Bye then!

Is this the end, then, for the Ordinary Bloke as gaffer? Has the fallout from Entrapmentgate steered football further from the working man than ever? And is that more meaningful and painful than the other stuff about morals and money?

Possibly not. But in doing a favour for a friend of thirty years and then falling into the most obvious of pits-with-tarpaulins-slung-over, Mr Allardyce has undermined your chances (Dave) and yours (Derek, Bazza, Brian, Jim) of rising to high office. Which you might think is gutting.

So who’s to blame then? Slimy undercover journo’s or a clumsy or naive or disturbingly shifty bloke with a napkin (apparently, fitfully) on his head? Or… is that the question?

And how did it come to this? Meaning either how the hell did that bloke become England Manager anyway or how come this paper did this entrapment thing? Both almost equally weird. Throw in the assumption of dentist’s-chairloads of booze, cartoon-character machismo and gert big wedges of money and you really do have a scene we can moralise over, luxuriate in – a scene for our times.

Tough enough already to avoid the view of top-level footie as near criminally grotesque: this latest episode doesn’t so much reinforce that impression as plonk a shiny silver flag on top and krank upp the klaxons. No wonder The Simpsons has been so widely referenced in the reactions; this is Maximum DOH, people!

And yet it maybe does feel unfair. Not just in the possibility that Allardyce has been exposed more for a fool than a criminal but in terms of the influence on this case of the scale of contempt around the game itself – contempt which I am certainly guilty of contributing towards.

Sure other sports lack the garish weight of football’s tackiness – though many clearly share some of its depressing shades. The environment is such that disproportion thrives and fair judgement may be elusive – through that context of diving foreigners and blinged-up lifestyles. How then, can we reconcile the feeling that ‘developments’ following Big Sam’s meeting feel uniquely football and symbolically rotten, with more focussed appreciation of the actual events?

Maybe there can be no event without that baggage? So that appalled but unsurprised, we may not have the heart to search for detail: we may not ‘need to.’ This is all crushingly obvious, after all.

It’s a crappy and predictable do, this, maybe more so because of Big Sam’s crassness but esssentially because this is just how football is. Football is guilty; that’s how most of us feel. Said this plenty times myself, over recent years. Football is guilty.

Can we bothered to go past that? (Is that the question?) Or does that obviousness, that donkey-centre-halfness imply guilt and is that game over?

If we were getting real in a faintly ‘legal’ or philosophical kindofaway we might seek out what it was exactly, that took the England Gaffer into the Plainly Unacceptable Yonder? That may be a pertinent question but it is one which I, for one, disillusioned, can barely be arsed to ask.

Except I have. I know I’ve been prejudiced against Big Sam so I’ve thought a lit-tle more. Read stuff… before returning to my instinct that he’s too dumb-blokey to inhabit the role and that this probably matters enough. Or carries over into the You’re Nailed column, thus nailing him.

So – Telegraph. Allardyce. Two fascinatingly different arms of the Footie Psychomonolith. The latter we imagine boozy and sweated-up, the former more inclined to feint, to weave,  to cheat out a weakness.  Because this was a kinda pugilistic occasion – or became so.

Look until a complete transcription of the two(?) meetings becomes available, we’re speculating and/or lumping in our opinions, high or low. Meaning I can find it in my heart to forgive myself, for assuming the daft bugger got a bit flash, bit tempted and told The Telegraph (asitappened) just enough of what they wanted to hear.

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More pressing than Preston.

Here’s the thing. The FA Cup is medium fabulous but what happens/happened tonight may be irrelevant. United are so-o twitchy and unsmooth, so wearing (or at least wearing the pressures of being United so poorly) that half the team or more are playing for their futures.

Superficially that sounds daft. Clearly at a club of this magnitude every player is playing for his place every week. There’s competition; there’s exposure; there’s that heady expectation – more here than almost anywhere in world football. So why bang on about ‘futures’ when this is the natural way of it at a monster club?

Firstly because this is the essence, the unruly gloop at the core of the van Gaal problem. It’s the dark treacle the players are wading through.

