Football: Prem Relegation Rubbish

This is how it is for the three teams going down. The exit route from the Prem

QPR: Carcrash Strategies

If Aguero’s last minute slam dunker was the way to win the Prem, then QPR’s scattergun approach is the epitome of how not to do the Prem. First, buy a job lot of Prem team rejects, wannabes and not-quite-good-enoughs signing them to long term, high wage contracts, then, following failure of said mercenaries, sell the club to another F1 supremo, sack your Championship winning but not quite up to the Prem manager and replace him with a man who thought Prem midfielders Fulham was too small a club for him, allowing him to buy another job lot of miscreants and loanees (more big, long contracts), then light the blue touch paper and stand well back. There will be fireworks.

What with Joey Barton, Djerbil Cissé, Trabaant, Wright-Phillips, Colin Warnock and his replacement Mark Hughes, QPR have been nothing if not hugely entertaining this season. Sometimes their football has been fabulous (such as when they lost to Newcastle), sometimes it has been atrocious, but it’s always been amusing. Not quite as amusing as the fabulous Four Year Plan documentary about their journey to the Prem promised land, but pretty bloody funny nonetheless.

Cissé is the perfect QPR player. His record of goalscoring interspersed with ridiculous red cards neatly encapsulates their rip-roaring,  upside down season. Good at points, terrifyingly bad at others. Half a squad (mainly the new buys) that deserves to be in the Prem, half the remnants of the previous years’ sides who clearly aren’t up to the job. It’s just their luck that there were three teams worse than they were trawling along the bottom this season.

One imagines another big job lot of newcomers arriving over the close season as Hughes beds in. I was impressed by his end of season interviews where he essentially said he wasn’t happy and that QPR were never going to finish that badly again while he was there. Big words for next season. For this one he’s just bloody lucky they didn’t finish any lower.

Bolton: The Beginning Of The End

Strange. You would never have thought that the loss of Daniel Sturridge (returning to Chelsea) and Elmander would have had such a catastrophic effect on a team. However, combine the loss of those goalscorers with the season long injury to Lee and the purchase of anti-goal striker David Ngog (the poor man’s Bendtner) and you really begin to look a goal drought in the mouth.

And there you have Bolton’s essential problem. The second worst home record in the Prem, an inability to score and a propensity to concede. It seemed as if the spirit had been sucked out of the team. Unlike Wigan, who stuck to their guns and ultimately just about did enough, Bolton found that their failure was contagious.

Blackburn: The Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

If QPR showed us the quintessential way of how not to do Prem survival, then Blackburn showed us the way to pretty much guarantee relegation. Alienate most of the players, including your key defensive stalwart – one of those players who epitomises the club they play for, and give support to a manager who clearly isn’t up to the task. Oh and get to the point where your entire crowd is booing the team from the word go during the last match of the season which you have to win to stay up.

Even so Blackburn had their moments. There was a truly bizarre win against Arsenal (during the latter’s flirt with relegation period), the astonishing win at Old Trafford and, er, that’s about it. The real problem with Blackburn, as with all the Relegation rubbish teams, is that it’s hard to say what they’re actually for. They have no coherent footballing philosophy, a squad of players who are lacklustre at best and would struggle at most other Prem sides. Indeed it seems as if part of the point of the Prem is to ensure that teams like this are sent off to the recycling bin that is the Championship. You sense that having bought the Prem back in the ’90s, Blackburn will have to spend a great deal more to scrape their way back.

Wolves: That’s The McCarthy Effect

Mick McCarthy represents everything the Prem is trying to eradicate, the supremacy of the internal spirit over actual technique, shouting over skills, the idolisation of the physical over ball-playing, the nostalgia for the ‘man’s tackle’ – the kind of tackling that Carlos Puyol refers to as a ‘failure of your defensive skills’ as good defenders should never let the game get to a position where such a tackle is actually necessary. Now you could argue that Chelsea’s Champions League win also epitomises the supremacy of spirit over skill, but I’d argue that in defending resolutely and effectively, without repeatedly fouling (or injuring) your opponents, Chelsea display exactly the kind of technique and ability McCarthy has never been able to get his teams to master.

