All posts by Justin Block

Looking Inside the JLBSports Crystal Ball: 2013 NFL Predictions Sure To Go Wrong

The NFL seems to just roll along, completely undaunted by the winds of change. Last week they agreed to shell out $765 million over 20 years as part of a class action concussion lawsuit. Compared to the $9.5 billion in revenue the “non-profit” NFL took up Madison Avenue in 2012, and the original $2 billion that the players originally wanted, that figure is a drop in the bucket to make the concussion headache quiet down for now. In an attempt to leave no survivors behind, the NFL even pressured ESPN to pull out of an upcoming PBS Frontline piece on concussions. Given that ESPN CEO John Skipper lives off of Roger Goodell’s tit, it’s no surprise that ESPN threw their journalistic responsibility to the wall for the sake of business.

Last year, I wrote about how the morality of football should be called into question. I stand by that, but it’s unreasonable to think that the NFL will ever change their ways. They’ll continue to throw money at the problem just for the sake of saving face and keeping the media pressure to a low simmer, because they can afford to do so. What’s $10 million to donate to concussion and head injury research to them? Nothing! Now nobody can charge them of totally ignoring the issue like they did for 30 years—they’re paying for “answers.” And if Congress and the insurance companies muster up enough public guilt to somehow force the NFL to change the rules of the game or risk being shut down? Something tells me that the right people will have their palms greased. The biggest obstacle to progressive change in this country is conservative money, and the NFL has plenty of that. The NFL is a behemoth which is about to host a Super Bowl in New York City—the thing about these massive forces of business is, when they get rolling and the money is seemingly unlimited, they won’t stop for anyone. Not for Junior Seau’s family, not for a PBS piece, and not even for Congress. The money is just too good.

With that, let’s jump into what we’re projecting for this NFL season. But first, you have to give credit where credit is due. While a Packer victory over the Texans was the popular Super Bowl pick around here last fall, Greg bucked the trend and correctly predicted a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl. Not only that, but he picked the Ravens too. I sure hope he threw some money on that forecast bet.

*denotes wild card team

JUSTIN’S PICKS:

NFC EAST
Giants

NFC NORTH
Packers

NFC SOUTH
Falcons
Buccaneers*

NFC WEST
Seahawks
49ers*

AFC EAST
Patriots
Miami*

AFC NORTH
Cincinnati

AFC SOUTH
Texans

AFC WEST
Broncos
Chiefs*

SUPER BOWL PICK: Seahawks over Broncos (21-17)

Looking around the AFC, this might be the weakest the division has been in years. Everything is relative to their NFC neighbors, and for the first time in recent memory, I’m not all to impressed by what the AFC’s elite are stacking this season. Yes, the Ravens just won the Super Bowl, but I’m expecting them to regress this season. The Patriots’ defense and wide receivers are a concern, but that has rarely ever slowed down Tom Brady. I just don’t think, given how random the NFL playoffs can breakdown in some years, that the Belichick-Brady reign has another Super Bowl title left in them. The Broncos are a much stronger team, and with Peyton Manning at the helm, they’re in more than capable hands. In the NFC, it’s a dogfight between the 49ers and Seahawks right now. The Packers, Giants, and Falcons will always hang around given their previous winning seasons and quarterback play, but nobody in the NFL is touching the talent and physicality out west. If Percy Harvin can find the field by the end of the season, the Seahawks are my surefire Super Bowl pick.

GREG’S PICKS

NFC East:
Giants

NFC North:
Packers

NFC South:
Saints
Panthers*

NFC West:
Seahawks
49ers*

AFC East
Patriots

AFC North
Bengals
Steelers*

AFC South
Texans

AFC West
Broncos
Chiefs*

SUPER BOWL PICK: Giants over Broncos, 38-35

Yes, I excluded the Ravens from the Playoff Picture. While I believe their defense is more talented than what it was last year, there have been too many changes in personnel since Super Bowl XLVII for me to include them. Still, thanks for making me look like a genius last year, Baltimore. Anyway, expect parity this season. A lot of these teams are evenly matched, and in this league, anyone truly can beat anyone. This year, look for trends from last year to be reversed: The Redskins have the toughest schedule in the league and will miss the playoffs, as will the Cowboys, with Jason Garrett being fired at season’s end. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have an easy schedule, a competent QB and Head Coach Fat Andy, who will lead them to a wild card spot. The Colts last year were 7-1 in games decided by 7 points or less; I expect that record not to be matched this season. The Panthers, on the other hand, finished 1-7 in the exact same games; expect that mark to improve as they snatch a wild card berth.

In the AFC Championship Game, Houston will travel to Denver, where they will lose late on a Matt Prater 55 yard field goal. The Giants are gonna win the NFC East, win their home playoff game against the Panthers, somehow silence the Saints in New Orleans and set up a rematch of the 2007 NFC Championship Game, which will have the exact same outcome of a Giants victory. The Giants will play in their road whites in MetLife in a Manning Bowl Super Bowl in New York, which will probably cause ESPN to die from autoerotique asphyxiation. With the home crowd backing them, the Giants will win Super Bowl XLVIII at home, equaling the Dallas Cowboys and becoming the first team to win a home Super bowl in the process, which will result in Eli locking up a spot in the Hall of Fame as well as Jerry Jones committing suicide.

Defining But Not Really But Just For Now But Not At All LeBron’s Legacy

My knowledge of NBA history only extends as far as what I’ve randomly come across on Wikipedia, and everything I learned in Bill Simmons’ 10,000 page manifesto on why the Celtics are the best. Despite my admittedly limited knowledge, I don’t think I’m out of my league to say this: No player in NBA history has faced THREE Legacy-Or-Bust games in two seasons and successfully eviscerated most doubts to win those games.

Collectively, we’ve been on the verge of damning LeBron to a lifetime of Wilt Chamberlain tags on three separate occasions. This means two things: Led by ESPN, sports media and sports fans may be the most knee-jerk portion of human society, never giving appropriate time or patience to assess anything. The other thing, of course, is that LeBron is fucking great. Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals: 45 points against the Celtics on the road down 3-2. Game 6 of the 2013 Finals down 3-2 and coming off of an uneven 8-22 night shooting: a 32-10-11 line. Last night: 37 points and a step-back mid-range dagger at the end with the Heat only up 2—a shot that the Spurs were more than happy to give him.

