Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Changing Of The Garde

Aston Villa's slide towards the Championship has been one of the more agonizing of recent times. Remi Garde thinks he has had it bad? The plummet dates back as far as Martin O'Neill's departure in August 2010 and Gerard Houllier's replacement, the other Frenchman to helm this particular titanic.

Garde's unkind record of two wins in twenty games can partly be explained by a lack of transfer funds in January, This is not a new problem for an Aston Villa manager. O'Neill's original departure was one borne out of frustration at the board refusing to invest in a side that found sixth place a frustrating, if now out-of-reach ceiling.

Six years on and the club finds itself crashing through an ever-cracking floor. A reliance on cheap imports (mainly from France, and I'm not talking about the manager, Garde has a sound reputation back in his homeland) has left the club ill-equipped to either survive in the Premier League or even guarantee a return back at the first attempt. Comparisons to Fulham are deserved - a club who currently sits 21st in the Championship after a free-fall out of the top tier.

Unless real investment is made by the club's new board, now including both Adrian Bevington and Steven Holis, tough times lie ahead for the Villains.

Garde must not be blameless in this near-certain relegation. From January he has appeared resigned to his and the club's fate, and even early on in his 147-day reign he appeared to lack the necessary passion (ironically the very same, if short-lived, attribute that his predecessor Tim Sherwood possessed in bucket-loads.)

It was thought that he would be able to unite a squad that was Gallic-heavy, if short on true Premier League quality. But it seems he became as lacking in hope as anyone at the club. He resembled Paul Jewell in that infamous Derby record-low total season from 2008 - the post-match interviews evoking  a slowly but intensely burning fire.

Speaking of fires, the job currently does not require a firefighter. It requires someone willing to take a short-term hit to the reputation. It has been said that Villa may wait until the summer to make an appointment and that may yet be a shrewd move. Few managers would want to tarnish themselves and be the one that had the relegation on the CV. Eric Black, the caretaker, best get comfortable, before the new manager hopefully finally has a chance to rebuild.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Klopp's Possible Ticket to Europe Papers the Cracks

So, that Capital One/Carling/Magners/Burger King Cup match was just awful, wasn't it? I saw the words "tense" and "nail-biting" bandied around quite a lot, but can only assume this is down to the disproportionate amount of ex-Liverpool players/managers (and supporters?) in the media.

Liverpool may yet find that beating Manchester City or Everton in the final is their best chance of Europe next season. Klopp's squad seems ill-suited to the task of overcoming teams that sit back. I think we all worried that would be the case with the German's style of play. And I think he realises he needs major surgery on his squad. They are certainly buying into his heavy metal style of play, which is a good sign. Yet with no poise on the ball, they need the acres of space that is not afforded them when they come up against the better-organised teams.

Ironically, this means they will probably win their final, with neither Everton or City renowned for the type of obdurate spoiling that Stoke are capable of on nights like last. For the week-in-week-out grind of the Premier League, however, this will be a period when they really miss Philippe Coutinho. How Klopp must rue the fact that his predecessor was so trigger happy with the £115 million (!!!) raised over the last two years through the sales of Sterling and Suarez. In fact, if I was him, I would argue that the net spend of late has probably still not been thaaat bad.

I hate to speculate on cherry-picking of plucky underdogs, but Riyad Mahrez must surely be on the minds of a few top-half managers. Why he would want to swap almost guaranteed Champions League football for a probable Europa League marathon is beyond me, but just a thought!

Also, we need to talk about Christian Benteke. He has replaced Mario Balotelli a little too snugly for the liking of a few, I'm sure. For more than double the transfer fee too! His fall from grace is alarming, to say the least, but let's not forget he went through a couple of dry spells at Villa. He could do with a confidence-boosting run towards the season's end to try and keep his place for next year.

