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The End of the Season

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Manchester City are the first club to repeat as PL Champions in a decade

English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat.  Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight.  All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.

Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.

WINNERS

Manchester City

Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year.  The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages.  They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).

Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup.  If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team.  That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.

The off-season will be busy.  Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury.  Six other players also have one year left on their contract.  Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters.  It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.

Liverpool

It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football.  A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short.  In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches.  Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.

And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club.  Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.

A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago.   And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache.  Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”.  This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league.  A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux.  Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.

Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England.  Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001.  While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets.  They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs.  Good fun.

West Ham United

The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading.  While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence.  The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals.  However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow.  Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.

An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.

Watford

We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides.  It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table.  Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year.  Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box.  But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent.  The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way.  The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.


LOSERS

United lose to Cardiff on last day

United need a lot of work in the off-season.

Manchester United

The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?)  We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches.  Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.

Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left.  The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches.  Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.  It turns out it was the players after all…

So here they sit.  No Champions League next season.  If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition.  To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.

The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements.  It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent.  It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing.  It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move.  It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.

As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson.  Good luck finding his successor.  It isn’t OGS.

Burnley

This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake.  Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.

Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season.  Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places.  If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable.  The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses.  Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.

Huddersfield Town

Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go.  The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season.   A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet.  Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.

Cardiff City

Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing.  No money, no players, no hope.   Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.

Fulham

See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up.  Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32.   Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated.  ‘Nuff said.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season.  Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits.  But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table.  Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job.  The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.


UNKNOWN

Sarri Upset

Will Sarri win the battle of wills at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea

Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season.  At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines.  He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.

But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final.  Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.

Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against.  The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose.  With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four.  Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four.  After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018.  Nicht.  Nil.  Zip.

Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily.  They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club.  They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.

Obviously, they were not disappointed.  Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England.  Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games.  It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.

That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam.  After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.

But one can not stand still in the Premier League.  You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium.  Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs.  Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July.  Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend.  Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…

Arsenal

After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious.  Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree.  Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain.  But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room.  He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line.  Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer.  Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.

However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.  His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.

Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting.  That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th.  But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.

Newcastle United

Sigh.  The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old.  Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places.  Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table.  Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…

Bournemouth

Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons.  When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England.  Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results.  Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19.  Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.

Southampton

The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl.   Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing.  Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole.  What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower.  Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.


MEH…

Marco Silva

Much ado about nothing…

Everton

All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face.  Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth.  No Everton Cup for you, Everton.  Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.

Leicester City

Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season.  By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid.  Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth.  Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it.  Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.

Leicester is a very talented squad.  Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.  The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title.  It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six.  They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.

Crystal Palace

A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either.  An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons.  Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either.  After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals.  Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”.  Expect more of the same from Palace next season.

All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!

Brent Lanthier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of the Prem: Man United to Stoke

Managing at United ages you in dog years...

Apparently, the manager’s job at United ages you in dog years…

Four of these sides found mid-table mediocrity, while one of them found the trap door.   The first two clubs disappointed their fans, while the last two over-performed.   The choice for best player was obvious for three of them, while the other two offered up some choice.  Finally, only two of the clubs still have the manager they started the season with… for now.

Wazza to the rescue... again.

Wazza to the rescue… again.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Wayne Rooney (ENG) – We knew it would be a year of transition for Manchester United, and it is dishonest for people to blame David Moyes for all of the Red Devils’ transgressions this season.  Yes, Moyes showed remarkable naiveté in the transfer market and yes, his predictable tactics earned no plaudits.  But Sir Alex Ferguson left his fellow Scot with a mediocre squad that only performed for the outgoing manager.  It is the irony of ironies then, that the one player that wanted away from the club would be its most consistent player.  Robin Van Persie fans point to the Dutchman’s goals per game ratio… but Rooney put the ball in the net more and more importantly, far surpassed his team mates as a playmaker.  England’s only true world-class player… and United are lucky to have him.

Remy washes his hands of Newcaslte

Remy washes his hands of Newcastle

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Loïc Remy (FRA) – Is there a big club in more disarray than Newcastle United?  A disinterested owner and a volatile manager always seem to be the stories on Tyneside.  But now the Magpies are left to rue the departure of the team’s two best players.  Yohan Cabaye’s impact was such that he was still Newcastle’s second-best scorer, even though he left in January.  Now his compatriot, Loïc Remy, has finished his loan spell.  The signing of the Lyonnais was a coup for Pardew, and paid dividends, linking up well with Cabaye.  But then the midfielder left, Remy spent long stretches on the bench, and Newcastle’s second-half slide undid all of the successes of the season’s first half.  Pity.

