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March 2016

Der Bayern Dusel

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
bayern

Juventus, along with their Spanish spirit animal (Atletico Madrid), are the perennial thorn in the side of the Champions League. In an extravagant competition designed to pit star-studded sides that play fast and fluid attacking football against each other, Juve are the antithesis: A defensive-minded side with a speciality in tactics and tackles rather than flicks and flair.

During the past two seasons under Max Allegri, Juve have sapped the elegance from the flamboyant likes of Manchester City, Dortmund and Real Madrid, and they performed admirably in the Champions League final against Barcelona. Juve were certainly a more dangerous side last season, when they had a world class striker leading the line (Carlos Tevez), a destructive presence in the midfield who could also join the attack (Arturo Vidal) and a certain promising prospect who we will get to later. But Allegri has adapted, and on a relatively tight budget considering the club let Tevez return to his beloved Boca Juniors on a free transfer, and he had his side battling for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals Wednesday night.

The first leg of Juve’s Round of 16 matchup against Bayern was only the second time Juve had played a four-goal game in the Champions League under Allegri and it was the second time that an opponent had put two goals past them. Other than Barcelona, this Bayern team is clearly the most talented opponent Juve have faced during the past two seasons, and the Zebras began the tie in typical fashion, sitting back and letting Bayern bring the game to them. The strategy backfired when Thomas Muller scored just before halftime, and the tie seemed over when Robben scored Bayern’s second away goal in the 56th minute. Juve rallied, though, scoring twice in the final half hour to even things up before the scene shifted to Bavaria.

Juve’s comeback in the first leg was surprising, but it was nothing compared to the way The Old Lady started in the return leg. Within the first 30 minutes, Juve had secured two away goals of their own and looked poised to pull off a major upset; the moment Juan Cuadrado’s finesse shot hit the back of the net in the 28th minute, Juventus had outscored Bayern 4-0 during the past hour of play. With Bayern’s goals in Turin stripped of their additional value, Juventus had earned itself a chance to shape up at the back and try to see out the tie for an hour with one of the best attacking teams in world football breathing down their necks.

The Old Lady nearly did it, too. Juve nearly pulled off a feat many thought to be impossible. They were as comfortable as can a team can be when putting 10 men behind the ball and giving Bayern Munich an hour to figure out how to score a pair of goals, and their defending was solid. But parking the bus against the top sides in the world can’t last forever, which Juve found out in the first leg when they sat back without a lead to protect and conceded two.

It was only after going down 2-0 at home when Juve picked up their intensity and played more ambitiously, and that spirit carried over in the opening half hour of Wednesday’s affair. Allegri got the tactics wrong out of the gate in this tie, playing in fear of Bayern from the opening kick in their home leg, but it seemed Juve’s strong close in Turin had keyed Allegri in to the benefits of letting his team play more aggressively, particularly against a depleted Bayern backline that has looked shaky when challenged. That mindset didn’t last long, though, for Juve retreated into their shell once they put themselves two goals ahead.

I think Allegri blew a golden opportunity in Bavaria. Juve scored twice because they were putting good pressure on Bayern and creating chances on the break and with possession of their own, yet as soon as they got up 2-0 he decided to switch his team into an even more defensive formation, all but killing Juve’s chances of scoring a third goal without a good bit of luck. I can see parking the bus straight away if you score two quick goals in fluke situations, but Juve were legitimately troubling Bayern and Pep Guardiola’s defense was in shambles. Had the Zebras finished out the half and started the second with the same attacking fervor they arrived in Germany with, they might well have gone through.

Not only did Allegri neuter his team after they had showcased their attacking prowess, he also took out his two top performers well before they were ready to leave the pitch, and his changes directly preceded Bayern’s first two goals. Allegri took Alvaro Morata off for Mario Mandzukic in the 72nd minute, and less than a minute later Robert Lewandowski had headed home Douglas Costa’s brilliant cross to bring Bayern within one. Then Allegri brought Cuadrado off in the 89th minute, and two minutes later Muller had tied the game.

