About Me

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

Monday, 4 May 2015

Rose leads Bulls to Game 1 Victory

Joakim Noah likes to talk. Joakim Noah likes to talk bad about LeBron James and Cleveland. Following their most recent spat last month the towering Frenchman licked his lips at the prospect of a playoff series with the biggest names in the East.

He declared:  "If the opportunity presents itself and we can play Cleveland I would be very happy. We're confident... It would be really, really exciting. I hope it happens. "

Ahead of Monday night’s Game One of the Eastern Conference semi-finals James refused to be hauled into a verbal duel with his long-time rival. If anything, he tried to kill Noah with kindness.

He stated how he perceives Noah to be “a guy that you hate to compete against but if he' you're teammate, you probably, you love him”. While this is hardly “My bounty is as boundless as the sea”, it is a compliment dished out to a spiky character who feeds off hate.

James continued: “For us, it's not just Joakim, but he's one of their glue guys. He plays well, they play well, his energy, his effort, you love to watch him. As a competitor, you hate him, but it's all for the love of the game".

When the sides lined out for the series opener the combative pair were in direct competition, but nobody could dispute the game was won elsewhere.

The Bulls dominated proceedings in the first quarter; holding Cleveland’s offense to it’s lowest first quarter total of the season and dropping buckets as easily as a housewife throwing filthy clothes into a wash basket. Mike Dunleavy went 5-for-5 in the first half including 3 three-pointers as Chicago shot 67% from downtown to the Cavs’ 25%.

In retaliation for receiving a 1st quarter pounding, James and Kyrie Irving began bee lining toward the basket; Irving scoring ten consecutive points for the Cavs by racing around the Bulls’ presence in the paint before a series of neat finishes. In truth, this routine was a result of desperation for the Cavs as opposed to a designated source of success. They missed their lethal outside shooters Kevin Love (injury) and JR Smith (suspension/stupidity) and lacked a line-up that spaced the floor sufficiently against a Bulls defence whose strength lies in preventing three-point attempts.

The absent duo were responsible for 39% of Cleveland’s catch-and-shoot points this season and replacement Mike Miller in particular struggled to contribute to the Cavs offence, while Iman Shumpert’s lack of size compared to Love meant the side conceded too many inches to a taller Bulls team.

Derrick Rose took the Bull by the horns; resembling his former, two-kneed-self more than any occasion on any of his previous returns. He persistently created space for shots by pulling up on the run; draining 16 first half points by sticking to the successful formula.

Cleveland tied things up for the first time early in the second half when their red-wood Russian centre Timofey Mozgov tipped in following another slash to the basket from Irving but Rose, who has a Masters in bouncing back from adversity, orchestrated a run of thirteen consecutive Chicago points to put the Bulls back in the ascendancy.

He was at the heart of everything positive the Bulls did; releasing the Catalan Pau Gasol for a brace of unchallenged mid-range baskets that set him up for a third quarter where he shot 6-for-7 from the field as his side took an 11 point lead into the fourth.

Noah may have stated his pleasure to play in Ohio, but his performance painted a miserable figure. His missed easy lay-up threatened to halt the Bulls’ finest period of the game and was punctuated by a Mozgov dunk. He was held scoreless by his nemesis James all night.

Fortunately for him his four fellow starters all chipped in with considerable tallies (Gasol, Rose and Butler all climbed higher than 20), while a tiring Jimmy Butler put in a noble shift to defend the physically superior James; something that was sure to please the flailing centre.

Cleveland never led during the course of the 48 minutes, meaning Chicago have stolen the valuable home court advantage afforded to the Cavs despite their week off following a washout victory of the Celtics in Round 1.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

All Hail The King

West Ham’s former club photographer Steve Bacon tells a tale about Alan Pardew from his time at Upton Park that fits perfectly with the current Crystal Palace manager’s public persona.

During a pre-game staff meal before a clash with Sunderland Pardew lay down the law on the monarch system he favours when at the helm.

“When the gaffer sat down with his backroom team deciding on his order, he asked fitness coach Tony Strudwick what he was getting and told him he’d take it if it looked good”.

“When the meals arrived Pards said to Tony, ‘your’s looks better, I’m having that’”, and swapped plates.

“I told him you can’t just take someone else’s dinner. Pards retorted, ‘when you’re The King, you can do anything’”.

In terms of Premier League managers, Pardew may not quite be in awe of his own genius as much as Sam ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce is; a man who unashamedly explained his side’s second-half transformation against Hull City 6 weeks ago by saying “at half time it all boiled down to me."

Pardew, or Pards as he is affectionately known, exudes almost as much self-importance but in an endearing way that the grizzling Allardyce simply cannot.

When the Londoner made the switch from St. James’ Park to Selhurst Park this winter he was asked how it felt to hear the words ‘Alan Pardew, Crystal Palace manager’.

Plateau faced, he replied, "It feels great for everybody".

Since then, things have funnily enough been great for his team. After opening up with 4 wins on the spin including victories over Spurs and Southampton, Palace have opened a healthy gap between themselves and the relegation zone.

Pardew’s selection of the talented but inconsistent duo Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolaise out wide (moving Jason Puncheon to midfield in the process is) means Palace appear more threatening going forward, while their victory at West Ham at the weekend showed the squad have held onto Tony Pulis’ ruggedness and set piece prowess from last year; always a welcome addition.

With Pardew however, on the pitch activities aren’t even half the fun; it’s off the field where he catches our attention.

Some of his good work can be seen on the sideline; his head-butting, ‘facking old cunt’ calling antics of last spring are some examples, but to capture him at his best a mic is required, along with even a pinch of success.

When Allardyce congratulates himself it is usually in response to a direct question; Pardew goes out of his way to mention himself during his long, stream of consciousness soliloquies.

In the aftermath of Newcastle’s victory over Chelsea this season Pards reflected on his ongoing miracle act after steering the club to the top half of the table following questions surrounding his long-term future at the beginning of the campaign.

The former midfielder ensured we knew just how much of a grafter he was, declaring, "it’s credit to the owner and also credit to me because I've had to dig in a few times".

After Newcastle secured the signing of Remy Cabella last summer, Pardew again lauded his own managerial skills.

“I'd like to pay tribute to my staff”, Pardew began, “in particular Graham, myself, Lee and Mike who worked really hard for this one”.

With Harry Redknapp having left to brush up his touch around the greens, the league needed to find a charismatic, off-the-cuff, soundbyte friendly manager capable of improving the collective mood of football fans across these isles. Jose Mourinho has far too much control over his own emotions, while his linguistic expertise ensures every syllable is carefully prepared for consumption.

Snarling Big Sam reminds us of the ornery bastard nextdoor who wont kick our footballs back into the garden; a man we can come to appreciate as we grow older but one we will never revere.

Pardew on the other hand is the ideal man to take up the mantle.

“We've played perhaps the best football I've played”, Pards announced a fortnight ago. Long may it continue.

City's Sole Twinkling Star

If one game encapsulated Manchester City’s tendency to stall when confronted by the opportunity to prove they are a side marching towards the top of the sport it was their home defeat at the twinkling toes of Barcelona last week. Over the course of the ninety minutes the Citizens’ limitations worryingly reared their ugly heads.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side served the most possession hungry side in Europe a buffet of space in midfield to shape the game as they pleased; with sole ownership of the ball, challenged only occasionally by a distorted City press, Barcelona could pick their moments to spring forward and ultimately grab a two goal lead. Lionel Messi drifted from the right hand side to pick up the ball in central areas and the lack of a tactical reaction was negligent on the Chilean’s part.

