We need to talk about Arsene

Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

Don’t we Arsenal fans? I suspect there’s talk of little else at the Emirates at the moment. Wenger has been talking about the fans recently. Actually, to be more precise, he’s been blaming them.

Apparently it’s the “difficult climate” created by Arsenal fans during home games that’s been causing his delicate stars to underperform. I can only imagine the Arsenal dressing room at half time:

Wenger: “lads you’ve been terrible out there today” (actually maybe more likely, “I sense an undercurrent of discontent and a lack of fluidity in your interpretation of my tactical arrangements.”)

The Lads: “but boss, those nasty fans are shouting nasty things at us again.”

Wenger: “yes, I also suffer in this climate of hostility. Let them suffer too, carry on as you were.”

Fans are entitled to their opinions, their expectations (so often unfulfilled), and indeed to their protestations. Fans, in short, pay their money (rather a lot of it for the privilege of watching Arsenal) and will understandably blame the manager if they think that results are poor. It’s a brave manager that feels entitled to blame the fans in return.

In doing so, Wenger may finally have reached a tipping point at Arsenal. At the home game against Norwich there was an organised protest calling on Wenger to go. It didn’t involve a majority of Gunners fans inside the ground but the sense of discontent is gathering momentum.

It was a very polite protest as these things go: ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’ suggested one placard. And so invariably they must. Wenger admitted after the game that he had been surprised at how small and mild the protest was (rather undermining his claim about the difficult climate that he bemoans having to endure).

That Wenger has been a good thing for Arsenal is not in the slightest doubt. The question is whether he remains a good thing for the club. He’s not.

The outburst blaming the fans illustrates the level of the Frenchman’s frustration but also suggests a lack of willingness to face up honestly to his own shortcomings. Arsenal may have as many as 99 problems but the supporters aren’t one. Wenger has wasted money, neglected to fill obvious gaps (a truly world class centre forward being the most glaring), and failed to figure out a formula to break down lesser teams on a regular basis.

You can, it seems, have too much of a good thing. Wenger is methodical, astute, and an excellent developer of young players. But he is also stubborn, inflexible, and increasingly brittle. It’s very sad to observe that he’s become a liability to Arsenal but that is the logical conclusion to draw from this season.

His side will probably finish in third place on Sunday. It’s been a Premier League campaign of fairy tale drama but also a distinct lack of quality. When was the last time that so many big guns fired so many blanks? The Gunners own firepower was more cap gun than cannon.

Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 years, an incredible feat in modern football, but will he have a better chance to win the league in the next 20 years than this one? I doubt it.

There was no evidence of progress being made in the Champions League either. There isn’t a big team in Europe that fears Arsenal and the Emirates has not proved a difficult climate for very many visiting sides. Being eliminated by Barcelona is no disgrace in itself but Arsenal’s exit was meek, and like the protest, milder than expected.

That’s what really upsets the fans.

Next season? If Wenger remains in charge, they can expect more of the same. They do expect more of the same. Some Arsenal fans must be looking on enviously at the galvanising effect that Jurgen Klopp has had on Liverpool. Expectations have been raised for next season at Anfield. At the Emirates, expectations are about as low as UK interest rates.

And Arsenal fans are losing interest. Patches of red are starting to appear; emptied hope producing empty seats. It’s not a difficult climate that should concern Wenger but an apathetic one. Dynamism and energy are ebbing at the club.

The same is true of Manchester United and it began towards the end of Ferguson’s reign. He stayed on just a little too long, didn’t revitalise the squad as quickly and thoroughly as he should have done. Man U are still paying the price, and it’s an expensive one with the spending habits of Van GaaI.

Wenger has claimed that he won’t go on as long as Ferguson and I believe him. I’m not sure that he’ll be given the luxury of choosing the timing of his departure as the Scot did though. The transition at Old Trafford was botched and Arsenal should learn from it. Replacing a legend is never easy.

Wenger’s legendary status at Arsenal is guaranteed, it’s in the bank. So apparently is a considerable amount of money that he’s left unspent. I suggest he gets the chequebook out this summer because if he doesn’t then the chants of Arsene out will only get louder.

