Playing Coach.

Man how we love to play coach. Pick the team, bawl at the profligacy of the centre-forward or the wastefulness of the ‘base of the diamond’. We love all that. We love being the bloke in charge – particularly when the bloke in charge ain’t making it happen.

It’s maybe an unattractive impulse. Expressing our pret-ty hypothetical superiority over the guy getting paid an enormous wedge to take all that pressure and guide all those juvenile show-pony people. Being brash and noisy about stuff we feel we know intimately but actually aren’t within a light year of; being The Boss at a mega-club.

Currently Manchester United FC (have you noticed?) are in what feels like a mess. Most extraordinarily, the manager – despite being an undoubtedly powerful personality and a legitimately major league coach – seems to have no control. Seems to have…

But hang on now. If you pause, take a deep breath and then consider the amount of media coverage and bar or living room banter about MU – say, last night and today – then maybe you/we might stifle our furies. Maybe we’ll reflect more maturely on a ‘hugely complicated situation’, with ‘untold numbers of mitigating factors conspiring against progress’. For four seconds. Then we’ll get frothing again and the ‘I CAN’T BE-LIEVE’S’ and the ‘IT’S JUST COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLES’ will start flooding violently out. Because that’s just what us fans do.

And that’s great. It’s (weirdly, perhaps?) one of the essential joys of the game. This idea that WE GET IT and sometimes those mega-folk, those plastic icons don’t. We know better than them and we could do better than them because we know what player X can do because it’s OBVIOUS, right? Obviously Jones shouldn’t be taking corners; obviously we should have bought more central defenders; obviously (now) Ferguson himself was worth 20 points a season – himself! All that stuff is the beery lifeblood of the game.

But back to now. MU are in the Top Four but seem unlikely to remain there, given that they are currently, in the round, pound-for-pound, behind Chelsea, City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton in terms of that phenomenon we might just call ‘playing standards.’

Swansea fans might reasonably argue that they have played more joined up footie than United this season but Stoke – nah – can’t. So maybe we could put United 7th in the table of righteousness. If we did isolate the defensive unit – why not? Everybody else has! – then we might concur with Stan Collymore that MUFC have about the 8th or 9th best defence in the league, even when at full strength. In short van Gaal has work to do.

Van Gaal does have work to do but what kind of work? Is it tinkering or is it still tectonic bloody shifting? Is this lumpen, faintly amateurish fug actually a way towards something? Is the mist gonna clear and HOW SOON? Will the advent of yet more players deliver us something kosher – something fabulous?

All these questions seem valid simply because the shapelessness of the present does imply lack of belief… generally.

Hard to intuit anything else but a fear that whatever van Gaal is selling to his players too many of them are either too poor, too dumb or too over-awed by the responsibilities of the shirt to buy in. Either that or the manager himself lacks the personal skills or the authority to shape the project. It’s both fascinating and deeply concerning for the fans.

Can van Gaal – a serial winner and seemingly impervious to chronic pressure – be falling short in terms of bundling or bullying or cuddling or managing his players towards a clear objective? (And by that I mean playing elite-level football, not the specific target of Champions League. A composed, confident and consistent side would walk into that category.) Whatever ‘state’ the club was in when he took over – and let’s face it there were problems but it was hardly Coventry City – shouldn’t things be better than this by now?

Of course they should. The manager like almost every player has underachieved. He’s put himself in a position where fans/pundits/commentators are entitled to ask whether he’s up to it. Is he up to transforming or re-energising individuals and/or galvanising the side – the team? It seems absurd that we should be asking such a question of such a gargantuan figure in the game.

But hey currently most would argue that there is little in the way of team shape – or more accurately that the side only plays sporadically in unconvincing flashes or spurts – that things don’t link. This may be combination of lack of understanding of roles – so tactical – but also a clear lack of belief. (Bringing us back to the gaffer, right?)

Belief may not be the same thing as confidence so let’s clarify; belief here might refer to comfort within the system, meaning understanding and ease with your role in the side. This surely then is both supportive of the whole – the team shape – and liberating for the individual. Players who believe can simply play; they’ll play without fear and with that wonderful instinct; they’ll express themselves confidently.

So how many Manchester United players currently are playing with this belief… and is this a reflection of failures in management as well as inadequacies in the player? ‘Course it is.

Good managers and coaches at every level set the tone; they make it oppressive or not, fun or not. I’ve said this many times but it is the role of the coach to facilitate the expression of talent. Not to say too much and complicate things; not to overload players with either information or pressure. To facilitate the expression of talent by knowing the individuals and therefore knowing what needs to be said… and how… to the individual… to the team.

Van Gaal may yet come through. It feels unlikely however that Smalling and Jones and Evans and Valencia and Fellaini… and maybe Falcao and Januzaj and Mata (even) will blossom under him. Because either they seem bereft of belief (and therefore error-prone, or debillitatingly short of composure) or they are out of favour. This is erm… half the team.

I repeat my previous claims that the sense that half the team seems to be wilting under the pressure of playing for their contract suggests chronic, what tend to be known these days as ‘systemic’ issues which do come back to the coach.

Specifically, what is his manner with individual players? Do they respect him? Is he a good bloke to be around and to have ‘on your side’? Or has he cut some of the players adrift – or is he in danger of doing so – or do some of them fear that? Does Mata, who has surely proved himself to be a genuinely top level player, wander on the fringes having become disillusioned? Does van Persie know he too must get fit and get mobile to earn a place? Is Rooney thinking ‘Jee-sus I need to get out of here? (Again.)

