Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Emery cloud has a silver lining

It's fair to say that the reaction to Unai Emery taking hold of the recently relinquished Arsenal reins from Arsene Wenger has been mixed. Is such a reaction justified?

Arsenal's recent years, maybe even going as far back as a decade ago, have mostly been considered to be something of a malaise as covered before even some seven years ago. A toxic mood took over large swathes of the club's fanbase with the "Wenger out" brigade growing ever larger and more vocal throughout that period, even spawning the infamous Arsenal Fan TV.

When Arsene Wenger announced he would be leaving Arsenal, Ivan Gazidis had promised a "bold and brave" appointment to replace the long-serving Frenchman. Mikel Arteta, the former Arsenal captain, now assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City had been touted to be the one but it would seem a late change of heart has led Arsenal to Unai Emery.

Arteta certainly would have fit the "bold and brave" profile that Gazidis identified but with that comes risk. Arteta, while learning from one of the world's most respected coaches in Guardiola, has no managerial experience of his own. Another problem Arteta could come across is being "one of the boys". Many of Arsenal's current squad have been there for quite some time and will know Arteta from when he was a player there. How would Arteta fare when it comes to making the hard decisions? Going from being one of the boys, to being the boss is quite a step. Arteta will also doubtlessly have picked up a lot of knowledge from Wenger. Most would agree that change is what is needed at Arsenal, if one of Wenger's old captains was to take control then how much would really change?

Emery would represent change. A change in the style of play and in approach. He is a proven manager who performs best when his teams play on the counter attack. This may actually suit the Gunners better than their current possession based style. Their biggest recent signings have been pacey forwards, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The midfield has good passers already - that much is a given. The defence is the clear weakness in the team. Adopting a counter attacking approach would allow the team to protect their weakness. It should also be noted that Mesut Ozil's best days of his career were in Jose Mourinho's counter attacking Real Madrid team.

Sky Sports' Spanish football expert, Terry Gibson explained:

"He's rigid in approach. I've very rarely seen him stray from the 4-2-3-1 system and his style is more about a defensive shape than pressing. He's quite conservative in approach. He's not like the coaches in Spain who want to attack and commit players forward. He's not going to do what Pep has done at Manchester City – it will be rigid and organised.

"It's something that Arsenal need – that intensity on a daily basis that probably wasn't there at the end of Arsene Wenger's reign. It will be interesting to see who can take it and who can't. He isn't a tough task master in terms of discipline but he's all about hard work. It depends whether the players are prepared to do that."

Even Patrick Vieira, Wenger's most successful captain, said in the ITV "Keane vs Vieira" documentary that Wenger's greatest strength was his trust in his players but it could also be his biggest weakness. The seemingly laissez faire approach has obviously not been working in recent years. Perhaps the harder approach to be the antithesis of Wenger could be the antidote to the malaise. Many of the current Arsenal squad have been drifting for some time now; this could be the impetus they need.

Emery's most recent post was in charge of Paris Saint Germain where he was in charge for two seasons after a successful period in charge. With the megabucks invested in the French capital's team by their Qatari owners, there are some lofty expectations. Since Carlo Ancelotti's reign in Paris, they have been largely dominant picking up trophy after trophy and usually making the league look easy.

That is as far as it went, though, and as far as Nasser Bin Ghanim Al-Khelaifi, the President of PSG, is concerned, that is failure. The inability to transmit such dominance onto the European scene is considered insufficient. Unai Emery is not the first manager to pay for this "failure" with his job. Laurent Blanc and even a coach held in such high esteem as Carlo Ancelotti have found themselves out of the door.

The narrative that Emery had done an insufficient job at PSG has been absorbed by many fans as well. Many fans scoff at the Spaniard's inability to win the Champions League. Even a tremendous achievement like winning the Europa League in three consecutive years is not taken seriously with comments like "it's only the Europa League".

The Champions League's other high profile nouveau riche club, Manchester City has also stuttered in that competition. Catching up with Europe's elite is clearly not easy - at least one of Barcelona, Real Madrid and/or Bayern Munich have contested the final in the last 10 seasons. It is almost a closed shop.

