There are two Formula One seasons which stand out in my memory for the dramatic manner in which my favourite British driver missed out on the championship at the final race. (You see, my home country’s celebration of glorious failure extends to all sports.) The first was in 1986, when Nigel Mansell fought fiercely all year with Nelson Piquet, also driving the all-conquering Williams-Honda, only for both to be usurped at the last by Alain Prost in the supposedly underpowered McLaren-TAG. More recently, in 2007, Lewis Hamilton spent his debut year warring with Fernando Alonso in McLaren-Mercedes cars which were the undoubted class of the field, but it was Kimi Räikkönen who came from nowhere to steal glory in the red Ferrari.
A common pattern is evident here. In both seasons, there were two obvious frontrunners with significant investment behind them and greater resources at their disposal than the rest of the field could dream of. As such, they attracted the most attention throughout as well; one lead contender would use the press to direct mind games at the other, and even when another entrant began to show strong form midway through the year, everyone kind of assumed they would eventually fade away to let the favoured pair hog the spotlight. But they never did. Indeed, it was this third, unfancied candidate who finished the campaign strongest and swept across the line while the high horsepower rivals struggled to find top gear.
We may now be witnessing a similar paradigm in football as the 2013/14 Premier League season draws to a close. Despite their respective managerial changes, this year should have been all about the two financial behemoths – Manchester City and Chelsea. If Liverpool, who finished 28 points off the pace in seventh last term, can maintain their newly seized position of advantage over the final month, it would go down as the most remarkable title win in almost a quarter of a century since the old Football League championship trophy last visited Anfield.
Throughout this long barren period, Liverpool supporters have frequently been mocked for their unfounded optimism. A few years ago, a graph went around the internet which charted the ‘Scouse Boom-Bust Cycle’ and the bullishness with which Kopites would proclaim “This is our year” at various points of the calendar. Between May and August, said the graph, a boom would be reached when, with no actual football matches to prove otherwise, Liverpool suddenly had the best players in the world in every position. For a while after the season starts, the scousers continue to believe “It’s on!”, until it slowly dawns on them that their team is nothing like as good as they had thought. Bust is then hit around Christmas as “the dying embers of a Liverpool title challenge flicker away into nothing”, but confidence begins its long ascent back up to boom levels from January with the words, “Wait till next season”.
However, the mood on Merseyside before this campaign was different. There were few predictions of instant glory; overconfidence seemed replaced by a more grounded, long-termist outlook. But this was not to be confused with pessimism or abandonment of hope. Instead, the realistic approach was inspired by genuine grounds for expectation. The gap to the others, in part a relic of those tumultuous times under Hicks and Gillett, was surely too large to be overcome in twelve months. Yet Brendan Rodgers had arrived with a clear blueprint for effective, attractive football which, given the right playing staff and time for embedding, was looking more likely to deliver domestic success eventually than any other Liverpool manager in the Premier League era. Even – whisper it – Rafa Benítez.
The various sagas surrounding Luis Suárez – the bite, the ban, the transfer request and cheeky bid from Arsenal – threatened to derail things for a time, but even with the Uruguayan in tow, there was no talk of titles. Pre-season odds had Liverpool at 33-1. Club insiders, and most of the British media, agreed that the target for May 2014 was to be challenging for place in the top four. Even when the extent of Manchester United’s problems under David Moyes became clear, and Arsenal started to run out of steam having failed to sufficiently augment their squad, there still seemed little reason to back Rodgers’s men higher than third. Nobody had gone from outside the top four one season to champions the next since the Gunners in 1989; in an day where money talks loudest, the larger squads of City and Chelsea would surely push away.
All of this is to illustrate the astonishing nature of what Liverpool have achieved already in finding themselves four wins from glory; the only team with destiny in their own hands. Equally astounding – and all the more thrilling – has been the manner with which they have done it. When even the rapidfire 5-1 demolition of Arsenal back in February failed to convince everybody, this column included, that they were ready this season, they simply stormed on and won every single match since. Ten victories, at an eye-boggling average of 3.5 goals scored per game. A defence which ships three against the Cities of Swansea and Cardiff should not be champion material, but no foe this term has been perfect, and no strikeforce in English football this deadly, this awesome for a generation. The blueprint evolved, adapted, and matured.
Despite rare blanks from Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool have overcome significant mental hurdles in seeing off the Allardycism of West Ham United and the apparent inevitability of Manchester City’s fightback at Anfield. The final big test of their inexperience will come against Chelsea on 27 April, when Rodgers meets the manager most likely to have a plan to foil him. Possible absences for Sturridge and Jordan Henderson complicate the trajectory further.
Yet the realisation is changing. An emotional Steven Gerrard stressed on Sunday that games are to be taken one at a time, but Liverpool know it is there for them, and that the opportunity will never be greater. Next season they will have a busy European schedule too, Chelsea and City will spend to reflect their managers’ thinking more closely, and United surely can’t be this bad again. This is Liverpool’s year – they just have to make it so.
The decision by Norwich City to dispense with the services of manager Chris Hughton – plus assistant Colin Calderwood and coach Paul Trollope – has the feel of an all-or-nothing gamble. Interim boss Neil Adams can harness the experience of leading an exciting Canaries U-18 side to the FA Youth Cup last season, but in the short term, even just the superficial galvanising effect a change of boss can have (see Paolo di Canio at the Stadium of Light a year ago) would do the trick. The task is straightforward and immediate – beat Fulham at Craven Cottage next Saturday to pull eight points clear of their opponents and a step closer to survival; Sunderland’s games in hand notwithstanding.
Adams will be sensible to ensure the club’s entire focus this week is on that one fixture. It is when viewed in a wider context that the gravity of their plight becomes stark. Norwich travel to London having failed to collect a single point from their last six away matches; a seventh straight loss on the road would bring the Cottagers back to within two. And then we enter a final four weekends of the calendar which Canaries fans would have circled in red on the calendar, like dreaded exams or deadlines for paying back a dodgy loan shark. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal are the daunting final quartet of hurdles; this is why Norwich really needed to sort out their survival before now.
The club’s statement on Sunday evening praised Hughton for his “excellent” achievement in guiding City to an 11th-place finish last term – their best league position since challenging for the inaugural Premier League title and eventually placing third back in 1992/93. But really, the rot had already begun to set in during that debut season for the former Newcastle United and Birmingham City boss. Norwich may have bettered the 12th place recorded in Paul Lambert’s last season in charge, yet they had three points fewer. The 2011/12 side scored 52 league goals, with Grant Holt netting 15 and Wes Hoolahan a dangerous foil between the opposing lines. A year later, they mustered just 41.
