Blog Feed

Patrick Mahomes & Johnny Manziel: Comparisons, Parallel Universes and What Could Have Been

Shutterbug459
Patrick Mahomes =/= Johnny Manziel.

Maybe in a parallel universe we would be talking about Johnny Manziel and Patrick Mahomes playing against each other. Or Manziel would be the one with the NFL MVP award, and Mahomes would be the quarterback out of the league. All the decisions they made, didn’t make, or didn’t even choose to make, play out in an infinite number of worlds.

But in this universe, it was a decision that Mahomes indeed chose to make that was the Big Bang that gave life to this comparison. During the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-10 win over the New England Patriots this season, Mahomes took the snap at 10:57 in the fourth quarter on New England’s 39-yard line, facing a third and eight. He then ran left for 18 yards, before stepping out of bounds.

He looked to the crowd and made a gesture with his hands. That was it. Something that simple. It wasn’t Manziel’s money sign, he was merely trying to hype up the substantially reduced crowd. But it did start the reactor of comparison, parallels, and everything that may have happened if the universe had allowed it.

Mahomes is everything the former Texas A&M quarterback could have been, or maybe, should have been. Mahomes is the NFL equivalent of Manziel in college.

First, the obvious differences have to be at least acknowledged. One of biggest issues Manziel faced coming out of college was that he was too short to play the position at the highest level. He was listed at six foot exactly, compared to the six foot three Patrick Mahomes when he came out of Texas Tech. Never mind the fact that Russell Wilson was listed at five foot ten at his combine, and despite that he’s managed to carve out a somewhat solid career for himself.

There’s also the off the field image Manziel had. You can get away with partying all the time when you’re great, but there’s a reason the ones that don’t party all the time also happen to be the great ones.

In 2012 Manziel was the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and, did so just a few days after turning 20, becoming one of the youngest to ever win the award. In 2019 Mahomes won the NFL MVP aged 23, in his first season as a starter, making him (at the time) the youngest MVP since Ace Ventura star Dan Marino in 1984.

Manziel and Mahomes took over their respective football worlds, demonstrated by the fact that both won major honours so young. Both were new, fresh and exciting – taking the NFL and CFB by storm. Manziel at Texas A&M was fun. Mahomes in his MVP season was fun. They were special – and Mahomes certainly still is.

Kliff Kingsbury deserves some recognition for how he helped mould both quarterbacks. He was Manziel’s offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and was Head Coach at Texas Tech when Mahomes was a Red Raider.

Both played in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense, which is one of the “most quarterback friendly” systems a team can use. It’s a heavily pass orientated scheme, making plays quick and simple. It also involves running to the line as fast as possible to make adjustments, all to catch out any defenders. Plenty of quarterbacks that came out of the Air Raid system failed to make the jump to the NFL, mainly because pro systems are so much more complex. Even though more and more teams are now utilising aspects of the Air Raid offense, and quarterbacks currently in the NFL are products of the system, it still has its critics.

Manziel’s performance in the NFL shows why those Air Raid critics exist, but the performance of Mahomes in the NFL also proves many of them wrong. But again, the similarities reappear – products of Air Raid, products of Kingsbury.

In terms of playing style, comparing Manziel in 2012 to Mahomes in 2018, again, leads to parallels. Both have big arms, and always looked to get the ball downfield. Both were praised for their abilities to make things happen when plays broke down. Scrambling and extending plays were huge weapons for both in their award laden years, before delivering unconventional, side arm, or underarm throws to receivers. They were gunslingers in the purest sense of the word. Manziel would throw to Mike Evans, Mahomes to Tyreek Hill – both receivers took advantage of their physical skills to respectively outmuscle and outpace defensive backs.

Their biggest strengths were also their biggest flaws. Both threw risky passes downfield and took too many unnecessary risks in college. Mahomes ironed those out, but Manziel? Not so much. He could get by on his athleticism at Texas A&M, but not in the NFL.

The quarterbacks had an aura about them. Johnny Manziel was nicknamed Johnny Football, purely because he dominated the sport. Mahomes is already in a position to be considered, by some, the best to ever play.

Manziel in college showed the promise of everything Mahomes became. In another world Manziel is drafted by another team and had Andy Reid as his coach. He then wouldn’t end up with the Cleveland Browns, the one place where, recently, the only thing they guarantee to quarterbacks is disappointment. Or in yet another world Mahomes goes to Cleveland and turns around the franchise. So many things could, should, or would have been, and it’s so easy to say that. But the two were kindred spirits – electric, young quarterbacks with the footballing world at their feet.

In retrospect it’s sad, so much could have been for Johnny Football. Infinite universes mean infinite possibilities and who knows what’s happening in another world at this moment. They were so similar, but when it mattered most, they were so different.

Manziel and Mahomes were even born in the same city in Texas. What could have been for one, has been for another.

This is a little bit different to what I normally do, but I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a little shorter and less stats heavy, but I thought it was worth a post. Next time I’ll more than likely be back to what could be considered regularly scheduled programming.

Nottingham Forest: What Happened with Sabri Lamouchi, and What to Expect from Chris Hughton

Arran Bee

Death, taxes, and Nottingham Forest sacking their manager. It’s nice to know that in 2020 some things haven’t changed.

On the 6th of October Sabri Lamouchi’s contract with Nottingham Forest was terminated, and he was immediately replaced by Chris Hughton. Hughton has experience in the Championship, winning promotion with Newcastle and Brighton – but there’s so much to unpack after the end of Lamouchi’s reign.

No wins in his last 11 games in charge. Four wins in his last 20 in charge.

Hughton has to restore confidence to a squad that capitulated on the final day of last season – losing their playoff spot on goal difference, thanks to a 4-1 loss at home to Stoke. Forest could have confirmed their playoff place in the second to last game of the season, but they were unable to get a point against a Barnsley team that only avoided relegation because Wigan went into administration. The hangover from the disaster of the final day is obviously still pounding in the Forest players’ heads, especially with the short turnaround in-between last season and this – leaving no time for the dust to settle, or for Lamouchi to properly address what went wrong.

Forest are third from bottom in the Championship, and Hughton came into a similar situation when he took over at Brighton in 2014, when a team that finished sixth the year before were only one place above the relegation zone. In his first full season they finished third (only on goal difference) and the following season resulted in Brighton’s promotion to the Premier League.

Hughton’s biggest task is, obviously, getting Forest scoring again. In Lamouchi’s last 20 games, they scored 16 goals. This season Forest have only scored once. Since they beat Leeds 2-0 at home last season, only five teams in the Championship scored less goals for the remainder of that campaign. Only Wycombe have scored less than them in the Championship this season.

Lamouchi’s Forest were never a free scoring or possession dominant side, opting to play on the break, and only Leeds and Hull scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship last year. In the league, Forest only scored three goals in a match six times (conversely, they scored once in a match 23 times) and in just one of those games had more than 50% possession – a 3-1 win at home against Luton Town. Forest won only twice all season when having the ball more than their opponents.

According to WhoScored, Lamouchi’s most used formation was the 4-2-3-1 below:

A lot of Forest’s defensive success came from sitting deep and staying compact, usually in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-5-1 (the latter especially this season).

In defensive transitional phases Ben Watson would usually look to break up play, allowing the rest of the side to get back, aggressively trying to win the ball. This would slow down the opposing team, and if the ball was won, would let Forest break before the other team is set. But this did sometimes leave space in-behind – for example, against Leeds. Instead of trying to get into a position to block the passing lane through to Pablo Hernandez, Watson tried to win the ball from Mateusz Klich. But when he didn’t get to the ball, Klich was able to pass to Hernandez, who ran into the space Bamford created and scored.

However, Forest’s defensive numbers didn’t quite tell the whole story last season. Having the fifth best defensive record in the Championship was mainly due to the brilliance of Brice Samba – no other team in the top seven allowed more shots on target.

Forest would usually change into a 3-2-5 formation when attacking, with Watson dropping deep to collect from Tobias Figueiredo or Joe Worrall. The other central midfielders (Samba Sow or Tiago Silva) would become the ‘2’ but one had licence to make runs into the box.

When transitioning from defence to attack, the key to Lamouchi’s system was the energy and pace of the two fullbacks (usually Matty Cash and Yuri Ribeiro) – they helped bring the ball, or the team, up the pitch. Their speed (and the speed of Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi) was important on the counter, and it also helped create overloads on the wings. This would let either the fullback or the winger come inside into the half spaces. Lolley and Ameobi could cut inside and shoot, but the overloads were mainly used to create one on one situations.

Lewis Grabban’s importance cannot be understated, and not just because he became the first Forest striker since 2002-03 to score 20 goals in a season. He constantly pounced upon, and profited from, defender’s mistakes, and ran the right (or inside right) channel to find space. This, combined with late runs from midfield on counter attacks and Grabban’s excellent hold-up play, created opportunities for Forest. Tiago Silva’s goal against Cardiff, for example, saw Watson win the ball and pass to Silva, who then played the ball over the top to Grabban who was running the inside right channel. Alfa Semedo’s run occupied two defenders, then Grabban crossed from the right to Silva (who made a late run into the space Semedo’s run had created) who scored.

