Who’s Been Naughty (And Who’s Done Just Enough)


Captain See-No-Evil and his chum Smells-No-Evil ruminate on another fine season for Man U

Captain See-No-Evil and his chum Smells-No-Evil ruminate on another fine season for Man U

So That’s The End Of That Then…

Another year, another weighty albatross of prem football dispensed with. It’s a bit ironic that the league that is the most awash with cash should have become, a) a beacon of light in the all too shady world of sporting finances while at the same time b) significantly less skilled or exciting. But that’s the way it goes apparently. So who has been good (exceeding expectations) and who has been poor over the last season?

Chelsea

I did enjoy Chelsea being thumped away from home at the tail end of the season while their fans all sang, “Champions of England, we know what we are…” And you can’t argue with that. Nor can you argue with Mourinho’s assertion that tactics are winning and winning is tactics however you end up playing.

And Chelsea did play some great football. Even some of their ‘park the bus’ matches were great to watch. Anyone who disparages good defensive performances should watch that Arsenal Chelsea 0-0 again and see how Arsenal tried everything to find a way past Chelsea’s obdurate defense to no avail. In an age when almost no English teams can actually defend, John Terry’s look of joy at the end of the game was well earned.

Man City

In contrast, Man City had a season to forget. Somehow the plan that involved re-signing all their over-25s didn’t take into account that they would nosedive after Christmas, that Yaya would still be upset over his cake and that too many of their players seemed to have a bit of a World Cup hangover.

In contrast to the teams around them, all of whom have very clear footballing philosophies, it’s not clear where City are going, nor exactly what they need to do to redirect themselves.

Arsenal

Phew! Arsene will be pleased (I don’t think he does ecstatic or overjoyed). While Third place and the retention of the FA Cup undoubtedly counts as progress, the suspicion remains that they should have done even better and that this incremental improvement will be used to, once again, gloss over the need for upgrades and competition in many areas of the side.

More players of the quality of Sanchez need to be brought in and the team needs to remember those matches where they threw away leads and played like headless chickens (see the end of the home leg against Monaco) as much as the progress that has undoubtedly been made. They need a lot more games like the FA Cup final and a lot less like their rubbish early season form.

Man U

Phew! Louis van Gaal will be pleased(ish) having scraped by with the absolute minimum requirement of a Top Four finish. Bearing in mind he had infinity grazillion pounds to spend on new players (even if he did spunk a wad on Falcao) and had a fixture list that compared favourably with Liverpool’s last season (no European football and out of the Cups relatively early doors), he very nearly managed to balls the whole thing up good and proper.

How we laughed at his talk of ‘philosophy’ when all he meant was humping it to the big man while all about him his costly midfielders were shanking the ball all over the shop. It’s amazing to think that in a season where there was no real challenge to Chelsea, Man U couldn’t do better. Still has a testy Champions League qualifier to get through to achieve his minimum objectives too.

Tottenham

Ever the bridesmaids, Tottenham have been lambasted all over the shop for what was actually a great season for them. First, they unearthed a genuine star player in Harry Kane – exactly the kind of player that Spurs fans want at the club. Second, they overachieved their position in the wages/league standing table, which is no mean feat at a time where the correlation between wages and league placing is pretty absolute.

Sure they moaned about the dragback of the Europa League, but these were precisely the games where Kane was allowed to play and establish his right to play in the ‘proper’ games. And where new manager Poccettino was able to assess his squad with some degree of freedom. Their big challenge over the next few years will be how to keep the squad at this level and beyond, while facing the financial straitjacket of building a new stadium.

Liverpool
That's the end of that then...

That’s the end of that then…

After a season of nearly succeeding, Liverpool had some big challenges this season. How to deal with the loss of their best player, while upping their game to play in the Champions League, and how to manage the obvious-to-everyone-but-himself decline of Steven Gerrard. Clearly they failed to effectively deal with either of these.

Obviously it doesn’t help that their second best striker did nothing but enhance his relationship with the sick bay, so depriving Liverpool of a glut of goals, but a miserable recruitment drive failed to drag in anyone with a double figured goal tally, grossly overworked some of the younger team members and proved fabulously divisive.

