Landon Donovan
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Landon Donovan: A Complex Man in a Simple Game

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Landon Donovan is the Vincent Van Gogh of American soccer.  A man whose achievement may only truly be appreciated once he is gone.

With Donovan’s U.S. men’s national team farewell game on Friday night, it is worth taking a moment to compare the style of his retirement to Derek Jeter’s. One finely choreographed and legacy-defining with its New Yorker cover and Nike Respect video. The other sudden, slightly awkward, and barely reflective of the athletic smorgasbord of records to which his name is connected: the 57 national team goals and 58 assists he has notched. The five World Cup goals he netted in 12 tournament games, or the MLS goal scoring categories led: 144 regular season, 22 playoff, and six All-Star Game goals.

Yet, those numbers do not capture the immensity of Donovan’s achievements because such a large percentage of America’s football-loving audience is relatively new. They have seen so few of the gilded moments that littered his career.

The majority savored his fairy tale 91st minute World Cup strike against Algeria, an emotion-soaked moment which could be considered “The Goal” in the same way as Dwight Clark’s 1982 NFC Championship-winning reception is “The Catch” or Michael Jordan’s 1998 Game 6 jumper against the Jazz is “The Shot.”

But how many can summon memories of his breakthrough as a bleached-blonde phenomenon who scooped up the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup in 1999?  The crucial, brassy 2001 strike he thrashed home as a fresh-faced youth in his first MLS Cup final?  Or even, the speeding, stooping header with which he killed off Mexico in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16?

Donovan’s career straddles a time of radical transition for U.S. Soccer. When the Californian entered MLS in 2001, it boasted just 12 teams, two of which soon folded as the league appeared on the brink of collapse. Serving as the nation’s best outfield talent back then was on par with being the country’s greatest yodeler or didgeridoo player. He retires with America in full thrall as the sport has ventured from the shadowed periphery towards the center of the nation’s sporting radar.

In the early 2000s, a boyish Donovan racked up goal after goal when soccer’s profile could be classified as “tree falling in empty forest.” Yet the era in which football edged towards the mainstream has coincided with a time in which Landon has suffered. The 2010 Algeria goal was a Susan Boyle-ish moment that thrust the player blinking into the cultural spotlight, forcing him to adapt to sudden national fame, and crowning him as the only footballer every American knew by name (and perhaps the nation’s most prominent Landon, bar Michael Landon).

A loss of motivation ensued.  A candid Donovan publicly wrestled with his mental fatigue, embarking on a controversial sabbatical to try to restore his passion for the game. I interviewed the Californian twice in this period and he sounded like hundreds of people I knew who had lost their love for their job. I was impressed by both his self-awareness and willingness to brave the derision of those who refused to sympathize with his predicament.

Unfortunately for Donovan, Jurgen Klinsmann was amongst those who lacked patience, ultimately axing the national team talisman from the squad on the eve of World Cup 2014.  A humiliating, dramatic departure on par with Eddard Stark’s.

This World Cup rejection was not the only bruise to pockmark Donovan’s career. The 32-year-old’s early, fleeting attempts to establish himself in the Bundesliga conjured a scent of failure, which poisoned the achievements he routinely unfurled here. A product, perhaps, of the hint of self-loathing, frustration, and inferiority laced into American soccer culture in the 2000s.

Odd then that the one set of fans who adore Landon unequivocally are those of Everton FC, the Premier League side with whom he savored a brace of intriguing loan cameos in 2010 and 2012. Football’s equivalent of painting a miniature work of art on a grain of rice. Everton had been a one-sided team, raiding opponents down the left flank. Donovan’s fleeting presence gave them a genuine right-sided threat, providing balance and forcing opponents to play them honestly. The loanee embraced the opportunity with gusto, lancing the accusation he could not play abroad in the process. To this day, Everton fans praise Donovan full-throated in a way I believe all Americans will in time.

Donovan’s is a career that will be reappraised the more MLS grows, and the greater the United States national team’s global standing becomes. Like Jimmy Carter, whose approval rate grows the further removed we become from his presidency, he will be seen for what he is. A human, complex, always intelligent, often breathtaking footballer. A genuine U.S. goal threat in an era in which American goalkeepers were more the norm. A home-loving player who suffered for his decision to remain in MLS, a reality which is now standard. An inventive spark on national teams built to persevere. A divisive figure in the United States who is admired in England, and both feared and respected in Mexico. A human being in an image-dominated age who knew exactly when he needed to take a break.

While filming the U.S. team before the 2014 World Cup, one of the things that struck me was how much the young players respected Donovan and deferred to him on group decisions within camp. Landon took that leadership role seriously, but admitted on more than one occasion he looked “forward to being a normal person again.” In 2012, he told me he hungered for a time when he could do what “he wanted and needed as opposed to what was expected of him,” suggesting he had a lot more to give in his life than just assists and goals on a soccer field. We will soon learn exactly what that is.