These late arriving midfield runs have unfortunately been seen less this season. For instance, Jack Colback made several runs into space during Forest’s 1-0 loss against Huddersfield on the 25th of September – but simply wasn’t picked out. This, and an over reliance on Lewis Grabban, means goals have been hard to come by.

Grabban scored 35% of Forest’s goals in the Championship last season, and no other Forest player got into double figures in the league. Along with his 21% shot conversion rate, this meant he had to get the ball if Forest were to score – but Grabban has only scored four goals in his last 20 games. However, it’s not as if the team aren’t creating chances for the 32-year-old, as Luke Freeman’s cross against Cardiff would testify.

Is Lamouchi responsible for runners not being found or for his star striker not scoring? Possibly not, and Lyle Taylor has been brought in as cover for Grabban, and to provide a different option off the bench. But there’s obviously a lack of confidence, and a fear of getting things wrong, running throughout the whole side, and Lamouchi’s system clearly depended upon Grabban’s efficiency in front of goal.

It’ll be interesting to see what Hughton does with Grabban after having a similarly prolific striker in Glenn Murray when Brighton were promoted in 2017. WhoScored notes the below 4-4-2 as that same Brighton side’s most used formation.

Looking at Brighton in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 (playoff and promotion) seasons, the team usually morphed into a 2-3-5 when attacking – this let the fullbacks overlap the wingers and created crossing angles. It also provided width which would let Anthony Knockaert cut inside from the right, to either shoot or run at defenders.

Under Hughton, Brighton were a counter attacking team, much like Lamouchi’s Forest. In 2016-17, no one scored more counter attacking goals in the Championship than Brighton. Glenn Murray scored 23 times that year, which was 31% of Brighton’s goals. However, three other Brighton players got into double figures for goals in the league – Anthony Knockaert, Sam Baldock and Tomer Hemed – with Knockaert being named Championship player of the season, scoring 15 goals and creating seven others. A lot of their attacking play involved getting the ball to Knockaert on the counter (or in one-on-one situations) and giving him the license to create.

Brighton were also amongst the best defensive teams in the division that season. David Stockdale conceded 40 goals (no team conceded less) and only Newcastle allowed less shots on target (140, to Brighton’s 154). Normally, Brighton defended in their 4-4-2, staying relatively compact, with the two strikers lightly pressing the defenders or goalkeeper when they were on the ball.

When Brighton were in the Premier League under Hughton, they would line up slightly differently. They opted mainly for a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1 (according to WhoScored) which was more than likely to avoid being outnumbered in midfield and to help with defending.

There’s certainly a deep squad at Forest, and they have players with Championship experience – but does their current squad fit Hughton’s system?

If he is to opt for a 4-4-2, Taylor would obviously start with Grabban. Joe Lolley, or maybe even to a certain extent Sammy Ameobi, can fill the Knockaert role – even if Knockaert himself has been linked with a loan move to the club. Shane Duffy was similar to Ben Watson when trying to win the ball, or disrupt play, whenever the opposition initially passed into midfield. Maybe a defensive change could replace Watson’s aggressive tackling in transition after his move away from Forest, despite Jack Colback’s return to the club. But if he decides to play with only one striker, the side could remain relatively unchanged.

It may take time for Hughton to settle upon the best set of defenders and midfielders for his system, as Forest have more than enough of both in the squad. He has shown he can get teams promoted, but he will need time. Exactly the kind of time he had at Brighton.

But time isn’t something Evangelos Marinakis has shown he’s been willing to give.

No one knows what will happen. Maybe Hughton will be gone by Christmas. Keep your phone on loud Gary Brazil.

England – The (Clichéd) Good for the Most Part, whilst Touching Upon the Bad and the Ugly

Кирилл Венедиктов/Soccer.ru (Cropped)
Another international break is here, and Gareth Southgate has reasons to be excited and terrified in equal measure.

With the weekend’s, shall we say, eventful round of Premier League fixtures behind us, England are back. But what happened in those same fixtures seem like a microcosm for what the Three Lions are going to have to deal with over their next few games.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that England have one of the best front threes in international football. But the same sentiment cannot be echoed for their goalkeeping and centre back situations.

With Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho and Raheem Sterling, England’s attacking options are up there with those of Belgium, France and Germany. Gareth Southgate’s side are a constant threat to score. Since the somewhat prophetic 0-0 draw against Croatia in an empty Stadion Rujevica in October 2018, England have scored 44 goals in their last 15 matches. That’s an almost three goal a game average.

The front line is good.

What makes this international break interesting is the depth and influx of attacking talent England seem to have.

The usual front three suspects (Sterling, Kane and Sancho) were all called up for the three matches against Wales, Belgium and Denmark. Everyone’s favourite footballer right now, Marcus Rashford, was also called up – and he, again, is normally a part of the set-up. There have also been call ups for Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Danny Ings. Mason Greenwood impressed enough towards the end of last season to be included in the squad for the previous two matches against Iceland and Denmark.

Meanwhile, Harry Kane’s ‘new’ position has seemed to pique some interest. When Tottenham Hotspur beat Southampton 5-2 on the 20th of September, a lot was made of how Kane dropped deep and played the passes forward to Heung-Min Son, who was running beyond him. And rightly so – he assisted on all four of Son’s goals whilst still managing to get on the scoresheet himself.

“Harry Kane, in my opinion, changed the game,” said Jose Mourinho, when talking about the second half of that match.

“His movement was tremendous, his link play was absolutely incredible, and he allowed Son to play in a different position.”

Despite Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s “two or three little points” for Spurs before they faced his old club, Kane was indeed incredible – and he appeared in similar positions when Spurs beat Manchester United 6-1 this weekend. He sat deeper at times, and Son was the one furthest forward. Kane again assisted him for Tottenham’s second.

But dropping deeper is something he’s done before for England, if not incredibly often. In the 2018 World Cup, more than likely due to Southgate’s 3-5-2, he was the one who would retrieve the ball in more withdrawn positions, and look for Sterling’s forward runs as a way to bring England up the pitch.

Is this the way England will play now? Yes. No. Maybe? With players that are essentially wide forwards for their clubs it’s certainly a possibility. Sterling plays on the left and cuts in for Manchester City (scoring 20 goals last season) and he scored this weekend against Leeds doing just that. Sancho, again, cuts in and appears centrally for Borussia Dortmund and scored 17 goals in the Bundesliga last year. Rashford and Greenwood flank Martial at Old Trafford and scored 17 and 10 goals in the league respectively last season.

Abraham, Calvert-Lewin and Ings must provide something different it seems.

Abraham scored 15 goals last year, even if he’s now behind Timo Werner at Chelsea, and Ings scored only one goal fewer than the Premier League’s top scorer, Jamie Vardy, last season. Being central strikers it’s hard for them to break into the side above Kane, but that’s what makes Dominic Calvert-Lewin such an intriguing proposition.

If Southgate doesn’t want someone to drop deep, and feels that his midfield can help get the team forward and bring others into play, Calvert-Lewin (in current form) would prove useful. He was called a “complete striker” by Carlo Ancelotti, although many would say that he’s not as complete as Kane.

Emulating Filippo Inzaghi was the challenge set by his manager, as Ancelotti wanted Calvert-Lewin to become more of a poacher.

“I was guilty of doing a lot of my best work away from the goal,” said Calvert-Lewin when talking about his goal scoring.

“Now I’m focusing on getting in-between the sticks and putting the ball in the back of the net.

“Not to say that I’m a carbon copy of Pippo Inzaghi, but there are elements of his game that I’ve been showing in my game at the moment.”

Calvert-Lewin has scored nine goals in six games so far this season. All have been after taking very few touches, and all have been in the box. He’s shown his strength and ability in the air, along with great movement in the penalty area. Not to describe Calvert-Lewin as ‘just’ a poacher, or to claim that he’s a better finisher than Kane, but he provides more depth and a different option for England in the forward areas.

But Kane has been England’s number nine, captain, and focal point for so long. Playing as the furthest man forward is why he’s got 32 goals in 47 caps. But does he need a rest? It has been a point of contention recently, so don’t be surprised if Dominic Calvert-Lewin gets his first cap for England in a start against Wales.

While getting the ball in the back of the net doesn’t seem like it will be a problem for England, keeping it out of their own net might be.

After this weekend, the goalkeeping situation seems bad. However, it doesn’t appear to be a serious concern.

Of the three goalkeepers selected for England by Southgate, Dean Henderson had the best weekend by simply not playing.

Nick Pope’s poor touch in his own box, then dive at the feet of Ryan Fraser, gave Newcastle a penalty and their third goal in Burnley’s 3-1 loss. Not a fantastic omen when Southgate wants to play out from the back.

Jordan Pickford, meanwhile, made his own mistake that cost Everton a goal against Brighton. He couldn’t catch Trossard’s shot when it bounced straight at him, then he kindly dropped the ball to Maupay who scored. It was another error to, sadly, add to the list. But it didn’t cost Everton, as they won 4-2.

Ancelotti didn’t seem too worried, saying: “Nothing happened – we have three points.”

