The Breakdown: Spain vs. Italy Euro 2012 Final Preview

Here’s the first article from contributor Greg Visone.

Historically speaking, this is probably the best Euro Final matchup we could’ve asked for. This is only the fourth time that the Final of the European Championship is a rematch between teams that met earlier in the competition (the other three: Soviet Union v The Netherlands in Euro 88, Czech Republic v Germany in Euro 96 & Portugal v Greece in Euro 2004). There is, however, a lot more history to Spain-Italy than the 1-1 draw we saw earlier this month in Group C action.

Spain and Italy have played each other thirty times, with Italy having a marginally better overall record, boasting a 10-12-8 record (win-draw-loss) against La Roja. The record, however, does not show the whole story. These two countries have played each other five times in major competitions. At the 1934 World Cup, hosts Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their quarterfinal replay en route to winning their first ever World Cup.

The two teams would not play each other in a major tournament for nearly fifty years, until they were drawn together in Group B at Euro 1980, another tournament hosted by the Italians. They drew 0-0 in their first group stage match, with Italy finishing second in the group and Spain last. Italy went on to finish fourth in the competition.

At Euro 88, Italy defeated Spain 1-0 in their Group A match. Much like Euro 1980, Italy would advance from the group stage at the expense of Spain. Italy also went on to defeat Spain 2-1 in their 1994 World Cup quarterfinal match, with Italy’s Roberto Baggio winning it in the 88th minute for the Italians at Foxboro. Italy would go on to lose the World Cup Final on penalties against Brazil, with star man Roberto Baggio missing the ultimate penalty at the Rose Bowl.

Spain would finally get a leg-up in this rivalry with a win over the Italians at Euro 2008, when they won their quarterfinal matchup on penalties. Spain would go on to win the tournament, hoisting their first major trophy since they won Euro 1964 on home soil.

Now that we have the history of this matchup out of the way, we can finally focus on how the two teams might focus tactically against each other in the Final.

Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque isn’t going to change his tactics or lineup just because it’s the Final. The thing about this Spain side that I love is that they will not deviate from their style of play for any opponent. They will go into this match with their thought process being “We are Spain, we’re gonna pass you to death, and eventually pass it right into the net. You know what we’re gonna do, now try and stop it.” That is the mindset of a side that’s won the last two major tournaments they’ve competed in (as much as I’d love to count the Confederations Cup, I won’t do it because it’d be wrong).

For the most part, Spain’s lineup will be a formality: Casillas in goal, with Pique, Sergio Ramos, Arbeloa, and Alba at the back four; Busquets, Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, David Silva are going to play straight across the midfield. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Spain will have a striker in the starting XI—the first time Spain and Italy faced each other, Spain had midfield maestro Cesc Fábregas line up alongside the other five midfielders, leaving high-quality strikers Fernando “Judas” Torres, Fernando Llorente, and Álvaro Negredo on the bench. This “False 9” formation is what AC Roma invented with Francesco Totti in Fabregas’s role. More recently, Barcelona has employed with a False 9 with Messi up front.

Naturally, Spain dominated possession and passed Italy to death, with their goal coming from a wonderful build-up, as Xavi found Iniesta, who found Silva right outside the box, who in turn put in a perfect through-ball for Fabregas, who passed it right into the back of the net past Gigi Buffon to equalize.

The big problem with their no striker formation was their lack of possession in the final third. They gave the ball away very easily, mostly because each of the six midfielders looked for someone else to finish off the chances. In short: Fabregas is no Totti and certainly no Messi. When striker Fernando Torres came on, his presence enabled them to keep possession more in the final third and made them look more likely to score. He created channels between the center-backs—his movement always had to be marked 1v1, allowing Spain to more effectively overload the final third. Torres’s finishing was poor, however, with him snatching at chances in a very similar fashion to what we’ve seen from him at Chelsea the last year and a half. Despite Torres’s toothless finishing, Spain has won their two games with him starting by a combined score of 5-0. Without him? 3-1 on aggregate.

Del Bosque hasn’t started Torres in the knockout stage, so don’t expect any changes. Either Negredo or Fabregas will occupy that False 9 role. Spain have enough quality midfielders to be able to play the way they’d like to in this Final. Yes, they’ll have to bring on a striker eventually, but they’re going play very cautious and try to put themselves in a position to win the last half-hour of the match. They’re going to focus on keeping possession the way that they have the last half-decade. It’s what got them to this date with history. They’re looking to become the first country to win three consecutive major tournaments, and they’re one win away from doing just that. Now is no time to deviate from their strategy.

While Italy has yet to go behind at any stage, they’ve not been very convincing overall. They’ve done just enough at every stage to get through, which, at the end of the day, is all that really matters. They started off the tournament with two draws against Spain and Croatia, which had them needing to defeat Ireland and have Spain defeat Croatia for them to go through, in addition to a bunch of whacky scenarios because of the Euro 2012 Group Stage tiebreakers being very self-contradictory (As a side note, I’d like to make the following request to UEFA: for Euro 2016 in France, please just use goal difference to decide tie-breakers. As much as I loved the chaos you caused, it was just too confusing. I mean, for once, FIFA actually has done something better than you. Think about that). They took the lead early against Ireland, went on to win 2-0, and, thanks to some great goalkeeping by Iker Casillas, got the 1-0 Spain win they needed to advance to the knockout stages.

