Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Major League Baseball Blew It at a Time When Its Credibility is at a 100-Year Low

Players want to win so badly they apparently devise a scheme to cheat.  At least one coach, educated at an elite school, is a ringleader.  The project gains momentum.  The team installs surveillance cameras to steal signs from the catcher to the pitcher and then relays them to the hitters.  The hitters, sometimes moody fellows, are very happy.  They know what pitches they will be facing -- like having the questions to the exam before the date of the test.  Whoopie! 

The manager, educated at an even more elite school than the coach, tried to stopped it a few times but failed to report these serious integrity violations up the reporting chain -- in this case, to his general manager, a very well-educated fellow himself.  The team already had a reputation for being difficult; it had to fire an assistant general manager for insensitive comments to women reporters after a relief pitcher with a history of domestic abuse helped the team win a key game.  Got all that?  And the general manager had an inkling himself that something strange was going on.

The evidence was pretty cut and dried.  Some team leader -- presumably a veteran who oddly enough is now the manager of another team or the coach in question (who just got fired as the manager of a team that won the World Series a year after this team did) instructed personnel to put up surveillance cameras to steal the signs of their opponents.  And then the players figured out ingenious ways to relay to their teammates in the batter's box what pitch was coming, including banging on a trash can in the dugout.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do in all of sports is to hit Major League pitching -- it comes at the batter very quickly and the player has no idea -- in a perfect world -- how the pitch might move or how fast it will be.  (Teams use neuroscience tests to evaluate the reaction times of prospects when they evaluate them for their draft of amateur players).    But the batter can do much better when his teammates let him know what is coming.  The splits that this team -- the Houston Astros -- had in the World Series in 2017 were pronounced -- it hit much better at home, where it had the cameras and relayed signals to hitters, than on the road. 

Scandal?  You bet.  Integrity of the game damaged?  Definitely.  Character of the game in major question after this?  Of course.  Especially after the league has endured -- in the past three decades -- the steroids scandal, a pretty much covered up scandal about the widespread use of amphetamines, and a scandal about the signing of international players that cost one general manager his job (the Braves' GM at the time).  Major League Baseball is a listing ship in so many ways, and over the past three decades it has struggled mightily to counter the notion that it does not pay to cheat.

Because it has paid for players and teams to cheat, especially while the players and teams were cheating.  Records were broken, contracts were awarded with huge dollar amounts, championships were won.  Oh, sure, now some of the perpetrators cannot get voted into the Hall of Fame and have been publicly shamed, but it does not seem that anyone has learned any lessons from what happened even thirty years ago, let alone in 1919 with the Black Sox scandal.  Cheating seems to be ingrained in the culture of the game, and it reappears in different forms seemingly every five years in some way and every quarter-century in a major way.

So, presented with all of the evidence, what did Major League Baseball do?  Its commissioner, Rob Manfred, cut a sweetheart deal with the Astros (even if it included fines and a forfeiture of draft picks) after you get past the fact that he ultimately compelled the termination of employment of their heralded general manager/manager duo of Jeffrey Luhnow (for overseeing a bad culture and knowing some of what was going on) and A.J. Hinch (for overseeing a bad culture, knowing about what was going on and failing to stop it).  Atop that, the commissioner muzzled every other team from talking about this scandal.  Right now, the Astros are a disgrace, and the Red Sox are about to be labeled as one.  And the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to both teams in the 2017 and 2018 World Series, respectively, should be silent?  Seriously?

Even more importantly, the commissioner failed to take any action against the players.  The reasoning he offered was that the GM and manager are responsible for the behavior of the players.  My guess is that the commissioner did one of three things.  He acted like the big-law firm lawyer he once was and got the players to cooperate in exchange for leniency -- so that he could land bigger fish in the general manager and manager.  That's a typical tactic of prosecutors in a white-collar crime investigation -- go after upper management, not the workers.  Sometimes it is in the right thing to do, but on other occasions it is not (and Crane was exonerated because there was no evidence that he knew what was going on).  The second theory is that he cut a deal with Jim Crane, the Astros' owner, so that in exchange for ultimately having the Astros fire Luhnow and Hinch, Crane got to save his players, the team's competitiveness and his revenues.  Because if MLB went after players and suspended a good part of the Astros' roster, no one would go see them play and they might set an all-time record for losses in a season.  The third theory is that Manfred was fearful of a prolonged battle with the players' union that might last into the negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement, which is bound to be hotly negotiated.  So, he pulled his punches.

