One v One?

So this one is peculiar. In that, well, can anyone of us remember a time when teams quite like this – i.e. so-o close to being unworthy of the brand – competed for the Unofficial Championship of the Wooorrrrr-leda? Well – Lankishire. And okay I know prob’ly four-elevenths of Utd is nearly brilliant (guess which bits?) but such is the ragged nature of a) their defence and b) Liverpool that that provocative farker of an opening question stands. United are nearly shocking but third… and Liverpool are almost completely shocking and nowhere.

Fair enough?

Ok I did say provocative farker. Lately Manchester United have cartwheeled or blundered into a run of victories where that proper MU footie – the full-on whirligig carnival, the attack-attack hurricane – has held a giddy sway over woe, embarrassment and self-destruction. Flashing directness from Di Maria with Rooney and Mata popping passes from an almost convincing hub; Fellaini (remarkably) playing as though he intermittently remembers the gist of it all; De Gea pinning things together or, yaknow, doing that saving the day thing ‘keepers do. Liverpool meanwhile have been so shot that it’s bloody fascinating.

Rodger’s team are so far from the swelling and relentless brilliance of much of last season that even those of us who expected a drop-off have joined the flummoxed zillions. On the one hand we accept that losing Suarez and Sturridge would be massive for any side but how to explain the utter disappearance of the zest, the belief, the running, the teaminess? Extraordinary.

Given that the first imperative for any manager must be to sort the buzz – the environment – around the team, the dip in positive energy that’s occurred at Anfield is mind-boggling -and a serious black mark against the previously burgeoning Rodgers. As we speak, a whole host of spotty Sports Psychology students must surely be hypothesising rhythmically around the phenomenon.

OOOH- has he simply lost the dressing room? Aaah – is the almost casual decency and articulacy of the man longhand for ‘he’s just too soft?’ Do-oooo the players think him one-dimensional as a bloke and as a coach? Wordy and scrambled? I-i-i-i-sss the essence of this that Rodgers lacks physical presence in a scrap, or does his list of strategies read a) attack with pace, beeeeeeyah) poop yer panties if this doesn’t work? And OH SWEET JEE-SUS why the utter vacuum where Liverpool used to be, eight, ten months ago? Why?

Could be that Liverpool don’t have that many good players. And/or that when the squeeze came on at the death of last season things conspired to expose them; they were unlucky but they were (mentally) weak. Or could be Ar Brendan is simply failing to motivate the group – evidently failing?

From Gerrard’s freakish slip to the trauma-fest at Palace, the suspicion does burn that Liverpool bottled it. They nose-dived from the carefree to the lamentably vulnerable and if they haven’t stayed entirely in that same, hideous, crushingly calamitous groove, they have stayed crap .

You can blame individuals or individual moments for last season’s non-consummation but that collective truth – that Liverpool couldn’t quite hack it – persists.  Corrosively.

People laughed when I singled out Sturridge, Suarez and Sterling for failing to bury Palace midway into the second half of that tumultuous, decisive fixture. They said it was ‘obvious’ the defence blew it (as though I didn’t know that). We all knew the back four was Liverpool’s achilles throughout the season but in that key moment a tad more composure, a tad more ice in the veins from front players would’ve seen Liverpool beyond any sniff of a comeback. For me it was a critical sign that they lacked that essential, murderous edge; they were too close to the ordinary humans chasing after them.

This is history and I’m not (actually) arguing that it is central now. It is present but not central. It may have been causative but today/this season ain’t about scars, it’s about current lack of ease, pattern… and therefore form.

Rodgers has failed to bundle or bully or mould his much-changed group into anything close to a bona fide top four side. There is no comparison between what his attack might offer on Sunday with what Suarez and Sturridge and a flying Sterling offered last year.

Lambert, honest and competent as he is, serves more as a symbol than a striker. He can and will get goals, but he is one-paced and limited; he will rarely electrify the Kop or anyone else. His former club-mate Lallana is arguably theoretically closer to the required pedigree but has played poorly and looked like just another gifted but bland dilettante.