Gael Clichy’s second yellow card to cut City’s mini-revival to it’s knees but it was proof of two things; the Manchester clubs inability to tame their emotions and also their lack of understanding the European game despite three previous seasons in The Champions’ League.

The Frenchman’s idiocy hardly needs inflation, but is compounded nonetheless by the fact City were finally on top of the game. Up front a mischievous, conniving wee pibe was tormenting Barcelona’s defence; often absorbing the power of a Gerard Pique shoulder and blitzing beyond the Catalan before skillfully pushing him onto the back-foot. For City fans this was nothing new; another recurring feature at The Etihad is Sergio Aguero hauling his side away from defeat and toward respectability for a club who have spent so exuberantly.

City’s number 16 deserves far better than the biennial disappointment he has endured since he moved to the north-west. Despite the presence of players like David Silva and Yaya Toure, Aguero is the most integral player to the club’s aspirations; his hat-trick to overcome Bayern during the group stages this season won City a game where they appeared to be playing a man down, despite the opposite being true.

After the departure of Luis Suarez, the Argentinian has become the most exciting player to watch in England. Roberto Mancini called him a “photocopy of Romario” and the similarities are frightening. As well as possessing the acceleration of a Formula One car, his strength defies his 5’ 8’’ frame. His alluring manipulation of the ball is often worthy of applause; at the weekend against Liverpool he caressed a dropping ball to safety along the ground in the Anfield side’s box, bafflingly avoiding any defenders before firing a shot narrowly wide of the post with Simon Mignolet planted to the ground.

One could hardly blame the goalkeeper; Aguero varies his finishing as well as any forward in the world not named Lionel Messi. He is capable of unleashing a high, early shot towards the near post as he did at Stamford Bridge last season, or delaying his effort to find space around a centre back before angling it beyond the keeper along the Etihad’s turf.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6x2L6MOF04

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGZpHunEKuw

The former (ludicrously labelled) ‘next Maradona’ doesn’t take to the pitch knowing how he will attempt to score but it is not completely natural either. Discussing how he works toward scoring earlier this year Aguero stated he “finds it most useful to look for space in the first 10 minutes of games because that’s how you work out how the opposition feels most comfortable to defend”.

The Argentine continued: “If you don’t get a goal in those opening exchanges, it’s no problem, you already then understand how a team prefers to defend and you can adapt your game to find the space you need. If things get congested in the middle of the pitch, I’ll look to go out towards the wings or drop deeper and get on the ball a bit more. It all depends on the game”.

Ironically, Aguero’s presence in the City squad can sometimes hurt his team. Having played most of his career slightly deeper than another forward (Diego Forlan, Carlos Tevez) he is more comfortable alongside an Edin Dzeko figure.

He touched on this himself earlier on this season, stating: "For most of my career I've played behind a striker, but close enough to form a partnership with them. That's where I think I play best."

Unfortunately for City, the type of 4-4-2 they often line up in negates the danger posed by Aguero in the sense that it starves him of service against quality teams. Roberto Mancini attempted to find a balance by introducing a 3-5-2 system after the team’s first title but impatiently discarded the idea far too easily.

The noise coming from Manuel Pellegrini suggests he is unlikely to make such an effort. Yesterday he confidently backed himself and his system, claiming “I know what is better for this team. Everyone can talk what they want."

Pellegrini could point to Aguero’s (and City’s) statistics and justify his claims. Aguero leads the league in shots per 90 (5.2) and shots in the penalty area/90 (4.1), followed by three City players in each category (Dzeko, Wilfied Bony and Frank Lampard). He is ahead by a considerable distance in shots on target/90 (2.3); indicating his shots are taken in dangerous areas.

As we have seen time and time again this will not be enough when City need it most however. Unfortunately for Aguero there will always be tactical naivety. There will always be too much space for intelligent and adroit midfielders to spin into beyond a disjointed press. There will always be over-eagerness and silly fouls.

Thankfully, there will always be Sergio to numb the pain a little.

Anger Mismanagement

The idea that anger is an emotion that will haze an athlete’s perception and affect their performance negatively is a flawed one.

Anger, as Roy Keane discussed in his most recent autobiography, is a form of energy which, utilised correctly, can spur a footballer on; it can increase the workload on the individual and the determination within that makes death appear a more appealing outcome than defeat.

The basketballer Kobe Bryant speaks about this in his documentary Muse which is released this weekend. The American, who was reared in Italy as his journeyman father Joe bounced from club to club, suffered when he was dropped into US education after the family returned in 1991; basketball was his release.

Bryant remembers: “There was a kid named Victor. He approached me during lunch and said "I hear you can play basketball and, yano, I'm the man here, so, it's on”. I was upset that I had moved from Italy, I had left all my friends. I had all this resentment and anger inside of me that I hadn't really let out and so, I demolished this poor kid”.

The Laker states that this was the first time he played fueled on such fury, “but I loved it”. Over the next 25 years Bryant never changed his stripes; he has won five NBA Championships, gathered 17 All Star appearances, two Olympic Golds and is widely recognized as one of the greatest scorers in the history on the sport. Despite all the accolades that stretch across his 6’ 11’’ wingspan, he never forgot Victor’s name.

The other side of the coin is rage.

The aforementioned Keane compellingly dwells on the difference between anger and rage in The Second Half.

The Corkman explains: “With anger there’s a comeback – I’d be able to pull myself back in, if I was angry. But with rage, I’ve gone beyond all that; it’s beyond anger. There’s no control with rage. It’s not good – especially the aftermath. You’re coming down, and it’s a long way to go. The come-down can be shocking in terms of feeling down, or embarrassed by my behaviour, even if I feel that I wasn’t in the wrong”.

“When I’m backed into a corner, when I get into situations, professional or personal, I know, deep down, that when I lose my rag, and I might be in the right – it doesn’t matter– I know I’m going to be the loser”.

Unsurprisingly, Joey Barton has been there and bought the t-shirt.

After tickling Tom Huddlestone’s testicles and receiving a red card in QPR’s 2-1 defeat last weekend, (interim) manager Chris Ramsey began to mention anger management lessons for his captain.

Barton himself has spoken about his issues with anger in the past, putting them down to “my own battle to manage the positivities of anger to my advantage whilst in on the pitch.”

The Evertonian continues: “It’s important to many footballers, yet for me anger can sometimes turn into rage, especially when I feel something is unjust”.

Equating Barton’s most recent red card to previous discretions is as ludicrous as the theory that his constant state of ire holds him back as a footballer. His high profile combustions are scarcer than Keane’s, the Premier League’s greatest midfielder.

The reason for Joey Barton’s struggles on the pitch is merely that he’s not very good.

Barton does not belong sitting in the heart of a Premier League side. With the ball he’s amongst the most hopeless midfielders in the league and, unlike Mile Jedinak, another member of that club, he does little to quell the danger to QPR’s cobweb cladded back line.

