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February 2014

Week 28 – Back in business? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

24 Feb 2014(Mon)

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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.

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Week 27 – Craven (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

17 Feb 2014(Mon)

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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.

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Week 26 – Up for grabs now? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

11 Feb 2014(Tue)

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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.

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Week 25 – January sales (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

3 Feb 2014(Mon)

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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.

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