Champions League failure aside, Emery can look back with pride at the majority of his managerial career, working at different levels. As his first season of being a manager Lorca Deportiva, he got them promoted for the first time in their history. At Almeria, they were promoted to La Liga for the first time in their history and finished an impressive 8th in their first top flight season.

In 2008, Valencia were two points above the relegation zone, prompting the sacking of Dutchman, Ronald Koeman. The next season, Emery came in and guided the same team to third place, ensuring Champions League qualification during what was a difficult time financially for the club where they had to abandon construction of their stadium. For the next three seasons, their top stars, David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata would all have to be sold to help the debt issues, all the while Valencia maintained their grip on third place.

His record is not spotless, with the Champions League failure at PSG, the flop in Spartak Moscow and not winning the league in his first season at PSG, however, there is plenty to provide hope to Arsenal fans with what Unai Emery can provide, if his time at Sevilla and Valencia are anything to go by. Arsenal have the potential as a club to go further than Sevilla or Valencia ever did and they are in much better shape to do so. Emery has made a success of clubs with low budgets - and if the rumours of a £50 million transfer budget this summer are true, then Emery and his director of football will be put to the test.

Nobody should have any delusions about Arsenal competing for the Champions League and even for the Premier League at this stage, that is some way off, the key for now is to reestablish themselves back in Europe's top competition.

Monday, September 24, 2012

John Terry: Victim?

Yes folks, John Terry's gone. Now, don't get your hopes up, he's just retired from international duty. Or, if you're a fan of cheap jokes, perhaps he just thought he overheard Anton Ferdinand say it and sarcastically repeated it.

Sadly, we'll never know what was really/allegedly said here.

Shockingly, this announcement has led to a not inconsiderable amount of uproar and controversy. Seriously, it's like you people save up all your anger and outrage for John Terry news items. Don't you have anything better to do?

First, for those of you living under a rock but still equipped with a selective internet connection that makes this the only website you can access that allows any mention of football, John Terry has retired from the England squad less than 24 hours before he went in front of an FA hearing into his alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand.

Quoth the JT: I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, have made my position with the national team untenable.

I hate to play Devil's Advocate, but he does have an extremely good point here. Terry has been cleared of racial abuse in a court of law. Legally, John Terry is not a racist and thus, surely, the FA is on extremely shaky legal ground by, effectively, suggesting that he is. It can't be too much of a stretch for him to reasonably be able to sue them for slander.

Equally, by putting these charges against him, the FA have, somehow, managed to give Terry the moral high ground in the situation. Or at least, that's how it seems. Even the press release comes across as rather "woe is me, everyone's against me" in a manner not dissimilar to Luis Suarez' response to him being booed at the Olympics. But, fishing for sympathy or not, it remains that the FA has given John Terry a chance to play the persecuted victim.

The cynics would point to the timing of the announcement and say that Terry has probably been tipped off that he won't win this FA case, and that he might as well jump before he's pushed, perhaps try to spin it as showing humility and willingness to accept that he's wrong. This is probably true, but again, it's only a position that the FA has allowed by having this joke of a retrial in the first place.

The main issue, however, is that England will be without a man who has captained them 34 times. Through that time, for all his arguable off-field failings, he has performed to a generally high standard, especially when compared to other marquee players such as Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard.

But over all that, and certainly the latter part of his captaincy, has hung the spectre of controversy, something which good old JT has become something of a lightning rod for. The first real issue, which overshadowed England's dismal World Cup 2010 to some extent, was the extramarital affair with Vanessa Perroncel, Wayne Bridge's then-recently ex-girlfriend.

That led to Bridge resigning from the England squad, and the widespread (and fairly justified) belief that if anyone should have to step down, it was Terry. But as captain, he was effectively untouchable, particularly under Fabio Capello. Did this scandal result in England's piss-poor World Cup 2010? Probably not, and in the end it proved a welcome distraction, but a distraction nontheless.