Liverpool have gone from being so tremendously free-flowing they didn’t need to think about nuts/bolts/assembly, to being a side with no engine and no personality. Even Gerrard has only occasionally or momentarily thrown off the slough through sheer force of will. Rodgers must take responsibility for this.

On the other side on Sunday is Van Gaal, a man who may be fluking or scrambling his way somewhere brilliant or precarious. He knows McNair and Rojo and Blackett and Evans and Shaw and Rafael and Jones and Smalling may all fall short of the mark. Against Liverpool he may well pick three of them plus Carrick and genuflect his way ostentatiously through the contest knowing god may not help him.

For United, everything is a gamble. They have quality going forward but they have no consistency – and they still have no defence. Whether they will attackattackattack against their despised rivals will be one of many questions pondered between now and the outbreak of hostilities. The Dutch bruiser-sophisticate could claim a maniacal but spirited offensive is the only way to go given his options and the relative distraction of his opponents. This could mean a fabulous goal-fest or a simple, deflating loss, as United get undone on the break – six times.

Or, we could get a proper North-West derby game. Loaded with bile, low on quality (this one could get very low?), notably unattractive.

Van Gaal is trying to get his side to zip the ball about; he wants great movement as well as instinctive early passing but this demands confidence. As we have seen with Liverpool there’s nothing as infectious as doubt, so United must hope that touches are sure and folks don’t go missing – both may be at issue Sunday afternoon. I can already hear LVG eyeballing his tetchy superstars and setting out the mantra – you supply the dodgy Dutch accent.

We have to believe. When we pass – yes! Believe. When we press – yes! Believe. When we accept the ball under pressure – believe. We can win the game. We are positive. This is what we do.

Van Gaal will find more quality – almost certainly from outside the club – and then he will build.  Even in the chaos of now there is undeniable momentum.

Sunday could be a day where all things may be so subsumed in the vortex that the personnel barely matter. Liverpool will naturally want to still the storm and United surf it. Rodgers nor Van Gaal should have to stir the blood of their players but the two gaffers will still need to perform. Wonderfully, the challenge may revolve around the degree to which one bloke can influence and inspire eleven others. Meaning a very real, very feisty one v one.

Currently, this would favour Van Gaal and United.

Advertisements

United in their clunkiness.

Those with even the faintest notion of what’s going on in the world of football will know that the ‘relationship’ between Liverpool FC and Manchester United is spicy. In fact it ain’t spicy – or certainly not in any sense aromatically attractive – it stinks; it’s an all hummin’, gut-churnin’ clusterbomb of a thing, particularly off the park. Impossible (probably) to judge whether it’s the foulest rivalry of them all but there is an unseemly kind of hatred there that even mature and otherwise intellectually-viable human specimens seem to get caught up in.

Whilst this phenomena is historically and sociologically interesting I urge that we do get past it, erm… chaps and settle for the standard, or ideally elite-level exchange of witticisms common between opposing fans the globe over. Banter. Good-natured piss-taking or street-step, up-to-the-mike dissin’ of them Manc lot fer thur shockun defence or vice-versa/whatever. Let’s face it currently both sides have plenty of scope for abusing t’other.

Right now I imagine fans from Southampton to Sunderland are taking a certain rare pleasure in the sight of Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC – traditionally the swaggeriest of the swaggerers? – holding hands and walking rather shamefacedly into the Duffer’s Disco. Both are pitifully dad-dancing, or at least only fitfully finding the groove, being united in their clunkiness. Why is that?

Liverpool fans may be secretly the more concerned of the two ailing or failing dance-troupes. Because last year their side was so revelatory… and then came up short when it seemed like ultimate and redemptive glory beckoned. Scousers will be aware of and hurt by the accusations that pressure got to Liverpool when (as United fans gleefully point out) for the first time for aeons they were right in the mix at the back end of the season. It may be stretching it to think that Gerrard’s slip and those alarming capitulations were all down to pressure but something did happen to cruelly unravel a brilliant season. Now the feeling – the fear – will be growing in Liverpool that last year was The One… and it did get away.

