EPL PFA Player of the Year canvassing….

It is a strange tradition in the EPL that the voting process for the Player of the Year Award takes place before the season itself concludes its business. Already, as I write this blog, the votes are being dutifully collected within the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) to see who will follow in the illustrious footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish and Peter Shilton. 

There have been some notable performances during the 2012/13 campaign; Marouane Fellaini began the season in imperious form, Eden Hazard and Oscar have adapted quickly to the physical demands of the EPL and will be better for it come next year, Michael Carrick has enjoyed, in my opinion, his most consistent year for Man Utd, Rickie Lambert’s  goals could yet prove decisive in Southampton’s battle for survival, Daniel Agger has shown his quality in a rare season free from injury, Jan Vertonghen’s leadership and skill has provided a solid base from which Spurs have attacked the EPL top-four and the Europa League, Jonny Evans has emerged as a reliable EPL defender at Old Trafford and Leighton Baines has reinforced and enhanced his blossoming reputation at Everton.

But, in my opinion, there are five valid candidates for consideration as Player of the Year. One of Michael Laudrup’s first acts on appointment as the manager of Swansea City was to unearth the Spanish gem that is Michu for a ridiculously cheap £2.5M! Fifteen goals  later, in just twenty-seven EPL games, and Michu, the unheralded replacement for £8.8M Spurs substitute Gylfi Sigurdsson, has proved to be a steal as the Welshmen continue to establish themselves as a genuine EPL force. Victory in the League Cup Final – in which Michu inevitably added his name to the historic list of Wembley goalscorers – and thus securing European football for next season was the icing on the cake of a fine debut campaign for the artist formerly known as Miguel Perez Cuesta.

Juan Mata has emerged from the carnage of a chaotic season at Stamford Bridge to confirm his presence at the very top table of English football. He brushed off the self-inflicted instability of Roman Abramovich’s very public desire to replace European Champions League winning coach Roberto di Matteo with just about anyone else during pre-season. Then he maintained his consistently high standards while the hapless RDM was eventually thrown to the lions after Chelsea’s capitulation to Juventus signalled the end of their inept ECL defence. Then, perhaps worthy of most recognition, he managed to retain his standing as the bright, shining light of optimism and hope through the tin-hat turbulence and routine abuse from supporters during the reign of Rafa Benitez! Seventeen goals in all competitions for Chelsea coupled with twenty assists is no mean feat and could yet result in an unlikely cup-double to salvage a drop of pride from a calamitous campaign.

Gareth Bale has virtually single-handedly injected a turbo boost into Spurs quest for an EPL top-four finish, he has propelled them into a likely quarter-final place in the Europa League and has seen AVB’s men installed as one of the favourites for that competition. Bale’s post-Christmas form has attracted reported interest from the most prestigious European clubs and his transfer value has simply rocketed into the stratosphere! Twenty goals and eight assists is an impressive tally, but I would argue Bale’s form pre-Christmas was patchy at best. As much as Marouane Fellaini’s early season form had him touted as a potential PFA Player of the Year candidate only to see his standards decline in recent weeks, so Bale’s lethargic start to the year would also exclude him from consideration for a season-long award, despite his current heroics.

Where would Liverpool be without Luis Suarez? Where would Brendan Rodgers’ project be without the controversial Uruguayan’s twenty-nine goals and six assists so far in 2012/13? It is unarguable that Suarez carried the entire Liverpool attack for the first five months of the season, thrust into a lone-striker role after the club’s inexplicable decision to allow Andy Carroll to depart without a replacement arriving at Anfield. And, in stark contrast to accusations of wastefulness in front of goal during his previous seasons, Suarez raised every aspect of his game and brought a clinical edge to his finishing to keep a floundering Liverpool afloat before being belatedly supported by Daniel Sturridge’s January arrival. The target of a top-four finish is beyond Liverpool and their cup performances have been poor, but Suarez gives hope that there could be brighter days around the corner at Anfield.