It was probably that episode that made it easier to vilify Terry over the Anton Ferdinand issue. Anton might have quit the England team too, I'm not sure, largely because he never had a look in, anyway. What did happen was the FA sticking their nose in and stripping Terry of the captaincy. Again.

This then led to Capello leaving the England manager's position. Some would call that a blessing, but once again, an issue surrounding John Terry has had a detrimental effect on the England team, more so than his club. And, it could be argued, once again it was the FA's meddling that caused it. And argue it I shall.

You see, both times (after the Bridge affair and Ferdinand charge) it was the FA, rather than Capello, that stepped in to remove the armband. This in no small part led to Capello feeling undermined to the point of leaving the position. And it could have been avoided had they kept their collective noses out.

Now, I'm not saying that Terry is innocent, far from it. Nor am I saying he should stay in the England team, much less remain the England captain. But if the FA leaves the decision of who to name as captain up to the manager, surely they should leave stripping the captaincy up to the same man. Capello would have felt a huge pressure to take the armband off Terry anyway, in some form or other, but instead again the FA stepped in and left, in this case, both Terry and Capello feeling victimised. Compare England's turmoil with the calmness with which Chelsea have gone about their business in the same time period, and you can see the direct effect the Football Association's meddling has caused.

Whatever you think of Terry as a person, it's hard to deny that he's a bloody good footballer. It's part of what makes him so easy to despise, in the same way as Cristiano Ronaldo is easier to hate when you wish you had half the skill he possesses. There's arguments for Lescott, Jagielka etc. to step up, but none of them have really looked as solid in an England shirt as Terry has over the years. He's popped up with a few important goals and last-ditch saves too, including the off-the-line-or-slightly-behind-it against Ukraine at Euro 2012. Not to mention the number of times when, as captain, he's been seen clapping his hands together trying to gee up his teammates as a good captain should.

Like him or not, and like it or not, Terry has been a good captain and invaluable presence in the England setup. And, in my humble opinion as a faceless voice on the internet, he still had something to give. No doubt his retirement from international duty will prolong his Chelsea career for a season longer than if he'd kept on, but that won't have been anywhere near the front of his mind when the decision was made.

The decision was to save what's left of his tattered reputation, and also to allow him to play the victim while sticking two fingers up at the FA by pre-empting their most likely punishment should he be found guilty. And while it was Terry who instigated all of the issues surrounding him, I'd like to go on record and say that the FA has exacerbated the effect of every single one.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lost lives, sick chants and playground excuses - it's time football grew up.

Last week, after 23 years of fighting, finally saw the real truth released about the Hillsborough tragedy in which 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush. The release of the information was celebrated, not just on Merseyside, but around the footballing world.

There was a clear sense, by most, that this was not a matter that belonged in the tribalism of football, but to all football fans in the UK.

The despicable, cold-blooded, self-preservationist cover-up of the authorities; the choosing of a clearly unsafe ground by the FA, despite warnings of previous troubles there; the utter shithousery of The Sun and, in particular, the odious sputum Kelvin Mackenzie and their readiness to lap up from the trough of slurry that the police fed them to steer the blame onto innocent fans.

All these things were not just an agenda against Liverpool but on football fans themselves.

Such unification led to hopes from most quarters that the realisation of just how terrible these types of tragedy are would mean the end of sick chants, from all fans, about all disasters, the defence of which has always been based on some kind of pathetic, sad playground mentality of "oh, but they started it," "yeah but theirs is worse, sir."

Surprisingly (or perhaps, sadly, predictably) a fine example of this came on Saturday, in the aftermath of Manchester United's home game against Wigan. A minority - and it was a minority - of Man United fans in the Stretford End piped up with a song including the lyrics "always the victim, it's never your fault."

Now, given it is hugely unlikely that this chant was aimed at Wigan and it came no fewer than three days after the Hillsborough revelations, it doesn't take a significant leap of logic to identify Liverpool fans as the target of this snide chant.