None of the above is acceptable if Major League Baseball wants to maintain its integrity.  If he went after upper management so as to send a message that they are responsible for the entire team's behavior, that's fine, but it does not go far enough.  I have no problem with the termination of Luhnow and Hinch; they should have been fired.  But Manfred failed to go far enough.  And, in white-collar criminal prosecutions that result in charges against higher ups, that does not mean that the company does not terminate or take disciplinary action against those who were involved in the bad behavior, even if no criminal charges were brought.  But what owner will take a stand for integrity that will cost it some very good players and its revenue?  Apparently, all owners are okay with what Manfred did.

If Manfred cut a deal with Crane to save Crane's team's 2017 World Series title, his revenues and future seasons (this one, which had Manfred pursued players might have been played with a makeshift roster), he failed to protect the game.  Fans will call the Astros cheaters in perpetuity and, worse, be forever skeptical that MLB will ever do the right thing when it comes to matters of character and integrity.  Imagine the booing -- both against the Astros and targeted at current and former Astros.  It will be fierce.  Strip the Astros of their title, hurt them at the gate and punish players -- then everyone gets closure.  But right now, there is none and does not look like there is going to be any.

If Manfred avoided a fight with the players' union because, well, in his mind there were just too many players to discipline, he whiffed big time.  So what if the union were to grieve punishments and prolong the process?  Fight them every step of the way.  The institution of Major League Baseball should have the high ground here.  But by not taking disciplinary action against players, it surrendered it.

So where are we now?  This is a sport that once was the national pastime.  Now, it is a shadow of its former self and in crisis.  By failing to address this cheating scandal with complete measures, it sends a message to players that they still can cheat and win titles and to fans that they cannot trust the people who run the game or who play it.  Baseball not only should take the steps I outlined above, they also should create an Office of the Commissioner that has enough independence to do what is right in the eyes of all of the game's constituents, and not just the owners.

Just when you thought Major League Baseball could not go any lower than the steroids scandal . . . this.

And it stinks.

Monday, January 06, 2020

What Game Were the Officials and NBC Commentators Watching Last Night?

Jadeveon Clowney put his helmet on the neck and head of a diving Carson Wentz.  Seven officials saw nothing wrong with the hit, putting out a statement after the game that Wentz put himself in play by diving forward and that Clowney's contact with him was incidental to the play.  Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, together with sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya, missed the call entirely.  This dirty hit changed the game.  The Eagles had a good shot to win it with Carson Wentz on the field; without him, they had much less of a chance, despite trying hard to win the ball game.  The NBC crew went so far as to elegize Clowney for playing with injuries.  It was as if Wentz left the game because of a routine injury.

The officials missed the call.  The broadcasting crew should have called them out on it.  Instead, they did nothing.  So much so that they failed to discuss the impact the absence of Wentz had on the game.  The NFL, if it has any brains -- and that's questionable -- should do the following:  1) Clowney is done for the season and gets a heavy fine; and 2) this officiating crew is done for the season as well.

Let's compare this game to a match between English Premier League heavyweights Arsenal and Chelsea a few weeks ago.  Jorginho, a star midfielder for Chelsea, was on a yellow card when, in the second half, he grabbed an Arsenal player by his jersey and impeded his progress -- a second yellow card offense.  The referee -- Craig Pawson -- missed the call.  Arsenal had been up 1-0, and Jorginho ended up scoring a game-tying goal late in the match (Chelsea went on to score another goal to win 2-1).  Had Pawson made the obvious call, Jorginho gets a second yellow card and an ejection, and Chelsea is down to playing with ten men.  The odds are that with ten men Chelsea won not have won this match.  Perhaps, with their talent, they might have fought to a draw.  Pawson's bad decision cost Arsenal, and his penalty was that he was not give a match to referee the following week.

If the NFL were serious about this sort of thing, it would have a similar rule.  If a player gets ejected for flagrant conduct, he gets suspended for a few games and in the game itself, his team's unit has to play with one fewer player.  That type of penalty would put a stop to the egregious type of hit that Clowney put on Carson Wentz, thereby taking away the Eagles' best chance to win after a total of eight plays. 