So, Pickford shouldn’t fear losing his place. Southgate obviously has confidence in him, and rightly so – some of the best performances of Pickford’s career have come for England. He’s shown he can make big saves and his distribution has proved key for mounting counter attacks in the past.

The people in front of Pickford probably will be fearing for their places. This weekend the centre back play was ugly. At best.

Two of the centre backs called up, and the two that would arguably be the first-choice pairing, played in back lines on Sunday that let in 13 goals between them.

Harry Maguire’s lack of pace has been an issue for Manchester United for longer than just this season. You could also argue that he was at fault for three of Tottenham’s goals this weekend. Pulling down his own teammate, who was trying to clear the ball, was probably his lowest moment against Spurs – and Ndombele scored because of it.

Joe Gomez didn’t fare much better on Sunday. Liverpool lost 7-2 against Aston Villa, and the centre back was substituted in the 61st minute for his troubles. He made several errors at Villa Park, none more glaring than his loose pass to Georginio Wijnaldum that was intercepted by Ollie Watkins. This quickly led to Jack Grealish and Ross Barkley exchanging passes and subsequently Villa’s fifth goal.

Both Maguire and Gomez are more than struggling for form. John Stones must be rueing the fact he’s not got a decent run for Manchester City in so long. That and the £60 million spent on Ruben Dias.

Because of the play of Maguire and Gomez, we may get a look at a Michael Keane and Eric Dier partnership at some point in the next week, or possibly a return to the 3-5-2. Many of the other defenders in the squad are used to playing with three centre backs for their clubs – including Conor Coady, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka. Plus, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier played well in that system during the 2018 World Cup.

It all depends on what Gareth Southgate wants to do. He may tweak some things against Wales. That’s what International Friendlies are for, right?

Obviously, Greenwood and Sterling aren’t going to appear in the next three games, and that could mean Harvey Barnes and Jack Grealish play in more forward-thinking roles for England. Grealish plays out wide for Aston Villa, allowing him to see the whole pitch and create, while Barnes can play close to the striker – as he does for Leicester.

Everything considered, we’ll soon see how Southgate decides to set England up. But one thing is for sure – he has choices to make, both good and bad.

What’s next for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?: The Philadelphia 76ers’ attempt at a breakthrough album

All-Pro Reels / Robert Banez
76ers fans trusted The Process for years, but it seems as if the franchise has stalled – so when will the real breakthrough come?

If ‘The Process‘ was this generation of 76ers players’ debut album, it was a triumph of sorts, like many artists often find with their initial work.

The debut lets audiences and fans know how the artist could sound throughout their career, encapsulating all their work up until that point. The second release is always heavily anticipated, and people are excited due to the potential the debut offered.

The Process had two stand out tracks for Philadelphia – All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Embiid, on his day, is the best big man in the NBA. He can do it all, shoot well for a big, rebound, get in the low-post and score and protect the rim. Simmons is a constant triple-double threat and a fantastic defender capable of forcing turnovers and guarding every position.

Embiid embraced The Process more than anyone. It became his nickname, and he the embodiment of the rewards that losing in the NBA can bring. Perhaps it was fitting that in Game 3 of this years’ first round playoff matchup against the Boston Celtics, after being doubled, Embiid’s cross-court pass to Tobias Harris was intercepted by Marcus Smart with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter.

It led to Jaylen Brown converting an and-one at the other end to put the Celtics up 95-94. The 76ers eventually lost the game 102-94, and went down 3-0 in the series – all but sealing their first round exit. The exit, and sweep, was confirmed with a 110-106 loss in Game 4.

Despite the pass, the loss wasn’t entirely on Embiid’s shoulders. The Philadelphia 76ers are finishing up their difficult second album.

It could be argued the 2018-19 was the follow up, but NBA teams don’t seem to be seasonal. You think of them when multiple seasons are grouped together. The Big Three in Miami that spanned 2011 to 2014. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers from 1999 to 2004. These are successful iterations yes, but they are never remembered in terms of a single season.

The beginnings of this 76ers debut album came in the 2017/18 season.

Ben Simmons won Rookie of the Year, helping Philadelphia to a 52-30 record – improving their win total by 24 from the previous year. Embiid was an All-Star and selected for both All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. The young side won their first round playoff series against the Miami Heat in five games. They lost in the second round to the Celtics, but the future looked bright.

The following season appeared to the be the end of the first album.

The acquisitions of J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler and then Tobias Harris signalled intent. For the 2018/19 season, the 76ers were no longer trying to lose. They were trying to win. And they went all in, trading assets gained from the lean years, including Robert Covington and Dario Šarić, to get Butler from Minnesota.

Simmons made his first All-Star appearance this season alongside Embiid, who again made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Second Teams. They again won their first round playoff series in five games, this time against the Brooklyn Nets.

Now think of Only in Dreams by Weezer from their first album.

The emotional, bittersweet crescendo to an influential project. Some things aren’t meant to be, and are only meant for dreams. The 76ers took the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the second round, only to lose in possibly the most heartbreaking of fashions. A buzzer beating game winner in Game 7.

A shot that bounced and hung upon the rim for an eternity. A shot that was made over Joel Embiid’s outstretched arm. The emotion of the situation was encapsulated in his tears when he knew he was going home.

You have your whole life to write your debut, but only a year to make the follow up.

The start of this current 2019/20 season was the start of the difficult second album.

People were excited, many picking Embiid to win MVP. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, but had signed Al Horford and re-signed Tobias Harris. They were on big contracts, but the 76ers seemed to be righting the wrongs of The Process days.

But as often happens, the second album fails to live up to expectations. Think The Klaxons’ Surfing the Void, or MGMT’s Congratulations. Maybe a better case is that of The Stone Roses. An iconic self-titled debut came out in 1989, but The Second Coming was seen as a disappointment from a band that offered so much.

Philadelphia seemed poised to be a defensive monster, they had length on the wings, size in the middle (in the form of Horford and Embiid) and the disruptive force of Simmons who would guard any team’s best player. The Philadelphia 76ers were a popular choice to make it to the NBA Finals.

The Stone Roses soon broke up after their second release, and maybe the same will happen with the 76ers.

An underwhelming season this year was aptly rewarded with the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The team’s lack of spacing has been well documented, with only eight teams in the NBA attempting less three-pointers per-game. They were the 6th best defensive team in terms of points allowed per-game, but the 10th worst team in terms of points scored per-game. Simmons famously doesn’t shoot three-pointers, and he kills the team’s spacing further when he simply stands in the ‘dunker’s spot’ when he’s not handling the ball.

Horford and Harris are the 76ers’ highest paid players, making $31 million and $28 million this year respectively, and unfortunately, helped dig the hole that got the team swept. Through the first three playoff games, Horford had averages of 5.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 40 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was also a -11 when on the court. Harris had averages of 14.3 PPG, 33.3 FG% and 0 3PT%. He was a -12.3.

The front office has to take some blame. Coach Brett Brown has to as well, and he’ll more than likely pay with his job. Yes, Simmons is out with an injury, but they should be putting up more of a fight.

As such, the second album ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But where do they start with their third record? The issue that remains is the one that has always plagued the 76ers – can Embiid and Simmons play together?

Embiid has career averages of 23.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG and a 48% Field Goal Percentage. Good numbers. However, whilst in the NBA, he has had issues with injuries and his conditioning.

Embiid’s strengths offensively are in the post. He can shoot from the outside, and shoots 31.9% from three for his career, but he should get down low. He has an array of post moves unlike anyone else in the league, but how the 76ers are currently set up doesn’t help Embiid.

It was summed perfectly up at the beginning of Game 3 against Boston this year (below).

Firstly, because of how much of a threat he is, the Celtics were quadruple teaming Embiid when he was trying to post up. The defenders helped off of the 76ers’ poor shooters and crowded the Philadelphia big man, attempting to force a turnover and weren’t letting him establish post position.

Horford’s position at the opposite block wasn’t helping either, with Tatum situated to try and cut off a pass to him, or Richardson just behind him. Even a pass to Milton at the top could let a defender recover in time, and the same can be said for a pass to Harris in Embiid’s near corner. There’s no movement off the ball, and it left Embiid to either try and draw a foul, shoot a contested shot or force a risky pass.

Would Simmons solve this problem? With his lack of shooting probably not, but at least he can run an offence, properly pass to Embiid to help him establish post position and is a threat to move or cut off the ball. Simmons’s absence in this series obviously hurt Philadelphia – especially defensively, with Boston’s strength being their wing players, the same players that Simmons would guard.

If Embiid excels in the half court, Simmons does in the full court.

Ben Simmons has career averages of 16.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 8 APG and a 56% Field Goal Percentage. He’s an excellent ball handler with terrific vision who can drive towards the basket and finish (shown by his high FG%).

In a career performance against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year, you can see where he’s at his best (below).

Simmons ran the floor and collapsed the Brooklyn defenders around him with his drive to the hoop. This opened up the shooters spaced around the three-point line, who he kicked out to for a shot. However, his lack of shooting is why he was able to drive – teams allow him to build up a head of steam because he’s not a threat from the outside.

