Dead Souls.

Okay. A good-without-being-remarkable win, for starters: predictably. But let’s note to the universe that a) there’s very often a New Man In bonus, for clubs at all levels, and b) Mourinho can organise. Plus c) West Ham are genuinely mediocre. So yeh – predictable, as opposed to seminally transforming.

Whether the Special One can organise and inspire to the level he once could – and whether the landscape remains, in which he can do his Strike and Park the Bus thing – we’ll see, soon enough. For now (Saturday, 6p.m.) he can bask a little.

Does this change anything, in terms of how I view his return? No. I see – I saw it, here, below – as another medium-diabolical sign that we’re all doomed. Or similar.

(Following the appointment of José Mourinho as Head Coach at Tottenham Hotspur: some thoughts… 👇🏻)

Where are we at, then, with Mourinho? Not easy to sugar-coat this one. Feels like many of us find him repugnant, never mind kinda reactionary; like some carnivorous dinosaur from the poshest suite in the goddam hotel. Like football’s Trump, emerging from behind the Fake Plastic Trees to eat us, or gorge on the souls of our beloved footie-teams.

Consequently but perhaps weirdly and uniquely, a freedom to judge him on some faintly discernible but nevertheless legitimate scale of goodness has crept in.

And yet also… the phone-ins. There are people simply flying past this fabulous Mourinho stoning-fest: actually (simply) looking forward to trophies, at Tottenham. Men. Women. Calling and talking. “We loved Poch but José will deliver”. “At the end of the day, it’s… about silverware”. “Poch was over”.

All fascinating – gruesomely so – and all received in this particular quarter with a broiling, Armalite-inclined rage.  Because it’s obvious. Mourinho is done, football has scorched past him, the era when he was a god is done and this is good – progressively good, mildly reassuringly good, morally good, even. Anyone ‘making some argument’, any argument for Mourinho at Spurs is an absolute maniac. I am loading up the boom-stick and ready to settle into the sniper-nest.

There are facts, here, of sorts. Fact: Mourinho ain’t remotely interested in the hard yards of building or generating anything. Fact: he was last seen at an academy game the day *he tried to sign Johan Cruyff, aged four.

 (*From the fleeting Conservative Fact-check site, oooh a while back).

Mourinho pretty much sits there, buying the poker-game, bluffing and motivating his galacticos, then buying those who supersede. He sucks up money; he is joyless and crucially declining. He deserves to fail, surely and the recent signs have all pointed that way. Lost dressing-rooms; lost lustre. The smell of money, impenetrable ambivalence and decline.

Ok the guy is not a materialist, in his life – he’s allegedly medium-cultured. So it’s not just about money for him. The drivers are slightly less crass, in the sense of being beyond the bling. However Mourinho does feel devoid of what we might call personal richness, now, his wit having apparently deserted as his sourness grew.

Mourinho pressers have been consistently contemptible over a period of years: directly insulting towards journos in the room and broadly, plainly dishonest regarding what’s actually happening around his football. (Accept that the second of these two phenomena is hardly unique to the man but the sheer acidity and delusional unpleasantness of his defiance has been extraordinary. He has bred hatred in the Media Core and beyond).

So, there is a ‘moral’ consensus (but apparently not unanimity, listening to those phone-ins) around the notion that Mourinho increasingly has crushed artistry and sport, imagining nothing beyond the grind or slash to victory. A sense reinforced, inevitably, by that public sullenness.

Where did all this come from?

Pressure? Pressure over time? Did the essential adversarial nature of elite competition grind him down, eventually – or is he just a Bad Man? If the latter, how come he didn’t seem so bad ‘til about 2015, or so?

Think. How could the man who was under the wing of Bobby Robson – Angel of the North, Heart of the Footie Universe – turn out so palpably bereft of romance? (Mourinho, if you remember, interpreted for the great man at Sporting and at Porto, early doors). How does that work? Where did the narcissism, the sourness, the anti-love for the game sweep in? We’ll never know.

It’s obvious that José is either all-out a spent force or a declining power; that he might only succeed with monstrous money to spend – but almost certainly not in the Prem, in 2019/20 and beyond – because the likes of Klopp and Guardiola have found better, newer ways.

It seems unthinkable that a) Daniel Levy will free-up the purse-strings to accommodate Mourinho’s customary indulgences and b) that in any case that free spirit thing Tottenham have always had will be brutally-casually disembowelled.