Italy would not be here if it wasn’t for Spain defeating Croatia. Imagine how Spain would feel if they lost tomorrow. It would have them wishing they’d come to that rumored “gentleman’s agreement” with Croatia to draw 2-2 and assure each side went through and knocked Italy out.

As far as performances have been concerned, Andrea Pirlo, star midfield maestro for Serie A Champions Juventus, has led the Italians from day one. His through-ball to super-sub Antonio Di Natale gave Italy the lead against Spain the first time they met in this tournament (which I’ve referenced far too often in so far in this piece). He then scored a stunning free kick against Croatia to give them lead five minutes before the halftime whistle. His free kick against Ireland in the 35th minute gave Italy the lead against Ireland, as it found the head of AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano. Pirlo sealed the win for Italy in the dying moments as his corner found Mario Balotelli, Italy’s leading scorer in this tournament, as he finished it off in stunning fashion. His cheeky penalty against England is yet another highlight of his tournament performance so far, as he chipped it past and already committed Joe Hart in a show of his pure footballing class. He also made a save on the goal-line off a corner against Germany in the first five minutes, which, if it had gone in, might’ve changed the course of the match from there on out. Barring a calamitous performance against Spain in the Final, he is all-but assured to be declared the best player of the tournament by UEFA when the full-time whistle is blown.

Mario Balotelli’s two goals against Germany saw them through to the Final in Kyiv, but like his first goal of the tournament against Ireland, both goals were the product of beautiful passes, with Cassano evading two defenders before putting in the beautiful cross (which he headed in brilliantly) and the beautiful through-ball by Montolivo to set up the second, which saw Balotelli through on goal behind the chasing German defense, something very uncharacteristic of the pre-tournament favorites.

Italy lined up in a standard 3-5-2 against Spain in the Group C encounter, with Giaccherini and Maggio on the wings of the five-man midfield. The primary means of attack for Italy in this formation was through-balls to Balotelli and Cassano, while trying to disrupt the incredibly talented midfield of Spain. Di Natale went on for an already booked Balotelli in the 56th minute before scoring on the aforementioned through-ball from Pirlo slightly after the hour mark. They also lined up in a 3-5-2 against Croatia, but Pirlo played more of a defensive midfield role.

Since the Ireland match, Italy have lined up in a 4-1-3-2, with Pirlo as a defensive midfielder, playing directly behind Thiago Motta or Montolivo, with Marchiso and De Rossi on the wings. Abate would then come in as a right back, moving Chiellini to left back from his center back role in the 3-5-2, with Barzagli and Bonucci being the center back pairing. I would expect Italy to line up in this formation for the final against Spain. However, because of the success of the 3-5-2 in the opening match, I would not be surprised if Prandelli reverted back to that for the rematch.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

As much as I’d love to see Italy win the Final for the sake of my bet, something tells me that this Spanish team has come too far to lose now. They’re on the brink of becoming the greatest national team side ever by winning three consecutive major international tournaments. To lose now would be as brutal as it gets. That being said, I expect both sides to play cautiously. I’m gonna bet $5 on a 0-0 draw after 90 minutes, which is currently going off at 5/1. I think Spain will either win 1-0 in extra time or seal the win on penalties.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Hack-A-LeBron: A New Strategy For A New LeBron

Here’s the first article from contributor Russell Simon.

The full circle of LeBron James’s basketball life was completed last week. By finally reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—a rainbow littered with the corpses of close but not close enough seasons in Cleveland and Miami, James was able to deliver ridiculously dominant performance after ridiculously dominant performance en route to the Larry O’Brien trophy.

He was able to dominant the way he did because he changed his offensive game. Look at chart to the right, created by Kirk Goldsberry and Matt Adams for Court Vision Analytics. LeBron has become an absolute monster near the basket—even more so than in the past. According to Goldsberry and Adams, 88% of LeBron’s shots in the
regular season were either from close or midrange. During the 2011-2012 season, LeBron averaged .4 more points per game then he did in the 2010-2011 season and raised his three point shooting, field goal, and rebounds per game percentages. LeBron took one less 3 pointer a game this season compared to last, but took about the same amount of shots, showing that he wasn’t going to settle for 3s as much. That helped him raise his true shooting percentage (what shooting percentage would be if 3 pointers and three throws were calculated into a regular shooting percentage) one whole point from 59.4 to 60.5%. This may be small, but it was a career high for him. 