Roger Bennett is one of the Men In Blazers. He can be found at @rogbennett and www.meninblazers.com.

Arteta rues missed chances in Arsenal loss to Liverpool

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Mikel Arteta knows his Arsenal team has a long way to go to be as fearsome as reigning Premier League champions Liverpool.

He also knows the Gunners could’ve easily taken a point off the Reds in place of the 3-1 loss on the scoreboard after Monday’s match at Anfield.

[ MORE: JPW’s 3 things | Player ratings ]

“Really tough place to come for anybody in the world,” Arteta said. “They set incredible standards. They dominate every aspect of the game. … They’ve been together five years. We are at a different moment of our journey.”

Alexandre Lacazette gave Arsenal an early lead in the game and was stymied by Alisson Becker in a second-half bid to make it 2-2.

But the Reds had so many chances before substitute Diogo Jota salted away the points, out-attempting Arsenal 21-4 and holding 66 percent possession.

[ MORE: Klopp’s animated post-match reaction ]

“Taking the lead put us in a really strong position to believe we could get something out of the game but we conceded too early,” Arteta said. “We had some problems with the ball and we had the best chances in the game and when it comes to Anfield you’re not going to get 10 chances. When you get through 1-against-1 against the keeper you have to score if you want to get something out of the game.”

Lacazette won’t love reading that, but Arteta is right. And Alisson also stopped a Lacazette chip on a breakaway goal bid that wouldn’t have counted because the Frenchman was offside.

Arsenal lost its first Premier League match of the season after winning its first two. The two sides meet again at the same venue in League Cup fourth round action on Thursday.

Arsenal’s next PL match is home to Sheffield United on Sunday.

Animated Klopp rejects Keane’s ‘sloppy’ adjective, rips handball rule

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Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp heard an adjective he did not like from analyst Roy Keane after the Reds’ 3-1 win over Arsenal on Monday.

The word was ‘sloppy’ as Keane mentioned some mistakes from the Reds, which certainly happened.

Klopp was not amused.

[ MORE: Match recap | JPW’s 3 things ]

“Did Mr. Keane say we had a sloppy performance tonight? Maybe he was watching another game? Cannot be this game,” Klopp said. “Sorry. It was absolutely exceptional, from the first second dominant against a team in-form and (we were) careful as hell that we did not get caught on the counter-attack.”

A mishit Andy Robertson clearance allowed Arsenal to take a 1-0 lead but the Premier League champions had it level within a couple of minutes, led at halftime, and shutdown Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang en route to a 3-1 win.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Liverpool-Arsenal ]

“Alisson had to make one save, they had two chances in behind but apart from that the football we played was exceptional tonight,” Klopp said. “This game tonight there is nothing bad to say, it was the opposite of sloppy. … We had so many big moments. We played a super game but were 1-nil down. Completely deserved. Could we have scored more goals? Yes. Could they have scored more? Yes.”

Klopp was also asked about the handball rule which has brought ire from around the football world including teams that have lost and won points off its implementation.

“Eric Dier could do absolutely nothing wrong and it is a penalty. You cannot control your body in that way, you have to move somehow. The only other thing you can do is cut arms off. I’m also really not happy with how long we have to wait (for offsides). … Obviously some rule changes or other things we changed didn’t help but in the moment we have to accept it.”

We’ll all be keeping our arms, as will the players. Never change, Jurgen, although perhaps a few deep breaths might give you a bit longer run on earth!

Player ratings: Liverpool v. Arsenal

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Liverpool – Arsenal player ratings: This was a real story of defense against attack as the Gunners sat back and Liverpool’s attacking stars had plenty of the ball.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Alexandre Lacazette’s opener saw Liverpool behind briefly, but quickfire goals from Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson put them ahead and Diogo Jota scored a late clincher in the 3-1 win.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]    

Here’s a look at Liverpool – Arsenal player ratings, as we give the players a mark out of 10.


Liverpool player ratings

Alisson: 7 – Made a good save to deny Lacazette in the second half and had little else to do. Kicking a little shaky on occasions.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 8 – Superb cross for Mane early on and had a vicious shot deflected onto the bar.

Joe Gomez: 6 – Didn’t have much to do but a few gaps appeared between him and Van Dijk in the second half.

Virgil van Dijk: 7 – Shot well-saved by Leno and a cool customer, as always, throughout.

Andrew Robertson: 8 – A menace down the left and gave Bellerin a torrid time.

Fabinho: 7 – Sat in and soaked up the play in midfield, and won the ball back time and time again.

Georginio Wijnaldum: 6 – Solid, steady and reliable. Does he ever have a bad game!?

Naby Keita: 6 – Wasn’t able to make his runs forward from midfield. Tidy enough.

Mohamed Salah: 7 – Lovely run and shot to set up the first goal and bullied Tierney. Greedy in the second half and took a chance of Jota.

Roberto Firmino: 7 – Good movement and occupied Luiz and Holding to allow Mane and Salah to cut inside.