None of this could be entirely the manager’s fault, but where Rogers really let his pants down was his selection for the away match against Real Madrid. Leaving Gerrard, Sterling, Coutinho and Henderson on the bench for the most glamourous game of the season can’t have left any of them very happy.  Allowing Spurs to pip you to 5th place, while still ensuring the potential handicap of Europa League football won’t endear you to anyone either.

Southampton

Phew! What happened there then? At the start of the season, Southampton looked like a team in trouble. As is the way of teams breaking into the top ten, they’d been roundly pillaged over the close season, losing their manager to Tottenham, all players whose names started with L to Liverpool, Chambers to Arsenal and Luke Shaw to Man U. It looked like they would go the way of Aston Villa, who’d once been challengers only to reemerge as relegation dogfighters once all their best players had moved to various teams in Manchester.

Yet somehow Southampton came out on top. Their quiet recruitment of Koeman as their new manager was a masterstroke. Equally their choice of relatively unheralded continental talent, along with the emergence of more new young homegrown players far outshone the more celebrated recruitment policies of many ‘bigger’ teams.  A fantastic result.

Swansea

Given the usual rush for either long-in-the-tooth, well proven ‘Prem’ managers or relatively uncelebrated continental spreadsheeters for any managerial vacancy, the rise of Garry Monk has been exceptional. Bearing in mind this is his first full season in charge, his achievement has been extraordinary. This is Swansea’s best ever points total and even then they managed to cope with the loss of their top striker in the January transfer window. Outstanding.

Stoke

If you can argue that 7th is about the absolute limit for those clubs that aren’t in some way fighting for the Champions League, then Stoke had a damn fine run at ‘their’ Championship, arguably a more prestigious result than the 5th and 6th of Spurs and Liverpool, only narrowly losing out to the far more accomplished Southampton and Swansea.

Hughes has done well to build on the work of Tony Pullis, but despite the occasional moments of lovely play, he’s still working with the best journeymen in the league rather than any even minor stars.

Crystal Palace

Given the finish they had, it’s hard to remember what life was like at the start of the season under the watch of Neil Warnock before the return of the prodigal Alan Pardew. It’s clear that Warnock isn’t a Prem manager, but Pardew obviously is.

Even without a pretty poor start, 10th place is a great achievement, the ‘best of the rest’ prize. Again, this is essentially a team of journeyman players, with the possible exceptions of  Bolasie, and Zaha. So in a season of halves, Pardew dun good.

Everton

The second team that can realistically feel hard done by. You sense that Everton feel that they should have done better, if not against the likes of Spurs and Liverpool, then certainly against the four teams that finished above them.

One fallout of the loans system, the try before you buy system, which Everton use a lot, is that actually signing a player you had on loan the season before doesn’t actually feel like a new signing at all. Spending £28 million to make Lukaku a permanent Everton player may have been good business, but it didn’t feel like the team that was moving forward, a situation that wasn’t helped by his post-World Cup scoring rate. Additionally, the stalling of local players like Stones and Barkley didn’t help. Everton need to up their game next season.

West Ham

This season felt like a bit of a pre-watershed moment. An astonishingly good first half of the season was matched only by the disintegration of the second half. Like Liverpool and Tottenham, West Ham’s challenges were very clear, how to prepare for the move to the Olympic Stadium in 2016, while ensuring the team stay in the Prem. And how do you deal with the obvious-to-everyone-including-himself departure of manager Allerdyce?

West Ham’s solution, to play terribly and lump the ball to the big man, is clearly the wrong answer, yet the alternative, wave goodbye to Allerdyce, install an untried new man, and hope for the best is highly risky. You sense that unless things improve, this is about as high as West Ham can get. And they are right above the relegation dogfight trapdoor.

West Brom

For a perennial yo-yo club, mere survival feels like a significant achievement.  West Brom were one of the first clubs to gamble and change their manager over the season and, Crystal Palace aside, by far the most successful. Not least because they managed to secure Tony Pulis, who seems to be about the most gold plated ‘stay in the Prem’ manager about.

Yet that accomplishment aside, there wasn’t a lot to recommend West Brom. For them staying in the Prem is almost a Championship (at this rate everyone will be going home with prizes). For Pulis, it’s recognition of his accomplishments. But it’s nothing really special.

