So much for good intentions

Argh is all I can say when I look in here. I so want to be good about updating this blog but sadly, I’m not doing the job.

I guess that’s just it too: it’s not a job, it’s supposed to be a fun thing. The Greenest Pitch is supposed to be my fun blog. I think it still is, and I suppose if I get to a point where it’s no longer fun, I’ll stop. For the more serious stuff, I can always update my other blog, theconstantnow.com. Maybe you, gentle reader, could have a look at it, too. After reading this entry, of course.

And now for a brief and utterly incomplete assessment of some of the main talking points of the 2016 Prem, some other bits of football news, some thoughts and what have you.

The 2015-2016 English Premier League season must, must, must go down as the best ever. SO much to be thankful for this year. The real story is, of course, the extremely unlikely ascent of humble Leicester City to the summit of the League. 5,000 to 1 outsiders on the first day of the season, this club comprised largely of bargain-basement transfers and also-rans rightfully earned their very first top-league trophy in their 132 year history. The sense of vindication for manager Claudio Ranieri, who came in last summer with some sizable question marks on his reputation, nevertheless engineered a winning side.  This was done by being content to give the ball to the opposition for the most part and hit teams on the counter with the blistering pace of striker Jamie Vardy, and the speed and intelligence on the wings of Riyad Mahrez and Mark Albrighton. To stop the analysis at this point is a tad disingenuous, as there were so many heroes on the team (Huth, Fuchs, Kante, Schmeichel et al) but there’s not point bogging this down now. So many others have said it better than I could, and so I will leave it to them.

Perhaps the other big story is of the epic, astounding meltdown at Chelsea. From taking the Prem at a canter last season to utter implosion this has been a sight to behold. Mourinho, who appeared to have the freedom of the city at Stamford Bridge, so to speak, was unceremoniously dumped in mid-December after a 2-1 loss to eventual champions, Leicester. The Portuguese schemer, who’d sunk to the depths of accusing his players of sabotaging his work, lost the locker room somehow, this man so touted for his man-management skills. The big story of the off-season so far is Mourinho’s latest gig at Manchester United. It is still unclear whether he’s able to overcome doubts over what some have considered to be a manager with a serious reputation problem. For my part, I think it’s a solid signing. The man practically guarantees silverware, which United desperately need in order to get their mojo back. Maybe more on that in a future entry…

To my utter disgust, Liverpool appear to be on a serious rebound under Teutonic troglodyte Jurgen Klopp’s tutelage. Two cup finals in just under eight months is not bad for a manager on his maiden voyage in the English footballing structure, but it could likely never have been otherwise for a man with his CV. Borussia Dortmund, the proud, massive club he managed for seven years and subsequently led to back-to-back Bundesliga titles (in 2011 and 2012) gave this young, passionate coach his chance back in 2008, and he did not let them down. His vigor, enthusiasm for the game and motivational skills are legendary, and is just the shot in the arm the loathsome Reds need to recover some of their pride. It’s enough to make any decent Toffeeman sick to his stomach. I’ve been mopping up vomit for months.

Another sore point this season has been the rapid ascent of the perfectly vile north Londoners Tottenham Hotspur. A club that up until a few seasons ago was on a par with Everton has, since then, mushroomed like an out of control bacterial infection, overwhelming its host. This season they pushed Leicester all the way to the finish line, and finished in a comfortable second place, above their hated neighbors Arsenal. That Spurs have continued to evolve and truly excel while my beloved Blues languish away and mutate into the new Wigan has been a bitter pill to swallow indeed.

Just to make to bile rise in the throat for sure, let’s have a gander at my beloved Toffees, who will see a massive walkout of talent this summer without any doubt. Roberto Martinez, a manager whose tenure seemed to get off to such a good start in the 2013-2014 season, succeeded in replicating his style of team management that saw him craft a capable cup-winning side at Wigan that also contrived to get relegated in the same season. This is when Martinez absconded from Everton’s north-west neighbors and set up camp at Goodison. A fifth-placed finish in the first season, coupled with an attractive, possession and attacking style of play had the Gwladys Street End faithful crowing about a return of the School of Science, with visions of silverware clouding their better judgment.

