FArewell

So what’s been going on this week?

Unless you have been hiding in a cave somewhere without electricity, you would have already known that this evening Manchester United beat Tottenham 2-1. The Spurs have now drawn one and lost one game since that game¬†where Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane claimed the same goal, Kane one that had a dubious brush off his shoulder obscured by a goal post. The Spurs’ poor run of form since that game can really be attibuted to slightly strange statistics; a breakdown of team spirit caused by Harry Kane doing his team mate in, in a quest to become the top scorer of the Premier League (give it up Harry, because Mo Salah will ensure it never happens), as well as – slightly odd – a team wanting Harry to do it, and hence threading every ball to him in the hope that he can bolster his tally. The problem with statistics, as every player who has been on one can tell you, is that you become so focussed on the numbers it alters and eventually ruins your game. You try too hard and end up losing the natural form of your game that gave you the attention and recognition in the first place.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), one player was so desperate to continue his streak of getting double-figure rebounds (that is, ten or more), that he deliberately shot at his own team’s basket and missed in order to get the tally!

But the story of the week is not Tottenham Hotspur, nor is it Manchester United, who on balance, will be meeting Mourinho Old. That’s right, I predict a Manchester vs Chelsea FA Cup Final. Mourinho vs Conte. Lukaku vs his old team – one of them anyway. But that’s not the story of the weekend.

The main story is that Arsene Wenger is retiring. And what a way to announce it. On the eve of the FA Cup semi-final, which in itself for so many years had been the saving grace of the losing Arsene regime, the Gunners revealed that he would be leaving at the end of the season.

But while most waxed lyrical about how Wenger revolutionised things in England with his approach, one should not get too caught up in the plaudits. Instead, Wenger leaving Arsenal is like the deathly end to a terminal disease. You are sad, but you are also relieved because the pain and suffering can finally be over.

And let’s be cynical. Why did the Gunners choose such a time to announce this decision? Let’s play devil’s advocate here.

Wenger and Mourinho have never got on well. The latter calls him a specialist in failure, and Wenger famously shoved the Portuguese on the touchline in a game against Chelsea. Announcing it on the eve of a semi-final, where Mourinho would likely advance (and he did), would be like stealing Mourinho’s thunder. The fact that it was Spurs playing as well would be a way of undercutting their neighbours, the Gunners overshadowing the build up to Saturday.

This coming Thursday and next Thursday Arsenal play Atletico Madrid over two legs. The first is at the Emirates this Thursday. Deciding the manager’s future and publicly declaring it means that players go into Thursday’s game wanting to do their best for the manager, wanting to win one big competition for him, and the fans can be united behind the team, because whether you like him or not, there will be no more Wenger Out banners, no light aircraft, do battle lines among the fans.

They will need that against Atletico Madrid; I’ve said before, the road to Europa League glory goes through Atletico Madrid.

Wenger’s announcement is a way of leaving on his own terms. He will not let the result against Atletico be seen as influential in him leaving, had he decided to announce it later. He’s set it out, now he hopes the team can rise to the occasion by beating Atletico, however hard it may be.

Either way, it’s the end of an era. Question is, if Arsenal lose over two legs to Atletico, would it make any difference to you if Wenger had stayed or whether he had left?

Team Breakdown

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking that in a week with Champions League football, exciting comebacks galore, that much of what I’ll be writing about is either something out of one of the following teams:

Manchester City’s and their successive failings, losing three in a row

Liverpool and their Champions League success – now up to face Mo Salah’s old team, Roma

The decline of Barcelona and Messi

How Real Madrid nearly got tossed out by Juventus

How Juventus and Gigi Buffon’s career in the Champions League came to a sad run.

Actually, I’m talking about none of the above.

Aha! Wait a second. You think I’m going to write about Arsenal and how they nearly lost it in Moscow, how Arsene Wenger’s life flashed before his own very eyes.

Nope.