Although LeBron hasn’t mitigated the circumstances that eventually led to these cluster-fuck do-or-maybe-literally-die situations well—he was averaging 16 ppg the first three games of this year’s Finals—he’s answered the call every time he’s been expected to. Problem is, ever since that Game 6 in Boston, we’ve expected him to not continually drive himself into these uncomfortable situations. He’ll always be cursed by his unlimited potential, but I thought he was over whatever mental block he suffers from that causes him to simply go missing in important games. It goes beyond not getting shots he normally makes to fall—it’s that he doesn’t assert himself to get those shots.

That’s the kind of player we’re dealing with. He’s a supremely talented individual with a supremely uneven mind, but one that can turn it on when all seems lost. Unlike last year, at least we know that switch exists, and can re-adjust our expectations accordingly. (Or not. Probably not.) Before Game 6 in Boston last year, we didn’t know he could turn it on; during the first half of the Finals we knew he could most definitely turn it off, but only to be flipped back up for the most critical moments. So we’ll bash him for the week he comes up short on the court, only to dress him up in hyperbolic superlatives after he, once again, proves everyone wrong. But because of who he is, and the tumultuous past he’s had, there will always be factions of fandom and media who will keep betting against LeBron.

LeBron doesn’t have the pathological killer instinct of Jordan or Kobe, and he doesn’t have the rational to the point where it seems irrational confidence of Magic. He doesn’t have the ice of Kevin Durant, and he certainly isn’t as steady and stoic as Tim Duncan. It’s time to stop comparing him to other greats, because LeBron, like life itself, isn’t a series of black-and-white events. You can’t assign him to just one role or character. You can count on him for everything and nothing while expecting the most. LeBron is a mercurial person blessed with a Mozart-like combination of intelligence, body, and talent that we’ve never seen before in a basketball player. And that’s okay. He’ll probably have many more Game 7′s than four-game sweeps, and we’ll have the same conversations about his mental fortitude and his legacy until we look back in 2020 and realize he’s got more rings than Jordan.

And right now, that’s what I’m rooting for. I went from being a totally idiotic LeBron hater, to not hating him as much, to wanting to see the him win as much as he can. I won’t be overt about it—I’m not going to tweet “GO HEAT,” or post pictures of LeBron on my Instagram, or even cheer for him in public. This will do:

After all, I am a Knicks fan. I hate the Heat, and other than James Dolan, LeBron James’ Heat are the biggest threat to my team. Yet I can’t bring myself to outwardly and viciously root against the guy (unless of course the Knicks are playing him), especially since the Knicks are doomed to second-round playoff exits for about the next 3-5 years. For me, it’ll all be a very sage-like, semi-passive approach—or balance—between wanting to see my Knicks win, and wanting to see LeBron collect titles. (And if he ditches Chris Bosh’s Pterodactyl qualities and Dwayne Wade’s knees after 2014 for LA or Kyrie Irving’s Cavs, maybe he’ll run off 6 straight championships individually. Your move, Pat Riley.)

I didn’t live through Jordan. I was too young. The way 70s and 80s babies snobbishly look down upon LeBron and today’s game through Jordan’s GOAT glasses, I want to be able to look down upon the next generation. I want to say that I lived through the Greatest, and my best shot at that selfish glory is LeBron James. Culturally, LeBron will never match what Jordan did and is still doing, but provided LeBron continues his statistical dominance and his championship pedigree, we’ll be able to one day say that he outdid MJ on the court.

And that’s LeBron’s unwritten legacy as written by someone in 2013. Let’s check back in 2023.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

An Interview With Ryan Babel

For those who have been following me for a few years now, you could say that this interview has been a long time coming. For those who may be perplexed by my access to former Liverpool starlet and current Ajax Amsterdam player Ryan Babel, a primer: Back when I started following the English Premier League in 2008, Ryan Babel was one of the reasons why I chose to start supporting Liverpool. Out of my mixed ethnicities, Dutch is one of the more prominent makeups. As a promising young Dutchman with loads of pace and skill, Babel and his team at the time, Liverpool, caught my attention. I’ve been a passionate, but highly critical fan of both ever since.

After I started following him, Ryan would endure two more difficult seasons at Liverpool before being sold in January 2011, but through Twitter and YouTube, I remained an ardent supporter of his. I’ve always believed that Ryan was never properly handled at Liverpool—he signed at age 20, was thrown into the first-team, yet never played more than four games in a row for the club. And as he’ll attest to in the interview, he never got the same kind of attention and coaching he did at Ajax. How can a young player develop when their only playing time is 20 minutes as a substitute every other match, and they’re basically on their own development-wise?

Fed up with his lack of first-team minutes in a squad that featured bloody David Ngog at striker during all of Fernando Torres’ injuries, I threw this video out on YouTube demanding for Ryan to play. The success and feedback from that video is what actually propelled my channel to move towards European football and then exclusively Liverpool content. Ryan also appreciated the words of support.

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 7.06.32 PM

That was over three years ago, when my hair was much longer and misshapen, and Ryan was still getting in trouble over a few humorous tweets. We’ve kept in contact here and there, and while I was traveling in Amsterdam one weekend, Ryan made himself available for an interview. We sat down for over an hour, reflecting on the good and bad of his Liverpool experience, the regretful transfer he made to a dysfunctional German club with Manchester City-like ambitions, and how at 26 years old, his career is starting to come full circle with a championship-winning season at his boyhood club Ajax.

Thanks to Ryan for accommodating my interview request, and for his honesty and humility about his past. Watch our chat below!

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49
Screen-Shot-2013-05-09-at-7.05.01-PM

Baseball or Soccer: Which is More Afraid of the Numbers?

“They hate what they don’t understand.”—Sean “Diddy” Combs

I’ve never been good at math. Or at least that’s the attitude I’ve carried with me since 1st grade. In elementary school, my parents sent me to a tutoring center two times a week. I’d do endless sheets of arithmetic problems for an hour, and then go home and do more. My mental math was on point, but it always took me longer than the rest of the class to “get it.” I needed individual attention, but was often times too ashamed to ask for it. To this day, I still can’t do long division problems.

When you grow up with an affliction towards numbers, you get nervous whenever they’re presented in a decision-making situation. Adding up the change in your pocket at the deli counter isn’t easy. Simple accounting problems are stressful when they shouldn’t be. Deciding whether Mike Trout deserves to be MVP based on something called WAR, or choosing between Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie by comparing Chance Conversion rates equates to rocket science.