Amongst central midfielders to have made at least 15 appearances in the Premiership this season Barton stands third in playing 5.7 accurate long balls per 90 minutes. The damning part here is that of the 33 players eligible here, only Barton, Jedinak, Rangers teammate Karl Henry, Sebastian Larsson, James McArthur and Joe Ledley play more unsuccessful long balls than ones that find their target. Barton tops the league in unsuccessful long passes per 90 with 5.8; almost 1 more than his victim Huddlestone with 4.9.

With regards to more basic facets of the game, the Englishman sits fourth in inaccurate short passes per 90, behind Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song as a result of their ability and adamancy respectively to fit the ball through a mailbox, and also Jedinak.

The Australian’s contribution defensively to Palace however is immense; he makes 3.8 interceptions per 90 to top the league while Barton languishes in tied 25th out of 33 with 1.2. The rest of his figures, while not horrendous are average at best. He is dribbled past 1.5 times per 90, the 20th best in his position in England, while he makes 2.9 tackles per 90, good enough for 14th amongst the 33 players eligible under the criteria.

There are some metrics where Barton appears to impress; among midfielders he makes the second most key passes in the league. Nobody makes more long key passes in the league per 90 than him, while he is second only to Fabregas in short key passes. Despite these numbers, the fact that he only has one assist all season suggests the quality of the shots on the end of these passes are extremely weak.

Along with Steven Gerrard he takes 1.3 shots from outside the box per 90 minutes (behind only Yaya Toure and Ryan Mason); unlike Steven Gerrard he has yet to score during the campaign. Only Kieran Trippier and Scott Dann have taken more inaccurate free-kicks than the 32 year old (23) this year; all of Dann’s are feral thumps up the field and Trippier, unlike Barton, successfully finds a teammate more often than he doesn’t.

The window for the most philosophical footballer in England since Eric Cantona to use his anger as a strength has closed. Barton has enjoyed a noble career and the serious incidents that blighted the first half of his career have disappeared. In the past he has spoken of his intention to manage; Barton began working toward gaining his coaching badges in Ireland last summer.

Nobody will ever care how Barton the manager will handle a footballer like himself. Managing a man like him though, people will pay to see that.

Old Trafford one Giant Advert

Louis Van Gaal’s press conferences over the course of his career have consisted mainly of him discussing his famous ‘philosophy’. During his second spell in charge of the Netherland’s national team he mentioned how “names matter to the media but not to me”. Van Gaal, in his words, “continually plays players who best fit the team; never those who are just big names”.

When the Dutchman sat down to be interviewed for the first time as Manchester United manager during the club’s pre-season tour to the United States, he summed up his philosophy in one straightforward sentence.

The often eccentric former Ajax boss declared “I’m not a coach who thinks short-term, I am a coach who thinks always in the long-term”.

The strike partnership between Robin van Persie and Radomel Falcao in United’s forward-line this season certainly is not the future; it’s not even the present.

United’s attacking play this season has resembled a figure having been struck by lightning as opposed to the electrifying force of the blinding bolt itself. Both players were once renowned for the way they played the game in their head, albeit in slightly different ways.

Van Persie always harbored the creative streak one would expect a son of two artists to possess; as well as angling in beautiful finishes he was capable of dropping deep and assisting his inferior teammates (he assisted the most goals in the 2008/9 Premier League season).

Falcao on the other hand crept around the opponent’s final third waiting for the ideal opportunity to pounce on the space they vacated.

When the Colombian speaks about his slithery movement he refers to it as ‘strategic’. “It is part of the efficiency of a striker, to be able to position yourself, be able to intuit what the move is going to be, and be able to lose your defenders”.

Physically however, both look short of the high level expected of strikers at Old Trafford. Both men have been slain by injuries for periods in the past. Falcao’s acceleration in particular has diminished. While he once flashed beyond the Barcelona defence and delicately lay Victor Valdes down as you would a sleeping baby, he is restricted to the penalty box nowadays; a place where he admittedly did most of his damage but a limiting reference that slights just how formidable he was.

This shortage of speed shrinks the effect of United’s sole world class performer, Angel Di Maria. The Argentine, while sometimes wasteful in possession, thrives with space to gallop into. A darting forward driving behind centre backs and into the channels would force opposition defences backwards and allow Di Maria to advance menacingly (and ominously) toward the box with venom.

Unsurprisingly, The Red’s attacking difficulties are visible when assessing the season’s statistics.

United sit 10th in shots per game with 12.6, which is behind every other team in the top half of the table with the exception of Swansea. While they improve when adjusting the metrics to shots in the penalty area (6.5 per game) and shots in open play (9.3), the gain is marginal; Van Gaal’s men lie 8th in the league under both criteria (strangely behind Queens Park Rangers, although QPR are the outlier here, not United).

Individually, Robin van Persie sits just outside the top 20 players in the league who have played at least 1000 minutes in shots per game in 21st (tied with Saido Berahino, Conor Wickham and Abel Hernandez on 2.5), with his Colombian partner further down in 39th (1.9). For the sake of balance, measuring their shots per ninety minutes as opposed to per game moves Falcao up to 24th (2.9 per 90), while the Dutchman slips to 26th (2.7 per 90).

One positive piece of data for United’s frontline is van Persie’s 2.2 shots per 90 minutes inside the opponent’s penalty area, which puts him 8th in the Premier League (excluding Frank Lampard due to a lack of minutes). Frankly however there is an element of clutching at straws here; van Persie’s contribution this season pales in comparison with him at his optimal level and Sergio Aguero (4.3 per 90) gets just under twice as many efforts from the box as the former Arsenal hitman (in between the two sit Wilfried Bony, Diego Costa and Danny Welbeck from the top sides).

Against Burnley on Wednesday night the pair’s only shot was van Persie’s successful penalty, while the fact this was the club’s first penalty of the season is a consequence of a lack of touches in the box.

As touched upon by Robbie Dunne yesterday, the elephant in the room here is Jorge Mendes. Since Ed Woodward replaced David Gill as the club’s chief executive, his relationship with the Portuguese superagent has blossomed. The two send family photos to each other, while Mendes’ daughter reportedly attended Old Trafford last season for a period of work experience.

A previous version of Louis van Gaal would have ignored any involvement from any member of the club’s hierarchy.

A previous version of Louis van Gaal however wouldn’t have fielded a reactive Dutch side at the World Cup, he wouldn’t have bowed to pragmatism and utilised Marouane Fellaini’s aerial ability.

A previous version of Louis van Gaal would’ve waged war against the club last summer.

When Van Gaal was unveiled as United manager at a press conference post-World Cup he revealed how he came to realize how big a club he had joined.

“Within two days I know already how important Manchester United is, but (also) how important the sponsors are”.

Jorge Mendes doesn’t have any advertising hoardings on display around Old Trafford. The signs of his influence at Manchester United are on the pitch.

*All statistics are from www.whoscored.com/

Tony Pulis: The Master of Survival

In 2010 the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice gathered a group of minor celebrities to tackle one of the earth’s Seven Summits as a means to raise funds for the Stoke based charity.

The idea of tackling Mount Kilimanjaro is daunting at the best of times; at the worst of times it’s harrowing. Inclement weather afflicted Northern Tanzania during the week of the climb; locals claimed it was the worst in the region in five years. A blizzard wrapped around the mountain, plunging temperatures south of minus twenty degrees Celsius.

Former Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was part of the travelling party.

