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September 2013

Week 6 – Moyes out? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

23 Sep 2013(Mon)

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Before getting too dramatic about the future of David Moyes and Manchester United in the wake of that admittedly messy capitulation at the home of their noisy neighbours on Sunday, there are a few things that we really ought to remind ourselves.

Firstly, it would be fanciful to pretend that such bad days at the office never happened under Sir Alex Ferguson. The obvious case that springs to mind is the 6-1 home loss in the derby two years ago, although that was a slightly freakish scoreline brought about by United’s naively gung-ho search for a way back from 3-1 and a man (Jonny Evans) down with minutes remaining. (Even Ferguson lamented his players’ obsession with their reputation for comebacks – “It’s all right playing the history books but common sense has to come into it. When we went to 3-1, 4-1 we should have settled for that” – and, ironically, Moyes was actually seeking to avoid repeating the mistake by declining the opportunity to make further changes after Tom Cleverley’s introduction had restored a degree of equilibrium with the score already 4-0.)

But a better example is that fateful afternoon in September 1989, a day short of exactly 24 years before their destruction at Eastlands, when Ferguson took his charges to Manchester City’s old Maine Road ground for the first time only to get walloped 5-1. Despite a spectacular consolation goal from another volatile striker wearing 10, Mark Hughes, United’s crushing loss to a rival that had only just returned from a two-year stint in the Second Division left fans calling for the manager’s head and Ferguson himself admitting, “I went back home and closed the curtains. I felt like a criminal.”

Secondly, being five points off the Premier League pace after as many matches is hardly new territory for a United side not renowned for sprinting out of the blocks. In 2007/08, for instance, they were seven points adrift after just three rounds when derby defeat followed draws against Reading and Portsmouth, prompting Chelsea skipper John Terry to remark, “(it) is a hell of a gap to have this early on – it’s going to be difficult for United.” Come May, the Red Devils were being crowned as champions of both England and, after Terry’s infamous penalty miss in Moscow, Europe.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it is not even as if the difficult beginning to the Moyes era has told us anything that we did not know already. Everybody accepted that the 50-year-old would require some time, perhaps even an entire season, to adapt to the demands of his new position – a circumstance alluded to on the pitch by Ferguson at the end of last term when he announced, “I’d also like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.”

Everyone also acknowledged that an opening month of the season which included meetings with Chelsea, Liverpool, and City – the latter two away from home – was, in the words of Moyes, “the hardest start for 20 years that Manchester United have had”. Given such widespread recognition of the champions’ likely difficulties over the last stretch of summer in particular, it is nonsensical to now express surprise that results have not quite been resoundingly successful thus far.

Ahead of their next really big fixture at home to Arsenal on 10 November, Moyes now has a run of five relatively straightforward Premier League matches – against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke City, and Fulham – through which to get used to some of the more everyday demands of life at Old Trafford. His side will be expected to impose themselves through their performances. The manager had good reason not to shuffle through the first five matches, as touched upon last week, but he must now manage his resources – including Shinji Kagawa, who presumably will have recovered from the sickness that limited his effectiveness against Bayer Leverkusen. Above all, wins will be demanded. A tally of, say, 13 points from the next 15 available, taking United up to 20 from ten games, and suddenly there is very little problem.

One thing that may well be holding Moyes back is the apparent humility with which he has embarked upon the job. Hideki Kasuya highlighted last week how the Scot had covered his face in nervous disappointment when Simon Rolfes briefly levelled the scores for Leverkusen, and a similar vulnerability has been evident in press conferences where he continues to give off an air of gratitude for the opportunity he has received. One cannot, of course, expect Ferguson-like levels of gravitas, but Moyes must at least impose his mark upon the team and ensure he is the strongest individual within a dressing room full of Premier and Champions League medals.

