What We Learned From Prem So Far


End Of The Year Report

I have to say it’s hard to think of any genuine highlights this season as most of the memorable moments seem to relate to teams falling below their expected standards or failing to live up to expectations and that’s no way to really remember a season. The way the table looks at the moment, there are no clear gaps until you get to the four point separation between fifth and sixth. From sixth down appears to be an increasingly inseparable dirge of midtable relegation mediocrity. Even West Ham, comfortably propping up the table are a mere 12 points from sixth place and have every reason to believe they could be safe by the season’s end.

Join Us On The Good Ship Woebegotten

Aside from the World Cup, which was utterly forgettable, the team whose exploits best summed up this year is Liverpool. Their spectacular fall from grace allowed them to lose both their fact-obsessed manager and their parsimonious yankee owners only to replace them with an even less inspiring combo of managerial ineffectiveness and American make do and mend philosophy.

Their summer transfers illustrate the decline in quality in the Prem itself. Out goes Argentine captain Mascherano, merely the latest in a line of quality leakages from Anfield, in come Morieles, Poulson and Konchelsky, three players of such overwhelming averageness that even when combined they cannot match what has been sacrificed. As a result, they’ve been playing football of such a tedious quality that their opening day draw against Arsenal is starting to look like a moment from their golden age in the 1970’s.

Manager Uncle Wroy’s seeming acceptance of their situation and his apparent lack of anything approaching ambition provides a grim counterpoint to Liverpool’s abject performances. You sense he feels that his real triumph this year has been the psychological victory of keeping Gerrard and Torres at Anfield for another season. The sight of Wroy wrubbing his face in disbelief, as if doing so will somehow wake him from his deep layers of slumber and end the Liverpool nightmare, merely reinforces the depths to which his team has plummeted. The only solution may be a complete overhaul of the entire Liverpool system. Left without a decent team, in need of a new stadium to seriously compete and with owners who don’t look like they want to invest the £300 million or more that this will require, the future doesn’t look good. It will take the likes of Owen Coyle or another manager who can encourage low cost players to play beyond their means to get Liverpool back to their former level. But with all the problems at the club, would any manager like that actually want to take the job?

Or The Good Ship Woebegone

The flipside to this descent into mediocrity, is an illusion of opportunity. All it takes is a minor step up in form for teams to be catapulted into the big time. Ready or not, here they come. Both Man City and Tottingham have benefitted from forays into the transfer market, even if Tottingham have been wandering the aisles of Asda gazing whistfully at the own brand bargains, while Man City have simply gone out and bought the whole of Harrods.

Both teams have benefitted from the additional class offered by their incoming talent. Van Der Vaart appears to have singlehandedly dragged Spurs to the next level, encouraging positive performances from the likes of Bale and Crouch, even if he hasn’t quite managed to tame Offside Decision’s tendencies to stray into inappropriate positions. City, meanwhile, can afford to have expensive signings like Ballotelli spend an entire season bedding in, while the likes of YaYa Gigante and David Silva add to the performances of Leetle Carlito. Joint top at the end of the year is way more than they had expected, even if they have played two more games.

While The Other Teams Just Flounder

City and Spurs aside, I can’t think of a team that has genuinely improved over the season. Man U could possibly go an entire season unbeaten fielding their weakest team since the Prem began. Arsenal continue to flatter to deceive, playing beautiful football with the ball without any concept of how to defend when the other team has possession. In a perfect world Arsenal would do the unthinkable and hire Fat Sam Allerdiché (the anti-Wenger) to deal with their defensive and set piece play. That way they’d have all their bases covered.

Chelski have been the big losers. Ever since Abramovitch appeared as Putin’s miniMe during the 2018 World Cup bidding, he’s diverted his energies away from West London and gazed further east. His team has been crumbling ever since. They’ve lost the same number of games as Arsenal, Bolton and Sunderland, more than Man U, Man City and Tottingham. Even in this poorest of leagues, you’ve got to feel that this puts the championship beyond them.

The rest just appear to be vaguely interchangeable interminable stodge. Sure they may be capable of occasionally putting together an interesting game and Blackpool will always be worth watching, but far too many are simply makeweights stuffed full of tedious journeymen and could be kids who probably won’t amount to anything and have been for far too long.

