Manchester United versus Liverpool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Robbing van Persie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manc.

A relatively commercial break –

Back in April, I tried to write about the Manchester derby but got caught in a web of sentiment; something to do with family connections to United and regrets over footie’s slippage into capitalistic mania. I tripped up, maybe, on a foot dangled out for contact, meaning I barely spoke, in my distracted fury, about the game. Having said all that, I did feel there was something true there, so I bunged it – I mean carefully selected it – for inclusion in my ebook.

(If you’re reading on twitter try this link – amzn.to/SSc9To – otherwise, the book’s called Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium. On Amazon ebooks.)

Today’s ‘Title Decider’ – volume 2 or 3? – came around pretty quick, and gives me the opportunity to talk about action on the pitch. Something I will get round to eventually – I promise. After my anthropological warm-up.

So what is it to be Manc, then? A handful of years ago a monsoon of helpful, though not necessarily definitive labels might have bucketed down, under a sky full of thunderous Stone Roses riffs. The bow-legged swagger; the distracting Northern Wit thing – distracting whilst a mate robs your car; the Authentic Footie Obsession. Whilst the Guardian-reading amongst us might pause to reflect on the unacceptable lack of sensitivity mooning out from these caricatures, the rest of us can slurp beer, belch… and carry on with the blog(ging.) Because the truth drinks Stella, right?

Everywhere and everything changes. The city of Manchester has changed… somewhat unremarkably perhaps. Structurally and architecturally. However things are SO-O massively different in the urban psyche here that it may be new species of Manc are emerging, to reflect the maddest and genuinely most transformative ‘development’ in the region – that City football-thing , that Sky Blue usurpation.

Nought to everywhere; nought to somewhere mightier than Manfookin United, canya believe? City – a New City FC suddenly transplanted in. Now suspiciously performance-enhanced as viewed from the Red Side. Absurdly mighty, its largesse looming irresistibly over Fergie’s previously unchallenged dominion. Suddenly, something credible with which to counter-bulldoze, something with greater mass, critically, than Sir Alex’s attacking principles; something bigger, fuller, more extravagant even, than the Scot dictator’s red wine cellar.

Welcome in that zillion quid’s worth of psycho-plaything, melted down into the bustling warrior that is… Yaya Fookin Touré. (Take that ya Red Bass-ted!) Now just the one amongst a platoon of parachuted-in Manc galacticos patrolling the Etihad.

So… pinch yourself and you tell me – how could this all be possible? When we thought the existing scale of the rivalry was about right? When the world had kindof settled for the MCFC Perennial Overshadowment project? Is it just me that finds it head-hurtingly beyond surreal, this latest edit – Madderthaneverchester? Replete as I hope and trust it is with scarred Argie Judas and gorgeously Italian dugout dreamboat puppet. Sky Blues, of course think the current scenario more of a Revengeoftheproperfanschester.

Whichever way we look at it, money – as though blasted at us through an early machine gun – has pinned all of us footiefolks down whilst City swarm relentlessly over. It’s just the Reds are taking the onslaught most front-on. And those faceless überMancs feeding the weapon from er… somewhere well out of Lancashire, actually, really have changed everything. Maybe in an evolutionary way (because we knew that the next instalment of Depressingly Unjust Transformation was coming, right, after Blackburn, after Chelsea?) There has been no surprise, as suchjust a series of game-changing purchases.

Now, another Derby.

United – the away team – pick Young, Rooney, Valencia, Van Persie. No doubt believing that City, featuring a strangely out-of-sorts Kompany, can be got at. City – unbeaten at home for the proverbial and now proudly restored Blue Moons – feature Balotelli from the outset, believing (arguably naively) that the Mohicanned One will probably be prepared to stir for the cameras, if not for his manager, in this one.

Fortunately (I think), lack of competent defending – Ferdinand possibly being the honourable exception here – made for a compelling and ultimately nerve-jangling game. Whilst some distance short of a quality spectacle, this was full-blooded and eventful in the full-on derby mode. Alan Hansen – if he dare to take on United’s defensive work – might find plenty to playfully dissect. City’s back four, perhaps with Hansen’s difficulties in mind? – were equally as culpable, however.

A general point or two: whilst it may be true that Evra and Rafael remain United’s first choice fullbacks, they defend poorly – if at all. Rafael charges in impetuously far too often for a top level player and Evra simply doesn’t bother; or that’s how it seems, such is his inability to focus on even the fundamentals of the game once the ball enters the left back zone. Personally, if I was Fergie, I’d look to spend big on three defenders fit for a Champions League challenge in the January window; two fullbacks and a centre-half. Evra and Rafael and possibly the injury-prone Evans are not worthy. But back to the game.

City bossed the opening spell without dazzling; United threw the ball carelessly back at them. Then out of nothing they countered. Rooney – who had been largely absent – scored two breakaway goals, one of them featuring a sublime chest-pass from Van Persie to Young which released the winger down the left. In both cases defending from City was poor. They were accomplices, in fact, to the robbery.

Without gaining any measure of control, United had what should have been an unassailable lead. In both cases Rooney had unthreatened space in which to operate… and in he cashed, with a slightly scuffed shot and an easy side-footer. Mancini fumed.

Late in the first half, the body-language of Silva and Touré did not augur well, and Balotelli still jogged around the periphery. Yet with Aguero looking up for it and the game alarmingly open already, this had the look of a goal-fest. Fifty further minutes without goals seemed unlikely.

Immediately after the break, Evans retired hurt and was replaced by Smalling. Tempting to suggest that this unsettled the United back four but all season long that mob have jostled and harried unconvincingly and critically they have failed to mark; City came back. Tevez came on, to generally inflame things and Zabaleta, very much to his credit, having taken the armband from the retiring Kompany, seemed intent on hauling his club back into contention. (Would that most of his team-mates – half of whom seem to lack any urgent understanding of what communal effort is all about – might follow.)

The Argentine deservedly scored an equaliser when exploiting acres of space on the edge of the penalty box following a corner but again the goal was noteworthy more for amateurish defending rather than some glorious strike. Not that he cared. As the contest went into overtime an unnecessarily sloppy challenge from Tevez gave Van Persie the chance to have the final say. Via a slight deflection, he did.

Sadly the match – which had neither been brutal nor sporting and which was refereed rather leniently by Mr Atkinson – finished amongst controversy. Ferdinand was struck by a coin thrown by irate City fans whilst he celebrated. Tevez should have been red-carded for a crass kick out by the touchline. It was a great win for United, celebrated ingloriously. We, the watching world, left amongst bitterness.

In work, in the city tomorrow, Reds will be smiling smugly. Mancini still lacks a team, Fergie a defence.