November 27, 2010
Love him or hate him, Arsène Wenger has commanded the respect of the Premier League for what he has done at Arsenal. However, the Guardian's Barney Ronay wonders if there is a feeling abroad that the Arsenal manager may have gone – or may be on the verge of going – a bit mad.
Something important seems to be happening at Arsenal and, like everything else there, it seems to be happening around the towering centrepiece of the manager, Arsène Wenger. Wenger has been emitting puffs of cautionary smoke for some time now and fresh tremors appeared again this week after the unfortunate – but also strangely unsurprising – Champions League defeat by the Portuguese third‑raters Braga.
There was a sharpness to reports of Wenger's testiness afterwards. Among some Arsenal fans there is even the same sense of bunched and tearful frustration you might feel with an increasingly stubborn and militant aged parent who inexplicably refuses to understand about the internet or mobile phones or to be twinkly and unflappable and discreet like the aged parents in daytime TV adverts for low-interest loans that can consolidate all your debts into one low monthly payment. The phrase "lost the plot" has even been cautiously trotted out. So far we have danced around this, but I might as well be the first to say it openly. There seems to be a feeling abroad that Wenger may have gone – or may be on the verge of going – a bit mad.
This must be introduced with the obvious caveat that all football managers need a bit of madness in them. After his retirement as Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly would leave his matchday seat in the stands 10 minutes early and take up a raised position near one of the empty stairwells, perhaps on a ledge or a set of railings, in order to declaim and wave and gesture in pious fashion more effectively when everybody else came filing out. This was considered entirely normal. Alf Ramsey celebrated Ipswich's league title by sitting in furrowed silence until everybody else had left and then performing a solo late-night air-punching lap of honour around a darkened Portman Road. Don Howe would train Arsenal's 1971 Double winners by repeatedly shouting the word "Explode!" at them while they ran up the steps of the Highbury stands – and yet he remains a porkpie-hatted emblem of sobriety.
These days it isn't so much managing that brings out the madness. It is going on television. Roy Hodgson was once notable for his air of calm. Greater exposure at Liverpool has left him looking strangely wild-eyed and haunted, prone to leaping about wearing an oversized padded sports coat with teeth clenched and hair flapping, like some habitually-imploding rogue 1970s detective in a Granada TV series called Roy's Game or Hodgson!
Every manager reacts to these pressures differently. Before this season Ian Holloway would often pretend to be mad for tactical reasons, an affectation that has now dissolved into something more rabidly convincing. At Wolves Mick McCarthy flaunts a certain telegenic madness, affecting the thrillingly windblown hairstyle of a quixotic New York tug-boat captain.
It is different with Wenger. There has always been a suspicion, even during his early flush of success, that madness would one day claim him, that this would be his flaw. It is partly a physical thing. Wenger has peculiarly long arms and legs. Aloof in his touchline rectangle, cloaked in his floor-length quilted gown, he seems to be always on the verge of some burst of frighteningly angular expressiveness. There is also a sense that we have never quite forgiven him for turning up and making us all look so dim and retrograde all those years back, parading his oversized spectacles, inventing pasta, and suggesting a single glass of sparkling mineral water as an alternative form of recreation to leaping up and down in a lager-fuelled circle inside a wine bar called Facez.
The thing about Wenger's low-level madness is that it is very specific. This is the madness of the ascetic and the idealist, one that narrows with age. Wenger has only one way, interpreting all he sees through the prism of frictionless, nimble-footed, free-market Euro-Wengerball. Life has become very simple. If his team loses this is now due to some imperfection in the footballing universe, a failing in his opposition or in the game's administrators that has allowed this ideological catastrophe to occur. Such all-consuming zeal can be deeply seductive. There is a sense that his opinions on everything – on whimsical west coast acoustic coffee shop music, or supermarket own-brand yoghurts – will all be robustly, even angrily infused with this galvanising belief in supra-national sideways-pinging soft-shoe spreadsheet football.
