It has been a long time since my last Premier League article (have I even had one? If so, its’s probably devolved into a tangential rant, ultimately having nothing to do with the Premier League, or soccer). But in the words of John Mayer, I’m done with the old me.
I’m not off to a good start.
On February 5th, after watching the Senegalese Demba duo of Ba and Papiss Cisse place another pin in the Alex McLeish voodoo doll and Chelsea relinquish a 3-0 chokehold on Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, I told my friend that Newcastle would take the 4th and final Champions League spot by the end of the season. This was a day after I watched my beloved Arsenal tear apart a despondent Blackburn, but 4 days after the Gunners had dragged themselves away from Bolton’s Reebok Stadium with a single point.
The Manchester teams had been having a party for 2 at the top of the table, with Tottenham knocking on the door. After that, it was a crapshoot. Arsenal was coming off one of its worst months in…5 monthes, most of the Chelsea team looked like square pegs trying to fit into the round holes of Andre Villa Boas’ system, and Newcastle was still expected to falter, despite the new addition of Papiss Cisse to lighten the enormous scoring load weighing down on Ba. Liverpool was actually still in the race. Yes, that’s how much things have changed in the past 2 months.
In order to avoid negligence of the teams further down in the table, I will break this column down in a series of points. For the sake of my friend Kieran, I will start at the bottom of the table.
1. Wolves are damned, and ownership deserve the first – and largest – share of blame: namely owner/chairman Steve Morgan. When he fired Mick McCarthy in early February, the storm clouds hanging over the Molineux grew darker. While the team had been suffering in recent results and hung on the edge of the relegation zone, McCarthy’s firing came at a time when the transfer period had ended. When Morgan made his rounds for a new manager, all of his top choices rejected the position: no one wanted the job of having to save a sinking tugboat, especially at a time when they could not even bring in new players. Morgan had to settle for assistant manager Terry Connor.
While, to the credit of Connor and the squad, the effort has been there by the players, the results sure as hell have not, largely due to untimely red cards (team ranks 3rd from bottom in the league’s Fair Play stats), a weak midfield unable to hold possession, and a Championship-level defense – led by the likes of captain Roger Johnson, Ronald Zubar, and Richard Stearman – that typically can’t withstand the great pressure it has to deal with on a regular basis. Wolves is almost certainly headed back to the Championship, without Stephen Fletcher, Kevin Doyle, and probably Matt Jarvis.
2. The league’s best goalie does not reside at Etihad Stadium or Carrow Road, or even Liberty Stadium. Rather, he stands between the posts of DW Stadium. Judging a goalie solely on goals allowed and save percentage is ignorant. Wigan’s inability to put pressure on the opposing team’s defense places enormous pressure on its defense and Al-Habsi. While the team’s drop to the Championship, after years of fighting against the tide, seems very likely at this point, Al-Habsi has made his best efforts to ignore the “For Sale” sign on the team’s Premier League spot, making quality save after quality save. Expect some team to place a bid for him if Wigan does ultimately get relegated.
3. Redknapp’s eye for the throne of English football becomes a distraction to Tottenham Hotspur or maybe Spurs just aren’t that good. It’s a job that few people want – one of the most high pressure positions in the sport – and many people are wondering why he would leave the Hotspur team that he resurrected from the bottom position in the Premier League only a few seasons ago, just to enter the epitome of high risk-high reward mayhem as the manager of the Three Lions. Regardless of whether Harry returns to White Hart Lane, the team needs to retain Adebayor as long as he is willing to take a cut in his salary.
Spurs were within 5 points of Manchester City less than 2 months ago, before the team was hit by a brutal stretch in the schedule. Spurs’ difficulty to consistently grasp 3 points in games throughout the stretch coincided with the best stretch of Arsenal’s season. The result: Arsenal currently fights with Tottenham for 3rd place. 4th place is, again, an uncertainty, with Chelsea in great form, the Newcastle Demba duo carrying the team’s attack to within a few points of Tottenham and Arsenal, and Liverpool still lurking. Just joking about the last part, which reminds me…
4. So…how have the Moneyball theories been working for? or When does the King stop being the King? The Liverpool’s merciful takeover, at the hands of New England sports oligarchs John Henry and Tom Werner, promised stability after the Amityville fit of horrors created under Tom Hicks’ reign. Ironically, the prospects of “Soccernomics” guru and football director Damien Comolli and King Kenny Dalglish with money to spend has resulted in the team’s worst ever league season in the Premier League thus far, with few signs of recovery. Why? While the team has brought its classic mentality of “Beat the teams you should lose to, but lose to the teams you should beat” to new levels, the team also can’t score when it needs to.