LeBron also made the left block his go to spot on offense. He was at his most consistent offensively by getting the ball close to the basket either passing to an open man or taking a high percentage shot. The Celtics series was a perfect example of how the new LeBron carried the Heat to victory (Game 6 not withstanding. That was a barrage of jumpers that we’ve never seen from him before). The Heat were down 3-2 in that series, and LeBron wasn’t getting into his sets offensively. Far too often, he was catching the ball near the 3 point line—too far away from the basket for his liking. This resulted in only an average of 7 free throw attempts a game for LeBron during those losses. But during the 4 wins in that series, LeBron caught the ball at the left block over, and over, and over again, getting to the line on average 14 times a game.

This transformation puts opposing teams in a serious quandary. Teams now have to make the impossible choice whether to guard LeBron heavily up on the block, or give LeBron tons of space in the areas in which he is least effective. Both of these choices are doomed to failure. It is impossible to guard LeBron heavily down low. We saw this in the Finals, when James Harden tried to impede him when LeBron was trying to get into the lane without the ball. This either ended with LeBron getting the ball on the block and taking right to Harden, or a foul being called on Harden. Given the propensity of NBA officials to call ticky tack fouls on players, guarding LeBron with this strategy is a double whammy—teams are put into foul trouble, all while Lebron is barely even touched. The other strategy is potentially even worse, because giving LeBron space means he just gets a ten foot head start on his way to a full on assault on the basket. It can lead to posterization, humiliation, devastation, and perhaps someday decapitation.

I’m here with another way. I’m here with a strategy that can potentially give teams a fighting chance (no pun intended as you will soon discover) at stopping LeBron. It’s been used in the past. Throughout the 1990s, this strategy helped strong teams assert their will.

It was a strategy built on protecting the paint at all costs. It worked for the 1993 New York Knicks—a team built on grit and toughness, with Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith, and Anthony Mason as the centerpieces. That team went 60-22, and they did so by playing tough, aggressive basketball. According to a New York Times article published just before the start of the NBA playoffs in 1993, the Knicks had 12 flagrant fouls during that season, while the league average was only 3.8. Charles Oakley himself committed six, including an incredible stretch where he averaged a flagrant a week.

Fast forward back to 2012. In the Finals, LeBron destroyed the Thunder near the basket. He got to the line eight to nine times a game while rarely being knocked down. The Thunder lost in 5. Who knows what would have happened if someone on the Thunder had fouled him hard nearly every time he went to the basket.

This strategy—let’s call it Hack-A-Lebron—can work better then what the Thunder did. If teams actually made a concerted effort to not give LeBron any easy buckets by adopting a defensive strategy based on intimidation and toughness, it would force LeBron to earn his buckets from the free throw line. LeBron is better at hitting lay-ups and dunking then he is at hitting free throws. In the series against Indiana, he was 72.5% from the charity stripe. In the Conference Finals he was even worse, going 65% from the line. There’s also the added psychological affect of knowing contact is coming, something that could potentially play with LeBron mentally and affect his game. (Just maybe?)

LeBron has said over and over again that he plays his best basketball when he is happy and carefree, giving the world the mental image of a once in a generation athletic beast frolicking through a dandelion field while reading the Hunger Games. He once told Rachel Nichols, “I play the game fun, joyful, and I let my game do all of the talking.” Is it possible that LeBron could eventually become annoyed, and mad, by receiving constant contact from defenders? Not likely. He’s too cool on the court. Remember the game in the regular season where Russell Westbrook got the ball stolen by Wade on a crossover, Wade passed it to LeBron on the break, and Westbrook just took him out from behind when he went up for an easy two?

LeBron just walked away after it happened. He didn’t react and he didn’t noticeably up his game. He didn’t try and punish the Thunder for the foul. There were no revenge shots. Not to take anything away from what became a virtuoso 34-point performance, but he reacted in a far different way than Metta World Peace or Rasheed Wallace would’ve. LeBron isn’t a player to get angry over fouls.

Westbrook only received a flagrant 1 for that foul, but at some point repeatedly egregious fouls will result in ejections and suspensions. Teams will have to adapt their Hack-A-LeBron strategy away from over the top flagrants, and more towards fouls that simply prevent him from getting a shot off. LeBron had a plethora of and-one opportunities in the playoffs simply because when players fouled him, LeBron was still able to have a good look at the basket. Preventing him from getting a shot off is no easy task though, as all of his and-ones prove. He’s just too big and too fast.

Hack-A-LeBron can work for teams with great depth, especially at the forward position. That 1993 Knicks team I mentioned earlier had eleven guys who could play: Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Rolando Blackman, Charles Oakley, Greg Anthony, Tony Campbell, Hubert Davis, and Herb Williams. Any team in 2012 that goes 11-deep has an insurance policy for hack a LeBron. A team like the Dallas team that won in 2011 immediately jumps out as a modern era example of a team with that kind of depth. That team was absolutely stacked, with J.J. Barea, Brendan Haywood, Jason Terry, Deshawn Stephenson, and even Brian Cardinal getting minutes in the Finals. That team didn’t need to play Hack-A-LeBron, but they could if they wanted to, because they had guys off the bench that could step up.

