Monday, 22 September 2014

In Defence of the Defence

Well the Premier League is more than living up to its reputation - not always earned - for entertainment. I've heard the word 'goal' uttered almost as often as the word 'Scotland' over the weekend.

(And by the way, thank you for voting 'No' and my sympathies for still being under the rule of the pompous, patronising pricks that pass for parliamentarians these days. Let us continue to suffer together.)

Jose Mourinho says the Premier League is 'crazy'. It's hard to disagree. Except Mourinho's comments, decorated by a smile full of smuggery, seem to be based on some eternal truths that appear to be time-limited.

So here are the new facts about Premier League footy.

1. Beating Manchester United is not what it used to be. 

The post-Fergie slump seems to have been ignored by everyone. It's only a matter of time before Normal Service Is Resumed. Just what is it about the past year of United performances makes people think it's going to change soon?

One 4-0 victory against a QPR side that was so standoffish against United that they looked like Downton Abbey toffs walking through the servants quarters, and United are 'rejuvenated', Which is like saying that one night off the booze makes you teetotal.

Now you may point to a good coach - and Van Gaal looks more and more like a man who spends his week hitting himself in the face with a frying pan (which, given his team's form, is almost certainly true).

You may point to £150 million worth of raw talent - but not of that is defensive nature. Indeed the Sighing Dutchman's persistence with a back three in which not one of the defenders involved has any authority whatsoever, is beginning to look suicidal. Yesterday, Leicester's admittedly ludicrous penalty kick led to defenders wandering around like daleks do when you've covered their eye socket over.

I mean it made Brazil's World Cup semifinal look, well, sensible. All that cash, and Louis couldn't coax Vlaar out of Villa to bark some orders at the other dimwits? Fact is, United may have extraordinary talent in whatever front five they put out, but the defense its as ever to pierce as microwaved clingfilm. There for the taking.

2. If You've Got Lots of Money You Should Play Entertaining Football 

At least that seems to be Manuel Pellegrini's take on the Chelsea performance at the Etihad. It is, of course, garbage. Mourinho proved last season that when it comes to taking on title rivals, he's the biggest brain out there. And more often than not he goes for a mean, niggardly charmless game-plan. And it works.

Now Pellegrini says it was like playing Stoke. Si, Manuel, and how did Stoke do the other week at your gaff? Ermmm... oh, they won 1-0. Two banks of four, or even five, work hard, hit em on the break. Works for Simeone at Atletico, it's worked for Mourinho when he's needed it. Perhaps Pellegrini needs to kick chaps like Yaya up the arse and get them to be a little more inspirational rather than blaming the negativity of others.

3. The Europa League's Gonna Kill You

Oh this bloody tournament is a total nightmare. Everton and Spurs come back from a Thursday night running their backsides off and both of them play terribly or at least tiredly, on a Sunday afternoon. This has happened year after year and for these two it's only going to get harder.

Martinez stated he wanted to win the tournament, which is tantamount to accepting midtable obscurity if you ask me. Why the Europa League needs to be such a bloating seventeen course banquet of none too appetising fare is beyond me. (Yes, just more coffers passing through UEFA's fingers, the coins reflecting in glints and glimmers off the faces of FIFA-funded wrist-watches).

But why not a straightforward knock-out tournament? And why do the also-rans of the Chamions League group stage get a free pass into this inferior competition. It's like being told that you've not got into the Michelin-starred kitchen but don't worry, KFC is looking for someone.

The fact is the squads that make it to this grim endurance test are usually a little too thin to maintain a challenge on all fronts. A knock-out competition would be fairer, and frankly better.

4. Possession isn't nine-tenths of the law

Perhaps Pellegrini thinks you're a small team if you don't get to have the ball much. Like, for example this weekend with West Ham (38% - won 3-1), West Brom (34% - won 1-0) or Crystal Palace (a staggering 24% - won 3-2).

Arsenal fans can tell you that just having the ball means nowt. Ever since coaches started to try and figure out how to beat Barcelona when the ball appeared in your possession with the frequency of Halley's Comet, how you play without it has become the trademark of a top side.

Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather watch Di Maria scoop a lob over a keeper while running at 25mph (that lad has a golf club for a left peg) than admire the dogged devotion to duty of Nemanja Matic, but the fact is stopping the opposition is becoming the most potent quality you can have in this league. Palace proved that last year.

Liverpool, Everton and Man U are really poor at the back right now. Poor Alan Hansen must be in bed with a fever, bless 'im. Chelsea, when they set their minds to it, are excellent at it. They can be ruthless and expressive up front, but when push comes to shove, Jose's got his Pulisian Plan B ready. And that's why, even now, you can't see anyone winning the title but them.

