Lairds of Scunthorpe – Bunny Over The Ocean

New Lairds of Scunthorpe Track

Here is a new Lairds track. It was primarily recorded using Maschine, then beaten into shape with various production baseball bats in Logic.

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Football: What We Learned From Montenegro vs Engerland (2-2)

Two moments of madness

Engerland never, ever make it easy for themselves. Here a match that was clearly there for the taking, and the easy taking at that, was transformed into a backs to the wall war of attrition which Engerland nearly managed to lose thanks to two moments of suicidal madness.

Concentration, Concentration, Concentration

The three testicalled scrotum that is the Euro 2012 logo. Two countries separated by football.

Arsène Wenger used to go on about concentration all the time. Aside from not seeing things it was his go-to excuse for slip ups and incompetence whenever Arsenal lost (or drew) in Europe. But it was never more clearly illustrated than in Engerland’s total switch off for Montenegro’s first goal on the stroke of halftime. This set the tone for the rest of the game. Before that Engerland were comfortably in control, indeed they were actually playing within themselves and never looked like being threatened by the Montenegrans. Afterwards it seemed as if none of them had ever seen a round ball, much less played with one. And once they found themselves on the back foot they never looked as if there was any chance of them seizing the initiative from their opponents and while the Montenegrans rarely appeared truly threatening, they totally dominated the entire second half. Thankfully Engerland had already built their two goal cushion, because without it they would have been crushed.

You Can Take The Boy Out Of Chav…

But you can’t, apparently, take the Chav out of the boy. Rooney’s petulant kick at defender Dzudovic, which saw him sent off, will set the tone for his entire Euro 2012. So reminiscent of Gascoigne’s madness in the FA Cup final (the injury he caused himself blighted the rest of his career) or more pertinently Beckham’s kick out at Argentinian defender Diego Simeone in France 1998? If Capello has any sense he will be including Rooney in his squads, but will only play him from the bench if at all. That way the team will have to learn how to live without him, while he will still feel part of the side. And in a pleasing development, this is exactly what Capello has said he wants to do.

All About The Attack

We also saw Wales beat the Swiss, something Engerland couldn’t do at Wembley. They have continued their admirable progress up the FIFA rankings, albeit from somewhere close to the bottom. And it struck me, does Engerland actually have an attack as good as the Welsh? You have Bale and Bellamy racing down the wings actually threatening teams, something that Wallcott, Young, Downing, Lennon seem to do only infrequently. And they’re backed by a midfield, led by Ramsey, which actually likes to pass the ball. And I wondered, Is anyone actually afraid of Engerland? Because I wouldn’t be. They are a good Championship qualifying side, one of the teams you wouldn’t want to be in a qualifying group with, but nothing special.

Who Are Ya? (Repeat Until Senseless)

If Engerland were a Prem team, who would they be? Let’s think, supposedly one of the big beasts, yet they haven’t won anything for ages; capable of scoring goals yet always vulnerable with dodgy defending and a very soft centre;  just lost their talismanic forward/midfield dynamo; potentially a great attacking side yet always looking to throw away a lead… Any ideas? Could they possibly be today’s Arsenal (albeit with considerably less technique) in disguise?

Still A Few Good Points Lurking (Even If We Don’t Always Pick Them Up)

  1. Engerland have qualified and are in the second pot. And now that we don’t have to jet about trying to win approval from some FIFA despot we can play some proper friendlies and try to build a side that could do well in Euro 2012. Time for Capello to really earn his money, playing players with potential, rather than the same old failures.
  2. New broom? Engerland went to South Africa with the oldest squad in the tournament. And with players like Terry, Lampard, Gerrard, Rio and Ashley Cole beginning to look tired (or perpetually injured) it’s time for change. Capello has a moment, in between the demands of qualification and the tournament itself to test out the new blood. We want to see what a midfield of Wilshire, Cleverly and McEachran can do. What an attack with Welbeck, Young and Wallcott can accomplish if they’re allowed to float around and go for their opponents. We want to see players who can hold and play with the ball rather than just hoof it. We want to see an attitude to friendlies that says, it’s more important how we play the game than the result, because right now we have an opportunity to try things out without recrimination.
  3. Changing expectations. We’re probably not going to win it. One of Engerland’s apparent problems has been the weight of expectation on their heads. Now, surely, that isn’t the case. I don’t think anyone expects Engerland to win Euro 2012. And with Spain, Holland and Germany all apparent certainties for the semis (an unkind draw aside), it would show admirable progress for Engerland to even get to the semis. What we do want to see is a dramatic improvement in both technique, holding and using the ball, and tactics, determining when to press and when to let your opponents have their head.

