The Unlikely Lads – Season 2015/16 Review

Leicester champions parade

Leicester champions parade. Photo by: JPAG http://www.flickr.com

Well, that was quite a Premier League season that just finished. Here’s my short verdict on each team:

  1. Leicester – a little bit of Thai money, Italian tactics, and an English core produced a fairy tale; Champions League and Hollywood now beckon
  2. Arsenal – the jubilation at finishing above Spurs risks masking the shame of finishing ten points behind Leicester. Wenger won’t win another league title at Arsenal but he’s probably safe in his job for another season
  3. Tottenham – a subdued and flat end to an otherwise thrilling season. If Pochettino stays, the future looks bright at Spurs
  4. Manchester City – “when is Pep coming?” “Is he here yet?” A season of waiting, every bit as tragi-comic as Waiting for Godot
  5. Manchester United – “probably not a team I’d have enjoyed playing in” said Paul Scholes. Nobody looked like they enjoyed playing in it and the supporters don’t seem to much enjoy watching it. Van Gaal should be evacuated, permanently
  6. Southampton – maintaining standards is harder than setting them but Koeman has managed it; a well-run club making sustainable progress
  7. West Ham – bye, bye Upton Park and a final season there with plenty of highlights (and the sad lowlight of the incident with Manchester United’s bus). Bilic is an excellent and underrated manager
  8. Liverpool – Klopp has been good but not as magnificent as his cheerleaders in the press would have us believe. Liverpool were 10th when he took over and they finished 8th. Progress, but only a little. A major summer overhaul is required.
  9. Stoke City – actually scored surprisingly few goals (41) considering the attacking talent they have. Much easier on the eye than before but sometimes easier to play against too
  10. Chelsea – oh dear, a season that those of us who are not Chelsea fans might describe as a special one
  11. Everton – underwhelming, with the whole appearing lesser than the sum of its parts
  12. Swansea – up and down but never remotely in danger of actually going down so a steady enough season, but difficult to see them improving much upon next season
  13. Watford – a sartorially elegant manager aiming at an elegant style of play. Like fashion, it looks great when it works but the occasional disaster is always lurking
  14. West Brom – too good to go down, not good enough to go much further up
  15. Crystal Palace – much Pardew about nothing (unless they win the FA Cup at the weekend)
  16. Bournemouth – survived relatively comfortably but can’t afford to get too comfortable (or, I suspect, to be able to strengthen much)
  17. Sunderland – Big Sam got some big results when it really mattered. Jermain Defoe remains an excellent Premier League striker and at 33 still plays with the energy of an 18 year old
  18. Newcastle – a decline that’s been long in the making. Benitez staying gives them a reasonable chance of bouncing straight back but if they don’t then they could yet fall a lot further
  19. Norwich City – “where are you?” Delia Smith once famously asked the fans. Back in the Championship is now the answer. They will be competitive though and I expect to see them back in the big time before too long
  20. Aston Villa – they scored only 27 goals and conceded 76. They amassed just 17 points all season; a hapless effort from start to finish (every Fantasy League manager kept an eye on who Villa were playing each weekend and made sure at least one opposition striker was in the team).

Speaking of Fantasy League, I just won manager of the month for May after a season that admittedly has been more Newcastle than Leicester. Leicester’s late charge to avoid the drop in 2014/15 serves as an inspiration for my fantasy league efforts next season.

I bet Jamie Vardy will be more expensive though. I wish I’d put a bet on Leicester this season at 5000/1. Odds are they’ll be a shorter price in August but it will still be a long shot for them to retain the title.

And they’re off …

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald www.flickr.com

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald
http://www.flickr.com

The new English Premier League season got underway last weekend and I was quite excited about it as I settled down on the sofa for Manchester United v Spurs. By half time that excitement had all but disappeared; what a dull game. It looked as though nobody had told the players that pre-season was over. The pace was pedestrian and the play was disjointed.

