Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Grantland "Best Song of the Millennium" Bracket

I'm a big fan of I started reading Bill Simmons in 2004 and I've probably read every article he's written since 2007. His site isn't perfect, but it's a pretty good model of how to succeed in internet journalism: get support from a big backer (ESPN), hire great talent and combine interesting/unique analysis with great storytelling. I'm not a fan of every writer on the site -- in fact, there are some writers who I actively dislike. But I love reading Simmons, and every piece from the lead writers for each of the big three sports (Bill Barnwell for football, Zach Lowe for basketball, Jonah Keri for baseball) is a must read. All three of those guys really do their homework and it shows in the consistently high quality of their writing.

What I want to talk about in this article, however, is the other half of Simmons' website: pop culture. No doubt, there is talent on that side as well (Andy Greenwald is the best companion to Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad that a guy could ask for). But I find it very interesting that the well-reasoned, objective analysis that is so prominent in the sports portion of Grantland is cast asunder when it comes to pop culture. Every time I read a piece by Barnwell or Lowe or Keri, I know that they will have evidence for every claim they make. Even if I don't agree with them, they always make a compelling enough case that I have to consider their argument seriously. In following the "Best Song of the Millennium" bracket that Grantland unveiled last week, I've noticed the complete opposite from the site's pop culture articles. I should note a few disclaimers before I begin my argument:

  • Pop culture is inherently more subjective than sports. It is much harder to be objective when a larger portion of the subject matter is subject to taste.
  • I do not read Grantland's pop culture articles as much as its sports articles.
  • This bracket is meant to be (ostensibly) for fun. So I understand that some of the writers discussing the bracket may be a bit more subjective than they normally would for a traditional piece.
With that said, the Grantland writers who have commented on the bracket either a) are completely self-centered; b) have no ability to empathize whatsoever; c) are total music snobs; or d) some combination of all three. When I viewed the initial bracket (available here), I thought that, overall, the Grantland staff had done a pretty good job of putting it together. Squeezing 13.5 years of music into a 64-song bracket was always going to be tough, and they did seem to under-represent country (and this is coming from someone who hates country music) and managed to leave out "Lose Yourself" (really?). But after assigning themselves an almost-impossible task, I'd give the Grantland staff an A- on bracket assembly.

What angered me is the self-righteousness emanating from the writers as each round played out. My favorite song since 2000 is "When You Were Young" by The Killers. But when it was left off the bracket, I wasn't upset. I understood: not everyone likes that song as much as I do. I put my eggs in the "Mr. Brightside" basket and was pleasantly surprised to see it keep chugging along, knocking out #1 seed "Since U Been Gone" in the second round and ultimately advancing all the way to the semifinals before losing to "Hey Ya!" Judging by the reaction I get when I tell people my favorite band is The Killers, having Mr. Brightside named the unofficial best song of 2004-2007 was a pretty good accomplishment. (Quick story: A few months ago, I told a girl that my favorite band was The Killers. She said that she really liked them 7th grade. Cue snickers from the rest of the table). 

Yet to hear Grantland's Rembert Browne tell it, the fact that "Mr. Brightside" was even in the semifinals was a crime against music. Here's what he wrote when he received a (incorrect) message that "Mr. Brightside" had beaten "Hey Ya!" to advance to the final.

3. This is not the world Dr. King envisioned.

I hope that every person who repeatedly voted for "Mr. Brightside" to make it out of a region with "Since U Been Gone," "Paper Planes," "Rehab," "Yeah," and "INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS ANTHEM" looks in the mirror after the pro-Killers results, fist-pumps, and reads aloud the text on their shirt: "Stand for something or nothing at all."

I can understand someone liking "Hey Ya!" more than "Mr. Brightside." Personally, I enjoy both songs. There's a case to be made. It's just that no one at Grantland is making it. I've read Browne's pieces for the site, and they're supposed to be fun. His role isn't to perform rigorous analysis on pop culture -- it's to go out and collect stories. But what I've noticed in following this bracket is how much this approach differs from the one taken by the site's sportswriters. In Browne's article, not once does he mention what makes "Hey Ya!" a better song than "Mr. Brightside." Instead, the article is about him measuring his outrage and finding a humorous way to express how much of a tragedy a "Mr. Brightside" victory would be. Again, I understand. His assignment was not: write why "Hey Ya!" is better than "Mr. Brightside." 

Yet by reading the article (and becoming increasingly frustrated as Browne completely discounted a song that people liked enough to vote to the semifinals), I realized that, as a reader (and a writer), I really need to see people support their claims. I credit my high school social studies teachers for this approach -- they always stressed evidence in crafting an argument. Since most of writing involves crafting an argument, evidence is therefore vital. To me, it is frustrating to read an impassioned, one-sided take that is totally critical of one side. Such an article would never run on the sports portion of Grantland. Yet in the pop culture section, it is far too common. 

Here's Grantland's Sean Fennessey on the quarterfinals results:

I can see now that we've made a grave mistake.

What do [these songs] say about us now, as a society of consumers? Mostly, I think, that we feed on nostalgia like so much Fruit by the Foot. This is what we tell ourselves at Grantland HQ to reconcile the wreckage of the last six days. Here is what happened yesterday, you monsters.

The Killers are revivalists; their songs are about 30 and 20 and 10 years ago. "Mr. Brightside" has a riff like a scythe and a chorus made for karaoke. But it is ultimately homage. Are we prepared to say that across the span of four very important years — years of terror, social unrest, a lurking financial collapse, and Fear Factor — that the Killers defined the time? Give me Usher Raymond in a laser club and a pair of Air Force Ones or give me death.