Instead I’m going to write about Tottenham.

Tottenham? You say. They haven’t done anything note worthy. They haven’t really been in the news for anything special.

Well, in fact, before tonight’s game against Man City, which saw the Spurs lose 3-1 at White Hart Lane, you could have predicted that the Spurs would lose. Really? One might have been forgiven in thinking the boys in white could have snatched one from the boys in blue, coming off a bad week for Manchester City, with successive losses at Liverpool, Manchester United (the enemy from town!) and then Liverpool again … maybe City were suffering from fatigue? What better to strike them while they were on a losing roll? Spurs might have fancied their chances.

Actually, it didn’t really matter who Spurs played. They could have played West Brom and lost. They could have played Southampton and lost. Heck, they could have played any team in the Premier League and not got a favourable result.

And you know why?

Because the Spurs are imploding.

Imploding? How so?

You can date it back to the game where Christian Eriksen, Spurs’ talisman over the recent two months, swung a ball in from the left corner of the field, which then slightly out of form striker Harry Kane claimed to have grazed his shoulder on the way in. The replays really were inconclusive, because if you watch the replays, the goal post is in the way right at the crucial moment that Kane claimed it brushed his shoulder. The Spurs striker swore on his daughter’s life that it had touched his shoulder and should have been awarded to him. During the game, the goal was credited to Eriksen but after a goals panel (all English) reviewed it, Kane got the nod.

What does it do for team spirit?

Really, Harry Kane should have let that one go. Sure, he is chasing Salah to be top scorer, and he wants to be the league’s top scorer three years in a row. But he should understand that Salah is in exceptional form, and is likely to run away with the award. Would you bet against Mo Salah to win the Player of the Year? Not even Kevin de Bruyne is in with a chance now. It’s all Salah, Salah, Salah.

Kane’s whingeing about how the goal was his instead of Eriksen’s really is unsporting. What do you think it did to his team and team mates?

To also swear on your daughter’s life that a ball grazed your shoulder in mid flight and ended up in a net is really a case of a selfish player putting only himself in his own frame.

If you wish to score, seek to make your teammates better first. Then when the opposition clamps down on them , you will have your chance. Look at Salah against Bournemouth.

But for Tottenham, unfortunately, every one knows the road will pass through Harry Kane. And his team mates feel obliged to help him. Stop Kane, and you stop Tottenham winning. They are too focussed in this selfish dream to think about winning now.

Which is why they are imploding.

 

Red and Blue

Did he or didn’t he?

Paul Pogba’s agent claims that in the January transfer window he offered his client’s services to Manchester City. Really?

Remember this is Mano Raniola, who reportedly does not get along with City manager Pep Guardiola. Their disagreement stems from the criticism of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whom Raniola also represents. When Ibrahimovic was at Barcelona, he accused Guardiola of buying a Porsche but driving it like a Fiat. Further digs have included comments such as “Mourinho brightens up the room, but Guardiola draws the blinds”.

So why is it that Raniola, who does not like Guardiola, would offer Pogba to the sky Blues?

Firstly, you have to remember that whatever agents do, they work for money and a cut of their star’s contracts. So it doesn’t really matter what he thinks of Guardiola. Raniola isn’t going to play wingback at City. If Pogba went there, he would get a share of the transfer fee.

Secondly, realistically you have to remember that agents do whatever they can to place their player in the limelight. So ahead of a derby between two Manchester clubs, it would have been a good time for Raniola to draw attention to his client, and mention that he was good enough to play for both. Not only does it draw attention to his client while the world is watching, it also is a message to the United hierarchy better not to take his client Pogba for granted.

