Bemoaning the Leadership Void at Chelsea FC

Back when I first became a football fan – and subsequently a Chelsea supporter – in the early 2000’s, I was spoilt with the presence of all the massive personalities in the club who constantly showed immense leadership on the field – especially when Chelsea needed it most. These are players who would constantly motivate other fellow players, never stop trying till the final whistle, never accept defeat, never give up, and never let others around them give up. They were also players who would sometimes win games just by the fear their daunting personalities instilled in the opposition.

drogba-terry-lampard

To me personally, Didier Drogba was the man who embodied all the qualities I love in a footballer – the technical ability, athleticism, ability to shepherd his fellow players when the going gets tough, and the ability to intimidate and bully the opponent defense into complete submission. Just ask Arsene Wenger and he will personally attest to all of that. And then you had the likes of Essien and Ballack who were completely in their element tackling, shoving, and generally bullying the opponents – especially in the mid-field. Do you remember anyone ever picking a fight with Essien or Ballack AND WINNING it?!!? And then you had the calm presence of Lampard and Terry – two guys who formed the core of the team and whom you could almost always count on. And then you still had Ashley Cole and Ivanovic – two players who displayed their own sense of leadership to the team and the opponents.

Regardless of what each player’s qualities were, the team almost always played with a “Fuck you, we will find a way to win this game!” kind of attitude. That confidence may have bordered on arrogance at times. But for the fans, that gave a sense of belief in the team that no matter what the scoreline was, there was always hope and that it was never over till the final whistle. (Cue 2012 Champions League campaign).

And that is what I miss the most now – and have missed for a good few years. Ever since the departures of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and company, there has been a massive massive leadership void within Chelsea that has not come anywhere near to being filled. There has been almost nobody who has taken over the role of the team motivator. Cesar Azpilecueta has done an acceptable job as the Captain but has inevitably been far below the standards set by John Terry and Frank Lampard. The club has definitely had its share of stars – Hazard, Fabregas, Costa – but I don’t recollect anyone stepping up to shepherd the players when the scoreline is not in their favor. But the personalities I miss the most are those who took up the role of the team bully. Chelsea has sorely missed someone on the pitch who instilled a sense of fear and intimidation in the opponents just by their mere presence. Perhaps a case can be made for Diego “I go to battle” Costa for the role of the team bully – but that was just a temporary stint.

So as much as I am super excited to see this generation of super young Chelsea players grow and play together for the next several years, I still do not know who will grow up to become the next leaders of the team – someone who will yell at their own teammates to not give up, someone who will set the team’s standards by their own work, someone who instills a sense of belief in the teammates that it is not over till its over, and someone who will intimidate and bully the opponents into self doubt and submission. My money is on Andreas Christenssen, Christian Pulisic, Reece James, and – get this – Billy Gilmour. I don’t expect to see any significant transformation in any of them for at least 2-4 years, but I do have a sense that this young crop of Chelsea players will eventually grow on to take up the mantle vacated by the likes of Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Essien, Ballack and others.

As a side note, I do have to acknowledge this lack of ‘leaders’ being an issue with most of the other top clubs in England. Nobody has taken up the roles vacated by Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic (Man Utd); or Kompany, Yaya Toure (Man City); Henry, Bergkamp, Viera, Pires (Arsenal); or Gerrard, Carragher (Liverpool). I wonder who the ones would be stepping up in those clubs.

Life Lessons from AFC Ajax: Playing Without Fear

I wrote this less than 2 hours after watching Juventus get eliminated by Ajax Amsterdam in the Quarter Finals of the UEFA Champions League. What I saw was not a narrative laden story of a comeback, or an underdog overcoming the odds, or a bunch of players showing ‘team spirit’, or a dazzling individual performance, or big money players vs inexperienced youth, or Johan Cryuff’s Total Football, and definitely nothing related to Cristiano Ronaldo’s broken streak of UCL Semi-Final appearances and/or trophies. (Make no mistake, you WILL read a lot of articles peddling those narratives in the coming days and weeks). No. What I saw transcended all that can be fit into a nice narrative. To me, what Ajax did and showed the world had almost nothing to do with football itself per se. Instead, what Ajax did to Real Madrid and Juventus came down to just one single idea:

A complete lack of fear.

I have been a loyal and dedicated Juventus fan for over 16 years now, sticking with the club through their current absolute dominance in Serie A and (especially) through their darkest time period during Calciopoli when they were forced to play in Serie B. I have been through enough heartbreaks rooting for this team in Europe in the last decade and a half. Losing 3 finals, getting eliminated in injury time in a knockout round, giving up big leads – I have been through them all. So when Ronaldo arrived in Turin this past summer, I was once again hopeful of finally seeing the Old Lady lift that one elusive trophy. So yes, it was extremely painful to see Juventus get knocked out in the Quarter Finals today by Ajax. But as much as that hurt, it also reminded me of why I began to support Juventus in the first place.

