A case of mistaken identity

We are getting to the business end of the season, as the Americans like to term it. With eight or so games left in it, we are probably looking now at where everyone will be (with some exceptions) come the day of the last game. That spells good news for some and terrible tidings for others.

There have been so many stories this season, but for my money I’d say the biggest of them all is United’s calamitous first season under the guidance of David Moyes. If you wonder what that sound you hear is, it’s the sound of knives sharpening in the hands of pundits, fans and, most importantly, decision makes at the club.

I read an article today with highlights of an interview held with United legend Paul Scholes. In it he largely defends Moyes and his approach, but he points out how the teams he played in always had the confidence to win any match. If you think you can win and believe that no matter the scoreline you’re still in with a shout, then chances are you will win.

I think if anything has characterized the teams under Sir Alex Ferguson, it is that. I don’t see any fight in this United team.

Sir Alex was at United for a long, long time. A lifetime, nearly, it could be argued. He instilled values and traits into his teams that have become integral to what it means to be a United player. For instance, you need to work hard. If you’re not willing to track back and defend when under the cosh, then you’ll get yanked from the squad and experience the full heat of a proper SAF hairdryer treatment. Also, you play at pace. Speedy wingers go way back well before Giggsey or even George Best to the likes of Charlie Mitten and Billy Meredith. Pacey wingplay is signature United.

More important than any of these, though, is the fighting spirit. Under Ferguson, you always felt the Red Devils were going to win, even when down by two or three. Especially at Old Trafford.

Tuesday’s loss was their sixth defeat at home this season. That is more than they’ve lost at home in the previous three years.

I am no Red Devil, but I know Moyes’ coaching style well as an Everton fan. Moyes is known to favor certain formulas and believes the game ought to be played a certain way. He is a coach who puts his mark on his squads, to the point where you know you are playing against a team coached by the Glaswegian.

Contrary to popular belief, he is a big believer in the passing game. Three seasons back you could have argued that Everton were playing like a budget Arsenal, with lots of cute passing in midfield and decent finishing. We did okay in the league, got into the latter stages of the Europa League, a decent if somewhat limited by budget squad that played pretty attractive football for the most part. So the accusations that Moyes is a believer in the long punt from the back are somewhat far of the mark. He was a defender in his playing days after all, and would certainly have expected that his defenders defend first, and by any means necessary. Everton did often hoof the ball from the back but that was never a tactic of Moyes’ per se. What it was evidence of was that the team were being massively outplayed and they were out of ideas. It was a sign that the players were discouraged.

Watching United this season has given me the oddest sense of déjà vu. It’s not the style of play as much as the look of the players. That look of acceptance. Acceptance of the inevitable.

We haven’t got what it takes to win.

But then, there have been some signs of life. One could argue that United’s second leg Champions League victory over Olympiacos was something of a return to the United of old. There was plenty of fight and belief there. Then they went on to play the Hammers and won convincingly against a proper long ball merchant in the shape of Wet Ham boss Sam Allerdyce. The longest ball in that game resulted in a magnificent goal. Rooney put in a man-of-the-match performance and things were looking, if not up, at least a bit more than horizontal.

Which is exactly where you could locate United after their latest violent depantsing at the hands of noisy neighbors City.  As in flat on their backs. To say United were outclassed is today’s Captain Obvious moment.

The Beeb’s Phil McNulty puts more succinctly than I ever could: Manchester United look like a team bereft of ideas and in total disarray. Moyes’ time at United is beginning to look more and more like Roy Hodgson’s short and miserable tenure at Liverpool. The owners at the time had far less stomach for what was going on at the club than it appears the Glazers do at United.

