Monday, 20 May 2013

What The Last Day of The Premier League Taught Us

Arsenal didn’t even need dodgy lasagne
Since they lost the derby Arsene’s boys have become the type of defensively strong, results driven team that they never threatened to be.  The improvement in Laurent Koscielny alone this season has been staggering.  With a pre-season for once not dominated by their best players leaving it’s tempting to wonder what they could achieve if they started next season with the same attitude that they ended this one with.  This being Arsenal you still somehow can’t see it happening.  They’ll probably not sign anyone apart from a couple of French youth prospects and lose away to Stoke first game of the season.  Still, nice to think that Arsene’s eight year plan may just come good after all.

Sunderland’s holiday being cancelled did them the world of good
On the players selected for this game Di Canio’s threats to cancel summer holidays if the team didn’t perform worked wonders.  His players chased and harried as if their trips to Vegas depended on it.  Down to the bare bones in terms of selection defensively they were solid, Tottenham relying on another Bale screamer to break the deadlock in the last minute.  The more telling implication may be on the players that weren’t there, Di Canio raging against the pathetic attitude of unnamed players.  In the week he was pictured covered in £50 notes in a casino at 2 in the morning it would be a major surprise if Phil Bardsley didn’t find himself seeking employment elsewhere.

Spurs need investment
Another season and another near miss for Spurs.  That this was their highest points total in the Premier League era will be scant consolation.  How they come back from this will be telling.  Keeping Gareth Bale will of course be key but it would be nice to see the club recognise that at times this season they were dangerously close to being a one man team.  As with last summer they need a 20 goal a season striker as a priority.  Having Daniel Levy not make headlines negotiating for one all the way until August 31st would also be helpful.

Jack Rodwell reminds us all
Pretty much the only positive for City out of their tired looking (of which more later) surprise loss to Norwich was the performance of Rodwell.  Given a rare start he gave a timely reminder of what potential he has when fit.  He tackled and passed with aplomb and took his two goals well to remind everyone what a player he could be.  The only way he’ll make good on his potential it to stay injury free and play 30 plus games next season, both of which the odds are unfortunately against him doing at City.

Next year could be Countinho’s season
Sturridge may have scored 11 goals in 11 starts for his new club but the best piece of business Liverpool completed in the January transfer window was the capture of the young Brazilian.  His vision and passing have made Liverpool team click going forward as they never have before and are a big reason behind any optimism for a top four push next season.  And he’s got my vote for the assist of the season for his outside of the boot through ball against Fulham.  His goal yesterday wasn’t bad either.

Newcastle will be glad this season is over
The strange thing about Newcastle’s stuttering season has been that in league it’s often been the players they fought so hard to keep last year that have let them down.  Yesterday they never looked like spoiling Arsenal’s party.  Cheick Tiote in particular has gone from the signing of the season to the week link in his team.  Outside of a few games Cabaye hasn’t been at his usual standard either.  Whether this is due to speculation over their futures, second season syndrome or just tiredness after a long season with (at least originally) a small squad Newcastle will be glad they can now look forward to starting again in August.

Andy Carroll should stay at West Ham
Yes he’s been playing very well, threatening defenses  scoring goals and yesterday creating two, the second with a deft touch and pass that illuminated Upton Park.  You can’t help thinking though that Carroll’s pretty much got it as good as it gets at West Ham.  He has a manger who plays to his strengths, his mate Nolan behind him, two wingers providing ammunition and pretty much a guarantee that when fit he’ll lead the line.  With his future still undecided and other clubs sure to express an interest Carroll will face a difficult decision.  Will he ever have it better than West Ham though?  With Newcastle, going back to Liverpool and Monaco as his other options he’d be better staying somewhere he knows he’ll be appreciated.