Instead, he’s packed his sides with low grade journeymen, who clearly aren’t up to the speed and dynamics of the division. His record in the Prem, both with Wolves and Sunderland, more than bears this out. Like McLeish, his sides are filled with ‘enforcers’, men who aren’t afraid to ‘get stuck in’ and who seem to think that ‘showing character’ is synonymous with dangerous foul play. It’s no surprise that some of the lowest points totals in the Prem have gone to McCarthy teams.

Even so, the purchase of Roger Johnson (who has now enjoyed relegation with two Midlands sides in successive seasons) seems to have been a stroke of McCarthyite genius. Combining poor positional and technical ability with a propensity for drink, Johnson was tailor made for McCarthy’s footballing philosophy and he compounded the ‘Johnson’ effect by making him captain. Incompetent on the pitch and a destabilising influence off it, Johnson even managed to have a full on argument with his own keeper during a match. Now that’s class. Let’s hope none of this appalling shower ever make it back in to the league.

Football: Low Grade Prem Losers

Rapid Vienna fans taunt Villa after knocking them out of the Europa League for the second time. Not really related to the Prem, but a gem nonetheless.

Sunderland: A Tale Of Two Managers

It’s a ‘football fact’ (definition: not a fact at all but rampant conjecture) that replacing your manager gives a side a much needed mid-season boost. And certainly there’s the odd moment when things come together and, you know what, the unthinkable actually happens. More so that even Roberto di Matteo’s success at Chelsea, Martin O’Neill’s appointment at Sunderland is likely to keep the myth alive for a long time yet.

However, no matter how good the ‘new manager bounce’ Sunderland got, no matter how much the emergence of McClean will enthuse their supporters, the truth is that Sunderland are simply the best of the losers, a quartet of teams whose removal from the Prem would leave few but their supporters in distress. Unlike the mid-table mediocrities, these are by and large sides who have, fundamentally, no coherent footballing philosophy and little expectation of greatness beyond a decent cup run and the odd win over the big boys.

Despite buying in almost an entire team over the summer, Sunderland have done little to move forward. Cattermole’s consistent failure to learn how (and when) to actually tackle highlights the team’s inability to develop, while you sense that players like Richardson, Brown, O’Shea et al are simply running out of time rather than offering a new dimension to the team. And you sense that there really is no overall philosophy to their game. Still if getting rid of old manager Bruce is the one thing they did this season there’s no denying that it was a good thing.

Stoke: Cheating And Bullying Does Not Make A Philosophy

You can’t argue that Stoke don’t have a gameplan. True it might not extend to being a fully fledged actual philosophy, but there’s no doubt that there is a Stoke way of playing. It’s just that it isn’t playing football. Pulling shirts, barging keepers, kicking opponents and playing for touch is what separates football from the barbaries of rugger. And Stoke are playing rugger on their, specially nursed undersized pitch. You sense that refs give them the benefit of the doubt at their place as sending off the bulk of the side during the first half would be counterproductive. In fact, the only counterproductive thing is continuing to allow Pullis and his boys to play this way.

In Shawcross and Huth, Stoke have players whose enthusiasm for the physical outweighs their footballing abilities. That Koscielny has more bookings than Huth is, frankly, more of an indictment of the Prem’s poor refereeing standards than any indication of the legality of Huth’s actions. Shawcross still hasn’t learnt how to tackle either. Similarly having Etherington and Pennant in your side is no indication of quality. Nor is the ‘long throw’ anything other than a throwback to the era of Chivers. Nor does one great goal by Crouch justify a season of tiresome route 1 football.

Wigan: That’s Not Success, It’s An Indictment Of Failure

Sure Wigan’s escape (yet again) from the predations of relegation was impressive. Certainly their 20 minute mugging of Arsenal meant that the Race For Third went right to the wire. Yet their inability to actually get their act together for the first three quarters of the season and the fact that they survived the season in 15th rather than 17th is another clear indication of the lack of quality suffusing the lower parts of the Prem.

And sure there are things to applaud about Wigan. Unlike fellow losers Sunderland, Stoke or Villa, Wigan have a clear footballing philosophy and they’re capable of adapting it during the season to accommodate their failings. Their move to a back three marshalled by Calderwell was inspired. In Al Habsi they have the second best keeper in the lower half of the table (after Vorm), while Moses is one of the few players who have definitely improved over the season. And manager Martinez has been relatively successful in pushing the squad further onwards. Yet they are still perilously anaemic in front of goal, don’t seem to have that much midfield creativity and look to be severely lacking in any kind of depth.