Leicester

In contrast, Leicester, 3 points and a place behind West Brom, have done fantastically. After struggling for the best part of the season, Leicester came good and didn’t just scrape to safety, they romped it.

Over the whole season, they stuck to their game plan and produced some really good performances, albeit with fewer wins than they would have wanted. And unlike some of the teams above them, it felt like they had players who were genuine up and comers rather than just journeymen.

Newcastle

Probably had the worst season of all the teams who weren’t relegated. At least the equally poor Sunderland team had the pleasure of beating them twice. Their first manager Pardew, understood that he was contracted to produce mid-table mediocrity, the very definition of the Curbishley Requirement. But he managed to jump ship mid-season and his replacement John Carver of Mars was somewhat less than useless, prime exponent of the peter principle, where one is promoted just above their level of competence (with hilarious consequences).

Sunderland

Phew! Really pulled the rabbit out of the hat with aplomb. But if it takes a hail Mary punt on Dick Advocaat for 8 games to get them to stay up, there’s a lot they need to be doing in the close season.

Aston Villa

Phew! How did I do that? mused Tim Sherwood. It’s hard to believe that in barely two half seasons in charge of Spurs and Villa, he’s unearthed Harry Kane, squeaky bummed it to Prem safety and got to a Cup Final and NEVER signed no one ever. Plus, one of my other favourite moments of the season was the Villa fans singing “We’ll score again, don’t know where, don’t know when” during the much despised goalless Lambert era.

Like Monk at Swansea, Sherwood illustrates the potency of the former player as manager. And while he may not have all of his UEFA badges, he seems to have it sussed when it comes to man management and player improvement. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does next season.

Hull

So it turns out that buying all the Tottenham rejects, including ones you had had on loan the previous season, isn’t actually a sure fire route to successville. Who knew? And if Tony Pulis is the nearest thing to a Prem safety magnet, then Steve Bruce is clearly a doomed Championship manager masquerading as a Prem leader.

Bad and tedious beyond belief, Hull won’t be bothering the Prem any time soon.

Burnley

Hard to say whether Burnley’s season can be counted as either a success or a failure. They came up, played 38 games, and as they did the last time, will disappear without anyone being much bothered.

Despite putting in a lot of ‘effort’, my main memory of Burnley is late tackles, and the sort of effort over application that you get when poor players play against better ones.

QPR

QPR are nothing if not hilarious. The fantastic Four Year Plan video, which amazingly enough is actually available in the QPR shop, details the terrifying catastrophe of their behind the scenes management after 2007. It’s only a shame that they didn’t have the gumption to continue to make more episodes.

Harry Redknapp stuffed the club full of the usual fagged-out run of the mill hoofballers, then proceeded to hoof it himself when his knees gave way under the weight of his numerous newspaper columns. Like John Carver, his replacement Chris Ramsey, seems to illustrate that while appointing former players (see Monk and Sherwood) may work, promoting the number 2 is rarely effective. Bottom of the heap for a great reason.

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Football: Prem 2012 Week 4


Back To The Grindstone

After the inexplicably arranged International Week, this marks the end of the phoney war and the real beginning of the season. The transfer window has shut, the players are off holiday time and focused on the season ahead and that first juddering gap in the Prem schedule is over. Now it’s back to business. And what a great set of matches there were.

Southampton have been given what you can only refer to as the ‘shitty stick’, with matches against Man U, Man City, Wigan and now Arsenal. Unlike both the Manchesters, who were given a bit of a game, Arsenal gave Southampton a 6-1 stuffing. And while they may be missing the full on threat of Van Persie, all their new boys are looking full of beans. Podolski and Carzola look to have midfield sewn up, while Gervinho looks like a man who’s been released from indentured servitude, his first (and Arsenal’s third) was fuelled by 12 months of frustration. Add to that the threat of the Ox, Wallchart and Giroud and a new found defensive solidity and it seems that, as last season, Arsenal have actually improved on the previous season. Only the butterfingered Szczesny really let the side down. I suspect a spell out of the team with some kind of ‘strain’ will follow. Southampton can now begin their season. Their next game, at home to Villa will have a massive impact on their season.