But here, too, we could look at some of these similarities. Hodgson followed a manager in Rafael Benitez who had achieved a degree of legendary status at Anfield when he led the ‘Pool to Champions League victory back in 2005. The rationale behind Hodgson’s selection at the time was that he was a “safe pair of hands.” He turned out to be a massive flop, who was quickly replaced by a proper Liverpool legend in the form of Kenny Dalglish. The former went on to coach Fulham and is now the boss for the Three Lions, and the latter had a successfulish, shortish tenure on the red half of the Mersey before being replaced by Brendan Rogers. And what a season the Koppites are having.

I don’t know why Sir Alex chose Moyes to be his successor, to be honest. David Moyes is a very decent manager. He knows how to make a lot out of a little, he has an eye for a bargain and he has big shoulders and a calm demeanor. These do not seem to be high on the list of must-have personality traits to steer a club like United toward continued success.

What it does tell me is, and this is purely speculative, that Sir Alex saw the storm coming and needed someone who knew how work with less than ideal resources. And to perhaps take the fall for something he should have done himself for a while. The last five to six seasons have not been the best for United in terms of recruitment. The team now looks in bad shape, with three out four of their starting backline seemingly headed for the exit door, a midfield full of willing workers but short on pure, world class talent. Mata is a great acquisition, but he isn’t playing in his preferred number 10 slot. That’s Rooney’s world. Mata playing on the wing is reminiscent of Moyes playing Mikel Arteta out wide in the first couple of seasons at Everton instead of dropping him in the middle where he could pull the strings. Until Moyes puts Mata where he likes to play, he will not get the best out of him.

And then there’s Fellaini, an okay player clearly out of his depths at United. It saddens me as he was a fan favorite at Everton. That he left for such a high figure (roughly $46 million) was a boon for Everton’s coffers, but struck me as very un-Moyes. I guess he had such poor luck during the transfer window, making a hash of his pursuit of Cesc Fabregas (and anyone else on his wishlist, really), Moyes hit the panic button and paid way over market for a player he knew. It’s painful to watch the lumbering Belgian flounce around the field, throwing elbows and looking very much out of place indeed.

I don’t think that Sir Alex is the kind of guy to line up a replacement who would be murdered by the pressure of the job and abjectly fail so that he, Ferguson, like Matt Busby did before him, could step back in and steady the ship. I don’t think Sir Alex had that as plan A. Or maybe it was. Maybe he wanted to put someone there in the open to get butchered in the harsh light of the cameras so that he, a knight of the realm, could swoop back in and stick the hairdryer in the face of the Glazers and demand proper funds for a total squad overhaul, probably something he’s been itching to do for a few years now. It’s been a bit of a rumor that the Glazers have been floating more and more stock to raise funds for a big splurge this summer.

The most likely scenario is that Sir Alex saw Moyes in a positive light for what he had accomplished at Everton and thought he was young and resourceful enough to take on a big job like United’s hotseat. He thought he had the measure of the man.

He did not.

It is my opinion that Moyes is not exactly either of these. He is a decent tactician but he is not resourceful enough and clearly does not know what his best team is nor how to motivate them. They are a dejected looking bunch, from the manager on down, and things are looking dire indeed for the Chosen One.

The real question here is, who is? Who out there can get this team to pull its collective finger out and make something of this season to forget?

The only viable solution in the short term is Sir Alex Ferguson himself. He is available and would know how to motivate this batch of troops. I would be loathe to urge for the ouster of Moyes but it appears there are rumblings from above already. Perhaps he bit off more than he could chew, they will say.

I still hope they give him another season. It is a fair thing to say that the job was bigger than Moyes had anticipated. He would have said so himself. I think he has the right temperament for this job, but he will need better players and better staff. I can understand he wanted to bring across the same guys he had with him at Everton, but he also needs new ideas, and fast. Steve Round is decent bloke but I wonder how deep his tactical nous is?

