It surely can’t be the same season and yet it is. Chelsea began this campaign steamrolling the opposition and notching up impossible scores. Drogba and Anelka and co were unstoppable. But this weekend Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup, the one trophy their fans must have been counting on their team to comfortably retain. The coming week is make or break for the blues as they take on Copenhagen in the Champions League. After letting slip the Premiership to a way below par Manchester United side and an Arsenal team still in development, Chelsea’s only hope for silverware this term is in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti started this season as if he could do no wrong after reclaiming the title for the London side after a 3 year stay in Manchester, but it would seem he has to win the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has always coveted and never won to keep his job.
Indeed it feels as if Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea owner has reached a sort of tipping point. The unspoken fear around Stamford Bridge has always been what if the big Russian tires of his English plaything and leaves the club. It was the one consoling thought for many football fans as they watched Chelsea steadily ascend to the heights of world football; that the situation was unstable and one day Chelsea would crash and burn. It’s been said again since unfathomable amounts of oil money were ploughed into Manchester City. But so far Roman’s defied the expectations and hopes of the doubters, and continually funded his club. He’s proved the role model and catalyst for countless other investors to take the leap into English football. And thanks to Roman’s success and commitment, fans have even started welcoming benefactors in lots of cases.
Since the departure of the Special One however, Abramovich’s record with managers has been poor, with Ancelotti the only real success, besides Hiddink who was a temporary measure. And the chopping and changing of managers has disguised the relentless decline of the club’s squad. Once unbeatable and prized assets like Drogba, Lampard and Terry are ageing and no longer capable of consistent greatness. Once again Roman dipped into his vast wealth to try and resurrect his empire during the transfer window. Fans might have been reassured by this continued investment and the arrival of Torres and Luiz. But the Spaniard from Liverpool is yet to ignite and is not a long term solution. David Luiz displayed commanding defensive ability and sublime passing on his full debut against Fulham, alongside experienced Terry at centre back. It will take a whole clutch of young signings like Luiz to rejuvenate a Chelsea squad that has been neglected and has become predictable.
Ancelotti is coming under considerable fire of late for his tactical decisions. There’s no doubting that he is playing far too narrow through the midfield and into the hands of opponents that no longer see Chelsea’s defence as invincible. He’s certainly trying too hard to accommodate Torres without thinking first of the need for results and team chemistry. But in many ways Ancelotti is limited by his squad, a group of players he had little hand in selecting. There are an abundance of central midfield players in the Chelsea team, all of them quality players, and Ancelotti is trying to play to his strengths.
The danger is that Abramovich will simply sack another top class coach and there will once again be a period of upheaval. There’s an unquestionable need for change and fresh legs at Chelsea, but this will be best managed through continuity as well. It’s a real shame that the pressures of modern football and the heavy egos of club owner’s mean that managers no longer get time to shape a side to their vision. If Roman Abramovich is truly serious about winning the Champions League, and establishing Chelsea as a long term force at the top of football, he’ll keep faith in a manager who’s already proven himself and back him with the resources he needs. Top coaches deliver with time as Alex Ferguson proves. Take a reactionary axe to his management team as well as his squad and Roman might see his football empire crumble into mediocrity.
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Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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Gerard Houllier’s appointment as Aston Villa’s new manager on a three-year contract has highlighted the growing complexity and difficulty of selecting a Premier League manager. Choosing a new man to pick the team, train the players and generally steer the club in the right direction is clearly always going to be a big decision, but these days things are complicated further by numerous additional roles. Houllier for example has just left the French Football Federation from the mysterious role of “technical director” to the national team and due to Randy Lerner’s apparent liking of caretaker manager Kevin McDonald’s coaching style there was talk of Houllier taking a similar role at Villa at one time, with McDonald handling the coaching of first-team affairs. Villa fans, whatever their views on Houllier, ought to be counting themselves lucky that they have at least appointed a manager and not adopted an incomprehensible system, inspired by continental clubs, that has produced only failure when tried in the Premiership before.
Personally I think it’s a shame Villa didn’t appoint Alan Curbishley and give an obviously capable and talented English coach a chance with a decent sized club. Curbishley had a torrid time with the board room at West Ham and deserves a more stable environment in which to try and manage a top club. However it remains to be seen whether Villa’s moneymen are content, given the circumstances under which O’Neil left the club and the telling words in the club’s statement which suggest Houllier was a candidate willing to compromise about lack of funds: “Two of the key qualities in our search for the new manager were experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad, and Gérard Houllier comfortably satisfies these criteria.” I certainly find it odd that Villa should turn to Houllier given his exile from the English game since his departure from Liverpool. Articles reporting the appointment emphasize Houllier’s glittering CV, but much of his experience is with French clubs a long time ago. Since Liverpool he has returned to his French comfort zone and can hardly said to have been successful in whatever it was he was asked to do as “technical director”, given the French’s disastrous World Cup. As manager Raymond Domenech got the barrage of blame but Houllier had a role and it was hardly part of a successful set up.
Indeed whenever I have seen them enacted systems involving a “technical director” or “director of football” do not seem to bring success. Certainly in the English game it would seem from the evidence that clubs who put their faith in a talented coach over a long period of time stay at the top of the game, such as Arsenal and Manchester United. When Chelsea tried a system involving “sporting directors” or something similar, “the special one” clashed with both Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, with disagreements between Jose and Grant eventually leading to the Portuguese’s departure. Following this Chelsea entered a period of decline, allowing United to reclaim dominance and they have only recovered to wrest back control since trusting two excellent coaches in Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti to run things their own way. “Technical Directors” or their equivalent always appear to be the owner or chairman’s spy, breathing down the neck of the manager and meddling with his transfer budget to create conflict and a climate of paranoia at clubs that does not breed a the unified vision and team spirit necessary to win trophies. Equally though the system has not worked well at clubs at the opposite end of the league, those in need of new impetus to avoid relegation. Dennis Wise was handed a role at Newcastle United by hands-on owner Mike Ashley that did nothing to revert the Toon’s slide to the Championship, but grabbed plenty of dramatic headlines. Portsmouth too experimented during their topsy-turvy period of ownership and poor performances, to no avail.