Football: Prem 2011 Week 7

A Piss-Poor Season Just Got Worse

Not content with having their worst start in 50-plus years, selling their two best players and recruiting a bunch of, frankly, second rate talent, Arsenal continue their spiral of death by losing to Norf London rival Spurs thanks to yet another tentative long range effort. You would have thought that after Danny Rose and David Bentley managed to plunk 30 yarders into the Arsenal net someone might have thought to close down Kyle Walker. But  no. Definitively out of the title race (that’s one of the four things Arsenal aren’t going to win this year), the team are going to have a challenge getting into Europe, let alone the Big Cup this season. Newcastle, currently in fourth, have over twice as many points as Arsenal.  And while making up 8 points isn’t impossible over the rest of the season, it’s a tough ask.

Mind The Gap

With the top seven all winning, we’re beginning to see the start of the gap between the better teams and the rest. So that’s seven teams who’ve all built an additional three point gap over Arsenal. However, it’s worth noting that at this stage of last season Liverpool were worse off, while three seasons ago Spurs had just two points from ten games. Mind you neither one of them managed to qualify for European football.


Man U continued their inexorable progress by just about spanking Naarich. However, the latter were reasonable good, threatening Man U during the second half and moving beyond their agricultural challenging. Dropping Championship bruiser Grant Holt might have something to do with that. Man U seemed less interested in crushing Naarich than they were against Arsenal.

Newcastle have been quietly coming up on the outside. They’re still in fourth, although if Spurs win their game in hand they will probably take over on goal difference, and at this stage that should actually count for something. They have built an interesting new spine of largely French players and have dispensed with the English brutality of their Championship side, removing Carroll, Barton and Nolan. It will be interesting to see how Alan Pardew does given his previous track record of ruining West Ham. The most striking thing about their win at Wolves was how generous a player Leon Best is. Given he appeared to be the replacement for Carroll, he’s not playing the standard no 9 role of a big target man stuck in the middle of the pitch. Instead he’s also bombing down the wing providing crosses for Ba. So while he may not score 20+ goals this season, it’s a fair bet he’ll be directly involved in 30 or so.

Sunderland looked like getting a right pasting. Especially as West Brom were two up in less than 10 minutes. Then Wroy’s Boys gave Steve Bruce a let off, allowing Sunderland back into the match, which then just about petered out into a tedious draw. Steve’s plan of replacing Bent, Gyan and Henderson with a bunch of cold meat cast offs doesn’t seem to be paying dividends.

Everton‘s big match derby with Liverpool looked to be a cut above the usual kicking lumps festival, at least for the first 23 minutes. Then the ref inexplicably sent off Rodwell after Dirty Suarez did his thing of diving over Rodwell’s legs and playing the injured primadonna until his opponent was punished. After that it was all a bit predictable. Everton tried hard, but Liverpool were just a little too good for them. Henderson appeared to do his usual thing of being anonymous all match until everyone realised that he was actually on the subs bench.

Not content with pillaging most of Arsenal’s best players, Man City continue to steal what should have been Arsenal’s year (win a cup, make progress in the Prem) and give uppity tykes Blackburn a good taking out. Again it’s clear that whatever Aguero, Nasri, Dzeko et al do, it’s Silva who runs the show. Consistently the best, most influential player, he was good, but not at his best here. However, the strategy is clear, stop Silva and you stop City.

Say what you like about rubbish manager Alex McCleish, one of his achievements is to get Aston Villa‘s Agbonlahor back to something approaching his best. You might have thought that with both Young and Downing sold over the close season, Villa might struggle a bit. However, their loss seems to have freed up space for Agbonlahor to thrive. He helped defeat a nice Wigan side who are struggling once again to convert attractive football into points.

Spurs beat Arsenal. To be fair it wasn’t exactly unexpected and Arsenal played much better than anticipated, certainly way better than Liverpool had a couple of weeks previously, yet all this result did was reinforce the gulf in class between Arsenal and the Manchesters.

Stoke must be vaguely ruing their Europa League campaign. So far it’s been two group games won followed by two Prem away matches lost. This time they were beaten by a developing Swansea team, who look to be getting up to speed with the Prem. Five bookings for Stoke suggests a ref up to speed on current FIFA dictats.

QPR continue their attempts to become the Blackpool of 2011, what with playing attractive, engaging football and being humped 6 – 0 by Fulham. You suspect that the energy they put into their last couple of matches has weakened them. Maybe as Shakespeare suggests (albeit in Shakespeare In Love) once they have spent themselves where else did they have to go but down? Still this was a game where the likes of Barton, Tarabt and Wright-Phillips were eclipsed by Zamora, Murphy and, amazingly, Andy Johnson. Time for some squad building during the international weeks for the hoops.

Finally, Bolton continued their nosedive down the Prem table by shipping five against Chelsea. That’s not progress, that’s the sound of obliteration.

Football: Prem 2011 Week 6

Was That A Hospital Pass Or What

Week 6 saw, among other things, the return of the hospital pass, or if not the hospital pass, then the reemergence of suicidal defending. And we’re not talking the kind of moron quality backpassing we saw last season from the likes of Phil Neville. In some cases these are even worse.  Wigan squandered a perfectly good start against Spurs when Adebayor was gifted the ball and set up their first, while Everton’s new boy Roysten Drenthe isn’t going to be playing any crossfield balls any time soon.