Although I’m never excited to do a math problem, I enjoy analyzing sports statistics. In 6th grade I started carrying a Baseball Prospectus in my backpack. I would pour over the annual additions of the mammoth book in my spare time—the book felt as close to the truth about baseball as any analysis could be. Full of advanced baseball statistics and player projections, it felt like the end all be all of the upcoming baseball season. Why even bother with watching games? Basebsall Prospectus already projected them. In my thirst for the truth about baseball, the “outsider’s” knowledge and perspective found in the Baseball Prospectus books felt indisputable, and it was all coming from guys who had never been on a scouting trip.

I believe there are plenty of sports fans and writers out there who take their “I’m bad at math” attitude and flip it into a dismissal of baseball’s sabermetrics, and soccer’s opta statistics. People are just afraid of the numbers.

Sabermetrics, which is a term derived from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), have endured a decade-long battle for acceptance in baseball’s mainstream consciousness, starting with their grand introduction through Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball. (Not forgetting the two decades of work Bill James did before Moneyball was even drafted though.) Over the years, more telling statistics rooted in sabermetrics such as On Base Percentage (OBP) and On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) made their way into box scores and programs. These statistics are easy for any fan to understand and calculate, but still give more insight into a player’s performance than just batting average and home runs. More complicated sabermetrics were left for Baseball Prospectus books and blogs.

The crossing over of sabermetrics into the sporting mainstream peaked with a movie adaptation of Moneyball, and finally hit SportsCenter through the debate over the 2012 American League MVP award.

The 2012 AL MVP came down to two candidates: Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout, and Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Through no fault of their own, each player symbolically represented two different schools of thought in baseball—two schools which were infamously pitted against each other in Lewis’ Moneyball.

Trout or Cabrera: Who should’ve won MVP?

In one corner were “old school” baseball traditionalists. These writers and fans believed that Cabrera was the natural choice for MVP, because in 2012, he was the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. That made him the first Triple Crown winner in over four decades, and in old school circles, a deserving MVP. He was the best player on a playoff team (Trout’s Angels failed to make the playoffs, despite only winning one game less than Cabrera’s Tigers), and achieved a season of historical proportions.

Across the debate were the nerds. Baseball’s statistical revolution, popularized by Moneyball, had revealed a bevy of telling metrics to analyze players with. The statistic at the center of the argument for Trout was Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a calculation for how many more wins a player contributed to his team than a “replacement level” player would’ve. According to FanGraphs, Trout posted a 10 WAR (the highest WAR by a center fielder since Willie Mays in 1964), meaning he was worth 10 more wins to the Angels than say, the Baltimore Orioles’ Mark Reynolds, who posted a WAR close to zero. Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR lagged behind both Trout and New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who’s 7.8 WAR was good for second. Much was made of Trout’s more complete impact compared to Cabrera. Trout stole 45 bases while Cabrera stole 4, and Trout’s fielding was regarded by observers and statisticians to be far superior to Cabrera’s. Cabrera may have been a better pure hitter in 2012, but Trout’s base running and fielding put him over the top.

Through a rounded statistical argument, it’s clear that Trout was a player overall player than Cabrera in 2012. But for many writers and fans, the debate started and ended with Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown win. The Triple Crown has been a distinction that’s become shrouded in mysticism and improbability. The likes of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr.—the preeminent hitters of my generation—have all failed to win the Triple Crown. Although there’s no physical trophy for the Triple Crown, it’s an “award” based on three statistics that mean less in a world of sabermetrics, and it’s still guarded in tradition, nostalgia, and Cracker Jack boxes. Much of American baseball’s popularity and interest comes from its history, record books, and old-time lore. The Triple Crown is a part of that, and for it—for baseball’s past—to be defended as a significant part of today’s game, Cabrera had to win the MVP. He ended up garnering 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Trout got the remaining six.

“Call me old-fashioned but, if you win the Triple Crown and lead your team to the playoffs, you’re probably going to get my MVP vote.” —USA Today writer Jorge L. Ortiz

Besides, who the hell knows how to calculate WAR anyway? FanGraphs gives a fairly simple explanation of the statistic and how it’s calculated, but still—anytime you wander into unfamiliar and potentially complicated territory populated by guys like Nate Silver (the statistician who perfectly predicted the 2012 Presidential Election state-by-state) you’re going to be intimidated and hesitant to accept something new and different.

When the traditional box score statistics of batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, and stolen bases are being challenged, marginalized, and perhaps overtaken by something so superficially convoluted as WAR and a whole host of other advanced metrics, writers and fans who didn’t grow up with these new statistics are going be resistant to adaptation. They’re scared of the numbers because they don’t fully understand them, and as seedy old writers, they can’t be bothered to change. These are writers who are covering a sport that didn’t implement instant replay for umpires until 2008, despite the NFL using it since 1986, and the technology for it existing since the 1960s. The league and its media are the furthest thing from progressive. Yet the is future covered in data, which can be difficult to sort through if you’re not inclined to embrace something you don’t fully understand.

The same reluctance to fully embrace advance statistics in baseball is currently being played out in professional soccer. Up until a few years ago, there were exactly five ways to quantify a player’s performance on the pitch. Goalies were judged by their saves and clean sheets, defenders by their tackles and clean sheets, and midfielders and forwards by their goals and assists. With only so many goals, assists, and tackles happening per match, it was difficult to gauge a player’s value. How could a player like Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, who plays in a deep-lying midfield role and doesn’t make many tackles, goals, or assists, have his impact quantified? There was no statistic for controlling the tempo of the midfield.

In the past five years, that’s changed. Opta, a sports data company founded in 1996, has seen its visibility skyrocket as access to their information has become more public. They track every movement in a match to sort out dozens of different statistics for players. They have an iPhone app so fans can observe Opta’s data, a website so fans can dig deeper into the data, and a Twitter account so fans can see the most preeminent data from match-day.

Now, stats like saves, tackles, clean sheets, goals, and assists no longer make up the entire profile of a player or club—they’re just parts of a bigger, more contextualized picture. EPLIndex.com gives subscribers access to 11 different types of statistics with further statistics within those types. For example, the statistics under the “Attacking” category are much more than goals and assists. Assists are cute, but they’re the RBI of soccer—it’s a statistic that’s dependent upon another player. They’re not an independent reflection of an individual player’s performance. A good pass into the right area must be made for an assist to be possible, but that pass is still dependent on another player to finish the movement and score the goal, and for the passer to get the assist. Why bother with assists when Attacking statistics like Chances Created and Clear Cut Chances Created truly measure the creativity of a player? Those two metrics give credit to the attacker for creating the chance even if the player on the other end of the pass doesn’t convert for a goal.

