Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Newcastle United's inevitable fall

Newcastle United is already starting to bear the fruits of manager Graeme Souness' labour.

Appointed in September of 2004, he has seen to a poor finish of 14th in the English Premier League table, although that was not helped too much by the poor start under former manager Sir Bobby Robson, as well as the inevitable ups and downs that comes with a change in managements and coaching staff.

Although Souness is largely derided as a poor manager who has achieved nothing in the several clubs he has managed over the course of his career, it is worthy to note that he did have success with Blackburn Rovers, having them promoted from the old First Division into the Premier League, and helping the Lancashire club win the English League Cup (the Worthington Cup) as well.

The Scotsman also had success with Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, where he earned two Scottish Premier League titles and four Scottish League Cups, so he has had some success.

However, as a manager of football squads, involving interaction with individuals, he leaves a lot to be desired, mainly because of his constant falling out with his players.

When he left relegation-threatened Blackburn in September and Mark Hughes took over as manager, the Welshman observed that the dressing room at Ewood Park was the quietest he had ever been in, and that is because Souness got rid of the aggressive players who had plenty of enthusiasm, instead opting for passive players that would not dare to "cross the line" on occasion and challenge his management philosophy.

Naturally, this can be pinpointed as the main reason for the decline of what was a proud club that looked to have made a name for themselves in the top flight again earlier in the Souness regime.

We can already start seeing the former Liverpool midfielder's management problem down at St. James' Park: with Newcastle, he has already fell out with Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert, who for all their faults are quality players have fallen victim to the Souness management flaw.

Losing such quality players and having them replaced with expensive but passive players is not going to help the Newcastle United cause at all, and I fear that their fall from grace, for all their riches, is inevitable.

Arsenal: the new Blackburn

Well, kind of.

Arsenal showed the world in the English FA Cup final on the weekend at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff exactly how Blackburn Rovers' tactics are supposed to be played.

Rovers, who took a media barrage after their FA Cup semi-final encounter against the Gunners for their defensive and aggressive pressing style of play, were copied by an unashamed manager and employed by Arsene Wenger’s team throughout the whole encounter.

The match, of course, ended in the first FA Cup final ever to be decided in a penalty shoot-out after 120 minutes of shooting mediocrity, with Arsenal defeating a dominant Manchester United.

Arsenal managed just one shot on target throughout the whole 120 minutes, while United kept hammering away, attempting to score on more than 20 attempts, most of the time missing unspectacularly, and when they did get on target, goalkeeper Jens Lehmann was almost always behind the ball in a solid performance.

Perhaps when devising his tactics with the absence of star centre forward Thierry Henry, manager Arsene Wenger was banking on Rovers' latest result at Old Trafford, where the Lancashire team lasted 90 minutes of a United barrage at goal, while playing the defensive 4 - 5 - 1 formation, especially because Arsenal had already lost twice to Manchester United for the season 2004/2005.

Arsenal's version of the 4 - 5 - 1 formation certainly was similar, because the Londoners looked good at the back and in midfield, but were very underdone in the final third where Denis Bergkamp was well-beaten and looked very much like Paul Dickov: unable to hold up the ball and bring the midfielders into attack.

They were certainly very aggressive too, and were much dirtier than any Rovers team, with Jose Antonio Reyes actually being sent off, which was not the case in the semi-final, so all credit must go to Arsenal for founding this new revelation, rather than the much-hated town club in the north of England.

Really, compare the media's reaction to Blackburn's red card-free semi-final performance compared to Arsenal's red card-savvy performance, and you can really see just how biased the media is against town clubs like Blackburn, because the Gunners produced a dirty performance that would have an unbiased Roy Keane standing up in applause.

Replace "Jose Antonio Reyes" with the name "Andy Todd" and see what sort of reaction you would get in the media, and to save you the trouble of imagining such a scenario, I tell you right now that the media would have a carnival of berating reports and righteous moral spillages to feed us, the hungry readers.

But hey, I am not all that bitter (really, I'm not!), and Arsenal did show us just where a Blackburn-style renaissance can lead you--to an FA Cup victory.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Congratulations West Bromwich Albion

"Any club at the bottom of the English Premier League table at Christmas is a certainty to be relegated by finishing in the last three places at the end of the season," would state any football fan, as if it was a holy truth.

However, West Bromwich Albion has proven that truth to be wrong, with Bryan Robson taking the manager hot seat in November 2004 and leading them to safety on the last day of season 2004/2005, thanks to a 2 - 0 win over Portsmouth.

I give all my congratulations to the team for a job well done, and I must say that my respect for Robson has increased after this inspirational turnaround.

Look at what happens when you let Arsenal play their own game...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

On Wednesday May 11 at Highbury, the Arsenal delivered a telling message to all English Premier League followers.

In what was a match between second and fourth place in England's top flight, the Gunners went on to demolish Everton by 7 - 0.

In a very important way, it is a very sad result for all concerned, because it tells us that the gap between the top three clubs (Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United) and the rest of the Premiership is a gigantic gulf.

In addition, it is also very sad that the fourth-placed club, who qualify for the extravagant UEFA Champions League next season, can lose by such a big margin to one of Europe's underachievers.

But more importantly, it justifies the way in which Blackburn Rovers conducted themselves in the FA Cup semi-final against the Gunners: in a tough and defensive manner, with constant pressing.

It might not be pretty, nor does it win many friends (it does win plenty of enemies, though), but it can save a club from a total embarrassment.

If Champions League qualifiers Everton can manage a 7 - 0 loss against Arsenal by letting them play their own game, just imagine how much lowly Rovers could have lost by if they had rolled over and let themselves get trampled on.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Where to now for Blackburn?

As the end of another English Premier League season draws to a close, it is time to reflect on the misfortune of Blackburn Rovers.