Morata, who came on as a sub in the first leg and created one of Juve’s goals, was brilliant Wednesday. His hold up play was great, he had a tremendous work rate chasing down clearances and his run that created Juve’s second goal was sublime. Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Morata glided past Bayern’s defenders as if they weren’t there, charging down the pitch until the defense committed to him and then slid a perfect pass to Cuadrado, who played a great match himself, for the goal.

Morata should have had a goal of his own, too, but the referee disallowed it on a wrong offside call, making for the second time this tie Juve had lost a goal because of an incorrect decision. Morata was critical for Juve when they got past Real Madrid last season and he was good enough in both of his appearances against Bayern to secure the same result this season. If there is any positive takeaway for Juve from this game, it’s that Morata looked lively once again in the midst of a rather quiet season. The version of Morata that played against Bayern paired with Paulo Dybala, one of the best young forwards in Europe, would give Juventus a great strike partnership for the next few years.

Unfortunately for The Old Lady, Morata was subbed off 20 minutes too early, and while Allegri was submarining his sides’ chances, his adversary helped win the game for his team. Guardiola’s subs were fantastic, with Kingsley Coman entering in the 60th minute and Thiago coming on in extra time. Coman was an energetic presence out wide for Bayern, but more importantly his insertion shifted Douglas Costa into a more central role.

Alex Sandro, a left back by trade who has had good success as a hybrid wide midfielder for Juve, had done as good a job as he could in dealing with Costa, helping cover for the slower Patrice Evra by tracking back and taking up the widest positions. Once Coman came in and drew Sandro’s attention, Evra and Juve’s midfielders were left to defend Costa, a losing proposition for Juve.

Coman was also directly involved in the result, assisting on Muller’s equalizer in the 91st minute and scoring a gorgeous curler on the break to seal the tie in the 110th minute. Coman was a Juve player a season ago, though he never played a meaningful role, and Bayern got him on loan with an option to buy during the summer (for a price that now looks like a steal). Who knows how much Coman would have played had he stayed with Juve this season, but imagining this same Juve team coming into Bavaria with Sandro at left back and Coman taking Evra’s place in the side must be painful for Juve fans. Coman is fantastic on the ball and an excellent playmaker for a 19-year-old. Ribery and Robben have been the star wide players for Bayern for several seasons, but it won’t be long before Costa and Coman displace them.

It is tough to say that the better team didn’t go through from this tie; Bayern are impossibly deep and talented and they managed six goals (albeit with extra time) against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal in Serie A since Jan. 10. But when you consider the two missed calls (one giving Bayern an underserved goal in the first leg, the other taking a legitimate goal away from Juve in Bavaria) and the fact that Juve scored four straight goals in the middle of this tie, one could argue that Juve were just as good, if not better, during these two games.

Juventus will never be able to make that claim firmly, though, because they gave Bayern way too much time to thump their way back into the tie with crosses and longshots rather than staying positive and keeping the pressure on Bayern’s unconvincing defense. Such has been the story for Juve in big games under Allegri.

Juve, while lacking the volume of the other super clubs, are talented and Allegri has a great defensive system that his players buy into. What is separating Juve from the European crown is that their manager has yet to reciprocate the trust his players have in him. Sitting back and making opponents come to them will always be a part of The Old Lady’s DNA, but until Allegri realizes that parking the bus against the best teams in the world is a stopgap, often desperate, solution and not a foolproof plan, Juve will be at the mercy of teams that can dominate possession in the final third in their sleep.

Parisian Prominence

in Champions League Analysis/Futbol by
pstid

For the second straight season, Paris Saint-Germain eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League with an impressive performance at Stamford Bridge, though this time the Parisians’ triumph was less surprising and more convincing. With their 2-1 victory against the Blues last week, the Parisians booked their place in the quarterfinals with a tactical and spirited performance against a Chelsea side that has been decent under interim manager Guus Hiddink.

The second leg of last year’s tie was full of drama almost from kickoff, with Zlatan Ibrahimović being sent off after just half an hour. Ten-man PSG rallied to level the match and the tie at 2 in the 86th minute, with David Luiz forcing extra time with a thumping header. An Eden Hazard penalty put PSG behind again before their other Brazilian centerback, Thiago Silva, beat Thibaut Courtois with a header of his own, putting PSG through on away goals.