Curiously enough there was no Embiid in this game. Embiid’s presence clogs up the lane for Simmons, but Simmons’s presence also clogs up the paint for Embiid. Defenders can help off Simmons when he’s not in the paint because of his reluctance to shoot.

Out of Simmons’s 648 shot attempts this season, 624 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 96.3% of his total shots. He doesn’t shoot from outside.

Out of Embiid’s 806 shot attempts this year, 390 were either in the paint or in the restricted area – 48.4% of his total shots. Embiid actually attempted 239 mid-range shots compared to 238 in the restricted area. He should be closer to the basket, but it seems he’s settling for outside jumpers, possibly due to the spacing. He can shoot those shots, but that doesn’t always mean he should.

The Guard/Forward should be the one shooting from further out when compared to their Center, but this isn’t the case for Embiid and Simmons.

The two can play together, but it appears it doesn’t optimise either’s skillset. Do the 76ers carry on as they are, and remain a team that never makes it out of the second round? Or do they move on from one of Simmons or Embiid in a bid to maximise the other’s potential and make a breakthrough?

If Philadelphia want to move on, who do they trade? A Guard/Forward that won’t shoot outside of the painted area, or a big man that’s hardly ever in shape? The team also has to deal with the heavy contracts they gave to the underperforming Horford and Harris, who would be incredibly hard to move. More than likely they move on from Brett Brown, and try this team with a new Head Coach. The duo has at least one more year together.

But they may be hesitant to move anyone. Trades haven’t turned out well for the 76ers recently. It must hurt their fans to see players they traded away such as Landry Shamet, Jimmy Butler, Robert Covington and Markelle Fultz all play (and play well) for other teams this post-season.

But if they trade Simmons or Embiid, they need knock down shooters. Embiid needs movement when he’s in the post. He also needs someone to run the pick and roll with who has a jump shot – so defenders cannot simply go under screens and wall off the paint.

Simmons needs shooters and movement also, but possibly in a system more like Giannis Antetokounmpo has in Milwaukee. One transition based, where he can make plays with his vision or even be the roll man in pick and roll situations – again, surrounded by shooting.

They could create a system that involves all of these aspects for the two players, but it would almost always leave one stuck in an ineffective offensive position.

The Philadelphia 76ers are in the sessions for their third album. How do they break into the Conference Finals? How do they break into the mainstream?

The third album can catapult an artist to global superstardom, perfecting a formula that appeases fans and critics alike. Radiohead’s third was OK Computer. Blur had Parklife. The Clash released London Calling. Springsteen’s third album was Born to Run.

It’s a delicate situation to be in, but if the right decisions are made, a third album will be universally celebrated and all those involved hailed as geniuses. Or it can cement a band’s position as a flash in the pan whose early success simply wasn’t sustainable.

Which will the Philadelphia 76ers be?

All my information is from Basketball-Reference and stats.nba.com. Harris and Horford played a lot better in Game 4, but it was their sub-par play that added to Philly’s mess anyway. I also hope Harris is OK after taking that nasty fall. I’ve been gone a while with dissertation and other stuff, but I’m hopefully going to be writing more for my blog soon. If people read what I post it would very much be appreciated.

Anatomy of a Play: The NBA Restart and a Tale of Two Endings

Erik Drost
The Utah Jazz played the New Orleans Pelicans and the LA Clippers played the LA Lakers when the NBA returned on Thursday. Here’s a bit of a dissection of, and comment on, the endings of both games.

Two close games both decided by the final possession is exactly what everyone wanted when the NBA came back, and that’s exactly what the NBA delivered. The Jazz beat the Pelicans 106-104, and the Lakers beat the Clippers 103-101 – with Brandon Ingram and LeBron James showing how games can be both won and lost.

As Utah and New Orleans played first, let’s start there.

Rudy Gobert made two free throws to give the Jazz the lead with 6.9 seconds left, and the Pelicans called a time out. Pelicans Head Coach Alvin Gentry ran a nice looking play to get J.J. Redick an open shot at the end.

It starts with Lonzo Ball (#2) inbounding for the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday (#11 for the Pelicans) sets a screen for Brandon Ingram (#14 for the Pelicans) who runs to the left wing to collect the ball. At the same time, J.J. Redick (#4 for the Pelicans) is running along the baseline towards the left block.

Ingram gets the ball on the left wing. Holiday and Redick stop at the left block and Derrick Favors (#22 for the Pelicans) stands at the top of the key.

As soon as Ingram gets the ball he moves towards the right wing, apparently about to use the screen Favors is setting at the top to get open and away from the Jazz’s Royce O’Neale (#23). At the same time, Ball runs towards Holiday who are both about to set screens for Redick to get him open at the three point line. Notice where Favors is looking.

Watching the left corner, Favors knows that it’s time to move away from the screen he’s faking to set, and move just inside the three point line. Redick uses the double screen to run towards Favors, and Ingram carries on towards the right wing. Gobert (#22 for the Jazz and circled) is obviously concerned with a drive towards the basket, so wanting to protect the paint he watches Ingram.

Favors is now in position to screen Joe Ingles (#2 for the Jazz), who is fighting through the initial screen set by Ball, for Redick. Ingram stops his run to the wing short.

This is where it all comes to naught.

Favors has screened Ingles, getting Redick open, and Gobert (circled) is still frozen from anticipating the Ingram drive. Redick (also circled) is second in the NBA in three point percentage this year, so Ingram passing to him for a simple catch and shoot makes sense. He doesn’t need much time, and he’s been finishing these kinds of plays his whole career.

But Ingram doesn’t pass the ball.

Maybe he’s concerned with a deflection, but instead of passing, Ingram carries on towards the right wing. He side steps, and takes his shot.

The ball rims in and out. The buzzer sounds. The Pelicans lose.

Ingram was New Orleans’ leading scorer in that game with 23 points, and had a brilliant first half – so he must have been feeling it and didn’t want to pass. Gentry set up a great play to get a great shooter, in Redick, open – but it all went to waste.

It was interesting that the first game ended like that, and then the second game, in the Clippers vs the Lakers, ended how it did. Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel opted not to call a timeout and run a set play, but instead chose to let LeBron James dictate the possession.

The Clippers’ Paul George just hit a three pointer (as he had been doing all game) to tie the game at 101 points each. LeBron (#23 for the Lakers) walks the ball up to the left wing for the Lakers and is met by Kawhi Leonard (#2 for the Clippers). After LeBron ran the clock down, Danny Green (#14 for the Lakers) comes out to meet Leonard.

This gets LeBron the switch away from one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, and onto Marcus Morris (#31 for the Clippers), and so he drives to the basket. Notice how every other Laker is beyond the three point line. LeBron surrounded by three point shooters has been unplayable for years.

Is Anthony Davis (#3 for the Lakers) a shooter? Maybe? You have to respect him, and the other Lakers, from that distance, and if he gets the ball his legs are so long he can take a single step and be at the rim anyway. The Clippers can’t afford to leave the shooters open and collapse in on LeBron.

LeBron takes a tough shot just by the free throw line, expecting a foul. Nothing’s called. But despite being surrounded by every Clipper on the floor, LeBron follows his own miss and puts the ball in the basket for the win.

Nothing is ran from a timeout to get anyone an open shot. It’s all LeBron James.

And It worked.

LeBron followed that with some fantastic defence on Leonard and then Paul George on the Clippers’ final possession. He stopped Leonard’s initial drive and fake, then when Leonard had to kick it out to George, LeBron switched and moved his feet to make George drive to his left. As George is right handed, going to his left makes the shot harder, and as such he misses his three at the end.


The lack of Zion Williamson down the stretch for the Pelicans was curious. Even though he was only playing in short “bursts”, and was on a minutes restriction, you would have assumed he could manage the final few minutes of the game. Plus, with him on the court they probably would have been able to score a couple of extra baskets and win. As they were 4 games behind the eight seeded Memphis Grizzlies before tip-off, they needed to win as many games as possible to get into the Playoffs. An odd decision, but if Ingram hits that final shot none of this even matters.

The Clippers didn’t have Montrezl Harrell or Lou Williams, so maybe at full strength they could have won that game against the Lakers. Anthony Davis was superb, leading all scorers with 34 points and also played some great defence – stopping, and altering, all kinds of shot attempts. The prospect of an all Los Angeles Western Conference Finals is still as exciting as ever.

So there were two games, two endings, two strategies and two outcomes. The parallels are interesting to see.

Maybe it mirrors the fact that the Lakers are number one in the Western Conference standings, and that the Pelicans are number eleven.

Or maybe it shows one of the best things about basketball. You can draw up the perfect play and have your tactics spot on, but sometimes it all comes down to one simple question.

Who’s got the better player?

This “Anatomy of a…” topic might be something I carry on, I’m not sure, I’ll see how it goes. Although I am aware with the LeBron ‘analysis’ it’s just drawing circles around things. It really is that simple at times I guess. These NBA posts I’m writing might be a little delayed due to time differences and the like, but I hope someone reads them!