No wonder he likes it 'crazy'. It makes his 'sensible' look very good indeed.

Monday, 8 September 2014

England's Swiss Rollover

Well that's my Basel Faulty headline ruined. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself. It's like finding fifty quid in your old coat,

England have won a game, thereby enabling Roy Hodgson to have a better win record with England than he did with Switzerland. And what's more, they deserved it.

The Swiss, bar some shifty Shaqiri shimmies and the odd thundering challenge from their midfield bullock Behrami, offered very little, and England, on occasion, offered a great deal, mianly through the scary speedsters Sterling and Welbeck. In the latter's case it's hard to know what might happen when he gets it, but two goals suggests he's halfway there.

But hey, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. It's San Marino next. In the meantime, here's the scores for our heroes. (A polite ripple of applause).

JOE HART - 8 - Look, even if he drops every cross there's no one else to replace him. A couple of smart stops and does he look dashing with his hair relaxed?

JOHN STONES - 7 - Solid defensively after a horrible nutmeg early doors. Nowt going forward but then (a) He's a centre-back and (b) it's a bloody relief it's that way round after years of Glen Johnson.

GARY CAHILL - 7 - Brilliant clearance off the line after the linesman let Drmic - the walking eczema cream - go in on goal. Other than that, a solid enough effort. Never tremendous with the ball at his feet.

PHIL JONES - 6 - The usual mixture of buccaneering derring-do and bird-brained folly. Could have been sent off, might have scored, strained his thigh. He's not David Luiz, but he doesn't inspire much more confidence.

LEIGHTON BAINES - 7 - Looked like he might have got his mojo back. Neat, decent performance and not so exposed defensively.

JACK WILSHERE - 5 - I'm beginning to lose faith in Jack. Not available enough, too prone to giving silly passes. Unless everyone's playing tippy-tappy he looks lost. He'd be great ina five-a-side, but the lad doesn't seem to use his noddle, bless him.

JORDAN HENDERSON - 6 - Forgot he was there for the first half-hour. Had a strong second half, though, and he does work his arse off. In the absence of anyone else he'll do.

FABIAN DELPH - 7 - Early booking aside, he did really well. A top pick from Woy. Plenty of endeavour, a good turn of pace, and should of have a stonewall pen when Djourou drove into him like he was the Snappy Snaps to George Michael's SUV.

WAYNE ROONEY - 7 - Solid Wazza turn. Linked well with the younger faster lads and it looked like he wasn't trying too bloody hard for a change.

RAHEEM STERLING - 8 - a bit high I know, but he's 19, Ferrari-fast, Tyson-tough, and sometimes he cocks it up. So what? He's the best chance we have for a bit of forward thrust so I'll give him ten every time if he keeps leaving skidmarks on the defenders match-eve pyjamas.

DANNY WELBECK - 8 - Was going to give him 7 then he did that winning smile at the end. Bless. Two goals, pace galore, and the merest hint that a quality marksman lurks within those capricious boots. Then again, he's at Arsenal now. Walk it in, Danny, that's how they do things at the Emirates.

As for Roy Hodgson, well, Delph and Stones did him proud, the team looked far more solid defensively although when Switzerland did ping together a few rapid passes the heart of the defence looked open. Jones is a worry, but he's not exactly spoilt for choice is Roy. It was James Milner's 50th cap - that's how many options the poor bloke's got.

Wilshere isn't the holding midfielder - I'd like Carrick back in there if he's fit and willing. And Stones did fine but Clyne is the best English right-back around. That's bloody obvious, isn't it? Still onwards and upwards. The group's in the bag, France Allons-Nous. Keep playing like that and you never know we might just...

Oh shut me up, ffs!!!

It's just nice to have a little something to be pleased about.

(If we can just keep hold of Scotland I'd be dead chuffed. I wouldn't blame you, my Highland friends, it's just, well don't just leave us with Cameron. He's got to be one of yours with a name like that.)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Window of Woe

In the light of Roy Hodgson's record-breaking England squad announcement last week - the Worst Squad in Living Memory (and I'm including that couple who were celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary's memory) - it's interesting to note what's happening to the (one-time) 'best' English prospects at the moment.

Danny Welbeck seems destined to leave Old Trafford. Mind you, if he wants to go to a better team then there's plenty of choice at the moment. Micah Richards, yesterdays's England right-back for a generation, has been seen in Florence. Jack Rodwell is gracing the Stadium of Plight. Zaha's back at Palace.

