Oh, hey, buddy. You doing OK? You don’t look so hot. Want to talk about it? This is a safe space. You fire your manager? That happens, pal. Your current boss looking at bigger and better things? Like a national team job? Hey, YOLO, am I right? Star creative player getting his head dented by Dean Whitehead? Uh-huh. Midfield string-puller refusing to sign a new contract? Chin … up. Team captain talking to the press about how the club just isn’t as good as it used to be? Can your French international forward not stay on the field for more than a few games in a row because he keeps getting red carded? Riiiiight.
With a few exceptions (Arsenal, United, Everton, and Sunderland), Premier League clubs seem to be, well, going through some stuff, man. Manchester City, Tottenham, Queens Park Rangers, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa, and the poor, beshitted Wolves. What do these clubs have in common? Yes, they all
lost left points on the field over the weekend. But beyond simply losing ground in the league table and the fight for European places or survival, these teams seem to be exhibiting signs of burnout, the managers seem to be grasping at straws, and the players seem to be thinking more about this summer’s Euro 2012, or their summer 2012 European vacations, than about the matter at hand. Steven Fletcher, thy name is Ibiza.
Even when looking at the teams that won last weekend, few did so convincingly, save Arsenal, a club bizarrely hitting their highest gear at the time of the season when it typically takes a nosedive. Forget Athletic Bilbao taking United out behind the woodshed, Valencia beating Stoke, Milan trumping Arsenal, or City losing to Sporting in aggregate. This isn’t about how teams are performing in European competition. Look at the Premier League form guide. Look at all that red. These sides aren’t performing that well in England!
This season has given us some surprises (Swansea, Norwich, and the resurgence of the Northeast, with Newcastle and Sunderland), some great performances from some world-class players (David Silva, Juan Mata, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney), and some great drama (and off-field melodrama), but the title will be decided by whichever Manchester side screws up least.
There’s an air of cynicism to a lot of the clubs right now, whether it’s in the way that they are playing or what their players or managers are saying off the field. All we care about is Champions League qualification for next season.
In a perfect world, we would see a lot of the clubs hitting their stride as March turns to April. Instead, it’s looking like a transitional season, not just for many of the teams, but also for the league itself.
Let’s look at some of the teams staring into the abyss (and, yes, one or two soaring above it all … for now) after a weekend of football that, for the most part, never managed to excite.
I always thought the Carling Cup was going to be either a stepping stone or a consolation prize for Liverpool. As it turns out, there was a third option: a curse. The Reds have lost four of their last six matches since lifting the taking-your-cousin-to-the-prom of English trophies. And this last week, in terms of on-the-field results, has been the worst of Kenny Dalglish’s second stint in charge. After blowing a two-goal lead to QPR in midweek, Liverpool should have been frothing at the mouth to get after some vengeance on Wigan, a side that looked like its Premier League alarm clock was finally about to go off. The Latics had never won at Anfield, but in this match, as has been the case for much of this season, this Liverpool team never really played like a team and the result was a 2-1 loss. This is a club with such a tremendous identity, such a sense of self, but when you watch the Reds play, you get the impression that the players wearing the club colors don’t know who they are. And for as much as it might pain Liverpool fans to hear it, that problem falls at the feet of Dalglish.
The chief job of the manager is to get his players ready to play. But too often these Liverpool players look like a team without a plan. When you watched Liverpool under Rafa Benitez, there was the feeling like they were merely shirt numbers he was arranging around a game board. You, no. 8, move there; no. 4, stay there, not too far. Always on the touchline, there was Benitez, adjusting the positioning of his players. It was all geometry, not poetry.
Dalglish is all poetry; he is an icon, a Knight of the Liverpool realm. But Jordan Henderson is not a right-winger, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez’s little-man-big-fella-act doesn’t seem to work, Steven Gerrard is long since past the point where he can be an effective defensive player in the middle of the park, and perhaps most galling of all, the greatest trick Sir Alex Ferguson ever played was making anyone think Charlie Adam’s free kicks alone were worth more than the price of admission.
On the back of this mismanagement, Dalglish has struggled to cope with the RSS Reader Era of football media. Dalglish has blamed their success (the Carling Cup, the long FA Cup run) for their failure and their “lovely football” for their league form. Liverpool haven’t been that successful and their football hasn’t been that lovely. In fact, Dalglish’s suggestion that Liverpool has a style at all is somewhat erroneous. That’s the problem.
One of the more interesting decisions that the manager has taken has been his reluctance to play some of Liverpool’s highly vaunted academy players in Premier League games. Raheem Sterling and John Flanagan both got run-outs against Wigan, but Dalglish chalked their inclusion up to injuries in the first team. “It is nice to see the kids get a game but it is also better for us to look after them and manage them. We are not going to throw kids in and destroy them, but it is nice to see them on the pitch.” I get that. But Liverpool just lost to Wigan at Anfield. What’s the worst that could happen?
