David Moyes – The Challenge Ahead.

The ceremonial red robes have been tailored to perfection, his coronation a mere formality. In little more than a week David Moyes will ascend to the gilded throne of Old Trafford, the chosen-one advocated with a trademark authority by no less a figure than the departing Emperor himself, Sir Alex Ferguson.

But what are the challenges facing the incoming manager? After all, he is not just a routine replacement for an outgoing boss. He has been entrusted with the unenviable task of producing the mouth-watering sequel to the Sir Alex Ferguson era! Sir Alex, the most successful club manager in English football history, the heart and soul of the grandest sporting institution in England and one of the biggest in the World of sport! Sir Alex, the glue that has united the Red Devils for more than a quarter of a century since his appointment way back in November 1986! November 1986?!? To put that into context, Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated, European countries still held their dignity and identity with their own currencies, Frankie was relaxing with cassette tapes and vinyls the only choice for the music aficionado, Molly Ringwald had assured herself a seemingly permanent place as Hollywood’s sweetheart, Liverpool were still winning league titles and Scotland qualified for FIFA World Cups! And as anyone who tolerated Terminator 3 will testify, not all sequels hit the spot….

And it’s fair to say Sir Alex didn’t fare too badly on the field of play either. Man Utd had been alerted to his potential through his accomplishments at unfancied Aberdeen in Scotland; Sir Alex achieving what many thought impossible by smashing the iron-grip monopoly of the Old Firm – Celtic and Rangers – and winning no fewer than three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups and outwitting Real Madrid to win the European Super Cup! Again, for the purpose of context, nobody has broken the Celtic/Rangers stranglehold on the Scottish League since Sir Alex’s Aberdeen back in 1985 and only Celtic have reached a European Final since Aberdeen’s remarkable victory?!? As a Liverpool fan myself I’m choking back the bile as I reflect on his achievements down the East Lancs Road but, for the very last time on this blog, it is worth just reminding ourselves and trying to comprehend the sheer level of unparalleled and virtually continuous success inspired and demanded by Sir Alex…

13 English Premier League titles! 5 FA Cups! 4 League Cups! 2 European Champions Leagues! 1 European Super Cup! 1 World Club Championship! 1 European Cup Winners Cup and a gazillion English Charity/Community Shields!

So it’s fair to say David Moyes has something of a job on his hands…and it will be interesting to see how he goes about stamping his own identity, his own personality and his own authority on Man Utd.

1. Rejuvenate the playing squad….

Despite Sir Alex’s rose-tinted protestations to the contrary there is little doubt that this incarnation of Man Utd is probably among the weakest of their recent title-winning sides. Yes they did secure a record 20th league title, but the general quality and competition within the EPL is arguably at its lowest since its all-singing and all-dancing inception back in 1992. The traditional EPL signatures of a high work-rate, a ferocious tempo and the increasing inconsistencies of the top clubs harbouring a false sense of competitiveness throughout the league are all present and correct….but it has fallen short when it comes to genuine quality. The woeful performances of the English clubs in the European Champions League – including the EPL Champions being deposed in the Group Stage for the second successive season – provide conclusive, if unpalatable evidence to support that view.

That is not to say Man Utd are diabolical, nor that they need to instantly recruit eleven players this summer. But there are obvious positions of weakness within their starting-XI, notably at left-back and in central midfield, and Moyes needs to act quickly and decisively to remedy that. One of the myths surrounding Sir Alex is that he relied on youth development rather than excessive transfer fees – a myth largely spawned from the ludicrously talented FA Youth Cup-winning side featuring David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes – but he would be the first to admit that Utd backed him heavily in the transfer market. Again, to try to bring some context to the comparison, the summer of 1989 saw Sir Alex enjoy perhaps the most extraordinary spending blitz in British football history….recruiting several top players for a combined fee ranging from £10M-£15M. A paltry figure by today’s standards but, when you then consider the then-transfer record fee between English clubs (foreign players were something of a rarity back then) was the £2M paid by Spurs for Paul Gascoigne, it is quite some outlay! In fact Sir Alex smashed the record during that spree by signing centre-back Gary Pallister for a staggering £2.3M….with the current record standing at the £50M paid by Chelsea for Fernando Torres, Sir Alex’s £10M-£15M splurge – five-times plus the then-record fee – was a rather substantial war-chest to say the least.

With the rise of Chelsea and Man City in England and the lavish budgets of PSG and AS Monaco – not to mention Real Madrid and the supposed £250M available to Pep Guardiola at FC Bayern – that level of transfer dominance will simply not be available to David Moyes. But, as Robin van Persie demonstrated last summer, money isn’t necessarily the only consideration for a player and the prestige, the ambition and the stability associated with Man Utd will become a valuable bargaining tool for Moyes in his recruitment quest. Noble sentiment though it is, the sight of Ryan Giggs and, to a lesser extent, Paul Scholes still featuring prominently for Utd suggests to me that the relative dearth of quality within the Man Utd youth ranks shows no sign of abating – recent graduates Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are pale imitations of their illustrious predecessors – so Moyes’ first venture into the transfer market will be a key factor in determining his initial impact!