Teams may want to try putting a power forward on LeBron more often. The Heat don’t have strong bigs, so teams could sacrifice a player in the paint to matchup with LeBron. Power forwards, while not having LeBron’s speed, can get into the paint to Hack-A-LeBron. Inside-outside forwards like Serge Ibaka proved to be an effective defensive weapon against LeBron in the Finals. Although Ibaka lacks the lateral speed to keep up with LeBron, hit shot-blocking ability made up for it. Unfortunately, Ibaka didn’t guard LeBron often enough. Not every team is blessed with a shot-blocker like Ibaka, but as more and more freakishly athlete power forwards come into the league (Anthony Davis, Perry Jones III), they’ll prove to be a challenge for LeBron. They’re big enough to prevent shots on the perimeter, fast and lanky enough to block shots, and strong enough to commit hard fouls.

I must admit, I kind of feel as though I should be wearing a Saints hat and a Motorola coaches headset a la Greg Williams. But while Hack-A-LeBron certainly is not a totally ethical policy, the course of basketball history has included many teams that played this rough, aggressive style. The Chuck Daly’s Piston’s of the 80’s, the Knicks of the 90’s, and the teams that put Shaq on the line constantly in the early 2000’s all played with a style similar to the one I am advocating. We are in a new era in the NBA—LeBron’s era. It’s an era that’s gone soft by way of the official’s whistle, but NBA teams can fight this by using a strategy of good old Hack-A-LeBron.

An Uneventful NBA Draft: Talking Points and Non-Trades

I used to follow all the NBA mock drafts religiously. For years, I’d dive into every Chad Ford mock column, reading up on how the draft should go. Year after year, I’d be disappointed that the mock drafts would almost never match the real thing. It was silly of me to assume that things would work out that way—after all, what’s the point in watching the draft if the whole thing is scripted (in Stern’s NBA, it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually was)? Mock drafts usually get blown up because of trades, or the simple stupidity of most NBA GMs. Teams would swap draft picks for cash, other players, “future considerations,” and picks in the distant future. It was a mess to keep track of. This year, however, there was no chaos. There was only one first round trade compared to 7 in 2011, 7 in 2010, and 3 in 2009. There was a predictable dryness to the 2012 draft, but some major talking points still popped up.

The biggest moves were perhaps the ones that didn’t happen. The Bobcats refused the Cavaliers advances to trade up to the #2 pick. That led to Bobcats taking Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a player who’s now expected to shoot the ball 15 times a game, despite not being a great scorer. He only averaged 11.2 points a game on 8 shots at the University of Kentucky, and now has to carry the Bobcats. Yikes. But if there’s a player who’s prepared to step-up and lead immediately, it’s Kidd-Gilchrist.

Because the Bobcats refused to give up their pick, Cavs ended up missing out on Bradley Beal, who landed in the Wizard’s lap at the #3 pick. He’ll now battle John Wall for touches in the back-court. The Cavs, desperate to add a scoring threat, reached for Syracuse guard Dion Waiters at the #4 pick—someone who never started a collegiate game. Curious move.

Two other non-trades that are likely to have an impact on offseason proceedings: potential Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard trades. The Rockets had been stockpiling picks in an attempt to trade for either of them. Dwight Howard was a small possibility, as he changed his mind (for about the 10,000th time) and has spent the past few days trying to force a move, preferably to the Nets. The Nets had flipped their first round pick for Gerald Wallace, so how Howard was going to get his desired move before the draft was beyond me. The Rockets failed to land either big man, or move up into the top 10 to grab Andre Drummond. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has got to be thinking, “Great, now I have three rookie 1st round picks on my roster, none of whom are lottery picks. I wonder if Paul Millsap is available?!”

The Kings managed to not screw up their pick, taking Thomas Robinson at the #5 spot. He’ll spend the year tag-teaming the boards with Demarcus Cousins while the rest of the team jacks up shots and plays no defense. NBA fans in Seattle light candles of hope.

Harrison Barnes slid down the draft like everyone pre-workouts expected him to. Yet after he tested so well, he was expected to be a top-5 pick. He fell to the Warriors at #7, giving them a 1-3 that looks like this: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes. It’ll be raining 3s in the Bay next season! With David Lee and Andrew Bogut in the front-court, the Warriors look promising. (Sorry for giving Warriors fans false hope!) But since they’re the Warriors, they’ll probably be in the lottery again next year. Hey, at least they’ll be a fun team to play with in 2K.

The Pistons took Andre Drummond/Kwame Brown 2.0 at #9 overall, giving him a chance to team up with Greg Monroe in a front-court that’ll get the fans buzzing for about a week.

The most controversial pick of the whole draft, and the worst one in my estimation, was the Hornets pick of Duke guard Austin Rivers at #10. There’s an inherent problem with Rivers: he thinks he’s Kobe but he’s not Kobe. Imagine if Kobe Bryant was still himself mentally but wasn’t nearly as talented—he’d basically be a member of the Kings, but with chemistry-killing tenacity. Rivers is a fake point guard who had more turnovers than assists last season. He’s got a chance to average 15 points a night in the NBA, but the Hornets already have a big-time scoring guard in Eric Gordon, who’s arguably the 4th best shooting guard in the league. (Think about it. After Wade, Kobe, Harden, and Joe Johnson, who’s left? Monta Ellis? DeMar DeRozan?) Why take away shots from Gordon when there was an opportunity to draft Kendall Marshall? He’s the best passer in the draft, who the Suns eventually snapped up to be Steve Nash’s successor. It would make too much sense to pair the draft’s best passer with Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon.