Players Of The Year

  • Joe Hart – has really stepped up this year. So much so that it’s hard to see him not being the Engerland keeper for the next decade at least.
  • Samir Nasri – has matured nicely and seems to have benefitted from both being left out of the disgraced French World Cup team and included in the revised France Begins side. Apparently doesn’t get on with Franck Ribery, which may affect Ribery’s international career more than Nasri’s
  • Gareth Bale – announced himself to the world with a phyrric hattrick against Inter Milan, only to find that he could be marked out of a game by Phil Neville. Chances are he will do for Engerland’s Euro 2012 hopes when Engerland meet Wales in 2011.
  • Andy Carroll – not quite in the same league yet as Hart, Nasri or Bale, Carroll shows potential. He’s got good attacking instincts, great feet and is a world apart from the standard hoof-n-hope English centre forward like Heskey, Crouch or Shearer. Although it’s touch and go whether he will achieve greatness or spend the next few years in jail.
  • Nani – still a world away from replacing Christiano Ronaldo, he’s shaped up in a variety of ways, both physically and in terms of his overall game.
  • Van Der Vaart – the millstone around the Dutch neck during the World Cup (he seemed to hold back Sneijder and slow down the team), he’s transformed Tottingham. Without him, they look terminally vulnerable.

I can’t think of a defender who has exceeded expectations and only a few who have lived up to their reputations – Ashley Cole, HisNameIsRio, Vidic and er that’s it.

Onwards To 2011

If this carries on I think I might just give up on the whole thing…

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What We Learned From Prem Week 19


Will No One Rid Me Of This Turbulent Prem?

You would have thought that by now, halftime in the Prem as it were, someone, somewhere would have decided that this is a league they can comfortably win. Surrounded by the least inspiring set of challengers and numpty no hopers it’s been our misfortune to sit through for at least a decade, no one, not one team seems to have the collective will to impose themselves on this division. And it’s getting ridiculous.

Man U could win the league and go unbeaten with a team that’s hardly on a par with any of Ferguson’s previous sides. Man City could win it with a team that barely looks like it will see out the season, let alone play into the next one. Arsenal continue to promise much but fail to deliver on such a consistent basis that success is far from a given. Chelski look inadequate and a pale shade of the team that rampaged its way through their first five games. Tottingham just can’t keep the ball out of the net (at either end). None of the others has a realistic chance.

Games, Games, Games

It’s a frantic game every two days period where it’s clear that no one is going to field entirely consistent teams throughout the holiday period and that the smaller squads and those where the strength in depth just isn’t there are going to suffer. Arsenal hardly untypically follow their outstanding win over Chelski with an irritating draw against the free falling Wigan. Admittedly they weren’t helped by having Fabregas serving a one match ban, but Wenger’s decision to rest 8 players, including pretty much the entire defence, doesn’t seem to have been the right one. It’s pretty obvious that while Arsenal’s ‘first’ team are a match for anyone, their ‘B’ team are capable of losing to almost every side even when appearing to be in the lead. You have to feel that players like Arshavin, Rosicky, Bendtner, and Eboue, not to mention the centre back pairing of Koscielny and Squillaci, have yet to put in a decent performance this season. And that’s despite Arshavin and Bendtner both scoring. Even so, it appeared that they had just about done enough before they once again pressed the spastic self-destruct button and let Wigan steal two points off them with some pretty useless set piece defending. However, as with the Sunderland match earlier in the season, this draw is an improvement on last season, so it could actually be positive.

Meanwhile, Chelski were smarting from their thrashing at the hands of Arsenal and needed to get a result from a usually plucky Bolton. However, Bolton are one of those sides whose squad size just doesn’t allow them to compete in this many games this often and they were reduced to having only six substitutes. Chelski weren’t at their best, but their goal recalled the majestic splendour of early Autumn, a grand sweeping move which ended with The Drog putting the ball across the six yard box for Malouda to tap in.  It made you wonder what the hell has happened to the side to make something like this seem like a relic of a bygone era. Still, they’ve got a couple of easy games coming up so maybe it’s the dawning of a new era for the ski-boys. Bolton are discovering the limits of their ambition, held back by the size and nature of their squad. What we enough to maintain a comfortable Prem permanence isn’t enough to maintain a European place position.

Also not enough to support a European position is Liverpool‘s performance against Wolves. Just as in their match against Blackpool a while back, Liverpool’s central defence was bisected by a lovely pass to put a player clear through on goal and that was it, game over. I’m not sure that scab monkey Skrtel and journeyman Kyrgiakos are even as good a defensive partnership as Squillaci and Koscielny and considering that the former pair were both at the World Cup that’s shocking. Uncle Wroy has to find a way to rejuvenate Gerrard and Torres, who seem like diamonds encrusted on a pile of shite, or he’s simply going to be managing a sinking ship. Wolves’ win simply drags a pile of other teams into the relegation dogfight.

