Fantastic players versus the idiocy of the internet

Gareth Bale.  He’s very good you know.  He’s so good that one of the richest clubs in the world want to buy him for a world record fee.  Gareth Bale

It’s funny that for the longest time, football fans across England scoffed at the illustration of Bale as a superstar with charges of him being overrated and not all that.  As last season unfolded and he continued his fine form – even improving under AVB – they reached for another weapon: his penchant for diving.  They did the same thing to Cristiano Ronaldo: a one-trick pony, show-boater, diver, whiner, fancy-dan, nancy-boy, only scores so many goals because he takes all the free-kicks (yes, really).  I had the same reaction to Ronaldo myself when, truth be told, I would have loved to have him at my club.

It seems that to be a player held in esteem by fans of other clubs, you must perform very well all the time.  I’ve heard Man United and Liverpool fans and  fans talk about the time they played Spurs and Gareth Bale was in the pocket of Rafael or Glen Johnson, which completely shot down this theory that Bale was any good.  And did you know that Bale’s great performance in Milan in 2010 was only because he was up against the over-the-hill Maicon?  I’m guilty too – I talk about the time Cristiano got played off the park by Benoit Assou-Ekotto.  Yeah, that really damaged his market value and ability to score more than a goal per game at Madrid, didn’t it?

Yes, there is much idiocy out there.  We call it “trolling” but it’s really bullshit.  If you can’t see the absolute class from players like Ronaldo or Bale or Suarez then you’re not really worth debating.  I can question the value of Christian Benteke because he’s really only had a season to show it at the top level. Perhaps he’s brilliant.  But perhaps he’s another Benjani or Andy Carroll.

But when the likes of Bale perform extremely well for three seasons and show a considerable array of talents (skill, pace, goal-scoring, intelligent runs, heading, crossing) you cannot question his ability with a straight face.

Bale isn’t as good as Messi or Ronaldo. I’m not sure anyone is suggesting he is. But he’s one of the top ten to fifteen players in the world and I don’t think there would be too many credible people arguing with that assertion.

On that basis, he’s worth £80m.  In fact, he’s pretty much invaluable to Spurs because, even with all that money in the bank, they are not going to replace him.  There’s no one as good as Bale who will score over 20 goals from midfield next season, that is going to join a team in the Europa League.

Bale will be a big loss to Spurs if that’s how this media-driven saga plays out.  And one way or the other, as soon as he has a few poor games we’ll no doubt hear about how rubbish he is.

An insidious package

Defenders of Luis Suarez blame everybody but him for the challenges he faces: it’s the Imagemedia’s fault, it’s Evra’s fault.

It’s not – it’s Suarez’s fault.

He talks about his treatment at the hands of the press, how he can’t even walk his baby. But Suarez has brought all of this on himself. Does Sergio Aguero, Fabricio Coloccini or Pablo Zabaleta get pursued? Have the media been camping on their lawn? No.

What’s the difference? Well as Carlos Tevez and John Terry would tell you, if you do stupid things then you will be pursued, they will write stories about you and people who don’t know you will write pieces about you that may not be entirely sympathetic.

It’s not a case that Suarez bites like Jermain Defoe did once, or dives like Gareth Bale does, or shows a lack of sportsmanship like Martin Keown did when roaring in Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face, or sneers and lacks humility like Craig Bellamy.

It’s that he is all of these things in one insidious package.

As a private human being Suarez might be personable, an upstanding individual with solid family values who donates regularly to charity. But none of these matter to the millions who see his very public petulance and occasionally outrageous behaviour on the football pitch.

He says he has not been judged as a footballer? He was shortlisted for player of the year while playing in a team that stumbled inconsistently a long way from the top of the league. His goals and his skills are regularly cited and admired, even by his most fervent opponents.

Suarez says he does not want to move for money or for Champions League? Well then Liverpool should only agree to sell him to a similarly-ranked club in a foreign country who will pay him the same money as he earns now: Sevilla, FC Twente, Parma, Dundalk. That will test the motivations of the player.

I respect Liverpool and I respect Suarez as a player and would love to watch him week-in, week-out in the Premier League – but without the brazen and insolent swagger of the self-absorbed man-child that he is.

Newcastle performance is early setback for AVB

Spurs carried on much in the vein of how they ended last season – with a whimper.

An opening day defeat at St James’ Sports Direct Park might not seem particularly newsworthy but for new boss Andre Villas-Boas it represented something of a setback.