Immediately fans justifying the song argued that the song was not about Hillsborough but was in regard to the Suarez/Evra saga. This creates two questions: Why sing it against Wigan and, why, when the message behind such a purposefully non-specific chant could be easily be affected by the context surrounding it, sing it in the week the Hillsborough disaster was all over the news?

It's the type of argument that stands up about as well as Danny Welbeck or Luis Suarez in a penalty area. The kinds of fans that sing these songs are morons but none of them are moronic enough to think a song like that that, in a week like this, could be taken out of context. Are they?

And if it is just about Suarez, then what does the word 'always' refer to? It certainly refers to more than one more incident they think Liverpool fans feel aggrieved over. Surely, given the goings on over the past few days, the only logical answer is Hillsborough?

The sheer fact that the club itself released a statement about the chant is significant enough as to what they felt it alluded to, even if it didn't specifically say so.

Some fans decided to go down the even more stupid, deluded and bastardised route of defending the chant, saying it was not about Hillsborough but about Heysel, another stadium disaster in which 39 fans died and one in which a number Liverpool fans were found to have contributed to.

Well that's fine, then. Because, despite the fact that most Liverpool fans around at that time are fully aware and ashamed of what went and don't paint themselves as the victims of that day, what problem could anyone possibly have with using 39 lost lives as a tool for fetid point scoring?

"Justice for the 39" they may exclaim, guided by some abomination of a plastic, warped, faux-moral compass.

If that's the angle they're taking to facilitate and paint their own unashamed obscenity in an acceptable light, then maybe they should read this piece by Oliver Kay, assuming they have a well-enough evolved brain to process multi-syllable words.

Of course, these are just two crap excuses in a long line that football supporters of numerous clubs have reeled off in an effort to justify using a loss of lives as 'banter'.

United fans point to the vulgar chants about the Munich disaster from fans of Liverpool and Leeds as justification for their retorts based on Heysel while Leeds fans hastily point out sick songs about the stabbings in Istanbul that claimed the lives of two of their fans.

The fans of these clubs have every right to be offended and angry about these disgusting chants but none of them have the right to counter them with equally twisted and abhorrent songs.

A lot of the people who sing these songs aren't even old enough to have been involved in or even remember the events about which they ignorantly sing about.

Numerous fans on Twitter air their ill-formed views on disasters which occurred within months of their birth, or many years before it all together, with it patently obvious none of whom have done any sort of informed reading on the subject they throw in peoples faces.

They are often wilfully ignorant of the magnitude of and couldn't possibly relate to the feelings of the people involved or witnessing these events first hand or their aftermath and that these events affect more than just the clubs involved. In fact, they have far more in common with each other than they perhaps want to realise.

I was once on a train on which a small number of young 'men', deficient in all but a larynx and base motor skills, aged between 17 and 22 were singing disgusting songs about Munich, throwing paper aeroplanes about the carriage.

When challenged why they were singing such songs, one laughed "because they're wankers" and another defiantly chipped in "nah, it's because they sing about Hillsborough."

Sorry, but neither of those excuses are reasons to joyfully sing about lives lost in accidents or any other way.

It is a good bet that none of them were aware that an ex-Manchester City star, Frank Swift, died in that crash; that Sir Matt Busby, the legendary manager who survived the crash which claimed the lives of many of his 'Babes', was once club captain for Liverpool  and a dear friend of Bill Shankly or even that teams like Liverpool lent players so that Manchester United could fulfil their remaining fixtures.

The vile culture that allows the precious lives of innocent people to be used as a cheap pawns in a pathetic game of point scoring and one-upmanship needs to stop.

The Manchester United fan that rang up 606 to speak of his shame at hearing such chants said it was a minority but it was an audible minority. He was spot on - the vocal minority of life-is-cheap scumbags are being heard over the decent but silent majority.

The silent majority needs to pipe up and drown them out. This includes the press that have ignored the issue for many years, the unspoken evil elephant in the room of terrace chants.

This morning, some Manchester United fans took to Twitter with a new slogan "offended by everything, ashamed of nothing" as if it is somehow wrong to be offended by shit like this.