Revitalising the struggling attack was such a priority that Hughton signed fully five strikers in 2013. Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara shone only briefly during a four-month loan spell; Luciano Becchio became the latest in a string of players to join from Leeds United that same January but never once scored and is now reduced to occasional substitute. The transfer activity was even more aggressive ahead of the new season – Johan Elmander came in on loan, Gary Hooper finally joined in a £5 million switch from Celtic, while much of Europe was taken aback when an £8.5 million deal was announced as early as March 2013 for the widely coveted Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
To suit his new, theoretically attacking approach, Hughton began playing more frequently with a front two. To say this has not gone quite as intended would be an understatement. Hooper’s strike rate has fallen to around 25% the potency he enjoyed in Scotland, but at least his five goals compare favourably to the measly one apiece contributed by Elmander and Van Wolfswinkel. The Dutchman joined Norwich on the advice of such illustrious names as Johan Neeskens and Robin van Persie but has endured a miserably barren time since marking his debut with an equaliser against Everton. Both he and Hooper thrived in symbiotic strike partnerships earlier in their careers but not one of the possible combinations this season at Carrow Road has looked right. The goals for column stands at just 26; still ten short of the club record low of 36 for a league season.
Hoolahan may not be the ideal solution anymore at 31 years of age, but even so, he has only started five league games in his favoured central position this term; the 4-4-2 system serving to shoehorn him onto the wing where he is less effective. The Irishman lost patience with the whole setup in January, describing Norwich as “a fucking shithouse club” as he tried to engineer a move to Lambert’s Aston Villa only to have to traverse back over the burnt bridge when it all fell through. Days earlier, Robert Snodgrass had sworn angrily at fans who jeered him against Newcastle United, while John Ruddy had to be pulled away by stewards after remonstrating with the stand behind his goal following Saturday’s miserable loss to West Bromwich Albion.
All has not been as tranquil as the image usually associated with East Anglia. Supporters have been frustrated not only with the results, but the increasing lack of ideas, cohesion, and drive on the pitch. Towards the end of the West Brom game, they sang “We want Hughton out”, and threw the cardboard clappers distributed by a sponsor to help improve atmosphere onto the pitch with play still in progress. The situation had become untenable. In The Guardian, Richard Rae wrote: “One long-standing player, an important and respected figure within the club, has privately let it be known that what they perceived to be Hughton’s constant criticism and emphasis on the negative meant the players were going into games more focused on not making mistakes than on creating opportunities.”
A summer departure for Hughton was expected anyway, but with Norwich still requiring points for survival, the club felt they needed to roll the dice in a desperate last attempt to get out of this rut. Adams is in a no-lose situation as survival makes him the hero while relegation would be blamed on his predecessor, but even the immediate task is not easy. The Canaries have not beaten Fulham in any of their last 15 meetings since March 1986.
versus Manchester City might have stolen the prime broadcast slot and most of
the headlines, but the biggest game of the Premier League weekend was arguably
West Bromwich Albion’s 3-3 thriller against Cardiff City – certainly in terms
of the impact success or failure in the battle to avoid relegation will have on
either club’s finances. Noise levels at The Hawthorns were certainly befitting
of the occasion’s importance. Home fans were suitably spurred by the return of
their beloved pre-game anthem, The Liquidator, a reggae instrumental track
released in 1969 by the Harry J Allstars. Perhaps more familiar to the
international television audience for its use at Stamford Bridge, West Midlands
Police had banned the song for the past eight seasons as the Baggies faithful
would use its tune to shout obscenities about fierce rivals Wolverhampton
Inevitably, they did so again on Saturday; the galvanising effect was immediate on the pitch too, as West Brom raced into a 2-0 lead through Morgan Amalfitano and Graham Dorrans inside just nine minutes. But even once the excitement surrounding the second goal died down, supporters on all sides of the ground remained on their feet in salute to one of the club’s greatest ever number nines – Jeff Astle, who passed away in 2002. After 3,000 travelling supporters to the previous weekend’s away game with Hull City had spent the ninth minute applauding their old hero, this marked a home debut for the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign.
Signed from his own local club, Notts County, in 1964 for £25,000, Astle netted 174 times in 361 appearances over ten seasons to rank as the fourth highest scorer in Albion history. A classic centre forward, he formed a devastating double threat with his roommate and best friend, the inside forward Tony Brown, who remained at The Hawthorns until 1981 and continues to hold the club’s all-time goal record with 279. During their career together, the Baggies reached four major finals in four years; Astle scoring in the first leg of their League Cup final win over West Ham United in 1966.
But the greatest highlight came at Wembley in 1968 against Everton in the FA Cup final. Though more renowned for his heading, Astle hit a right-footed shot which was blocked by the opposing captain, Brian Labone, before rifling home the rebound with his weaker left for the game’s only goal three minutes into extra time. This sealed West Brom’s last major honour to date, and put the striker into a select group of players to have scored in every round of the competition in one season.
Astle was selected for England in the Home Championship against Wales a year later, but a debut goal was cruelly chalked off when his header was stopped on the line by a defender’s hand; he swept home the rebound only for the referee to point to the spot for the original infringement. A terrific 1969/70 season, in which Astle led the Division One scoring charts with 25 goals, then saw him book a place on the plane to Mexico as Alf Ramsey’s men sought to defend their Jules Rimet trophy at the 1970 World Cup. The Albion man missed the opening group game with Romania, but got his big chance five days later in the legendary clash with Brazil – as a second-half replacement for Bobby Charlton shortly after Jairzinho had put the Seleção in front.
Within three minutes of the substitution, left-back Terry Cooper crossed the ball from deep. His opposite number, Everaldo, miskicked an attempted clearance horribly, and it dropped at the feet of Astle just by the penalty spot. With just a stranded Félix in goal to beat, however, this time the left foot let him down and the shot flew well wide. England lost, and although Astle was picked to start against Czechoslovakia, he again failed to score, was dropped for the quarter-final loss to West Germany, and never appeared for his country again.
The miss against Brazil became the self-deprecating punchline of a risqué joke as the good-humoured Astle toured his own roadshow post-retirement, which he combined with a window cleaning business under the slogan: “Jeff Astle never misses the corners”. This eye for a gag – and willingness to laugh at himself – made him the ideal ex-pro for a regular cameo spot on television. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with stand-up comics David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – a West Brom fan who had idolised Astle as a child - on the classic football comedy programme, Fantasy Football League, which was ultimately responsible for the Euro ’96 anthem Three Lions.