Where would Man Utd be without Robin van Persie? Twenty-three goals in all competitions is a remarkable statement of intent in your debut season at a new club; perhaps RVP’s trophy drought at Arsenal inspired him to secure silverware as quickly as possible? It is not often that a £22M transfer fee for a 30yr old player proves to be a snip, but how Roberto Mancini and Man City must curse Sir Alex’s shrewd and decisive acquisition of RVP. Is it fair to say he has proved to be the difference between the two Manchester clubs? I think there is little doubt that the 12pt cushion enjoyed by Utd would be a good deal thinner had RVP signed at the Etihad rather than Old Trafford….but equally I think City have been poor this season, resting on their EPL title-winning laurels while Sir Alex and Man Utd acted on that last-minute heartbreak, and I believe their problems run much deeper than simply one player. RVP brought a ruthless edge to Utd’s attack – no more evident than with his spectacular last-ditch free-kick to snatch a 3-2 victory over City at the Etihad! A record 20th EPL title is already secured for Man Utd, an FA Cup Final and a potential league/cup double may yet materialise too! RVP’s form of late has dropped slightly from his prolific early-season and winter exploits – drawing a blank in each of his last six matches – and Man Utd’s European adventure was ended prematurely by Real Madrid.

But, in my opinion, silverware is the decisive factor and it is for that reason, with a slightly heavy heart bearing in mind my Liverpool loyalties and Suarez’s outstanding contribution to our season, that I feel the worthy winner of the PFA Player of the Year Award for 2012/13 to be Robin van Persie!

Managerial Divorce for Abramovich….Again?!?

There have been few ‘marriages’ in the EPL more absurd than the disastrous union between Rafa Benitez and Chelsea. In recent EPL history I can only point to the staggeringly inept – but thankfully short-lived – reigns of Alex McLeish at Aston Villa (parachuted into Villa Park from bitter local rivals Birmingham City having just relegated the Blues), the inexplicable promotion of assistant coach Terry Connor following the departure of Mick McCarthy at Wolves (a shrewd move that saw Connor – hindered by the minor snag that he had never previously managed anyone anywhere – win not a single one of his thirteen matches at the helm as Wolves crashed through the EPL trapdoor; a slide that shows no sign of slowing down) and Steve Kean’s hapless tenure in skilfully relegating Blackburn Rovers.

You may wonder why this piece is written in the past tense, but with the British media’s blanket coverage of Rafa’s timely rant against Chelsea, the squad, their fans and, in a move that draws worthy comparison to assembling your own guillotine and proceeding to willingly lay beneath the shimmering blade, direct criticism of Roman Abramovich himself, Rafa’s interim period at Stamford Bridge has suddenly become even more temporary.

Rafa was on a hiding to nothing on his arrival at Stamford Bridge. Despised by the fans because of his Liverpool connections, hated because of his battles with the cerebral Jose Mourinho – particularly in the European Champions League during his time at Anfield – and facing the impossible task of following in the footsteps of the ever-popular Roberto di Matteo. Whatever your opinion of RDM – and I personally believe him to be an extremely limited coach – the dramatic chain of events towards the end of last season allow him to be somehow credited as a European Champions League Winner! Okay, Chelsea’s unlikely triumph was more due to a seismic shift in attitude and application within the core of the team, namely John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – having emerged from their petulant sulks under Andre Villas Boas – than RDM’s tactical acumen, but nonetheless he had snatched Roman Abramovich’s Holy Grail from the clutches of FC Bayern! The fact – as Rafa is so keen to highlight – that Chelsea also finished a distant 6th in the EPL was merely glossed over by their European victory – 6th in the EPL was entirely AVB’s fault whilst scratching their way to Munich was entirely RDM’s impact in the eyes of the Chelsea faithful.

Rather than bask in the glory of the Champions League triumph Abramovich chose to broadcast his complete and total lack of faith in RDM by indiscreetly spending the entire summer flirting outrageously with outgoing Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, only to be predictably snubbed by a man who prioritises stability and steady development over the trigger-happy hire ‘em, fire ‘em style at the Bridge. It was with a heavy heart, crushed by Guardiola’s deafening rejection ringing in his ears like church bells, that Abramovich dejectedly appointed RDM as his permanent manager. RDM was patently not wanted by Abramovich! Although all football coaches are technically appointed on an interim basis, RDM’s time was numbered before the ink had even begun to dry on his contract.