Aye, listen Robbie: Norwich are fecked.

Aye, Robbie, listen: Norwich are fecked.

NORWICH CITY
Robert Snodgrass (SCO) Dutch Dreams turned into a relegation nightmare for the East Anglian side.  Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer quickly found out the Premier League is, well, leagues above the Portuguese and Dutch games.    The two — along with Celtic striker Gary Hooper — were supposed to stop Norwich’s goal slide, after the wonderful rampant play from their promotion season in 2011-12.   Instead, they flopped and the Canaries had the worst goal production in the top seven tiers of English football, and tied with relegated Bologna across Europe’s top five leagues.  The only Norwich player worth his mettle was ambi-winger Robert Snodgrass.  Look for him to end up at Upton Park next season with West Ham.

Let's hope he makes this face in Brazil...

Let’s hope he makes this face in Brazil…

SOUTHAMPTON
Adam Lallana (ENG) – At the other end of the spectrum is Southampton.  Looking at their line-up is like staring into a football shop window.  Who to pick? The “other” super-striker tandem of Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez? Young left back Luke Shaw?  Emerging playmaker Steven Davis? How about Nathaniel Clyne? The Saints’ player of the year has to be a member of the ever-elusive species, Acieslevus Anglicus: left winger Adam Lallana. You only have to watch his masterclass against Newcastle on March 29th, when he crossed, passed and scored his club through to a 4-0 romp at St. Mary’s.  He and several of his team mates will likely not be on the south coast come next season… and Southampton will be the victim of its own success.

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don't know?

Where are your nachos, Crouchie? You don’t know?

STOKE CITY
PETER CROUCH (ENG) – Sometimes a player will start at his small hometown club, but will quickly outgrow the team and then get swooped up by a bigger club.  But sometimes, that player should have just stayed as the big fish in the small pond.  Witness Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch, two players who did well in a wee outfit (Blackpool and QPR/Portsmouth/Villa/Norwich/S’ton) but kind of fizzled when they hit the big time (Liverpool).  However, since their arrival at Stoke City, the pair have thrived.  Adam fits in well with Mark Hughes’ rough-and-tumble philosophy, and Crouchie is the perfect target man for the tried-and-trued, oh-so-British, 4-4-2, kick-and-run style at Stoke.   Crouch gets the nod here because of his goals and assists…

Brent P. Lanthier

Up Next: Sunderland to West Ham

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The Art of Moyes

david-Moyes

There are two kinds of football fans: Manchester United fans… and everyone else.  The United fan has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years, as the hardcore ranks of the Red Army fans swelled, many of them young people who wanted to support a winner (not unlike Liverpool fans in the 70’s and 80’s, and Chelsea fans over the last decade).   Winning begets winning, both in the trophy case and on the balance sheet, and Manchester United has rode their success to the top of the football world.

However, the inevitable consequence of United’s prolonged success has been envy.  The club’s double-decade dominance of the Premier League has given their rivals a generation to sharpen their knives and bide their time.  So when Sir Alex Ferguson’s announced his retirement this past spring, the rest of the soccer world sensed that United’s hegemony would begin to diminish.    Fans were sick of Ferguson’s mind games, his badgering and bullying of officials, alng with the club’s contribution to the gross inflation of players’ wages and the normalization of leveraged-to-the-hilt spending.  Supporters of “other” clubs have been waiting for United to stumble and fall.

That David Moyes would be under the cosh from the start was thus undeniable.  There is only one Alex Ferguson, a man who willed, cajoled and frightened his team to victory while speaking and moving as a larger-than-life figure.  One can only imagine that, when the legend finally passes, a film version of his remarkable life will hit theatres sooner rather than later.  It should come as no surprise then, that someone like Moyes — an admitted stats geek who is more likely to have a quiet word with a player than give him the “hairdryer treatment” — was bound to underwhelm.

Fellaini calls for a taxi...