The Highbury legend described the expedition as a “really frightening ordeal. It was hard, so much harder than I thought it would be. But because of a massive team effort some made it to the top.”

Seaman was not one of them. Several members were admitted to hospital during the ascent suffering from extreme altitude sickness and hypothermia.

When the climb became a battle between man and Mother Nature it became a matter of survival. Naturally, Tony Pulis survived.

Typically of the man, he looked at the ends as opposed to the means. “At times it was really scary” says Pulis, “but the main thing was we made it”.

On the vicious descent the West Brom manager possessed the strength to aid Stoke City’s youth team coach Adrian Pennock downwards after his brain began to find it impossible to communicate with the muscles in his legs. This anecdote has a wonderful symmetry with Pulis’ professional life; he was able to haul an anemic body to safety.

Tony Pulis is not the most ambitious manager you could find; his ideal type of football will never send a supporter out of the ground questioning what he had just witnessed. He has stated before his primary motive when facing the first game of the season is not to win, merely not to lose. What can’t be disputed however is the former Stoke City manager has made a career on his ability to forcefully reinvigorate debilitated individuals into a steady, determined unit.

While the Welshman was successful within the parameters set during his time at Stoke, his job at Crystal Palace was nothing short of remarkable. Palace, bereft of anything except misery under Ian Holloway, were transformed into one of the most difficult opponents in the league. Three wins in his first four games steadied the sinking ship at Selhurst Park, five wins on the spin in the spring (including a 1-0 defeat of Chelsea and away wins at Everton and West Ham) anchored it in the top division.

The only thing preventing us from seeing such a drastic metamorphosis in the Black Country this year is the fact West Brom were not even close to being as bad as Palace were when Pulis took charge. We can guarantee his side will avoid relegation however and not be accused of blind faith.

Pulis’ squad selection since he joined the club has been understandably inconsistent as he assesses his squad and attempts to find his best eleven; in West Brom’s four league games under Pulis they have lined up with four different back-fours, they’ve started with three different formations and used six different forwards.

Before the season Pulis told 8by8 magazine how he approaches joining a group mid-season. “The most important thing is to see what’s there: what players you’ve got, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Then you have to put all that together and find a way of winning games—so you fit that into a system that will suit them best. And then it’s down to really getting them motivated and believing”.

Despite the tinkering, their sole defeat in this period was against an in-form Spurs team who blitzed them early on in the Midlands.

While he is the ideal man to prevent a side from demotion to The Championship, Pulis’ ceiling is lower than most managers in the division. It is no coincidence Stoke acquired their first top ten finish in the Premier League the season after he had left the Britannia. Despite taking advantage of Stoke chairman Peter Coates’ deep pockets, Pulis’ style was too regressive to maintain a high level of success across the full season; he is not the manager you want to charge with the responsibility of progressing up the table across a number of seasons.

Instead think of him as an administrator to football clubs bankrupt of talent and inspiration. He has earned enough respect in the past decade to be able to make certain demands and expect to be given them; West Brom have eased off on their insistence the club’s transfer committee is in firm control of incoming transfers at The Hawthorns.

Tony Pulis will always find a way to escape fatal danger. Never mind Mount Kilimonjaro; compared to Crystal Palace, this job is a walk in the park.

Fueled on Hate

Jose Mourinho wasn’t even watching the television but he already had his ammunition. After a pulsating second leg of Chelsea’s Carling Cup clash with Liverpool the Portuguese felt the need to intensify the siege mentality he’s been brewing at Stamford Bridge since his side were held to a draw against Southampton during the festive period.

“There is a ‘campaign’ on the television”, Mourinho sermonised, “with a certain pundit that is saying: ‘Diego Costa crimes.’ This guy must be nuts. The guy that is saying that”.

There is no manager with a better understanding of the media than the self-proclaimed Special One. Only minutes after Sky’s coverage of Diego Costa’s performance was accompanied with the caption ‘Diego Costa crimes’, the Chelsea boss and BT Sports ambassador was utilising them as a weapon for his own success.

Chelsea games are bookended between Mourinho being informed of how his side is portrayed; after the ninety minutes he is briefed on the media coverage of matches, before them he has been known to read through match programmes at opposition grounds.

Mourinho’s arduous consumption of media content ensures even the slightest bit of criticism toward his team will be seen by him. This is particularly useful during moments like this.

December and January brought people’s perception of this current side back down to earth. Before Chelsea’s defeat to Newcastle at the beginning of December, the idea that this side may go the whole season undefeated was discussed far too seriously. Spurs discarded Chelsea on New Year’s Day as easily as a child would when flinging away their rattle, while an embarrassing, or disgraceful according to the man himself, loss at home to Bradford knocked them out of the FA Cup.

It should come as no surprise then that Mourinho has reverted to alienating all outside his squad of world-class talents recently. Nobody does antagonising provocation quite like charming Jose.

The case-studies behind this are plentiful. Often there is a lack of originality behind his tricks. Last season he repeated a favourite trick from his time in Spain when he celebrated in front of the opposition bench after securing a late victory over Manchester City. The most frequent put down from Mourinho is blissful ignorance; pretending to not know a certain rival’s name. He has performed this manoeuvre on Manuel Pellegrini and Tito Villanova over the years, but also after the Bradford defeat.

“'Is there any player in Barnsley... How do you say? No, their team? Bradford”.

His deflections always hit the target. After dropping two points at St. Mary’s the main talking point was Mourinho slating the performance of Phil Dowd, somebody he felt was too fat to referee.

Mourinho doesn’t pick and choose his targets; naturally those that are bristled the most are in direct conflict with the Portuguese protagonist. He has no problem taking aim at others too though, regardless of whether or not they once shared a relationship; last year Steve Clarke and West Brom were dismissed after a contentious decision saw Chelsea snatch three points early in the season.

Jose Mourinho feeds off hate. He has always tried to create distractions at his clubs in order to reinforce his squad’s resolve.

In his most recent book Roy Keane discussed how he views anger is an energy and explains that without it there can be ‘a massive drop’.

Mourinho approaches the emotion in a similar way; after the last month his squad will be fuelled on resentment.

The Broken Clock and his Scapegoat

We may never know how Brendan Rodgers ended up with Mario Balotelli in his squad. Perhaps the Northern Irishman issued an ultimatum to the Fenway Sports Group. Perhaps they saw through this act, called his bluff and decided to pursue the Italian anyway, forcing Rodgers to back down. Perhaps the Liverpool manager was politically savvy enough to avoid engaging in a political battle against men who have more experience than him.

We do know two things however; firstly, Brendan Rodgers would have preferred to finish the summer short of attacking options than with Balotelli on board. Secondly, Brendan Rodgers is not a proud man.

At the beginning of August the Liverpool boss ridiculed the suggestion that the club would make a move for the nomadic 23 (at the time) year old.

“I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool,” Rodgers promised.

Less than three weeks later the two men were sat alongside each other. Balotelli was only at the club for a matter of hours but he was already listening to his new manager publicly admit this was a considerable gamble.

"Time will tell. Of course it is a risk. I am not going to say it wasn't but he knows he needs to fit into our culture. There are no big egos or 'Big-time Charlies' in our squad. We have got to the Champions League because we are a team”

Mario Balotelli has never prioritised the collective.

