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….?

United They Fell….

The debate will rage on but the end result remains the same; Man Utd’s European adventure is over for another season. You’d think, as a Liverpool fan, that this could descend into a gloating piece about our rivals premature exit from the European Champions League…but instead I want to take a constructive reflection on last night’s events.

The major talking point – at least amongst Utd fans – was the red card issued to Nani for his collision with Real Madrid full-back Alvaro Arbeloa. I term it a ‘collision’ because, in my opinion, it was just that. A coming-together of two players whose only intention was to win the ball for their team. It was certainly not a full-blooded challenge that would automatically be deemed worthy of a red card. The post-match debate centred on the lack of intent on the part of Nani, something that cannot be argued against being that his eyes were focused firmly on the ball throughout; in fact the Portuguese probably had no clue that Arbeloa was also fast closing in to compete for possession. But the FIFA Laws of the Game make no mention of ‘intent’, merely that a red card should be issued for “serious foul play” whereby there is “use of excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play” or for a tackle that “endangers the safety of an opponent”. Whether Nani intended to harm his opponent is thus irrelevant, despite the misguided arguments of the English media.

As John Dykes concludes in his own blog on supersport.com, Nani was probably guilty of “reckless endangerment”, whereby “reckless means that the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent” and was thus worthy of a yellow card caution. I would tend to agree with that summary but, also in agreement with Mr Dykes, I can see how the referee reached the conclusion that a red card was warranted. Harsh? Definitely! I felt at the time, and in hindsight, that a red card was a brutal punishment for what was clearly an accidental collision….but I can understand how the referee could have judged it differently on his solitary view of the incident at full-pace. Even the professional pundits argued opposite corners…Gary ‘Red Nev’ Neville believing it to have been an unjust decision while Utd legend Roy Keane adamant that it was a deserved red!?

Did it change the dynamic of the game? It would be futile to suggest otherwise; Man Utd had contained Real Madrid efficiently with a high tempo while Madrid were finding it difficult to express themselves as Utd pressed their playmakers into mistakes. But the red card galvanised Real Madrid – aided by a tactically astute substitution by Jose Mourinho of Luka Modric for Arbeloa – while Man Utd were visibly – and understandably – deflated at the prospect of playing out the remaining half hour with just ten men. Could Utd have held Madrid at bay with a full complement of players? Perhaps, but it is an outcome we shall never know.

But to the positives for Man Utd. It was imperative for the credibility of the EPL and its increasingly desperate brag of being the ‘best league in the World’ that their runaway leaders were not slaughtered on the European stage by the third best side in Spain. With Man City and Chelsea competing for the title of the most inept and embarrassing Champions League campaign of 2012/13 – neither having emerged from their respective groups (and City not even clinging to the consolation prize that is Europa League participation) – and Arsenal’s battering at the hands of FC Bayern, Man Utd simply had to perform with credit against Real Madrid. And unquestionably they did, applying themselves admirably to the task on the field of play while Sir Alex Ferguson once again demonstrated his tactical nous in outsmarting Mourinho with Danny Welbeck shrewdly deployed to press Real linchpin Xabi Alonso and, in the first-leg Phil Jones, and Ryan Giggs last night sticking valiantly to the enviable task of shackling Ronaldo. The EPL as a collective group owe Man Utd a debt of immense gratitude for their commitment and skill in competing valiantly against the European giant that is Real Madrid! Although of little consolation to Sir Alex and his players, at least their brave efforts have gone some way towards redeeming the EPL’s damaged reputation across Europe having suffered the paltry contributions of City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Danny Welbeck in particular has come of age over recent weeks and, while he still looks rough around the edges in terms of technique and composure in front of goal, his application and desire will have impressed Sir Alex. The much-maligned – especially in this blog – Rafael showed a hitherto absent discipline, both positionally and temperamentally, in keeping Ronaldo as quiet as possible – yes he did still score in both legs – and David de Gea made several crucial saves – most notably in the Bernabeu – that will have boosted his confidence.

But it would be amiss of me to overlook perhaps the most seismic moment of last night’s contest, namely the presence of Wayne Rooney on the substitutes bench! There was a time when £30M Rooney was among the first names on the team-sheet, but this season he has been surpassed by RVP as the main man at Old Trafford and Sir Alex has openly questioned his fitness and, at times, his application and motivation at Utd. At 28yrs old Rooney ought to be entering the peak of his powers but many commentators, myself included, feared that his early breakthrough and his stocky physical stature would compromise his eventual career longevity. 2yrs ago Rooney made public his wish to leave Old Trafford for Man City, stating bizarrely that Man Utd could not match his ambition?!? A scandalous statement towards one of the biggest football clubs in the World, but one made with the intention of securing himself a bumper pay-rise and a brand spanking new contract. Man Utd buckled at the time….but Sir Alex Ferguson is not one to take such disrespectful behaviour and calmly sweep it under the carpet. Paul Ince, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy can all pay testament to the ruthless streak in Fergie’s armour!