Aston Villa: Everything That Is Wrong With The Prem

You have to pity Villa. They have had a truly rotten few years. Stuffed by O’Neill, when he flounced out five days before the start of last season (apparently after being told he couldn’t spend £6million of the Gareth Barry transfer money on Scott Parker), saddled with a heartbroken Houllier and then sucker punched by the appointment of Alec McLeish, Villa haven’t made it easy for themselves.

Villa’s path represents all that is dangerous about the Prem. Failure to get into the Champions League has cost them all their best players over the course of three years. Imagine the team if Milner, Barry, Young and Downing were still there (alright imagine the team if Milner, Barry and Young were still there). That’s the nucleus of a decent team right there. A nucleus that the arrival of Darren Bent does nothing to replace.

Add to all this the mind-numbing, brain curdling approach of McLeish and it’s no wonder that Villa’s own players began to wish the season was over some time in late December. It’s a tribute to McLeish’s skills that his every decision actually made the side worse. It’s a testament to how good the side could be that they weren’t relegated below Wolves.

All that said, Villa’s hierarchy have reacted quickly, recognising the danger, removing McLeish and appearing to search for a manager who will develop an appropriate footballing philosophy rather than just appointing one of the same old failure faces. Their ability to find one will go a long way to defining where they are next season.

Football: Premier League Mid-Table Mediocrity

That Swansea wall, it's not very tall - even when they're jumping

Fulham: What A Difference A Goal (Or 10) Makes

All in for the Prem's mid-table monstrosities

It appears that a goal (or 10) is the difference between a best of the rest team and the mid-table mediocrities. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Fulham’s ninth place puts them at the tail of the best, while Liverpool’s eighth place appears to put them at the top of the mid-table mediocrities. Thinking about early season expectations it’s clear that Liverpool have badly flopped – a Carling Curse Cup win and an FA Cup final place is no compensation for a dire Prem season, while Fulham have exceeded their Prem expectations (if failing badly in the Europa League).

Indeed, the difference between a best of team and a mid-table mediocrity is often that the former end up being disappointed in their failure to get into the Champions League positions, while the latter overachieve by besting the also-rans and failures of the Prem. Fulham are a perfect example of mid-table mediocrity (and here we’re using the term mediocrity in the sense of ‘having only an average degree of quality and skills), a team that lacks any clear ‘stars’ yet has a suitable degree of talent to form a team. Players like Dempsey, Murphy , Pogrebniak and Dembele each have a fine level of skill and would be a valuable asset to the teams below or around them, yet you sense that they may not excel in the teams above them. Similarly it feels as if players like Duff and Senderos have had their days at the top table and found their places a little lower down the league.

Still, another fuck up of a season for Liverpool and one of these teams will be pushing for ‘best of the rest’ status.

West Brom: Uncle Roy Done Acceptably

I recall a few years ago, when ‘Appy ‘Arry went to an obviously relegated Portsmouth and inexplicably steered them to Prem survival, FA Cup glory and almost certain financial oblivion. No one believed he had done it. Yet Roy’s success at in transforming West Brom from yo-yo addicts to Prem mediocrities on a tight budget, without spunking millions on transfers, is equally impressive. And his pulling together a team that is somehow more than the sum of its parts is a quality Engerland will desperately need.

Even more than Fulham, West Brom epitomise the characteristics of the mid-table teams. Largely comprised of the journeymen of the Prem – I can’t think of a West Brom player who teams above them fantasise about buying, or who would genuinely improve a serious international side – West Brom is a triumph of team ethos and tactics over individual achievement.

And if football is about the challenge of competing playing philosophies, then the Fulhams, West Broms, Swanseas and Norwichs represent the triumphs of particular tactics over those of sides for whom ‘passion’ and ‘pride’ are shorthand for not having a clue.

Swansea: It’s Like Watching Pocket Pet Barcelona

Swansea and Norwich, both newcomers to the Prem, represent a welcome step forward for a league that has had something of an air of corruption and decay about it for the last couple of seasons. Unlike previous promoted sides like Wolves or QPR, you sense that both teams, Swansea in particular, have risen based on a clear, coherent footballing philosophy – a way of playing that isn’t simply hoofing the ball to the big man and hoping for a lucky knock down.  Indeed, Brendan Rogers’ side would be ill-advised to use the latter style, not least because their average height is about 3 foot 11.

