Something Great

Arsene Wenger cobbled together starting lineups with spit and duct tape and Denilson and somehow the team dragged its ass over the finish line in third or fourth.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Xavi is the Best Player in the World", Said the Bored Catalan

"Wait what?? Is Xavi even the 3rd best player on Barcelona FC?" responded the surly Uruguayan born American. The party seemed to freeze in time momentarily; I would take some convincing.

Little do they know I have Xavi as the 5th best player on Barcelona, behind Messi, Iniesta, Villa, and Pique, and probably in that order.

Before we begin
I am not suggesting that Xavi is a bad soccer player. Capiche? Mr. Hernandez is obviously talented, just not better than four of his teammates.

And I must demand that we agree on one premise before beginning, because if we can't agree that Messi is the best player on Barcelona, we're shouting from different planets.

The Messiah is the best player on Barcelona FC; it's not close. If it's an argument at all, it's born from extreme boredom or a blood-alcohol level of .24. It's fit for Around the Horn in June.

Since 2007, in all Barcelona FC competitions, Messi and Xavi have appeared in 137 and 156 games respectively. Messi has 124 goals and 48 assists; Xavi has 25 goals and 65 assists. That's 500% more goals for 25% less assists.
Standardizing the numbers for "games played" adds a little to Messi's resume, and adjusting for age is when things get absurd.
25-year-old-Messi had 45 goals and 10 assists (46 games played) and 25-year-old-Xavi had 3 goals and 0 assists (44 games played). Re-read that last sentence one more time.

But I don't need to use statistics; Messi passes the eye-test as well. I'm not talking about the flash (thanks Arabic announcer), I'm talking about impact. If Xavi is the one pulling the strings of the puppet - as my friend Carlos emphasized by putting his hand out as if he were holding a marionette - then Messi chokes you with the strings, robs you, and bangs your wife on the way out the door.

Neither of the two play defense (no, they don't, squash that thought), and although they play different roles for their teams, I'm still taking Messi. And I'm offended you even asked. I'll humor any argument, because I love talking soccer and I hate Argentinian players, but I need to know you're joking before we have the discussion, that's all.

In twenty-five years, hardly anyone that isn't pining for Catalan independence will remember the name Xavi Hernandez, but I can guarantee they'll know the name Lionel Messi.
Ugh, that hurt to write. Moving along, in summary:
Messi > Xavi. Agreed? Agreed. Now, let's begin.

"I'd rather have Xavi than Iniesta." I get that a fair amount here in Barcelona. Here is how the argument typically plays out:

I'd rather have Xavi than Iniesta.
- Why is that?
(Begins gesticulating with arms) Because Xavi is Barcelona FC. He controls the tempo of the game. He is... the system.
- Can you name me an important goal Xavi has scored?
Xavi doesn't really score goals.
- Iniesta doesn't "really" score goals either, but I can name you three. His goal to win the World Cup, of course, his goal to beat Chelsea in the Champions League, and he scored the winner against Chile, a game Spain needed to win so badly they subbed off Xavi in the 66th minute.

Sounds like you looked up that last one dude.
- Maybe I did, but if you can find me an "important" goal Xavi scored in less than 10 minutes, then maybe we can talk. But let's ignore goals for a moment. Can you remember an important assist Xavi had?
Not really.
- I agree, that's because assists aren't really remembered, unless you're Theo Walcott. But fine, give me a game of significance in which Xavi clearly wow'd. If we're putting Xavi in the company of Player-of-the-Year winners like Zidane, Figo, Ronaldinho, surely you can think of one game when Xavi blew the lid off the stadium and announced his presence.
(Struggles to think of one) But dude, he's still good.
- I agree, I'm not saying he's bad. I just don't think he's better than Iniesta. They play the same role. They are almost literally asked to do the same thing and their stats are not significantly different from one another; Iniesta has a few more goals, Xavi has a few more assists. But for some reason, I can remember the times when Iniesta has impacted a meaningful game, whether it be for Spain or FC, but I can't remember a single instance when that was Xavi.

