About Me

Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Special One V2

Jose Mourinho is either lying or he has been fooled by the milkman, because neither the man-child bear-hugging the Chelsea manager during his exuberant celebration after defeating Manchester City nor the red-haired youngster next to him share much of a resemblance to the Portuguese protagonist. Maybe one of these is Mourinho Jr., who’s to say Jose’s son isn’t a supporter of Leitrim GAA like the beaming young fan pictured behind the City bench on Sunday afternoon? However if we take the past into consideration we can cut through the superfluous excuse spewed out of Mourinho’s mouth with Occam’s Razor. The self-anointed Special One had zero interest in celebrating with his son after Fernando Torres capitalised on City’s defensive combustion at Stamford Bridge, his actions were provocative, premeditated and unprofessional; his intent was vintage Mourinho.

For a manager who merges football with the extravagancy of showbiz like no other Sunday was a nadir. Jose ran out of new ideas to shock the audience and reignite the feud with his predecessor at Real Madrid Manuel Pellegrini so he reverted to a stale trick, previously performed at the Bernabeu two seasons ago after a Kaka goal sealed a victory late on over Villareal. Mourinho danced in front of the Yellow Submarines’ bench, emphatically raising his arms at his son who was (supposedly) conveniently located behind their dugout. Repeating his once original antics yesterday was proof that Mourinho just doesn’t do effortless irritation as gloriously as he used to.

Mourinho’s managerial career began with a lie in Portugal. During a meeting with the Porto board in January 2002 the then 38 year old dazzled his future employers by narrating a detailed slide-show he had created highlighting the vision and philosophy he promised to bring to the provincial powerhouse were he given the keys at the club.

Under Mourinho the club would aspire to win the largest number of titles possible playing an attractive brand of football with a team containing as many home-grown players as possible. As time progressed it became clear the 28 slides were blatant plagiarism, cut from a longer presentation Louis VanGaal gave to the Barcelona board at the beginning of his time in Catalonia, yet the Porto board were unaware of this at the time and fortunately hired Mourinho on the spot.

Once he had got his leg up however, he was never going to stop. Love him or loathe him, the fifty year old is an insanely great manager, pairing exceptional tactical nous with an extraordinary ability to inspire his charges to bring him success.

Samuel Eto’o thanks God for delivering him to Mourinho at Inter Milan, while the Portuguese carefully caressed Zlatan Ibrahimovic with silk gloves, creating a symbiotic relationship between the pair where Zlatan would get the goals and “be prepared to die” for his boss, while Jose would get the glory. Mourinho is obsessed with two things; success and his image, how he is perceived. At Real Madrid he insisted on sitting in seat D10 on away journeys in the Champions League as Real attempted to finally win La Decima (10th European Cup). 

Rationally, any fan of any team would cherish Mourinho at their club as he comes with inevitable success. However sport isn’t the most rational sphere of human activity. Greece succeeding in Euro 2004, Liverpool fans thinking “I don’t speak to blacks” is a term of endearment, that Newcastle fan punching a horse; none of those things should happen (actually, maybe the last one should).

Ethically you could make a case for never wanting to see the man at the helm of your club. As Mourinho announced at his unveiling as Real Madrid manager he comes on his terms: “I arrive with all my qualities and my defects." His qualities have been mentioned already, his defects? Well, there’s a strong case to be made that the sole display of class during his career has been when he wished Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova well in his recovery from cancer. While a noble act, it’s not too idealistic to have taken this as a given.

Events like the previous eye-gouging incident with Vilanova and his contribution to the death-threats which led to Anders Frisk’s retirement have not only sabotaged Mourinho’s reputation but also his cv. Football-wise he tends to leave a trail of scorched earth behind him following his definite three-year stay at clubs, a trait unlikely to go unnoticed by clubs searching for a stable and successful marriage. After years of public courting Jose was ignored this summer when the one job he felt destined for became available.

