Thursday, June 30, 2016

Worthy of Pay-Per-View: German Efficiency Faces Off Against Collective Italian Hatred of People Who Aren't Italian, And Probably A Couple Who Are

A FORETHOUGHT

This post will focus primarily on soccer. Don't worry, though: the anticipated complaints of you naysayers have already been dealt with in the text. Even so, I expect to arouse a few internal objections from the other end, i.e., the soccer enthusiast. Allow me to make a few things clear to this group now:

[1] At no time will I refer to soccer as 'football,' you elitist prick. I don't call it football, nor have I ever. Furthermore, the term 'soccer' emerged from 'association football,' which, frankly, more closely resembles what soccer is today: teams, i.e., 'associations,' that have assembled to play one another in league competition. Should that not be enough, keep in mind that the majority of the reading public is American and would therefore benefit from a clear separation of the sports 'soccer' and (American) 'football.' Finally, I'm not a delusional jackal that feigns cultural superiority by using foreign terms for everything, so go fuck yourself.

[2] In relation to the first point, I will not use any unfamiliar or otherwise borrowed term for soccer jargon, including 'pitch,' 'kit,' and 'boots.' You, to whom this criticism applies, are more welcome to maintain this charade that you were born in a different country or raised by family who said these things, but alas you were not -- you're just a fucking asshole. 

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, please read on... or if your ego is too bruised, then engage in one of the unpleasant behaviors I've recommended.
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Hi there again, jag and jagettes. The 4th of July weekend is nearly upon us, and I have no reservations that, come Tuesday, we will both enduring its aftermath: heavy combat against the advances of paralyzing stomach cramps and immobilizing headaches, and frequent bouts of cursing in tandem the first person to apply raw meat to an open flame (or that fuck Prometheus for discovering fire altogether) and the pioneer of the keg stand. In anticipation of the holiday's latent wrath, we may as well plan to party the hell out of it and cherish the experience as a memento that, sadly, does not double as a antacid or pain reliever. 

To this end -- the partying one, that is -- we have a much easier solution. 

Sports are a natural complement to a long weekend of indulging, and nothing culminates such debauchery better than violently questioning the ethics of referees and umpires, wishing ill will upon fans of the team you don't like, and ruing its players' continued avoidance of debilitating injury.  There will be plenty of baseball to watch, of course, but with the Cubs up 7,000 games in the NL Central, tied neatly to their turbulence-inducing climb in player salary, and the Pirates pitching looking more like bell hops on Love Boat than intimidating seafarers of any variety, the outlook for a pleasurable three-day span seems foreboding at best. There is, however, one event that is sure to keep viewers on the edge of its seat, as it features two sides of interwoven roots, distinct tactics and strategies, and representing cultures that harbor an unrelenting streak of xenophobia: Germany vs. Italy.

I can already hear the groans from the nether regions of the internet; I can detect the sighs of an adult male who is too easily provoked by a sports blog he reads while casually browsing porn online. Before I go further, brave paladin of digital sports media, let me assure you that your internal monologue is attempting to give you sound counsel to shut the fuck up and deal with it. Football hasn't started, hockey and basketball are over, and long-term exposure to baseball has been shown to cause slow wits and social disorders in lab rats, so work your way through a couple more tabs and grant me the opportunity to explain why this match up is worth your time -- as if it owes anything to you.

WHAT'S ON TV: GERMANY VS. ITALY

Latest reports from your mom indicate you should stop being an incompetent piece of shit and watch a game of quality soccer


Listen, above all, I'm sorry your mother was so harsh; maternal advice can be rather vexing. That said, it is her refusal to let another nine innings of your life be claimed by a game that involves livestock running 90 feet at a time that has blessed you with the opportunity to witness -- for all that which is holy, I hope -- technical, entertaining soccer.

To diffuse your immediate criticisms and excuses, e.g., "I've watched soccer before and it sucks," let us first return to the wisdom passed on to you by your internal monologue. Moreover, you've probably watched the MLS, the entertainment value of which fits neatly between bass fishing and self-help videos to set up your cable box, featuring none of skill seen elsewhere around the world nor the magnitude of brutality inherent in other sports that make the average viewer forgive its faults. 