His future is less certain than at any time in the past 20 years. Maybe soon the board will feel the need to talk about it.

Title winning tinkering

Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

I’m watching Manchester United v Leicester. It’s currently 1-1. A win for the Foxes and they are Premier League champions. Take a moment to let that sink in. It will take more than a moment for it to sink in for the Leicester players, supporters, and manager Claudio Ranieri.

5000/1 at the start of the season. Well done to anyone who took that bet. Tom Hanks claims that he did. Leicester were almost cast away from the Premier League last season, but now, catch me if you can, is the statement they are making. I don’t think Spurs can.

Ranieri’s men are no imposters either. They sit atop the league in May on merit: an effort made of discipline, determination, and daring. They will be worthy champions even if it cannot be denied that others have utterly and mystifyingly underperformed. Arsenal fans in particular must be shaking their heads in wonder.

When Arsenal beat Leicester 2-1 back in February I thought a genuine title challenge was emergent from Arsenal and that Leicester were set to falter. But the Foxes have proved to be wily and Arsenal are no blood thirsty hounds; they soon lost the title scent.

Wiliest of all has been Ranieri. Composed when he would have been forgiven getting carried away, he has somehow kept his players focused amid a global frenzy at one of the most incredible stories in the history of football.

It’s been a year of unlikely occurrences. Leicester’s fall has been predicted more often than that of Trump’s presidential bid but neither has stumbled more than briefly. In both cases the chasing pack have mostly been comically inept and succeeded only in wounding each other. Leicester’s defensive wall has proved more secure than anything Trump might hope to erect.

Trump has dismissed suggestions that he’s something of a tiny man, while Ranieri has been jettisoning his reputation as the tinkerman.

The Italian’s back to basics approach has been inspired in its simplicity. He kept faith with the side that performed heroically to stave off relegation at the end of last season while introducing a bit more tactical discipline and defensive solidity. His players have looked as confident this season as Manchester United’s have looked confused by Van Gaal’s enigmatic experimentation.

It was only very recently that Ranieri indulged the talk of Leicester being title contenders, and even then Clive Woodward claimed it was a ‘big error’ and suggested that a coach should never speak about anything but the next game. But you were wrong on this one Clive, Ranieri timed it absolutely perfectly.

He held off long enough (far longer than most would have managed) to keep everyone’s feet on the ground but not so long to have his players doubt him. Just as they were reckoning with the question of can we really do this? The boss said yes. He did it calmly. Yes, keep going, playing just as you’ve been doing, we can achieve something special here. Now they’re about to.

A win today and Ranieri will be given the freedom of the city; he’ll certainly never have to buy a drink in town again. The affable, amiable, and let us not forget ambitious and meticulous manager, deserves all the credit currently being bestowed upon him.

Leicester winning the league should embarrass the old order and it may also embarrass Gary Lineker who appears set to present an edition of Match of the Day in his underwear. The prospect is almost enough to make we neutrals hope for a spectacular late Leicester collapse but instead we should continue enjoying and celebrating this story of the century.

Because next season, who knows? Leicester are probably more likely to return to battling relegation to the Championship than winning the Champions League, especially if (as seems inevitable) their best players are attracted elsewhere. In that case, Ranieri may find himself having to tinker again.

Today’s game just finished: 1-1. Leicester’s title celebrations are still on hold. But not for much longer.

Rolling footballers gather penalties from Moss

King Power Stadium

King Power Stadium. Photo by Ungry Young Man http://www.flickr.com

Imagine you had never seen a game of football before, and then you tuned in to Leicester v West Ham yesterday. You would be left feeling a little confused about the rules. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life and I was left utterly baffled by the performance of referee Jon Moss.

The job of refereeing is a hugely difficult one but Mr Moss gathered no credit as he attempted to assess the bodies rolling around him. Firstly, the Vardy red card: did he dive? He certainly took steps to ensure that the defender couldn’t avoid making contact with him and he knew that contact would knock him from his feet (more tax avoidance than tax evasion on the moral continuum).