The post season trips by Chelsea and Man City are a mistake
Chelsea played their 69th game of the season yesterday.  This is a lot.  So the sensible thing to do is probably to fly to America for a post season tour and two more games against Man City (who in their match against Norwich looked very tired themselves).  Modern football gives us daily opportunities to proclaim the point in which it sold a bit more of its soul for money.  Even so, this is a clearer one than most.  At the end of a season that offered a rare chance for rest this trip will only succeed in limiting both club’s competitiveness for next season.  You can’t help wondering if this would be happening if Jose was in charge.  We’re likely to find out at the end of next season.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Wigan Must Keep Martinez

After the dust has settled on their season after their final, now suddenly anticlimactic, match with Villa tomorrow Wigan will turn their attention to how best to get promoted.  A quick look at this season’s Championship table should show them it’s no simple task.  They should note Wolves’ fate with a shudder.  To that end the most important decision Dave Whelan can make is to try and do everything he can to keep Roberto Martinez.

Martinez is almost unique in relegated managers in that no one is calling for his head.  You get the sense that even without the FA Cup win (for which he will surely be venerated for a very long time) the fans would be happy for him to continue.  There’s a sense that Wigan were unfortunate to be relegated, that their play somehow just didn’t get the points it deserved.  Martinez even came out after the 4-1 defeat to Arsenal that relegated them and said as much.  This is of course absolute bollocks.  The great thing about league tables is that they don’t lie.  Come the end of the season you’re positioned exactly where you should be.  Yes they had problems with injuries and a few incidents that didn't go their way but ultimately Wigan’s play got the points it deserved and those points weren't enough to keep them up.

When people talk about how difficult next season will be for Man Utd and Everton it’s not only because they’ve changed long term managers.  It’s because their managers have made their mark on all areas of their football clubs from the bottom up.  In many ways that’s what Martinez has done with Wigan.  Had they stayed up he would have been the third longest serving manager behind Arsene Wenger and Tony Pulis.  The system and players are his.

A lot will depend on how the club reacts after what will surely be one of the oddest FA Cup presentations of all time on Sunday.  That Wigan became the first club to win it while being relegated is fitting after becoming the models for inconsistency over the past few seasons.  Ridding themselves of that tag in what they’ll see as a vastly inferior league is their first challenge.  Being able to modify their style of football to guarantee results in the more physical division below is no sure thing.  There’s also trying to cope with their entry into the Europa League next season.  Birmingham, who mirrored Wigan’s fate with their League Cup-Relegation combo, did next to nothing in Europe and still haven’t been promoted.

As he was last summer with the Villa and Liverpool jobs Martinez has been linked with moving to a bigger club.  Whether the relegation on his CV affects his desirability remains to be seen.  He has however made strong hints that if an offer came in he’d consider it.  And from his point of view you can see why it appeals.  He’s won a trophy, done his very best to keep Wigan in the Premier League for three seasons in a row.  All that waits for him if he stays is a long hard slog for promotion in the Championship.  Another glance at last year’s table should tell him how hard it can be.

The players they have currently look good enough to get them straight back up.  The problem as it always is with going down is that your best players want to leave and the poor ones stay.  Managing this problem will be critical.  Wigan in general and Martinez in particular have proven astute judges of the transfer market in the past.  The same care and attention will be even more important now.  In the past Wigan have attracted players keen to put themselves in the shop window for the bigger clubs.  Valencia, Baines, Palacios, Rodallega are just some of the players to pass through.  If they do lose players then it’s natural to wonder who’ll come in to replace them, particularly as in the past they’ve brought a considerable number over from Spain and South America, players who may not want to move over to play in the comparative hinterland of a division below.

Financially they should be fine.  By all accounts a sensible, financially cautious club Whelan has always been reticent to pay the sorts of wages that can cause a problem when you suddenly find yourself a division below.  The parachute payments have just increased slightly to £60 over four seasons which should also ease the burden somewhat.  Next season they can look forward to local derbies against Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton and Blackpool.  The good feeling generated by their upset FA Cup win can’t have all dissipated by going down (in fact if you asked Whelan off the record I’ve a sneaking suspicion if given the choice between the two he would have gone for the cup).  More than most clubs on their way down they’ve got reasons to be cheerful.