Man U failed to press their foot to the championship winning pedal by only scraping a draw with drawbores Boremingham. And although they weren’t at their best, Man U looked like being able to carve Boremingham open any time they wanted. Their problem was simply that they weren’t able to score more than one. Boremingham are looking more and more like a team of nasty, thuggish little shites who aren’t capable of doing anything other than playing arse-ish negative football.

And while a Tevez-less Man City managed to stuff a very poor Aston Villa, they weren’t as impressive as they had been against Bolton where they totally ran the game. And while Balotelli got three, two of them were penalties and one was a tap-in. Admittedly the penalties were outstandingly self-assured and the tap-in was the sort of right place, right time effort you’d expect a skilled striker to get. City are starting to look like a competent, coherent unit, but hardly an unbeatable one. Villa, on the other hand, are starting to look like a team that has forgotten how to play, let alone win, football matches.

Tottingham continued to pressurise the top four by beating the inconsistent Newcastle. The latter’s blue away kit continues this season’s theme of having rubbish, non-traditional away kits. Mind you it is better than their canary yellow one last year. Tottingham are still the best rampaging forward side in the Prem and with Dawson back in their defence, they’re starting to look vaguely stable at the back. It will be interesting to see how they perform during the spring when they will be playing serious matches in the Prem and the Big Cup every week.

Sunderland will be kicking themselves at their performance against Blackpool. They battered the Blackpool goal but couldn’t score, while Blackpool slotted in two on their fabulous counterattacking moves. I can’t help thinking that if Gyan was playing in Darren Bent’s position, he’d be scoring more freely. Blackpool are more interesting, more effective and play better football than Hull did a couple of years ago.

Stoke‘s loss to Fulham, along with Real Blackburn‘s win at West Brom and West Ham‘s draw with Everton simply served to compact the relegation space.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

No real obvious contenders for this. No massive goalkeeping howlers or catastrophic back passes spring to mind. So in keeping with the third fallback position, the Arsenal Memorial Defensive Fuckup goes to Liverpool’s Skrtel and Kyrgiakos for their mind-boggling inability to prevent Wolves from passing between them.  And like the year, there goes the Prem, unspectacular, overhyped and instantly forgettable.

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What We Learned From Prem Week 18


Life In The Old Dog(s) Yet

Obviously when we said that Arsenal were a dead dog with no chance of winning anything other than the Not-So-Useless Cup and that Arsenal Wenger still had much to learn and that his team mirrored his benign innate politeness and would never be able to cope with The Drog, what we actually meant was that he was breeding a team of steel-hearted killers who now seem to have the mental qualities necessary to take on Chelski, if not Barcelona, at their own game and boss them off the park. Hopefully, this win is the start of a long and successful period. Next stop the FA Cup third round and a win in the Not-So-Useless Cup.

Man U continue on their merry way, not necessarily playing fantastic football, but not losing the plot either. Over the recent Xmas period, they’ve cynically dismantled Arsenal, given Fat Sam Allerdiché the kicking that got him the sack, done for Bolton and even had a week off while Blackpool defrosted their pitch and Chelski worried about snowy pavements. Their last match, against Sunderland, saw another away team roll over to be tickled by a side that still hasn’t really bothered (or needed) to find its form.

Sneaking up on the outside, both Tottingham and Man City continue their merry progress, Tottingham blithely leaking goals at one end while scoring more at the other, Man City merely playing drole football and relying on Leetle Carlito for all their nous and inspiration, if not all their goals.

Or Maybe Not…

Chelski, meanwhile, seem intent on playing an active part in the increasingly exciting ‘Race For Third And Fourth’ alongside Man City and Tottingham. Despite the return of all their key players, they now look like half the team they were at the start of the season and if they continue this form there is now the very real possibility that they will be the team forced out into fifth.

Games, Games, Games

 

Avram Grant stalks the corridors of Upton Park searching for another win.

Arsenal’s game against Chelski put down an impressive marker for Arsenal. Admittedly they are irritatingly inconsistent, but now, at last they have the reassurance that they have actually beaten one of the big teams. They may not go on to win the league, which is looking like Man U’s to lose at present, but they should go into the serious half of the season with the confidence that they could win something. Obviously it was essentially that Fabregas was back in the side and providing the mental stamina that the side appear to need.  Chelski now have the sort of eminently winnable fixtures coming up that they had at the start of the season, so they should return to their previous form next week. Their really critical matches are now against Man City, Tottingham and Man U later in the season.

