Image via Miguelito

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Miguelito refuses to dive when he’s in goal. It would ruin the fit.

Set Piece is a bi-weekly football column by Miguelito. Or, rather, a series of stochastic critiques and paeans that document individual and team performances, pop-culture movements of footballers, transcendental memes and the sport’s sometimes depraved intersections with the political and social.

image Image via Ash Donelon

In Stephan Esposito’s translation of Euripides’ Bacchae, he renders Dionysius’ warning to Pentheus as “you are wondrous, wondrous and you are going to wonderous sufferings.” In the next act Pentheus’ mother, Agave, driven mad by the god Dionysius, leads a band of maenads in dismembering her son, impaling his head and carrying it through the city. That phrase should live above every goalie’s locker, warning them of the tortuous vocation they chose.

We treat goalies in a similar fashion. Usually you can give a sober assessment of your team’s number one, but sometimes the bloodlust is too potent after you’ve dropped points. We’ll project a narrative onto a mishandling or wayward pass that was just part of the baked-in errors all players commit over the course of a season. We sacrifice the keeper at the altar of the club before looking anywhere else for the source of misfortune. Then, proud of our work, we parade their corpse around like Agave in her divine fury. Eduardo Galeano joked that goalies began wearing fluorescent kits late in the twentieth century as a way to soothe themselves of their positional damnation. Be fresh as hell if the feds are watching. Even more so if it’s the ultras.

Andre Onana’s trials at Manchester United this year are paradigmatic of the keeper’s burden. Issues that don’t originate between the posts inevitably get draped across them. With no proper striker and Marcus Rashford’s drop in form, United work hard to score goals. They concede them quite easily and Onana is the one they drift past. (It’s worth noting that the severity of the “issues” at United are overemphasized because of the club’s historic success. They’re currently 6th in the Premier League.) That doesn’t stop the noise and speculation. ESPN FC’s headline for their November 30th podcast was “Onana on his way out?” This Telegraph article by Jaimie Carragher refers to Onana as a liability.

Onana’s Champions League performances have been his critics’ main focus and, now that Manchester United are out of European competition this season, it will remain a blemish. Poor results there always draw more scrutiny, especially now that United’s cross town rivals have a treble too. Onana was one of four goalies who tied for most goals conceded in the group stage (15) and only kept one clean sheet across six matches. The nature of those concessions isn’t pretty. Six of them came over both legs against Galatasaray and are unfortunate slips of technique and strategy. The ones that’ll sting the most are the two free kicks to former Ajax teammate Hakim Ziyech, both from roughly the same position. In the first, Onana tries to “jump the snap” on Ziyech’s strike, throwing himself behind the wall and leaving an unobstructed lane for the shot. It’s saveable if he stayed put. Presumably Onana took a gamble based on their shared time on the training ground. The second is arguably worse, since Ziyech places the shot right into Onana’s path. It’s almost a carbon copy of the first shot but, instead of misguessing the ball’s trajectory, the keeper misplays it off his right arm and it rolls behind.

On paper, his league stats really aren’t that bad. For the Premier League, Onana is tied for the most clean sheets (5), he saves over 70% of shots on goal, behind only Liverpool’s Alisson Becker and Newcastle’s Nick Pope, and he’s in the bottom five of goals conceded per 90 minutes. Again, the only keeper not giving away at least one every 90 is Becker. Statistics are never enough to satiate a rabid fan.

The Cameroonian international hasn’t been the kindest to himself either. Back in September, he claimed prime responsibility for United’s 4-3 loss at Bayern Munich. Statements like this tilt the narrative against Onana before he even sets foot on the pitch. It’s one thing to account for your mistakes, but another ill-advised endeavor to make yourself the face of a club falling short. Anyone watching their matches can see that United’s play lacks coherence, or even philosophical impetus. There’s often little sense of what they want to do in a match. Paired with their capricious results, there’s plenty of blame to share around the field and the front office. In the midst of player-coach spats, ownership uncertainties and a seeming embrace of players facing assault allegations, Onana helped staple a target on his own back that has no business being that large.