Pogba had not been on good terms before the derby with Jose Mourinho. Until Alexis Sanchez turned up, Pogba was an influential player. But with the focus turning to the piano playing Alexis Sanchez – is it really him or does he have a body double? – it is dangerous to any football agent to have your client’s worth diminished. Think Cristiano Ronaldo when Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid. The world could have been enamoured with Bale, but Ronaldo found a way of maintaining his omniscience, making sure that his name still remained in the headlights. Pogba had been criticised by Mourinho and the press reported that they had fallen out. Raniola’s claim that his client could have gone over to the Blues is a way of hitting back at Mourinho.

Pep Guardiola is certainly a fan of Pogba. He will be more of a fan now that the Frenchman led a rejuvenation against his Manchester City team, taking them from 2-0 down to 3-2. What did Guardiola say to Pogba at the end of the game? “Well done, you played well, you have good skill, you and de Bruyne would really take us into the dazzling heights of Europe”. Did you see how the City boss fawned over him and tried to plant a seed of doubt into the Frenchman’s minds? Mourinho gives scathing criticism, Pep gives encouragement. It was so obvious it gave me the creeps!

And did Pogba really entertain a move across town. Don’t count on it. The way he taunted the City fans, telling them to be quiet and not to talk so much essentially means he is not interested. He probably wasn’t in the first place – it might have just been Raniola agitating for a bigger contract. But that blue hair dye would have annoyed the Man United faithful though!

David and Goliath

Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? Little David, with his little slingshot and stone, seemingly pit against the mighty Goliath, who could ______ (fill in the blanks with superlatives here) and ______ and crush ten men with a sneeze. Yes, that story. The mighty Goliath, up to the point where he had to be confronted by David, was seemingly unbeatable, invincible. And then little David toppled him with the humblest of weapons, that story was big news and made him a worldwide sensation.

I repeat this story because it was perhaps not so much David’s prowess more than the unfailability of Goliath that kept people talking. Had David taken out any other opponent with the same amount of pizazz he would have probably received less publicity. It was not so much David, but more Goliath. Even if it had been bad news for the latter, it was what sustained conversations for weeks to come.

So when you read about how Liverpool destroyed Manchester City in the Champions League match at Anfield last night, this fact is underpinned by the supposed Premier League giant being toppled by a lesser neighbour that fuels the news. The Mancunian Blues got toppled by an opponent sixteen points below them in a league which they are expected to win. Can you name what Liverpool did right? True, they had a great attacking first half, and then sat back in the second. And if you read the morning papers, while some of them go on about little David’s conquest of Goliath, some write about how Goliath was dismantled. It is still all about Goliath.

City did miss the experience and guile of talisman Sergio Aguero. In him they have a proven champion and winner who is not fazed by big events. Remember who won City their first Premier League title with what was essentially the last kick of the game? The Cup was almost being flown across town to rivals Manchester United before being called back at the last minute. At least that year the engraver could have made a head start with engraving Manchester on it.

City miss Aguero for various reasons. When they were behind, they would have tried to contain. It has been said of Aguero that had he been playing, he would have known not to make those runs in deep behind the centre back, but would have dropped back to help his midfield. Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sana lack the experience to monitor the game like that.

It was also unfortunate that the City bus came under attack on its journey to Liverpool. Now, say what you like about it, but you cannot disagree that the City players were shaken on their journey in, and would have been shaken on the pitch too. But Pep Guardiola has a point. The attack had been mooted on social media days before and the police did nothing about it. Or at least, they did not take it seriously enough. What would have happened if the City players merely had a typical journey into the grounds? They would undoubtedly have played a better game and would have been more focussed.

The unfortunate thing is, after all that has been written about how the Liverpool fans suffered at Hillsborough, incidents like these, and the ones at Heysel Stadium during the UEFA league clash with Juventus, paint a darker picture.

You can almost be certain that on the return leg, the Manchester City fans will not let it go and there will be crowd trouble.

Going around, coming around

Brighton missed the chance to advance further up the table this weekend, losing 2-0 to Leciester City. Question though, does it matter much? Further down the table, both West Brom and Southampton lost today, so as things stand, we’re all no better or worse off, but there is one game less to play.

