Tactics not Passion: Dublin 2-22 Monaghan 0-11

Monday, August 11th, 2014


Monaghan started the game smart but once Dublin got going, this was a rout. Emmet Ryan breaks down yet another lopsided win for Jim Gavin’s charges.

Oh hai Laois
Monaghan looked, at least in the early going, like they were capable of bucking the odds. The Farney army were 9 point underdogs going in but did everything necessary for the opening quarter to stay in the conversation. They matched Dublin shot for shot, which is pretty much as important as staying in touch on the scoreboard with Jim Gavin’s side. High volume is Dublin’s game, if you stop them stretching out on that front, you keep the game competitive. Monaghan weren’t converting all that well but they were putting together as many chances. They pursued turnovers aggressively albeit with only one ending in a shot and were quick to go for their score. This bore a strong resemblance to how Laois played Dublin in June, although the O’Moore Men managed to keep it together longer. That aspect however could be over-analysed as Dublin happened to strike gold earlier in this encounter.
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Tactics not Passion: Mayo 1-19 Cork 2-15

Monday, August 4th, 2014


Mayo beat Cork in what was, purely from a geeky perspective, one of the strangest games this column has ever covered. Emmet Ryan looks to explaining how Cork bucked a big trend and nearly pulled off an upset.

Mayo shot really well
The common complaint around Mayo, going back three years now, is their lack of an ‘elite’ scoring forward. Accurate or not regarding any of Mayo’s individual forwards, and I lean towards the latter, there simply can’t be any question that collectively James Horan’s side has an elite attack. The only team that matches up to Mayo over the last three seasons is Dublin (if we’re looking at a single season, Donegal in 2012 as well). On Sunday, Mayo delivered the type of performance pretty much expected at this stage. James Horan’s side took 38 shots, a solid 11 higher than the national average over 70 minutes, and converted 20 of them for a 53 per cent conversion rate. Given the normal conversion rate is closer to 50 per cent, and it is rare to see inter county teams of any level stray far* from this on a consistent basis, the combination of a heap of shots and a solid return meant that they put up a clearly elite attacking display.
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Tactics not Passion: Dublin 3-20 Meath 1-10

Monday, July 21st, 2014

This was as slaughter and one that went awfully by the book. Emmet Ryan looks back on Dublin’s win over Meath in Croke Park on Sunday.

We really have to start with it…
It was the key point in my preview (paywalled), it has been the key argument with every Dublin game going back to last year, and it’s only getting crazier. Dublin have been running up insane advantages in the shot count column, in spite of a certain national broadcaster’s inability to count, and broke the 40 mark again with room to spare. Having put up 45 shots against Wexford, Dublin managed to take 46 shots against Meath on Sunday. A 50 per cent conversion rate is bang on average, and most teams stay awfully close to it, but it’s the quantity that really matters here. By half-time Dublin had 27 shots, that’s the national average for 70 mins and one more than Meath managed in the whole game. This is a great team taking analytics and utlising them in the most brutal fashion possible.

This also explains Dublin taking so many shots on goal, which has been a running debate given their tendency to take several early when it may seem more sensible to play cautiously. Jim Gavin may refer to his players by name but he uses them like assets. He has a plan, he wants it executed a certain way, and that includes taking enough shots on goal to ensure Dublin get several majors per game. It may sound like back of the napkin stuff but if Dublin score once from every four shots on goal, they are getting sufficient value (0.75 points per attempt vs 0.5 for attempts at points).

What Meath were trying to do
The order with which Dublin scored, I’ll explain what I mean later, had an impact on how long Meath stayed relevant in this match-up. The Royals, who played Dublin close in differing ways in each of the previous two provincial deciders, knew that over-commiting to defence was an awful idea. Teams which have tried to play deep against Dublin have ended up getting gassed and not putting a lot on the board. Instead they tried to take inspiration from Laois and keep bodies free to press forward.
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Tactics not Passion: Kerry 0-24 Cork 0-12

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Kerry walloped Cork in the Munster Final on Sunday. Impressive as the Kingdom were in victory, the story of the day was unquestionably Cork’s performance. Emmet Ryan writes about the dumbest 70 minute display he has seen since TnP began.