This brought him new popularity among a generation too young to have seen him play. Astle appeared at the end of each show to sing a karaoke song – off time and out of tune. He was also the butt of a joke in a skit guest-starring Carlos Alberto Torres, who protested at the presenters’ mocking of on-field blunders by the Brazilian stars of 1970 with reference to that second half chance: “Look, I remember that World Cup very well. There was only one guy who truly deserved the title ‘shite’. Jeff Astle was shite!” Astle himself then appears, pointing out his performances as a vocalist and correcting the legendary right-back: “Oi! Not so much of the ‘was’…”
His death at the age of just 59, marked on Fantasy Football League by a minute’s silence in place of the end-of-show song, shocked the English game – not least because the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘death by industrial injury’. According to the highly respected neuro-pathologist Dr. Keith Robson, it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that Astle’s aerial prowess in an era of heavier, non-waterproof footballs had been the underlying cause of catastrophic, fatal brain damage. The player’s widow, Laraine, told the Mail on Sunday last month: “Every slice of Jeff’s brain had trauma in it. It resembled the brain of a boxer’s as a direct result of heading footballs.” Early-onset dementia meant that, towards the end of his life, Astle could no longer remember his footballing achievements or even the club he had played for.
The Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association announced at the time that a ten-year study would be conducted into the relationship between heading and brain injury, but troublingly, 12 years have passed without any such research receiving a further mention. It has been suggested that the project was abandoned when the footballers selected as case study subjects failed to turn professional. But statistical research in academia, independent from football’s governing bodies, is confirming what many in the game have long suspected. For example, The Guardian reports that investigations at Turin University, looking at the medical records of 7,000 former players from 1970 to 2001, has shown the risk of motor neurone disease is six times higher than normal.
The Astle family never heard anything from the FA again until last week when, in light of media attention surrounding the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign, the chairman Greg Dyke wrote to them with a lengthy apology. In a season where doctors have already been shocked at the sight of players like Romelu Lukaku and Hugo Lloris being cleared to play immediately after suffering head injuries, the new FA regime needs to get serious, and quickly. Chris Bryant MP, the Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, told the Daily Mail: “I spoke with a leading neuro-pathologist who works with the New York Jets this week and she’s amazed that Britain seems to be 15 years behind America on this… My fear is that some of the sports are just putting their head in the sand and there is a point when that just becomes criminal negligence… The truth is they don’t know what headers do to people.”
‘Justice for Jeff’ is not remotely about compensation; it is about awareness. One hopes that the love that football fans continue to hold for their old heroes will inspire appropriate action to make life safer for the Astles of today and tomorrow.
There are three types of ‘football manager’. By this, I refer not to the personalities or managerial techniques of the individuals in question, but rather the job descriptions implied by the term. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that there are three types of football club, distinguished by who is really in charge. The positioning of the big cheese, the man most responsible for long-term strategy, has a defining impact on the role and life expectancy of he who sits nominally behind the manager’s door.
The first paradigm is the nouveau riche, the clubs flung suddenly to the forefront regardless of historical status by the massive injection of financial capital. Here, the most important person is the owner (alternatively a representative thereof), whether an actual living person like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, or a corporate person such as the Qatar Investment Authority for Paris Saint-Germain. This model is arguably the newest, carried to extreme orders of magnitude beyond the imagination of earlier entrepreneurs from Blackburn Rovers’ steel magnate Jack Walker to PSG’s prior experience with Canal+.
It also typically sits most uncomfortably with fans and observers, but despite this, is the easiest of the three to understand. Long-term success is the expected product of sustained, nine- or ten-figure investment. The manager is provided with world-class playing resources to deliver trophies immediately; if he fails, he is quickly expendable. Just ask Antoine Kombouaré, Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo, or even José Mourinho. Should Manuel Pellegrini fail to add to his Capital One Cup success this term, vultures will be hovering close by to monitor his early progress next.
The second is the hybrid model, or the ‘continental’ model as we like to refer to it in England – partly in deference to its modernity, and partly to imply due scepticism for anything devised offshore from our islands by one of those flashy Euro types. Here, it is the technical director who calls the shots – ideally overseeing transfer policy and devising a long-term playing strategy which filters down from first team to youth academy. In such a setup, the manager should enjoy a little more job security, though if he does leave – be it down to poor results or a new challenge – the technical director can appoint an appropriate successor without veering from the underlying vision.
I say ‘should’, for rarely has this paradigm been implemented properly or with full conviction in the Premier League. Almost always, this has been because the technical director joins the club second and is thrust upon the undermined, incumbent manager – thus recklessly subverting the whole principle of having the former appoint a gaffer he can work with. The farcical situation at Newcastle United with Dennis Wise in the boardroom led to the resignation of Kevin Keegan, who had managed the former Chelsea captain with England just eight years previously. Harry Redknapp was such an overshadowing presence as director of football at Portsmouth that he actually usurped Graham Rix as manager. But the true master of this field is Avram Grant – such a supportive director was the Israeli at both Chelsea and Pompey that he replaced Mourinho and Paul Hart in the respective dugouts within about two months apiece.
Tottenham Hotspur were at least a little more intelligent in doing things the wrong way around, recruiting Franco Baldini from Roma in part due to the recommendation of then-manager André Villas-Boas. But while AVB reportedly hoped the Gareth Bale cash would be spent on João Moutinho, Hulk, and David Villa, Baldini instead went four better and signed seven entirely different players; it looked like decent business until the Portuguese was sacked in December with none of the new faces having really yet fit in. Tim Sherwood exposed a lack of the unified philosophy supposedly implied by this type of management structure by immediately introducing a different style of play upon his promotion from the academy. Latest gossip is that Spurs want Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman will refuse to answer to Baldini or any other technical director.
Greater success has come through slight overlaps in the Venn diagram. Swansea City have not installed a director of football, but a vision for the club at boardroom level saw them smoothly through four managerial changes from Kenny Jackett to Michael Laudrup with a visibly consistent development in playing philosophy throughout. At Liverpool, nobody has been brought in as director of football since Damien Comolli’s ill-fated stint between 2010 and 2012, but instead there is now a four-man ‘transfer committee’ of which manager Brendan Rodgers is part. The new setup was responsible for the coups of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. However, given the bodged attempts at re-jigging the defensive resources last summer, the former Swansea boss could be forgiven for craving greater autonomy.
For this would take him, and Liverpool, into our third and final paradigm. This is the model most conservative, yet even as it slips out of fashion, it remains undoubtedly the most familiar to British football and still probably the most coveted by senior managers (see Redknapp in the face of QPR’s ownership or, potentially, Van Gaal at Tottenham). It is the style adhered to by Arsenal and Manchester United, and it offers the manager the greatest job security of all. Put simply, not only does this manager oversee the first team, but it is he who exercises supreme control over the club’s entire long-term agenda – essentially encompassing every football-related aspect from recruitment to diet, technology to pitch conditioning. As Sir Alex Ferguson put it: “The most important person in the club is the manager. And that must always be sacrosanct.”
