Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Incomplete Project

"If aesthetics were what counted, they'd win the league every year."

These were the words of Ian Darke, the play-by-play commentator for the Bolton-Arsenal game today, and they were spot on. After losing 2-1 to a ferocious Bolton side in a thrilling match, Arsene Wenger's project will be finishing their seventh season in a row without silverware. They led the league at times this season, were in contention deep into March, but contrived to stumble at the final hurdle as they do so often.

Wenger's vision is admirable: recruit young, raw players with lots of potential and craft a streamlined football team that creates visual art, all while spending very little money. Admirable, but foolish. Year after year, as the end of the season neared, the same criticisms were leveled at Wenger and his master plan: no experience, no leaders, no silverware. His reluctance to splash the cash on proven defenders and goalkeepers will be cited as the main fault this year, but that is an oversimplification.

Cesc Fabregas is not a captain. He is a great footballer, but he is not an emotional leader on the pitch, and he should not be the pillar of the team that he has tried desperately to abandon and that he vilified in the Spanish press earlier this week.

Players like Jack Wilshere, Alex Song, and Aaron Ramsey have extremely bright futures in the game, and they owe that to Arsene Wenger and his guidance. But they know as well as we know that success and trophies will only come once they get out of the Emirates Stadium, just as their club captain tried to do last summer.

The staggering collapse of this year's team will force Wenger to think deeply about his pet project at the end of the season. He may change his tactics. He may finally spend money, backed by new majority owner Stan Kroenke. He may even leave the club.

But if he should choose to continue with his vision, he must accept that they will always be what they are now: beautiful losers.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Parker wins Footballer of the Year

Had to stop in and make a post about this: West Ham's Scott Parker has been given the award for Football Writers' Footballer of the Year (not to be confused with PFA Player of the Year: will touch on that distinction in a minute).

Scottie Parker has been in tremendous form, totally putting this downtrodden Hammers team on his back through what has been an extremely difficult season. With the absence of a vocal leader in Avram Grant, Parker has stepped up and been a lion for this team. His performances and leadership have been so superb that he's earned an England call up from Capello after years in the international wilderness, and he was probably the best player on the pitch in the friendly he played in, sharing holding midfield duties with Jack Wilshere.

Hats off to the FWA for this one. England is too conservative with regard to footballing belief, whether that means team selection for the Three Lions or personal accolades, and this was a bold and fitting selection.

{A note about the award: the FWA Player of the Year is voted on by strictly the 'best' football writers in England. The PFA Player of the Year--which Gareth Bale won a few days ago-- is voted on by the players. As such, some players regard the PFA Player of the Year in higher regard, because it's always nice to be revered by your peers. With that said, I do think that sometimes the FWA make braver choices, this year as a prime example.}

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Title Race Reopened?

A very interesting round of midweek Prem matches has the football world number-crunching: with 5 games left to play, Chelsea have pulled themselves into second place, leapfrogging Arsenal on goal difference. Both London clubs are on 64 points, 6 back of United. What's more: United must play both clubs-- Arsenal away, Chelsea at Old Trafford. If you can't do the math, I'll help: if United lose both of those games, that's six points dropped.

Still, even the most romantic Gunners or Blues fan would have to admit it is United's title to lose, which is something Fergie doesn't do. United very rarely lose in the final months of the season, particularly when they are in pole position. One could make the argument that this United team is considerably weaker than the Red Devils historically have been, particularly on the road. Check out this statistic to demonstrate that point:

HOME: 15 W, 1 D, 0 L: 46/48 Possible points.
AWAY: 5 W, 9 D, 3 L: 24/51 Possible points.

Chelsea have the best form at the moment, with Arsenal pulling a-- well, an Arsenal-- and coughing up the lead THREE TIMES against Spurs yesterday in a fantastic London Derby. With all these factors, will United cough up the lead in the final five games? And if so, to who?

Let's look at their run-ins, in reverse order (for suspense)..

