“Football is a simple game” were four words of Graham Taylor’s wisdom when he was managing Watford up the Football League in the late 70s and early 80s. And his Watford sides certainly “kept it simple.” But it is an unfortunate consequence of the contemporary 24-hour news culture that “keeping” football analysis “simple” leaves a gap in the media schedules. It would, of course, be better to properly analyse certain aspects of the game – its finance in particular, I would naturally suggest. But lets not… erm… over-complicate things.
Two major talking points have helped fill recent media schedules, Manchester United’s Champions League exit and Chelsea manager Andres Villas-Boas’s hyper-sensitivity to media criticism. From the moment Roy Keane opened his motormouth immediately after Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat in Basel, the debate has raged about the suitability and maturity, or otherwise, of United’s young players, alongside the question of whether mainland European clubs are “catching up” with the Premier League. Of course, Keane thinks any player not as good as him is “not good enough.” So his comments were hardly surprising (why did he fail as a manager?). And whether the Premier League is being “caught up” (an issue which genuinely isn’t that simple) seems destined to be asked every time less than three “English” teams reach the Champions League semi-finals.
But the amount of soul-searching elsewhere betrayed a desperation to avoid the real reason United came third in their group… team selection, or, to be precise, team selection against group qualifiers, Benfica and Basel, or to be more precise, Alex Ferguson’s team selection. The general media reluctance to criticise Ferguson could be the subject of a whole other article. But there was certainly little attention focused on his selection mistakes for the Basel and Benfica home games. For instance, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that “United’s team sheet added to the apprehension” before the Benfica match; but the report’s focus (and, as a result, its headline) concerned goalkeeper David De Gea’s poor performance. The Guardian newspaper cited Ferguson “scratching his head at the way his players” had “conspired to turn what felt like a relatively comfortable group into…a bumpy ride,’” without comment on the identities of the “conspirators.” The Sun hinted at managerial culpability with: “The manager believes he has the strength in depth… but it doesn’t look like it.” Yet even they saw no contradiction between Ferguson’s pre-match claim that “it is a big game… a real European game” and his “inclusion on the bench of 18-year-old Ravel Morrison,” with one Carling Cup tie’s first-team experience.
There is probably no such thing as a definitive “strongest XI”, given the disparate natures of the opposition within and between the Premier League and Champions League. However, for two matches which needed to provide at least one victory, Ferguson selected players who are certainly not candidates for any kind of strongest XI. Fabio, Valencia, Carrick and Fletcher (despite his goal against Benfica) have featured more in six Champions League games than fifteen Premier League ones (as an aside, let’s hope Darren Fletcher’s break from football allows him a full recovery, on and off the pitch). There was a choice between Berbatov and Javier Hernandez for a striking berth against Benfica. And it should have gone to Hernandez (despite Berbatov’s goal). And Nani? On the bench? With the season he’s having? Manchester United are far from alone with this selection policy – Barcelona fielded a ‘B’ team against BATE Borisov, for heaven’s sake. But it is at least a little arrogant to field a weakened team against any team, bar one that is demonstrably the fourth-worst, before qualification is ensured.
It is the arrogance which led ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley to claim that Basel held no fears for Arsenal and Chelsea… over pictures of Basel celebrating the equivalent of a 5-4 aggregate victory over United. United have, of course, previously qualified with this policy – the 0-0 Old Trafford draw against Rangers last season springs first to mind among many examples. Yet Ferguson must know that this season’s strongest team isn’t yet up to previous seasons’ standards. Team selection will always inspire varying opinions. And if you are not “on the training ground”, those opinions are never going to be fully-informed. I’m sure plenty of you are thinking I’m quite wrong on my specifics. And you could be right. But I strongly believe that if Ferguson really had picked his strongest sides for the home games against Basel and Benfica, Manchester United would still be in the Champions League. He didn’t and they’re not. It’s that simple.
In the late 1950s, comic actor Kenneth Williams played a number of minor roles in the legendary radio and TV show Hancock’s Half-Hour. Among the characters which gave him more prominence in the series than the average supporting actor was one called “Snide.” Williams’ portrayal of Snide was the personification of the word, in a way that no other person has been, certainly on stage… until Andre Villas-Boas arrived on our shores. “AVB”, as he is known to his fans, made an instantly favourable impression, with Villas-Boas’s interview style suggesting he could make a living as a persuasive, authoritative public speaker – a remarkable achievement in a second language. But he has barely let one of these interviews pass without a snide, usually un-necessary, comment – his recent criticism of Sky TV pundit Gary Neville was as up front and honest as Villas-Boas has thus far managed. And he keeps calling the Premier League the “Premiership,” which I find probably more annoying than I should.
His well-documented moans have dripped with arrogance. “It’s not a question of defensive fragilities,” it was an official “not doing his job.” “This was not a bad day for us… it was a bad day for the referee… I was very aggressive to him and I don’t care of he’s OK or not…” and so on… all bloody season, so far. It was, though, his suggestion after Chelsea’s 3-0 Champions League win over Valencia that “maybe today we gave everyone a slap in the face,” which irked most, alongside the general, oft-repeated suggestion that Chelsea are a victim of “continuous” persecution. Aside from the obvious reaction (and truth) of “you ain’t seen nothing yet” and the fact that his conspiracy theorising (“three of the games played by Chelsea were influenced by the referee”) is “continuous” b***ocks, the point that wins “answer” critics of defeats is ridiculous.
Jonathan Pearce has recently filled the BBC’s void of sanctimony left by Barry Davies’ departure from football commentaries. And this was most apparent when he ridiculed Frank Lampard’s critics after the Chelsea and England midfielder’s hat-trick at Bolton in October. The “critics” have said that Lampard isn’t quite the player he was, with some claiming he hasn’t regained his best form since his long injury lay-off from August to December 2010. Nothing in Lampard’s display at the Reebok was an “answer” to that criticism. If anything, it emphasised how off-form Lampard had been and how right those “critics” were.
It is the same with Villas-Boas. If his rantings are an attempt to recreate the siege mentality which Jose Mourinho used effectively during his Stamford Bridge tenure, they lack even Mourinho’s limited, disputed “class.” Indeed, Villas-Boas often comes across as a Mourinho wannabe, with his tiresome persecution complex and “individual” behaviour in technical areas. But the reality is that the critics said Chelsea defended below their best earlier in the season and recently have defended a good deal deeper… and better. Again, they were, and are, right. Gary Neville made a key point about David Luiz’s erratic positioning – the centre of midfield is an erratic place for a centre-half to spend any significant time. Yes, Neville’s Play Station imagery was “comic.” But it was “comic” as in “funny”, not “comical.” And he was right too.
Even within the Manchester City game, Chelsea changed their defensive strategy, after 25 minutes, and turned what TV commentators predicted might be a City win to match their early-season 5-1 triumph at Spurs into a game Chelsea deserved to win, having become the better side even before City full-back Gael Clichy’s dismissal. In the midst of another elegant, persuasive-sounding post-match interview, Villas-Boas had to acknowledge that not only had the change been made but that the players had made it and it pretty much won the game. That is precisely what “the critics” have been saying all season. And they have been right. It’s that simple.
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