Of all the teams that stood pat, the Thunder came away strong. They were making a push to trade up to grab Bradley Beal, but were unwilling to part with James Harden in a deal. Instead, Baylor forward Perry Jones III fell to them at #29. Once seen as a potential lottery pick (New York Times Magazine profiled him in March 2011. They compared him to Magic Johnson and Tracy McGrady. Remember though: it’s the New York Times Magazine with a sports feature not written by either Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell), Jones III vastly underachieved at Baylor. He’s a slender, athletic big man who’s very raw, but that’s just what the Thunder need: athletic bigs. He can run the court better than any forward in the draft, and he’ll thrive in the Thunder’s track-paced transition offense.

The Celtics walked away with easily the best draft (outside of getting Anthony Davis, of course). Jared Sullinger fell all the way to them at #21. Sullinger had been red flagged by NBA teams for his back troubles, but at #21, he’s a steal. He averaged nearly 17 and 10 at The Ohio State last season, and was rated as the best low-post player in the entire draft. A player that productive at a major basketball program should never fall that far for injury worries. (See: DeJuan Blair and his lack of ACLs.) For a team that lacked any post presence whatsoever in 2012, Sullinger is a huge boost. The Celtics took Fab Melo at #22, landing a defensive weapon who’ll own the offensive glass. The Celtics got bigger to protect Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass. Throw in center Greg Stiemsma to that rotation, and the Celtics all of a sudden have a very versatile and deep front-court. One more run at the title? With Rondo, Pierce, and Garnett, anything’s possible.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

So We Meet Again…

So sports blogging, we meet again. It’s been a while since we’ve crossed paths. I met you back in 2007, when I began rambling in broken Middle School English on SportingNews.com. A lack of passion and lack of time (high school is more work than college), caused me to abandon you. It was like raising a child until your baby teeth started falling out and then putting you up for adoption.

Well I’m back, and with gifts for you.

Through the time I’ve spent writing for BrilliantlyBlunt.com, and the viewership gained from JLBSportsTV, I’ve matured as a writer, fan, and observer of the world. Your micro-blogging brother Twitter was fun, but 140 characters and timeline-drowning rants isn’t the way to properly express sports and pop culture opinions. It just loses me followers.

I give to you JLBSports.tv—a fully-fledged online magazine covering sports from every sideline and pop culture from every couch. Sports blogging, you’ve now mutated into something greater—or really, you’ve just gotten fatter. Let’s go for a workout.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Bert Van Marwijk’s Dutch Undelight: Why the Oranje Crashed Out

Bert Van Marwijk’s Holland came into the European Championships as one of the tournament’s favorites. Despite landing in the “Group of Death” with heavyweights Germany and Portugal, the Oranje were still tipped to come out of the group and steal Spain’s thunder. Instead, the Dutch crashed out miserably, losing all three group matches and only scoring two goals.

Rumors of infighting between winger Arjen Robben and the rest of the squad were rampant all tournament, and were put on full display against Germany. Robben was substituted for Dirk Kuyt in the 83th minute, and instead of running to the bench, hi-fiving his teammate and getting a pat on the head from his coach (like every normal player would), he chose to hop a fence on the opposite side of the field, take his shirt off, and walk the long-way back to the bench. Imagine a pitcher in baseball getting taken out, and instead of walking back to the dugout, he chose to take a lap around the outfield, give the finger to the relief pitcher coming in for him, and toss his jersey into the crowd. By European football equivalents, that’s exactly what Robben did. If his message wasn’t clear then, when cameras caught him telling Van Marwijk to “shut up” after Van Marwijk wanted him to track Ronaldo’s runs in defense, Robben’s selfish disgust was put on display for the world to see. After that moment, Van Marwijk was never going to come back to the Oranje sidelines.

Van Marwijk is getting out at a perfect time for his career, meaning a bad time for Dutch football. His contract ran until 2016, but did he really want to oversee another World Cup and Euro? This was supposed to be the major tournament that the Dutch finally put it all together and won. It was the perfect time. This generation’s Dutch stars had reached their career peak. Current English Premier League Player of the Year Robin van Persie is at the height of his powers at 28, and is injury-free for once. Attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder is 28 and linked with a huge move to one of the Manchester clubs. Robben is, you guessed it, also 28 and fresh off an 18 goal season for Bayern Munich. Striker Klass Jan-Huntelaar was the most efficient striker in Europe this year, notching 44 goals in 47 games for Schalke at a ripe age of 28. These are four of the best footballers in the world, and top-8 in the world at their positions—yet they can only manage 1 goal between them at Euros? Now, the Dutch are a team trending down, as their top 4 players will be 30 by the next World Cup, and will surely be in decline. It’ll probably be hard for Robben and RVP—two injury-plagued players—to even be healthy enough.