Where Are Your Glasses Ref?

We also saw a return of that familiar fan bugbear, inconsistent refereeing. You have a player through on goal for a one on one with the keeper and the defender behind him brings him down from behind. Clearly a foul and a booking/red card for the defender. Certainly at Arsenal, where Bolton’s Wheater brings down Wallchart and gets a yellow, but not apparently at Stoke, where Woodgate gets away with leaping into the back of Hernandez. Pretty obviously the same situation, albeit the Woodgate foul was far more blatent, yet patently different results. Shurely Shome Mishtake.

That Is The Sound Of Consolidation

The table takes shape. All the top six, bar Man U, won, while the bottom seven, bar Fulham and West Brom who drew against each other, all lost. Meanwhile, Arsenal continued their slow climb out of the bottom by winning. The Manchesters aside, no one has opened any clear gaps as yet, but you feel that the clubs at the bottom are going to be strugglers, while the clubs at the top are going to be fighting for the big four finishes. Only Bolton, whose unfortunate fixture list has seen them face both Manchesters, Arsenal and Liverpool already, Arsenal, who clearly can’t have become that crap that quickly, and Newcastle, who may be punching above themselves, look likely to make any serious moves on their current positions.

Overall it was a poor weekend’s football, with few, if any, really good matches. Certainly none on a par with last week’s Spurs/Liverpool or Man U/Chelski ties. Maybe all the big boys were saving themselves for the Big Cup. Far too many matches reminded us that most of the Prem is still low-grade journeyman dross. You know things are bad when neither team is capable of playing the ball on the ground. It’s called football for a reason. Mind you, below Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Spanish league isn’t much more engaging.

Ahh I Love The Smell Of Football In The Morning

Man U should have been one up and Stoke a man down as early as the fourth minute as Woodgate launched into Hernandez, who had picked up a long ball and was running at the Stoke keeper. As clear a penalty as you will see. However, it was double bonuses for Stoke as a foul was avoided and Hernandez was forced out of the match through injury. Stoke then proceeded to foul their way through the game before Nani popped up with a great solo goal only for Crouch (Crouch!?!) to level things up with a header from a corner.  Who would have thought that Man U’s makeshift defence couldn’t defend set pieces?

Chelsea managed to repeat their defensive frailty from last week, conceding to an identical free kick that cost them at Man U. You have to wonder whether someone at Swansea had been doing their homework or had someone at Chelski been neglecting theirs? Still it wasn’t all bad, Torres continues his flip-flop redemption, scoring a great goal, then being sent off for a terrible tackle. Getting a three match ban is not a great thing to do as Drogba returns to fitness. Ramieres, presumably keeping Frank out of the side, looked very dangerous, his first goal was a great team move, although they were playing against a poor defence.

Like Liverpool under Benitez, Chelsea are building an Iberian spine. Interesting that the best players nowadays are coming from Spain and the Spanish league rather than the French league, which, along with their increasingly uncompetitive wage structure may explain Arsenal’s declining form. Chelsea’s new(ish) spine of Mata, Meireles and Torres looks far more fluid, if less obviously direct than the aging Lampard, Malouda, Anelka and Drogba one. Swansea were poor. Easy Chelsea win.

Man City weren’t as fluent as they have been at home to Everton. Maybe they are better away, when teams have to come at them thereby creating space for City to move into – certainly they played their best football once Everton had gone behind and had to come out and chase the game. But it seems as if this year’s City have been found out and once again it was clear that if you stop Silva, you stop City. Things didn’t really spring to life until he started to free himself.

Everton’s game plan was to defend en masse and when that failed, they didn’t have the strength/quality to really do any damage. Mind you they didn’t help themselves for the second goal. Royston Drenthe hopefully won’t be playing many passes as poor as the one he played to David Silva, from which Silva shimmied past a trio of defenders to fashion Milner’s winning goal.

These are cruel times for Arsenal, so they’ll take any little piece of luck they can. But you have to ask why Bolton made it so easy for them. Traditionally an Arsenal bogeyman, why leave Kevin Davies on the bench? Obviously there are plenty of acceptable football ones, he’s not very good and gives too many fouls away to name but two, but on a psy-war level, that was almost like giving Arsenal a one goal lift. Inexplicable.

Szczesny. Was. Excellent. A fantastic one handed stop to effectively neuter Bolton’s attack for the entire match when it was nil – nil. You begin to see why Arsène didn’t want to spend big (or even small) on a keeper last season. Song was quietly great in midfield. I suspect that, just as in the mid ’90s, Arsenal’s defensive solidity has to start at the front of the midfield rather than at the back. Once they determine a solution for the absence of Fabregas and Nasri and the injury to Wilshire, the defence will perk up too.