More than any recently promoted team, Swansea have brought a genuine style to the Prem. Their passing has been fabulous and they have given games to all but the biggest teams. And even when they weren’t winning, they stayed true to Rogers’ philosophy. And unlike Fulham and West Brom, there are players here who could certainly be a useful addition to the bigger boys. Vorm is one of the keepers of the season, good for at least half a dozen extra points, Britton, Dyer and Allen comprised a midfield that most clubs would give their eye teeth for. And in Sigurdsson and Caulker they made some of the best use of the loaning system. It’s an indication of the quality of the side that Chelsea’s supposed ‘young great’ McEachran barely got an appearance, let alone a start. And an indication of the team’s quality that 11th seems a tad disappointing. Let’s hope Rogers, who has turned down an interview at Liverpool, can keep his team together and build on this success.

Norwich: Agriculture Goes Upmarket

At the start of the season Norwich looked certainties for relegation. They had the usual low level team’s problems coming to grips with the pace and dynamism of the Prem. Some of their early matches were littered with genuinely dangerous, late tackles and, in striker Grant Holt, they appeared to have the lardiest frontman in the business. Yet for all this, they persevered. Rather than playing a great passing game, they concentrated on being very hard to beat and pressing hard on the break.

More than practically any other side, Norwich showed the value of obdurate pig-headedness and tactical astuteness. And after a rocky start, they adapted their game to suit the Prem. And Grant Holt was a revelation. Sure he is a lardy as they come, but he has the kind of ballet feet that most strikers would kill for. But it’s an indication of the precarious nature of the mid-table teams that Holt senses that this is his moment to ‘better’ himself (Liverpool would love him) and has submitted a transfer request – never a ringing endorsement of a side. His 17 (yes 17) goals help separate Norwich from the low grade losers and relegation scrappers below them.

Football: Premier League Best Of The Rest 2012

Yahoo! Cisse celebrates bashing in another outstanding goal.

Newcastle Utd: Best In Show

Can it be that Newcastle actually started the season with Joey Barton in their ranks? It’s a measure of the stunning transformation in the side that it seems almost inconceivable that any of their previous olde engerlish spine of Nolan, Carroll and Barton were anything other than a distant memory for the club.

Their dramatic rise from mid-table mediocrity to the foothills of Europe is down to the most effective set of transfers since Wenger first brought in Viera, Petit and Anelka. Demba Ba, Cabaye and, above all, the inspired Cissé have blended spectacularly with Krul, Coloccini and the excellent if erratic Hatem Ben Arfa to produce the surprise team of the season.

If it was a bit of a shock to see Newcastle regularly holding down a top four position during the first half of the season, it was rewarding to see them there or thereabouts during the run in. Ultimately they were only undone thanks to losses to some of the big boys like Arsenal, Man City and, er, Wigan (although they weren’t the only ones to get a grand duffing by the upstarts).

It’s a tribute to manager Alan Pardew that Newcastle have become everyone’s second favourite team (narrowly pipping Swansea), playing great football and scoring tons of fabulous goals (3 out of the top ten goals of the season ain’t bad). And it’s a veiled compliment that all the big teams are looking at their star players. Let’s hope the team stays together for at least another year as I look forward to their participation in the Europa League – they’ll surely take it more seriously than Spurs or Liverpool and have a far more realistic chance of success. A season there and they’ll be ready for the Champions League.

Chelsea: That’s Not Rebuilding, That’s Killing Your Children

The first real disappointments of the season, Chelsea’s problems are a snapshot of the difficulties of the Prem. A successful side looking over the edge of the hill, they were desperate for rejuvenation, a dose of fresh blood to provide respite to the aging legs of the Drog, Terry, Lampard, Cole, Cech and co, while bringing on the second squad of Ramieres, Miereles, Malouda and, above all, Torres. Bouyed by an new manager, the Europa League winning André Villas Boas, what could possibly go wrong?

Strangely enough it seems that the aging big boys didn’t take kindly to being told that they were no longer the be all and end all of the club’s planning. Equally, new tactics failed to spark the new boys into action. You sense if Villas Boas had been able to get something (anything) out of Torres things might have turned out differently. Instead Chelsea flopped down the table (not as drastically as Arsenal, but pretty badly nonetheless) and serious action was required.