Of course, there will be delegation along the way. But even then, Arsène Wenger is no stranger to the label ‘dictator’, and ultimately, the manager is all powerful. In this model, it is a bigger, more encompassing job than in either of our previous two templates; highest up the echelons of relative command. It is this very job description that allowed Ferguson to remain in charge for 1,500 matches; Wenger for 1,000 and counting. Simultaneously, only this definition of a manager could have afforded the Frenchman almost nine years to further his speciality – as some have cruelly put it – in failure. Only in this paradigm is David Moyes still given the opportunity to lay out his future plans at the end of Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League season for the directors to decide if they remain on board.
For better or for worse, the clubs who follow the classic British model are left with a responsibility to trust in their manager. But all the more, given the breadth of his responsibility, the greater chunk of the club and its overall strategy he therefore represents, it is a far harder decision to remove him.
However much Tottenham Hotspur manager Tim Sherwood may have lamented the players’ “capitulation” away to Chelsea – while making little comment on his own culpability in the 0-4 scoreline – the fact is that our focus match on this week’s Foot! TUESDAY was effectively ended as a contest on the hour mark. Even if Sandro hadn’t lost his footing to allow in Demba Ba; or if Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris, and Kyle Walker hadn’t contrived to present the Senegalese striker with a quickfire second; or if Sherwood had actually devised a Plan B to restore their slight first half superiority after the interval; there was simply no way back for the visitors once Younès Kaboul saw red for felling Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard dispatched the resulting penalty kick.
The immediate feeling was that the sending off was harsh. Contact had been slight, although not necessarily insignificant enough to call the awarding of the foul into question. A quick turnover had allowed Eto’o the moment he needed to get goal side for Hazard’s cross, which meant the unfortunate Kaboul could only bundle into the back of him. In commentary, the former Spurs striker Clive Allen tried to reason that the Cameroonian would have needed to take a touch before he could have shot, but it was difficult to articulate the sense of injustice – the disappointment at a match ended by Tottenham’s hopeless task with ten – in a manner that could have held up in court. Whether or not he may have wished it so, the only question requiring the judgement of referee Michael Oliver was if Eto’o had been denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Context, discretion, and common sense do not come into it.
This situation is largely the end product of a cyclical clamour for clarification. Over the last 25 years, during which television and internet have overseen a revolution in football coverage, the trend has been to clamp down upon infringements which may cause injury or unfairly influence the result of matches with harsher punishment. This, in itself, is undeniably a good thing. But repeated interrogation of controversial incidents – in part by the media, in part by the ‘wronged’ players and clubs – has intensified demand for consistency, which in turn requires unambiguous, black-and-white definitions. The result is a whopping 77-page appendage to the 48-page ‘Laws of the Game’, designed to offer precise ‘Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees’. Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct – itself only spans four pages but warrants a further 14 to clear things up in the latter document.
Achieving mastery of each nuance in the annually-revised Laws, their interpretations, and guidelines is a challenging task for all match officials – and one routinely neglected by players, coaches, and journalists. But no matter how extensive the textual legislation may be, it could patently never encompass every single scenario that might conceivably unfold on the pitch, while its very existence presents a further, fundamental problem. It forgets that referees are human.
Take, for instance, the case of West Bromwich Albion’s Ben Foster, who was two or three paces outside his 18-yard area when he handled the ball late in the first half against Manchester United on Saturday. The England man was clearly at fault, but through clumsiness rather than cheating – indeed, it was one of two or three occasions during that game on which he misjudged the flight of the ball entirely. Yet given the proximity of Robin van Persie, there could be no uncertainty that when Foster kicked the air, United would have had an obvious goalscoring opportunity had the ball been allowed to continue on its path beyond the goalkeeper’s hand.
Despite the speed of the play, it seems unlikely that referee Jon Moss and his assistant would have missed the incident. But because of all this clarification we have deemed so necessary, the officials were left with two polar opposites for choices – ‘see’ the offence and show a red card, thereby killing the match in question and dealing the Baggies’ survival hopes a further blow with a suspension for their goalkeeper, or ‘not see’ any offence whatsoever. Given the Draconian severity of the former alternative in the context of such a minor error on Foster’s part – it was hardly a handball akin to Luis Suárez against Ghana – the latter outcome felt closer on the scale of things to fair justice, even if the decision itself was not correct.
Short-sightedly, the International Football Association Board rejected a plea from UEFA earlier this month to reconsider the ‘triple jeopardy’ rule through which a single foul can be punished with a penalty, a red card, and a subsequent ban. The Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan, one of four British representatives who comprise the Board alongside a quartet from FIFA, explained, “We don’t want to flip back to where we were before where some goalkeepers knew that if they could not be sent off, they would simply take out the attacker.”
But here again is that obsession with black-and-white clarity. Surely there is no need for a ruling that all fouls of a certain prescribed subset must be punished identically? Why should we either have to send off every single goalkeeper, or not any goalkeeper, in Regan’s example? In the interpretations appendix for Law 12, there is a distinction between ‘careless’, meaning that “the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution”; and ‘reckless’, where “the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent”. This is used to determine whether or not to show a yellow card elsewhere on the pitch, but why not allow a similar distinction to decide between yellow and red for offences that deny a goalscoring opportunity?
The key point is that there will always be shades of grey, but by such insistence upon black or white, referees have been denied the humane discretion to respond accordingly to context. Had Oliver and Moss been allowed to exercise their own reading of the game, and whistle but show yellow or even no card at all to Kaboul and Foster respectively, the matches may have continued to a more satisfying conclusion. Our fixation with consistency has just produced more extreme inconsistency, and as such, it is time to make “in the opinion of the referee” the key sentence of every Law and guideline once again.
* Kaboul's red card was rescinded after this piece was written.
However outstanding the quality of their football may be, it is bound to take a long time before clubs as sugar-daddied as the newly-crowned Capital One Cup winners Manchester City enjoy anything more than a complicated relationship with the neutral supporter. But perhaps the greatest joy of this Premier League season, even beyond the unusual closeness of the title race itself, has been the flowering of four sides in the top half built upon the combination of intelligent long-term management – both on and off the pitch – and highly attractive football. No nouveau riche; simply new thrills, and enough of them to restore one’s faith in the English game.
The December meeting of two of this quartet, Arsenal versus Everton at the Emirates, remains the highlight match of the season to date for its sheer all-round quality over 90 minutes. But for about an hour at St. Mary’s on Saturday evening, the other two ran it close. Liverpool managed to assert control over the opening quarter-hour despite misfiring with the final pass; finally leading in slightly fortuitous fashion through Luis Suárez, but demonstrating such a repeated threat to the opposing high line that one could have foreseen a similar shellacking as endured at Anfield by both Gunners and Toffees. However, Southampton regained the initiative in magnificent fashion not through any particular change, but conversely a sustained conviction in their own style of play which overcame the initial wobbles to lay siege upon the visitors’ third.