It’s only week 4, but the table is taking on a familiar look, what with the top four already in place and Liverpool down among the dead men

Chelsea managed to go to QPR and amazingly no one got sent off or arrested and no criminal charges are pending. Admittedly there were no goals and precious little in the way of excitement. The whole game was overshadowed by questions about what would happen when John Terry attempted to shake hands with someone. What is it with Terry and handshakes? Chelsea’s 100% record was sacrificed on the alter of preparation for the visit of Juventus in the Champions League on Wednesday. Still, they’re top once again. The only other note was the appearance of Brazillian keeper Julio Cesar in QPR’s goal. That’s a long way from Inter. He must be on a fair hefty wedge methinks. I wonder what former Engerland keeper Rob Green, signed only this summer and having played just one, calamitous game, will make of that.

Wigan might have done better had they built on the success of saving a penalty they conceded when yet another Man U player took a dive in the box. This time it was Welbeck who played the ‘trailing leg’ gambit. What with Ashley Young’s antics last season it’s clear that there is someone at United who trains players to take a dive at every opportunity. Which is a shame given the quality Man U have in the side. They were good value for a 4-0 win with their new boys settling in well. Buttner, their left back, scored a fabulous goal after a great dribbling run, Van Persie looks to be everything that Ruud Van Nistleroy was and Kagawa looks controlled in midfield. And even newer boy Powell scored a great fourth goal. What with Cleverly, Scholes and Giggs all playing well you wonder what Wayne Rooney will have to do to get back in this side.

Arsenal were castigated a bit for drawing 0-0 at Stoke a couple of weeks ago, but their performance was put in context when Man City went behind before stumbling their way to a 1-1 draw. Again, possibly, their minds were on the upcoming Champions League and their away trip to Real Madrid. Mancini made a bunch of changes, giving debuts to Javi Garcia, Maicon, and Sinclair. While the former looked excellent, I can’t help feeling the latter two are vanity signings (although Mancini did manage Maicon at Inter). Stoke were their ever-present schizophrenic selves, combining admirable defensive will (epitomised by Ryan Shawcross’ last minute off the line clearance) with diabolical cheating and fouling (Crouch’s hand ball in the build up to the goal, Wilkinson’s deliberate elbow in the face of Ballotelli and a general malaise of kicking, shirtpulling and niggly fouls). As with the Man U diving training, Stoke’s apparent embracing of the illegalities of the game is unpleasant to say the least.

Swansea continue their plummet down the table by recalling last season’s poor away performances and losing 2-0 to a resurgent Aston Villa. As with their performance at home to Sunderland, they never established the control of the game that typified their games at the end of last season. Villa, like Sunderland, moved to disrupt Swansea’s style and the latter were not able to adapt. Villa look a million miles away from the painfully tedious side so carefully assembled by Alec McLeish. Their new keeper, Guzan, has been excellent, way better than the failing Shay Given. Laughton’s goal was a fabulous strike from outside the area that dipped savagely and gave Vorm no chance. Less edifying was Ashley Williams attempt to head back to Vorm, which set up Villa’s second.

Paul Lambert’s former side, Norwich haven’t yet reacquired their strength of last season. Holt hasn’t begun to threaten and it’s unclear where their threat is going to come from. Still with visitors as one dimensional as Fat Sam’s West Ham, this game had 0-0 written all over it.

Fulham could have been forgiven for crawling into their shells and sulking, what with the loss of both Dembele and Dempsey to Spurs. Instead they’ve bought wisely and Dimitar Berbatov rewarded them with two lovely goals against West Brom, one a classy curl into the net, the other a great penalty. Berbatov was his languid best. He is going to enjoy being the big fish at Fulham.

Liverpool continue their miserable transition from King Kenny’s Komedy Klowns to Brenden Rogers’ fast passing fancy boys. As is his wont, Suarez took a dive in the box (and was booked). But unusually he actually managed to score from open play. Sterling was excellent on the wing and Liverpool look to be getting a little more to grips with the way Rogers wants them to play. Sunderland seem to have inherited the mantle of Wolves, along with a number of their players. 1-1 was about right.

Also getting to grips with a new system, Spurs seem to be acclimatising to the world of Villas Boas. Their 3-1 win over Reading showcased everything that Villas Boas is trying to encourage. Reading look more worrying than Southampton, they’ve played less dangerous sides and only secured one point. They’ve scored fewer goals and it’s unclear where their threat really comes from.