This time around, the Parisians’ place in the next round was never in doubt, particularly after Adrien Rabiot slotted home the opening goal in London, giving PSG a matching away goal and setting them up for a thorough performance that put them through. They won their home leg 2-1 thanks to Edinson Cavani’s late goal, and the Parisians looked even more comfortable on Chelsea’s ground, securing the same result in London.

Midfield Mastery

PSG dominated Chelsea in the center of the park in both legs, which was particularly impressive during the second leg at Stamford Bridge with Marco Verrati out and Blaise Matuidi playing injured. In the deciding matchup, PSG boss Laurent Blanc deployed a sturdy midfield pair alongside Matuidi in veteran Thiago Motta and the ravishing Rabiot. Even against lesser sides, Chelsea can cede possession at home, so Blanc put his faith in a trio capable of recycling possession and doing the dirty work in midfield, necessary qualities in a game PSG merely needed to control, not dominate.

The Parisians were far from complacent, though, looking to add to the 2-1 lead they stepped onto the pitch with. At times, PSG’s passing was as slick and instinctive as you will see in football. Their movement looked choreographed and their triangles were as tight as ever, culminating in some aesthetically pleasing football and a handful of good chances.

Understandably, Matuidi was far from his lively self in this game, straying from confrontation in the midfield and rarely springing forward into the attacking third. With Matuidi slowed, Rabiot was critical for the Parisians, and he played one of the best games of the season. Rabiot was comfortable exchanging short passes with Motta in the middle of the park and he had great success drifting wide and linking up near the touchline, which spurred moves like this one.

Rabiot had 92 passes with a 90.2 percent completion rate, the game’s second highest total behind Motta, who picked 118 passes in this game and helped PSG establish control. Motta did, however, look a bit throw off when Chelsea pressed him intently and he wasn’t tremendous defensively. Without Rabiot buzzing around the field, Motta might have been at fault for a few more mistakes, but the youngster did well in this game to provide an outlet for Motta, and PSG were able to dominate the midfield.

But it wasn’t just the three midfielders Blanc picked that made the difference in this game; an attacking midfielder turned winger in Angel Di Maria had a massive impact in this game by dropping into the hole and helping usher play into the attacking third. Zlatan has played the No. 10 role extensively during the latter part of his career, but he stayed forward against Chelsea, often drifting off the centerbacks just a tad and attacking for wide positions. Di Maria’s central positioning and Ibrahimovic’s slight drift were key in PSG’s first goal, as was Rabiot’s ubiquitous nature in this game.

Di Maria has been brilliant in a lot of different facets this season, and against the Blues he showcased an element of his versatility that will give Blanc a lot of different attacking options as the Parisians progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Ibracadabra

Zlatan, whose recent comments indicate this will be his final season in France, is doing all that he can to secure his first Champions League trophy as a Parisian. The Swede was integral in PSG’s attacking play against Chelsea, scoring twice and assisting once in the tie. As someone who has been criticized for shrinking in big games, Ibra has refuted those criticisms with his typical stern tone. He was magnificent against the Blues overmatched centerback duo, drifting wide of Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic on both of PSG’s goals – once as a playmaker, once as a scorer – and Lucas worked well as his silent counterpart, making critical runs that drew defenders away from PSG’s talisman.

Ibra is in flying form having had a hand in two goals against Chelsea and scoring another four against Ligue 1 bottomfeeder Troyes. PSG have wrapped up the domestic league with eight games to play, meaning Blanc can save Ibra specifically for the Champions League. If Zlatan can maintain his fitness and form during the next month or so, PSG will have a great shot at winning the one trophy he desires the most.

Sorting out the defense

Blanc might do well to stay away from totally rotated sides in the league, because his defense can use some sharpening. Although they couldn’t get their attack going against them, PSG’s defense was more impressive in its matchups with Real Madrid during the group stage (one goal conceded in two games) than it was in either game against Chelsea. The centerback duo of Luiz and Silva is firmly the Parisians’ best, but Blanc has some options, each talented and flawed, at the fullback spots that he will have to sort through ahead of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Maxwell and Marquinhos started both legs against Chelsea at left and right back, respectively, with Gregory Van der Wiel managing a cameo in the second leg, summer signing Layvin Kurzawa never seeing the pitch and Sergio Aurier rightfully out of the team after his disparaging comments about his manager on Periscope. Maxwell, aka Zlatan’s lucky charm when it comes to trophies, probably won’t be displaced, but Marquinhos might find himself out of the squad should PSG have the misfortune of drawing Ronaldo, Douglas Costa or Neymar in the quarterfinal.