And is it enough to simply say that the Golden Boot winner is the best striker? What if it takes that striker takes an inefficient number of shots to score? According to EPLIndex’s database on April 12th, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez leads the English Premier League with 22 goals this season. It took him a league-leading 130 shots to get there, putting his Chance Conversion rate at 17% and Shot Accuracy at 48%. Meanwhile, Manchester United’s Robin van Persie has scored 20 goals, but only on 94 shots for a Chance Conversion rate of 20% and Shot Accuracy of 54%. While the goal count implies that Luis Suarez is the better striker, a more in-depth look at the opta statistics shows that van Persie’s is a more efficient, clinical striker.

When I first read Moneyball, it wasn’t the characters, stories, business methods, or introduction of sabermetrics that grabbed my attention. It was the notion of objective vs. subjective thinking in situations where it was possible to think objectively. There’s no objective way to discuss how good a hip-hop album is—your ears either like it or they don’t. It’s personal taste. But when it comes to sports, observing a player isn’t enough when objective statistics exist.

Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen may not win plaudits for his aesthetic play. Critics say he’s too small to be useful defensively, and he doesn’t to pass the ball forward enough to contribute to the attack. During any one of his matches this past season, it’d be easy to say that he had a bad game, because he doesn’t make the unlocking passes or the grinding tackles. He doesn’t catch the eye. But his statistics show that he’s 3rd in the EPL in Minutes Per Possessions Won, while boasting a 90% Pass Accuracy with 30% of his passes going forward. The eye doesn’t tell the whole story.

Much of the aversion to opta statistics by soccer fans and writers is due to an incorrect notion of the phrase “Moneyball” and what it means. Real Moneyball is when players within a market find inefficiencies in that market and exploit them for gain. In the book Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics, led by General Manager Billy Beane, saw that college prospects and fringe players who had good OBPs weren’t being valued as highly, so they exploited those two areas (among many others) to field a winning ball club.

When Liverpool were taken over by Fenway Sports Group (FSG), they were labeled by the media as soccer’s new Moneyball club. After all, FSG also owns the Boston Red Sox, who had won two World Series titles during General Manager Theo Epstein’s tenure. Epstein, a Yale University graduate, was known in baseball circles as someone in tune with sabermetrics and the ideals of Moneyball. FSG were seen as the owners to bring a Moneyball philosophy to Liverpool.

Shortly after buying the club in fall 2010, FSG appointed Damien Comolli as their Director of Football Strategy. In 2011, he signed Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, and Stewart Downing for over £100 million in transfer fees. Except for Adam and Downing, all of Comolli’s signings were under 23 years old—such a tremendous outlay of cash for young players raised a few eyebrows, especially the respective £35 million and £20 million fees for Carroll and Henderson (Carroll’s was the largest figure ever paid for a British player).

Moneyball Man Damien Comolli

Comolli’s new class of signings intensified Liverpool’s Moneyball label. There were two strands of logic behind the signings that connected them to Moneyball, albeit incorrectly. The first was the signing of young players for high fees in the hope that over the long-term, the lower wages and high performance of the players as they entered their prime would justify the price tag. Comolli signed Carroll, Suarez, and Henderson to be at the club (hopefully) for the next decade, and over a period of time thanks to debt amortization, those transfer fees would be seen as appropriate. Comolli was paying the price for future performance. He was treating his signings like a stock, buying early for a big payout down the road.

The second idea was the implementation of opta statistics to determine ideal transfer targets. In previous years, Liverpool had struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities. The signings of Henderson, Adam, and Downing were supposed to rectify Liverpool’s offensive woes. All three midfielders were in the Top 12 of the EPL’s Chance Creators from the previous season, and were all viewed as excellent passers and crossers of the ball. Their crossing, combined with Carroll’s outstanding heading ability (46% of his goals were headers—the second highest proportion in the EPL that year), and Luis Suarez’s dual threat as a creator and goal scorer should’ve made for an attacking juggernaut.

Although Comolli was exploiting exactly zero inefficiencies in the transfer market (promising young players and creative midfielders are always in consistently high demand. I’m not sure they’ve ever been out of favor), it was seen as a Moneyball approach, because he used financial techniques and opta statistics to decide on his signings. Writer Joe Hall for the popular website Sabotage Times wrote an article in April 2012 titled “Damien Comolli: Here’s Why The Moneyball Philosophy Was Never Going To Work At Liverpool.” It’s perhaps the finest example of the misunderstanding of Moneyball. He speaks on the film more than the book, and writes, “Football, however, is a vastly different sport to baseball and the sport is still some distance away from fully embracing the “moneyball method…to what extent can this model, of recruiting and deploying players based solely on statistical data, be applied to football?” (At that point in the article, I lit myself on fire.)

Through a misinterpretation of Moneyball‘s ideals, Moneyball suddenly meant using statistics to build a team—a gross oversimplification to say the least. In the case of the Oakland A’s, an undervaluation of certain statistical categories was the market inefficiency they observed. Because of that, statistics and Moneyball were lumped together. In a Bizarro Baseball World, that inefficiency could be quality scouting in a market dominated by only statistical analysis, but the principles of Moneyball would be the same. They’d still be exploiting an undervalued area for their benefit. Comolli did no such thing.

The Moneyball headline was further perpetuated when none other than Billy Beane sang his praises for Comolli’s work at Liverpool. In an interview with The Daily Mirror, Beane spoke about his friendship with Comolli, and defended the signings of Carroll, Henderson, and Co. With Mr. Moneyball himself publicly siding with Comolli, Liverpool was forever stamped as the Moneyball Club—a team built on statistics and clever accounting.

Comolli was fired seven months after the Beane interview. The season following his £100 million spending spree, Liverpool continued to struggle in front of goal, and languished to an 8th place finish. Comolli was lambasted for spending so drunkenly and failing to improve the squad, and soccer fans the world over instantly become skeptical of opta statistics. As it turns out, Carroll, Henderson, Downing, Adam, and Suarez, despite all of their previous metrics pointing to a new team full of creativity and goal-scoring ability, didn’t fit together tactically. The Chances Created statistic is useful, but unless the players are put in proper position tactically, they won’t be able to create. The supposed Moneyball Club built on numbers was undressed by tactical naiveté. The eye actually told more of the story than Liverpool paid attention to.