Bolton (A), Sunday 24 April
Man Utd (H), Sunday 1 May
Stoke (A), Sunday 8 May
Aston Villa (H), Sunday 15 May
Fulham (A), Sunday 22 May

The Stoke and Bolton away fixtures are the games that Arsenal ALWAYS struggle with, and I don't see that changing in a squad with a completely deflated mentality. I think they'll draw at home against United, and lose to Stoke away. Draw at struggling Bolton, squeaking out wins against Fulham and Villa. TOTAL: 8 pts.

West Ham (H), Saturday 23 April
Tottenham (H), Saturday 30 April
Man Utd (A), Sunday 8 May
Newcastle (H), Sunday 15 May
Everton (A), Sunday 22 May

Chelsea are hitting form at the pivotal moment, and their run in is the easiest. They'll have a big win against West Ham and crucially win at home against Spurs. I think they'll show up charged for the United game, but it won't be enough, only ending in a draw. A win against Newcastle, and a draw against Everton away to round out a relatively disappointing season. TOTAL: 11 pts.

Manchester United:
Everton (H), Saturday 23 April
Arsenal (A), Sunday 1 May
Chelsea (H), Sunday 8 May
Blackburn (A), Saturday 14 May
Blackpool (H), Sunday 22 May

The Arsenal and Chelsea fixtures will be difficult, but Ferguson will scrape draws in both. Everton will fight hard but lose at Old Trafford. The two relegation threatened teams at the end of the fixture list will be tough, but not tough enough. Two wins. TOTAL: 11 pts. So..

1) Man United: 81 points
2) Chelsea: 75 points
3) Arsenal: 72 points

And just for fun:
4) Man City
5) Tottenham

There you have it: the end of an exciting season, as I see it. We'll see how it all shakes down. Props to Jose Mourinho on the Copa del Rey crown, who one day will rightfully own the title of the best football coach ever. And to Gareth Bale, who took home the PFA Player of the Year despite fading in recent months.

Feel free to share your comments!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Torres: the Problem and the Solution

Much has been written, spoken, and slurred about in pubs regarding a certain Spanish striker who now wears the blue number 9. Fernando Torres, as I'm sure you know, has not scored since signing for Chelsea. And two games before that when he was wearing a Liverpool shirt.

Now, I would be lying through my teeth if I said I was not worried by this development. Obviously, I'd have preferred Torres to net a hat trick against Liverpool in his debut, kiss the badge, and then tattoo the Stamford Lion on his pretty cheek in celebration. Instead, we've had a dejected, off-form striker who has been on the outskirts of most of the games he's played in blue.

With all that said--Torres will score. I'm going to go out on a limb and say he will score today, against United, in the Champions League quarters. (NOTE THE TIME OF THIS POST, in case I'm right) El Nino has proven that he is a world class striker, and once he bags one, the whole world will shut their mouths.

But why has Torres been struggling so mightily? It's a difficult question without a simple answer. For one thing, he wasn't fit when he came to Chelsea. This, combined with a long league season immediately after a long World Cup run, means he is nowhere near 100%. In addition, Carlo has been extremely inconsistent with his formation and tactics since Torres signed, most likely to try and fit him in. Although this has allowed Torres more minutes, it would be difficult for any player in any position to adjust to such an ever-shifting squad.

The biggest obstacle for Torres, though, has been Didier Drogba.

As a Chelsea fan for many years, I have been often frustrated by Drogba's petulance. On some occasions, his talents and raw power have justified his on field maturity-- which seems even more out of place when you see his soft-spoken, intelligent interviews off the pitch. But this childishness combined with his dip in form has caused Drogba to be desperate, and in his desperation he has prevented his new teammate from settling. He won't pass to Torres, he won't work with him, he won't make the runs or put in the effort he ordinarily does. Torres is a threat to Drogba's status as a legend in Chelsea blue-- and Drogba knows it.