Has the time come where the tables have turned and it is now Rooney that no longer matches Man Utd’s ambitions and plans for the future? Dropping him from the starting line up for such a pivotal game was a huge call by Sir Alex, a snub that will have left Rooney reeling from such a public slapdown. With the clinical RVP, the explosive Javier Hernandez and the raw potential of Danny Welbeck together with Fergie’s much-publicised interest in Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski, are Rooney’s days at Old Trafford numbered? £60M fees – as rumoured at the time of the City saga – are long since gone…but a bid in the summer from City or Chelsea – Rooney would never move overseas – valuing Rooney at anything close to £30M would perhaps set the wheels in motion for his departure from Old Trafford….

A Crossroads at Arsenal?

Among the most grateful beneficiaries to Rafa Benitez and his tetchy, demoralising car-crash reign at Stamford Bridge must be Arsene Wenger. Because, were it not for dear old Rafa and his forced smile and jolly refusal to accept the scale of his passionate loathing by the Chelsea fans to his every move during his increasingly kamikaze media briefings, the spotlight of interrogation would be shining a good deal brighter in the face of Arsenal’s beleaguered manager.

Defeat to north-London rivals Spurs does not necessarily confirm a seismic shift of power across to White Hart Lane, but it has serious implications to Arsenal’s hopes of somehow clinging onto their enviable sequence of consecutive seasons in the European Champions League. But as dismal as Arsenal are, and as much as I would like to see their absurd selling policy come back to haunt them, the inconsistency among the other top four candidates does not, in my opinion, automatically end Arsenal’s run of Champions League qualification. Although they are by far the weakest of the contenders – I include Spurs and Chelsea as their rivals (Man City probably just too far ahead and Everton sadly just too far behind) – Spurs have the most difficult fixture list ahead and could yet implode – and are hampered by the ineffectual waste that is Emmanuel Adebayor -…while you never know the next chapter in the lunacy of Stamford Bridge.

I think Arsenal and Wenger’s decline can be identified in these areas. Firstly the absurd selling of every top player they have had over the last three or four years….a policy in which Wenger has been wholly complicit. Nobody can sustain a position at the top table while being routinely stripped of their prized assets. And willingly stripped too…becoming a feeder club to the likes of Man Utd, Man City and Barcelona. Wenger’s recent signings to replace such prestigious names have largely been poor, with arguably only Vermaelen, Cazorla and just possibly Arteta being worthy of a club boasting Arsenal’s apparent lofty status. The flops have been dramatic; Chamakh, Arshavin, Gervinho, Mertesacker and Andre Santos being utter disasters while Koscielny, Rosicky, Walcott, Giroud and Podolski have hardly ripped the EPL apart. The staggering revelation of Arsenal’s current wage budget being in excess of £150M a year – the 4th highest in the EPL – explodes the myth of Arsenal’s oft-bragged claim to be a ‘well-run business model’ too; even accounting for the coaching staff a £150M wage bill equates to close to £5M per year for a thirty-man squad?!? To be paying such a thin squad such exorbitant salaries is ridiculous…and explains why Arsenal have had such difficulty shifting extremely average players including Arshavin, Bendtner, Chamakh and Denilson (all barring Arshavin on temporary loan deals elsewhere). Theo Walcott is the prime example…a moderate career thus far at Arsenal yet a brief run of form convinced the board to sanction a new contract lavishing close to £100,000 per week on the erratic Englishman. I’m sure Man Utd fans wouldn’t agree, but wouldn’t those funds have been better diverted to persuade RVP to stay at the Emirates?

But I don’t think the problems are solely down to the playing staff. The stubborness of Wenger that was once an asset is now badly affecting his judgement in all aspects of the game. His bizarre tactical decision at the weekend to play a high defensive line – including the carthorse that is Mertesacker – against the quickest counter-attacking side in the EPL was suicidal! Vermaelen’s positional uncertainty belied his lack of faith in Mertesacker’s ability to cope with Spurs’ attacks; the Belgian seeming to fear a mistake from his partner so much that he lost concentration regarding his own duties. Full-back Nacho Monreal also identified a chronic vulnerability to pace through the heart of the Arsenal defence, culminating in him taking position consistently behind his central defenders! Wenger’s players could identify the problem, yet the manager failed to react?! His blind faith in substandard players, no more so than the atrocious Wojciech Szczesny in goal – maybe a half-decent prospect but certainly not a front-line EPL keeper – has compromised Arsenal in what has become a 8th consecutive campaign without silverware. Injury-prone Kieron Gibbs is another luxury whose continued presence in the Arsenal squad baffles me.