I wouldn’t call it a dive and the sending off was very harsh.

Next, the penalty awarded to West Ham; Reid falls following a gentle tug from Leicester’s Morgan. A foul? Probably yes on the strictest interpretation of the law but how can Moss penalise that incident when every single corner in the game had produced at least as much if not worse.

The pushing and pulling and general nonsense that accompanies every corner these days should be stamped out but it has to be done by all referees awarding around four penalties per game in the first few weeks of the season. Choosing one incident at random as Moss did is a recipe for chaos and sure enough, he brought about a chaotic climax to the game.

A few minutes later at the other end, Huth goes sprawling in the box after very clearly having his jump impeded. Moss has a look and decides there’s nothing to see here. The rest of us can see a referee that has considerably less grip on the game than Ogbonna had on Huth.

Leicester continue a frenetic scramble for an equaliser and in the very last minute of added time, Schlupp runs into Andy Carroll and, as virtually any man would after running into Andy Carroll, falls over. Moss points to the spot. I’d call it soft but that doesn’t really describe just how lacking in firmness the decision was: it was softer than a blancmange left in front of the fire for ninety minutes.

Moss had clearly reassessed some of his earlier decisions and reached the conclusion that he’d been unduly harsh on Leicester. Here he was restoring justice (and parity) with another incredible decision. Leicester fans left ecstatic and relieved. Bilic left with a rueful smile and a scratch of his head.

A defeat for Leicester could have been a hugely significant moment in the title race but a draw means that not too much momentum is lost. Tonight we’ll find out a lot about Spurs and how they’re dealing with the pressure. If they don’t win at Stoke, they are unlikely to be wearing Premier League winner’s medals next month.

Liverpool’s players still have the chance to claim a medal this season after their remarkable comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League. Yesterday’s 2-1 win away at Bournemouth was even more significant however.

Klopp fielded a young, inexperienced, and experimental team and yet they managed a more comfortable and convincing victory than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool’s first eleven is strong (albeit still in need of strengthening) but there’s doubt as to the depth of the squad. Perhaps some of that doubt is exaggerated.

Money needs to be spent to turn Liverpool into title contenders and Klopp is the right man to spend it. This Premier League season has been thrillingly unpredictable; just imagine what next season might be like with Liverpool resurgent under Klopp, Guardiola arriving at City, and the prospect of Mourinho at Man United.

Talking of resurgence, Rangers made a statement yesterday by beating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden. The fallen Glasgow giants have completed their rise through the leagues and will return to the top division in Scotland next season after easily winning the Championship.

The hotly debated topic in Scottish football right now is how strong a force Rangers will be upon their return to the SPFL. Hearts have shown that the transition between the two leagues is not particularly onerous for a club with some resources. Celtic will start next season as title favourites but they can expect their old rivals to be genuine challengers.

Will Ronny Deila still be in charge of Celtic when the next Old Firm match is played? I doubt it. The Norwegian’s reign has been distinctly underwhelming and while he’s won the expected league titles (and is likely to do so again this year) his side’s failings in cups and in Europe have put him under severe pressure.

Celtic are on a decline brought about by consistently selling their best players and replacing them with lesser quality. It’s arguable the extent to which that is by necessity but the effect is dispiriting for supporters. It also means that any decent player at the club only expects to be there for a year or two before seeking greater riches and profile elsewhere.

It’s been a similar scenario of late at my dearly beloved Dundee United (with most of our better players ending up at Celtic). We lost the other cup semi final to Hibs and all we have to contemplate now is our impending relegation.

My first blog post of this year heralded forthcoming doom at Tannadice and so it’s coming to pass. I was a teenager at Tannadice the last time we were relegated, in 1995, and it was a sad, sad day. I took my son to his first ever football match there earlier this season and that too was a rather sad day – a dire 1-0 loss to Hearts.

But we football fans never lose heart for long and we’ll be back next season. Supporting a football club is like a marriage, it has to be for better or worse. Surely for we suffering Dundee United fans, things can only get better.

A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?

Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

Newcastle are in big trouble. Fact.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez. Photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com 

Rafa’s back. Steve McClaren’s reign as Newcastle boss didn’t last long and it yielded few points. Newcastle find themselves in the relegation zone with nine matches left to play. The final two games of their season are at home to Tottenham and Manchester City so that makes April a rather important month for Benitez.

The Spaniard’s recent career trajectory is Real Madrid – Napoli – Newcastle. Or to put it another way Ronaldo – Higuain – Mitrovic. That’s the sort of downhill momentum that a luge team would be pleased with. I hope Benitez has topped up his tan in his previous two gigs because as Gazza memorably sang, it’s mostly “fog on the Tyne.”

The sun doesn’t shine much in Newcastle at the best of times (though has there ever been a set of fans more inclined to attend matches half naked? Ha way the tops) but there seems to have been a persistently dark cloud hanging over St. James’ Park for a long time now.

Newcastle fans are among the most loyal anywhere but their club is going nowhere. Boardroom bungling has certainly been a factor as Newcastle have lurched from one crisis to another.

Owner Mike Ashley has been summoned to appear before Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills select committee to give evidence about the treatment of workers at his firm, Sports Direct. A recent BBC investigation raised concerns about ‘the treatment of low paid workers and enforcement of the national minimum wage.’

In response, Ashley invited MPs to visit the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, an invitation that members (honourable and otherwise) appear to have declined. He did not invite them to visit St. James’ Park, where the average wage must be considerably higher than the minimum. The effort some of those players are displaying in return for their wages could be described as minimal though.

Had MPs visited Newcastle’s ground on Januray 12th this year they would have seen a banner unfurled by supporters that read: ‘#SportsDirectShame’. A protest isn’t really a protest these days if it doesn’t include a hashtag.

What those supporters have witnessed on the pitch has been pretty shameful and I wonder if any have written to their local MP. That would be Labour’s Chi Onwurah, who happens to serve on the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee that are so keen to make the acquaintance of Mr. Ashley. Perhaps they will be conducting an investigation to see if there’s any evidence of business, innovation or skills at Newcastle FC.

The committee are probably more concerned with assessing the implications of a potential Brexit from the EU. Newcastle fans fears revolve around the Nexit question: will Newcastle exit the Premier League this season? I doubt they spend very much time contemplating Europe at the moment.

Benitez is a manager whose career is on the way down and I think he’s just taken charge of a club on the way down as well.

In my view, Villa are already long gone, and Swansea I expect to be safe so that leaves two from Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland. Newcastle v Sunderland this weekend is a huge game. The home side will be hoping for a Benitez bounce as without it they are likely to soon be tumbling through the relegation trapdoor.

Rafa specialises in making teams hard to beat and Newcastle could certainly use a little of that right now but the air of defeat that lingers around the club is as thick and smothering as the Tyne fog.

Newcastle fans must now be used to flirting with relegation but this year I think they will consummate that relationship. The facts of life for those supporters cannot be denied; their club is in big trouble.

We’re going to win the league

Ranieri Arsenal v Leicester

Claudio Ranieri – photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com

A rather remarkable title race means that four sets of fans are currently entitled to sing that line. Leicester fans can scarcely believe that they’re still in the league and yet here they are sitting atop it, gazing down in some wonder at those below.

Immediately below them are Tottenham. Spurs fans are probably also a little surprised by the present elevation of their league position. I had Spurs down for a good season but I hadn’t anticipated it being this good. They have of course benefitted from shortcomings elsewhere (most obviously in Manchester) but Pochettino is the real deal and the most important task for Tottenham in the short term is to hold on to their young manager.

Below Spurs we find their North London rivals Arsenal. Last weekend I watched the derby between the two and it exposed the frailties of both sides. Being an Arsenal fan must be one hugely frustrating experience; that team is about as predictable as a Donald Trump press conference.

Wenger’s attempt to ‘Make Arsenal Great Again’ is proving to be a decidedly protracted effort. The Arsenal boss is considered one of football’s intellectuals (hence the nickname ‘the professor’) so I’m not sure if he’s ever read Mr. Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal.’ Perhaps he should as it’s the lack of deals at the Emirates which have made strangers of Arsenal and greatness.