Instead, the officials did nothing, and there is little hope in Philadelphia that either the officiating crew or Clowney will get disciplined.  And even if that happens, it is too little, too late.  Right now, in the NFL, it is worth having defensive players take aggressive shots at the quarterback.  In all likelihood, the officials might miss it or simply throw a flag for roughing the passer.  Sure, it's a fifteen-yard penalty and potentially a fine after the league office reviews the hit, but it's a smart cost of doing business.  After all, who wouldn't trade a 15-yard penalty and a $50,000 fine for the ability to knock the opposing team's starting quarterback out of the game and significantly increasing your team's chances of winning a game.  In all likehood, the hit will not draw a suspension for the next game.  Whether it's good sportsmanship or not, it's smart sports economics.  Seattle just might have lost that game in Philadelphia yesterday had Clowney not made his dirty hit.

So here's my proposal:

1.  Automatic ejection for hits like Clowney's.
2.  Three-game suspension and big fine.
3.  Team has to play one man short -- on all sides of the ball. 

That will stop dirty hits. 

And level the playing field after one occurs.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Too Many Games Turns a Sport into Entertainment and Not Competition

Back in the day, there was scarcity.  I watched NBC's "Game of the Week" because I got to see teams other than the one that played in my home city.  And, as for the team in my home city, no home games were televised, and not all road games were either.  We listened to many games on a transistor radio.

We appreciated those games the same way we appreciated the telecasts of the "ECAC Game of the Week" for college basketball.  In my city, a UHF station would televise college games of the schools in the area, dramatically so.  It was the ECAC Game of the Week, the local games, an occasional national telecast, what was on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" -- and nothing more.  We appreciated what we saw because there was no internet, there was little if any cable television. 

Today, you can get almost anything on your phone -- through subscriptions, yes, but still on your phone, on your pad, on your PC.  And when I saw anything it could be a game from the Big Sky Conference at 11 pm eastern time on a Thursday night.  It's hard to appreciate much of anything when the airwaves overwhelm you with everything.

My particular bone to pick is with hockey and basketball, where so many teams make the playoffs as to render the regular season all but meaningless.  I mean, why play 82 games in basketball and 80 in hockey if half the teams in the league make the playoffs.  What is the point of the regular season if there is no crowned regular-season champion and if all that matters is the post-season playoff system?  With respect to the NBA, so unimportant is the regular season that teams regularly rest key players later in the season, when playoff seedings all but have been determined.  And that is just awful.

People pay very good money for NBA tickets.  After getting years of data, the NBA teams have priced their tickets in such a way that season ticket holders pay top dollar and then suffer when they try to sell tickets for almost any game on the secondary market.  I have experienced this myself with my town's team.  A top team came through the other night, and the secondary market's prices were one half of what I paid for my tickets.  And if a star sat out, well, that's insult to injury.  After all, you are paying top prices to see the best play.

Except the way the NBA is set up, if it's all about winning the title for an elite team, it has no incentive to play key players in meaningless games.  And it's hard to argue that among 82 games, some are not meaningless, especially if it's the fifth game in eight days on a road trip.  The players get exhausted -- from the travel and from the exertion.  Hard to blame the players for not wanting to get injured and the teams for not setting themselves up for deep playoff runs. 

But it's also hard not to blame the fans for getting really frustrated.  Let's face it, many games are just entertainment because the teams know that either they are saving themselves for the playoffs or because they have no chance of making the playoffs and are playing to create good film for individual players on the trade market or to get a better chance at a top draft pick (which means they are fielding lineups that cannot beat even average teams).  The NBA thinks it has a good thing, but good league evolve just when they think that they have solved their biggest problems.

My solution:  shorten the season, adopt some one-and-done "cup" tournaments among teams with trophies that over the years will matter, and have fewer teams make the playoffs.  Take some pages out of the international soccer playbook, but give all teams more to play for.  And consider moving franchises and compelling ownership to sell if a team finishes in the bottom 10% say three times in a five-year period.  No one wants to pay good money for a franchise that is poorly managed.

Make the games mean something again.  Enough of the hip public address announcers, dancers, gimmicks between quarters, flashing lights, big scoreboards.  Give us good games, games with meaning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Making Way for the Next Generation -- of Players, Leaders, and Even Owners

We see people age quickly in sports.  Coaches get sentimental, so do teammates, do does the media, and so do fans.  It is sad to see aging stars fail to keep up, fail to make the runs they need to, fail to do the things that made them stars in the first place.