There was a time when Wenger held a virtual monopoly on the vibrant French transfer market, securing the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira for a snip of their true value….albeit from Italian clubs. Yet recently Wenger has been beaten to the punch, or he has been simply unaware, of talent in France that would hugely improve his squad….notably Yohan Cabaye, Mattieu Debuchy and Moussa Sissoko who were snapped up instead by Newcastle. That would simply never have happened during his heyday when Wenger acted decisively to bring Nicolas Anelka, Silvain Wiltord, Robert Pires and Emmanuel Petit to England.

Any managerial dynasty runs the risk of growing stale. Liverpool’s triumphant period during the 1970′s and 1980′s was based on the traditional ‘boot-room’ ideology that saw Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish educated in the ways of the club yet willing, encouraged and, most importantly, confident and able to impose their own interpretation of that mantra upon their teams. Sir Alex Ferguson has governed Old Trafford since 1986, but he has consistently refreshed both his playing squads and his backroom team in that period. Fergie has ruthlessly disposed of prima-donna personalities including Gordon Strachan, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy to serve the development of the club while behind the scenes he has shrewdly welcomed new coaching ideas with the appointments of Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Walter Smith, Carlos Quieroz and currently Mike Phelan in the role of assistant manager. In Wenger’s entire 15yr reign at Arsenal he has had just two assistant managers, Pat Rice and, following Rice’s retirement last year, Steve Bould. It is as if the autocratic Wenger is happy to stick to the tried-and-tested, perhaps scared to expose himself to the risk of being seen to be outdated in his own methods and techniques? The apparent sidelining of Bould’s influence on the training ground would suggest Wenger is, at best, reluctant to embrace new ideas and at worst downright hostile to outside input. On the ownership side neither the Glazers at Man Utd nor ‘silent’ Stan Kroenke at Arsenal are particularly vocal, or indeed visible, at their respective clubs. But Sir Alex Ferguson recently paid a glowing tribute to the work and endeavour behind the scenes of Chief Executive David Gill – Gill is departing Old Trafford at the end of the season for a UEFA post – while at the Emirates, since the retirement of the respected David Dein in a similar role, Arsenal and Wenger have been notable in their transfer dithering and hesitancy.

To anyone who watched Wenger’s initial impact at Arsenal, who begrudgingly admired the exciting brand of attacking football that this unknown Frenchman was routinely serving up in challenging Man Utd’s mid-1990′s EPL dominance, this current state of affairs is undeniably sad. Wenger can be credited with revolutionising English football on his arrival, from the influx of overseas players to tactical variations and modern training methods. Arsenal as a club and the Arsenal boardroom have spanking new stadium and many millions nestling securing in their bank balances while Wenger has presided over the most successful period in the club’s history. But that golden era seems an awful long time ago; 8yrs without a trophy is inexcusable for a club boasting Arsenal’s prestige and Wenger’s desperate claim that there is a fifth trophy to contest – fourth place in the EPL in addition to the domestic and European titles on offer – shows his own frustration at his lack of tangible recent success. Are Arsenal further away than ever from ending that drought? Arguably yes! Their league points tally is their lowest under Wenger at this stage of the season, they were dumped out of both domestic cup competitions by lower league opposition for the first time under Wenger – to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers – and few expect anything other than FC Bayern completing the most routine of victories in the upcoming Champions League tie having comprehensively outplayed, out-fought and out-thought Arsenal in a dominant 3-1 first-leg win. The playing squad is unquestionably the weakest since Wenger’s arrival – who apart from media darling Jack Wilshere would threaten the established names at Man Utd, Man City, Spurs or Chelsea? – and, without the Champions League financial windfall, Arsenal have to strengthen in arguably six or seven key first-team areas while managing a £150M+ current wage bill and without any prized assets left to sell!?

Wenger’s contract expires at the end of next season, in 2014. Does the Arsenal boardroom act now and replace him with a new manager, or risk another year of transfer dithering and the potential danger of sliding further out of contention as Liverpool have done since their heyday? There is apparently £70M+ available to spend on strengthening the squad – a time-honoured transfer window tradition is listening to Arsenal brag about their healthy war-chest funds only to see abject signings emerge – but can the board trust a manager who presumably deems Giroud, Podolski and Mertesacker worthy successors to RVP, Fabregas and Sol Campbell? Can Wenger truly bring himself to spend the necessary cash to attract truly international class players? Can Arsenal as a club – minus Champions League football – attract the standard of player to return them to the top table? Or is it time for the Arsene Wenger chapter to close before his proud legacy becomes more deeply scarred and tarnished by his recent failings? Could the much-coveted Michael Laudrup be the heir-apparent to reinvigorate the Arsenal?