Well that was a fun 5 minutes
Cork looked meastly for a solid 5 minutes on Sunday. The opening exchanges saw the Rebels forwards show no respect for Kerry’s defensive cover as they charged head on into contact. As part of a wider plan, this would have actually been a good idea. The Rebels had a power advantage up front and broke single coverage with ease and didn’t have a lot of issues with double coverage. It was also rather quickly established that Cork’s ball security was at its best with players either keeping the ball in hand or going long. Short and mid-range passes weren’t working. When the Rebels pressed forward, they did some damage by taking the bulldozing route. It was like a more aggressive version of Counihan-ball.

The sign that everything might go to pot came in the fourth minute. James O’Donoghue got hounded by three Cork defenders. They managed to rough him up without fouling and forced O’Donoghue to give up possession. The trio then managed to lose sight of the ball which O’Donoghue took back and charged into the gaping open field before taking his point. The error was the type of incident that happens in football, the absence of cover pointed to Cork’s surprising decision to go man-to-man at the back, essentially meaning that when someone went to support another defender it left a Kerry man open.

Wait, you’re telling me you haven’t got a plan?
It took 20 minutes for it to become clear that Cork hadn’t thought this one through. The single coverage on defence and the bomb ahead attacking had no link. Kerry outnumbered the Rebels in the middle third and wholly dominated possession. From the 18th minute the first minute of first half injury time Kerry had 11 shots, of which the converted 7, with none in reply for the Rebels. Despite the pressure at the back, Cork did nothing to adjust and beef up their cover. This wasn’t like 2013 where the Kingdom dominated the middle third but had to put the hammer down to punish Cork. Kerry were patient, only seeking out one goal chance in this spell, and found the open man repeatedly. Cork didn’t counter Kerry’s moves and this made it remarkable easy for the Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side to close down the Rebels when they tried to break. Cork’s problems were confounded by some erratic play in possession. Much as Kerry should be credited for forcing turnovers at will, they rarely had to crank it up because Cork’s basic execution was riddled with errors.
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Tactics not Passion: Dublin 2-25 Wexford 1-12

Sunday, June 29th, 2014


Dublin swept aside Wexford in a game that, despite it’s awful start, had an awful lot in common with the typical narrative of Dublin games this season.

Beware aberrant periods
The opening quarter or so, it is reasonable to say, was forgettable for the casual viewer. Neither side was converting at a remotely passable rate with Dublin opening 2 of 10 while Wexford were a similarly terrible 1 of 5 early on. The internet was up in arms at Jim Gavin’s side taking their opponents too lightly. The truth couldn’t have been further from the case. Accuracy may have been lacking for Dublin early but their game plan was the same that saw them rack up some impressive victories en route to retaining the league title earlier this year.

Dublin’s game is built on attrition. They are willing to have poor shooting spells in order to ensure a high shot count. This is rooted in their analytics which has shown they will, more often than not, finish with a close to 50 per cent conversion rate irrespective of how many attempts they have. When your numbers say that, the logical approach is to put up as many shots as possible. It’s not quite that ugly, there is some shot selection and most of Dublin’s shots came from quality scoring positions. It’s the same reason Gavin’s side take so many attempts on goal, they have long worked out that quantity trumps quality here and that they will convert 1 in 4 shots on goal. Dublin finished the half on an 8 of 12 run, just a single conversion outside of the 50 per cent mark and a solid 6 shots more than Wexford who went 6 of 16.

Before we get to Dublin’s rampage
Defensively there is plenty to say about Wexford but it’s not like this is a historically bad set of Wexford backs. Even at their best, arguably the 2011 run to the Leinster Final, it’s been a long time since defence was a strength for the Slaneysiders. It’s what they did in attack that makes for grim reading, oddly because it wasn’t that bad. Wexford shot 13 of 27 on the game. Long time readers will know the latter figure is the average number of shots per 70 minutes at championship level. Their final tally of 15 points was again pretty much on the norm. Wexford were fine. Bear all of this in mind when we get to Dublin’s final numbers because fine doesn’t even come close to cutting it for keeping close to Jim Gavin’s side.
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Tactics not Passion: Derry 0-11 Donegal 1-11

Sunday, May 25th, 2014


We are finally back. Several GAA outlets offer you plenty but only Tactics not Passion has the Doge. Oh that and a lengthy look at Derry’s possession game.