What also is hard is that when players have seniority, they set all sorts of examples for the younger players as to conduct.  Some of those examples are bad.  For example, a leader gets into the clubhouse early, leaves late, and talks with the younger players about how to sleep, how to eat, how to take care of their bodies so that they can have long and productive careers.  An aging star who is not a leader expects his own set of rules, and while he might play hard, he does nothing to elevate the team.  In fact, some of these leaders, who insist upon deference because they have been there and done that, do the opposite.  And then there are those veterans whose experience gets them deference whether they seek that deference or not. Put differently, those veterans can set the tone and the mood for the team.  That can mean that a laid back veteran's approach to the game blocks the energy that a younger group of stars ready to take over might want to display.

My crucible for this particular theory is Arsenal FC, which discovered something very interesting yesterday when it removed David Luiz from the lineup.  There is no doubt that Luiz commands respect -- he was an instrumental figure on the Brazilian national team (which while not successful according to Brazilian standards in recent World Cups is still a very difficult team to make and start for) and Chelsea (which did win titles while he was there).  But the 32 year-old Luiz is far from the player he was five years ago.  Chelsea fans were happy when he left for Arsenal; their view was that he was well past his prime and because his skills had eroded, he would take chances that created goal-scoring opportunities for opponents, and too many of them at that.  Some of those gambles cost Chelsea games.

Yet so desperate did Arsenal believe itself to be that it purchased Luiz from Chelsea and anointed him a starting center back.  His personality is such that it can be dominating -- you can see that on the field.  The problem is that Arsenal had gambled with aging and/or underskilled center backs -- Laurent Koscielny (aging and frequently injured), Shkodran Mustafi (underskilled for the EPL), and Sokratis (perhaps not performing as the skills he demonstrated at Dortmund predicted he would for Arsenal.  Then there were younger defenders -- Mavropanous (injured and developing), Rob Holding (missed last season according to injury) and Callum Chambers (perhaps just not good enough).  So, they added Luiz.

The problem is that he has not performed nearly well enough to suggest that the club is better off with him.  Yet, he started almost every match for the Gunners, except for yesterday.  And free of his opinions and actions, the Gunners played a more low-key duo at center half and then opened the club up for younger players -- Kieran Tierney (went off because of an injury), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (best match in months), Lucas Torreira (who finally showed what we all had expected of him when he joined the club from Sampdoria two years ago) and, of course, Gabriel Martinelli, a generational attacker in the words of that great developer of talent, Juergen Klopp.  What result was an Arsenal that threw its cares to the wind, was not paralyzed at the back, relaxed in the second half and put on a show against, admittedly, a struggling West Ham team.  That said, any football manager will tell you that three points for a win is three points, and you take them regardless of how well your opponent is playing at the time.

I don't want to put all of Arsenal's problems on Luiz.  I think that 65% of the issue is with management.  The good news is that they parted company with Ivan Gazidis; the bad news was that they lost outstanding talent scout Sven Mislintat in a power struggle with Raul Sanellhi, a former Nike executive who did a stint at Barcelona, but who seems more like an influencer/operator than a real football guy.  The other bad news is that they still have Stan Kroenke as their owner, and his track record says that he owns without passion or commitment to using personal funds to take a team to an elite level.  That has not cut it in North London, and it is time for the Kroenkes to make that commitment or sell the team to someone who really cares about winning.  To crystallize the problem -- Daniel Levy, Tottenham's chair, has out-"ownered" Stan Kroenke markedly in the past five years and has made gutsy decisions that have made Spurs an elite team, in contrast to Kroenke's actions, which have made Arsenal a complicated puzzle wrapped inside a riddle.

On the pitch, the good news is that the team started to do yesterday what everyone thought it would do when all players got healthy -- turn it loose on offense and make themselves difficult to defend and to challenge.  That said, the team still has needs at center back and center defensive midfielder, needs that former manager Unai Emery wanted to fill but met with rebuffs from management, and my guess is was Sanellhi speaking for Kroenke.  On the pitch, the club is turning to its very talented younger players to help forge a path forward and build some belief. 

Off the pitch, though, is where to watch if you are an Arsenal fan or observer.  Will Stan Kroenke be a dilettante, or will he be a passionate football fan?  Arsenal, its former players, and its fans deserve a lot more than they are getting at the moment for this jewel of a club. 