Man U were pretty fortunate overall to come away with a victory. I think it’s likely that they will be title contenders this season but there still seems to be something amiss with the balance of that side. The decision to sell Di Maria also means that there is a huge onus on Rooney staying fit and in form over the course of the season. If he doesn’t then things could head downhill quite quickly at Old Trafford.

The start of the season is generally a time for great excitement and optimism. GQ magazine even ran an article titled ‘16 reasons why this will be the best Premier League season ever’ (http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2015-08/07/16-reasons-why-this-will-be-the-best-premier-league-season-ever). Go to the GQ website these days and you’ll find that most headlines begin with a number. Today for instance they offer, ‘10 high-tech grooming gadgets you need right now.’ On the list is a foot buffer (no, I’ve no idea either) and I’m not convinced I need one of those at all, far less right now. Who says journalism is not what it used to be?

GQ’s reasons for predicting that this will be the best Premier League season ever include the fashion statements being made by some clubs with their new kits, the first ever football boot range by New Balance, and, most incredibly of all, the return of Ian Wright to Match of the Day.

When Wright left the BBC in 2008 he said: “I don’t know how long young people are going to want to sit down and watch that same old ‘jacket, shirt and tie’ format. Fans want people who are dressed like them.” That’s right Ian, it was mostly your shirt and tie that bothered us. I quite often watch the football in my pyjamas these days such is the time difference between Malaysia and Europe. Somebody tell Shearer to have a think about that while he’s in the wardrobe department getting ready.

Well GQ, with those sound arguments, it is hard to disagree with your confident claim as to the glorious season that lies before us. Years from now we’ll look back and say “ah, remember 2015/16? What a season that was. First one with the New Balance boots you know.”

Chelsea began the defence of their title not exactly at their best ever with a rather lacklustre home draw with Swansea. The game will mostly be remembered for Mourinho’s hysterical reaction to the club doctor and physio running on to treat Hazard when Dr. Mourinho (so special he’s apparently a qualified medic now as well) had decided that there wasn’t much wrong with the Belgian playmaker.

If that was the case Jose, then maybe have a word with Eden to stop rolling around so dramatically on the floor. The subsequent treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro by Chelsea has been an absolute disgrace.

Across London, Arsenal’s season started a day later with a home match against West Ham. They lost 2-0, a result and performance that Wenger attributed to his players being “too nervous.” For reasons I don’t understand, the perceived wisdom ahead of the season seemed to be that the signing of Cech had magically transformed Arsenal into title contenders. He’s a very good goalkeeper and although he was terrible on his debut he will improve the side. But Arsenal’s problems are not confined between the sticks.

For years they’ve needed a stronger spine to the team. Cech is one part of that but they are still a centre back, a midfield enforcer, and a top class centre forward short of having a realistic shot at the title. Arsenal will do what they’ve done for many seasons now: probably qualify again for the Champions League, get knocked out of this season’s Champions League at either the last sixteen or quarter final stage, and have a decent run in one of the domestic cups.

My team Liverpool began the season at the same place they finished last season – away at Stoke. Back in May it was a calamity as Liverpool lost 6-1 in Gerrard’s final game for the club. 11 weeks later, Liverpool again only scored once but Stoke didn’t score at all and so three hard-earned points were taken back to Anfield.

I’m not at all sure what to expect of Liverpool this season. There are a lot of new faces (again) but the pattern of play was the familiar one that Rodgers has established in his time at the club. Possession was plentiful but much of it was slow and almost entirely lacking in penetration, especially in wide areas. One point of encouragement though was that Benteke showed a sure touch and a willingness to get involved in build-up play. I think he’s going to prove to be a sound investment.

The opening round of fixtures was completed on Monday night with West Brom v Manchester City. Pellegrini’s side strolled to a comfortable 3-0 victory that was notable for the influential display of Toure and for the way that Kompany celebrated scoring the third goal (as if he’d just scored a crucial goal in a World Cup final). I get the impression that City feel they have a point to prove this season.