In actual fact more fans should be offended. Vocally so. The only way to end the vitriol spewing from rival fans' mouths as they mock the dead of Munich, Heysel, Hillsborough or Istanbul is to make it blatant that this sort of thing will not be tolerated.

Frankly, if you either aren't offended or mock those for being offended by it, you are best off scuttling down to reside in the sewers with the same sub-species that support and sing this type of stuff in the first place.

No more tit-for-tat, no more toleration of school yard excuses of "but they started it". Football needs to grow up.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review - Typical City book

Typical City is available as a paperback from Waterstones. It is on sale online now, and in-store in selected areas.

I realise that reviewing such a specialised book may run the risk of not exactly appealing to everyone. But then again, using our HtO contributors as a test group, I can deduce that 25% of the population support Manchester City, and of those 25%, 100% can read. Therefore this review will appeal to 25% of the world's population, which is approximately 1.75 billion. Which, coincidentally, is also City's account balance.

Anyway, if you're still reading I will assume you're either bored or a Man City fan. The first thing you notice if you're presented with the paperback is that it's a decently hefty thing, weighing in just short of 500 pages. The other thing you'll notice is that it's priced at £13.99, which, while it's more than most paperback novels you'll see, is still perfectly reasonable compared to similar football-related paperbacks on the shelves.

The main focus of the book is the last four years, which is handy for a number of reasons. Firstly, any more may have made the book too big to read without certain spinal damage (to the book, obviously). Second, it just so happens to be when City haven't been midtable-to-bottom-half scrappers, or worse. And third, as any Chelsea fan will tell you, there's no point going backwards because history only begins when the rich man with oil-stained chequebook turns up on your doorstep.

Those four years are covered in the form of match reports, and lots of them, considering all cup competitions are covered as well as the league. You get an instant idea of how in-depth this goes when the first game is City away at some Faroese clowns so obscure you probably haven't even come across them on Football Manager.

The reports themselves are decent enough, although it can be tricky to get a true picture of an attack from one sentence, although again it's aimed more at sparking memories of those events from the City fans who saw them in the first place. There's monthly commentaries from the author and/or interviews with City players and dignitaries, which work to break up the monotony of a couple of hundred match reports.

And monotony is a risk, considering there's no pictures in the book aside from the front cover. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting a glossy picture book, but it can be easy to get distracted from page after page of teamsheets and Carlos Tevez chances. But again, as I'm not the target audience here, merely a detached spectator, it's hard for me to get fully engrossed, and I'd take this over a rushed out pretty-but-no-substance cashin any day.

I would have liked to see a bit of an introduction to set the scene, at least glossing over what had come before, rather than being dumped right into the action. Likewise, you go straight from Aguero's Hollywood ending into just a six-page potted history separating you from the appendices. The first part of that history would have been better served at the start of the book, with a bigger, more emotional editorial at the end. As it is, the end almost seems anticlimactic.

The text-heavy nature of it, coupled with the sheer mass of reports and other bits of garnish, means that you will not whizz through this in 25 minutes. It's a commitment, unless you're the sort of person who'll skip straight to the FA Cup Final, the two wins over United, and the QPR game. On the plus side, if you're so inclined, each match report is a page at most, so it's something you could leave by the side of the bog and dip in and out of, if you'll excuse the expression. That approach will also have the added bonus of breaking it up even more neatly than the monthly progress reports and league tables provided inside.

To summarise, f you've got a kid or younger brother who's got himself a KUN AGUERO 16 shirt this probably isn't the book for them. It serves its purpose of a record of the last four years, and the journey from that infamous takeover to that overplayed last-gasp victory, admirably, although it is just that, a record of it. In that respect, it's a perfectly good account, and you certainly get a lot for your money. Just don't go in with any unreasonable expectations.

Overall impression: Well worth a look as long as you're a grown up City fan.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to the Future with Lampard and Gerrard?