And that, really, is what is most intriguing about the next challenge for PSG. They’ve proven to be one of the five best sides in the world this season, with dominating form in their league and good showings in the Champions League. But PSG have consistently failed to live up to the standards set by the few clubs that boast more lavish teams, living proof of the difference between great and world class sides.

With the addition of Di Maria, the evolution of their midfield and Ibra’s farewell looming, this is PSG’s best chance to prove they belong with the perennial big boys.

Looking On The Whiteside

in NBA by
whitesidefinal

The Miami Heat struck gold when they signed Hassan Whiteside last November. Whiteside, a maligned and peripatetic talent, was stuck in a fruitless cycle of D-League contracts and passport stamps when the Heat took a chance on him, and he paid immediate dividends.

Within a fortnight of his first real taste of the rotation, Whiteside posted 23 points and 16 rebounds in a breakout performance against the Clippers. Two weeks after that, Whiteside posted his first career triple-double when he put up 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls. As the weeks went by, the monstrous statlines piled up, and Whiteside quickly earned a reputation as one of the biggest bargains in the league.

Those points-rebounds-blocks triple-doubles have become a bit of a calling card for Whiteside. Whiteside has three such triple-doubles this season, giving him four for his career; the only other player with more than one since 2000 is Ben Wallace. As Whiteside so eloquently put it: Ain’t nobody else doing it with blocks.

The illustration for this article was done specifically for this piece by artist Alex Dunbar. You can see more of his work at CourtsideScribbles.com

One would think a player with the potential to put up such cartoonish numbers on a regular basis would be the crucial piece in his team’s playoff push. Instead Whiteside has spent this season being toggled between the limelight and the timeout corner as the Heat try to figure out exactly what they have in this radiant and recalcitrant talent.

Whiteside’s situation is littered with precedents. There aren’t any examples of NBA teams exhuming a former second rounder who had resorted to playing in Lebanon and China, much less cases of that player subsequently becoming one of the most dominant centers in the league within a season and a half. Imagine new Rocket Michael Beasley coming in and challenging for the scoring title during the final two months of the season. That is akin to what Whiteside has done since Miami plucked him from obscurity.

The downside of being plucked from obscurity is that Miami’s flyer on Whiteside came with a contract that didn’t offer any longterm security for either party. The terms of the deal aren’t wholly unique for a 15th man being signed for the minimum during the season, but this particular case, in which Whiteside has stunningly developed into a max-level talent, is certainly a first; it is the kind of rare occurrence that might even have its own exception in the CBA named after it to protect both sides if it ever happens again.

Although the Heat don’t have any contractual right or advantage to lean on when Whiteside hits free agency this summer, they did give themselves the chance to win Whiteside over during this trial run. After all, Miami was the team most eager to sign him when his only other offers paid in yuan instead of dollars. Given the Heat’s sterling reputation, which only shines brighter in light of Joe Johnson’s decision to move to South Beach instead of embarking on a guaranteed trip to the Finals with the Cavs, it would seem they have a massive advantage in keeping Whiteside around. The Heat organization has a ton of clout among players because they take care of their own and Miami offers the NBA’s most scenic residential options. What’s not to like?

Whiteside’s situation isn’t that cut and dry. It doesn’t seem as if the Heat have established themselves as overwhelming favorites to retain Whiteside, which isn’t what you would expect given the circumstances.

There are several relevant sideplots in this impending free agency saga, not the least of which is Whiteside’s personality. Like any talented big man, Whiteside wants more touches and a bigger slice of the possessions pie on offense, and he isn’t shy about it. Were Whiteside to accept the confines of the Tyson Chandler role, which suits him well, then the Heat couldn’t ask for a better pick-and-roll dive man to play alongside Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade (though the fit between Wade and Dragic is still in question).