But Xavi the other day completed 112 of his 115 passes!
- That's a phenomenally useless statistic. It's about as useful as all of Arsenal's possession when they lose as well. Stat's don't really have a place in soccer. Put me in a plaid blazer with leather elbow pads and give me a corn-cob pipe, but it's true, statistics do a mostly horrible job explaining soccer. This isn't baseball, or even the NFL where people talk of "skill positions" and don't realize they are mocking the game.
Jose Mourinho's Inter was very successful, and they never beat Barcelona in any stats. Well, just one, the final score. And I could go on and on about how Arsenal wins the stat-battle every week. Yet no team seems to befuddle the stat argument better than Arsenal.
"What a beautiful game. We won five-nil and completed 430 of our 442 passes! And we had 65% of the possession!"
That's great. But what about the time when Arsenal had 65% of the possession, completed 90% of their hundreds of passes, gave up 2 shots on goal and still lost 1-nil to Newcastle.
(Jim sighs).

Of course statistics tell some of the story. A neutral Barcelona observer wouldn't be surprised to see that the Blaugrana control a majority of the possession. Nor would it be a surprise that they touch the ball around more than their opponents. Completed passes, however, are mostly useless. For example:

In the game in which Messi destroyed Arsenal in the Champions League, he attempted half as many passes as Xavi and completed a lower percentage of them. He even "covered" less distance.

It's not just about goals. One should appreciate players like Xavi, and I do. Just give me Andres Iniesta, who over the past 3 years has proved his impact on the big stage over and over again, and I'll let you have the invisible puppet-master.

David Villa
Speaking of impact. Is there a better player that is more under-the-radar right now than David Villa? ¡Madre mia!

He scored the most goals in the Euro 2008 - two of which were game winners - and Spain won. He tied for the most goals in the World Cup 2010 - three of which were game winners - and Spain won.

He was "slumping" for Barcelona FC, yet somehow he has 11 goals and 7 assists in 20 appearances. This was only after never having scored less than 20 goals a season, for five consecutive seasons at Valencia.

The man is on fire, literally shooting flames from every orifice. If I can only have one player in a big game, Mara-Villa is on the short-list of names. Again, it's not just about goals, but it goes without saying how important they are in order to, you know, win games. So if you need at least 20 goals during a season, several of them winners and several of them against your biggest opponents, David Villa is your guy. If you need someone who will complete 90% of his passes, take Xavi.

Gerald Pique
Consider that Gerald Pique is one of the best central defenders in the world. Then consider that Pique is 23 years old. Instead of entering into the nebulous arguments of why defense is important, I'd rather point out that a great center-back is harder to find than a great striker.

McCallan Top Tier Center-Backs:
Pique, Puyol (sigh), Carvalho, Chiellini, Lucio, Vidic, John Terry, and let's assume 1 more I'm forgetting. Total = 8

Grey Goose Top Tier Strikers:
Villa, Cristiano Ronaldo, Forlan, Llorente, Eto'o, Ibrahimovic, Tevez, Van Persie (stop laughing), Rooney, Drogba, Torres (I'm not ready to drop him yet, in fact, this makes me sad), Thomas Muller. Total = 12

Well that wasn't very convincing. This would be alot easier if VP and Torres would stop sucking so much, but still, I think I might have a point.

*Aside - after doing this exercise I wonder if we're a few years away from an odd dearth of great central-backs. Puyol and Carvalho are past prime, so is Chiellini and perhaps John Terry. Maybe I just don't know enough young central defenders - they're late bloomers I suppose - but it seems like holding midfielders and oustanding fullbacks are in fashion. Or maybe it's getting harder and harder to find a great central defender with the current outrageously talented crop of attacking midfielders and strikers.

Irregardless, I comfortably put a 23-year-old central defender like Pique ahead of a 30-year-old Xavi. And even if you don't buy Pique over Xavi, that still means Mr. Hernandez is 4th best on his own team. Why oh why is he in the running for player of the year? Please explain that to me. No seriously, the comments are open.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pictures that shouldn't be lost in the grind

Notice how Forlan looks surprise. Come on Doug, this happens all the time! (Photo-find courtesy of ESA)