Man U continued the highly predictable tradition of teams managed by ex-players or friends of Alex Ferguson rolling over for them. In this case the Sunderland team which gave Chelski such a pasting were themselves given a hard time and reduced to chasing shadows for much of the match. So much so that it’s hard to reconcile them with the team of a few weeks ago. Man U still haven’t begun to show their proper form, but with Chav Wanker looking menacing out wide and Berbatov scoring relatively freely and playing some beautiful little flicks and kicks, things are starting to look ominous.

One day this season Tottingham will actually go through a game without gifting the opposition a goal (or two). This wasn’t that match. Nevertheless, their player of the year and still transfer of the season Van Der Vaart popped in a couple before Jermaine Offside Trap was sent off. Villa really hadn’t got much of a response and seem increasingly lacking in firepower up front. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ashley Young leave in the January transfer window, but equally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Villa bought a striker then too.

Man City are something of the opposite of Tottingham, they don’t concede too often, even if they conspired to illustrate some of Andy Carroll’s finer points as a striker. And when Leetle Carlito scores, they usually go on to win. Even if Ballotelli didn’t manage to do anything except get booked. Newcastle continue to blow hot and cold. They weren’t terrible, but so far they haven’t shown us anything under Pardew that they hadn’t under Hughton. They looked to come back from the kind of nightmare, mistake ridden start that combines horror and  comedy in equal measures, but were utterly floored by City’s third goal.

The remainder of the matches merely continued the Prem’s subtext of decreased quality and increased tedium. Admittedly West Ham scraped a win from Fulham, with Carlton Cole scoring twice for the first time since the Prem started. Given he is West Ham’s big striker, that stat says something about the team’s chances. Fulham look a shade of the side that went to the Little Cup last season and while the loss of their entire strikeforce to injury can’t have helped, Mark Hughes’ management doesn’t seem to be doing much.

Wolves dropped into the bottom place relinquished by the Hammers thanks to a loss at home to Wigan. Again, their problem is they simply can’t score goals.  Neither of these sides looks too good to go down. And, frankly, neither would be missed.

Bolton did for West Brom, who are fast becoming the most inconsistent team in the Prem. Still their goal this season remains to avoid relegation and there are at least three teams beginning with W who are worse than they are. Like Sunderland, Bolton show that good football, rather than painful defending is the best way out of the mid-table mediocrity and towards Prem stability.

Real Blackburn are beginning to really struggle. There will be those who say that Fat Sam would have kept them up, but I’m not so sure. While they don’t often lose heavily (except to Man U), they don’t have quality goalscorers either. Money bought them the Prem title a while back and it may be the only way to save this season. Stoke haven’t got a lot of quality either, but they’ve got enough to comfortably beat Real Blackburn.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

I don’t know what it is about the backpass rule that has keepers and defenders so flummoxed, especially this season. It seems pretty simple, you pass the ball back to your keeper in plenty of time and not directly at the goal and your keeper hoofs it if under pressure or passes it out to a clearly unmarked defender if that’s an easy pass. The worst thing that should happen is you concede a corner. This season we’ve seen a parade of catastrophic back pass failures some of which defy belief. Think of Phil Neville’s painful attempt to  gift a goal to Chelski or Chimbonda’s elegent set up for Berbatov’s second and inwardly wince. This time, however, it was Newcastle keeper Krul (who sounds like an extra from Star Trek only with a first name of Tim) who managed to make a mess of things. With three City players on the edge of his area, circumstances called for a hefty hoof n hoper. Instead he attempted to pass the ball out, only to see it intercepted and boffed into his own net. Five minutes in and almost game over.

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What We Learned From Prem Week 17+


Welcome To The New Prem Winter Break

Blow me down, it's a little bit of bad weather. Cue instant panic and travel chaos in the UK.

So this is Christmas, as I believe John Lennon once said, and what have you done? Well not satisfied with kicking Engerland in the balls when it was down by mischievously moving the goalposts as far as that World Cup bidding process was concerned, fat criminal wastrel Blatter the Hutt now proposes to piss on the dying embers of the World Cup by suggesting that the Qatar 2022 World Cup should  be played in the winter.  His spurious reason? That the players won’t be able to play in the heat of a Qatari summer. As if that’s reason enough to rip up the rulebook, not to mention FIFA’s own bidding criteria which stated that the 2022 World Cup would be played in June 2022. All this because Blatter wanted to outflank the Qatari FIFA delegate, who was planning to stand against him in next year’s shotgun election (winner to be one Blatter the Hutt).