I actually respect Fennessey's take more than Browne's because it appears that he's actually listened to "Mr. Brightside." But where in the bracket bylaws does it say that a song has to "define its time"? Fennessey's argument here is so short that it's difficult to completely dissect, but it's unclear what about "Mr. Brightside" makes it so much more of an homage than "Yeah!" By this reasoning, isn't all music (and culture) homage? "Mr. Brightside" and "Yeah!" are both pop songs. The bracket was designed to see which one Grantland readers liked more. That's all that's going on here. Don't discount "Mr. Brightside" for its lack of grand social impact and then conclude the same paragraph with a joke. Either make a serious argument or don't make one at all.

Here's Emily Yoshida on the results from the round of 16:

It's not funny anymore. You know we added a Killers song to this list out of charity, right? We felt bad because there weren't enough "rock songs" in the bracket and so I turned to Mark Lisanti and was like "Uh, the Killers? Did people like the Killers? Sure, throw the emo kids a bone, it'll shut em up before Kelly Clarkson massacres the lower left corner of the bracket." I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself.

What is it about "Mr. Brightside" that makes it so inconceivable that a large number of people would vote for it in this bracket? I get that the angle many pop culture writers try to employ is that they're "above" certain genres or types of songs, even if, deep down, they're lying to themselves. I don't happen to subscribe to that angle -- I'll admit to you that I have eight Britney Spears songs on my iPod and that I really enjoy seven of them. I'll admit that there's no shame in a guy liking Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth." I''ll even admit that -- GASP! -- I'm a Nickelback fan. Judge me however you want, but in a subjective medium such as music, I don't care if snobs look down on me because I don't have a hard-on for Jay-Z and Kanye West (which is apparently a prerequisite for writing about pop culture for Grantland). 

Rather, what disturbs me most is that people who write about pop culture for a living seem to have no concept of what that even means. Pop culture is short for popular culture. If your job is to write about it, shouldn't you have an idea of what is popular? Should it really surprise you when a song that was popular when it came out and still gets plenty of airplay in alternative rock circles is still popular now?  Nah, it's easier to just make fun of the song (and the people who like it) than considering the possibility that one person's thoughts and subjective tastes do not carry across the nation.What a foreign concept that other people's views could differ so drastically from your own.

"Mr. Brightside" didn't win "Best Song of the Millennium." I can comprehend that a song I really like didn't win. Why can't anyone at Grantland understand why a song that they don't like almost did?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Losing in Fantasy is Different (and Sometimes Worse) Than Losing in Real Life

Brees scored more fantasy points than
anyone else in 2012 according to my league's settings

I had my fantasy football draft on Saturday morning. It's the third straight year I'll be in a league with my high school buddies, and after finishing 1st and 3rd in the first two editions, I'm hoping to return to the top of the standings in 2013. I won as Team Gronk and got 3rd as Return of the Gronk. Although Episode III: Revenge of the Gronk was too long for a team name (for some reason, Yahoo! has a 20-character limit), that will, for all intents and purposes, be my team name in 2013, even though it's officially listed as Revenge of the Gronk. I'll try to not to spend that much time talking about the details of the draft and my teams, since we all know that hearing about someone else's fantasy football team is about as interesting as an 11th-grade chemistry lecture. But I wanted to take a minute to quickly share my biggest frustration about fantasy football.

I only started seriously playing fantasy football in 2011. My dad and I once co-managed a team in 2003 but after getting murdered by Priest Holmes (the guy in our league that had him left two roster spots open and still beat us the week we played him), I decided to just focus my attention on following the games, rather than the stats. But a couple years ago, one of my buddies suggested we start a league and I decided to give it a shot. I had played a lot of fantasy baseball, but my interest peaked at the draft and fell off sharply once the season starts. Six months and 162 games is just too long for me to pay attention. The idea of beating my friends was fun, but I could not commit to monitoring my team on a daily basis. 

With fantasy football, it's different. Though games are played on three different days every week, you really only need to set your roster once. Make sure you put in your waiver requests by the deadline and check that everyone on your team is healthy (and not on a bye week) and you're pretty much done. You can spend a lot of time digging for deep sleepers, but to be a competent fantasy GM, you only need to spend about an hour on it every week (though I find myself on there a lot more checking standings and my players' stats). Nothing I've written here is groundbreaking; in fact, anyone who plays fantasy football right now is probably asking why I've spent a couple hundred words outlining stuff any fantasy player already knows. 

I wanted to remind myself -- and the reader -- about what goes in to managing a successful fantasy football team because when the games start on Sunday (or Thursday night, whatever), I get a sense of personal satisfaction when my team does well. Not the team whose jersey I buy or whose games I go to; my fantasy team, that I assemble and manage. But when things go bad, it can really, really suck. A fantasy loss is different from a real-life loss. When my NFL team loses, it sucks, it's frustrating and it ruins my day. In college, my friends could tell how the Patriots had done each Sunday by reading my expression at the dining hall that night. 

But a fantasy loss is different. First, it lasts way longer. You can start losing on Thursday night and not finish until Monday night. Entering the Monday night game down 10 points and knowing that you could win with an outsize-but-not-totally-unrealistic performance from Darren Sproles is a frustrating way to exist. Losing due to injuries sucks as well. In real life, your team can put in a backup who, though not as good as your superstar, is still a capable NFL player (well, unless you root for the Jets). In fantasy, once your player is out, he's done scoring for the day. If his backup comes in and scores three touchdowns, his real-life team will be ecstatic but you won't score any more fantasy points. And losing in fantasy really sucks because, unlike with your real-life team, you can't commiserate with anyone else. Sure, half of all fantasy players will lose in any given week. But, as Tolstoy wrote, 

"Real-life NFL losses are all alike; every fantasy loss is a loss in its own way."

