By Neil W. Blackmon
Three thoughts on the week that was for your Friday morning, with a Puck’s Friday Happy Hour I think you’ll find excellent and a weekend preview piece coming on a big Friday here at The Yanks Are Coming. Let’s not delay—there’s plenty to get to, and there is no place to start than the Champions League, which has returned after the winter hiatus.
What a big (and surprising) week for the EPL Champions League sides. First, Tottenham Hotspur attacked and attacked and attacked and held on for a 1-0 win at the San Siro Tuesday. Things got extremely chippy early in the match and the referee did his best to manage what by full time was essentially a street fight. Let’s be honest– the game was hardly a glorious display of football, but I doubt the folks back at White Hart Lane care too much. They return for next month’s second leg in London with a crucial away goal and immense confidence. What can we take from the match beyond that? A couple of things, I think.
In truth, Tottenham Hotspur deserved to win by a much wider margin. The addition of Steven Pienaar into the lineup made a difference early and throughout, I thought, as the former Everton man helped Tottenham keep their width while not being overrun in the middle of the field, even as the game devolved into a Nigel de Jong in paradise street brawl. Specifically praising Pienaar should take nothing away from Aaron Lennon, who was so crucial to Tottenham’s early and often forward thrusts deep into Milan’s half; rather, it simply points out that Pienaar served as a better deputy for the injured Gareth Bale than the relegated to the bench Niko Kranjcar—who has actually been very steady himself in filling in for the dangerous Welshmen. Specifically, Pienaar’s ability to drift inside and remain composed on the ball and sure in his passes helped Spurs neutralize what many, including the great Jonathan Wilson, thought was the largest fear for Harry Redknapp’s side heading into the San Siro—that they would be overwhelmed in the middle of the pitch despite advantages out wide. As Wilson notes, containing the middle of the field is critical against Milan’s 4-3-1-2. The whole idea behind the formation is funneling the ball through the trequartista (Clarence Seedorf Tuesday evening) and having him distribute the ball to fullbacks who explode outward, providing width. Having watched Bale terrorize Inter in the earlier stages of the competition, I can’t go as far as Wilson and say with admitted heresy that Spurs were aided by Bale’s absence; rather, I think Pienaar’s understanding of when to drift inside (something he did too much, really, at Everton) was critical in helping Spurs compete with Milan’s movement through the middle. Kudos also are without question merited for holding midfielder Wilson Palacios, who probably played his finest game in a Tottenham shirt and was simply stifling in his marking of Seedorf, and later Pato, who came on when Milan became increasingly desperate for an equalizer.
One other thing stood out on what was the first of two dreadful days for Serie A (Roma’s dreadful home defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk the following evening should silence any suggestion of a “Serie A revival”)—and that was Tottenham’s overwhelming speed advantage. Redknapp is not traditionally thought of as a brilliant tactician—he’s a player’s manager with a business-first attitude that when embraced by his players typically results in a happy player and a manger more than willing to be confident in his players—but he certainly seemed aware that tactically his side were much quicker than their Italian counterparts. Luca Antonini playing so deep to contain Lennon’s blistering pace had two overwhelming impacts: first—it meant the back four couldn’t get wide as easily as Milan needs in their formation, and second, when Lennon finally did break free, there were acres of space for Crouch to find the ball and deliver the winning goal. To be sure, it is just one match, but it is hard to fathom Spurs losing this tie back in London, not after a victory in Milan that was both a tactical and physical complete victory.
Second, Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona, which was a two hour advertisement for why the Champions League is so special and a stern warning to some will-remain-unnamed journalists who had coronated Barcelona “the greatest team ever assembled” at the halftime whistle. Much has been written about this game already, so we’ll make two observations with an eye towards brevity.
The first observation is that it really is remarkable that Arsenal emerged a comeback winner after a rather pedestrian performance from the two players who are widely perceived to be the best they have to offer: Cesc Fabregas and Robbie Van Persie. Fabregas played one divine ball—early on that sent Van Persie through to goal, where the Dutchman was denied marvelously by Victor Valdes. Beyond that, Fabregas’ passing was off, he lost the ball frequently, and he was not able to break free from his marker very often. It was so mediocre that the great Nigerian journalist Colin Udoh asked (fairly, I might add) whether and where Cesc would break into Barcelona’s starting eleven. Perhaps he would play paper, rock scissors with Busquets or Pedro for a starting spot—but that seems about all. As for Van Persie, he seemed quite Dutch, which is to say he seemed, despite incredible form in the build-up, a bit overwhelmed by the moment. Yes, he scored, but Valdes being off his line had as much to do with that as his laser strike. Yes, Valdes denied him an early goal. But there were other chances he has not missed of late that went begging and were off-target, and that was quite surprising.
