers feign to attack but Vidic clears twice.

73: Chris Smalling also entered for his Old Trafford debut. Dyer departs for the Hammers after a positive shift, replaced by Piquonne, whose name I'll misspell.

72: Berba got carded for taking his shirt off there. Not sure if he had something written on his undershirt. Didn't look like much. He gets the goal he deserves and applause he has always deserved. Michael Owen replaces him and Carrick shockingly replaces Scholes.

Manchester United 3: West Ham United 0

68: Berbatov scores and I'm clapping. Fletcher played to O'shea. He feigned a shot and passed to Nani. From nowhere he dinks in a brilliant little cross. Berbatov volleys on the flying side-turn and scores from five yards, his third goal of the season.

66: The Welshman takes a sharp free-kick but shoots instead of crosses. Nice idea, worse execution. It goes over.

65: More Joy Division from the Old Trafford fans as they serenade Giggs. He's had a decent game without being great today. Early reports indicate a "7" player rating.

63: Berbatov is trying hard today. It must be frustrating being the player with the most class on any team you play. But his head is up and he's attacking 50-50 balls, looking very mobile and willing.

62: West Ham's Faubert departs for Mexican international Barrera.

61: Rooney plays a one-two with Berbatov but it's out for a throw. Rooney releases Evra down the line. He crosses for Berbatov who uses Scholes for support, teeing him up for a driven shot from 18 yards. It's right at Green.

60: West Ham attack again but Faubert's final ball is lazy.

59: Rooney broke from half-way after a scramble but he's pulled down by Upson who gets the deserved yellow card for the professional foul.

58: Berbatov tees up Nani after turning with usual grace but Nani miscues his shot.

57: Giggs projects being fit with another energetic run, but he again forces using his left foot to pass and turns it over.

56: Almost every West Ham player takes a touch in their best passage of play. Noble, Dyer, Faubert, Parker, and everyone else, until Dyer gets an open shot from 18 yards right and curls onto the outside of the post.

54: Come on you Hammers. Faubert shoots or crosses over the goal.

52: Rooney should have scored. Some really nice passing with Berbatov, Rooney, and Nani but Rooney's final touch through on goal was heavy.

50: Nani needed that goal but didn't deserve it. Rooney put him through with a deft touch. It's nice to see the Englishman rested. It's 2-0 United but it may as well be 5-0 the way West Ham are playing.

Manchester United 2: West Ham United 0

49: West Ham pass it around for awhile but United snuff it out. Scholes plays through to Rooney, who feeds in Nani. Nani dribbles too much, but finds space and shoots left-footed from 15 yards. Goal for United!

48: Giggs buzzes around West Ham's left corner but Mark Clattenburg awards some arbitrary foul and it's a free-kick for the Londoners.

47: Parker passes it around for a bit before trying a Scholes-like pinged cross, but O'shea pops it back to Vidic who heads it down to VDS.

46: It was Man United who kicked off the first half, a conclusion I've come to deductively as West Ham kick off to start the second.

Second half kick-off 10:35AM PST


For West Ham, Parker and Dyer looked more with it than their colleagues. On the other side, I liked Berbatov's energy, Fletcher, and Vidic for their first half showings. Nani is especially wasteful today and poor.

Man United controlled the great majority of possession but only have the one goal to show for it, and it was a penalty. There was no reason for Spector to make that challenge on Giggs but you won't hear me complain too much. Man Utd lead 1-0 and I'm off to reformat this article and drink some coffee. See you back in 15.

46: Looks like Giggs who puts Nani clean through. Nani tries to chip the keeper but instead chips the goal. West Ham try to relieve the pressure but just give the ball back to the Mancs. That'll do it.

45: Two minutes of added time incoming.

44: Nani takes too long on the ball again and turns it over. West Ham try to counter through Dyer. He's very willing and almost fit but only just unable to release down that side. Red United have the ball again, passing with little aplomb as the half teeters out.

