Friday, 11 May 2012

'Playing for pride'

Sorry, this is perhaps unfairly lifted from an article I did for Total Football magazine. Yes, I've started to make as much of a splash as a fart in the bath, but it's a start. I have loooots to do, so about 97% of you will be delighted while I take a break for a while, in the meantime, enjoy the below!

We are fast approaching the last weekend of the Premier League season, which means all the clichés are coming out in force: “For all intents and purposes”, “must-win game” and “like a cup final.”
But while the last weeks of the season often equate to "the business end", for others it has long since finished, resigned to a fate of mid-table security as teams either fall well short or far exceed pre-season expectations. For these teams, the final few games usually mean that only pride is at stake.
Games against these sides are said to be the easiest of all, another cliché being that “the teams at the bottom are fighting for their lives” and ought to be avoided. All reasonable logic dictates that a team in twelfth is a more likely cause for concern than a team in eighteenth. But apparently not.
This weekend, Manchester City know that a win against struggling Queens Park Rangers will “for all intents and purposes” seal a first title since 1968. There is just one catch; QPR are “fighting for their lives”. Should City slip up, local rivals Manchester United will win the title with a win against a Sunderland side who have been safe from relegation for weeks. Victory for United is seen by many as a foregone conclusion, simply because Sunderland have “nothing to play for.”
Other teams with different agendas face a similar conundrum. QPR, as mentioned before, know that a draw would suffice against City to ensure survival but have been largely written off due to City’s own objective. As for fellow strugglers Bolton, they face an away trip to Stoke, themselves wedged in a tightly-packed but largely apathetic struggle for mid-table positions.
Stoke at the Britannia – as with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light – is often seen as one of the most daunting away trips for any Premier League side, but the edge has been taken away by the circumstances of both sides.
Is there any evidence for the theory of mid-table sides being the best to play against? Last night, Liverpool trounced a Chelsea side still harbouring a very slight ambition to finish in the top four. Liverpool knew that their season was all but over, but seemed desperate to please their long-suffering home support and duly hammered their visitors.
Who is to say that Stoke and Sunderland don’t turn in their performance of the season, motivated by the desperation of their opponents and the fervent support of their home crowds for the last time in a largely successful (if relatively comfortable) season?
We often hear that “the pressure may just get to them” in reference to sides who need a certain result to fulfil their ambitions. But can’t the sides with “nothing to play for” realise that the pressure is off and play with a care-free abandon, which in many cases can inspire them to new heights?
Take Manchester City as an example, after months of wearily holding off United’s attempts to usurp them at the top of the league this season, they eventually folded under the weight of expectation and fell eight points behind their rivals.
Suddenly shorn of pressure and expectation, City re-discovered the attacking flair which had made them such a potent force earlier in the season. The momentum gathered from this run of form eventually saw them beat (and subsequently overtake) a United side who had stuttered under the pressure which was suddenly handed to them.
Other examples are Arsenal and Fulham. For much of the season, Arsenal were playing catch-up to their rivals Tottenham and – with low expectations – were able to go on a stunning run which reeled in a Tottenham side who suddenly began to panic. Since taking over third place, Arsenal have stuttered themselves and are without a win since beating Wolves, four games ago.
As for Fulham, they have been all but safe since the turn of the year. Suddenly liberated by their freedom, they have shown brilliant form in the last couple of months to rise to ninth in the table.
So you see, nothing in football is a given. Just because you have to win doesn’t make you more likely to. If Bolton and Manchester United expect to simply turn up and achieve their required wins next weekend, they may well get an unpleasant surprise. Pressure, it has been said, can “form diamonds” but also “crack pipes”. Beware the liberated teams, just because their season is “over” doesn’t mean they can’t wreck yours.

No jokes, no funny pictures, just me keeping you occupied for a while! Hope you enjoyed it :)

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Agony vs apathy

That's right, do I want to write about the Manchester derby or the England manager job?

"I thought it was a fart"
I have decided to write about Monday night, simply because I have a weird theory that writing about my angst will exorcise my demons.
I wanted to watch the match, but I still don't have Sky and because I am deluded, I often think that how I watch a match will determine the outcome. With that in mind, I was left with a few choices:

Watch the match at my Students Union and chew my nails off while quaffing pint after pint of warm cider. The problem with that is that I would have to watch the match with Manchester United fans from Surrey who, of course, we all hate. Yes, I am a Manchester United fan from Surrey.
Follow the match on the radio/internet at home. And have to break the news of a conceded goal to my manopausal father? No thanks. His huffing about during the tough times makes trying to be positive very difficult (he's Scottish), so I abandoned this option.
Go to the other half’s house (we'd won at Spurs and Arsenal when I was there this year), put my fingers in my ears, curl into the foetal position and sob meekly for two hours, waiting for the highlights on Match of the Day.

