Do Big Club Struggles Mean a Better World Cup?

An end of game goal from defender Marcos Rojo saw Lionel Messi’s Argentina team through the group stages of the World Cup. A team that boasts Messi, Dybala, Aguero, and Higuain shouldn’t have struggled against Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia but they did. As much as it took a toll on Argentina fans hearts, for neutral viewers this World Cup may be the best in recent memory, and it’s all about the open doors elite teams are leaving the underdogs – or rather the doors the underdog teams for smashing open.

As fun as the round of 16 should be, few days will have as much tension and excitement as June 25th – the day Iran almost topped Portugal and Spain. Group B, the Group of Death was aptly titled but for all the wrong reasons. Spain and Portugal were in hot water on the final day of group play with Iran threatening to not only eliminate one of the two Iberian footballing giants, but win the Group! The football gods would not allow this to happen, however the thrill of a no call red card, or un-disallowed goal made tuning in and switching between the two simultaneous games a thrilling experience.

Like group B, groups E and F are full of potential world class upsets. Group E had bookie favourite to win the World Cup Brazil slotted in alongside Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. Despite Keylor Navas, Costa Rica was written off from the start, and it was believed that while Brazil would easily grab top spot, the group would have an interesting battle for second place between the Serbians and the Swiss. Fast forward to the final day of group play and we see the likes of Brazil facing a real threat of missing the group stages by losing to Serbia and Switzerland. Although this did not happen, Costa Rica who was out of contention to move on had a terrific final game and fought back to earn a 2-2 draw against Switzerland.

Group F was similarly destructive to “safe” sports bets all over the world and exciting to onlookers around the world. Germany have looked less than their elite selves leading up to this World Cup and started off poorly by dropping all three points against Mexico and needing a stoppage time free kick winner to defeat Sweden. Germany’s disappointment has translated to Mexican and Swedish joy as the unlikely happened. Germany needed to win against South Korea after Mexico put up a shockingly bad performance in a 3-0 loss to Sweden. To shock the work Germany fell 2-0 to South Korea in a result that saw Sweden and Mexico move on to the round of 16 while the defending champions go home.

France has made it through the group stages, but has done so in unimpressive fashion. They narrowly defeated Australia in their opening match 2-1, a close 1-0 win over Peru, and a 0-0 draw with Denmark. No one would have predicted that such a young, talented squad would be challenged when it came to goal scoring. But, the struggles for France meant an underdog team like Denmark were able to shut them down with strong defensive play and escape through to the round of sixteen.

Denmark’s spot through group play is an example of what some might call a symptom of a better World Cup – underdog success. But, It is hard to say “better” since enjoyment is so subjective based off of national support of each viewer. If we look at this World Cup objectively up to to this point it is a more competitive tournament that has made matches that include teams like Iran, Morocco, Sweden, and Switzerland much watch viewing.

Realistically there have only been three big-dogs who have gotten to eat so far – Uruguay, Belgium, and England. Uruguay were tagged as the group A favourites and haven’t disappointed going unbeaten in group play and not yet conceding a goal. Belgium and England reside in group G together and have collectively put up 16 goals (8 a team) against Panama and Tunisia. Sure their competition hasn’t been great, but both teams looked comfortable so far, and just have each other yet to play to determine who takes first in the group. So, a massive accolade to the the less elite ranked teams; you are making this World Cup different and exciting, not the football superpowers.

What Russia 2018 is proving is that the gap between the world elite and the underdog countries is quickly closing. Does this mean it is a better tournament? Maybe not, but more exciting? Absolutely. What this World Cup should be remembered for (so far) is the smaller nations having success on the world stage, upsetting the heavy favourites along the way.

England: World Cup Preview

A squad that is populated by ENTIRELY domestic products, England boasts all 23 of their players as stars in the Premier League. So how will they stack up this year compared to previous tournaments? Well, they should be poised to make a deep run, hopefully eclipsing the 6th, 7th, and 9th place finishes they have had since not qualifying in 1994. The team is young, exciting, and full of fire power. The only setback may be managerially as Gareth Southgate is leaning towards a 3 centre back, 2 wingback formation that is defensive by nature.

