The new soccer season is off and running and in Europe the transfer window is now closed until January. This means we actually know who the various teams have on their rosters and we can get a inkling of what the new season will bring us in terms of competition for the different league titles and qualification for tournament spots. So, it seems appropriate to run down the more watched leagues from around the world and report our early season reaction to results so far. Today, we examine the English league.
Although there is lots of debate as to which league has the best quality of teams, the most watched set of teams undoubtedly is the Barclay’s Premier League in England. After only 3 matches there are some small surprises and lots stories to follow. At this point, due to a raft of new coaches and players, the league is filled with “ifs” and “maybes”, making it extremely interesting .
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the team on top. Liverpool is the only team in the league to still have a perfect record and although to some fans that fact is not totally unexpected , the manner in which they have accomplished their record certainly is surprising. Last year the Reds scored lots of goals and gave up lots of goals. However, they failed to score against teams with strong defenses who sat back and they often gave up bad goals to those same teams. As a result, they failed to earn wins against weaker teams and this cost them valuable points. This season they have three 1-0 victories against a variety of competition including mighty Manchester United. They have scored just enough to win- one goal in each game. They have scored that one goal in the first half of every game with the same player (Daniel Sturridge) when playing their mini-Barcelona style and have played three strong defensive second halves to earn the victories. Whether they can keep this up is a BIG question. However, in a few weeks Louis Suarez comes back from his suspension for making lunch out of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic last year and IF he combines well with Sturridge , the Reds offense will improve and they will be a genuine contender.
The teams sitting just below the Liverpool are not very surprising overall. Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal…..all are expected to challenge for high positions and there they are already. And , just below them sits Manchester United. 3 of these of these teams have new head coaches and there is a natural adjustment period to new styles and personalities.Chelsea not only has a new coach but they have a roster which consists largely of skilled midfielders, meaning they must change their style. So far that has produced some uninspiring play but the only error to their record is the slumberfest draw against United. (See our last post). Speaking of the Red Devils, we referred to them above as mighty ,maybe we should call them Maybe Mighty Manchester United. Like so many others, they have a new coach in David Moyes. He is considered to have done well with much less talent at Everton but coaching talented players is a different experience and except for a last minute buy of Marouane Fellaini from Moyes old club, he did nothing on the transfer market. Whether United’s talent can win the league again with a new unheralded coach is the big maybe here.
Manchester City has new coach Manuel Pellegrini. He has done good things in Spain, but the EPL is a world of its own. Pellegrini has spent some major funds this summer to bring in new talent. But new coach with new players frequently means time to adopt and City’s loss to newly promoted Cardiff City didn’t inspire any belief in a quick transition. Man City has always been a hard-to-figure up and down squad. They have had good players and mostly solid results the last few years, but every once in a while they have a real stinker of a game. They will be a threat to the rest of the top teams but the many questions to be answered also bring some doubts and many “maybe’s”.
The biggest “maybe”, however, has to be Tottenham Hotspur. They sold one player, Gareth Bale, to Real Madrid. This record breaking sale gave them enough money to buy a whole team, so that’s just what they went out and did. Spurs bought 7 …..yes SEVEN ….quality players with the Bale funds. They got enough variety in players to improve all areas of their team if they jell together. Now that is a big IF. Soccer is a funny game when it comes to chemistry, both on and off the field. Often players don’t connect well if they don’t play complementary roles on the field and it’s not that uncommon for various off-the-field activities ranging from politics to women to effect on-the-field performance. So , putting together that many new faces will be tricky for Andre Villa-Boas, the Tottenham coach. So far, they haven’t shown anything special on the field with two close wins over theoretically weaker teams and a loss to Arsenal. But it’s a long season and Tottenham will certainly be interesting to watch.
That brings us to Arsenal. Arsenal does not have a new coach. And except for one quality transfer (more about that in a bit) they don’t have a new team. Last year they finished fourth which is a prime position because it is the lowest spot which guarantees participation in the European Champions League. Playing the Champions League is a BIG deal. It brings in more money and , perhaps more importantly, it can bring in more good players. Teams that don’t make the Champions League often have problems attracting quality players, it is almost as if a non-ECL team is “minor league”. Arsenal has an incredible record of consistent high performance under long-term coach Arsene Wenger. Perhaps it was this consistency which led the Gunners to believe that they could get by with little or no activity on the transfer market. So, after getting wiped by Aston Villa 3-1 in their first game, their fans went nuts on them for their lack of spending for new players.. This inspired more activity than the previous singular never-gonna-happen attempt to get Suarez from Liverpool. On the last day of the transfer window Arsenal bought Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid. Now this guy is for real. He became expendable to Real because 1) Bale will play his position behind Real’s forwards and 2) the sale recoups almost half the funds spent to get Bale. Ozil could make a real difference if Wenger puts him to good use and on the surface that looks promising. Ozil can play Arsenal’s mixed passing and running game and Wenger is a veteran in working with talent. And, after that opening debacle, Arsenal has actually looked pretty good. With the inclusion of Ozil they could be a real threat to the other top squads.
