Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Weekend Observations 16th - 17th October 2010 - Part Three

Parts One and Two here

A rare thing happened at the weekend. Manchester United threw away a two goal lead at Old Trafford for the first time since Jesus was losing his milk teeth or something. I say rare but given United’s general hit-and-miss-ed-ness so far this season the draw against West Brom was not as much of a shock as it would have been in years prior. Admittedly both of the Baggies’ goals were freakish were down to lapses in concentration you would not usually associate with the reds. The team is looking horribly unbalanced at the minute with old hands Giggs, Scholes, Van der Sar and Ferdinand, as good as they are, cannot be relied on to pull them through an entire season. Age and injuries are creeping up on them while their understudies are still yet to convince. Shining lights include Nani who is far more productive than years gone by, Berbatov who is starting to pull his weight somewhat and Hernandez who has started brightly. Alongside the much improved Fletcher, these are the ones who will be expected to to drag them out of their current indifferent spell.

Beyond that the likes of Gibson, Evans and Anderson are nowhere near consistent enough for what is expected at Old Trafford and Carrick is merely picking up a pay cheque to do nothing. And that’s when he plays! That said, they're still good enough for a top three finish – let's not forget they are still unbeaten this season – but right now, they do not look like potential champions and improvement from most those mentioned above will be needed if they are to stop Chelsea or even their cross-town rivals from taking the title.

Not this year lads

However, one cannot ignore the biggest problem at the club right now and that is Wayne Rooney. And yes, he is a problem. After the dizzy heights last season and all the ‘White Pele’ chat, the boy Wazza looks no better than a white Ade Akinbiyi this campaign such is his poor form. Off the field, his private life and contract wrangling hadn’t helped but with the mounting speculation about his future at the club now taking centre stage, it makes you wonder how he can even concentrate on football at all. Publicly contradicting his boss last week may be the hammer blow but whether his days at Old Trafford are numbered or not, he needs to sort himself out for the sake of both his career and his team as you have to believe he’s proving more of a hindrance than a help at the minute.

As for West Brom, following on from their win at the Emirates, this result, drawing against Spurs and league cup victory over Man City, their defeat at Anfield earlier this season actually looks like the biggest upset of the season so far. Given the currrent form of the two clubs, that’s far from the most outrageous thing I’ve ever said.

More refereeing controversy now and the game at Craven Cottage. Ever since some idiot in a suit decided that the perfectly sensible offside rule needed to be changed, there has been mass confusion about interference, active versus inactive and some nonsense about phases of play (as if that statement even makes sense!). As a result we have seen waves of inconsistent refereeing decisions (three alone this weekend) because no-one actually knows what the correct interpretation of the law is. Spurs beat Fulham thanks a to a highly contentious Tom Huddlestone strike on Saturday. William Gallas was rightly flagged offside as he attempted to get something on the shot but for some reason Mike Dean overruled his assistant and gave the goal. Nobody knows why. In the Merseyside derby man-mountain Yakubu was planted in a offside position as Arteta struck Everton’s winning goal. No flag. Goal stood. I don’t think there is any argument to suggest that both Gallas and Yakubu were not interfering with play. Gallas clearly made an attempt to touch the ball and Yakubu who is built like a duplex was undoubtedly obstructing the view of the Liverpool goalkeeper.


Call me crazy and I may be living in my own little crazy fantasy world where leprechauns are real and fight each other for my amusement but I would be bold enough to say that in both were examples of interfering with play. Conversely, Blackpool could/should/would have gone 1-0 up in their game against City when Gary Taylor-Fletcher’s goal was ruled out due to Eliot Grandin who, like Gallas, went for the ball but didn't touch it, being flagged offside. A little consistency or a clear clarification is all we ask.

Finally, have you ever had that ex who was just a total bitch who you grew to hate after breaking up but the next time you see her, she looks fitter than when you were together and ends up pulling another bloke right in your face? No, me neither so I can’t really sympathise with Newcastle after Charles N'Zogbia tormented them this weekend.