Holland’s horrendous Euro display surprised many pundits, but should it have? Remembering their World Cup run in 2010, it’s easy for a finals appearance to gloss over what was a poor tournament by Dutch style standards. They had the easiest path to the finals, were incredibly lucky, Sneijder bailed them out of games, RVP was a black hole at central striker, and they played one of the ugliest games in World Cup history against an overpowering Spanish side in the finals. Let’s look back at each game in the 2010 World Cup for the Dutch:

Win over Denmark, 2-0
A Daniel Agger own goal and a Dirk Kuyt tap-in off a rebound (CLASSIC Kuyt) notches 3 points for Holland. Van Marwijk said after the game: “We wanted to play beautiful soccer but we lost the ball.” An ugly win. (This same Denmark side beat them in their opening Euro match.)

Win over Japan, 1-0
Sneijder scores after the Japanese keeper deflects the shot off his hand and into the net. RVP misses a ton of easy chances. Said Van Marwijk after the game: “Let me assure you that we really, really want to win and if we can do that in style, then great. But you have to be able to win ugly games.” The coach said it himself: an ugly win.

Win over Cameroon, 2-1
RVP and Huntelaar finally get on the score sheet against a Cameroon side that hadn’t won it’s previous 10 matches. Ho-hum.

Win over Slovakia, 2-1
Robben and Sneijder score, but the Dutch only complete 335 passes—their lowest total all tournament and only the 6th time since 1978 it had completed less than 350 passes in a match. So much for Total Football.

Win over Brazil, 2-1
A Brazilian side in transition fails to capitalize on an early Robinho goal. Sneijder reinvigorates the Dutch in the 53rd minute, scoring a free-kick 30 yards out from a crossing area after Melo deflects the ball into his own goal. Sneijder heads home the winner from a corner kick after Kuyt flicks it on at the near post. Again, not much beautiful football being played. Plenty of lucky football though.

Win over Uruguay, 3-2
A Suarez-less Uruguayan side just misses out. Captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst scored his 6th goal in 106 total matches for the Dutch from a miracle Jabulani-powered strike. Has to be seen to be believed:

Sneijder scores a close-range shot after it was deflected off a defender, and Robben tapped home the third goal. Diego Forlan’s free-kick in the closing seconds goes off the crossbar. A thrilling win, but hardly an artistically appealing one. More Oranje luck.

Loss to Spain, 1-0.
Robben misses a 1v1 chance, and blows another 1v1 by somehow shrugging off a challenge and missing. The one time he could’ve gone down for a penalty because he was legitimately fouled, he decides to keep on going. De Jong gets away with the most blatant red card in the history of football, setting the tone for a flop and foul fest. Total bloodbath.

Although the Dutch had to bully Spain if they had any chance of winning, it still upset legend Johan Cruyff: “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.”

RVP had one goal all tournament, the back-four continued to look confused, and Sneijder’s 2010 luck with Inter carried over. As a whole, the team didn’t play like a team. The ugliness of the 2010 World Cup carried over to the 2012 Euros, except Sneijder’s luck wasn’t there to bail the Dutch out every time. The Dutch are an overrated side with star players who are poor for their national team. The Euros disaster can be attributed to Van Marwijk’s insane decision to start two defensive midfielders in an unbalanced 4-2-3-1, and to start an 18 year old at left-back (there are honestly no better Dutch defenders available?), while the rest of the blame can be bestowed upon a wasted generation of Dutch talent. They were just never that good to begin with. Better on paper than in practice.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Making Sense of HBO’s The Newsroom

HBO’s newest series, The Newsroom, debuted last Sunday. Slammed by critics in the pilot’s run-up, viewers were in one of three mindsets before watching: a) I’m going to exaggerate every hateful feeling towards this show because it can’t possibly be good after all of the awful reviews, b) I liked The Social Network, or c) Game of Thrones isn’t on anymore, it’s a Sunday night, and I’m bored.

Aaron Sorkin, who has been riding a screenplay hot-streak (Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball) since The West Wing ended, is The Newsroom’s creator, executive producer, writer, costume designer, key grip, and set caterer. (The last three aren’t true, but seriously, every piece of HBO promo for this show has Sorkin’s name and/or face attached to it. Also, Sorkin apparently made everyone involved with the show sign a contract vowing that they won’t change a word of his script. No improv allowed. Talk about an ego trip.) Sorkin has become a household name for movie goers for his snappy writing, dramatic overtures, and complex characters.

With the first episode of The Newsroom, everything that Sorkin has become known for displayed itself. The show began with news anchor Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) participating in a panel at Northwestern University. Flanked by two of his news anchor peers—a stereotypical condescending liberal know-it-all to his right, and a flag-waving, pompous conservative to his left—McAvoy snaps after a student’s question causes him to break from his introverted character. The question, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” brought McAvoy over the edge (he had previously responded with “the New York Jets,” but the moderator wouldn’t let him get off that easily), starting a long diatribe of UN rankings pointing to why the United States isn’t the greatest country in the world. McAvoy lists about ten different statistics, each building momentum to, “So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Within that first scene, all three of Sorkin’s calling cards popped up: a head-turning monologue, a stunning climax to a moment, and the introduction to a complex character who has kept his feelings to himself his entire career.