42: Goal kick for West Ham after struggling to get it out of their half. Parker to Spector to Cole to Faubert. United defend and counter. Berbatov, O'shea, Fletcher, Scholes, Berbatov, Giggs all take touches winding into West Ham's box. Berbatov gets a half-volley but he completely shanks it. Tough technique on that bouncing ball.

39: Darren Fletcher cracks a brilliant half-curled, half-driven shot from 23 yards out, but Green matched his technique and saved nicely.

38: van der Sar rushes a clearance under pressure from Cole but West Ham do nothing with the deep throw-in. Man United control and pass their way into West Ham's box but Nani's control lets him down after busting in from the right side.

36: West Ham break with both Scholes and Fletcher forward for United, so Rooney tracks back and muffles the flow. West Ham, though, retain possession and attempt to move forward with sideways and backwards passing.

34: Another corner for the Red Devils. Another corner. United fans sing Joy Division. Giggs swings in the corner. Green saves and Dyer breaks. Stuffed out by a back-tracking Giggs. Man United possess.

33: United want more. Nani breaks down the right, earns a corner while I'm typing.

Manchester United 1: West Ham United 0

32.55: Rooney takes a very long run-up and slots the penalty lower-right side. Good composure. His celebration is refreshingly slightly muted. Man United lead West Ham United 1-0.

31: Scholes pings cross-field to Giggs foot. Former United young-boy Jonny Spector gets beat by Giggs and fouls him from behind, inside the box. Penalty to Man United.

29: Red United control the ball in West Ham's half, passing around the outside. Giggs cuts inside from the left, never using his right foot, and turns the ball over.

28: Cole hobbles off as replays confirm a sick-ass tackle from Vidic inside the box. Cole looks set to return after some magic spray.

26: The surprisingly sprightly Kieron Dyer fires from range, keeping van der Sar on his toes. West Ham attack again, and Vidic tackles awesomely on Carlton Cole who worryingly stays down and looks in some agony.

25: Fletcher barnstorms into West Ham's half. He passes to Berba whose first inclination is to do the same, back to Fletcher. Attack fizzles.

24: United turn over. West Ham reply in-kind. Nani balloons a shot into the Stretford End from inside the box. United are beginning to outclass West Ham, yet, parity remains.

23: West Ham had a chance but I was too busy reading an e-mail. United attack, Vidic playing long to Berbatov who lays it off side-boot to Nani. Nani cracks from range and Green saves onto his bar. United control again.

West Ham control Green's punt forward and pass the ball around comfortably for the first time in ten or so minutes.

20: Nani uses strength to salvage his short-corner kick and gets in a cross from open-play at the byline. Goes straight to Green, though.

Still nil-nil here, though the Red United are starting to control and threaten more than their London opponents.

19: Noble goes in studs-up on Rooney. Mark Clattenburg doesn't book him, which is a good decision. Rooney doesn't complain overly. The play must go on. Rooney dummies for Berbatov who is fouled. Free-kick to United is played short. United win a corner on their right side through Nani.

17: Bodies are flying everywhere as the sides exchange possession. West Ham get in a cross but it eludes Carlton Cole. United build again through the lumbering O'shea. Now West Ham try to control the ball but end up just punting it forward through Green.

15: Rooney, Nani, and Giggs sit behind the free-kick. I wish Berbatov would be allowed to take some close range free-kicks. I think his technique is best and he lacks overpower. Looks like Nani will take it, unfortunately. His shot goes over. Too close for Nani.

14: Rooney drops deep for United this time and plays it wide to Nani. He steps on the ball and over-elaborates. United ultimately turn-over. As West Ham does immediately from Green's punt. United have it again. Berbatov plays through Nani and United have a free-kick in a dangerous spot, about 24 yards out, slightly left.

13: Berbatov flicks onto Rooney inside the box but Rooney mishits. West Ham have a deep free-kick from their own half but turn it over immediately. United begin building through Evans, passing horizontally, moving slowly forward.

12: Scotty Parker always has his head up. He makes about ten passes on one West Ham attack, the last one being the vital miscue, as the last one always is.