Simon Mignolet too may yet be able to build on the well-earned hero status of last night and put some of his own roots down. But Liverpool's inability to defend a high ball was sorely obvious. Until this is sorted, a counter-attacking Klopp special in the cup final may be the Pool's main hope of Euro action in the near future.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Fork In The Barrack Road

I started a post with this title nine days ago, leading on the point that while Jonjo Shelvey and Henri Saivet were good players, they were not the strengthening that was required. Judging by the five goals and four points that came Newcastle's way since then, I was perhaps being a bit pessimistic!

Let no-one be fooled, though, finishing is still a big problem on Tyneside. Aleksandr Mitrovic is a fine player, but whether through lack of confidence or killer instinct is not someone to reliably finish off a move.

The build-up and excitment to the West Ham game was dampened somewhat with the news that Charlie Austin had made a snip of a £4 million move to Southampton. Among all the hype of "Wow! What a great deal!" it was perhaps overlooked that Austin's contract expires in the summer, so QPR were lucky to get anything for him. Given that they are marooned in mid-table, far from either play-off contention or relegation sweats, it was perhaps the prudent financial decision to get a bit dollah into the coffahs.

If Southampton get anything approaching double figures in goals from the striker, the powers-that-be at Newcastle may take a good, hard look at themselves and ask themselves why they let such a deal get away from them. Saido Berahino, at 22, has perhaps the higher all-important sell-on potential, but arguably also the higher risk of being a petulant child judging by his recent time at West Brom. Then again, is Tony Pulis really the one to get the best out of a maverick youngster? Heck, is Steve McClaren?!

Speaking of apparently questionable characters, what a debut from Shelvey. At times I thought I was watching Barcelona (As a Newcastle fan I am starved of any killer passes, so forgive my OTT-ness). It was as comfortable a 2-1 win as I have seen in awhile. Even when we came under a bit of pressure in the second half, I always felt confident we had a third goal in us, and Mitrovic did a good job of holding up play, although sometimes his distribution/finishing lacks a bit of conviction.

With Watford next on the horizon, a swift revenge should be on the menu. The 1-0 FA Cup defeat with a full strength side was the final straw in terms of what we had. An injection of quality to the squad was needed and has been delivered. However it is imperative not to stop there. At least one striker and a left-back are a must. While Newcastle have improved of late, all the bottom sides, including Aston Villa, have made their own gains. Standing still is not an option, and trying to do so will lead to a well-deserved relegation for any of the contenders.

Friday, 6 November 2015

A good week for English co-efficients

In what was fast becoming a situation of desperate measures for the Premier League's beloved fourth place trophy, ironically the club most accused of treating it as such was the one who did it the most damage this week.

Arsenal's 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich was in many ways a righting of the wrong that occured when the Germans were vanquished a fortnight ago in London. despite having all the territory etc. Any war imagery is unintentional, I swear!

The Gunners' proud record of maximum progression in 15 Champions League group stages is one that is under threat, yet this is one season where Premier League success, or at least the top two, may be within reach. Perhaps skipping their inevitable drawn out hammering by one of Europe's elite will allow their confidence to remain. And hey, there's always the Europa League, a definitely winnable competition.

Man City gave probably the most impressive and polished performance of the week, with a stunning display of speed and savagery on the counter-attack. Brendan Rodgers will have been spitting his well-pruned feathers at the sight of Raheem Sterling's goal and it must be said - could Sterling have been right all along? He certainly seems to have taken to life at the Etihad, like a duck to water you might say. Must stop thinking about ducks...

In all fairness, finishing was always his week point, but to give such a calm and precise conclusion to a thrilling break, and an all-round potent display, is feasibly proof that Liverpool was holding back a talent. It's much easier to initially flourish at anything when you are not immediately looked upon as the main man. Sterling had perhaps one season under the "promising youngster" tag before Suarez was chased out of town and Sturridge self-combusted. At City, Aguero, Bony and De Bruyne, not to mention the likes of Silva, Nasri and Navas, are already top quality attacking options. He is now free to learn, absorb, grow into the top player everyone unfairly assumed he was.