This extends, naturally, to the manner in which he sets the side out against any opposition, weak or strong. Moyes appeared taken aback at how United had been outclassed by City at the weekend, pointing out that he had never suffered such a defeat there with Everton, but his experience with the Toffees is only relevant to a point. Counterattack via the flanks was a legitimate tactic for the derby, but it failed because United were too passive, pushed too deep, and were too shocked by the home side’s first-half intensity. Ferguson’s United liked to counter as well – as they did with success in the away derby last season – but it was always balanced with genuine confidence and attacking intent in general. Unlike Everton, United are expected to approach any opponent or system with a belief in their own superiority.

Robin van Persie’s absence at Eastlands proved once again that his presence alone often serves to nullify several flaws that existed at United even before the change of manager. The big, long-term job for Moyes is to prove that Ferguson’s retirement has not left a similar hole; that implicit pre-eminence and dramatic comebacks remain part of the club’s DNA and not just that of his predecessor.

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Week 5 – Free Shinji? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

16 Sep 2013(Mon)

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It is a somewhat absurd phenomenon when the news makes the news, but one that should remind us as journalists of both the privilege and the responsibility our jobs entail.

To recap very briefly – so as not to make news out of news making the news – Japan and Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa unwittingly found himself at the centre of intercontinental confusion as, to the bemusement of readers in this country, virtually every major British media outlet reported him as having explicitly voiced his frustration at a lack of playing time under his new club manager, David Moyes. The story was an even bigger surprise to those of us who had actually been in the mixed zone after Japan’s friendly victory over Ghana, who know the player’s manner, and who had witnessed him stop just once to offer his usual uncontroversial comments to one big gaggle of journalists before heading on his way.

There was a good reason no Japanese newspaper or website had originally made such a fuss. Be it carelessly or mischievously, Kagawa’s words had been misconstrued – or, to repeat the cliché everyone jumps to when our two particular languages are muddled, lost in translation. A polite, throwaway dismissal of a potentially leading question about his lack of Premier League minutes was reported in English as “Please ask David Moyes why I’m not in the side”. Taken in isolation, without context, the quote was then inferred with an emphasis on ‘please’, as if the 24-year-old was actually pleading for an answer to be extracted from the Scot.

The Chinese whispers effect was intensified by a supporting quote in which Kagawa supposedly said, “Some days the frustration is worse than others – it comes in waves”, deriving the image of anger exploding like breakers on the beach. This was a mistranslation of one segment of a quote in which he had actually been speaking rather positively, admitting to ups and downs when asked about pressure, before declaring that he was very much looking forwards and working hard.

All of this was especially interesting for me as not only was I there in the Yokohama press area, but I also happen to be a professional Japanese-to-English translator, meaning this issue unusually spanned both of my quite specific industries. Having taken to Twitter in an attempt to clarify the situation last Wednesday, my tweets were picked up by a handful of British websites, and the Guardian asked me to pen a piece deconstructing the affair for Friday. Such was the local interest in the United man, and whether or not he might be on a collision course with Moyes, that within hours of its posting the article became the most read that day in the sport section and the fourth most read on the newspaper’s entire website.

There are two key caveats here, though – it is only sheer coincidence that a translator-cum-journalist was present, and I had the luxury of retranslating the quotes a day after the game rather than immediately. The fact is that translating between Japanese and English is notoriously tricky, but very few (if any) people within the average press room have a native or near-native command of both languages. Post-match deadlines are tight, so quotes requiring translation often end up as polished versions of a basic gist provided by a similarly busy colleague who at least speaks the same mother tongue as the player in question. Considering the amount of contextual deletion in Japanese (which needs to be restored to make sense in English), and the fact the quotes are often submitted raw to be turned into articles elsewhere, the potential for future, similar incidents is obvious.