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Monday, 18 October 2010

Weekend Observations 16th - 17th October 2010 - Part Two

Part one here

On Saturday, Arsenal took on Birmingham looking to get back on track after a number of recent poor league results. Predictably, the Gunners made hard work of a game they should have strolled to victory in. They did get the win in the end but the main talking point was once again, a dangerous over the top tackle that potentially could have caused serious injury. Yes, those dirty Brummies... hold on. Wait a sec. It says here that it was an ARSENAL player who was the culprit. That can't be right, surely? Wenger’s precious little lambs wouldn’t say boo to a goose! Turns out in their midst is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Step forward Jack Wilshire who rightly saw red for the exact type of challenge on Big Nic Zigic that Wenger has long been calling for to be essentially outlawed. If I knew the proper definition of irony, I'm sure this would be an example of it.

Both Arsene Wenger and Wilshire have been quick to acknowledge that the red card was deserved rather than trying to defend the indefensible as many other managers more often than not will try and do. Some credit has to go Brum gaffer Alex McLeish who had the decency not to complain and even gave the wholly contrived 'not that kind of player' spiel usually reserved for incidents such as this. However, you can't help feel that his motives were less than sincere when you see how smug he came across by suggesting that people 'draw a line' under the Eduardo incident from way back when. You almost think he wanted his own player's leg to be broken just so he could say "now we're quits".

The subject of tough/reckless/dangerous tackling just won’t go away at the moment it seems. Fulham’s Danny Murphy committed the cardinal sin of expressing an honest opinion by suggesting that managers of certain teams are responsible for sending their teams out with less than honourable intentions on the football pitch. Having seen two of his teammates suffer serious injury against two of the teams he mentioned, you might think his frustration was justified. Not in the eyes of the football community unfortunately as all and sundry have rounded on Murphy like he claimed that the slave trade had its benefits.

English football doesn't know what to do with itself. If this was Johnny Foreigner, people could dismiss it but because an old custodian of the domestic game and experienced former England international has spoken out, the entire country seems about ready to combust and it's just absurdly hilarious. The rebuttals have been brilliant; from Scholarly Sam Allardyce's epistemological views on perception to Tony Pulis' shocking revelation that he can actually read, the whole thing is has been reduced to farce and just gives further credence to the theory that football is full of morons. This was further highlighted on Match of the Day 2 this week when Kevin Day presented a feature on arguably the biggest culprits in the league at the moment, Wolverhampton Wanderers who somehow felt one 'clean' game against West Ham vindicates them for the crimes against football they’ve committed so far this season. I used to like and respect Steve Bull until he came across as a pompous arse while Mick McCarthy’s childish, petty, sarcastic retort amused only himself.

But then, you expect the accused to defend themselves no matter how ridiculous they sound. What was really disappointing were the League Managers Association wading in to have a dig at Murphy showing that they completely miss the point. Saying that managers have a responsibility to make sure their players aren't making dangerous tackles is something that the LMA should be addressing to it's members anyway or maybe they're just pissed because Murphy is doing their job for them.

Without wanting to dwell on this, my final point is that it is borderline idiotic to say that "back in the day tackles were worse" because the game has moved on since then. Rules have been changed to prevent reckless play going unpunished and more poignantly, I'm sure you will find that a darn sight more players were effectively crippled, permanently damaged or failed to fully recover from injuries sustained in their playing days. You'll also find that a lot more players were forced to hang up their boots early because of injury in these fabled golden ages of hard men and tough tackling. Having broken limbs isn't 'all part of the game' as some would have you believe.

Part Three to follow...

Weekend Observations 16th - 17th October 2010 - Part One

Mouthing off about a lot this week...

Admit it, irrespective of the so-called 'magic' of the Premier League and football's uncanny ability to surprise, you all thought that the mismatch between Blackpool and Man City this weekend would be a dull, predictable procession with the result a foregone conclusion for the blues, didn't you? Ok, yes, City still won but no-one could have imagined it would have been half as entertaining as it turned out to be in the end. Sky got it right picking it as their 'Super Sunday' match.