Fellaini calls for a taxi…

Initially, Moyes did not help his own cause.   The former Everton manager needed to make a splash in the summer transfer market, both to settle down the naysayers and to fill some very real deficiencies in United’s spine.   When the window closed, Moyes’ only acquisition was his midfield anchor at Everton, Marouane Fellaini.  It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing: £27.5 million for a player that has only appeared eleven times for the Red Devils, only seven as a starter.   The squad was already weak (by United’s standards) but now the holes have been laid bare for all to see.

Meanwhile, the strikes against the man from East Dumbartonshire started to add up.  A 1-0 loss at Anfield, a 4-1 loss to crosstown rivals City, and a 1-2 defeat at Old Trafford to dwindling  West Brom made for a terrible September.  Draws against Southampton, Real Sociedad, Cardiff and Tottenham piled it on, but it was successive losses at home against former club Everton and then Newcastle United that meant Moyes was officially “under pressure”.  It didn’t help that the travelling fans in both of those games sang about Moyes getting sacked in the morning.

Rio really shows all he can.

Rio really shows all he can.

The reality is that United are not the favourites to win this season’s Premier League title; they never were.  The holes in central midfield and centre back are glaring.  CB Phil Jones has deputized for Michael Carrick during times of injury, while the rest of the backline continues to look shaky.  You only have to look at Rio Ferdinand against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 10th.  Time after time, he was getting schooled by Alex Teixeira, leaving RF5 looking like John Terry in that World Cup match against Germany.  United won the game, but only after waking up at the half.  Meanwhile, former Premier League Player of the Year Nemanja Vidic has not been the same player since a knee injury two years ago.

Despite United’s mediocrity in defence (they’ve almost reached the total Goals Allowed average of their title runs from 2007-2009), they have kept pace with the rest of the league.  However, it’s goal scoring that has become a bigger issue.  They are 13 markers behind last season’s tally after 18 matches.  While Moyes has been criticized for importing his negative tactics from Goodison Park, the bigger culprit has been RVP’s reduced impact, through slump and then injury.

But the Dutchman’s woes are part of a bigger dynamic that Moyes will have to address in January and then July.   United have been on the decline for some time.  While Ferguson has always had a great eye for young talent, and the ability to develop said talent, you got the sense in the last few years that he was, well, slipping.  There is no way that a younger Sir Alex would have allowed Wayne Rooney to sulk himself into a new contract.   Meanwhile, the purchase of Robin Van Persie sealed Ferguson’s final league title, but only by covering up the rest of the team’s deficiencies through a barrage of game-winning goals.

In the next five weeks, Moyes will have to make his own mark in the transfer market.  No less than 11 key United players will be out of contract in the next 18 months.  Five of those players are done in July, with four of them —  Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Fabio — playing on United’s back line (the fifth, Ryan Giggs, will almost certainly join United’s staff full-time).  That leaves Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Jones and Alexander Büttner to fill their spots: not exactly a ringing endorsement for positions that favour men over boys.   On the flip side, Moyes is known for emulating his predecessor by signing youth over experience.  That could be bad news for Michael Carrick (32), or the illness-plagued Darren Fletcher (29).   Throw in Moyes’ low tolerance for petulance and out goes Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.   Most importantly, the team still has not found a meaningful and long-term replacement for Paul Scholes.  Shinji Kagawa has been pushed to the left, and Rooney has been playing somewhere between a second striker and an attacking midfielder… admirably so.  But contrast this with the midfield players at Manchester City and Chelsea, and the difference is embarrassing.

So the power of expectation — from both the pro- and anti- United camps — is such that Moyes was always going to be considered a failure, no matter what happened.  Yet despite United’s bad start, there are still a lot of positives and/or mitigators:

– They have won five games on the trot, including a comeback against Hull that was reminiscent of the “old” United

– One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s parting gifts to Wayne Rooney was to publicly expose the player’s demand for a transfer.  Moyes has had his troubles with the Scouser as well, suing Rooney for comments he made in his autobiography.  But despite all of that, the England international has remained a professional, stepping up in place of the injured (or disgruntled, or both, depending on whom you believe) Robin Van Persie.

– United are looking comfortable in cup competitions.  They open their FA Cup campaign at home against a struggling Swansea City, plus they play a semi-final League Cup match-up against bottom dwellers Sunderland. They also progressed comfortably through the Champions League group stages and will now face Olympiakos, the weakest opponent in the Round of 16.