Much is made of Villas-Boas’ tactical nuances – the defensive high line, pressing in the opposition half, the 4-3-3 formation – and some of that approach was evident.  But, on the evidence of today, the Tottenham squad don’t look like they’ve fully come to terms with the new managers’ methods.

Not that it’s a surprise – it’s only been one pre-season and Villas-Boas is a very different beast to former manager Harry Redknapp.

Spurs lined up somewhat as expected with a loose 4-3-3 formation, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon flanking lone-striker Jermain Defoe with two holding midfielders in Jake Livermore and Sandro behind them and attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson in between.  The back four sitting in front of goalkeeper Brad Friedel saw a surprise inclusion for William Gallas alongside Younes Kaboul in the center of defence, with Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto either side.

In the first half Spurs hit the post and bar through Defoe and Bale, while Demba Ba saw a deflected shot trickle past Friedel’s right hand post.  Spurs were just about edging it but it was a low-key affair until Ba’s brilliant 55th minute opener curled past Friedel.  Spurs leveled with a scrambled effort from Defoe after 76 minutes but, 10 minutes from time, substitute Rafael van der Vaart and Lennon clumsily brought down Hatem Ben Arfa in the box.  The French midfielder picked himself up and scored the winner from the spot.

The most disappointing thing was that Spurs seemed disjointed and a little unsure of themselves.  The strategy was something we saw at times under Harry Redknapp with Bale and Lennon coming inside in support of the forward and the full backs – notably Kyle Walker – performing as auxiliary wide midfielders.  But the performance was flat and there was a lack of character and leadership – qualities that you’d probably associate with injured midfielder Scott Parker and retired defender Ledley King.

There were chances created early on but the second half was very disappointing with little available on the bench to change the flow of the game.  The fading Sigurdsson was replaced by van der Vaart and Harry Kane replaced Sandro late on. When Harry Kane – a young, limited forward who I’m pretty sure is not long for the Premier League world – is your plan B, there’s clearly a need for some fresh faces.

No doubt Daniel Levy is trying to get the best deal for the club but his brinkmanship in transfer negotiations could cost Tottenham points, much like it arguably did last season.

On today’s evidence there is much work to do.

The Premier League Season Prediction Extravaganza – Part 5: Champions and the Chasing Pack

Continuation from Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

4 Liverpool
I know the joke about Liverpool fans spending 20 years saying “this could be our year” has run its course now, but there is a definite optimism surrounding Anfield this season after the appointment of budget tiki-taka master, Brendan Rodgers. There has been a decent outlay on former Swansea players Fabio Borini and Joe Allen and the wage bill has been trimmed with Fabio Aurelio, Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Alberto Aquilani and Craig Bellamy finding employment elsewhere. Much is made of how many times Liverpool hit the bar last season and, if a percentage of those had gone in, then we’d have had a very different final league position and King Kenny would still be in a job. But the club needed to reinvent itself after the debacle around Luis Suarez and the self-aggrandizing t-shirts worn in support of him – singularly the most misguided and embarrassing thing since Bryan Robson’s appearance in Jossy’s Giants. A fully fit squad is going to be a challenge to anyone this season, especially if they embrace Rodgers’ way. Liverpool fans seem to be confident so I’m going to follow their lead and predict a Champions League place for the Reds (unless Di Matteo wins his second Big Cup in succession).

3 Manchester United
Maybe Alex should have gotten out while he can. The perception is that Alex Ferguson is not being given all that much money to spend, considering that he manages the wealthiest club in the world. Just Twelve million pounds was dropped on Shinji Kagawa this summer but 90 million-plus on David De Gea, Bebe, Anders Lindegaard, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Gabriel Obertan (yeah, that worked) and Antonio Valencia in the three seasons prior. It’s not like there has been no money – but maybe just not money spent in the right places. United were so short last season that Paul Scholes came out of retirement and 38 year old Ryan Giggs still plays regularly. Darren Fletcher is facing an uncertain future with illness and played just 8 times last season. But United look short of quality in midfield this season. This might be the season where the old guard hand over to Tom Cleverley and perhaps even Shinji Kagawa. Regardless, even Ferguson’s ability to get the best out of his players may not be enough to overturn their city rivals once again.

