What’s Happened to Yaya Toure?

On May 5, 2012, Manchester City travelled to Newcastle for a crucial end-of-season game. A win would virtually Yaya Toureguarantee City the Premier League championship; a loss or draw would put Manchester United in control of the title race. With 30 minutes to go, the score was deadlocked at 0-0. In bars across the country, United fans cheered every time the ball rolled out of bounds. Then City coach Roberto Mancini made a counter-intuitive substitution, replacing Samir Nasri, a crafty playmaker who at the time boasted an impressive goal-scoring record, with holding midfielder Nigel de Jong. Mancini’s tactical adjustment allowed Yaya Toure, a central midfielder, to move higher up the pitch. Toure scored eight minutes later, and added a second goal in one of the last plays of the game. City went on to seal the championship, albeit in surprisingly dramatic fashion.

This year, Toure has endured the sort of campaign coaches euphemistically label “a season of transition.” He has scored just 11 goals, compared to 24 last year. City, which started the season as a serious title contender, is struggling to qualify for the Champions League. Last week, after the team collapsed in the Manchester derby, Sky pundit Gary Neville described Toure’s defensive performance as “a complete dereliction of duty.” 

But here’s the thing: Yaya Toure has always operated this way. He doesn’t dominate games; he dominates periods of games. Against Newcastle, Toure spent an hour jogging around the center circle before he suddenly burst into life. The same principle applies to his career as a whole. He sometimes goes months without contributing anything to the team. But when he plays well – and eventually he will start playing well again – Toure is almost impossible to defend.

Toure has recently been linked to a number of big-time European clubs, including Mancini’s Inter Milan. But City should think twice about selling him. As Toure’s agent recently pointed out, the club has a poor record in the transfer market. Moreover, Fernando and Fernandinho, City’s two other central midfielders, have proved singularly unsuited to the rigors of the Premier League. Toure’s recent struggles don’t necessarily indicate a lasting decline. On the contrary, they may simply represent a frustrating prelude to another season of goals like this one.

Mario vs. Robbie

Back in January, Roma’s Francesco Totti pioneered the celebratory selfie – a quick on-fieldbalo selfie photo marking an important goal. Yesterday, Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, another Italian player with a penchant for quirky goal celebrations, introduced the self-justifying selfie – a quick off-field photo directed at a critical analyst.

According to Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers, Balotelli didn’t play in yesterday’s hard-fought FA Cup quarterfinal victory because he wasn’t feeling well. TV pundit Robbie Savage was appalled: “To miss an FA Cup quarter-final when you’re feeling a bit ill? Nonsense,” he said on BT Sport. “I would have to be really, really ill to miss that game.”

Savage’s comments highlight the generational divide between today’s players and the grizzled punditocracy: I can think of plenty of reasons why an under-the-weather Super Mario would skip the quarterfinal of a third-rate tournament, especially given the lousy condition of the Ewood Park pitch. But apparently Balotelli was in fact “really, really ill.” After the game, he posted this #thermometerselfie to Instagram, along with a message conveying his frustration: “MISS THE PICTH SO MUCH.”

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The Real Reason Arsenal Struggles in Europe

Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Monaco wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-1 defeat in the first leg. But arsenal monacoaccording to Arsene Wenger, Monaco didn’t deserve to go through, since the away-goals rule is an outdated relic of the 1960s. “Two Premier League teams have gone out on away goals and that should be questioned,” he said. Because if a rule hurts English teams, it must be a bad rule.

But here’s the thing: Arsenal’s recent Champions League struggles – five Round-of-16 eliminations in a row – have less to do with the away-goals rule than with the team’s inability to play consistently over the course of a two-legged tie. Arsenal has a long history of capitulating in the first leg, only to mount a courageous, but ultimately futile, comeback two weeks later. In 2012, Arsenal lost 4-0 to AC Milan at the San Siro, and then won the return game 3-0. A year later, having lost the first leg 3-1, Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in Germany. Indeed, Wenger’s team has lost just one second-leg game since 2011.

“You can’t win a tie in the first leg, but you can lose it,” or so the old cliché goes. Arsenal routinely loses its Champions League knockout ties in the first leg. And Wenger, who’s paid to motivate his players and plan the team’s tactical approach, has no one to blame but himself.

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I’m Not A Racist. I Just Think There Are Too Many Blacks.

Italian football used to be synonymous with catenaccio, the sophisticated defensive game Juventus - Arrigo Sacchi incontra il settore giovanile Juventus Center - Vinovoplan that Inter Milan pioneered in the 1960s. These days, however, Serie A is no longer an incubator for tactical innovations; it is the epicenter of European football’s racism problem.

In October, the president of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, received a six-month UEFA ban for describing black players as “banana eaters.” And Mario Balotelli, who is often jeered when he appears for the Italian national team, left AC Milan in August partly to escape the racist chanting endemic to Serie A.

The latest culprit is Champions League-winning manager Arrigo Sacchi. At last weekend’s prestigious Viareggio youth tournament, Sacchi, who coached Italy at the 1994 World Cup, reportedly complained that “in our youth sector, there are too many blacks.”

On Monday, a hastily backtracking Sacchi tried to frame his remarks as the poorly worded lamentations of a true Italian patriot: “I just wanted to underline the fact that we’re losing our national pride and identity.”

Then he deployed what can only be described as the footballing equivalent of “some of my best friends are black.”

“Do you really think I’m a racist?” Sacchi said. “My history speaks for itself. I’ve always trained teams with diverse colored players, and they won a lot.”