– The club sits in 7th place with 31 points, but they are only eight points off the top and five points from a Champions League spot.  In such a topsy-turvy year, the season is not necessarily a write-off.

 The players seem to be buying into Moyes’ leadership, and in return, the Scot seems to be abandoning the conservative football that he favoured at Everton.  But there will continue to be growing pains.  A cup or two seem to be reasonable goals this season.  That may not be enough to satisfy the average United fan that has only known winning.  It may also be fodder for opposing fans who enjoy the schadenfreude of a former champion struggling with a new identity.  That’s not to say they are going to push David Moyes out: it’s simply not the United way.  But the Sisyphean task of managing expectations on both sides of the divide may mean that Moyes faces a long journey in the wilderness of public opinion.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Newcastle’s Tactical Nous

AlanPardew9Top-flight English football has just finished a crazy week, with a mid-week match day squeezed in presumably to make room for FA Cup ties and this summer’s World Cup.   Some teams have done blazingly well, like Liverpool who scored nine goals in just two matches.  Other clubs are in genuine, if inflated, crisis.  This would be Manchester United and perhaps a schizophrenic Chelsea.

And then there is the enigma that is Newcastle United.  Are they the club that has won five of their last six games, including victories against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United?  Or are they the overly cautious side that conceded a bizarre 3-0 loss to Swansea mid-week?  The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards has written how Alan Pardew has grown a rose out of a slag heap.   Edwards contends that Pardew has navigated crisis after crisis since the summer: the re-appointment of the megalomaniacal-delusional Joe Kinnear, the excess of hastily-signed French players in the January transfer window, the reconciliation with want-away Yohan Cabaye, the loan signing of Loïc Remy.

The Kinnear thing is just bizarre, but it’s a typical Mike Ashley move, so no surprises there.  As for the French players, they are indeed clicking and, as Edwards hypothesizes, they are probably jockeying for a spot on Didier Deschamps’ squad in Brazil (although presumably only Cabaye, Remy and Mathieu Debuchy will be going in any case).  Cabaye has definitely rediscovered his mojo: just watch his cheeky 10th minute goal attempt from just past the half-way line against Swansea, or his textbook goal against Manchester United.  Loïc Remy? He “only” has eight league goals this season.  That’s as many as Wayne Rooney and more than Robin Van Persie, good enough for fourth in the league.

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

But if I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be worried about tactics.  Alan Pardew says that the Magpies can win with different styles.  But Saturday’s match was the first time this season that Newcastle has won playing with a solitary striker, and that win came against a club that is in complete disarray.  The matches against Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom all featured Remy partnered with Ameobi (although the goals in the Chelsea game came after Ameobi was subbed off for Gouffran).  The pair also started against Swansea, but then Ameobi was subbed off following the Debuchy own-goal, with Obertan (ugh) coming on, and Remy moving into a wide position.   That meant Pardew was switching from the oh-so-British 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 that he had previously favoured in away games, with little success.

Why would Pardew do this? Was he giving up the game, even though there was still more than 20 minutes left to play?  Or did he think that this would cauterize the bleeding? (It didn’t).  It must have been a bit of a letdown for the Geordie faithful, considering that their side barely pressured Swansea and had trouble hanging onto the ball.  The move to the classic “away formation” hasn’t exactly been frustrating for opposing sides either: Newcastle has the fourth-worst away defense record in the league.

By this time next month, Alan Pardew will be the third-longest serving NUFC manager in the 3-point-win era, dating all the way back to the club’s promotion in 1984.  He has certainly skippered the most top-flight matches in the 10 years since Sir Bobby Robson was in charge.  In hindsight, the eight-year contract that Mike Ashley gave to Pardew looks less like a flashy publicity stunt, and more like a way to keep the club stable and growing. This is admirable, but a big club with a massive local fan base needs trophies.  Arsenal fans may think they have it tough, but try going 60 years without a major honour.

During the summer, I was very close to laying money on Newcastle to go down.  Their goal difference in the previous season was atrocious and the club was a cauldron of controversy.   But the manager seems to have ridden this out.  If Pardew can remain brave and can keep picking a team that is attack-minded and applies pressure, and if he can keep his side together for the rest of the season, the Geordies might be a surprise in a Premier League season already full of them.  But if this very English manager decides to revert to very English tactics,  things will start to get tough. Then Newcastle fans will be strapping themselves in for a ride towards the end of the season.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Starting XI

Arguably the Dutchman’s finest season… but can he repeat his success at the Euros?