But hey, the phone-in psychos don’t care. They’re dead souls too.

 

A loaded gun won’t set you free.

There’s something about the moment that brings Joy Division to mind. It might be autumn; or the desperate cynicism around politics and society; the suspicion that something’s falling away – something profound, like goodness, maybe?

Lots of things feel hollowed-out or skein-like or like some web you want to wipe away… and the things that often mitigate against all that – arty stuff? Sporty stuff? – are kinda being psychologically outgunned, or disproportionately swallowed under by the Looming Dark.

Blimey. It’s come to something when a wee something on Utd City starts out like that. But, laughably or not, it does feel like legitimate context, because Mourinho, because Crass World Pressure, because Rooney, because there are stats all over indicting Guardiola(!), because The Death of Caring is upon us.

We don’t care about big things like human decency so why would we care about footie? Football doesn’t care about us, so why we would we bother back? What further proof could we need that the world is bollocksed when it *does appear credible* that Wayne from Toxteth, the last of the street footballers, might be off to China to rot in his armed apartment? How much  more can our idealism be snuffed out, when it’s so dead?

Something about Manchester United used to speak against this. Something in their redness, their pace, their invincible energy.

We all know half the world needs to hate them but even some of those guys felt the surge when a bloke name of Best ran with it. Then Bryan Robson and Cantona and Kanchelskis and Giggs. Charging. More out of instinct than instruction, more in joy than in calculation. This went right past tribalism: it was received as brilliance – something to be aspired to – okaay, maybe as well as hated.

Now, amongst other things, we have a manager who lives joylessly – ‘disastrously’ he calls it – in a posh hotel. And he daren’t go out. Throughout the Premier League we have poisonous rather than inspirational expectation and a kind of moronic appeasement to yet dumber, broadly ever more unaware players and agents. (Of course there are honourable exceptions but players generally must take a lump of blame for the utter separation between themselves and the fans).

Players seem greedy, lazy, arrogant and more-or-less dishonest. More interested in getting their opposite number red-carded than scoring. More interested in drawing a pen than scoring. Staggeringly unaware of how ordinary they actually are. Staggeringly not bothered.

This is somewhere between a cruel view and an average view of football’s things, I think. Maybe I should add that I grew up in a football family and that my grandfather was an MU player before injury cut short his career. So I’m not entirely an outsider, railing with neither authority nor understanding. I get football: I do not enjoy drifting from it.

On Mourinho I’m more dispassionate than most, being clear that he has been a great of the modern era but not hugely enamoured of his playing style. I think the possibility he may have wanted to be at United ‘all along’ is mildly fascinating and that *whatever happens* he must get three years, if he wishes it that way. However, whilst accepting that despite the obscene transfer spending before he arrived, there were faaar too many players at the club simply unworthy of the shirt, I am shall we say concerned(?) that he has not yet addressed that fundamental imbalance: more – that he may not have improved it.

The very crudest view would suggest that if you have a practically unlimited budget you should be able to straighten things out. Crude but trueish. And Mourinho may. He may, though, need more time than many of the proponents of that view might imagine, or allow.

It’s absolutely right that we plebs holler for some accountability or value – Pogba cost how much?!? – we’re entitled. We aren’t responsible for the monstrous salaries so we feel we have moral superiority over and above the usual shareholder/propper-upper stuff. This judgemental fervour is surely both contagious and dangerous – hiking up passions from the reasonable to the wild.

In this context it’s asking a bundle but us fans might still need to consider our contributions – vocal or otherwise. We need to think about how essential it is that players feel good, in a role, in an environment.

Bringing us back – in the United case – to Mourinho. The manager is the environment. His job is to select, after providing some tactical input and (mainly) creating an understanding; a zone of comfort in which players (sorry but this is still the best phrase) express themselves.

Mourinho has traditionally found a way – often magnificently, through sheer force of personality and brilliant proactivity – to win through, here. Sometimes via adversarial routes, sometimes by getting players (and fans) to love him. Intriguingly, right now, the universe is for the first time doubting his virility. It’s threatening to de-Specialise him. Tonight, against City, becomes a meaningful test.