The solution to Torres' drought may yet be Yossi Benayoun. The little Israeli playmaker has been injured for months, but returned on the weekend and will feature tonight, I suspect. He and Torres dovetailed brilliantly at Liverpool, and that little bit of understanding is all that Torres needs to get that ball across the line. Finally

Watch for it tonight. My prediction: 1-1 tonight. United go through. But Torres scores.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Don't Call It A Comeback

It’s been quite some time since WSOTA had a post, but I’m looking to bring some life back to the old blog. It’s been an interesting year in the Prem, so there’s not a whole lot of time for nostalgia… but enough to say that it’s good to be back.

A quick recap: -Obviously, coming off a World Cup year, players looked a bit dull early on and have looked more than a bit fatigued as the season’s passed. The usual suspects (Ferguson, Redknapp, Wenger, et al.) are clamoring about the restructuring of international friendlies to mostly deaf ears.

-An additional official on each end line has been added to European competition. In all the games I’ve watched, they’ve made a grand total of zero calls and made no impact whatsoever. Oh—and goal line technology still doesn’t exist.

-Chelsea came roaring out of the traps after the summer and looked like they were going to run away with the trophy… until they hit the worst skid they’ve had in a decade, and fell out of the top 4. United have been how they always are: ruthlessly efficient, consistently getting results and consistently scoring goals after the 85th minute. They have lacked a bit of flair and attacking prowess at times, though, despite Berbatov picking up some slack in the early months. Arsenal were pushing them hard for a bit, but then reverted back to what they always do and imploded: crashing out of the CL, losing the Carling Cup final to Birmingham, and taking big blows to their title hopes all in the space of about 10 days.

-Man City, United’s “Noisy Neighbors”, have been a Jekyl and Hyde show all season. Led by the swaggering Tevez (who has either professed his love for City or announced his retirement each weekend), they’ve been brilliant on some days and toothless on others. At this stage, they look likely to finish in the top four, which Mancini will swear was his only goal. City and Liverpool both crashed out of the Europa League, by the way.

-Liverpool drudged along in the bottom half for most of the season, but have mounted a late fight back. Luiz Suarez (I’ll talk more about transfers in a sec) has been brilliant, and they’ve climbed into the top 6. But a European place looks out of reach. Still, credit to King Kenny for turning things around on Merseyside.

-Spurs have been much like City, although Spurs fans won’t like that comparison. They show up for big occasions and look dazzling, but then can’t score on relegation sides. Bale has been scorching for them, terrorizing Inter Milan on their way to a good CL run that has surely ended in Madrid. Van der Vaart also looked like the signing of the season early on, with he and Modric providing tons of creativity and Lennon and Bale setting fire on the wings. All that said—they’ll still finish 5th and miss out on the CL.

-TRANSFERS: Where to start? As mentioned above, I’d say Van der Vaart is still in pole position to be signing of the season, but Suarez for Liverpool looks promising, and Chicharito Hernandez has been in great form for United. My personal favorite signing: Stephane Sessegnon for Sunderland, whose pace and dribbling has been spectacular. A few clubs lost their minds in the January window: Villa spent 25 million on Bent, Liverpool spent 35 million on Andy Carroll (who still had a month of injury left), and West Ham nearly bankrupted themselves on Wayne Bridge’s wages. Still scratching my head on that one. Unfortunately though, the biggest transfer dud has been Chelsea’s: 50 mil on Fernando Torres. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

-There’s been a lot of talk about the Prem being “weaker this year”, because the gap between the top teams and the cellar dwellers is smaller. It’s all a load of hooey: of the 8 teams left in the CL quarters, 3 are English, 2 are Spanish, 1 Italian, a German and Shakhtar, this year’s over achievers. Pretty standard stuff. I think the tightness of the table speaks to the strength of the Prem, not the weakness. And whatever the cause, it’s a positive thing—I much prefer to follow a League where 5 teams are in for the title from the start, instead of two.

Whew. That’s a big recap. It’s been an eccentric football year for sure, but some things never change… Rooney’s still behaving like a shaved ape, Arsenal are still ‘too immature’ to challenge, Messi’s still unplayable, and Nicklas Bendtner still thinks he’s the best striker in the world.

Stay tuned with WSOTA. We’re going full speed ahead.