If it sounds that I’ve dropped into that negative spiral again I apologise. This is not what I want. I want beautiful, imaginative attacking football; I want Old Trafford to be a place for theatre and for the legitimate despatch of sporting opposition. I want Manchester United please.

Last night a good Arsenal side barely had to play to beat United at Old Trafford. There was little in the way of coherent football from van Gaal’s side again and they threw in errors left right and centre. Plus they brought an unacceptable level of shame on the club. There was a wanton-ness, a poor and cynical side to their play that spoke loudly of desperation and of lack of control. Van Gaal, as custodian of the club, needs to address that pret-ty sharply too.

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To hoof not thread.

Part of me wishes – honestly – that Jack Wilshere would just go out and have a few beers and smokes and be him. Then bundle his way past a protesting Woy-in-a-wight-lather (okay, cheap but doncha just kinda resent that flustering pomp thing Hodgson’s got going?) and on to absolutely dismember some half-tasty international opposition. Singlehandedly. In a tournament game. With little flip passes from the outside of his left boot. Threading DNA molecule-like clusters of wall-pass-to-the-power-of no-no-no-he can’t- YEE-EESSSSAA like some cack-handed and slightly boozy Fabregas. But then part of me wishes he would just give in to his fate as a perennial crock; put us out of our misery; break all available limbs in a rash challenge leapfrogging a bollard outside some niteklub in Prague and have done with it. We deserve that, surely – to be put out, right out, of our misery?

This billowing pro and contra emotion around Wilshere is all about… what? When did it start?

In the very beginning something about him stirred us. When he first dinked a tiddlywink of hope into our Ovaltine. When he first semi-loped (can small blokes lope?) and semi-swaggered onto the park in the white of England. We some of us sat bolt upright on the couch for the first time since the Wicker Man. We put away the bedtime drink and reached for a cool beer. In Wilshere it looked like we’d finally found one.

Not only did he have that slightly retro Landun schoolboy(ish) confidence fing abart ‘im – the whiff of catapults in playgrounds or blotting paper splatted expertly into the khazi ceiling, or fizzing past teacher’s ear, he oozed, crucially, excitingly, with what we tend to lamely call ‘culture’. He was so comfortable in possession there seemed little doubt he might actually actually express that higher thing, that football. But perhaps the binary peaks in our relationship with this phantom tightened early around the simple unpatriotic truth; that his was a Spanish Stroll, surely and this was therefore unlike us? It was likely better than us, better than the turgid precedent for tarnished gold but could it prosper in the Three Lions kit?

Plainly with Jack the potential was there to burst exhiliratingly through the fusty limits of what had been us into something better and – please god – more competitive. That caressing of the traditionally renegade sphere, that invented time and space, that fifteen yard passing range, that coolness in the clamour. He spoke of other worlds, of brave new everythings where Ingerland played – competed – with Alonso/Xabi/Schweinsteiger. Momentarily, he really did. At the end-stop of our fifty-year deathlike dearth, it just seemed possible that we might have one but experience having traumatised us, we waited quietly.

We waited and symbolically or otherwise the poor lad got crocked. No – he actually did get crocked – for a living, it seemed. Season after season. In practical terms the granddaddy Gerrard simply dropped a gear and the axis with Lampard persisted – hopelessly – and the national side of Ingerland went on being the national side of Ingerland; woeful; emasculated; subtle as an air-raid; dense as a docker’s sandwich. From before Sven to Fabio to Roy we all traversed together the saddening terrain from one cliché of a failure to the next, with all of it predicated on that raw inability to treasure the ball – to hoof not thread.

With every fibre Wilshere enacted his understanding of – his protestation against – that dumbness. But he was never there, or he never had ‘a run at it’ – injuries gnawing away at both his momentum and our belief. With every absence, with every ‘lay-off’ for the ῠber-Gooner we the resigned flopped out again with another miserable beer and more carcinogenic snacks. Rather than being the pivot at international level, the boy barely featured.  Cruel.

At Arsenal too Wilshere flitted and flattered, his Wenger-approved neatness and penchant for centrality being only sporadically key to their easy, double-clutched movement. Like his club though, there was maybe was/is something one-paced about his game; pleasing mid-gears, so much fluent transition but a lack (alack!) of murderous high-voltage. But I find myself in the past tense…
The possibilities for England still  include saviourhood/irrelevance/absence through injury. As always, availability for selection will define things.
The juicy prospect of a critical role at the rear point of a midfield diamond aired itself recently. Given that Sterling of Liverpool featured at the prow of this formation, a Gor Blimey tingle ran through some of us. We all know (and I imagine even Hodgson knows) that Jackie Boy is happiest asking questions of a central defender thirty/forty yards from goal. However, his brilliance at collecting and feeding and moving and threading with bodies around him equips him beautifully for the (deeper) Let’s Get This Baby Movin’ role too. He is good enough to not just carry the metaphorical water but also the expectation. He is close to England’s finest at (say it again) treasuring the ball and building a threat. So let him have a whole lump of possession and (with Sterling at 10 in front) the other buggers better watch out.