Since England made light work of defeating Moldova 5-0 on Friday evening, we have been subjected to statements like "Lampard and Gerrard prove the critics wrong" and The Guardian's Michael Cox claiming: "England's midfield shift proves more successful than Holland's. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard work better together now because they have been forced to adapt their style".

The latter part of that is not wrong. Gerrard and Lampard have had to change their games in recent times. In the past when they have failed to perform to their best for England, the problem has always been that they are too similar. Both men wanted to be the one that breaks from midfield into attacking positions, with neither having the tactical discipline to hold their position while the other attacked.

Both men reached their peak as the attacking midfielder in their respective teams. Both Chelsea and Liverpool would play 4-3-3 systems to suit them. Gerrard allowed to make his powerful runs through midfield and Lampard his late dashes into the box. For England, this has never been the case. The two have been shunted into a 4-4-2 that has failed to get the best out of either of them. The 4-4-2 systems have been altered in many ways to try to accomodate both men.

Paul Scholes was a casualty of the preference for a Gerrard -  Lampard partnership as he rightfully complained of being played out position on the left side of midfield. Later, after the emergence of Owen Hargreaves, England began to use a holding midfielder, in theory to provide freedom for the aforementioned duo to attack. England's rigidity in persisting with a 4-4-2 formation meant that often Gerrard would play on the left of midfield with Lampard permitted to play something close to his Chelsea role.

The reliance on the 4-4-2 was likely a tactic aimed at recreating the shape of Manchester United's team because it is proven that Wayne Rooney performs better with a partner. We even witnessed the re-emergence of Emile Heskey for a brief stint in the England team under Fabio Capello.

Nowadays, Lampard and Gerrard are not the players that they used to be, both in the sense of style and quality. Lampard struggled last season to modify his game to Andre Villas-Boas' high intensity game and under Roberto Di Matteo, he does not have the same goal threat that he had earlier but he does now use his considerable passing skills in a deeper role in the team.

Gerrard, however, is perhaps going to find his adaptation a more difficult task. Gerrard, in his pomp, was a dynamic, direct footballer whose principle qualities were his long passing, shooting and runs through midfield. The team around him for both England and Liverpool has changed, now. Gradually, it looks as though Roy Hodgson will want to implement a more possession based game, much like Brendan Rodgers is doing at Liverpool.

Gerrard embodies what is so popular about Premier League football, but Barcelona and Spain are influencing football at the moment with their need to control games. They have inspired Brendan Rodgers and thus far this season, Gerrard has failed to impress, but for England he did show greater maturity to dictate play from a deeper position.

So the question has to be asked, why are England resorting to using Lampard and Gerrard again? Against Moldova, there was no risk. England were never going to lose or even draw this game. The two were able to play the more reserved game that they are adapting to with Tom Cleverley putting in a useful performance behind Jermaine Defoe.

Against stronger opposition it remains to be seen how Gerrard and Lampard would do together but it is unlikely that they will continue behind Cleverley because it would leave the team without a natural defensive midfielder. Of course, there are experienced options with Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry and Scott Parker but as Roy Hodgson plans for World Cup 2014 and Euro 2016, it is imperative that the long term replacements for these players are unearthed.

Holland may not have beaten Turkey in the most convincing manner, but whereas England defeated the team ranked 141st in the FIFA rankings (they have also lost 4-0 to Venezuela this year), Holland beat the team ranked 35th 2-0 with a new midfield.

Louis Van Gaal, the newly installed Holland manger, has recognised the pedestrian midfield of Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel as a weakness and he acted quickly to replace them with possible long term replacements.

There are two years left before the World Cup, games against the likes of Moldova should be used to blood England's future internationals. Lampard and Gerrard will be 36 and 34 respectively at the next World Cup. It makes no sense to use players for qualifying that will, most likely, not be relied upon at that tournament.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Transfer window madness: The strangest moves this summer.

Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield Town to Blackburn Rovers)

First of all, let's get this straight from the get go, as a player, Rhodes isn't a bad signing by any means; he's only 22, a Scotland international and scored a remarkable 40 goals in 45 game for Huddersfield, in League One, last season.