It was frustrating for Mauricio Pochettino that, despite a 25-minute spell of enrapturing domination, his players should go no closer than an Adam Lallana shot which struck the foot of Simon Mignolet’s right-hand post. Yet it was typical of Liverpool to quickly seize upon space between the lines afforded by the Argentine’s half-time tactical adjustment and double their advantage via Raheem Sterling some 70 seconds after the teenager’s introduction. Three goals mustered from five shots on target was testament to the incredible potency of the Reds’ attacking players; a rare clean sheet for the defence surely a confidence boost ahead of ten games to chase the trophy.
The end result, 3-0, appeared one-sided. But the match reaffirmed the ability of both Liverpool and Southampton to lift fans and neutrals alike from their seats, and of particular excitement to the English observer is the local core around which such excellent football has been cultivated.
A deep malaise has surrounded the national team ever since the supposed Golden Generation failed to probe beyond three consecutive quarter-finals under Sven-Göran Eriksson and died an inglorious death in the Euro 2008 qualifiers with Steve McClaren. A couple of big wins over Croatia proved a false dawn as Fabio Capello lost faith in the tactical intelligence of Premier League winners denied the comfort blanket provided by foreign clubmates. The Italian’s emergency replacement, Roy Hodgson, did a good job in the circumstances at Euro 2012, albeit a tedious and defensive one. The sense that England are stuck in limbo between eras persists, and expectations had never been so low even before they were drawn alongside Italy and Uruguay for this summer’s World Cup.
Yet England need not necessary remain so rigid, so inferior. Liverpool have supplied five players to the squad that will face Denmark this Wednesday – the most, jointly with Manchester United, for any individual club. The Saints, meanwhile, count a record four. Though Hodgson is noted more for his emphasis on organisational drills, preparation time is at a premium in international football, and options are suddenly abound to revolutionise the Three Lions’ attacking play through direct importation.
Take, for example, the Liverpool sides that terrorised Everton and Arsenal in successive weeks a month ago. As is commonly the case with Hodgson’s England in bigger matches, the Reds fielded a relatively deep defensive line and registered significantly less than 50% of the overall possession. Yet the energetic pressing of their front five around halfway allowed Steven Gerrard to serve effectively as a midfield sweeper, collecting loose balls at the breakdown and rolling them quickly to Jordan Henderson or Philippe Coutinho, who would pierce the highly-drawn opposition defence at a single stroke with precise longitudinal passes to the onrushing Suárez, Sterling, or Daniel Sturridge.
Four of the half dozen players mentioned above are English and could be deployed identically in a 4-3-3, with little need for further tactical instruction, at Wembley. Obviously, England do not have a Suárez, but Wayne Rooney is our closest equivalent and could thrive if given the responsibility of fulfilling a similar role. Either Jack Wilshere or Southampton’s Lallana could compensate for Coutinho’s passing and technical ability in the midfield three. The injured Theo Walcott might have been an ideal upgrade for Sterling, who is raw so can fade from matches, but the likes of Jay Rodriguez or Andros Townsend can always deputise if necessary. Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick provide experienced alternatives for the Gerrard position, even if Hodgson should not need all three in Brazil.
As discussed previously on Foot! TUESDAY, Liverpool’s midfield arrangement can break down in matches where the onus is placed upon them to control possession, when there are fewer opportunities to counter from turnovers and Gerrard’s defensive shortcomings are exposed. In such cases, England could err more towards the Pochettino style and perhaps adopt a fluid 4-2-3-1 to press much higher up the pitch. Here, the tireless positional rotation – both with and without the ball – of Southampton’s front four could be replicated by any combination of Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Lallana, Rodriguez, and Rickie Lambert. Each offers sufficient versatility of position to ensure an exciting variety of options for the national team.
there is a clear difference between the two approaches, and the starting
positions upon which they are based, there is also a lot the Reds and Saints
have in common. The 4 P’s that Brendan Rodgers has emphasised since his Swansea
City days – possession, penetration, pressure, patience – can broadly be
applied to Pochettino’s Southampton as well. For Hodgson and England, perhaps
most important of all is the dexterity which the two sets of players share in
terms of adapting to tactical changes (Liverpool played a 4-4-2 diamond on
It may be alien for the 66-year-old to contemplate a line quite as high as José Fonte and Dejan Lovren were on Saturday, but at times a compromise will need to be found in order to break down weaker, deeper-sitting opponents. Phil Jagielka is certainly no stranger to passing out from the back at Everton, while Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw are ideal weapons on the overlap from left-back. The key to keeping the higher, 4-2-3-1 system together would be to ensure enough solidity at the base of midfield – in superb form this season at Goodison Park, a recall for Gareth Barry should supplement an area in which England have been lacking.
Things aren’t all bad in English football. Liverpool and Southampton – plus not forgetting Everton and Arsenal – have shown us so much. With few England managers ever having been under less pressure, it is time for Hodgson to get adventurous.
As Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj, finally starting together for the first time, combined on the left-hand flank, the Crystal Palace defensive four retreated to their six-yard line in anticipation of an early cross. Wayne Rooney, however, seized the opportunity to curb his own forward movement and maintain a clear line of vision to the ball such that, when it was pulled back by Patrice Evra, the number ten was in as many yards of space just inside the penalty area. One bounce, slight lean back and twist of the shoulders, bang. Rooney was back in business.
Quite literally, in fact. As the beaming goalscorer happily accepted the adulation of his teammates and supporters, one was briefly transported back to that evening at Ibrox in November 2010, when Rooney returned from injury to make his first start for Manchester United since ending his previous contractual standoff. Then, it was an 87th-minute penalty dispatched with supreme confidence to seal a 1-0 victory over Rangers and, with it, qualification for the knockout states of the Champions League. An exultant celebration appeared to propose, as at Selhurst Park on Saturday, that all that had gone before should now be forgotten.
On the face of things, it would seem painfully extravagant that United have agreed to pay the 28-year-old Rooney a basic wage of £240,000 and, uniquely, use their own commercial weight to further the player’s individual endorsements – thus bringing his total weekly income, according to Daniel Taylor of The Guardian, beyond even the £300,000 figure which has been widely reported.
Three and a half years ago, when Rooney publicly announced his intention to leave and flirted with Manchester City only to make a full U-turn and sign a new deal later the same week, his market value ought to have been at its very highest. The player, then 25, had risen close to the stratum occupied by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo during the first season after the latter’s departure to Spain, scoring 34 goals before the end of March when an ankle injury sustained against Bayern Munich ultimately cost United a fourth consecutive league title and, arguably, even the Champions League. Indeed, such was the initial effectiveness with which Rooney had replaced Ronaldo, that the team’s biggest problem had come in replacing the complementary work contributed by Rooney when the Portuguese had still been in town.