All this puts the Prem boys in a bit of a tizzy. Well, quite a lot of a tizzy to be honest. They’re pretty pissed anyway that their best players have been hijacked all summer and left crocked for the season, while they are still expected to merrily pick up the tab, grin and carry on. They certainly won’t be happy at the thought that their best players in 2022 will be taken away around Christmas time and delivered back, crocked, exhausted and unable to play for the remainder of the season.  No they won’t. Add to that the fact that they will undoubtedly miss the vital 3rd round of the FA Cup, which takes place the first weekend in January and you have a big pile of unhappy bunnies.

And that’s not all they’re unhappy about. Oh no. They’re doubly unhappy right now as their principle argument against this, that we actually play football in the winter, has been dealt a bit of a blow by the inconvenient truth that, guess what, it’s winter. There’s snow all about. People can’t go on holiday, let alone get out to see the game as there seems to be a bit of travel chaos. It is surprising that, given we have so much weather here in the UK, we seem so spectacularly unable to deal with it.

So, guess what, the whole Prem has, apparently gone to ratshit in less than a week, which those on the continent simply call ‘having a winter break’. We persist in the delusion that the Prem never closes (certain Tuesdays and Wednesdays aside and don’t forget Thursday is Early Closing day).  Obviously we will get the worst of all worlds here due to the chaotic unplanned nature of our enforced winter break, which means that none of the players will really benefit from a structured break and we’ll have a load of fixture congestion for the big clubs right around key Big Cup matches. So well done everyone. Public Inquiries all round on that one.

So It’s Football You Want?

Two games survived the weekend, with Man City‘s clash with Everton surviving until Monday. Neither of Saturday’s matches managed to do anything to move the quality index beyond Woeful and it did make you wonder why you bother watching this league if it is consistently unable to produce matches that are actually worth watching.

Sunderland gave Bolton a right good kicking, and not just from that inept tackling Lee Crappermole fellow. This is what people whose heads are still marooned in the 1970s (ie pundits) call ‘a proper game of football’, which is to say a whole load of hoofery mixed in with some dreary agricultural challenges masquerading as tackling. The sooner this sort of play is truly exorcised from the game the better. Admittedly there weren’t any of the really classic bad tackles, you know the sort, late, studs up, no hope of getting the ball, with the trailing leg just guaranteed to catch the standing leg of the player being tackled to cause maximum long term injury, but that’s no ringing endorsement of quality. This game had all the appeal of a 50 a side children’s playground maul. Hoof, it went as the ball was clouted 80 yards into the opponent’s half. Head, it went as the central defender risked permanent spinal damage heading it back the full 80 yards in somewhat indiscriminate fashion. Clumpf it went as another defender aimlessly launched the ball… and on and on and on and on.

On their day, which wasn’t today, Sunderland are one of the more interesting teams in the Prem on a tactical level. They seem to be operating a 3 man attack wall, with nothing  but a bunch of holding midfielders (and poor holding midfielders at that) behind them. The combination of Asamoah Gyan, Danny Wellbeck and Darren Bent is nothing if not attack minded (even if Bento is a bit rubbish), and they showed at Chelsea exactly what impact this can have. They seem to have a decent understanding of one another and you sense that this could be an interesting counter to the dull 4 – 5 – 1 many teams are playing. Certainly against a Bolton side who aren’t great away from home, it worked a treat, pulling their defence all over the place in the same way Man City did the other week.

And that, if you believe me, was the highlight of the weekend as No-S0-Real Blackburn‘s match against West Ham, was something deeply, deeply unpleasant. Admittedly Not-So-Real did attempt to pass it about a bit more, but they’re still essentially the same team they were at the beginning of the week when Fat Sam was still in charge. Now they have yet another one of those promising young managers with a personality vacuum and accelerated hairloss who will remain anonymous – think Glen Rhoder or one of the many Championship managers whose name escapes you. West Ham have only Scott Parker between them and certain relegation. A point a match won’t save them now. Expect a job lot of shit loanees to come in over the winter. And compare the work Avram Grant is doing with a well paid Prem squad with what Ian Holloway is doing at Blackpool.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

In keeping with the many postponements, we are turning this award on its head and actually going to award it for possibly the single moment of class in the whole weekend. Craig Gordon‘s save at the end of the first half was outstanding as he scooped the ball up and over the bar from Zat Knight’s 3 foot tap in. It was the sort of instinctive save that looks almost accidental but speaks of long periods of practice and training. As those golfers say, the more I practice the luckier I get.

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What We Learned From Prem Week 17


All Aboard The Managerial Merry-Go-Round

So it’s goodbye to him and it’s, er, goodbye to him as well as Fat Sam Allerdyché followed Chris Hughton down the tunnel marked ‘Hoof It’ and collected his memorial Crackerjack P45. Having declared my undying un-love for Fat Sam last week, I can’t say that I’m either surprised or even remotely sympathetic, especially as he’s likely to collect another £million plus payoff to keep the millions he made off Newcastle company. Meanwhile, Hughton probably won’t be getting anything like £1 million from his departure from the Toon.