10: Berbatov drops deep as Rooney stays forward. Good tidings. Rooney fires from 22 yards on target. Green doesn't bobble it comically and let it trickle in, though. Still nil-nil.

08: Corner came to nothing as they often do. Berbatov ultimately gets a shot on goal from the right-side but he's ruled offside.

07: Scotty Parker is getting stuck-in as usual. Berbatov and Rooney interplay nicely going forward. Evra wins a corner for the reds.

06: Noble plays to former Real Madrid man Faubert who feeds Cole but Vidic nicked it away. Man United have been sloppy at times. Pretty even stuff.

05: West Ham turnover in the middle of the field and Scholes chips in Berbatov behind West Ham's defense. Berba tries to cross to Rooney but it's blocked out of play.

03: Giggs does to same thing with the same result. West Ham counter all the way into United's box but Kieron Dyer loses control and Man United rebuild.

02: Evra breaks down the left after some slow build-up and pops in a cross which Robert Green manages to hold on to.

01: Scholesy drives his first cross-field pass of the day to Nani's feet. Fletcher tries to play the ball into Berbatov but West Ham cut it out and start to counter, but fizzle.

00: Didn't even see who kicked-off as I was switching tabs and confusing myself. So far, so good.

Kick-off 9:31AM PST


Good morning United fans on both sides. The Hammers visit Old Trafford in the late kick-off today starting at 09:30 PST, 12:30 EST, or 17:30 local time. There will be absolutely no spoilers of other matches in this thread. Starting line-ups should be up presently.

And here they are:

Man United: van der Sar, O'Shea, Vidic, Jonathan Evans, Evra, Nani, Scholes, Fletcher, Giggs, Rooney, Berbatov. Subs:Kuszczak, Owen, Smalling, Hernandez, Carrick, Rafael Da Silva, Valencia.

West Ham: Green, Spector, Gabbidon, Upson, Ilunga, Faubert, Noble, Parker, Boa Morte, Dyer, Cole. Subs: Stech, Barrera, Kovac, McCarthy, da Costa, Stanislas, Piquionne.

Prediction: Man Utd win 3-1 after scoring late.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Assigning blame for lost points at Fulham

Whenever a huge club like Manchester United drop points, it's natural to point the finger.
From within the club, though, hopefully any finger-pointing is done using the thumb; better for our favorite athletes to take accountability for any under-performance.

But on the outside, it helps for analysts and fans to pinpoint singular reasons for deficiency, if only to mass-offer changing ideas to the clubs' decision-makers or simply just rationalize our disappointment.

One of the great obstacles to analyzing a football match is determining how much of a result is due to one team's failure or the other team's success. But one is not exclusive to the other, nor can either team (or any single variable) ever be assigned total blame for whatever result in this dynamic team sport.

Despite that, after United lost the lead twice at Craven Cottage on Sunday, perhaps some opinion-makers and opinion-givers alike aren't giving Fulham enough credit for stifling the larger club on the second matchday in this nascent season.

Hodgsen's Fulham

Roy Hodgsen's Fulham—now coached by Mark Hughes—aren't a forgone three points for England's top sides anymore, largely due to the Hodgsen's influence.

The well-travelled Englishman took over halfway through the 2008-09 season and magically led the side from the absolute brink of relegation. The following season Fulham finished seventh in the Premier League.

Last season was arguably the club's most successful campaign in history. Fulham finished 12th in the Premier League, but reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and defeated storied sides Shaktar Donetsk, FC Basel, Hamburg, and Juventus en route to the inaugural Europa League final.

Fulham's recent resurgence from perennial top flight basement-dwellers resulted not only from their manager's wizened tactical acumen and good ol' English leadership. His signings still reverberate positively for present-day Fulham.

Center-back Brede Hangeland looks and plays like Nemanja Vidic—a compliment on both counts, their flat noses symbolizing a nonsensical, physical style. Hangeland joined Fulham the month Hodgson took charge, reuniting coach and player from an earlier stint together at Norwegian side Viking.