In the end, that first season only turned out to be as successful as it was due to the defensive solidity the players still possessed from years under David Moyes. A staunch defense coupled with that sort of passing play can deliver results. It’s just that Martinez hasn’t a clue of how to marshal a defense. And as such, we saw the first evidence of just what a leaky defense gets you if you’re unable to outscore your opponents in 2014-2015, and this season, without a European campaign to distract us, we managed only 11th in the League, which was about right for the abject performances throughout a season that promised so much.

It is hard to justify us holding on the likes of Romelu Lukaku, John Stones or even the likes of Seamus Coleman, Gerard Deulofeu or died-in-the-wool Blue Ross Barkley with the sort of philosophy that was on employ there. Everton lost more games from winning positions than any other team in the top flight, a statistic that, as the season wore interminably on, clearly ate away at the players’ confidence and belief in their manager. By the end, the terminally optimistic Martinez admitted that his players had let him down, something you’d never heard from him in the preceding three years. My guess is they simply gave up. There’d been too many empty superlatives used for poor performances to convince the players any longer. There’d been too much talk and no substance. A team that, on paper at least, ought to be pushing for the top four went out with a whimper. Like captain Phil Jagielka said, we will likely see a massive clearout this summer. It breaks my heart. Yes, there’s new ownership. But I don’t think Farhad Moshiri was necessarily looking to rebuild a squad from the ground up.

It will likely be a busy summer, not just for Everton but for all Prem teams. The bumper TV deal has kicked out more dough than most clubs in the top flight have ever come across, which could see the migration of some serious talent to the rainy isle.

The way of all flesh…

guillotine

As is frequently the case, life has a habit of curtailing one’s passions, unless one’s passions are one’s life. As a father of three, husband and all-around working stiff, my passions, such as they are, often get pushed to the curb until such a time as the pile of it gets so… monumental… well, it gets time to pick up the rubbish and dispose of it.

Not that my passions are rubbish. Far from it.

WHAT a crazy season this has been so far in the Prem! Who would have thought Chelsea would be in the predicament in which they find themselves at this moment. Reports surfaced recently that Jose Mourinho is all out of time at Stamford Bridge, that the powers that be are awaiting until the end of the Stoke match this weekend to give the man the boot. This would have given them the international break to install his successor, a la Liverpool. It has since been reported that Mourinho retains the support of Chelsea’s deep-pocketed owner Roman Abramovich, but we all know how much that is worth these days. Chelski lost that game to Stoke, by the way.

This turn of events beggars belief, but is almost understandable given recent controversy surrounding the Portuguese schemer. Everywhere you look, Mourinho seems to be mentioned for all the wrong reasons: everything from the fallout of the Eva Carneiro fiasco to multiple stadium bans and fines, and even reports of a mutiny in the locker room led by everyone’s favorite sourpuss Cesc Fabregas (both deny the allegations). All signs point toward the Special One suddenly going from flavor of the month to something of a toxic asset. Where did it all go so wrong?

The Daily Mail, using its guise as an investigative news outlet, published this piece about all that has gone wrong old Jose. There are some pieces worth noting, though: Mourinho’s father, Felix, is apparently very ill and on his last legs. Mourinho has gone back and forth to Portugal often this season and one can see that the man is taking strain. One gets the feeling that a few misplaced words at the beginning of the season, coupled with the man’s mountain-sized ego and unwillingness to back down have contributed to what is becoming an untenable situation. I wonder if he had simply admitted he’d overreacted to Carneiro’s coming on the field to tend to Eden Hazard, if he’d defused that situation or, better, controlled his tongue and not said anything at all, whether he’d have a better grip on things right now.

Perhaps the problems started a little earlier, during the transfer window. Mourinho’s very public pursuit of Everton defender John Stones ended in futility, much to his embarrassment. How does a seemingly “small” club (when compared to the London giants) bat back such assiduous pursuit of one of their prize assets? Who do they think they are, Mourinho appeared to imply in his blustering comments. His inability to recruit adequate cover in that department, along with the ill-advised decision to allow Petr Cech to join Arsenal, seem to have called in to question his up-to-now unquestionable transfer nous.

