Pundits on the couch

sky-sports

Sky Sports studio. Photo by: Ross G. Strachan, http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp is not a man lacking in opinions. He would no doubt make rather a good pundit – he’s knowledgeable about the game, has a good sense of humour, and appears to enjoy robust debate.

His latest sparring partners are the Neville brothers, both of whom have recently been critical (with good reason) of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Klopp was particularly disdainful of Gary Neville, saying: “he showed he struggled with the job to judge players so why do we let him talk about players on TV?”

Well, for a start, ‘we’ don’t. Sky do, and they seem happy with Neville as a pundit and welcomed him back with open arms after his short and unsuccessful sabbatical in Spain. Klopp’s was a bit of a low blow in this case, lower even than the league position occupied by Valencia when Neville was shown the door.

Klopp went on to suggest that Neville is “not interested in helping a Liverpool player I can imagine, but that makes things he says not make more sense.” The German’s English is still a work in (impressive) progress in terms of fully making sense. But again here, the complaint is a strange one.

Why should Gary Neville in his role as a pundit be interested in either helping, or indeed hindering, Liverpool? I’ve not seen all that much of his punditry but by all accounts he does a good job of it and takes a fair, balanced view of things. He’s certainly not been afraid to criticise Manchester United, albeit not quite as harshly as Scholes specialises in.

As a player, Neville gave the impression that he hated Liverpool and the feeling was pretty mutual. One thing that has defined his career however – as player, pundit, and coach – is professionalism. He’s performed each role to the best of his ability, never lacked for effort, and taken it all very, very seriously.

Klopp’s touchiness on the subject of his goalkeeper is indicative of the pressure that affects even the most experienced and accomplished of managers. His decision to drop Karius for the game against Middlesbrough is the clearest evidence that Neville had a point. When Mignolet is deemed the safe choice, then something has gone awry.

Liverpool got back to winning ways on Teesside after recent stutters and even managed to keep a clean sheet. Klopp can feel his decision vindicated, as can Neville his criticism.

Klopp v Neville was not the only manager – pundit square up this week. Mourinho and Owen also clashed over the latter’s comments about Ibrahimovic. Owen said that the Swede was not a long-term solution for Manchester United and commented that at some point the club would have to either find or buy a young player in the mould of Rooney.

Mourinho, who has yet to prove himself a manager for the long-term at any particular club, responded that “Zlatan will score more goals in one season than Michael Owen in three seasons at Man United.”

It is true that Owen wasn’t exactly prolific at United and in many ways he was a stop-gap solution of the kind that he now perceives Ibrahimovic to be. Of course Mourinho’s retort didn’t challenge Owen’s thesis, a sure sign of an argument in the process of being lost.

Owen went on to suggest that “managers are getting awfully touchy.” I don’t think it’s accurate to say getting, it’s always been the case. These two incidents of managers taking exception to the analysis of pundits do highlight a peculiar touchiness on their part. And let’s not forget that these are two of the best and most successful managers in the world.

I’ve made the observation previously this season that Mourinho has been more sullen than swaggering at Old Trafford since he arrived. Perhaps like President-elect Trump, the scale of the task has come as something of a surprise to him.

Klopp meanwhile, is doing his best to downplay rising expectations at Anfield. Liverpool look just about enough like title contenders to experience the pressure that comes with such a label. A few more weeks without Coutinho should answer some questions about how that pressure is being handled by players who are not especially used to it.

Neville and Owen face scrutiny of their performance but not a great deal of pressure. Their seats are comfy ones. Those of Klopp and Mourinho are considerably hotter. Klopp rarely sits in his; such is the manic energy that he exudes on the touchline.

Neville knows the feeling of being in the manager’s seat, and just how uncomfortable it can be. If he ever returns to management, he probably won’t spend much time criticising pundits for doing the job that’s expected of them.

In this instance, Klopp and Mourinho would be better off sitting down, and being quiet.

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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.

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.