Sunday 3 December 2023

van Gerwen, Barry, Rivera

Has this been a bad year for van Gerwen? In terms of results, I think it's hard to argue otherwise. Obviously the game is still very much up there, and any conversation as to who the best player in the world is without including Michael in the discussion would be nonsensical. The problem is that there are now multiple players who are capable of matching, if not bettering, van Gerwen's level of play, and we're seeing that turn into negative results more and more often, with van Gerwen only picking up a pair of non-ranking TV titles (Premier League, World Series of Darts finals), and his final major record being 0-2 on the season, ignoring his loss in the final this time last season. Let's look through things - the UK Open would be the most obvious place to have converted, given the final opponent of Andrew Gilding, but Goldfinger was having an inspired tournament and somewhat deserved to have MvG spurn a title dart and claim it. van Gerwen played fine at the event, having pretty tough draws throughout in Chisnall, Kleermaker, Humphries, Aspinall and van den Bergh, so he can take some credit. The Matchplay, however, was a huge aberration, going behind in the first session to Brendan Dolan, clawing it back to 5-5 but then allowing Brendan to close it out 10-7 for one of the bigger shocks we've seen on that stage. Chris Dobey played fine against him at Leicester after getting past Josh Rock, but while you wouldn't be surprised to see Chris get wins, you would expect van Gerwen to win that one more often than not. Michael did play most of the European Tour circuit, claiming one title and getting to the last session eight times, bringing him into Dortmund as the number three seed, but he would lose at the quarter final stage to upcomer Gian van Veen - again, one you would say Gian winning is believable, but one MvG should get right most of the time. Again at the Grand Slam - Damon Heta's not bad, but is a level below where Michael is at. About the only one you'd say "yep, fine" is the Players Championship Finals, where he lost to Luke Humphries in a high quality affair in the final - I don't think anyone can argue this was an upset, Luke may well be the best player in the world at that point, Michael can't say he played badly either, only the one bad average against Vandenbogaerde, an insane performance against Ross Smith, and an average of 103 for the final over 20 legs needs something special to be beaten, and Luke had that. So where does he stand for this one? He can win it for sure, but he is by no means a favourite, an immediate opposing seed of Kim Huybrechts is no pushover, a possible last sixteen game against Stephen Bunting would be deceptively tricky, a quarter final would see him play Noppert if seedings go their way but Heta and Rock are potential wildcards who might be stronger than Noppert is, then a semi final against Luke Humphries would clearly be tough. We'll see how it goes but you clearly can't call van Gerwen an overwhelming favourite, if one at all, at this point in time.

Keane Barry, still just 21, makes his fifth appearance here, and this year he will want to rectify what was an awful display last year, losing on the opening night to unheralded South African qualifier Grant Sampson with a sub-80 average, to continue a fairly mediocre run of performances on this stage which has seen him pick up just the one win to date. Barry is here through the Pro Tour, and it's mostly through the European Tour as to why he is ranked so highly. While he would have liked to make more events, only making the five in the season, he did win his opening game every single time, and in his first two appearances he would make very solid runs through to the quarter finals, beating Andy Boulton, Rob Cross and Berry van Peer in Munich before losing a high quality game to Michael Smith, then later that same month he would do the same in Leeuwarden, beating Marko Kantele, Cross again then Ryan Searle before coming up short against Michael van Gerwen. That accumulation would be enough to see Keane make his second appearance in the European Championship, following the joke year where seedings were made based off two events, but he was only just in the field, giving him a tough draw against Gerwyn Price who was a comfortable 6-1 winner. Other than a World Cup debut, where Ireland surprisingly didn't get out of a group with Croatia, Keane's only other televised appearance was in the UK Open, expectedly beating Damian Mol after being seeded into round three, before going down 10-7 to Mervyn King in a game that looked close on paper, one that Keane might want back in retrospect given King's season. Those are the only appearances due to mediocre floor results - Keane accumulated less than £15k on the floor and wasn't even in the top 80 on that ranking, so was not close to making Minehead despite ending in the top 64 overall on the averages for that series. The issue was too many early exits - going out in the first round on seventeen occasions, plenty of these being against opponents you would expect Keane to defeat more often than not, rather than being the victim of tough draws. Add on a further seven second round exits and not a single quarter final appearance, and there's an obvious area for improvement in 2024. For now, just improving a poor worlds record and getting some ranking stability ahead of a UK Open semi final falling off his rankings in the near future should be the priority, but it won't be a walkover.

Reynaldo Rivera has been one of the finds of the season, finishing fourth on the Asian Tour and winning a playoff (later rendered moot due to future tournaments) against Man Lok Leung to qualify and make his debut. The latest name off the Philippines production line, Reynaldo came from basically nowhere (dartsorakel for one has no records of anything prior to 2023) to claim a brace of Asian Tour titles, the first in his native country with a fantastic 5-0 demolition of Lourence Ilagan where Reynaldo averaged 110, the second in the final weekend in China, winning in another all-Philippines affair against Alexis Toylo. Rivera added a pair of finals back to back in Hong Kong, add on another two tournaments where Reynaldo reached the semis along with three quarter finals, Rivera had done enough to get into a tie for fourth place on that ranking, winning that aforementioned playoff to secure his world championship appearance. As such, it was a bit of a surprise when Reynaldo failed to make it out of the group stages at the Asian Championship, his group saw all three players win one match a piece, but his loss being 5-0 gave him far too much leg difference to make up and it would be Alex Tagarao who would move through to the knockout stages. What makes Reynaldo dangerous is his scoring - we've known the area has produced plenty of more than competent players, and there is of course one holding a tour card right now, but Rivera's play in 2023 might be the best we've seen from anyone at any point from his country. Scoring of less than a point below 90 is no joke, and we've got sample size of over 120 legs which to me is probably enough to think this is not a fluke, there's a bit of inconsistency for sure, but players with comparable scoring stats in 2023 include Andy Baetens (yes, he who is favourite to bink that world championship that's going on right now) - oddly Reynaldo appears to be averaging more in both winning and losing legs, but due to distribution of how often Andy wins legs, he's actually scoring slightly more overall. Other comparisons might be Connor Scutt and Mervyn King, overall numbers are very similar, but looking at distribution of how quickly Rivera wins legs, he appears to have greater explosive power. Make no mistake, Reynaldo is absolutely live to come through this first round tie.

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