Can you really blame Real Blackburn’s management who’ve just bought the club and realised that they’ve bought a bit of a dog (and I’m not just talking about Fat Sam here)? Would you trust Fat Sam with a multimillion pound transfer budget? And irrespective of their retention of their Premiership status, it’s clear that Fat Sam’s Real Blackburn played less interesting football than any of his predecessors, and it’s worth noting that the last formation he sent out was a pyramid inverting 5 – 4 – 1 and that was at home (at home!) against his old side Bolton. Imagine the shenanigans if he ended up taking over at West Ham.  Because our money is on Gloomy Avram following him out of the door as West Ham flirt with ultimate relegation.

Things Arsène Wenger Still Doesn’t Seem To Have Learned

  • How to deal with Didier Drogba that Nani fellow
  • How to coach a defence
  • What a good keeper looks like – although Szczesny looks promising
  • How to beat the big teams

You can add to that that he seems incapable of building a team with the necessary fight to it. It can’t be simply a case of ‘jam tomorrow’, as Wenger has had more than enough time at Arsenal to build a post-Invincibles team, he’s been at Arsenal for over a decade and during this time Alex Ferguson has raised not one, not two, but three Championship winning sides. It seems that Wenger’s alternative is to buy young talent and try to mould it to his will and in the process suffuse it with an irritating politeness and lack of drive, spirit and general Neitzschean will to win. You can argue that teams are a reflection of their managers and that perhaps Wenger is just too passive in contrast to great winning managers like Mourinho, Ferguson or Guardiola.

Alternatively, maybe Wenger has just accepted what is clear to any Arsenal fan, that there are three teams in the Prem with substantially larger financial resources and that Arsenal are simply getting the best results they can with the resources they have. They are still currently second, still in the Big Cup, still in the FA Cup and in the semis of the Not-So-Useless Cup with by far the easiest route to the final. So near and yet so far eh?

Bring On The Games

Man U did what they seem to always do to Arsenal, which is bully them into submission and scrape a one – nil scrappy goal encounter that is low on interest, excitement and skill.

Chelski regulars used to call Tottingham‘s ground Three Point Lane such was Chelski’s record here and it’s a reflection on how demoralised the ‘Ski are right now that they ended up somewhat happier with a 1 – 1 draw than Spurs were. And they missed a penalty. Spurs will be a bit miffed that they didn’t have the ability to put Chelski to bed when they were on top in the first half. Just like near-North London neighbours Arsenal, Tottingham had no answer to The Drog, who biffed aside the returning Michael Dawson and lashed the ball so hard it flipped Gomes over before drizzling over the line. Which goes to show it’s not just Arsenal who have low grade central defenders and keepers.

What with having the second latest manager to get the Mark Hughes Unlucky Sacking press love in, anyone would think Newcastle had actually won their last few games rather than being 17th in the form guide (and they’d be bottom if they hadn’t won over the weekend), with a record of one win, two draws and three losses in their last six matches. Clearly relegation form that puts them beneath even Wolves and Wigan, if not Hughes’ new team Fulham, and would give any owner pause for thought. You have to say that it would have been easier for Ashley to have done nothing and bumbled along into a relegation dogfight rather than go through all that hassle and appoint Alan Pardew. In contrast, the Liverpool Red Sox are in actual trouble, despite having the same number of points as Newcastle and the third best home record, their away record is the third worst. At nil nil they look alright, but lose a goal and they’re up the shitter. Uncle Wroy’s own away record is even worse if you take the results of his previous club Fulham into account. Liverpool still look like a team who don’t really recognise one another and with Gerrard injured and Torres still to find his form, they seem impotent. Newcastle, with a point to prove, and Joey Barton back in the side, were clearly the better team and their goals came from nicely worked moves across the pitch.

Yaya Toure swats aside another titchy Prem defender. Look at the size of him.

Man City (our tips for the top at the end of the year remember) are doing what really dangerous teams do, winning without necessarily playing very well and moving to joint top (now joint second) in the table. Sure they’re dominating matches, as they should given their players are approximately 1.35 times bigger than their opposition, but they’re not creating too many chances. Yaya Toure really is enormous, he’s kind of like a Heskey plus crossed with a James Bond villain, but with a bit more balance, brushing aside players like Scott Parker and making them seem the size of children. He’s certainly relishing in his more forward role, scoring two goals, while Silva is beginning to find his form and dominate midfield, cleverly setting up Ian Curtis for the third goal. That said, West Ham were very poor, or maybe they really are 1.35 times smaller than everyone else. City made them look every bit as poor as Bolton were last week. They no longer look too good to go down, rather appearing too bad to stay up, and it’s hard to see where their impetus is going to come from.

