Friday, September 28, 2012

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

By: Andy Chiang

Obligatory Salute to the Hillsborough  96

Much was made about the Hillsborough Tragedy in the run-up to the storied Manchester United v Liverpool derby this past Sunday. On September 12th the Hillsborough Independent Panel released a report pointing the finger at the Government for the 96 fans who lost their lives on that fateful April day in Sheffield in 1989. Until then, the official blame had fallen on the shoulders of the fans themselves. All around the EPL fans and teams showed solidarity with those affected and left behind with various tributes (i.e. minutes of silence, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” banners, etc.). Already the EPL’s most storied rivalry, this weekend’s game lived up to its billing by featuring plenty of hard tackles, contentious refereeing, a pivotal red card, and a winning PK awarded to Man United. Plenty of reading material and commentary if your interested in the Hillsborough Tragedy – Commentary from The Guardian, a summary of the panel’s findings, a more cynical view of this weekends tributes.

I have watched the Man Utd v. Liverpool fixture for the last ten years. I have never heard the Kop rock as much as it did in the first 15 minutes of this game. Against the backdrop of “The Truth” and “Justice” as spelled out in the terraces of Anfield, even my Red Devil blood was stirred by the sounds of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (skip to 3:00).

From where I’m sitting however (across the pond), while the deaths of 96 fans is tragic I still think the tributes this weekend pale in comparison to tributes that the NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, MLS, etc. do for U.S. servicemen/women…of course I am an American, and many of my friends have served overseas in “The Suck” so my perspective is biased.

Those sentiments aside, United played terribly. Though victorious in the end, words like “laborious” and “lucky” come to mind upon even shallow reflection. Looking at the final stats, Liverpool held only a 52 to 48 edge in possession…but this is playing with ten men for the majority of the match, with Jonjo Shelvey sent off in the 39th minute. (A tough call as both players involved left their feet in the challenge.) No bones about it, Liverpool’s midfield of Shelvey, Gerrard,  Joe Allen, and flop master Suarez completely outnumbered and dominated Carrick, Giggs, and Kagawa. As a result, Liverpool completed over 100 passes in the first half[1]. Great breakdown from a tactical pro on how they did it.

That’s not even what I most disappointed about in this game. When United bought Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund this summer, I won’t lie, I was ecstatic. I think the general feel in world football today is that world-class creative AMF’s only come from Brazil, Argentina, Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, basically all your traditional continental and South American footballing powerhouses. Asia is always left out of the elite class conversation, with the exceptions of Shunsuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And to be honest, they were only really talked about every four years. And to be brutally honest, Nakamura played in the Scottish Premier League. A few years ago Keisuke Honda rose to prominence with a big money move to CSKA Moscow (a transfer record for an Asian player at the time), but has since fallen out of the headlines. I had high hopes that Kagawa would blow up and hopefully help spur the next generation of Asian playmakers. On Sunday, when the world was watching, on the EPL’s biggest stage, in what will probably be one of the biggest games of the season for footballing reasons and others, Kagawa’s performance fell woefully flat.

Watching the game, I waited for Kagawa lead the break, make runs to pull defense’s out of shape, to make incisive passes to befuddle and emasculate Liverpool’s defenders.  What I saw was a timid performance, too conservative and too nervy to be effective. To be honest, I would have hauled him off for Chicharito much earlier than 81”. Kagawa played the vast majority of his passes back to Scholes or the backline. The key word there is “backward”. Safe. Conservative. Make the safe pass, then turn around and make a run. Best way to look like your contributing when your really not. He made almost no passes forward, and very rarely did he try and take anyone on. Of his few passes forward, some were to no one and point to a continued lack of understanding with his fullbacks.

[I wish The Guardian still offered their Chalkboard service so I could back up these contentions with some numbers, but that is no longer available. If anyone wants to help an android brother out (and has an iphone) pick up the excellent fourfourtwo statszone app and pull up Kagawa’s passing chart for me. ]

Every time Kagawa made a back pass to Scholes (who would then make an incisive pass up field, or switch the angle of attack with a pin point cross field ball) I cringed. In my head, I envisioned Salaryman Kagawa deferring responsibility to his elders in fine Confucian fashion. Where is the boldness?! Where is the risk-taking?! You’re in England, Who Dares Wins! It is clear that Kagawa is still not adjusted to the EPL and his teammates. Most of his give and go attempts end after his give. Much of United’s attacking impetus is now concentrated at the flanks, with Rafael/Valencia/Evra/Buttner all playing brightly as of late. At the end of his runs. Kagawa seems to have a tendency to end up right in the 8-yd box in front of the keeper, to do what, attack a cross with a thumping header? It’s probably the worst place on the field to put a 5 ft. 7 inch man that wins 0.3 aerial duels a game[2].  I think I would be relieved if I thought that Kagawa’s only problem was his size or strength. Of course some in the media have already begun mutter about Kagawa’s small stature, saying he is too “weak” for the EPL, this of course is a load of crap (see 5’5” Santi Cazorla). I am hoping the issue is one more one of team chemistry and confidence that should be addressed with time.

Whatever ails Kagawa (maybe its because he has only had 5 games?), it’s clear that Sir Alex has not yet solved United’s midfield conundrum as evidenced by the number of Paul Scholes appearances this season (started 3, subbed in in 2). With injuries continuing to plague United’s defenders (Vidic, Jones, Smalling), the midfield battle becomes that much more important in covering for what will be a makeshift defensive line.

Other United midfield disappointments for me:
·    Tom Cleverly – Started for England against Ukraine in early September (Yay!). His performance featured turnovers and errant passes galore, and three missed goal opportunities that the 70-yr old Sir Alex Ferguson could have converted (Boo!)
·    Nani – The Portuguese Black Hole loves to stall United’s attack flow by striking a pose over the ball in front of opposing defenders only to make the easy pass out. He is also obviously practicing for his future NFL kicking career by blazing all his shots as high up in the stands as possible.

Photo courtesy of


Tough game as liverpool fan, if it wasn't for that red card Liverpool was playing a much better game for sure.

@Albert Thanks to you mang, hope your feeling better!

@Caleb: Also tough to watch as a United fan, especially when you compare that game with the Man City vs. Arsenal game that weekend. Those two teams put on a freaking show man. It was beautiful, and really scary to watch. Depending on how Arsenal v. Chelsea look this weekend maybe 'pool and Utd will be fighting for 4th place and Champions League qualification #overreaction

SAF none too pleased with Cleverley too:

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