Jose Mourinho’s first clash with Alex Ferguson at Chelsea in August 2004 resulted in a 1-0 victory but also a rather forced admission of inferiority: "I told Mr. Ferguson that United didn't deserve to leave Stamford Bridge with nothing." Jose Mourinho’s last clash with Alex Ferguson resulted in a 2-1 victory but also another rather forced admission of inferiority: “The best team lost”.

Bobby Charton and the powers that be at United didn’t take the bait. “He pontificates too much for my liking” claimed Charlton, as well as suggesting ‘Mr. Ferguson’ wasn’t as fond of his peer as had been suggested and stating a United manager would never act like the man publicly whoring himself to the red half of Manchester.

Wounded, he has returned to the Premier League under the guise of ‘The Happy One’ but make no mistake, this is Special One v2, inspired by rejection and fuelled with the bitterness of a teenage girl whose best friend pulled the county centre-back behind her back. There will be even more arrogance, every word will be loaded with political meaning and aimed at a particular target; every action will want to have been seen.

The Prodigal Son has returned having seemingly seen the light, his new aversion to diving and cynical fouls reinforced by his love for the Red Rose of England. "Some foreign players when they come to England still keep their culture and it's a disgrace you do that to a person”. Even time-wasting is treated with contempt: ”you pay your ticket and every time the game stops you have to wait about half a minute? That is a waste of money. That’s not funny. Not in England”.

Jose Mourinho can survive on lies, if anything lies are essential to his being. However the first sign of terminal decline is telling the same lie twice, and this red flag has been raised after just nine games of the season.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Spirits of the Invincible

Regardless of how well we cope with an unthinkable new dawn the spirits of our loved ones will continue to sneak into our perspective. Arsenal fans found it impossible to relate to almost a decade of footballing inadequacy, constantly buckling under any degree of pressure, annually forced into a dangerous state of repair with the sale of their most coveted gem. With every disastrous set-piece the famous back five of the George Graham Era sat to feast like Banquo’s ghost, every unimaginative attacking performance only heightened the desire to reminisce over The Invincibles. But now the circle appears to be rounding, with the ghosts of Arsene Wenger’s earlier teams having returned, channeled through the Frenchman himself.

For nine years and counting Arsenal’s seasons have resembled the Russian folk song Kalinika, fluctuating on an almost weekly basis from scintillating performances threatening to over-whelm every challenger to tepid, resoundingly vulnerable displays. However this season, following the club’s most recent nadir of a home defeat to Aston Villa, The Gunners have found the consistency they’ve lacked in recent years. Following eight games they sit top of the league and while it’s probably premature to consider them concrete title contenders, this side does appear to possess the variety needed in attack to sustain a challenge over the course of a demanding season.

The primary reason for Arsenal’s improvement has been the recent addition of the apparition of the Non Flying Dutchman. In Mesut Ozil Wenger’s side have acquired a genuinely world class talent and arguably the best player in England. Ozil is incapable of errors, every choice he has to make on the pitch echoes perfection. The direction of his running, the weight of passing; his vision, enthusiasm and ability to find a pocket of space in the final third of the pitch is unmatched in Europe. A premier ten like Ozil is, regardless of the lazy moniker, a vintage Arsenal player. Having watched Robin van Persie soar and inspire Manchester United to the Premiership title last season Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidas knew that when a player of the German’s seemingly effortless calibre becomes available you act first and think about where he will fit later. As Brian Phillips noted, the signing was Wenger waving his middle finger to the pragmatism that suggested he could only restore his legacy in North London by shifting his emphasis to those who pick the fruits rather than those who group them into an appetising bowl.

Ozil doesn’t act alone however. Wenger has gathered a collection of attacking playmakers, allowing him to vary his tactical options going forward. The Alsatian selected a team comprised purely of intelligent ball-players against Napoli in the absence of the threat brought by the frantic and frenzied Theo Walcott. For a manager often bizarrely criticized for his lack of tactical intuition Wenger deserves full credit for handing his players the offensive liberty they have started the campaign with. On Saturday against Norwich the alchemy of the attacking trident of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Ozil (sprinkled with a pinch of the unrecognizable Aaron Ramsey of this year) was brewed in Wenger’s raunchiest dreams.