Following a genuinely poor start Rodgers suddenly has his work cut out. Sure there have been changes but he would be wise not to make too much of the ‘disruption’ caused by the departure of Suarez and injuries to Sturridge. Liverpool FC are competing now in the big league in terms of transfers and bulking up their squad; so no excuses. Their failure smacks of lack of confidence and drive as well as due to individual issues with personnel. In other words it’s beyond excusing. Ar Brendan has to get topside of the group before (say) Balotelli’s propensity to sulk and undermine eats away further at the previously resurgent fabric of the club.

The Mario gamble I had no problem with. In fact, because I rate him highly, I thought Rodgers might conjure the best from Balotelli. This is still possible of course but that immediate prospect of the love-him/hate-him Italian enigma scorching into cult status having scored a bagful of screamers fades with each slightly dispiriting performance. The Kop needs something to shout about and Rodgers needs to provide.

Thirty miles east and the story runs parallel. Except that last season United were awful not brilliant. And van Gaal has had no lead-in time. But again because of the resources of the club excuses will not be tolerated. Real fans – of which there are, contrary to folklore, plenty – will give the man a little time because plainly there were cavernous holes in the squad but (again) things must simply be sorted.

The Red Devils cash having been splashed extravagantly, MU’s pre-season friendlies were quietly encouraging. Then the paucity of the United defence and the relative frailty of their confidence was utterly exposed in the physical and psychological crash-bang-wallop of real matches. Like Liverpool – only more so – they had no core, no solidity. The extraordinary inability to foresee and then cover the loss of Vidic and Ferdinand – both in decline for eighteen months – proved costly as occasionally sparkling forward play was made irrelevant by inadequate defending.

It may be true that there appears to be a world shortage of central defenders but for Manchester United to continue to line up with two or even three covering players demonstrably short of MU quality is either calamitous or remarkable depending on your allegiance or otherwise to the club. Either way it is an indictment of the shambolic transfer policy at Old Trafford. Incidentally the fact that van Gaal had to summarily abandon his plans to install a back three because the players were simply unable to cope with it speaks volumes on the issue of how truly premier our Premiership stars are, does it not? As with Ingerland FC, the rank inflexibility – the unskilledness? – of Jones/Smalling and co disappointed but surely did not entirely surprise?

The signing of Di Maria has been the chink of light. He looks United alright. Rapid and in the dubious modern phrase – penetrative. Falcao (in the traditional phrase) may need a goal but can clearly play heads-up footie of a high level; the attacking ‘problem’ for van Gaal (as for Hodgson?) seems to be settling on a role for Rooney… and van Persie. Shoe-horning all four of these mega-players into the same line-up may be unwise, may be impossible. Helpful of Rooney to get himself banned then.

There are arguably more problems of team shape for United than over at Anfield. There’s still, in short, a hole where the central defensive axis should be; a hole that spreads forward alarmingly into midfield when teams really get at them. They have players in there but no enforcer, leaving them vulnerable when the opposition squares up and fights.

What the clubs share – fascinatingly – is palpably thin confidence; susceptibility to pressure. This weekend Liverpool have what would appear a straightforward home game to West Brom. United meanwhile face them other scousers – Everton – in their first tough fixture of the season. How will they be if things go against them?

Managers earn their money in moments like these. Rodgers must bully or ingratiate his way in to a group that suddenly looks and feels exposed. Van Gaal has always known he was making a new beginning. Choose your words carefully, gentlemen.

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.

Whilst you were watching England…

So was I, ultimately. Having side-wound my way round the kitchen – faffing, cooking – whilst still ‘protecting’ a certain #tinnasardines (see previous blog) I did, indeed sit and watch. Didn’t really intend to. Not with friends arriving/rugby on/@tate channel to draw me in/dog to walk. But you just do; when once it really was the biggest and most important and exciting thing.

Now it’s not. Not with these players, this gaffer, the pervading sense of gaudy amorality; the Premiership milieu wavering between maxoffense and dangerousshitmeltdown on the ECG that is my/our(?) heartfelt response to stuff.

