This post was written for retrounited.com / @RetroUnited – GO SEE!! http://t.co/TQXNWmjZBz
I’m kinda down on footie despite being totally steeped in it. All that ‘drawing’ pens, all that desperate trying to get fellow pro’s sent off stuff. But the word fabulous appears here, more than once. Fabulous meaning really really great; beyond wonderful and into super-charged dream-particle magical. I re-found something and I’m thinking it was the number 9’s fault. That Colombian bloke – Falcao. The way he fizzed about like a kid; throwing his soul and self into it; as though (like we did) it was done for love of the game and maybe for his mates – that daft, open, sacrificial thing. Beyond money, fame, pressure. The fans loved him for it – not just the brilliance of his assist for Rooney’s tap-in – they loved his heart.
United are in a fabulous place. Fabulous in the sense that after a Moyesian extension of the previous regime – i.e. a period when (even under King Aloysius) they remained essentially fascinatingly dire and unworthy – there is suddenly the possibility for a magnificently wild chariot ride with van Gaal at the helm. If they have remained only 84% convincing going forward – whole lot less, defensively – this has not prevented United from threatening to break into that ‘cutting a swathe through the division’ category. At times, via Di Maria/Rooney/Young, even, The Reds have waved a sword – twirled it! – as they have bulleted triumphantly along. Except…
Except for that gert big hole where the Manchester United defence should be. Okaaay partly through ill-luck on the injury front but also because players selected have been visibly short of the confidence/courage/ability (you choose!) to carry that particular responsibility. The thing has felt flung together because van Gaal, plainly exasperated that a club of this stature should have such a shortage of options, has rifled through the personnel and the strategic possibilities.
I liked his early recourse to a back three but then cursed his immediate ditching of the system. Accepted, this was more about a damning of the dimness and immaturity of allegedly top top players than LVG’s personal preference but reverting to ‘the more familiar’ (yawn!) 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 smacked of capitulation. Why not stick with that defensive three (and with effectively five in midfield) then bully your side into a coiled-spring ‘wingback’ option? That plainly offers the potential for five fit blokes covering defensive duties once possession is lost. Meaning as a mob, perhaps especially a Proper Defender-lite mob, you give yourself every chance to keep the other buggers out.
Look you don’t have to be Jonathan Wilson to be aware that variations on 3-5-2 have informed the thinking of great European sides for aeons. German and Dutch national sides have made a habit of coolly out-passing opponents by having players available out wide and/or through slick interchange in a fluid, well-stacked midfield. Characteristically these teams have exuded confidence on the ball, being populated by players who receive the ball beautifully and use it with intelligence. Van Gaal will surely look to build towards this at United, whilst adding in pace – zip – in the belief that the Premier League might undermine or undo the cruise mode that seems to prevail in ‘continental’ football.
This is all context that LVG will be aware of – and I think hopefully thrive in. The notion that Manchester United FC has a genuinely noble tradition for attacking with width and pace, blah di blah. You can picture and maybe The Enemy is beginning to fear(?) a seamless transition between the mighty aggression-driven era of Ferguson through to some invincible, van Gaal-reflecting pomp. (The seamless thing has been manifestly blown but both eras laced and lit by gallivanting wide-men, with perhaps the midfield generals of the former nuanced into serene, more cosmopolitan sorts under the current gaffer? Perhaps.) Either way United have finished up with 3-5-2 formation, temporarily or otherwise, they are on a roll…and Liverpoool are out of sight.
Most agree that it’s taken the re-emergence of Michael Carrick as a force for calm and a rare exponent of the insightful or threaded pass from deep, to gift United back their shape, if not their formation. Whether he remains in a classic central defending role or a deep-lying midfield position is as yet unknowable – possibly even to the manager. (Today, Carrick strolled in the midfield.) What is clear – and to this, I for one, sing alleluyah – is that elite level footballers should be able to a) read play and b) execute passes on the understanding that possession is god. Carrick exemplifies these skills. And we did need reminding, we always do.
So, in the now, encouragingly, thrillingly for their support, United find themselves back where they belong. Champions League football seems downright certain for next season – an extraordinary transformation from but a few weeks ago – and there is just a crazy, glorious hint of a chance that they might buy two defenders next month and then go wallop everybody on the way to a sensational title triumph. A ludicrous, lew-dee-cruss thought in say, September.
And so to the game. United set up as follows, against Pardew’s Newcastle;
Jones McNair Evans
Valencia Mata Carrick Rooney Young
Early minutes. Van Gaal has clearly insisted on the back three splitting as soon as United gain possession, with Jones going wide right and Evans left; meaning McNair is potentially isolated in fifty yards of the pitch if things break down. Carrick will monitor in front but there’s too much reliance on possession being retained – and this is not the way of it. On the plus side, with the back three spread, ‘play’ should be enabled by the drawing out, into space, of these individuals and the simultaneous emergence of space for midfielders to exploit. On the negative, right across the back line, there is no cover.