One of the key questions in maintaining City’s push for the Prem is whether they can do it without Leetle Carlito, who appears to be wanting a way out and who’s scored most of their goals. Mancini’s faith in nutter Balotelli is a high risk strategy, especially now that teams have seen that they just need to give him a little barge and he’ll be off on one. I’d guess that they have the resources and/or the clout to keep Carlito happy until the summer, when they’ll have qualified for next season’s Big Cup and will be able to recruit a right proper striker.  Or possibly an entirely new team altogether. Or start their own league. Or maybe buy the moon. And paint it blue. Or all of these and still afford to give cakes to everyone.

Stoke epitomise the mid table Prem strategy of the solid, dependable, journeyman play, the same kind of stuff that Fat Sam’s teams play only with a couple more ‘flair’ players. So they’ve got an OK defence (Huth aside as he’s a disgrace), an acceptable if unimaginative midfield and a 10 goal a season striker in Ricardo Fuller. Nothing too fallible but nothing too inspiring or interesting either. You’d have to say Fuller is up there with the likes of Kenwynne Jones, Ngog, Bendtner, and Kaloo, as a vaguely adequate striker, but he’s a pocket Drogba rather than anything like the real thing. Blackpool seem to have fewer individuals but a greater team spirit, you sense that Adams, Varney, Dad Taylor-Fletcher and DJ Campbell are very much team players. This was in evidence as they first went one up, then spent the best part of the second half defending like madmen. They also seem to have a slightly different tactical philosophy, rather than seeming to try not to lose, they’re going all out to win. Sure they may get spanked, but more often than not they’re scoring goals and going on to win. Certainly if I were the owners of Real Blackburn, I’d be asking how come Blackpool can play this kind of attractive, engaging football and still be a point and three places above us when they clearly have less experienced Prem players on probably significantly less money.

Speaking of Fat Sam’s latest exes, they were pretty pitiful against a misfiring Bolton side. But maybe Real Blackburn‘s 5 – 4 – 1 formation, less a Christmas Tree than a fat, stumpy triangle, got Bolton all confused. And yet they showed both their greater skill and desire when they were able to retake the lead less than a minute after Real Blackburn equalised, with a piece of glorious Route 1 football that simply tore Real Blackburn apart.

Villa sought to bounce back from their defeat to the Liverpool Red Sox on Monday by doing their local rivals West Brom. But this wasn’t the dour Midlands derby you might have expected. Villa are all about effective wing play, utilising the skill and pace of Albrighton and both their goals came from crosses from wide. You do feel that they’re lacking any kind of midfield strength to build with. West Brom are a bit of a mystery still, it’s unclear what they’re all about. They win at Arsenal but get thumped by Chelski and were played out of the game here.

In part two of the Midlands derby weekend, Wolves finally managed to put a piece of daylight between them and West Ham by actually winning. And not playing too badly.  Admittedly they were up against Boremingham, whose ultimate objective away from home is always a draw and who posed little or no attacking threat aside from one breakaway.

Fulham managed a new record, the greatest number of draws in the first 17 games ever. Which won’t have pleased their fans who almost woke up during their match (a nil – nil draw in case you’re interested) with Sunderland, when Dempsey almost hit the bar with a snap shot.

Finally, Everton can’t buy a goal. They can’t even steal one. They seemed to batter the Wigan goal but every time they got past the keeper or the defence, they conspired to fluff their chance, hurl it over the bar or just miss. Wigan, like Boremingham, had one break but fluffed it too. Everton’s recent form is so bad that they’re in danger of falling into the relegation dogfight.

Rob Green Save Of The Day

It’s always a great moment when we can actually honour the man whose name is on the award, and this week’s award does, indeed, go to Rob Green, who like Scott Carson before him, managed to let Yaya Toure’s second goal hit first the post, then his back before it ricocheted into the net. Honourable mention to Hilarious Gomes for his non-stop of The Drog’s shot.

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Games: Batman Arkham Asylum


Welcome to the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

Get Your Gameface On

The best thing about Batman Arkham Asylum is that it’s a movie/comic book inspired game that is everything that the recent James Bond Blood Stone isn’t  – as EA, who have nothing to do with this title, say, it’s all about the game.  And this is a brilliant, tight, atmospheric, immersive, highly entertaining game. And I spent the best part of last weekend playing it from start to finish.