There is a beauty, as well as robust economic good sense, in his absolute one-note convictions. Wenger has gambled all on being right, on refusing, for example, to spend jarring sums of money on an essentially unexciting, non-shirtsleeved, unspiky-haired goalkeeper with a tedious expertise in catching footballs. He remains convinced that the world will ultimately bend his way. And perhaps it already has a little. Wenger will take the journey into the promised new world of Fifa fair-play rules and revenue-based austerity with an ideology in hand and a set of self-drawn maps. He may or may not be allowed to get madder from here. But for the mad-curious neutral it would fascinating if he could be proved right just one more time.
November 20, 2010
It's still difficult to get away from the England's post-mortem in Saturday's newspapers but an excellent interview with Aston Villa manager Gerrard Houllier is a worthwhile distraction.
Houllier is now just another onlooker as his former club Liverpool lurch through something of a crisis but the Frenchman harks back to his days at the club with alarming honesty - admitting he made mistakes and bought some bad players towards the end of his tenure.
Speaking toThe Daily Mail's Matt Lawton, Houllier tells how his post heart surgery tenure affected his previously "indestructible" team.
"Gerard Houllier agrees. Agrees that the manager who guided Liverpool to six trophies, who revitalised a club in dire need of his French revolution, was a very different animal to the one who limped on after the ‘accident’ that nearly killed him.
Agrees his players worked under two very different men in his six years at Anfield. While the original version was untouchable, in his words ‘indestructible’, the one who had suffered a dissected aorta was seriously wounded and tired.
So exhausted, in fact, that his judgment became impaired. He admits for the first time, in what is his first major interview as the new manager of Aston Villa, that he did make poor signings.
Just as he admits that the reason for his departure from Anfield was because his employers no longer ‘trusted’ him.
‘I think Rafa Benitez had been lined up to replace me for some time,’ he says.
But as he sits in his smart office at Villa’s training ground, wearing a broad smile having just welcomed Robert Pires to the club, there is not a hint of bitterness in his voice.
Partly because the good memories still far outweigh the bad, because of players like Carragher, and partly because he can appreciate why Liverpool made the change. His mistake, he concedes, was coming back too soon. Far too soon.
It was while watching his Liverpool team play Leeds in October 2001 that the accident happened. But after 11-and-a-half hours of major heart surgery that followed that day, he was back at his desk within five months.
‘For an operation like that, I probably needed 11-and-a-half months off,’ says Houllier. But I came back sooner because we were at a critical stage of the season. We were trying to progress to the latter stages of the Champions League. We were in the title race.
‘I spoke to Phil Thompson and I thought, “If I can make five per cent of a difference it has to be worth it”. We still finished second in the Premier League. But in the March I felt dead. I was so tired.
‘Maybe if I had waited another four or five months it would have been different. I wasn’t right. I think some of the signings I made weren’t good, because I was tired. I made better signings at Lyon, that’s for sure.'
He believes it was not until he was at Lyon, guiding them to a second successive French league title, that he completed his recovery, five years after the accident."
November 17, 2010
Looking ahead to England’s friendly against France on Wednesday it is clear that the selection of one man in particular has grabbed the newspapers’ attention. Unsurprisingly, given his history of misdemeanors, that man is Andy Carroll.
As Henry Winter rather ungenerously points out, “Andy Carroll has made more court appearances than international appearances”, but his colleague at the Daily Telegraph, Alan Smith, instead chooses to focus on the striker’s qualities as a player.
“Once it became clear he was fit, there really was no other choice. Andy Carroll simply had to play against France. Why? Because England haven't been able to call on a centre-forward like this for a very long time.
“You can talk about Peter Crouch, Emile Heskey and Bobby Zamora. You can go back to Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham or even Gary Lineker - all of whom served their country in different ways - but none offered quite the same qualities as the big, bustling, rumbustious striker currently giving Premier League defenders one hell of a tough time.
“For a start, Carroll is massive. I mean, seriously big. Not as tall as Crouch, admittedly, but certainly twice as wide and someone who, crucially, jumps his full height. Not every player can do that, but Carroll can due to the power in his legs, not to mention a muscular top half more than capable of wrestling opponents out the way.
“Given the right service, that could be a formidable combination at international level, just as long as he doesn't end up constantly conceding fouls to clever defenders well versed in winning free-kicks.”
“Not that we're talking about the finished article. There are plenty of rough edges still to knock off. However, what we can say with certainty is that Carroll has potential. The potential to do extremely well for England.”