Amazingly Di Matteo has pulled the team around and despite only finishing sixth, their worst season for a long time, they have achieved Abramovitch’s dream of the Champions League final and have a genuine chance of winning the one prize he really values.

Everton: Overachievement As Standard

God knows what Everton manager David Moyes does during the summer. But whatever it is he really needs to change it. Everton’s season was, well, classic Everton. Start poorly, come good over the Spring and the run in and finish in the Top Ten. You sense that if only he could get Everton to kick off their season in, say, October rather than February, then Everton would be genuine contenders.

Instead, yet again, Everton are left to ruminate on what might have been. If only Pienaar hadn’t got googly eyes for the big time at Spurs, where his benchwarming stats were impressive, if only Cahill hadn’t been injured, if only they’d bought Jelavic in the Autumn rather than the Spring. If only they’d beaten Liverpool in that FA Cup semi-final.

Still finishing above Liverpool makes this a season to savour for the blues.

Liverpool: That’s Not A Season, That’s A Catastrope

£100 million+ spent on new players, a venerated manager with Premier League winning experience, the most expensive English striker, what could possibly go wrong? Try September 18. when possibly the worst Liverpool team in living memory was comprehensively shafted by Spurs at White Hart Lane. Liverpool were so bad that they were four down by the 67th minute and had lost two men by full time. After this, the team was simply a carcrash waiting to happen.

Add to this the kind of PR fuck up that only Gerald Ratner could dream about, as Liverpool managed to turn the Suarez/Evra racist incident from a mishap into a total disaster. Rather than coming out and saying something like , “hey, he/we made a mistake, we’re really sorry, Liverpool has always been about fair play and values, we’ve seen great players come to Anfield and their talent has never been related to their skin colour”, a move which might have turned a calamity into an advantage, they reinforced the sense of blind, pig-headed entitlement that suffuses the city.

They even managed to make winning the Carling Cup, where they scraped by a poor Championship side, look like more of a disaster than Arsenal’s loss the previous season.

With an seemingly endless set of failures, Carroll, Adam, The Invisible Henderson and, above all, Downing, Dalglish managed to turn even Liverpool supporters against him (albeit very politely). Whether he gets the chance to continue the job next season is highly debatable.

Football: Best Of The Prem 2012

Sergio Aguero goes mental having just won the prem with the last kick of the season

Man City: That’s The Way To Do It

WOW! Top of the Prem for most of the year, biggest pockets by around a billion or so, best team and they snatch glory from the brink of catastrophe with the final kick of the season. That’s the Man City way of winning the league. No doubt they have been the best side this season, with games against Spurs away and Man U being the highlights, but I suspect that consolidating second rather than winning the Prem was their goal at the start of the season. It was only when they roared away with the league over the Autumn that winning it became a realistic achievement. And even then it was a darn close thing.

Their off-pitch shinanighans and mid-season slump showed that this City side are still vulnerable. A number of players, Silva and Dzeko in particular, looked burnt out by the end of the season, and it took a while for Yaya Touré to get over the Africa Cup of Nations. Still even wantaway munchkin Tevez and notorious bad boy Ballotelli came good in the end.

With a first title in the bag City are bound to be having a big summer, what with finally shipping out five years worth of not-quite-up-to-it talent at rock bottom prices and needing to improve their squad if they want to realistically challenge in Europe as well as dominate the Prem.

Man U: Title No 20 Will Be Hard Work

How the season ended. As they say, the table never lies

It’s hard to tell what will hurt United the most, knowing that they pushed City so close that they ended up with enough points to win the Prem in practically ever other year, or knowing that they lost it on goal difference. United’s faces when they heard that Aguero had scored had the kind of shell-shocked look about them that only an entire year in the trenches can bring.

If last year’s surprise Champions were United’s worst team in living memory, then this year’s team were potentially even worse. They lost Vidic and Ferdinand for much of the season, had a new keeper who took time to find his feet, and hadn’t really done anything to beef up their midfield. Players who came in, Cleverly, Jones, Smalling still looked like ones for the future, while Ashley Young merely lived up to his Villa hype, the occasional great goal and a lot of diving. It’s a sign of concern that it took the return of the previously retired Paul Scholes to really kick start their season.