This was me on Monday, well, this has been
 me for every United game since 194

Of course, I picked the third option.
Like the subject of that Stevie Wonder song, I am very superstitious and from one minute past eight, the writing was on the wall for Manchester United.
Time ticked by slower than United's midfield as I counted down to ten thirty-five. And I really wish I hadn't bothered with my "tactic". Had I chosen a different method, United would have not only showed up, they may have even have had a shot, they may have even scored.
I've gone through the five stages of grief regarding our approach of defend, defend, defend. It can work from time to time; Chelsea's heroics in Barcelona are testament to this, but United don't really have any good defenders, which made things tricky. Still, only a draw was required, so playing a 4-5-1 formation was an understandable - if stupid - decision. If I have reached "acceptance" with the approach, I am still somewhere around "anger" when I think about the personnel. Against a team as dynamic as Manchester City, you need a midfield which will match their energy, drive and, above all, talent. So why on earth did United pick Scholes, Giggs and Park? The combined age of the three men is around one hundred and five and it showed as from the first minute to last, United were run ragged.
We're playing who in midfield?!

Watching the highlights just made United's inferiority all the more apparent. Not once was there a twenty second snippet of a chance for the visitors or a near-missed through ball or a shot of Antonio  Valencia laughing like he always does. Despite enduring a 6-1 defeat to their rivals earlier in the season, United were arguably more inferior on Monday night than they were in October. They had no shots on target for the first time in a game for three years. In all honesty, the visitors were lucky to have that many. A lack of ambition and threat meant that City could play with greater freedom and commit more numbers to attack and eventually the pressure told at the end of the first half.
David Silva, after looking knackered a month ago, has been transformed in the last few weeks.  And it was his corner in first-half stoppage time which was headed in by Vincent Kompany for the goal that proved to be the winner (or in United’s case, the “goal which meant we couldn't play for a draw”). I don't want to moan about David De Gea, he gets enough crap from other "experts" and although he was at fault for the goal, his generally brilliant performances have dragged this mediocre team to within a few results of an undeserved twentieth title win.

So lay off him!

So, the second-half came around after a poor first forty-five minutes. United usually come out of the dressing room after half-time with very dry hair, very red faces and very sore backsides, which often sparks a comeback, but there was to be none. Despite being faced with the possibility of conceding the Premier League lead to their local rivals, the lack of tempo or flair remained blindingly (I'm not continuing the Stevie Wonder theme here) obvious.
City had a few chances to double their lead through Gael Clichy and the excellent Yaya Toure but ultimately, one goal was enough as the full-time whistle drew cheers from the home crowd. When the game was over (on the highlights) I wasn't even too sad. United are simply not at City's level at the moment and, over the course of the season, they have been largely second-best. And anyway, the title wasn't lost against City, it was last last weekend against Everton, a result I took with typical realism and grace.
"I just ruined your title hopes, now do a gay pose"

So what happens now?
For City, they have their hands on the wheel of a very unpredictable car. Weeks of being the "hunters" have helped lift the pressure and a continuation of their form through the final two games of the season will see them crowned as champions for the first time since 1726. Up next is a tricky away trip to Newcastle. Fortunately for City, Newcastle may be tired off the back of ninety minutes with a Chelsea side who have suddenly remembered how to play football.
For United, the pressure is off but questions need to be answered: How did they let an eight point lead slip in just two weeks? Why did they play Park-Ji-Sung? Why did David de Gea shave his beard? Since their keeper's trim, United have come across form as barren as De Gea's chin at the most unfortunate time. Their remaining games are against Swansea and Sunderland, who have nothing to play for. That said, seeing how United and City have played this season - with something to play for - tells us that pressure is bad, reckless abandon is good.
For about twenty years, many have claimed that United are in decline. It must be said that these claims have often come from fans of Liverpool, who have of course been destined to win each of the last fifteen league titles. But I won't say too much about Liverpool, as they have won a trophy this season, while United will probably fall short. And anyway, these people are probably right for once; United are slipping.

Changes need to be made in the summer if fans from the red side of Manchester can bear going to work on Monday mornings again. Patrice Evra has totally lost form over the past two seasons and may need to be replaced. As for Giggs and Scholes, despite their ageless performances and their experience - an attribute which is twice as over-rated and twice as dull as the Arctic Monkeys -  this season, they cannot be relied upon forever. I've had a good run, I’ve been alive for twenty one years, and been solely responsible for twelve Premier League titles.
However, as much as it pains me to say it, a City title win will probably signal a new era, at least until the owners get bored or take advice from Roman Abramovich. United must rebuild either this year, or wait one more season before making tough decisions. I am not in any way saying "Fergie out" here, but he has busted a gut presiding over a good, but not great, team for three years now, and he looks like he needs a break, but then again, he always does. Did you see him during the game? He looked like a giant cherry as he battled fruitlessly with Roberto Mancini on the touchline.

Ominously, that battle looks like being a metaphor for this season.

Roy Hodgson is England manager by the way.

NOTE: I acknowledge that many of you have been directed here from the BBC Sport website as I often parasite the blogs of other, more talented journalists. I appreciate your click! However, some people may have been offended by my - quite frankly - appalling lack of values. I am deeply apologetic for my awful, awful sins and rest assured I will burn in hell for them. Although it is my best chance of entering my desired profession, it is no excuse for such a heinous, evil act. On the other hand you could just ignore the link.

Comments and vitriol welcomed.