November 15, 2010
The Daily Mail's Martin Samuel picks through the bones of Chelsea's defeat to Sunderland and claims Carlo Ancelotti offers hope amid the Roman Abramovich ruins.
November 9, 2010
Andy Carroll's expected call up for England's clash with France next week has prompted Fleet Street's scribes to ponder the moral dilemma that surrounds the troubled striker's probable selection.
Carroll's Newcastle United team-mate Joey Barton claims the FA need to forget about simply selecting 'goody two shoes' players and keeping sponsors happy and simply pick the men that can win matches. And while we’re not sure the likes of Ashley Cole, John Terry and Wayne Rooney can be called 'goody two shoes' we get the point.
Should a young talent be denied and England cap because of his wayward ways off the pitch? Well it hasn't prevented many of Carroll's predecessors from being given their chance, writes Henry Winter in The Telegraph.
"Capello's captain for next week's friendly with France once missed a drugs test, his vice-captain was charged (and cleared) of affray, three others of a light blue persuasion recently enjoyed some refreshment with Scottish freshers while two others of a royal blue hue have endured particularly foul headlines. The Temperance Society All-Stars it is not.
Into this moral maze of a Wembley dressing room steps Andy Carroll, clutching loads of baggage with the cynics trumpeting that he should be right at home. Put politely, the Newcastle United No 9 likes a night out.
Carroll's mooted call-up incites two debates, the first a long-running one about parents' hopes for those who wear the England shirt to behave with at least a modicum of decorum. England do offer good role models in James Milner, Theo Walcott and others but some of their colleagues would require extra time at confessional.
A newer debate arises with Carroll's arrival. An individual apparently not close to the front of the queue when the quality of self-scrutiny was handed out, Carroll could be tempted to believe that a questionable lifestyle off the field is no barrier to the ultimate honour, an England cap."
But there are not just moral issues surrounding Carroll's selection. Writing in The Guardian, Kevin McCarra expresses concerns about the quality of a player who has only played 11 Premier League games.
"It is likely that Carroll will collect his first senior cap for England in next week's friendly with France. Such a sudden rise is, all the same, a little unsettling. While his tally of 19 goals last season was creditable, Newcastle were then in the Championship. Capello himself showed a lingering scepticism towards Carroll when he omitted him from the squad and instead gave a debut, as a substitute, to the 33-year-old Kevin Davies in last month's match with Montenegro.
Carroll's worth lies to some extent in scarcity value. The quality of England's leading clubs seems to have dipped. Chelsea, for instance, may have been majestic on the domestic front last season but they were defeated home and away by Internazionale in the last 16 of the Champions League. Liverpool had been eliminated in the group phase and neither Manchester United nor Arsenal got beyond the quarter-finals.
It is now claimed that Chelsea want to buy Carroll. Whatever the substance to the story, there is a sense that clubs who no longer have the means to overhaul an entire team are hoping more than ever for an impact player with the gifts to transform a match. Fernando Torres was the embodiment of that, when he got behind a suddenly disoriented John Terry to score the first of his goals in Liverpool's 2-0 victory over Chelsea on Sunday."
November 8, 2010
We have wondered what has been holding Liverpool back of late. Transfer talk over their big stars? Roy Hodgson? All that takeover stuff? Actually... it seems all they need was Dirk Kuyt to return, as David Pleat explains in the Guardian.
It is only in retrospect that a possible defining moment emerges. But the changes that Roy Hodgson made, whether by accident or design due to injury (Glen Johnson) and availability (Dirk Kuyt), gave Liverpool the opportunity to play with a system that showed Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva in the best light. Fernando Torres, too, enjoyed the day.
I recall a situation in 1986-87 when at Tottenham Hotspur. Because of the transfer of Graham Roberts to Rangers, an injury to Tony Galvin and the need to negate Glenn Hoddle's down side, a 4-5-1 system was born that glowed for the whole season. Liverpool, I feel, may have done similarly at Anfield yesterday.
Kuyt lacks guile but his work-rate is often wasted, in my view, parading the touchline on the right side. Lucas has struggled to win admirers when trying to contain midfield runners and Gerrard, certainly the dynamo, needs to be both central and deeper so he can defend and attack when the opportunity arises.
Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodríguez, who have acclimatised slowly to Premier League football, were put to better use on the outside of the five-man midfield rather than further infield.
Kuyt was the most important figure in this hardworking display, particularly in the second half when they had to quell the tide of sharp passing attacks from Chelsea. When possession changed hands the Dutchman quickly moved into a position where he could help to stifle the influence of Mikel John Obi in the centre of Chelsea's midfield. He appeared to have three lungs as he worked and challenged, always putting team before self.
Although Chelsea had plenty of possession, Liverpool were strong and solid and must have given Hodgson great heart. At Fulham he had a system that replicated the way Liverpool played yesterday. In this rearrangement Jamie Carragher went from right-back to centre-back where he is far more comfortable because he does not have to face too many passing options from the advanced positions he is forced to take up when playing at full-back.
When the ball was wide Carragher and Martin Skrtel made sure they stayed firm on the edge of the area and were always in good positions to intercept typical Chelsea-style low crosses
Hodgson may have been quietly bewildered this week at the US owners' judgment in their choice for their director of football but he will have made several important points with this vibrant display.
Meireles and Rodríguez are yet to shine, but they still did an important job denying Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole advanced attacking positions. This was important, too. Crucially, it was the industry of Kuyt when Liverpool lost possession that helped Lucas and Gerrard do their work with such efficiency.
November 7, 2010
With Manchester City having suffered three straight defeats and reports of dissatisfaction among the players growing increasingly common, there are those who believe Roberto Mancini could be on his way if his side suffer a defeat to West Brom.
With a worse record than his predecessor, Rob Draper, writing in the Mail on Sunday, believes Mancini is in very, very serious danger of losing his job if they can't see off the Baggies.
Roberto Mancini today begins a week that will define his reputation in England.
Put starkly, less than a year into the job and after three successive defeats, the Manchester City manager's job is on the line.
Discontent among the most expensively assembled squad in the Premier League is only one of the problems the authoritarian Italian must address.
Some players are baffled by his tactics and his team selection. Others are angry over training methods which they contend are ill-suited to an English winter.
Mancini has had to contend with arguments between the millionaires in the dressing room and gross indiscipline off the pitch. One first-team player is said to have been repeatedly drunk out of hours, resulting in a severe warning over his future conduct being issued by the manager.
On top of all that, the man who is perhaps the most important component in Mancini's team, the talismanic Carlos Tevez, has only just returned from a trip home to Buenos Aires, a visit which, it is believed, was ordered by the club because they feared the Argentina striker was in danger of burning himself out.
While City's chief executive Garry Cook and chief football administration officer Brian Marwood have backed Mancini, the Italian will be under no illusions about the fate awaiting him should the next seven days and three matches not go City's way.
Defeat today at a resurgent West Bromwich, followed by setbacks against bitter rivals Manchester United on Wednesday and Birmingham next weekend, will almost certainly make Mancini's position impossible.
Cook and Marwood are vulnerable, too. They appointed Mancini, controversially, last December as successor to the rather more popular - and, in terms of results, more successful - Mark Hughes.
Mancini's record at this stage of the season - 17 points from 10 matches with three defeats - is inferior to that of the man he replaced. After the same number of games last season, Hughes had collected 19 points with just one defeat.
Six weeks later, he was sacked and Cook and Marwood brought in Mancini. Little wonder Cook and Marwood are said to believe their futures depend on Mancini's ability to revive City's season.
November 4, 2010
Liverpool’s appointment of Damien Comolli as their new director of football strategy on Wednesday appeared to catch the English press on the hop, so the broadsheets have been scrambling around for reaction.
The very idea of the director of football is a contentious one in the Premier League of course, with figures such as Dennis Wise (Newcastle), Gianluca Nani (West Ham) and, one that is often overlooked, Franco Baresi (Fulham) enjoying little success.
But Comolli brought a number of good players to Tottenham - most notably Gareth Bale - and writing in The Indepdent, Ian Herbert explains why the Frenchman was targeted by NESV.