2 Manchester City
It’ll be all Brian Marwood’s fault when City fall short this season. There’s no doubt that the billion dollar team need to offload players, something they are finding difficult due to absurd wages that Sheikh Mansour sanctioned when told that Roque Santa Cruz and Emmanuel Adebayor were good players. Santa Cruz, Adebayor, Nigel de Jong, Adam Johnson, Kolo Toure and maybe even the likes of Edin Dzeko may have little role to play this season. Until then, the purse strings have been supposedly kept awkwardly knotted by sports director executive person Brian Marwood. City have reportedly tried to sign Daniele de Rossi, Scott Sinclair, Robin van Persie and Daniel Agger but so far the only newcomers are Jack Rodwell and, arguably, slimmed-down outcast Carlos Tevez. I’m sure there will be additions before the transfer window “slams shut” but City saw largely the same squad – put together for an insane amount of money – stumble over the line in the 93rd minute of the final game of the season. It may be even harder this season.

1 Arsenal
If the Arsenal fans are anything to go by – and they would be the ones who know – this is the season when it all comes to fruition. Arsene Wenger has finally abandoned his policy of signing unproven players, bigging them up, giving them League Cup games and then realising a few years later that they are not actually good enough. Perversely, the very fact that he has managed to compete for Champions League qualification in spite of all this is a reason why Wenger should be recognised as the second best manager of the Premier League era. Last season a flurry of transfer activity including the signing of finished articles like Andre Santos, Mikel Arteta and Per Mertersacker helped Arsenal eventually nick third place off Spurs on the final day of the season. And Wenger has continued that policy with the capture of Olivier Giroud (25), Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla (both 27). Even if Robin van Persie goes it should not really matter all that much as he has recruited two top class strikers in his place and a brilliant winger in Cazorla. With Jack Wilshere – set to become the best midfielder of his generation – and the burgeoning class of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and occasional genius of Theo Walcott it’s hard to see Arsenal not being in the mix at the business end of the season. Hopefully the days of giving games to mediocre talent like Abou Diaby, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Carlos Vela and Emmanuel Eboue are a thing of the past and Wenger has finally copped on to himself. Thomas Vermaelen has captured the feeling of a lot of fans when he said: “I feel really positive for the new season. If we all stay fit, the squad is strong enough to compete for the title”.

The Premier League Season Prediction Extravaganza – Part 4: The European Contenders

Continuation from Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

8 Tottenham
Ooh, it’s not going to be pretty this year. Tottenham are doomed! At least that’s what I’m reading. Spurs sacked the manager who had brought them their most success in 50 years, hired a manager who lasted a wet weekend in west London, sold all their strikers apart from the “diminutive” Jermaine Defoe, sent inspirational kneeless miracle Ledley King to the knackers yard and refuse to sell a mop-headed Croatian “schemer” who would rather spend weekends in the stands with David Bentley and Jermain Jenas (please!) than give Daniel Levy another 90 minutes of half-arsed inventiveness. If you’re a Spurs fan at the moment you’re either apathetic or apoplectic (you can’t be both – it’s a biological impossibility). Levy will probably make a couple of panic signings at four minutes to closing that will make Oyvind Leonhardsen and Roman Pavlyuchenko look like wily business. But when all is taken in to account this could be an almighty mess in N17.

7 Newcastle United
I think everyone is waiting for the Alan Pardew rehabilitation to fall apart and for him to return to the joke status that saw him kicked out of West Ham, Charlton and Southampton. Actually his record at Southampton was quite good and it was reportedly internal conflicts that led to his dismissal. Regardless of his perceived abilities you can’t deny that Pardew has played his part in turning Newcastle in to a relatively good Premier League side. He’s not spent a lot of money and the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye have proven to be excellent Premier League players. Jonás Gutiérrez and Fabricio Coloccini have also turned their careers around under Pardew although he has not repeated the same trick with Xisco. Yes, he’s still there. Newcastle will do well this season although they are more likely to hover between 6th and 10th.

6 Everton

Small squad and all that Everton have, they have (so far) managed to hold on to key players. Yes, Jack Rodwell has left but bagging 15 million pounds for a player who wasn’t always in the team is not bad business and Tim Cahill’s powers were waning so it was a good time for him to move on. Replacing Tim Cahill is former Rangers midfielder Steven Naismith who joins former Ibrox man Nikica Jelavic – and scorer of 9 goals in 13 games last season – at the club. Keeping Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini were positives too and if they stay relatively clear of injury, this is one of the most impressive teams outside of the top four.