That said, their form in the second half of the season was outstanding and had they held City at home to, say, just the two goals, they could have been Champions themselves.

Arsenal: How Did That Happen?

To lose one key midfielder during the close season is bad, to lose three smacks of incompetence. In selling Fabregas and Nasri (albeit unwillingly) and losing Wilshire to injury for a year, Arsenal managed to gut themselves completely. Certainly their replacements, Ramsey, Arteta and Rosicky never quite fulfilled the potential, as their nose dive into the bowels of relegation during the Autumn clearly showed. So it’s pretty damn impressive that they managed to not only regain their place in the top four but actually improved on their final position last year.

Still Arsenal’s failings are well known and were very visible this season. A suicidal defence, especially when it’s not heavily protected from midfield, a thoroughly lousy set of second teamers  capable of losing to pretty much anyone, any time, anywhere (Chamakh, Bendtner, Vela, Djourou, Squillaci, Park, and Arshavin are just the pick of the bunch), a pretty disastrous history of transfer dealings (see useless second teamers list) and the internal fortitude of a roasted marshmallow. Nothing that happened this season, aside from the replacement of the retiring Pat Rice, looks like changing any of that. They can’t afford another close season of selling their best players.

Four moments stand out in their season. The first was Szczesny’s penalty save against Udinese in the Champions League qualifying round. I think if Arsenal had lost that game their season really would have imploded. The second was Sagna’s goal against Spurs. 2 down, having played well, it was a trasformational statement moment, a stern bullet into the net followed not by a celebration, but by a determined retrieval of the ball and a race back to kick off. A rare moment when the entire team effectively said, ‘Fuck this, we mean business’.  The third was the removal of Arshavin. His return to Russia seemed to galvanise the team to their most consistent run of results. Finally, the short term import of Thierry Henry after Christmas gave the fans something to shout about and sparked something in the team itself.  None of which should camouflage the fragility of Arsenal’s position. This has been a dreadful season that Wenger and the team have somehow managed to salvage. This summer is possibly the most important of Arsène’s reign.

Spurs: Mind The Gap

Not that there really is that much of a gap, a single point and equal goal difference was the difference between Spurs and Arsenal. Yet not so long ago, before that Sagna goal in fact, Spurs were 13 points ahead and potential Championship contenders. Now they face a painful wait to discover whether 4th will actually be good enough to get to the Champions League qualifiers. Their collapse has been one of the most impressive slides this season.

Rumour has it that it was all ‘Arry’s fault, as his eyes bulged a little too far into his head when his Engerland coronation was announced by his media chums, but the fact is that his team simply ran out of steam. Like City they played beautiful football for the first half of the season (their total demolition of Liverpool at home being a particular favourite), but like them they hit the wall some time in early Spring. And, unlike City, they didn’t have the players to step up and fill the gaps left by an exhausted Bale, Modric, Van der Vaart or Adebayor – something that was quite clear when their second teamers failed to make it out of the Europa League group stage.

With a bunch of older players or loanees beefing up the side, you have to feel that this team is on the cusp and may already have peaked. It will need substantial readjustment over the summer, especially if Man City decide they want Adebayor back or sell/loan him to someone else or fancy a bit of Modric to go with Silva and Nasri. So let’s hope Bayern win the Big Cup and Spurs get their golden ticket for next season.

That Was The Prem 2010-11 That Was

Sclerosis – Pass Me The Enema Bag Stupid

The whole season, whether in football or society in general, seems to have been about finally purging oneself of that gargantuan blockage. Whether it was the sight of FIFA suddenly realising that not only did the emperor have no clothes, but that he was also a corrupt venal old fartbag, or the entire North African Middle East rising up against, er, a legion of corrupt venal old fartbags, or SKY finally moving past the anal lads culture entrenched by the likes of (venal old fartbags) Keys and Gray this felt like a watershed period. The end of an era.

On a football level, the season felt like a continuation of the malaise offered by the World Cup before working its way up to being something of a watershed moment. Man U (always ahead of the curve) began the umpteenth process of regeneration, with the Hernandez/Valencia/Rooney forward axis only being stifled by the long term injury to Valencia early in the season. The retirements of Neville (seamlessly eased out by the Fabio/Raphael twins) and Scholes, reinforced both the demise of the early 2000’s team and the transitional nature of the season. Man City continued their permanent revolution, establishing themselves as a top four team, while teams like Liverpool, Chelsea et al began the process of dispensing with tired, older (dare we say more expensive?) players like Gerrard, Lampard, Carragher etc. Meanwhile we watched the decline of the likes of Essien, Mikkel, Cech, Defoe, Crouch and the entire Man U midfield.