“You want to make sure you are getting more value than you are paying.”—Billy Beane on Comolli’s signings for Liverpool

Those who were initially skeptical of Comolli’s methods were vindicated. Don’t leave a number cruncher to do a football man’s job. Those who had admired Comolli (myself included) were left without a good answer—only tactical excuses. As was the case in baseball, soccer is now struggling to bring credibility to their own statistical revolution, because of the one-off failure of Liverpool’s falsely identified Moneyball Experiment.

In actuality, every EPL club uses some form of opta statistics and advanced data tracking to assess themselves and their transfer targets. They all employ statisticians and data analysts, but those departments are less visible than the one Comolli ran at Liverpool. Last summer, defending EPL Champions Manchester City open sourced all of their opta data from the previous season. Liverpool weren’t the only club to use opta statistics to build their squad—the title-winners were too, along with the other 18 clubs. On Opta’s website, they list the 122 soccer and rugby clubs they work with, including Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, the MLS, the Italian and Dutch soccer federations, and all of the United Kingdom leagues.

In the media and in our own conversations, there’s been extreme deference to statistics in both baseball and soccer. Both are old games tied to the cultures and histories of the United States and Europe. Both have been analyzed using only a handful of statistics and subjective observation. Both are two decades too late in their current implementation of instant replay. Both are controlled by an old guard—soccer by FIFA’s fossils in Zurich, and baseball by the Writer’s Association’s nostalgic hacks.

Many of the fans of each sport grew up looking at the same statistics: goals and assists, home runs and RBIs. Progressive thinking and new ways to evaluate players were always going to be held back in two old timer’s games, but a breakthrough is inevitable. The 2012 AL MVP discussion brought attention to WAR and the logic behind it—soon enough, we’ll be seeing WAR on baseball cards and in programs. Although Comolli’s Liverpool failed, the negative perception it gave opta statistics can only last for so long, especially as successful clubs like Manchester City develop their public databases, and websites like EPLIndex and WhoScored? rise in viewership.

Nobody ever won an argument in a bar by opening up EPLIndex’s database and running through Joe Allen’s possession stats. It’s easier to yell “he’s crap” and move on. Listing the WAR and UZR of baseball players never decided a water cooler debate at work. Triple Crown numbers are more familiar. I prefer to let the WAR and opta discussion play out in the one place they actually matter: the field. It’s harder to fear the numbers when they mean wins and losses.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Inside Barcelona FC: The Camp Nou Experience

Over my spring break (WHOOOOO, SPRING BREAK FOREVER) I visited Barcelona for a few days. La Sagrada Familia and all of the Gaudi-ness was cool and all, but the highlight of the city for me was Camp Nou. I paid my 23 euro and did a stadium tour, which the club named “THE CAMP NOU EXPERIENCE.” The over/under on how many times I saw “THE CAMP NEW EXPERIENCE” in print around the stadium must’ve been 537. I swear.

Enjoy the tour around Barcelona FC’s legendary ground and current home to the best team/player ever.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

I also might’ve been the first person ever to buy a Barcelona Basketball Club jersey from the team store.

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 6.16.31 PM

Anfield Is Just Different

Every sport has their cathedrals. Baseball, a game rooted in nostalgia and history, looks to the ancient grounds of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. A spring playoff game at Madison Square Garden has a different type of buzz than other NBA arenas. In the NFL, Lambeau Field is a desirable destination even for the most neutral and indifferent of football fans, for all of the history, friendly fans, brats, and the Sunday afternoon throwback to good old Americana. These are all sporting Meccas on every fan’s bucket list—necessary pilgrimages to pay homage to our own homo ludens.

With the rising cost of tickets, transportation, and concessions, it’s now become customary to watch the game at home amongst friends. Television production has advanced rapidly the past decade, making sporting events watched from home a more informative and comfortable experience. NFL games are remarkably different without the little yellow line, and unbiased instant replay doesn’t exist at the stadium.

Still, I like to get out to MSG, Red Bull Arena, and Yankee Stadium at least once a year, and to MetLife Stadium whenever the Packers are in town just to say “I was there.” It feels strange that my ticket purchasing decisions hinge on whether or not my tweets, statuses, and photos from the game will get lots of likes and retweets, but that’s 2013 social media going to work. It’s not enough to tell your real life friends about it for social gratification—you need to push it to your network too.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in attendance at a few classic match-ups. I’ve seen Yankee-Red Sox playoff games at Yankee Stadium, Red Sox games at Fenway Park, Packer games at Lambeau Field, Giants Stadium, and MetLife Stadium; Juventus and Red Bull games at Red Bull Arena, and a nice string of Knick games at MSG: I was there for the last two Knicks playoff victories the past decade (over the Raptors and Heat, respectively), the birth of Linsanity (25 points against the Nets), and the height of Linsanity (28 points and a 3-point shot over Dirk Nowitski and the then defending NBA Champion Mavericks).

As a sports fan, I’ve been spoiled. Totally and irreversibly spoiled. I can’t go to basketball games without comparing it to the excitement of beating the Heat in the playoffs at MSG. Football games at MetLife are cold and classless compared to Lambeau Field. Baseball games without “BOSTON SUCKS” and “Pedro, Who’s Your Daddy?” chants are boring. The lens through which I view every single live sporting event I now attend is skewed, usually for the worst, because of the incredible feats, scores, and crowds I’ve been a part of in the past.

Soccer, however, is the one sport that has yet to be tainted. Red Bull games are fun, and sitting in the supporters’ section while Thierry Henry continues to bless us with his once-in-generation technique is special, but it’s still just the MLS. Outside of the supporters’ section of Red Bull Arena, nobody really cares about the game on hand, which almost makes the diligent chanting, singing, and general noise making of the supporters’ section feel disingenuous. It all feels forced when you and the 400 other diehards around you are the only ones who constantly give a damn in a 25,000 seat arena. There’s nothing hallow-hearted about the raw emotion let go after a stunning goal, but everything else in-between feels like the work of a “try-hard.”

This past week, soccer has become totally tainted for me. I’ll never be able to sit at a Red Bull match again with the same attitude. Even going to an Arsenal match at the Emirates Stadium would put me to sleep. Actually, I’ll never be able to go to another sporting event—outside of maybe the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, or World Cup—without thinking back to that night at Anfield.