Rodgers’ tone quickly became even more damning; other forwards refused to move to Merseyside or were unavailable so they settled on the Milan marksman.

Before Christmas, with the Italian nursing a groin injury, Rodgers continued to cast doubt on the deal’s logic.

“I felt it was a risk we needed to take with Mario because, as a group, we couldn’t afford not to at that time. It was obviously late on and we needed to have someone in. It’s something we can’t regret now. I made it clear at the beginning it was a calculated risk”.

‘It’s something we can’t regret now’ translates to ‘it’s something we regret’ in human.

Having steered Liverpool to the cusp of their first Premier League title in decades Rodgers possessed a level of political clout only Rafa Benitez could match in the last twenty on Merseyside. The Anfield crowd revered him and cherished the invigorating, kamikaze football that ultimately cost them the title; eight books celebrating the title challenge were released the following summer.

A prouder manager would have been hell-bent on insisting that, while accepting the club’s policy of working in line with a transfer committee, he could veto a signing if he was convinced it would turn toxic.

One can see however why Rodgers failed to back his own judgement and refuse the signing. Martin Skrtel, Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson are just a few of the players Rodgers lost faith in during his reign but went on to prove his initial judgement was flaky. One of the pillars behind Liverpool’s recent success has been FSG’s refusal to shape the squad to please their manager.

The Americans declined the option of shifting captain-elect Jordan Henderson on to Fulham as bait for Clint Dempsey; they refused to pay for Gylfi Sigurdsson when the former Swansea manager was desperate for a playmaker, holding out for Philippe Coutinho the following winter instead. According to Tony Evans of The Times, FSG forced through with the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge despite Rodgers concerns.

That all the players mentioned have become integral to the team is testament to their managers’ ability to creatively find a role in his high octane set-up for each of them, and also his ability to accept his own wrongdoing.

The presence of Lucas and players Rodgers has publically criticised like Simon Mignolet and Fabio Borini, in Liverpool’s starting eleven at the moment highlight how he has yet to cross the rubicon with his questionable man management techniques.

If anyone isn’t going to tolerate public dressing downs however it is going to be Mario Balotelli. The Italian is far from the ornery man he is often perceived to be; his biggest fault is his insecurity. He is already an easy target whenever a scapegoat is required, however despite aging, his immaturity is still one of his most prominent traits.

The reason the Italian has and will continue to fail at the club has nothing to do with his mentality. Any striker would have been a downgrade after Luis Suarez’s genius insisted they challenge for the title last year but the only intelligent action to take would have been to pursue a player (albeit an inferior one to Suarez) who at least plays in the same mold as the Uruguayan.

Suarez was a leftist striker. He pressed, created and defended; his presence elevated the ability of every one of his teammates. Balotelli is inherently right wing in footballing terms; he will never sacrifice himself in the way his predecessor did regularly.

Fortunately for Liverpool fans their manager has reverted to the style of play that suited their slight, intricate footballers last season; rapid one-twos, the freedom to roam, relentless runners from deep.

Unfortunately for Mario, he will never belong in this style. Brendan Rodgers judged this one to perfection. 

New Dawn or same old Sunrise

If you wanted to discover just how desperate Arsenal had become you only needed to glance at the broadening mushroom of hysteria following their clinical performance at the Etihad last week.

In just under ten years the club had transformed from Invincible to Invisible; the decline of the barren years may have been slightly exaggerated and approached without an appropriate degree of reason but they were arid nonetheless.

Last season’s FA Cup victory may have finally put life back into the Emirate’s trophy cabinet but the club’s issues were deeper. Arsenal capitulated more than any respectable team in the Premiership on away journey’s to clubs they should have been striving to compete with at the top of the table.

Their closest competitors Everton easily disposed of them at Goodison Park. Despite David Moyes lowering the drawbridge over the Old Trafford Arsene Wenger’s men (or boys) still appeared meek and puny on the trip that once defined their season like no other.

These are the reasons why we can’t accept last Sunday’s game as a new dawn for Arsenal. A return to the old, ultra-competitive Arsenal will only come with consistent performances mirroring the City display and evidence of an aversion to defeat; something that left the club when Cesc Fabregas walked out the door to Barcelona (Arsenal had already gone six seasons without silverware by then).

As starts go however, this was extremely promising. Arsenal’s defenders, usually as frantic as a lost child in a crowded supermarket during games like this, were extremely comfortable over the course of the game. City were restricted to a series of attempts from wide areas; Arsenal allowed no shots from the area in front David Ospina’s goal.

Francis Coquelin tamed the influence of David Silva in a more alluring way than merely attaching himself to the Spaniard; instead he cut off the supply line by constantly positioned himself between the ball and the diminutive playmaker. On four separate occasions during the first half the alert Frenchman prevented the ball from reaching Silva as City’s widemen attempted to pull the ball back to him on the edge of the box.

Enough has been said about Santi Cazorla’s dazzling performance in centre of the park but if you wanted to pinpoint a moment that encapsulated the win it would not be the Asturian’s dainty feet caressing the ball to safety from the edge of his own box in the final quarter of the game; it would be him rebounding off the floor to jog back into position after Pablo Zabeleta bludgeoned the ball into his face.

Arsenal approached the game with a sense of reality this side has never displayed before. A compact, deep base was what was required against the defending Champions; a frenzied attack would have inevitably led to another wild scoreline like last season’s 6-3. Arsene Wenger has only resorted to such a reactive gameplan on one occasion before.

The club’s 2005 FA Cup triumph came after a dogged, but admittedly fortunate performance against Manchester United. With Thierry Henry injured Dennis Bergkamp lined up in front of a midfield five although on this occasion The Dutchman was simply there to make up the numbers.

The Gunners may have had most of the possession but only United offered a threat; they had eight shots on target compared to Arsenal’s one. After the game Wenger reluctantly accepted the victory; privately he vowed never to resort to such a regressive style of play again. It’s no coincidence that on the two occasions where the Frenchman has placed more of an emphasis on the opposition than his own team, Arsenal have succeeded.

It’s probably unwise to discuss Arsenal’s squad depth on the basis that they are synonymous with injuries. If however the majority of Wenger’s midfielders and attackers can stay fit it will be impossible to keep all of them content each weekend. If the players have a healthy attitude to this it will only benefit Arsenal.

Atletico’s Diego Simeone swears by competition within the squad; without it, he says, last season was not possible.

“There is only one form of motivation, the lifeline of any team: internal competition. If there is no competition between players, the team dies. It’s the only situation which strengthens the coach.”

The Argentine points to internal competition as the strongest factor behind improvement.

“Take Raúl García for instance – during the first leg of the Spanish Supercup against Barcelona he found himself out of the team. The next day, I arrive at the training ground at eight in the morning and he is already there training. And it’s not by sheer chance that after that, he was called up by the national team”.

If Wenger can foster this selfishness for the greater good while continuing to take a more pragmatic approach to games Arsenal will certainly challenge again in the future. Arsenal haven’t got a squad as good as Manchester City and Chelsea but the first step toward matching them is to be aware of your own inferiority and adapting.

A strong second half to the season should see them climb to third in an ailing league, while they were blessed with the easiest path to the Champions League quarter finals too. Success in the FA Cup, where they are now the bookies favourites, would prove the club are finally returning back to their rightful place amongst the best in England.