What I’m Looking at When the NBA Season Restarts

The Come Up Show/Harrison Haines
You could talk me into thinking that almost anyone has a chance at winning the NBA Championship this year – from the Raptors repeating, to Kawhi or LeBron winning a ring with their third different teams. With 22 teams heading to Orlando, here’s a few other things I’m looking at as the NBA goes Disney.

As the National Basketball Association becomes the National Bubble Association, and that bubble floats on down to Orlando, I’ve got an eye on plenty of things in the Sunshine State.

The league was suspended at the beginning of March and finally comes back on the 30th of July, when the Utah Jazz play the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angles Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the obvious excitement surrounding the situation, I want to touch upon a few topics before the opening tip.

Will the season be finished?

The biggest (and most obvious) problem surrounding any sport right now is Coronavirus. What will happen if someone tests positive, and then, a whole team? I’m sure the NBA has plans in place, but it’s still a scary prospect nevertheless.

According to Google, as of the 24th of July, Florida have almost 390,000 confirmed cases. New York and California are the only American states with more. That makes it a strange place to hold the remainder of the NBA season. I’m not sure that when Vesuvius erupted the people of Pompeii wanted to jump straight into the volcano as their city was getting covered in ash and lava (was there lava? I’m not sure but I like the analogy).

Richaun Holmes was quarantined after leaving the bubble to get some food, and you know people are going to come into the bubble, or leave it, for… other things.

But as time has gone on, I’ve become more and more optimistic at the thought of the season being completed, especially after this:

Will there be a high number of injuries?

Obviously, no one has played competitive basketball since March, so it’ll take them a while to get back up to speed – I don’t think anyone would be surprised at that or would criticise anyone for it. Everyone will be well rested but rusty, and it will be interesting to see how many minutes of game time players get to begin with. I know there are preseason scrimmage games (being played right now, actually) but they aren’t the same.

Someone like the Lakers, with the number one seed all but theirs, will probably ease LeBron and Anthony Davis into the remaining regular season games. Then they’d ramp up their minutes so they peak, in terms of conditioning, for the playoffs. Someone like the Pelicans however, need to win as many games as possible. So do they want to try and to claw their way into the playoffs through the play-in tournament (more on that in a moment), but risk injuries to Zion Williamson (who has only played 19 games this season anyway)? Injuries happen, I understand that, but do you really want to risk your young superstar?

There were rumours that Luka Dončić wasn’t in the best shape, but they were quickly refuted, and James Harden and Nikola Jokić have both seemingly lost weight before the restart. Maybe the stars are ready to go after all.

As explained by Tifo, in the Bundesliga the number of injuries per game in post-lockdown matches almost tripled – albiet in a small sample size, and with a very small number of injuries per game anyway. They also point out that after the NFL Lockout in 2011, preseason was cut dramatically. This led to 10 players rupturing their Achilles tendon in the first 12 days of training. The injury rate was twice the normal level for the first month of games also.

It wouldn’t be strange therefore, for something similar to happen in the NBA. This may lead to teams being overly cautious with players, especially with Kawhi Leonard for example, who is known to miss games due to “load management” (basically managing his health by avoiding injury and fatigue to be fresh for the playoffs).

But will fitness and seeding mean (from teams at the top of the standings, all the way down to teams at the bottom) that we’ll see more of the young guys, and possibly some worse basketball? We’ll see. They need to get their legs under them yes, but the playoffs are all that matter.

It’s the classic ‘rest versus rust’ – do you rest and stay fit, healthy and fresh, or do you play, keep playing, and maintain your rhythm?

Will we get a play-in tournament?

The bubble sees a new addition to the playoff system. It allows the possibility of the number eight and nine seeds in each conference having a mini-tournament for the final playoff spot. According to the NBA itself:

“If the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is more than four games ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, no play-in tournament will be necessary. The final playoff berth will simply go to the team with the eighth best record (regular-season games + seeding games).

But if the team with the eighth-best record in its conference is four games or fewer ahead of the team with the ninth-best record in the same conference, then we’ll have a battle for the final spot between those two teams.

The tournament will basically be a best-of-two series — where the No. 9 seed will have to win two head-to-head matchups to take over the No. 8 spot.”

So if the number eight seed has less than five wins more than the number nine seed, we get an extra two games.

Looking at the standings in the West, the prospect of this is actually pretty tasty:

The Suns are only six games back with the final eight “seeding” (or regular season) games left to play. This means that if any team puts a decent run together, and a team ahead of them stumbles, they could trigger the tournament.

This opens up a whole host of possibilities and storylines. Will the young stars Ja Morant or Zion Williamson get playoff reps in their Rookie years? Will the Spurs keep their 22 year playoff streak alive? Can Damian Lillard drag his Blazers into the playoffs?

Expect fireworks if the Blazers do get in. Lillard has a chip on his shoulder, Jusuf Nurkić is back from injury and some are even picking them for a first round upset if they do get into the playoffs. But the Lakers are still overwhelming favourites, and 99 times out of 100 they will get out of the first round.

The East isn’t so tasty:

Yes, the Wizards are six games behind the Nets, and five and a half behind the Magic. But they’re without their best player in Bradley Beal, and they’re missing David Bertans who had a great season up to the suspension. So even if they do make the play-in tournament (which they won’t) and beat the Magic (which they won’t), they get the dubious honour of being swept by the Bucks in the first round. The Nets might slip down the standings and be caught, considering half their team isn’t going – but the Wizards have been garbage this year and don’t deserve that playoff spot anyway.

It’s a little bit of added fun I guess? Who are we to turn down more basketball at this point?

What will happen in the Eastern Conference?

Honestly, I could talk myself into thinking that any of the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics or 76ers could win the East this year. Allow me to try and talk you into it also.

The Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the NBA, the best Defensive Rating in the NBA (101.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, almost 3 points higher than the Raptors), the best Net Rating in the NBA (meaning on average they’re 10.7 points better off than the other team, per game, per 100 possessions), score the most points per game in the NBA (118.6) and probably have the league’s MVP for the second straight year in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Giannis is clearly the conference’s best player, and has no Kawhi Leonard to slow him down this year. They have to go to The Finals.

The Toronto Raptors have the third best record in the NBA (behind the Bucks and the Lakers) the best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game (106.5), the second best Defensive Rating in the NBA (104.9) and arguably the NBA’s best coach in Nick Nurse.

They’ve done all of this with a heap of injuries this season, with Nurse getting the best out of players no-one has ever heard of, like Chris Boucher (exactly). The only worry is that they may lack that go-to scorer who’s needed at the end of a tight playoff game. Lowry is great but he’s not that player, and never has been, so Pascal Siakam has to step up.

Siakam has been a first time All-Star this year and will get some deserved All-NBA votes (probably third team) – but he’s got to prove he can be the scorer they need. 23 and a half points a game is great (the best of his career by a mile) but his shooting percentages have gone down from last season. However, that’s to be expected if he’s taking more shots as Kawhi isn’t there anymore. The Raptors will win with their defence though, so 23 and a half might be all they need.

If Siakam has a good playoff run, the Raptors will go deep. They have to be the dark horse for the title.

The Boston Celtics are no strangers to making deep playoff runs under Brad Stevens, taking LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games in the Conference Finals in 2018. Boston have the second best defence in the NBA in terms of opponent points per game, behind the Raptors by .3 points. Similarly to those Raptors, they’re going to win games by defending well. Both teams score 113 points per game, 11th and 12th in the NBA.

The difference between the two is that the Celtics have stars. Kemba is cold blooded, but Jayson Tatum is the big baller in Boston. All-Star, probably All-NBA, and a field goal percentage just under 45% at 21 years old. The sky’s the limit, but this year he could really take over.

He has done before.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the most interesting team in the East. Defensively they’re a top 10 team, but offensively they’re pretty average. The lack of any home playoff games is a huge loss for them too, as their home record of 29-2 is the best in the league. The 76ers’ hopes rest upon the shoulders of their star players.

If Joel Embiid plays to the level he’s capable of, and to the level that had some people pick him for MVP before this season, he’s unplayable – there’s no player in the NBA quite like him. I’m a huge Ben Simmons fan, he’s a brilliant defender (he leads the league in steals) and has the capability to defend players one through four. His issue of not shooting from the outside and it clogging up the paint is well documented. Even though he’s shot threes this season (and to be honest, the form looks pretty good) he’s not doing it enough. If they can solve the Al Horford conundrum, and not have a player earning $28 million this year coming off the bench, he would solve so many of their offensive problems and drastically improve their title chances.

Philadelphia will be worth keeping an eye on. Especially because, in my opinion, anything less than a Conference Finals appearance and coach Brett Brown will more than likely be fired.

I can’t really see the Heat or the Pacers doing any real damage in the playoffs – my money’s on Giannis and the Bucks.

What will happen in the Western Conference?

The West is more Don Broco this year – come out to LA.

The Lakers and Clippers are everyone’s pick to meet in the Conference Finals, and they’re currently first and second in the conference respectively. Both are fantastic defensively, but the Lakers hold a slight edge. Opponent points per game are 106.9 for the Lakers, to the Clippers’ 109.7. The Lakers have a 105.5 defensive rating and the Clippers’ rating is 106.6. Offensively they’re very close, Clippers score the 5th most points per game, and the Lakers the 7th (116.2 to 114.3). The Battle of Los Angeles is pretty evenly matched.