If Arsenal don’t win the league this season then Wenger should not begin next season in charge. Next season is already shaping up to be a very different proposition. Pep’s arrival will shake things up – and make City heavy title favourites – while the prospect of Mourinho at Man U is likely to result in a combination of both shaking and stirring.

Mourinho may have his eye on replacing Daniel Craig as Bond though; he likes a sharp suit, he tends to be a little rogue in the matter of obeying rules, and of course defence is his speciality.

Guardiola v Mourinho again could make Manchester home of a new ‘Classico’ of English football although, like all English sides at the moment, the Manchester clubs have a long way to go to bridge the gap between them and the big two in Spain.

Manchester City have invested heavily in a bid to achieve domestic dominance and at least become continental contenders. As I write this, I’m watching them make reasonably hard work of dominating Norwich. It’s nil – nil at half time.

With Chelsea’s calamitous campaign, City’s squad should be head and shoulders above the rest of the current league. Sterling is just about to come off the bench in the Norwich game and his season sums up City’s overall: flashes of inspiration but only intermittently and seemingly a rather strange lack of confidence.

I fully expect him to hit a screamer into the top corner with his first touch now.

Sterling hasn’t delivered top dollar as yet for his new club but there’s no doubt that Guardiola will be given significant funds to strengthen the squad in the summer. It will be interesting to see whose interest Pep will be able to pique.

Before then however there’s a league to be won (or more likely lost). So who will it be? Like all romantics I hope that it will be Leicester. It would be an epic triumph and about as plausible as Mourinho being cast as the next Bond. I don’t think either will happen sadly. The pressure will probably tell eventually on Leicester and more comfortable breathing will be found at lower altitude.

City’s continued struggles to break down Norwich here do not indicate a side on the verge of a title winning surge. In fact, the increasingly look like a side on the verge of a purge with the imminent arrival of the new boss.

So that leaves Arsenal and Spurs. The former will surely contrive to drop points to various relegation threatened teams during the run in, prompting phone in meltdowns from Gunners’ fans and calls for a new professor to take the class of 2016-17.

Spurs then, by default, are my pick as champions – appropriately enough in a by default sort of a season. It’s hugely exciting and gripping entertainment but the quality has been questionable. “We’re gonna win the league” will continue to ring out at many grounds in the next few weeks but it’s the Spurs fans I expect to still be singing it when the rest have ceased.

You’ll never walk out alone

Liverpool fans walk out

Liverpool fans leave Anfield. Photo by: Ben Sutherland http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool fans walking out of Anfield in the 77th minute on Saturday probably thought they were walking out on a comfortable victory. After all, they were 2-0 up at home against a team in the relegation zone.

They of course reckoned without Simon Mignolet’s goalkeeping skills walking out on him yet again. Mignolet needs to be encouraged to take a walk through the exit door at Anfield because while he’s not a bad shot-stopper, he’s entirely unable to inspire confidence in those in front of them. His mistakes are becoming as costly as a ticket for a Premier League game.

Those prices are the reason for the walk out. Liverpool have announced a ticket pricing structure for next season which will see the introduction of a £77 ticket for some games. This, in the eyes of many fans, is too far. “Enough is enough” the fans chanted as they departed.

To be fair to the club, some ticket prices are falling next season and there does appear to be some recognition of the need to make tickets more accessible at lower prices.

Supporters groups from other clubs are apparently contemplating getting in (or should that be out?) on the action. There’s clearly a groundswell of discontent about the prices being charged for Premier League games. I have a lot of sympathy for those priced out of going to games and I think fans are justified in taking action to show that they refuse to be taken for granted.

As I’ve said before though, fans keep turning up. All those walking out on Saturday did so after buying a ticket (admittedly probably a season ticket in many cases) and I would bet that most games at Anfield next season will be sold out. Supporters complain but they still want to go to games and, so far, they largely remain prepared to pay the price to do so.