Firstly, credit must undoubtedly go to the tangerines who, on the basis of their second half performance, didn’t really deserve to lose but sadly came away with the sum total of f*ck all. For my money, they actually deserved to win the game. Charlie Adam pulling the strings in the centre of the park has taken to Premier League football like a duck to water and looks a player that could continue to play at the top level even if Blackpool are relegated as expected come May. I also have to eat a jumbo slice of humble pie after seeing Luke Varney playing for Charlton once and loudly demanding to know why he was a professional footballer (no-one answered). He's really stepped up his game and looked brilliant this season. Gave Boateng no end of grief on Sunday.

But Alas, another week and yet more complaints about the standard of officiating at the supposed top level. Had the ref and linesmen been more competent, we’d probably be sat here talking about a great Blackpool win. Naturally, Ian Holloway was pretty peeved post-match at THREE perceived injustices against his team. As much as I agree that the muppets tasked with enforcing the rules have once again got it wrong, Blackpool are playing with big boys now and far from being the poor picked on small club that Holloway was implying, he and others ought to realise that quite simply, these things will happen in football. He calls for video technology have struck a cord but what he is asking is for every single contentious decision – such as Tevez' 'foul' in the build up to his and City’s second goal – to be scrutinised. An impractical suggestion which would simply ruin the game.

For City, that man Charlie Tevez was once again awesome and the blues are surely laughing heartily at their penny-pinching neighbours who decided he 'wasn’t worth the money'. The only question mark would be their current over-reliance on him and in particular, his goals. If City are to keep up this apparent title challenge, the Argentine is either going to have to maintain this rich vein form for the rest of the season or others might have to start chipping in a bit more. One player who looks totally incapable of contributing is Emmanuel Adebayor who had a stinker on this rare occasion he was selected to start. No longer playing with that trademark (and annoying!) smile on his face and really struggling for form. Can't say I feel the slightest bit of sympathy for him.

City haven't exactly been the most easy on the eye this season (In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been to more entertaining funerals) but by God are they effective. It was interesting to note that having started this game 4-4-2 with view to being more 'adventurous' they couldn't get their game together. Once Adebayor was replaced with the pant-wettingly good David Silva and they reverted back to a more pragmatic 4-4-1-1 they were able to take full advantage.

Preceding that minor classic at Bloomfield Road was "biggest Merseyside derby for years" as Everton welcomed Liverpool with both sides floundering at the wrong end of the table before kick off. Goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta sealed the win for the home side who looked so comfortable throughout the game, they may as well have erected some deck-chairs as Joe Cole lumped aimless balls into the box and Lucas made yet another sideways pass. Liverpool offered nothing which makes Roy Hodgson's post-match proclamation that this was one of their best performances under him all the more perplexing. The opening stages saw constant Everton pressure pinning the reds back in their own half. Upon scoring their second, the Toffees were able to take their foot of the pedal, sit back and happily deal with whatever their hapless neighbours threw at them which actually didn't amount to a great deal in the end.

Much is said about the lack of quality in the Liverpool squad but even their 'better' players with the exception of Gerrard failed to step up. Torres was anonymous pretty much the whole match while Joe Cole showed exactly why Chelsea won't be losing much sleep over his summer departure anytime soon.

And so, it goes without saying that the season has started poorly for Liverpool and the club are very much deserving of the 19th place they currently occupy in the league. Regardless of how many votes of confidence he gets from his new bosses, Hodgson must skating on the thinnest of thin ice. After all the tedious and mind-numbing courtroom palaver over the last week, you'd think that John W. Henry and NESV will be expecting a lot more for their considerable buck and even if they are clueless to the finer details of the game, there are at least 300 million reason why they need to arrest the problems on the pitch sooner rather than later.