Last Thursday, Liverpool played Zenit St. Petersburg at their home stadium, Anfield, in a Europa League knock-out stage tie. The Europa League is far less prestigious than the celebrated Champions League, but that doesn’t make it less important to the clubs playing in the competition. In the international arms race to acquire the best talent amongst the Petrol-dollar fueled likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, and the appeal of Barcelona and Real Madrid, any European trophy is important for a club, especially for a struggling Liverpool side.

After being defeated 2-0 in Russia the previous week by Zenit, Liverpool needed to win by at least a 2 goal margin and to not concede an away goal to advance. A mighty, but not impossible task against the Russian Premier League Champions. Liverpool and their home fans would have to conquer the Russians physically and mentally. Physically, the players had to do their jobs. Mentally… well, that’s where us fans had to bring it.

Fans of Liverpool have an architectural advantage to their mental battle, because Anfield is unlike any other stadium in the world. It’s small for a soccer club of Liverpool’s size (Liverpool is the 4th most valuable soccer club in the England, and Anfield’s capacity is 45,276. Comparatively, the most valuable club in England, Manchester United, can squeeze 75,765 fans into Old Trafford), but that works to the fan’s advantage. The playing field itself is no more than 15 feet away from the first row of seats—there are no massive sidelines full of players, reporters, and cameramen like at NFL stadiums. Anfield, which opened in 1884, has no modern amenities—there’s no big screen video board, luxury boxes, or cup holders. It’s just hunks of timber, metal, and fans.

Because of Anfield’s minor league size, and the massive overhanging roofing above large swaths of the seating, sound gets trapped within the grounds. Decibels hang over the pitch instead of dispersing into the Merseyside air. The crowd has complete control of the atmosphere, which can either lead to doom or gloom for Liverpool.

Earlier that week, I was in the stands at Anfield for an English Premier Match against Swansea City. It was an important fixture for Liverpool, but a sunny Sunday afternoon against a non-rival was never going to generate much oomph from the crowd. Still, if a player messes up, the hissing from the Anfield faithful will begin. Around the 20th minute, Liverpool winger Stewart Downing had a golden opportunity to strike from distance. The ball was teed up for him to smash into the left upper 90 of the goal. Downing had all the time in the world for a clean strike. It should’ve been a basic training ground score for him. He followed through, but his shot ended up closer to the corner flag than the frame of the goal. Anfield responded with a 45,000 hisses and grumbles, which remained in the air for a full minute after the mis-kick. It sounded like a cicada farm. The hushed whispers, grumbles, and gossip murmured on.

Downing wouldn’t dare to take another shot until after Liverpool had already established a lead, and the crowd was on their side again. He had been scared off by his own fans. If the crowd is tense, the players are too. If they’re in full-voice and gunning for the players to score, then players will feel more comfortable.

Prior to the Zenit match, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers called on fans to be their 12th man. He spoke of the Luis Garcia “ghost goal” from 2005 as a moment that was influenced by Anfield’s roars: “I was here for the first one, the ‘ghost goal’ and for me, it wasn’t a goal — it was the sheer force of the crowd that got it.” He was a coach for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the time, who were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool because of the ghost goal—a goal that was called even though Garcia’s shot never broke the plane of the goal line. It’s widely believed that it was given by referee Luboš Michel because he was pressured by the celebrations of the crowd. Mourinho himself has called it “a goal that came from the moon—from the Anfield stands.”

We heeded Rodgers’ call last Thursday. I sat in the famous Kop end of Anfield, and we were brewing a cauldron of resistance 20 minutes before kick-off.

Every time a Zenit player got on the ball, we hissed and booed until he was dispossessed. Whenever Liverpool were orchestrating a build-up play, relentless calls of “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTACK” rained down. It was relentless. The Liverpudlian sitting behind me literally didn’t stop shouting the entire match. In his scouse, he drunkenly yammered for all 90 minutes. “Come on Liverpool!” “Get in now lads!” “C’mon you Reds!” “That’s a penalty!” It didn’t stop. It was like he was single-handedly trying to will Liverpool in on goal.

Liverpool conceded the first goal of the match after defender Jamie Carragher had the ball stolen from him near his own goal by Zenit striker Hulk. This all happened, of course, while the Kop was singing “A Team Full of Carraghers”—an ode to Jamie Carragher himself. “Well that’s a bloody team full of Carraghers for ye,” quipped an elderly woman in front of me.

Liverpool, now needing to score 4 goals to advance, were basically left for dead. 100% of fan bases that I’ve been around would’ve sulked, sat on their fans, and waited out the rest of the match in bitter disappointment. These fans didn’t. We weren’t going to accept that. After Carragher’s blunder, a brief “Did that just happen?” moment was allowed for all, and the “Come on Red Men!” chants started again. We responded with more noise, more energy, and even louder singing after a calamitous death-blow. A dagger that wasn’t.

Frankly, that’s unheard of. Jet fans would’ve left immediately, Knick fans would’ve booed relentlessly, and every other American sports fan would’ve wallowed in self-deprecation and mumbled cursing.

After non-stop singing and chanting—it was like the Zenit goal never even happened—the magic of a European night at Anfield started to thicken the air. Liverpool got one back from a Luis Suarez free-kick. And then another from Joe Allen’s right foot at point-blank range. 2-1. And then this happened:

3-1 to Liverpool, all on the backbone of our voices.

Liverpool would search for a fourth goal for the remaining thirty minutes. They’d come up short. A gutting result for fans, but a courageous and near-magical one at that. There’s no way Liverpool come back and score three goals after conceding first without Anfield behind them. A reserved crowd will almost always lead to a tense match, and ultimately a disappointing final score. Never before have I witnessed a home crowd tangibly will their team to victory. If the atmosphere of that night is ever surpassed, it’ll be by fellow Liverpool fans during another Anfield night.

Sporting events back home will never be the same again, thanks to 45,276 fans from across the Atlantic on the fields of Anfield Road.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

NFL Fans Who Hate The EPL, In Fact, Do Exist In London

Two Sundays ago, I spent my first Super Bowl outside of the United States. It felt a bit sacrilegious to spend America’s Greatest Holiday in a country where they call NFL football “that elbow and rugby thing,” and refer to it as “armored egg chase.” Everywhere outside of the United States, and especially in England—the birthplace of association football—”football” is the beautiful game played exclusively with feet, not with hands and helmets.