Perhaps the most schizophrenic game of the week was Everton‘s 2-2 draw with Newcastle. For the first half, Everton were totally dominant, repeating the constant threat they displayed against Man U. They should have been 3 or 4 up by half time. After that Pardew made some changes to Newcastle, bringing on Demba Ba, who transformed the game. Sure Everton should have had a couple of penalties and a clear ball across the line wasn’t given as a goal. But to lose it (or draw it) in the 90th minute must have been even more annoying.

 

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Football: Prem 2012 Week 3


Still Too Early For All That Anaylsis

Still too early to really bother to actually have a table, but here it is.

The problem with this part of the season is that it’s too much like foreplay. You’ve spent ages getting to the bedroom, ripping your clothes off and getting all tactile. It’s great and everything you remember, but really, deep down, you want to get onto the main event. Post-match analysis at this point, however attractive, is somewhat counter-productive.

So as we see a Man U side storm away from their early season defeat at Everton with something of a hailstorm of goals from Robin Van Persie (where had he been hiding all these years?), as Chelsea continue to fascinate with a rejuvenated midfield and another exciting new striker, one Fernando Torres, as Man City combine steam-roller imperialism with cack-handed defending, it’s oh-so tempting to begin to review the season so far.

And, yes, there are some slivers of certainty beginning to emerge. Stoke‘s inexplicable purchase of Charlie Adam and loan signing of Michael Owen show that, finally, hubris has captivated Tony Pulis, while QPR‘s purchase of every unsigned Premiership has-been reveals that, despite himself, Mark Hughes cannot change the habits of a lifetime. It’s as if neither of them has been told that transfers can go down as well as up.

Meanwhile, over at Liverpool, they have managed to turn what was always going to be a difficult transition period into one of utter chaos. They finally offload Andy Carroll to his spiritual home alongside Fat Sam Allerdyce and his former curfew supervisor Kevin Nolan, but mysteriously fail to actually sign anyone to replace him (although given the vitriol they received the last time they offloaded a striker and bought a replacement, can you blame them?). Then their manager gets a bit snippy, their board publish an open letter to fans saying, in effect, it’s all the old regime’s fault and we’re not putting in any more money, and they embark on their worst start to a season since records began. If that’s not a cue for a season of comedy capers I don’t know what is.

Those Games In Full

Arsenal must be delighted. Their 0-2 win away to Liverpool saw them begin to solidify their new side – far faster than they managed to solidify last year’s new side. Like Everton they seem to be getting more adept at the annual rebuilding malarky. Not only that, but Liverpool’s hilarious failings have moved the spotlight away from another season of selling not one, but two of their best players. Given their success last year, imagine what Arsène Wenger could do with a settled side, which he could build on. The midfield of Diaby, Cazorla and Arteta looked excellent and cut Liverpool to pieces.

Man U‘s purchase of Van Persie and Kagawa seems to be inspired. The two have hit it off and there are goals aplenty. However, just as with Everton, their 3-2 win over Southampton was typical Man U, with a hattrick for their striker, but with goals in the 87th and 90th minute. Southampton must wonder what they have to do to actually get a point.

Man City relived their famous last season championship winning game against QPR. And while the latter weren’t as provocatively rubbish as last time, they were still overwhelmed by the champions. And you could forgive them a bit given Hughesey had signed 12 new boys since the two last met on the final day of last season. City’s 3-1 win might not have been beautiful, but it was comprehensive.

Swansea appeared to get a bit of a nosebleed, given their high position in the table. A home game against Sunderland should have been a bit of a home banker, but the latter’s recruitment of Steven Fletcher seems to have given them the desire to actually get past the half way line. A case of Swansea playing poorly and Sunderland overreaching themselves resulted in a 2-2 draw.

Like Sunderland, Stoke‘s ambition seems to be limited to avoiding defeat away. They really are poor. Even against a Wigan side that appears to have rediscovered their usual early season form of ‘disaster mode’, they failed to do more than the minimum required. 2-2 really flattered the away side.