He's a player that is sure to garner the club at least £10 million when they inevitably choose to sell him.
Damien Duff seemed to resurge from under a rug when he joined the side two seasons ago, form that continued in the Cottagers' match against Man United.

Players he didn't sign nonetheless were clear to footballingly fuse during Hodgson's uber-successful reign in southwest London. Stalwart Aaron Hughes, the improving Clint Dempsey, somehow Paul Konchesky, and especially Danny Murphy continue to help make Fulham away no longer a plus-ROI "win-to-the-over" parlay.

And to be fair to Mark Hughes, he seems the type of gaffer who won't overthinkingly turn a cohesive unit back into a relegating pile of dogshit.

United aren't perfect

Having hopefully projected that I know more about Fulham than your average pub-fly, there are redder reasons why United only left Thames-side with just the one point.

First, let it be written that if Rafael da Silva started at right-back instead of John O'Shea they'd probably have all three.

The lack of offense the big Irishman is capable of is almost wholly unmitigated by whatever defensive special abilities are in his repertoire: seemingly mostly being big, strong, and slow.

His status as a reliable stopgap applies more to central defense than it should on the wings where his lack of pace and creativity unbalance United, especially when Park Ji-Sung is trading on one wing.

When Antonio Valencia is off-form—something that rarely happened last season, to his credit and United's need—O'Shea and Park are rarely going to be able to compensate in attack. Park is consistently average with the ball, at least at United, and his own utility was diminished, if not voided completely, when Ronaldo left the side in 2009.

Nani is only effective in-form, displaying frustratingly immature decision-making in times of lower confidence. He is also a player who changes form like a chameleon changes color, with the exception that the transformation doesn't take place when it's needed most.
United will require the added flare of a da Silva twin on the right-wing when Park is on the field or Nani is off the boil, particularly as Patrice Evra continues to recover from his soul-shattering experiences in South Africa last summer.

Vidic and Jonny Evans will also have to gel quickly and completely for this year's campaign to be a serious one. Rio Ferdinand will likely never consistently feature for United again as he toils away with high-arches and lower-back issues.

Darren Fletcher's player-of-the-year performance last season also basically has to continue into every game this year if red Manchester is to sing in glory come May. Without him defending Scholes' freedom and anchoring the core of the side, the malform of the players around him will be amplified instead of masked.

Scholes' own purely resplendent form must be taped, transcribed, and scorched into our visual memories, but they should also be tempered with reason; there should be no expectation for it to continue consistently throughout the term.

His foudroyant strike against the Cottagers Sunday hearkened back to a game two seasons ago against the same side when Scholes played like he was on some serious ecstasy. Who assumes the creative mantle during the inevitable periods his little legs leak lactic-acid and labor lethargically? Michael Carrick? Lol.

But, as ever, there is not one variable upon which all the others hinge, not in any sport, not ever; despite what pundits'll have us believe by overusing the word "key".

Not even Nani's uncomposed penalty gaffe could assume all the blame for the Red Devils last Sunday.
The English and Asian-speaking world's favorite side will need a little bit from everyone—and a lot from a few certain—to bring another big trophy back up the M-6 into Manchester in 2011.

(Especially without the greatest variable of them all, one afforded to most of their rivals: petty transfer cash)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Top flight penalty misses reveal poor approach from players

Despite advanced training technology, more elaborate research methods, and most importantly, the gross volume of money involved in top-flight football competition, many soccer stars still approach penalty kicks without enough thought.

In particular, Manchester United's Nani proved Sunday at Craven Cottage why his effect as a footballer—at least currently—is one of pomp without procedure, flash without fundamentals.

Quite simply, there are several rudimentary mistakes continually made by players at the elite level each year over.

The run-up

To begin, the literal approach each penalty-taker takes itself is crucial to the placement and success of the ensuing spot kick. Known as the "run-up", most players take roughly five steps before their attempt. Other players take less. Some don't take any.

When a player takes only a few or no steps before his spot-kick, it's naturally harder to drive through the ball, thereby making it more difficult for the player to aim his shot to the far side. Therefore, players who take too few steps in the run-up more often than not will pull the ball (shooting across the body, aiming left for right-footers, right for left-footers.)