Sit Alex was a gnarled man of wrought iron, but he had the likes of Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz playing second fiddle to him, managers who have had fairly successful tenures as both national and club coaches (well, in fairness, Steve “the wally in the brolly” McClaren was a rubbish national coach, but he’s done very well at club level). Moyes needs better tactical backroom staff. On his coaching staff include the names of players one year into retirement from active, full time involvement in first team football, and one still plying his trade. These blokes might have the respect of their colleagues but there is a lack of knowledge and experience in coaching elite players in order to draw the very best out of them. When top top players go on a skid, their loss of confidence can leach through the entire squad like a rash of leprosy. Moyes would have done well to bring in a few names from outside his circle of trust, men with experience coaching at the highest level.

This is a fatal flaw of Moyes’ overall: a fatal lack of adventure. He brought in staff he knew. He pursued players he knew. He wanted to bring enough of the familiar with him to ease his transition into United’s insane fishbowl world.

Problem is, Everton does not correlate in any way to United. It is a storied club, but in terms of global following, turnover of revenue and international status, he could have done no worse by going in blind and alone than hauling in Everton’s wantaways into the halls of Old Trafford.

It might be too late for Moyes. The dark clouds are circling, the jackals are baying. I am saddened by his plight and I hope that if he does go that he has the chance to restore his pride at another storied club, perhaps even his beloved Celtic. It seems a harsh verdict on a good man but that’s football. We will wait to see what awaits around the corner. I have a sense we will not have to wait too long…

Player profile: Robin Van Paycheck

This is a wee post in honor of the football hooligans who frequent the pages of the Politburo, a gaggle of fine, upstanding young (and not so young) men who gather the Trolley Square’s Catherine Rooney’s on a Saturday morn to take in some matches and drink a few pints far too early in the AM. Today’s banter has centered around one Robin Van Persie, currently plying his trade at erstwhile Premier League champions Manchester United. I’m curious to know something about the player’s numbers over the years and to speculate on what drives him. He is undoubtedly one of the world’s best players who scores goals with a frightening regularity (he scores a goal every 1.6 games – stats drawn largely from soccerbase.com) and plays the game as ought to be played: with elegance, creativity and guts.

Van Persie’s first club was Rotterdam’s SBV Excelsior, but at 15 he moved over to Feyenoord, one of the giants of Dutch football.  He scored 14 times in 41 appearances for the club, making his debut at the tender age of 17. He began to draw attention from some of Europe’s larger clubs and eventually made a $4.5 mil;lion move to Arsenal in May 2004. He became an ever-present in the Gunner squad (when not injured, which he was fairly often) in his eight years at the club, growing remarkably as a finisher and playmaker over that time. He scored 96 times in 146 games, but it is worth noting the growth in numbers over the years in North London. During the first six season at Arsenal, he managed 76 goals. He scored 60 in the final two years of his Arsenal contract. In fact, if you tally his goal haul over the past four season, you get 106 times he found the back of the net.

2011-’12 was the Dutchman’s best year, both in terms of appearances (57) and goals (37 just at club level). This is likely due to his much-publicized desire to move to a championship-winning club (gotta put yourself in the shop window, you know?), and in the summer of 2012 he made a big-money move to Man U. 2012-’13 turned out to be another bonanza year for the striker, if not as prolific as the previous one (53 appearances, 29 goals), but he did finally win the coveted Premier League with the Red Devils at a canter and was looking mighty pleased with himself.

And then Sir Alex Ferguson retired and installed one David Moyes as his replacement. 2013-’14 has seen the Theatre of Dreams become the Hall of Nightmares as United have already lost eight games in the league and seen themselves drop out of both domestic cup competitions. Right now they are about to get dumped out of the Champions League. The team have gone from a group of never-say-die warriors to slump-shouldered, bumbling and overpaid performers who have desperately let their club, manager and selves down. Rumors of a mass exodus in the summer are rife and one wonders what will happen to the club next season when (not if) they spend a full calendar year with nothing but domestic football to look forward to.