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Saying Goodbye To English Soccer’s Long-Serving Scotsmen

On Wednesday evening, when Aston Villa finally sacked manager Paul Lambert, the Paul Lambert Aston VillaPremier League lost its one remaining Scottish coach. Since the 1950s, gruff Scottish geniuses have been a fixture in English soccer, engineering memorable league campaigns and delivering pithy sound bites. Lambert, a mediocre coach with all the charisma of a wrinkled warm-up bib, has little in common with Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson. But his sacking, the inevitable result of one of the longest goalless streaks in Villa’s history, carries symbolic weight. Over the last few years, as long-serving coaches like Shankly and Ferguson have become increasingly rare, what might be termed the “Scottish model” of sustained team-building, in which a visionary manager molds a squad over the course of several seasons, has given way to a new reality: a cutthroat league in which players and coaches never stay at one club for very long.

The Premier League’s growing volatility is especially pronounced at Manchester United, once a bastion of stability in the rapidly changing landscape of English soccer. In 2013, after 25 years in the Old Trafford dugout, Ferguson retired from coaching, and his final act as United manager was to anoint fellow Scotsman David Moyes as his successor. Ferguson, who saw traces of his own Glaswegian toughness in Moyes’ no-nonsense coaching philosophy, naively assumed that fans and journalists would wait patiently for the ex-Everton manager to blossom into Sir Alex 2.0. They didn’t, and less than a year later, Moyes was fired.

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Richard C. Scudamore: Man of the Year

Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore calls the league’s gargantuan new TV deal “a scudamoresuccess story” that will ensure football continues to be one of Britain’s most popular cultural exports: “The Premier League, the BBC, the Queen – they are things that people feel are good about the UK,” Scudamore said.

But it remains maddeningly unclear whether the deal, which also promises to enrich club owners and attract foreign investment, will help resolve any of English football’s long-term structural problems: skyrocketing ticket prices, decrepit grassroots infrastructure, the embarrassing income gap between celebrity players and “nonessential” club employees.

For his part, Scudamore, who came under fire last year after the Sunday Mirror published sexist emails he’d sent to a lawyer friend, has made it pretty clear that he couldn’t care less about the plight of the working class. According to the Guardian, “Asked whether it made him uncomfortable to see clubs paying some players ‘half-a-million pounds a week’ while other members of staff earned below the living wage, Scudamore said: ‘No, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable.’”

What a guy.

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Breaking: Costa Admits He’s Not An Angel

Despite all evidence to the contrary – numerous camera angles, an FA investigation, the laws of physics – Chelsea striker diego costaDiego Costa insists he did not intentionally stamp on Emre Can in Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final. “When I get home, I can go to sleep knowing that I’ve not done anything wrong,” Costa told the Daily Mail.

Pundits love to say that Costa, who is currently serving a three-match suspension for violent conduct, enjoys “the physical side of the game,” a euphemism for the fine art of starting fights with Jordan Henderson.

“I’m not saying I’m an angel,” Costa added. “But every time I play, I will play the same way. That’s what I need to do in order to support my family.”

Yup, Costa, who makes a cool 150,000 pounds a week, just played the “feed my family” card. Personally, I’m unconcerned about the welfare of Costa’s as-yet-unborn children, even if the FA’s crackdown on dangerous play promises to stifle their dad’s talent for pissing defenders off. Once he retires, Costa will have plenty of time to cultivate, and eventually monetize, his true passion: His massive collection of postage stamps.

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How Angry is Philippe Mexes?

Last weekend – while Chelsea and Manchester City lost to lower-league opposition, mexes red cardpossibly in a coordinated attempt to restore the Magic of the FA Cup – Milan’s Philippe Mexes received the 16th red card of his professional career after trying to strangle Lazio midfielder Stefano Mauri. Mexes, who once scored this ridiculously cool bicycle kick, is now just three dismissals shy of Sergio Ramos. “Has there been an angrier footballer anywhere in Europe this season?” BBC Sport recently wondered.

I’m hoping Mexes eventually surpasses Ramos, because the Magic of a Mexes Red Card makes the FA Cup seem like waste of time. But is he really the angriest player in Europe? I’m not convinced. For me, the title belongs to City captain Vincent Kompany, who looks angry even when he’s happy.

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Today in Narcissistic Goal Celebrations

It was a good day for the noble art of the narcissistic goal celebration.totti selfie

First, in the Premier League, Southampton’s Dusan Tadic flexed his abdominals – I think the medical term is “the Balotelli muscles” – after scoring in a crucial game at Old Trafford.

Then Francesco Totti took a quick selfie in front of the Curva Sud to celebrate his equalizer against Lazio. “I thought about it during the week,” Totti told Sky Sports after the game. “There is this fashion for selfies now.”

There is this fashion for selfies now. I’m torn between admiration for Totti’s ballsiness and despair at his apparently sincere embrace of selfie culture. At least he kept his shirt on.

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Mourinho And The Media, Friends Forever

Jose Mourinho has always had a way with words. “It is unfair, really,” former Manchester mourinho presserUnited coach Sir Alex Ferguson, himself a skillful communicator, once said. “He’s good looking. He’s got that sort of George Clooney bit in his hair…. [And] he can speak five languages.” Mourinho – who started his career as an interpreter for English manager Bobby Robson and has coached teams in Portugal, Italy, Spain and England – actually knows six languages. “I think I am a special one,” he famously said at his first Premier League press conference.

The nickname has stuck, and so has Mourinho’s penchant for outrageous one-liners. But his press conferences are more than just an amusing weekly performance. Mourinho’s ability to manufacture headline-worthy sound bites, in whatever language he happens to be speaking at the time, has consistently allowed him to manipulate media coverage. In Mourinho, the English tabloids have found a perfect accomplice: A sly operator as adept at twisting words, and as unapologetic about his real intentions, as the grizzled cynics on Fleet Street.

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