I would expect Moyes to invite offers for a stagnant Nani, a desperately poor Anderson and an irreversibly declining Patrice Evra – the best left-back in England 3yrs ago – to fund a probable raid on his former club for the outstanding Leighton Baines and perhaps Marouane Fellaini. The key decision though centres around Wayne Rooney. Rooney has been out-of-sorts this season, with Sir Alex publicly questioning his fitness, his lifestyle, his desire and his application. Can Moyes’ arrival reinvigorate Rooney – despite Moyes’ successfully suing Rooney for libel shortly after the teenage prodigy’s protracted departure for Old Trafford – or will he conclude, as many observers suggest, that his peak has already passed and it is better to cleanse the club of his sulky, petulant and selfish attitude? My view; if Moyes wants to make a statement of intent then he will try to sell Rooney. The Old Trafford fans have grown tired of his antics – audibly booing Rooney when he collected his EPL medal last weekend – but the problem may well be finding a buyer for his £20M fee and absurd £200,000+ per week salary demands. In my opinion Rooney has neither the personal qualities and aptitude nor the professional skills and discipline to perform overseas….so can Moyes persuade the only viable exit routes – Man City or Chelsea – to sanction a heavy outlay on such a risky deal? One of Sir Alex’s greatest qualities in his search for perfection was his ruthless attitude towards under-performing players and those with poor attitudes that could prove detrimental towards the team. Paul McGrath, Paul Ince, David Beckham and Roy Keane can all give lucid testaments of their speedy demise at the hands of Sir Alex, despite some still having much to offer on the field of play. David Moyes needs to adopt that same level of brutal and decisive action!

Don’t be surprised to see Man Utd announce Moyes’ arrival with a blockbuster signing, certainly if they succeed in getting rid of Rooney. Spurs’ likely failure to qualify for the European Champions League could see Utd try to tempt Gareth Bale to Old Trafford, whilst I think they could do worse than save Cesc Fabregas from his Barcelona nightmare. Both would be stellar additions to the squad and would significantly strengthen the central midfield area!

2. Assume the Sir Alex off-field mantle….

It is generally accepted that Sir Alex’s touchline presence is worth 10pts-15pts per season for Man Utd. From the berating and intimidation of match officials to the infamous ‘Fergie-time’ when Utd need a crucial goal, Sir Alex was an imposing figure for all concerned on match-days. His media briefings sent a cold shudder down the spine of many journalists, the trembling voice of a nervous post-match TV interviewer as much a part of the match experience as the game itself while his legendary mind-games famously saw then-Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan implode on national TV, descending into a near-gibbering wreck in one of the EPL’s most enduring memories. Though cut from the same Glaswegian granite as Sir Alex, David Moyes does not yet possess that sheer level of fear and intimidation. Without the spectre of Sir Alex hovering with intent on the touchline, might a match official be more relaxed in judging a foul, a penalty or the dreaded injury-time? I’m not saying these professional officials would necessarily seek some form of revenge or pay-back for the numerous diatribes unleashed by Sir Alex, but I await the first contentious incident at Old Trafford next season with anticipation.

But it would be churlish to suggest that Sir Alex’s success was based entirely on his intimidation of match officials or other off-field factors. Every other team in the EPL can point to moments where they have benefited from dubious officiating, every other team have been afforded the luxury of an extended period of injury-time, but not every other team have the mentality and desire to take advantage of such situations. His tactical acumen and motivational genius needs no further elaboration, but Sir Alex specifically cultivated a burning will-to-win, a never-say-die attitude among his players and staff, a collective team ethic, a winning mentality and an unshakable self-belief that inspired Man Utd to stage so many of their famous last-minute comebacks, perhaps most famously in the European Champions League daylight robbery of their treble-season in 1999.

Sir Alex’s continued presence at Old Trafford will surely provide Moyes with a wealth of invaluable information regarding all aspects of life at Old Trafford. His unrivalled knowledge of the club will help Moyes as he settles into his new role, but there also needs to be clearly defined parameters to avoid the instability following Sir Matt Busby’s retirement and subsequent move ‘upstairs’ within the club. It is customary for an incoming manager to bring with him a trusted backroom team of coaches and support staff and I see no reason why Moyes would not follow suit. But, at the same time, Man Utd clearly have a recipe for success and I think it would be foolish of Moyes to casually dismiss the merits of the existing staff at Old Trafford. While I cannot see what Mike Phelan brings to the table, Rene Meulensteen has a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding coach and Eric Steele boasts an impressive record as a goalkeeping coach. Crucially though, both have a long-standing relationship with Man Utd and could ease Moyes’ transition period. A shrewd appointment, perhaps outgoing Everton captain and former Utd player Phil Neville may also be worth consideration.