They are capable of and need to find a manager who is not inexpensive but who can develop players and make key acquisitions -- someone like "the next Juergen Klopp."  Some of the names bandied about -- Sousa, Marcelino, are not top-tier managers and have had enough experience to suggest that they never will be.  There will be much eloquence in who the next hire is.  The more you hear Arteta, Pochettino, Nagelsmann, the more you hear smart football people talking.  The more you hear Marcelino and Sousa, the more you hear puppetmasters talking through enablers.  It's that simple.

And they need to become an ownership that has a passion for winning, not just for owning.  If the Kroenkes cannot muster that level of commitment, they should do the honorable thing and sell the club to someone with much more of a deep-seated caring about Arsenal as a way of life, and not just as investment.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Lou Whitaker Should Be Very Annoyed

So whatever they call the Veterans Committee for Baseball's Hall of Fame met over the weekend.  They announced that they had voted two people into the Hall of Fame -- Marvin Miller, who led the players' union into becoming the most powerful and feared union in the history of organized labor, and Ted Simmons, a good hitting catcher who spent his career with the Cardinals and Brewers. 

What is much more noticeable is who they left out -- Lou Whitaker, who, along with Alan Trammell (who is in the Hall), formed the longest-standing double-play combination in Major League history.

A player needed 12 votes to get into the Hall.  Dwight Evans, who played right field for the Red Sox on teams with Hall of Famer Jim Rice, got eight votes.  Dave Parker, who played right field for the Pirates and Reds, got seven votes, and Steve Garvey, the first baseman on some very good Dodger teams in the 1970's and early 1980's, got six votes.  As did Whitaker. 

I am not going to tear down the players who got as many as or more votes than Whitaker.  All were fine players in their own right; I am not sure that any of them belongs in the Hall of Fame, though.  Then again, given who is in the Hall of Fame, good arguments can be made for each of them.  (At one point in history, the Veterans Committee was so populated with former players that they decided to vote in their teammates -- including many Cardinals and Giants, some of whom, by today's standards, are not Hall-worthy). 

Wins Above Replacement Player is a measure that many use to determine who the best players are and were and who belongs in the Hall and who does not.  Here is the WAR for Simmons and the others above:

Lou Whitaker -- 75.1
Dwight Evans -- 67.2
Ted Simmons -- 50.3
Dave Parker -- 40.1
Steve Garvey -- 38.1.

Whitaker is in rarified air -- his career WAR is higher than those for Luke Appling, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Arky Vaughan, Paul Waner, Derek Jeter, Harry Heilmann, Johnny Mize, Trammell, Ron Santo, Frankie Frisch, Barry Larkin, Gary Carter, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Edgar Martinez, Ryne Sandberg, Fred Clarke, Ernie Banks, Roberto Alomar, Joe Cronin, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Goose Goslin, Craig Biggio, Andre Dawson, Willie McCovey, Dave Winfield, Richie Ashburn, Billy Williams, Lou Boudreau, Home Run Baker, Harmon Killebrew, Zach Wheat, Yogi Berra, Mike Piazza, Vladimir Guerrero, Bill Dickey, Hank Greenberg, Willie Stargell, Luis Aparicio, Willie Keeler, Bill Terry, Tony Perez, George Sisler, Joe Tinker, Orlando Cepeda, Ralph Kiner, Nellie Fox, Mickey Cochrane, Johnny Evers, Jim Rice. . . and, well, you get the point.

So, what were the following people thinking -- George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin, Terry Ryanb, Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O'Connell and Tracy Ringolsby?  These are the members of the Modern Era Committee.  What was so awful about Whitaker's body of work and so wonderful about the work of Simmons that he gets elected and Whitaker does not?  And, likewise, why did Evans and Parker get more votes than Whitaker and Garvey the same amount? 

I watched all of the above-named players play, as well as Tommy John, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy, each of whom was eligible for votes.  All were very good players.  But in a sport where the numbers supposedly do not lie and the metrics matter, it is hard to ignore the difference between Whitaker's WAR and everyone else's.

The question is -- the others might have had strong advocates for their election.  Who was advocating for Lou Whitaker? 

And should it matter.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Sentimentality and NFL Rosters

There is a saying in business that if you are at the front of the back, you will end up face down riddled with bullets and that if you are at the back of the pack, the cheetah will pick you off and devour you.  Better to be in the middle of the pack and be a fast follower of what works. 

Evidence seems to suggest that this is the case, that no coach or general manager seeks to innovate markedly because their tenures can be so short and the patience of ownership and fans so fickle and brittle that to dare greatly is to end up out of a job.  So most general managers and coaches seem to trend toward the average of what everyone else does.  What they expect that is that out of this behavior they will transcend and excel, when, in fact, they probably will not after several years. 