An oft-used argument is that football clubs cannot and should not be considered as businesses. To some extent this is true. We don’t often hear of protests at Aston Martin dealerships about the prices they charge. There is (sadly) no expectation that everyone should be able to afford an Aston Martin. Football is a bit different however.

A motion has been lodged in Parliament on the matter, the price of football tickets that is not Aston Martins. It reads: ‘That this House supports the protests made by Liverpool Football Club supporters in response to ticket prices showing little regard to or respect for the club’s loyal fanbase; recognises that football clubs are not simply large businesses intent on maximising shareholder value but are part of the life and soul of their community; and urges hon. Members to seek further engagement with all stakeholders including supporters’ groups across the land to see what can be done to prevent professional football outcomes being entirely determined by money and economic interest.’

Such motions are only put down in order to allow some MPs to express their views (usually outrage, couched in very parliamentary language) on an issue. It’s not an indication that Parliament is set to intervene to regulate ticket prices and nor should it in my view. MPs will content themselves with a bit of stakeholder engagement before presumably returning to more important matters such as debating whether to ban someone they don’t happen to like.

Football clubs are more than ‘simply large businesses’ but there is little point in denying that whatever else they may be, they are also large businesses rather concerned with money and economic interest.

They are seldom very adept at managing money – paying for Mignolet for example – but clubs have developed the commercial operations considerably in recent years. Liverpool now has an official ice cream provider for instance. I’m not sure how the club ever survived without one before.

So fans ultimately have a choice, they can keep turning up, paying higher prices, and gorging on the official club ice cream; or they can vote with their feet, by not going to games or possibly going to watch a lower league club. There’s a lot more to football than the Premier League.

I’ve often thought that the Scottish Premier League (or SPFL as it is known these days) should market itself as ‘football as it used to be’ (apart from the skill levels unfortunately). But if standing terraces were reintroduced, alcohol was sold at grounds, tickets were cheaper, and clubs were more obviously involved in their communities, then it could stand as an excellent counterpoint to the misgivings that many of us have about modern football.

Jurgen Klopp has previously expressed his dismay at supporters leaving before the end. He wasn’t there on Saturday to witness the walkout as he was recovering from an operation to remove his appendix.

I imagine he feels for the fans having come to England from the Bundesliga, a league that does a wonderful job of looking after fans, involving them in the running of their clubs, and keeping ticket prices affordable.

Liverpool have made very stuttering progress under their new manager but hope remains that big things lie ahead if he can reshape the squad to suit his preferred style of play. If that happens, and Liverpool become title contenders under the German, you can expect a surge in demand for tickets at Anfield. Irrespective of the price.

Will the real Louis van Gaal please stand up

van-gaal

Louis van Gaal. Photo by Mikey, http://www.flickr.com

Liverpool v Manchester United, or was it the Dog & Duck v The Red Lion as Gary Neville suggested a while back? (Incidentally, if he doesn’t start getting a few wins in Valencia soon then he might find his next managerial job is a little closer to the pub leagues). There’s no question it was a decidedly uninspiring game.

The fact that both sides had drawn 3-3 the previous midweek suggested that the game would at least involve plenty of incident and perhaps a fair few goals. Alas, not so much.

Jurgen Klopp seems to be finding the English winter rather harsh and appears on the touchline with more and more layers of clothing. He increasingly resembles a budget airline passenger who’s attempted to beat the checked luggage charge by putting on all the items in their suitcase.

Moreno’s hairdo also causes me some wonder: largely regarding the essentially unfinished nature of it. Did a fire alarm go off halfway through and the cut was never resumed? Was the barber an Everton fan and only realised who Moreno was at the midpoint of the cut, upon which he downed tools?

Equally bemusing was the sight of Jones, Carrick, and Rojo sat (or rather stood such is the fashion again) in the stand with the away fans. Presumably a plush seat in the director’s box with a great view wasn’t so appealing since they’d be watching Manchester United – a less than riveting experience at the moment as Paul Scholes never tires of reminding us.

Fergie time at Old Trafford these days is nap time.

The game started surprisingly gingerly and although Liverpool were on top it was obvious just how much Coutinho is missed when absent.