In the midst of all this mess, Van Persie is on track to score over 20 goals this season. He has maintained the steady one goal every 1.6 games average. That’s not exactly slouching, but is clearly beginning to show frustration at he and his team’s predicament, and the odd story of his desire to leave Manchester has also surfaced. At 31, he is liable to want to cap a career now in its autumn with another title or two, so one wonders if the Arse are what he really wants. Arsene Wenger has a slightly improved squad with Ozil in the team (if he shows up, that is), but they appear to struggle to sustain a title tilt. They are well off the pace in the Premier League, with Chelsea looking in ominous form, and are presently gearing up to face what is arguably Europe’s powerhouse, Bayern Munich, in the Champions League (more to come on that in a future post). If Van Persie is looking to stay in Britain and his goal is to keep on winning as much silverware as possible, then he goes to Chelsea, that’s my guess.

But here are some things to consider: Van Persie is a glory hound (check that – he’s a footballer so to call him that is to say salt is salty). Where he ends up at summer’s end will depend on how the Dutch finish at  this year’s World Cup in Brasil. If Holland somehow pull off the unthinkable and win the tournament, then Van Persie will have a World Cup winners medal to go with his Premier League one. All that he would need to round out his collection is the Champions League, and he’d be all set. That last accolade might force his hand one way or the other, because there’s no way this United team are going to Europe’s big dance in May, sorry to say it.

If he stays in England and joins either Chelsea, Man City or, God forbid for you United fans, Liverpool, he becomes a villain par excellence, a mercenary’s mercenary. I don’t think he’d do that. If he’s a glory hound, then he’d likely want to do it right. He’s not Luis Suarez.It does not appear Arsenal have enough to offer him (although it would be interesting to see him lead the line with the team Wenger is slowly assembling). They will play in the Champions League next year, though, barring an unmitigated catastrophe in the closing ten games of this season. So the Gunners could be in with a shout.

Most likely destination if Van Paycheck leaves United? For my money, it would be some place in Spain, most likely Real Madrid. They are making La Liga their own little playground this season and with a striker of his finishing quality leading the line (and shipping Benzema out), you could see them go far both in the domestic and European fronts. But I’d say let us wait until the end of the World Cup. Maybe Van Persie feels the urge to see out his contract at United and retire. He has only been at three clubs as a professional, that is not terribly much in this day and age. He could be seen as something just a wee bit shy of a one-club man if he were to return to Arsenal though, and a homecoming of sorts to North London would cement his status as a Gooner legend. For the sentimentalist in me, I’d be happy to see that. For someone who still holds a bit of love in the heart for David Moyes, though, I hope he stays at Manure. The guy is class and United will need a player of his caliber as Moyes undertakes the unenviable task of rebuilding a squad that looks more and more like a white elephant as the season wears on.

La Mano de Dios

This is a big year for me. I am getting married this year to Susanne, and it’s funny that it should fall on this year. I was married to my first wife, Janie, back in 2002. Right after the World Cup that year, we tied the knot. If I remember correctly, things were  planned that way since the Spences knew the Joneses would be rather distracted should the big day land on the same day as a Brasil game. And here we are again, in another World Cup year, and I’m getting to do two things I really love: watch lots of football and marry the woman I love. Life is good, folks.

I was born in 1975. This was a mere five years after what is arguably the greatest World Cup winning team had won the Jules Rimet trophy for a third time. The Brazilians failed to do much in the 1974 or ’78 cups. I wasn’t paying attention in the 1978 cup since I was, you know, three. I do not remember the 1982 cup very clearly, just that there was a lot of crying going on in our family (to this day, Paolo Rossi and Dino Zoff’s are not uttered in our home).  In the years to come I would hear about and read of that great 1982 Brazilian World Cup side, with the likes of Zico, Socrates and Falcão and Éder, how a cynical ,ugly, catanaccio style playing Italian squad managed to edge out the team that, had there been any justice in this world, would have won that tournament. Anyone but Italy (or Argentina) is what I say. But as any Dutch fan will tell you, that’s not how the game is played.