Basically, what I'm saying is that when the Patriots lose, I can read about it in the Boston Globe, listen to people talk about it on the radio and dissect it with my friends. I know that everyone's experiencing the same thing as me. With a fantasy loss, you're all alone. No one else experienced the exact same circumstances as me and, what's more; nobody cares. No one wants to hear about how I lost because the only thing they care about is how they did the week before. The most you'll get is a "Oh yeah, I had LeSean McCoy too, stinks that he fumbled away that touchdown." It can be fun to watch games of other NFL teams, but no one wants to follow a matchup of other fantasy teams. 

However, the worst part of a fantasy loss -- the part that can make it worse from a real-life loss (in rare cases) -- is that I hand something to do with it. I can scream my brains out at a Patriots game, but I never feel guilty after any of them because I know that I had no way of impacting the outcome of the game. Not so in fantasy. If I bench a guy who ends up scoring three touchdowns, I end up feeling guilty for not starting him. Even though I had no real control over it (does anyone truly know when a guy is going to erupt for three scores?), it feels like I did. It's the same feeling we get when our March Madness brackets fail. We had no way of knowing that Kansas would choke away that game to Michigan or that Florida Gulf Coast would go to the Sweet 16. But because we had the opportunity to pick them, we experience our failure differently than the failure of our team, something we have no control over. Even though both real-life and fantasy losses are determined by other people, that feeling of control and the guilt associated with it is what makes a fantasy loss different -- and sometimes, worse -- than a real one.

Oh, and for anyone who's interested in how my team turned out (which, I would guess, is no one), here's the roster for Episode III: Revenge of the Gronk. It's a points-per-reception league and we also start one individual defensive player.

Week 1 starters:
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina
Stevie Johnson, WR, Buffalo
Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco
Jason Witten, TE, Dallas
Garrett Hartley, K, New Orleans
Denver defense
Chad Greenway, LB, Minnesota

Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans
Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland
Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England
Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati

Cardiff City 3 Manchester City 2

Gunnarsson scores Cardiff's first goal on a memorable day in South Wales

What: Cardiff City vs. Manchester City, Barclays Premier League

Where: Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Wales

When: 25 August 2013

When I sat down -- or, more accurately, lied down -- to watch Cardiff vs. Man City, I expected a spirited fight from the home side but a relatively comfortable victory for Man City, who looked the best of any team last week with their commanding 4-0 victory over Newcastle. 45 goalless minutes later, I realized I needed to give the Premier League new boys more credit. Though Cardiff did not look particularly impressive in losing 2-0 at West Ham last weekend, they won the Championship by eight points last season and owner Vincent Tan opened his pocketbook over the summer, breaking the club's transfer record three times to bring in Andreas Cornelius, Steven Caulker and Gary Medel. They looked every bit as likely to score as Man City, and though they fell behind on 52 minutes after a moment of quality from Edin Dzeko (who somehow squeezed a screamer of a shot between two Cardiff defenders), they were level just eight minutes later. Kim Bo-Kyung streaked down the right side of the box and sent in a perfect ball to Fraizer Campbell, whose initial attempt was blocked by City keeper Joe Hart. But neither Hart nor his defenders could clear the rebound and Aron Gunnarsson pounced on their hesitation, smashing the ball into the City net. 

From there, City were exposed on a pair of corner kicks, with Campbell heading home each time. Hart got caught in no-man's-land on the first one, failing to punch clear, while Campbell simply beat his man for the third goal. Alvaro Negredo pulled one back for City on 90 minutes, but Cardiff held firm through six minutes of stoppage time for a famous win in their first Premier League match at home. Some scattered thoughts on the match:

  • Campbell's speed gave the City defenders some real problems at the back. City clearly missed injured captain Vincent Kompany at the back, as Campbell was able to get in behind Joleon Lescott several times. A few poor decisions from the linesman meant that Cardiff couldn't always finish their moves, but Campbell always looked the most threatening player to score and his two goals were well-deserved.
  • After they were untested at the back by Newcastle on Monday (just one shot on goal), we got a better look at City's defense and the signs weren't terribly promising. Cardiff looked much better organized at the back despite facing much more firepower, and Hart turned in another shaky performance following his game for England against Scotland last week. He'll need to be in better form than this if England want to qualify and do anything at the World Cup.
  • Cardiff did exactly what a projected bottom-half team should do at home in the Premier League. They were unafraid of the occasion and took it to City, knowing that they could get a point and ending up with all three. Now they must show that they're able to get points consistently at home. It's harder to get fired up for Southampton or Sunderland at home in December, but those matches count just as much as the one they played today.
  • Cardiff have got to come up with a better name for their stadium. Even a sponsored name would sound better than the boring Cardiff City Stadium. I love the names of old grounds that don't even sound like stadiums -- Old Trafford, Highbury, Stamford Bridge. When I hear those names, I think exclusively of football (though I am aware that Old Trafford is also a cricket ground). While coming up with an iconic name like those would be difficult, almost anything is better than Cardiff City Stadium. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

2013 IAAF World Championships, Day Nine

Kiprop defends his 1500m title in dominating fashion

What: 2013 IAAF World Championships, day nine

Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia

When: 18 August 2013

As a men’s track athlete, the most interesting events to me at this year’s World Championships were, unsurprisingly, the men’s track events. As a fan of sport, most of the finals were good races. But as a fan of sporting drama, this year’s Worlds was one of the weakest in recent memory.