It was the 14th of May in 2003. A packed house at the now defunct Stadio Delle Alpi awaited the 2nd leg of the Juventus – Real Madrid Semi-final. Real Madrid led 2-1 coming into the 2nd leg thanks to their victory at the Bernabaeu. And then, this happened:

I vividly remember watching the game in my living room well past midnight. My parents were asleep upstairs and I tried my best to contain my enthusiasm by not yelling out loud during the match. At that time, I had just begun to watch football. I had no team to support and it appeared that the default team to root for among my friends circle was Manchester United. But they had just been dispatched in a rather humiliating fashion by the magnificence of THAT Ronaldo a couple of weeks prior. And I never bothered much about them anyway. But when I saw what Juventus did to Real Madrid that night, it made me fall in love with Juve for reasons I never really understood – untill I saw Ajax do the same to them 16 years after that night.

That night in Turin, Juventus played not just with a will and determination to WIN, but also with an attitude of complete fearlessness. I can still remember the excitement from that night every time Juventus got the ball. You just felt like SOMETHING would happen! The quick passing of the balls, Edgar Davids just refusing any Madrid player to pass through, Pavel Nedved pulling the strings and scoring the goal of the season, Del Piero and Trezeguet just making something happen out of nothing, Gigi Buffon reminding Luis Figo that he simply cannot score against him from a penalty kick – it was all there! That night Juventus played not just with an intent to win, but more so with an attitude of having absolutely nothing to lose. Real Madrid had absolutely no answer to Juventus running amok. Even THAT Ronaldo had nothing to offer. How do you play against a team that is just ‘going for it’ because they just don’t give a fuck otherwise? What strategy do you follow when you have the opposition coming at you just for fun and playing with a “Fuck you! I don’t care” attitude? That night, Juventus played for fun. That night, Juventus played like they had absolutely nothing to lose.

That night, Juventus played with absolutely no fear.

And I just fell in love with them then.

16 years since that night, today, Ajax reminded me of THAT Juventus and why I fell in love with them then. Like that night in Turin, Ajax today played like they had nothing to lose. They played for fun, and they played without fear. Even in the last ten minutes, when other teams would have fallen back to defend, Ajax just continued to express themselves the only way they knew – by playing without fear or having anything to lose. They eventually won the tie 3-2 (even though it could have EASILY been 6-2 or 8-2) and earned a deserved standing ovation from the Juventini in Turin. (Perhaps there were many more in that stadium who were also reminded of THAT Juve from all those years ago).

The lack of fear that Ajax played with stems from the attitude of playing like they have nothing to lose. That attitude in turn comes from a general to complete lack of preset expectations. Let us face it. Ajax absolutely did not have ‘Win the UEFA Champions League’ in their list of objectives at the start of their season. They probably still don’t. Which is why they are able to play with such a fearlessness and just have the opposition be completely clueless on how to address their approach. If they can iron out their decision making in front of goal, they can wipe out any team if they continue to play with this attitude. So I sincerely hope they continue to NOT have ‘Win UEFA Champions League’ as one of their objectives this season – until after they win it.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that due to the same lack of expectations, they will ultimately be compelled to sell their best players to clubs that do have those expectations and want to build the best team to fulfill them. That is also unfortunate in an ironic way because the very players who might potentially win the Champions League by playing without fear this year will end up in teams that DO play with the fear and expectations that they set themselves. But till that happens, let us all just appreciate and enjoy the phenomenal display of fearlessness shown by this young Ajax team.

Read the second part here. 

Dear Football Commentator: VAR is NOT the Controversy; YOU Are

Earlier this week, I watched the phenomenal Man City vs Tottenham 2nd leg at the Etihad. The tie ended 4-3 to City with Spurs moving to the Semis on away goals rule. Despite the remarkable scoreline, one of the most obvious things that will come to anyone’s recollection about the game will be the use of VAR to decide two instances of goals – with one being awarded (Llorente), and another not awarded due to an offside (Sterling). While the decisions were correct, the way the commentators portrayed VAR and its role in the process has been very annoying – in this match and others. By commentators, I am referring to anyone with any significant influence and position who puts out opinions/commentary/articles etc. So this includes live commentary personnel, football writers, twitter celebrities, fan blog writers, etc.