Another team facing a sense of deja vu are Spurs, only their search for times past seems to encompass both manager Villas-Boas’ poor start last year with Chelsea and Spurs’ own disastrous period under Juande Ramos. Still they’ve signed some really good players in Dembele, Vertongen, Lloris and Dempsey, and retained Adebayor (in the sense that he’s now a Spurs player, but Man City have paid all his wages), so they should be OK. Quite how they then let Norwich back into the game and a 1-1 draw is uncertain. Crap defence is the most obvious answer.

Fulham must be praying the transfer window closes soon. They’ve already lost Dembele and Dempsey, so like Arsenal, they appear to be significantly weakened. However, unlike the gunners, they haven’t recruited effectively and don’t travel well anyway. So an away trip at West Ham was never going to be easy. Add to that the appearance of Andy Carroll for the Hammers and it was a defeat waiting to happen. 3-0 pretty much says it all for Fulham.

West Brom continue their excellent home form. 2-0 against a very strong Everton is an excellent result, although Everton were a shade of the team that really took the game to Man U earlier this season. New manager Steve Clarke seems to be continuing Roy Hodgson’s good work, although this has to be a reality check for David Moyes.

Another team facing a bit of a reality check are Newcastle. Fresh from a European outing away in Greece, they looked a bit jaded as they faced an Aston Villa side that actually looked like they wanted to pass the ball, albeit to get the ball out wide for someone to lump in to the big man. Still even that has to be better than the shite served up last season by McCleish.

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Football: Prem 2012 Week 1


Hi Ho, Back To The Grindstone

Wow! That Sergio Aguero goal seems like it happened in geological time, the Euros feel like ancient history, those Olympic imposters just so last century baby. We’ve gorged ourselves on some of the best football the planet has to offer – the first half of the Euro 2012 final was simply fantastic, we’ve snored our way through another utterly unimaginative and depressing Engerland campaign and thanks to them Olympics we’ve inadvertently discovered that actually we’re quite good at doing the international super spectacle.

But enough of that. The Prem is back in all its flush-banker cash wagging glory. Swearing, check, gross overpaid monstrosities whining for penalties, check, fat ugly managers doing one on the touchline, check. Yup, with skills at a premium, it’s all back to kicking lumps out of one another and shouting at the ref.

Yet this Prem has more going for it than any season for the past 4 years. It feels like there has been something of a release. The old has been expunged, Chelsea’s old boys, fresh from giving Abramovich the prize he craved, have departed for all parts of the world, replaced by young whippersnappers like Hazard and Oscar. Liverpool and Spurs have kissed goodbye to the octogenarians and chanced their arms on a pair of young ambitious managers. We’ve got rid of droopy faced Mick McCarthy and replaced Wolves, Bolton and Blackpool with a bunch of smart teams with, dare I say it, actual tactics and footballing philosophies.

Oh and Fat Sam Allerdicé and Stoke are still there. So nothing’s perfect.

Week 1 Games

Week 1 games were actually pretty good.

Normally no one would bother with a table at this time. But what the heck eh?

Man U began their attempt to wring back the title from rivals City by pillaging Van Persie from Arsenal and, hilariously, losing 1-0 to an inspired Everton. Despite United having a bunch of great new guys like Kagawa and Van Persie, they were thoroughly dominated by Everton’s old skoolers. Fellaini, in particular, was outstanding.

City, meanwhile, hardly made things easy for themselves, surrendering a lead to new boys Southampton and then going behind, before turning things around and winning 3-2. Yet, despite this potential setback, City looked very menacing, effectively continuing where they left off last season and never forgetting to put their fans through the wringer at every opportunity. Yaya, Kompany and Nasri were excellent. Southampton looked far more competent than most of last year’s new boys, not least because they actually have goal potential in them. If they carry on like this they should have no problems in the Prem.

While for many change was in the air, for Arsenal it was plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose – same old same old. They’d lost their captain (again) along with, shortly afterwards, their most influential midfielder (again) and were faced with yet another rebuilding season (again). Not to mention a match against one of their bogey teams, Sunderland. But this time Arsenal had prepared (or at least attempted to prepare) and had gone shopping early.  Admittedly they couldn’t actually break through Sunderland’s unambitious bus parking philosophy, although new boy Giroud screwed a great chance wide. Still anything is better than the nosedive of 2011 eh? Sunderland look like being in a lot of trouble.