But even if a player decides to push his shot towards the far side, without more than three steps to truly drive through the ball, a placed shot into that side will generally lack power.

Therefore, players should always take at least five steps in their penalty run-ups. Otherwise goalies can assume the player will pull the ball (aiming at the near side) and be right more often than they are wrong.

Taking enough steps also allows the taker to push the ball (aiming at the far side) with enough force to beat the keeper even if he guessed correctly.

Below, Nani takes a few stutter-steps and blows his penalty, having tipped his chosen direction in part by his minimal run-up.

Curl towards, not away

Using the instep of a boot to "curl" the ball, when aiming at the near post, also slightly reduces the probability for success. The natural bend of these curled shots (as opposed to curling with the outside of the boot, a more uncommon technique known as the "trivela") take them closer to the keeper, curling away.

However, if you aim to the far post (shooting right for right-footed players, left for left-footed players), the ball bends away from the keeper before curling in towards the inside of the post.

Below Pederson takes a healthy run-up but his pulled, curled shot is blocked by Ben Foster.

Set your goals high

It's a cliche to aim high when setting your goals. Well, there's also a bit of a pun there when it relates to penalty kicks.

Generally, from open-play, it's important to aim shots low because you decrease your chances of shooting over the goal. If your shot is on target (aimed between the goal posts), aiming high gives you extra odds to miss than if the ball was travelling less than eight feet off the ground.

In other words, you can only miss right or left if you keep the ball below the crossbar. But this changes somewhat with regards to penalty kicks.

There are areas of the goal that no man or woman can reliably attend when defending penalty kicks: the upper corners.

The lower corners are more feasibly defended by goalies diving horizontally. But it'd take an eight-foot keeper with serious hops to defend either upper corner from a standing position at goal center.

As long as you can control keeping your shot under eight feet, shooting into an upper corner is far and away the most surefire way to convert a spot-kick—provided you don't balloon it.

Left, down, up, right (b, a, select, start)

Even if you take the safer route and deign to shoot penalty kicks low, there's at least one more thing you should remember.

Shots travelling on or along the ground are more difficult to save than shots travelling even one foot off the floor.

This is because a goalie begins a left or right dive by jumping. In mid-dive the goalkeeper is hard-pressed to defend shots under his body, especially when his arms are outstretched.

So even if the goalie chooses the correct direction to dive, if you keep your shot along the ground, you're odds for success increase, as opposed to shooting a few feet off the ground; that's a keepers bread and butter.

West Ham's Carlton Cole shoots near-post along the ground but took too few steps and telegraphed his intent.

From halves to thirds

Soccer is played on two halves of a field, but more advance analysis of the game divides it into thirds: the defensive third, the middle third, and the attacking third.
For whatever reason, though, the customary tactical approach to aiming a penalty kick is yet to advance from a binary decision.

Which is basically a wordy way of saying that professional players don't shoot the ball down the middle enough, when goalkeepers' often decision to dive left or right makes it a solid mathematical option.

Of the six penalty kicks taken last weekend in the English top flight, the goalie dove to one side every time. This is the prevailing paradigm in top-flight football. Goalies are accustomed to takers choosing a corner, and will almost invariably dive to one side of the goal just as the ball is struck.

On pub teams, keepers aren't likely to dive prematurely. But across the top tiers of the game across the world, keepers expect the shooter to be good enough to find a corner, and will almost invariably dive to either direction.

This means there is a nice niche—at least at the moment—in prevailing professional footballing culture for players to shoot down the middle.

So what's the ideal penalty kick?

Place the ball. Look at the referee until he blows his whistle. Turn-around and walk seven or eight steps away from the goal. In one motion, turn to face goal and begin the long run-up. Combining the top of the foot and the instep, strike the ball high into the far corner, curling inside the post.