That the blend, the detail of this is still palpably unsorted by the England hierarchy tells us plenty, I would argue, about Hodgson’s lack of foresight. Henderson suddenly appears to be a nailed-on starter and this perhaps alleviates some of the fears around Wilshere’s lack of focus defensively-speaking. Much depends on how much width and creativity (or constriction and ‘control’) the wider two of the four diamond players are asked to provide. Sterling has already earned the right – ahead of Rooney, incidentally – to be the free spirit taunting the space immediately in front of the opposition centre-backs. Does this really mean that we have to be (as it were) culturally cautious elsewhere to allow for this luxury?

Hodgson may feel that he has to ‘protect’ our admittedly ordinary back four by opting for durability more than creativity but how ‘bout he told the defence to grow some and the essence of the diktat became about us with the ball? How ‘bout he/we stopped to count the number of defenders in his side and concluded that two of them probably don’t have to mark anybody for eighty percent of the game? And Gary Neville demanded intelligent pressing and brilliant – international level brilliant – defending with or without a shield?

In other words rather than denying expressivity in our own team by selecting surplus minders in our midfield could we not trust those who can really play to play? Huh?

Qualification for the next major tourney should be straightforward enough now following a good win in Sitzerland.  Hodgson has the slack he needs to be positive, to mould a brighter way forward.

The Spanish Era may be over but not in the sense that it remains clear (now and always) that quality of touch/vision/passing are the keys. Not how or if you ‘can tackle’. Not capacity to perspire in the name of the shirt (even.) Quality of touch and the presence and confidence to play and treasure the ball is it.

Wilshere if fit (yawn!) must play central. He could play deepish and own the team strategy. He could. He could blossom and so could the new generation. They could. But the fear remains that he simply won’t get the chance. Because his ankles seem knackered and the culture – our culture, not his – still works against him.

Oh Arsene!

Oh Arsene. How sick must that parrot have been as you bore it (beneath that dovecote of a puffa jacket rather than aloft, surely?) back up the tunnel at The Bridge. The Bridge of all places!! With that salt ‘n peppa flecked, stubbly-but-gaargeous, offensively-sickeningly-brilliant Portuguese bloke already having tea and kit-kat in the dressing-rooms; dunking emphatically – coarsely. Preparing for the presser where he will say “We come to kill… and in ten minutes… we destroy”.

With flak like the blackest of tear-bombs welling up in the stands, the press-box and across the whole goddam universe, could life ever get more painful for the Thoughtful One?

Heart-breaking; enough to break the spirit and simply extinguish the career of many a football man. Not just a pasting but the passing of a sentence over the Wenger Way. For the team it seems certain there is no way back – or rather no way now to win that elusive Premier League title this year. For the man himself,who knows? Who knows how endless the Arsenal hierarchy’s patience will be? Certainly there’s a feeling that something out there (in there?) must surely have shifted. The poisonous cloud, condensed brutally around those other earlier appalling verbals from Mourinho, has increased in its malignancy. Here we see it, here we feel it; Exhibit A – failure.

But though he must be deeply distraught, expect the sagacious Frenchman to gather. This guy is a philosopher of sorts, we know that. Okay, not averse or immune to the chronic myopia afflicting almost every manager you could name but nevertheless profoundly better equipped in the brain-box (and hopefully perspective?) department than the jabbering, gesticulating masses. Which is why it makes it utter sense that he gave us – amongst others – Bergkamp and Henry and a side that never got beat. The Invincibles.

Wenger’s contribution to the thing we used to call Our National Game has been massive… and massively positive. For many the gauche Mourinho’s abuse of him has been the single most repellent managerial outburst – uncalled for, cheap and vile in a personally disrespectful way – in a season full of unseemly stuff. I for one hope Wenger lands the FA Cup for no other reason than this would go some little way to dispatching that taunt.

Why do I feel that? When I am not simply anti-Mourinho? And how can it make sense when I am clear that the Arsenal figurehead should make a dignified exit this May? Is it just my head wrestling with *facts* from alarmingly diverse and contradictory sources here? I suspect not. As Graham Parker may have sung – Arsene gets us twisted.

There seems to be a consensus around the feeling that Wenger is/has been (a) a truly enlightening force and (b) a daft bugger when it comes to beefing up his defence/midfield. There’s a kind of unreality about the longevity of all this trauma… and its obviousness. Any idiot (we think, sometimes) can see that all Arsene had to do was find another Adams and another Viera and job done. A dollop of obduracy or fire or – for want of a finer phrase – backbone. Easy. The essence of the case against Wenger is simply that and it remains unanswered. But how does all that sit with the man’s undeniable intelligence?

I had to listen to the first period of yesterday’s game on the radio. It sounded extraordinarily open, with chances at both ends and both teams carrying a threat – or so Pat Nevin (former Chelsea twinkler turned run-of-the-mill pundit) appeared to suggest. Arsenal were then blown away ludicrously early, firstly by a top-level finish from Eto’o and then a killer but soft-goal kindofa blow from Schurle… on seven minutes. Seven minutes? How can a top side be destroyed in the first seven minutes, when presumably coursing adrenaline alone would keep you at your most watchful?

In a blaze of action – and it has to be said, excitement – play had charged almost wildly from one end to t’other, with Giroud already missing a decent chance for the Gooners. Then calamityville.