Consider this: In the eight flat men’s races (100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, 5000, 10000 and marathon), seven were won by a past World or Olympic champion. The only race in which we had a new champion was the 800, and that was because the overwhelming favorite, 2012 Olympic and 2011 World champion David Rudisha, was not in Moscow due to injury.

If you add in the hurdle races and relays, it becomes slightly more dramatic. David Oliver and Jehue Gordon were new titlists in the 110 and 400 hurdles, respectively, with Gordon’s .01 second victory over Michael Tinsley making the 400 hurdles one of the most exciting races of the championships. But Ezekiel Kemboi expectedly won a fourth straight global steeplechase title, Jamaica won its fifth straight 4x100 title and the US won the 4x400, again. Though they were upset by the Bahamas at the Olympics last year, the United States has now won seven of the last eight 4x400 global titles and were the heavy favorites in Moscow.

I appreciate greatness as much as the next guy, but in some races – particularly the men’s long distance races, where the outcome was clear as soon as the pace started to dawdle – the results were pretty anticlimactic. I looked back at every World Championships/Olympics starting with Sydney 2000 (that’s 11 total) and looked for how many first-time gold medalists (meaning that the winner of the event had never won a previous Olympic or World outdoor title) there were each time in the men’s running events. There are 11 running events, and in 2013, there were only 3 new gold medalists. The average over that period? 5.91. So there were almost half as many new gold medalists as usual. When you add in that there were only 3 new gold medalists at London 2012 and that 7 of the 11 winners on the women’s side were also former champions, two things become clear. First, we have some real all-time greats competing on the track at the moment. Second, and consequently, the outcomes over the past couple years have been more anticlimactic than usual.

Here are two more of my post-Worlds thoughts:

1.  Usain Bolt just completed one of the most dominating six-year stretches in history for any athlete, in any sport


That’s what Usain Bolt has accomplished in the 14 global track finals he’s finished since 2008. 14 races, 14 golds. His only blemish was a DQ in the 100m final at Worlds in 2011, and video evidence suggests that he may not have been the one to trigger that false start. He’s also set 8 world records in that timespan across the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.

But it’s not just that Bolt has been dominant, or even that he’s been the best of all time in the sprints. It is the manner in which he has done it. Bolt hasn’t set an individual record since 2009, but that’s only because the records he set at 100 and 200 meters were completely mind-blowing, much faster than anyone conceived possible. Before Bolt’s first world record, a 9.72 second clocking in the 100m in May 2008, the world record was Asafa Powell’s 9.74 from 2007. If you want the world record for someone who hasn’t since failed a drug test (and Bolt hasn’t), it was Maurice Greene’s 9.79 from 1999. Within 15 months, the 100 record would be down to 9.58 seconds. Before the 2008 Olympics, many considered Michael Johnson’s 200 world record of 19.32 from 1996 one of the most unbreakable marks on the board. Tyson Gay’s 19.62 in 2007 was the closest anyone had come to touching that time, and if you know sprints, you know that .30 seconds is not close. Bolt ran 19.30 at the Olympics; at next year’s worlds, he ran 19.19 into a headwind. Bolt didn’t just break world records; he made us completely reconsider what was possible in athletics, the same way Babe Ruth did in baseball in the 1920s.

I’m not going to try and make cross-sport comparisons because those can be argued many different ways. Michael Phelps was incredibly dominant from 2003 to 2008. Ditto Roger Federer in the same timeframe. Or Michael Jordan from 1988 to 1993. Just know that any argument about the greatest athlete of all time has to include Bolt now. And if he can keep this up for a few more years, I will be able to make a very compelling case that he’s better than all of them.

2. The United States’ middle-distance runners are better now than at any time in recent memory

I don’t have enough knowledge of the history of the sport to argue that the US middle-distance squad of the past few years is the best in the nation’s history, but it’s certainly the strongest it’s been since the Africans became major players on the world scene in the ’70s.

The US medaled in all four middle-distance races (men’s and women’s 800 and 1500). Kenya medaled in three. No other nation medaled in more than one. Kenya is still the country to beat (it had two golds and a bronze to the US’s three silvers and a bronze, and two of its 800 medalists from London were out injured), but the US is firmly ensconced in the second spot.

It’s something that’s been building for a while now. Leonel Manzano won the US’s only mid-d medal at last year’s Olympics in the men’s 1500, but Americans just missed out on medals in the men’s 800 (4th and 5th), men’s 1500 (4th) and women’s 800 (5th). 2011 was just as successful, with Jenny Simpson’s gold and Matt Centrowitz’s bronze in the 1500 accompanied by a 4th in the women’s 800 by Alysia Montano and a 5th in the men’s 800 by Nick Symmonds. Check out the list below of which nations have the most medals over the last three global championships (Moscow 2013, London 2012, Daegu 2011), as well as the American mid-d medals from 2013.

Most medals, men’s and women’s middle distance events, 2011-2013

Kenya, 9 (5 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze)
United States, 7 (1 gold, 4 silver, 2 bronze)
Russia, 5 (2 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze)
South Africa, 3 (2 silver, 1 bronze)
Turkey, 2 (1 gold, 1 silver)
10 other nations, 1

US mid-d medals at 2013 World Championships

Men’s 800: Nick Symmonds, silver
Men’s 1500: Matt Centrowitz, silver
Women’s 800: Brenda Martinez, bronze
Women’s 1500: Jenny Simpson, silver

That’s a very successful haul for the United States.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

2013-14 Barclays Premier League, Opening Day

Van Persie has his first of the season and United are
on their way to their first league win of the Moyes era

What: The opening day of the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League Season

Where: Various grounds across England and Wales

When: 17 August 2013

Saturday was an unofficial holiday in England. After three months of waiting, the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League season kicked off at seven grounds in England and Wales. Even though Manchester United ran away with the championship last season, managerial changes at the three top clubs makes the title race wide open this year.