Probability is always on the side of the shooter; especially when the right approach is taken. It's wonderful why the best players in the world still display poor decision-making taking penalty kicks, and a greater wonder why their managers let them—especially with all the money often at stake for a straightforward procedure.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rooney should be rested, but he won't be. (He was)

It's strange to need rest a game into the season. But as shopworn as Wayne Rooney has looked lately, in a vacuum, he'd be riding pine on Sunday at Fulham.

And why not—when at least two of United's other premier strikers appear fresher, and are firmly in better individual form?

But United manager Alex Ferguson's reliance on the storied number nine is more likely to see him start without scoring, than give him well-needed rest on the bench as a sharper Berbatov and Hernandez pair interplay without him.

Rooney recovery

If the last several months have proved anything, it's that Wayne Rooney is not playing good football. He looks physically and mentally drained, and you can hardly blame him.

His touch was very heavy in every lamentable performance this summer with England, and his two recent appearances for Man United since have not been admirable.

As I've written before, his maturation as a player is possibly stunted by gross attention, hype, and wish-fulfillment. He wouldn't be the first young assumed superstar to become conflicted, frustrated, or complacent.

But last season perhaps Rooney provided some empirical evidence to support his class, and fulfil his hype, scoring 26 goals in 32 games.

Without getting into the quality of his goals, or more importantly, the quality and consistency of his play last season, unfortunately, starting 32 games and resting only three times contributes now to his own overburden.
During one of those starts, last March against Bayern Munich, Rooney injured his ankle and was feared out for 2-4 weeks: His manager had him in there next week as United crashed out of the competition.

As soon as the club season finished in May, he began starting for England in World Cup warm-ups and ultimately, as everyone knows, in the Cup itself.

Still seeming slightly injured, with the weight of his nation and beyond on his shoulders, he played really, really bad—like many of his teammates—as England was, once again, rudely awakened from a dream too early.
Taxation and exhaustion would be problems for any player mercifully allowed three weeks rest and recovery after a full year of complete physical and mental investment.

This is amplified for Rooney, as he bore excessive pressure from without to perform like a superhero.
And now, worn and grumpy, he'll likely suffer from his club manager's intractable inclination for starting him regardless.

The great shoehorning

There's a good question somewhere why Alex Ferguson considers Rooney a staple in his starting eleven.
Of course, Rooney gives good cause, generally. Uniquely, he is a forward that tracks back readily, ideal for his manager's dirtiest vice: a sole-striker situation, the 4-5-1.

And in-form, "Wazza" is one of the better strikers in England and perhaps Europe regardless of partner. Also uniquely, though, off-form, he becomes very average and sometimes simply just poor.

At 24, he's still young, but he's a fairly old 24. Rooney started consistent top-flight football at 17. He sort of plays like he's old, too, rarely, if ever, adding new skills to his repetoire, on evidence. He still handles the ball in the exact same manner as he did at 17, but now without the abandon, and he still heavily favors his right foot, something opposing defenders have long-since realized.

Regardless of his natural inconsistency, or his understandable and expected limitations, a knackered player is usually not a useful player. And playing him more only makes it worse. As off-form as Rooney is now, he might as well be off the field. And he should be.

But his manager will continue to play him, either from a skewed perception of his current footballing worth, or as a continuing ode to the media, shareholders, chest-thumping supporters and millions of casual fans, perpetuating Brand Rooney, whether it's quality is reflected on the playing field.

The reputation that largely sells all those jerseys is done no favors, though, when the frustrated, obviously tired Rooney plays poorly for United. Playing poorly is all he's done lately—having not scored since March for club or country—and the trend is likely to continue without rest for his overburdened body and mind.

Break from subscription

Both Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez have proved to be in better shape and in better form, here, at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season.

The Mexican, Hernandez, at 22, is basically the Mexican equivalent to Rooney. Hugely popular in his homeland, he is a striker who utilizes pace, runs behind the defense, and adept finishing from his repertoire.

All being said, he does all those things, at least right now, better than Rooney. In fact, Javier Hernandez may just be better than Rooney, period. But it'll take some time and experience before that idea is either proven true or accepted globally.