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?

The Lost Art

To my generation there are few symbols that more passionately represent the glorious exuberance, the joy, the purity and the natural style of the beautiful game of football than the iconic yellow shirt of the Brazilian national team.

The names just roll off the tongue; Garrincha, Pele, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Zico, Falcao, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. In a mere 18mths Brazil host the FIFA World Cup 2014. There is already a fervent anticipation from an expectant public as football returns to its spiritual home. This carnival of celebration culminates in a Final at Rio de Janiero’s world-famous Maracana soccer citadel. Any failure by Neymar & Co. to reach that glorious conclusion would spark unprecedented scenes of national mourning. But, having been surpassed as the embodiment of footballing perfection to a generation of wide-eyed fans by the tiki-taka genius showcased by Barcelona’s blaugrana and having suffered perhaps the ultimate international humiliation of defeat to England, the once-revered Selecao find themselves at arguably their lowest ebb.

Rather like the English GCSE secondary school qualification FIFA’s World Rankings are not always the most reliable or credible indicator of genuine merit; but to a nation who boast a record five World Cup triumphs and routinely topped those rankings, Brazil’s occupying of an all-time low position of 18th is treated as a national disgrace! But it cannot be altogether surprising to see Brazil languishing around the second-tier of World football. Despite impressing in qualification Brazil were dismal at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa under the ultra-pragmatic Dunga and were, if at all possible, even worse at the 2011 Copa America; winning a solitary game in four against the powerhouses of Ecuador, Venezuela and Paraguay before being unceremoniously dumped out by the latter on penalties! Mano Menezes, who had replaced the hapless Dunga after the South African debacle, somehow escaped unscathed from the wreckage of the Copa America embarrassment…but he could not survive his team’s perceived failure at the London Olympics 2012 in a tournament Brazil saw as the perfect build-up to their World Cup homecoming.

Perhaps in an effort to recreate the last great Brazil side of 2002, the CBF have gone back in time to appoint former-World Cup-winning coach Luis Felipe Scolari to revive their spirits. Scolari boasts an impressive international record with both the Selecao and Portugal – despite being hung out to dry during his brief spell at Chelsea – but his 2002 vintage included the stunning attacking trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, the ‘defence’ contained World-renowned names such as Cafu, Lucio and Roberto Carlos while Arsenal’s industrious Gilberto Silva held the midfield together and AC Milan’s Dida stood between the posts. Does the Class of ’13/14 boast anything like that level of ability and/or experience?

You cannot judge a team by one performance but Brazil were poor against England. So poor in fact that they managed to make England look half-decent at times! In fact they were just about as far away from a traditional Brazil side as you could possibly imagine; sluggish in movement, missing any spark of inspiration, a concerning lack of pace and what seemed a reluctance to break out of Scolari’s tactical straight-jacket with that trademark burst of individual flair that has won them fans the World over! Yes it was Scolari’s first game back in the hot-seat but his 4-2-2-2 default line-up looks hideously dated and lacking flexibility. England cut through the central areas at will and the reluctance of Brazil’s attacking players to help out defensively will be ruthlessly punished by better sides than the Three Lions.

I have to say that the biggest conundrum facing Scolari in my opinion is the supposed talisman of this new look side, Neymar! Flamboyantly gifted, outrageously talented, better than Lionel Messi (admittedly only in the eyes of the most one-eyed commentator the World has ever seen, Pele) and a £40M+ signing coveted across Europe! Or at least that is what Neymar is supposed to be! Because, on the numerous times I have watched him in action he looks embarrassingly lightweight, he seems to lack belief and quickly loses interest while the game passes him by. Frankly, his actual effective contributions are few and far between. Perhaps he is still settling into his role as the face of Brazil 2014? Perhaps the hype, the media attention and the expectation has swamped him, instilling fear and restricting his natural game? I don’t know, but as much as the financial boom in Brazilian football must be a factor in his staying at Santos until after the World Cup, I cannot help but wonder whether the spectres of previous lightweight wonderkids emerging from Brazil, specifically Denilson and Robinho, may be a more significant factor in the lack of any concrete offer for his services despite the numerous rumours of cast-iron interest from European giants? When you consider the respective merits of 21yr old Neymar and the prodigious talent of 17yr old Ronaldo when he arrived in Europe at PSV, before illuminating Barcelona, there really is no comparison whatsoever!