With all this decline and precious little improvement or additional excitement (at least until the import of Champion Cheat Dirty Suarez in January), this felt like a season of removal.

Get Stuck In! It’s All About The Defence Stupid

Strangely for a league that seems to be all about goals, good, solid defences seemed to be the key to success. Teams with poor defences (hello Arsenal, Blackpool and West Ham to name but three) lost out big time. Admittedly, Boremingham showed that a good defence in the early part of the season is no compensation for having zero teeth in attack. Unlike attacking partnerships, which can be forged relatively quickly, defences are built over time, not simply pre-season. Arsenal in particular paid the price for having no really settled back three. For them having one settled member of the keeper/central defence axis would be an improvement.

It’s clear that there are far too many journeyman defenders in the Prem. These are players capable of muscling opponents off the ball, obstructing them or failing that injuring them, but who are fundamentally unable to actually tackle properly. This was typified by the succession of ‘horror’ tackles early in the season which robbed the Prem of the likes of Zamora, Ben Haim, Jones and Valencia for large parts of the season. Certainly the English obsession with ‘physical’ football is a massive detriment to both the Prem and English football in general. The Prem needs to decide which it wants to protect, the old skool physical ‘get stuck in’ defensive mindset or creative skillful players. There’s little evidence to suggest that they will get this one right.

It’s clear that there are far too few good defensive coaches, and those who are perceived as the most ‘successful’ are promoting a hideous basketball inspired style typified by obstruction, holding and intimidation that might work in the Prem but which is heavily penalised in Europe (just compare Mau U’s foul rate to that of Barcelona in the Champions League final and consider that Barcelona seemed like the better defensive side). I’d rather players were taught how to defend legitimately rather than encouraged to ‘get stuck in’, but there seem to be no effective defensive coaches in the Prem.

As their progress in Europe and the Champions League final in particular demonstrated, Barcelona for all their diving and playacting are still a better,  more effective defensive playing team than practically anyone in the Prem. Consider their record against Arsenal and Man U and how few shots either had in three matches. Too few Prem players know how to defend at all or get the ball back when the opposing side has it.

Goals Win Games

No coincidence that once again the winner of the Golden Boot should come from the Champions (Berbatov) and the most industrious tyro in the league (Tevez). Van Persie’s 18 goals in 25 games kept Arsenal in the big four, without them it’s doubtful they’d even be playing in the Europa League. Boremingham and West Ham’s lack of bite led them to inevitable relegation.

There’s Bargains In Those January Sales

Normally January is a time for two kinds of transfer, the ‘save us from relegation’ panic buy and the ‘building for next season’ bargain, neither of which usually leads to anything approaching an immediate impact. This season, however, it felt like the January transfer window began the process of transition, removing the logjam of the past 4 or 5 seasons. Liverpool’s season was transformed by the arrival of Champion Cheat Dirty Suarez, who brought much needed goal threat and inspiration. Without him they maintained their appalling form and playing style in the Europa League.

Only time will tell if Andy Carroll and Torres were good January signings, but they both seem to have been ‘building for next season’  purchases. Arsenal’s dramatic slump in form illustrates the need for occasional surgical strikes in midseason.

The Importance Of Key Players (And Keeping Them Fit)

Arsenal’s progress was undone by Vermaelen’s season long absence – he’s played fewer games than notable crock-master Ledley King, who as every fule kno has only the one knee. Arsenal badly needed both a serious defender and some kind of leader and Vermaelen was a possibility. They were also undone by Van Persie missing the first half of the season. You sense that if only Van Persie managed to play an entire season he’d be the league’s top goalscorer (although his run of scoring in 9 consecutive away matches did coincide with Arsenal’s worst run of form for a number of years). When Arsenal were winning the Prem and challenging, Thierry Henry was regularly the Golden Boot winner.

Fulham weren’t helped by the assault on leading scorer Bobby Zamora. Their form notably picked up dramatically once he returned.