It may not turn out to be the greatest season in the history of the Premier League but just one week in, anything remains possible. I’m still excited about it but it seems that some people are writing football off altogether. There was an article in The Spectator last week by Mark Palmer titled ‘I’ve loved football for decades, now I dread the start of the season’ (https://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9600342/ive-loved-football-for-decades-now-i-dread-the-start-of-the-season/). Why so, Mark?

He suggests it’s because the game has ‘become a cesspit of greed, debauchery and racism, especially in Britain.’ He goes on to conclude that ‘football is rotten and there’s no point denying it any more. The penny dropped on seeing the footage of Souleymane Sylla, a black Frenchman on his way home from work in Paris, being pushed off a train by snarling Chelsea fans fuelled by drink and hate.’

There’s no denying the ugliness of that incident but it’s a bit much to give up on the beautiful game because of it. Like many things in life, football is indeed tainted by greed, debauchery and racism (and more ills besides) on occasion but those so-called Chelsea fans on the Parisian tube are not the face of football, or at least they are far from the only face.

On Monday night I received several photos from the West Brom v Manchester City game. They were sent by an Indian colleague of mine. He is a City supporter and took his son to the game while on a family trip to the UK. My colleague and his son had huge excited smiles on their faces. This was the first time that they had seen City play live. For weeks they’d been dreaming about the start of the season. 2015/16 will be one to remember for them.

Counting up the Liverpool misses

Photo by: Calcio Mercato www.flickr.com

Photo by: Calcio Mercato
http://www.flickr.com

It’s a little late to be reviewing last weekend’s action (Manchester City v Crystal Palace is just about to kick-off now to start this weekend’s round of fixtures) but the only excuse I can offer is that it’s been a busy week including travelling to Europe for Christmas and New Year. I’m looking forward to watching some games at regular times (whatever such times are these days – I remain a Saturday 3pm traditionalist) and to going to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (which kicks off at 12.15).

I was still in Malaysia for the Manchester United v Liverpool game last Sunday and Liverpool are still in their present malaise. If a week is a long time in politics, nine months is an age in football. That’s how long it’s been since the two sides last clashed at Old Trafford. On that occasion Liverpool won 3-0 and the score line didn’t flatter them in the least. This time the score line was reversed and while Liverpool could take some comfort in De Gea being man of the match, they were still thoroughly deservedly beaten.

The most worrying aspect of the defeat was the fact that Manchester United didn’t even have to play superbly well to come away with such a comfortable win. Van Gaal said in midweek that he expects performances to improve despite his team’s recent winning run. Rodgers certainly needs performances to improve as Liverpool’s season stutters further into mediocrity.

Liverpool started the game without a recognised striker on the pitch and Sterling was tasked with leading the line. He played quite well but missed a couple of excellent chances. Balotelli missed considerably more after he came on but to be fair, he was somewhat unlucky to find De Gea in such brilliant form.

Mario is presumably now composing a letter to Santa, asking if he can have a goal for Christmas. There may be some debate in the grotto as to whether the Italian has been a good boy or not this year. There’s less debate that he’s been a bad buy for Rodgers and I wonder if he will still be at Anfield in February. I don’t imagine he’s currently on too many managers’ Christmas shopping lists.

I saw an interesting piece on the BBC website today in which Robbie Savage reviewed all 24 of the signings that Brendan Rodgers has made since becoming Liverpool manager. In total he’s spent £206.5m. Savage identifies just four hits out of the 24 signings – Sturridge, Coutinho, Toure, and Moreno – and I don’t disagree although he’s possibly being a little generous with Toure.

It’s a very poor return on the investment made and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s in the transfer market that managers are made or broken. Rodgers is an excellent coach but much of his current difficulties stem from the failings that he’s made in signing players. The same could be said of Wenger over the past decade or so.