How bad is it right now at Stamford Bridge, really? Does it make any sense in the world to sack a man who not six months ago brought home the Prem title at a canter with this same squad? Football is not the province of sense, reason or good taste, and as such the previous statements ought to be laughed off. This club is owned by none other than Roman Abramovich, a man accustomed to having everything he wants, right now, immediately, always. He went to some lengths to bury to hatchet between himself and Mourinho in order to woo the man back into the fold, and it now appears he may very well unearth it and bury the implement firmly in Jose’s back. It is so not beyond him it’s not funny.

The report on Mourinho’s imminent sacking came from a reliable source, and as such could not be discounted. Whether the latest pronouncement from the Bridge is a temporary stay of execution or a vote of confidence is to be seen. One hopes he hangs around, if for no other reason than the Premier League benefits from having a panto villian such as the Portuguese schemer. Still, Mourinho might have made his situation untenable.

It cannot be overstated that the situation with Eva Carneiro is unacceptable. In this day and age, a public figure of Mourinho’s clout cannot come across as a sexist pig, and there is no question that he did. The Football Association carried out an investigation, but never bothered to contact Ms Carneiro, which only further served to exacerbate the situation. How her input on this whole situation was deemed to be immaterial is truly beyond me, but it has now shown that the sexism is not focused simply on an individual, but is systemic. Carneiro was done very wrong in this sad debacle and goes to show that sexism in sport is not going to go away any time soon.

Mourinho’s inability to dislodge John Stones from Everton may have been the only well-publicized bit of transfer failure that we were made aware of. Chelsea did not reinforce their forward line, and Diego Costa showed that he has a niggle or two in him last season. We were all left to scratch our heads with the move for Colombian Radmael Falcão, who failed rather miserably to re-ignite his career at Manchester United last season. The Blues brought in Pedro from Barcelona for a significant outlay, but he has so far failed to make a real impression. We all know Loic Remy is just a backup. So Chelsea’s front line is, amazingly, in kind of a bad way. Perhaps Pedro was expected to hit the ground running. There have been reports that he is unhappy at the Bridge and wish he’d never left the Nou Camp.

Questions must be asked of Chelsea’s recruitment policy, if one indeed exists. The Blues currently have 32 of their players out on loan. That is not a typo. Chelsea have more out on loan than my beloved Toffees have on their books. While that last statement is not exactly true (it would appear the Toffees have 43 players signed up altogether), it does give one pause when you compare the roster of, say, Everton to Chelsea’s. Clearly, both clubs have increased focus on bringing in younger, unproven talent. It’s just that Chelsea have done on a much grander scale, and have sent the equivalent of a squad and its bench out on loan with a view to, potentially, plowing them back into the team.

Some get away. Everton has benefited from this policy, as has Man City (with Kevin De Bruyne, although via Wolfsburg). These aren’t exactly slouches. It would appear Chelsea’s scattershot style of recruiting young talent with great potential is netting results, but not for them. That is because these kids keep leaving due to annoyance at a perceived lack of chances. How many of this current loan crop will wind up back at the Bridge?

There’s a bit of arrogance in this policy: go out and scoop up as much young, raw talent and if they work out, great. At least the competition didn’t get them. The problem lies in whether they will live to rue the day they sold a world beater to a competitor or if they are unable to recoup some of the outlay. It’s a dangerous thing to spend a rich man’s money. If the results are good, then all is forgiven. If not…

That is probably where this is all going. Whether he’s acting like more of an ass than usual because of his father’s illness is neither here nor there. It is not up for debate whether Mourinho is everyone’s cup of tea; the man clearly divides opinion. If he continues to bring home the bacon, then much of his eccentricity can be written off. If not, then no. The Carneiro incident has proven he can be shockingly tone deaf to the mores of the times, while his spending can always lead to an inquest if the outlay does not net results. Pedro has been, so far, a costly mistake, while Falcão’s wages aren’t exactly bargain basement either. Fabregas was unstoppable last season but has not impressed this one. Nemanja Matic has not been at his best. Of course John Terry is slowing down, it’s why Mourinho chased Stones all summer. Expensive players, expensive contracts.

Still… Mourinho is a fan favorite. He is not going to be shown the door so soon. The recent vote of confidence might only be a stay of execution but really, who better is available? Rumors have circulated for what seems like forever that Abramovich’s deepest wish is to install Pep Guardiola as manager, but the Spanish tactician might be given bumper incentive to stay in Bavaria.