Everton on the other hand are looking to steady the ship after their own poor start to the season. Despite their match-winning midfield, troubles remain up front as Yakubu is currently looking about as mobile Mt. Kilimanjaro (and twice as big!) while Jermaine Beckford who came on as a sub, is looking so frightfully out of his depth in the Premier League that coast guards are on standby each game to make sure he doesn't drown. Convoluted metaphor? Don't act like you expected any better...

Part Two to follow...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Weekend Observations 2nd-3rd October 2010: Part 2

Part one here

Another weekend, another debate about tackling. Karl Henry and Nigel de Jong seemed to have set the tongues wagging once more following two examples of the most reckless and dangerous play you are ever likely to see on a football pitch. Karl Henry’s tackle in Wolves’ defeat at Wigan was so unbelievably mistimed he wasn’t even in the same time zone as the very ball he claims he was making an attempt to play. How Jordi Gomez escaped any sort of injury is a minor miracle. Man City’s Nigel de Jong, a player with previous in this department has once again left a fellow professional with his career in the balance after his ‘tackle’ broke the leg of Newcastle’s Hatam Ben Arfa in Sunday’s 2-1 win.

A baffling aspect of this whole situation is the fact that, in their own way, both these players have pretty much got off scot free. A three game ban for Henry barely counts as punishment while de Jong escaped censure completely thanks to Martin Atkinson turning a blind eye to it. Yes, a top flight referee doesn’t deem a leg-breaking assault worthy of any kind of card. Scary stuff.

Even more bewildering are the people that condone of this sort of behaviour. Mick McCarthy has been quick to jump to the defence of his Wolves players this season following accusations of roughhouse tactics in prior matches but even he couldn’t defend Henry this week. Johnny Cochran would have struggled to defend Henry! However, before poor Ben Arfa had even arrived at hospital, Man City assistant gaffer Brian Kidd was already spouting the default nonsense for occasions like this suggesting that de Jong is not ‘that kind of player’. The evidence would suggest the contrary but why take on bored silly things like that, ey Brian? Support for de Jong also came from Dutch teammate and captain Mark van Bommel in the least surprising statement made by anyone in the history of the world ever!

Even during the game, the commentators saw nothing wrong with the fact de Jong lunged in without any regard for Ben Arfa’s safety and wellbeing. The fact that de Jong played the ball is of little consequence. It has never officially been stated that ‘winning the ball’ is licence for dangerous and violent play and anyone who believes this is the case is completely misguided. In this country we harbour this ridiculous ‘man and ball’ mentality where it is generally accepted that if your intentions are good and someone else gets in the way then it’s their own fault. I’m sorry but tackling is a skill like any other in the game. Going to ground to execute a good tackle is not a necessity and a simple rudimentary viewing of any given match will see that a decent challenge involves winning the ball cleanly without leaving your opponent with his leg hanging at obtuse angles.

Another misguided view is that a player “would never go out to ‘do’ a fellow professional” which is absolute nonsense. We’ve all heard the old clichés “let ‘em know you’re there”, “they don’t like it up ‘em” etc. which are all basically instructions to actively go out and physically intimidate your opponents. You may not go out to cripple somebody but you’re a fool if you don’t accept that football players have and will always go out to deliberately hurt one another.

Look at Karl Henry’s reaction on Saturday. He was actually genuinely surprised when the ref produced the red card as if he had no idea what he had done wrong. Despite his subsequent feeble attempt at an apology, you have to wonder if he really at any point believed what he did was acceptable on a football pitch.

So how we stamp this sort of thing out? Simple. Harsher punishments. 6 games? 10 games? 15 games??? Whatever it takes to make a player realise that there are actually consequences to their actions. A severe deterrent to make sure the likes Henry and De Jong among others will think twice before maiming anyone that crosses their path. Well done to Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk for taking a stand (although som emight argue he is part of the problem given the way his side played in South Africa over the summer) and fair play to Newcastle for their stance in demanding retrospective action against the Dutchman although in the interest of fairness, it must be reported that they are hardly shrinking violets themselves...

