Monday, 8 September 2014

Welbeck Answers The Critics

Arsene Wenger would have been rubbing his hands with glee tonight, as Danny Welbeck slipped nicely into his new role as an actual goal-scorer. Often pushed onto the flanks, and eventually out the door, at Old Trafford, the 23-year-old has a knack of producing when it really counts (ignoring his encounter with Neuer last season). Sweden and Italy have both felt his wrath at major tournaments, and he has ensured England go forward with one foot already in France and Euro 2016.

Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling dove-tailed beautifully at times with the new Arsenal man, and the duo of finishes he provided were clinical. No longer can it be claimed that he is no finisher. Welbeck perhaps struggled with his fringe role alongside Wayne Rooney for Man United, and the crumbling of United's general dominance alongside the remaining high expectations. England as a national side have probably never been lower in terms of expectation, despite a potentially fearsome attack. The defence creaked, but Welbeck was razor sharp on the counter.

Ten goals in 28 games is no shame at international level, and there is no reason why the Englishman should not perhaps even double that total for Arsenal this season, given the embarrassment of riches in that particular midfield. Man United have chosen to go down the foreign route at a high cost to their own coffers, yet Welbeck will be hungry to prove they had a good thing under their nose the whole time. It is not inconceivable that his goals could secure a Champions League spot for Arsenal at his former club's expense, and Wenger will know he has got a bargain, if you can call a £16m purchase that.

Roy Hodgson will also be thrilled at Welbeck's upturn in fortunes. With Theo Walcott's eventual return to fitness, a big portion of England's attack will be able to strike up a new understanding, and with Welbeck's past alongside Rooney in addition to the Sterling/Sturridge/Lambert trio at Liverpool, the scope for huge fluidity in the England attack is arguably greater than ever.

As far as the English defence goes, Gary Cahill gave the kind of all-action performance that used to be John Terry's staple, particularly for one heroic clearance that stopped a certain goal. However, Phil Jones must do more to nail down what could be his place for the next ten years and beyond. The dearth of options must be used to his own advantage, and his undoubted potential needs to be tapped into over the next year or two. He could even be a captain for both club and country, such are the good traits he possesses. Inspiration can be taken from his ex-club-mate at the other end of the pitch.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Man United's 'Identity' Is Already Long Gone

The sale of Danny Welbeck to Arsenal is being held up as an example of Manchester United's distinctive identity being lost, as claimed by ex-assistant manager Mike Phelan.

Is it not the case however, that this started a long time ago? For a long time now, Welbeck has seemed at odds with the galactico-style recruitment favoured by the club. Even Fergie, in his latter days, plumped for a 29-year-old Robin Van Persie to play down the middle ahead of Welbeck.

If we really want to nit-pick, surely the club's identity was sold down the river to the Glazers, as part of their supposed milking of club funds for their own agenda, and holding the club from reaching its potential. Whether that is all accurate or not (the summer's spending spree would suggest this is exaggerated), it is a long time since the Class off '92. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, and David Beckham, to name a few home-grown stars over the years are all of a similar retired age. Recent headline-makers include Wayne Rooney (a big-money signing from Everton), Cristiano Ronaldo (a Portugese wonder-kid turned global by Fergie), and the aformentioned Van Persie.

It is what all clubs have done. The idea of a club having an instinctive identity that breeds all the best-loved players from a 500-yard radius of the stadium is romantic, and part of the magic that connects a club to its fans. In the lower league it still exists to a large extent. But the big leagues are now about the biggest wallets, and have been for some time. Any club that splashes out in an attempt to reach footballing greatness is guilty of losing big chunks of their identity in return. Arsenal are held up as a shining example of all that is well and good about English football, in terms of sustainability, and style of play. Yet even they for nearly two decades have been managed by a Frenchman, and their largest shareholder, Stan Kroenke, is an American, just like the Glazers and John W. Henry at Liverpool. Chelsea are run by a Russian/Portugese combo.

In such a globalised world, this is all inevitable, particularly at the game's top table. Yet the dynasty of Sir Alex Ferguson lulled United fans into a sense of false pride at how their club was run. "Give a manager time, like Fergie was given", has been the standard cry from fans/pundits in defense of whoever's head was on the Premier League chopping block. Even when Moyes was appointed, Fergie himself perpetuated the myth that Old Trafford was somehow a special land of infinite patience. Nine months later, they became just like any other club, panicked into action by poor short-term results. Fergie would never have got the same time in this day and age, and neither will Van Gaal. Welbeck may have come from the United academy, but just like the overlooking of Giggs for the managerial post, a Dutchman, a Scouser, and a Colombian will all battle it out for striking supremacy ahead of the young Englishman.

In many ways, this dilution of local identity has led to more exciting football from a neutral's perspective. Football is as tribal as ever, but in a more fluid manner. Luis Suarez was no less thrilling to watch at Anfield for his foreign status, but even he now makes way for the cementing of local favourite Raheem Sterling (well, and Balotelli.) The time is now perfect for Man United to gracefully accept their status as just another mish-mash of world-renowned footballers from all the realms of the galaxy. As anyone who witnesses Angel Di Maria blowing his first Premier League defence away will testify, there are worse fates than your club losing its true historical identity.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ben Arfa's Newcastle Hell Ended by Geordie Bruce.

Many (too many) words have been written about Hatem Ben Arfa in the past year or so. Here are some more to round off the latest perplexing saga in the North-East. Newcastle fans have tended to use his potentially world-beating talent as a vehicle from which to take aim at manager Alan Pardew. Every poor performance in the Frenchman's absence would be accompanied by pro-Ben Arfa chants, designed to undermine the manager and paint the Gallic maestro as some kind of wronged political prisoner under the Ashley/Pardew regime. Che Guevara banners have become common-place in recent months. He was even forced to cancel a 'meet and greet' with fans in local venue 'The Back Page', amid club fears of whipping up some kind of anti-establishment frenzy.