Compare such lauded status with the past 18 months, over which he has endured his most difficult spell at Old Trafford and at times looked eminently replaceable as Robin van Persie became the team’s superstar last term. An inflated deal running to summer 2019, by which point Rooney will be almost 34, puts an incredible amount of faith in the bouncebackability of a man who once said he couldn’t envisage his body lasting until his mid-thirties like Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs. The old policy of only offering single-year contracts to players once they pass 30, exceptionally exempted to sign Van Persie from Arsenal, now seems a distant memory.
Yet from the moment August became September with Rooney still at United – which communications director Phil Townsend later declared to have been the club’s top priority objective for the summer transfer window – the balance of negotiating power shifted ever more towards the player and his agent, Paul Stretford. It was slightly neglectful of Sir Alex Ferguson to leave his final dispute with a senior member of the team for his successor to sort out, and David Moyes has gone a good job in this regard, but with every poor result on the pitch through autumn and winter, the Red Devils’ need grew stronger. Chelsea might not have waited until 2015 for Rooney’s previous contract to run down, and speculated interest from Paris Saint-Germain probably would not have materialised, but Stretford knew United could not possibly afford to take that risk.
Quoted in the Daily Telegraph, Rooney said of his new deal: “I know the direction that this club is going in. If we don’t make it this season, we will come back stronger and claim a Champions League spot next season. Let’s not forget we still have a chance this year, some of the other teams are playing well, but we have a strong squad here and if we have a positive end to the season then who knows what can happen? People have been saying we may have trouble attracting the world’s best players but I think the fact Juan Mata came here shows this isn’t true.”
Stage-managed, corporate speak of course, but exactly what United needed to be said. For all the questions as to whether he can still live up to the promise exhibited in 2009/10 or as a teenager back at Euro 2004 – another tournament in which his injury curtailed the potential champions – the fact is that an in-form Rooney, at peace with the world, remains a prize asset. Both in terms of his ability to fire the team back up the league table over the next few seasons, and as a poster child to attract global talent and supporters to Old Trafford even in the absence of Champions League football and Ferguson. The arrival of Mata notwithstanding, failure to keep Rooney on board would thus have dealt a severe blow to the club’s image, and as Gary Neville points out, it would surely have cost United even more money – once transfer fees and wages are counted – to attract a replacement of similar quality thereafter.
Supporters understand this, which is why they have generally continued to sing Rooney’s name in the hope that his threats to leave would again prove unfounded. Their realism reflects a recognition that business is business – the team they love is better off with him there and happy; the player enjoys greater wealth and long-term security than he would at any other suitor. It is win-win.
But such a pragmatic approach necessitates the detachment of emotion, and even if Rooney does go on to score the 41 goals now required to reach 250 and become United’s all-time leading scorer, this why he will never quite be considered a genuine club legend. In the hearts of those who watch the game, history is determined by sentiment above numbers or even titles – hence Brazil ’82 being remembered so more fondly than Brazil ’94. It is sad that the cynical corporatism of football should extend to the relationship between a player and the fans who celebrate his goals, but one too many contract fallouts means the latter are unlikely to remember him beyond his days in the red shirt with quite the vocal appreciation they reserve for Sir Bobby Charlton, Eric Cantona, and even Ronaldo. Rooney has always been led more by Stretford than the Stretford End.
At around four o’clock on Saturday morning, Japanese time, Yuzuru Hanyu followed up his astonishing, world-record score in the short programme of the men’s figure skating with another fine display in his free routine to clinch gold at his first Olympics. In doing so, he enabled Japan, twice a host of the Winter Games, to leapfrog past Great Britain, which barely has a mountain you can ski down, in the Sochi medal table. The trick for low-lying countries like mine, of course, is to find an event the snowier countries seem to have overlooked – in our case, skeleton – and invest our entire, modest budget into retraining athletes from other sports to fill the gap. (Although I suppose that with my own home county of Somerset still largely under water, any forthcoming cold snap might at least give us the opportunity to try out some Dutch-style speed skating or make curling the national sport.)
Happily, any sense of crushing disappointment we Brits might have felt at falling a spot in the rankings was negated by the distraction of simultaneously breaking football news from West London. At around seven o’clock on Friday evening, Greenwich Mean Time, Fulham caught everybody off guard by suddenly announcing the appointment of Felix Magath as the manager to lift them off the foot of the Premier League over the remaining dozen matches. And then all the more so when it emerged that René Meulensteen had not actually been replaced in the role, because it was never given to him in the first place.
Indeed, the official club press release deigned not to even mention the Dutchman in passing; instead simply welcoming Magath to Craven Cottage with an appraisal of his Bundesliga record and the gleeful assertion by CEO Alistair Mackintosh that “the opportunity to bring in a manager with the experience of Felix Magath would typically be unlikely at this point in the season”. The first reference to Meulensteen came, quite brilliantly, from the man himself on BBC Radio 5 Live less than five minutes later, but even he was at a loss to explain what was really going on:
“I’ve not been told anything,” said the 49-year-old. “I knew the owners were freaking out and panicking about the fact that Fulham could get relegated, but they’ve had that sort of attitude already ten games back… They’ve hit the panic button on emotions of fear, but hey-ho, that’s what happens in football. It’s not always fair.”
Meulensteen may be about to discover just how unfair things can get. Employed as ‘head coach’ under the management of Martin Jol on 13 November last year, he was then quickly put in charge of ‘first-team duties’ with the dismissal of his compatriot on 1 December. The former Manchester United trainer described the move as “one that took me by surprise from the start, because that was not anticipated with Martin Jol leaving”. But in fact, his job title at Craven Cottage was never changed, meaning that technically, the position of ‘manager’ remained vacant until the arrival of Magath. Ruthlessly careful with their semantics, Mackintosh and company maintained that Meulensteen had therefore not been sacked, merely reassigned, and remained in the club’s employ. The situation for the latter is clearly untenable, and he would surely have a good case for constructive dismissal, but whether he will receive the full payout that would normally be due to an ex-manager is another matter entirely.
The fiasco is a clever new twist on Fulham’s own, in-house version of the managerial merry-go-round. Meulensteen may not have seen himself as a readymade replacement for Jol, but most observers did, with the much-liked ex-Tottenham Hotspur boss a sitting duck having recruited a few too many players who reflected his own, languid personality. Later in December, the experienced Alan Curbishley came aboard as technical director while Ray Wilkins, himself a one-time Fulham manager back in the third tier in 1997/98, was recruited as Meulensteen’s assistant. It did not take long to make the connection and Mackintosh himself even admitted that Curbishley in particular was an option to take over at some point in future. As such, it was somewhat out of left field that Magath should be the one unveiled – and before the technical director had even been consulted.