3. Moyes’ own character….

Moyes’ longevity at Everton over 11yrs is a remarkable testament to both manager and club; only Arsene Wenger’s 16yr reign at Arsenal trumps Moyes’ Goodison tenure and, for perspective, the next longest managerial spell in the EPL is Tony Pulis’ 7yr stint at Stoke City! Moyes has consistently over-achieved at Everton on a shoestring budget, consistently challenging for European qualification in the EPL and, although he has yet to secure a trophy, he has performed remarkable feats for the Blues. But Manchester United is a different proposition altogether! Success isn’t negotiable at Old Trafford, it is expected! A generation of Man Utd fans have never known a period of transition at their club, they’ve never known life without Sir Alex. Thirteen EPL trophies in just 22yrs speaks volumes for the consistent high level of performance enjoyed by the Old Trafford faithful! Second-place is just about acceptable – as a one-off – but anything below that would be considered an absolute catastrophe for the spoilt Man Utd fans! Whereas nobly tickling the underbelly of European qualification was almost worthy of an open-top bus parade at Everton, a similar scenario at Old Trafford would provoke unprecedented scenes of mass-mourning! Moyes has revelled in his role as the plucky underdog – certainly in usurping his city rivals Liverpool over recent seasons – but now he is the biggest fish in the pond! His record in away fixtures against Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool reads, played 46, won 0; that inferiority complex would be absolutely unacceptable at Old Trafford. It is no longer acceptable to settle for a draw – even less so to set up a team tactically and mentally to “not lose” rather than “to win” – and, while he unquestionably has greater resources and a better playing squad to work with, it will be interesting to see how he adjusts his own mentality to satisfy the colossal demands of managing Man Utd!

As a footnote, I doubt David Moyes would’ve scripted his move to Man Utd any differently to how it seems to be developing. Formidable task though it undoubtedly is, he could not have wished for a more generous honeymoon gift than to see the traditional rivals to Man Utd’s crown wilfully scuttle their ships and duly shatter any shred of stability within their own clubs. Man City have already parted company with the elegantly coiffured Roberto Mancini for the heinous crime of finishing as runner-up in both the EPL and the FA Cup, Chelsea will jettison Rafael Benitez for his criminal underachievement of European Champions League qualification and a Europa League Final appearance and Everton of course face the challenging task of replacing Moyes. While there is no open speculation surrounding either Arsenal or Spurs there have been tentative rumours suggesting an interest from PSG in Arsene Wenger and a possible switch to the Bernabeu for Andre Villas Boas. So, while perhaps unlikely, it is conceivable that David Moyes could begin his Old Trafford career with all five of his fellow top-six clubs also starting afresh?!?

I’m a big fan of David Moyes and I wish him well…..but not THAT well of course….

 

 

Abdication of the Emperor of Old Trafford

And so the curtain is to finally fall on certainly the longest, and arguably the most glorious managerial reign in English football history! After 27yrs of record-breaking achievement at Man Utd and, perhaps fittingly having guided Man Utd to a record-20th English league title – his and Utd’s 13th English Premier League triumph – Sir Alex Ferguson, the Laird of Old Trafford, has announced he is to retire at the end of this current campaign.

A 13th English Premier League title – to put his staggering achievements into comparable context the next highest Premier League trophy hoarders are Arsenal and Chelsea with three-apiece – is a barely credible total to have amassed, especially when you consider the doldrums in which Man Utd were wallowing when Fergie waltzed into Old Trafford from Aberdeen way back in 1986 promising to “knock Liverpool off their f*****g perch”! A club awash with mediocrity, intimidated by the ghosts of former-greats, crippled by the shadows of their once-glorious, and ever-distant, past and standing light-years behind the dominant Merseyside clubs of Liverpool and Everton. And it’s fair to say Fergie’s initial impact was, at best, under-whelming! Before he could even begin to instil his now-trademark winning mentality he faced ferocious clashes with a dressing room that had become casually accepting of this mediocrity; consisting of ill-disciplined players who openly prioritised self-interest and personal gain ahead of team ethic and club honour. Indeed, there was open dissent among the now-loyal Old Trafford faithful at Fergie’s perceived failings during his early years, dissent and disillusionment that culminated in the oft-repeated suggestion that a late equaliser by little-known Mark Robins in an FA Cup replay against lowly-opposition back in 1990 saved the man who would become Sir Alex from an undignified walking of the plank! The rest, as they say, is history…..