That’s if Martinez stays.  If he goes then the new man will have to deal with potential departures and signings at the same time as making major changes to the playing style.  An overhaul like that isn’t conducive to starting the season as quickly as possible.  Plus without Martinez to remind them they belonged there for 8 years it’s possible that Wigan will allow themselves to shift comfortably into being a Championship club.  They may have just exceeded their reach for a few seasons.  There’s certainly no historical or logistical reason they should be in the top division.  It was only due to shrewd management and Whelan’s financial influence that they did in the first place.

If Martinez decides that he wants the challenge of getting Wigan back to where he found them (or if is slightly more likely, Everton decide to appoint someone else) then there’s every reason for optimism.  If he can decide the right number to sell and keep out of Arouna Kone, Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman, James McArthur and James Mcarthy their stay a division below could be a short one.  If Martinez goes it’s difficult to imagine that they won’t be in for a long wait.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Why Aren’t Man City Having More Fun?

For a club with more money than God, or at least more money than all the other teams, Man City do have a tendency to try and make sure they never look like they enjoying themselves.  This season in particular they’ve been given an overriding impression of taking the whole thing painfully seriously.  It was ever thus with modern football, one day your fans are dancing around with tea towels on their heads and celebrating signing Robinho, the next you’re bringing in ex Barca directors of football to help with your project and talking about wanting to comply with financial fair play standards.  Telling everyone you want to be self sustaining by 2020 might make financial sense but quicken the pulse it does not.  If nothing else being a billionaire’s plaything should be fun in a way that buying Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott just isn’t.
It tells in their football.  Since the new era they’ve shot up the table and won trophies but the football itself has never been overly inspiring.  They haven’t been helped by their managers.  Both Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini have aspired to have their teams be ruthlessly efficient.  The trophies have primarily been based on defence.  This dependency was fine last season but the major factor in the title slipping away in this one.  The team has conceded two more goals this season but has scored twenty nine less.  Mario Balotelli proved too much fun for anyone at the club to handle and was shipped off to Milan.  Exciting players were considered and then promptly not signed in the summer.  The Champions League was an unmitigated disaster.

The prevailing attitude at all times (as it is in almost all of football) is that this is a very serious business.  It is too much to expect a little fantasy?  Especially since the club can undoubtedly afford it.  Essentially Mancini lines his teams up in a 4-4-1-1 normally with two holding midfielders.  This can look stodgy and inflexible when they’re not on form and places a great deal of pressure on the two wide midfielders to provide the creativity.  When there’s a few players off their game (which City had plenty of this season) it breaks down easily.  For all the money they’ve spent at times I looked at City this season and wondered how exactly they wanted to play.  Say what you want about Arsenal for example but at least you can see what they are trying to do.

And this is where Pellegrini comes in.  From the outside it seems that Mancini has been sacked as much for his style of play as for his results.  The owners tire of the style of their club it seems which for better or worse is their right (after initial success with an efficient style at Chelsea Abramovich has gone through the same thing, in their case deciding to sign exclusively creative midfielders).  The appointment of Txiki Begiristain was seen as an open attempt to lure Guardiola, the closest European football has to a guarantee of titles won with style.  Prepare for Pellegrini to be presented as a kind of Guardiola-lite, wedded to his principles of passing football and of his teams taking the initiative.  He’s not got the titles but the style is there.

Which can only be a good thing.  If they stick with him he should deliver (his one season at Real Madrid before Mourniho took over they set a league record for points by the runner up).  His teams should be more entertaining that this year’s vintage anyway.  And surely they’ll realise that signing at least a couple of top level players a season is a decent enough way to get the blood pumping.  Short of bringing Mario back it’s the best chance they have.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Ten Best Signings in this Year’s Premier League

Best to bestest.  General performance and value for money taken into account.

