Stirring the hornet’s nest

harry-the-hornet

Harry the Hornet. Photo by Jack Tanner, http://www.flickr.com

In this season of good cheer, I write in defence of Watford mascot Harry the Hornet. He got a ticking off last weekend following an incident at the end of the Watford – Crystal Palace game. His crime? Mocking Wilfried Zaha.

We live in a rather sad world in which many people will take offence at the drop of a hat. And sure enough it was a ‘drop’ that was at the heart of this sorry saga. As Zaha applauded the Palace fans, hornet Harry ‘took a comedy dive.’ Zaha had been booked in the game for simulation.

Wilfried was apparently incensed by this piece of mascot mockery and had to be restrained as he tried to approach Harry. It’s something of a shame that we were denied a brawl involving a mascot.

New Palace boss big Sam was also angered. Truly comically, he called Harry “out of order” and said that it was a matter that the FA needed to “sort out.” The FA have only just finished sorting out the mess that was Sam’s short reign as England manager so perhaps they would have more pressing matters to attend to.

But alas, the FA, like most official bodies, will never pass up the chance of a bit of virtue signalling. It’s much easier than addressing actual issues in the game such as … oh let me see … diving. Thus it was reported that the FA ‘decided not to pursue the case further but it is understood they had an informal phone conversation with Watford about the incident.’

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The FA: “Hi, we just want to have a quick word about the incident with the mascot.”

Watford: “oh yes.”

The FA: “we can all only be grateful and relieved that a serious situation didn’t develop as a result of this irresponsible action. Furthermore, a professional player has suffered grievous injury to his pride.”

Watford: “a most distressing occurrence indeed and we can only apologise unreservedly on behalf of the individual involved. Be assured a thorough internal investigation and review has been launched in order to avoid a repeat of this.”

The FA: “thank you, we’re reassured that you are treating this serious matter with the seriousness that it deserves. We can therefore avoid any official action – such as imposing a three match ban on the mascot – on this occasion. Merry Christmas.”

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Watford subsequently issued a phenomenal statement: ‘Watford FC has reminded Harry the Hornet of his responsibilities, which include continuing to have fun and entertain supporters.’

Hahahaha. That must have been an amazing Monday morning meeting. I’d love to know what the full list of Harry’s responsibilities entails but I’m glad that having fun and entertaining supporters are included among them. Of course this is exactly what Harry was doing in gently mocking Zaha so he may be left feeling a little confused as to how to interpret his responsibilities.

I didn’t see the Zaha booking so I don’t know if he did dive or not, although he’s a player that carries a reputation in this regard. It seems to me though that mockery is a perfectly reasonable reaction to diving (or cheating to call it by what it really is) and it should be employed more often. Players should be shamed when they cheat and why not have mascots take a lead in that?

Getting mocked by a grown man who dresses up in a ridiculous costume every other weekend should at least give some pause for thought.

Zaha’s teammate Delaney (another man whom I hope received a sense of humour for Christmas) also hit out at Harry the Hornet, saying: “Maybe he thinks he is more important than he is. For a mascot to be doing that, it’s uncalled for.” Yes Damien, the arrogance of mascots, a real scourge of the modern game.

What’s uncalled for is players who take themselves so seriously that they cannot take a joke.

It can only be hoped that one of the FA’s New Year’s resolutions for 2017 is to clamp down on diving but somehow I doubt it. Unless it involves mascots of course.

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Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Long ball Louis

Louis van Gaal - Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey www.flickr.com

Louis van Gaal – Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey
http://www.flickr.com

Paul Scholes said this week that watching Manchester United has been “miserable” at times this season, and he gets paid to do it as a pundit. Pity the poor punters who are paying for the privilege.

Manchester United’s style of play has come under increased scrutiny since Sam Allardyce labelled them a “long-ball” side after their late equaliser against West Ham. Louis van Gaal’s reaction was as surprising as it was revealing: he turned up at a press conference clutching a dossier of stats from the game in a bid to prove big Sam mistaken. The Louis doth protest too much, methinks.