This is all very well if you are a) German/Dutch b) dominant or c) three goals to the good. It’s massively bold given United’s current vulnerabilities as a team – and McNair’s youth and frail confidence. The lad’s already been withdrawn early after one nightmare; after five or ten minutes this afternoon with Newcastle looking lively, the fear is very much that van Gaal is gambling unwisely against a repetition.
But give the man some credit; if van Gaal is saying to his players ‘we will open out and we will be full of movement. We will penetrate and we will score because we have quality’ then… wow. He will know the nature of the game he is playing. Maybe we are seeing an expression of the manager’s belief in his strike power more than something ‘inevitably’ cavalier, borne of an awareness that his side simply cannot, home or away, park the bus.
Anyway first fifteen Newcastle – who look buoyant – have significant opportunities. United are on that knife-edge again, with the back three looking boyishly lost. Evans looks a liability both in and out of possession; Jones and McNair take sharp breaths and try to see it through. They do – somehow – then United respond, dynamically, Rooney scoring twice before the half to transform the match. Young and Valencia rampage intermittently, they win three-nil.
But the watching world knows and will re-visit the fact that van Gaal’s boys might have conceded three before Rooney put them ahead. And that another penno decision went their way. If I tweeted in the twentieth minute that The Geordies ‘might have already have buried them’ imagine the copious notes taken up and down the land?
… Maybe this is important. United might well achieve an easy third place in a poor ‘chasing’ group, light years behind City and Chelsea. On the one hand this might represent a solid, arguably spectacular achievement. On the other, it will not sit well with van Gaal that his side would even theoretically lie so open to dismemberment by Mourinho’s or Pellegrini’s patently more complete outfits. United aren’t there yet.
And yet I return to my original theme. Supporters excited and a charge ongoing; things twitching between joy and reality. The fans in love with Falcao’s gameness – gutted to see him withdrawn – and yet aware of that bigger picture, flicking through the gaffer’s mind. There is, there really is a season to gamble for, a title to chase. And realistic or not, United or not, that’s fabulous.
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.
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This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this current malaise. The silky-skilled Manchester United forward is not unique in his thoroughbred cynicism, his (by Premiership standards) quietly coiffured amorality. Ashley – if he possesses the capacity to process complicated thoughts – thinks, poor love, that he’s just doing his job; skinning the full-back. So he drives for that magic line delineating the extent of the defender’s hopes. Should he breach it – and thereby enter the (effective) no tackle zone that is the penalty box, Ashley’s only thought is to win a spot kick. He’s not, some imagine, all that bothered about scoring, such is the miserly fixation seemingly automatically engaged once that limey watershed is crossed. Ashley (and nearly every other Premier League striker?) just wants to ‘draw contact,’ to win a penno, to collect the prize. And often he does.
In my view – admittedly a soulfully aromatic, moisture-affected one – this very deeply negative approach to attacking play is in itself an offence of a sort, though I admit not one that we can reasonably prosecute. Yet it’s clearly prevalent in the professional game. Top Players get near the box and their interest turns from goals to penalties – symbolically from gold to faeces. In a moment they succumb, these solid pro’s; rather than instinctively flashing past an opponent or two and gleefully, innocently, heartily smashing home, they become weirdly obsessed by the feet or body position of retreating defenders, so as to feel for a questionably dangled or interjected leg. A practice that if it was only a metaphor for the ways of the modern world might be poetically and justly resonant. However, as a fact of sporting life – even allowing for an understanding of the daftness of our ‘seriousness’ about sport – this spirit-killing reflex does matter, in both a corporeal, ie. de-mystified points-on-the-board kindofaway and an ethical sense. Because mean-spiritedness erodes joy and the expression of talent as well as helping bad guys to win.
Yesterday, in an allegedly crucial match against Aston Villa, Young claimed a penalty which set the Champions on their way. He gathered and then set; he waited and he waltzed and he drew; then he trailed a foot for contact with a defender plainly conscious of (but perhaps not entirely athletically/dexterously responsive enough to?) Ashley’s intention to throw himself. When Young either felt or was sure he was about to feel said contact some believe he launched, shamelessly, hilarious, nauseatingly, embarrassingly high and utilised that slightly rolling airborne gait he adds in for er… kicks. Or maybe for added ‘authenticity’ – the notion presumingly being that heavy contact is likely to result in dynamic distortions of a roll-about sort. And the ref pointed. Rooney, despite being fascinatingly poor for almost the entire match, notched from the twelve.