LeBron’s revenge tour, that isn’t really a revenge tour because no-one doubted him, but is a revenge tour because he was injured last year and wasn’t in the playoffs (I don’t get it either, but his Instagram is flooded with revenge tour hashtags), continues in Disney Land. What a tour it’s been. This season he’s averaging the most assists per game of his career (which also leads the league) with 10.6 – all at the tender age of 35. Averages of just over 25 and half points and just under eight rebounds per game mean he’s been an MVP candidate all year. He has his best teammate since Dwyane Wade in Anthony Davis, who is the possibly the Defensive Player of the Year. No Avery Bradley is a huge loss, but his replacement, J.R. Smith, does have Finals experience.

In terms of the playoffs, LeBron’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt and the ring – but so has Kawhi.

Leonard (averaging essentially 27 points and seven rebounds per game this year) has defended LeBron brilliantly in the past. His run to the title with the Raptors last year reminded everyone how good he is. He had averages of 30.5 points and just over nine rebounds per game. The issue with the Clippers is chemistry. Their best lineup (Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams) has played just 56 minutes together all season. But they are +13.8 (meaning they’re 13.8 points better off than the other team, per 100 possessions) when they do play. So they might be fine. If any coach can figure it out, it’s Doc Rivers.

All in all, the Western Conference Finals should be fun.

Who’s going to win it all?

It’s down to three teams – Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. No fans in attendance would mean that no one would see the Clippers’ first ever title, or the Bucks’ first title in almost 50 years.

If I had to pick conference winners, I’d say that the Bucks would beat the Raptors four games to two, and that the Lakers would beat the Clippers four games to three.

In the finals, Bucks vs Lakers, the Lakers win in six games. I can’t bet against LeBron.

Basketball is nearly back!

I got all of my stats and numbers from Basketball Reference and stats.nba.com. I would try and write something witty, funny, or something about what’ll I’ll write next here, but I’m still upset about Forest.

Pep Guardiola & Manchester City: Pressure Makes Diamonds

Ardfern (Cropped)
Better late than never, but here’s a look at Manchester City against Arsenal on Wednesday night – and Pep Guardiola’s old, but not outdated, tactics.

No one would disagree if someone said that sport is about evolution.

It’s about taking what those have done before you, what people are doing now, and building upon those ideas to make something better. To make something that is all conquering and unbeatable. To make something that beats even the ideas you based it upon.

Pep Guardiola has done just that, building upon the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and, especially, Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona.

It’s no secret how much of an impact Cruyff had on Guardiola – his famous quote is: “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.”

In short, what Pep does is based upon what Cruyff did. In turn, what Cruyff did was based upon what Rinus Michels, his manager at Ajax in the 1970s, did. That great Ajax side played a 433 that turned into a 343 – dominating possession and dropping a midfielder into the defence (essentially having three backs).

Cruyff did the same at Barcelona when he was in charge – playing a 343, and controlling possession with a greater number of midfielders than the opposing team. This was dependent on the fact that Cruyff’s team had, in essence, two diamonds. These diamonds helped create passing angles for both the back three and the midfielders.

The player at the tip of the diamond (in this team, Guardiola) that involved the back three, would also form the base of the diamond in the midfield (although incredibly narrow in the first one, it is seen in the two images below):

The outside centre backs would eventually sit as wide as they could (along with the wingers, who didn’t play as conventional wing backs) which made the pitch as big as possible – an advantage when attacking. This formation also helped the central midfielders in-between the lines, placing them in the inside left or right positions, allowing them to find space.

So getting to Guardiola.

He did a similar thing when he was Barcelona manager. He created a back three when on the ball by spreading his centre backs (Piqué and Puyol or Mascherano) out incredibly wide, and dropping Busquets in-between them to make a three, which is useful against teams playing two strikers (below):

With the two full backs in the wide areas of midfield, it makes a de facto 343. He did something like this at Bayern Munich, letting Thiago or Philipp Lahm come deeper and sit between the centre backs, or by completely inverting his full backs into midfielders during the build up.

What’s this got to do with Manchester City on Wednesday? This provides a little bit of context before diving into how Guardiola set his team up.

Namely, decades later, the same tactical ideas still prevail.

Where this is going may well be obvious to some. City, of course, set up in a 433 formation to start (below):

This 433 is what City held when they were defending.

The principle that Guardiola subscribes to, is that of making the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. The same principle as Cruyff.

This is done with City’s press as it prevents the other team starting comfortable build up play. If they don’t win the ball back instantly, they stay in this 433 formation – making sure the opposition have no space to exploit.

But what was noticeable (when considering the 433 becoming the 343) was what City did in possession.

In the pivot role, Gündogan still picked the ball up from the two central defenders – either Laporte or Garcia. But he wasn’t alone. Kyle Walker also stepped into midfield several times.

This let Laporte step up into the same horizontal midfield level as Walker, just behind Gündogan. By inverting a full back Manchester City had made a diamond that started at the defence (below):

That image also shows the advantage of doing so. Aubameyang has come inside and followed Walker, which, although not seen, has given Mahrez on the right acres of space. But if he didn’t come inside, City would completely overrun midfield. It’s done again here:

The space this movement created led to Manchester City’s first goal. That and David Luiz.

Mahrez and De Bruyne had swapped positions. Mahrez was in the inside right, and De Bruyne was wide, which, due to Aubameyang cutting infield to follow Walker, meant he was in plenty of space. This space allowed him to get his head up and put the ball in the box that Luiz didn’t properly clear. That mistake led to Sterling scoring (below):

As mentioned, Guardiola wants the pitch to be as big as possible when attacking. The wide men become so important in this. If Walker is inverted, De Bruyne or Mahrez need to be in that position on the right hand side to spread the defence out and create more space for others.

On the other side Mendy was the one staying wide. This came into effect with Manchester City’s first goal. Mendy’s width meant Sterling was free to come inside, allowing him to get into the box and score.

With Walker in midfield, Mendy needed to be hugging the touchline, providing width and creating space (an example of this below):

But was it specifically designed to be a diamond starting at the defence?

This becomes unclear with how the midfield was shaped at times.

The reasoning may be more to do with sheer numbers as opposed to certain shapes, but the foundation that Cruyff laid is still there. Outnumber the players in midfield to dominate the ball, all while making the pitch as big as possible. This photo shows Manchester City have the numbers – but it’s hardly a diamond (below):

You can note that Saka may be closing Gündogan down, negating their numerical advantage in midfield. But if he does, again, Mendy will be in space – as De Bruyne was with the goal.

Walker stepped into midfield to essentially create a 343. Gündogan was at the tip of the defensive diamond and – with Silva and De Bruyne in the half spaces – at the base of an attacking one. That formation would look something like (but not exactly depending on positional interchanges) this image below:

Although not using the exact same system, Pep has built upon an idea used in the 1990s, which itself was built upon an idea used in the 1970s. It’s one of those things that once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. Once it’s been done, it cannot be undone.

History repeats itself. Maybe because time is a flat circle. Or a flat diamond.

Hopefully this made sense – I thought it was amazing that the same ideas from the 1990s are still being used today. I’m only writing about football right now because it’s all that’s going on, but, who knows what the future may hold. If you want to see any videos on tactics, this is a great watch and super informative in regards to the real ins and outs of Cruyff’s system.

Cristiano Ronaldo: A Short Ronalysis

Anton Zaitsev (Cropped)
I’m attempting to dip my toe into the deep, fascinating waters of football tactics. So here’s a very simple, and very short, look at Cristiano Ronaldo against AC Milan in the Coppa Italia.

Cristiano Ronaldo is used to being the centre of attention.

Nothing’s changed in that regard here – especially since I decided to focus on him when Juventus played AC Milan in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final yesterday.

The highlighted zone below shows, incredibly simply, where he operated. In basic terms, he was looking to get touches on the ball in the space in-between the lines for a shot, or make late runs into the box to score from crosses (and sometimes, a mixture of the two).

Ronaldo played up front with Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala either side of him. Initially, Ronaldo wasn’t playing on the shoulder of Milan’s defenders, or looking to run in behind and create space either. He moved in the space in-between the Milan defence and midfield.

You can see that in the photos below. In this one, he’s in-between the midfield and defence (demonstrated by the blue lines) so he can get a shot off when he’s closer towards Milan’s goal.

In this photo you can see that even after Milan had a man sent off and were playing deeper, leaving less space, he was still finding room to move.

But as the match went on this wasn’t his only course of action.

He wasn’t just dropping deep like a False 9 to get involved, or simply sitting in space. The highlighted zone in the first image shows that he had the freedom to move out wide – which he did. This is shown in the photo below, even if it is on the break (which Ronaldo can still execute as well as anyone in the world).

Another example of this was in the 18th minute, just after the sending off. It also includes what he was doing earlier.

Ronaldo was on the left wing, and eventually drifted inside, finding a pocket of space. Even as the play moved towards Milan’s box, he still didn’t make a run into the area straight away. He was very methodical with his movement, and always wanted to get involved in the build up play.