Even if you have watched the Premier League, well, just look how well the English managed in a major tournament again. That league has about four team full of foreigners -- you know, the teams that win all the time -- and then another four with some foreigners, and a bunch more are packed with useless Brits who think that the fashion in which they mount and impale the prey they bring home from the club is the appropriate way to play soccer. Talent isn't heavily concentrated in a league that North America owns, and that subsequently owns North America in its twisted relationship between consumer and provider, and this dynamic raises the expectations of the international game. 

In case I still haven't convinced you, considering I've already lost half of my easily angered, porn-addicted readership, let us look at a couple more reasons why this match is so promising.

THE HISTORY

Bullies are a confused bunch. A display of aggression, with which they are commonly associated, is often carried out with the goal of having and maintaining power or control, unlike the situation elsewhere; it is a surrogate for the intrinsic needs that the young person cannot satisfy under other circumstances.

Not too long ago, as history goes, Germany and Italy were two of such a breed, clasped at the hand as they clotheslined other countries and then shook them upside down for enough lunch money to get another wurst. They suffered alike, but their troubles blossomed from different seeds. Germany had to go home to an abusive struggling artist, who wasn't even his real dad; he was a short, ill-tempered Austrian, the stupid bastard. But he shouted and frenzied and droned on and on, day after day about what being 'deutsch' really meant, and it seemed easier at the time to let him get it out than to ask him for some peace and quiet, so that the neighbors could drink their Hefeweizen in peace. Italy, meanwhile, was a poor, illiterate son of a deity that spent more time praying than reading and more money on his stepdad, who like to be called "The Pope," than, oh, you know, infrastructure, education, and social progress. Germany saw a chance to have another brutish fool to manipulate for his own needs and moved in to sow what he could.

Italy's dad and Germany's stepdad often left their kids at home and went for pleasant rides on the local roller coaster
Germany and Italy quickly became close, knotted by their shitty family life and penchant for bad decisions, and their behavior spiraled out of control. Their notoriety soared and they left their indelible mark on the neighboring countries to whom they applied wet willies, gave Indian burns, and called 'Jew' and 'faggot' without remorse.

After awhile, though, child services were called in from abroad and teamed up with local agencies to find the least restrictive placement possible to improve their behavior. Italy had it easy enough: they kicked their dad's ass to the curb; Germany, though, had to be fostered by four different families, only then to be subject to a turbulent custody battle for decades until finally reaching the age of emancipation in 1989. Both would argue that this checkered narrative of their upbringing, for better or worse, has made them what they are today.

Nowadays, both are more or less well-adjusted, though it's questionable whether Italy ever learned to read. Germany is a straight-laced, no-nonsense sovereign nation that prides itself on efficiency and a refreshing candor about itself and others, while Italy is kind of a self-centered dick, who doesn't like most people, but stunning good looks keep things steady at least.

Consider now, then, that these two bullies of the past must suit up and take on each other head-to-head -- both forged into their unique identity by the tides of history and both, no doubt, still possessing a submerged desire of dominance that can reveal itself on the soccer field.

THE SKILL

On the domestic front, i.e., the professional leagues around the world, La Liga (the top league in Spain) and the Premier League (England) get the most attention, mainly because of Barcelona and Real Madrid for winning, as well as the habit of English teams to invest a sinful amount of money into their roster rather than something beneficial to society. It would be easy to argue then that a game between England and Spain would be most desirable -- except for the minor hang-up that both have already been summarily executed from this tournament

England posted a pathetic showing, losing 2-1 to Iceland, a country of 300,000 people. Some pundits have already taken offense to the notion that Iceland is a 'Cinderella story,' claiming their success is a well-orchestrated showing of soccer acumen. While their fervor has been impressive, let me assure you of this: they qualified through a shitty, underachieving group and beat the most overrated team in international soccer today; they still have a long way to go.

As for Spain, well, their loss only strengthens my claims, as it came to hands -- or 'feet,' I suppose is more fitting -- of Italy. While the Spanish league does tend to take precedent in professional soccer, the team itself is a worn-out, hackneyed crew of fine technical skill, but no variety, and have been a predictable bunch for too long; their slide continues.