Meanwhile those Englishmen still retained by their clubs, probably on the basis of UEFA's home-grown players legislation rather than any respect for their abilities, sit in idle splendour, doing fuck-all for a fuck-of-a-lot.

Scott Sinclair, more renowned for being the boyfriend of the ever-exposed Helen "put 'em away love" Flanagan than a professional person in his own right, is still at Man City. Josh McEachran has been loaned out so many times he's a Chelsea player in name only. From Boro to Arnhem; he's goes to all the glam places, that lad, and I think that Arnhem might be a bridge too far.

The call-ups for Colback and Rose are truly dispiriting. That barrel must be well and truly scraped now. Pardew says that some have called Colback 'the ginger Pirlo'. Good, Alan. And I'm sure someone will have called Alan Pardew the Cockney Clough once. If they're a twat.

It's not that encouraging that Jagielka, Milner and Johnson have been retained either. Injuries haven't helped Hodgson but we are truly in forlorn times as a national team.

It doesn't help, therefore, that Manchester United - once a bastion of bringing forward youth players and thrusting them into the fray - have seen fit to simply buy every mildly ambitious international superstar in the world game. Falcao's loan from Monaco underlines the fact. It's hard to make a case for even Rooney starting a game at OT now.

The only Englishman likely to get given a game by LVG soon will be Smalling or Jones - and that selection will be made on the toss of  a coin.

This is a transfer window that needs to close before those of us with an abiding if misplaced love of the England national team throw ourselves headlong out of it and dash our scrambled brains on the pavement beneath. The last time England were this bad, that Norwegian commentator launched into his 'your boys took a helluva beating' monologue. Thankfully, England open their autumn campaign with a friendly against... Norway. Shit.

But if there is an abiding memory of this particular August flogfest it will be the flock of football locusts that swept along the north coast of the Solent this August. A once-prosperous crop of flourishing seedlings lopped down and transplanted into new soil.

It'd be fascinating to ask Nathaniel Clyne (surely the best English right-back available at present) or James Ward-Prowse (a better bet than Colback) how they feel about still being at St. Mary's. Like survivors of some desperate military campaign they must occasionally ask themselves 'Why did I survive, and not the others?'

Morgan Schneiderlin, after a fine performance in Saints 3-1 victory at West Ham (and please God can the Hammers not drop down a division so that we're spared the relentless stodge of Allardyce's teams - they are the footballing equivalent of workhouse gruel) - yes, young Schneiderlin looked bewildered that he was still there too.

It would be nice, don't you think, for the bigger clubs to take a look at Southampton, see how they discover and develop such fine players, and ooh, I dunno, try and do the same thing themselves. Rather than just waiting for them to cough up a Bale or a Walcott or a Lallana.

While I've got me middle-aged man's munk on, forty years ago, the Saints would've kept that entertaining squad together and developed a team that would, within two or three years, have won something.

I've just begun reading 'The Unforgiven', the story of Don Revie's Leeds United. Revie started with bog-all, bar a curmudgeonly centre-back called Jack Charlton and a twinkle-toed malicious little sod called Billy Bremner. The rest of that simultaneously horribly brilliant, brilliantly horrible team was, with a few additions,
peopled by what UEFA would nowadays call 'homegrown talent'.

It couldn't happen today. Simply could not. Sadly, the Southampton squad, shorn of native talent but awash with cash, is loaded now with plenty of new talent, very little of it English. Or even British.

The fact that Ross Barkley has pledged his immediate future to Everton is a minor miracle. Then again, the overachieving fifth place is unlikely to materialise this season and then we'll see how limpet-like the lad's attachment to the club is.

Of course there's another reason that Hodgson's squad is so threadbare. There aren't enough decent and uninjured Englishmen available to bloody well fill the squad places. And there's a deeper malaise too. Why is it that talented teenage Englishmen barely get any better at the game as they get into their twenties.

Is Rooney better now than he was in 2004? What the hell has happened to Phil Jones, when as a 19-year-old at Blackburn he bullied the hell out of top opposition strikers? And will Andy Carroll actually walk again without pulling a groin? More to the point, will Sterling, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain and the other few wither on the English vine or step up a level like Gareth Bale (NB not English)?

The transfer window simply illuminates the paucity of available English talent and the lack of interest the big clubs have in using them even if they are there. Manchester United's pre-season shopping is reminiscent of Abramovich's Chelsea when the money first came in. It's a kind of arbitrary purchase of anyone going, as far as I can tell.

And in all that spend. spend, spend there's only been one Englishman: Luke Shaw. And he's now in a squad with Rojo and Blind. And the manager doesn't rate his fitness. He's got bench-warmer written all over him.