Also puzzling is the timing. Early December, as with Jol, is most opportune for a mid-term changing of the guard as it affords the new man time to assess his inherited charges before investing whatever money there is into re-jigging the squad come January. The overhaul was rapid, with four first team players moved on and seven new faces – including two, Larnell Cole and Ryan Tunnicliffe, who had developed under Meulensteen at Old Trafford – recruited. Despite a poor record of just ten points from 13 matches, identical to that achieved under Jol over the opening three and a half months of the season, it must rankle with the ‘head coach’ that he never got to see his team beyond promising displays against United and Liverpool; or marquee signing Konstantinos Mitroglou in action at all.
This is not to criticise the choice of Magath, whose reputation as a hard trainer is preceded only by his record as a fire-fighter. During relatively brief spells at each, he previously helped 1. FC Nürnberg, Werder Bremen, and Eintracht Frankfurt avoid relegation around the turn of the millennium, before taking VfB Stuttgart from second last in February 2001 to second place in 2002/03. In this regard, perhaps it simply was a case of an unexpected chance too good for Fulham to miss, regardless of complications, after talks between Magath and Hamburg SV fell through only last Thursday. As the German now attempts to perform similar escapology in England, he will be aided by the presence of two regulars from his 2008/09 title-winners at VfL Wolfsburg, Sascha Riether and Ashkan Dejagah.
As for Meulensteen, his 75-day reign follows a 16-day spell in charge of Anzhi Makhachkala last summer, meaning the most significant mark on his managerial CV remains those turbulent six months at Brøndby, where he is best remembered for asking his players to imagine themselves as tigers and giraffes. Yet his popularity remains high in Manchester, where he enjoyed enormous success after returning from Denmark and his training was credited for bringing the best out of star names from Cristiano Ronaldo to Robin van Persie. Perhaps it would be best for all concerned if David Moyes invited him back up north to help out once again.
Quite what to make of that extraordinary lunchtime kickoff at Anfield, when unlike so many other games witnessed to the residual taste of toothpaste or even Friday night excess, Liverpool raced out of the traps quite superbly to overwhelm the soon-to-be ex-league leaders? The solitary consolation for Arsenal was that theirs did not wind up being the most embarrassing display of the Premier League weekend. That dubious honour again befell a one-dimensional Manchester United – David Moyes’s charges trailed for an hour and only secured a single point from their home encounter with Fulham, whose previous endeavour had been to lose to a Sheffield United side battling against relegation to the fourth tier.
For Liverpool, the obvious comparison with their most deadly rivals was altogether more flattering. In only the 16th minute, as Jordan Henderson drove along the right-hand side, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge forced an already shredded Arsenal back line into another desperate retreat, and Raheem Sterling completed a ravenous sprint from his own half to make the score 3-0, one was moved to recall the manner in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2008-09 vintage – the reigning European champions, with Cristiano Ronaldo at his absolute pomp – once devastated the Gunners in a Champions League semi-final at the Emirates.
Quite aside from the efficiency of those early Steven Gerrard-Martin Škrtel set pieces, the period from 2-0 to 4-0 was the most awe-inspiring spell of football played on any English pitch this season. The clock will show this lasted but ten minutes; Liverpool squeezed so much in that it felt much longer. As well as two brilliant goals on the break, there was another shot over the bar from Sturridge, plus the burst in behind by Sterling that brought the corner from which only the woodwork denied Suárez a goal of the season, and Kolo Touré failed to divert home the rebound. Find the footage on one of the on-demand services – no matter where your personal allegiances may lie, it easily stands a third or fourth watch.
Football’s love of poignant superstition ensured we quickly recalled the last time Liverpool put five past Arsenal was the day, nearly 50 years ago in April 1964, that Bill Shankly won his first league title. That began a glorious run of 13 championships in a quarter of a century; a similar period since has delivered none. Is that now about to end? Reds fans are often ridiculed with a blinkered “this is our year” stereotype, but the mood now suggests a more cautious, though genuinely realistic optimism: “No, not this season. But maybe soon…”
There are a few reasons that it won’t come this season. Fielding Gerrard as a sort of midfield sweeper behind a quick-pressing, attacking quintet has been wonderfully effective at producing rapid turnovers and counters against teams who like to dominate possession, like Arsenal and Everton. But it has left Liverpool variously frustrated and defensively exposed when opponents allow them the ball, not least Aston Villa in the first half at Anfield, and the division of roles between Gerrard and Henderson becomes less defined. Most crucially, although Manchester City and Chelsea do still have the odd problem with quality in depth, their efficiency is such that slips like that endured by City at Carrow Road are rare enough to comprise big news. Liverpool are not yet quite as consistent and would be affected more significantly by the loss of a couple of players in midfield or attack.
But the key word is ‘yet’. Even during the 3-0 opening day setback at West Bromwich Albion last season, or as Brendan Rodgers recalled this weekend, the home loss to Arsenal a fortnight later, there has always been a clear blueprint at Anfield ever since the Northern Irishman replaced Kenny Dalglish as manager. Necessary playing resources were lacking at the start, but 18 months on, the progress made in both acquiring and developing talent to achieve this vision has been startling. The next stage in this process should be Champions League football – which would ideally ensure the retention of Suárez – and the challenge to combine the European campaign with a real assault on the Premier League crown in 2014-15.
As for Arsenal, Arsène Wenger appeared understandably bleak throughout the second period and his post-game media engagements, after a half-time break during which – according to captain Mikel Arteta – he had demonstrated unusual anger. The 64-year-old was correct in his appraisal both that his team’s credentials would be widely questioned, and that the clearest answer must come in the way they respond as their testing February schedule continues.
A pessimistic approach would be to recall the three most recent occasions on which the Gunners were in genuine title contention at this stage. Exactly six years ago, on 11 February 2008, they led the division by five points after 26 rounds. But then came that fateful day at St. Andrew’s, when Eduardo da Silva suffered his horrible leg injury, and James McFadden netted a 95th-minute penalty to earn Birmingham City a point. Arsenal only won one league game in eight between then and mid-April, to sink to third in the final standings.
In 2009/10, Arsenal were top as late as 20 March with seven to play, but only added eight more points after the concession of another additional time equaliser at St. Andrew’s. Then, a season later, an 89th-minute winner by Obafemi Martins of – you’ve guessed it – Birmingham City in the League Cup final triggered another nightmare run in which Wenger’s men were eliminated from all three knockout competitions in the space of 13 days. League form followed suit; only two wins and 12 points were accrued from the 11 matches remaining after Wembley as the Gunners went from champions-elect to Champions League playoff.