Chelsea charged through the weirdly unprotected deep centre-midfield to devastating effect – two goals and a pen. The Arsenal were utterly exposed, embarrassingly so, both because they seemed unready for the pace of Chelsea’s counter-attacking and because in front of their back four that allegedly mythical ‘NOBODY HERE BUT COME ON IN!!’ sign flapped dopily in the breeze. So raging obvious was this tactical flaw (or, to be fair, failure to execute defensive plans?) that Nevin’s exasperated description gathered it in, to gobsmacking hyper-reality. It was cruel listening as the lack of a dimension paradoxically heightened the scorching drama.

And it worked on radio because we didn’t need to see it to get this vulnerability thing, to know this flaw was there. Every one of us knows Wenger’s Arsenal are simply not durable enough; certainly not against the best. (Invite without undue smugness if you please Exhibit B – Man City, C – Liverpool, D, etc etc.)

I fear we dance with xenophobia or worse when we speak of lack of backbone but it’s an accusation we might perennially reasonably make. And if you are easily undone you have to be absolutely sensational going forward to out-score your opposition week-in, week-out. Arsenal are not that sensational; not currently, not recently.

Sure, in those opening minutes Arsenal did carry something of a threat too but Giroud – even when scoring, for me – is rarely pin-sharp… and not quick. Currently he looks a French Torres; only less mobile. Arsenal’s midfield scurriers and gliders have therefore to contribute heavily on the scoring front because strategically the Wenger Way chooses to spurn what we might call direct potency. But Chelsea’s ruthless exploitation of space throttles any talk of a possible realistic challenge should a full complement of Gooners have remained on the park. The game was gone at two, never mind three nil.

Watching this horror-show later confirmed nearly every concern or prejudice about that which is felt to be typically Arsene, come the Drought Years. To add to the general sense that there was a Viera (or Flamini and Arteta?) sized hole in the Arsenal midfield we might throw in observations about dodgy goalkeeping and a certain aesthetic predictability. In essence, too many nippy but toothless creatives and not enough product. But hold on there. The other lot were pretty tasty. Any judgement must respect (for example) the supremely calm finish from Eto’o and the pace and verve of this suddenly marauding Chelsea outfit.

Plenty has been written about Hazard’s excellence/Terry’s resurgence/Mourinho’s motivational and tactical brilliance. Chelsea have found again that ZAP! – that direct potency? – beyond the ability to merely ‘play’. They are bursting forward with unparalleled energy and commitment whilst denying the opposition the comfort of the ball. Arsenal could neither live with that loss nor counter the blue whirlwind.

In post-match interview, The Special One may again have offended some with his (that word again) brutal choice of language. But the winner may crow. A diabolical and chastening experience for Wenger was for the neutral, in football terms, a rather beautiful massacre. Whether the Arsenal Man is finally(?) fatally undermined… we will see.

The Plight of The Swans.

The story broke nationally earlier that a fracas, accessorized street-gangster-stylee, had broken out on a Premier League training ground yesterday. Allegedly in this case we’re talking full-on foaming low-brow lunacy – i.e. ragamuffin with brick – as opposed to gold-toothed sophistohoodlum with diamond-encrusted firearm. Whilst this may arguably endow the event with a kind of old-school bunch-of-fives credibility, the whole shebang seems particularly absurd when traced to its geographic location – Swansea FC.

Prior to this un-Swansea outrage, the feeling has been that a side built in the dreamboat image of their manager have absolutely led the way as the most civil painters of precious doodles, or as makers of footie-as-sculpture, turning that theoretically dull, flat space (the pitch!) into kinetic, smoothly sensual linkages. If that makes them sound more like a love-object than a togger team, then so be it. Laudrup has developed the inherited football culture and this sense that material has been skilfully – artfully? – tweaked and moulded persists. Then they started getting beat. Then they started reaching for bricks – allegedly.

Suddenly and darkly, there’s the danger of tragedy interloping, via a) some geezer getting badly hurt b) The Swans going into unthinkably graceless free-fall. Even for neutrals, this is not happy territory.

It figures, of course, that any bitterness between Chico Flores and the former skipper Garry Monk will be appropriated from now ’til the end of the season as the sign – the moment – when the Swans terminal dance began. ‘Course they’re arguing – because the club is full of prima donnas!’ That may be the reaction from the cynics and from Cardiff, should the weeks claw away and the battle for survival harden. Personally I hope and trust that they will play their way out of this but the obvious argument against –that a team so apparently obsessed with football of the choicest kind may be less well-equipped than say Sam Allardyce’s mob to battle – rings true enough to worry us purists. But say it anyway; Swansea are good for the Prem and they deserve to do their classy lil’ thing.

Meanwhile t’other Welsh relegation contenders – also now led by a Scandinavian, remarkably – already sit in the bottom three. Despite some signs of encouragement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew were ultimately duffed up 4-2 at The Etihad, by a Manchester City side who look both profoundly capable and ready to take the title this year. Solskjaer will have to really work some restorative magic to keep his team afloat – they look rather cruelly short of quality all around the pitch – but he seems a good sort and both realistic about what may be necessary and up for the challenge. Critical may be who he, as a name, can bring in.

Pellegrini, on the other hand, is in sky-blue clover. Money has bought successive City regimes everything a manager could dream of but this one has shown the wit and the authority to corral the extravagant forces available. To the extent that they are now, unquestionably, amongst the elite handful of clubs chasing the pigs bladder anywhere.

