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.

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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.

Happy birthday Match of the Day

 

match-of-the-day

Match of the Day studio. Photo by Alexander Baxevanis, http://www.flickr.com

So Match of the Day is 50. It is quite simply a British institution. Especially for those of us who grew up without the saturation coverage of football on TV that exists today. It’s a coming of age moment in the UK to finally be allowed to stay up to watch Match of the Day. I don’t actually remember how old I was when that moment happened for me but I do remember the feeling that an important milestone in life had been reached.

A lot has changed since the programme made its debut in 1964 and not just in football. In 1964, Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons, the Forth Road Bridge opened, The Sun newspaper went into circulation, and the Beatles had a Christmas number one with I Feel Fine. The world record transfer fee at the time was £250,000, paid by Roma to Mantova for Angelo Sormani (no, I’ve never heard of him either). The British transfer record was the £115,000 paid by Manchester United to Torino for the services of Dennis Law.

Apparently, a season ticket to watch Law at Manchester United could be purchased for around £10 – many Manchester United fans probably feel that would be a reasonable price to watch their side for a season now given the level of performance they’ve been producing over the past year or so.

The legendary Law was voted European footballer of the year in 1964 and remains the only Scot to have been awarded the Ballon D’Or. Dalglish finished second in the voting in 1983, losing out to Platini. It’s not altogether clear why Scott Nisbet was overlooked in 1993, a player about whom Walter Smith said: “every pass is an adventure.”

Match of the Day’s first adventure came at Anfield on 22 August 1964. Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 and 20,000 viewers tuned in. Those were the days of football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and of an average weekly wage in English football’s top division that was less than £40. Today, games are played almost every day of the week and absolutely average players earn £40,000 per week. Those things are made possible, and to some extent necessitated, by the fact that football has grown rich thanks to TV.

Most ‘matches of the weekend’ no longer take place at 3pm on a Saturday (in fact increasingly rarely on a Saturday at all) and so Saturday night highlights are not always the highlight that they once were. Broadcasting football has become a fiercely competitive business and to mark Match of the Day’s 50th year, BBC bosses have given instructions to pundits to be more opinionated and animated. They did this after signing Phil Neville as a pundit which is a bit like a manager saying his side needs to score more goals and then announcing the signing of a couple of centre halves.

Mark Cole, head of football at the BBC (that sounds like a great job by the way and an impressive business card) said recently: “anyone on that panel of punditry should have played top-flight football and that’s our position.” So does that mean that Mourinho and Wenger need not apply?

It’s well accepted that great players don’t necessarily make great managers and most footballers who currently offer their animated, or otherwise, opinions are not really very good pundits (Shearer barely became animated when he scored far less when dissecting the finer tactical details of Stoke versus West Ham). If anybody can remember anything remotely enlightening courtesy of Mark Lawrenson then answers on a postcard please or preferably in the comments section below.

Such has been the poor overall quality that Hansen came to be seen as something of a sage despite most of his contributions amounting to little more than correctly labelling terrible defending as “terrible.” He also famously and wrongly proclaimed that “you can’t win anything with kids” which wasn’t true about the Manchester United side he was referring to or indeed the Dundee Sunday Boys League where my own (modest) skills were honed.

Without doubt the best pundit in the business is another man whose skills first flourished in Dundee: Gordon Strachan. What makes Strachan the perfect pundit? Well, for a start, he’s genuinely insightful. He has a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of the game, especially its tactical variances and subtleties. He tells it like it is but without going over the top. He can judge a player, team or manager harshly yet still sympathetically. Listening to Strachan I generally learn something and that is almost never the case with any of the other pundits currently occupying their comfy sofas.

Oh, and Strachan is also witty; hilarious in fact. He brings humour to his analysis and this quality has been most apparent in his post-match interviews as a manager. He was once asked: “So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?” His reply: “What areas? Mainly that big green one out there.”

One reporter seeking a post-match comment asked him: “Gordon, can we have a quick word please?” Strachan said: “velocity” and walked off. That’s just brilliant. I would love to go to the pub with Strachan after a game and discuss it over a pint or two. How many other pundits would you say the same of?

There’s a gap in the market for a football show that has the feel of intelligent people discussing the game in a way that can be both serious and light-hearted. Sky’s Soccer Saturday does the pub-like banter pretty well but falls rather short on insight despite having a truly great presenter in Jeff Stelling.

One of the interesting developments of recent years is that sources of really intelligent analysis have emerged from outside the game. The best example of this is Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking (www.zonalmarking.net) was ‘inspired by the standard of punditry on British television,’ that is to say how ‘terrible’ it is and Cox’s correct assumption that he could do much better. The huge popularity of the site, and the fact that he now writes for many other publications, indicates that thousands of football fans want the type of analysis offered by Zonal Marking.

Instead of providing that analysis most football shows have decided that the answer lies in massively increased use of technical gadgetry (Match of the Day is actually an honourable exception to this for the most part). What this seems to involve is a couple of confused looking blokes standing in front of something that resembles a gigantic iPad and getting carried away with placing circles around players, drawing arrows, and highlighting random sections of the pitch.

Usually, after an inordinate amount of knob twiddling and freeze framing, the pundits will conclude with something like: “so yeah, Rooney’s taken a touch and smashed it into the net.” Well, thanks lads, I’d spotted that all by myself when you first played the video of the goal at normal speed and unadorned by your creative markings.

So if the BBC is looking for advice on the next 50 years of Match of the Day (they haven’t asked incidentally but that’s never stopped me dispensing advice in the past) I would suggest: forget technology, hire Gordon Strachan, and look for real intelligence rather than just top-flight football experience in your pundits. Otherwise, there’s a risk of Match of the Day suffering the same fate as another BBC show that launched in 1964 – Top of the Pops.