Secondly because we’re all of us trying to make sense of or identify the gaffer’s de-glooping plan. And this is troubling. It feels, for all van Gaal’s bluster and physical presence, like there is still no direction; or at least that progress has not been convincingly targeted. That – and the fact that this mirrors the Moyes era – is extraordinary, so deep into the natural transition period. The arrival of a bona fide top top manager should surely have extinguished any possibility for slippage aeons ago? Not so.

Falcao may be the obvious example of a player unable to shake the molasses from his boots but go through the list – mine or yours. Valencia/Rafael – both have threatened to burst clear and then either been too one-paced, shorn of confidence or too impetuous to gather form. Smalling/Jones have gallumped around unconvincingly; the latter even surreally masquerading as a dead-ball expert to escape from his prevailing plainness. McNair has simply been thrown in there too soon, following the calamitous failure to get stoppers of quality into the club; he’s therefore relatively blameless – if that can be said of a player who’s been groomed for this test for years. McNair could be a United defender in two or three years, perhaps; he ain’t one now.

Rojo and Shaw may be easing themselves through but in midfield the rotations – enforced and otherwise – have been as cloyingly obstructive as the individual performances. Di Maria is hardly beyond criticism but does narrowly exempt himself from that central question of his fitness for duty by being intermittently brilliant. He needs to do more than twinkle, mind, to justify the early clamour. Mata is a player alright but needs to be accommodated; his brilliant butterfly-in-search-of-nectar thing only works in a particular context. Likewise Januzaj, only more so. The young winger is far too fitful still and remains in danger of playing his way out of the club – sadly.

Blind and Herrera are closer to safety, despite the latter’s apparent low ranking with van Gaal. Most reds seem to be baffled the Spaniard hasn’t had more of a run in the side, rating his positivity, athleticism and goal-threat. Again the sense is that policy has wobbled as team form has failed to turn; the blend hasn’t either established itself or been driven hard or consistently enough by the coaching staff. We all know things get compromised but arguably playing philosophy can and should transcend fickleness/luck/injury. Van Gaal, despite the imperial pomp, has not dictated; players do not seem to be sufficiently steeped in belief or method.

We can scoot past the problems Fellaini has faced on the grounds that he’s patently in the unproven camp. Despite his presence (in every sense) as the Andy Carroll in Long Ball United’s Plan B, the gangly Belgian remains profoundly sellable.

The richest difficulties appear to concern Rooney and RVP. Wazza is probably United’s most complete striker but I am with van Gaal in thinking he should be playing deeper; he’s just ripe and ready for the Paul Scholes role, for me.

Rooney can pass, can read the play, can dominate possession; he thrives on involvement. There are times when his touch deserts him but it strikes me that this happens mostly when he’s drifting in and out of the game (i.e. when isolated, up front). In central midfield he might boss more games than almost any other player in the Premiership. True, he would get 20 plus goals no danger up top but somebody else can do that in a fluently-attacking side. He may really be uniquely kitted out for the schemer/gatherer/prober/piercer role that only the truly finest players can occupy. Given that my hunch is Scholesies are rarer even than top-notch strikers and given Rooney’s mature stage as a player, I reckon the skipper should drop into that pivotal position and stay there.

I say this fully aware of significant evidence to the contrary. I’ve noted (well, bawled, actually) about Rooney’s utter failure at that highest level of international tournament play. Those repeated but still weirdly inexplicable crashes during the majors. How then can we view him as godlike midfield strutter of uberstuff? Instinct. It might take a few months but I simply think Rooney could make that role his own.

Central midfield is the perfect place from which to command the side.  He’s the right age. He can be everything from quarterback to edge-of-the-box executioner. Though there are whispers that United may buy big again to fill this void, I’m thinking it may be easier and better to buy another striker and get Rooney in there.

Van Persie is wrapped up in this. Clearly a magnificent footballer when fit, he’s too easy to mark and too sedentary when shy of that lean, reactive peak. Is it a heresy to say that this season should be his last at the club? Go buy Ings or somebody? Somebody who can race and head and finish… then release Rooney into midfield.