Although it may be possible to imagine that amongst his brilliant mercenaries lack of loyalty for the club badge might cause the occasional blip in the next year or four, City seem perdy close to impregnable and should Aguerro or Toure depart elite replacements are no doubt, for this empire of the nouveau riche, buyable. The question then may be more about how prominent or even dominant might City be – and over how long a period – rather than whether they pip Arsenal or Chelsea this time round.

Down at The Emirates, the other birdlike senior presides over another fabulous and indeed intriguingly classically Gooniferous phenomenon. The perennial Norf Landun storyline, featuring dashed attractive football and an inevitable falling short is again emerging as the business end approaches. Only this time the falling has missed its reassuringly early cue so that we can’t quite be sure (can we? Can we?) that Wenger and co will again be damned to disappointment.

In fact a delicious tension is beginning to unwind, given the actual possibility that Arsenal may be in it to the death, as it were. Where once we had the certainty of failure, we now have something that twinkles with possibilities – something life-affirming, something which teases – and I for one think that’s great.

Okay on balance the brutal truth remains that the bulk of us fear recent history will again repeat; that because of the goddamn inviolability of Mourinho’s Chelsea and the power and depth available to Pellegrini, Arsenal will be undone. If like me you understand Arsenal/The Wenger Project as a worthier, more genuine and longer lasting investment than either of the other two candidates, that does seem unnecessarily cruel. However, a couple of things strike me;

  1. The Arsenal are far from hanging on in there in this title race – they are playing with too much zest and purpose for that.
  2. The Premier League run-in will be a far richer and more exciting place should Wenger’s side remain competitive to the last.

I say two candidates. And this is both disrespectful to Liverpool and contradicts my oft-repeated esteem for their gaffer, Brendan Rodgers. The former Swansea man has invented something so threatening at Liverpool that the Scousers have re-found their roar as well as their lust for the title. Rarely is the incongruously lame phrase that ‘anything is possible’ more appropriate than in the case of this Anfield side, where the world’s most deadly player and his medium tasty English sidekick do have the potential to radically unpick the wider narrative… only to find themselves (let’s say) two-down home to Villa after 40-odd minutes.

Rodger’s Liverpool can and will beat almost anyone on merit on any given day and can even go on the kind of run that snowballs towards glory. But, honestly… I don’t quite see them as Champions. His squad is palpably less impressive than Pellegrini’s in particular and the ‘Pool defence (and keeper?) is just too ordinary. Suarez-led, they have lit up the league; whether this claim is undermined by the Uruguayan’s propensity or ability (you call it) to gain free-kicks or penalties is, whichever way you judge it, one of the issues of the season.

Spurs, Everton and Manchester United are not contenders for the title; they must target Champions League Football instead. United, as always, draw the most coverage – just not here – where the subject is essentially top… Wales… and bottom.

What it is with The Gooners.

Okay, so here’s the context and the central beef. Arsenal have been criminally non-durable for years; which is why we all doubt them. Wenger’s beautiful but psychotic purism has left them vulnerable to the memory of boggy pitches, the assumption of intimidation, or real-world Bigger Blokes or teams playing with simply more passion. In an ideal scenario perhaps a Gooner title triumph might elevate the lot of us… but the bulk of us still suspect this is contingent on the absence of (say) Tony Pulis and Cheik Tiote from the Prem landscape. Because if the level of inspiration dips at all, that seductive, metronomic not to say metrosexual heartlessness of Arsenal is just not enough; we know that. Like we knew The Arsenal came up to the Etihad early in crunch-month, with games against principal rivals rammed together. This is tough – like life.

But Arsenal’s perennial weediness kindof gets on our nerves, right? How can it be that they remain, so endlessly, a side unprepared for inevitable, sinewy, earthbound onslaughthood? How can that flaw persist so? Through year after year of more or less successful butterfly meadows later sprayed out. Wenger, to his credit and to his detriment and ‘midst the gnashing of our teeth, produces teams that will not set their sights so low as to block or to crunch or to stifle with physical oomph when they need to –that’s all we ask! They look to outplay the opposition only.

Look he knows – we’ve been telling him for years – that in this bitterly anti-meritocratic universe that ‘quality’ alone ain’t enough; sadly. He may even know (but not accept) that the result of the Arsenal Concept’s near-perfect one-dimensionalism is there will be a slide into capitulation (to generally lesser talents) and that it’s looming now. Six weeks, maybe, in which that lead at the top is swallowed up and the likes of Ramsey return to planet ordinary. And we watch as the mood music changes, as Arsene turns from the pitch again, exasperated, cut further by the sheer unfairness of everything, the anti-perfectness, the No Santa-ness, his Arsenal shot down by a sequence of either worthy and slightly unfortunate defeats and/or that dispiriting leakage of points to opponents that might a month ago have been imperiously (or should that be impishly?) dismissed.

Naturally then, after an emphatic win for City, in a pret-ty fabulous game that Arsenal, as always, contributed to generously, the odds have shortened on this Wenger trauma revisiting. For me their chief real-life weakness today concerned the failure to press the ball around the 35 yard mark. (Mind you, City weren’t much better at this.) Despite the presence of Flamini, Ramsey and Wilshere, City had abundant time to play heads up football – to pick their runs, their passes – as they faced the Gooner defence. Toure and Nasri and Silva are all half-decent; you don’t need to be giving them time and space to consider things. And if Zabaleta ends up with acres to race into… lookout. This stuff happened, infuriatingly commonly for the Arsenal bench.