13 English Premier League titles! 5 FA Cups! 4 League Cups! 2 European Champions Leagues! 1 European Super Cup! 1 World Club Championship! 1 European Cup Winners Cup (now defunct)! 

1500 Man Utd games later – yes, he really has been there that long!! – and there can be no denying that Sir Alex has comprehensively succeeded in his desire to “knock Liverpool off their f*****g perch”, certainly from a domestic perspective anyway. Is it fair to say there has been a near-total role-reversal of the respective clubs fortunes and subsequent standing in the game? Certainly you see a domestically dominant Man Utd enjoying the rewards of yet another League title while Liverpool continue to sow the seeds of yet another new dawn under yet another new Messiah. 23yrs have passed since the last of Liverpool’s eighteen league titles – they have never won the English Premier League – and while Man Utd continue to compete at the top table of European football Liverpool find themselves facing a fourth season outside of the premier European competition.

And Sir Alex has achieved his success through playing an exciting, vibrant brand of attacking football that has earned deserved plaudits from all corners of the globe. It is as much the style of play and the individual flair encouraged by Sir Alex that has enabled Utd to morph and develop into the global brand they have become. Yes the on-field success and trophies help to attract a wider fan-base, but the manner and style in which it has been achieved has been just as crucial to Utd’s commercial development. Foreign superstars such as Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy have graced Old Trafford with honour; Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham, Brian McClair and Robin van Persie all plucked from closer to home and moulded into a relentlessly ambitious and clinical winning machine! And not forgetting the famous Fergie-fledglings of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt; all promoted from the Man Utd youth ranks to propel the first-team to unprecedented success! “You’ll never win anything with kids” speculated Scottish pundit Alan Hansen after an early misfire from that youthful Utd side….they went on to complete a English Premier League/FA Cup double that very same season AND formed the backbone of Utd’s finest season, the treble-winning campaign of 1998/99.

But this wouldn’t be a blog written by a Liverpool fan without a sprinkling of anti-Fergie sentiment, however difficult it is to pick holes in Sir Alex’s record of consistent achievement. It can be no coincidence that Fergie’s early years of drought at Old Trafford were ended by perhaps the most lavish transfer blitz in English football history! In the summer of 1989 Sir Alex splurged £20M on new signings, a paltry figure by today’s standards but, when you consider that the British transfer record for a player in 1989 stood at just £1.9M, it was a sizeable war-chest at the time. Ten-times the British record fee in fact! So, with the current record fee standing at the £50M paid for Fernando Torres then Fergie’s £20M expenditure in 1989 could equate to £500M in 2013!?! Man Utd and Sir Alex have enjoyed a degree of transfer market dominance up until the last decade when Chelsea, and latterly Man City, have usurped them as the big spenders in England. Indeed, the current Utd squad contains the British record fee paid for a goalkeeper – David de Gea – the World record fee paid for a defender – Rio Ferdinand – and the World record fee paid for a teenager – Wayne Rooney. But, to balance the argument, other clubs have spent vast amounts without success – no more so than Liverpool – and Fergie has retained an enviable level of success despite the mega-bucks available to Chelsea and City.

Secondly I would argue his record of developing a consistent quality of youth player is glossed over by the fortuitous progression of the Fergie Fledglings all at the same time. Since Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Neville’s arrived on the scene there have been few players groomed in the Utd youth ranks to have made a genuine and consistent impact on the first-team. Players such as John O’Shea and Wes Brown were able squad players until moving on to pastures new and although the current squad contains Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, I remain unconvinced by their true quality, Evans aside. Certainly I doubt any would feature in the great teams of Utd’s recent past. But Sir Alex certainly knows how to develop a young player, if not necessarily a home-grown talent. Cristiano Ronaldo is unquestionably the prime example of Fergie’s genius in nurturing an extraordinary talent and allowing it to flourish, but Wayne Rooney’s stagnation is perhaps a pertinent example of where it doesn’t always work out.

Thirdly, and finally, it has to be said that Sir Alex’s record in Europe is mediocre at best, and some would argue downright poor. Two European Champions Leagues and just three total appearances in the Final from a near 20yr continuous participation in Europe’s premier competition is an abysmal return for such a domestically dominant club. To put things in context both Chelsea and Liverpool have won just one fewer European Cup than Sir Alex has managed during his tenure and have both appeared in two finals to Man Utd’s three, despite featuring in far fewer European Champions League campaigns. Yes Sir Alex could claim misfortune, most notably in the knockout stages against Monaco in 1998 and against Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in 2004, but then most non-Utd fans would say they were extremely lucky to snatch the trophy from a majestic FC Bayern on that unforgettable night in Barcelona in 1999! Sir Alex has remarked about his personal disappointment in Man Utd’s poor European performances and I wonder whether his retirement was influenced at all by a glance towards FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund and his realisation that his current Man Utd squad are a million miles away from competing with those clubs?