Also out at the shops were Chelsea, only they didn’t go bargain hunting like Arsenal, they just went out and spunked all the money they’d made on their Champions League winning run and then some. And this time, the big money signings came good pretty quick. With 2 penalties, 2 assists and a backheel attempt that went specially wrong in the Charity Shield, Hazard looks well worth the £32 million, slightly overshadowing the potential that is Oscar. Wigan continued their usual atrocious early season form by going 2 down in double quick time. Later in the week newcomers Reading would also fall to the power of the blues. Chelsea haven’t looked this threatening since they went and blew the Prem back in 2010.

Of the chasing pack, both Liverpool and Spurs have changed manager and, one would assume, their tactical approach in a desperate quest to break back into the top four. Both moves looked sensible, Rogers’ approach at Swansea looks perfect for a Liverpool wallowing nostalgically for the dream passing of the late 1970’s, while Villas Boas seems far better suited for Spurs than he ever was for Chelsea, the fast flowing attacking play of his Porto side almost tailor made for Spurs’ classy passing aspirations.

Yet neither one is going to have it easy. Rogers faces many of the same problems Villas Boas faced at Chelsea – an aging squad of fading A-listers determined to hang onto their positions, along with a set of fans who are more than prepared to give their idols the benefit of the doubt. In addition Rogers has a squad of also-rans who don’t seem up to his close passing game. If we needed any proof that Liverpool were in for a tough ride, it came away at West Brom. Fronted by yet another new manager, Steve Clarke having replaced Roy Hodgson, West Brom should have been ripe for the taking. Yet they took the game to Liverpool and thoroughly deserved the 3-0 win. For Liverpool it was a familiar story, a lacklustre midfield, poor defence and a spectacularly misfiring Suarez. Their worst display since they went fully abject at Spurs last season. West Brom, meanwhile, look to have lost none of their midtable mediocrity.

Spurs are hoping to emulate last year’s unexpected success at Newcastle. Yet they’re going to have to change a lot, having apparently lost Modric and Ledley King and failed so far to sign Adebayor. They have no one as special in midfield as Cabaye, no goal threat as potent as Cissé and Ba, and no defence as solid as the Magpies. So it was unsurprising that they lost 2-1. Newcastle continue to look good, but Spurs’ hopes of a top four finish this season look a tad ambitious. More realistically they will be fighting it out with Liverpool, Newcastle and Everton for the lesser Euro places.

Three other teams, Villa, Norwich and Swansea had new managers. And each looked to have their own special challenges. At Villa Paul Lambert has inherited a team that would have been relegated if only Alec McLeish had lived up to expectations. Still short of strikers, midfielders and a defence, Lambert’s choice to move from Norwich feels like an odd one. Nothing seems to have changed over the close season as Villa lost 1-0 to an equally abject West Ham.

Norwich‘s managerial change was enforced by Lambert’s move and Chris Hughton should bring them the same lower midtable stability he brought to Birmingham and Newcastle. Yet his side was comfortably outplayed by an inspired Fulham, who duly stuffed them 5-0. If Fulham can hang on to players like Dembele, then they might also challenge for those minor Euro places.

Swansea‘s Michael Laudrup looked to have the greatest challenge. How would they fare with the loss of Rogers and players like Joe Allen. Still we needn’t have worried. Laudrup’s appointment is starting to look visionary as his side comfortably crushed QPR 5-0, with both his new signings bedding in successfully and the team retaining its class. QPR, in contrast, looked abysmal.

The final newly promoted team, Reading, are another team with a clear playing philosophy, yet they weren’t able to apply themselves against a typically tedious Stoke. 1-1 doesn’t really describe the misery of this fixture.

So, on the basis of a whole week’s worth of matches, who has been naughty and who has been nice?

Nice

  • Swansea
  • Fulham
  • Chelsea
  • Man City
  • Everton
  • West Brom

Naughty

  • QPR
  • West Ham
  • Norwich
  • Liverpool
  • Sunderland
  • Stoke
  • Man U
  • Villa

Not Sure

  • Arsenal
  • Spurs
  • Reading
  • Newcastle
  • Southampton
  • Wigan
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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.

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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.

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