Or it would if (sor-ree sponsors!) this cup meant anything. We saw from Liverpool Tottenham that it’s become a reserve team fixture. Plus, in this case, a bit of family malice. They’re’ll be a lot of hot air but this result does not matter: performances will.

Haven’t seen the line-ups yet (6.20pm) but hoping on the one hand for Mourinho to think more Fenerbache than Liverpool and unleash – or at least offer the possibility for – some Manchester United football. For me this means no Fellaini. (Fellaini goes, from Old Trafford, along with Memphis and Rojo and the others on your list, right?)

Longer term, there’s a slate to wipe clean. Ibra was always a short-term fix, the Rooney Question needs to be addressed and half the defence needs shipping out again. I think Shaw – if he can ever stay fit – is a player and Bailly was looking good but I am not convinced Smalling, however much this goes against the grain of contemporary thinking, is good enough for a proper, elite-level MU. Sorry but I’m just not.

Whilst we’re into the radical sweeps I’d like Mata and Herrera to get a generous run together. If this squeezes out Lingard for now, fair enough. Pogba stays in there. Rashford plays often – rotating with Martial and Ibrahimovic. Crucially, they are freed up, to dash, to charge, to play without fear – because they are Manchester United.

And now, as we fizz or freeze… kick-off.

Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Shed and watershed.

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

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.

Proper grand.

So they got beat. Two blokes in the world think Nani’s dangle was dangerous – Roy Keane and the Turkish ref – and that was that. Madrid go through. United’s chorus of howling dissent and ‘moral’ outrage means nowt against those figures on the ole scaw-bored; 1-2. (2-3.) As Brucie might have said; ‘Alex – you’re my favourite – but I’m sorry you have to leave us.’

Pre the unsatisfying, water-treading, lop-sidedly engineered finale however, this one did pulsate nicely. In the manner of a proper big cup match, the much-criticised atmosphere at Old Trafford seething with real support as well as a respectable dollop of Real support. ‘Twas an occasion, eh? Personally, I’d been scurrying around all day in a heroically faux frenzy so as to engineer that essential headspace/sofa-berth for The Entire Thing – so difficult that one, given the cloying inconveniences of …well, life. But it just had to be done, right? In my case this meant going ballistic on the work front then simply absconding from every domestic responsibility presenting itself; or getting it done rapid. So it was in splendid familial absence that I entered that glorious bubble just in time to see team news flip up on twitter. It was then (doctor) that the pulsations first began.

Ferguson had unsurprisingly surprised us. In that (come on, be honest!) raw, deeply perverse Scottish psyche-to-trample-on-all-psyches (of his) he’d er… pulled out a plum… or a peach, or something fruiticiously quasi-triumphant and maybe whiffing of claret. A team selection all of us had to read four times before saying o-kay through a plainly discombobulated pseudo-reflective fug. A team-sheet so left-field it seemed likely that Muammur Gadhaffi – allegedly farter-in-chief at the Union of Farting Weirdos – must surely have parped it out Fergiewards from the sidelines in the sky, through a series of inspired, presumably Glaswegian cloud-symbols. A nominal midfield of Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Wellbeck and Giggs. And Vidic ahead of Evans. And RVP up top solo… and no Rooney. Fabulous, mind-contorting stuff for the watching world but on reflection – for Fergie – simply a game plan. One without the ruggedly rugged one.

My personal nervy perusal of the line-up went pretty much as follows, in fact; WOW – Nani in; WOW, Vidic, not Evans!! The Rooneything did not, entirely, surprise me, given Ferguson’s occasional need to Firmly Establish That The Club Is Bigger Than Anyone and the player’s patchy form. Incidentally, I loved and respected the with-holding of Giggs from the Norwich game to allow a fitting and world-wide doffing of caps in this magnificent moment. Being no fan of Arbeloa, I could see the thinking (ish) re the call on Nani… but thought and think it was muddled – irrespective of the freakish red card issue. (Nani is sometimes unplayable but for me, he is too often absent – simply lacking the backbone for the big night.) Brave calls aboundeth, I thought, but before we give him the hair-dryer let’s take a second or two to rate and respect the amount of faith Sir Alex was necessarily displaying in the likes of Welbeck and Cleverley in particular. Top stuff. Pity they lost.