The Seagulls hosted Leicester at home, facing Leonardo Ulloa’s old team, the team which he felt had not treated him right – remember his tweet saying he would not play for the team again, in the time of Ranieri? Ulloa transferred back to his even more previous team, the team he had played for during the Championship, but Brighton were unable to make it past Claude Puel’s team. No matter. Claude Puel’s old team, Southampton, were soundly beaten.

Wonder why Southampton let Puel go? He apparently was doing well enough. But since his departure Leicester have rode their way out of the relgation zone, while Southampton has slid into it. Bet Puel is laughing now.

Southampton lost 3-0 to West Ham at the Wembley Stadium. Fans will remember the chaotic scenes weeks ago when the Hammers played Burnley – who incidentally showed class by allowing West Ham kids to watch the game from their subs bench. The Hammers did well on the back of a stellar performance by Marco Arnautovic, facing his old manager Mark Hughes. In the previous meeting, when Hughes was still at Stoke and Arnautovic at West Ham, the Stoke home fans gave their ex-player a torrid time, and as he was substituted even Mark Hughes had a go at him, telling him to go off. Arnautovic obviously remembered this, gesturing at Mark Hughes after he had scored the Hammers’ second goal. Perhaps Hughes presence with his new club was the motivation for the ex-Stoke player’s magnificient performance. The Hammers seemed galvanised and the events of a few weeks ago were forgotten.

Mark Hughes current team are a place ahead of his old team. Now, Opta does not probably keep track of this, but is he the first manager to manage two of the bottom three that – on the current state of things – end up relegated?

Everton lost to Manchester City at home, with two old Man United boys, Wayne Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin playing in the middle of the Everton field. Rooney had a stellar career with Man United but against City he was way past his best and one fan remarked that he should retire to America for a golden payday on that form, where he would end up playing with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Did you know that Los Angeles was The Zlatan’s preferred destination instead of Manchester United? After his signing was complete, Zlatan claimed that America had been his preferred place but he signed for United instead. What a stab in the back for the Reds fans who had sung his name from the terraces and supported him during his rehab! But that is what arrogant players do.

Romelu Lukaku, formerly of Everton, helped Manchester United close the gap on the league leaders, but let’s face it, you should count on City picking up the title now. They are one point away from the Premier League points record of Chelsea, Lukaku’s previous team, and could better that.

Isn’t it strange how ex-teams and ex-players merry go around in this little world of football?

Lack of English representation

Should we take it to be a conspirital snub? For the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there will be no British referees for the first time in 80 years.

Those of you open to conspiracy theories may link this to the recent British government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats after a critic of Vladimir Putin was found assassinated in a quiet British countryside town. It is as if the Russian establishment is trying to say “Mess with us and forget any chance of a quiet life”. After a British expulsion of Russian civil servants, the Russian followed with a tit for tat response that triggered a world wide anti-Russian foreign service backlash.

So – the World Cup next year will be held in Russia. Do you think that any pressure was put on FIFA, a governing body plagued by corruption, to not have British referees?

One person perhaps not fussed by the decision is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has always been critical of English referees, saying they don’t work hard enough, and as we have seen from past examples, always criticising them when the odds are against him.

There will also be no British referees running the unpopular VAR system.

Arsenal face Stoke this weekend and are hotly expected to win, but don’t put it pass Stoke to pull off an upset. Arsenal traditionally don’t have a good record against hungry teams – you can debate if you like if this reflects on the lack of mental strength, or complacency – and often when you expect Arsenal at home to win against lower opposition, they disappoint, and the Wenger Out brigade returns. Remember Ostersands? Arsenal had a 3-0 first leg lead and then lost 2-1 at home to the minnows. Stoke is arguably tougher than Ostersands, and are an incredibly physical team who will try to resort to put Arsenal off their beautiful passing game with a bit of Northern welcome.