This raises an interesting idea. How long must a player perform better than another before people accept he's better? A few games? A full season? Hernandez has already shown to be quicker than Rooney, and ultimately, I think he will prove to be a better finisher and a better striker.

Berbatov, who is also in good form, benefited from a summer-long rest since Bulgaria didn't qualify for the World Cup.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but United's most maligned striker is actually the staple in any forward pairing. Hernandez and Rooney are similar in style and stature; Berbatov is required to win the headers, drop a little deeper, and link the midfield to attack, while one of the other two burst through on runs.

He's very capable in the role. The Bulgarian, hardly consistent himself, always retains the penchant for sliding through balls to willing forward runners—his ideal partners. He is also inarguably the most gifted ball-retainer throughout the side, benefiting more from guile and balance than brute strength to hold the ball as his team transitions.

Unfortunately, as Hernandez continues to perform and justifiably earn acclaim, it'll probably be Berbatov who's sacrificed for him, if Ferguson's tendencies continue. The gaffer showed last year that he is extremely hesitant to rest Rooney even during times of malform or visible exhaustion.

As Fulham visit Old Trafford Sunday, with Hernandez inspiring imaginations each time he plays, and Berbatov rested, healthy, and generally in form, the time is now to rest Wayne Rooney, if only so he may find his own form sooner than later as another long season unfolds.

Even though Rooney is generally overrated across a world-wide fanbase, a rested, mentally-healthy version of him is still very integral to United's success going forward.

But his ability to remain a top-20 European striker is hampered by constant, fallible expectation he always play, and play like he already belongs in the top three.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Manchester United moving forward into 2011

Manchester United began the 2010-2011 English Premier League with confidence, generally controlling and out-passing newly promoted Newcastle United at Old Trafford Monday.

Paul Scholes enjoyed some sort of renaissance, as he does against poor opposing midfields. Afforded space, he sprayed driven passes willy-nilly to every corner, enabling United to overcome a tepid opening and score thrice throughout the 90.

Dimitar Berbatov scored the opener after Scholes fed him in. The Bulgarian rifled home as you should at a tight angle, low-and-far into the bottom corner, affording an exhale from Old Trafford on 33 minutes.
United's best player last season scored just before the break to make it two-nil, Darren Fletcher turning in Patty Evra's driven cross after it pinballed into the six-yard box.

United newboy and Mexican superstar Javier Hernandez arrived shortly after the break in lieu of a grumpy and off-form Wayne Rooney. United camped out in the Tyneside for much of the half.

On 85 minutes, two United oldboys combined when Scholes chipped cross-field for Giggs to volley home from 18 yards. It was a champagne finish from an aging player who will hopefully be relied on less this season than last.

Start to finish

With a one-match sample size, it's not impossible to prophet good things for United this season, though there are still a lot of question marks throughout the side.

United still don't have a natural left-winger. Letting Tosic leave in the summer means another year of Nani's up-and-downs, and shoe-horning Giggs, Wellbeck, or worse into the role at times.

Manager Alex Ferguson is likely to show a disinclination to sit Rooney in favor of Hernandez, someone—so far—much more sprightly, probably choosing instead to forcedly partner the two when Berbatov inevitably is scape-goated sooner than later.

Apparently van der Sar is going to be #1 in red for yet another season until Ben Amos assumes the reigns; fair enough. Players like Vidic and Jonny Evans have the format to rebound after disappointing seasons last year.

If Darren Fletcher improves again this year, ostensibly becoming the best central-midfielder in England, United's success has a base upon which to rise.

Paul Scholes' ability to stay healthy will be crucial if United fans are to be spared seeing Carrick feature prominently. But beyond Fletcher, Scholes, Nani and Valencia, United don't have great depth in the midfield, which—if anything—could be the harbinger for ultimate defeat this year.

Financially shackled to buy younger replacements, United have relied on Scholes and Giggs for too long already. They'll each have a role to play this season, particularly Scholes, but if Ferguson expects either to feature consistently in a starting eleven throughout the season, then it may just be a long one.