Naturally this results in a lack of clean sheets. However that just makes this team even more compelling. You score two and we’ll score three football is what we aspire to see when we sit down to watch sports.

Wenger has persevered with much over the past decade. Financially the club was handcuffed to the goalposts, forced to watch cherished friends frolic towards pastures new. Cesc Fabregas, van Persie, even ginger stepsons like Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor were lured away from The Emirates’ pristine surface by artificially greener grass elsewhere. If Samir Nasri is to be believed (I know, like handing Bernie Madoff a suitcase with forty thousand pounds in it and asking him to drive to the nearest Audi dealership to pick you up a sparkling A6, just hear me out) Wenger has been forced to sell assets at the orders of Stan Kroenke. "Wenger told me that, if Cesc left, I would stay, but Kroenke wanted the money”, Nasri claimed while looking idle in Manchester.

In the midst of his most challenging seasons yet fans wanted the stubborn Frenchman to open up, admit his errors and change his ways. Ramsey was a mid-table write-off, Olivier Giroud proof of the deficiencies in the club's once admired scouting system. Both players have been integral in the opening months of the current campaign. Giroud has enjoyed torturing opposition centre-halves on a weekly basis, holding the ball up with distinction and redirecting passes to teammates when he’s been bored. It is Ramsey however who is rewarding Wenger the most. After years of average displays and shifts out wide his form has been sensational, as well as boasting a goal-return similar to Cesc Fabregas's break-out campaign in 2007/08. The Welshman protects and passes the ball similarly to Arteta, however he also provides composure in front of goal nowadays and a thrust from the centre of the pitch.

Naturally at this early stage it’s too early to claim Arsenal are the finished article, particularly having been gifted the easiest opening fixtures the league has to offer (it can’t last forever, but maybe it can last until next week’s clash with Crystal Palace). However in a league where no team at the top appears to be considerably better than another, Arsenal can claim to have as good a chance as any of their competitors. Aside from the litter of creative midfielders the squad is light on bodies , with a huge onus on Giroud as the club’s single proven striker, while Mathieu Flamini’s absence restored the uncertainty in Arsenal’s defence after his enforced substitution at the weekend. However compared to recent seasons Arsenal are enjoying a Caribbean cruise rather than a Himalayan hike.

Arsene Wenger has made mistakes in the last few years and like any romantic he will continue to do so. He knows each one and how he could have rectified them too, he’s just too stubborn to admit it. However the best thing Arsenal fans can do is to persevere with Wenger for as long as he pleases, because the longer his epoch goes on and on, the odds on his ghost looming over North London in the future get smaller and smaller. You don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Los Bastardos

Don’t pull any punches; they wouldn’t want it any other way. This Atletico Madrid team are bastards. Cynical, feral, rabid, but more importantly, proud bastards. It’s always been this way. The team of the people; living in the absence of the social pretension of their cross city rivals Real. While Los Blancos basked in their own importance on the night of their centenary by inviting King Juan Carlos and his family to an opulent banquet, Atleti celebrated theirs with a live performance from The Rolling Stones and a giant paella. Ballroom dancing, champagne and Placido Domingo versus sex, drugs and rock and roll. It will always be this way.

The fiscal strength of Los Colchoneros, or the mattress-makers, pales in comparison to La Liga’s two superpowers. Despite having the third highest wage budget in Spain the figure (120 million euro) has remained stagnant for the past five seasons, while the squad has leaked players of the calibre of Falcao, Kun Aguero and David De Gea annually for the best part of a decade. It seems totally irrational for the Kings of Catalonia and Castilla to be quaking in fear; dreading the snarling characters over their shoulders, yet at this current time, there isn’t a more coherent or competitive team in Spain than Diego Simeone’s men.

One can be forgiven for the sense of déjà vu surrounding the Argentine manager today; Simeone was part of the last Atletico side to capture La Liga back in 1996, covering every blade of grass like St. Bridget’s cloak and relentlessly kicking each occupant into submission. Quite often it is impossible to imagine such characters acclimatising to life in the dugout once their dreams on the pitch die out. A safe assumption would have been to assume El Cholo’s managerial career would mirror his fellow central midfield enforcer Roy Keane’s, with the comet’s tail rapidly vanishing after a couple of brief, volatile stints of desperate clubs.