Not long into the game, Fellaini went down (as it were) following a clash of heads with Lucas. Co-commentator Jim Beglin was moved to observe: “you just hope for Fellaini’s sake that his hair cushioned the blow.” Indeed, Jim, we can only hope.

Shortly afterwards, Lallana missed a sitter when clean through on goal. As the ball bounced up he headed it weakly at De Gea, making no attempt at the lob which was the glaringly obvious option in the circumstances.

Elsewhere, I remain unconvinced by Firmino as a false nine but I am convinced by his talent and his ability in front of goal. It’s just unfortunate that when Benteke comes on he plays rather as a false nine now as well.

Klopp was his usual animated self on the touchline. He definitely takes the kick every ball approach to coaching. Van Gaal sat mostly impassive throughout as he tends to. He recently said that managers screaming on the touchline have little effect and I suspect he’s right – it seems to me more of an outlet for their own nervous energy than anything else.

Still, sitting stony faced while your team produces another stony performance is not generally a good look for a manager.

I counted the number of saves required of both goalkeepers in the first half; it was not a taxing effort mathematically, there was one.

A more taxing question: Jordan Henderson, what is he? He’s not a playmaker, that’s for sure although he sometimes forgets that fact and tries to play Gerrard-esque long passes. They mostly endanger the front few rows of the crowd. He’s not a ball-winning defensive midfielder.

He does run around a lot. With the effort demanded by Klopp, maybe that’s enough for now but he’s a poor man’s Stevie G – the poor man being whoever sanctioned the transfer that involved paying Sunderland around £17 million for his services.

Talking of overpriced transfers, that brings me to Lallana and Clyne, both of whom seem to sum up the Rodgers era to me. They’re both decent enough footballers but no more than that. Lallana on his day is actually pretty good but most of ‘his days’ seem to have been used up when he was a Southampton player. I can only hope that Clyne’s day is still to come.

Too much money spent on not nearly enough quality. That was what happened under Rodgers.

Van Gaal has not exactly been reluctant to get the company cheque book out but as with so many first halves this season, the return on investment was nil in a very literal sense.

There were thus not many highlights at halftime, a shame for Paul Parker who does some of the analysis here in Malaysia. He was poised at the giant iPad (or whatever it is) that all studios must seemingly possess by law now, but no amount of knob twiddling could conjure up much to ‘highlight’ from a pretty forgettable opening 45 minutes.

The second half began with an example of Klopp’s love of near post corners. I think every Liverpool corner of the Klopp era has been chipped just short of the near post. I don’t recall any goals, or even highlight worthy chances, materialising as a result.

Beglin, not remembering the Gary Neville quote as accurately as me, pondered: “what did Neville describe this fixture as? The Dog and Duck v the Prince of Wales?” The Prince of Wales? I think Jim must have been in for a good few toasts to the prince before this particular co-commentary gig.

Soon he was offering more insight, on Rooney playing at 10 this time: “as he gets older, that’s probably his best position.” You mean the position in which he’s played almost his entire career Jim?

The main commentator (I can’t remember who it was) suggested that the game had “rather trundled.” It was an apt description. Indeed the combination of a tropical storm plus a paper cut suffered by my wife meant that there was more blood and thunder at my house than at Anfield that day.

Then Rooney scored. A corner that made it beyond the near post (take note Mr. Klopp) was headed towards goal by Fellaini. The remarkable thing was not that the Belgian won the header but that he did so while surrounded by four Liverpool defenders. The header crashed back off the bar and Rooney hammered in the rebound.

One of those four Liverpool defenders might have been just slightly more usefully employed attending to Rooney.

Van Gaal still didn’t leave his seat. He just made a note. I suspect he’s writing a novel in preparation for life after management.

There had been much speculation that defeat at Anfield would have brought the Dutchman considerably more time to spend with his novel. A win saw him cling on but subsequent defeat at home to Southampton has again raised speculation to fever pitch.

I’m amazed that he’s still in the seat that he’s so reluctant to leave each match day.

There doesn’t appear to be a long-term future for Van Gaal at Manchester United but there surely is for Klopp at Liverpool. Progress has been stuttering so far but progress it undeniably is. Manchester United meanwhile are going backwards as steadily as their passing.