It appears more make or break for Arsene Wenger than Paul Lambert. Lose this one to Stoke, and he can really forget about a top four finish, and the fans won’t let him off for a poor result.

VARdy denied by VAR

International week is here. The week where a series of friendlies, decided by FIFA, sees teams try out their different players and formations. England played the Netherlands a couple of days ago and yesterday played Italy. Jamie Vardy scored in the early stages of the game and would have been on course for the winning goal had a penalty not been awarded to the Azzuri via VAR. So that is how Vardy was denied the chance to be the match winner.

England manager Gareth Southgate was disappointed with the decision, and for good reason too. James Tarkowski, the England defender who has had a brilliant season marshalling the backlines at Burnley, along with goalkeeper Nick Pope (who has yet to play a friendly), conceded the penalty in the later stages of his debut. What a debut it would have been for the centre back. And despite the fact that England in their last eight games have had five wins and three draws, Southgate would have taken six and two if he could.

Italy did not have much to play for, having not qualified for the World Cup. Can you imagine a World Cup without Italy? The country that is shaped like a boot not going to the World Cup? But just as transfer windows are good opportunities to showcase skills to the Premier League team scouts, so are friendlies. The Azzuri had a quiet first half and England seemed in control until the late penalty.

“If you look at the replay, Tarkowski stood on his foot but it was in the act of running and he was already going down.” Southgate said. Tarkowski himself conceded – like a true Burnley player not afraid to man up – that he had stood on the opposing player’s foot, but it may have been a case of 50-50 and the referee chose to give it against England.

VAR has not really had a satisfactory debut and is still rough around the edges. I have been calling for so many times now, stop the referee reviewing each decision. Just let the referee control the game, and give managers a challenge in each half, or two per game. Once they use it it is gone, and if there is undisputable evidence that the decision was incorrect then it is overturned. If not, the referee’s decision stands. Just like in the NFL. The game is more likely to flow because of the relative lack of stoppages (no more than four a game), and if the referee made a wrong decision then it is not his fault, it is the fault of the manager for not challenging it (or not managing his use of challenges wisely).

It really is that simple, but of course the media loves VAR and its problems because it fills column inches. But for a reader, it is just boring to see teams going var, var, var when a result doesn’t go their way.

Not all Reds are rosy

Um … what is going on at Manchester United?

I wrote a while back about Luke Shaw, about this on again off again relationship he has with Jose Mourinho. Back in December I thought that while Mourinho was praising his form and suggesting he could be a part of greatness, he was merely talking Shaw up for a transfer sale. Then when the January window passed and Shaw stayed, I thought I was wrong. But it appears that Shaw is not in his manager’s good books. Replaced at half time in United’s most recent game, he has been called out by his manager again.

There are those in the Manchester hierarchy who are concerned with the slightly erratic behaviour of their manager. Now, in this day and age, that kind of psychological behaviour and tricks that Mourinho was famous for in his younger days no longer works – as he found out at Chelsea – and players really want to have a sense of where they are with their manager, not having him speaking in parables. You don’t need to go further to look at a manager like Sean Dyche. Dyche is straight-talking, speaks his mind, praises the effort of his players, or criticises them collectively instead of singling them out. Mourinho? No one can really get what he’s all about.

Even the star players are flummoxed. Paul Pogba’s form has been erratic of late, with manager questioning him and praising him in the next breath. No one yet knows if Pogba and Alexis Sanchez can play together, but even the latter is said to be struggling at the club. This is not really much of a surprise really, because you don’t really need to place doubt in the mind of a team. It appears as if Mourinho thinks these sort of mind games take the heat of his players, and gives reporters something to write about instead of the poor form of his players, but that is all in the past now. Instead the team is under a cloud of darkness thinking “What is he really on about?” and we have seen time and time again that doubt fuels poor form.