2013-14 will be an important season in the United States as well. NBC bought the rights to the Premier League from FOX and will be making every single game available to their subscribers on NBC, NBC Sports Network or online. How the Premier League does ratings-wise will have a big impact on the battle between NBC Sports Network and the newly-launched FOX Sports 1, each of which will be battling for the No. 2 spot behind ESPN in the sports network ratings.

I watched two games on Saturday and caught the end of a third. Luckily for me, there wasn’t a stinker among them. I don’t really have much to offer on Liverpool-Stoke as I only saw the very end, though I was impressed by new signing Simon Mignolet’s double-save – first on Jonathan Walters’ penalty and then on Kenwyne Jones’ follow-up – to briefly send the Reds top of the League with a 1-0 win. Here’s what I saw in the other two games:

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 3

Arsenal got off to a dream start at home with an early goal by Olivier Giroud – the same man who scored twice to lift Arsenal to a 3-2 win over my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup in January. However two goals from Christian Benteke – one a penalty, one a rebound off a missed penalty – and a late insurance goal from debutant Antonio Luna gave Aston Villa all three points. Making matters worse, Arsenal finished the game with only 10 men when Laurent Koscielny received his second yellow card at the 63-minute mark.

After barely edging Tottenham for the final Champions League spot last season – a spot they still have to secure over two legs against Fenerbahce, starting Wednesday – I’m sure there are some Arsenal fans freaking out about losing, at home, to a team that was six points from relegation last season. Chances are, Gunners fans will blame one of two people for the loss:

1. The referee (Anthony Taylor)

Taylor made three key decisions: he awarded Villa a penalty when Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny dove at the feet of Gabriel Agbonlahor; he awarded another when Koscielny tackled Agbonlahor in the box in the second half; and he sent off Koscielny two minutes later for a challenge on Andreas Weimann (second yellow). The first decision was close, but probably correct. The second decision was close, but probably incorrect. Koscielny got ball first, but Taylor had a tough angle on the incident. With the speed at which the play happened, it’s understandable (if not correct) that Taylor might get a call wrong. The third decision was correct – Koscielny deserved a yellow for his challenge on Weimann – though if Taylor had got the previous decision correct, Koscielny would not have been on a yellow card to begin with. Still, it was irresponsible of Koscielny to come in so rashly, especially after he was just booked. Taylor made a bad decision and it may have impacted the game. But bad decisions are part of the game; Taylor alone was not the reason Arsenal lost.

2. Arsene Wenger

After Arsenal conceded their second goal, fans started to boo. Initially, it appeared as if they were booing Taylor, but it became apparent that the boos were actually directed toward longtime manager Wenger. Wenger took criticism for his inability to land a big name to improve the squad, particularly in attack. Losing players like Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas in recent years has been difficult for the fanbase, especially when neither has been adequately replaced. Yet I’m sure that Wenger would have liked to keep some, if not all of those players and that he’s been trying to get his hands on talent any way he can, notably making a reported bid of 40 million pounds for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. But when other teams have more money than you – and more recent success – it can be difficult to convince them to sign. Wenger is finding this out. Perhaps it is a case of Wenger making his bed and having to sleep in it (had he won more over the last eight years, he’d have better luck in the transfer market), but Wenger was not the man to blame for the loss against Villa. Really, there’s only one person to blame... 

3. Nobody

That’s right. Saturday was just one of those days for Arsenal. How many more times this season will they concede two penalties and have a man sent off? Once? Twice? They were victims of a bad call, and that call had an effect on the rest of the match. As I mentioned above, Koscielny was sent off for his second yellow, and once Arsenal went behind 2-1, they had to become more aggressive, leading to Luna’s breakaway goal with five minutes to play. None of these things suggest larger problems for Arsenal. They had more possession than Aston Villa (54% to 46%) and more shots (16 to 9). Saturday was simply a freak day when everything went wrong for Arsenal.

This doesn’t mean I’m predicting that Arsenal will win the league. But if 2013-14 ends up being a disaster for Arsenal, it will be for reasons other than the ones we saw on Saturday.

Swansea City 1 Manchester United 4

This game taught me a few things and also confirmed some things I already knew. I learned that Swansea’s defense could be leaky this season – they had trouble closing down on Man U when they had the ball in the Swansea penalty area. Van Persie had far too much space for his opener, but he is a difficult man to contain – after all, he did score 26 times in the league last year. Antonio Valencia went unmarked at the far post on United’s second goal, redirecting Patrice Evra’s cross in front of goal and leaving a simple finish for Danny Welbeck.

Manchester United also confirmed their class in this one. Van Persie took a brilliant second by picking the ball up in the Swansea half, making space and firing home powerfully with his left foot from just outside the box. United’s fourth may have been the best of the bunch, as Wayne Rooney played Welbeck in before the 22-year-old sent an exquisite chip over Swansea keeper Michel Vorm.

My biggest takeaway though, was that United seem as if they will be just fine under new boss David Moyes. This was a comprehensive victory away from home, in the pouring rain. It was classic Man U football – mercilessly seizing upon an opponent’s weakness, yet still playing with class when they had to. It all added up to a 4-1 win that ensures Man U will start this season in the same place they ended the last one – on top of the league.