This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this ‘debate’. But that was. In my personal revolutionary court he is guilty of a disgrace against the spirit of everything I can think of and I want to bawl at him and squirt lemon juice in his eyes. I want to demand answers and put things right immediately if not sooner… but how?
Whether or not Young actually practices what are perceived by many as his theatrical dives is a medium-interesting diversion here. I doubt that he or anyone else would do so in a public environment and shame on any club or manager or coach who actually presides over or witnesses such a rehearsal. Do we see him then safely in front of a full-length bedroom mirror, givin’-it-the-Tom-Daley’s before retiring to beddybyes? Is the length and breadth of the country sub-tectonically active Friday nights with the repeated dull thuds of similarly repellently prostrate strikers? I fear it may be, but the issue of whether the actual incidents on the telly are even provably-actually ‘dives’ is perhaps more relevant, being central to the concept of judging how and what to do as a result. For surely something has to be done about cheating in football?
Cheating is an emotive word of course. But how else are we to describe deception and manifest abuse of the spirit of the game? Hardened Pro’s might be less than moved by some woolly argument against idealised sportsmanship but even they have to concede that deception – conning the referee – is outside the laws. But because of the general low levels of honesty and respect for authority amongst players and shockingly one-eyed appreciation of issues arising from both fans and managers, the broad range of matters predicated around truthfulness, honour and sportsmanship in which this foul nugget of theatricality is set remain ungoverned. The matrix remains stolidly, amorphously powerless; an infuriatingly noisy flux. We need change.
Players and clubs must buy in to a move towards positive action but selfishness and rank myopia have typically got in the way of progress. Individuals representing clubs have generally howled about particular offences against their team rather than make any contribution to the increasingly necessary debate. Managers in particular rarely envisage anything which might generally elevate levels of sportsmanship, being far too busy calling for other, more immediately ‘relevant’ improvements, which may, incidentally advance their particular agenda or redress an injustice to their side. Plus nobody seems to want to – or have the courage to? Or be foolish and uncool enough to? – unashamedly claim the moral high ground. It’s easy enough – and right to – call for goal-line technology and use of TV reviews but more problematic, apparently, to call on the game to substantially re-negotiate aspects of broadly moral concern.
I have felt for some years that if it is necessary to implement or invent new rules to improve sportsmanship in football then so be it. If it does not work to use or extend the Ungentlemanly Conduct rule to encourage honesty or penalise dishonesty then fine; write a better law. Clearly there is a case for legislating against – for example – diabolical contempt for referees and diving or otherwise faking to gain advantage. (Etc.) Clearly something like the establishment of a small panel of informed and respected ex-players or similar charged with judging controversial incidents retrospectively might be helpful. Particularly if it was known that they had the facility to uphold spiritual early-footie-truths like respect and sporting behaviour through the application of meaningful punishments for serious transgression. If The Game had decided that other whiter-than-white lines of focus had to be drawn – lines against fraudulence and cynicism – and that players had to regard them as effective law and part of football itself then high-standard aspirations might be achievable. In short, cheats might not prosper – or would likely prosper less.
It is possible to improve things; even in footie, with its scandalous/wonderful/natural/psychotic tribalism and its capacity to crassly swamp intelligent thought. Players could be ‘caught’ whilst cheating or intending to cheat. And they could be banned… for weeks, if necessary.
Ashley Young is not to blame entirely. In fact perhaps the predictably growing outrage, the Young-gateism of this depressingly common moment speaks as loudly of us and our weaknesses as it does of him, the winner, the sinner. This is not, however, an argument for missing out on an opportunity to spring-clean the fusty cupboards of our national sport.
It’s a Brit obsession we know. Because of its vagaries and its capacity to influence the otherwise pristine railways of certainty rushing magnificently towards the alleged termini of our lives. The weather. That shiny-glorious or insidiously SAD stuff that either comforts, clubs or inspires us through the winter/spring abstraction.
I say abstraction rather than say… interface because – and there’s many a post on this alone, right? – the notion of an allotted period of recognisably uniform(ish) weather gathering itself under a convenient heading juxtaposed against a different other seems suddenly rather quaint; that’s if we can use that term of a phenomenon likely reflecting the uncoupling of our worldly assumptions about water, light and …that other one? Oh yeh, CO2 (poisonous gas) concentrations.
Consequently I am bound, surely, by any understanding of what is significant, right and truly important, to write a coruscating analysis of our short-termist lunacy regarding the denudation of our magisterial globe; unless I am some kind of heartless, distracted moron? (Which I am. Sozz.) Because though I really may subject both of you sagacious readers to a treatise around and about THAT REALLY PRETTY HEAVYSTUFF again pretty soon, for now, I’m onnabout footie.