Cesar Azpilicueta; Marseille to Chelsea, £7 Million
It’s worth remembering just how much Chelsea have spent on right backs since Roman’s takeover.  For a fraction of the price of a Bosingwa or Ferreira they seem to have solved a problem position.  Has been as much of a factor in John Terry’s declining influence as anyone as his form has allowed Ivanovic to move inside.  Has a great engine, solid defensively and getting better going forward.  Looks like he’ll take some shifting.

Matija Nastasic; Fiorentina to Manchester City, Undisclosed
About the one decent piece of business City did in the summer was to bring Nastasic in for the underwhelming Savic.  Looked slightly shaky at the start but blossomed quickly into an accomplished central defender as responsible as anyone for his team having the best defensive record in the league.  All the more impressive considering he’s had to do without Kompany as a partner for parts of the season.  Excellent technically and a great distributor of the ball, he should be a key fixture as the club attempts to switch to a more expansive style of play.

Hugo Lloris; Lyon to Tottenham, £7.9 Million
For all that Andre Villas Boas has done well in his debut season in charge of Spurs the handling of his two goalkeepers has probably been his greatest achievement.  He was seen to be fair to both while exacting a level of performance that gave Lloris no choice but to settle quickly.  And he’s been quietly excellent ever since.  To sign a proven international goalkeeper with Champions League experience for under eight million was a great capture for the greatest negotiator of all time™ Daniel Levy.  Anyone want to tell me why Arsenal weren’t interested?

Claudio Jacob; Racing Club to West Brom, Free
Man of the match on his first appearance, Claudio Jacob has had a debut season to remember in a good West Brom team.  Another in a long line of bargins he settled into his role in defensive midfield as if adjusting to a new league was something for other people.  The sort of player who sometimes has you wondering what exactly you need him in the team for then when he’s not there you understand immediately.

Kevin Mirallas; Olympiakos to Everton, £5.2 Million
As a Belgian who also got his football education over the border at Lille, is he the cut price Eden Hazard?  His appearances this season have been limited through injury but when he’s played he’s impressed.  Good enough to stand out in a strong Everton team, he often brings that sense of unpredictability that they desperately needed.  Unafraid to run at players and very accomplished technically.  If he stays fit he should be even better next season.

Eden Hazard; Lille to Chelsea, £32 Million
It’s worth remembering how much of a coup Hazard signing for Chelsea was, the blues managing to beat the likes of Real Madrid and Man City to his signature.  And he’s not disappointed.  At times he has looked like he’s taking time to settle in, others like football at the very top level is already too easy.  Apart from height he has it all.  Deployed on the wing he looks lethal.  When he’s had the chance to move inside he already controls games with ease.  Has had the tendency to drift through games at times but will improve.   Have an outside bet with myself that he’ll win player of year awards next year (just as he’s already done twice in France).  Worth remembering he’s still only 22.

Dimitar Berbatov; Manchester United to Fulham, £5 Million
If I lived in London I’d be at Craven Cottage every chance I got just to watch Berbatov.  I never understood the criticism he received during his time at Man Utd for his seeming refusal to run around.  When you’re this good walking could anyone really say they would bother?  So good for Fulham at times he seems to be impatiently waiting for his team mates to catch up, he would probably guarantee escaping relegation by himself.

Christian Benteke; Genk to Aston Villa, £7 Million
Has it all really doesn’t he?  Seems like a long time ago when Lambert was getting flak weekly for starting the young Belgian (them again) ahead of Darren Bent.  First season, nineteen goals, four assists and immeasurable amounts of defenders bullied.  His goals have been all types as well, from neat near post finishes to outside of the area smashes and the header against Sunderland where as Lambert put it he rose higher than the crossbar.  Frightening that he’s only twenty two.  Not a stretch to say that without him Villa would be in the Championship next season.

Robin Van Persie; Arsenal to Manchester United, £24 Million
Mancini says that Man City would have won the league with him and it’s hard to argue.  Twenty five goals and consecutive seasons as the Premier League top scorer are nothing to be sniffed at.  It was the speed in which he got Man Utd up and running that had the biggest impact.  His goals at the start of the season propelled them into a lead that it turned out they had no intention of relinquishing.  Say what you want about him leaving Arsenal but at least he went for footballing reasons, listening to his inner child to turn down Man City.  All this and he scored the goal of the season.

