About Me

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

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.



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.