Saturday 30 September 2017

On UEFA Coefficients and Serie A's Progress

Papu Gomez celebrates Atalanta's equalizer vs Lyon in the Europa League
In the late summer of 2002, the question of whether Serie A could still be considered the best league in the world seemed more pressing than ever.  No Italian club had reached the quarter-final of the Champions League in the season that had just ended, the national team had disintegrated at the World Cup, and the league's star Ronaldo had left Inter for Real Madrid.

In truth, the question had been asked for years, quietly or stridently, and at the start of the 2002-03 season the answer seemed obvious: no. 

Eight months later, however, Inter, Juventus and Milan were in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and journalists had to revise obituaries.  On May 28, 2003, Old Trafford hosted the first all-Italian Final between Milan and Juventus.  Serie A was vindicated, robed in the glitter of UEFA's premier event, but the game was played in the cagey spirit for which Italian football is stereotyped and maligned, as if the two clubs were determined to torture their detractors, slowly, with flints and chisels.  The Final was rarely carved open.  Milan won on penalties, and Italian football's critics paid them--for being too quick to close the door, to forget the qualities that make Italian football competitive and relevant.

Today, fourteen years later, the question of whether Serie A is the best league in the world has a clear answer yet again: no.  The criteria that many use to arrive at this conclusion varies--entertainment, star power, financial health et al.--but more and more are now using what only a small core of fans did several years ago, the UEFA coefficient system (for a quick explanation of the system check out Bert Kassies's valuable site).

Every Champions League and Europa League matchday, I become a better person and cheer for all Italian clubs.  The reason is sentimental but can also be expressed as a formula.  This season, for every win Italy gets 2 (for a draw 1, for a loss 0) divided by 6 (total number of teams allotted) points, or 0.333 points.  So, this past matchday, Italy managed 5 wins (Milan, Napoli, Juventus, Lazio, and Roma) and 1 draw (Atalanta), totaling 1.833 points.  As a result, Italy climbed up to third spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings, ahead of Germany, and now sits tantalizingly close to England (Spain are far, far ahead).

The meaning of that success has few practical consequences in the immediate term.  Late last year, UEFA announced that the top 4 leagues (Spain, England, Italy, and Germany) would enjoy four representatives in the Champions League from the 2018-19 anyway.  But the coefficient ranking nonetheless quantifies a league's success, setting aside the gnashing of teeth and making numeric the vexed and emotional 'which league is best' debate. 

UEFA Coefficient rankings (image taken from Bert Kassies's site located here)
The UEFA coefficient system does have its flaws.  For example, it weighs victories in the Europa League the same as those in the Champions League, with only bonus points awarded upon progression in the latter to compensate partially for the calculation.  But the system remains the closest thing we have to a deterministic criteria for judging the health and strength of various leagues across Europe.

It also matters for the league's vanity, for its self-esteem.  After every matchday, it is now common for Italian journalists on social media to remind us where Serie A is in the rankings.  And this season, no one expected Serie A to be more than 3.5 points ahead of Germany.  There have been some performances of distinction as well, like Atalanta flattening Everton 3-0 in the Europa League a few weeks ago, and earning a point against Lyon in France just this past week, or like Napoli totally dominating Nice over two legs in the Champions League play-offs. 

This season may be Serie A's best chance to solidify its position in third, and even replace England in second when you consider both the quality of their representation, and that they will have one more representative next season (meaning a higher number to divide the points by, and thus a lower return for a win, for those keeping track).  Milan and Lazio should go deep into the tournament (Milan's ludicrous 3-2 win over Rijeka on Thursday notwithstanding), and Atalanta have started convincingly with four points from their two toughest games.  And then there are Juventus, who have played two losing Champions League Finals in the last two years, but who have nonetheless earned Italy valuable points, and should earn more this year.

Serie A may not be able to repeat what it did in 2002-03 in the Champions League, but the feats of 2014-15 are achievable, and, hopefully, surpassable.  That season, Italy earned 19 points.  Lazio and Napoli played the semi-finals of the Europa League, and Juventus the Final of the Champions League.  The early signs are promising. 

Monday 18 September 2017

Learning to Like Kalinic

Kalinic thinks he has scored a hat-trick against Udinese
Milan's signing of Nikola Kalinic was not the one many fans had hoped for after a summer of
reportedly dealing with names like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Andrea Belotti, and Alvaro Morata. When the former Fiorentina striker went on strike in the middle of August, refusing to train with La Viola
 in an attempt to force the move, it endeared him neither to the Fiorentina fans nor the Milan ones.

His proponents talked about his mobility, his sacrifice, his twenty-seven goals in two seasons for Fiorentina, and how well he would fit in coach Vincenzo Montella's team, but that was also where the problems lay for his detractors.  Kalinic was too much of a safe choice, whose output and limits were predictable.

There is something eminently insipid about Kalinic for the modern football fan.  His haircut is maddeningly conformist.  His face shows no torment of the thirty-years-or-so footballer, no affected gravitas of a Messi-style beard, or the lined forehead of the journeyman struggling for relevance. 