The barmy thing about this transfer is the fee. All £8 million of it. Whichever way you look at it, £8m is an awful lot of money to splash on a 22 year old who has only proven himself in League One, especially when you see that both Dimitar Berbatov and Emmanuel Adebayor went for less.

Nuno Gomes (Braga - Blackburn Rovers)

Yup, Blackburn again. Back in the early 2000s, Nuno Gomes was one of the hottest striking prospects in Europe. Now, at 36, the former Portuguese hitman finds himself in the N-Power Championship trying to help a Lancashire-based box of frogs return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

Having appeared to be winding down his career in his homeland and his best days behind him, to see him pitch up at Blackburn is something of a surprise. Maybe he'll be the experienced figure to aid Jordan Rhodes' development and help Rovers to promotion. On the other hand, Steve Kean might just have got real life mixed up with his Championship Manager 01/02 save.

Steve Kean eyes up his next Portuguese hotshot.

Julio Cesar (Inter Milan - Q.P.R.)

After narrowly escaping the drop last season, Q.P.R. needed to strengthen and tighten a leaky defence. Having shipped Paddy Kenny out to Leeds, they needed an upgrade in the goalkeeping department so turned to West Ham's Rob Green as their new number one. For all of two games.

Yes, no sooner had Rob Green made his first multi-annual cock-up, Mark Hughes swooped to sign Inter Milan's Brazilian custodian and formerly one of the most highly-rated keepers in the world. Unlucky, Bob.

Richard Wright (Preston North End - Manchester City)

Talking of once highly rated players and underwhelming English goalkeepers, Richard Wright's move to Manchester City was probably the most bizarre transfer to happen this summer. Not only has the former Arsenal and Ipswich man been signed with the idea in mind that he will never play, Wright's move comes off the back of a spell at Preston that lasted all of a month. The reason? He felt homesick at being so far away from his family in Ipswich.

Either Richard's geography isn't that great or that few extra grand a week means he can afford not to love his kids as much.

Learn geography with Richard Wright

No-one (Liverpool & Manchester United)

At some point in June, Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rodgers must have bumped into each other, literally, and dropped their pile of carefully prepared transfer plans. In the ensuing scramble to bashfully pick-up their notes, the two managers must have accidentally swapped papers.

Liverpool needed goals and ended up signing two central midfielders; Manchester United needed a new central midfield and ended up with a star striker.

Whilst the Red Devils' transfer failings can be masked by the potency of Robin van Persie, Liverpool's bungled pursuit of a goal-getter isn't likely to be made any better by the fact three of their big signings are two midfielders not renowned for hitting the back of the net and a young, hard-working but ultimately inexperienced forward.

Giampaolo Pazzini/Antonio Cassano (Swap deal between Inter Milan & A.C. Milan)

The surprising thing about this transfer isn't that it happened between two fierce rivals - the transfer market between these two clubs has always been surprisingly open - but the fact that neither player seemed to fit in at the club they were going to.

As Zonal Marking's Michael Cox explains, Pazzini is at his best when wingers are putting crosses into the box, a style of football Milan haven't played in a long while. Meanwhile, at Inter, it's not entire certain if or how Cassano will slot into the team in a way which will make his signing worthwhile.

Gaston Ramirez (Bologna to Southampton)

There are a few questions hanging over this move:

Where did Southampton get £16m from?

How did they tempt one of Uruguay's star players and one of Europe's hottest properties to St Mary's?

How long will he stick around for?

After supposedly having about 48 medicals at Liverpool, according to Twitter's many 'In The Know Agents', what is the record for the number of medicals at a club before signing somewhere else?

Joey Barton (Q.P.R. to Marseille on loan)

I mean, seriously, why? Just why?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Is the League Cup still worthwhile?

The second round of English football's shunned cousin has just finished, signifying the introduction of the genuinely big teams (no offence, Fulham) into the third round draw.

As is the way with these things, there's no standout glamour tie. Your eyes are probably drawn to Manchester United vs Newcastle United as the first two cubes out of the tub, but even that clash between two of last season's top five will most likely be a letdown for whichever poor bunch of mugs pick it to screen on tv.