Yet what Simeone has done is nothing short of magnificent. With each transfer window the squad has increased in depth despite the loss of integral members. He may bark around his technical area with manic aggression like a man possessed but his obsession with success is vigorous; last week when Arda Turan capped off a neatly worked set-piece his team celebrated as if they had guaranteed qualification to the second round of the Champions League, but it gave validity to Simeone’s argument that intense application on the training ground results in points on the board.

Defensively his team creates a solid, compact shell surrounding the penalty area, extracting any space in their own half with a bullish tenacity, with the central midfielders led by captain Gabi pressing at just the right time and driving the opposition back in fear of their lives. The back five can claim to be the most secure in Europe not only in terms of squad selection but also defensive certainty. Each player has benefited as a result of Atleti’s aggressive system. The left-back Felipe Luis, as valuable a weapon in attack as he is in defence, represents a serious challenge to his cross-city rival Marcelo for Brazil’s number three jersey during next Summer’s World Cup campaign on home soil.

The squad’s sole world-class performer is Thibaut Courtois, insanely loaned out from Chelsea in a situation as baffling as Romelu Lukaku’s expulsion to Everton for the remainder of the season. Very few goalkeepers are genuine match-winners but the young Belgium international is capable of mind-numbing saves on the rare occasions when his usually impregnable defence is defeated. When Atleti need him most he will always produce. Without him the team’s fortunes would be so different; his heroics at the death during last year’s Copa Del Rey final at the Bernabeu marked a significant alteration in his club’s mentality. This club could go to the biggest stadiums in the world and cause absolute mayhem; only from now on they would have the medals to prove it.

However nobody personifies the side more than Falcao’s successor, the chief bastard Diego Costa. Costa would relish the opportunity to enter a lion’s cage dressed as an antelope. It’s quite an achievement to out-bastard the combined bastardness of Real Madrid’s Pepe and Sergio Ramos in a two-on-one bastard handicap match; Costa does this without breaking a sweat.

However while last season he was merely seen as a pantomime villain he is finally proving his worth to a squad as ambitious as Simeone’s Atleti. Prior to the weekend Costa had scored as many goals as Lionel Messi with a third of the opportunities. At the weekend he added to that tally with two in the victory over Celta Vigo, the second highlighting his brute strength and paradoxical calmness in a one-on-one situation. He’s developed a subtlety in his play; for a player so easily targeted by the opposition and their fan’s his ability to delicately drift unnoticed into advanced positions is superb.

The 24 year old suffers the second most fouls in Spain but gives as good as he gets, committing more fouls than all but four of La Liga's players this season. Against Celta at the fortress of the Calderon he was the team’s chief creator, setting free the usually reliable and now Robin-to-his-Batman David Villa on a number of occasions. However it’s his partnership with the supremely gifted (and wonderfully named Jorge Resurrección) Koke which has proved to be Los Rojiblancos’ most fruitful offensive weapon, with 11 of his last 17 goals being assisted by the 21 year old Spaniard. It’s a combination which has the potential to blossom on both the club scene and internationally, with Costa eligible to play for La Roja via residency in the country of his birth in a year’s time. Ever the protagonist, he would relish the chance to star as the anti-hero in a country baying for his own blood.

The biggest threat to Atleti’s potential challenge is, in comparison to Barcelona and Real Madrid, will they have the squad depth to draw on in March and April when the final chapters of the season are being written. Despite signings like Toby Alderweireld and Joshua Guilavogui, not to mention home-grown prospects like Oliver Torres (make no mistake, this boy is sublime, quite obviously Spanish in style and will shine on the biggest of sporting occasions in a few years), the resources available at a provincial powerhouse like Atletico are incomparable to European super-clubs like Real and Barca. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Napoli have struggled to juggle domestic competition with the Champions League in recent years; one tends to give way to the other.

If one team can buck that trend however it’s Simeone’s. This club likes to have its cake and eat it.