Footie it seems mysteriously de-wintered from that traditional slog through unaccommodating furrows of ankle-deep shite, wherein the undead bodies of Dave MacKay/Alan Ball/Billy Bremner as surreal examples still stand, frozen in that mix of worryingly heavy oil and chip-standing standard gravy. Viewed from that rose-tinted but manure-rich era when Menweremen and Wimminweremen, the current Premiership Stars enjoy Summer Football, do they not? In terms of the playing conditions as well as remuneration etc etc. your Silvas and your Balotellis are practically surfing a wave of Mablethorpesque good fortune. Immaculate clobber (changed at halftime,) green baize quality surfaces (finessed at half-time by squadrons of steel fork and spirit level-wielding groundstaffpersons) and crucially no wintergreen/Fiery Jack to destroy the accidentally contacted eye or scrotum. Eeeeeh. Sporting luxury.
Whether it be through Climate Change or TV-funded/stadia-improving ‘moving forward with the times’, suddenly – yes!! This week! – we have entered a summery universe wherein out there, beyond the twinkling daffs, some exhausting clamour for the Premiership line awaits. A red-blue confrontation; with knobs on; demanding/inviting a media colour-blindness to all but the Manchester truths. United – when lowest common denominated? – representing old school attackattackattackness compromised by some mediocrity and City some flashy new but often brilliant interloper into a previously unassailable 4-club scenario.
The situation has now arisen whereby the psyche of individuals – most obviously the two managers but also I suggest the clubs themselves as beings clad with individuals – is to be publically tested in an appropriately(?) HD manner. The recent and now more open spat between various figureheads marks a kicking on or in to a sharper phase; one more full of elbows/spat asides/toxicity which – as we may have seen with another north-west enmity – may not be good. Things have been ramped up, challenges accepted, more in resignation to some inevitable looming bitterness I fear than in response to some sporty, cheek-tugging mischief. The contenders have swung back to their corners and will indeed come out fighting.
Things do develop of course. It may have been inevitable that City’s rise to parity in terms of playing staff enables a ‘proper’ rivalry; whatever that means. (I hope it doesn’t mean anything like the poison between Utd and Liverpool, though this seems entirely possible.) But the relationship with the Scousers is different because Liverpool remain irrelevant to the central challenge. On derby days the Pool are a snarling relevance but ordinarily, sadly, they are simply uncompetitive in respect of the title – a real cause for concern given the acceptance that this is manifestly not a strong United side. City however, can and are competing, legitimately and consistently and on merit. Which makes for a fascinating new breed of psycho-joust.
The football may become almost incidental should the verbals transgress that line from Premier League Wind-up to raw offence; and the industry to which I am contributing now will no doubt participate fully in the ensuing spitefest. Forgive us if ye can, for innocent or not, figuring the moods and meanings of the various soundbites forthcoming will be undeniably tempting. So what gives? Firstly, with the clubs themselves.
Look United were certainly strengthened in terms of (any?) perceived moral ascendency by the latest, predictably saddening lurch in the Tevez saga. Even City fans can’t claim that the reappearance of the unattractive Argentinian because they suddenly might need him has warmed the hearts of neutrals. Ferguson is almost certainly right that would Tevez have tried that routine at United – maybe, in a sense, he did? – he would never have played for him again. In other words, the desperation of Mancini in accepting Tevez back trumps (IMHO) foulsmellingly United’s, as described by Viera, for going back doe-eyed to Scholes. (I also concur fairly wholeheartedly with Fergie’s assessment of Scholes as arguably the best Premiership midfielder for the last twenty years, so no great shame in going back for more of that controllingly ageless ginger ease.) 1, perhaps 2 nil to United.?
However City began the season in such a prolific and even stylish fashion, with David Silva the darling of most informed opinion, that any claim United may have to being the key and perennial breath of attacking fresh air is compromised. With Yaya Toure gallivanting, Balotelli coolly extraordinary and Aguerro oozing predatory class, the sky blues were outplaying the entire division for some time. Only Tottenham played with as much swash and buckle and they lacked the physical presence of Kompany and Toure Y in particular. So City deserved to be top. (Draw.)
The two gaffers could hardly be more dissimilar. Ferguson’s passionately, simultaneously distracted-but-focused mastication, pitchside, somehow being in its brittle, spearminty aggression a symbol of his legendary drive. A hair-dryer of a sort, in its acceleratedly intense way. He really is The Boss; awesomely, perhaps brutally, always and without contradiction; from and with incontrovertible experience. SAF is a contradictory amalgam of father figure, football poet and bully; he remains unhomogenised, unsweetened and unbowed by the challenge of 24 hour exposure because he is tough, tough and football wise. His spirit is defiant and he has forged his career upon a kind of oppositionism – ie. thriving on the us-against-themness of competitive sport.