Michu; Real Vallecano to Swansea, £2 Million
It bears repeating just how cheap Michu was.  And it’s not like he came from nowhere.  The season ahead of his move Michu was the highest scorer from midfield in the Spanish top division, ahead of anyone from Real Madrid or Barcelona.  Still there were few suitors for him before he went and did exactly the same for Swansea.  Astonishing.  You could say he went off the boil in the second half of the season but by that point he’d already racked up 16 goals in the league and scored in winning a League Cup Final.  And all for a sixth of the price of a Gervinho.  Which in the future is how all transfers will be measured.

What Chelsea vs. Benfica taught us

Turns out Benitez knew what he was doing
Who knew?  Managing Chelsea is described as the hardest job in football which we all know is nonsense.  Mind you managing them for more than a season has turned out to be pretty difficult.  On a temporary basis Rafa managed to take a squad of supremely gifted footballers and win them a trophy.  That he did this while qualifiying for next season’s Champions League (arguably more important for the club) is all the more impressive.  Someone will take him permanently surely?

Ramirez isn’t a right winger
Seems slightly churlish to complain when it was his run at the end of the match that led to the decisive corner but Ramirez never truly convinced all night.  If he was selected there ahead of Moses for his defensive quality the first half was evidence against it.  Time after time he let Nicholas Gaitan in particular skip past him with his incisive movement which at least twice should have really led to Benfica taking the lead.  His energy and drive are a better fit in central midfield.  If Chelsea could find a sitting midfielder to play alongside him they’d have a chance of getting the balance right.  Speaking of which…

Chelsea need a Defensive Midfielder
The one thing Rafa hasn’t been able to successfully address is the balance in central midfield.  Lampard has performed admirably and David Luiz’s long term future may be there but last night, the first half in particular highlighted how passive Chelsea have become in the midfield area.  This can be attributed by the amount of games they’ve played this marathon season and by the excellence of Benfica’s pressing but has been a growing concern all year.  They have creative midfielders in abundance but haven’t had anyone to sit and screen successfully since Claude Makelele.  To be fair to Rafa he asked for one in January.  It would be a surprise if this wasn’t the first order of business for the new man (cough, Jose, cough).

The difference in mentality of the two teams was telling
Chelsea have been in nine cup finals in nine seasons.  They won the Champions League when playing demonstrably worse than Bayern Munich last year.  Before the game they had already qualified for the CL next year, their only realistic aim in the league.  Benfica had suffered a last minute loss to Porto at the weekend, taking the climax of the league this weekend out of their hands.  They had lost six European finals before this one.  With every chance fluffed in a dominant first half you could feel their confidence ebbing while Chelsea’s grew.  Even after the equaliser Chelsea always looked the more likely to score.  There’s a lot to be said for being there before.

As a shop window for Benfica’s players it was successful
Benfica seem to be very comfortable with their status as a club that sells its best players every summer, Ramirez and David Luiz moving from them to Chelsea in the past few years.  They just drive a hard bargain then replace them with others.  As such it’s tempting to view them as a European finishing school for prospects for the bigger leagues.  On the basis of their displays here (and over the course of the season) there should be no shortage of takers for Garay, Gaitan and Matic.  At nearly 30 age may be the only factor keeping the biggest clubs from coming calling for Cardozo.

John Terry dresses like Superman
In that he must have had his kit on beneath his suit, how else could the lightning fast change have been made?  I can’t be alone the morning after in wondering if that really happened. 

The Ten Worst Signings in this Year’s Premier League

Should be relatively self explanatory and in a half hearted worst to very worst order.  I’ve tried to take account of their impact over the season, such as it was.