 After having discovered Spain's weakness in the 2014 World Cup, Robert Loggia spreads word to other nations in need
  
The numbers show, though, that Germany and Italy have made nearly an equal impact to international soccer, and to go wanting for a battle between two teams in soccer limbo would be foolish and ignorant to the stats at hand.

Take top European competition: when looking at the number of players from each nationality who participated in the UEFA Champions League, the "elite tournament" spanning the entire continent, Spain clocks in at #1 with 95, but as we have said, most of their team is log-jammed at the national level and their own 'play-it-safe' approach to the team's roster and development has yielded them an early exit. France comes in at #2 with 73, and their game would receive unquestioned approval were it not against the lead princess in the next straight-to-DVD film by Disney, Iceland. Moving on, Brazil, not associated with this tournament, lands at #3, with Germany following at #4 with 60 players. England holds #6 with 39 players and Italy #10 with 31. 

All in all, the gap is not significant and is based mainly on Spain's dominant player distribution, mostly because its young players can't crack the lineup of the league giants that trained them and get sent out to other teams around the globe. It is also important to note that Italy is guaranteed one fewer spot in the Champions League than Spain, England, and Germany (who each get four), and that one team could mean a bump of more than dozen players, depending on the team that qualified. 

Had enough yet? Too fucking bad because the stats just keep coming. Next, let's look at each country's victory count in all major international competitions:



It doesn't take much to realize that the historical resumes of each country stack up in way that -- internationally, at least -- favor a Germany-Italy showdown over a Spain-England one. Were it not for Spain's incredible run from 2008 to 2012, these stats would have appeared even more lopsided.

So, convinced to watch it? I hope like hell because I'm tired of the laborious task of combing each country's career achievements to convince your ignorant ass. Let's move on to the elements of the game to watch carefully in the next segment, Pounder Points.

POUNDER POINTS

Why call it Pounder Points, you ask? Because every jag likes to be right in a sports 'discussion' -- in other words, the volatile array of spit, shoulder poking, and "don'tcha remembers" that stand in its place in our fine city -- and in its midst, every no-nothing shit-for-brains that once overheard a minutely relevant piece of information in a rerun of Pardon The Interruption will champion said nugget of purported wisdom and nurture it like a glowing suckling divined by the heavens to win the argument and, with that, a free pounder from the bar. I'm sure your buzz might be wearing off as we speak, so time to dive into the main areas to watch in this bout.

#1: Boateng vs. Bonucci


Quite the odd couple -- sufficient for any sitcom: a black German and a man who represents a country whose fans hurl racial slurs at minority players, Italian or not, as a leisure activity. Stranger yet, in a way that isn't shameful to society, both play centerback for their respective country.

Why, then, would two centerbacks be the focal point of such a game?

For you jags who can recall Paul Coffey, the man wasn't so much a defenseman as he was a fourth forward who liked moving and playing the puck from a deeper position, and these two gentlemen -- as a pronoun; I don't know shit about their personal (lack of) virtues -- are built in the exact same mold. 

Build-up play has evolved drastically in soccer, particularly as suffocating ball control found itself en vogue once again within the last decade. Defensive players are more important than ever now in maintaining and properly utilizing possession: they rocket long passes, skipping 'layers' of players as needed, and spring into motion frenzied counterattacks or relieve massive swells of pressure from the defensive end of the field. Here are some instances of both in action:


Even in this tournament, their immense skill at placing a pass is evident. Bonucci lofts and weights a perfect ball in over Belgium's high-lined defense, not unlike what Italy may see against an attacking Germany, and the resulting goal inspired Italy the rest of way in their 2-0 opening victory.

Boateng, meanwhile, is an equally capable provider, as evidenced by this ridiculous half-volley pass that makes up one instance of, quite literally, a myriad videos online dedicated to his long-range passing ability.


Both are able defenders as well, and that shouldn't be neglected when considering how valuable each player is to his team's victory. Fortunately for Boateng, none of Italy's attackers are nearly as talented as Lionel Messi who made Boateng look like an amateur breakdancer in last year's Champions League campaign.

It's a little-known fact that Messi can also use Jedi Mind Tricks mid-dribbling
I'm sure Boateng isn't offended, however: he's won a World Cup, and Messi hasn't. Meme-worthy flaws notwithstanding, both players will be looked on to make plays that help break open an opposing side that is well-organized on defense. It's particularly notable when compared to some of the other 'major powers.'