It’s an unfortunate situation for Ben Arfa who, despite Alan Shearer’s ignorance, is a decent footballer with bags of skill who would have really made a difference to the Newcastle team this season. The attitude seems to be to try and stifle these skillful players with a good hard kick for simply being better.

Another recent arrival to these shores with tons of ability but thankfully not a broken leg (yet) is Rafael van der Vaart who is proving to be somewhat of a revelation at White Hart Lane. Saturday’s one man show against Aston Villa as well as his influence in Europe midweek (pre-sending off of course) makes you wonder why there wasn’t much interest in him from other clubs over the summer. Ok, it’s too early to proclaim him ‘signing of the season’ as some people have despite the Dutchman only being here a matter of weeks. That said, at only £8 million, he’s looking an absolute steal particularly at a club that valued David Bentley somewhere close to £17 million. If Tottenham are to replicate the successes of last season and/or make some waves in the Champions League, you’d have to think that VDV will be an integral part of that. And to think ‘arry didn’t even know he was available.

Gary Lineker fronted a fascinating Inside Sport special on BBC Two on Sunday night entitled Can England Win The Next World Cup? The programme explored the fundamental problems with the English game right now and tried to seek answers as to why we are so guff when it comes to the international game. I won’t ruin the entire programme for you, instead recommending you have a look at it on iplayer while it is still available. One of the fundamental issues explored is the idea of producing a new generation of talented players to lead us into the future. All I can say is that ideas like this brilliant and need to be implemented as soon as possible otherwise, who knows? The time might come when we are so desperate we’re forced to call up Kevin Davies....... Oh!

Weekend Observations 2nd-3rd October 2010: Part 1

How the mighty have fallen. If at any point in the last 50 years somebody told you that the great Liverpool FC would by in the relegation zone 10 games into a new season having lost to both Northampton Town and Blackpool already, you’d have probably been sectioned under the mental health act, hauled off to a loony bin and forced to spend the remainder of your days trying to have futile conversations with some nutter who reckons crunchy peanut butter is better than smooth (it isn’t!).

Things seem to have reached a nadir this week with the aforementioned home defeat to a Blackpool side that, let’s be honest, shouldn’t even have had a prayer going to Anfield. Charlie Adam and Luke Varney – a player who struggled to get into the Derby County first team no less – scored the goals to seal a famous victory for the Lancashire side and send all kinds of reverberations around Merseyside. The game also saw Fernando Torres limp off and one of the last things the scousers need right now is such in an important player confined to sitting on the stands.

Things surely can’t really get much worse but if they do, God help Roy Hodgson.

Speaking of Roy, recent weeks have seen murmurs of discontent at his stewardship steadily increase. I’ve always had respect for him and what he has done in his career. Not just because he seems to be one of the few ‘nice guys’ left in the game but because unlike some of his contemporaries, he actually went out and furthered his managerial education by actually taking charge of teams throughout Europe rather than sitting around blowing smoke up his own arse like certain other managers I could care to mention.

Sadly, despite his years of experience, the Liverpool job currently looks a stretch too far. Despite their relative lack of success, the hot seat at Anfield is still one of the most prestigious jobs in the English game and should require more on your CV regarding success in this country than merely saving Fulham from relegation and taking them to the Europa League final. Not to disregard these achievements but you must be mad, simple, drunk, high or all of the above if you think this will translate to successfully managing a team used to top four finishes and regular participation in the latter rounds of the Champions League.

Admittedly, the man Roy replaced had a disastrous final season with the reds and found his position untenable by the time he walked away from Merseyside with a considerable wedge of lovely compensation cash in his back pocket this summer. However, Rafa’s successes should not be forgotten. Rafa Benitez took the team to two Champions League finals (winning one), an FA Cup final (winning that) and was within a whisker of winning the Premier League in 2009. Getting rid of Rafa meant that it was essential to bring in someone better. The Liverpool fans would have hardly been jumping for joy at the appointment of Hodgson as he was most certainly NOT a better option than what was in place already. You have to wonder what the board were even thinking by bringing him in.

