Benitez, Mancini and Wenger: victims of the English game or their own egos?

Originally published for The False Nine on February 28 2013.

As he held the League Cup aloft in victory, shares in Michael Laudrup rattled up the ranks of the managerial stock exchange. His worth had already soared far beyond and above the valuations placed upon him in the summer, and come the close of business in May, it looks likely that Laudrup will have all but confirmed his place as one of the most attractive managerial investments around.

Swansea’s first major trophy in their 100 year history; Europa League entry for next season; exquisite football; the likelihood of an entirely respectable final position in the Premier League; and named as the man fans most want to takeover the reins at Real Madrid – it’s an impressive end-of-season growth report to reflect on for the Dane who co-founded a free-market think tank in his homeland in 2004.

In almost every possible manner, Laudrup has made the perfect first impression on English football. Charming, charismatic and handsome, there is something almost Mourinho-esque about how the league has fallen under his spell. In tabloid speak however, he is the jovial Scandinavian to the Special One’s fiery Portuguese. No wild pronouncements or headline grabbing antagonism, just calm, cool composure and sincerity. Both present comfortable identities that play up to familiar English stereotypes and folk heroes – after all, Mourinho is the much anticipated belated successor to Brian Clough. Continue reading

Why All The Love for Ronaldo?

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 27 2013.

Like the nostalgic laments of ex-lovers still pining for their former comforts, Viva Ronaldo continues to be sung from the match day stands. For those who cherished the Portuguese winger without giving themselves away to the cult that surrounds him, hearing his name sung while others still at the club play and graft for the shirt can be a sorry and unfortunate situation.

While the backing of a former player isn’t something to discredit, it’s difficult to understand the continued power of the love-in. Ronaldo never sacrificed himself for the cause; never propagated a familiarity with the ordinary fan; was hardly a leader or progressive figure on-the-pich like Cantona or Keane: he was however a very good player to watch who won matches with great goals. But shouldn’t there be more to all of this than jilted hunger for a one-man glory factory?

It’s easy to forget the baggage Ronaldo brings to a club. For him to prosper the team’s system must become more specialised, with other players forced to pick up the defensive duties and workload his talent elevates him above. In the final days of his first stint at Old Trafford, this specialism saw United’s game plan reduced to little more than ‘give the ball to Ronaldo’, a plan which, when faced with poor form, or a side willing and able to muzzle him, saw the team’s approach became extremely one-dimensional and predictable. Continue reading

Holding a ‘Black Mirror’ Up to Football’s Potential Futures

This piece was first published on 23 February online at The Huffington Post.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror returned to Channel 4 last week, offering yet more twisted visions of the near future from the mind of the nation’s favourite bouncy haired malcontent.

The final episode of the current series airs on Monday, and with football reeling from a number recent scandals it feels oddly appealing to dream up Brooker-esque scenarios to inflict on the game. Football fans are hardly strangers to taking enjoyment from something that pains and disturbs them.

Each Black Mirror episode is also a modern-day parable. As Brooker himself states, each one is “about the way we live now, and the way we might be living in ten minutes time if we’re clumsy.”

Let’s assume the football authorities are clumsy. Below are five projections of future footballing dystopias, ranging from macabre extensions of the game’s current crises to indulgent scaremongering and sci-fi.  Continue reading

QPR vs Manchester United: Complacency Would Lead To Disaster

Originally published online for Sabotage Times on February 23 2013.

The Premier League title may seem all but secured at this early stage, but dropped points today could let City right back in again…

We’ve all been there. You’re strolling down the street, taking the whole world in your stride as you strut about your daily business. The sun is shining and an attractive stranger smiles at you, distracting you from the laborious task of placing one foot in front of the other in steady succession. Mid-step, your toe catches the pavement and you’re sent flying into a world of scuffed knees, bruised egos and public humiliation, landing in a sprawled heap of physical pain and embarrassment.

QPR are that loose snag of ground; a trip hazard flagstone jutting out to sendManchester United stumbling on their rickety path to an unprecedented 20thleague title. A quick glance at the current standings suggests today’s encounter at Loftus Road should be little more than a formality – a landslide for the Premier League’s current summit versus a team sinking below sea level. However, United must stay mindful and watch their step. Over the past two seasons, Sir Alex’s side have slipped up to supposedly weaker opponents, losing 3-2 against Blackburn last year and 2-1 at Wolves in 2010/11.  Continue reading

City are yet to become true modern rivals to United

Originally published for Can They Score? on February 23 2013.

For the majority of its existance, the Premier League title race has followed in the principles of The Thunderdome of Mad Max fame: “two clubs enter’ one team leaves… victorious.”

Genuine three-way title fights appear to have become extinct in the Premier League era (hence our focus), with each season framed around a duopoly of contenders. Of all the gladiators who have entered the league’s gruelling grand arena – Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City – it is Manchester United who have remained the most persistent and dominant force throughout the past 11 years.

Riding high and heading into March 12 points clear, United are in excellent shape to go on and clinch a 13thPremiership title. However, the club’s detractors have denounced their position as false, claiming that the current United team and the league itself is bereft of quality. This season is said to be a low-point in the domestic game that flatters a side lacking in skill and substance – a drought lacking in good players, teams or contests. Continue reading

No Longer Prospects Without Positions: Jones and Wilshere Break old English Mould

Originally published for The False Nine on February 21 2013.

Phil Jones’ second season at Manchester United began muted by injury. The sight of him initially struggling to find form felt strangely and shamefully satisfying, and yet as he limped off on Monday night against Reading the only thoughts that one could conjure were those of loss and interruption.

A series of gut-busting displays last year flicked the switch on the Phil Jones hype machine, which quickly spiralled out of control. In no time at all, the versatile young defender was being touted as the nation’s latest elemental wonderkid and a future saviour and captain of England. It appeared amorphous potential and purely physical gifts had once again seduced pundits into holding faith in one of English football’s most dangerous and enduring myths: the cult of the individual hero.

Thanks to his gurning enthusiasm, Jones was soon praised from on high as the latest wild prodigy of England – a player of such capacity that his mere presence flies the face of the complicated and unnecessary intellectualism of tactics. Fortunately, it is Sir Alex Ferguson and not some blinkered Luddite who steers the young defender’s progress. Continue reading

FA Cup Success Sweet for United

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 21 2013.

It’s about time the FA Cup returned to Old Trafford. While the Premier League takes priority, ending this season with just one piece of silverware in the bank would feel like an opportunity missed considering the names left in the running.

After United disposed of Reading on Monday night, only Chelsea, City and Wigan have qualified for the sixth round from the Premiership (Everton must first navigate a tricky reply). Championship and lower league giant killers round out the remaining contenders. It’s a cup that, on paper at least, is there for the taking.

That’s not to say that the likes of Barnsley and Oldham should be dismissed: their continued presence in the tournament is testament to their threat. However, with Middlesbrough and Chelsea battling for the chance to play United in the next round, surely it isn’t too controversial to suggest that facing the former is preferable to a tie against Roman’s real life Football Manager fantasy? Continue reading