But those are just my own opinions. Sir Alex departs Old Trafford having overseen a rather poetic 1500 Man Utd games exactly and with a record that, in all likelihood, we will never be privileged enough to see again. He is perhaps the last of a dying breed, the old-school manager with a finger in every operational pie within the club from top to bottom. Sir Alex coached the players, he controlled transfer negotiations, he oversaw the youth development, he dominated the media briefings, he vociferously defended the club in FA hearings – when the FA reluctantly pressed ahead with charges against Man Utd – and he most probably chose the model and make of the team bus too! We will not see the like of him again in this age of commercial directors, managing executives, Directors of Football, Chief Scouts and various specialist coaches and trainers. And no manager will be given the luxury of time to properly build up a club in the manner Sir Alex did at Old Trafford! It took him four years to win his first trophy at Man Utd, can you imagine that nowadays with the demand for instant success? Imagine if those Utd fans had gotten their wish back in the late-80’s and forced the Utd boardroom to dismiss the then-beleaguered Fergie? Jeez I wish they had!

Sir Alex was intimidating! He was often disrespectful towards match officials and ruled the roost with an iron fist! As many a journalist discovered, cross him at your peril! One of his great strengths was a ruthless streak that ensured nobody at Man Utd grew complacent, perhaps a result of the mess he inherited at Old Trafford? Paul McGrath, Paul Ince, David Beckham and Carlos Tevez can all relate to Fergie’s insistence on prioritising the team over the overblown ego of a pampered individual! Winning for Man Utd was not his number one priority, it was his only priority! Was he as concerned for the international game despite a great many Utd players starring for their respective countries? Undoubtedly not!  The countless convenient withdrawals of players from international duty and their subsequent miraculous recoveries in time for the next Utd fixture would perhaps cast doubt on those hailing his positive influence upon the England team. Although, in his defence, other club managers are similarly one-eyed in their apathy towards international football…if not quite as brazen in their contempt of its intrusion upon the club game. But behind the scenes he was always welcoming and open to rival managers, always willing to part with some advice or suggestion to assist a young up-and-coming coach. And while rival fans – myself included – hope for a decline similar to that which followed the retirement of Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford – and referees might welcome the relative peace and quiet on the touchline – Sir Alex will be much missed across the football World….

 

Short-sighted to Crucify the ‘Special One’…..

It seems La Liga is not the only proud entity to see its reputation crushed and its credibility casually mocked by the vultures of the European media in the wake of the destruction caused by FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund in this week’s European Champions League. For the self-styled ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho, is also facing unprecedented criticism for his apparent failure at Real Madrid; his post-match press conference after defeat to Dortmund providing a feeding frenzy for his once-adoring disciples as his ongoing flirtation with Roman Abramovich and Chelsea reached hitherto untapped levels of soft-focus mood music love-ins….

“I know in England I am loved” whimpered a disturbingly tired-looking and physically drained Jose while displaying a chronic lack of awareness that must have shocked even the most ardent Mourinho-istas. “I know I am loved by some clubs, especially one…” he continued, failing only to flutter his eyelashes in the direction of west-London while ripping off his shirt to reveal a nude Abramovich tattooed across his chest! That Mourinho is to leave the Bernabeu in the summer is the worst-kept secret in European football – the only question-mark being when the parting of the ways occurs – but, for perhaps the first time in his managerial career, the few clubs who could satisfy his monstrous demands and vast ego are hardly queuing up to steal his signature.

I am no fan of Mourinho’s methods, but I do think to judge his tenure at the Bernabeu a failure – as many commentators have concluded in gleeful haste – is grossly unfair! He arrived at Real Madrid having secured an unprecedented treble success at Internazionale and charged with the dual-mandate of challenging a dominant FC Barcelona at home and in Europe and to deliver that elusive 10th European Cup to Real Madrid. Whilst he has failed to bring home the most coveted trophy, he has nonetheless secured a La Liga title and victory in the Copa del Rey competing against a Barcelona team that is generally regarded to be one of the finest of all time! As a Liverpool fan, I only wish our period since 2010 had been so ‘catastrophic’…..

But there are certain consistent features of a Mourinho reign that has to be brought into the equation. First of all, as an owner of a club, you must cede ALL control to the ‘Special One’ and provide him with a truly staggering transfer kitty to fund his policy of instant rebuilding the playing staff. It is no surprise that Mourinho’s nomadic managerial wanderings have taken him from FC Porto to Abramovich’s Chelsea, to the Pirelli-funded Inter and to the marble halls of the Bernabeu in Madrid. It is also no coincidence to see him currently linked to a return to Chelsea or a move to mega-rich Man City or PSG. Then you have to accept that Mourinho’s brand of man-management causes massive internal divisions and rifts throughout your club from boardroom level through to the coaching staff and into the dressing room….AND you have to accept that Jose will instigate conflict with rival managers, coaches, players and fans and alienate the media to such an extent that your club will gain no positive or constructive coverage whatsoever!