Mancini is something of a heart-throb, apparently. He looks dashing and to some degree image-conscious even whilst patrolling the touchline. (Or is that some faintly xenophobic slur?) He looks and is from a new generation of well-groomed Galactico-Managers headed by the Special One. Like Mourinho he is dapper and demanding and he may be spiritually tighter, more cautious then Fergie. There are plenty of stories suggesting Mancini is hugely driven and even fierce in his own, I imagine less hairdriery way. The question may be whether he is really tough or Designer Tough?
In a sentence I think the heart of this may be that Mancini has the better squad but Fergie the greater capacity to inspire. United have United players and City have Undeniable Stars. Given that motivation and levels of confidence under (huge) pressure will tell here, both managers have a massive job on. Mancini may be smouldering convincingly in the background – he really may. And he really may have a dressing-room intent upon his every word. Things have changed – the footballing climate has changed – because of what City have done in the last eighteen months. They now have a very powerful side; one ‘well capable’. I do wonder, however, if they are as one as the Red half of the city. And whether that may tell.
During his press conference the other day, SAF seemed jaunty and alive during the exchanges about Citystuff; not that he seemed ‘dead’ prior to that. It’s just that at the mention of City… and the title… and the challenge, the juices were visibly flowing. Because for Sir Alex, at times like these, they generally do.
Don’t know ‘bout you guys but despite the seasonal arrival of well… mainly socks to up the sartorial ante, I’m both looking and feeling a tad dishevelled; peeky; and a tad bloated. The dog-walking has been an essential antidote to pies and puddings and the occasional pint but not, in truth, sufficient. I’ve needed a dive in the ocean or a game of rugby or something to truly de-cobweb or detox the overwhelmed pipework. Haven’t had it though.
Following this week of lacklustre engagement with either/neither the coalface or the sporting widescreen j’accuse – I accuse myself actually – of a kind of proportionate indolence that prematurely factors in all the really active stuff I have lined up and thereby gets me off the hook. (Pass that pie, please?) I accuse moreover, the Mother-in-Law of baking far too much. Generally, I accuse the calendar of being too Christmassy; but I need to move on.
To the sport.
Kauto Star may well be the real story over the Xmas period but he is an athlete I am barely familiar with. I can more honestly comment therefore, on the gallop towards the Premiership title, now featuring just the two legitimate Mancunian thoroughbreds. If that’s what they are?
Manchester United have eased into a position of some control, despite a brief period where they were utterly exposed -chiefly by City but then in their poor European campaign – as only mediocre pretenders to the title. Ferguson will know that his side have barely improved of late and will be conscious of the need to maximise psychological capital from criticism of The Reds from perceived traitors (Roy Keane) and around issues both for and against the strength of his squad – now being tested to the limit by injuries.
United certainly do need players to compete with authority and confidence in the Champions League next year; some added brilliance in midfield and some fit defenders may help. And yet, domestically, almost independent of any assets the team may have or lack, results come. The defining quality, the defining force of the Premiership itself still being that fierce Scottish fire smouldering beneath this extraordinary club’s belief.
Mancini, on the other hand, enters a period where both he and the widely imagined disunity within his starry group will be tested. Are they – in particular these disproportionately remunerated foreigners – able to show real Premiership grit when the squeeze is suddenly applied? If fluky things suddenly start to go against them, will the likes of Balotelli and Aguerro rally round some newly pressurized core? (Given that for me both are already showing if not outright selfish tendencies then certainly an awareness of a need to make a personal impact, I do wonder how emphatically City will respond as a team to an allegedly inevitable ‘bad patch’). We may learn a great deal about the legitimacy of any sky-blue badge-kissers in the next period, methinks.
Crucially, perhaps, now that City have finally faltered – only drawing at West Brom, being held by Chelsea – allowing United to draw level on points, will Silva flow so freely and with such influence?
So results (or something) conspired almost miraculously in the last 48 hours or so to re-hoist United, whilst undermining the Chelseas and Liverpools of this world. Arsenal too, despite playing consistently well are coming from too far back. Tottenham – lovely, pacy, Redknappy Tottenham – are bursting brilliantly but likely to be less durable, I would argue, than the Northern Bootboys. The sensational Bale is quite possibly the single most exciting footballer on the planet, currently; he is the antidote to Lucas and to Cattermole and to the often outstanding but unsprinting Barry. By sweeping past people in a way that seemingly owes more to childish expressionistic glee than to any football coaching book, Gale is capable of bursting through cynical or disinterested hearts. Even my marzipan bubble was disturbed by the flying Welshman.
But a passing and respectful nod to Kauto Star and at least a mention of the magnificent, record-breaking crowd of 82,000 for the recent Harlequins v Saracens match at Twickenham are in order. As is a further airing for the name Farrell (junior), with which some time in February the sporting population may again become generally familiar.