It was the same old Arsenal: 27 goal attempts, 3 goals, restricting Bolton to 3 shots all game, you end up feeling if they were just a little more clinical in front of goal Van Persie would be celebrating his 150th goal instead of his 100th and they would be winning matches like this 6 or 7 – nil. Wallchart was similarly inconsistent, some nice wingplay, but yet another one on one that he’s not converted. Bolton were very poor.

Newcastle continued their quietly excellent run by taking apart a surprisingly muted Blackburn, who displayed none of the pacy wingplay they showed against Arsenal. For some reason they didn’t seem as up for it. Newcastle’s Best creates chances, both for himself and others, but his finishing is poor. You feel he is a 10+ a season striker rather than a 20 goal a season winner. Ba showed his strengths, scoring a nice hattrick. Very much a Drog of a striker, although again probably in the 10+ mould rather than anything higher.

More suicidal defending as terrifyingly poor marking by Newcastle allowed Blackburn to grab a goal. As with the Arsenal match, it appeared very much against the run of play. Nice to see Ben Arfa back. A year after he was put out of the game by De Jong.

Wolves continue their quiet plummet to the depths, failing to muster much effort against a still poor Liverpool. Great goal from Dirty Suarez. Did Henderson play? Apparently yes, but he continues to demonstrate a genuine talent for anonymity. New boys Downing and Adam also conspicuously innocuous. The returning Gerrard was like a new signing. Only he almost made an impact.
Wolves never really looked threatening. Except when they scored. Especially that 11th minute bullet header that made it 1 – 0. To Liverpool. A bit like Blackburn.

Spurs really couldn’t have wished for an easier ride at Wigan. A stunningly inept mid-field pass gave the ball to Adebayor, who passed it to Van Der Vaart for a tap in. And that was that. Interesting to see that Defoe was absent. You wonder how many games he will get while Van Der Vaart and Adebayor are fit. None would be my guess.  Maybe in the Europa League.

A classic, ho-hum nothing of a game between Uncle Wroy’s West Brwom and his former charges Fulham. Nil – nil flattered both sides.

A game of two halves on Sunday. First half QPR were dominant, although never as much as in their previous two matches, but inexperience, unfamiliarity and lack of a striker let them down. Neither Boothroyd nor Campbell look to be regularly dangerous, more in the Carlton Cole 6+ goals a season mould, which is going to hurt QPR in the long run. Villa were awful in the first half.

Things couldn’t continue. In the second half, Villa realised they were in a match, while QPR never really came out of the changing room. Triore, whose attacking runs had pinned back Villa, spazzed out, letting Villa move forward and getting himself sent off once QPR had conceded. Good to see manager Colin W return to form by publicly slagging the player. You can’t buy class like that. A point each was about the maximum either side deserved, but if both sides could have been given none that would have been a more accurate reward.

A classic Monday Night Football when it’s big cup week and all the decent sides have played on Saturday. At least Naarich looked like they wanted to play. Sunderland were ghastly. As they capitulated, you had to wonder how they beat Stoke 4 – 0 last week. Again neither side really deserved to be rewarded for their efforts.

Football: Prem 2011 Week 5

Are You Arsenal In Disguise?

Plenty of defences were lining up to challenge but none could come close to the stunning level of ineptitude and chaos managed by the Gunners. Exhibit A, Liverpool – came the closest, boasting a back four that was way too slow and down to the customary threesome following the sending off of nitboy Skrtel. Admittedly this was matched by their midfield which had Scotch hacker Adam sent off too. Exhibit B, Stoke – conceded the kind of comedy defensive goals usually reserved for Koscielny, as Sunderland somehow managed to slip four past them. Those European awaydays do have a habit of coming back and biting you on the arse, although credit to Pulis, who refused to accept that as an excuse. Exhibit C Naarich – who are so poor defensively that they’ve conceded a penalty in every game.

Still, worst defence, worst disciplinary record, genuine relegation form, this is the modern Arsenal. It used to be that one-nil to the Arsenal was the end of the game. Now they don’t look like they can ever hold a lead. Look on my works ye mighty and despair.

That Secret Ingredient? Pace

Man U, Spurs and, bizarrely, QPR seem to have it. It’s this season’s must have game-winning accessory, kind of like rocket propelled tattoos. More importantly, lack of pace is a killer, just ask the nitboy who was repeatedly skinned by Bale until he was sent off, or look at the increasingly useless Djourou being left in the trails of Blackburn’s vaguely speedy wingers. Lack of pace should spell the end of Lampard, Terry, Carragher, Skrtel, all of the Arsenal back four bar Sagna and numerous mid table monkeys.

Bad Tackles Are Back In Fashion

Still if you can’t beat ’em, or even keep up with ’em, simply hack ’em. Henry’s last minute lunge on Barton had all the hallmarks of a deliberate assault, if I don’t get the ball, my opponent isn’t getting up. After doing a couple last year, it’s safe to say Henry IS that kind of player, slow, dangerous and thuggish. Ashley Cole on Chicarito, not a genuine attempt to injure, just a fantastically bad challenge. Charlie Adam on Parker, let’s just say, like Kevin Davies, the boy has plenty of previous. Once again the Prem has to decide whether it wants to preserve it’s archaic ‘manly’ regime of dangerous tackling or if it would like to protect talented players. I’ll go with the good players.

