Daily Archives

March 11, 2019

Zinedine Zidane Back at Real Madrid: Why Now and What It Means for the Current Squad

High Press 10 March 11, 2019

Zinedine Zidane has returned to Real Madrid.

The club announced the sacking of Santiago Solari on Monday. Zidane, 46, will become Madrid’s third manager this campaign (Julen Lopetegui began the season and was let go in October).

Having left the club after winning his third consecutive Champions League last season, Zidane has reportedly signed a three-year contract that will take him through June 30, 2022.

Why Now?

Real Madrid are already eliminated from the Champions League Quarterfinals. In La Liga, they’re currently sitting third, 10 points clear of fifth place.  They’re in no eminent danger of not qualifying for next year’s UCL. And they’re 12 points behind Barcelona for a La Liga title.

From Real Madrid’s perspective, getting Zidane now makes all the sense in the world. They keep other potential suitors, like Juventus, away from him.

Further, Zidane had a very close relationship with his players, like Sergio Ramos. It would be reasonable to believe the players went to management and just said, “we’ve had enough, bring back Zinedine.”

From Zidane’s perspective, the answer is harder to understand.

When he left in May 2018, he said he was “desgaste” — which means “out of gas.” However, he also said he was “not out of energy.” So it’s hard to take that at face value.

Many believe the real reason Zidane bailed on Madrid last year is he saw an aging roster that needed a reboot, and he didn’t have interest in sticking around for that. That was something he did not have the energy to oversee.

Virtually nothing has changed from the time he left until now, save for Cristiano Ronaldo being gone and Vinícius showing flashes of potential.

If he wanted to come back to Real Madrid, he could’ve waited until the season was over instead of enduring a fairly meaningless two months in La Liga. If he wanted to evaluate players for a 2019-20 overhaul, well, most of those aging players (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos) have only gotten older. There’s not much new to evaluate. There’s also not much to gain from coming back now, except a paycheck, which is fine and absolutely his right. Regardless, we expect Zidane to shed some light on this one during his introductory press conference.

What Players Should be Concerned? And Who Is Coming In?

It would be hard to imagine Zidane is coming back if he didn’t have a firm idea over who he wants to jettison this summer. The names mentioned above (at least Bale and Benzema, as Ramos would likely be safe) would be leading candidates, along with potentially Luka Modrić.

Zidane would and should want a younger squad. After raking in record revenue, expect Real Madrid to be big spenders. Targets would be for a striker (expect someone younger than Harry Kane), creative wing (Eden Hazard, which most view as inevitable at this point), creative midfielder (Philippe Coutinho could be had), and center-back (Liverpool are already removing Virgil van Dijk from consideration with a big pay raise).

While there’s still a lot in the air, one thing is for sure: change is coming to the Bernabéu.


Goalkeepers Share Spotlight with 18-Year Old Sands as NYCFC and DC United Go Goalless at Yankee Stadium

Peter Nolan March 11, 2019

The story of Sunday’s 0-0 draw between New York City FC (NYCFC) and DC United was, not surprisingly, a game of “can you top this” that played out over 90 minutes between U.S. National Team adjacent goalkeepers Sean Johnson (NYC) and Bill Hamid (DC).

Speaking at his post-game press conference, New York City coach Dome Torrent said it this way, “Today the keepers, for me, were the best players. Sean for us and the keeper for DC.”

The coach added that he continues to see improvement in the play of his 29-year-old goalkeeper. “I am very happy with Sean,” Torrent said later in that same presser. He also singling out Johnson’s buildup play and noted, “every single day he plays better.”

When Goalies Shine, Offense Gets Dimmer

From a less optimistic NYCFC point of view, perhaps yesterday’s top news was the lack of goals, particularly with one David Villa scoring in his second consecutive match in Japan. With El Guaje now leading the line for Vissel Kobe, nearly 7,000 miles away from the Bronx, NYC still doesn’t have a recognized striker on its roster. However, Torrent sounded hopeful that help could be arriving soon, stating:

“We have the right people at the club working at that, maybe in the next two or three weeks we will be able to sign another player.”

James Sands Earns High Praise

Then again, the most important long-term development to emerge for the home team from Sunday’s stalemate may have been the role played by 18-year-old central midfielder James Sands. His coach certainly gave him a ringing endorsement after Sunday’s match, stating, “Jimmy is our future.”

The first player signed by NYCFC as part of the league’s homegrown player program, Sands has started the first two games of this new season after playing in just three games for NYCFC in 2018.

Alongside team captain Alex Ring, Sands was handed a big assignment versus DC and Torrent was more than pleased with the youngster. “He was amazing today,” Torrent enthused, “he controlled Rooney and Acosta.” As in Wayne Rooney, the former Manchester United icon, and Lucho Acosta, recent PSG target.