Batman - mysterious man of many faces not to mention numerous artistic styles

It helps that while Batman is every bit as elemental a  force of nature as Bond, he’s far more amenable to interpretation. Witness the wide variety of artists and writers who’ve been associated with him and his success in comics, cartoons and films.  And it’s equally useful that he’s been developed for a range of audiences, from the young kids who watch the Saturday morning cartoons, to the adolescents who read the monthly comics and pack out the cinemas all the way through to the oldsters like me who remember when Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight first came out (and have the original 4 comics to prove it thank you very much). It ensures that this visualisation of Batman, while indisputably unique, fits perfectly into the canon of Batworks.

And while the Game is written by animated cartoon series writer Paul Dini, it’s palpably based around the  core book that centres around Arkham Asylum itself, Grant Morison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth which, like the game itself, is intended for older readers. There’s both badness and madness within these walls and it’s not just confined to the inmates, the very walls of the place exude insanity. Similarly, Batman is clearly built on the big, hard, almost psychopathic hero inspired by Miller’s The Dark Knight, a Batman familiar to more mature readers and the latest movies rather than the quip-cracking Clooneyesque Adam West hero of yore, or the do-Gooding crime fighter of the kiddie cartoons.

Make no mistake, this Batman is big. Pro-wrestling, WWF, Xtreeme Fighting big. Masses of muscle beneath the old leotard and not an ounce of fat to be seen. He’s also mean and broody and you’d better believe he don’t take no nonsense from no one. His sheer size fits in perfectly with the dark undertone of threat that suffuses the whole game. And it’s a sense of threat that extends throughout all elements of the game.

The Dark Knight wanders aimlessly through the corridors of my old primary school looking for crims. Note, I probably kicked off some of those tiles. Sorry.

The visual design matches all of this and is fantastic. It’s dark and vicious and unclean. The interiors have that depressing distressed institutional feel to them, eerily reminiscent of my late victorian primary school and the sort of hospitals where patients are left in corridors to die. They feel spooky, creepy and old, perfectly in keeping with Arkham’s own story. Out in the open it’s equally dark and inhospitable. The sense of place you get is outstanding, it’s clear, this is not a nice place to be. It feels unique and the characters have a three dimensionality to them that I’ve not seen before in a game.

The gameplay more than lives up to the setting – it’s a good bit of stealth, some kick ass fighting, a lot of mazey moving about, a little bit of basic detecting, with enough open ended exploration and reward searching to make each section feel different each time you play. And while I would have liked a bit more of the open ended exploration, this is being really nitpicky. It takes a good half-day to rush through and there’s still a whole load of stuff I hadn’t got around to.

Woof! Batman lays into one of the many crims under the Joker's influence.

All the controls are intelligent – it’s not just a case of button mashing, although that will take you a certain distance. It’s easy and intuitive to move around, while the sneaking and fighting are just the right balance of ease and sophistication. And moments when you come into a room with multiple guards can be dealt with in a variety of ways, usually involving some kind of tactics for separating the opponents and the taking them down individually using stealth rather than simply having a great big fistfight out in the open. The moment you find yourself having to take out seven hardcore crims armed with machine guns without taking a single shot makes for a genuinely tense experience.

And there’s a wide variation in game styles within the game, as the third person stealth fighting style gives way to a 3d platforming mode every now and then. Anywhere else this would be a jarring clash of styles, but here even this is woven seamlessly into the storyline, being those moments when Batman is under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin.

The gameplay falls on just the right amount of challenging, there were the inevitable moments of frustration, and after a while I could have done without the taunting cutscene loading thing after each death, but the challenge was never so great I felt it was unfair or gamestopping. However, occasionally you need to actually die to be given the hint you need as to how to actually defeat your enemies, which is kind of irritating.

If it has a flaw (and we’re being super picky here) it’s that the bigger boss battles, Bane, Poison Ivy and the Joker, along with pretty much the whole Killer Croc episode, become very linear and set piecey. There’s one way to defeat them and that’s it and it’s sometimes a tiny bit monkey see monkey do button clicking to onscreen prompts. The final Joker scene especially.

Other than that it’s sins of omission. I ended up wanting more. More levels, more of Batman’s archetypal enemies as I’m not big on Bane and Poison Ivy is a bit limp. I wish the island on which Arkham is built was bigger with more areas to explore, more baddies and more rewards to discover. Which is exactly what the upcoming Arkham City, due out this year, threatens to do. Sweet.

Review

ProsCons
Fantastic gameplay, Great storyline, Hugely atmosphericBoss battles a little predictable
Rating
90%

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