Perhaps though not before your currently sedentary scribe has actually done a substantial amount of running, throwing, batting, bowling; developing his How To Coach as well as his What To Coach skills. Is there I wonder a workshop out there on How To Shed That Seasonal Lethargy-Thing? If so, put my name down… immediately.
It might be nice if life was simple; if I could talk about say… Patrice Evra in all innocence. If I could simply idle through the only mildly offensive theories generated by my good self regarding his almost unbelievable inability (or will?) to defend. Likewise, if only I could rave naively about Luis Suarez’s rare gift of inventing space within and around the box, his utter confidence, his unbelievably seamless transition into Premiership groovyhood. But I can’t – not now, not today.
Stuff’s really gotten in the way. To the point where the foul blood already slapping the sides of the Manchester Ship Canal collects, minute by minute, further cheap flotsam – further ammunition. And then it gets lobbed at the other side.
Such is the feeling between Manchester United and Liverpool Football clubs. Clubs whose realness and greatness in footballing terms is beyond dispute. Yet the epic scale of their one-eyedness, their capacity to brutally reduce pretty much everything they have in common to a seething conflict currently excels itself. The annual home and away contest the watching world is exposed to – itself a thing of little beauty – has been further deflowered through the ‘conviction’ of Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker in the matter of alleged racist comments made against Evra (United’s left back.)
At the moment of writing there is a depressingly self-righteous gale of protest and allegation blowing east and west. Hot on the heels of a strongly worded statement from the club following the Football Association’s decision to substantially (hah!) fine and ban Suarez, the Liverpool players have released a strongly worded message of support for their man. United meanwhile have spent the recent period belligerently backing Evra. At no time has it seemed likely that anyone from either side would step forward or, more ideally remain quietly in the background whilst advocating calm.
But what might we expect? (And this, for me, is the depressing bit…) The context is generally close to disgraceful.
United-Liverpool games have been effectively brain-dead for ages. There are almost no moments of class in a matrix of brittle abuse. Abuse of the spirit of the game; abuse of the ref; abuse of the real, footballing loving fan. The players almost to a man apparently utterly lack the discipline or will (again) to avoid getting sucked into the ‘heat of the battle’. They aren’t, frankly, big enough to deny the fraud that is the tackle from behind, the accidentally flailing elbow, the ‘follow through’. Season after season – even with the influx of allegedly technical players from around the world – the same violent pantomime persists.
So in one sense maybe Suarez has been either unlucky, or miscast as villain of this piece? For every ‘derby’ match between these two since about 1970 has surely offered up some genuine candidate for an 8 week ban? Sir Alex, burning with furious and career-long need to outdo his rival from Merseyside is certainly culpable in this general amorality – as, of course, are a series of Liverpool managers. Don’t tell me that the players are typically eased into the bear-pit without some reminder of ‘what this one means?’ And whilst I concede the likelihood of a caution that all 11 must remain on the pitch… what we used to call “kick-ball-fly” generally ensues; with malevolent knobs on.
Regrettably and shockingly and predictably, the logical extension of this milieu of Vinny Jonesesque lowest-common-denominator clatteration is mere footballers getting themselves or allowing themselves to get twisted up into a cheap, worrying and important controversy. Difficult to be sure if Suarez dealt in supra-offenses or just the ordinary offensive comments that the derby situation pathetically fosters. If he has racially abused Evra and he and his clubmates are pinched along a scale between outright lies and loyal delusion, it’s outrageous. To me it seems very unlikely that he has done nothing for which he might justifiably be ashamed. However, I am clear that this is no one-sided issue.
Evra, fascinatingly, has previous in the shape of his involvement in a brawl (effectively) at Chelsea, involving a non-playing member of that club’s staff. Ultimately, after investigation, the word “unreliable” was one of many used to describe his evidence on the matter. This may, naturally mean nothing whatsoever; I merely take it as a further sign of the disappointing level of understanding and commitment to responsibilities within the beautiful game.
Returning to my own fanlike/fanlit flames of controversy, I have I confess been more than distracted by Patrice’s extraordinary absences or meagre contributions to United’s defending over a period of about eighteen months. The conclusion has been drawn here that he can’t really be arsed much with stuff happening in the left back zone. Which is strange, surely, for a no. 3?
Returning to er… the letter of the law, I am clear that this whole, unappealing episode may not tell us much more than this – the obvious. That a reasonable judgement might be critical of both protoganists – who seem representative of their colleagues in many respects? – plus both clubs, for their unstinting and continuing work towards undermining our faith.