5 Chelsea
Most of what I’m reading from Chelsea fans online is that everything is going to be fine once the season starts and we (people who are not Chelsea fans) should not worry. Well obviously we’re not worried but you know how condescension works. Maybe Chelsea fans should feel a little insecure about their position this year though. Roberto Di Matteo doesn’t have the glamour that Abramovich wants and if Pep Guardiola agreed to become Chelsea manager next month, Di Matteo would be gone. There’s an unconvincing air about the Italian in spite of the trophies and the respectable win percentage. Aside from that, there are questions to be asked about the recruitment policy. The back four needed some investment but 60 million pounds was spent on the attacking midfield trio of Marko Marin, Eden Hazard and Oscar instead. With Juan Mata, Ramires and (some would argue) Frank Lampard deserving of places in the first XI, you have to wonder how Di Matteo can keep all these midfielders happy. And with only Torres and Daniel Sturridge as out-and-out strikers, is Abramovich – sorry I meant Di Matteo – looking to mimic Spain’s 4-6-0 formation? And what happens to Essien, Mikel, Malouda, Merieles, Sturridge, Benayoun and whoever else is omitted regularly? It just seems bloated and out of control at Chelsea right now and that’s why I wonder if the project might blow up in their face a little.

Part 5 to be posted later tonight.

The Premier League Season Prediction Extravaganza – Part 3: The Mid-Table

Continuation from Part 1 and Part 2.

12 Queens Park Rangers
I’m not all that taken with QPR or their over-confident manager, Mark Hughes. He left Fulham after a reasonable 12 months: “I hope the supporters and all those connected to the club will understand that as a young, ambitious manager I wish to move on to further my experiences”. So he ends up battling relegation with QPR which could be described as a further “experience” I guess. And it’s not like the purse strings have been loosened. Fabio da Silva has hit a wall in his development at Manchester United so he comes in on loan while Rob Green, Ji-Sung Park and Junior Hoilett are high-profile signings and all will add to the first team – marginally – but none of them could be described as a game-changer. But there’s a lot of bodies to move on from a huge squad: Kieron Dyer, Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell, and Shaun Wright Phillips may be the most high-profile of those whose services are not required any more. If he trims the squad and builds some camraderie then QPR should be fine but the bottom half of the Premier League looks more challenging this year so they must pick up points early on.

11 Southampton
Southampton have got it wrong for so long – Steve Wigley, Stuart Gray, Jan Poortvliet, Mark Wotte, Alan Ball, Rupert Lowe, Harry Redknapp – that the fans must have expected to wake up one morning last May and find Jeremy Beadle revealing himself from behind a huge fake beard. But, true it was and a young, promising Southampton squad led by goalscoring SENSATION Rickie Lambert (27 league goals) were promoted with the most goals and best goal difference in the division. It’s not just Lambert banging in the goals though. Billy Sharp signed from Doncaster last January and bagged 9 in 11 starts while Brazilian midfielder Guilherme Do Prado scored 10 goals. Jack Cork is the young starlet who made the Great Britain Olympic team and overseeing the whole operation is veteran goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, voted in to his respective leagues team of the year for three seasons in a row. Southampton are going tospect and something of a shock to the system for Premier League fans who remember Francis Benali and Simon Charlton.

10 West Ham United
I think West Ham fans have begrudgingly agreed to tolerate Big Sam, enemy of lovely football, the BBC and Steve Kean. With a virtual Premier League budget he managed to squeak in to the Premier League via the playoffs bringing Kevin Nolan and Carlton Cole back to their rightful place. Sniping aside, Sam has a decent squad at his disposal. I watched West Ham a good few times last season and they played decent football – certainly nowhere near the aberration some people would lead you to believe. The signing of Alou Diarra could be inspired although the re-signing of James Collins maybe less so. But West Ham will be quite good this year I think. Although the Carlton Cole thing will end in tears.