It is also impossible not to wonder whether Sterling would have still been at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp. While it must be said that Rodgers did achieve success that Klopp would be hoping to emulate, his most recent record was worrying. Under Rodgers, Sterling was...stalling, much like the rest of the side. There had been glimmers of the post-Sterling Liverpool sparking into life, most notably in that draw at Arsenal. Yet it was the equivalent of a spluttering engine, soon to burn out completely. The philosophy was tired and, most damningly, muddled.

Klopp, in just a few weeks, has certainly got his ideas across. His ideals of rock and roll football were not a million miles way against Rubin Kazan. As far as 1-0 hammerings go, this was right up there. High pressing, thrilling attacking football - there is a reason why his Dortmund side was so successful.

Man United and Chelsea also did their own bit for the cause, but I am not going to wade into the perpetual Rooney/Van Gaal/Mourinho storms this time. Too early in the morning for that. By all means though, get your fix of superstar soap opera! Don't forget to check out the Facebook page for the Messi vs Ronaldo Great Keyboard Warrior War. I need to get wars and ducks out of my system... This'll do - would you rather face an army of duck-sized horses, or a lone horse-sized duck?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Why this season's Premier League is the most refreshing in years

The self-styled best league in the world has had its issues of late. The top four in particular was seen as a closed shop, with only the rich elite having any hope of inhabiting the money positions. Rightly or wrongly, the ever-more financially bloated top league has extended its money share a touch, to the extent that the newly-promoted Bournemouth were able to drop a cool £8 million on Tyrone Mings from Ipswich. Let's not forget the £12 million the still-Championship Fulham spent on Luke McCormack.

While this money bubble will surely burst at some stage, and the likes of Newcastle and Villa in their frugal ways will rise to the top and laugh from their ivory towers, it's made for a thrillingly open season thus far, as more of the mid-ranking have a bit of dough to outspend their European counterparts with. Mahrez at Leicester, Cabaye at Crystal Palace - these are clubs who are in their second and third seasons after promotions respectively. When you add the fact that they both have managers who are delighting in rubbing the noses of their critics, it's an undeniably nice thing to see.

In addition to this, McClaren at Newcastle attempting to rebuild his reputation, and succeeding on the basis of performances, if not yet results, plus Slavan Billic at West Ham finally attempting to prove that he isn't merely an England national side bogeyman eight long years after that wet Wembley night.

Then you have Southampton and Everton - the Saints riding on the back of a tremendous season last time out, and threatening at least a repeat this time, Martinez living up to his so far somewhat inconsistent reign with an extremely mixed bag of results.

Liverpool are one of the standout cases for me of a bit of dare-I-say-it fun returning to the fray. Rodgers did make a valuable contribution to Anfield's recent history, and will surely always be welcomed back by supporters should he ever return to watch his former side, but towards the end of his reign he seemed lost in his own bubble of motivational-schtick, tossing out cliches that even he didn't seem to believe any longer. Jurgen Klopp's claim of his love of rock and roll football seemed alive and well at Stamford Bridge in their 3-1 win. The odd bum note and leftover feedback was definitely audible, but more than made up for by the theatrics of their goals.

Speaking of which, Jose Mourinho is one man in danger of being left behind by this new element of fun. His sides have rarely been thrilling ones to watch, and when they are, it always seems to have been a temporary phase en route to his idealistic vision of a ruthless cyborg of a team. Even his solid-as-a-rock defensive plans have been ripped to pieces by this more adventurous than normal Premier League, and he must surely recognise this, fight fire with fire, and simply allow his most creative players and supposedly deadliest finishers the room to dovetail and combine as they please.

