Monday, 19 May 2014

Arsene's Back (Sort Of)

I saw a programme the other day about wasps and was dead taken by their nests: beautiful, ornate, sturdy-looking but paper-thin. These wasps have built the Arsenal team, I thought to meself.

Well, yes, except occasionally, when cornered, your average wasp'll sting you. And from somewhere Arsenal found enough venom to ward off Hull City on Saturday (dressed as wasps themselves to be fair) and I think everyone, barring fans of Spurs and Hull, breathed a huge sigh of relief for the manager.

Never has a manager celebrated with such fatigue. You got the impression, even as the tie came off (you flirt, Arsene!) and his squad lobbed him up and down as his furrowed face dripped with champagne, that he just wanted to go indoors and read a nice book.

He won't say it but I'm pretty sure defeat in the Cup Final would've seen Wenger chuck it all in. Who wouldn't have. Every time questions have been asked this season about his side in the big games they've been swept away in the first half-hour. So it seemed on Saturday.

Two scruffy old goals from set-pieces - the Gunners' Achilles heel. The way they deal with crosses in boxes suggests not one of them wouldn't spoil their ballot papers. (Which is a roundabout way of saying 'Vote!' on Thursday).

Steve Bruce's boy nearly made it three - and young Alex put himself about manfully to refute claims of nepotism amongst cynical viewers (me included) - and Arsenal looked for all the world like they were going to ship another couple of the game was up before it began.

Santi Cazorla - with the aid of leaden-footed keeping by Mr McGregor - got Arsenal back in to the game. Cazorla was nearer to his best than we've seen recently, although I sometimes wonder why he doesn't go down a couple of sizes in the shorts department. In them keks he looks for all the world like Casper in 'Kes'.

After that, Hull got increasingly tired of running around after the Gooners tippy-tappying midfielders and the equaliser was all too inevitable.

Even then the Wenger boys made very heavy weather of it, although the winner fitted the properly clichéd bill by being 'worthy of winning any trophy. Aaron Ramsey was brilliant all season and his form going into these last few games makes his absence mid-season all the harder to take for you Gooners.

So the wait is over, the open-top bus can plod through the streets of Highbury and the gaffer gets three more years to prove that this is a 'turning-point' for the club.

Well now... here's the thing... This is the first season in my memory where the Arsene-Wipers were drowned out by the Arsene-kickers - and I'm talking Gooners here, not the rest of us. The neutrals have always verged on supporting Wenger cos he introduced some top -notch footy to this country, and this ongoing trophylessness was a story all of its own. We liked Moyes for the same reason , although short-sighted folk like Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't spot that.

Yes, the naysayers at the Emirates were in near full cry as Wenger's 1000th game saw his team panned 6-nothing by the most goal-shy Chelsea team in a generation. And what has the le vieux professeur done to change things? Nowt.

How did he alter the course of the Cup Final. He played two up front, which meant bringing on the great galumpher Sanogo - who seems to be doing his best to make everyone at the club really miss Gervinho (and the words 'miss' and 'Gervinho' are mutually inclusive.)

That hardly made a difference and so extra time saw the gaffer replace two fiddly-diddly midfielders with two more fiddly-diddly midfielders... Wilshere and Rosicky undoubtedly made a difference, but more through fresh legs than a change of policy.

It became clear what Wenger needs if he is going to change things around in terms of the Premier League and Champions League:

1. No more midfielders, especially the lazy ones. Mesut Ozil celebrated happily with the others but the clenching of his fist was the most work the bloke did all match. Wenger's got away with playing Arteta in a holding role but he's nowhere need the defensive ballast that Flamini was early doors.

2. A striker who can run around a bit, unlike Giroud, who is a French Teddy Sheringham, all brain and no pace. Walcott will help but if these repeat qualifications for the Champs League are worth anything they ought to be worth getting a fleet-footed and proven goalscorer on the books.

3. Sagna needs replacing and Jenkinson isn't the answer. So a right-back, then. And Vermaelen - ludicrously given the job of lifting the Cup after doing eff-all but sit down - surely there are some traditions we can keep hold of? - isn't half the player he was two years ago so they'll need a top centre-half to fill in.

The signs are that he'll have oodles of cash to splash if he wants it, but it's not Wenger's way to spend for the sake of spending. We'll see.

Maybe he'll look over the sea towards Diego Simeone and think that spending big isn't always the answer. What Simeone has done there is close to miraculous. He has a wage bill the size of Fulham's so I'm told.

Everything is down to hard work and playing for each other, he reckons. He readily resorts to that oft-mocked label that the Atletico play with a 'working-class' spirit which only enamours them to every plebeian football fan across the world whose team struggles on against the twin obstacles of lack of quality and lack of pure, naked cash.

They're not too easy on the eye but easier than a re-Mourinho-ed Chelsea whose budget dwarfs Atletico's. Even without their star turns Costa and Turan they came back form a goal down against the increasingly ticky-tacky Barca. I hope they turn Real over too. Frankly it'll give us all a boost.