Setting aside any nationalistic lunacy (which I tend to) there’s very little in the way of pull. I’m kindof way beyond the gut-churning anguish that traditionally accompanies moments of national embarrassment and almost post intellectual-botheration entirely but if pushed to offer a diagnosis on the Tight-arsed Donkeyism served up by the heroes in white for the last 40 years my doctorly sprawl would look something like this;

  • ’tis a function of dullish and limited coaching and shortage of both top-tier talent and comfort within the territory that perennially sucks the expressive life (and therefore the viewing pleasure) out of the ‘occasion.’
  • In tournaments especially, chronic lack of belief oozes out of the pores of even the better players so that time after time we (England) offer little more than responsibility-shirking, eyes-glazed, allegedly hard-tackling unambition.
  • Meaning players daren’t do stuff; and managers daren’t change things.
  • In short the technical inadequacies of our players are utterly exposed when they show (alongside the presumed skill-deprivation) a depressing lack of fibre. And time after time, they do.

Who’s actually flourished in an England shirt, in the last… in your memory? Rooney, certainly, about five years ago; when he was young and didn’t know any better. When he grew up and the pressures and knocks got to him, he became – symbolically, almost – the worst of the lot, his performances on the Big Stage having been nigh-on insultingly poor. The formerly brilliant scally became some depressed Sunday League would-be-10, joylessly shinning when he should be caressing. I think we may go back to the Bobby Robson era before we find players fulfilling themselves, expressing themselves – outliving themselves as I like to think of it.

Unfair? Possibly. Clearly we do have talents – players who can play. Ironically, one of the very best – Wilshere – has this week exchanged ciggie-in-mush for a boot by sadly confirming he too has fallen for the conceptual footie-norm of Englishman-as-yeoman. How lovely it would have been to have heard him purr about Iniesta. Instead he brought us back to the Stoke City School of Allegedly Fixed Realities, where, as we know, conceptual appreciation of the bravery of ball-retention as an art-form is absent from the curriculum. (Even now, under Hughesy.) Wilshere then, sounded dumb, which was a shame… and to be fair, it contradicts his metier on’t park.

But this is all medium-eloquent rehashing of stuff we already know. What I need to do (I know, I know) is take yoga-size breaths and say something meaningful about what’s to be done, right? Here are some thoughts – again, bullet-pointed to make it look like I’m presenting something kosher. They’re general – because depending on the presence or absence of Better Offers, I may even write about The Match (tonight!)

  • Let’s start with England. The boy Hodgson has merely continued the deathlike suffocation of Braver Thoughts by actually shoring up(!) the tradition 4-4-2 bullshit-bulwark. He should take no credit – and get little sympathy – for ‘leading’ the team through yet another appalling Euro Championship in which his side played pathetically little football and appeared yet another bunch of fearful and insipid non-individuals. He needs to go and World Cup qualification or otherwise should not deflect us from that truth.
  • Management is about inspiring as well as organising; in fact if you inspire you may not need to organise half as much! Brilliant free spirits – or even bighearted brotherly ones – can be propelled through sheer force of personality towards triumph (and I choose that word over success, here.) They may vanquish in a glorious flux of energy, despite being theoretically vulnerable in their ‘openness.’ Think about momentum; think about the role supporters play; picture players bristling and sprinting – living (or outliving) off the fuel of inspiration. Hodgson may have whispered the occasional word of wisdom but he patently has failed to inspire anybody. There is no pretence, even, that he has or could.
  • The current retreat to formulaic Englishness may mean that only Brit managers might be considered as a replacement for Hodgson. This is as ridiculous as the failure of the FA to even discuss ways forward with the willing Guardiola. There are few candidates. Possibly, in a year or two, the Liverpool manager but even ar Brendan might be diverted from the path of knowledge by the pressures of the job.
  • So we probably need to bin these and most other nationalistic notions and… get patient. And get another foreign manager. And let him manage – absolutely.
  • Clearly the development of St George’s Park has potential. Even if the fascists running the Premiership fail to slacken their asphyxiating hold on who plays ball in their league – specifically, how many locals get a kickabout. If the culture of coaching does continue to move towards small-sided games on small pitches where keepers cannot hoof the ball 40 yards up the field and centre-halves learn how to pass and control there may be an improvement, in a decade or so. Or so. But only if the coaches believe in the culture-change.
  • If we continue to get bullish irriots bawling ‘show me some aggression!’ (Jack Charlton, circa 1970) at shell-shocked kids from the touchlines then our magnificent and epic Donkeyhood will continue to thrive at all levels.
  • On a personal note – and I do think this is relevant – I have captained and selected football teams and grew up with footie as the most stable and central staple of our relatively few life staples. Had little else to play or play with, wanted nothing else. But despite being temperamentally suited and probably intellectually equipped, I have not been inclined, for many a year, to get actively involved in football coaching. (Cricket and rugby – yes.) This is undoubtedly partly because the game itself – both on and off the pitch – has changed. Whilst on the one hand the fabulous pre-eminence of Barca and Bayern in recent years has invigorated the spectacle and arguably the nature of the sport, the new squishy chestnuts (greed/diving/contempt for fans and/or authority etc etc) are spoiling the taste of it.
  • Closer to home, contemplation of this unhealthy but bourgeoning empire – The Prem – Premier or Family-Sized bucket of fodder that it is, does for me what a huge tub of KFC or popcorn might. Makes me turn pretty instantly away. And, as I’ve opined before, I know I’m not alone on this. So the cultural imperative to watch and to support the game – let alone Engerland FC – ain’t quite the same. (No matter what any figures may say to the contrary.) The quality of people’s loyalty (to the game, to England) is fraying.
  • To the point that only a genuinely radical and sustained and visionary transformation of all levels of football in the UK will a) put a smile back on my/our faces b) lead, in time, to our wee boys and girls (and thus eventually our representative sides) playing the same game, with the same degree of skill and ambition, as our Dutch, German, Spanish and Italian counterparts. And we’re not big on visions, are we?