“No one had predicted Damien Comolli's appointment, news of which first started leaking out in France yesterday afternoon, though Liverpool's decision to appoint him fits with all we have learned so far about John W Henry and his vision for his new club.
“Comolli is close to Billy Beane, the maverick baseball coach whose statistics-driven success with the Oakland Athletics was consigned to print in the book Moneyball. Henry tried to hire Beane when he took over the Boston Red Sox and is as much an admirer of his methods as he is of Simon Kuper's and Stefan Szymanski's book Soccernomics, which applies science to football. Henry is also fascinated by Arsenal, having spent time at the club before he bought Liverpool. Comolli was Arsenal's European scout between 1996 and 2003.”
“Henry will want Comolli to help Hodgson find young players, rather than those like Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky who were signed this summer. Henry sees the new financial fair play regulations, limiting clubs' losses if they are to be admitted to European competition, as a vital part of the new landscape. That's why he sees a big future in Comolli finding young talent for Liverpool, mirroring the Red Sox model. Henry has a very precise plan and he is wasting no time developing it.”
In a blog for The Telegraph, Duncan White explains why Liverpool could not have timed the appointment much better.
"Gareth Bale and Luka Modric turn in world class performances to soundly beat the European Champions; Damien Comolli is appointed Director of Football Strategy at Liverpool. Everything is connected. Comolli brought Bale and Modric to Spurs and there is no doubt that his legacy has been reassessed since he departed under a cloud two years ago."
November 1, 2010
The controversy of Nani’s goal for Manchester United against Tottenham continues to demand column inches in the English press on Monday morning, but there is one man who is playing down the row.
The Independent’s James Lawton apes Jon Stewart by mounting his own Rally to Restore Sanity, claiming the incident had little real impact on the game, or the season as a whole for that matter.
“West Bromwich Albion once scored a goal to damage Leeds United's title chances severely from an outrageously offside position. Everyone went berserk, especially the fans, and there was a subsequent ground closure. Now that was a real firestorm, one that suddenly crackled in the memory when Luis Nani scored, whatever the rights and wrongs of the circumstances, a truly ludicrous but decisive second goal for Manchester United.
“The trouble with this was that, as full-blown controversies go, it was lacking a crucial element. No one really had much reason to care. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp made the best show of it, declaring that referee Mark Clattenburg was guilty of a massive cock-up and that the match had ended farcically. But even he seemed to accept, implicitly, that a season could hardly have been said to have been changed when the United player, having moments earlier fondled the ball after being denied a penalty, bounced to his feet and popped the ball into the net after Spurs goalkeeper, Heurelho Gomes, ignored the first law of the football catechism: play to the whistle.
“As Redknapp conceded, the chances were United would have won anyway. This was a conviction that could only harden around the disappearance of Rafael van der Vaart in the second half – and the absence of the injured Jermain Defoe, who might just have exploited the sheer intelligence of the £8 million steal-of-the-year Dutchman and his side-kick, Luka Modric.”
David Pleat also steers away from hysteria to deliver his considered view on the tactical battle waged at Old Trafford. In The Guardian, Pleat praises United for their success in keeping Gareth Bale quiet.
"The margin of Manchester United's victory on Saturday might have seemed hard on Tottenham Hotspur, but the home side's ability to nullify Gareth Bale, the visitors' most likely source of an equaliser, in the latter stages actually made this win feel comfortable.
"The introduction of Paul Scholes for Dimitar Berbatov ensured there was less space to exploit in the centre with another of the home side's substitutes, Wes Brown, playing his part in driving Bale infield into the muddle. Those latter stages contrasted with much of an open game, with the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric, Berbatov and Nani enjoying the space between both sides' backlines and front. Through the first half it was attack and counter-attack, with creative talents relishing the room that was on offer.
"But Tottenham could not maximise the advantage and, after the break, United closed tighter with their lead established. Van der Vaart consequently saw less of the ball with Spurs starved of creativity. Scholes's introduction with 26 minutes to play allowed the hosts to mirror the visitors' 4-5-1 system, a show of respect that congested the midfield and allowed the home side to control the centre more easily.
"Bale, alone, posed a real threat on the counter-attack but Brown, introduced as United tightened, had clear orders to force the Welshman infield, blocking his opponent's sprint on the outside."