9 Aston Villa
Randy Lerner used to get a lot of praise for the support he gave former manager Martin O’Neill. But, Randy, what have you done for me lately? Alex McLeish? Gerard Houllier? And before O’Neill, fans had to contend with David O’Leary and Graham Taylor. Aside from O’Neill’s three sixth place finishes in a row, it’s not been a great decade for them. But new manager Paul Lambert has that air of conviction and legitimacy that McLeish, Houllier, O’Leary and Taylor just did not have. Players and fans can tell when a manager is legitimate and this helps breed a confidence that was clearly lacking under the aforementioned. Villa won’t threaten but they’ll be hard to beat and still have plenty of talent. Lambert will have to get the best out of young players like Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Nathan Delfouneso who have spent varying periods of time in and out of the first team. I’m also glad to see them re-sign Brad Guzan who is a very able understudy for Shay Given. For Alan Hutton, Stephen Ireland and Stephen Warnock, it could be a very long season.

Part 4 to be posted tomorrow.

The Premier League Season Prediction Extravaganza – Part 2: The Lower Half

Continuation from Part 1.

17 Stoke City
I kind of enjoyed Stoke sticking it to everyone on their first season back in the top-tier. But now I’m kind of over them and manager Tony Pulis’ baseball cap. They finished the season badly with one win in eleven games and the only incoming personnel changes so far are former Rangers midfielder Jamie Ness and former Wolves winger Michael Kightly, who is actually a decent player for 15-20 minutes a game. Salif Diao, Ricardo Fuller, Danny Collins and Jonathan Woodgate have been released or left on Bosmans. But Stoke need to find a new gear and a new direction that extends beyond … yes, a direct style and Rory Delap.

16 Reading
Fans of promoted clubs are often full of optimism based on being used to seeing their side win the majority of their games, scoring a lot of goals, and their perception that the bottom six or seven teams in the Premier League are fairly crap. Considering that they lost most of their best players over the past few seasons, it’s been a quick bounce back for Reading and their manager Brian McDermott. A quick look through their pretty big squad shows a few familiar names: Noel Hunt, Mikele Leigertwood, Ian Harte (where have you been??) and Jobi McAnuff. Danny Guthrie, Chris Gunter, Jason Roberts and Pavel Pogrebnyak (last season’s loan sensation at Fulham) are all solid 2012 signings with Premier League experience. So all in all I think Reading fans should have every confidence that they will get enough points to stay up, perhaps comfortably.

15 Swansea City
I’m probably falling in to that “great player, must be a good manager” trap when it comes to Swansea’s flashy new head honcho, Michael Laudrup. But his managerial record at Getafe and Mallorca is unspectacular and there is no evidence that he will bring much beyond the panache that Swansea stand for and he exhibited as a player. However, pre-season has been fun with Swansea scoring a hatful against Blackpool and Stuttgart in recent games, Danny Graham scoring six times. It might be that the new Swansea are much like the (new Liverpool manager) Brendan Rodgers Swansea, which were much like the (now-Wigan manager) Roberto Martinez Swansea. Watching Swansea last year, they were the best footballing team outside the top four, based around the attacking axis of wingers Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer, tidy passing of Leon Britton, drive of Joe Allen, and creativity of Gylfi Sigurdsson (the latter two now making their money at Liverpool and Spurs respectively). With two players added for small fees – midfielder Michu and defender Chico (who played under Laudrup at Mallorca) – Swansea look like they are following the already-established blueprint under previous managers. I think they will be fine this season but Allen and Sigurdsson are definitely losses.

14 Norwich City
Is Hughton one of the rare breed who are better as a number one than a number two? At Spurs, Newcastle and Ireland there was little success under his secondary tutelage but when given the reigns at Newcastle and Birmingham he achieved respectable levels of success albeit with the caveat that he did not spend very long in charge of either club. He’ll find it hard at Norwich, a club who gained back-to-back promotions under former manager Paul Lambert and comfortably thrived in the Premier League. They are spending wisely, making modest acquisitions such as second tier goalscorer Robert Snodgrass. Norwich fans are probably quietly confident that they can achieve similarly to last season (12 wins).

13 Fulham
Spurs fans still hold a fondness for Martin Jol, officially the joint-nicest bald man in the world alongside Duncan Goodhew. Jol did a solid if unspectacular job at Craven Cottage last season. With his resources, it’s unlikely he’ll make the sort of inroads he did at Spurs, Hamburg and Ajax. What it all adds up to is a manager who may eventually get bored, fans who may become apathetic and a board who are happy to settle for the status quo of surviving in the Premier League. Think Alan Curbishley at Charlton and you might get where I’m going with this. Danny Murphy is gone, Hugo Rodallega has come in. Give a little, take a little. Not much to see here.

Part 3 to be posted tomorrow.