At the end of Wim Wenders first feature length, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Joseph Bloch, who we’ve been following the last few days in suspended cinema time, gets into a conversation with a fellow spectator at a football match. Bloch has landed in a town somewhere near the West German border after being shown a red card for dissent over a goal. Bloch, a goalie himself, was adamant the goal was offside, but we’re never shown the truth. While the film is broadly about the listless and violent character of capitalistic urbanism and the infectious nature of American culture, Wender’s direction and Arthur Brauss’s portrayal capture important slices of the goalie’s paradoxical existence. Sometimes the mind games between keeper and striker bleed into areas they have no business lingering. Andre Onana has faced six penalties this year and has been skilled enough to save one. Penalties don’t seem to be his most taxing obstacles though.

image Image via Eduardo Verdugo

When Edson Álvarez isn’t controlling the midfield for West Ham, he’s saving the Mexican national team from the ire of its fans and their expectations. When they arrived at Estadio Azteca on November 21st, you could feel the team’s jittery disposition through your chosen head of the streaming hydras. Mexico was down 2-0 on aggregate to Honduras in the CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinals and it’s not acceptable for El Tri to leave the competition that early, especially not with a 2024 Copa America spot guaranteed to the winner. Mexico took an ungodly thirty-four shots in the allotted ninety minutes, while Honduras only managed to get off three. Some ricocheted off the post, others were clobbered away by Honduras’ number one, Edrick Menjivar, and many more were barely off target even as they looked certain. One breakthrough came near the end of the first half, when Luis Chavez bounced a free kick into the bottom right corner. The second came eleven minutes into stoppage time—yes, eleven—when Edson Álvarez became the hero of that international break. Vásquez chips a lackluster ball into the box and it bounces off a couple bodies before it falls in front of goal and Álvarez’s right-footed lunge proves critical. The regulation period ended with both teams tied at aggregate, so extra time began. The rulebooks call it “extra time”, but it’s better used as a refill break. Teams don’t score consistently enough to warrant your full attention. Anyone with sense knows we should go straight to penalties. Neither team scored during extra time and the match went to penalties, as everyone watching knew it would before that half-hour of our lives was legislated away by CONCACAF Nations League Regulation 12.8.

Somehow the shootout compressed more drama into itself than Mexico’s near forty shot effort up to that point. Before a penalty was taken, the teams were forced to switch goals. The first penalty spot was too mangled from the last two hours. After Gimenez took care of business for the home side, Rochez’s first effort for Honduras was too slow to the bottom right corner. Luis Malagón, a 2023 newcomer to the men’s national team, knocked it aside with relative ease. At that point, Mexico just had to remain steady. The collective heart of the Azteca froze after Huerta took the fourth penalty. It looked like Menjivar had saved his slinking attempt toward the bottom left corner, but the keeper was off his line. Then he came off his line again in the re-do. Finally, on Huerta’s third attempt, Menjivar followed protocol and the shot passed under his right arm. Mexico wouldn’t need to make a fifth after Malagón saved one more from Honduras and El Tri secured its first spot in Copa America since 2016. It just should have happened thirty minutes earlier.

image Image via Getty

In their 4-0 evisceration of Udinese on December 9th, Inter Milan maintained their top position in Serie A. The only match they’ve lost in any competition was a 2-1 affair at home to Sassuolo near the end of September. The Udinese match was over before Lautaro Martinez scored, but his effort kept him six goals ahead of Olivier Giroud as the Serie A’s top scorer with 14 goals. The Argentinian striker has obviously had a great year in international results, but his play for Internazionale this year has added a dynamism to their Serie A campaign that you wouldn’t expect if you exclusively watched their Champions League outings. His playmaking ability was at its heights against Salernitana on September 30th, when he scored four times in thirty minutes, a talismanic performance for El Toro. Besides the penalty he scored in the 85th minute, all the goals occurred in similar fashion: Martinez controls the ball in Salernitana’s half, pulls the defenders towards himself, then distributes to the wings and breaks for the inevitable cross. The first came after just seven minutes on the pitch. Martinez pulls a long ball down from keeper Yann Sommer and plays it out to the left wing for Thuram. Then El Toro pierces the middle of the defense. Martinez holds his line until Thuram serves him back a sneaky cross that allows him to tap in the ball as he skips over Guillermo Ochoa. The second is a volley with a seismic punch. Lautaro pounds it down into the turf and it curls away to the keeper’s right. His fourth goal of the evening was the most standard, a first-touch redirection of a cross from Mkhitaryan that effortlessly rolled into the far corner.