By contrast, if Chelsea win the league this year, the most significant decisions that Mourinho made came before the season started with his signings of Fabregas and Costa. Of course the more money you have the easier such decisions become in theory but you still have to identify the right player at the right time for your team. Ferguson was a master at this until almost the end. His signing of Van Persie was practically a title winning decision on its own but he subsequently failed to perform the surgery that was necessary on that squad, a task that Van Gaal is now pursuing with relish.

The other big talking point from last weekend was diving following Chelsea’s rather theatrical performance against Hull. Diving is the thing that I’d most like to see stamped out of the game and the authorities should simply get tougher with it. Personally I’d like to see dives result in a straight red card and a three game suspension. It would be controversial for sure and there would be a few mistakes made along the way (although these could be reviewed afterwards) but it would definitely bring about a huge reduction in this ugly blight upon the beautiful game.

Champions League intrigue

Photo by: El Ronzo www.flickr.com

Photo by: El Ronzo
http://www.flickr.com

As usual, the group stage of the Champions League has been little more than a procession for most of the contenders for the trophy. The tournament is a cash cow and a very well milked one. Nonetheless, as the group stage approaches its conclusion with one round of fixtures remaining, there is much to ponder in the performances of the English sides.

Chelsea have shown themselves to be the best side in the English Premier League by some distance so far this season and they are replicating their domestic form on the European stage. A 5-0 away win in Germany sends out quite a statement. Mourinho described the performance as “perfect” and spoke of his team’s “big self-belief.”

Self-belief doesn’t come any bigger than Mourinho’s own but he’s almost never failed to walk the strutting walk to accompany his generally self-congratulatory talk. I think he’s the best manager in the world and has been for some time.

I expect Chelsea to end the season as league champions but winning the Champions League will be much tougher. Real Madrid are the best team in Europe – for me the recent El Classico proved that beyond doubt – but Barcelona and Bayern Munich both have enough quality, experience and fire power to be very confident themselves. Madrid, Barca and Bayern are the big three in Europe right now in my assessment with Chelsea probably leading the chasing pack.

Two other English sides also had an excellent week in the tournament. Arsenal recorded a comfortable win over Dortmund (admittedly a side that looks a shadow of its recent self) while Manchester City produced a remarkable late comeback to claim a 3-2 win over Bayern. Aguero scored a hat-trick and vividly demonstrated the sort of quality that sides need to succeed at that level.

Sadly such quality is not much in evidence at Liverpool at the moment. The team at least avoided defeat for the first time in November with a 2-2 draw at Ludogorets. Remarkably, Rodgers referred to the result as “a real confidence boost” which only serves to highlight the depths to which confidence has sunk at Anfield.

The confidence boosting performance included another howler from goalkeeper Mignolet and the concession of a late equaliser at the cost of two points. If that’s his side playing with confidence then we Liverpool fans have a lot to be nervous about.

Liverpool can still qualify with victory over Basel next month but on current form I don’t feel too confident about that. As he goes about the task of repairing his team’s dented morale, I hope that Rodgers gets some advice from his old mentor Mourinho. After all, the Portuguese always looks as though he has a little confidence to spare.

The Monday Post – 10/11/14

Photo by: CFC unofficial (Debs) www.flickr.com

Photo by: CFC unofficial (Debs)
http://www.flickr.com

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (that’s any of you who have read more than three posts) then you probably know by now that I’m a Liverpool fan. It’s not my intention to devote more time and space here to Liverpool as a result but I will start my weekend review with their game against Chelsea.

It was the only match I saw this weekend. The clocks went back recently in the UK and that is not a good thing for a British football fan living in Malaysia. 3pm kick-offs now start here at 11pm rather than 10pm. Lunchtime kick-offs remain excellently timed though and so I settled down to watch Liverpool – Chelsea at 8.45pm on Saturday night.

It quickly became apparent that Liverpool have gone back further than the clocks in recent weeks. Rodgers had restored to the starting line-up most of those controversially dropped (rested) in Madrid in midweek but it made little difference. Chelsea dominated without ever needing to employ top gear.