But clubs have thus far tolerated those unpalatable side-effects of appointing Mourinho for one overriding reason; Jose Mourinho is a proven winner! His rampaging tornado approach might be the total antithesis to the more noble art of gradually building a club from the bottom up in the way Sir Alex Ferguson has done at Man Utd, but he has won the domestic league title in Portugal, in England, in Italy and in Spain. He has won domestic cup competitions in all four countries and has led both Porto – relatively unfancied at the time – and Inter to European Champions League success! Chelsea had waited 50yrs for the league title in England; Mourinho delivered back-to-back EPL trophies in his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge! Inter’s owner Massimo Moratti’s obsession with regaining the European Cup – a trophy not won by the Nerazzurri since the hideously dull catenaccio days of the 1960’s – saw him dismiss Roberto Mancini – despite Mancini’s three-consecutive Serie A titles – and appoint Mourinho in 2008. Just two-years later Moratti’s quest had been fulfilled by the Portuguese’s magnificent Serie A, Italian Cup and European Cup treble!

The question facing Roman Abramovich, the Abu-Dhabi owners of Man City and the Qatari investors at PSG is to what extent are they prepared to compromise their ideals in the quest for success? Mourinho and Chelsea parted company in 2007 as a consequence of the internal strife poisoning the corridors of Stamford Bridge, but also because Abramovich had grown tired of the dull, regimented tactics favoured by the Portuguese. Yes it had brought rewards in the shape of league titles and domestic cups, but Abramovich felt that Mourinho, with the vast resources at his disposal, ought to have produced a more flowing and entertaining style of play. This season Chelsea have received praise for their open and attacking approach in the English Premier League, with Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar at the heart of a more flexible, natural and flamboyant incarnation of the deposed European Champions. Would Mourinho’s default defensive strategy, that sacrifices individual flair for team work ethic, complement the attacking instincts of those Chelsea favourites? The long trophy drought prior to his first appointment at Chelsea probably awarded him a greater degree of tolerance and acceptance of his style from club insiders and, most importantly, from the fans desperate to witness a new period of success on the field. And although you do hear Mourinho chants at Stamford Bridge – probably targeted as much to annoy Rafa Benitez as to hail their former King – I do question whether those same Chelsea fans, with a bursting trophy cabinet to admire, would be as quite so keen to see Mourinho’s functionality dilute their attacking trio?

Man City have a less-clearly defined identity under the confused tactical tinkering of Roberto Mancini and, with the Italian’s failings in Europe continuing from his days at Inter and the club arguably still in their development stage, may be prepared to allow Mourinho the freedom to impose his will upon the club? PSG are perhaps the most difficult to analyse; they are soon to be crowned French Lique champions for the first time in 20yrs and have spent heavily on flair players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura. Current incumbent Carlo Ancelotti is a respected coach across Europe and PSG would surely benefit from his continued experience and stability at the helm….but rumours suggest a move to Real Madrid for the Italian? Could a job-swap be on the cards for Mourinho and Ancelotti?

FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund have unleashed a exciting brand of high-intensity attacking football upon Europe this season, combining all the attributes of a Jose Mourinho team (tactical organisation, a strong work ethic and a solid defensive base) but with the added dimension of individual flair that Mourinho has, thus far in his career, largely overlooked. But that is not to say Mourinho is obsolete in 2013! Even in this season of supposed underachievement and embarrassing failure Mourinho has guided a divided and disunited Real Madrid – in fairness a common feature of life within the various factions at the Bernabeu – to the semi-finals of the European Champions League, a likely runners-up spot in La Liga and a Copa del Rey Final appearance! Charismatic and successful? Yes! Controversial and divisive? Certainly! But with his reported salary demands of £12M per year and the inevitable seismic splurge into the transfer market to follow, I wonder whether he can quite afford to call the shots in the same manner as he did on his arrival at Chelsea a decade ago….?

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?

Chumpions of Europe….

For the second successive season the Champions representing the English Premier League – the self-styled and much-bragged “World’s Greatest, Highest Quality & Most Competitive” domestic football competition – have found themselves humiliated on the European Champions League stage, falling embarrassingly at the very first hurdle that is the ECL Group Stage.

Last season saw an arrogant and complacent Man Utd fail to emerge from their customary hand-picked group; their only victories coming against group minnows Otelul Galati as they amassed a measly total of just 3pts from their four encounters with Benfica and FC Basel. Their mega-bucks ‘noisy neighbours’ Man City also fell at the first stage of their debut ECL campaign, although they did have to contend with a group containing eventual Finalists FC Bayern, a resurgent Napoli and the wily Spaniards Villareal.