What fascinates is that teams do not follow the principles that the New England Patriots do.  Talk about establishing a dynasty, and talk about doing it with some stars, a generational quarterback (and there are others out there who could have done the job very well if not as good as Tom Brady over as long a period of time) and many interchangeable parts.  It's not as though the Hall of Fame will be overrun with Patriots' players, although many will be worthy because of their outstanding contributions to a dynasty.  No, what has worked for the Patriots has been the opposite of wanting to see iconic players play out their careers in Foxboro.  Instead, the Patriots let good players go.  And they have done it all the time.

The Patriots do not stand pat.  They win a Super Bowl and then some good players who become free agents get lucrative deals with other teams.  Some players play well, others struggle..  Now it could be that they were good players on a very good team who could not become great players on an average to below-average team.  It also could be that they were average players on a very good team who got the most out of their abilities on the dynasty because the coaching staff coached them within their limitations and did not ask them to do what their new teams had to ask them.  Whatever the case, Bill Belichick in a way is to the NFL what Schroeder is to Lucy Van Pelt of "Peanuts."  Destroy his bust of Beethoven, and he goes to his closet, has an inventory full of them, and pulls out yet another one.  In NFL terms, that means if a player falters or cannot perform at a level New England deems necessary, they go into their box of tricks, their list of players who might be available, and they solve their problems in a different way. 

Contrast Belichick to Howie Rosemann, Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles.  The Birds won a Super Bowl in 2017-18 thanks to some good leadership. some great play from a young quarterback, the maturity of an offensive line and the fact that they had a backup QB who was ready to shine when the lights shone brightest.  The fans were elated, but then everyone -- the team, the media, the players, the fans -- started talking about a "new norm" and how they were going to win more titles. 

The fact of the matter is that no one in the organization was ruthless enough to do so.  The coaches got complacent, the veterans got complacent, and the front office got complacent.  They started to believe too much that they deserved to be where they were and got drunk on the Super Bowl to such a degree that the hangover prevented them from thinking clearly.  Jason Peters, who will have a place in Canton, was done perhaps before the big game.  He should have been released after the season.  Jason Kelce had flirted with retirement after last season -- so much so that you wonder if he had anything left -- and this season has shown that he doesn't have much left.  And so forth. 

The average age of a player in the NFL is not that old, and players age quickly.  Tread on the tires not only means a decreasing physical ability to get the job done, but at times a decreasing emotional wherewithal to do what is necessary to get the job done.  And just because someone was on the roster to help you win a Super Bowl does not mean you have to keep them around.  For every Matthew Slater there are dozens of guys who for one reason or another cannot contribute at a level to keep the team playing at a high level.  The Patriots know this better than everyone else and have enough confidence in their coaching and system to keep the team young and strong and hungry enough.  Strangely, it seems that few others, if any, have figured this out.

So the Eagles keep on saying that their 5-7 record does not represent who and what they are.  The fans are angry because they are "losing games that they should not be losing."  But the question that should be asked is whether this is true?  Perhaps they should be losing these games because the talent is not there, the coaching is not there, and the front office has mis-judged who should remain on the team.  It is hard to keep players forever, and the key is not to keep them for too long. 

When the Eagles went into this season, there was a lot of hype that a healthy squad could return to the Super Bowl.  The team believed it, and the press and the fans bought into it.  But something smelled from the beginning.  The team got older.  Did anyone really believe that a 38-year old Jason Peters could play at a Hall of Fame level and could play for more than 10 games?  Did anyone really believe that DeSean Jackson would play a full season after not having played 16 games in a season for years?  Did anyone believe that the team would get out of the starting gate strongly with so many players not playing a down in pre-season.  Finally, did anyone believe that one of the oldest teams in the league would stay healthy enough to win a Super Bowl?

Put simply, the strategy of the team going into the season was bad.  They made some big, bold assumptions and let sentimentality get in the way of practicality.  By doing so, they chose the easier wrong over the harder right.  Yes, the team would have risked some blowback from the fans from cutting loose some key contributors to the Super Bowl. 

But I'd bet that their record would be better than 5-7 right now.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

If You Listen to the Fans Too Much. . .

Most of us have heard the full adage, one that veteran general managers or directors of football or whatever they are called in any sport tell the newbies -- if you listen to the fans too much, you will end up sitting in the stands with them.