When he did get the ball outside the box and in front of the defenders, he, as you would expect, operated a shoot on sight policy.

In the photo below Dybala has the ball on the right hand side of the penalty area. Some Centre Forwards might make runs like the ones illustrated by the blue arrows – either to receive a pass and shoot when closer to the goal, or to drag defenders with them and give Dybala more space for a one on one.

Instead Ronaldo sat outside the area, received a pass from Dybala, showed some skill on the ball to shift it on to his left foot and then shot (that movement is shown with the red arrow). He’s got it in his repertoire to score from there, so why shouldn’t he have a go when he has the chance?

That photo shows what I mean (hopefully). Combining all the points of sitting in space, shooting when possible, and not making runs into the box all the time.

The corner that led to Juventus’s penalty was from Ronaldo not running towards goal straight away. He sat off, no one was in the box, so Dybala had a shot from outside the area. It then deflected off a defender for the corner.

But this wasn’t all he did. We all know Ronaldo loves to get on the end of crosses. So when he saw the opportunity to make runs into the box he obliged – they just weren’t constant. He does this in the photos below.

Here he is looking to get on the end of Danilo’s cross.

Here he’s calling for a ball in from Bernardeschi, seeing the space in the penalty area.

Here he’s moving off the back of the midfielder.

Then after that, he runs towards goal to get on the end of a cross (if Dybala lays it off on the overlap to his right) or pick up any spills from the keeper.

So a mix of finding space deep and then making late runs is what Ronaldo went with. He did lay the ball off at times to run into the penalty area, and then get on the end of a cross. In the 12th minute he drops deep to get a touch, lays it off for Pjanic who spreads the ball out to the right, then makes a late run into the box to get on the end of a ball in.

However he did show some rust – so Ronaldo is human. Coming back with higher fitness levels than before the Serie A suspension doesn’t stop you from misplacing a few passes it seems. But I’m going to guess he’ll get back into the swing of things sooner rather than later.

Even if he did shoot nine times without scoring and had a penalty saved – this variance in play easily shows why Ronaldo is Ronaldo.

Like I said, very short and very simple. It’s a bit of something different, hopefully I’ll try and do some more tactical stuff like this, but hopefully in a bit more detail. Maybe I’m stating the obvious writing something that is essentially, ‘Ronaldo is good at football’ but, it was fun to do regardless.

Luka Dončić: The 2020/21 NBA MVP?

Javier Mendia García (Cropped)
When it comes to the NBA’s MVP, don’t get too comfortable Giannis – Luka’s got next.

Poor Phoenix.

I remember reading an article about the Phoenix Suns. It was about how the team isn’t tanking right now – they’re just losing.

Tanking is supposed to come with some kind of reward. One big win at the end of a period of small, numerous losses.

It’s a process, if you will.

You tank, you suck, you get a good draft pick, you get a good player and then they make you suck a little less.

It’s the circle of life.

To the naked eye Phoenix are tanking. Allegedly loosing on purpose to draft that can’t miss prospect. That player who would have an immediate impact on the franchise. And even if all that losing wasn’t on purpose (why would anyone admit to losing on purpose?), it did lead to the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, however.

Deandre Ayton was the prize. The big man, the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on the franchise. He played for the University of Arizona too.

It was perfect.

Now I’m not here to slate Deandre Ayton. He’s a good player don’t get me wrong – he was All-Rookie First Team. But since they drafted him the Suns are 45-102. He also had his drug policy violation and subsequent ban. I’m not pinning the fact that the Suns aren’t winning games on him – the Suns have had a host of other problems over the last few years. In fact the failings of the Phoenix Suns organisation is a whole other topic to write about in its own right.

I want to focus on the Dallas Mavericks, who had the fifth pick in that 2018 NBA Draft. They managed to get a 19 year old European after a trade with Atlanta involving another first round pick and Trae Young. They obviously saw something in this European.

That kid is 20 now. That kid is the next great NBA talent. That kid is the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on his franchise.

That kid is Luka Dončić.

Luka won Rookie of the Year for the 2018/19 season, averaging 21 points, almost 8 rebounds and 6 assists a game. In NBA history, only two 19 year olds have averaged 21/6/6, or even 20/5/5, for an entire season – Luka and LeBron James.

That’s pretty good company.

But as stats exist in a vacuum, it’s important to note that both Luka and LeBron were basically handed the keys to the franchise in their rookie years – both players had their team’s highest Usage Percentage. The ball was in their hands, and the systems that they played in were designed to put it there.

LeBron’s team in his Rookie year is seen as the worst he’s ever been on, and the Mavericks traded the player they selected with their first round draft pick from the year before to make Luka the primary ball handler. These two young stars’ teams revolved around them.

But winning ROY doesn’t always mean you’re going to be MVP, or play anywhere near that level (sorry Michael Carter-Williams). But Luka was instantly seen as something special. There was even a chance in his debut NBA season he’d be the first Rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to play in an All-Star game. He ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Don’t get too upset he didn’t make it though, he got there in his second year.

And that second year has been pretty impressive, much like the first year. Actually, it hasn’t been “pretty impressive”.

It’s been phenomenal.

In his second year in the NBA, at 20 years old, Luka is averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists a game. Only one other player has averaged that for an entire season, Oscar Robertson.

If 28/9/8 seems a little too cherry picked, Luka is one of only six players in NBA history to average 25/8/8 for a year. Luka is also one of eight players to average a ‘LeBron‘ for an entire season (27/7/7), which, in my opinion, is the gold standard for all-around basketball play. All the other players on these lists, besides Luka, are current, or future, Basketball Hall of Famers.

But again, it’s important to note that all these players always had (or have) the ball in their hands. They also led (or lead) their teams in Usage Percentage for these seasons. I’m not counting Luke Jackson’s 10 games for Cleveland in 2004/05, Coby Karl’s 3 games for Cleveland in 2009/10 and Josh Reaves’ 2 games for Dallas this season. Sue me.

Luka is the joint youngest player to put up these numbers too, so hopefully as Yazz sang, the only way is up.

That MVP could well be on the horizon.

But, for a player to be awarded the MVP, voters do concentrate on these stats, but also on the win/loss record of the player’s team and the media narrative surrounding said player (as odd as that sounds, just give it to the best player).

Allow me to explain quickly.

When Russell Westbrook won the MVP in 2017 playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was putting up absurd numbers. He became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. He was winning games and getting the Thunder into the Playoffs – even if it was only a six seed. But most importantly, the storyline of his season was dominated by the fact that Kevin Durant had left in free agency. Westbrook was the “one who stayed”, and he dragged his team into the Playoffs all by himself (or so it seemed, I’m not going to get into that season right now).

Russell was the “most valuable” player. He led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, minutes – almost everything. He won MVP because his individual stats were impressive, his team won games, and because he had a story that triumphed over all others.

Luka can do this too.

The stats mentioned previously show he can put up the numbers. The man seems to stuff the stat sheet, but not in the obscene and egregious way that Westbrook does. Or maybe he does. Either way, the basketball talent this 20 year old possesses would confuse even James Naismith.

Also, the Mavericks’ system will give Luka the ball. This year he’s second only to the one-man-wrecking crew that is Giannis Antetokounmpo in Usage Percentage. He also has the sixth most isolation possessions per game in the entire NBA. Dallas give him the ball and let Luka loose.

There’s no doubt that the Mavericks can win games. They’ve got a coaching savant in Rick Carlisle sat on their bench, and a solid number two in Porzingis.

Plus, the MVP voters may get tired of Giannis’ dominance with the award. Voter fatigue is a real thing, ask Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Voters felt that it was Malone’s “turn” in the late 90s – even if MJ was the better player. Plus, as this article from Bleacher Report points out: “Voter fatigue tends to slant toward up-and-coming players.” Luka’s only been in the league for two years, and he’s certainly up and coming to say the least.

So, voters can look at; the Slovenian wonder’s numbers, the fact that he has the ball in his hands, my assumption that the Mavericks will win games, and their possible Giannis-related boredom.

All signs point to Luka.

His play is already near MVP level too.

Luka said himself that in the NBA, “it’s easier to score compared to Europe”.

He’s got that signature move, the step back jumper. Despite not being the quickest move of all time, it’s still effective. You can see how it helps him get into his shooting rhythm and is almost unguardable.

He’s also got a strange combination of a first step and a head fake to drive towards the basket. Again, it’s not the quickest move, but it seems to get defenders off balance and get him to the hole. Even if a drive doesn’t lead to him directly going in for a score, he can set up his crafty “I’m going to stick me inbetween you and the ball” body position to keep defenders away.

His passing is already fantastic.

He seems to like to jump and pass the ball to the roller when running the pick and roll, which can be a little risky. But this elevation, combined with the height advantage he already has over smaller guards, enables him to see over the defence and zip the ball right where it needs to be. But it’s his lob passes that impress me. Just watch the touch on this one. The ball floats in the air for a second, just begging to plucked out of the sky.

However, his defending could do with some work.

His one on one defending isn’t bad, but as he’s not the most athletic player in the world, it’s hard for him to shift his feet quickly enough sometimes. But, he seems to read the game well, and knows where to stand. He’ll get better over time.