I understand that overpaying for a guy who can cross (Stewart Downing) and seriously overpaying for a guy who can head the ball (Andy Carroll) seemed foolproof, but both players have been among the most disappointing in the entire league (Newcastle’s selling of Carroll for £35 million should be known as “The Heist” in Merseyside). The owners still have money to spend, but far too much has already been invested in the likes of Downing, Carroll, and Jordan Henderson. The team needs a finisher, in the mold of Adebayor, Athletico’s Falcao, or even Genoa’s Rodrigo Palacio. Luis Suarez, while very dangerous in buildup play, has the shooting accuracy of a blind dart thrower. Regardless of the result, Dalglish needs to at least make the FA Cup final, inspire a final surge in the Premier League, or be right with his next transfer target. If 2 out of 3 points for criteria are not reached at the end of the season, the cries for King Kenny’s head will only grow in volume and number, and he will be removed from the Anfield throne (couldn’t resist) before the next campaign.
5. The recent success of Chelsea and Sunderland has proved, yet again, that the manager can make all the difference. So Andre Villas Boas wasn’t the new Mourinho? Winning the Europa League with a Portuguese team is not the same as winning the Champions League with a Portuguese team? Keeping your team happy is important to its success? Better late than never for Chelsea to be learning these lessons, as exorcising their Iberian demon (and no, we’re not talking about Jose Bosingwa’s unibrow) has led to a vital shot in the arm in league play and an improbable comeback against Napoli in the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Whether interim coach Roberto Di Matteo is little more than a figurehead coach, holding the title as Lampard, Terry, and Drogba control the locker room, is irrelevant as long as the positive results continue. The return to form for the team (and Fernando Torres, who has been playing great even if not scoring a ton of goals) since the firing of AVB has defined addition by subtraction. Just as importantly is the luck that the team has found with di Matteo in charge – as seen in the team’s recent (and undeserved) 2-1 win over a valiant Wigan side. The breaks that always seemed to go against them with AVB are now falling for them. Regardless of the team’s recent success, I think that the team will struggle to play well in both the FA Cup against Tottenham AND the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona – placed a mere 3 days apart from one another.
Martin O’Neill, on the other hand, had cemented his place beside David Moyes in the echelon of elite managers outside of the major club circuit. As every ailing Aston Villa fan knows, O’Neill’s time with the Birmingham club were the most recent Golden Years in the team’s history, and they abruptly vanished with his departure. He was replaced by Gerard “Le Souffle” Houllier (did I just call a Frenchman a souffle? You bet your ass I did) and then Alex McLeish.
McLeish was the former boss of Villa’s Birmingham rival, Birmingham City. For the Villa fan, he is the equivalent of the guy next door who was a notorious alcoholic and almost definitely sold your lawn mower for drug money that one time, but then claims to have found God and rejects his low-life past. Unfortunately, the Villa fans have not been convinced by McLeish, as the team has floundered in the mid-low section of the table for a majority of the season.
O’Neill has brought the Sunderland Black Cats from 2 points ahead of the relegation zone at the end of November, to currently within 2 points of 7th place. The Stadium of Light has become one of the most difficult places to play for visiting teams, and the strong play of Sebastian Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner, along with the emergence of Irish international James McClean, have helped the club immensely.
6. Mark Hughes is lost if he doesn’t have a squad that can essentially beat up the other team. In all fairness, however, the London squad has, like Wolves, been very unlucky (and in the case of their game against Manchester United, damned) by shameful refereeing. QPR undoubtedly has the talent to stay up, but Hughes will have to get the most out of that talent. Will he do it? I wouldn’t count on it. If QPR gets relegated, he’ll just go snooping for another Premier League managerial position.
7. A tale of 2 Arsenal teams or a great time for Gooner nation. It’s amazing how a drop in expectations can ultimately lead to greater satisfaction. Fans of both Arsenal and Chelsea can both vouch for this, as a Champions League position often becomes so much more appreciated once the League title falls from sight – as was the case for both teams by October. I’ve run out of ways to praise Robin van Persie throughout the season, especially considering the fact that, for so much of the season, he has had little to no help. Theo Walcott’s tendency to fluctuate between Good Theo/Bad Theo has served as a microcosm of the team’s bipolarity while Gervinho was on a long-term safari better known as the African Cup of Nations.