Hazard, Oscar, Costa, Remy, Falcao - that is by no means the only attacking talent he has, yet he refuses to play to their strengths, and his continuing strangulation of their talents cannot last. He claimed to want to help Falcao back to his best, yet the longer he rots away on the bench, supposedly having to dislodge Costa, the more like a vanity project it seems. Solution - play them both up front together. If this reads like an anti-Jose rant, it isn't, merely a suggestion that he should allow him to be swept up in this newly attacking league, him being the supposedly Happy One this time around.

Louis van Gaal can also stand to loosen up on the pitch if he wants to get anywhere near the league this season. Off the field, his attitude formation seems to be a constant 2-3-5, so a bit more cavalier on the pitch would be nice. As long as one of those five strikers isn't Rooney. Seriously, the man needs a rest. The endless bashing he gets will not do him any good. He needs to remind himself why he loves the game, see how he can move forward a stalled career, and he needs a bit of time out to do that.

Manchester City and Arsenal are definitely doing it right. Could this be the first season in living memory where they occupy the top two spots? I need to employ a fact checker to see when that last happened. Hmm...alright, I'll do it. WHOA - OK, this would be the first time it ever happened. Now, that would be refreshing.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

An Unhappy First Visit...

The pressure was always going to prove too much. Five games without victory in the build-up to a match that Newcastle would always be expected to win in any circumstances, yet there was a certain fear in the air, a sense that any win would be scrappy. The only time they had racked up any kind of goal tally was against the toothless lower-league opposition that Northampton had provided in the Capital One Cup.

The warm-ups of the two sides, in hindsight, were quite an interesting window. Watford did some stretching, while Newcastle rehearsed some snappy, yet also strangely subdued one-touch pass-and-move. It was the last time they would demonstrate it that afternoon. All the talk of late is how good the training has been, but with the form of our respective attack and defence, I fail to see how facing that lot in training all week is any kind of gauge of performance come Saturday itself.

Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney were a thorn in the side of the home team all afternoon, showcasing the power and pace that mercilessly exposed the lack of the same in captain Fabricio Coloccini. Not only did the Argentine defender fail to impress in those qualities, but his distribution was often careless to the point of criminal, with countless floated dinks barely making it halfway to the intended target before being easily intercepted by a much more hungry Watford player.

The selection of Steve McClaren was a talking point throughout the week after the equally meek surrender at West Ham. Personally, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to bench Papiss Cisse and throw Ayoze Perez, Siem de Jong and Rolando Aarons into the attack. If you aren't going to go for the jugular at home to a newly-promoted side, even though Watford may yet finish well clear of relegation, then when? Perez was the only one of that power trio to make the grade.

As I was watching live at the ground, it took a minute or two for the formation to be clear in my mind. The hope in my mind was for some kind of Perez-Cisse partnership. In reality, the Spaniard was in a staggeringly defensive left-midfield role. The opening 45 saw Cisse as the only player in the Watford half for long spells. Florian Thauvin and Daryl Janmaat showed some promising link up play down the right, and the Dutch right-back was our main attacking threat throughout the match.

The most damning aspect of the game was, even at 2-0 down, the Toon had 11 men in the penalty box, with no out-ball. No counter attack possible. By the time any forward momentum was gathered, all gates were shut by the visitors.

In all fairness, there was a slight improvement in the second half, with Cisse being jettisoned for de Jong, but the formation changed little. There was still no desire to push up the field, get numbers in the box, and only Janmaat was showing any guile when it came to actually forcing the issue and creating something dynamic.

Another worry was McClaren's delay in making any further changes. Not until the 80th minute did substitute number two arrive, and even then, hoping a straight swap with Aarons for Haidara would make any big difference was a tad misguided. Aarons can have as big an impact as any youngster in the Premier League if he is let off the leash and allowed to really attack teams from a more advanced position than wing-back.

By this stage, even a one-goal deficit seemed insurmountable, and each broken down attack saw a few more people filter out around me. By the time the final whistle blew, a half empty stadium remained, but the booing was substantial enough.