These are big calls but the situation is crying out for dynamic change – for a change of era. What’s fascinating is that you would imagine that van Gaal is beautifully equipped to bundle dismissively through ‘difficulties’ of this order, proclaim the new gospel, brook no challenge. That we haven’t seen. I can’t see that as anything other than a disappointment.

So the FA Cup is a wonderful distraction. If it serves to energise the side then great. If Preston are thumped or bypassed or whatever and in a month or two Wemberley calls… magic. A proper day out and a proper trophy would help any group gather. But that single (hypothetical) triumph may not be enough to mop up the treacle.

Player ratings;

De Gea – untroubled really. But should have stopped that goal. 6.

Valencia – poor. Slow. Casual. 4.

Rojo – like his toughness, may yet come through well. 6.

Smalling – okay and no more. 6.

Shaw – like his willingness to advance.  Will soon be worthy of the shirt. 6.

Di Maria – fabulous drive but woefully unproductive way too often. 5.

Blind – looks a footballer. Looks like he can consistently do what footballers do. 7.

Herrera – consistently ordinary – extraordinary given the imperative to make a statement. 5.

Rooney – strangely disengaged. 5.

Fellaini – ditto Herrera only worse, arguably because he didn’t even physically or aerially dominate. 5.

Falcao – in a poor team he was strikingly anonymous. May be the end – would have no complaints. 4.

 

The Gaffer – needs to read my blog and probably employ me pronto. 3.

Young – came on and made a difference. 7.

Fabulous and flawed.

A pro-logue.

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;
De Gea
Jones McNair Evans
Valencia Mata Carrick Rooney Young
Falcao RVP

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.

One v One?

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

Fair enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currently, this would favour Van Gaal and United.

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.

Feel the noise.

The volume and the swelling, not to say rheumy quality of the furore around Manchester United is extraordinary. It’s fandom at its beery best; impassioned, breathlessly drunk on hope or revenge or rebellion; borne more or less ably by scribes and scallies like me.

You have to love all this transparently tribal nonsense. Despite being carried more now through the twittersphere than the turnstile, there’s something reassuringly organic about it. Human to shout cobblers and jeer; human to make godawful judgements around and maybe capital out of (sporting) misfortune. And just brilliant – brill-e-yunt – if you know where to draw the line; many don’t. I’m all in favour of the harmless dollop of spite and the fatuous four-hour argument, the deluge of opinion and the smidge, the flash of insight. We are blessed, in moments such as these, with a curious, maybe precious kind of purity as well as a coursing (or cursing) pomp. It’s the wit of the people; let’s cradle that blessing with our pints.

So – necessary caveats acknowledged – banter really is the lifeblood of sport; within reason, it’s great that folks can get stirred so monumentally by something so daft. And perhaps the level of truth in the event, the fact or otherwise of the Red Devil’s demise, becomes irrelevant. I might argue that the Glazer Thing is a far bigger deal than dropping five places down the league for a season but people don’t feel that, eh, generally? That’s dull by comparison – like facts.

What gives then, at United? Something pretty extraordinary maybe. Or maybe not? Is the level of alleged difficulty the club finds itself in truly remarkable, or no? Is it actually anything but a temporary slide – a media storm? – a blip? And what part exactly does the change of gaffer play in this? Amongst the Liverpudlian glee, the Mancunian angst, fury, loyalty and resignation, there’s certainly something going on. But significant story… or nowt? How much of this can we know to be real and how much is flimsy punditry… and feeding frenzy?

Such is the nature and profile of the United Project that levels of fascination, cruel rejoicing and bipolar vitriol are being recorded which could barely translate to other, theoretically similar scenarios. United have superceded Liverpool as the Footie Monolith, the god-club that overshadows the top division. They are that which must be rebelled against and now rebellion seems possible. Suddenly there is scope for bare-bellied fans and a brutally inclined texto-sphere to surge into something. Something which used to be the endless bulk of MUFC.