Situations like Sterling’s goal being negated for a missed offside decision are the exact kind of decisions that the VAR was brought in for. And they have been doing their job just fine in Serie A and other competitions – just like they have begun to do so in the Champions League. So the only objective way to react to situations like this is to acknowledge the role the VAR played in ensuring the correct decision was made during the match.

Instead, in a ridiculous turn of events, most football commentators have come to characterize ANY decision made by the VAR as ‘controversial’! This is even more true when it comes to the VAR overturning a decision made by the on field referee. Until recently, the same commentators had been calling for the introduction of VAR to rectify the incorrect decisions made in the field. But when it is finally in play and starts overturning those very same incorrect decisions, it is suddenly deemed to be ‘controversial’! Are you serious?

In addition to just terming any VAR intervention as ‘controversial’, there are a bunch of other phrases that these commentators have an affinity to use:

  • City were “robbed by VAR”
  • “VAR denies” City a goal
  • “VAR raises its head” once again in this tie
  • “VAR drama once again”

Ok first of all, nobody ever gets ‘robbed’ by the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ assumes that you had actually scored a goal LEGITIMATELY to start with, and the VAR overturns it for no good reason. This has never happened in the short history of the VAR. Getting ‘robbed’ can only refer to incidents like Frank Lampard’s ghost goal in the 2006 World Cup which he did score legitimately, but was not awarded by the referee. Or it can also refer to Tom Henning Overbo’s refereeing that night in Stamford Bridge in 2009 (Oh Lord please give me the strength to let go of this!). So if a team scores a goal, and the VAR later catches a foul or offside in its build up, it is no longer a legitimate goal to start with! So no, VAR does not ‘rob’ anyone of anything.

And no. VAR does not ‘deny’ anyone of a goal either. It is fair to make statements like “Hugo Lloris denies City a chance to go ahead with a remarkable save”, or even “the striker was denied a goal by the woodwork”. But making a statement like “VAR denies City a goal” is akin to accusing it of ‘robbing’ (see above). The only way to use ‘deny’ and ‘VAR’ in the same sentence is something like this: “VAR correctly denies Manchester City of a goal for an offside that was not spotted in the field.”

And what does it even mean to say “VAR raises its head again”? I have heard this multiple times on TV. The phrase ‘raises its head’ is generally used to show something under a negative light – which is why you typically hear people say “….raises its ugly head again”. Nobody ever says “…raises its beautiful head again”. Just because an on-field decision is overturned by the VAR doesn’t make it something that needs to be shown in a negative light. VAR is a process that allows the referee to utilize additional time and information to make a correct decision – even if that means overturning what was previously awarded.

And let us all just agree that there is no ‘drama’ with VAR. The only ‘drama’ lies is in people’s reactions to potentially overturning an incorrect decision. So it is not the VAR that is ‘causing’ the drama. If anything, it is the VAR that is being used to ‘resolve’ or even ‘prevent’ the drama arising out of an incorrect decision on the field.

But why is all this important you may ask? After all, it is just a game and commentators are supposed to give words to what is happening or has happened in their own words.

OK first of all, no competitive sporting event is ever just a game. Don’t even dare say that to a sports fan – regardless of sport. Secondly, the primary requirement of any commentator’s job is to be unbiased and objective. Everything else follows that. A part of that requirement is to not create a narrative that simply doesn’t exist. And that is where I am unhappy.

The problem with generating a narrative that terms VAR as something ‘controversial’ is that it ultimately leads to football fans questioning the very integrity of the decision making process in the game. This is highly ironic as the VAR was brought in because the integrity of the decision making process was being questioned (due to a large number of high profile incorrect calls). Further, it can lead to a lot of resentment among the fans whose team were at the so called ‘receiving end’ of the VAR process. This resentment will typically not exist if the accepted narrative is that the VAR did what the on field referee should have initially done. But if the act of VAR overturning an on field call is termed ‘controversial’, this will always lead to resentment and a feeling of having been ‘robbed’ or ‘denied’ by some arcane process. And in the long run, that is unsustainable as a lot of people will eventually simply call for scrapping the VAR. And how unfortunate would that be!

That is not to say the VAR is perfect. I would love to see the referee make a live announcement to the entire stadium to explain the final decision after VAR review (NFL style). This can go a long way to let the fans all around the world know the thinking behind the decision. And that would also hopefully shut these commentators up as they can no longer simply speculate why the referee made that decision.

But till then, we have to acknowledge that the VAR is simply providing additional information and time to the on field referee to make the correct calls. Overturning an incorrect call does not make it controversial. In fact, the commentators who continue to call that process as controversial are the ones who are actually causing the controversy.