Liverpool may have lost this battle, but the more optimistic set of fans in the ground, even at the end, were not those sat alongside Jones, Carrick, and Rojo.

We’re doomed (my team that is), happy new year

Tannadice and Dens

Tannadice and Dens. Photo by: Brook www.flickr.com

Happy New Year readers. 2016 hasn’t started quite as well for me in a footballing sense as 2015 did. On the 1st of January 2015 I was at Tannadice to watch Dundee United triumph over Dundee in the derby, 6-2.  It was a victory that even prompted some optimistic talk of us joining Aberdeen in a ‘new firm’ bid to challenge Celtic for the title.

Sadly it turned out to be the sort of optimism that is so often found in those activating gym memberships at this time of year; it had mostly evaporated by the end of January (by which time three of our best players had moved to Celtic).

I was not in Scotland this festive season and thus I wasn’t at Dens to watch us lose the New Year derby 2-1, a result that leaves us floundering at the bottom of the league – 11 points behind Kilmarnock who occupy the position above us. If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in football.

In that period, the manager has been sacked and there’s been a major overhaul of the squad, not exactly for the better. It’s been a bit like an episode of 60 Minute Makeover in reverse. You don’t need to be as serial a pessimist as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army to nevertheless reach the conclusion that we appear to be doomed. Captain Mainwaring couldn’t save us now.

Considerably more hope is invested in Jurgen Klopp saving Liverpool. So far, the German has made a good if slightly inconsistent start. West Ham v Liverpool was the first game that I watched in 2016 and it didn’t bring much cheer for a Liverpool fan. West Ham won 2-0 and did so comfortably.

In press reports of the game I read that Klopp was angry at his side’s failure to give their all. One newspaper quoted him saying that they had only given “95%” while another suggested that he had said “90%.” If there’s only 5-10% more to be had from that side then I’m afraid we’re back in Private Fraser territory. I would say it was a 70% performance at best.

Somebody should really check Lucas’s passport because it looks increasingly implausible to me that he can actually be Brazilian. I’m almost certain that if you picked a random guy of the Copacabana they would display greater skill than our number 21.

Then there’s Clyne: a half-hearted sort of a full-back. He doesn’t mind going forward (although he shows only a moderate talent for it) but he’s bit less sure of things when called upon to perform defensive duties – a not altogether uncommon occurrence for a defender. In this aspect of the game he’s something of a liability, seemingly regarding it as all a bit inconvenient.

He was out-jumped for both West Ham goals. Well, I say out-jumped, that’s actually a rather generous description of his efforts (well, I say ‘efforts’) to disengage his feet from the pitch. I think on one of the two occasions in question he got high enough that a slow motion camera would have been able to capture at least half of one of his studs.

I once played for a manager who bemoaned such instances with the phrase: “couldn’t get a Sunday Post under you there.” The insertion of a Sunday Post beneath one’s feet would not require a very spectacular, salmon-like jump.

One Liverpool player who could not be accused of lacking effort in his performance was Benteke. Sadly most of that effort was entirely ineffectual. Klopp has demanded more of his young striker in recent weeks and Christian ran around looking as lost as your average KL taxi driver (for those of you who haven’t been in a KL taxi, that’s generally quite lost).

The overall performance had all the huffing and puffing that we’ve already come to expect from a Klopp side but nothing appeared very much at risk of being blown down.

Much of the fallout from the game has focused on the spate of hamstring injuries that the squad has suffered; an occurrence that Sam Allardyce suggested was due to Klopp’s preferred high intensity playing style. Klopp’s response was something along the lines of: “pull the other one Sam.”

The fortunes of Liverpool and Dundee United are certainly pulling in different directions. There’s no question that Liverpool are improving under Klopp and there is a lot to be excited about at Anfield in 2016.

Dundee United on the other hand, are on a run of results comparable to that of Donald Trump’s barber. 2016 is looking like a relegation year for us but we football supporters are required to make the same resolution ever year: we’ll support you ever more.