After watching the professional performance against City there’s only one thing that can stop them; themselves.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Crude

Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan peered into his neighbours’ gardens and caught a glimpse of his Emirate’s future. Abu Dhabi was once reliant on the pearling industry but The Great Depression of the 1930’s had cut it to it’s knees. Unlike other states surrounding the Persian Gulf (including Bahrain and Kuwait) he had no oil, so agreed to grant expanding oil companies concessions to hunt for the commodity he craved. In 1950 the Iraq Petroleum Company drilled the first boreholes in the ground of what would soon be known as The United Arab Emirates; a year, a million pounds and 13,000 feet later the mission was deemed unsuccessful.

A small provincial club in north-west England wasn’t even a dirty though in the Gulf state’s mind back then.

The Sheikh grew more desperate. A subsidiary of British Petrolium, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd., was given permission to raid the sea in the hope of extracting oil from beneath. Jacques Cousteau was called in to survey the seabed. In August 1958 using a drilling platform imported from Hamburg, ADMA struck black on their first attempt, 8,755 feet deep into the Umm Shaif field. “A nice sweet crude”, said the engineer on the barge.

50 years later, today’s Manchester City were born.

**************

Manchester City hadn’t tasted major success in over forty years when they clinched the Premier League title from their cross-city rival’s back pocket in the most exhilarating fashion in 2012. The club is now a Champions League regular and has collected two of the previous three domestic championships whilst enjoying some cup success on the side; fifteen years ago they sat in the third tier of English football. Dunne, Barton and Dickov are gone; it’s now Kompany, Toure and Aguero.

Based on this transformation it seems delusional to suggest the club have underwhelmed; they currently sit just five points behind Chelsea at the top of the table and could reduce that to two in their next fixture.

The elephant in the room here is cash. City have more money than God and aren’t afraid to show it; yet they’re still shooting par for the course.

The next month and a half will be integral if Manuel Pellegrini’s side want to shed this perception.

The club aren’t given the credit they deserve for their first title success; people often suggest it wasn’t a totally credible victory because goal difference was required to separate them from Manchester United (and also Ferguson’s team’s slump towards the end of the season). This bitter contention neglects the fact City delivered an outstanding performance in the must-win clash between the two sides on the last day of April that year; Joe Hart wasn’t required for any of United’s meagre five shots over the ninety minutes.

The problem lies in the fact that the display in the club’s biggest game in decades that night stands as an exception as opposed to the rule. City have struggled in games against the sides they should be competing against; last season Chelsea took six points from them including a comprehensive beating at the Etihad, they lost to Liverpool at Anfield after regaining the momentum of the game during the second half and their Champions League knock-out round debut was anticlimactic.

After their defeat to Arsenal at the weekend Gary Neville argued the side today hasn’t displayed enough signs of progression since they won their first title three years ago and looking at results it’s impossible to argue against him.

“The majority of them have been together for a long time now; three, four, five years. It’s a mature team now. They’ve got to progress, they’ve got to get better… back-to-back titles, Champions League semi-finals (because) that’s the ambition here. I’m not sure whether this team are as good as when they first won the league”.

*****************

Ferran Soriano was appointed CEO of Manchester City four months after their comeback against Queens Park Rangers. By the end of October he was joined by Txiki Begiristain, a former colleague of his at Barcelona, who became City’s Director of Football.

As a businessman Begiristain doesn’t spend money like it is his own. In the summer of 2013 Martin Demichelis signed for Atletico Madrid on a free transfer after his contract with Malaga expired; two months later the 32 year old Argentine signed for Manchester City for five and a half million euro.

Big money deals have been orchestrated by the Catalan but the group of players City rely on remain the same; Aguero, Silva, Toure, Kompany, Zabaleta.

An even more pertinent issue is the club’s aging squad; only seven of their current squad (excluding Scott Sinclair for obvious reasons) are under the age of 28. Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva are among those on the wrong side of time.

In order to lower the average age of the squad while remaining competitive, serious financial clout is required. Fortunately for City they have some cash to throw around. If however UEFA begin to impose effective punishment for going against Financial Fair Play regulations the club will rue the way they spent their money in the last few years.

During the Laporta Era at Barcelona Soriano’s policy was always geared towards fulfilling what the club’s governors referred to as ‘The Virtuous Circle of FC Barcelona’. The first step in this cycle was simply “sign the best players”. The best are only the best for so long.

********************

Soriano (on the field at least; he has broadened the City brand) and Begiristain have done little to suggest their roles at City couldn’t have been filled by others. The latter’s time in Catalunya was littered with expensive, abysmal signings (Keirrison, Chygrynskiy) and poor sales like Samuel Eto’o. Despite this, the 17 players he signed (although he wasn’t responsible for some like Ronaldinho and Eto’o) who went on to play a role in winning a Champions League title with Barcelona will be remembered with more affection.

His job at City in comparison however has been poor; he has acquired players who belong on the fringes of successful teams, but no world class talents who will define a club’s fortunes. Their importance and competence has been, to some degree, inflated because of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at the turn of the decade.

The logic behind the make-up of the current City squad is bewildering. Their biggest weakness is at the heart of midfield where they lack a player capable of stitching together their play. Fernando, Fernandinho , Frank Lampard and Yaya Toure are players with a number of functions but none possess the ability to control a game, thus increasing the burden on the more cerebral David Silva.

Up front Sergio Aguero’s preference to play alongside a striker means they often line up with two forwards, limiting their numbers in midfield. While that may be perceived as a slight toward old school 442, it isn’t. Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence on possession play isn’t compatible with the formation in the way Diego Simeone’s Atletico side is for example.

A revamp is required at the club in the near future. In order to prove this current side hasn’t merely stagnated after their initial success they must beat Barcelona in a rematch of last year’s knock-out stage tie. In order to banish the idea that today’s City are happy to rest on their laurels they must get to the Champions League quarter finals at least. They must wrestle it out with Chelsea to prove they have balls.

If the season ends without a major trophy ending up at the Etihad the men in the Gulf will be entitled to ask serious questions when they check up on their toy during the summer. If the right questions are asked it’ll see changes on the pitch, in the dugout and in the stands.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Wrong Man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is a club out there for every manager. The best of the best carry their success around with them like a watch on their wrist.

Alex Ferguson created unimaginable periods of success at both Manchester United and Aberdeen, Carlo Ancelotti solves footballing equations regardless of the language they’re posed in, Jose Mourinho’s teams may as well enter the Champions League at the semi-final stage.

Others must sail from job to job to find themselves. Diego Simeone was responsible for River Plate’s demotion from the top division in Argentinian football before masterminding the footballing achievement of the decade by almost clinching the double at his beloved Atleti. Brendan Rodgers didn’t see Christmas as Reading manager.

Paul Lambert is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lambert’s time at Norwich was extremely successful. Not only did he oversee back-to-back promotions, he guided the Canaries to safety in his sole season in the Premiership at Carrow Road.

Comparing the squads and spending power in the division there was a case to be made that Lambert overachieved more than any other manager in the Premier League that season.

The most impressive aspect of his time in charge of Norwich was the tactical nous he displayed in the top tier; often out-thinking managers more experienced (and more renowned) than himself. The side often pressed high disrupting their more talented opponents’ ability to dictate the game in dangerous areas.