Group G:
– Belgium
– Panama
– Tunisia
– England

Players to watch light it up for England:

Harry Kane – The most electric and globally recognized player for England since David Beckham, Harry Kane is a goal scoring monster for Tottenham Hotspur. Putting up 30 goals this season in 37 games, Kane improved pace from his 2016/17 goal scoring total of 29. At only 24 years of age, Kane is poised to be England’s striker for the foreseeable future and for good reason! His name is mentioned with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar as global footballing monsters, so sit back and let the kid get to work!

Raheem Sterling – After winning the Premier League with Manchester City this season, Sterling is looking to keep the good times rolling with England at the World Cup. He had an explosive coming out party this season, scoring 18 goals and adding 15 assists in 32 games played. He is an offensive dynamo who relies on his speed to get open and expose back lines. If Kane is locked up look for Sterling to leap into play from the attacking midfield or wing to support and slot home some goals.

Kyle Walker – Another Manchester City, Premier League winning team member, Walker patrolled the right side of the centre backs, played as a right full back, and also jumped in as a wingback for his league winning team this season. He failed to score this season, but added six assists. If Southgate uses wingbacks, look for Walker to be either the farthest right centre back or the wingback, carrying play up the side of the pitch.

This team is really good on paper, and with a group like their they should cruise through group play along side Belgium. As well, they get to start with Tunisia and Panama before playing Belgium which should essentially see them on enough points to move forward before their biggest challenge. If they can prove effective in a defensive formation they will success this year, however I fear that defensive play and reliance on a team system will only slash their chances of winning the World Cup.

How I Would Line Up England, And Why It Will Never Happen

Yes, Skybet… a lot of changes necessary!

Lets hope numbers are just number for Gareth Southgate, as the lineup they incite is less than inspiring for England.

The Problem? The formation is defensive by nature. Call it three at the back if you’d like, but Rose and Walker will be responsible for a lot of defensive coverage especially with elite teams like their group stage likely winner Belgium, who can spread their offence out wide.

Furthermore, one of the biggest puppeteers in the Premier League, Dele Alli, is seemingly missing from this formation. Alli, who’s 14 goals and 17 assists in all competitions this season (50 games) is a talent Southgate really can’t do without in this tournament.

So how would I line up England? Thanks for asking!

England 2018

4-2-3-1 – That’s my formation, and here’s why:

Sitting two defensive midfielders like Henderson and Dier in front of your back four allows for explosive players like Walker and Rose to burst up the wings in attack. Dier, who has played extensive time at CB for Tottenham, could actually slip back into a centreback role should he need to depending on the situation. Defensively a 4-2-3-1 provides fluidity, and seeing as how half of the team is from Tottenham, the chemistry should be there already!

“Pope!? Why Pope?” Well statistically it makes sense:
Pope:
Clean sheets – 12
Goals against – 35
Goals allowed per game – 1
Butland:
Clean sheets – 6
Goals against – 61
Goal allowed per game – 1.7
Pickford:
Clean sheets: 10
Goals against: 58
Goals against per game: 1.5

Why not reward Pope with international playing time when he was the better keeper this season? He helped Burnley to an improbably 7th place finish in the Premier League, and took advantage of the goal keeper situation as he never let go of the reigns, making Tom Heaton the odd man out. He is also the most senior keeper on the squad at 26 (Butland 25, Pickford 24) and while there may not be much between them age and experience matter when the world’s eyes are upon you!

So, just one striker in that 4-2-3-1? Yup, but four attackers in total. England’s skill depth may be mostly in their attacking midfielders, so why not emphasize that? When you have pace mixed with skill, which Lingard, Alli, and Sterling all have, you can force the opposition to keep players back to deal with those attacking options. Plus, all three of those players have played in advanced attacking roles this season, so Kane would be FAR from isolated up top in this formation.

That leaves two pacey strikers on the bench – Jamie Vardy, and Marcus Rashford. Well, yes but life isn’t fair boys! Realistically, both could fit into this formation as either a striker option (Vardy, more likely) or one of the attacking midfielders (Rashford here). The presence of these players, and what the hell, i’ll include Danny Welbeck here too, is that they can all feature in this attacking four formation. Outside of Kane who should be a lock to start every game for England, the rest are interchangeable which is a good thing.

So why won’t it happen? Because Gareth Southgate is too scared to lose to play this type of attacking football. Instead, Southgate will rely on playing essentially seven defenders including wingbacks and defensive midfielders, while hoping that counter attacking with his three forwards will be enough to win matches. It’s a losers mentality in my mind, plus England has such good forward who are young and exciting. Why waste talent for the sake of fear of losing?