What’s really on display here is the finishing ability required of an elite striker. Martinez controls his follow-through the same way you scoop ice cream. Or the way you play tennis with a child, exaggerating the swings a bit so that they can mimic proper form. He works his way out of heavy presses by leaning into his opponent and pickpocketing their kinetic force for his own aims. “Stealing” is an incomplete metaphor. A better image would be lifting someone’s wallet, withdrawing their money, flipping it at a craps table or sportsbook and then parading the fruits of your larcenous investment in front of them. The swings and turns he creates out of defenders’ orbits can deliver the decisive blow or, at the very least, send the defense into paranoia at the next passing sequence. It’s difficult to make larceny look so smooth.

image Image via Rui Vieira

It’s nearing Christmas and Aston Villa are third in the Premier League after beating Manchester City and Arsenal in the span of three days. Since manager Unai Emery’s arrival from Villareal a little over a year ago, Aston Villa have won 32 of 50 matches. As The Athletic were quick to point out, Pep Guardiola only won 29 of his first 50 with City. It’s now impossible to avoid talking about the Villains from Birmingham when discussing English football. While those victories highlighted different aspects of Aston Villa’s ascendance, I want to focus on the offensive zeal displayed against Manchester City and leave the resolute defense they showed against Arsenal for another time.

Aston Villa didn’t just snuff out City’s flame, they took away their flints and kindling. Erling Haaland—who’s often referred to as a “robot”, though that framing is anathema to how he actually plays—was virtually nonexistent. Bernardo Silva wasn’t able to orchestrate the midfield and Julián Álvarez couldn’t even manage one shot. Villa allowed the Citizens slightly more possession, but was clinical in diverting City’s offensive channels to keep them impotent and cordon their playmakers into harmless estuaries. McGinn conducted Villa’s midfield with rareified levels of swagger. He was feeling himself so much that he actually stood in front of City’s Ederson, in an offside position, blocking the keeper’s view while he was preparing the wall for a set piece in the 29th minute. The home side only conceded two shots, but let twenty-two fly from their own boots.

Villa only needed one success from their omnipresent attack to secure the victory. After practically two-stepping with the ball every time it was at his feet, Jamaica’s Leon Bailey plunged the knife in the 74th minute. Sure, it took a deflection off a City defender and may have been saved under other circumstances. But any serious assessment of the match would grant that Villa, and Bailey in particular with his five attempts toward goal, deserved the victory. After the goal goes in, the camera cuts to Emery. He’s in the process of bringing down his hands after raising them in ecstasy at what would be the winner in his first victory over Pep Guardiola, fifteen years to the day they first met in La Liga. As he’s walking down the touchline, he stares down at the ground, almost as if he can see the season’s new possibilities dancing between the blades of grass.

Image via Tastemade

“You turn your nose up at the foot?”

Luton Town striker Andros Townsend recently came to the defense of anyone who’s been subjected to strange looks because of culinary efficiency. In an interview with 5 Live’s Monday Night Club the thirty-two year old journeyman discussed his health regimen. Sprinkled among the chic fixations of modern athletes, such as hyperbaric chambers and light therapy, was the admission that he eats about five or six chicken feet most days. It’s been the subject of light jokes from most, but this South Carolina boy found some connection with the Englishman over his defense of “throwaway” delicatessens. I’ve never sampled chicken feet, but it reminded me of defending snake meat or frog legs, or even something as benign as rabbit stew, once I left the Piedmont region. As he summarized better than I ever could, “You eat every part of the chicken, but you want to turn your nose up at the foot? Come on.”

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