Derry’s possession game

The first half and pretty much the whole game was defined by Derry’s ponderous approach to play. When it worked, they ticked along nicely, when it didn’t…hoo boy. The Oakleafers were outshot 12 to 10 in the first half by Donegal but looked far more comfortable on the ball, despite getting lower quality shots from play. Derry have known all season that their best form of defence is to retain possession. It makes sense, in terms of raw skill Derry are far better at shooting than stopping so it’s a clever way to cover up their biggest flaw.

The approach was somewhat reminiscent of how Donegal approached their 2011 Ulster opener with Antrim, only with Derry’s issues being behind rather than in front of them. The Oakleafers may have had fewer shots but they were always in position to control the tempo. The best visual example is what happened when Donegal shut a man down. Even last season, when the cracks were starting to show, if Jim McGuinness’ side got numbers on a ball-carrier you could put the house on a turnover. Derry however prevented Donegal from executing this strategy for the bulk of the first half, with crowded ball-carriers able to find an open man.

Where’s the middle third game?

This was the big question for Donegal in the opening 35 minutes. They were flat out beaten in the middle third, with no capacity to create any kind of pressing game. There were signs early that when Donegal could breach the Derry 45, they would create chances. Of their 12 shots in the first half, 6 exposed the gaping hole that was Derry’s final third defence. Quality of shot, perhaps surprisingly, is not a good indicator of who will win a game especially compared to raw shot count irrespective of quality. What it did tell us was that if Donegal could adapt their game to push higher, it could spell doom for the Oakleafers.
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On Janay Rice and the Ravens

Saturday, May 24th, 2014


On a weekend with lots of sports stories to get excited about, the Baltimore Ravens put a downer on proceedings with a knuckle-headed move that showed how out of touch sports organisations can be. Emmet Ryan gives his take.

Last night the Baltimore Ravens tweeted this from their official account:

On what planet does any sports team or organisation think it’s a good idea to tweet a quote of a victim of domestic violence apologising for being abused?

For those unaware of the background. Ray Rice was charged with assault following video footage of him dragging his then fiancee, now wife, Janay Rice unconscious from an elevator. Ray Rice compounded matters by making the following statement in his scripted apology: “Failure is not getting knocked down, but not getting up.”

By its very nature, domestic violence charges against one of its employees are a difficult matter for any organisation to address. Indeed the same could be said for any criminal charge. There are however levels of difficulty and levels of quality to the response. The Ravens failed in every way to do either the right thing or the smart thing. They did the dumbest thing, they did the worst thing.

The idea of putting either Rice in front of the press to read out a prepared statement is a bad idea. Putting out both of them was an awful one. Ray Rice has entered a pre-trial treatment programme, where does putting him out in front of the public before the judicial process has run its course make sense? Janay Rice had her limp body dragged from an elevator by her now husband who, as we just mentioned, is facing charges for the events that led to her being unconscious in the first place. Does anyone in the Ravens organisation not see the issue with putting her out in front of the press under their auspices beside the man accused of assaulting her?

It’s impossible to ignore one simple fact. If Ray Rice was a back-up, this wouldn’t have played out like this. The Ravens would have cut him as soon as the video surfaced. Ray Rice however is the star running back for a team that won the Super Bowl less than 18 months ago. Next to Joe Flacco, he’s the biggest star on the current roster. The Ravens saw his value and sought to protect it, an act which has blinded them but that is no excuse. There are many, many, better ways with which the Ravens could have handled this better.

The problem is this act by the Ravens is a blunt and irresponsible reaction framed around what they do about Ray Rice. That’s not uncommon and that is a huge issue. The NFL franchise is far from alone in this. They made this about the accused, about his problems, and not about the person who has suffered. It’s a line of thought that’s not radically different to those who threaten to physically hurt an attacker, alleged or otherwise. When we put actions based on those accused of crimes ahead of those who are victims, whether it is to punish or protect, we wholly fail the latter.
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NHL Playoffs, take two

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

The second round is nearly over but Emmet had a couple of wild weeks travelling, so belatedly here’s Zoe Coleman McNair’s round-up of round one and analysis if round two of the NHL playoffs which Emmet hastens to add she sent in on time and it’s all his fault.

So the first round of the playoffs are done and dusted, and for the most part, there were few surprises.