Is Rebuilding A Two Year Cycle (Minimum)?

Man U aside, who appear to be in a constant process of successful rebuilding (and by the way the £17 million they spent on recruiting ‘fourth place’ defender Phil Jones is starting to look like the deal of the season), it appears to go like this.
Three years ago Spurs were lying in the relegation spots with two points from eight games, last season Uncle Wroy’s Liverpool got off to a shocker after Benitez had led them out of the top four, before the club changed hands and Kenny completed his putsch, now Arsenal are having that early season free fall feeling (having spent large parts of the end of last season practicing and having lost their two key midfielders during the summer). The key question now is, can the team realistically recover to secure a top four finish or are they condemned to a two year rebuilding cycle?

The omens for Arsenal aren’t great. It appears that Spurs have only just completed their transition to genuine top four challengers, and while Liverpool one year on appear further along the restorative path than Arsenal, judging by their performance this weekend it’s not much further. Maybe it does take two entire seasons to turn things around.

Or maybe it’s simply the money. Is it any coincidence that Spurs’ best striker since Berbatov is being paid waaaaay more money than Spurs’ normal wage structure would allow as he’s being subsidised by Man City? Quality apparently does cost. How long before other key players like Modric want a piece of that?

Or maybe it’s more complicated, as Spurs finished fourth after almost two seasons of Redknapp, then faded a bit last season as the big cup had its effect. And despite being a year further along than Arsenal, Liverpool looked every bit as turgid, if not as defensively incompetent as North London’s finest.

Meanwhile Arsenal are still in that strange state of denial that precedes the ‘moment of clarity’ that catalyses genuine change. Arguably to follow the Man U constant revolution they should have turned the corner and acted TWO years ago, when it became clear that their defence wasn’t up to it and Vermaelen, even when fit, wasn’t enough on his own. Who knows, if they’d done that rather than spend the entire summer convincing Fabregas to stay another year, they might actually have won something.

The purchase of Koscielny and Squillaci, in addition to reinforcing the view that Wenger is reluctant to spend big or trust outside Ligue 1, simply confirms the view that success in French Ligue 1 is no longer any indication of Prem level success or even competence (which doesn’t bode well for either Chamakh or Gervinho). Certainly the days when Arsène could happily raid French clubs and expect immediate results have long since gone. Now they’re stuck with a defence that’s both slow and tactically incompetent, a midfield that’s just lost its two best players, while reinforcing poorly and an attack that looks largely toothless. Add to that zero morale and relegation form and you’ve got to be concerned. This is Arsène’s biggest challenge so far.

Whose Euro Draw Was best?

While Arsenal’s draw away to the German champions appeared to be the best bit of Eurobiz (you only had to see the reaction of the German side to their late equaliser to see how big a point they felt it was), on balance it has to be Man U’s point away to Benfica or ‘Appy ‘Arry’s draw away to POAK that stand out. Both played a ‘second’ team away, nicked a point, and most importantly won at the weekend, probably the single most important requirement of a successful Euro awayday.

The key to going through the Euro Group stage being to win at home without sacrificing your league performance as nine points will pretty much guarantee going through, albeit not necessarily as group winners. Playing the percentage game away from home and then winning in the Prem is the critical tactic. At the end of the season no one will care if you won all your group matches if you keep losing or drawing in the league and miss out on the big cup next season. The Inter games aside, who remembers Spurs’ group stage matches last season? Who remembers that Spurs aren’t in it this season?

And Next Year’s Champions League Teams Will Be

If last year is anything to go by, and here we should mention the obligatory “the past is no indication of the future” disclaimers, then next year’s Big Cup Boys will be Man U, Man City, Chelski and, er, Newcastle.

Yes, this time last year the top four at the end of week 5 was the top four at the end of the season, albeit in a different order. Indeed, the top five at the end of the week 5 was the top five at the end of the season. And, despite both Man U and Man City getting off to flyers, the points totals don’t look that different either. Which doesn’t bode well for Spurs, Liverpool or Arsenal. Unless they’re particularly fond of the Europa League.

A Great Weekend’s Football

After all the malarkey with the transfer window and the international week, it has been a pretty mucky start to the Prem, with just the odd game each week to keep us interested. Not any more. This weekend kicked off with the shock of the week, if indeed you can call Arsenal throwing away a lead a shock (or even an upset) any more, and just blew up from there.

Sunday was a genuinely outstanding football day. Spurs’ demolition of Liverpool was the Prem at its best, pace and ability crushing a static defence with no midfield, while Man U’s match with Chelski was one of the most entertaining Big Four clashes for a long time. It’s been a while since any top English team has had the balls to simply go at Man U at Old Trafford. And on another day Chelski could easily have won.