A humiliating 4-1 hammering by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup coupled with the embarrassment of setting a new record for ineptitude in their European Champions League defence – becoming the first holders to exit at the group stage – and their EPL challenge extinguished before it had even ignited saw RDM’s managerial limitations brutally exposed despite huge squad investment in the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar. But few would’ve predicted the identity of Abramovich’s knight in shining armour to be Rafa Benitez!

Rafa had found himself out of management since breaking-up and demoralising Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter side during his ill-fated six-month spell at the San Siro back in 2010. His appointment at Stamford Bridge smacked of desperation, but on both sides of the table! Rafa desperately needed a window of exposure to showcase his skills after 2yrs on the sidelines whilst Abramovich had realised that no credible coach would dare risk his reputation as the ringmaster of the Stamford Bridge circus. A marriage made of convenience and mutual dependence!

The fans were immediately offside with the former Liverpool boss’ arrival in west-London; that they were ‘underwhelmed’ by his appointment would be stating it kindly. ‘Rafa Out’ banners greeted his debut appearance at the Bridge while the 16th minute (RDM’s shirt number during his playing career at Chelsea) triggered – and continues to inspire – a rousing rendition of the RDM songbook from the Chelsea choir! Rafa chose to bury his head in the sand; if he started winning matches then the crowd would support him and get behind the team. But that never happened, either his winning a succession of matches or the fans diluting their loathing of his presence. Everything was wrong with this curious arrangement. The signings of Oscar and Hazard to complement the established Juan Mata and the veteran Frank Lampard in the hope of reinvigorating the increasingly lost Fernando Torres had the fans licking their lips in anticipation of free-flowing attacking flair, oozing style and panache.  The weak RDM had attempted to appease their demands by naively deploying all his attacking options at the same time, thus leaving his defence woefully exposed in a hideously unbalanced tactical formation. A 3-2 defeat to Man City in the Community Shield hinted at the season ahead, results including a 4-2 victory at Spurs, 4-2 against Reading, 2-2 against Juventus and successive high-scoring contests against Man Utd – a 3-2 defeat and 5-4 League Cup victory – demonstrating that, if nothing else, the Chelsea fans were being treated to open and exciting games. The dour, defence-orientated default mantra of Rafa was never ever going to provide an appeasing alternative.

But has Rafa helped himself? He has reopened the debate over his ‘interim’ job title, suggesting that it has undermined his authority within a notoriously ill-disciplined club. Perhaps he has a point? But equally that situation was made very clear to him on his acceptance of the substantial salary that accompanied the job offer. And he can hardly focus too heavily on the uncertainty surrounding the ‘interim’ title while at the same time openly touting himself as a potential successor to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid?! He has directly criticised the fans for their lack of support; pointing out their continued vocal tributes to RDM are negatively-affecting the team. It is perhaps unusual for a club’s support to be so vocal of a past manager without inputting a similar enthusiasm towards their current manager – Roy Hodgson had to tolerate chants in support of Kenny Dalglish (who was to become his successor) during his short reign at Anfield – but RDM did secure both the European Champions League and the FA Cup under his watch! His time at Stamford Bridge cannot simply be ignored because the current incumbent is feeling a little insecure?!

So what next for the soon-to-be-divorced couple? Benitez would’ve hoped to re-establish himself as a credible name at the forefront of European club management during his time at Chelsea. Perhaps he even deluded himself enough to think he would actually be awarded a contract extension despite the hideousness of the situation? But he finds himself lying 4th in the EPL – albeit an improvement on last years 6th – with the EPL title long-gone over the horizon and facing a difficult battle with Spurs, Arsenal and Everton to secure Champions League qualification for next season. His tactical approach seems dated, inflexible, lacking cohesion and understanding from his players and reminiscent of the dark days towards the end of his time at Liverpool. It must be seriously doubtful that he has done enough to elevate his name into the minds of top European clubs come the summer merry-go-round.