The first World Cup I remember really and truly watching was the 1986 edition. I remember it because  the tournament’s first day coincided with the last day of my fourth grade year at that venerable institution of learning, A Escola Americana de Brasília (The American School of Brasilia). Now, fourth grade had been a challenging year for my parents, largely due to my rather less-than-pristine academic and behavior record at the school. This is also the year the Libyan Missile Crisis was at its peak and there were reports of Libyan agents trawling Brasilia for the children of American diplomats to kidnap. I might get away in the south of the country with looking Brazilian, but the center and northern part of the country sees a swarthier version of Brazilian about. Being blonde haired and somewhat fair, I stood out.

So I guess I understand why the school principle wanted to strangle me when I decided to just walk out of school in the middle of the day one time. I just sort of got sick of working and thought “you know, I think I know how to get home from here walking. I’m just gonna go.” And so I snuck out.

There are levels of trouble you can get in as a kid, kind of like DEFCON levels or those amber alerts that the Bush administration was so fond of. Well, that day was remarkable as it introduced me to a whole new and fascinating realm of being in trouble. In this new realm, my parents were so stunned by my behavior that they were completely unsure as to how to proceed, and didn’t exactly punish me. Rather, the made sure I understood without a shadow of a doubt that if I were to walk home from school again at ANY other time of my life, then I could expect to really understand a thing or two about afterlife.

So naturally I walked off campus like four other times that year, it’s just that I did it AFTER school. On the last day of that fourth grade year of school, on the day of the inaugural match of the 1986 World Cup of Football, I decided to stay late after school. Because, you know, I hadn’t had enough punishment that year already.  My father, incidentally, missed the match because my brother unhelpfully got home before I did and told dad I’d stayed behind at school. But not so long as to still be there when dad drove in a cloud of fury over to the school to pick me up. By then I’d decided to make the long hike home on foot, something I had been explicitly warned to never do again upon penalty of awfulness.

I walked in the door to the house and there’s my brother Randy, lying down in front of the television, watching Italy versus Bulgaria. He looks up at me and says,

Oh wow. You’re in so much trouble…

Why?

Dad’s out looking for you. So is mom. She’s out walking trying to find you.

Moments later, dad walked through the door. I remember he was wearing Ray Ban aviator glasses and a red polo shirt. Odd the things you remember, innit?

Needless to say there was much crying and praying afterward, and mom eventually made it home safely to find quite the scene at the house.

This long digression just serves to highlight that the 1986 World Cup got off to a bang for me. I remember lots of other, far happier things about it. I remember how I liked watching Denmark, it must have been Michael Laudrup’s first World Cup. I liked them most because I had a good friend in my grade named Fred Koffod (I think that was how it was spelled) who was Danish and he told me they were awesome and it turned out they were. To this day going to Denmark is on my bucket list.

I remember the Belgians with that giant striker of theirs. I remember the West Germany of Franz Beckenbauer, he as coach supreme. And I remember watching Brasil lose to France… the stutter-step penalty Socrates took…. Bats jumped the right way… I was watching the game at a friend’s apartment in Brasília. All of us wept bitterly.

But the story of the tournament was not the frustrations of Brasil but rather the brilliance of on Diego Armando Maradona. He seemed simply unstoppable. The low center of gravity, the invention, the power in his shot… the vision. He saw the game the way only the greats do. Greats like Pelé, Kruyff, Beckenbauer. They see things people like you and me don’t. They see things happening now and how they will turn out five passes down the pitch if he does this.

He was devious too. We all know what I mean.

But in the very same game where he palmed the ball into the net he also scored what is probably the 20th century’s greatest solo goal. Slaloming over three quarters of the pitch, leaving the likes of Peter Beardsley, Peter Reid, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick in his wake before taking out Shilton and cannoning into the goal.

He was a sneaky, cheeky bugger, but he was also an undisputed footballing genius. And all the boys on the block wanted to be Maradona when we’d play out back behind the houses, on a patch of knobbly grass under the eaves of the large Tulip trees. All of us boys dreaming of being the greatest in some future cup in some distant future. It is upon such things that dreams are  built.