The Boston Bruins handily dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in five games. Boston winning the series was always the consensus prediction, but many would have expected Detroit to put up more of a fight. But with Jimmy Howard out with the flu (either the real flu or the mysterious flu you get after a head injury) and many of their top scorers either injured or only recently recovered, there was little Detroit could do to hold on. Detroit lead for barely more then fifteen minutes across the five games, and gave up the first goal in three games, and had no answer for heavy-hitting, hard-cycling Boston. Detroit have always been a good team and have an excellent record for making the playoffs, but the last couple of years have shown where their weaknesses as a team lie, and until they manage to address those, they’re not going to be a match for any of the league’s powerhouses, even in an easier divison then they’ve previously had.

The Montreal Canadiens steamrolled the Tampa Bay Lightning, sweeping the series. Definitely a disappointing end to their season for the team and the fans, as many had been hoping Tampa’s better possesion record in the regular season would keep them alive longer. I still think that with Bishop healthy this series would have been much closer, but it’s not easy to just replace a Vezina-candidate goaltender. Lindback’s regular season numbers were barely servicable for a back-up, and he had no answer for the Montreal offense when it was firing on all cylinders. With Tampa’s possession taking even just the slight dip it did, and Montreal’s getting a boost at the right time, Tampa couldn’t do anything to match Carey Price, and we got our only sweep of the round.

The round two match up between Boston and Montreal promises to be tense, at least. Anyone hoping to get through Boston is going to have to not only be on top form themselves, but also rely on being able to knock Boston off their game. Luckily for Montreal, knocking people off their game is a speciality of theirs. The teams and their fan bases have one of the olders rivalries in the league, and it didn’t even take a full game for us to see how ugly it can get, at least among the spectators. On the ice though, both teams have strong goaltending working for them, but Boston plays a strong puck-possession game, and Montreal were barely able to crack 50% against Tampa Bay. Montreal have some productive forwards, but the Boston defense has been able to smother much more potent scorers already this year, and Montreal are going to have to work hard to get pucks anywhere near Rask, let alone past him.

Expectations for Pittsburgh are always going to be sky high, just because of who they have on their team, and this wasn’t any different. Columbus, on the other hand, were in the opposite position, with only their second trip to the post-season in the team’s history. Pittsburgh played their usual style of hockey, which can alternate between flashes of brilliance at times and a complete mess at others, and there were definitely moments that had fans of the team (which, full disclosure, I am) covering their eyes. After going 5-0 in their regular season meetings, the biggest question over Pittsburgh’s head was goaltending, with Marc-Andre Fleury’s reputation for disintegrating in the playoffs thought to be Columbus’ biggest chance to gain a foothold in the series. Fleury kept it together though, posting numbers that were lower than his regular-season play but still enough to keep them ahead. Columbus’ advantage in goaltending didn’t prove the boost they may have hoped, with Bobrovsky posting almost identical numbers to Fleury, but facing a higher volume of shots. Despite Crosby not scoring any goals himself, he controlled play to a huge degree whenever on the ice (despite whatever many national reporters were saying about him being “shut down” by Dubinsky) and Pittsburgh out-possessed Columbus to a huge degree. When their bottom six started to click and contribute goals, one of the big issues with Pittsburgh’s play was lessened (though it’s still not gone) and they managed to dispatch Columbus in six. The series was very close though, with five of the six games being decided by a single goal and both teams giving up multiple leads at various points, and Pittsburgh were easily a couple of bad bounces from having to play a seventh game, or losing the series entirely.

For whatever reason, the New York Rangers haven’t won a playoff series in less then seven games since 2008, and this year was no different. They traded wins with the Philadelphia to the end, but managed to pull it out in game seven. Philadelphia are another team with depth issues, and when New York’s defence was able to shut them down, they struggled with secondary scoring. Without their top forwards scoring, they managed the second worst volume of shots on goal of the playoffs, and had nothing to counter with. Even though Philadelphia were the better team on the power play, the Rangers controlled the ice at even strength, and their speed was enough to have Philadelphia on the back foot. Their defence struggled consistently throughout the series, with many turnovers and defensive-zone mistakes giving the Rangers enough room to manoeuvre their way to victory.