But this season Man City managed to achieve what many thought an impossible task, namely surpassing their previous levels of ineptness in Europe’s premier club competition?! Despite their lofty status as newly-crowned EPL Champions, City’s anonymous European record compromised their all-important co-efficient and saw them somewhat unfortunately drawn alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax in the so-called ‘Group of Champions’….being that all four clubs were champions of their respective domestic leagues. No-one could deny that City had been dealt a brutal hand by the Gods, but to collect an appalling total of just 3pts from their six fixtures without a solitary victory is simply unacceptable for a club boasting City’s ambitions and, more importantly, their financial muscle!

Some City sympathisers and EPL apologies have highlighted the struggles of Sir Alex Ferguson and Man Utd during their early forays into the ECL, and Sir Alex has regularly admitted his frustration and disappointment that Man Utd have won just two European Cups during his quarter of a century stewardship. It is an undeniably poor return for Man Utd’s status as a European powerhouse, their resources and the fact that a relaxing of the qualification rules has seen them regularly participate in the competition. Many observers would perhaps mischievously suggest that of Utd’s four appearances in the ECL Final they have probably only deservedly won the trophy on one occasion, and I’m quite sure that Chelsea fans would argue that they had the better of that encounter in Moscow. FC Bayern’s nightmares will still be dominated by haunting images of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having comprehensively outplayed Sir Alex’s team in 1999 while nobody would deny the gulf in class during their two maulings at the hands of FC Barcelona.

Yes, Man Utd took a little while to acclimatise to the dizzy heights of European competition, but for me the argument of a club having to gradually feel their way into the ECL is invalid when it comes to Man City. I’m not going to claim Man Utd spent no money at all in establishing themselves as an EPL force and a fairly regular participant in the latter rounds of the ECL, but the sheer speed and weight of investment that has been lavished on Man City makes Chelsea’s record a much more relevant comparison in my opinion.

Man City’s two consecutive ECL campaigns have resulted in a failure to qualify from the initial group stage on both occasions; in their disastrous second attempt they failed to secure even a solitary win! Admittedly Chelsea had intermittently flirted with the ECL before Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2003 but, with the Russian oligarch’s bottomless wallet beginning to blindly fund their cause, Claudio Ranieri guided the Blues to semi-final defeat to unfancied AS Monaco in the 2003/04 ECL. Enter Jose Mourinho and, armed with the £24M acquisition of Didier Drogba, £12M Arjen Robben and his ECL-winning duo from FC Porto Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira for a combined £35M, the Portuguese ‘Special One’ led Chelsea to their second-successive semi-final and defeat to the controversial Luis Garcia ‘ghost goal’ at Anfield. A splurge of £100M+ on securing the talents of Michael Essien (£24M), Andrei Shevchenko (£30M), Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21M), John Obi Mikel (£16M) and the shrewd free signing of the dynamic Michael Ballack followed, as did defeat by eventual winners FC Barcelona and elimination at the last-16 phase in 2005/06 before a heartbreaking second semi-final exit at the hands of Liverpool in 2006/07. A, some might chortle, hilarious John Terry penalty slip ‘n’ miss saw Man Utd steal the European Cup from Avram Grant’s Blues in 2008 and the infamous semi-final encounter with FC Barcelona and referee Tom Henning Ovrebo in 2009 saw Chelsea slain by the Catalan Carousel. Jose Mourinho returned with Inter to dispose of the Blues at the last-16 stage on the Nerazzurri’s triumphant march in 2010 and Sir Alex and Man Utd were once again cast as Chelsea’s nemesis in 2011, ending the Blues’ ECL campaign in the quarter-final as the Red Devils reached their fourth ECL Final. But finally, in 2012 Didier Drogba and Co. rose from the ashes of a desperate domestic season of discontent to triumph against all the odds to win their first ECL!

So, to put Chelsea’s record post-Abramovich into context, his investment has secured two Final appearances including the 2012 victory, four semi-final appearances, a quarter-final defeat and elimination twice at the last-16 stage. Okay, their current pathetic attempt to defend their crown may end in the abject humiliation of being the first holders to fall at the group stage….but for now their record has been reasonably consistent.