It was a stunning start. But when every single scene seemed to repeat that same formula, the episode became annoying. About half-way through, Mackenzie MacHale (played by Emily Mortimer), gives a speech to McAvoy in an effort to convince him to hire her as executive producer for his news show, in turn letting her the change the direction of the program. She uses America as the crux of her argument, spewing an idealistic, cliché-filled rant capped off by this mushy-gushy line: “America is the only country on the planet that since it’s birth that’s said over, and over, and over, that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.” Ironic that a woman with a distinct British accent was chosen to deliver that line. At that point I turned the episode off, only to return to finish it a day later. I’m sure even the U-S-A chanting Americans with Reagan-Bush bumperstickers on the back of their Ford F-150s wanted to throw-up at the corniness of that entire spiel.

In Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Hanks played the charming Senator Wilson. In The Social Network, portrayals of Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker handled most of the dialectic quips. Moneyball had the baseball version of Charlie Wilson in Brad Pitt’s iteration of Billy Beane. All three of Sorkin’s recent screenplays had one or two characters dishing out verbal mayhem—in The Newsroom, someone in every scene is fighting for some sort of public speaking/debate award. It’s enjoyable, but overwhelming. Is overwritten the right word?

The Newsroom isn’t a show that should be left for dead after one episode though. The strength of the series is it’s historical setting. It’s based a few years in the past, allowing Sorkin to write around major news events. The first episode dealt with the BP Oil Spill, and commercials for future episodes drop hints that the Bin Laden death will be covered. Insight into how a busy newsroom would handle year-defining stories will undoubtedly make for great drama.

Despite the reviews, The Newsroom’s first episode has got to be considered a success. I hated some parts and loved others, and because it was the first episode, I can’t place a definitive judgement on the series yet. In short, I’ll be tuning in again. Sorkin has won this week. Good thing I have a clause in my viewing contract that allows me to fire The Newsroom next week.

In a related note, GQ editor Sean Fennessey lost 3,700 followers on Twitter for a pro-Newsroom tweet. C’mon folks, it’s not THAT bad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

How Hip-Hop Saved the Brooklyn Nets

Hip-hop and sports have dovetailed naturally since hip-hop’s birth in the 1970s. Basketball, in particular, has been the sport of choice for rappers. Ever since Kurtis Blow fanatically chanted “Basketball is my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court,” in his 1984 hit “Basketball,” the game has become an easy name-check for rappers (I can’t remember the last time at least one mixtape or album didn’t have at least ONE basketball-related metaphor or punchline).

Basketball and hip-hop are both dominated by young African-American men from urban environments, making it no surprise that the two frequently cross-paths. There’s a confluence between them in the rhymes, friendships, and culture of the people operating within each industry, and it’s certainly something that businessmen have taken advantage of.

Rappers wear the shoes of Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant for fashion, pushing Nike Basketball’s sales. Kanye West, who has a design/endorsement contract with Nike, has been known to make any sneaker he wears a hot item. He’s the world’s Trendsetter-In-Chief. ‘Ye recently wore the Nike Air Flight ’89 basketball sneaker while out on a date with Kim Kardashian in London. The next day, the shoe, which had sold poorly since it’s release, had sold out on Nike’s website. Did Nike give Kanye a pair to wear in public so they could clear stock? Kanye would probably deny it and say something along the lines of, “Every outfit I wear is art. It’s, it’s, it’s an expression of me, and I would never let, uh, such high-level art—of me be corrupted.” *theoretically says the man who’s causing streetwear worldwide chaos with his painfully limited, self-designed, $245 Nike Air Yeezy II. Nike Basketball is smart enough to put their biggest celebrity (yes, bigger than Jordan) at the forefront of their street and viral marketing efforts. Nike Basketball commonly gives rappers pairs of sneakers in advance of a release so they can be Instagrammed, photographed, and publicly seen in them to increase hype.

The NBA, however, rarely takes advantage of the relationship between their sport and hip-hop. Their players pal around with rappers, while rappers frequent court-side seats at games, and publicly root for their teams on Twitter, Facebook, and in their lyrics. But has the NBA ever partnered with a rapper for commercial reasons? There’s one exception (getting to that), but David Stern’s NBA will probably never be caught dead holding the meaty hands of Rick Ross or DJ Khaled. After 2004’s Malice at the Palace, Stern’s NBA has sanitized itself of anything remotely criminal (Gilbert Arenas’s 2009-10 gun suspension was certainly in the spirit of the Palace). It doesn’t help that much of popular hip-hop is full of ex-cons, and rappers with a charge, spitting lyrics concerning matters that Stern would find offensive. He even banned “chains” from being worn into the arena by players—a fashion trend made popular by the hip-hop community.