And for Abramovich and Chelsea, having alienated just about every possible managerial target in Europe? The question has to be asked that, barring the huge pay cheque that accompanies the Chelsea hot-seat, who the hell would commit career suicide by attempting to appease the many demands at Stamford Bridge?!? Guardiola has already chosen FC Bayern, there is no way Jurgen Klopp would leave the vibrant Borussia Dortmund for Chelsea while other candidates would have to think hard before signing up to the football equivalent of Mission Impossible. Maybe a return for Jose Mourinho, himself certain to depart the Bernabeu in the summer? Mourinho’s mercenary attitude and dictatorial approach proved a huge success during his first spell at the Bridge, but Abramovich grew increasingly tired of the Portuguese’s power-trips, ultimatums and hostility towards the media. Would either man concede enough ground to reunite the most successful partnership in Chelsea’s history? It is unlikely….especially with the mega-bucks of Man City and PSG to potentially tempt Mourinho’s eye. But, if not Mourinho, where does Abramovich turn next?

Chelsea’s Managerial Merry-go-Round….

An arrogant, baseless whim from a deluded, out of control club owner or a decisive, ruthless yet necessary act in a desperate attempt to remedy a poor managerial appointment and to salvage your season?

The overnight sacking of Roberto di Matteo by Roman Abramovich after Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat against Juventus was greeted with a wave of shock and sympathy towards the latest pawn in Abramovich’s trigger-happy reign at Stamford Bridge. But, with the defending European Champions facing the ignomy of elimination at the group stage of this year’s competition – potentially the first defending champions to produce such an inept surrender of their trophy – Abramovich saw fit to relieve di Matteo of his duties with immediate effect despite the Italian somehow guiding the Blues to their, and the Russian’s, holy grail in May.

It might seem a crazy statement to make but I believe Chelsea and di Matteo’s unlikely triumph in Munich – perhaps the most staggering and, some would say undeserved, turn of events in recent European Champions League history – was the cherry atop of the worst possible case scenario for the club hierarchy. Di Matteo had been parachuted into Stamford Bridge by Andre Villas Boas; the Portuguese so woefully out of his depth amongst the ego’s of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba that he felt the familiar presence of former Chelsea player di Matteo would ease the implementation of his much-talked about, but never actually materialising grand ‘project’. But when AVB’s pitiful reign was mercifully cut short in March 2012, di Matteo, his knife razor sharp in eager readiness, wasted no time in gleefully stepping into the manager’s role at a club that would never have looked at him once, let alone twice, in more normal circumstances.

And so di Matteo’s uber-catenaccio tactical system – catenaccio literally meaning ‘door-bolt’- in his native Italy and a tactical approach favoured most infamously by Helenio Herrera during his stewardship of the painfully dull Inter of the 1960’s – bored everyone to tears in smothering Barcelona during their Champions League semi-final encounter and an identical approach eventually prevailed over FC Bayern in the worst European Champions League Final since the AC Milan vs Juventus snooze-a-thon in 2003. In the space of two months Roberto di Matteo had, single-handedly you might assume with the subsequent fawning praise of his leadership, risen from the role of bit-part assistant coach to European super coach! The fallout of which, amongst other things, meant that Chelsea could not automatically engage their default plan to jettison the conquering hero in favour of a competent coach with immediate effect….

…although they tried their very best! The endless delays in confirming di Matteo’s permanent position at Stamford Bridge fooled nobody, despite the club’s insistence that only minor quibbles that were holding up the proud unveiling of their Messiah. There was little disguising the blatant flirting by Abramovich in the direction of outgoing Barcelona Head Coach Pep Guardiola, nor his cosy relationship with Dutchman Guus Hiddink….nor even the persistent rumours speculating on a kiss-and-make-up between the Russian oligarch and Jose Mourinho. But with all those infinitely more preferable avenues closed to Chelsea they had little choice but to return to di Matteo while feebly claiming he was always their first choice.

A two-year contract was duly gobbled up by di Matteo; the board’s absolute and total confidence and faith in their appointment highlighted perfectly by their insistence that a non-negotiable get-out clause was inserted into his deal to be triggered after just 12mths. A purely coincidental fact is that Pep Guardiola’s self-imposed sabbatical from the game is also scheduled for his glorious return in….12mths time! Hmm…?!? In any case, most football observers doubted the need for such a clause being that di Matteo was never going to last beyond Christmas anyway….