Norwich, despite their limited squad, were capable of playing in a number of formations; their primary shape was 4-4-2 (in a diamond) but proved equally adept with a flat midfield four or a 4-2-3-1. Importantly, they were able to alter how they set up during games; often without even making a substitute. This tactical flexibility highlighted Lambert’s ability to coach his players as well as his own ability to intelligently approach games.

After an acrimonious departure that threatened to escalate to a legal dispute, the Scot left a stable club possessing a squad he knew inside-out for Aston Villa in the summer of 2012. Lambert found himself at a bigger club who naturally had more ambitious expectations than those in Norfolk.

Instead, Villa have found it difficult to show their fans even a modicum of progress. There is next to no creativity in the team; the midfield consists of three players incapable of controlling or willfully dominating the game.

Lambert’s side rely on the counter-attack, completely ignorant to the fact that relying on Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann for consistency is probably not the most logical idea in the world.

Last night, willed on by fans who sniggered his direction just months ago, Fernando Torres netted a brace at the Bernabeu to send Atletico through to the next round of the Copa Del Rey. The night before we smiled when David Moyes accepted Cheese Puffs from a fan after being sent to the stands in the Basque country. While this has nothing to do with football we saw his contentment with life and that’s human; we lost sight of ‘Moyes the man’ and saw him as ‘Moyes the tarnished soul’ after his experience in Manchester.

Even the heartless love a redemption story. The most glaring sign of stagnation this year in the Midlands wears the number eight in Claret and Blue on the weekends.  After years of ridicule even a couple of decent performances would see a spate of atonement pieces on Tom Cleverley; yet he still can’t trigger any degree of decency from neutrals this season.

After beginning the season promisingly it all reverted to type for the Villains. The cancellation of their goal of the month competition in October may have been because they only played three games that month, but it seemed apt; in total they’ve scored 11 goals so far this season, 7 behind second-worst Sunderland. Villa fans can only hope new signing Carles Gil aids them as they struggle forward.

So far the only player Lambert has brought in who has attracted significant interest from elsewhere is Christian Benteke. In part, the manager is unfortunate to have come in under Randy Lerner post-Martin O’Neill; the Northern Irishman had the club on the brink of financial ruin (and had the gall to walk away when Lerner warned of the need to balance the books), with wages accounting for 88% of the club’s total revenue.

You could admire Lambert for his decision to join the club in the first place. It’s unlikely however, potential suitors will see it that way in the future. This wasn’t the job for him. He walked away on that.

The Rotting Corpse of The Only Choice

"No why. Just here." - John Cage.

On the 8th of February, 2012, Harry Redknapp discovered what he was born to do in life. Just hours after successfully slipping away from a court case where he was accused of cheating the UK revenue system after receiving payments in a Monte Carlo based bank account from former Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric (if Ronseal did somewhat seedy financial dealings it would probably say that on the tin), news broke of Fabio Capello’s resignation as England manager. Fortune favours the bold.

Having hurdled over the obstacle of the Southwark Crown Court an innocent Harry was seen as the only candidate for the job. As England were going through the ‘indifference to foreigners’ stage of their managerial cycle, Redknapp, flying high with Tottenham, was regarded the ideal man to finally inject pride into the Three Lions.

Players were amongst the first to endorse the Londoner’s credentials; Wayne Rooney name-dropped him on Twitter while Rio Ferdinand called him his choice “by a distance”.

Alex Ferguson was in no doubt as to who was the best man for the job. “He has changed the fortunes of every club he has been at", said the Scot. Supporters of Portsmouth, now languishing in the bottom half of League Two, couldn’t argue with the factual accuracy of that statement.

While he initially insisted he couldn’t allow his focus to drift away from Spurs, Redknapp understandably admitted the role at the head of the national team was “the ultimate job for an Englishman”.

Equally as understandable was how he firmly believed the job was his; no other candidate was considered in the media. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers later spoke about how Redknapp “was obviously very confident - as was the nation - he was going to be offered the national team job”.

His hilarious, overt celebrations during his first game in the dugout after he was cleared, a 5-0 home victory over Newcastle, were as revealing as a resignation letter; his mind was on the England job, this was his farewell.

The FA hired Roy Hodgson as manager in May. Harry Redknapp the manager has been inching closer to death ever since.

The certainty he once fought to suppress was replaced by indignation.

"I wouldn't trust the FA to show me a good manager if their lives depended on it. This isn't about them giving the England job to me or Roy Hodgson, but English football being run by people who really haven't got a clue… Everyone said I was the people's choice, the only choice”.

Redknapp’s career since isn’t as much a career as a pilgrimage to a Nirvana of failure; a tumbleweed rolling across the desert, only the tumbleweed is in flames.

Immediately, everything he touched collapsed like a house of cards. Having bottled finishing above Arsenal for the first time in seventeen years, Spurs’ consolation prize of a Champions League spot was stolen by Chelsea’s Champions League success. Daniel Levy sacked him after Redknapp overplayed his hand while pushing for a new contract that summer.

His time at Queens Park Rangers has been littered with discontent in the stands. Fans raged when Redknapp waved to the Spurs’ faithful while losing 4-0 at the beginning of the season. His excuse was vintage ‘Arry; plead ignorance.

“I don’t know which punters are sitting up where, do I? Whether that’s the home fans or the away fans”.

The stadium was his home pitch for 4 years.

All great managers have the same brazen, grass-is-blue demeanor the QPR boss exudes. The difference between them and Redknapp however is they tend to display it when pressure comes onto their players; not themselves.

This is the reason Redknapp is never seen as a success or a failure; only a punchline.

On the field his nadir was QPR’s relegation in 2012. The London club’s demotion wasn’t even the most pathetic part of the ordeal; that belong to the insipid, flaccid goalless draw with Reading that sealed their fate. Both sides needed to win to maintain hope of staying in the division; neither could muster a goal.

His legacy will be seen in the transfer window, although the Londoner wont appreciate hearing that. He will be as synonymous with Transfer Deadline Day as the mischievous elfins surrounding reporters across the land.

Redknapp is a manager who in the past has selected two goalkeepers on the bench for an important league clash against Manchester City just days before the window shut; an attempt to draw even more money from the pocket of wealthy but equally inept chairman Tony Fernandes.

His search for the public’s pity (and transfer funds) is never-ending; this week he lamented that he only has two strikers at his disposal (Charlie Austin, Bobby Zamora, Mauro Zarate, Eduardo Vargas). The rest of his squad reads like a list of recycled goods; Rio Ferdinand, Richard Dunne, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Sandro.

What must puzzle ‘Arry is how it has come to this. He has changed very little over the last decade. He interacts with the press the same way; he’s as active in the market as ever. Redknapp is the same tactically nihilistic leader he was at White Hart Lane where transfer committee signings like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale elevated Spurs to the cusp of breaking into the Champions League.

Watching his demise, as sadistic as it sounds, is quite funny at times.

Redknapp wont see it that way. He must wonder why the best manager this generation of England players never had ended up at QPR. There is no why. He is just there.

Ross Barkley: Leave him be

Steven Gerrard is broken. During his time he was so often the talisman; the catalyst behind Liverpool’s successful battle against total mediocrity. In the last twelve months Demba Ba, the World Cup and his own aching joints, Gerrard’s Unholy Trinity, amalgamated. The demolition ball they formed pounded into the Liverpool captain’s spirit and knocked him across the Atlantic. Watching Gerrard’s interview after accepting his fate no longer lay at Anfield the evidence was obvious; Steven Gerrard is a broken man.