But in Neymar’s defence, he cannot be expected to carry the team on his own! Although reports suggest at something of a resurgence for Ronaldinho at Athletic Mineiro, his recall to the national set-up alongside the likes of Fred and Luis Fabiano smacks of desperation rather than an inspired selection. With due acknowledgement of the riches now available in Brazil, if Ronaldinho had anything to offer on the highest European stage then AC Milan’s fabled Milanello training, conditioning and medical facility would’ve ensured his prolonged stay at the San Siro rather than encouraging his swift return to South America. With Hulk sulking in semi-retirement at Zenit and the most over-hyped striker in recent years, Pato, returning home to Brazil with his tail firmly between his legs, the options in attack are hardly blessed. At the other end of the pitch Dani Alves has been strangely subdued in international colours while his clubmate at the Camp Nou, Adriano, will probably have to settle for bench-warming behind Jordi Alba and the returning Eric Abidal. Debutant Dante looked a colossus at the heart of the defence, but any team who rely on the defensive discipline of David Luiz is bound to come unstuck more often than not. And the midfield, apart from the silky Oscar, look industrious and willing but lacking in true craft and, crucially, lacking that essential Brazilian magic.

Are there positives? Of course! Brazil are by no means a lost cause. Julio Cesar continued his impressive EPL form in goal and the former Inter goalkeeper looks a solid candidate for the World Cup. Dante made the most of his belated elevation to the international stage at Wembley, Ramires offers energy and industry, Oscar has adapted well to the physical demands of the EPL and looks a star in the making, Lucas Moura has potential at PSG while heaven knows why the sparkling latin contingent at Shakthar Donetsk continue to be overlooked. And there are injuries too; Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva and Spurs’ Sandro would expect to feature in future squads, PSG’s Thiago Silva and Inter’s Juan Jesus ought to compete for selection ahead of David Luiz, Real Madrid’s Marcelo may feature while the much-coveted Leandro Damiao must surely usurp the ageing Fred and Luis Fabiano. But who is going to sprinkle that essential stardust?

But with no competitive matches outside of this year’s Confederations Cup warm-up, Brazil and Scolari face a race against time to become truly competitive and to produce a credible display on home soil come 2014. As a romantic football fan I would love to see the swaggering Selecao of years gone by match up against the metronomic Spanish carousel, the powerful and emerging German side and a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina who will be particularly motivated to triumph at the home of their greatest rivals! But, I wonder with a sense of sadness whether the possession-dominated modern game almost renders the naturally flamboyant Brazilian style obsolete? Whilst I know that we will never again see Pele’s 1970 benchmark or the fine 1982 squad of Zico and Socrates, I would hate to see the outrageous skill and flair coached out of Brazil for the sake of conforming to the current possession-based approach. The hard-nosed 1974 incarnation won few friends, the uber-defensive World Cup Winners of 1994 were fortunate that they could call upon the gifts of Romario and Bebeto while the 2010 side were just abysmal!

It is always a futile exercise to pitch sides from different eras against each other but it’d be interesting to see the contrasting styles of the 2002 Brazil against the current Spanish generation. Spain’s 4-5-1/4-6-0 incorporating Puyol and Pique, Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta against what could loosely be described as a 2-1-2-5 Brazil with Cafu and Roberto Carlos masquerading as full-backs (but playing as advanced wingers) and the trio of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo…with Gilberto and Lucio manning the defences? Brazil 2013/14 patently do not have the players to attempt such wanton bravado…but I for one hope they possess a fraction of the style, the ambition and the desire to stay true to their traditions!

Englishmen DEFINITELY Don’t Dive…..

Michael Owen’s vociferous protestations that English fair play and jolly sporting integrity has become crudely smeared by the dastardly antics of foreign scoundrels took something of a beating in the weekend’s EPL action with Jay Rodriguez’s exotic tumble for Southampton against Aston Villa. Owen, famous for only succumbing to the penalty box turf with both legs broken and under heavy machine gun fire, would have been devastated that Rodriguez’s dying swan impression could dare tarnish the courageous reputation of his fellow sporting countrymen!

“But he is half-Spanish on his father’s side” would no doubt be Michael Owen QC’s opening gambit as counsel for the defence; “and it was a particularly long and treacherous blade of grass that had undoubtedly hardened sufficiently in the icy British winter to brutally obstruct the natural momentum of young Jay”.

I jest of course, but the unpalatable truth for Owen and the loyal, but admittedly dwindling Eyes Wide Shut brigade who insist on perpetuating the myth that English players stand above such heinous skulduggery, is that Jay Rodriguez – English born and bred despite his European surname – dived under no contact whatsoever to win what proved to be a decisive penalty kick in a crucial bottom-of-the-table clash for his team! And the British media’s response? A deafening silence! A brief mention of the incident in the post-match written reports of course, a fleeting reference by TV pundits and then a nonchalant sweeping of the entire affair under a very convenient carpet!

Would a similar incident involving Luis Suarez or Gareth Bale have been treated in quite the same casual manner? Judging by the wall-to-wall front, back and centre-page coverage of Suarez’s entirely accidental handball last weekend or Bale’s most recent booking for an apparent dive when he was quite clearly fouled by the opposing defender and should instead have been awarded a penalty, I would wager the media would be positively foaming at the mouth in anticipation of gorging on another feast of righteous indignation!