In fact, throughout the game, the surrounding fans in my area certainly were not shy in showing their frustration. It was perhaps a reflection of the inertia affecting the side that barely one player escaped abuse. In general, the new boys escaped harsh judgement, although Thauvin has work to do if he is to escape the second-rate Ben Arfa tag that seems destined to befall any new French winger that arrives to Tyneside.

All in all, a lot of work to do, hopefully starting tonight at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but now I must do my own. Night shift tonight for me. Hopefully many good shifts are put in at St James', and not just from the away side...

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Can Rooney Recapture The Glory Days?

It seems incredible that it was 11 years ago when Wayne Rooney announced his arrival on both Manchester United and European stage with a hat-trick to help swat Fenerbahce aside. At 18 years old, he seemed poised to take on the world, having already threatened to make Euro 2004 his own.

Fast forward to 2015, and as Rooney approaches his 30th birthday, he tonight spearheads his and his club's grand return to European competition. Perhaps as a marker of how both have fallen on the world stage, it is not yet September and this is not a group game. Club Brugge stand in the way of that and Rooney will be looking for a serious spark. Now is the time for another hat-trick, or at least a goal, to silence the growing band of naysayers.

Many previous dry spells have been blamed on injury or fatigue, such as a European Championship or World Cup campaign, but with a relatively bare summer, this season has seen an undeniably ring-rusty Rooney. Ironically, it was his own lack of sharpness that probably caused Kyle Walker to put past his own keeper on the opening day, with Walker throwing himself in front of a shot that never came. Aston Villa are a club that Rooney historically loves - an unlucky 13 have flown past their keepers from his boot. We all know the "lies, damn lies, and statistics" quote, but it is impossible to resist the connection. He was, to put it kindly, below-par at Villa Park on Friday night.

An admittedly key element of recent times in Rooney's career has been the growing frequency with which he has been deployed either on the wing or central midfield. For someone who burst onto the scene with such energy, that should not necessarily pose much problem, but it is true that this may have hampered him. Robin Van Persie and Cristiano Ronaldo have both been his positional scourges over the years, leading to teams that are not built to serve Rooney. Now that that time has belatedly come, could it be that the fire has long since burnt out?

It was a long-levelled accusation towards Sir Alex Ferguson that he had dulled the sharpness of the Rooney blade in favour of a more defensively-minded selfless team player. Rooney being Rooney, he has (mostly) done whatever is asked of him, and would probably have played right-back if Fergie had convinced him so.

Unquestionably, in terms of end-of-season statistics, Rooney is a relentlessly consistent performer, and can surely have Fergie to thank for some of this. Last season, he became the first player in the Premier League era to score 10+ goals in 11 consecutive campaigns. In only two of these did he breach the 30 mark, and in only one further did he pass 20, Probably most galling of all for him, his most productive scoring campaign was followed by Fergie's Van Persie trophy signing, which admittedly won him his swansong campaign. Even last season, Rooney ended as not only United's top scorer but also leading assist-maker.

He now has the chance to further cement his unquestionable legacy. Yet, the one niggling question remains - did he move to Old Trafford too soon? Did his explosive early promise ever really get fulfilled? Yes, he has scored many goals, and many spectacular ones at that, such as THAT overhead against Man City. But remember the way he ran at and terrorized those defences at Euro 2004. Was it coached out of him? Was his body type and tendency to easily put on weight always going to sand those jagged edges away? Or is it all rubbish? Could it be that he has in fact fulfilled whatever potential he had? His could remain a cautionary tale for the likes of Ross Barkley to stay where you are developing, and not to reach for the stars so soon.

Or tonight may yet be the start of Rooney's late career golden era. The scene is set. European midweek floodlights will be on. He will be central striker for that same team he, lest we forget, is the 3rd top scorer ever for. Perhaps his career trajectory is a lesson for football hacks everywhere to avoid comparisons with the absolute greats of the game, and simply appreciate him for what he is, a solid striker who guarantees goals. Only, he doesn't right this moment. Step forward, Wayne.