I hearken back, though, to advice that King George VI gave to Winston Churchill when the latter was pondering how to guide England right as France was falling and the entire British Army was stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.  There was sentiment among some in the leadership of the Conservative Party to negotiate a peace with Adolf Hitler, on the grounds that Britain could not win a war and also out of the hope that Britain really wasn't part of Hitler's plans.  Churchill was most uneasy about this, but the circumstances were dire.  Britain was on the brink of having its army wiped out, and its island attacked mercilessly from the air and sea. 

The king, who admittedly did not have a vote in the democracy, told the prime minister that in tough times he should listen to the people, and they will guide him.  And what Churchill discerned was that the people by and large had the same thoughts and instincts that he did -- not to settle, but to fight to the bitter end.  And fight Britain did.

There is a tough balancing act that leaders must achieve.  On the one hand, their followers look to them for vision and energy and to set out a course for success.  On the other hand, the voters expect to be listened to, to have access, and to feel like they count.

The same holds true for soccer fans.  If you were to submit the course of a team to a plebiscite of the fans, you would end up with an unmanageable amoeba that could not win a a match in a Sunday pub league.  By the same token, if you do not listen to the fans at all -- and do not admit to seeing the same problems that they do when the problems are obvious -- you risk having them not purchase tickets and staying home. 

Such was the case for Tottenham, but perhaps much less desperately so than for Everton, Newcastle and of course Arsenal.

Let's dispatch with Spurs first.  Mauricio Pocchetino is one of the five best managers in the world.  He turned Tottenham from an important if disappointing team into a force than can be reckoned with. True, he did not win any titles, but he turned chaos into order after the team sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and made a bunch of signings that did not work out.  Yet, the team probably ran its course with Poch, sad is it was to see.  The players got older, and perhaps older players aren't as responsive to such an intense style after they have been playing at the highest level for years.  Atop that, well, it appeared to many that passing Liverpool and City were just too hard to do under this manager.  So, Daniel Levy, the owner, made a bold decision, one that surprised the fans because they were not asking for Poch's head.  And that was to bring in Jose Mourinho, the successful if controversial manager and won who has won plenty of silverware.  Mourinho did good things at Real Madrid and Chelsea twice, struggled at United, and will try to summon his old magical ways to propel Spurs to some silverware.  While Spurs struggles resulted from an inflexible Poch, a perplexing Levy and some poor efforts from players, you have to give ownership credit where credit is due -- the team seemed stuck, and when that happens, it's much easier to sack the manager than sack half a dozen players mid-season.  This was, after all, the same squad that went to the Champions League finals a year ago.

Now let's get to Arsenal.  After ownership pushed out legend Arsene Wenger in a clumsy way (it says here that they should have urged Wenger out when Juergen Klopp rocketed to the top of the coaching most wanted list after his run at Dortmund), it struggled to come up with a good short list to replace him.  Remember, even though Arsenal has been in the bottom third of the world's top 15 clubs for much of the past 10 years, it remains an iconic club in a great city.  And their short list -- former player Mikel Arteta, the top assistant for Pep Guardiola at City although not long-tenured, Max Allegri, very successful in Italy and at Juventus (with the concern that Juve had on its roster 10 of the top 12 most highly paid players in Serie A, something that Arsenal could not come close to matching in the Premier League) and the guy who got the job, Unai Emery, under fire at PSG after a successful stint at La Liga's Seville.  Not exactly an overwhelming short list. 

And they chose Emery.  One of the proffered reasons was that he had success managing a roster in its league and in the Europa League competition, and that would augur well for fifth-place Arsenal.  If that was a major factor, it was very short-sighted.  This is a club that was used to playing Champions League soccer, and it selected a manager for a parochial reason.  Liverpool did not hire Klopp to get it over a hill; it hired Klopp, with a track record of developing players into superstars, to climb the biggest mountain in world soccer -- the Champions League.  Emery seemed like a consolation prize.  Sure, Wenger was plucked as an unknown from the Japanese League, but he had great foresight into what modern soccer would look like.  Emery did not seem to be any sort of visionary.

Then Arsenal did the unexpected in the off-season.  It started to overhaul its roster.  It hired well-respected former player Maurice Edu to be its director of football, and then it loaned out or sold some players who were surplus or not performing well, promoted some exciting young talent and made its most expensive acquisition to date, a fast winger with a "box of tricks," Lille's Nicolas Pepe.  The thought was that the Gunners might struggle at the outset of the season -- its fullbacks were injured and Pepe had to get up to the fitness standards of the Premier League, but once that happened Arsenal would challenge for third or fourth place and return to the Champions League.