It hasn’t always been this way, remember. Once Liverpool were that black-hole of a beast, equally but differently awe-inspiring, perhaps more filled with magisterial cruisers than the flickers and sprinters from Old Trafford. Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City aspire to but have never yet really grasped swallowing dominion in the way that United did – in the Ferguson era. But in any case, should Wenger or even Mourinho have inhaled or overshadowed all-comers to comparable extent, I suspect that the quality of response to their subsequent fall may have been different. Because a) this has been United b) this has been Ferguson’s team.

Sir Alex is remarkable in that (whilst at the helm) he really was a proper football man – fatherly but driven, instinctive, bellicose, inspirational – and yet much of football disliked or detested him. Outsiders refused, largely, to respect his genius, preferring instead to rub up against his bristling, one-eyed worldview. No wonder; Ferguson often seethed with contempt for opponents as well as journalists, making him a difficult man to warm to. Even the suspicion that both alcohol and the fieriest of passions fuelled his success failed to endear him to the non-MU universe (of hard-drinking, hot-headed footieblokes.) That blotchy fizzog, ablaze with paranoid focus, relentlessly chewing… yaaargh!

Even some United fans, aware of only occasional moments when the adversarial lapsed into something approaching gentlemanliness, found him difficult to love. Yet they worshiped – or fell in – because he presided, eventually, over a staggering period of consistent success, a phenomenon which arguably takes the man safely beyond judgement. (Or not?) Whichever, Sir Alex remains central still to the perception of most – he IS United. I say this more to describe the emotion around the current lack of form (and success) than to subsume any Moyes narrative. Moyes is clearly blameless in the fact of not being Ferguson and he may not wish to propel his side with the same bitter brilliance. But he will have to gee them up somehow – and sharpish.

The new man in knows he has problems. Perhaps they are larger than we on the outside are hearing or suspecting. Perhaps Rooney – currently so far ahead of the rest it’s almost unbelievable at such a gargantuan club – is close to walking? Perhaps Chelsea is looking a safer bet as well as a career-developing and reinvigorating lifestyle choice? I imagine words have been exchanged on the subject of prompt mega-signings and the scale of club ambition; if little changes in terms of key personnel (i.e. players) this month it really might mean mid-table drift for mighty Manchester United and Rooney may not be the only one who will not tolerate that.

Mid-table? Or at any rate out of the Champions League slots. Because Moyes has been simply unable to drive the thing. Whether he’s been bawling or building quietly, it hasn’t worked – not yet. Not only have the team looked tentative – and how the enemy has enjoyed seeing that! – they have looked unable or unwilling to compete with passion. And that’s a worry. It’s a non-negotiable that players play with heart – particularly when the prettier patterns desert them. Consequently, Moyes must very swiftly identify those who aren’t either good enough footballers or big enough humans to wear the shirt – the Manchester United shirt. And he must get shot of some of them, whilst bringing in two or three top, top players.

Let’s play the You Are The Manager game. Then ideally Nani – who’s recently signed a 5 year deal – and Kagawa would be first in the exit queue, for me, this transfer window. I appreciate most of the talk has surrounded the lack of midfield creativity but Kagawa has singularly failed to make an impact and Nani is such a flatterer/deceiver so often that for me, he would go. As could lots of them, in fact.

I don’t expect or recommend wholesale changes but you could make an argument for selling or phasing out each of Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Young, Giggs. Four of those mentioned are clearly beyond their peak and t’other has brought shame on the club more than once too often. Teams are all about balance and blend an in United’s case it may that they need only an elite level twinkler and possibly a pugnacious water-carrier in midfield… and Leighton Baines to compete again. (If Rooney stays… and if Evans and Jones man up in central defence – which I expect them to do.) About sixty million should cover it.

Moyes is not yet a failure and plainly it’s dumb to effectively call him out for not being Ferguson. He may straighten this out in time – and I do expect him to get time, surprisingly, perhaps. The concern is that in his dourness he may not have what it takes to lift individuals and a club of this magnitude. This is indeed a big month for Manchester United. Feel the noise.