The truth is, Aston Villa and Southampton are in a relegation battle and Rodriguez’s outrageous cheating earned what could be a crucial 3pts for the ‘Saints’. Yes diving, shirt pulling, foul play and players claiming for absolutely every decision during the course of a match no matter the merit are an unfortunate, and growing, stain on the game. But, please, let’s finally dispel the ludicrous notion that it is entirely an overseas scourge…..

FIFA ‘Spanish’ Team of the Year…..

The English media is in meltdown! Okay, there was a begrudging acknowledgement through a collective gritting of the teeth that the La Liga superstars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta were deservedly ranked as the three finest players of the past 12mths. But, if you listened very carefully, you could actually hear the moment when Daily Telegraph journalist Henry Winter and his fellow EPL sympathisers’ hearts shattered into a million tiny pieces when the FIFA Team of the Year called up not a single English Premier League player! Y’see, dear, jovial Henry continues to peddle the battered myth that Michel Platini’s utopia of an all-encompassing European Super League is actually already in existence….and that it can be salivated over on a weekly basis within the shores of England’s green and pleasant land! Yet while the energy, the tempo and the commitment of England’s premier football competition cannot be in doubt, the steady decline in its actual quality has been very much in evidence for the last 5yrs and counting.

For the second consecutive season England finds its much-vaunted and vastly over-hyped EPL Champions dumped out of the European Champions League at the very first hurdle; this season seeing Man City replicating the humiliatingly premature exit of their city rivals Man Utd last year. Fellow EPL representatives Chelsea completed the worst defence of the trophy in its history – as the Champions League rather than its previous European Cup guise – and for the second year running England boasts just two survivors from the Group Stage. And, frankly, few commentators believe Man Utd or Arsenal will do anything other than succumb to the powerhouses of Real Madrid and FC Bayern respectively in the upcoming knock-out phase.

But that is not to say that there are no outstanding individuals plying their trade in the EPL. Robin van Persie continues to enjoy a remarkable run of goal-scoring form, David Silva and Juan Mata are the creative linchpins of their respective clubs, Sergio Aguero enjoyed a fine debut EPL season with Joe Hart and Vincent Kompany providing stellar performances at the other end of the field, Ashley Cole remains a fine left-back while Marouane Fellaini is developing into a dominant midfield presence, Gareth Bale is a force of nature and Luis Suarez is finally scoring the goals that his performances regularly merit.

Having said that, how many would genuinely challenge – without the benefit of Henry Winter’s rose-tinted glasses – for a nomination into FIFA’s Team of the Year? For the record FIFA chose the following XI; Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Radamel Falcao.

The first obvious note is that the Coca Cola and Pepsi of European football – Barcelona and Real Madrid – can boast ten of the eleven in that line-up, with only Atletico Madrid’s much-coveted Falcao disrupting the symmetry of a Real/Barca closed shop. And of equal importance, whether it be the 2011/12 European season or simply 2012 as a calendar year, all of them have won silverware! Most of the eleven featured in Spain’s EURO 2012 victory, Real Madrid won La Liga, Barcelona had a relatively disappointing trophy haul of just the European Super Cup 2011, the Club World Championship and the Copa del Rey and Falcao led Atletico to the Europa League before single-handedly annihilating Chelsea in the European Super Cup 2012. So if a mandatory selection criteria is that they must have won a trophy then RVP, rather unsurprisingly at “line our own pockets first and bugger the fans” Arsenal, would fall short on that count alone! But surely it is too simplistic to disregard an otherwise worthy candidate on the basis that their club/country did not secure tangible success? Djimi Traore, Harry Kewell, Wes Brown, Anderson and John Terry are all European Champions League ‘winners’….but that accolade does not necessarily elevate them to ‘world-class’.

But, for what it’s worth, I’ll add my own suggestions and choices to challenge FIFA’s selection. Iker Casillas has been the bedrock for Real Madrid and Spain’s unprecedented success over the last decade and more, and remains one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. But, rather like classic songs or rock guitarists being consistently voted the ‘best of all time’ regardless of the competition, Casillas has monopolised the Number One position to the extent that he barely has to dig out his gloves to be acclaimed by FIFA! This season though Casillas has found himself relegated to the bench by Jose Mourinho – some, probably rightly, suggest as part of a power struggle within the corridors of the Bernabeu – but I would hail the performances of Juventus and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon as worthy of consideration. Alongside fellow countryman Andrea Pirlo, Buffon went through the entire 2011/12 Serie A season unbeaten and was one of the stand-out performers during the Azzurri’s unlikely progress to the Final of EURO 2012!