This is a symptom of Japanese football’s success – more players overseas means more stories overseas – but it is a shame that this particular non-event ended up being spun to suit the angle of the ridiculous Free Kagawa campaign. Many Japanese observers, United fans in England, and even respected journalists have begun using the hashtag inspired by nostalgic Borussia Dortmund supporters to petition for the attacking midfielder’s release from the prison of no pitch time at Old Trafford. It really, really confuses me that nobody else appears to have noticed that because of national team matches in the Far East, Middle East, and South America, plus a ‘holiday’ interrupted by friendlies against Yokohama F. Marinos and Cerezo Osaka, his pre-season preparations didn’t even begin in earnest until August.

Moyes himself has been quite open about the situation. “I’ve not had a chance to look at other things,” he said late last month. “I’ve had to stick to the same group of players and go with it. Shinji came back late and that was the biggest problem for him. We had to give him a week off after he came back to play for us in Japan as well.”

Asked again ahead of Saturday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, he reiterated, “There are quite a lot of players who have not featured yet. But if you look at it, most of them were late back from international duty after the Confederations Cup, then they were away for a friendly international and a long-haul flight, then they were away again for another international. If you look at the reasons why people haven’t played it is more to do with them not being available for that to happen.”

The hefty travels undoubtedly do Maya Yoshida little favour in his competition for places with teammates of similar quality at Southampton. Alas, if you have three guys who are fresh and one who is fresh off a 12-hour flight, you don’t choose the latter. But even he suggested when we spoke – in English – after Japan’s friendly win over Guatemala in Osaka, that only now does he feel ready to start in the Premier League again after his summer’s exertions.

“(My condition is) much better than the beginning of the season,” he said. “After the Confederations Cup I went back to Southampton a little bit later. Of course, it was a little bit difficult for me to be joining the group because they had been training a bit harder. It’s okay for me now to get back into the first eleven. After two games playing 90 minutes I’m getting better.”

Like his clubmate Javier Hernández, who has only managed 28 minutes of action so far, or David Luiz and Jon Obi Mikel, who made their first league starts of the season for Chelsea at Everton on Saturday (this week’s featured game on Foot! TUESDAY), Kagawa’s position is weakened only by temporary circumstances surrounding his international schedule – exacerbated peculiarly by the two outings against J. League teams. It may suit the agenda of many to talk the Japan star out of contention, but the truth is that unless he remains on the sidelines until, say, October, the stories of his United demise are as valid as those mistranslating his supposed discontent.

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Week 4 – Through the window (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

9 Sep 2013(Mon)

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After spending the best part of the last month moaning about the seemingly relentless transfer window, now that it’s over I find myself with not a single Premier League match to talk about on Foot! TUESDAY due to the international break.

Oh well. If you can’t beat them, join them. Supposing the league table were to be decided by transfer activity alone, how would each team rank? Now that the dust has finally settled, here are my grades for the summer term, 2013.


GRADE A – The achievers

Tottenham Hotspur
As soon as Real Madrid made their interest in Gareth Bale public, there was no doubt that the Welshman’s heart would be turned. On that basis, the achievements of Daniel Levy and technical director Franco Baldini have been nothing short of remarkable. Every area of the pitch has been strengthened with top-class, highly sought-after internationals who each appear a good fit for the Tottenham playing template – while the record deal for Bale even allowed the club to turn a profit. The only question is how long it will take for André Villas-Boas to fit them all together into a genuine title-contending outfit.

Everton
To rank a club that has just lost their best player so highly may seem unconventional, but Marouane Fellani was always likely to leave the moment David Moyes joined Manchester United. The Belgian went for £4 million more than his release clause, Leighton Baines was retained, while the final hours of the window saw Everton significantly reinforce their midfield then restore power and pace to their attack in the form of the prodigious Romelu Lukaku. Profit plus a stronger squad than they started off with is more than anybody could have anticipated.