The 3 - 1 loss to Fulham at home on the weekend exposed the fact that Rovers is thin on real quality at the moment, and it could not have come at a better time, because it has shown that after confirming top flight status for season 2005/2006, a mental "switching off" will have the team playing poor football.

The match was also remarkable because we saw so many goals conceded in one match -- anything more than a goal is quite unusual for the team under Mark Hughes, which has prospered defensively due to the cautious tactics employed by the manager, usually in a 4 - 5 - 1 formation.

However, as the weekend showed, without captain Andy Todd out injured, and without a "carrot" sticking out in front of the team to fight for, quality is lacking.

This is especially so up front, whereby goals are very rare indeed, but this cannot be attributed to the tactics, because I am sure that with a quality striker up front, fortunes would improve.

You need only to look up at who has been playing up front to see why goals have been lacking: the ageing and cheaply-bought (former manager) Graeme Souness signing Paul Dickov was running around up there most of the time, which was quite a change from the Champions League winner in Andy Cole, who despite his perceived laziness did nothing but add bundles of quality to the team.

That is not the only problem though, because there is an obvious lack of creativity in the midfield to provide good chances in attack.

Ex-Turkey international captain Tugay can fill that void on occasions, but he is one of the oldest players in the squad, and cannot play a full ninety minutes these days, and indeed, Hughes almost always refuses to start him.

There are not too many problems in Blackburn's defence, whose only fault is that their job is made very difficult when key defenders are out, due to the lack of attacking ability from midfielders and forwards.

There is plenty of defensive quality in the likes of Todd and Ryan Nelsen, Aaron Mokoena, and Lucas Neill, and in the wings the likes of Dominic Matteo, Nils-Eric Johansson, and possibly even Vratislav Gresko (who has been out with a long-term injury) can fill the voids in defence on their day.

However, quite clearly the Rovers squad needs investing, especially up forward, and so the money men at Ewood Park should be looking at backing manager Mark Hughes in the summer transfer window with plenty of cash, because he has already shown that he is very astute in his signings.

Ryan Nelsen and Aaron Mokoena were bought in the January window and have proven to be cheap revelations, although the jury is still out on the injured £3.1 million signing of Robbie Savage.

What is needed now is for Blackburn's board to back their manager and show him that they have a vision of taking the club forward by giving him plenty of cash to invest in the squad, because signings of hundreds of thousands of dollars are not going to help the attacking deficiency one bit, which the signing of Dickov proved.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Two-faced Chelsea

Chelsea has won the English Premier League this season and they do thoroughly deserve it.

There is no denying that they have been the best team throughout the 2004/2005 season, with defending champions Arsenal and Manchester United performing poorly in comparison.

However, that congratulations comes with plenty of bitterness, because it was their manager, Jose Mourinho, who was the one who started Blackburn Rovers' poor media image, which happened after Rovers' 1 - 0 loss earlier this year.

Mourinho first of all refused to shake hands with fellow manager Mark Hughes after the match, instead opting to ignore him, while blasting Blackburn's style of play in his post-match press conference, referring to it in a very derogatory way, as a "special attitude".

Of course, as I have already stated twice before (in "Media thuggery" and "No-one likes us, we don't care"), such treatment dished out by the media to Blackburn, especially in recent weeks, has been thoroughly undeserved, and so I am left quite bitter by their win.

In addition, Mourinho has managed to make Chelsea a hated club amongst many other football supporters for his over-the-top arrogant antics this year, including his "be quiet" hand signal to Liverpool fans in this year's English League Cup final.

Merseyside blues

There is much fuss being made over the UEFA Champions League places for England at the moment, with Liverpool in with a chance to win the trophy, but there is also the chance that they might not qualify for next season if they finish fifth in the English Premier League, which is just one spot outside the automatic qualification for the financially lucrative tournament.

In fourth place at the moment, and in a good position to stay there (three points ahead with a game in hand), is the other half of Merseyside -- Everton -- a club I have just as much terrific respect for as Liverpool.

The dilemma here is that Liverpool may not be able to defend their trophy if they do indeed win (they are in the semi-final and will conclude the second leg against Chelsea) but finish fifth, with the English Football Association given the right by UEFA -- Europe's football governing body -- to decide whether fourth place or the Champions League winners could qualify for next season.

They will announce their decision on who will qualify after the semi-final if the Reds win, in preparation for the scenario in which Liverpool win the trophy but finish fifth.

It certainly is an interesting problem, because we have the case of Real Madrid finishing fifth in the Spanish La Liga one year, in a league that had and still has four Champions League places, and they were given the qualifying place over fourth-placed Real Zaragoza.

"I do not remember there being too much disagreement in Spain when Real Madrid won the trophy and were nominated ahead of Real Zaragoza, who were fourth," said Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez in defence.

However, should the English FA decide to side with Liverpool on the issue, and give them the place over a fourth-placed Everton then it would be very unfair on Everton, since finishing fourth is by no means a feat to hold up your nose at, given that the top three places are virtually guaranteed to Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United every year, with Liverpool and Newcastle United usually challenging for the other spot.

The Everton feat, should it happen, would be extra special because they have spent nothing near what the usual Champions League qualifying challengers usually spend, meaning that it would be a victory for the Premier League's less glamourous clubs.

In addition, it was understood by each and every club before the season began that the top four places in the league would be the qualifying spots for the elite European competition, so there really should be no complaint.

"I can't see the board giving the place to Liverpool if they get to the final and win because they won't have qualified through the league -- even the World Cup winners have to qualify for the next tournament now," one "neutral club chairman" was quoted by the Press Association.

Anyway, this issue might not even a cause for concern, because Liverpool might very well lose in the semi-final tie to Chelsea in their second leg, or even if they do get through to the final, they might well not win.