Sadio Mane: 8 – Could have been sent off early on for an elbow on Tierney and hit a shot straight at Leno. Took his goal well. A constant threat.

Substitutions
James Milner (80′ on for Keita): 6 – Helped Liverpool see out the game by clogging up midfield.
Diogo Jota (80′ on for Mane): 7 – A debut PL goal for Liverpool and had some good runs, a cross and two other shots were both off target. Very lively on his Anfield debut.
Takumi Minamino (90′ on for Firmino): N/A


Arsenal player ratings

Bernd Leno: 6 – A decent stop from Mane but his distribution was sloppy.

Rob Holding: 6 – Did okay defensively but never looks that comfortable in possession.

David Luiz: 6 – Sloppy on the ball at times, and struggled to cope with Liverpool’s pressing. Hung in there.

Kieran Tierney: 5 – Caught out on Liverpool’s first goal but caught by Mane’s elbow early on. Didn’t receive much help.

Hector Bellerin: 5 – Caught napping on both of Liverpool’s firs half goals. Didn’t add anything from an attacking perspective.

Mohamed Elneny: 6 – Worked hard, as always, and tried to string a few passes together.

Granit Xhaka: 5 – Overrun in midfield and couldn’t get on the ball. Subbed off.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles: 5 – Should have done better to control a ball over the top and pinned back.

Willian: 4 – Switched off to allow Robertson to finish for Liverpool’s second. Offered little in attack.

Alexandre Lacazette: 6 – Scored his goal as he was in the right place at the right time. Worked hard but missed a great chance for a second.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: 5 – Hardly involved and when he was he failed to run at Liverpool or provide quality.

Substitutes
Dani Ceballos (60′ on for Granit Xhaka): 6 – Made a real difference when he came on as he got on the ball.
Nicolas Pepe (68′ on for Willian): 5 – Barely involved.
Eddie Nketiah (74′ on for Lacazette): N/A

3 things we learned: Liverpool v. Arsenal

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Liverpool – Arsenal was an interesting tactical battle, as Liverpool pressed high and Arsenal stuck to their defensive shape but the extra quality of Liverpool’s attack shone through in a 3-1 win.

[ MORE: Player ratings out of 10 ]

Alexandre Lacazette’s opener saw Liverpool behind briefly, but quickfire goals from Sadio Mane and Andy Robertson put them ahead and Diogo Jota scored a late clincher.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]    

Here’s a look at what we learned from Liverpool – Arsenal at Anfield.


Jota the perfect understudy to Mane

Sadio Mane wasn’t happy to be subbed off but Jurgen Klopp was perhaps keeping him away from a red card he probably should have got early on. Mane was lucky to stay on the pitch after an early elbow on Kieran Tierney. Was it intentional? No. Was it reckless? Yes. Mane chased down Tierney but raised his elbow and caught Tierney in the face. VAR didn’t determine he should have been sent off as Mane was only booked and stayed on the pitch to duly score the equalizer and was a constant thorn in Arsenal’s side. Liverpool’s star winger wasn’t happy about being replaced by Jota with 10 minutes to go as Klopp had a quiet word.

In that 10 minutes the Portuguese winger scored his first Liverpool goal, hit the side-netting, set up a chance and should have had another but Salah nicked the ball off his foot. Life after Mane, Firmino and Salah is not something Liverpool fans will have to (or want to) think about for a while but Jota, still just 23 years old, is a fine signing from Wolves and will be the perfect understudy to Mane as his pace, finishing and movement is very similar. It’s almost like Liverpool and Klopp have a plan…


Resilient Arsenal showed a little too much respect

Arsenal had two touches in opposition box in first half. Two. It was their lowest total in a single 45 minutes since Opta started recording the stat and it showed how much respect they gave Liverpool. Like they have done against the top teams since Arteta arrived, Arsenal sat back deep and tried to keep the ball at the back to draw Liverpool up the pitch. It didn’t work but they stayed in the game. Arsenal couldn’t string enough passes together to launch dangerous counters but Lacazette did have a big chance to make it 2-2 but he hit his shot straight at Alisson. Arsenal were more resilient than they have been against Liverpool in the past and Arteta’s project has just started. They have taken strides forward, we shouldn’t forget that. Arteta has made them gritty but they still have a long, long way to go.


Sloppy Liverpool caused own problems

They gave Arsenal the opening goal after Andy Robertson couldn’t control the ball in the box, then were cut open in the second half on the break but Lacazette couldn’t make the most of it. It wasn’t a case of Arsenal creating lots of chances, but instead Liverpool giving them the few they did have.

If Liverpool are going to win the Premier League, and other trophies, this season then they must tighten up at the back. They conceded three against Leeds on the opening weekend and have now given Chelsea and Arsenal plenty of chances to score. Klopp worked so hard to eradicate the silly defensive mistakes which riddled his first few years as Liverpool boss but now they’re creeping back in.