Speaking in front of his locker after the game, Sands was asked about going head-to-head with Rooney. “Yeah, I think it’s always a challenge when you play someone of that quality,” Sands remarked, “but you know I felt up for it he’s always up for it. So I think it just led to a good battle on the field.”

His goalkeeper was certainly impressed with his young teammate. “I thought you saw today a lot of moments where he’s really good on the ball, he’s calm,” Johnson began. “As a goalkeeper,” Johnson values the ability that Sands has to, “cut out important passes, make important challenges.” “It really disrupts the flow of the game” and Johnson adds, “puts out a lot of fires.”

Despite getting so little playing time last season Sands said of Torrent, “I think he always believed in me but I think this year I’ve felt more ready and I think he’s seen me as more ready to play and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

It sounds like Sands is at a good place to see playing time despite his young age. “It is never you are too young to play soccer,” Torrent explained. “I want to see the young players if they have quality – when you are 16 years old,” the coach underlined, “it depends on the quality.”

Still, Torrent would be expelled from the Coaches Union if he didn’t offer at least a word of caution on his young midfielder. “He is a clever player,” the coach said, “but maybe the next game (you) play another player because if you have a balanced team you have 18  players that deserve to play and as a coach, you make a mistake if every game you play the same 11 every single day.”

So, no promises then for Sands – just plenty of promise.

Champions League Round of 16 Leg 2 Week 2: Can Juventus, Schalke, or Lyon Pull a Manchester United Style Upset?

Chops March 11, 2019

If last week’s Champions League Round of 16 matches taught us anything, it’s to completely disavow the concept of math and probabilities.

Manchester United had a 3% chance to advance. Ajax only had a 25% chance to move on. Porto, despite being at home, were at 44%. All three managed to punch their tickets through to the Champions League Quarterfinals.

Do any of this week’s big underdogs, Schalke 04, Lyon, or Juventus, stand a chance to overcome the odds and advance? How about slight underdog Liverpool, playing at Bayern Munich? Let’s examine.

Manchester City vs. Schalke 04

Manchester City -750 Draw +750 Schalke 04 +1600

According to FiveThirtyEight, despite only being up 3-2 on aggregate, Manchester City is 99%+ to advance to the quarters.

As we saw with Ajax and Manchester United last week (or Atlanta United vs. FC Cincinnati on Sunday), on a game-by-game basis, soccer can be very fluky. A team can dominate possession and fire off more shots on goal, and still lose to a team that converts most of its shots. It happens.

Yes, Manchester City is the best team in the world. Yes, Schalke 04 are decidedly not the best team in the world. And yes, the match is at the Etihad. But should Schalke really be less than a 1% chance to advance?


City is rolling right now. However, they’re less than two months removed from a 3-2 home loss to Crystal Palace, and 2-1 road loss to Newcastle United. City utterly dominated both of those games in terms of possession (over 70%!) and shots on goal / target (almost quadruple and double, respectively).

Will City advance? Almost certainly. Is there better than a 1% chance that Schalke pulls off an upset? For sure.

Juventus vs. Atletico Madrid

Juventus -150 Draw +260 Atletico Madrid +450

Atleti is listed as an 88% chance to advance. While they should certainly be heavily favored, oddsmakers view Juventus as a -150 favorite to win the match. Despite Atleti’s stout defense, Juve have the firepower to overcome a 2-0 deficit against anyone in the world. Ronaldo has spent his entire career breaking hearts.

We’ll have more analysis of this match tomorrow, but if you’re an Atletico fan, prepare for a white-knuckler.

Barcelona vs. Lyon

Barcelona -450 Draw +550 Lyon +950

If you’re looking for a, “soccer is fluky, stuff can happen” kind of game, this one has the potential for an upset written all over it.

Barcelona hosts Lyon at Camp Nou, tied with an 0-0 aggregate. FiveThirtyEight has Barca at 76% to advance. Oddsmakers are more optimistic, listing them at -450 (with Lyon as a heavy dog at +950).

If you’re looking for clues in recent form, Barcelona haven’t lost since January 23rd (to Sevilla in the Copa del Rey). Sure, there are a number of draws recently and they’ve had their struggles (although the kind of struggles Barcelona has other clubs will kill for). Lyon lost February 24th to a struggling (though recently mildly resurgent) AS Monaco in Ligue 1.