And so to the board. Unless you have had your eyes shut, your fingers in your ears, no reception on your iphone and been living under a rock, in a cave, in Bermondsey, South London, you will have been unable to avoid the tedious protests of Liverpool fans (including this embarrassment) against American owners George “Darth Vader” Gillett and Tom “Freddy Krugger” Hicks who have, in true dastardly fashion, crippled the club financially leaving them on the brink of disaster. Without going into too much detail, Liverpool FC have gone from football’s regal gentries to debt-ridden cash-strapped paupers (Despite somehow finding around 16 million quid down the back of the sofa to piss away on Christian Poulsen and Raul Meireles as well as the no doubt princely sum Joe Cole is receiving each week to repeatedly run into blind alleys...) and the fans are far from pleased. Somehow this is supposed to have affected on the field performances. Personally, I struggle to see how Glen Johnson’s inability to defend and Lucas even existing is somehow down to the owners but hey, I’m just an idiot who writes football blogs thinking people actually read them. Do the likes of Maxi Rodriguez or Ryan Babel even know who runs the club let alone care enough for it to affect how they play? This all just seems like a convenient excuse for continued poor performances to me.

In any instance, by the time you read this, new owners may be in place which means in a few weeks we’ll either be sat here wondering what the hell we were all worried about or Liverpool fans will find someone else to blame for their continued decline.

The upcoming Merseyside derby against an Everton side fresh off their first win of the season should be an interesting encounter.

The other big Super duper Sunday clash of titans encounter of Sunday was the anti-climactic and wholly predictable procession of Arsenal going to Stamford Bridge for their annual beating at the hands of Didier Drogba. Yes, in an event about as shocking as a deactivated electric chair in an abandoned prison, The Arsenal showed up, dominated possession, made a lot of passes, missed some chances and lost the game 2-0. This is hardly a one-off could be applied to any recent encounter between the two sides. It’s also worth mentioning that phenomenal statistic that Drogba has now scored 13 goals in 13 appearances against the gunners. Seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, they cannot feel hard done by and really would be unwise to try and take heart from a ‘good performance’. Wenger seems to have forgotten how to win or at the very least, forgotten that in these ‘big’ games, winning is more important than playing well and until someone jogs his memory, I’ll just be cutting and pasting this exact same paragraph following defeats against Chelsea, Man Utd and now maybe even Man City for the foreseeable future. Ray Wilkins readily admitted that Chelsea “weren’t pretty” on Sunday and why would they need to be when they get the required result? There’s more than one way to skin a cat and as the fans sang on Sunday, “That’s why they’re champions”.

Wenger may well point to injuries but you have to wonder if the outcome would have been any different even with Fabregas Vermaelen, van Persie et al. Lee Dixon pointed out on MOTD2 that in some 30 odd games against the ‘big two’ since Arsenal’s last league win 6 years ago, they have won less than a quarter of these. A damning statistic that Wenger would do well to think about before proclaiming his team to be some kind crusaders of ‘good’ football.

As an aside, I’d very much like to think the injury suffered by Alex late in the game was a result of the ferocity in which he hit that scorcher of a free kick for the second goal.

Chelsea’s only challenge at the minute seems to be unsurprisingly coming from Manchester. Interestingly enough, it’s the blues rather than the reds who are on Chelsea’s proverbial tail. United were involved in their fourth away draw of the season at Sunderland last weekend. This time around however, defensive frailties cannot be blamed as the match finished goalless. Having been out for so long, it’s easy to forget how important a player Rio Ferdinand actually is. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his return this past week has seen United keep two successive clean sheets including one at the Estadio Mestalla in the Champions League last Tuesday against a Valencia side that currently tops La Liga ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid. If Ferdinand can stay fit, United may well be able to go some way to providing some kind of challenge to stop Chelsea wrapping up the title before the clocks go back.

Part Two to follow...