Both Pittsburgh and New York will find round two a tough match-up. New York have the clear advantage in goaltending, and while Pittsburgh in theory have the edge in scoring, New York have their share of goal scorers as well. New York spent the regular season as a good possession team, and managed to fight their way back into contention after a severely disappointing start, so they already know what it takes to battle hard. Neither teams’ top scorers from the regular season – like Crosby and Nash – have a goal yet, which that probably won’t continue, and the teams are generally matched well across the board, with New York not having quite the same top-level scoring talent as Pittsburgh, but greater depth, and a stronger and more experienced defensive core. If Pittsburgh can put together 60 minutes of their best hockey then they’re one of the best teams in the league, but for some reason they rarely manage to do that, and with the lapses they’re prone too, there’s plenty of room for a strong New York performance to knock them out.

Dallas managed to put up more of a fight then Tampa or Detroit, but still fell short. There were a lot of positives for Dallas to take from the series – they outpossesed Anaheim at even strength and many of their top players were productive, but some key issues kept them from succeeding. Far too many penalties gave Anaheim enough chances to stay ahead, with game five in particular proving disasterous. While Dallas’ big stars all contributed, they just don’t have enough depth to answer Anaheim, who got key contributions from their depth players. I always hate to put too much stock in intangibles, but there is something to be said for the benefits of big game experience, and Dallas is for the most part a very young squad. For a team that started the year with very low expectations though, there’s a lot for their fans and management to feel good about, and with the right additions they could prove even more dangerous next year.

San Jose have developed a reputation for choking in the post season, and for those that are inclined to narrative this series isn’t going to change anything. After winning the first three games, they ended up losing the series in one of only four reverse sweeps in playoff history. Everything that could have gone wrong seemed too, with LA’s goalie regaining his touch seemingly overnight, and San Jose losing one of their top defensemen for the remainder of the series. Their scoring seemed to disappear and when LA finally managed to figure themselves out after the first three games, San Jose had no answer. LA are an incredibly good team with some of the best possesion in the league, and in theory losing to them in seven games isn’t something that should cause panic, but after several years of failing to convert strong regular seasons to playoff success, there’s a chance changes could be in store for San Jose.

The LA and Anaheim match-up is another good rivalry for the second round, with the teams’ first playoff meeting shining a light on Southern California hockey, one of the fastest-growing areas of interest for the sport. On the face of it, it doesn’t look like an easy road for Anaheim. They got out posses by Dallas in the first round, and while Dallas are a solid enough possession team, LA have pretty much the best possession in the league as a matter of course. LA’s had trouble scoring of the course of the season, but they took steps to address that at the deadline (and we all know what happened the last time they traded for a winger from Columbus) and it’s going to be a struggle to keep them off the scoresheet for very long. It could come down to another battle of the goalies, with Quick on one side and whatever combo of Hiller/Anderson/Gibson Boudreau decides to go with, but even with that, this is going to be a hard fight for Anaheim.

The St. Louis and Chicago match up proved to be the hard fought series it was looking like, with four of the six games being decided by a single goal (three of which were overtime wins). The start of the series it looked like it might finally be St. Louis’ turn, with them taking the first two games, but Chicago rebounded sharply to take four in a row. Injuries to key players didn’t help, with St. Louis’ captain David Backes suffering an injury after an illegal hit to the head that almost certainly left him concussed, regardless of what St. Louis’ reported his injury as. With Backes off-form, and several other players only recently returned from injury, there was little St. Louis could do to hold Chicago off. Their blockbuster trade deadline acquisition – goaltender Ryan Miller – didn’t wind up being the final piece they needed, with his save percentage plummeting over the course of the series. Much like San Jose, St. Louis is a team that often struggles with the playoffs after a strong regular season, though they’ve mostly managed to avoid the ‘choker’ label, and it’s going to be interesting to see what changes they make this summer to get their team in the right direction.

In theory, a wild card team defeating the team that came top of their division would be an upset, but that’s not really the case with the Wild’s defeat of the Avalanche. Everyone’s been waiting for the Avalanche to crash back down to earth, and when they managed to put up even worse possession numbers in the playoffs then they had in the regular season (a pretty hard task) the anticipation only grew. With Varlamov still on form, the Avalanche managed to pull out wins despite their abysmal possession, and took it to seven games. They have some super dynamic forwards, but they’re all very young and pretty inexperienced, and once you get past them the team is very thin on scoring depth, and rendered even thinner by injuries to key offensive players like Duchene and Barrie. The Wild may not have that kind of super dynamic player in abundance, they have more solid depth, and all four of their lines contributed to their scoring.