But there seemed an obvious incompatibility between Roberto di Matteo and Abramovich’s Chelsea ideal. Abramovich has craved the swashbuckling style of Barcelona since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, yet di Matteo’s tactical ‘genius’ loosely revolved around hoofing the ball up to Didier Drogba on the halfway line with the nine other outfield players stationed within touching distance of goalkeeper Petr Cech. Chelsea made all the right noises in the transfer market, acquiring the technically-gifted Oscar, Eden Hazard and Marko Marin to complement the excellent Juan Mata. But di Matteo’s lack of comfort and conviction outside his trademark defensive shell brought valid questions as to how a naturally negative coach could best utilise such an array of attacking talent.

There have been brief flashes of potential, perhaps best highlighted in Chelsea’s 4-2 away victory over Spurs, but di Matteo’s desperation to appease Abramovich with attacking flair has drastically compromised his defensive organisation whilst laying bare his tactical limitations. Last year’s catenaccio has been ripped up and replaced with an attacking formation that essentially removes any sense of defensive responsibility from the front four! John Obi Mikel – unbelievably average at the best of times – has faced the unenviable task of providing a one-man shield to a defence that routinely offers generous gifts to the opposition AND that usually features defensive liability and part-time Krusty the Clown associate David Luiz?!? Di Matteo ought to have heeded the warning signs that were brutally exposed during Chelsea’s embarrassing 4-1 capitulation to Atletico Madrid’s Falcao in the European Super Cup, but a combination of his own naiveness and his fear of Abramovich has seen him persist with an approach that, at times, borders on tactical suicide! The EPL does not boast the true quality of five or six years ago and, as such, Chelsea have escaped relatively unscathed from situations which would have been clinically punished in years gone by. But at the top table of European football they have been found out; a 2-2 home draw to Juventus before last night’s hammering in Italy and two footballing lessons at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk – albeit one saved by the most fortunate of last minute daylight robberies in the home encounter.

I always felt di Matteo had been extremely lucky to have been elevated to a position far beyond his capabilities…but, despite his many failings, he can list European Champions League Winner on his resume! But does that mean he is a more gifted coach than, say, Arsene Wenger or Roberto Mancini? Perhaps the other fact of his Chelsea reign is equally valid – one that has been conveniently glossed over by most commentators thus far – namely that he guided Chelsea to a distant SIXTH position in the EPL which would, had the miracle of Munich not intervened, led to an omission from that elite competition for this season and, in all likelihood, a struggle to attract those prestige summer signings.

However, having dismissed their latest manager – the EIGHTH coach to fall during Abramovich’s 9yr tenure following in the footsteps of Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Phil Scolari, Guus Hiddink (albeit Hiddink was always a temporary appointment), Carlo Ancelotti,  AVB and Roberto di Matteo – Chelsea find themselves struggling for credibility with a hotseat that offers only marginally more job security than a shopping mall Santa Claus! Guardiola, Abramovich’s dream appointment, will not cut short his sabbatical and, even if he was enticed back to club management, would he honestly be prepared to risk his reputation at a club that demands instant success AND while playing a certain way AND with a dubious control over player transfers?!? Their only option at present is to make yet another stop-gap appointment, with their options limited in all likelihood to out-of-work managers desperate to return to the game and with virtually nothing to lose….such as the suggested Rafa Benitez and Harry Redknapp. And such a short-term approach merely continues to destabilise a club who should be still basking in the most glorious night in their history! Take Man Utd and Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 and achieved very little in terms of trophies during his early years as he rebuilt Man Utd from top to bottom. In fact, it is generally accepted that Fergie was one goal away from being sacked when Mark Robins scored in a crucial cup tie way back in 1991. There can be little doubt that Fergie has done rather well at Old Trafford in the subsequent two decades! Stability is the key, and while Chelsea and Roman Abramovich have limited options right now, their next permanent appointment simply must be given the time and freedom to actually manage the club….