Arsenal showed that it really is two steps forward six steps back (as the Gang of Four used to say). They started out really well against Blackburn, pressing them high up the pitch and denying them space and time on the ball. If this was their response to their poor run of form, it was outstanding. Their first goal, after 10 minutes of pressure, was fully deserved. They were undoubtedly in command and it just seemed a question of how many they were going to tap in. Then, inevitably, they collapsed. It was like Newcastle 2010-11 Redux. A single, sweet flick from Yakubu trundled its way between Mertesacker and Koscielny, past Szczesny and into the net. It was almost slow motion, yet there was nothing anyone could do. Two own goals, some appalling defending and a crazy last ten minutes of chance after chance for Arsenal meant it finished 4 – 3 to Blackburn. As Arséne put it, “we scored five goals and we still didn’t win”.

Saturday was also New Boys’ Day, with all the promoted teams winning. Swansea finally scored a goal. Then got so carried away they scored two more and did for a poor West Brom. Both will be scrapping it out in the relegation pit at the end of the season.

QPR have adapted fast. Normally I don’t have much time for their manager, but he’s far more enjoyable when he’s in charge of a team that can actually play. It’s tempting to say that they’ve taken on board both the best bits of Blackpool’s open, attacking play and the need for a resilient, experienced spine. Certainly they’ve been ruthless when it comes to replacing the Championship level back four that was so brutally cut to pieces in Week 1. And like Joey Barton, they go for the jugular. They were really unlucky not to win on Monday and they tore an average Wolves apart. Not quite up to the standards of Man U doing Arsenal, or Spurs doing Liverpool, but enough to make you wonder what this team could actually do. If they keep this up there’s no way they’ll be involved in the dogfight. Wolves, meanwhile, seem to have reverted to type, trundling out the ‘physical’ card after a couple of weeks of playing football.

Naarich, the final new boys, will find it much harder. Yes they won, beating a very poor Bolton side, but their style of play is still very much Championship. Their tackling is agricultural at best, often involving no more than charging into people, and they haven’t adapted well to the speed and mobility of the Prem. It’s no coincidence that in five matches they’ve conceded five penalties, and I wince every time I see the challenge on Klasnic or the one on Drogba earlier this season, where a Naarich player simply assaults them in midair. Guaranteed relegation fodder. Bolton, top of the league earlier this season, look thoroughly poor.

Everton celebrated, if that’s the word, their offloading of Arteta to Arsenal by caning Wigan. Usually Everton are asleep until November at the earliest. This time, they seem to have woken up at the start of the season. Unusually, given they really haven’t had any money to spend, it feels as if they have refreshed the squad and they now seem almost revoltingly perky. New boy Drenthe has the body of Ballotelli, but has somehow married it to an actual brain.

Sadly Saturday wasn’t all excitement as Newcastle took their ‘draw away from home’ mentality to Villa. And they duly ran out 1 all drawers in a match of scant excitement or indeed interest. Still, they’re the ones in the Big Cup place, so yar boo sucks to anyone who complains.

Sunday was the day though. All of the top four playing, with Man U facing Chelski in the first big clash of the season, with an aperitif of Spurs v Liverpool and a side dish of Fulham hosting Man City. Oh and Stoke, the final member of the Big Four, going to winless Man U Old Boys.

Spurs have flattered to deceive before, but they seem to reserve their best performances for the big(ish) teams. Think of their match last season at home to Inter, where they simply ran at the Italians. For 90 minutes. Spurs were out of the blocks and one up before Liverpool even made it into their half. They ruled the midfield, dictated the game and only won by 4 because it was clear they’d stepped down a gear after about an hour when it was clear that Liverpool were no threat. In the same way that Man City totally tore Spurs apart in week 3, so Spurs laid into Liverpool.

It was one of those games where everything one team does went right and everything the opposing team tries (if you can call what Liverpool did trying), fails. Both of Spurs’ new boys, Parker and Adebayor, were fantastic, while none of Liverpool’s new signings seem to have made the journey down from the North. Carroll continues to fail to live up to his reputation, Adam was ponderous enough to be sent off, Downing had his usual one good foray upstream before vanishing, even Suarez looked irritated and off-form. And if £20 million man Jordan Henderson was on the pitch he must have been in hiding, because he never touched the ball. Easily the worst Liverpool performance in years, made more worrying by the fact that this was a ‘strong’ Liverpool team beaten by pace and midfield dominance.

Man U then cranked things up a notch by letting Chelski come at them, while somehow contriving to be 3 – 0 up at half time. Once again the scoreline and the match stats fail to tell the whole story. Chelski created chance after chance and only a profligacy in front of goal and some great defensive play kept Chelski at nil. It wasn’t that Man U were particularly dominant at any point, more that, like Spurs, everything they touched turned to goals. Even when Chelski’s defence went all Arsenal in its incompetence, Man U didn’t look as if they were really in charge.