Chicago are a very good team. If you’re a fan of Chicago, this is great. If you’re like me, and think that the sustained success of any team that isn’t yours is terrible, then this is terrible. The Wild are a team on the rise, and much like Dallas have a lot to be proud of in their showing so far this year, but Bryzgalov is their fourth starting goaltender this year (he only started 12 games for them in the regular season), and that’s a really difficult situation for a team to be in for the playoffs. Bryzgalov has a very contentious history as a goaltender, he plays the position more conservatively than their previous goaltenders, and the playoffs are really not the time for a team to try and learn a different style of defence to support that style. They’re a team with a lot of talent, and I don’t think this is going to be a walkover, but when Chicago are firing on all cylinders, there isn’t much that can stop them.

Picking sides

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

In a World Cup year and with the major finals across most major European sports fast approaching, Declan Hughes offers his thoughts on how neutrals can decide which side to pick.

In my last piece I discussed provincial allegiances. This topic was inspired by a question posed to me by a player, Irish international Leah Ewert from UCD, my favourite field hockey team, who was lining out for her native province Ulster in a competition against my native province later on in the Under 21 interprovincial tournament… “Who are you rooting for today?”.
In the previous article I explored the area of provincial allegiance, but Leah Ewert’s seemingly innocuous enquiry poses yet another question.

As 2014 is a year in which the Winter Olympics occurred in Sochi, Russia (Ireland only sent 5 competitors) and the World Cup takes place this summer in Brazil (neither the Republic nor Northern Ireland qualified), it poses yet another question in the area of allegiance.

Who do you root for, in major international sporting events, when you’re obvious choices are not taking part? Even within the provincial context as a Leinster man I feel quite comfortable rooting for other Irish provinces in rugby when they take on foreign opposition. Not a problem. They are Irish after all.

In the recent winter Olympics what few highlights I was able to take in, it was easy as a former resident of Canada, to choose an option and I rooted for them in most events. The exception, apart from the events including Irish participation, was curling.
I was introduced to curling while living in Canada via television. Each year about eight countries including Scotland, the USA and I think Denmark participated in a made for TV event called The Golden Broom, the Canadian skip during this was inevitably Don Duguid.

Indeed in the competition to select team Canada where the provincial teams took part as a resident of predominantly French speaking Quebec , they too were my team.

For some reason despite all this personal historical baggage associated with my former place of residence I found myself on a rare occasion rooting for Great Britain in this because essentially it was Scotland by another name. I also knew while they had a shot at medals, the Women were going to ultimately fall short to the Canadians and the men were about as competent as their female counterparts and unlikely to strike gold. Underdogs normally do it for me when all other criteria for choosing a team fall short.
World Cup 2014 however will be a different case in point. Neither Canada nor the two Irish representative sides made the finals. My Chilean born granny gives me a South American side to root for. My Egyptian born granddad, didn’t make it on either front as he was raised in Newtownards. But there’s something unnatural about not supporting a fellow continental side. In fact since we joined the EU it’s sort of incumbent to root for a fellow member state.

I found my other home in football long before I knew of the EU or indeed before Ireland joined this august association.
The first time I can ever recall watching soccer was in Montreal on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports show, in a friend’s house, back in June 1970. I was visiting my buddy Albert Ottoni and his family when highlights of the 1970 World Cup being held in Mexico. As my hosts were Italians it would have been rude to root for anyone else and the game I saw highlights from was the classic semi final 4-3 extra-time win over West Germany. I also saw highlights from the final where that amazing Brazil team danced on Italy by 4-1. That didn’t bother me, I was an Italy fan from then on.

When I took up the game on my return to Ireland, as a goalkeeper , Dino Zoff soon became a favourite player . And the 1974 World Cup where the team, who in 1973 were on form no.1 on the planet defeating England, Germany and Brazil in friendlies, bowed out in the group stages still didn’t discourage me. Neither did the defeat to two long range goals at the hands of the Dutch in Argentina 1978.

In 1974 once Italy were eliminated , I hitched my wagon to the Yugoslavian star and the mercurial wing wizard Dragan Dzajic. His club Red Star Belgrade also wormed their way into my affections and I was thrilled in 1991 when they were crowned champions of Europe. I was probably the happiest person without any Yugoslav ethnic connections in the world at the time. The Yugoslavs (later Serbs) have been default position no. 2 ever since.