Manchester City
City just about scrape an A grade for getting some quality acquisitions in early enough in the window so that the new manager, Manuel Pellegrini, could start moulding a title-challenging side right away. But some questions remain. Is 32-year-old Martín Demichelis, signed for £4 million less than two months after he was available on a free, a strong enough backup should Vincent Kompany break down? Is Fernandinho really a £30 million player? Why has Nigel de Jong still not been properly replaced?


GRADE B – Good job

Swansea City
A window that began with fears of League Cup-winning manager Michael Laudrup quitting over frustrations with transfer funds ended most satisfactorily for the Swans. José Cañas and Jonjo Shelvey are quality additions to a midfield which is also boosted by a second year’s loan for Jonathan de Guzmán. Indirectly, though, Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony is the most exciting arrival; allowing Michu to ghost into the penalty area from the deeper number 10 role where he is most effective.

Aston Villa
Villa’s most important achievement was persuading Christian Benteke to withdraw his transfer request and instead sign a new deal. Seven new signings have given the squad greater depth and physically-imposing options up front – namely Libor Kozák and Nicklas Helenius – but overall balance would have been helped by an experienced central midfielder.

Cardiff City
Malaysian owner Vincent Tan had spent a lot of money getting the side from the Welsh capital into the Premier League, and it is little surprise that he has splashed the cash to help them stay there. Steven Caulker, Gary Medel, and Peter Odemwingie are strong additions to a squad that had lacked top-flight quality, but survival may yet depend on how quickly Danish wonder boy Andreas Cornelius settles in.

Hull City
Steve Bruce is an experienced man when it comes to building sides capable of remaining in the Premier League – if not necessarily soaring especially highly – and signings like Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore, and Maynor Figueroa look to be excellent coups to that end. A fine performance in vain at Manchester City highlighted the need for Danny Graham to end his goalscoring drought.

Norwich City
Only Stoke City and relegated Queens Park Rangers scored fewer Premier League goals than the Canaries last season. But the sale of striking stalwart Grant Holt heralds in a new era with three new forwards – Johan Elmander, Gary Hooper, and the highly coveted Ricky van Wolfswinkel – plus the exciting England U-21 winger Nathan Redmond from Birmingham City.

Fulham
In the past two seasons, Martin Jol’s side have often flattered to deceive – an image into which loan signings Adel Taarabt and Darren Bent should fit nicely. It may be cruel to tarnish permanent arrivals like Scott Parker and Maarten Stekelenburg with a similar brush, but while the Cottagers’ array of acquisitions look good on paper, we probably ought to wait and see.

Liverpool
Liverpool are a little hard to assess, given that their major business was conducted in January and there is little guarantee that the bulk of the summer arrivals will even justify a place in the first eleven. But adding squad depth was important, as was bolstering the defence with Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure. The Reds also adopted an admirably firm stance to retain Luis Suárez.

West Ham United
It has been a relatively quiet summer at Upton Park, but Sam Allardyce achieved his main priority early when sealing a permanent transfer for Andy Carroll. The big man up front is reunited with Stewart Downing, in a pairing deemed unsuitable for the Brendan Rodgers blueprint at Liverpool but is a clearer fit for Allardyce’s style of play.


GRADE C – Just about satisfactory

Southampton
Another tough call. At first glance, the Saints appear to have done some truly eye-catching business, but each of their tree big money acquisitions comes with their own questionmarks – Dejan Lovren for his error proneness, Victor Wanyama for his ball retention, and Dani Osvaldo for his colourful disciplinary record. They may also regret letting Jason Puncheon out on loan.

Chelsea
Manchester United could not be persuaded to part with Wayne Rooney, so Chelsea’s goalscoring prowess is largely a matter of whether or not Samuel Eto’o can rediscover the form he showed under José Mourinho at Internazionale. If he does, for a year or two, he will represent an excellent piece of business for a side packed with a few too many attacking midfielders.