After having gone to such lengths to convince Mourinho to come back to the Bridge, perhaps Abramovich’s best bet is to allow this supposed top manager lead this team out of its rut. That being said, Mourinho could do worse than to polish up his public persona. He has always been a complainer, but this season he has managed to take that to new highs (or lows). As has been noted elsewhere, a bit of humility couldn’t hurt. Results are great, but character is better. I wonder if he has it in him?

Not for all the tea in China…

This summer has proven to be long and anguishing for Evertonians the world over. The “will he, won’t he” transfer saga of one John Stones (to either Chelsea, or now also the Man’s Citteh and United) has dragged on for three months, first with Jose Mourinho’s 20 million pound bid, which was followed two weeks later by one for 25 million, and then another for 30 million. As mentioned, this elevated amount of interest has drawn the two Manchester behemoths into the mix (blood in the water will do that), and it is more and more turning into a matter of not if but when (and to whom) the young former Barnsley academy grad will head up stream to greener pastures.

That Stones is destined to move on to a club larger (and more profitable) than Everton is a forgone conclusion in the minds of many. Manager Roberto Martinez is not one of those, plainly indicating his vision for the player: a center pillar in his plan to build up a new generation of Evertonian greats, future Everton captain, perhaps even the same role for England.

The eyes of the footballing world (or at least England) are on this young man who has had such a meteoric rise from Barnsley’s academy.

And then, just now, we hear that the young man has handed in a transfer request. Many Evertonians will be letting out howls of despair, clenching their teeth in anger and wondering what it’s going to take to be able to hold onto their prized assets.

As a Toffeeman myself, I feel annoyed and somewhat ambivalent. I can understand the boy wants to play for Chelsea. It’s regular Champions League appearances, Premier League titles, yearly runs at the FA Cup… I mean, wouldn’t you? So it’s not a matter of not being able to see it from his side.

To his credit, Stones has not once in the three games he’s played looked like an unsettled player or that his role at Everton is somehow beneath him. No, it has been much the opposite: he has been a model professional, playing extremely well all three times. So this transfer request is simply a young player who, understanding his brand is hot right now, will attempt to leverage the attention being lavished upon him to force through a move to a bigger club. The reasons are good, and beyond those stated above, any promising professional would want to be surrounded by the very best in his chosen field.

It’s not that Stones is in the wrong. It’s just that his request should be utterly ignored, bottom drawered, and he must be made to honor his contract if that is what the owner of it, namely, Everton Football Club, deign necessary.

Football is an odd profession. You have these binding contracts that players sign and are not allowed to simply walk away from. I work a job in a call center. If I get offered a better job with better pay, I put in my two weeks notice and walk away. My employer cannot force me to stay here. But John Stones, as much as he has a right to want to play at a bigger club, has signed a binding contract that he must honor unless the club releases him of that responsibility. The only way that will happen is if they get a silly money offer. But I have a feeling even that won’t be enough.

Odds are pretty good Stones will get his move. But Martinez now needs to make a difficult decision: does he try to put Chelsea over the proverbial barrel and extract a record fee for the youngster? Does he then turn it around to pick up two defensive reinforcements and a few other coveted players? Or does he dig in his heels and say no, not under any circumstances, and just ride this one out with a player who will likely become unsettled and unhappy with the turn of events? Either way, he must act immediately. You get the sense that it is now too late in the day to get adequate cover.

For my money, Stones is too important to the cause. And so, even if he rides the bench for a few weeks, Stones must be made to stay. He will get his move. Just not this window.

Furthermore, Everton must throw down the gauntlet here. There is something to be said about the nakedly provocative nature of Chelsea’s pursuit of the youngster. Comments by Mourinho, Chelsea captain John Terry and backline partner Gary Cahill cannot be seen as anything other than tapping a player up through the press. The London aristocrats should be made pay for their impudence by not only missing out on their number one summer target, but be made to watch their coveted prize sold to another club. Everton should make arrangements for Stones to be offered to the likes of Manchester United or even a club on the continent, such as Bayern Munich. You get the sense Stones would profit greatly (as would the Three Lions) from having played in Spain or Germany. At this stage, with so few cards to play, Everton must not sell Stones to Chelsea merely on principle.

that last bit there is a bit of my own spleen-venting. I’d rather loan him to Liverpool at this stage. Chelsea can go spontaneously explode for all I care.