However, this year’s side is made of stronger stuff, as evidenced by matches like their late win at Newcastle United after Christmas or the 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, where they were given a tough time throughout but came through with the three points regardless. Set in this context, it matters little to have conceded 11 times in two hammerings at City and Liverpool when the remaining 15 goals in their ‘against’ column have been spread thinly across 23 matches, of which Arsenal have won 17. Indeed, while they may have taken just eight points from seven games so far against the rest of the current top seven, their record against the league’s 13 other teams is a close-to-perfect 47 points from 18. Given that these figures have left them top or thereabouts all season, they ought to stay there even if they do continue to struggle against the European contenders – just as long as they keep on beating everyone else.
Failure to add squad depth during the transfer window does, of course, mean Arsenal are still worryingly incapable of giving Olivier Giroud or the out-of-sorts Mesut Özil a breather, while injuries and suspensions have unbalanced the base of midfield. But there is one more reason for Gooners to be cheerful. They cannot possibly face Birmingham this season, and instead their ‘testing’ run of games resumes on Wednesday against that shambles that couldn’t even beat Fulham.
Falling as it did on a Friday, transfer deadline day this January was all set to complement my fashionable, urban bachelor lifestyle quite superbly. To celebrate the occasion, I duly transferred over a generous amount of beer – some Minoh, some Belgian, even a spot of Westvleteren 12 – from storage temperature to serving temperature in preparation for a stirring night of solitude in front of my computer screen.
As such, it was rather a disappointment when a succession of major Premier League clubs used their pre-match media engagements that morning to announce that they had already closed for business; leaving a succession of both minute-by-minute and frontline correspondents across England to tweet their utter boredom at having several hours of coverage yet to fill but nothing of note to say whatsoever. At least I had the option of cutting my losses and taking an early night come about 3am.
Of course, this was largely because targets had been swiftly identified and the bigger business sensibly conducted earlier in the month. Liverpool were the one side ostensibly left disappointed come 11pm GMT on Friday; their failure to lure Yevhen Konoplyanka out from Ukraine coming a week after Chelsea had gazumped a move for Mohamed Salah. This thus repeated a familiar pattern of frustration with attacking midfielders, after the Reds had missed out on both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Willian last summer, and means Brendan Rodgers will be ever reliant on having at least two of Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, and Philippe Coutinho fit and available for the rest of the top four race.
Manchester City identified Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando of Porto as the men to respectively plug their one weakness in central defence and provide necessary backup in midfield, but refused to pay the exorbitant last-minute asking price and will remain clear title favourites regardless – even if an unprecedented quadruple bid seems fanciful.
Depending on whose figures you believe – for so many of the January fees go annoyingly undisclosed – Chelsea were involved in five of the six largest deals of the latest window; the sole exception being Yohan Cabaye, a crushing loss for Newcastle United cushioned only the £20 million cheque from Paris Saint-Germain. The comings and goings at Stamford Bridge were an interesting case study in how modern transfer activity works at the top end, with the Salah move following a return for Nemanja Matić to provide the composed, ball-playing defensive midfielder José Mourinho required.
At almost £21 million, the Serbian international represents an astonishing net loss for Roman Abramovich’s coffers after he was relinquished as a cheap makeweight in the David Luiz deal with Benfica three years ago. But then, needs must. Chelsea also looked to the long-term future of their central defence with the signing of 19-year-old Kurt Zouma, rated by The Guardian as one of the ten most promising young players in Europe. He will spend the remainder of this season at Saint-Étienne and hopefully not end up like Kevin de Bruyne, who was loaned out twice and only managed three Premier League appearances before leaving permanently for VfL Wolfsburg.
And then, there was Juan Mata. By far the biggest transfer of the window – in terms of the £37.1 million fee, the status of the player, and the very identities of the clubs concerned – there was a real undertone of intrigue as details from behind the scenes emerged. The Spaniard was unhappy at his suddenly reduced status under Mourinho as far back as August and agreed a deal whereby Chelsea would sell him had the situation not changed by January. Manchester United – a destination originally vetoed until Mata demanded otherwise – were aware of all this, and made the move after giving Shinji Kagawa time to recover from his busy summer but deciding the Japanese’s performances through autumn were below par. Having suffered public embarrassment with his attempted transfer activity five months previously, United’s new CEO Edward Woodward appeared to acknowledge his own inexperience by having the entire negotiation process conducted by third-party agents.
The sheer coup factor was justification enough for United to splash the cash, signalling as it did a statement of intent which, at least initially, helped galvanise the side against Cardiff City. A woeful display at Stoke City on Saturday, however, was a reminder that Mata’s position was hardly the first that needed strengthening. David Moyes suggested that other key targets were not available in January and would likely arrive this summer, and that being the case, it makes sense not to panic buy. However, given the current predicament at Old Trafford, one does feel the defence and midfield might have been well served by a couple of experienced, short-term signings. This was a tactic used successfully by Sir Alex Ferguson with the inspired, two-month acquisition of Henrik Larsson in 2006/07.
Arsenal did go down this route with the loan arrival of 31-year-old Sweden midfielder Kim Källström on loan from Spartak Moscow. The former Lyon man quickly dispelled any doubts as to his ability to fit into the Gunners culture by turning up in London with a back injury which is set to rule him out for several weeks. But while the sensational football played after the signing of Mesut Özil served to emphatically silence criticism that Arsenal had lost direction under Arsène Wenger, there is still a sense that the boardroom has hardly helped him strengthen certain areas of squad weakness. Whether Ashley Williams last summer or Julian Draxler last week, Ivan Gazidis and colleagues are starting to gain a reputation for not rigorously following up their initial enquiries.
But the real value in the January market – and in following what little deadline day action there was – will have come in the bottom half of the table, where ten teams are covered by a gap of just six points and thus every win or draw could ultimately be worth several million pounds. So solid defensively, at least at home, Hull City finally got around to the business left unfinished in August by replacing their perilously goal-shy forward line with Nikica Jelavić and Shane Long. Evoking memories of the John Hartson-Paul Kitson pairing that transformed West Ham United’s survival battle in February 1997, the new Tigers combined fluently for the opener against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday and looked like they had been playing together for years.
At Cardiff City, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was afforded funds that would have been denied to his predecessor, Malky Mackay, and even showed himself capable of signing players with whom he doesn’t happen to share Jim Solbakken as an agent. Wilfried Zaha – why did Moyes never use him, again? – and Kenwyne Jones both enjoyed sparkling debuts against Norwich City to take the Welsh club off the bottom. Looking up at the other 19 now are Fulham, who were carved apart by Southampton on Saturday but did at least have a wild one the day before – Rene Meulensteen returns to Old Trafford next time with the much-coveted Kostas Mitroglou, Johnny Heitinga, plus former United boys Ryan Tunnicliffe and Larnell Cole all available to make their league debuts for the Cottagers.