Crystal Palace
Ian Holloway misplaced his usual joviality when he claimed he was “stressed to hell” trying to weed through lists of players offered to him by agents without the time to watch them in the flesh himself. The Bristolian did eventually manage to overhaul his squad, with Dwight Gayle and Spanish U-20 international José Campaña both exciting prospects. A tiny outlay suggests the Eagles should be well placed for the long term even if they fail to stay up at the first attempt.

Newcastle United
Former manager Joe Kinnear was surprising brought back as director of football, boldly proclaiming his ability to “open the door to any football manager in the world”. A bizarre radio interview in which he failed to remember facts or pronounce names with any degree of accuracy was then followed by a summer in which loanee Loïc Remy, who nearly joined in January, was the only significant arrival. Nonetheless, holding onto key players like Yohan Cabaye was most important.

Sunderland
There is a sense of déjà vu at the Stadium of Light after Paolo di Canio both signed and sold virtually an entire team’s worth of players. Constant transfer activity never worked too well under Steve Bruce, and performances so far suggest that the Italian is having a frustrating time getting his message across. Former Juventus attacking midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini should at least have little problem either understanding or demonstrating what is required.

Stoke City
This was supposed to be the summer in which Stoke announced their paradigm shift with the departure of long-serving manager Tony Pulis and the dawn of a new, attractive style of football. But new boss Mark Hughes has struggled to attract many players and must pray that his faith in Austrian bad boy Marko Arnautović, signed on deadline day from Werder Bremen for just £2 million, is justified.

West Bromwich Albion
West Brom are starting to worry me. An excellent start to last season and the explosive impact of Romelu Lukaku, especially from the bench, masked a disastrous second half to the campaign in which they picked up just 16 points from 19 games after Christmas. Missing out on a renewed loan for the Belgian was painful after a draw and two defeats so far this term. Victor Anichebe is not in the same league and there are big doubts as to whether Nicolas Anelka and Stéphane Sessègnon can sparkle again.


GRADE D – Fail

Manchester United
Firstly, the positives: Marouane Fellani can be just the box-to-box midfielder that United have been crying out for. A cruise to last season’s title meant their need for reinforcements was less than, say, Arsenal’s. David Moyes was justified in taking time with his existing resources. But, let’s be fair – this transfer window has been a real embarrassment at Old Trafford. Potential targets were revealed and missed in public, Fellaini’s release clause was allowed to expire in the mistaken belief that he could be signed more cheaply, and deadline day was the biggest Anglo-Spanish farce since the border delays at Gibraltar. Ed Woodward must learn quickly.

Arsenal
The last-minute arrival of German ace Mesut Özil trumps everyone else as the coup of the window. Though his was probably the last position that the Gunners needed strengthening, if you’re offered the opportunity to sign Özil, you sign Özil. However, it doesn’t change the fact that this was Arsenal’s big chance to get a major start on the others and spend the cash to build a title-winning squad. Their record deal with Real Madrid merely takes their grade up from an F to a D.

Grades reflect the extent to which clubs were able to strengthen their respective areas of need, and manage departures, given the resources available to them.

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Week 3 – Baled out (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

2 Sep 2013(Mon)

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And then, at about a quarter past three on Monday morning Japanese time, soon after Arsenal had emerged narrowly victorious in the season’s first North London derby, it finally happened.

“Real Madrid C.F. and Tottenham Hotspur FC have reached an agreement for the transfer of Gareth Bale, who has signed with the Whites for the next six seasons.”

Well, thank Christ for that. While most British neutrals and surely every Spurs fan will be sad to see the departure of the Premier League’s most devastatingly explosive individual, nobody will lament the end to a transfer saga more oppressive and omnipresent in its coverage than any since Cristiano Ronaldo finally flew into the Spanish capital after more than a year’s flirtation in 2009.