Blimey. Off on one again. Did the game start yet? Did I dream all that? What time is it?

More of this? I did write an ebook – well appreciated, as’it’appens by Hayward/Mason/Moore.  It’s here at amzn.to/SSc9To

Manchester United versus Liverpool.

Wafting innocently past – as ya do – or engrossed within, or focussing determinedly in non-tribal civility upon The Media pre- the Utd-Liverpool mash-up, the full range of disappointments coalesce, do they not? Because even decent papers – of which, I assume many of us might argue, there are few – have felt the need to head pieces with a quote or some inference that adds to the bitterness. Something from Ferguson or Carragher, generally, which steps across that line from the fair to the fiery or inflammatory. So that for example one particular longish interview with Carragher, in which (actually) he reinforced the impression that he is a decent bloke and a proper club man, was inevitably titled ‘glad City won the title not United’ (or similar). In other words, the most corrosive, albeit apparently relatively innocently delivered comments led.

I am not so naive so as to be surprised by this, but as the thrust of that interview was surely contradicted by the flashing neon, I am, as I say, disappointed. On one of the few occasions where there appeared a real danger of helpfully level-headed conversations being aired, the Flogging Papers Reflex usurped.

Ferguson meanwhile, if quoted at all accurately – which I imagine he was – has peed his petrol on the fire again. Foolishly, but to a chorus of approval from many fans, whose bitterness rivals his own. Sir Alex is often respected for his ‘knowing exactly what he’s doing’ness, his skill at manipulating both the press and the psyche of his opposite number within the dug-out. It is thought that he is both brilliant and cynical; oh, and a skilled psychoanalyst too; aah, and a dockyard bruiser (too.) Sometimes there’s maybe no harm in admiring his cunning at this stuff, enjoying – however vicariously – the real dockerness of it all, or maybe just the conflicted feelings aroused in us un-dockers over the gritty Scot’s absurd genius-nutter confluence, as it patently strikes a blow at the sopping, public school-educated landlubbing heart of this privileged nation. We get that; or like we would if we didn’t have to rush Ffion to cello.

In fact (more broadly) these weirdly sporadic, often brutally revealing upwellings of insight into gaffers/other personalities in the game are an essential part of its appeal, surely? As one who spends a good deal of his waking hours juggling or clowning in the Banter Circus, I in no way mean to suggest that a colourless Footie would be a better Footie; no way Jose. The mad (or preferably just daft) abrasiveness and pingpong passionata of it all is life-givingly essential. And rivalry feeds the adrenalin. But the machismo, the poison, the dancing with violence thing is unhelpful. And so without liposucting away the necessary spikiness in favour of some All New All Smooth Beauty, I again ask for a certain intelligence and yes, a certain responsibility to hold up its head. Especially around games like this – Manchester United versus Liverool. Might we see that restraint, that awareness, on the pitch, I wonder?