As far as the rest of the league goes…….right now Stoke City is sitting up there with the big boys. They lost their opener to Liverpool and that was a deserved loss. But since then they have played well under new coach Mark Hughes who is attempting to add style to their traditional bully-boy defense combined with long-ball offense. So they are another interesting team to follow. Aston Villa has Christian Benteke which makes them always a threat if the opposition doesn’t take them seriously (as Arsenal found out). Swansea plays a controlled passing game and they have surprised since being promoted 2 years ago, Everton is a big-team wannabe who ALSO has a new coach in Roberto Martinez ( jeech, so many new coaches!). He too likes the control game but despite having a couple quality players, whether they can adapt is a question. Sunderland has American-on-a-hot-streak Josie Altidore and could surprise. Crystal Palace is newly promoted from the second division, but has brought in several new players and has displayed a feisty manner of play which earned them a nice win against Sunderland and a close loss to top contender Tottenham. They, perhaps, bear watching the most of all the “lower teams”.
So, the Premier League this year has far more stories than ,”can Manchester City catch Manchester United?”. On paper, it has more balance than in recent years and certainly more question marks. That makes for very interesting watching and hopefully very entertaining soccer. We will see!………………………….. Next week- Spain’s La Liga!
Last post, we talked about the formation of our country and our connection with the British and the English language. We related that when the “soccer boom” started in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s most Americans involved in the sport looked to international “football” people as being more knowledgeable and experienced than they were themselves. At that time an American who wanted to learn more about the game almost always used resources from outside our country. Books, seminars, clinics, coaching courses- you name it- they were available and almost always written or conducted by someone from elsewhere. This was understandable, after all the USA had virtually no history in the sport internally and except for one inexplicable victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, no moments to brag about externally. So we read and attended and traveled. Because of our language and culture, most of our learning came from the British. This was ok, after all they invented the game. AND they had won the 1966 World Cup didn’t they? AND they did it with a flair for the unexpected! They ignored traditional formations and tactics and adopting a strategy without wingers and with lots of passing and movement and players coming from behind. It was the soccer equivalent of climbing the cliff at Quebec and beating the French! So they were the best to learn from, at least at that time.
This respect for foreign knowledge and experience developed into a kind of hero worship. We talked foreign soccer more than our own soccer, we adopted British “football” terms even though we had plenty of our own words we could use. We even wore our hair like they did……( ok, we had already begun doing that when the Beatles arrived). Crazy, but I knew Americans that suddenly developed English accents when they started talking about “football”! And there is no worse English accent than an American talking in what he/she thinks is an English accent! We started a pro league , the North American Soccer League (NASL) which garnered a TV contract, drew good crowds in some locations and spent way too much money importing internationally known players. Despite the crowds and TV , the league lost money and so had to cut back on the stars which then cost crowd size which eventually cost the tv contract and that cost the league its existence. But the youth leagues continued to grow and the soccer presence in this country continued to increase.
What didn’t increase was the respect that the average world soccer person gave to Americans who were involved in the sport. I personally experienced “soccer discrimination” many times. International players that I played with often refused to pass to the Americans on the team. I was yelled at several times by English players for being in the wrong place and/or making the wrong move with the ball. This was confusing since I was attending national licensing courses and also learning from some fairly knowledgeable people…like the coach of the NASL champion NY Cosmos, for one. Here I was, discussing tactics with Julio Mazzei who was coaching Franz Beckenbauer , Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, etc. but my learning didn’t suit the guys who had moved here 10 years before and “knew” that Americans didn’t know soccer. As it turned out what they didn’t know was what was happening in world soccer strategies. And they couldn’t believe that an American, any American ,could be more caught up on the sport than they were. The lack of respect wasn’t limited to the British. In one case, my team played a team composed of workers from the embassy of a third-world country whose identity I don’t recall ( I wouldn’t name it even if I did remember). We were located in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, so it was easy to pick up games with embassy teams like El Salvador and Greece, to name a couple that we played. On this day we were warming up and the opposition was laughing and carousing around. They certainly weren’t taking the game very seriously. Our team was about 75% American, but one of our group understood what they were saying. “They think we aren’t any good because we have so many Americans!” , he reported. The game began and the laughing and commenting continued along with a propensity to foul us from behind. The fouls produced some yellow cards from the referee, but mostly it produced gales of laughter from our opponents. We kept our cool and just played the game. They continued to joke about the Americans playing soccer, which was pretty surprising since we proceeded to open a gap between us and them on the scoreboard. At the end we won 5-0 and they still were making fun of our game. This prompted one of our group to comment,” Now we know why the undeveloped countries of the world are undeveloped!”
