Image via José Luis Félix Chilavert/Instagram

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Miguelito has a 42% success rate of hitting the crossbar on command.

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 Miguelito

This time last year, Jérémy Doku was struggling to maintain a starting position. In his third year as a winger for Stade Rennais Football Club, a stint plagued with injuries, the club felt his speed and magnetic dribbling control was better suited off the bench to shore up games. Since his move to Manchester City at the start of the season, his work with Pep Guardiola—and enmeshment with last year’s treble-winning side—has unlocked a dynamism in the Belgian’s already zephyrous playstyle.

While he has a deceptively humble three goals and six assists across all competitions since his arrival, the fixture against Bournemouth on November 4th was his official induction into the class of deadliest wingers in the Top 5 Leagues. He would pick-up one of his goals and four of his assists in this match alone. Similar to the game at Chelsea this past weekend, he was officially slotted on the left but, for Doku, that’s more of a suggestion.

On both occasions he slid down either wing depending on what the flow of the match required. His goal would open the scoring for Man City in an accelerated “one-two” with Rodri, where he explodes away and returns to the ball with the fury of those magnetic rattlesnake egg toys, before bending it into the right hand corner. The four assists that day (to three different scorers) were where he shined most brilliantly.

He’s known for his dribbling prowess, but reached platonic levels of swagger that afternoon. The first assist to Bernardo Silva found him stepping over the ball on the right wing before even taking a touch—a bold move at match pace—then stringing a series of rollovers and cutbacks until the stars aligned for the pass. The second was actually a deflection off Manuel Akanji’s back that was meant for goal, the third a standard assist inside the box, to show he can drop the flair at will, and the fourth a lovely hyperbolic pass downfield for Silva once again.

His speed of play won’t allow him to be this productive every game, sometimes he’s too fast even for himself. Still, now that he’s flashed his disruptive repertoire to the world, Doku will be another viper hiding in the grass for the most dominant club team of the last five years. This viper can hit a smooth Griddy though.

image Image via Miguelito

The Champions League always receives its due praise and the Europa League is for the heads, but true acolytes indulge the bacchic fury of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club competition. On November 4th, Fluminense secured the first Copa Libertadores Cup title in the Rio de Janeiro club’s 121-year history. It came against perennial Argentinian powerhouse Boca Juniors in a thrilling 2-1 victory secured in extra time. In isolation it was a spectacle.

Both teams were down to 10 men by extra time, nearly thirty shots were taken collectively, players dribbled past five or more opponents and John Kennedy was anointed a saint. The twenty-one year old Brazilian forward sealed Fluminense’s victory with a half-volley from the edge of the box. The goal’s buildup perfectly distills the team’s “Dinizisimo” philosophy, and highlights its unorthodox mannerisms when compared with European styles of football.

After teasing down the left wing, Kennedy plays a “give-and-go” with defensive back Diogo Barbosa, who pops it over for teammate Keno to head into the path of Kennedy’s hammer strike. Kennedy was immediately sent off with a second yellow card for “inciting the crowd” in his celebration. The favor of the gods is as fickle as a breeze.

Besides the intrigue of the match itself, history will also remember the tactical shifts this Fluminense squad, under the direction of manager Fernando Diniz, could signal. Those far more knowledgeable than me, such as coach and journalist Jamie Hamilton, have documented the eccentric relationism that defines Fluminense’s recent approach to football, lovingly coined “Dinizismo” after their manager.

In contrast to the positional play epitomized in Pep Guardiola’s systems, Fluminense’s relationism gives a radical freedom to the players, concerned more with their dialectical relationship in buildup play than controlling specific areas of the field. It’s not so much a formation as a constellation, a collection of points between which any line could be drawn, not a fixed structure. Often you’ll see nine Fluminense players on one wing of the pitch, tilting it in their favor and toying with defenses for sixty yards before they’re ready to attack. It’s the synthesis of the Brazilian “street ball” many players grow up venerating, with its emphasis on skill moves, and the coordination of tight passing needed to transcend its limits.

Will it influence the larger football ecosystem outside of South America in a lasting way or will it be a historical anomaly? Really this question is premature and misses the point. Enjoy the hypnotism of Dinizismo without the weight of meta discussions.

image Image via Miguelito

Harry Kane was going to succeed wherever he decided to take his career. When the English striker was mulling his future this summer, it doesn’t seem that Alan Shearer’s elusive Premier League goal-scoring record was on his mind. Before Kane left Tottenham Hotspur to join Bayern Munich, he was only 47 goals shy of the astronomical 260 scored by the Newcastle great. The move was indicative of that universal desire among athletes for silverware. Since Bayern have hoisted the Meisterschale for the last eleven years, it was a safe choice.