The second half was more a tale of amazing misses than it was of a great goal by Torres and a stirring comeback by the Blues. First, Rooney missed a penalty, sliding on the turf and ballooning the ball John Terry-like over the bar, then Torres did the hard bit, latching onto a through ball and rounding the keeper, before amazingly putting the ball wide of an open goal.

The match reinforced two things. First, this Chelski side is genuinely threatening, something it hasn’t been since about this time last season. If Villas-Boas builds on this, he will have something special on his hands. Second, this Man U side is starting to look exceptional. In contrast to last year, where they looked dull, but managed to scrape wins and draws together, this group of players looks like a real team and plays with both all the skill and all the luck. Unless they implode even more spectacularly than Chelski did last season I can’t see anyone in the Prem matching them.

Man City have begun to hit the wall so beloved of teams in the Big Cup. And while a draw at home to Italian high flyers Napoli might not be a total disaster, it puts them under pressure in a group that was always going to be harsh. And drawing a game away to not-quiet-so-high flying Fulham simply reinforces the sense of bad week anti-climax. For the first time this season it felt like David Silva wasn’t in total control of the midfield, while Nasri put in another one of his ‘phoner’ performances and the defence looked somewhat shaky. Still a good point for Fulham.

If City were feeling the effects of a Euro tie at home, pity poor Stoke, who’d had to travel to the Ukraine (and back) to play Dynamo Kiev. They clearly hadn’t quiet made it back to Man U Old Boys although all the players bodies were apparently on the pitch. And they were taken apart by the Old Boys, who managed to put 4 past a defence that had previously only conceded a single goal. Admittedly most of the goals were unlucky scuffers that seemed to slip through the massed ranks of Stoke players, but it was a pretty poor performance from both sides.

Plus Ça Change Corner

Everything changes. Apparently.

  • Huth – booked. At last.
  • Arsenal – still the worst defence in the Prem, still the worst disciplinary record, but managed to keep all 11 players on the pitch (again)
  • Cattermole – benched
  • Henderson – anonymous.

Football: Prem 2011 Week 4

Crash, Bang, Wallop! The Season Starts Here

So the moment finally arrives. The Transfer Window has slammed shut, the wheeler-dealering has been put on hold, the International Week is over and everyone can now focus entirely on club football. At least until the middle of October and the next International Week.  Now we can really begin to assess who’s going up, who’s going down and who’s simply trundling along making up the numbers.

Ahead In September, Rubbish In May – As Granny Used To Say

Admittedly having a lead at the start of September counts for very little. We still remember a time when no one bothered to publish a Prem table until at least half a dozen games had been played. This time in the season you traditionally see the likes of Bolton, Aston Villa, Everton or Goddamit Stoke sneaking gleefully into the Top Four for their momentary glimpse of life at the top table, before they hurridly sneak back out again once they face a decent team or two. Last year it was new boys Blackpool and Newcastle lobbing their way like yahooing handgrenades into the Top Six. This year it’s been not quite so new boys Bolton and European debutantes Stoke getting all vertiginous. Frankly the idea that these guys are going to be around the Top Four come season’s end is laughable. Mind you last year the Top Five after week 5 was the Top Five at the end of the season, albeit in a slightly different order, which might indicate that next weekend’s series of matches (not least Man U vs Chelski) will be critical.

Way In Front – The Manchesters

All of which bodes well for The Manchesters, who, like pug ugly siblings are matching each other spot for spot. A Chelski 2010-like unbeaten run, with gallons of goals and sparkling football to their credit, what could possibly go wrong for our friends in tut North? You have only to look at the cautionary tale that was Chelski last season, whose mysterious midwinter implosion cost them what looked like the most nailed on title for years and was matched only by Arsenal’s second half season of relegation form. Admittedly, both Manchesters are playing better than Chelski were this time last year (no mean feat), have faced better opposition (if you can call Spurs more challenging) and have greater strength in depth than the Londoners. So it would take two really spectacular falls from grace for the title to go anywhere but Manchester this season.

On The Pitch Action

And it’s desperately hard to put anything between them. Man U pretty much carried on from their 8-2 demolition of Arsenal with a 5-0 win away at Bolton. Once again they were impressive. They seem to have added a lethal element of movement to their game, breaking the ball upfield so much faster than they did last year. Rooney seems to have shrugged off whatever malaise he picked up in Germany 18 months ago. His second consecutive hattrick showing what a truly dangerous player he can be. You almost wonder how it is that Engerland can extract such poor returns from a player this good. Chicarito, too, was outstanding in his movement in front of goal. Bolton were dreadful and in Kevin Davies they have exactly the kind of cynical ‘hard tackling’ thug the Prem should be getting rid of.