I hate Dani Alves! Actually, maybe hate is too strong a word but I just do not see ‘it’ with Barcelona and Brazil’s alleged right-back. I see him as defensively weak and ridiculously over-hyped in advanced positions; kind of a slightly less of a liability than Liverpool’s Glen Johnson! And there can be no more brutal and cutting criticism than that! Would the versatile FC Bayern and Germany captain Philipp Lahm not be a better choice? Lahm is far more reliable than Alves defensively and can be devastating in the attacking third of the field! Another option when there is such a paucity of quality at full-back would be to move Sergio Ramos to right-back and select a different centre-back to partner the superb Gerard Pique? I would look towards either Vincent Kompany, Mats Hummels or Giorgio Chiellini to fulfil that role. Vincent Kompany was truly outstanding in captaining Man City to their first EPL title, but his form this season has been poor – perhaps largely due to Roberto Mancini’s unnecessary tactical tinkering. Mats Hummels has developed into a calm and decisive centre back, winning the Bundesliga with Dortmund and establishing himself within a fine German national team. But again I find myself drawn back to Serie A and the ever-dependable Giorgio Chiellini. A formidable presence at the heart of Juventus‘ championship-winning side and a granite rock upon which Italy built their Euro 2012 campaign! I don’t actually think that Marcelo is the best left-back at his club, let alone in Europe! Fabio Coentrao is the superior player for me and I see Marcelo as more of a left midfielder in the mould of Gareth Bale. Would Bale’s case have been strengthened with Spurs in the Champions League or if he didn’t play for the minnows of Wales? Jordi Alba’s surge into the limelight for Spain probably came too late, but I might just have been tempted to trust in the experience of Champions League winner Ashley Cole for one last hurrah!

Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Andres Iniesta!?! It really doesn’t get much better than that…apart from with the inclusion of Jordan Henderson of course! Iniesta is untouchable and Xavi’s metronomic passing and tempo is unmatched, but could Andrea Pirlo’s performances for club and country have elevated him into the side ahead of Xabi Alonso? I am a huge fan of Alonso and curse the day he left Liverpool on account of the fact that Rafa Benitez considered Gareth Barry to be the more accomplished player (?!!?) but the veteran Pirlo enjoyed a fantastic season. A nod in the direction of Yaya Toure as well; whose physical presence, power and technique proved a decisive factor in Man City’s EPL triumph and would add steel to a fairly lightweight midfield combination.

Messi, Ronaldo and Falcao!?!?! Two probable all-time greats and the most sought-after striker in World football?!? If RVP finally adds an EPL title and a credible performance in the latter stages of the Champions League to his resume then he would present an even stronger case for inclusion, but it is difficult to argue against Falcao. Samuel Eto’o remains the only African player to have been selected in a FIFA Team of the Year but a sentimental vote may have gone to Didier Drogba, who dragged Chelsea kicking and screaming to Champions League glory with talismanic displays against Barcelona and FC Bayern?

So there you have it. Of course football is all about opinions and debate; the FIFA votes come from all across the globe with captains and coaches of all competing nations in the FIFA family – as Sepp Blatter would tag it. Just as the Thailand vote for Sergio Busquets was greeted with a slightly snobbish mirth, so surely must Georgia’s considered view that Wayne Rooney surpassed all others in 2012?!?! But with the first African FIFA World Cup less than 3yrs ago, does La Liga’s domination to such an extent, and two clubs at that, suggest conclusively that while the mouthpieces speak of a global reach the cold harsh reality is of an elite group that is dwindling year on year? Perhaps it is instead just an acknowledgement of two phenomenal club sides showcasing their talents in the same domestic competition at the same time? Maybe next year’s Team of the Year will confirm this as an exception rather than the rule of things to come? Hopefully the EPL, Serie A and the Bundesliga will have more to say come 2012/13! In any case, my team has Messi and Ronaldo….so I’ve got half a chance against anyone….

 

 

Ba or Sturridge?

The opening salvo’s of the January transfer window have already been fired with confirmation of two of the worst kept secrets in the EPL, namely Daniel Sturridge leaving Chelsea for Liverpool and Demba Ba jumping ship at Newcastle to join anyone that would pay enough cash! But who will be toasting the better deal?

For the purpose of this blog we’ll accept the reported fees of £12M for Sturridge and £7M for Ba. There can be little doubt that, on paper at least, Chelsea have acquired a more prolific striker for a fraction over half the price they sold Sturridge for. Since arriving in English football 3yrs ago Ba has averaged more than a goal every two games for West Ham Utd and Newcastle Utd, scoring 36 EPL goals in 66 appearances. Sturridge on the other hand averages just about a goal every four games, netting 26 times in his 96 EPL appearances.