Man City can boast four ECL Champions in their ranks, namely £30M Carlos Tevez, £24M Yaya Toure, £22M Mario Balotelli and Maicon! Among Man City’s other riches are World Cup and European Championship winner David Silva (£25M) and Europa League winner Sergio Aguero (£38M)! I doubt Sheikh Mansour and City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak had an excruciatingly impotent second consecutive ECL group stage humiliation in mind when they invested £500M+ on the blue side of Manchester! The City line-up as selected by Roberto Mancini for their last-ditch attempt to secure the consolation prize of Europa League participation against a Dortmund side resting several of their first-choice XI having already confirmed their progress as group winners was conservatively reported to have cost an eye-watering £320M to assemble?!? When you support your manager – who presumably is expected to have some idea what is going on – with staggering cheques to bring the likes of Joleon Lescott (£24M), Edin Dzeko (£24M), James Milner (£24M), Samir Nasri (£27M), Javi Garcia (£16M), Matija Nastasic (£18M), Gareth Barry (£18M), Alexander Kolarov (£18M) plus many more, I would think the board were expecting a slightly grander outcome than the indignity of replacing Blackburn Rovers under the hapless Ray Harford as the worst performing English ECL representatives EVER?!?

So what has gone so pitifully wrong? The excuse of being ECL novices just doesn’t wash and the obscenely rewarded players need to step up and take responsibility for their unacceptable failings. After all, debutants Spurs managed a hugely creditable run to the quarter-finals during their, so far, only ECL campaign to date, escaping from a group containing then-ECL holders Inter and beating AC Milan en-route to defeat to Real Madrid! City’s group draw was horrendous, especially when you consider they are EPL Champions, but group rivals Ajax out-performed them on a fraction of City’s wealth?! Other clubs to have outscored City with a tiny fraction of their resources are Olympiakos, Anderlecht, Zenit St Petersburg, Dinamo Kiev, Bate Borisov, Galatasaray, FC Cluj and Celtic, while fellow sugar-daddy benefactors PSG and Malaga – in their debut campaign -have both qualified as group winners ahead of ECL veterans FC Porto and AC Milan respectively!

Although unbeaten in their EPL defence City have stuttered and stumbled thus far this season, finding themselves 3pts behind Man Utd ahead of their derby meeting this weekend. They appear to be still suffering a hangover from last year’s injury-time heroics to secure the title and I would point the finger to a large extent at the leadership of Roberto Mancini! Mancini has ripped up the dominant title-winning central defensive pairing of captain Vincent Kompany and his reliable sidekick Joleon Lescott to accommodate Nastasic and has randomly rotated his traditional 4-4-2 formation into a three-man defensive unit. That uncertainty has seen Kompany’s form drop through the floor, from being arguably the best defender in the EPL last season to a quivering wreck this year, and the usually unflappable Joe Hart make a succession of uncharacteristic and costly errors. The purchase of Maicon, who has never recovered from his roasting at the hands of Gareth Bale, was a strange addition to a squad which, in Micah Richards and Pablo Zabaleta, appeared to be sufficiently staffed in that position. That Maicon has elevated himself to start ahead of both Richards – albeit currently injured – and one of the most underrated players in the EPL Zabaleta speaks volumes for Mancini’s confused selection process.

David Silva’s niggling injuries has undoubtedly affected City’s attacking prowess but Mancini’s insistence on rotating his striking options has caused a lack of fluidity and understanding between Tevez, Aguero, Dzeko and Balotelli. His consistent tinkering, adjustment and alteration of his tactics, selection and strategy has directly resulted in the uncertainty and doubt that has spread throughout the squad. But, in my opinion, the final name I mentioned is one of, if not the biggest problem at Man City. Mancini’s indulgence of Mario Balotelli’s petulant attitude and antics simply has to have had a negative effect on other squad members! If Balotelli was Diego Maradona or if he had the on-pitch impact of Lionel Messi then perhaps, just perhaps, Mancini could somehow justify his lenience and tolerance towards his fellow Italian. But Balotelli’s 25mins ‘performance’ as a substitute against Dortmund showcased a spoilt brat whose misbehaviour and ill-discipline can no longer be allowed to fester its stench at the club!

Mancini’s patience and his turning a blind eye to Balotelli’s many faults, both on and off the pitch, has shown him to be a weak manager! Perhaps some of City’s other highly-paid stars are beginning to take Balotelli’s lead and can no longer motivate themselves to perform under Mancini? Is Mancini’s position untenable? He must be congratulated for guiding City to the EPL title but there is little doubt that his ECL performance will have deeply disappointed his Middle-East paymasters. Is the ECL beyond his capabilities? Certainly he had ample opportunity to stamp his authority on the competition while at Inter but failed to progress beyond the quarter-final with a team that Jose Mourinho led to ECL glory in his solitary season having succeeded Mancini at the San Siro. And with the spectre of Mourinho already stalking Mancini – the Portuguese almost certain to leave Real Madrid in the summer – might his time be already up at City? I doubt Sheikh Mansour will act with the immediate ruthlessness of Roman Abramovich, but if City were to lose this weekend’s home derby against Man Utd, don’t be surprised to see the vultures circling Eastlands and a ‘Special Ego’ re-entering the EPL circus come next summer….