They lost because a tremulous winger in the tradition of lightweight, tricksy non-tackling mediterranean Pat Nevins was deemed to have crossed the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of raising your boot against an opponent. Nani, in following an aerial ball across his body in anticipation of ‘bringing down’ said ball, raised his right foot 4 foot 3 and a quarter as he pivoted. Either he was completely unaware of the approach of Arbeloa or he wasn’t. If the latter is the case then it is conceivable he knew –and indeed intended to make contact – or not. The various possibilities, let’s face it, are likely to be sieved through our own prejudices for and against the player/the club. As a player you know what you mean to do but as a spectator upon this one… difficult. I am clear that it was a yellow because it was not sufficiently dangerous or spiteful to be red, accident or no.

However, this conception of mine that there is a relevance to any ‘degree’ or sufficiency of danger may or may not be extant in the rules. As with seemingly every other high-profile transgression, we’re into this minefield of how or whether things can be judged ‘consistently.’ For me – they can’t. We aim for consistency of course but the dull MOTD chorus around this needs… needs to grow up, actually and think. We need good decisions on a million subtly different fouls or challenges or abuses of the laws. Scenarios which are as varied as the opinions upon them. It makes no sense then to simply bawl about consistency (from referees) when offences are manifestly not the same in degree of intent/violence/seriousness or otherwise. We need a referee who will discriminate well – an intelligent judge – over one applying some ludicrously crude and limiting letter-of-the-law. Let’s hope that we get lots of these kinds of refs, who can make and articulately justify such decisions, because then we will have consistently good football justice. So – even if there was a flicker of cowardly dangling or fishing with the foot by Nani – yellow!

Twenty-four hours after the event several things still fascinate. Firstly the notion that United, in playing a kindof retro-Brit longish, quickish, possession-negligent way, sitting alarmingly deep in the manner of an England side at a World Cup, invited the opposition to a) to get comfortable in the cauldron b) play. Consequently, while the home side scurried and scuffed and lashed the ball aimlessly forward in the first 30 minutes in particular, Real picked their passes. Ronaldo and co, without capitalising, did receive the ball in space around the box or out front. Maybe United got off rather lightly, early doors, as the initial pattern of the game was for Madrid to enjoy it whilst a wasteful and possibly tense United got it over with.

Surely United needed pressure? By all means play with pace but also with control? Get the crowd in there with you. Crucially, really test the Real back four – which ain’t (arguably) that special.

Time flashed past but there was little in the way of coherent passing movement from the reds. Undoubted positives included the mobility and willingness of Welbeck and the in-out dynamism and comfort of Cleverley. If the former ever turns goal-scorer (which sadly I doubt) he will be a near complete player. Giggs grew and got more vital as the game turned against him – a tribute in itself to his fitness, ability and love of the club. He hit more outstanding passes than anyone on the park. Van Persie, cruelly for United, has just hit one of those inevitable dips at utterly the wrong time; he looked quite like an ordinary striker. With things hardly fluent, that tendency to hurry or snatch a little remained.

Defensively United may have gotten away with this drop off and let them play thing if 11 men had persisted. I did think it was an error to play Vidic and Ferdinand together against such a fleet-footed and imaginative opponent but in truth these two elite stoppers were reasonably comfortable until Nani departed. But when United were reduced to ten and continued to sit deep, they were ruthlessly exposed. Ronaldo’s cute reach and Modric’s emphatic hit were in their separate ways, expressions of a high order.

One view of the game – not a popular one, or an easy one to take, perhaps – might be that Real’s composure was markedly and obviously better than United’s and that therefore their regal whitenesses represented some truly elite level of the game that United could not stretch to.(?) Overall they may be the classier – the better side. However I doubt we would be saying that had Nani stayed on and the beginnings of a Red Surge gathered towards irresistible home victory – something that seemed quite possible around the fifty minute mark.

A shame that this proper-grand and evocative sports-drama was undermined by a single issue. United lie 12 points ahead in the Premiership and will certainly be champions – so back next year. Back with the energy of Cleverley and the still-developing cool and quiet authority of Carrick. Plus the lethal brilliance of Van Persie and who knows… maybe that Rooney lad? Expect acquisitions front and back and a renewed purpose; Ferguson will want another thrash at it, methinks. They will be a force again.

This year, despite their near-unseemly dominance at domestic level, I have rarely thought the Red Devils good enough to win the Champions League. Real Madrid though, may be that good.