So, was Man City‘s mere 3-0 thumping of Wigan, better or worse? Hard to say. Wigan were more open and slightly less defensively frail than Bolton, while City were once again fabulous. Silva again ruled the midfield, while Aguero was always threatening. So much so that almost no one noticed when Leetle Carlito slipped into oblivion, missed a penalty and was substituted. It’s amazing to think that City’s defining player, whose presence was essential to them last season, should seem so peripheral now. Nasri’s introduction (for Tevez) allowed City to step up a gear in both creativity and threat. Surrounded by strikers who are somewhat more clinical than Robin Van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, he is another player who seems to be back to his best.  United vs City in October should be a genuinely big game.

After the kind of 6 months that would down most sides, Arsenal needed to find a little bit of luck. Fortunately they were playing Swansea, a team high on style but low on goals. And generous in the extreme. If fans thought that Liverpool’s first goal against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago was jammy (ricocheting as it did off Ramsey and over Szczesny into the net), then Arshavin’s goal here was jammy whipped cream with a cherry on top. Normally sane keeper Vorm collected the ball and threw it into his own defender, leaving Arshavin with an open goal. Fortunately for the Russian he didn’t miss. Arsenal, with a patched up team of the barely fit and the new boys, were admirable in the first half, in particular Arteta and Arshavin, but lost energy and confidence in the second. Swansea, who have maintained their footballing philosophy and their Championship players, couldn’t find a way through to score.

It’s been transfers ahoy at Sunderland or Man U Old Boys as Brucie has brought in nearly an entire new team. Sadly this doesn’t seem to have helped. The replacement of Gyan (lured overseas for a quadruple your wages, big fat paycheck) with Arsenal ego Bendtner is less of a loss than a double whammy as the Dane missed his customary sitter and failed to contribute for the rest of the match, ultimately being outshone by other new boy, Korean sub Ji Dong-Won. Chelski still haven’t found their mojo, but they were still a class above MUOBs. Their new boy, Mata, along with Sturridge and Meireles looks to have added a little bit of style, but they still seem too pedestrian to be really threatening.

Stoke vs Liverpool showed us all what two of the slowest English defenders in the league can do. Upson and Carragher are each so far off the pace that they can barely compete without bearhugging their opponents. And finally one of them was found out when Carragher dragged his opponent to the ground and conceded a penalty. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish moaned away about refereeing decisions, but he’d be better off addressing the performance of players like Adam and Henderson, who didn’t seem able to hit a ball on target all day. Henderson particularly is having the kind of nightmare you expect fiddly foriegners to have, and managed a spectacular failure in front of goal despite having three attempts.  That said, Liverpool had all of the chances, with Stoke new boy Crouch not getting near the Liverpool goal all match.

Everton, shorn of Arteta, are looking under pressure. They still seem to have creativity and a wellspring of young players, but their  problem, as always, is goals and their inability to score them. Still they managed to lead Villa twice before being pegged back each time, suggesting that they may also be suffering in defence. Villa, shorn of Young and Downing, look less of a force than they were.

Wolves, like Stoke, have started well, so obviously it was not going to last. They fell to a Spurs team searching for their first win. Spurs’ fundamental problem, if not the solution, was clearly apparent here. They are an effective 4-4-2 team, playing with ‘Arry’s favourite Big Un, Little Un partnership, in this case Adebayor and Defoe, both of whom scored. They are far less effective when playing with Van Der Vaart, whose presence demands a tactical shift. This means more goals for Van Der Vaart, but completely neutralises whichever striker is picked to be his dupe, to the extent that the team actually suffers in the long run. With two outlets for goals, Spurs were far superior, cutting Wolves open at will. Their goals were both the result of outstanding pass and move workings around the box. Van Der Vaart’s return presents an interesting challenge for the team.

On Sunday we were given the dregs. New boys Narrich seem to have put too much trust in the team that were surprise runners up in the Championship and looked second best to everything against Uncle Wroy’s West Brom. And if they find West Brom hard, they are going to be found out all over the Prem. Meanwhile Fulham couldn’t summon up enough skill to beat a very poor Blackburn. Both those teams look like they’re in for a long struggle this season.

In contrast to both Swansea and Narrich, QPR have realised that winning the Championship and staying in the Prem are two very different things and have recruited appropriately. Their purchases of Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Armand Traoré (who was surprisingly good) have given them a little bit of Prem class and know-how and it showed against Newcastle. The extra pace and vision of the new boys meant that, not only were they less of the defensive catastrophe we saw against Bolton in Week 1, but they were incisive (if ultimately ineffective) in attack. It also meant that Tarabt is not their only source of creativity, enabling him to move more freely and become more of a genuine threat. On another day QPR would have had three or four, while Newcastle, who came in with a no score draw gameplan were very lucky to get nil.

Plus Ça Change Corner

Things that never change in the Prem

  • Johnathan Woodgate – failed a fitness test. That Stoke gamble is beginning to pay off
  • Kevin Davies King of Fouls – not booked for late, ankle breaking tackle from behind. Man U’s Cleverly will be out for at least a month. He really IS that kind of a player
  • Arsenal – still the masters of the disciplinary table although they didn’t have anyone sent off this week
  • Robert Huth – still unbooked