Does money make you cynical? I think for many Fantasy Football Manager players, to say nothing of actual football managers out there, the idea of having Sheikh Mansour’s Brinks truck to drive around Europe conjures up visions of building a new Barcelona in the Northwest of England. Sure, Manchester City have top-of-the-line training facilities and they’ve been hoovering up young talent everywhere they find it, but if Kenny Dalglish is something of a poet at heart, Roberto Mancini is a construction foreman. And what he is building in Manchester City is, well, practical.
Perhaps that’s due to circumstance. Manchester City, over the last few weeks, has regressed to the mechanical style that got them an FA Cup and third place in the league last season. This, despite having one of the most exciting collections of attacking players in Europe with Silva, Samir Nasri, Sergio Aguero, and Mario Balotelli. I say exciting, but they are also mercurial. I sympathize with Mancini pulling the reins back a bit on the fantasy football that City was playing in the fall, when they were quite simply blowing teams off the field. He, as much as anyone, must have noticed the drop-off in Silva’s play. And that was before Stoke’s Whitehead almost caved in his melon during City’s 1-1 draw with the Potters.
Mancini might feel aggrieved that Peter Crouch’s wonder goal put City down, 1-0. And he probably feels like Whitehead should have been sent off for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Stoke player move. But it’s not like Yaya Touré’s rocket wasn’t blessed with some good luck of its own, and Gareth Barry is lucky he wasn’t sent off for his own reckless challenge early in the match. These things actually do even out.
For City, the bigger question, especially with the reemergence of Carlos Tevez, is what is the best kind of football to play in order to be level with Manchester United. It feels like each week Mancini declares every remaining match a cup final — and every week Manchester City comes out a little bit underwhelming in their play. Defensively, they are sound, as long as Stefan Savic is nowhere near the football field, but they’ve lost their attacking identity. They’ll need to find it before they host United at the end of April. Mancini can talk about cup finals all he wants, but that Manchester derby might as well be the Super Bowl.
This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Well, no, not Ford Madox Ford sad, but still, Wolves were a scrappy Midlands club with cool colors, some nice wingers (Michael Kightly, Matt Jarvis), a ferocious (somewhat dirty) central midfielder in Karl Henry and some industrious forwards (Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle). They were almost the model of stability under manager Mick McCarthy, a guy who made up for whatever tactical limitations he had with some genuine charm. For one reason or another, Wolves quit on McCarthy and the club higher-ups (who are regular guests on English sports talk shows like 606 Football Phone-in) decided to can the long-serving Irishman. Enter … nobody. After a protracted, midseason job search, the club hired McCarthy’s assistant, Terry Connor. Since Connor’s hiring, Wolves have lost their last three matches 13-1 on aggregate. That’s relegation form. And they are at the bottom. At this point it almost seems like going down would be some kind of cleansing act for the club, but that hasn’t stopped Mick McCarthy from offering to come back for one, last-ditch effort at saving the club’s Premier League lives. You sure, man?
• About a month ago, Manchester United midfielder and semiprofessional Scanner Roy Keane said that this season’s Arsenal were the worst he had ever seen. Some, like former Gunner Emmanuel Petit, seemed to almost agree with him. I can’t tell what’s more shocking, the fact that this same Gunners team has now won seven matches in a row, or that the winning streak seems to be powered along by the unlikely duo of Tomas “Dead Leg” Rosicky and Theo Walcott. The English winger especially looks reborn, playing far more centrally against Aston Villa over the weekend, drifting in from the right. It’s always been his preferred position and with service like Alex Song’s lovely, lobbed-through ball, it’s easy to see why.
• Frank Lampard has had a tough season, being held out of the squad and marginalized for much of Andre Villas-Boas’s short reign as Chelsea boss, but he isn’t helping himself, his club, or his interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo, by coming out and saying, “We’re not as good as we used to be,” on the eve of Chelsea’s Champions League match with Benfica. I think that was, for the most part, Villas-Boas’s point, Frank!
• Tottenham have been one of the true pleasures of the Premier League season, so it’s a shame to watch it all sputter right at crunch time. Luka Modric, inexplicably farmed out for some of Spurs’ last few games, has been the subject of more summer exit rumors. Some have tied Modric’s future to that of manager Harry Redknapp. I’ve been equally impressed this season by the abandon with which Spurs have played and the stupefying way in which Redknapp is trying to talk himself out of both the England and Tottenham jobs: “They don’t care whether I’m the manager next year, they wouldn’t lose any sleep over that. Footballers are footballers: they play the game, they train every day. Someone else could come in here tomorrow … The king is dead, long live the king. That is football. They don’t worry if Harry’s going to England, or if he’s going somewhere else. It doesn’t happen that way. They don’t think about that; I don’t think about it.” Is it possible to overdose on inspiration?
Goal of the Week: Peter Crouch, Stoke
As if it could be anything else. If he had taken that out of midair it would’ve been a little too much like Zidane-at-Hampden for the universe to process.
Quote of the Week: Roy Hodgson
“It is something I did without thinking out of pure frustration at conceding the third goal. I meant no disrespect by it to such a great player, nor his family, and offer my sincere apologies if it has caused offence.” This is Hodgson, apologizing for throwing an armband worn in memory of West Brom legend Ray Barlow after Newcastle scored their third goal against the Baggies in a 3-1 win. Football, bloody hell.