The team’s resurrection from mid-table purgatory has been pioneered by the return to health of Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, and, most importantly, center half Thomas Vermaelen. The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the banishment of Andrei Arshavin to Moscow (where he has also failed to impress) gave the team’s attack the defibrillation that it so desperately needed. The team’s 5-game winning streak in February and March – especially the monumental wins against Tottenham and Newcastle – drove the team’s push for 3rd place, a place I had believed to be unattainable in January.
While 3rd place means another year without the Premier League title, it has meant more than just a Champions League spot this year. The team’s ability to pull itself up after tough defeats – as shown in the second leg of the Champions League knock-out round against AC Milan – and grind out wins at the death has given me reason to believe that this is a different, more mentally tough Arsenal side than those in past, trophy-less seasons.
While there is still plenty of the season left to determine the 3rd and 4th Champions League spots, I already see next season as the season in which Arsenal will be THE team (barring an enormous spending spree by Chelsea clown boss Roman Abramovich) to finally overthrow Manchester United from the top of the table. Maybe my faith in the uncertain (the ability of Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen to stay healthy, Robin van Persie to sign an extension, Andrei Arshavin to stay the hell away) is unfounded and is simply a case of the lovable loser’s “Wait til next year” mentality, but if the team is ready to spend, the young players can continue to impress, and Robin van Persie can continue to grace the Emirates, it’ll be a new (and hopefully not another trophy-less) era for Gooner nation.
8. Two Manchesters, One Cup. For most of the season, it has been a two-team race for the coveted Premier League title. For much of the early season, Manchester City seemed to have a comfortable lead over its United rival and the league, while so much was left to be player, was City’s for the taking.
Then control switched hands. Manchester United went on its predictable run of scrappy 1 or 2 goal victories, fueled by the return of Paul Scholes – to aid a midfield weakened by Darren Fletcher’s leave – and a very healthy dose of luck (most penalties awarded this season), as evidenced in the early stages of the QPR match. City, on the other hand, stagnated. Roberto Mancini affirmed my belief that he is little more than a puppet of a manager. City, on paper, is undoubtedly a more talented side than United, yet the difference lies, as so many have said, in experience and, more importantly, the manager.
Besides having a manager who has struggled to deal with the massive pressure and media attention placed on the club, City has a squad that is clearly divided (partially due to injuries), Carlos Tevez, players who have simply lost form after superb starts to the season – namely David Silva and Edin Dzeko, and injuries to the back line – causing mannequin defenders like Stefan Savic to be forced into action.
Regardless of all these issues, this will be known as the Lost Season for City fans, in which the lead was squandered in a league race that was the most winnable in years. The losses of both Manchester City and United in the Champions League also speaks about the nature of each club: City has ways to go before being able to handle the pressures of high level European play, while United’s team is suited for English football, but not European football. A new manager is necessary because Mancini has failed to mentally prepare his club at some fatal point in every competition. The team needs to purge itself of jackasses, like Tevez and Mario Balotelli, stick with the core it has, and pick up a couple of veterans. Kompany is the only leader on that team. The team doesn’t need more talent, it needs heart and resolve.
Balotelli is at the center of the Manchester City drama, clearly. Throughout the season, Mancini and Balotelli have waged a childish feud with one another through the media. The young Italian has shown no regard for his coach and teammates, with the most recent display against Arsenal. The Arsenal vs. Manchester City game sounded the death bells for both Mancini and Balotelli in Manchester – I’m not sure if Balotelli can play on any team without snapping the locker room fibers that are so crucial for team success. Balotelli has been the symbol of Manchester City: loaded with talent, yet absolutely unpredictable and unstable. Whoever manages City, and Balotelli, next will need the resolve of a judge and patience of a monk in order for the team to finally realize their league aspirations. Good luck.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s absolute superiority to Mancini has been the difference in the title race. He has ensured that his players avoid overlooking any league games and has been able to get the most out of his side. The team’s marginal talent level (relatively speaking, in comparison to past United sides) was exposed in the Champions League, but the season-long nature of the Premier League marathon makes the contest a test of a team’s mental strength and focus as much as its talent. Thanks to Ferguson, United has this strength, while City sorely lacks it. That’s why Manchester United will win the Premier League title for the 5th time in the past 6 seasons.
Champions League Qualifiers Picks: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea
Relegation Picks: Queens Park Rangers, Wigan Athletic, Wolves
Champions League Picks: Barcelona over Chelsea, Real Madrid over Bayern Munich, Real Madrid over Barcelona