A few hours later and… amazingly, pretty much, we did. Here’s how it seemed to me…

Fergie, typically and to his credit, has his positive head on – Wellbeck and van Persie both start up front. Liverpool, understandably, go with a Suarez solo. Post kick-off, the belligerent terraces are, unusually, not reflected on the park, in a period of relatively quiet earlydoorsness. But this is significantly undermined when following a sharp period of pass-and-move from United, centre back Agger offers that critical yard of space in the box. The result? A pinpoint cut-back from Evra and a simple though well-executed side-foot home from a noticeably pumped Dutchman. Rodgers – having lectured endlessly surely on the need to deny, deny, deny – will have hated that roominess SO MUCH.  United, meanwhile, have started.

They have that zesty fearlessness thing going. Welbeck, in particular, is all over the place (in a good way) but …doink the pause button, peeps. Some ten minutes after van Persie’s goal, whilst the effectively self-injured Young was being attended to… STOP.  Linger awhile and reach for the notepad.  For you will no doubt be fascinated to see (and record?) van Persie fully engaged in mentoring the junior strikemeister on their movements. (Young had followed through somewhat on Agger and finished up crocked. Welbeck got thirty seconds S Level Tactical Wotsits from the senior partner.  Probably at a fairly punitive hourly rate – but worth it nontheless.)

Within minutes United really might have scored four. Firstly Allen gifted Welbeck a decent chance, then Cleverley flashed a sweet left foot volley narrowly wide. In the 35th minute Welbeck again seems in but blazes over – again on his weaker side. Liverpool are open and looking vulnerable, with Suarez and Gerrard at this stage invisible. Ferdinand, as so often when United are cruising, is composure personified.

United’s defence mind, had barely been troubled. Though set up to dominate possession – or at least prevent domination of the ball by United – Liverpool made errors or allowed United to play through or round them. Lucas and Allen and Gerrard even, were rarely seen. Given that Fergie’s lot have been unconvincing to say the least, defensively, Rodgers must have been as frustrated as Suarez at the way the game was going.  But at least we had a game. A football match had broken out, with barely a moment of controversy, as half-time approached.

In the 44th minute a further goal seemed inevitable as firstly van Persie back-heeled, then the onrushing Kagawa approached the empty net. Johnson blocked the United man in the moment of his notchingment – acceptably, I think – with Reina desperately sprawling to recover and limbs generally a-flailing. Should the slightly indulgent flick from van Persie have counted, Sky would still be talking about it now, but as it didn’t, United fans will no doubt be addressing the way the Liverpool fullback ‘got across’ their midfielder to prevent the goal. Kagawa, in fact, spent much of his allotted time on the turf – not through chronic simulation but rather because he is perhaps a tad light-weight for this particular fixture(?) (Discuss?) The Japanese was rightly subbed for the more durable Jones later.

For the ‘pool, it was only really as halftime approached that Gerrard got a meaningful touch. Suarez flitted in and out – mainly out… of touch. At the whistle the suspicion was that Ferguson would be happy with the level of control, but slightly concerned that his side hadn’t – as they really might have done – put this game to bed.

Changes at the break; Sturridge on for Lucas; Valencia on for the injured Young.

Sturridge, looking focussed and mobile, swiftly earns space out front but baulks, wrongly, at taking on an ambitious shot. Credit to Rodgers though – he has made something of a positive move here – withdrawing the defensive-minded Lucas (and therefore taking something of a ‘risk’) but, in fact, loosening up, or even liberating his team’s attacking instincts. So this game does begin to emerge as a good one… a more dynamic one… and, critically, a contest. Suarez, visibly lifted by the brightness of Sturridge, plays Wisdom in but the young man is found utterly wanting in the composure dept. United respond through Evra, who delivers a stunning long ball centre-left, only to see Welbeck clumsily brought down. There’s the predictable baying for a Red, but ref Howard Webb correctly raises the yellow for Skrtel. Van Persie takes the free kick.