Before this broadside gets into full flow may I note to you, sagacious reader, that yes I am aware that there were times when Carlos Tevez was pretty much adored by fans of West Ham/MU, amongst others. And yes I am also aware that this was because of his near magnificent levels of honest commitment to the cause, to the shirt (or so it seemed) – a phenomenon that endears players to fans more than virtually anything else. He could actually play a bit too. However… yaknow… things change but don’t mess with the fans, right…
Listen face-ache, we’ve just about had enough. It was okay ferawhile you moving from club to club every new moon, or whatever it is meks ya skidaddle – ‘ang on, correction, I know exactly what it is but you only got away with that whilst you were patently the best player/most loved scuttler abart the park(er) at West Ham. Now you’re not. Scuttlin’. In fact ya flat refused to scuttle you overpaid scumbag and you are history mate, as far as we are concerned. Ahem.
Us fans – us City fans anyroad – have been absolutely buzzin’ with the way things have gone for us after all the crap we’ve ‘ad to put up with fer decades and you, you come over ‘ere and… first of all… yer unbelievable, ta be fair. But then, then ya get restless or whatever and start fallin’ out and whatever and the club, the club gets… like forgotten! I’ve never seen anybody playin’ fer ’emselves and nobody else so obvious man. You’ve not passed to nobody for twelve month! Embarrassin’! Sub or not; ya’ve played like my nephew’s lot – chase the ball an’ never f***in’ pass!! Ever! What’s all that lot about? It’s not on. Even us stupid fans know when things aren’t right and this started months and months ago and ya could see it on the pitch months and months ago. One ball for yoos and another for the team? Not on mate.
Dunt madder about the money – the money’s just a joke we all know that – but ‘s a team f***in’ sport innit? Ya don’t do that; ya don’t shit on yer mates. However good you are ya don’t shit on yer mates.
An’ now this is like another level innit. Champions League – ya know ‘ow long we been waiting fer Champions League? Need a massive effort from all of us and… to actually refuse to come on, no matter ‘ow much right, ya hate the manager, is unf***ingbelievable. The jury’s still out on the manager, we know that . But there’s no way back from that – there shouldn’t be anyroad. Frannie Lee and Micky Summerbee and all these people are all like… standin’ about in shock I think. Thinkin’ this is like the end… for anybody to do that.
I can’t imagine how anybody – any player, least of all a City player would do that. An there’s no kinda racism in this, we don’t give a f*** where Tevez comes from. If any ar British players – if say Milner had done this – same thing. Sack him now; get ‘im out the club. ‘E’s a greedy, stupid man and we just want rid of ‘im. It’s just sick that he can think he can do that; be bigger than everything. It’s mebbe a sign of the times but… anyway… gizzafag Jordie…
Na wunda there’s riots; ‘cosa twats like ‘im oo’re only thinkin’ me me me. An’ ‘e’s got f***in’ everything; an’ ‘e wants more. It’s just sick in the head that. We’ve been givin’ ‘im two hundred grand a week an’ ‘e wants… wassie want, really, to run the f***in’ club or wha? Get him artof’ere… we’ll pay – dunt madder about the money…
Let’s in a moment get slightly past the obvious; Torres is a formerly brilliant central striker – at one fairly recent stage arguably the best in the world – but he was not worth £50 million when purchased by our Russian friend. Aside from any legitimate argument about whether that fee may be obscene – let’s pretend there is a ‘real’ market price for his value as a player only – there could be no justification for a fee of such magnitude for a player so apparently physically and psychologically damaged.
That may in fact be a rather melodramatic description of where the player is at but surely it’s fairly representative of the feeling around him, following maybe 2 years of admittedly injury-linked frustration, poor goal returns and occasional (out-of-character) petulance at Liverpool. Torres the magnificent and the fluent had become a tetchy, visibly unhappy individual and a player fortunate to be getting regular football at the top level. It was and is questionable whether the toll repeated injuries and surgery had taken on his movement and consequently his form would and will preclude re-capture of the original precious gift for electrifying impact.
Ask Nemanja Vidic – in a few years time perhaps – to honestly assess where Torres ranked, how brilliantly he shone. Ask the average Liverpool fan to describe the relationship that fizzed between the Koppites and the player in his unassailable pomp and the scale of The Fall would be revealed. He was hugely loved, both for his scampering expression of the team ethic and for his exuberant talent. But that was, in football terms, a long time ago. When the fleet-footedness and the confidence petered away Fernando was rather depressingly different. He was not worth a place in the team.