Like many people at the moment I have succumbed to curiosity and bought Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. In the first chapter he touches on the opposition he met from the Civil Service for bringing special advisers into the affairs of state, but makes a convincing argument that modern governments need such expertise on hand immediately to deal effectively with situations. I imagine the fascination with “technical directors” stems from a similar realization that the modern game of football requires a variety of top level experts. However Blair’s memoir also makes it clear that he and he only was leader, he felt that individual burden and we’re all aware of the complications between him and Gordon Brown over who should be leader that eventually ended his time in office. Football clubs today still require a leader, someone who has the final say and whose vision should always be behind day to day decisions. “Directors of football” and other such roles may have their place, but particularly when the person appointed to such a role has a high profile they cease to be an adviser and ally to the manager but become an inspector and internal threat to his authority. Too often these positions are merely waiting rooms for the next manager, from which the “technical director” shall opportunistically spring as the pressure rises. Even if the person taking such an advisory position has no ambition to take over as manager, the culture of the game in this country has not changed sufficiently for the manager to be unconcerned by such an appointment. In an age where foreign managers and all the communication problems that come with them are commonplace, it is surely better to at least keep the management structures of a club simple and have the best man at the helm, supported by staff of his own choosing. This man should then be judged on the way he deals with the various pressures of the modern game and whether he gets results; not constantly assessed internally by an observer that adds unnecessary weight to the burden of management.
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As a fan of Manchester United I’ve become accustomed to the strange ways of our legendary manager. The approaching return of a certain Mr Beckham to Old Trafford has prompted a review of Sir Alex’s past judgments in the press. There is no doubt that subsequent events seemed to prove Fergie right in Beckham’s case and he’ll relish the flattering questions at the press conferences. Beckham won only one La Liga with Real Madrid and he and other “Galiticos” saw Barcelona surpass them as not only Spain’s best club but arguably Europe’s. Beckham peaked at United and Fergie rebuilt his side and found an even better successor in Ronaldo, who led the team to new heights with that long craved second Champions League trophy.
In the past I’ve trusted Fergie’s proven ability to make the right call for the club in the long term. When he sold Beckham I agreed with the decision and likewise when he recognised the need for a new style in the form of a Rooney/Saha partnership that saw the demise of the God-like Ruud Van Nistelrooy. He clearly has an instinct for recognising when a player has given his best and when what’s best for the team is to let a good player go. Sure he’s made mistakes too, notably the ego driven ousting of Jaap Stam following a row over revelations in the player’s book. That led to the acquisition of Laurent Blanc, an ageing player who failed to even dampen the flames left roaring at the back following the departure of the Dutchman. He also struggled to find a new keeper after the departure of a red nosed great Dane but who wouldn’t have? That’s why when the Fergie sold the world’s best player at the start of this season I followed his logic and expected to see him take the necessary action to maintain the club’s challenge domestically and in Europe.
However like many other fans I was disappointed by the lack of reinvestment of that gargantuan transfer fee back into the squad. Ronaldo was a winger and top scoring striker, so at least two players were needed to fill two gaping responsibilities in my view. Then there was the lightweight midfield, brushed aside in the final with Barca, which may as well be sorted out with the treasure chest overflowing. No such luck. Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen were the only signings of note; neither has become an integral team member. Disappointed, I consoled myself with the thought of what happened when Beckham left; an obscure young winger signed to replace him who would in time spearhead a remoulded attack to glory. Then I realised Valencia wasn’t young or obscure, just averagely effective at Wigan Athletic. This time then would the recovery take even longer?
Wayne Rooney is the reason why there have been no major criticisms of the lack of transfer activity as yet. His form, along with some stumbles by Chelsea, has ensured United stay within touch at the top. Fergie’s reluctance to admit defeat when it comes to big money signings of his own however may damage Rooney’s long term prospects. It happened with Veron, who Fergie desperately struggled to accommodate, and now it’s happening with Dimitar Berbatov. Rightly wowed by his dazzling football at Spurs, Berbatov actually seemed a relatively low risk buy at the time, proven in the Premiership already. Like Veron though his swagger and temperament have been hard for the fans to accept, especially when he has rarely found form. At Spurs the odd less than divine performance would perhaps go unnoticed but at Old Trafford the pressure rises. From the start many have said he is too similar to Rooney, a player who likes to drop off rather than poach in the six yard box. This criticism was brushed aside by Fergie, who seemed to have proved with the Rooney/Tevez partnership that a recognised “striker” was no longer needed for fruitful attacking play. With Tevez’s departure though Berbatov has failed to really connect with Rooney, doing so only on occasion. It now seems quite likely Fergie will rebuild again in the summer, offloading Berbatov and searching for Rooney’s perfect foil.
Until then United and England fans must hope that the weight of goals on Wayne Rooney does not break him. A supporting cast of Owen, Wellbeck and Macheda cannot hope to ease the pressure on such an inspirational player. In the summer it may be too late for this season, but Fergie must bring in a goal scoring replacement for Berbatov and other strikers if Rooney is to keep playing at this level for many more years. For the coming trophy run-in United fans can only pray Berbatov finds form to save the season and his Old Trafford career.