He coaxes it beautifully into the far post area, where Evra rises unchallenged to nod it home, via Vidic. If Rodgers was angry before, this one will have him ger-nashing; it’s far too easy. Is that game over already?

Asit’appens – no. In an increasingly watchable game Sturridge profits from a decent De Gea save, knocking in with Rafael caught on his heels. It feels like a fair reflection now, as the addition of Sturridge is proving central to the improvement in Liverpool and the match. The combination of this dual strike force for the away side and the psychology (dare I say it?) around that, plus the questions over Vidic’s pace/movement/agility mean that Liverpool go streaking past seeming like they may have a threat into that Properly Threatening state. Gerrard has settled into it. Suarez buzzes. United give the ball away more – or see it less. There is that frisson.

Because it’s no longer working for United. Welbeck by now has looked hugely willing and more; but the more we see the more the suspicion grows that he is not, in fact a natural goalscorer. (And I say this in full knowledge of the fact that Gary Neville, with some justification, named him Man of the Match!) Hence the game is still alive. Danny boy seems to have arrived at the stage where some debilitating self-awareness has kicked in… and has stopped thinking about shooting/scoring etc etc. And so have United. Their threat, remarkably, has dried. Again, we could credit Rodgers and Liverpool for this.

Necessarily the eye reverts to Vidic and the now less imperious Ferdinand. And Rafael’s top-notch chest-trap… followed by a miserably casual pass. And Kagawa, rightly, is replaced by Jones and similarly, Vidic by Smalling. The thing is taking a breather as we all take stock. There is space for the idlest of idle thoughts. Would it be career-killingly awful if Sir Alex withdrew the plainly confidence-deficient Valencia, so soon after putting him on? Where has Carrick/the rest of the midfield gone? How long is it now since United played any co-ordinated footie (answer; ’bout tenty minutes.) All that stuff you get into when things have changed so much you have no idea what might happen. Meanwhile Liverpool are coming back, right back into it.

On 84 minutes the chance you feel is coming Sturridge’s way arrives. But on his wrong side… and he fluffs it by clumsily hoisting it over. United splutter back to life and Johnson is fortunate to avoid a second yellow for clawing at Valencia. The home side though are unmistakably holding on, rather than strutting home. To the point where if we forget a couple of those early half-chances, we might feel a 2-2 is about right; whatever that means.

There is a lovely moment when an exhausted Welbeck, after an unrewarding slalom down the left in which William Hill no doubt laid odds on him finishing in a crumpled heap, finishes in a crumpled heap – but smiling. Smiling at Sturridge, his England mate, who had tracked back to monitor things and then offer marks out of ten for crumpled heapdom, presumably. Whilst I confess that this was the only smile I saw during the match – and therefore it can hardly be said to characterise the occasion – this was a game of football, a sporting contest, not a war. This matters. I really am pleased to report that there was virtually no malice or controversy in the game. Which United won, 2-1.

 

By the way, I wrote a book. UNWEIGHTED- the bowlingatvincent compendium. Out on amazon ebooks.

amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.

No pressure, Brendan… / Another Nail For My Heart.

Don’t know if it’s just me bein’ daft again but this Swanseathing has been rumbling away, riling me; the inevitability of it salting those wounds where my idealised wotsits should be – used to be.

Brendan Rodgers, quite possibly the best Brit or near-Brit manager (depending on your facility for nationalistically-motivated squinting/cartography) active in the Premier League outside of the embarrassment of riches zone, is reportedly, as I write, moving from foreplay to full-on copulation – should that be capitulation, I wonder? – with/to the Scouse Sex Machine. He’s coming red all over. And whilst I can understand his urges and have some real respect for the comparative restraint and dignity and management of this lurv-match between Boy Most Likely To and Club Arguably Most in Need Of, I feel like a swan snagged in fishing tackle, I do.

Because Brendan had been showing signs of being the one who snubbed that power trip, that lucre-slide, that soul-deflating slither into uncleanbutokayintoxicating Exposureville. Brendan had been foot-perfectly the model man and manager for just a few, impressive and now critical seasons, guiding ‘unfashionable Swansea’ into an historically gleeful wonderland/cash-rich hinterland where they routinely outplayed Premier League clubs theoretically twice their size and power. Like David tattooing a startling phallus via precision-flung gravel upon the forehead of Goliath FC; or something. Something startling and surprisingly er… attractive.