There is another school of thought, one that suggests Ben Arfa's inability to track back or work as part of a tight unit was detrimental to the team spirit of Newcastle United. This has consistently been the official line coming from Pardew, and it has been suggested that the rest of the squad share this point of view, ever since last autumn's 3-2 defeat to Everton, where Ben Arfa was replaced at half-time with the score at 3-0. Ever since, he struggled to get games.

The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. Ben Arfa is a talent that no amount of fancy-dan recruitment can hope to replace. Remy Cabella, although excellent for Montpellier last season, does not yet fully convince as a focal creative point for an aspiring Premier League attack. More should have been done by Pardew to integrate Ben Arfa into a unit that has all too often appeared negative and anything but tight. This calendar year has seen Newcastle display relegation form, and while the Frenchman has been packed off to Hull for the remainder of his contract, Pardew must do a hell of a lot more to prove he has learnt his lessons. A talent such as Ben Arfa's should have been given more trust and room to breathe.

Yet, as Pardew will undoubtedly argue, Ben Arfa did not do quite enough on the pitch, on a sufficiently frequent basis, to earn the manager's trust. A total of 14 goals and 18 assists in 86 appearances is hardly Messi-esque, even though when he did turn it on, the fireworks were glorious. Breaking it down to cold efficient logic, even the best goals only count for one, yet the inspiration of Ben Arfa at his best lit up St James' Park, and that golden spring of 2012 will always be remembered as the time when even Pardew's handbrake was not enough to hold back a Ba/Cisse/Ben Arfa trio.

Here lies the crux. Like many on Newcastle's books (the equally banished Marveaux for one), Ben Arfa did not fit into a management style that favours hard work and industry more than anything else. Not that everyone should Berbatov their way around the pitch, but there has to be room for that lazy kind of unpredictability, the sort that gives defenders cold sweats. Siem de Jong and Cabella may yet provide the antidote to this, but surely it would have been easier to just bury the hatchet with a man who has proved he can rip the Premier League to shreds on his day.

Steve Bruce, a through-and-through Geordie (who managed Sunderland no less) will know what he is getting, and if he can coax the goods out of Ben Arfa, Pardew will look even more foolish. The best goals may only count for one, but arrogance and gross mismanagement like we have seen at Newcastle lately counts for no goals, no points, and no support.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Deadline Day Fun!

By far and away the biggest transfer deadline day story; Harry Redknapp, in navigating his way through a path of journalists, did not wind his window down. On the subject of his own wheeler-dealing (hopefully he's not reading this), Fabio Borini is rumoured to be on his way to Loftus Road for a reported £10m from Liverpool. Injury prone? Check. High wages? Check. Over 30? Not by a long shot. The 23-year-old is a good prospect who could yet make it in England, judging by his part in another Houdini act last season at Sunderland. However, with QPR's general dealing remaining exclusively to big names, it remains to be seen whether they will be suited to a relegation battle. Big-money additions, Leroy Fer and Jordan Mutch, are both highly regarded, but both suffered the drop last season. Fer in particular received mixed reviews from Norwich fans on his ability to track back and work hard.

One player who is more than willing to put in the donkey work for the greater good is Danny Welbeck. News of an imminent loan move to Arsenal is being greeted with some howls of derision by some Arsenal fans, who after seeing their club spend an unheard of £40m on Alexis Sanchez, are frustrated at an apparent signing that they feel to be beneath them. How dare they resort to signing a fourth-choice Man United reserve? In reality, it should not be that simple. Welbeck has always had the utmost potential, and has been unfairly regarded as an unsexy English clogger. He has an excellent burst of pace, and possesses the kind of explosive attributes that the always silky-smooth Arsenal attack misses in the absence of Theo Walcott (not that Welbeck would ever catch Walcott in a 100m race). Adding that to Sanchez, Sanogo, and Podolski (with Giroud and Walcott still to return), Arsene Wenger would be happy with his options, given the formidable array of attacking midfielders they possess. Big names and big money do not always equal success.

Having said that, Man United's summer spending is beginning to resemble a child blindly (no pun intended) swinging at a bountiful pinata. Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, and now Falcao, must be leaving David Moyes seething with jealousy, despite the glee he must at least somewhat be feeling at Louis Van Gaal's underwhelming results to date. The Dutchman's selection headaches will be reaching migraine proportions when he jots the names down on paper, but at least Tom Cleverley looks to be one name he can rub off the list of mediocrity, as he seems to be close to a move to Aston Villa.

As a Newcastle fan, what began as an exciting summer sprinkled with actual signings rather than know-nothing directors of football, has fizzled out into one that still requires further reinforcements, particularly at the back. Mike Williamson has performed admirably at times, but should not be a first-choice any higher than the relegation battlers. Steven Taylor's career at the top level has passed him by, and captain Coloccini is beginning to show his lack of pace as he approaches his mid-30s. Alan Pardew is past his sell-by-date and working for an owner who doesn't care about the club beyond its useful function as a cash cow. The only progress from last season will be in a downward direction unless serious changes happen at both board and dug-out level.

With three hours to go at the time of writing, there is still the chance of Wenger ensnaring Messi, as the Barca galactico is taking part in a charity match that the Frenchman is attending. In Wenger We Trust. Until he doesn't spend a trillion billion pounds on a striker that is. Happy deadline day!