For the first Super Bowl in four years, I didn’t have a vested interest in the game. I had no bets wagered, the Giants weren’t there to root against, my Packers weren’t there to root for, and the Drew Brees wasn’t there playing with all of post-Katrina New Orleans on his back. Still, with a considerate 11:30 PM kick-off time in London and no class until 2 PM the next day, I ventured out to the University of London’s bar for their Super Bowl party.

On the walk to the bar, I noticed that every single pub I passed (it was a half hour walk, and given that there’s at least one pub per block on London, I must’ve passed at least 3,000 pubs) was open and advertising “the Big Game.”

At UL’s bar, I expected a handful of Raven and 49er fans, a small sect of Americans wanting to watch the Super Bowl just to attain a sense of American normalcy in a foreign country, and nothing more. It was late. Kids had class the next morning. The half-time show would be on YouTube the following morning. It’s just the NFL. To my surprise, half of the bar was full of British NFL fans, all cloaked in NFL apparel, and NYU students were aplenty. Never underestimate the drawing power of a Ray Lewis speech and a Beyonce performance.

ray

383529396815311762_5951579

British NFL fans are nothing new to me. At my first Packers game at the old Giants Stadium a few years ago, I met some British Packer fans in the parking lot. With the expansion of NFL broadcasts overseas over the past twenty years, they had watched Brett Favre’s Packer teams dominate the mid-90s, and had adopted the Pack as their own, despite not even knowing where Green Bay was on the map.

I get the Packer connection. It’s a historic franchise that has produced winning seasons for the past two decades. It’d be the American equivalent of picking Manchester United as your favorite team. When there’s no natural connection, you fall in love with the consistent winner.

What didn’t make sense was the group of British NFL fans wearing Donovan McNabb, Mark Sanchez, Roy Williams, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning jerseys in the heart of London. The jerseys could’ve been just a novelty. When I go to MLS games at Red Bull Arena, it’s common to see American fans wearing whatever soccer jersey they happen to own to the game. The Red Bulls could be playing the Houston Dynamo and you’d still see about 30 Lionel Messi jerseys around the stadium. To these fans, wearing any soccer apparel to says, “Hey, we’re here because we know something about the sport.” In actuality, they probably know very little about the MLS, and could probably name only five European soccer players, but they know Messi. It’s a shame that Mark Sanchez was the finest representative the NFL had to offer for one British NFL fan.

At the bar, the NFL Brits noticed my Liverpool jersey. Worse, they saw that Joe Allen, the much lamented midfielder, was the name printed on the back of it. I should’ve known to not wear that shirt in public. It was only a matter of time until the crows came out to give me a hard time.

Here’s how the conversation went down, edited for appropriateness (you can probably guess where the warm beer-fueled expletives came in):

“Ey mate, are you a real Liverpool fan or a joke?”

“What? Why?”

“Well you’re wearing your crap club on yer chest with the name of a midget Welshman on the back.”

“5 European Cups, and 18 Leagues, that’s what we call history. Anyway, you have a JETS jersey on. You’re a disgrace to my city, the NFL, sports fans who grew up with a pre-sensationalist SportsCenter, and TMZ.”

“What’s a ‘European Cup’?”

Pause.

I had just encountered a Londoner wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey who knew enough about Liverpool to insult me but not enough about international soccer to know about the European Club Championship… WHERE WAS I?

After further conversation and a round shared with his mates, I learned that these guys actually hated the English Premier League, and only had anecdotal knowledge of their national sport through their friend’s Twitter rampages. Mr. Sanchez has a friend who’s a Liverpool fan, so the “midget Welshman” name was fresh in his mind. They admired the physicality of American football as opposed to European soccer’s divers and whiners.

Going around the table, I got to know the background stories behind these NFL Brits. Mr. Sanchez started following the Jets after a visit to New York two years ago, at the peak of the Rex Ryan era. The lad wearing the Tom Brady jersey picked the Patriots because he’s a history student and thought the Patriots’ Minuteman logo from the 90s looked cool—ironic, considering, well, you know, these Minutemen blasted his ancestors back across the Atlantic en route to Independence. The Cowboys fan had read about Tony Romo dating Jessica Simpson in the tabloids (“She has great knockers,” according to my new friend), and started tuning in every Sunday night to Cowboy games.

They couldn’t afford to make it out to the NFL In London annual games at Wembley, but those games are “the third biggest day of the year” according to one NFL Brit. The two days above in his pecking order of grand occasions: the Super Bowl and Christmas.

These were all very random roads to fandom fueled by either whims or pop culture references, but all backed up by an exceptional knowledge of the game. These fans knew the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, wondered how Kaepnerick and the 49ers’ pistol offense would fair against a strong Ravens front 7, and lamented the fact that European sports didn’t have a hard salary cap like the NFL did. Any novel reader of the game could dissect a 4-3 defense, but these guys actually knew the difference between a “hard” and “soft” salary cap. They were practically Sport Management majors!

Eventually, I left their table to participate in matters concerning Beyonce, but these fans had genuinely impressed me. I’d be hard pressed to find well-versed soccer fans at a World Cup party back in the States.

Before leaving, I asked them whether they’d like an NFL team in London one day. A resounding “YES!” was blurted in my direction. Roger Goodell, I just found your first 6 season ticket holders for your future London franchise. Finding 85,994 more to fill Wembley every Sunday shouldn’t be so hard now.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover Continued: Liverpool at Anfield Match Documentary

I finally made it to Anfield. Finally. After five years of loyalty to Liverpool FC, and over a year of planning, I finally made the trip to my Mecca. I realize, however, that millions of Liverpool fans aren’t as fortunate as I was to see a match at Anfield, so I wanted to put a video together to showcase my time in Merseyside. Thank you to everyone who let me interview them, and to the Reds for a terrific 5-0 win. YNWA.

Thank you to David Russell of Ireland for hooking me up with a ticket to the match.

393461829979386240_5951579

392688146935493587_5951579

393462483460338065_5951579

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover: Arsenal-Liverpool Match Documentary

I’m finally in England. After supporting Liverpool FC and following the EPL for five years now, I’ve traveled to London to “study abroad.” Honestly, the moment I found out I could spend a semester in London and get academic credit for it, I made the trip my goal. Although I’m here to take classes that will enrich my understanding of British culture, above all, I’m here to go to football matches and follow my beloved Liverpool.

That began last Wednesday, as Liverpool traveled to the Emirates for a tough draw with Arsenal on a cold and windy London night. Liverpool were coming off of a disastrous performance against Oldham in an FA Cup draw, but with the proper back four and 4-3-3 shape installed once again, I reckoned that we’d see a better performance from the Reds. A draw was always on the cards, and that’s just how the match ended up. 2-2.