From early in the game City were allowed some comfort where for me it should have been denied. Without the ball, Arsenal dropped into two banks – midfield at about thirty yards out and Mertesacker’s posse on the eighteen yard line; give or take. It might have been nerves but for me they looked worryingly slightly like England in World Cup mode – faux resistant, unconvincingly solid – deep. Like England, they let the opposition play. Whilst this undeniably led to a hugely entertaining game – and some well-constructed goals – the policy of late (or non-)intervention demonstrably failed. Maybe the predictability of the concessions brought out the miserablist in me; I found myself forever tweeting about dreadful defending rather than glorious attacking. (Shit! Did I just sound like Alan Hansen and Morrissey in the same paragraph?!? HANG ME. Irrespective of whether I have a point on this…)

But lest I inadvertently take too much away from City a sentence or two about them – and their incontrovertible topness. Firstly – hey – they put six past Arsenal.  Secondly, they are surely the best-equipped side in the league – by some distance, perhaps – though this may not necessarily be reflected in the stats come the end of the season. They have that sureness, in particular going into the final third, where an intimidating mixture of power and movement is often irresistible and proved so again today. Thirty-five goals in eight home games is absurdly good going.

Aguero is close to sublime every week, Toure is often unplayable, Silva (even at 70% capacity) just class. And with Zabaleta unzipping defences on his own – nominally, from right back – no wonder they are pulverising anybody foolish enough to turn up at the Etihad. I expect this dominance to convert soon enough into stronger away form and for City to go on and win the Premiership –chased home, I imagine by Chelsea rather than Liverpool… with the Arsenal somewhere behind… (inevitably.)

Perhaps fair (to the other home keeper) to mention that the home keeper was Pants today and also that City like Arsenal were hardly error-free in their own half. But Pellegrini’s boys are candidates alright – not just for the Prem but at European level. So tangible was their superiority that it’s truly hard to imagine that they could finish behind Arsenal come May.

Further notes from the Arsenal angle might include reflections on Walcott and Wilshere. The former was often ineffectual or absent then scored his second with a fabulous curled stroke for the far corner; the latter is buzzing less productively currently and was I think guilty of an offensive sign to the opposition support. Up front Giroud – who, for me has received lashings of praise more for being present in the line-up than being brilliant in it – was mixed again and Ramsey has understandably returned to mortal levels. Ozil jogged round.

On the plus side Arsenal rallied bravely after the catastrophic third goal had been conceded but the necessary withdrawal of Flamini left them increasingly open to counter… not ideal against the free-running Nasri and a Toure with licence. The Southern Softies had little luck with borderline calls from the officials but City simply had bigger and better gears with which to travel and they travelled with ominous purpose.

So, after a Match of The Season So Far which really probably was match of the season so far… this. Just as we feared or imagined. A Christmas unravelling and a statement of intent. The Wenger stocking still needs filling (as it were) with urgent physicality, whilst the Pellegrini equivalent looks short of very little. Unlucky, unlucky Arsenal.

Haggling unashamedly…

Transfer deadline day. It’s a squirmathon if you let it be. A kind of shockingly energetic fiscal barf into the sinew-stretching meadow ‘pon which us Michelin-starred culturosporty cud-chewers mindfully graze. Something pathetically, major-league big but also empty, in fact. Feeling to me more depressingly/divertingly anti-sport than ever. Is it simply the money, the obscene nature of half a billion blown on mere footie players? Must be partly. Is it the subliminal fraudulence (too?) A day, after all, of absolutely no reckoning but lotsa cheap haggling, where the whiff of the mad-bovine prevails over the desperate, illusory need to compete… for what? Cash-cows, or trophies? It’s a blur.

And it’s clearly right up there in the diabolical crassness stakes. Like shopping in Oxford Street; like something blocking or jarring or deeply reflective of our failure to evolve forwards.  And our need for the herd and the hero or the god, or… just another Stella. (I mean an Ar-tois.) Hour upon speculative hour of absurd, lonely black-wholeness, offending every sense but that one that twitches over yearnings, over transformational moments of triumph. Like when you actually sign somebody magbloodynificent – which nobody, to my mind, did, or looked like doing – unless we count in Real Madrid, which we won’t, as I’m concerning myself with our lot. The Prem.

So I studiously avoided most of the whole garish bundle, choosing to cast a superior and occasional glance at my twitterfeed and (okay then, I admit it) fire up 5Live for an occasional burst of the goss.  (They, like we did, had United and Arsenal neck and neck in the #racetolosethemostface, a staggering lack of planning having led to clumsy dabs or inelegant clawing at too few, too elusive a ‘target’.)

Arsenal’s failings in the transfer market have a Wagnerian scope, do they not, booming as they do around a certain, epic, poignantly-inevitable calamity or twelve? Yet – is it just pervy ole me? – there’s something remarkable and quasi-sexy in the sheer spermlessness of AFC policy over the years. Buy nobody or buy effectively the same player, endlessly. Fire blanks into the Real War going on around. Avoid what you really obviously need – striker/keeper/stopper. It’s been a sometimes expressive, sometimes jaw-droppingly inept performance , held together solely by the safety pin that is Wenger’s brilliance.

