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.

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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.

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?