The weekend update, 10 March, 2014

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The sweater doesn’t work on you mate.

This is the first edition of what I hope will be a weekly feature here on the blog, the weekend update. I can’t promise I’ll cover every league out there, or indeed that I will cover the league action you love, but I will drop something in here every week. That is the goal, anyway…

There was plenty of football to watch this weekend, with the FA Cup dishing up plenty of entertainment in the form of Man City’s ignominious exit from the competition, along with the Arse dishing out some punishment to a hapless Everton side who saw the ball about as much as Ray Charles saw his audience in his playing days. Here’s hoping Wigan can do to the Gunners what they did to my beloved Toffees last year. Of course Roberto Martinez was in charge of the Latics then, and was unable to reproduce the cupset we needed to carry on in the competition. Alas… Sheffield United brought some much needed joy to Bramall Lane in the form of a deserved victory of Charlton Athletic, and the Tigers of the City of Hull -who are no longer Hull City but Hull Tigers (due to club chairman Assem Allam’s deep understanding of his team’s supporters) put a poor Sunderland to the sword. This sets up an interesting semi between the Blades and the Tigers of the Hull of City or City of Hull… large striped predatory felines? I don’t know… think it should just be Hull City like it’s been for, you know, the last one hundred years.

So we will see no Man Citeh in the semis of this venerable competition, the quad is most definitely off, but at least they can sing Blue Moon to the glittering League Cup in their trophy cabinet. Frankly, I leaves me with a deep sense of satisfaction when the very very very rich clubs shit the bed. Just saying…

In the Premier League, Man U managed to pull their finger out and win one on the road against West Brom. Poor Pepe Mel is looking only slightly less uncomfortable than David Moyes in the hot seat, where he has yet to see his team take full points in the seven games he’s been in charge… Cardiff went out and roll over the meek and submissive Fulham, who appear to be winning the race for this season’s edition of First to the Drop. Southampton pulled off a decent victory at the much-harder-to-beat-under-Tony-Pulis Crystal Palace. Here’s hoping Jay Rodriguez will be wearing Everton Blue next season… Chelsea handed Tottenham their collective asses in a 4 to nil drubbing that could have been quite a bit more and included perhaps the most brilliant goal celebration in the history of the game from the ancient Samuel Eto’o. Stoke and Norwich battled out to a draw which seems about right for that pair.

Real Madrid are liable to win this season’s La Liga, and were keen to show why as they brushed Levante aside. Barcelona are having a season to forget an slipped to defeat at the hands of Valladolid. Atletí are still in the mix though, and carried on their winning ways against Celta Vigo. But this season’s story is increasingly shaping up to be the resurgence of Real Madrid, who are finding ways to make the obscenely overpriced Gareth Bale work with Cristiano Ronaldo. Oh that the Blau Grana could do the same with Messi and Neymar.

I’d talk about the Bundesliga but yawn… except that Bayern Munich supremo Uli Hoeness admits to tax fraud of titanic (or Bismarkian?) proportions.  I’m curious to see wht kind of knock-on effect this will have at the Bavarian giants… I’d comment on Italian football, but I think Bill Wilson’s article on bbc.com does a better job than I could.

And that, my friends, is all I have time for this week. Hope to give a little updatey thing tomorrow after the wrap up of some Champions League footie. Happy viewing friends and we’ll see you back here soon.

Dreaming about the greenest pitch…

This is my new blog/writing project. It’s my hope that by having the site be a bit more topical around a subject about which I’m passionate, it might lead me to post more often. That and I’ve been itching to do something like this for ages. So whether or not you like football (some of you call it soccer), I’d say have a look anyways. Content will be loaded later today. I’m really excited about this one and will be trying some new things on here in time. Please let me know if you are having trouble viewing the page, I have had some hiccups with my hosting platform. Thanks for viewing!