But those basic statistics do not perhaps tell the whole story because Ba and Sturridge are at radically different stages in their respective careers. 27yr old Demba Ba is an established international striker for Senegal, he has seemingly overcome a serious knee injury that scuppered an earlier move to Stoke City to perform reasonably consistently for Newcastle and his fine form has finally earned a move to the current, if already deposed, European Champions. Ba ought to be entering his prime as a professional player and, if he remains free from injury, could prove to be an extremely shrewd £7M investment.

Liverpool have banked on 23yr old Daniel Sturridge finally fulfilling a rich potential that has been evident, albeit sporadically, since his breakthrough at Man City back in 2006. A potential that convinced Chelsea to agree to a tribunal-set fee rising to some £6.75M to prise him away from City in 2009….despite the fact he was out-of-contract! A loan spell to Bolton Wanderers kick-started Sturridge’s career – 8 goals in just 12 EPL appearances – and a reinvigorated Sturridge continued to progress on his return to Stamford Bridge, amassing a creditable return of 11 goals in 30 appearances. But Sturridge’s career has unquestionably stalled at Chelsea; his path to the first-team blocked by former-talisman Didier Drogba, the untouchable Fernando Torres – look what happened to Roberto di Matteo when he dared to drop Torres – and the exciting midfield additions of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard. Rarely given a consistent run of games, often played in a wider role than he would ideally like? Perhaps. But the impression is that Sturridge has patently failed to rise to the challenge of competition at Chelsea

Where these two signings share a common ground though is the perception that they boast a poor attitude, a disruptive streak and a perception that they elevate themselves above their actual merit. Demba Ba was all singing and dancing as the focal point of the Newcastle attack….and then international colleague Papiss Cisse arrived on the scene! Ba’s nose was put seriously out of joint and the contents of his pram strewn all across the North-East as he was forced to share the billing with his £10M partner; an unwanted positional move to the left of Newcastle’s front-three greeted with all the enthusiasm of a spoilt brat, his bottom lip ploughing a lonely furrow on the wing as he sulked his way through the second half of the season. A season in which Ba plundered an impressive 15 EPL goals before January saw him net just once after Cisse sauntered into St James Park!

And so Ba and his representatives responded to the challenge laid down by Cisse and manager Alan Pardew in the professional manner that always warms the heart; namely by touting themselves the length and breadth of the UK and across Europe like a cheap whore in the Christmas sales! Okay they had been trying to engineer a move away pretty much as soon as Ba had been fitted with his black and white kit, but the shocking revelation that a £7M release clause existed in his Newcastle contract which had somehow become public knowledge made his departure from Tyneside inevitable. A friend of mine likened Ba to former EPL mercenary Nicolas Anelka, albeit a far less talented version of the nomadic Frenchman. Anelka would invariably explode onto the scene at a new club, but the rumblings of discontent were never far from the surface as he/his representatives – including his brother – almost constantly persisted in blatantly trying to secure another transfer coupled with their next big pay cheque. Only towards the end of his career did Anelka settle at a club beyond the customary 2-3yrs before heading off for a lucrative retirement in China. Is Ba following the same path? If his reaction to Cisse’s arrival was so poor and his performances so lethargic when asked to play out-of-position, is his response likely to be any less disruptive when confronted with the immovable Fernando Torres occupying the traditional ‘number nine’ role and the possible early return of Romelu Lukaku? And what about the knee injury and the likelihood of Chelsea risking such an outlay on a player that cannot be insured in the normal way?

Daniel Sturridge has demonstrated a less obvious disruptive and egotistical streak, but I certainly get the impression that he has ideas way above his station. You cannot fall out with so many managerial personalities and coaching styles, as Sturridge has done throughout his short career to date, without there being some severe question-marks over your own attitude, behaviour and application. Rumours of his insistence that he plays centrally for Liverpool – rumours which were of course denied – does not bode well, nor does a reported £70,000 salary package for a player who, despite his four questionably deserved England caps, has actually achieved precious little in his career thus far. Luis Suarez is undoubtedly – and fully deservedly – the main man at Anfield and it will be interesting to see how Sturridge’s attitude and ego cope with that situation? Brendan Rodgers appears to have pre-empted any delusions of grandeur by publicly slapping Sturridge down almost immediately; suggesting pointedly that he cannot trade on ‘potential’ forever and that this is his last chance to prove himself at EPL level!

Ba and Sturridge have much to prove at their new clubs. Ba ought to relish the opportunity to perform for a club of Chelsea’s current stature – although the motivation behind the transfer is largely money-orientated – whilst Sturridge ought to be energised by the challenge presented in re-establishing Liverpool as an EPL force. Yet both carry mental baggage and it’ll be interesting to see how they adapt and react when things aren’t going their way….