Of course, today times are different……or are they? Last spring I watched Chelsea play Barcelona in the Champions League at an English pub in Orlando, Fl. I was neutral about the game, but I did appreciate Barca’s passing and control game far more than Chelsea’s ” kick it up field as soon as possible and outrun the opposition” style. The pub was filled with Chelsea fans most of whom originally hailed from Britain. I sat next to a fine English gentleman who actually rooted for Manchester United, so he wasn’t any more emotionally involved in the outcome than I was, but was a fan of the sport. During the game I was engaged in a “conversation” by one of the Chelsea fans about my knowledge of the game. He objected to a comment I made about Barcelona’s refusal to dive after each slight contact from Chelsea. “What would you know about it?” I explained that I followed the sport, had lots of experience, had coached some very good players, etc. This made no impact on him, he became increasingly belligerent, kept referring to my nationality and finally blew me off with,” oh, go play some baseball!”. I responded by referring to HIS nationality in a very unflattering way, and thus almost suffered a repeat of the Boston Massacre. My new English friend saved the day, but it was apparent that the crowd in that pub didn’t respect American soccer any more than the British seemingly respected anything American 250 years ago.
Well, I am here now to announce that a new day has arrived! We are a much-better-than -average soccer nation. Actually, as of now, this month, July 2013, it has become apparent…..AND factually verifiable, that American soccer-on the national team level- is equal to that of England! Yes, you read that right.
Consider- the USA currently is in first place in it’s World Cup qualifying group- England is second in theirs although they have played one less game than the leader. Of course, one might argue the strength of the groups…..England is second to ………….Montenegro……………who? Montenegro!………………..who? Their group also contains superlightweights San Marino and Moldova. Look, Jamaica is trailing our group, but Jamaica would thump San Marino! Also, our group contains Mexico, who has made it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the last 5 times. None of England’s group competitors can make that claim. The under-20 World Cup just concluded and neither the USA nor England made it out of their group. However, there was a large difference in group strength. Our group contained eventual winner France ( whom we tied) , semifinalist Ghana and Spain- considered#1 in the world going into the competition. England’s group consisted of Iraq, Chile and Egypt. None of these are considered strong soccer nations and yet England couldn’t manage even one win. At the same time, the u-21 European championship was held and England went 3 defeats and out. Of course, the last face to face meeting between the USA and England was in the 2010 World Cup. It resulted in a 1-1 draw and after the group phase was done, we had won the group while England finished second. So, based on these recent results, the USA is at least equal to England at this time.
Are we yet Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France? No, not yet, but we are better than at least 190 out of FIFA’s 209 soccer playing nations. So the time has come to stop looking at anybody who plays or even talks soccer and who hails from outside this country like they are an expert. We know our stuff, we have people who know the game as well as most any other country. It’s time to act like it ……and we can start with our soccer verbiage.
We have adopted many English “football” terms. I say that we should use OUR words- they work as well and they are OURS. Look-we know that in England the TV is a telly and that fries are chips and chips are crisps. But we don’t use those terms ourselves. So first of all: the land where the game is played is a “field”, not a “pitch”. Can you imagine the confusion if the movie had been called “Pitch of Dreams”? On the field we play a soccer “game”. Americans use the term “match” for individual athletic contests: a wrestling match, a boxing match, even a golf match. But it is a basketball “game” because it involves teams. When we play a soccer game, we wear a uniform. A “kit” is a group of utensils used for some purpose. Along with our uniform we wear “soccer shoes” or perhaps “cleats”. We wear “boots” when we ride horses or go Texas two-stepping. If a soccer game ends with the score even it’s a draw or a tie. A tie is NOT a game or a set of two games, not in this country anyway. When we want to see when we have future soccer games we look on the schedule. There we see the dates of those future games. “Fixtures” are things that water comes out of in our bathrooms. If we want to take the ball away from our opponent during our soccer game, we make a soccer tackle ( different than a football tackle). If we get “stuck in”, it’s usually in our car in mud. We play our professional soccer games in stadiums- our “ground” is the land that our backyard is on. And our fast players have lots of speed, “pace” is the amount of distance covered in a set period of time.
Of course, terminology is just one area in which to develop soccer self-respect ,but it’s a start. We are a better soccer nation than we think. And, remember my antagonist in the Orland pub? It turned out that he wasn’t English, he was Scottish, which is a real distinction in British soccer circles. A few months after our “discussion”, the USA played Scotland and the result was a 5-1 thrashing in which the “hapless Scots handed a footballing lesson by Donovan and co.” according to the Mail Online , May 27, 2012. So he can go play some bagpipe!