With PSG eliminated, futures markets have Barcelona solely at second favorite overall to win the Champions League at +430 (Man City is +220). Barcelona should win this match. All it takes is that 10 second burst of brilliance from Lionel Messi. If Lyon wins, it’ll be one of those “park the bus, get a pk in the box in the last 10 minutes” kind of outcomes. Unlikely but not improbable. To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas, “so you’re telling me there is a chance.”

Bayern Munich vs. Liverpool

Bayern Munich -110 Draw +250 Liverpool +240

Your guess is as good as mine.

Seriously, who knows.

Oddsmakers and prognosticators don’t. FiveThirtyEight has Bayern at 53% to advance. While Bayern is a favorite to win at -110, books are hedging their own bets, giving Liverpool better futures to win the championship (+900 to Bayern’s +1100).

So much of this match depends on Jurgen Klopp‘s tactical strategy and line-up selection. Does he give a back-in-form Adam Lallana the start as a means to offensively energize Liverpool’s midfield? Or now that Lallana has looked strong, does Klopp ice him like he’s done with Shaqiri and Keita? If Liverpool aren’t breaking down Bayern’s backline in a 4-3-3, does Klopp go to the 4-2-3-1 he’s had success with this year?

Liverpool kept a clean sheet at Anfield despite not having Virgil van Dijk. He’s back this game. Bayern are without Thomas Müller again. Arjen Robben and Kingsley Coman are iffy. The reality is this game will come down to Liverpool’s front three. If Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah look as they did against Burnley this weekend, the Reds will advance. If they are plagued with heavy touches and poor link-up play, they won’t. If there was every a time for Mo Salah’s expected goals to see a regression to the mean, it’s now. Either way, expect this game to be a classic.






Atlanta United Under Frank de Boer Feels a Lot Like Manchester United with Jose Mourinho

High Press 10 March 11, 2019

Boos rang down the Mercedes-Benz stadium after Atlanta United drew expansion club FC Cincinnati 1-1- on Sunday.

As far as any fans can remember, there has never been boos after an Atlanta United game.

The boos weren’t directed at the players. Atlanta fans love their team to a degree no other MLS city can really claim. The boos were fans expressing dissatisfaction with this new style of Five Stripes play and more specifically, at the new manager, Frank de Boer.

A Blown Lead, Uninspired Play

The game started as good as fans could hope. ATL went up in the fifth minute on a pinpoint Josef Martinez strike coming from a spot on feed from Julian Gressel.


The 1-0 lead acted as make-up on the ugly face of an uninspiring game. On paper, United dominated the match. They played a possession-heavy game (66-34%) and out-shot Cincinnati 10 (4 on target) to 4 (1 on target). But Atlanta generated fewer quality opportunities as the game dragged on. They engaged in a very ticky-tacky possession game with aspiring opportunities coming from direct play. Creative link-ups were non-existent. Counter-attacks were toothless, lacking numbers and quality.

Worse, the players didn’t look like they were enjoying the new system.

It all came crashing down in the 86th minute when Roland Lamah broke free from a disorganized backline and buried his strike, tying the game 1-1 and silencing the announced crowd of just over 70,000.


On a night when United unveiled its 2018 MLS Cup banner, the end result couldn’t be more disappointing. Atlanta were the heaviest favorites among all MLS squads this week (-240). The talent is there. The support is there. A system that works is not.

Shades of Mourinho and Sarri

Yes, it’s early. Losses away to Monterrey and DC United can be brushed off. Both are quality squads (and in Monterrey’s case, probably the best in North America). A tie at home against expansion FC Cincinnati, not so much. United are playing less than the sum of their parts right now, and that’s on de Boer.

As Paul Tenorio from The Athletic pointed out:


De Boer is implementing a system that doesn’t fit his players. He hasn’t adapted yet. The players don’t appear to be enjoying playing for de Boer. This all feels like Jose Mourinho at Manchester United or Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. De Boer has taken a system that wasn’t broke (far from it) and made it worse, mostly by ignoring some things that made that personnel successful.

The critics of the de Boer hire that pointed to his stints at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace are being given plenty of fodder. It doesn’t help when de Boer, in post game comments, says that Atlanta fans have been “spoiled” and to not expect “similar results” this season.

A Few Bright Spots

Josef Martinez’s finish was legit. Julian Gressel was strong early. Ezequiel Barco looked great off ball with some interesting runs. Unfortunately, he was rarely delivered the ball on those runs. Eighteen year-old sub Andrew Carleton looked like Adam Lallana-lite, with boundless energy and interesting runs. Unfortunately, again, teammates haven’t developed either the chemistry or awareness to link up with them yet.

Other than that, this is a major work in progress. Nothing short of a (highly unlikely) mid-week rebound in the CONCACAF Champions League will go to silence a growing chorus of de Boer doubters.


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