We all knew he’d do well in the Bundesliga, but I’m not sure anyone could’ve predicted how fluid it would be. Great players fit into any league or system, but there were questions as to whether he could handle the circus of such a “Hollywood Club”. As of the latest international break, he has 21 goals and 7 assists across all competitions. That’s the most goals after eleven matches in Bundesliga history and his output is on pace to break Robert Lewandowski’s record of 41 goals in the 2020-2021 season. All with the face of a Disney villain.

What stands out when you watch the goals in succession (most of which can be found here if you can stomach the abrasive soundtrack) is the balance and ease with which he finishes all of them. Headers bend gravity, penalties nestle in the corner like a puzzle piece and shots from the halfway line soar with laser precision. There’s no question when he goes for goal, only teleological certainty.

image Image via Miguelito

Ronaldinho was just as dangerous standing still as he was in motion. Many of his trademark elásticos, where he would make the ball move as both particle and ray, started from a stationary position. He exploited the space between movement and stillness. The Brazilian legend seems to have taken a similar approach to his music curation, linking phenomena you wouldn’t have considered possible in a vacuum.

At the end of September, his funk collective Tropa do Bruxo released their first EP since their inception in late 2020, Baile do Bruxo. As billdifferen first reported to the anglophone world, Ronaldinho mined the sounds of Belo Horizonte’s scene for this release, tapping into the almost monastic compositions of WS da Igrejinha—this one kept making me think of the film El fantasmo del convento—the bonkers machinations of DJ PH DA SERRA, and the chic horns of GORDÃO DO PC, among a host of other local staples. It’s six tracks that beg to be looped over and over, the kind of music you wish would play on Ronaldinho’s highlight compilations, instead of copyright-free glitch hop or something just as shitty. I keep coming back to the title track for its muted ecstasy, but all the samplings here merit a deeper dive into whichever producer or vocalist arrests your faculties. If you’re like me and want the manager all up in the video, sign to Tropa do Bruxo.

image Image via Miguelito

On Saturday, NY/NJ Gotham City FC won their first National Women’s Soccer League title against OL Reign. After finishing last place in the standings at the end of the 2022 season, with an abysmal -30 goal differential, Gotham scraped their way to the playoffs this year in an unlikely bounce-back season that would make 42 Dugg & Yo Gotti proud. On the last matchday of the regular season, they had to hold tight to a draw with the Kansas City Current. That point gained, a loss by the Washington Spirit, and Orlando Pride only scoring one goal, kept them level on points with the Pride and saw them secure the last playoff spot on goal differential. Gotham was able to wield the knife of GD in their favor this year.

So, by all standards of prediction, Gotham City probably shouldn’t have been in the position to win anything but a moral victory over last year’s shortcomings. Lynn Williams and recent World Cup winner Ester González had bigger plans. After a searching run up the left-wing in the 24th minute by Williams didn’t pan out, Gotham reset and found their top scoring forward after Margaret Purce danced past three defenders and centered the ball. Reign would retaliate five minutes later with a perfect strike from Rose Lavelle.

Unlike the semi-final against Portland, Gotham wouldn’t need extra time to wrap up their championship. Two minutes into first half added time, Ester González would head in a corner kick from Purce, backing into the space between defenders with the discipline reserved for world champions. That ended the scoring, but wouldn’t be the end of the drama.

Gotham City suffered a scare in the waning minutes of added time when goalie Mandy Haught got sent off for a handball inches outside the box. Defensive midfielder Nealy Martin was forced to slap on the goalie kit and withstand a dangerous free kick from inside the penalty arc. She wouldn’t be tested. The ball slams into Gotham City’s wall and the defense was able to keep the attack at bay, not allowing a shot in the final minute, and now we have a maiden champion for this year’s NWSL.

Image via Miguelito

It was last match week and—since dropping more points this weekend against Wolves—Spurs fans have more pressing topics to discuss, but I have to applaud the “fuck it” mentality displayed against Chelsea on November 6th from Ange Postecoglou’s side. In what was perhaps the most entertaining Premier League match so far this season (at least until the 94th minute), Tottenham continued to play their football in an endearingly confident manner, despite being down to nine men after fifty-five minutes. Instead of cementing their defense at the back and absorbing crosses for the rest of the match, Spurs continued to press and keep a high line near midfield, drawing Chelsea attackers into offside traps four times. That’s the most by any short manned Premier League team in recent years and, combined with goalkeeper Vicario’s obsessive sweeping of any long balls that floated over the defense, it kept Spurs in the game until extra time. If his tactics caught him some fire from the analytic nerds, former Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou earned the respect of advocates for compelling football. When asked about his tactical decision post-match, Postecoglou responded in his Aussie drawl, “That’s just who we are mate…we go down to five men, mate, we’ll have a crack.”

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