Jamie Carragher approached the subject with a touch of realism. “Enough of Gerrard now, he's leaving”, he tweeted. Then he lodged his tongue firmly against his cheek. “Replacement has to be Ross Barkley, offer 10 million go to 12 tops job done”.

Barkley must have been insulted. Throughout his career he has constantly been lauded by influential people within English football. Nobody seems content to allow him become Ross Barkley; he’s been touted as ‘the next’ Wayne Rooney (Frank Lampard), Michael Ballack (Roberto Martinez) and Paul Gascoigne (Roy Hodgson). Twelve million pounds to a player swimming in a maelstrom of appreciation could only have been interpreted as an insult.

The irony of Carragher’s comment is that it wasn’t a preposterous valuation.

Ross Barkley is a gifted young footballer. At twenty-one he’s shown himself to be fearless player; constantly asking for the ball and attempting to force play regardless of whether his endevours have been coming up short on any particular day.

Roberto Marinez noticed this trait in Barkley just weeks into his time at Everton. “Football is a game of errors. What I look for from players is how you react to a mistake: does it stop you getting on the ball again? Do you become a bit more cagey? What I have seen from Ross is that it doesn’t matter whether he makes a mistake; he is ready to get on the ball again. He just carries on playing in the same manner.”

While an admirable trait, you can guarantee the Spaniard is growing slightly frustrated at the fact Barkley still hasn’t laced his raw, visceral style with patience and football acumen.

Yesterday he described the imposing midfielder as “a phenomenal talent” although he also questioned the midfielder’s consistency, calling him a young man who is still learning but one who “needs to get through certain periods where he can make decisions in a better way”.

Barkley’s individual talent ensures he will occasionally decorate games with stunning runs, or even goals, but Everton, particularly during their miserable season, require a more reliable attacking player at the moment.

Reliable is a word alien to Ross Barkley at this admittedly early stage of his career. He neither possesses a goal threat or the capability to create chances for his teammates.

Paul Riley (who has produced some excellent work on Barkley, Everton and Premiership teams in general) created this (https://twitter.com/footballfactman/status/499641258076569601) revealing shot chart displaying all of Ross Barkley’s shots last season. Not only does Barkley appear to find it difficult to hit the target from inside the box but there are also far too many shots from unfavourable positions (ie. outside the box).

Unfortunately for Barkley and Everton the youngster doesn’t compensate for this by contributing to his side’s attack in other ways. Despite his manager moving him between a position out wide and a more central role this year he continuously fails to carve open the opposition or even recognise when a teammate is in a better position than himself.

His sole assist during this Premiership campaign came in his first game against Aston Villa in October and since then he’s failed in playing teammates into dangerous positions. In fact the last time Barkley played a pass into the box that resulted in a shot was at White Hart Lane on November 30th.

These facts suggest to a number of things. Perhaps Barkley is still easing into the season after beginning it two months later than his teammates. Maybe Barkley is finding it more difficult than expected having being taken away from central areas to learn how to play out wide where there’s less space.

One thing that can’t be disputed however is Ross Barkley’s inexperience. Even at 21 he has endured a number of serious injuries. While he has fought back from each one honourably they have eroded into the amount of games he has played. In total the Wavertree-born prospect has only just played enough minutes to amount to a full Premier League season (reached over the holiday period).

So instead of prophesying that Barkley will become England’s greatest player ever maybe Roberto Martinez should focus on developing him as a player. Barkley has talent to spare; if Martinez can allow it to blossom he wont find himself in the bother his team are in now and it’ll have the added benefit of being a worthy addition to his cv.

How old is a Prospect?

The rise of Harry Kane is somewhat inconceivable to modern football fans. Despite people beginning to come to terms with the idea the aging curve for athletes is shifting to the left, his influence on the Tottenham squad this season has been significant for a 21 year-old. That hasn’t stopped people belittling his achievement however; for everyone other than Spurs fans Kane is a ‘flavour of the month’ footballer. The inevitable loss of form will see him out of North London and kick-start a career touring around bottom-half clubs, probably under Harry Redknapp. Twenty-one is too old nowadays.
If a prospect hasn’t been discovered in their teens today there’s a degree of scepticism attached to them. Paul Pogba was 18 when he became known as the boy who’s self-importance dwarfed Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United. Norway’s Martin Ødegaard made his international debut at 15 last Autumn and is currently touring European powerhouses from Madrid to Melwood; teasing fans desperate for the next big thing to inject stardom into their academy.
Kane has neither the dynamism of Pogba nor the velocity of a player like Raheem Sterling; he doesn’t appear to be a natural footballer. Despite this, and his slack-jawed appearance, he’s proving himself to be an intelligent player; his ability to find space across the pitch is superb for someone with so few minutes under his belt at the top level.
Bayern Munich once had a similar player in their academy. According to a scout for a renowned European club a young Thomas Muller “was uncoordinated, ugly to watch. He’d try to trap the ball and it would bounce three meters away. He was always in a hurry, always scrambling, like a guy who was terrified to make a mistake. In my experience, guys like that don’t have a future in the top flight”. Fortunately for the youngster the Bavarians’ manager Louis van Gaal was in awe of his positional awareness and introduced him to the first team. When other’s questioned his place the cocksure Dutchman insisted “under me, Müller will always play”.
“The idea that I should trust my eyes more than the stats, I don’t buy that because I’ve seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I know that the rabbit’s not in there.” – Billy Beane.
Nobody is touting Kane as a future Bayern Munich forward, but there’s plenty evidence even at this early stage to suggest he belongs in the top half of the Premiership. While eight of his goals have come in inferior competitions his tally of fifteen for the season stands out amongst Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor’s contribution this year, particularly when you take into account the fact Kane has both led the line and played behind the striker.
In Premier League games where he’s played for over half an hour he has eight goals (a rate of one every 138 minutes or game and a half), none of which came from the penalty spot. While his shot output in this period is good but nothing special at 3.5 a game he has been extremely efficient. This is a consequence of Kane’s uncanny ability to take shots from ‘the Danger Zone’ (55%, the Premiership average is under 40%), or the centre of the box, as Michael Caley discussed here (hyperlink).
There are deficiencies in Kane’s game. While his link up play is impressive in wide areas he fails to get involved in play in central areas of the opposition’s half (penalty box aside). Even against Chelsea where he bagged a brace he failed to penetrate central areas from twenty to forty yards out.
While some could point to the presence of Nemanja Matic at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield for this it is a pattern that repeats itself across a number of games.
To prove he deserves his place in the starting eleven at a club as ambitious as Spurs Kane will have to strive to improve his link-up play, try to keep the inevitable dry-spell as short as possible and more importantly maintain his current level for the next 18 months. The clamour over an England call-up beckons ahead of their clash with Lithuania in March but Kane should display something he fails to show on the pitch, selfishness, focus on his own game for the next year and serve his time in the Under-21 set up.
For now however the signs are good and in the short term he should be a lock in for you this weekend as he attempts to make it seven goals in seven games as the in-form North London club travel across the Thames to Crystal Palace.