Too bad I don't get paid for any of this shit; stats provided by www.fourfourtwo.com
In this massive display, you'll see how Bonnuci and Boateng -- versus Sweden and Slovakia, respectively -- aided the team with numerous long passes to help work through defenses who were keen to sit back and bide time. The Spanish (Ramos) and English (Cahill), however, were less reliant on such long attempts from their defenders, asking instead that they make the tidy but hellishly unimaginative side-to-side shifts that drive most away from the sport. Interesting to note is that Boateng's passes were often aimed cross-field, while Bonucci's tend to be more direct. This difference will play a role in the next section.

#2: Four-Man Versus Three-Man


Don't get your hopes up; discussion isn't transitioning to the merits of hosting a gangbang with varying amounts of male participants. Instead, the focus here is the 'back line,' i.e., the defensive setup, for each side. To start, let's see how each side lined up during its most recent victory.

Germans had a lot of trouble adopting modern formations from the inconsolable rage caused by the lack of symmetry
The Italians opted, and have for this entire tournament, to play three men in the back -- need I remind you to settle your entendres -- working in a 3-5-2 formation generally, though De Rossi has tended to drop deeper than his position here suggests. On the other side, the Germans have used a chain of four defenders throughout, leading to a 4-2-3-1 formation with numerous moving parts.

The commonly adopted defensive standard is to have one player in surplus: if the other team has one or three attackers, a four-man defense is preferred; with two or, on rare occasion, four attackers, a three- or five-man defense, typically featuring defensive 'wing-backs,' is selected. With each team's resounding success so far, it;s doubtful that either will back out of its blueprint, even if only to suggest confidence in the team's style of play. As the game wears on, though, what will each formation mean for the flow of the game?

For Germany, the concern will be the exposure of the defensive line by counterattack, which, to be fair, is a fairly common, if not cliche, weak point in modern soccer, but valid nevertheless. The Germans tend to move both fullbacks aggressively into attack, and Boateng will even occupy space where a deep midfielder sits to get involved, especially with Italy's resolve on defense.

Italy will pass better than Slovakia did, and as Bonucci has shown, he is capable of latching a deep pass onto a hurtling forward, and Italy can release its wing-backs to do the same. Look, for instance, how Italy was able to take advantage of Spain's aggressive push forward.

Thanks to the Germans who have too much time on their hands at www.spielverlagerung.de (German soccer analysis)
As the tactical breakdown shows, Spain's fullbacks push forward regularly in attack -- a trait Italy was able to take advantage of in part by having their attackers flood into that space, causing problems for the two, not three, Spanish defenders -- a liberal term for that pair of ass-hats, Ramos and Pique. 

What works against Italy is that it doesn't have as strong of a passing midfield as it once did. De Rossi is a good passer, but not exceptional, and he won't have much time to make incisive passes if Germany presses him higher up the field. Pirlo, arguably the best passer in the country's history, is making hand over fist in New York, while Marchisio and Montolivo -- two veteran midfielders accustomed to this style of play -- are not at the team's disposal.

Italy's shot to take advantage of Germany will be by using its wing-backs and forwards aggressively to turn any misplays or changes of possession into quick opportunities. Italy will almost certainly fall behind Germany in possession, but it won't matter if they stick to their plan.

So, what can Germany do in response to this potential weakness? There are a few options:

[1] Play Boateng as fullback and take them head on: by sliding Boateng over, he can get more license to roam without leaving the back fully exposed. The goal would be to keep him included in the attack, while also holding the Italian outside midfielder on that side at bay; his athleticism and speed would prove valuable here as well.

[2] Play three men in the back: Germany could also match Italy man-for-man, so to speak, though that is unlikely to happen for reasons mentioned above. Hummels could hold the center position with Boateng and likely Hector flanking him. This move may limit the two from getting as forward, but Boateng's passes are deadly from all over, and it would spare them a man in case of a dangerous counterattack.