Friday, August 16, 2013

2013 IAAF World Championships, Men's 5,000m Final

Mo Farah completes the double in Moscow on Friday

What: 2013 IAAF World Championships, day seven

Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia

When: 16 August 2013

A few takeaways after Mo Farah held off Hagos Gebrhiwet and Isiah Koech to win gold in the 5,000m in Moscow on Friday.

1. No European runner has had a better three-year stretch than Mo Farah from 2011-13.

With his fifth straight global gold medal on Friday, Mo Farah became the greatest British runner of all time. He’s been the most dominant distance runner on the planet for three years now. Check out what he’s accomplished since 2011:

2011: European record, 10,000m (26:46.57); Worlds 10,000m silver, Worlds 5,000m gold
2012: Olympic 10,000m gold, Olympic 5,000m gold
2013: European record, 1,500m (3:28.81, #6 all-time); Worlds 10,000m gold, Worlds 5,000m gold

That’s an astonishing list.

2. The Kenyans and Ethiopians continue to shoot themselves in the feet.

Every one of Mo Farah’s five global golds has played out in a similar fashion: Farah will move to the lead at some point in the final three laps, steadily accelerate the pace and finally leave everyone in the dust over the final 100m. None of the races have been particularly fast by his standards: his winnings times in the 5,000m were 13:23, 13:41 and 13:26; in the 10,000m, they were 27:30 and 27:21.

However, during that span, Mo Farah ran one other global final: the 10,000m at Worlds in 2011. In that race, Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia ran 27:13 to upset Farah for the gold. That time is clearly much faster than either of the times in Farah’s 10,000m victories. And, using the Purdy equivalence chart, 27:13 equates to 13:00 for 5,000m. It’s undoubtedly a better performance than any of the times from Farah’s 5,000m wins.

With this evidence in hand, the strategy should be clear: Farah is more vulnerable in a faster race. Farah’s competitors in the 5,000m didn’t have the benefit of that last data point (results of the 2013 5,000m) before devising their strategies for the race. But after factoring in what Farah’s done over the past few years and watching the 10,000m field employ the same (losing) tactics, isn’t it obvious what should have happened?

There are problems about setting up a fast race in a global final. Only one man can win, so those that don’t will question themselves about what would have happened in a slow race. It’s difficult to coordinate, as athletes from the same country often have different coaches and different levels of confidence in their fitness. And, most frustrating of all, there’s no concrete evidence that Farah wouldn’t win in a fast race anyway. After all, his only loss this year came off of sickness at the Pre Classic in June, and he just ran 3:28 in Monaco last month.

Nevertheless, if I was trying to knock off Farah, here’s what I would have done: try and set up a fast pace (12:55-13:00) over the first 4,000m. The Kenyans and Ethiopians were apparently reluctant to do this (though Koech did try to push it early on before coming back to the pack), but I’d pitch it that the more people that buy in, the easier the pace work becomes. It’s a lot easier to run 62s when five people are splitting the work than it is with two. After 4,000m, the pacing is done and it’s every man for himself. Farah might still try to control from the front, but that’s a lot harder to do when you’ve been running 13:00 pace the whole way. It might not have worked, but it’s a lot better than the current sit-and-kick strategy that has been tried (and failed) in the last five global finals.

3. Where does he go from here?

There are no Olympics or World Championships next year, so Farah will make his marathon debut in London in April. I’m not quite sure what his plans will be after that, but I’d love to see him make a run at Mohammed Mourhit’s European records at 3,000m and 5,000m (7:26.62 and 12:49.71, respectively). I think Kenenisa Bekele’s world records at 5,000m and 10,000m are safe, but have no doubt that Farah, in his current form, could run 12:49 (and potentially much, much faster) in the right race.

4. How long will he stay on top?

Farah will be 32 by the time the next World Championships in Beijing roll around in 2015. It’s easy to forget because he only started making noise on the global scene in 2011, but Farah has been around for a while now. For comparison’s sake, the two other medalists on Friday – Gebrhiwet and Koech – will both be 21 in Beijing. 

This isn’t good news for Farah. Since the World Championships began in 1983, the oldest man to win gold in the 5,000 at Worlds or the Olympics is Bernard Lagat, who was 32 when he won the 5,000 in 2007. In the 10,000, it’s even less promising. Last Saturday, Farah became the oldest man in that span to win a global 10,000 title, at age 30. The second-oldest to do so? Farah in 2012. You could make the point that if he’s already become the oldest man to win a title, Farah might just be an exception to the rule. But we have years of data suggesting that 32-year-old men don’t win gold medals at Worlds. It’s a lot more likely that Farah becomes part of the norm, rather than the exception. If you asked me right now, I’d say that one of Gebrhiwet or Koech has a better chance of winning gold in 2015 than Farah.

For anyone crying heresy, consider this: In 2009, Kenenisa Bekele capped a three-year run almost identical to the one Farah has just finished – five global golds, including back-to-back 5/10 doubles at the Olympics and Worlds. Since then, guess how many medals Bekele has won? Zero. In fact, he’s finished just one global final, placing fourth in last year’s Olympic 10k. If Bekele, arguably the Greatest of All Time, fell off that quickly (he was just 27 in 2009; remember that Farah is 30 now), then what does that mean for Farah?

