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Lionel Messi, Maradonaland and football’s new age – The best football writing from last week

Some of the best football writing to be found online from the past week, featuring football’s new age, Lionel Messi is even more dominant than you think, a defence of Paul Pogba, what a Premier League title would mean for Liverpool, and where it all started for Diego Maradona. 

Football’s new age neutralises philosophies of the past

Widely shared on Twitter at the beginning of the week, Ken Early’s piece for the Irish Times illustrates how the evolving philosophies of modern football are leaving pundits such as Graeme Souness and Roy Keane behind. While they focus on individual characteristics, such as effort and determination, football has become more driven by systems, meaning, as the Second Captains co-host explains, “less broken play, and more periods of controlled possession”:

“How do you get close to the ball when it’s moving that fast? You can do what Keane urged the United players to do, “ignore the runners” and “not worry about what’s going on over there and over there”, focus on the ball and try to “get to it, like your life depends on it” – but if you press and your teammates don’t, then City will pass it around you and make you look foolish, and after chasing them for an hour you will find you can hardly move your legs. And that’s when they’ll start running up the score. Against City you either press as a team, or not at all; against a system like this the individual is powerless.”

Messi Is More Dominant Than Ever — And Barcelona Is More Dependent

Michael Caley specialises in football analytics, but he has a way of getting to the nub of a team’s weaknesses — and their strengths. This past week he examined why Lionel Messi is doing more bits than ever for Barcelona, who are becoming more dependent on him, and more or less predicted exactly how their Champions League semi-final meeting with Liverpool would play out, for FiveThirtyEight:

“The main reason that Barcelona is increasingly a one-man team is that the other players are not as great anymore. Luis Suarez at 32 isn’t the dynamic center forward he used to be. Neymar, Xavi and Iniesta are gone. Sergio Busquets, 30, and Ivan Rakitic, 31, cannot cover ground in midfield like they used to. The result is a team that is less able to supplement the attack either with forward runs or with an aggressive high press to cause turnovers because the midfield needs to be more stable and defensive. Early in the season, Barcelona was playing more aggressive midfield tactics and was rewarded with a string of goals conceded. Manager Ernesto Valverde has since pulled back the press, which prevented a disaster but has left Messi carrying the team.”

Why Paul Pogba is partly a victim of England’s do-it-all midfielder obsession

As a sportswriter, Jonathan Liew can be funny, witty and incredibly clever. But he can also write with a considerable clarity and incisiveness in his analysis of football teams and players. He did so this past week for the Independent when talking about Paul Pogba and how the Manchester United man compares to the other elite midfielders in the Premier League and around Europe:

“Pogba isn’t perfect. His defensive positioning often lets him down. While he’s good at winning the ball in a one-on-one duel, the inefficiency of his tracking and marking means he doesn’t actually get into as many of those duels as you would expect for a player in his position. He’s occasionally prone to low-percentage shots from outside the area. His record in big games for United is mixed.

“But against all this, he’s arguably a more complete midfielder than any in the elite game. How many of the players above can tackle or leap like Pogba? How many possess his agility or simple straight-line speed? How many can boast Pogba’s array of options for beating a man or getting out of a tight spot? And – perhaps most saliently of all – how many of the so-called great central midfielders in world football can match Pogba’s blunt numbers?”

The ‘Argentinean Ajax’ where Diego Maradona emerged

Martin Mazur has written this splendid profile of Argentinos Juniors, the club that helped mould a young Diego Maradona, for BBC Sport:

“Underneath the stands there is a museum filled with memorabilia from the Maradona years. A Maradona statue was unveiled last year. And as if it were a Maradona theme-park, there is a giant inflatable tunnel in the shape of Maradona’s head and chest, through which players emerge on to the pitch.

“Visitors to this ‘Maradonaland’ can even take a tour of the flat he was given after signing his first contract with the club. The owner, a former Argentinos board member, bought the apartment and recovered most of Maradona’s original furniture, transforming it into a nostalgic passageway back to the late 1970s.”

What would a Premier League title mean to Liverpool?

Wright Thompson, generally considered the greatest sports writer of our time, has delved deep into what a league title would mean for people and city of Liverpool for ESPN:

“The church organist wanted to meet outside Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium. Her name is Anne Preston, and she carried the program of a funeral she’d played the day before, as a document of something both ancient and achingly current. She wanted me to see it, so I’d understand how life, death and resurrection are so tied together with football along the banks of the Mersey River.

“She arrived with her husband, meeting me between the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand and the Kop, the mighty Liverpool Kop. As he went over to sort his tickets for the first leg of the Champions League semifinal in Barcelona, she produced the program and told me about a musical request from the family. The mom made the request herself. To honor her son, whose funeral program had Anfield on the front and the club crest on the back, she wanted Anne to subtly work in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” during the Mass. It’s a familiar request to Anne, and to every funeral director and organist in Liverpool.”

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