The Case For Premier League Soccer in Canada

With NHL, MLB, NFL, and NBA all at the forefront of our sports collective minds, how could we ever etch out more time for another sport? Even if you had time outside of the ‘Big Four’ North American sports leagues there is the added distraction of more niche sports like tennis, auto racing, lacrosse, MLS Soccer, rugby, Esports, and more. Those, plus real life responsibilities usually fill the schedule for most functioning adults…most.

If only there was a league that offered limited games, and time slots that are uniquely open…

Airing on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the Premier League, a European football or Soccer league based out of England (and Wales) perfectly fits the bill. The season spans from August to May with 38 games being played between the 20 teams in the league. It fits the perfect middle ground between the minimalistic NFL schedule (16 games) and a wildly busy MLB season (162 games).

With the games being played in England, the usual start times for matches is 7:30am, 8:30am, 10:30am and 12:30am on the weekends with the odd weekday game being played at 3:30pm (all times in EST).

The season is extended in length by domestic tournaments, the English Football League Cup (EFL Cup) and the FA Cup, and European tournaments like the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. Season breaks are instituted for early round action of these tournaments as a majority of league teams will have early round games to play.

The Champions League and Europa League, designated for the best teams across all of Europe’s top flight football league, add to the desire to win and excitement in the football season. Should your team fail to qualify for the Champions League, which is the top three in the Premier League guaranteed, with fourth place in the Prem getting a play-in game, or Europa League which is designated for fifth place in the league, EFL Cup winning team, and FA Cup winning team also qualifying, you have rooting options. Either support a foreign team, or find another Premier League team that you don’t entirely hate to back as an English competitor.

Another foreign aspect of football to North American fans is relegation and promotion. There is no reward for tanking a season away, and more than just glory and bragging rights for league champions. To keep the Premier League fresh and constantly competitive there is a linking of the top league through the English Championship (tier below Premier League) and EFL League 1 and League 2 at the bottom.

The 92 team tiered system is completely dynamic, with the champions and top teams of the league below gaining promotion to the upper leagues and the bottom teams in the upper leagues getting relegated to the league below. This keeps the games important until the end of the season, either by the thrill of promotion, the fear of relegation, or the excitement of European tournament play, English football has multiple levels of excitement that revolve around these levels of competitiveness.

An aspect of Premier League football that adds to the watchability of the matches is the fully enveloped life that develops around that team. Each team is geographically rooted into a city, town, or community and many have decades of cultural importance with the people that reside there. These stories are told in a snapshot by the team names and badges; here are a few examples:

West Ham United – “The Hammers”
As shown on their crest, West Ham is a working mans club. Created from the Thames Ironworks, a ship building company in East London, West Ham United don crossed rivoters hammers on their crest within a shield-like shape that is actually a cross section of the hull of HMS Warrior, a ship created by Thames Ironworks in 1860.

Stoke City – “The Potters”
Based out of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire England, Stoke City currently are staring down relegation in the Premier League. The club was founded in 1863, originally nicknames The Ramblers, Stoke City now has their club nickname The Potters on their crest, a nod to the pottery industry that grips the region the club plays in.

Manchester United – “The Red Devils”
Created in 1878 and called Newton Heath LYR Football Club, Manchester United switched to their common name in 1902 and Red Devil nickname in the 1960s. Looking for a more marketable team icon (over their previous logo of a sailing ship) the Red Devils nickname was taken from the English Rugby team and printed on scarves and programmes. Now one of the most recognizable teams in all of sport, Manchester United consistently battles for Premier League dominance and European championships.

One last pitch for more Canadians to start watching the Premier League is the overwhelming sense of community that supporters get adopted into. Like I said, these clubs envelop everything about their supporters lives, and with social media linking people from all over the world, there is a massive group of club supporters waiting to welcome you into supporting their team.

Whether you are looking for trophies and glory by supporting Manchester United, or Chelsea, chasing Premier League stability like West Ham United or Leicester City, or chasing top flight survival like Stoke City or Southampton FC there is a strong community around all levels of Premier League teams.

So why not flip on the tube on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Nurse a hangover with the quiet, yet tense build up of the grass fuelled chess match that is European football. My advice? Find a club and start watching their games. Do some youtube research, and find some twitter groups to boost your connectedness to your team. It is truly the beautiful game, and deserves more North American eyes on it.