I got my best buzz as an honorary Italian fan in 1982 when against the odds they beat the best four other countries in the tournament to win the World Cup in Spain. My favourite player Dino Zoff captained the side to ultimate glory. Short of your own country doing the trick, it doesn’t really get any better than that. Mexico 1986 was another disappointing tournament and in Italia 90 I was rooting for my native country for the first time till we lost 0-1, in a quarter-final, to the Azzuri.

They then in turn let me down, despite being the best man for man team in the tournament, by losing to Argentina in the semi-final.
By World Cup 1994 when Republic of Ireland beat the Azzuri 1-0 but also bowed out early I was happy to see Italy make the final but Roberto Baggio “ The Divine Ponytail” missed the crucial spot kick after a 0-0 to deny Arrigo Sacchi the biggest prize a coach can win in World soccer. The France World Cup in 1998 was disappointing and in 2002 the Italians were cheated out of advancing to the latter knockout stages , in a game against South Korea, by a referee who was found to be corrupt later on. Said individual is currently languishing in jail for low level criminal activity.

While I enjoyed seeing Italy win in 2006 and seeing Zoff’s logical successor Gianluigi Buffon captain the side it was probably the flukiest of Italy’s four World Cup wins. More disappointment followed in 2010 but I didn’t and wouldn’t give up on them.
In 2014 it will be no different I will still root for the Azzuri. So you know where I stand this summer. And I hope I have been able to explain to you why I made that call. Who will you be rooting for?

Ice Hockey’s knowledge war hits the playoffs

Friday, April 18th, 2014

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs under way, Zoe Coleman McNair looks at the struggle for acceptance of advanced stats in the NHL and breaks down the match-ups.

In 2012, the LA Kings barely scraped into the 8th seed in the Western Conference, and proceeded to practically cruise through the playoffs, only dropping four games before winning their first Stanley Cup. Everyone loves a Cinderella run, and the Kings’ story seemed to tick all the boxes, except one: had they really been an average team that got good when it counted, or a good team whose bad luck disappeared when it mattered?

The answer isn’t as clear cut as that, but it definitely leaned towards the latter, putting the Kings squarely into the middle of the advanced statistics debate – or as they’re known in hockey, ‘fancystats’. Unlike in baseball, where analytics are common, hockey media (and many team organisations) have been reluctant to embrace anything more advanced than the most basic statistics. Part of the problem is that unlike in baseball, which is more easily distilled down to a series of single events, hockey is a messy sprawl where multiple things are happening at once, making it that much harder to track.

The movement towards embracing fancystats is growing, even though the stats themselves are imperfect. The problem is that the stats used in hockey don’t really correlate exactly with a team’s record. Instead, they can be used to look at the underlying strengths and weaknesses of a team, and if a team’s record is outperforming their underlying numbers, the stats will show us where the eventual crash back to earth will come from. Unfortunately they can’t tell us when that crash will happen, so many have dismissed them as useless.

The most commonly referenced stats are Corsi and Fenwick, which (in slightly different ways) puck possession, counting how many shots are aimed towards/around the opposition’s net during a game. They tends to correlate with success, because the more times you aim the puck at the net the more chances it has to go in, and if you have the puck it means the other team can’t aim it at your net. PDO roughly measures how lucky a team is being, by taking two numbers that over enough time should add up to 100, and measuring how far above or below that a team is.

This year’s playoffs feature multiple teams whose positioning doesn’t correlate to their underlying numbers, which makes the early rounds ripe with potential upsets. Colorado have one of the best records in the league, finishing third in the regular season, but their possession stats are so bad that the only teams worse than them are outright terrible, and the only thing keeping them as alive as they are is both their goaltenders performing above and beyond. Montreal are ninth in the league though they’re barely ahead of Colorado in possession, but have the reigning Olympic gold-medal winner in their net, which has kept them alive enough to make the playoffs. Anaheim rode the second highest PDO to the top of the Western conference, but their possession stats don’t even break the top ten, which means they really don’t have any leeway for their shooting percentage (the amount of shots on goal that become actual goals) to regress very far before they could be in serious trouble, especially with a new question mark over their goaltending after their regular season starter put together a string of underwhelming performances.
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