Clean-shaven and generally unimpressed, Kalinic seems to show up more for work than he does for a match, applying himself with corporate reserve on the pitch.  Even when he celebrates a goal, he does it as if he knows exactly where it figures in life's calculus of joys.

So, when he stuck three fingers up to the San Siro after scoring what he thought was his hat-trick goal against Udinese on Sunday, his matter-of-fact celebration was fitting, precise, showing that despite everything Kalinic hadn't lost his bearing--or count.  

The 'goal' was ruled out by VAR, but Kalinic's other two counted in Milan's 2-1 win over Udinese. The first was brilliantly improvised, as Kalinic passed to Davide Calabria on the right, and poked the return ball home.  The second goal showed the Croatian is not above putting his tall, awkward frame at the service of the team, stabbing the ball into the goal with one of his long legs as he collapsed to the floor from a challenge.

Both goals came through a crowd of legs or a heap of bodies, as if Kalinic was brute-forcing his way into San Siro recognition.  

He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans wanted.  He may not be the number 7 that Milan fans had with Andriy Shevchenko either.  But even on that count, Kalinic has an answer, mundane but disarming.

"I am a number 9," he told SKY after the game. "But it was taken by Andre Silva, so I took 7 instead."

Kalinic is a reluctant number 7, and Milan fans have reluctantly accepted him as the shirt's heir.  But if he continues what he has started against Udinese, eventually reaching that elusive twenty-goal mark this season, fans may forget how close they came to Aubameyang or Belotti during the summer.

Monday 11 September 2017

Lotito and the Morality of Numbers

Lotito basks in Lazio's Supercup win against Juventus
In their Sunday edition, La Repubblica previewed Milan vs Lazio as a match between two clubs at the opposite ends of the financial spectrum.  It was a case of a deficit vs. surplus.  Milan had closed the transfer campaign at -165 million euros, and Lazio at +37 million euros.

To a degree, La Repubblica were buttressing what Lazio owner and president Claudio Lotito had told  Il Messagero  in an interview a couple of days earlier.  In issuing a thinly-veiled attack on Juventus, Lotito also branded Keita Balde Diao's behaviour as 'extortion.' Juventus knew the player's contract was running out in 2018, and that Diao only wanted to play for them, so they duly exploited that fact when low-balling Lotito, who refused to sell the player at any other price than the one he had in mind.  As it turned out, Diao went to Monaco for more than thirty million euros, twice what Juventus were offering, thus vindicating Lotito's summer-long intransigence.

Tellingly, the Lazio president also boasted about his club's books, pointing out that Lazio would close the financial year with a 14 million euros profit.  It was the kind of money-minded response that rankles the Lazio support, many of whom still remember the headier days of Sergio Cragnotti's ownership, during which Lazio, most notably, won a Scudetto in 2000.

Lotito is a different president, one who has not privileged financial health over sporting success, but one who has always sought a fine balance between the two.  Cragnotti's, of course, is a cautionary tale.  When his company Cirio was in ruins, so were Lazio.  Lotito operates as the antithesis of that approach, a counterpoint to excess.

La Repubblica, then, were not just laying bare numbers down to highlight disparities in accounting, but were also making a familiar argument more subtly, namely that fiscal responsibility is also a moral one, and that Lazio in a way were already moral victors before a ball had been kicked at the Stadio Olimpico.   That they crushed Milan 4-1 with Lotito beaming in the stands, vindicated once again, was according to this line of reasoning a just conclusion.

Milan CEO Marco Fassone has already once forcefully defended his club's finances against Roma owner Pallotta's charge of "madness" this past summer.  Milan are in transition, looking to get back to where they were, and have spent with a plan in mind.  But fairly or unfairly (mostly unfairly) the numbers will permeate everything that they do this season. 200 million euros spent means you can't lose 4-1 to Lazio.  That sum subsumes all other considerations like whether the defeat is due to geometry (3-5-2 vs 4-3-3) or chemistry (Montella's insistence that the team has yet to gel).

Lotito's Lazio, on the other hand, can be a paradigm for Serie A's middle class, one that is simply not content to eke out an existence, but to flourish despite the spending of clubs above them.  It's not an easy task to achieve the ideal balance between finances and success.  Take Fiorentina, as an example.  The Viola were rescued by the Della Valle family years ago, but just suffered a miserable season, and lost key players over the summer like Borja Valero (Inter), Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus), and Nikola Kalinic (Milan).

In contrast, Lotito has kept or introduced Lazio's key elements, while offloading players without whom the club can still win.  Lazio have already won the Supercup this season against Juventus, and the way they dismantled Milan suggests they are genuine contenders for the Champions League places--and all that without spending much.

Players like Ciro Immobile, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Lucas Levia were the stars on Sunday, and didn't cost hefty sums.   Simeone Inzaghi, a former Lazio player and youth team coach, the man now being lauded as one of the best coaches in Italy, was hastily appointed at the helm when Marco Bielsa resigned after just two days, two summers ago.

Lotito was defiant in the face of protests then as well, insisting that Inzaghi was the right man for the job because he reflected the club's values.  His methods have been proven right once again, and he also has the numbers to show for it.