Is Anthony Martial staying? Who knows? Is Marouane Fellaini moving elsewhere? No reassurances about his future. And Shaw? There are many who believe Mourinho’s treatment of him leads to bullying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shaw, at some point, files for unfair dismissal against Manchester United. Now, you don’t have to be dismissed to be able to do that, you can resign based on the untenability of your position because of the treatment of superiors. There is plenty of evidence for Shaw to put forward.

And Mourinho? It all went downhill from the time of Eva Carneiro.

So close, yet so far

Chelsea missed another opportunity to progress furtherin the Champions League when they ere beaten 3-0 at the Nou Camp yesterday.

The competition has traditionally been dominated by Spanish and German giants, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly making it into the top four. While you may see it as them having strong teams, one cannot help but wonder if the weaknesses of their leagues help in some way or not. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, which other team in the Spanish league do you know of that can regularly pose a threat to other teams?

Chelsea’s loss in the Champions League means the FA Cup and a top four finish suddenly look like they have taken more importance. For many teams, the FA cup is the only chance of silverware now – particularly the big spending ones of Man United and Chelsea. Chelsea are almost guaranteed at least fifth place but need to overhaul a deficit of four points to overtake Liverpool or Tottenham and Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Do you thinking Arsene Wenger is quietly smiling before this evening’s match with AC Milan? Only Manchester City and Liverpool have chances for European glory, and Arsenal are also in the fold thanks to the Europa Cup. Never mind that the latter is actually Champions League Division Two; teams are so desperate for success that if you took a rusty metal plate and called it the Universal Champions trophy, which would be contested among a professional football team and three other under-11s teams, the teams would still take it, and the hollow success. The shame!

Sentencing postponed

Has Arsene Wenger earned a brief reprieve? Two good results, one away at Milan and another home win over Watford yesterday, have earned him some breathing space away from the ire of the Wenger Out brigade. Perhaps the Gunners boss will use the lack of animosity as a sign to the board not to sack him whenever the fans chant for him to leave. After all, when his back was against the wall, he managed to get the team to pull out two wins in a row. In a season where the team’s form has looked like yoyo-ing between wins and losses alternately, two wins in a row looks like a winning streak.

Arsenal’s win against Watford was notable for reasons other than making two wins in a row for Wenger. Firstly, Petr Cech finally reached the milestone of 200 clean sheets in the Premier League. The last one had taken a long time to come, amidst a run of bad form by the team, and it was good for him to get the monkey off his back. The problem with goalkeeping records is that they are really dependent on the team defence as a whole, and playing for Arsenal means you are slightly disadvantaged in that respect.

Back in the reverse fixture at Watford, Hornets captain had made the remark about Arsenal lacking cojones. So it was slightly ironic that Deeney made a penalty miss in the game, and you could tell once that happened, Watford was going to lose the game. When your captain says the other team lacks balls, then doesn’t live up to his words, the psychological battle is lost. Lesson to learn? Hold your tongue.

Mesut Ozil made 50 Premier League assists. Confirming his reputation as an assist king, with that ability to unlock defences, Ozil provided the assist that allowed Mkhitaryan to score. How should Arsenal get the best out of Ozil? Creative players don’t like to do the dirty work like defending. When Ozil has to track back too much and play defense, it taps into his offensive capability. Perhaps this is how other teams have played Arsenal in the past to good effect, by sending midfielder up to pin Ozil back. If you watch the Manchester City triumphs against Arsenal, you would have seen how far up the midfield went, and then how they passed the ball around to sap the creativity from Arsenal’s attacking flair.

Is Wenger out of the sack race? Don’t count on it yet. The Gunners followed up a 3-0 win at Ostersunds with a loss to the minnows. Anything can happen. Don’t get too optimistic about Milan. They are still capable of an upset at the Emirates, and even if Arsenal triumph, the road back to the Champions League goes through Atletico Madrid.

Is Alexandre Lacazette the world’s most expensive bookmark?