But Whiteside desires more of the spotlight, and because Whiteside can walk at the end of the season, the Heat are in an interesting position: Do they cater to him or give him stern love? I suppose that question was answered when Miami showed its admirable colors and refused to allow LeBron James and his camp to run the show, which might have been a factor in his decision to return to Cleveland. If Miami’s power brokers aren’t going to budge on their principles for the game’s best player, then they certainly aren’t going to do so for Whiteside.

That said, there is a difference between acquiescing to a player’s wishes and making the sensible decision to make a player who will have no shortage of suitors this offseason feel welcome and wanted. Earlier in the season, Whiteside lost his place in the starting lineup, and even with Bosh out, Whiteside has been coming off the bench. He plays starter’s minutes most nights, but Amare Stoudemire gets the token starts. Perhaps this isn’t significant because Whiteside plays about as much as he would as a starter, but for someone like him, the starter moniker seems to mean something. And, generally speaking, if you are a few months away from offering a player a $100 million deal, you should be starting him, right?

One of the reasons the Heat might demur with committing to Whiteside is that they are one of the foremost analytical organizations in the league. A forward-thinking coach like Erik Spoelstra is probably hesitant to shift the foundation of his offense to suit a big man’s desire to post up more. If we were talking about Marc Gasol, this would be a different story. But post touches for Whiteside means only one thing: A shot is coming. He is a black hole in the post and he adds nothing as a playmaker. This season, Whiteside has 18 total assists and 100 turnovers; for context, Rajon Rondo has had 18 or more assists in a game six times this season.

One would think it inevitable that Whiteside’s efficiency would suffer greatly if he replaced a large number of his pick-and-roll dunks with post touches, but he is as efficient as it gets for possession enders. Whiteside is shooting 65.8 percent on his post touches this season, the fourth highest percentage in the league behind Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas and Dwight Howard. Mix in Whiteside’s incredible prowess on pick-and-rolls – he makes 74.7 percent of his shots as the roll man – and you can see the framework for one of the league’s better offensive centers. Whiteside has even been showcasing a midrange jumper recently, which could only serve to boost his value (as would passing the ball every once in a while).

And this is without mentioning Whiteside’s effect on the other end of the floor.

Although his block numbers are outlandish, for most of the season Miami has been better defensively with Whiteside off the floor. That trend has reversed recently, though, and now Miami is virtually the same with or without Whiteside on the floor. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his defensive value, nor is the fact that he is allowing 46.4 percent shooting at the basket this season, a solid number, but also not elite. Regardless, Whiteside is the game’s most dominant shot blocker and there is some value in that. Whiteside is averaging 3.92 blocks per game; DeAndre Jordan is second at 2.26. The difference between Whiteside and Jordan is the same as the difference between Jordan and Aron Baynes, who ranks 76th in blocks per game.

Ultimately, this all boils down to one question, which applies to any team that might want to throw heaps of money at Whiteside: Does Miami want to commit $20 million a season to a 26-year-old with two seasons of NBA-level production on his resume?

If Miami’s goal is to maximize its chances during Wade’s and Bosh’s window, then it might be smarter to spend that money elsewhere. If Pat Riley has the bigger picture in mind, which would be surprising considering his own age and Wade’s dwindling prime, then he might see the potential in a Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside core as a starting point. After all, the trio of Wade/Bosh/Whiteside has been average this season (minus-0.8 net rating) while the trio of Dragic/Winslow/Whiteside has been one of Miami’s best (plus-5.4 net rating) three-man groups.

One could argue Miami has the infrastructure in place to mitigate any damaging effects Whiteside’s ego might have on a franchise lacking such a powerful and renowned hierarchy, and the Heat have a staff well-equipped to extract the most out of Whiteside. Betting on Whiteside again, though it will be much riskier this time, could mean getting one of the game’s 10 best bigs under control for four or five seasons.

There is also the chance Whiteside wants to move and cash his checks elsewhere. As unpredictable as his career was to follow when he was bouncing from continent to continent, Whiteside’s next chapter might be even more ambiguous.

Whiteside has a unique set of potent talents that will have teams flocking to his doorstep in July, but his flaws will give every general manager in the league pause before they make that nine-figure offer. The determining factor will be which general managers aren’t comfortable with his imperfections and which ones decide to look at things on the Whiteside.

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