Not that this is going to happen. The most likely scenario is Mourinho and Co. will come back with 32 million quid and a smug grin, and a deal will be hammered out. Chelsea will be in Goodison on 12 September, the first game back after the international break, and you can expect a mutinous atmosphere at the Old Lady. If I were Mourinho, I’d pick up a nasty cold or something and simply not show, so hot will the hatred be in the place for him. Stones would be advised to stay in London. And it will be an ugly, card-littered affair.

Even if the Toffees prevail in holding on to their star defender, you get the sense that Chelsea’s next turnout at Goodison will be an acrimonious one. If they lose him… it will color their meetings for years. David Moyes took immense personal satisfaction in beating Manchester City in the years following their successful luring of centerback Joleon Lescott. You get the sense that dynamic would be present again.

Martinez has spoken of his desire to build a team, and is recruiting younger players to do just that. There were six players on the pitch under the age of 22 in the last two games, and you get the sense Martinez has been prioritizing youth in this transfer window. At 21, Stones is central to his plans. As Everton’s legendary ‘keeper Neville Southall recently stated, what sort of message would selling Stones send out to the other young players in the team?

It’s a fair point. Here’s a counterpoint: holding onto Stones for the sake of it might be a bit of hubris.

I think, in the balance, it’s important that Everton hang onto Stones for this window and then reward him with improved terms on his contract. He has proven that he can be a professional and do the job even when his head’s been turned. He’s young, he can hang in for another year or two. It’s no train smash in his career if he stays a bit longer as he is so young now.

His very youth might be a card to play in this particular game. As good as he is, he he has a lot about his game to improve and he will have a greater chance to do so playing regularly every week. While Terry has seen his performances questioned in his last two outings (substituted in one and red-carded in the other), there is no guarantee that the old soldier is going to roll over and allow a callow youngster such as Stones to usurp his spot in the starting eleven. The far more likely scenario is Stones will find himself on the bench for the remainder of this season. That would likely mean he would have to prove his worth all over again to England manager Roy Hodgson, who will not select him if he is not playing.

If Stones has already thought this one through and he is insistent enough, then perhaps Martinez will have to just accept the inevitable. But the carrot of a starting berth in the Three Lions in next summer’s Euros and the promise of a move in the next summer transfer window could just be enough to keep the young man put, for now. Here’s hoping he stays…

Winners and losers… Week 1 of the Prem

At long last, the arduous wait is over and the new season has started. Week 1 provided it’s share of surprises, especially if you’re a Gooner. Much has been made of Arsene Wenger’s men, and I’ve got them winning the league, but not on the evidence of this performance. With over 62% of the possession, it’s not as though the Arse didn’t have a chance to set up the goal. Thirteen shots with six on target and five corners… the North London club had their chances. Wenger puts the loss down to defensive lapses, and indeed, the Hammers ensured their defense held firm to hit the Gunners on the break, and so the backline that gives is the backline that gets blamed. Petr Cech was at fault for the first goal, but then his central defense crapped the proverbial bed. It had poor Arsene with head in hands.

Manchester United got out of the gate with a win but failed to look convincing in it. Chelsea endured  a torrid opening day drawing 2 -2 with Swansea and seeing ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois sent off for a last-ditch challenge on Bafetimbi Gomis. While Mourinho struggles to add players to his ranks this year, it was Swansea new boy Andre Ayew who made himself at home, notching the first of his new club’s goals on the afternoon. He’s not the only Swans newcomer making his mark, with Jefferson Montero earning man of the match plaudits. While “only” a draw, you have to seriously consider the South Wales club as a serious top-eight contender (even if I have them finishing at 11th…)

As for other big clubs… the ‘Pool squeaked out a victory on some last-minute magic from Brazilian midfield schemer Filipe Countinho, a real screamer of a shot. As for the other half of Merseyside, an uninspiriting and probably underserved draw for the Toffees, as they held of the challenge to Premier League newcomers Watford. Quique Sanchez Flores’ newly assembled group of mercenaries professionals put in a creditable display and, on the balance, might be a bit more to handle than once thought. The only positives to take from the match for the Toffeemen will be the menacing form of Ross Barkley. If the Blue half of the Mersey are to perform this year, he will need to be at his best.