So if you’re NOT an Arsenal fan, there may be something faintly attractive about Arsene; the quiet French hawk, the one-eyed Prof. Denied the bare essentials (well, the dosh) but in any case psychotically unable to see past the need to arm himself with shortish, squattish midfield maestros who can Frenchly-beautifully out-doodle the natives. Suddenly, however, with the economic Goonscape transformed (that word, see!) what do we get but… a Turk-German uber-maestro to add to the collection. The boy Ozil being admittedly, clearly a talent of the elite variety but surely, even allowing for the increasing doubts re the longevity of the unfortunate Wilshere, Arsene needed a striker/defensive hulk or two more urgently than another impish genius?  Having said that, I do look forward to seeing the 42 million pound signing collect and pass and move and weave his characteristically sweet angles.

Arsenal did do other business, including bringing in another keeper, to be fair. But the suspicion remains that they ballsed the whole thing up by failing to garner a Huth-like monster or three for that perennially mincing defence of theirs, plus a Proper Striker. They may have been after Ozil for aeons but to belatedly pay over the top for a player they may not need (mainly) because the locals have been understandably restive/the situation demands a Big Name Signing is both dumb business and disproportionate footie-wise.

The fact that their much-loved neighbours Tottingham have been going through their little black book of dreams and making all manner of successful calls of course added to the pressure on the Emirates regime. Perhaps, incidentally, the Prem at large should be looking very closely at who did and how did Spurs do all this business? Tottenham are a fine club but they are not Manchester United (for example.) So how come they did all this stuff? Exercised this clout? Over at the Emirates, the feeling remains that yet again Arsenal FC will be carried by their manager’s ability to bully or blend together a competitive side from a squad overloaded with hare-like schoolboys and members of the Sub-Iniesta Society.

Arguably only one club has drawn more guffaws than the Gooners this last week – Manchester United. For a club with such resources and advantages as MU to have failed so pitifully to do any decent business in the transfer window is extraordinary. Sure certain clubs/players/agents are going to piss you around because you’re Manchester United; we know that. Everton are going to want to play hardball over both Fellaini and Baines, there’s gonna be an MU Premium added into most deals. But players are going to want to come. Given the status of the football club it’s plainly ludicrous that a shopping list complete with likelihoods and alternatives could not have been acted upon successfully, early enough. Even with Moyes as a latecomer; the procedure and the order of things – the momentum – should have been established.

None of us – not even journo’s allegedly ‘in the know’ – can be sure how much blame to attach to Moyes and how much to Woodward and others in the backroom staff for the widely acclaimed fiasco. Woodward is inevitably likely to be far more responsible for getting deals done than the day-to-day manager of the playing staff but perhaps there is also the feeling that Moyes as yet lacks the personality or stature to get on the blower and simply get things sorted. But that is more of a hunch than a statement of fact – of which we possess relatively few, other than the damning list of (allegedly) failed buy-ins.

Arguably more could have been done in the last ‘window’ to set the club further forward but certainly obvious and ‘essential’ moves – for me, this means Baines first and foremost, given the 18 months of drift from Evra – should have been driven through. The Spanish difficulties might have been overcome with a combination of better PR and sharper, earlier negotiation but in any case multiple alternatives should surely have been approached simultaneously? To be flailing about late on and then apparently only succeed with Fellaini due to him relinquishing a substantial wedge because he so wanted to join MU simply outgooners the Arsenal on the incompetence-in-the-market front. Fellaini, by the way, I do rate and expect his presence in both boxes to be a significant bonus for United. Whether the need to recharge creativity in midfield will be covered by his arrival is another matter. Fabregas might have been good.

I’ve got bogged down I see with the madness of the window and with United and Arsenal. Tottenham have clearly been the epicentre of most world news in the last period and yet (maybe this is a simple case of not seeing the wood f’ut trees?) I don’t yet see/feel how their team is going to act – not yet. Clearly they have Big New Signings and maybe in this age of the lurid and the loud that may be enough.

If I have obsessed on the appalling umbilical link between the Real Deal in footie and in the capital universe, I apologise – that’s politics, folks. I am hopeful of two things; that Gareth Bale will be a success in the purest(?) footballing terms and that maybe any power-shifts we may see post the window (and related to the influx of new managers here and there) might both lift and spread standards/opportunities/joy, even.

Robbing van Persie?

Two and a bit words for the New Year. Words I am about to fling with irresistible force against the swell, the flood, the wild ooh unleashingment of depressingly ahh tsunamic stories arising from last weekend’s footie/rugger/cricketstuff. Words that o’er-surf the turgid tabloid controversy mega-fest, sloshed abart as it inevitably is like some cheap grog. A name, in fact, foreign but not exotic, containing – or maybe laced with? – just enough of the alien to satiate the average Brit’s inferior awe. Now a symbol for rare but persistent, almost undeniable and recognisably Dutch brilliance. Robin van Persie.

Let’s cherish van Persie now, today, in the near-virginal lather of flushed wotnots that surely accompany our resolute beginning towards the next anti-climax. Van Persie, not some hand-ball, or tip-tackle, or appalling tiff-plus between Warne and Samuels. Let’s have a thrash at that celebratory kind of turning, eh? Palm away Alan Hansen’s predictable, post-dishy, clunkingly black-and-white-but-Red-All-Over justification for that Liverpool centre-forward’s latest. Sling out those stories ’bout English Boy-but-‘Girl’ out-half Toby (Psycho) Flood and his rampant eruption of poodliferous violence. Steer immovably smugly past that embarrassment ‘tween Oz’s (ahem) finest and that hot-headed wanker from the Windies. Towards something altogether more fetching and – if you can leave the tribal stuff at the turnstile – inspiring. A striker absolutely at his predatory peak. Robin. Not Robinio.