Aside from a few days AWOL from training in Enfield as the deadline ticked closer, Bale himself has done little to destroy the innocence of a childhood dream fulfilled, even while the world’s richest club signed off an eighth zero on the paycheque to football’s toughest negotiator. But while certainly unsolicited by the down-to-earth Welshman, who famously once eschewed exotic resorts to visit his mother in Cardiff when granted time off after a Champions League hat-trick against Internazionale, the constant media hype and Ronaldo comparisons this summer should at least have shown him what to expect as he prepares for “the next exciting chapter of my life” at the Bernabéu.

The close association with the man upon whose toes he may or may not now tread – Opta heatmaps from last season demonstrate just how spookily similar their playing patterns are – is obvious. Both Ronaldo and Bale made their Premier League debuts as precocious 18-year-olds whose promise generated exponentially more excitement than their limited end product. Both suffered certain ridicule early on – the former for his dives and superfluous stepovers; the latter for a run of 24 Premier League appearances before finally experiencing victory for the first time when Harry Redknapp brought him on at 4-0 up with five minutes left at home to Burnley in September 2009. Both came of age on the European stage before suddenly cutting in off the flanks to demonstrate astonishing goalscoring ability from almost any range in their early 20s. They even both share the habits of putting too much gel in their hair and hogging too much attention during goal celebrations.

However, the world’s first €100 million transfer fee generates headlines for more than one reason. Following the same path of parallel career progression, Bale is two years and a good amount of top-level experience behind the point Ronaldo had reached when he set the previous record four summers ago.

It was in 2006-07 that the Portuguese found his spectacular scoring boots to net 23 goals in all competitions for Manchester United – three fewer than Bale netted for Spurs last term. But CR7 then stuck around at Old Trafford for a further two seasons, scoring 68 more times in the process as he completed a hat-trick of league titles, started consecutive European Cup finals, and appeared in a third major international tournament for his country. By the time he persuaded Sir Alex Ferguson it was time to move on, Ronaldo was already the best player in the world. Although he may be the most expensive, the same cannot yet be said of Bale, whose only team medal to date is a runners-up medal from the 2009 League Cup.

Off the field, too, Bale is counterintuitively disadvantaged by his otherwise wholly positive image as a humble, British family man. He moves to Madrid with his childhood sweetheart and baby daughter – a situation not dissimilar to Michael Owen, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph last week about five months of hellish family life in a foreign hotel after his brief transfer in 2004. As a bachelor, Ronaldo had no such concerns when he returned to the Iberian Peninsula, and was able to switch easily from his native Portuguese to Spanish while the Bales must learn a new language from scratch. There is no telling how these combined pressures might affect the Welshman this season, when there was never the slightest doubt that Ronaldo’s ego would be big enough to manage.

Whether he likes it or not, Bale is now a Galactico and he will have to adapt quickly. That said, Tottenham fans will be joined by most of British football in wishing the 24-year-old well. He is the first Welshman ever to play for Real Madrid and the second to break the world transfer record after striker Trevor Ford joined Sunderland from Aston Villa for £30,000 in 1950. In the 62 years since Englishman Jackie Sewell topped this figure with a £34,500 switch to Sheffield Wednesday from Notts County, only Alan Shearer (£15 million from Blackburn Rovers to Newcastle United in 1996) had otherwise emerged from the United Kingdom to become football’s most valuable player. Perhaps more to the point, we have been stifled by a reluctance of quality footballers to test themselves overseas. As much as he will be missed, the prospect of seeing the PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year shine in Spain is exciting.

Finally, for all the annoyances of the transfer window, there is little doubt that that Spurs’ activity provides us with the most intriguing array of possibilities and narratives through which we can finally concentrate on the Premier League season. Securing a bumper fee for a player whose heart was set on Madrid has enabled them to acquire seven highly sought-after internationals and even – if reported figures are to be believed – record a tiny (six-figure) net profit. Performances so far have underlined both great promise and the need for bedding in. The amount of time it takes for André Villas-Boas to mould his new charges into a winning unit will have major bearing over everything from the title race to the prospects of Liverpool challenging the Champions League positions.

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