This weekend did produce one goalfest, in the shape of Leicester’s four goal drubbing on Sunderland. A brace from midfield maestro Riyad Mahrez and one each for Jamie Vardy and Marc Albrighton (all of them, incidentally, scored before the 60th, with Sunderland pinging two consolations in the 66 and 70th minutes), it was a comfortable display. Black Cats manager Dick Advocaat brought in defensive reinforcements in the last two months and it does not appear, on the evidence, that it made any impact. The eye catching stat here is 15 shots by the Foxes against just nine from the Black Cats, six corners to Leicester, who, incidentally, had the lesser of possession with 44%. That is impressive. Goes to show that Ranieri’s boys know what to do with the ball even if they don’t have it most of the time. The Barcodes took on Southampton on Saturday, which ended in a 2 – 2 draw.

Other results saw Villa edge Bournemouth in their home opener. The Cherries had a number of chances but were unable to capitalize, which proved costly when Rudy Gestede came off the bench to net for the visitors. Other newcomers Norwich got a cold welcome back to the top flight with a 3-1 beating handed to them by Crystal Palace.

In all, an exciting first weekend. Man City have West Brom as their opener on Monday afternoon, and we will be well and truly underway. The Prem is back, kids!

 

Season Preview: West Ham United

West Ham United, co-owned by long time business partners, the David’s Gold and Sullivan, are in their last year at the historic Boleyn Ground before their move to the Olympic Stadium. For Gold and Sullivan, there is only one goal in mind: Premier League survival. That’s it. Proof of this is West Ham’s capitulation in the Europa League, losing to Astra Giurgiu in the qualification stage of the competition. New manager Slavan Bilic fielded a side full of newcomers and youngsters in the second leg of the showdown and they were unable to turn the tie in their favor. Bilic made all the right noises about how the competition is important to him, but really, he’s thinking about the League. Europe can wait, they have bigger fish to fry.

Bilic’s appointment raised some eyebrows in the footballing world. Gold and Sullivan made it abundantly clear that former manager Sam Allardyce was nowhere near sexy enough for them, and fair enough, the guy is a long-ball merchant and a known quantity. His old school approach was probably fine for Bolton and Blackburn, but the Hammers want the return of the golden era of  Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. They want swagger, sexy, saucy. Allardyce, while always reliable for a hilarious quote, was never going to win over the Boleyn Ground faithful. So Bilic comes in, and he’s a bit of a local legend. He didn’t play long for the club, but in his year and some change there, he made an impression on the fans for his unflinching commitment to the cause.

As a manager, Bilic led Croatia for six years, spent time at Lokomotiv Moscow and most recently Besiktas. In both instances at club level, Bilic was sacked due to inability to fulfill the club hierarchy’s ambitions. In the latter’s case, he took over arguably the biggest club in Turkey, with the mandate to win the title there and failed to do so. It’s a tall order for any manager to lead a championship squad but the short of it is there has not been vast evidence of this being a supremely capable manager. He led the national team for his home country for six years, where they qualified for two European tournaments. He never led them to a World Cup. He failed at Lokomotiv. He failed at Besiktas.

There is no real indication that this appointment is anything other than a place holder, in my mind. The David’s Gold and Sullivan both openly courted former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, if for nothing other than to show the fans they were looking for that caliber of manager. Klopp decided to take a year’s sabattical, but it’s not like there aren’t other big-names available. The appointment of Bilic is strange and seems to be a bit of a publicity stunt on their part while they do a deeper search for a proper next-level manager.

You might have noticed how little I’ve spoken about transfers in this one. They have brought in some quality reinforcements in the window, even pipping Everton to the signature of Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus. Dimitri Payet is another decent addition to the squad, and you have to feel that these additions should solidify an already decent enough team. But I have a feeling there is an air of edginess about the leadership at the club and Bilic could very easily play conservative, ensure he does not tarnish his reputation any further by being fired for a poor run of results, and he will fulfill the David’s demand of keeping the Hammers in the top flight going into their new, dubiously acquired digs at the Olympic Stadium. Everything else is just details…