By the way, bad defending never stopped James Harden from winning the MVP.

Speaking of Harden, Luka’s 3-point percentage is slightly below the league average of 35% at 32%. In my opinion, to really take his game to the next level, he needs to get that up into the high 30s. But it’s not a bad percentage by any means. The opposition still need to respect him from 3-point range, so he spreads the floor nicely – that opens up opportunities on the pick and roll, or for Luka to drive into the paint himself.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the stupendous Slovenian enough now. The Eurostar. Ludicrous Luka. Dynamic Dončić.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when European players come to the NBA sometimes. As a Chicago Bulls fan, I remember how excited everyone was when they drafted former Liga ACB MVP Nikola Mirotić. He was good, but, maybe not as good as everyone thought he would be.

Luka is a former Spanish league MVP too, so you can argue that he knows what it takes to win this kind of award.

Everything seems to be in place for Luka to be MVP next year.

He can put up the individual stats. He can win the games. He can steal the media spotlight from Giannis.

To get players to play at an MVP level, yes, teams do need to put a good set of complimentary players around them, coach them well, have a good win/loss record and some Playoff success.

But you have to make sure that the player is the next great NBA talent. That the player is the can’t miss prospect. That the player is the one who will have the immediate impact on the franchise.

So you need to get lucky, and you need to draft the right player.

Poor Phoenix.

I took all my stats from Basketball Reference and stats.NBA.com – which are both great if you’re into that kind of thing. Also if you’re interested in Luka’s play a little more, watch this video by Thinking Basketball on his Rookie year – it’s fantastic and the YouTube channel should have way more subscribers that it does.

Michael Jordan and The Last Dance

(Netflix)
After watching the last episode of The Last Dance on Netflix last night, here’s a few thoughts on what I learned from it all as someone who knew some, but not all of what they went in to.

Spoiler Alert: All of The Last Dance, basically. Obviously.

Pretty much all of you have seen Space Jam, so you know who Michael Jordan is. He’s the best basketball player ever, global icon, champion, gold medalist, cigar aficionado, meme, hero, villain, everything. He is basketball. The king of kings.

My name is Michael Jordan, king of kings;
Look on my rings, ye mighty, and despair!

But in all seriousness, he was the NBA in the 1990s. That smooth fadeaway jumper, the dunks with the tongue sticking out, the dominance.

Unstoppable.

I knew about the Bulls (obviously). I knew he’d won six championships in eight years, took a season and a bit off to play baseball (yes, really), won six Finals MVPs, won five regular season MVPs, was a dominant sporting force and I knew pretty much all of the Michael Jordan lore.

I knew about the game against the Celtics, The Shot, the lay-up in the 1991 Finals, The Shrug in 1992, passing to Paxson in 1993, 72-10 and winning the title on Fathers Day in 1996, The Flu Game in 1997, and his final shot in 1998.

All of that was a spoiler if you didn’t know anything about him or basketball, but it goes over it all in the documentary anyway.

Talking about spoilers, that’s one thing I felt they did well with The Last Dance. They really managed to build suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat, before you just think, “Oh yeah, this happened 20 years ago and I know exactly what happens.”

That’s probably a nice metaphor for MJ there actually.

You were on the edge of your seat watching him, but you still knew exactly what was going to happen. He was going to win. That was his thing, he was the ultimate winner. Ultra competitive, and you really saw that in The Last Dance. To look inside his head and see, in his own words, what the psychology of a winner is like, was amazing.

To be surrounded by all these professional athletes, the best basketball players in the world, and he would still think he was the best, still wanted to prove he was the best, still wanted more, and was still driven to win, was brilliant to watch.

He never wanted people to think they had one over him. Like the bit with Gary Payton and he’s all, “Oh yeah when I defended him he got tired and that’s why they lost those two games against us in the 1996 Finals.” (I’m paraphrasing there).

Then MJ laughs and goes, “I had no problem with The Glove.”

That’s some BMT stuff right there. Badass, absolute badass.

You saw he did whatever it took to win, well, did whatever it took to put himself in that situation mentally, where he could find something to motivate himself to win. You would never be able to have one over on MJ, he just wouldn’t let it happen. He had to win. He needed to win. You saw it in the documentary.

That story about LaBradford Smith saying, “Nice game Mike,” and then MJ just spanking him in the next game was absurd. It was made even more absurd when it turns out he didn’t even say it! Jordan just needed to find some way to drive himself to dominate.

Which I suppose is a strange thought in itself.

The only thing stopping him from wiping the floor with any basketball player in the world at the time, was him knowing they thought he was the best. But how can you think anyone’s better than you when people scream your name everywhere you go, there are cameras in your face all the time, and apparently five people want to deliver your pizza in Utah just to see you? (I’m not getting into that nonsense, watch it yourself). What’s the Kanye lyric? “Hood phenomenon, the LeBron of rhyme / Hard to be humble when you stunting on a jumbotron“.

People hated LeBron for how he saw himself, thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But you can see with Jordan in this documentary how people put him on that pedestal – so why would you not think it? People didn’t really seem to hate MJ for that.

They seem to hate him for that same competitiveness that made him so great. That competitiveness that appeared to make him push people to do what he was doing, even though to everyone else on the planet it was impossible. Especially his teammates. I knew he wasn’t the nicest to them.

I knew it was bad.

Those parts of him laying into Kukoc and Harper were harsh, but, poor Scott Burrell. He was going at Scott Burrell all the time. Constantly. There’s no need to call him a ho MJ, come on. The mad part about that is, if this is what he says when he knows the cameras were on, what did he do when they were off?

Oh yeah, he’d punch Steve Kerr in the face.

People counter it by saying he’s pushing his teammates to win, and I see that. He’s not asking them to train or practise any harder than he would. But like I said, not everyone is Michael Jordan.

Not everyone can do what you do MJ.

Is gambling the next logical step with competitiveness? Would he want to win everything, so would he make everything a contest by putting money on it? Again, I’m not so sure, but The Last Dance‘s step into that was interesting. I didn’t know about his trip to Atlantic City trip in the playoffs because he wanted to go gamble. And how he casually got a limo there. As you do.

But who am I to preach to Michael Jordan? He had a pretty good career, so it’s incredibly harsh to pass judgement on gambling I think. It never affected his basketball (David Stern talked about about it, and he thought the same), unless you believe the suspension baloney that led to him playing baseball.

Regardless, and again, it’s all a part of his psyche, and there for you to see.

Perhaps it wasn’t a suspension that led to him playing baseball, maybe it was more of a, “Screw you guys, I’m going to play baseball” kind of thing. Everyone was on his back for the gambling, and sadly his dad died, so he thought, “You know what? I’m gonna hit some homers in the old diamond.”

You saw he wasn’t that good at baseball to start, but again, the work ethic and the competitiveness came through. He was getting better because he was putting in the work. He couldn’t stand not being the best.

That’s the highlight of the whole documentary for me. The look into the ultimate winner’s head, and seeing why winners win. Looking at how their brains are wired.

Oh yeah, and there’s some sick basketball in it too.

Just quickly, here are a few specific points I really liked and just wanted to point out:

  • The Chicago Bulls traveling cocaine circus in the 80s. I knew cocaine was a problem for the NBA from Bill Simmons’ book, but still, hearing MJ talk about it was pretty mad.
  • How awful was the quality of competition in the NBA if MJ wasn’t lifting weights until the early 90s? Bro you gotta get that squat up! There was literally only one team that he couldn’t beat until then. Madness.
  • The individual bits on the past of Jackson, Pippen, Rodman and the like. It was interesting to see where they came from, and how little I actually knew about them. To think I was worried about how much money Pippen was making.
  • He still hates Isiah Thomas to this day. I’m sure you didn’t keep him off The Dream Team, Mike.
  • The footage of him and Kobe at the All-Star game. Awesome. RIP Kobe.
  • The bits of him talking about playing all the NBA stars when filming Space Jam. That movie has given society so much.
  • Toni Kukoc’s defending of Karl Malone (I think it was) in episode nine, when he just kind of danced on his toes and let Malone back him down. I’m not sure why but it just got me laughing.
  • That Larry Bird and MJ “bitch” exchange from episode nine. Stupendous.
  • The photo above, where he’s swinging the bat and smoking a cigar like some kind of weird mob boss. It had me, and everyone else on the internet, reeling.

All in all, it was interesting to see inside his brain, to see his competitiveness and what made him tick. It didn’t really criticise him or go into anything that was too serious, or could maybe paint him in a bad light. But MJ had a hand in making the documentary, so I’m not sure what I expected. The behind the scenes footage was ace, the basketball was ace, as was the fact you really got to see why they called him ‘Air’.

He flew.

It was so good to learn about one of the biggest celebrities ever, and even better to have something basketball related in this Coronavirus drenched world we’re living in. Give it a watch if you haven’t. If you have, watch this video on what the Bulls did after MJ retired. It’s a great video connecting what Reinsdorf talks about in the last episode, to what the Bulls became in the 2000s.

I want to live the rest of my life wanting to be as good at something as much as Michael Jordan wanted it.

Or I might just play as him on 2K.