Vamos Cholo!

And well done Arsenal too. Now sort yourselves out and you could even win the League. Ahem.

Monday, 12 May 2014

So... yeah... well done I suppose...

So after a riveting season it all ended rather tamely. Manchester City finished off the claret and blue threats of Villa and West Ham via the method of slow constriction. Allardyce and Lambert, two managers who have looked increasingly witless this season, went for the everyone behind the ball, hands-over-the-face, count-to-90-minutes and hope-for-the-best-option. Only Mourinho seems to make this work. He must have better buses.

It's hard not to like Citeh, particularly under the stewardship of Pellegrini, a man who has stuck firmly to his principles despite early season setbacks and has risen above and beyond any of the petty back-and-forths that pass for management these days.

The noisy neighbours look more and more tranquil in the very top tier. Not so much nouveau riche as landed gentry, they are now. Nine of the team that started on Sunday won the title two years ago. There's no need for big banners and coded eff-yous now. Just wave the trophies under the even quieter neighbours' noses.

They've been very easy on the eye, at times utterly ruthless, but if there's one player who represents their success this year it is Yaya Toure. Dietmar Hamann will tell you he doesn't do enough in his own half. Who the fuck cares, really, Didi? It's like complaining that Picasso wasn't much good at painting skirting-boards.

Toure is immense.He's scored hatfuls, some struck from distance but many simply scored through an extraordinary mixture of strength and grace. He's like Jonah Lomu with subtlety. Others have chipped in: Aguero, of course, but also Nasri, Silva and even Dzeko, a player who always confuses me when he plays well because I remain convinced that he's a bit shite.

Demichelis deserves credit for turning round a season in which he looked for all the world like a Stephen Seagal stunt double who wandered into the wrong set. Kompany is of course terrific and a very sound human being. You can't begrudge him a trophy.

So yes, well done Citeh and your very nice manager. But don't start with the 'we don't get enough credit for winning the league' tosh. I'm sorry but if you spend that amount of cash and wildly trash the UEFA financial fair play regulations and get a meaningless fine for your troubles, there's going to be a large amount of snide remarks about the Premier League being the least you could manage. Each and every one of them earns a bloody fortune. They should be good.

Chelsea deserve more derision. Almost as absurdly wealthy, they've won nowt in a particularly dreary way. Maybe, just maybe, Jose was wrong to come back. You can't always pick up where you left off with an old lover. The Happy One has looked so God-forsakenly miserable recently that I had to blink twice to remind myself that it wasn't Avram Grant.

Of course Liverpool and United are the real stories of the story. Moyes mismanaged to turn the champions into a bunch of hesitant nitwits, particularly at home in the Theatre Of Falling-Apart-At-The-Seams. Fergie oversaw the whole thing, puce and grim-faced up in the stands looking for all the world like a member of the politburo during a Moscow Mayday Parade. If Van Gaal gets the job, he's got a lot of work ahead of him.

Liverpool have of course been a joy, and Suarez a shining light of utter brilliance.  A bid's gone in for Lallana this morning. Rodgers isn't hanging about. We expect more of the same in August. I hope so cos it's been a wondrous breath of fresh air. But in the end they didn't win the title because they didn't quite know how to.

Citeh did have the know-how. They have been the best balanced side and although it came about in a constantly surprising way, the final outcome hardly makes one gasp.

Still at least all those England players at Citeh are going to come into the World Cup with a whole heap of confidence behind them. Joe Hart and... erm... oh, Milner played a bit didn't he?... Lescott? Not really... that bloke Rodwell is still there isn't he?...

Any road, Hodgson names his squad in two hours and there's no Ashley Cole. Good. Not cos Cole hasn't been a terrific player over the years - the best England's ever had in that position - but because it suggests that Hodgson might be taking some youth and creativity along with him. He might even have an eye on the future.

And with that in mind, here's the squad I'd take:

Hart, Foster, Forster; Johnson, Clyne, Jagielka, Cahill, Caulker, Jones, Baines, Shaw; Gerrard, Lallana, Henderson, Carrick, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Sterling, Barkley; Rooney, Welbeck, Lambert, Sturridge.

I don't think there's much to argue about with that squad. Possibly Ruddy instead of Foster. I wouldn't take Walker instead of Clyne even if he's fit. He's a danger to himself and the team is Kyle and it's not as if Glen Johnson doesn't have the odd ricket in him already.

Phil Jones goes (if fit) because he can play at full-back - I know not all that well but better than Smalling can. There's no place for other United makeweights either: Cleverley, Young, Smalling - they're not even works-in-progress these days, more like works-in-decline.

The forwards pick themselves now that Rodriguez can't make it. Milner can consider himself a little unlucky and I rather think that Hodgson will take him and leave out someone like Barkley. But I sort of hope not.

But all in all, I'm really looking forward to this World Cup because I absolutely know we can't win it. We'll be doing brilliantly just to get out of the group. Dyke's throat-slitting gesture wasn't funny. It was just accurate.