Arguably only the now historically significant Messi* could rob van Persie of this moment of recognition. When in any other just universe RVP would surely be at the centre of an unrivalled, relentless idolatry/respect combo for his utter command of the Striking Arts. When even Alan Shearer might find a meaningful sentence or two (He does all this neat stuff around the box but he really knows how to look after himself too, perhaps?) to praise the now Manchester United striker’s genius. Or how about something from the (generally more enlightening acksherly) Mark Bright school of punditry… van Persie… he’s just got everything. He can shoot, he can head, he can bring people into the game – he’s just got everything. To which I would add a solid AMEN, thus de-lionising Messi before the Argentine God had broken from his er, cage.

Yes – Amen and more, to Robin. Because we should be beefing up this faintly nationalistic (Premtastic?) counter-attack with That’s So True-isms. Like the fact that his weighted left-wing chest-pass to create another breakaway goal for United – at City, AT CITY!! – recently was one of the passes of the season. Like the occasional but über-ominous appearances as substitute, that have re-appropriated and even rehabilitated the word awesome into near-enough acceptable sports-journo-speak… because they were, in every sense, shape and dimension awesome. Seminal; perfectly measured; lethal – and of course, game-changing.

The ultimate in what has felt like some gathering notcherama – some exhibition, even – occurred at West Ham this last weekend. A van Persie-Lite United cruised at a significantly higher level than The Irons for much of the first half but failed to capitalise sufficiently. Meaning an Emerging (Televised) Cup Romance-Frenzy seemed possible, particularly after two sound nods from the ‘Ammers honest plodder/Ginger Monster of a centre-back put the homesters 2-1 up. As time ticked yahboosuckingly away at a violently masticating Fergie, he inevitably moved to counter – by introducing an alarmingly focussed-looking Dutchman. Cue the cockney expletives.

However right then the locals were not alone in their (so) near-far eel-pie kebab-trauma. Many of us in the Olympic Radiators R Us-sponsored Lowest Common Denominator Stand (okay, seats) – i.e. on Twitter – immediately barked out our own 140 character-or-less (often much, much less) swearword-heavy dissent. Roused to fury by the sight of Hernandez – for whom the phrase ‘looks like e’s got a goal in ‘im’ was surely invented? – being ruthlessly hoiked to accommodate the master. (In our defence I should say that to a man we felt only that the South American hare might have stayed on alongside van Persie and some goal-shy other been removed.) But tellingly, in the great, swingeing, mad and lovely toggeracious but bubble-popping scheme of things, it didn’t matter. Because a rejuvenating Giggs and RVP himself conjured one of the truly great… and timely… and emphatic… and epically heart-stopping/romance-thwarting/spell-binding-but-also-crushing goals you are ever likely to see.

Giggs struck a ludicrously instinctive and inviting long pass beyond van Persie, offering up a practically todger-erecting opportunity to attackattackattack the East End rump. In a flash (oops!) the sub had gathered and contemptuously by-passed the last defender before rattling the ball beyond a gobsmacked and frankly irrelevant ‘keeper. I am willing to contend, with a fairly straight face, that what happened in these barely separable instants seemed the raw but perfect expression of some kind of lust; or at least a moment where something was satiated – something cruel maybe, but pure – but sensational. The home crowd were crushed and exhausted, the United players in triumphant, ecstatic disbelief almost – such was the degree of devastation inflicted. It was a signal moment in the season; a time when not only did Team United beat out yet another powerful message of defiance but van Persie himself said unequivocally that he/I am TOTALLY IT. And he is.

Van Persie ain’t Messi. He is different. He is more abrasive, actually; he doesn’t dribble. He darts in a different, less low-slung way – more often without the ball. (Because he doesn’t dribble.) He slides and ghosts past one or two perhaps, then unleashes or curls one. He affects things. He gets goals, in a particular way – in stunningly diverse ways. Maybe by adjusting his feet to get airborne before heading or volleying with relish. Maybe finding a yard before persuading one round a defender or two… and into that far corner. Often that far corner. Like van Persie. Not Messi. Like a Dutch bloke with an absolute nose for it. Shielding the ball in that classically cool, Total Footballer kindofaway; coaxing or waiting… then striking.

Cut agonisingly adrift from this now, Arsene Wenger, we can only imagine, has to lump a fair amount of energy into the Not Thinking About Robin area of his turbulent life. Because he will know better than anyone the cost of the utter Gooner collapse which meant van Persie could go… to United. Something which might surely drain away much of any good man’s belief, or faith.

Even though it is possible to imagine that the bitterness between Wenger and Ferguson has somewhat settled, Arsene must be in some kind of grief. The rest of us, minus the hang-ups, really should enjoy this stuff. Whatever our tribal lunacies bray at us. Van Persie, right now, is uniquely, completely brilliant. And he’s here.

*Earlier tonight, Messi was again voted in as the world’s greatest player at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or awards for an unprecedented (and possibly never to be repeated?) 4th consecutive year.

Very recently, I published an ebook of selected posts and new material, with an Introduction by Paul Mason and recommendations from the likes of Brian Moore and Paul Hayward.  It’s out on Amazon ebooks, under the title ‘Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’.  The link amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.  At £2.83, you ain’t being robbed.