But instead of building patiently toward getting everyone healthy and fit, and instead of creating a tasty salad whose ingredients enrich each other, Emery put the team into a blender and said to the fans -- "it might not look great, but it should taste good, trust me."  Except the ingredients changed from match to match, players were playing out of position, Emery was feuding with the team's best passer and most highly paid player, and Emery was refusing to play Pepe consistently.  Atop that, he had no faith in his midfield, to the point where he was playing five defenders and two defensive midfielders and no center attacking midfielder who could pass the ball well.  Which meant that instead of putting on an offensive show with all its talent, Arsenal was playing not to lose. 

And then they started drawing and losing.  All fans saw this train wreck for what it was -- either a manager in over his head or one who was so worried about defense that he forgot that the strength of the team is the offensive talent that has been amassed.  So bad has the team become that all opponents start their matches against Arsenal with a full-field high press, as if to say, "hey, we do not believe you can get the ball up the field under pressure, so until you do, we will make your lives miserable."  The exclamation point happened this past weekend, when Southampton's high press created a goal in the first minutes of the game that set the tone for a stoppage-time goal and late draw against 19th-placed Southampton -- on Arsenal's home turf.

It's one thing to have fans react after a disastrous match and call for the sacking of the manager.  Relying on single data points can lead to terrible decisions.  But Emery has amassed a significant body of work -- and one that is no better than Wenger's during an equivalent period at the end of Wenger's tenure.  What makes this point critical is that if you are going to replace your manager, you had better hire someone better.  And while the decision to hire Emery was questionable at the time, it looks bad now.  He is not better than Wenger; he isn't nearly as good.  The fans see it, and apparently the players do, too. 

Management, though, has created a vacuum and said nothing publicly.  From my experience on a management team, what happens when management says nothing on a critical point is that a vacuum emerges.  And the rank-and-file fill the vacuum with whatever they want to, whatever they're thinking, and whatever seems obvious to them.  And it can be horribly wrong. 

There has been all sorts of speculation about Emery's future, as follows:

* management totally backs him.
* management will wait until the end of this season to decide his fate.
* management will let him work for the remainder of his contract (1.5 years)
* management will wait until after the results of the next 3 (very winnable) matches to decide his fate.
* the manager they really want will not be available until after the season ends
* the players are starting to want out -- Aubameyang, Lacazette, Torreira, Ozil, Bellerin.

All of this is very bad.  Management historically has been tone deaf; the results of much of the Stan Kroenke era have been sub par when compared to Arsenal's historical standards.  Ownership gave fans some hope over the summer after the major fan groups banded together to send a public letter expressing their frustration to Stan and his son, Josh, as it hurts very much as to the personal monies the owners of Chelsea and City have put into their teams.  To his credit, Josh responded the next day, and Arsenal most surprisingly was very active in the transfer window.  Mostly all agreed that Raul Sanellhi and Edu vastly improve the team.  Emery, though, remained a question mark.

Now ownership is at a precipice.  Sure, they would have to pay Emery a rumored 4.5 million pounds sterling as a severance payment.  But that's a cost of doing business these days.  And how can ownership let its archrival be bold, make a 12.5 million pounds sterling payment to Poch and commit even more money to Jose Mourinho.  How can they let themselves be upstaged? 

Arsenal's current record is bad enough.  But risking losing a core group of players is too much to bear.  Bravery and decisiveness are required.  Ownership must terminate Emery's contract and either bring in Max Allegri or Poch or make Freddie Ljunberg, the assistant manager, the caretaker until the season's end and then consider whether to bring in Arteta (now more seasoned), Bournemouth's miracle man Eddie Howe, Allegri, Poch or someone else, perhaps even Zinadine Zidane if he parts company with Real Madrid (a position for which Poch might be waiting). 

Doing so will fill the news vacuum with the fans, as well as, more importantly, the leadership vacuum.  Doing so will restore credibility.  And doing so is likely to keep all of the players in line and ready to move forward -- positively together.

If ownership does not do this, the Kroenkes should sell the team to someone who will.  For their track record is one of owning, not winning.  It is time for Stan and Josh to think hard about their legacy -- and start to take steps to win silverware. 

Now is a good time to start.