Birmingham might have gone to sleep having been gifted the Carling Cup, but the injury to Scott Dan in December (in their Carling Cup semi final) was every bit as effective in their slide down to the Championship.

West Ham lost Hilzlesperger to an international injury for most of the season, then, when he came back, they lost Scott Parker. Carlton Cole’s season long fitness streak was no consolation.

Man U didn’t look likely to win games, much less the Prem until Vidic and Valencia regained their fitness.

Tottenham haven’t looked good since Bale first did his hamstring over the winter. Van Der Vaart’s injuries helped eliminate any threat of a Top Four finish.

Chelsea usually get 40 – 50 goals a season from Drogba and Lampard. This season they’ve got around half that. Lampard, like Gerrard, is hitting that stage in his career where he’s more often injured than fit. Drogba added to his repertoire by catching malaria.

Man City weren’t the same team without Tevez.

Liverpool weren’t the same team without Torres (the exception that proves the rule perhaps?). But they were still terrible without Suarez.

I’ve Got The Sweetest World Cup Hangover

I can’t think of a single Prem player who came back from the World Cup and had a good start to the season. For some the malaise lasted well into the season, others still haven’t recovered

  • Rooney – dipped in form from spring 10 – spring 11 (never mind the World Cup)
  • Drogba – didn’t show for the world cup, still hasn’t regained his form, caught malaria
  • Torres – has been poor for the last 12 months, if not longer, a descent longer and deeper than that of Rooney. Still managed to win a World Cup – go figure
  • Lampard – yet to regain form, largely injured
  • Gerrard – yet to regain form, injured, unclear where he fits into the new RedSox world
  • Fabregas – poor, injured, yet to return to form, won a world cup. Go figure
  • Essien – missed the World Cup through injury, not seen his form since
  • Vidic – found form around turn of the year – although he seems more prone to fouling these days

Bad Foot Rising (Studs  Up)

This season has seen the continued rise of the American football/basketball style defence, holding, manhandling, shoving, obstructing seen as an ‘acceptable’ alternative to real defending. The legacy of Fat Sam and Tony Pulis, who seem to have totally misunderstood the concept of turnover.
Really bad tackling was a key feature of the early season – bad studs up sliding tackles, two footed diving tackles and the ‘oh shit I’ve just given the ball away’ redemptive leg breaker. Hang your heads in shame everyone concerned, including Jack Wilshire, who ‘did one’ on Birmingham’s Zigic.

Genuine Class Conspicuous By Its Absence.

Flattered to deceive –

  • Elmander – two nice goals, a long silence and a move to Galatassary
  • Nasri – two or three lovely (very lovely to be honest) goals and then nothing for most of 2011
  • Bale – one great game against Inter Milan, snuffed out the following week when he was played out of the game by Phil Neville
  • Van Persie – 18 goals scored doesn’t compensate for 13 games missed
  • Rooney – just beginning to find his form and the season ends. Did win the Prem for Man U at West Ham
  • David Silva – only beginning to find his form
  • Yaya Toure – only beginning to find his form, although he won the FA Cup for Man City
  • Adam – lynchpin of Blackpool, his loss after being sent off probably cost Blackpool their place in the Prem. Without him they’d have been relegated in the spring

Genuinely class

  • Tevez – thoroughly inspirational. The driving force behind City
  • Champion Cheat Dirty Suarez – welcome to the Prem, may have to amend our opinion of you. Inspirational team changing player
  • Jack Wilshire – lots of promise and he’s both Arsenal and English
  • Joe Hart – not dodgy keeper
  • Blackpool – great attacking football, suicidal defending, great attitude, there are shitter teams still left in the Prem
  • Javier Hernandez – Another welcome to the Prem. Proves the value of buying genuine proven talent rather than potential (cf Carlos Vela)

Good fucking riddance to

  • Fat Sam Allardycé – now’s your chance to show us how good you could be in Europe (in your dreams) or (in reality) the Championship
  • Birmingham – now’s your chance to show us how good you could be in Europe and the Championship
  • Gold, Sullivan and Brady – not likely to be seeing you three muppets any time soon
  • Ryan Babble – did Loserpool really get £6 million for him? Sale of the season no question
  • Gillette and Hicks – is it really only this season that you were turfed out?

Just think, the three relegated teams are being replaced by teams who’ve played consistently good football in the Championship.