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So here is my sincere request to all football commentators:

The VAR is a good thing that has happened to football and it is also long overdue. It does not become controversial just because it was used to overturn an on field decision, and it certainly does not rob anyone of anything. Your job is to stay objective and unbiased in how you report the football events, which means you need to understand and acknowledge what VAR is and what it is not. So, as the Wolf would say,

“Pretty please, with sugar on top, do your fucking jobs!”

Current Status of the 2012 NFL WR Drafts: A Statistical Analysis

The NFL Draft of 2017 just completed today and every team and their fans are excited about all their recruits. All this is completely understandable given the overall hype and significance of the event. After all, this is where it all begins for the future NFL stars – right?

The survivorship bias in the sporting community is extremely pronounced and is present worldwide in all sports. That is, everybody talks about all those who make it big, with very minimal attention given to those who didn’t make it at all. With respect to the NFL Draft, this meant everybody was talking about who would become the next star quarterback or who will become the next Ezekiel-Elliot-inspired star Rookie Running Back. Or perhaps, which late round draft pick or the free agent would be the surprise success story. But I wasn’t interested in any of that.

What I was interested in was not who would make it big, but who would not make it at all? How many players would never see their names listed on Active Roster? How many players would be out of the picture within 2-3 years if not sooner? And what would happen to them?

To answer that, I decided to look into a small sample of a draft class from the past. Specifically, I chose the 2012 Draft class for Wide Receivers and see how they all panned out – each and every one of the 33 who were drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft. Which round did they get drafted? How many years – if at all – did they play? Are they still active?

What I found was partly expected but very revealing at the same time. And it is also clearly something that is generally ignored by the sporting community. I evaluated the following general parameters for this task:

  1. Current Status of players – Active, Retired, Free Agent, Non NFL Football
  2. No. of Years on Active Roster
  3. Correlation with which round the player was drafted

Based on these parameters, I went through the bios and stats of all the 33 players who were drafted in that WR position in 2012. Here are the charts:

Current Status of 2012 WR Drafts

2012 WR Current Status

As you can see above, only 30% of the original draft picks are currently still active and are scheduled to play in the 2017 season. About 20% are currently plying their football trade in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Distribution of Active Roster Years

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution

2012 WR Active Roster Year Distribution - Pie

There may be 10 players out of the 33 who have played all 5 years since being drafted, but this also means there are 23 other players who are no longer active and whose NFL football careers lasted less than 4 years, with 6 of them never seeing the football field.

Correlation of Current Active Status with Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round

Active Status vs Drafting Round - percent

These two are my favorite charts. This tells me that which round the player was drafted appears to have some correlation with the player being currently on an active NFL roster – with those drafted higher having a higher percentage of staying active longer. This is a general positive correlation with the perceived skill level of the corresponding player at the time of the draft. Of course this is not a perfect correlation as we see that the 1st round picks have a lesser fraction of them still active as compared to the 3rd (or even the 5th) round picks.

It has to be noted that the issues of injury and NFL code violations (mostly drug abuse or DUI) are the unknowns in this analyses and cannot be quantified or predicted. It is also not possible to determine how a player would have panned out if he was not injured or did not commit those violations. (Case in point, the #1 WR pick of 2012 Justin Blackmon was suspended from the NFL after 2 incidents of drug abuse violations). But historical data can provide teams with some information that can be used to predict what fraction of players typically become inactive due to injury or NFL code violations.

But returning to my original point about all the players who will NOT make it in the NFL, I have some kind of an answer with this small sample size. About 70% of the recruits do not make it, with about 20% continuing their career in the Canadian Football League or the Indoor Football League.

Going further, I would like to do this same analyses for various draft classes, breaking up the data by drafting round, position, year of draft, etc. This can give some very valuable information for teams and fans to use while actively avoiding the survivorship bias. So what does this mean for the NFL Draft of 2017? Well, if the results from this small sample size were to hold, then expect only 1 to 3 players from each team’s recruits to actually pan out a proper career.

Now that should get some people talking!

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On a related note, the HBO Show BALLERS is highly recommended for those wanting to see what happens to football players after their retirement. What do they do with their lives? How do they cope with the sudden change of lifestyle? What regrets haunt them from the past? Dwayne Johnson has excellently portrayed the character of a retired NFL RB who is trying to make it in the post-football era of his life. This is not a show which has the ‘party’ or the ‘high-end society’ lifestyle as its primary focus. This is a show that instead truly focuses on the off-season troubles faced by the folks who run the show from behind the scenes – including the ones who are now out of work. Highly recommended!

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Raw data can be found here: 2012 WR NFL Status