[3] Play one, possibly two, defensively sound pivots: Germany commonly uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, the "2" representing the 'pivots,' i.e., the midfielders shielding the back line. Toni Kroos is a wonderful distributor, so it may be hard to part with him from the lineup, but Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger are both strong defensive options and capable short- and mid-range passers who could slide deeper into defense as help is needed. In build-up play, it's not unusual for one pivot to fall between the centerbacks and create a faux three-man line; such a maneuver could be considered by the Germans here.

Pep Guardiola regularly utilized the third option at Bayern Munich with Alonso, a pivot midfielder, dropping deep
Moving on to Italy, their main concern is without question Germany's unpredictable movement in and out of the midfield. The Germans, who looked to be somewhat stagnant earlier in the tournament, have an adept and strong-minded coach in Joachim Löw -- whose looks alone feed German stereotypes found in every facet of pop culture; and Löw's willingness to introduce tactical variation and solid player management has brought his team continued success as others have declined. The most jarring part of watching the German team play is their combination play that involves multiple players moving in succession and filling roles that may be outside their standard position.

This isn't absurdist German art, believe it or not; it's Germany's passing chart against Slovakia


And I shit you not; this is the man who trains and directs the Germans to do all that crazy technical and tactical work

This tendency to flood the midfield with different players was on display during their last match against Slovakia.


The chart here shows the average touch position of the German players, that is, where they would have the ball at their feet; the lighter shade symbols are for substitutes who came on later and can be ignored. It is clear to see that the six players who make up the defense and midfield were in generally stable roles, but the top four all made constant commotion leading into the attacking third, a threat that Italy will have to deal with. By numbers alone, they have enough to deal with Germany's attack, but can they handle the rapid movement and change of position for a whole 90 minutes?

Particularly dangerous is youngster Julian Draxler (#11) who not only boasts incredible speed and agility, but also high-end technical skill that has gained him the chance to play at this level at 22 years old. If Mario Gomez (#23), that giant fuck, can push back Italy's central defenders, occasionally swapping with Draxler for the sake of unpredictability, it will help create pockets of space for Draxler and Özil who thrive in such areas. What can Italy do to counter such a potent attack?

[1] Strict marking: Italy prides itself on its tough defensive posturing mixed with strong technical ability, and the team knows its route to the final won't get any tougher than this match here, even if it faced the French team who is playing at home. Accordingly, they could put it all on the line here, getting direct orders from manager Antonio Conte to cover specific players throughout the field. The issue here is whether they have the stamina for it, and it may be advisable to call for some players to be checked more readily than others instead of an all-out defensive showing.

[2] High pressing: Borussia Dortmund, a German team, were renowned for this tactic, and it could be used by the Italians in this game. By applying loads of pressure on the German midfield, the Italians could create turnovers for high-percentage chances and if they score, the team will be able to sit back and hold its defensive shape with less exertion. The skill of Boateng and Kroos as deep-lying playmakers, however, could make this strategy a significant gamble, as a high press demands the whole team move up the field -- space the Germans could abuse much like Italians have against strong possession teams in recent years.

[3] Slow the game down: above all, fuck the Dutch. I say that because their team's god awful excuse for soccer in 2010 World Cup Final, in which they committed a foul every six seconds to slow down the since-deceased Spanish juggernaut. That in mind, may the Italians rot in a layer of hell inconceivable even by Dante's brilliant mind if they attempt to derail the Germans with sheer physicality and purposeful interruption of the game. For the sake of the game, I like to believe the Italians appreciate the sport enough -- more than they do fellow man, no doubt -- to avoid such heavy-handed tactics.

#3: Choose Your Stereotype


Quite frankly, these teams embody the people of their country. Germany plays in a precise, carefully plotted style fit for a land in which it is a federal offense to choose the wrong definite article for a noun and arriving late is punishable by decapitation. The Italians play with suave charisma, a borderline arrogance that sees them through trials that would swallow a weaker ego. If things go poorly, they can always start kneeling and praying to Jesus, a strategy that has helped their country avoid turmoil and hardship since, uh, well never, but it's worth a try. 
___________________  

That's it, jags and jagettes. So, this Saturday, it'll be easy to fall into the trap of tedium: rinse and repeat a viewing of the American 'past time,' called that, of course, because it's well past time that you change the damn channel to something worth watching, and that will be Germany-Italy.

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