It adds up to the conclusion that we’ve probably seen the best of Mo Farah -- on the track, anyway. While many look to Farah’s move to coach Alberto Salazar as the primary factor in his ascension to world-beater, Farah has also had fantastic luck with injuries, staying remarkably healthy over the last few years. That sort of health is difficult to maintain, especially as a runner enters his thirties: just ask Bekele. If he can stay healthy, I still expect Farah to be among the world’s best two years from now in Beijing. But his biggest rivals are younger and have much more room for improvement at the moment. If he hasn't moved to the marathon full-time by 2015, winning another gold medal on the track will be Farah’s toughest challenge yet.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

2013 IAAF World Championships, Men's High Jump Final

Bohdan Bondarenko on his way
to a well-deserved gold in Moscow

What: 2013 IAAF World Championships, day six

Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia

When: 15 August 2013

Note: I have converted heights from meters to feet and inches for this post. The conversions have been rounded up/down as necessary, but it’s easier for me to contextualize heights when they are in imperial units.

As a distance runner, whenever I go to track meets I am naturally drawn toward the distance events. I’m more familiar with the athletes and I understand the strategy better. They’re just more interesting to me. But in terms of drama – the element that appeals to all sports fans, regardless of personal histories – I don’t think any event can top the high jump. That’s not to say that the high jump can’t be boring at times, but when the competition is good – and on Thursday in Moscow, it was spectacular – no event produces more of a rollercoaster ride than the high jump.

Of course, I love the other marquee events. But the 100m, and even the 1,500m, are too short for any real drama. The decathlon is too difficult to keep track of. Ditto the long jump, which is tough to follow unless you have the benefit of watching on TV and looking at those nice invisible lines they show in the sand. The high jump is beautiful in its simplicity: the bar keeps going up until there’s only one person left. And even then, if the winner is jumping well enough, the event still might not be done.

Thursday’s men’s high jump final at the 2013 Worlds was the event – and sporting drama – at its finest. The gold was anyone’s to win, and because of a three-way tie for third, FIVE London 2012 medalists were in the final. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim (unlike so many Qatari athletes, Barshim was born and raised in Doha) entered as one of the favorites after he became the first man in 13 years to clear 7’10”, achieved at the Pre Classic in June. Bohdan Bondarenko of Ukraine, who topped that by clearing 7’11” in July to move to No. 3 on the all-time list, was another athlete to watch for.

The quality of the field was on display early. Nine athletes – including all London medalists — were over 7’6.25”, including six without a miss. To put into context how high that is, consider that that mark would have been good enough to win bronze in London last year. 7’7.25” did little to break up the field with six men over and a seventh, Bondarenko, passing to the next height. At that moment, I suspected something special was in store from Bondarenko, considering he passed at the first two heights. Once he sailed over 7’8.5” with daylight between him and the bar, it was clear that Bondarenko was the man to beat.

Bondarenko had the confidence, but he still had to work for the gold medal. Barshim, Derek Drouin of Canada and Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov of Russia all cleared 7’8.5” on their first attempts too, setting up a thrilling finale. Barshim and Drouin both nailed 7’9.75” – the latter setting a Canadian record to do so – but neither would go any further. The night belonged to Bondarenko, who won it with a massive clear of 7’11”. He took three attempts at 8’0.75” – a new world record – and though he came close on his second jump, he would have to settle for a gold medal and a new championship record.

Watching these guys – all long, lithe and graceful, yet unmistakably athletic – was a treat. As soon as someone cleared a new height, the clock immediately started ticking on the next competitor. That’s what’s great about the high jump – it’s a true game of Can-You-Top-This? played out on the biggest stage imaginable. And if that’s not good enough for you, the seemingly interminable waits between attempts only serves to heighten the drama. You know that the guy’s eventually going to jump – the clock is literally ticking – but watching him stand there, stand there, stand there, you can’t help but move to the edge of your seat by the time he starts his run-up. And I’m 4,500 miles away! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have seen that competition in person.

The closest I’ve come to a high jump competition like that was the one that first made me take notice of the event in 2011. It was the outdoor HEPS at Yale, and Penn’s Maalik Reynolds was in a class of his own. Reynolds was a real stud and would go on to get 7th at NCAAs that spring, and on that day he wasn’t competing against anyone but himself. The casual observer might wonder how such a situation could create any drama while there were running finals on the track, but the biggest crowd – by a mile – was at the high jump pit, where Reynolds was launching himself into the stratosphere. Between attempts, Reynolds would just stand in the runway, sometimes for minutes at a time, contemplating his next jump. The crowd would remain silent, every set of eyes focused on this boy – he was just a freshman at the time – patiently waiting for the moment he would push off and begin his run-up to the bar. And once he did, I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could have distracted them from following that attempt all the way to its conclusion. By the time Reynolds finished, after clearing a height of 7'5.75" that remains his personal best over two years later, we all knew we had witnessed greatness.

I think we love a good high jump because it appeals to us on multiple levels. It has the primal appeal of all track events – a simple test of who can run the fastest, jump the highest, throw the farthest. But it also features stakes that literally raise as the competition goes longer. Furthermore, the concept of these athletes doing what they’re doing is so foreign to most viewers that we can’t help but be amazed. Unless you’re a distance runner, you probably don’t appreciate just how fast 3:30 is for 1,500m. But everyone knows how high 8 feet is. To see someone try to jump that high – without a trampoline, a pogo stick or any other sort of aid – appeals to our sense of wonderment. Add to that the anticipation that accompanies each jump due to the event’s natural pauses, and we’ve got true sporting spectacle.

So that’s why I ended up writing 1,000 words on the high jump on a day when so much else happened on the track in Moscow. 21-year-old Jehue Gordon edged out Michael Tinsley by .01 seconds to win gold in the 400m hurdles. Abeba Aregawi got a deserved 1,500m title after holding off Jenny Simpson on the home stretch. And Ezekiel Kemboi stamped himself as the greatest steeplechaser of all time, adding his third consecutive world title to his two Olympic golds. But as much as I’m a fan of the track races, I’m an even bigger fan of sporting drama, and on Thursday, the high jump pit was the best place for that by far.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

England 3 Scotland 2

Lambert celebrates after scoring the winner with his first touch on his debut.