Which is more than can be said of his plan to revive our footballing youth. Let's just bung some B teams in amongst the lkower leagues and give 'em a bit of playing time. Really? Patronise hard-working league sides with your rich man's also-rans? No, if I was a Hartlepool regular I wouldn't pay tuppence to watch West Brom's second eleven. It's bollocks and patronising.

More money into grass-roots footy. More coaches. Better facilities. It'll all help. And in the shirt-term here's how to improve England's young footballers. Pick 'em. It's working at Southampton and Liverpool. And it'll save clubs a fortune. Just stop pissing about though Greg. Or we'll be doing doing that throat-slitting thingammy in your general direction.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Blown It

It was Edmund Burke who wrote: "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." Or in the case of the Premier League, all it takes is a bloody ludicrous eleven minutes of fuck-witted football suicide.
Throwing away a title has never been quite so inept, has it? A title that was still eminently possible has been chucked away like a chocolate wrapper out of a chav's car window.

This wasn't so much looking a gift horse in the mouth as dicing the poor nag into a thousand tiny pieces and handing it back to Tesco's lasagne suppliers all wrapped up in a pretty bow with a serving suggestion on the side.

All season long those of us who longed for someone other than the Super-Duper Rich to buck the trend and win the title have been worried that at the heart of their defence was a chasm as deep as the Marianas Trench. And so it proved at Selhurst Park, against a team that were the joint lowest scorers in the league.

If Palace can get three against you (Cardiff managed the same) you have a problem. Liverpool's back four have looked great this season - going forward. Skrtel has been scoring for fun at one end and creating a lot of fun for opponents at the other. Sakho has been the one on the end of golden chances in recent games and has shown all the finishing prowess of road-sign. Flanagan and Johnson have raided forward brilliantly but get a nose-bleed when they're on the edge of their own box.

Of course this is partly why we have enjoyed Liverpool so much this season. Even at 3-3 divine intervention almost arrived but the ball fell to Moses, who promptly failed to do the Lord's bidding and shinned it horribly.
Yes, this has been Keegan's Newcastle revisited. And I'd hold Rodgers a little bit responsible for the recent slip-ups. His team has been naïve and so has he.

After Mourinho's miserable unseating of the champions elect, with Rodgers unable to change tack during the game, the draw at Palace reeked of complacency - a complacency that was sown from the moment Your Man Bren suggested that the goal difference between them and Citeh could be made up in two games. A ludicrous statement even if a 5-0 victory against Pardew's Petit Filous is a formality.

At 3-0 after 50-odd minutes, Liverpool pressed forward in numbers hoping to bag another fifteen. After Delaney equalised Liverpool got a corner and put seven men in the Palace penalty area. Dim.

Dwight Gayle's brace, accomplished with no little class had as much to do with the absence of defenders around him. Liverpool were as madcap an outfit as the Crazy Gang* - which is appropriate given Flanagan and Allen were in the team.

So the dream is over, unless Aston Villa can grab all three points at the Etihad on Wednesday. As I said, the dream is over.

Now there'll be those that,  will point out that when all's said and done this has been a wonderful, transformational season for LFC. Well, yes. But the point is that after the defeat of Citeh at home the title was theirs to lose. And they lost it. Luis was crying. That's not a good season.

But it's a better season than the ones experienced by fans of Cardiff and Fulham. Once again club chairmen have been the architects of their own downfall. In a season of deeply average performances by teams near the bottom I reckon Malky Mackay might well have been able to keep the Bluebirds (that's the team playing in red) up. Vincent Tan will disagree but reports suggest that that is his default response to everything.

Fulham have played silly buggers all season and even Magath, armed with relentlessly black and white spectacles and a sunny disposition, was unable to convince them that they were at a club that knew what they were doing.

Norwich, plucky and goal-shy, will join them after Sunderland, in an awe-inspiring run of result that has seen them dig their way out of trouble (I could've sworn I saw Conor Wickham shaking dirt out of his shorts during the win at Chelsea), grab the one point they need. The Canaries centre-forward options of Hooper, Van Wolfswinkel and Elmander make Chelsea look like they're awash with cracking No.9s.

And talking of Chelsea, well it's not been that great has it? Even Rafa bagged a bit of tin in his interim season. What's this new bloke done eh? Nowt. Just bored the pants of us. The question is, after a trophyless season punctuated by falling out with his best player, why is Abramovic indulging this specialist in failure?

(The other one has succeeded again with the Gooners striding over the line as if it was never in doubt and if he wins the FA Cup I'd be asking the victory parade to take in a piece of the Kings Road if I was Arsene.)

And so a very exciting finish is likely to be a bit damp squibbish come next Sunday. I suppose there's an outside chance that Andy Carroll might nut in a trio of magnificent headers and turn logic on its head. And England might just be dark horses for the World Cup.

*Not the Wimbledon team.