Tactically Naive: Playoffs are the cruelest month

1152029227.jpg.0 - Tactically Naive: Playoffs are the cruelest month

Goalkeepers dominate the English playoff finals in exactly the wrong way; Barcelona gift us the rare transfer rumour worth talking about.

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. We’ve got our wallchart. Summer can officially begin.

Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it. Oh no …

There is, at the heart of it, something incomparably cruel about The Playoffs. The whole point of a league system is, after all, to get as close to rigor as the sporting calendar allows. Everybody against everybody else, home and away: squint, and it’s almost science.

To then stick another round of football at the end of all that is essentially torture. Make the knackered players dance for you, one last time. Make them cry. Make them keel over in broken heaps on the pitch, and shove television cameras in their faces. It’s footballer-baiting, and it should probably be banned …

… were it not for the fact that it is, for everybody not physically or emotionally involved, extremely entertaining.

While Belgium is your country of choice if you want all playoffs, all the time — seriously, have a look at this beautiful nonsense — it England that has the noisiest, at least from where Tactically Naive is sitting. (Which is in England, yes.) Much of this is down to the Premier League, that squalling vortex of attention: the Championship playoff final is, we are told, the richest game in football, worth a cool £170m to its winners. Aston Villa were the lucky ones this season, beating Derby County 2-1 at Wembley on Monday.

Obviously this is a crass formulation. Promotion is about the intangibles: the pride in going up, the reward for a season of hard slog, the right to get absolutely pulverised by Manchester City. Nothing says “We are back where we belong” like the league leaders’ third-choice winger, a player that cost more than your entire squad and will make 15 starts all season, rattling home his third of the game while checking Twitter with one hand and stifling a yawn with the other.

No, no, this is unfair. The Premier League is an exciting, dynamic, and varied competition, and Aston Villa can look forward to getting absolutely pulverised by Liverpool as well.

Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of the pulverisings to come that addled the brain of poor Kelle Roos. Just before the hour mark on Monday, Derby’s goalkeeper came for a looping, deflected shot. Other goalkeepers might have gone hard and high, looking to punch, but Roos, well over six feet tall, decided to let the ball drop gently into his cradling arms. This plan had only one weakness: it was rubbish.

In clattered 5’9” Jon McGinn, and in went the ball, thanks to some combination of Roos’ arms, McGinn’s head, and general ambient panic. That put Villa two goals up, and Derby could only manage one in reply. And football, forced by its own broken discourse, had to consider the question: has dropping a ball ever been so expensive?

Perhaps Roos could blame darker forces. Just a day before, at exactly the same end of Wembley, Charlton Athletic’s goalkeeper Dillon Phillips watched a backpass roll under his foot and into the net. As own goals went, what it lacked in spectacle it more than made up for in strange, almost elegant wrongness. Not so much a mistake, more a glitch in the fabric of reality. Wembley, of course, was built over an ancient goalkeepers’ burial ground, and they say that if you listen carefully on a rainy night, you can hear the ghost of Scott Carson wailing for release. And he’s not even dead.

Phillips, at least, was granted absolution. Charlton snatched a winner in the 94th minute of 94, as Sunderland’s defence crumbled at the last. One end of Wembley exploded; the other melted away. Grant Leadbitter, playing through great personal grief, sank to the floor. Lee Cattermole stared into the middle distance, tears pricking his eyes. Such appalling, beautiful cruelty.

Get ready, brown brogue salesmen of Catalonia

Tactically Naive is, on the whole, generally antagonistic towards transfer rumours. They are empty, seductive things, endlessly consumable yet utterly unfilling. Like popcorn, if popcorn was lying to you the whole time. There is no caramel here. No butter. No salt. Only agents’ fees and newspaper inches and a gnawing sense of loss.

But sometimes they are fun, so we can get behind them. And this week has brought a doozy. Barcelona, so the story goes, are thinking of sacking their manager Ernesto Valverde. That wouldn’t be much of a surprise, given the back to back Champions League humiliations. But the supposed replacement? Roberto Martínez, formerly of Wigan and Everton, currently of Belgium, and always, always of our hearts.

As with all top-level managers, there is an outsize comedy version of Bobby Martínez, and then hiding behind that there is the reality. Happily, in this case, both are excellent. The comedy version Barcelona runs something like this: they win 95% of their games 10-2, they lose all the important ones 4-7, and Lionel Messi posts a 100-goal season while winning absolutely nothing at all. The very definition of “for the neutral”.

Beyond that, and thinking about this seriously for a bit, Martínez tends to have the happy knack of making teams better while also making them more entertaining. Not always consistently, and not always reliably. But there is a general upwards curve in all the ways that matter, at least for a bit. France might have won the World Cup. But Belgium had the most fun.

Martínez may not be the greatest manager in the world, but he’s among the more interesting. And that should count for plenty. Indeed, allocating superclubs to managers on the basis that they’re a bit weird but a lot of fun is what superclub football should be about. We know they’re going to win everything anyway. Might as muck about with it a bit.

As such, TN is happy to break with usual policy regarding rumours, and we congratulate Barcelona on taking the lead in this regard. Assuming they do. Assuming this is the good kind of popcorn, and not the bad. Don’t let us down.

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