It’s hard to pinpoint Liverpool’s problems since they are scattered all over the pitch. If defending is an art then Liverpool’s is less Van Gogh’s sunflowers and more Tracey Emin’s my bed: untidy, overpriced, and frequently prompting the question, why on earth did you do that?

The midfield is currently a little lacking in artistic imagination with the honourable exception of Coutinho who again, inexplicably, did not play the full 90 minutes. Up front, Balotelli looked like a tortured artist awaiting inspiration, or at least a decent pass.

After the game, Mourinho was asked if his side could go the whole season unbeaten. He bashfully dismissed the prospect and he was right to do so. I’ll be amazed if Chelsea don’t lose a league game this season but they are already looking like heavy title favourites.

Arsene Wenger certainly thinks so. He more or less conceded the title after watching his team lose 2-1 at Swansea, yet again managing to lose from a winning position. Before the game Alexis Sanchez had tweeted that ‘the 3 points are coming to London.’ Maybe he was referring to a Chilean boy band I’ve never heard of; the three premier league points decided it wasn’t worth the trip.

Opposition managers used to have to make stuff like that up and then post it all over the changing room walls to motivate their players. Now, they only need show a live Twitter feed from some of the opposing team’s most prolific tweeters.

It’s been a bad week for Arsenal after they threw away a three goal lead in the Champions League against Anderlecht and the only consolation I can see for Arsenal fans right now is the form of Spurs. Tottenham lost 2-1 at home to Stoke as their poor start to the season continued.

It seems that most of the points going to London at the moment are headed straight for Stamford Bridge.

No way Jose

mourinho

Jose Mourinho. Photo by In Mou We Trust, http://www.flickr.com

Mourinho is a master of tactics. He is particularly adept at using his post-match press conferences tactically in order to deflect attention from poor performances from his side. He was at it again on Saturday following Chelsea’s lacklustre 2-1 win against Queens Park Rangers.

He admitted that his team “did not play well” but he knew very well that the headlines the next day would focus on his comment that “at this moment it’s difficult for us to play at home, though, because playing here is like playing in an empty stadium.” The fans are a bit too quiet for Jose’s liking and it seems his players are suffering as a result.

“I was today looking around and it was empty, but not in terms of people because it was obviously full. That’s what is frustrating.” The emptiness of the full stadium? How very philosophical Jose, and frustrating. Perhaps Chelsea fans thought QPR stood for Quiet Please, Respect.

It’s a cheap shot though, especially aimed at those paying eye-wateringly expensive ticket prices. Managers are happy to laud the fans as the all-important “twelfth man” when they’re winning but as soon as they start losing or performances falter, number 12 is expected to stay behind for extra choir practice.

The cheapest general sale ticket for the game was apparently almost £50 and if I’d paid that much to witness a less than inspiring performance from my team I would feel quite entitled to sit in sulking silence, contemplating why some players who earn £100,000 per week seem to have difficulty in completing a 10 yard pass.

Recently I wrote about the BBC’s price of football survey and the increasing cost of watching football in the UK. Clubs are discovering that eating your cake is somewhat incompatible with having your cake. Higher prices means more money for clubs but as Chelsea Supporters’ Trust chairman Tim Rolls points out, many “young people – who are the most likely to sing and make noise – have been priced out of the game.”

You see Jose, the voice, just like the legs, starts to go a little bit with age. Typically, Mourinho was in no mood for backing down. He subsequently claimed that “we are the team to get less support in home matches. When compared to my previous time I think it’s getting worse.” Maybe the fans have got older compared to last time; maybe prices have got more expensive.

One fan took to Instagram to suggest that Mourinho’s comments were ‘bang out of order’ and received a sympathetic phone call from John Terry in reply. It was reported that Terry told the supporter that he ‘understood the concerns of supporters – but insisted Mourinho had deliberately spoken to stir the home crowd into more obvious displays of passion.’

In return, Chelsea fans might ask the skipper and the gaffer for some more obvious displays of talent.