Joe Allen; Swansea to Liverpool, £15 Million
The way the transfer was presented sums up the worst excesses of Rodgers’ Liverpool project.  The Welsh Xavi hasn’t been terrible since his move exactly, he just hasn’t lived up to his metronomic billing.  Telling that Liverpool have only really clicked since he’s been out the side.  With Lucas doing a more physical version of the same job you have to wonder if he’ll get back in again.  And Swansea aren’t exactly missing him.

Emmanuel Adebayor; Manchester City to Tottenham, £5 Million
Had a successful loan season in 2011-12 to earn himself a move away from City.  Then promptly decided to stop playing until a week before the season ended.  What Tottenham needed for their top four push was a twenty goal a season striker.  Instead they signed Ade.  One of the most frustrating players in the world to watch.

Scott Sinclair; Swansea to Manchester City, £6.2 Million
Seemed an odd transfer at the time and now looks even more so.  Almost as if City had a list of targets and skipped right to the end.  Looked a decent player at Swansea and most likely will again wherever he moves on to.  Currently though he’s not even making the bench at his current club.  A warning to all young British players about making a premature move to one of the big boys (see also Jack Rodwell).

Pavel Pogrebnyak; Stuttgart to Reading, Free
There was perversely a lot to admire in Reading’s doomed to failure approach to trying to stay in the Premier League with what was so obviously a Championship squad.  Then they sacked Brian McDermot for the crime of getting them promoted in the first place and we felt ambivalent about them again.  Pavel Pogrebnyak was the exception.  A proven Premier League performer (at Fulham) who came on big wages (reportedly £65,000 a week) and then proceeded to do very little to justify them.  Scored five times.  Adam Le Fondre’s got twice that and hardly ever starts.

Bryan Oviedo; FC Copenhagen to Everton, £5 Million
Easy to forget that he’d joined so forgettable his debut season has been.  Still has time on his side to come good and live up to the promise he’d shown in the U20 World Cup in 2009.  Not much though.  Also at a club where every penny has to count five million is a lot for a left winger without a goal and one assist in fifteen appearances.

Marko Marin; Werder Bremen to Chelsea, £7 Million
Was once the next big thing in German football.  This was at least six or seven big things ago.  He’d already gone off the boil by the time the move to Chelsea came about and there should have been a warning attached to that price tag (given that it works out as less than Bremen paid for him).  Still only 24, he’s not so much disappointed as not showed up.  Six appearances this season don’t bode well.

Nuri Sahin; Real Madrid to Liverpool, Loan
First things first, Sahin is an excellent player.  He’s been an excellent player this season.  Just not during his time at Liverpool.  After his loan had been cancelled in January and he’d gone back to Dortmund he told reporters he thanked God that he was no longer managed by Rodgers.  Reportedly unhappy he was played out of position he’s proved back at Dortmund what he’s capable of.  Anonymous or worse at Liverpool.

Estaban Granero; Real Madrid to QPR, £9 Million
Out of the fourteen players brought in by QPR this season Granero was the most expensive.  He was also the most gifted.  Showed his quality in patches but never enough to completely convince.  Could just be that he was powerless to affect things at a club where everything was going sideways pretty much from day one.  Will get another chance somewhere, can’t see him settling in the Championship.

Maicon; Inter Milan to Manchester City, £3 Million
Everyone in English football knew that Maicon was a spent force apart from Mancini, ever since Gareth Bale ordered him that taxi he’s never been the same.  That was the story when he signed anyway.  And a season later it’s difficult to argue with.  Presumably he was bought to add Champions League experience and we all know how that turned out.

Jose Bosingwa; Chelsea to QPR, Free
Had to be really didn’t it?  Presumably made the move because they were willing to pay him a reported 80 grand a week and he didn’t have to move house.  Then proceeded to refuse to sit on the bench against Newcastle, laugh when they got relegated and maintain a general standard of ineptness that was difficult to argue with.  Can’t really see there being a queue forming to take him off QPR’s hands.  But he did wind up Joey Barton.  So all in all a mixed bag.