It was disappointing to see Liverpool throw away a 2-0 lead in the second half, but Arsenal deserved those goals, as they out-shot, out-possessed, and terrorized Liverpool with consistent pressing and lightening quick build-up play. I’ll take the point.

Just like I did with the Boston match over the summer, I put together a mini-documentary of this match. I interviewed fans around the ground, got some great shots of the pitch, and ate my first pie! Watch it below. I hope to attend 2-3 more Liverpool matches, so look out for me England! I’m here!

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

New Years Resolutions For Five Sports Figures

Unlike these sports figures who wish 2012 could last forever, these five are happy that they’re being granted clemency in the form of a new year. New year, new leaf. Their New Years resolutions are…

The New York Jets
To stop sucking.
The 2012 New York Jets may have been the worst 6-10 team in NFL history, at least from a viewer’s perspective. Living in the New York area, and not having Fox (thanks NYU Campus cable) forced me to watch every Jet game this season. Sportswriters love to use the word “joke” to describe especially awful teams/players/coaches, but the Jets were a joke this year in the most literal sense of the word. They were actually funny to watch. The Mark Sanchez Comedy Club was in full-swing, starring: Tebow’s Bench Spot, Shonn Greene’s Yards Per Carry Average, Every Jet Receiver, Brandon Moore’s Butt Cheeks, Fireman Ed, and Rex Ryan’s Neck Flab.

Every game, just when you thought that things couldn’t get any worse for the Jets, they did. For many teams, they’ll hit rock bottom at some point in the game, and that’ll be it. They’ll keel over and die, going into damage limitation mode. The Jets, however, managed to always hit rock-bottom in each of their 10 losses, and then actually exceed that bottom point. Whether it’s the Sanchez butt-fumble, or throwing away the Titans game at least 10 different times, these Jets just didn’t know when to stop sucking. After the Titans game, my roommate—a Jets fan—actually vomited, screaming out, “I can’t take it anymore! He [Mark Sanchez] is so bad!”

For years, the Jets have been a circus. It’s been great reality TV, beyond the Hard Knocks episodes. This is what owner Woody Johnson wanted, and it’s worked. They’ve been the more talked about New York football team the past four years, have signed every controversial player, and have provided every pull-quote to make the organization a continuous SportsCenter headline. This past season was the season when the circus animals got rabies, broke out of their chains, and killed the carnies. Huge financial commitments to several veterans may prevent them from cleaning house this offseason, but at some point, this front office and roster needs to be burned to the ground.

Demarcus Cousins
To control myself and think about how my actions hurt other people.
Yes Demarcus, please calm down. He’s near the half-way point of his 3rd NBA season, and he’s already clashed with two head coaches. His first, Paul Westphal, sent Cousins home last season, because he was “unwilling/unable to embrace traveling in the same direction as his team.” Ouch. More recently, the Kings suspended him indefinitely for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team”—a suspension that lasted two total days.

Cousins is a a great NBA big (not many centers are capable of putting up 25 and 15 on any given night at age 22), and could be an elite NBA player, which is why he’s getting away with murdering the Kings. Westphal was fired soon after his bout with Cousins, and an indefinite suspension that ended up being only two days suggests that he’s holding the franchise hostage with his talent. Perhaps the Kings are still letting him play to boost his trade value, but Cousins needs to realize that he’s the best player on an NBA team, albeit a bad one. He has a chance to give the Kings life again, and possibly save NBA basketball in Sacramento with his success (I’m sure Seattle basketball fans would welcome his talents with open-arms). His future probably lies with a different franchise, but unless Cousins improves his approach to professional basketball, new pastures will be no brighter.

Wesley Sneijder
To get on the pitch and see Jose Mourinho, stat.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Three years ago, Sneijder was coming off of a brilliant Champions League winning season with Inter, and a second-place finish at the World Cup. He was perhaps the most creative midfield force in the world, and undoubtedly the Dutch’s best player in South Africa. He was quoted at £35 million, and the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United were hot for his signature. Now, he’s available on a free from Inter, and the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal have all snubbed moves for him, because of his greed. It seems like ever since Jose Mourinho left Inter, the club and Sneijder have taken a nose-dive on the pitch. Sneijder himself hasn’t touched a Serie A pitch since September due to a contract dispute, and his international star is fading fast. He needs to swallow his pride, and take the pay-cut that he’s earned, because he hasn’t been good since 2010. A move to Tottenham or Liverpool would suit him, as each side lack world-beating Number 10s, but at this point, it seems like Sneijder is only knows what’s best for his Swiss bank account.

Aston Villa
To hug our mothers, and play some defense.
Aston Villa have been League One worthy in the month of December. Actually, they’ve been historically bad. Their 14 goals allowed over the past three matches set an EPL record for most goals conceded over that span. Paul Lambert’s side are in a rebuilding phase—the plan this year was to let the kids play. It’s an easy cop-out for the manager and supporters. If the team does well, then that means Villa’s youth is maturing quickly. If the team does poorly, then the results can be blamed on inexperience. This defending, however, is not due to youthful mistakes or lack of talent. This is just piss poor effort, cluelessness bred by bad communication and management, and (I guess) Gareth Bale’s speed.
708178358
Out of every EPL team, 2013 couldn’t have come quicker for Aston Villa. If you know a Villa fan, buy them a cup of tea, and give them a hug. They need it.

Gary Bettman
To get back on the ice.
I don’t watch hockey. I don’t follow hockey. I only somewhat care about hockey when the New Jersey Devils make the finals, but even last year, I found LeBron v. Celtics more interesting. Hockey, however, is a sport that’s 1,000,000% better when watched at the actual game. I’ll never watch the sport on TV, but if I had some tickets to a Rangers game? Sure! I’m there.

Right now, Gary Bettman is destroying a beautiful live product because of his unwavering stance in CBA negotiations. Although there are millions of fans and families who desperately want NHL hockey back, the ESPN-centric sports world is simply moving on. I watch some SportsCenter every day, and I can’t remember the last time the NHL lockout was covered. During the NFL lockout, every outlet was making any movement at the negotiation table their lead story. If Goodell had crossed swords with an NFLPA lawyer in the restroom, we’d know. Not only is Bettman losing the NHL, but he’s losing the public’s interest. No NHL? No problem. Goodell and Stern are happily filling the void.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49