In years past, it was Man United who were seen as 'ruining the Coca Cola Cup' and 'not giving it the credit it deserves', but that seems to have changed to a degree as they've won three out of the last seven finals. Indeed, if you look at the recent winners, since Middlesbrough's win in 2004, 10 of the 16 finalists have been from the top six of the Premier League, and the winning sides have been United (3), Chelsea (2), Spurs, Liverpool and Birmingham.

If it wasn't for Arsenal's appalling capitulation to Birmingham in 2011, you're looking at a roll of honour arguably better than that of the FA Cup in the same timeframe, considering the glorious old trophy was sullied by Portsmouth's name in 2008, after a final that, quite frankly, football should be ashamed of in both its participants and for the quality of the match itself. Indeed, of those teams outside the top six, Spurs make up two of them in 2008 and 09, and last season's final accounts for another two.

Anyway, enough stats, time for a reasoned argument. My point it, it would appear that any 'big' club that decides it wants to win the League Cup in any given season can pretty much do so at will. All it took United was playing Dimitar Berbatov, for Christ's sake. And while the Ferguson-inspired trend for playing fringe players does continue, it's not only the title chasing sides doing it now, but seemingly everyone from the Premier League, and even some from the Championship.

It used to be that the League Cup was a handy route into Europe for teams that had no hope of making it on the merit of league position. Blackburn in 2002, Middlesbrough in 2004 and Liverpool in 2012 all made it into the UEFA Cup or Europa League through this least noble of non-Intertoto routes. But even those midtable chancers aren't pulling their weight now.

Take that Man U v Newcastle game, for instance. Alan Pardew has already come out and said that the Europa League and Capital One Cup are not a priority, and even Stoke were at it, making six changes that would ultimately contribute to them being knocked out by Paolo di Canio's Swindon. Surely this is a competition made for Stoke to get some glory and weasel their way into Europe again to give Tony Pulis some fixture congestion to moan about after Sporting Lisbon are forced to be tested on a wet Thursday night at the Britannia.

The point is, nobody seems to take this competition seriously any more. Attendances around the country are down on League Cup nights compared to midweek league games. I pointed out that the big clubs seem to be coming back into dominance, but that's seemingly just because everyone is putting their second string out, and you'd fancy City, United or Chelsea's bench to be better than Villa, QPR or Wigan's any day of the week.

Even the incumbent sponsors don't want that third handle being shown.

So with nobody really caring about it, and the aforementioned fixture congestion an ever-increasing cliché in every football manager's press conference repertoire, what should be done with the League Cup, or whatever sponsor-driven name it's masquerading as this year. Well, in my humble opinion as a revered football blogger and armchair management genius, I say to the FA, just get rid of it.

Yes, it started in 1960, so it's got Over Fifty Years Of History tied to its three ridiculous handles, but what does history REALLY mean in football? In 1960 Wolves were a dominant force in world football, so shall we give them a bye until the fourth round in reverence? No, don't be ridiculous. They put out their second string against Northampton in the second round, anyway. And lest we forget that teams with a lot more than fifty years of history have been allowed to rot away into oblivion by an FA who prefer simply to sit back and apply a 10-point deduction rather than offering much-needed assistance.

Perhaps the focus for the history brigade should be that the FA Cup also seems to be taking a backseat in many managers' priorities. That is a competition that should have its integrity preserved, and if removing the League Cup from the schedules of teams, so be it.

Perhaps, since it's used as such anyway, and with the recent introduction of the Under 21 Premier League suggesting a focus on helping younger players progress through the ranks more effectively, the League Cup should be replaced by an official, higher-profile Under 21 cup, and the European spot be re-allocated to the league finishing positions again.

Whatever it is, I'd say something needs to be done to stop the League Cup becoming even more of an afterthought, and to stop it dragging down more important things with it. Because as it stands the cup shows no signs of becoming anything more than a waste of everyone's time.