So why did Arsenal win? That’s the second observation. They won a couple of ways. First, Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny played the best game of his young life, making a trio of spectacular saves and commanding his box late, when Barcelona got tired of Arsenal’s pressing and relentless defending and resorted to launching Dani Alves crosses into the center of the eighteen. Second, Arsene Wenger’s changes worked, and not coincidentally because Samir Nasri, conspicuously absent for much of the evening, reasserted himself as a force on the flank at around the one-hour mark in such a way that when Andrey Arshavin entered for the yellow-card carrying Alex Song, the attacking option Nasri needed when he finally broke the Barca defense with a menacing run was present to deliver the winning goal.
They also won because Barcelona had some rather un-Barcelona performances, particularly from the brilliant-all-year Maxwell, who had a miserable evening, and Pedro, who played inspired soccer for twenty minutes but then disappeared for long stretches. It has been suggested that replacing David Villa for Keita just after the hour was a tactical error, but as Jonathan Wilson points out in his piece, linked above, that seemed to be a natural defensive adjustment given the breathtaking pace and pressure Arsenal were applying, and it seems a bit unfair to blame the loss on the youngest looking coach this side of Erik Spoelstra. All in all, a great win for the London side—but one that requires a healthy dose of skepticism and means little if it isn’t followed by an even-more inspired performance at the Camp Nou in March.
Returning stateside, the biggest news (until Thursday, at least) was Charlie Davies making his one year loan to DC United official with a lengthy press conference Wednesday. Obviously, this is thrilling news for USMNT, DC United and MLS fans. Davies is a bright young talent and will add extra excitement to a young side that already appears to have a great deal to look forward to in a turn-around year in the nation’s capital. It is also thrilling news for all the intangible and feel-good reasons fans have been clamoring about since his horrific car accident a year and a half ago.
While those stories are great, the best part of the Davies loan is the lingering question fans and observers alike have been asking with baited breath since he started rehabbing the injury last spring will finally be answered: Can Davies play at the highest level again? MLS isn’t first-division French football, but it isn’t much worse either—and his performance will go great lengths in answering that question, either affirmatively or negatively. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Davies will have to produce. As Steven Goff pointed out in the Washington Post, DC United scored the least goals in MLS history last campaign and Davies will be central in helping them avoid a similar fiasco this season. United General Manager Dave Kasper believes Davies is “very close” to being first-team match fit, and thinks after the preseason, he will be. Davies now moves to the third phase of DC United’s preseason camp in California with an eye on earning a starting job, an honor that would not only be the feel good story of US Soccer thus far in 2011 but would add another wrinkle to the increasingly intriguing USMNT striker debate.
The forgotten role/comeback of Charlie Davies has been one of the most striking things about the hype and expectation surrounding Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury, documented by our Raf Crowley here and predicated almost entirely on two friendlies instead of any compelling or lengthy club performance record. Keep in mind the things Davies has working in his favor: legitimate, tournament level international experience and success; club-level success and (perhaps most of all) a working and favorable forward partnership with the incumbent starting forward, Jozy Altidore. A return to form for Davies means Agudelo and Bunbury are at the least added depth, and at best, an alternative pairing option that Bob Bradley can utilize contingent on the match-up. That’s the stuff of good international sides and as such the move has the potential to be a game-changer for the USMNT that, at least in this writer’s view, is a slight underdog in this summer’s Gold Cup. Given that it is only February—Davies has plenty of time, and it will be exciting to see this drama play itself out.
Finally, Grant Wahl is running for President of FIFA. Much, much more on that awesome announcement from us shortly, but for now, let’s be clear: Grant Wahl is running for President of FIFA. We endorse him. Get on the damn bus.
Neil W. Blackmon is Editor-In-Chief and Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.