As the Euros start swinging into full-gear, the Premier League season continues to fade in the rearview mirror.  But after such a compelling season, we can’t sign off on it without telling you about our picks for Starting XI.  I would have posted these earlier but I was in the UK for the last week, doing (ahem) research…

Here we go!

Hart: World’s best keeper?

GK: Joe Hart (MNC)
The England number one had the lowest goals-against average in the league. That’s no surprise, since he faced the fewest shots, and I’m sure the Citeh keeper is happy to have Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott in front of him.  Still, his save percentage (a stat that involves him actually touching the ball) was only second to David De Gea.   I’m tempted to pick Michel Vorm, simply because the Dutchman had more to do.  But even Hart’s fellow keepers are saying that he is close to being the best in the world.  England fans everywhere are singing, “we thank God that he’s ours”.

On the bench:  Michel Vorm (SWA), Tim Krul (NEW)

Difficult season for the Frenchman

LB: Patrice Evra (MNU)
Evra’s involvement in the Suarez racism affair has overshadowed a strong season for the Frenchman. He was the one constant on an unsettled United back line, and took the captain’s armband when Vidic blew his knee.  Evra was a tackling machine, and was almost omnipresent on SAF’s team sheet.

On the bench: Gael Clichy (MNC)

City’s defensive giants

CB: Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany (MNC)
The pair were instrumental — vital, even — in Citeh’s run to the title. The Citizens’ league-lowest goals-against tally had as much to do with having possession as it did with defending. But these two were monsters in the backfield, with Kompany serving as the club’s “quarterback”, while Lescott cleaned up.

On the bench: John Terry (CHE), Jonny Evans (MNU)

Ivanovic channels Al Jolson

RB: Branislav Ivanovic (CHE)
The Serbian was rough and ready, leading the league’s right backs in balls won, as well as crosses.  The fact that he scored a few goals and set up a couple more doesn’t hurt either, all while keeping his bookings down from last year.

On the bench: Danny Simpson (NEW)

A Song and a prayer helped Arsenal to a CL spot…

DM: Alex Song (ARS)
This may be a little unfair, since the Cameroonian had more of a “playmaker” role this season: 13 assists in all competitions.  But Song was also a winner when it come to breaking up opponents’ attacking runs, winning back possession deep in Arsenal’s own end and then turning the counter on a dime.  Throw out the Gunners’ horror show results against United and Blackburn early, and you see how Arsenal’s defence actually came around… and Song was a big part of that.

On the bench: Gareth Barry (MNC)

Toure led City to its first title in 44 years…

AM: Yaya Touré (MNC)
Of all the millionaires on Manchester City’s squad, Touré may have come closest to earning his £250,000 per week.  He was a menancing presence, muscling his way through the middle of the pitch to set up his teammates.  But he is not without finesse: witness his two goals against Newcastle in Citeh’s penultimate game this season, followed by a nice little tap to Zabaleta against QPR.  Man City were accused of being hired mercenaries without any fire in the belly.  But if there is a heart to this team, it lies between the “4” and “2” on Yaya Touré’s jersey.

On the bench: Mikel Arteta (ARS)

Spanish Imposition: Silva made his mark this season

LW: David Silva (MNC)
If Touré was Citeh’s heart, then Silva was their brain.  As I mentioned last week, Silva was the league’s ultimate playmaker. He led the league in assists, showing incredible control both on the ball, and with his crossing and passing.  With David Villa out of the Euros, look for Silva to move up front to lead the Spanish armada in Poland.

On the bench: Gareth Bale (TOT)

The Heart of the Mata: Spaniard has a bright future at Stamford Bridge

RW:  Juan Mata (MNC)
Another Spaniard on the wing and another speedy midfielder with the artillery to feed his teammates.   One of the players that will become a huge part of the new Chelsea.