Despite Stern’s resentment of the stereotypical hip-hop image, the NBA has been infiltrated by one rapper. Where there’s a D-Will, there’s a Jay. Jay-Z is a minority owner of the newly christened Brooklyn Nets—a position that makes him hip-hop’s most powerful man in the NBA. The former New Jersey Nets, one of the NBA’s most beleaguered franchises, has been reborn by their move. Although the Nets calculated that the “Nets” brand equity (all those memorable Finals losses in the sports-forsaken Meadowlands must’ve been worth so much) was too valuable to rename the team after their Brooklyn move, the organization has begun to totally rebrand the team, with hip-hop’s real image—not the one in Stern’s mind—as the guiding force.

Hip-hop takes on the appearance of whomever’s creating it. If a hustler from Philadelphia raps about spending money and trapping, that’s hip-hop. If a pyro from Los Angeles raps with his friends about doing hard drugs and killing Bruno Mars, that’s hip-hop. The versatility of the genre is what makes it so universally appealing. What has always driven the genre, topically and culturally, is one’s sense of self. The need to boast and project coolness onto listeners is something that all rappers have in common—from the first MCs at 1970s Bronx house parties to rappers just picking up the mic today—they all want to talk about themselves. Who they sleep with, what they wear, who/what they support, what they buy, what they regularly do or don’t do. They brand themselves just as much as athletes do. Ice Cube is seen as a loud thug, so he gets to yell at Coors Light cans in commercials. Diddy knows luxury and a good time, so he’s the face of Ciroc vodka. Jay-Z is the epitome of cool: he’s a properly dressed, self-made rap legend who went from drug dealing to running corporations, who also happens to be married to our generation’s greatest sex symbol. Oh, and he’s a family man now too thanks to little Blue Ivy.

Here’s where the Brooklyn part of the Nets come in. The boroughs most famous son, Jay-Z, is effectively the face of the franchise (sorry Deron Williams and Dwight Howard). Jay-Z is taking his superstar coolness and making what was one of the lamest franchises in the NBA into a cool team to root for. Brooklyn is the fourth largest city in the United States (just pretend that New York City never annexed it for a moment), and is undergoing a major youth movement. Around New York City, Brooklyn is perceived as the place to be. Hipsters (“hipsters” in the sense of anyone who’s young, independently dressed, and a follower of culture) reign supreme, helping give Brooklyn a certain aura to it. There’s a reason that when DJs and MCs shout the obligatory “Is Brooklyn in the house?” or most likely, “WHERE BROOKLYN AT?” *dodges a Flex bomb* that EVERYONE at the concert is suddenly from Brooklyn. (Hell, I’m Manhattan born and New Jersey raised but I pretend that I’m from Brooklyn at those moments. It just feels good to be a part of something.)

With the premiere celebrity/rapper on the planet, the coolest city in the United States, and a young fan base (56% of NBA fans are from either Generation X or Y), the Nets are all hip-hop. Their logo speaks to hip-hop fans even more. Hip-hop heads are also into fashion—rappers talk about how well they dress and what brands they wear constantly, so fans naturally follow suit and style up.

The new Brooklyn Nets logo. Clean and classic.
The old New Jersey Nets logo. A graphic, unappealing mess.

The new Nets logo has been highly criticized for being too boring, too plain, and just straight-up ugly. But what really puts people off is that doesn’t look like most NBA logos. While every NBA logo is a gaudy, overly-graphic, corny, colorful cartoon, the new Nets logo looks more like a streetwear brand’s symbol. It’s simple, clean, classic design, and colors make it look more like an urban lifestyle brand than an NBA logo. More importantly, the black and white coloring makes it highly fashionable—their apparel goes with anything. The Nets have made the first lines of NBA apparel that can legitimately be “dressed up” to go out in. Not surprising, considering it’s designer, Jay-Z, started his own clothing company in Rocawear, which went on to do over $700 million in annual sales.

Streetwear or Nets gear?

It makes more sense to have Nets gear sold at some small shop in SoHo than the NBA store in midtown. Their logo is by far their biggest branding achievement, and their apparel will sell through the roof. After all, what casual fan wants to root for a team if they can’t look good doing it? Getting casual, would-be NBA fans to don a Nets snapback is what the organization wants, and what it will get. (Another personal experience aside: the day after the New York Knicks were able to beat the Miami Heat at Madison Square Garden, I saw more people wearing new Nets gear in the street than Knicks gear. The Knicks had just won their first playoff game in over a decade, and no fans could be seen basking in their reflective glory. Everyone wanted to be a Nets fan, because they looked cooler being one, even though the Knicks were the toast of the town. It feels good being a part of something new, cool, and revolutionary.)

The Nets and their revitalized franchise couldn’t be more hip-hop. They’ve got hip-hop’s #1 borough and rapper, hip-hop’s youthful audience, and hip-hop’s street savvy style. Although the music industry is in the tank, hip-hop’s branding strategies couldn’t be more valuable. Just don’t tell David Stern, or he might send the Nets back to New Jersey.

Hello Brooklyn.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49