For a man who always appears so supremely self-confident it was a gesture of remarkable insecurity and weakness. Could you ever imagine Sir Alex responding in such a way? He never did because he never felt the need to publicly justify himself.

Manchester United’s players still don’t seem very comfortable with the manager’s tactics. For the first three months or so that could be understood and forgiven, not least because the Dutchman was implementing quite significant changes in playing style, including moving away from the reliance on 4-4-2. By now, with the quality of players he has at his disposal, there should be much more fluency and coherence in his side’s play.

I wonder if Van Gaal’s slightly hysterical reaction to Allardyce’s claims is a sign that he has begun to doubt himself just a little. There’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way his side is performing. The midweek win over Burnley didn’t provide much comfort.

Chris Smalling revealed that Van Gaal had been “shocked” at half-time by how poor the first half display was. I’m not sure that too many others were though, including the Old Trafford faithful who have got used to generous helpings of mediocrity to accompany their prawn sandwiches this season.

The Van Gaal stat attack had a touch of the Rafa Benitez ‘facts’ fiasco about it. It is not a flattering comparison for the Dutchman. Instead of handing out tactical diagrams to the media, the Manchester United boss would find his time better served going over them for longer with his players. His players frequently look as bemused as the journalists that attended the educational press conference.

Despite United’s dodgy defence most of the recent questions have focused on the misfiring strike force. Falcao’s loan is looking decidedly subprime while Van Persie’s prime looks to be some way behind him. Rooney has been shunted to midfield in order for Falcao and Van Persie to be paired together up front but it doesn’t seem to be working.

The Colombian and the Dutchman are too similar. Either would benefit from playing alongside Rooney but neither appears to enjoy the current set-up. Both are penalty box predators; they don’t get too involved in build up play. In the absence of Rooney dropping off the front to link with the midfield it is inevitable that the ball will hit the strikers from deeper. Whether most of those constitute long balls or long passes (the statisticians make a clear distinction) is not really the point.

Is Rooney wasted in midfield? By and large I think he is although it’s certainly not his fault. He’s shown himself to be willing to play there and has more than enough quality to do so. Some of Rooney’s natural dynamism is curtailed in midfield though and he’s not experienced enough in the position to control games in the way that you would expect a player of his quality to.

Every time that Rooney lines up in midfield it’s a reminder that Manchester United have never replaced Scholes. They should have signed someone such as Modric when he left Spurs. Fabregas would also have fitted the bill perfectly. Fellaini, alas, does not.

The summer spending spree did bring the creativity of Di Maria to Manchester and after a spectacular start his recent struggles have been a bit of a surprise. He was one of the best players at the World Cup in Brazil and he’s most suited to roaming quite freely in a role similar to the one that Bale plays now at Real Madrid and used to play at Tottenham. Di Maria’s stuttering form seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the side.

For all the dark clouds supposedly gathering over Old Trafford, Van Gaal can still point to the fact that his team are in third place in the table and on course for a return to the Champions League. The fact that they are tells you a lot about inadequacies elsewhere.

West Ham probably won’t be playing in Europe next season but that hasn’t stopped Allardyce claiming that there is no coach in the Premier League as sophisticated as him these days. It’s a bold claim but it’s perhaps not as outlandish as it first sounds. He has been around at the top level for a long time and has always been known as a keen student of the game not least on the sports science side of it.

With his tie loosened, his extensive frame, and his furious gum chewing, Big Sam doesn’t look quite as sophisticated as Mourinho, Wenger or even Van Gaal and that may be one reason he’s not credited with the level of sophistication that he feels he’s due.

When Van Gaal used more direct tactics at certain stages of games at the World Cup, he was hailed for his tactical flexibility. When Big Sam does the same, it tends to be dismissed as unreconstructed directness of the old school. Let’s not forget that Manchester United’s directness at Upton Park brought an equaliser.

Van Gaal’s team remains a work in progress with more emphasis so far on work than progress. Under Moyes, Old Trafford lost its fear factor for visiting sides; Van Gaal’s tactical tinkering hasn’t yet brought it back. That’s the long and the short of it.