On the bench: Antonio Valencia (MNU)

With RVP’s success, Rooney flew under the radar this season

F: Robin Van Persie (ARS), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Let’s not beat around the bush: a forward’s job is to either score goals… or make sure someone else does.   That’s what these two players did this year.  Van Persie kept relatively injury-free to take the league’s Golden Boot with 30 markers (36 in all competitions), while Rooney was neck-and-neck for most of the season with 27 (37 in total).  The Rooney numbers are impressive, considering he was hurried into midfield for a time before Paul Scholes came out of retirement.  But RVP might have single-handedly pulled Arsenal out of its early-season nose dive.  Champions League football may keep the lanky Dutchman at the Emirates for some time yet.

On the bench: Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT), Sergio Aguero (MNC)

ATR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robin Van Persie
ATR YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sergio Aguero

Brent Lanthier

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Best of the Prem: Everton to Man U

Fergie has something stuck to the roof of his mouth. It might be crow…

Part Two features players from both sides of Merseyside, along with the two big sides from Manchester.  Part of what made this season so great is that these big clubs — along with the North London clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham — finished right next to their derby rivals in the table. Greatest Premier League season, indeed.

Baines and Jelavic: Goodison’s best

EVERTON
Leighton Baines (ENG) – If that season began on January 31st, then Nikica Jelavic would have been the obvious choice, scoring 13 goals since his arrival, while the Toffees went 10-6-3 in all competitions.  But the season is of course long and arduous.  Typical Everton then, who were awful in the first half of the campaign… except for Leighton Baines.  The first name on David Moyes’ team sheet, Baines is everything a manager wants in a full-back.  He can race up the wing but still served as a member of one of the league’s stingiest defences.  The Scouser is also a superb deliverer of crosses and is a set-piece specialist.  If he can stand a month in the Ukraine, then he may actually get onto the pitch under Roy Hodgson.

Dempsey OK for USA

FULHAM
Clint Dempsey (USA) – Who else could it have been? The Yank has been a revelation since the 2010 World Cup, leading the Cottagers in scoring over the last two seasons by a country mile.   This year, Dempsey set the single-season record for Premier League goals in a Fulham shirt.  He has taken over from Landon Donovan as the global face of American soccer, and Jurgen Klinsmann will need Dempsey firing on all cylinders as Team USA begins its World Cup-qualifying campaign.  Another player who is so good that he may be wearing different club colours, come August.

LIVERPOOL
Jose Enrique (ESP) – To be honest, the Spanish fullback is the best of a bad lot.  While King Kenny forked out millions for Andy Carroll, the “other” former Newcastle player was the shining light on an underachieving Anfield side.  It is telling that Enrique’s decline coincided with a reversal in Liverpool’s fortunes after the Christmas break.  In fairness, he has brought some consistency to a position that seems to have been a black hole for the Merseyside club.  As well, he was ever-present in the squad sheet and the Liverpool defence still managed to be one of the league’s best.

Silva has lots to cheer about this season.

MANCHESTER CITY
David Silva (ESP) – On a team deep with expensive talent, this £30m man has proved to be worth every penny.  The league’s ultimate winger, speedy Silva led the league in assists.  Kompany may hoist the trophies, and Aguero/Tevez/Balotelli may find the back of the net, but Silva might be the best playmaker in the league.  A Spanish midfield of Xavi and Iniesta in the middle, with Silva and Mata on the wings, is a formidable thing indeed.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Wayne Rooney (ENG) – Quite possibly the most frustrating man to ever put on an England jersey (apologies to Paul Gascoigne).   The man (still only 26 years old) seems to have an infinite supply of talent.  After a season-long post-World Cup hangover, Rooney rebounded in 2011/2012 with an astonishing 34 goals in 42 games for United.  That includes 27 in the EPL, where he pushed Van Persie for the scoring title right until the end.  In fact, it’s hard to believe he has yet to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot.  How frustrating then, for both the players and the fans, that he must sit out what will surely be two critical games for England this summer.

Brent Lanthier

Coming Up: Newcastle United to Sunderland

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by | May 16, 2012 · 9:07 pm

Mad times in Manchester

Sure, Barca are the best is the business. But the way I see it, Manchester is the first city of European football.

Of course, that doesn’t mean both United and City aren’t in danger of dropping out of the Champions League once the group stages conclude next month.

In this week’s Toro Magazine column, I explain why the Citizens are surely Europa League-bound, while Fergie’s lot will likely find a way through…again.

Ian Harrison

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