Extraordinary then, that at this time of near-poignancy for the Spanish superstar, Abramovitch stepped in. I myself hope that he put an arm round Torres, told him he believed in him and would guarantee him a chance to gather and then express his deadly genius once more. (I suspect that the money was less an issue for Abramovitch than it would be for most minor nations but let’s assume the best and applaud the Russian for his faith – generosity even. Doubly so if we imagine the purchase as a reflection that he really does want to excite the Chelsea support on the way to the next level of glory). Torres may have seen the move more prosaically, as a step closer to silverware, rather than an opportunity to nestle under the warm wing of the owners’ casual jacket. Whatever, the blonde former bombshell moved south.
To further difficulties. A spiky or likely surly dressing-room, a club perennially now in flux. Ego’s the size of the Ivory Coast/France maybe. A new, sharp and pressing need to show that the Price Tag was irrelevant and the gift alive. Impossible? Could any manager build a side around this particular striker – let alone, after a series of underwhelming early performances, justifiably pick him?
A new season brought certain signs that key instincts may be returning… but not, sadly, the essential goals. And then there is today, and an absurdly wonderful, open game at Manchester United. Some of the movements – the commitments – are back. In a game brimming with opportunities and space, Torres scores a fabulous goal with an expressive flick of the right foot; it’s a trademark, top of the range finish; it’s beyond encouraging. But tomorrow’s papers I fear will be more likely to concentrate on the stomach-churning miss achieved shortly afterwards; the Sunday League miss, the one executed surely by an interloping donkey from park football, who, having rounded the keeper with contempt, stabs it laughably wide. To world-wide disbelief.
Cruelly, this one is right up there with the very best open goal misses. Massively saleable and destined to be forever referenced by fan and pundit alike. How did he miss? Because suddenly, he wanted the moment to be over. Over for better or worse. As a consequence, if Fernando is the sensitive boy many believe, he is going to have to disconnect his capacity to feel for some time. I wish him luck and the mental and physical wellbeing to recover.
Football supporters up and down the land may have received yesterday’s Mancunian jolt with a mixture of emotions. Some may have been energised in the manner of Joan Miro – artist and occasional boxer – who could not function without an occasional creative kapoww! like that delivered by the two Manchester clubs against southern softie opposition. Others may have groaned in the realisation that the season may be over already in terms of its spatial distribution of trophies. Chelsea fans may beg to differ, but they will already be aware that they too may be being drawn into a subduction zone where the bulk of the UK footballing continent is now being obliterated by United’s dynamic heat and City’s sudden explosive plume. Clearly, the performances of the weekend were near freakishly brilliant, but does it not feel, already that an inevitable lava flow has lipped out over the brow and rumbles towards us mortals?
Perhaps it does. Perhaps it’s a worry. Certainly if Chelsea continue to splutter in the face of these sulphurous gasses and Liverpool fail to make the unrealistically big step up, the Premiership becomes worryingly thin on viable – should that be buyable? – competitors.
Arsenal, let’s be clear, were absolutely massacred by United in a fashion that should and will be unacceptable to Wenger, to the fans. Even allowing for the ludicrous confluence of stunning, confident finishes that did for them, the Pat Rices of this world must have been outraged as well as shell-shocked. There was something bizarrely appropriate about Walcott – a young man who for me played himself out of contention for the last World Cup through near-embarrassing schoolboy inconsistencies – understandably rollicking his colleagues for their elementary failure to pressure the ball. You can’t always defend against brilliance but you must defend.
Wenger’s principal failure has been to accommodate defensive players who are comfortable on the ball, who do the footballing equivalent of rotating the strike, but who get bowled middle stump (in other words, fail to defend) when the quickies put the squeeze on. Most of us applaud the quality and the nature of the football his teams have played; some of us might even argue that they have succeeded, beautifully, in recent seasons. It’s just that they were not durable enough in the hurly-burly to win; enough.
The goalkeeping issue and the defending issue should have been sorted. I wonder therefore, if Wenger is perverse enough to have debarred himself – out of a kind of continental superiority to us depressingly low-brow but gutsy Brits? – from buying real but inadequately skilful defenders. Surely only a complete ban on spending should have prevented the purchase of the necessary stoppers and blockers to make the crucial difference; even if this meant paying over the odds – something Wenger seems understandably loathe to do. In a side brim-full of technique and imagination might it not have been a relatively easy role to fill, the honest but limited defender? However, in a world where there appear to be alarmingly few decent keepers, the number one shirt may be a special case, a difficult one, but I personally cannot imagine there is no viable and ideally local candidate to stuff between the sticks.
But back to Manchester. City may be finally close to having an outstanding team as well as great individuals. With at least 2 strikers currently inspired by something, it strikes me that if they can learn to either love, listen to or bear Mancini enough, this really could be their time. Silva and Nasri can twinkle and Toure and Barry block. (Simples). United meanwhile seem to have yet more pace and energy and belief; plus they know exactly who they are playing for; probably the most brilliantly durable football man ever to have thrown a tea-cup.