What: England vs. Scotland, international friendly

Where: Wembley Stadium, London, England

When: August 14 2013

Maybe Rickie Lambert was the answer all along. Maybe when Fabio Capello was looking for goals – or Steve McClaren and Sven-Goran Eriksson before him – they should have turned to the Liverpool native who was plying his trade in the lower divisions for the likes of Macclesfield Town, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers.

Okay, I’m kidding here. Besides getting any of the above-mentioned managers fired, selecting Lambert to a major tournament while he was playing in League Two probably wouldn’t have gone over too well for Lambert, either. It’s one thing to score a couple of goals against Rushden & Diamonds. It’s quite another to grab one against Portugal when the fate of a nation lies on the outcome.

But after Wednesday, one thing is undeniable. At age 31, Rickie Lambert, the man who a year ago had never played a minute in the Premier League, scored the winner for England in an international match. Against Scotland. At Wembley. On his debut. With his FIRST TOUCH.

Many people will no doubt start to wonder after this performance whether Lambert should deserve a place in the England squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine next month. I’m not particularly interested in that debate. Lambert’s form for Southampton will go a lot further toward deciding his future for England than 22 minutes in an August friendly against Scotland.

I’d rather just focus on how awesome today had to be for Lambert and his family. Lambert waited 31 years for the chance to pull on an England shirt, and he started his international career in the best possible way, scoring the decisive goal in an entertaining 3-2 England win. Even if Lambert never plays another game for England, he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren that he scored the winner on his debut against England’s oldest rival. That’s pretty cool.

Lambert was the obvious story – he should have had a second when he hit Wilfried Zaha’s beautiful stoppage-time cross onto the left post – but there was plenty to talk about after a match that England won after falling behind twice. The young trio of Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Theo Walcott looked effective playing together on the right side, using one-twos to advance the ball into dangerous positions. Those three may prove critical for England down the road as Walcott, at 24, is the oldest of the group. Cleverley turned 24 on Monday and Wilshere is just 21.

After West Brom’s James Morrison put Scotland ahead early, Cleverley played a great through ball to Walcott to spring him into the Scottish penalty area. Though his first touch wasn’t great, Walcott recovered and calmly slotted past keeper Allan McGregor at the near post to bring the two sides level. Just two minutes later, the two youngsters connected again, with Walcott finding Cleverley this time in the box. Though Cleverley mishit his shot, it still gave McGregor problems.

The two sides were even for most of the first half and went to the dressing room level at 1-1. However, just three minutes after the break, Scotland were on top again after veteran Kenny Miller used a nice fake to fool Gary Cahill before turning and firing a left-footed shot past the outstretched arm of Joe Hart. Even at 33, Miller – now with the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps – still knows how to find the back of the net.

England responded quickly this time, as Russell Martin was caught out on a Steven Gerrard free kick for the second time in two minutes. The first was saved by McGregor after skimming off the top of Martin’s head, but on the second attempt Gerrard found the head of Danny Welbeck, who rose above Martin to put England level once again. From there it was all England, and the Three Lions’ pressure and aerial superiority paid off in the 70th minute when Lambert netted with a textbook power header off Leighton Baines’ corner.

Lambert had replaced Wayne Rooney just three minutes earlier after another uneven England performance by the Manchester United striker. Out of action in United’s Community Shield win over Wigan on Sunday (and rumored to be on the move to Chelsea), Rooney lost possession with the ball and did little to improve England’s chances. Little does not mean nothing, though, as Rooney was wrongly ruled offside just before halftime following a brilliant ball over the top by Gerrard. If play had been allowed to continue, there’s a good chance Rooney would have found himself on the scoresheet, as he was right through on goal.

England can take some positives from this performance – they looked confident going forward and scored three times – but Hart (who probably should have saved the first goal, even if it was raining and the ball dipped on him at the last second) and the defense looked shaky enough to remind Roy Hodgson’s men that they must be at the top of their games if they want to secure that all-important automatic berth to Brazil. Though England controls its own destiny in Group H and plays three of its remaining four qualifiers at home, tricky matches against Ukraine, group-leading Montenegro and Poland – all draws the first time around – remain. A win against Scotland is nice, but the real work is about to begin for the Three Lions.


My blog, my choice of photo for the first post. If you can't tell, this is
Mo Farah winning gold in the 10,000m at the 2013 IAAF World Championships.

I don't really know what this blog is going to be. I felt like writing something today, so I started this blog. Ideally, it will be something I can come back to whenever I feel like expressing my thoughts on something important (primarily sports). But I know myself well enough to know that, because this site isn't for a grade and because it's not getting published (or rather, officially published) that I might just let it go for a while. And I'm okay with that. I write enough for other outlets that I don't need to keep a daily blog, but now I have someplace to post stuff when I don't have anywhere else to put it.

What I'd really like to do on this blog is break down sporting events that interest me. That means that the subject matter of this blog could range from a Red Sox-Blue Jays game to a Brighton-Huddersfield match to Super Bowl XLVIII. If I'm paying close enough attention to it to have an informed opinion -- and, more importantly, if I have the time and desire to write about it -- it will show up on this blog. I might have some other posts from time to time (or, as I mentioned earlier, I might not have any posts at all) but the focus will likely remain on sports.

That's basically it for now. If this ends up being a serious endeavor, you'll probably learn a lot more about this site by reading the posts than you will by referring back to this introduction. Until we meet again...