For the Swans, the Unmighty Swans really have lacerated the pomp and presumption of allegedly senior clubs by playing proper footie whilst their betters sweated and hoofed increasingly frustratedly around. (Liverpool FC being a decent and recent example of this very same, on a day that may have limbered up the trigger-finger of one J W Henry of the already fast-twitch-fibre-heavy U S of A, perhaps?) And Rodgers without doubt has been key to this triumph of skill-rich Cymro-Good over flaccidly underachieving Evil. Because he more than nearly anyone you may care to listen to a) talks a good game b) delivers. So that for a year or so some of us have been trying to un-etch-a-sketch the picture that now presents; a straight-forward and demystified purchase; of Brendan; by one of the big boys.

Liverpool FC do fall into this latter category. Certainly they revel in a genuine football history – one likely to be pretty incompletely understood by the folks that own the club, you suspect – not that this is a rarity amongst Premiership franchises. However in recent times many were genuinely saddened by the failure – for that, actually, is what it was – of a genuinely Liverpool Man (Dalglish) to drive the club forward, thereby precipitating the current negotiations…

which are confirmed as being completed – or rather the move itself is – at that moment…ho hum…

But perhaps most viscerally central to real Liverpool fans has been the general malaise – playing/reputation/actual – the Anfield club had dawdled or staggered or been led into. I have been heavily critical of Dalglish’s bitterness and frankly, his inability to motivate or inspire or really shape his individuals and his team. I stand by those opinions, harsh though they are. King Kenny, despite being rightly loved for his genius as a player and for his closeness and empathy with fans post Hillsborough in particular, seemed lost amongst the issues – political and strategic – rather than boss in command of them. His relations with a press he held in contempt were to be understood perhaps but not respected. Dalglish manifestly substantially reduced the inflow of goodwill and sympathy for the club and for the arguments it may have been trying to make over Suarez, as an example; increasing the sense of dissatisfaction around Anfield already welling up in response to poor on-field performances.

Some may respond at this point that ‘Pool won a cup this season and might have won two. I say look at the league table. And if you can bear it, watch endless video of insipid or worse from the likes of Downing/Henderson/Carroll/Gerrard(!), actually. By some considerable margin this Liverpool footiefare was just not good enough; again; and the fans knew it – painfully. Kenny was summoned and nothing became his reign like the leaving of it.

To be fair, it seems at this moment that the transition into Brendanland has been similarly corduroy rather than bondage pant. Being helpfully svelte over a deal for Rodgers is not the same as finishing 4th in the Premiership but perhaps – just perhaps – the relative elegance of recent activity at Anfield is suggestive of someone at the top regaining essential control; a sense I fully expect to be strengthened as the new gaffer gathers in his players and staff over coming weeks and months. Because he is good, this guy; articulate and sharp and crucially crucially crucially – able to motivate. He will instantly, despite his comparative youth and ‘inexperience’, earn the right to be properly heard (unlike Hodgson) and the assent of those passionate but knowledgeable fans – even if results flicker rather than beam – because they know he knows football, good football, that game of skill and passing and movement and yes, artistry. Liverpool in some pigs-bladder abstract feels play like that is their kind of play; a sort of twinkling choreography being worthy of them and their club and their city; that proper Liverpool. There will be some real expectation that Rodgers may deliver them back to that.

Brendan may be nervous but I doubt it. He will probably sense an immediate flood of scouse warmth suggestive of a likely honeymoon period worthy of the name; by that I mean a real space to engineer something more than a shagfest; something that truly satisfies/completes/enriches even. Footiefolks do talk (or is it just journo’s who talk?) of football marriages; how the reds could do with a legitimate love-match now! Less romantically/more generally Liverpool is longing for a return to Liverpool ways – style, sureness, confidence and naturally – success. Few would argue against that being good for the game at large.

My friends down here in West Wales are gutted but unsurprised; because they have seen up close a very impressive football man. Brendan Rodgers – a man appreciated and now gone.