Archive | October, 2013

Sam Allardyce – football’s Oliver Twist

25 Oct

It is a gritty, but nevertheless accurate, fact that the best looking orphans get adopted first out of the orphanage.  One would think that some sort of “cab-rank” rule applies when it comes to something as important as adoption.  However, apparently this isn’t the case.  Too Good is unable to explain why would-be surrogates apply an aesthetic rigour to their decision-making, but the facts remain to be as they are – the munters get left on the subs’ bench.

Sam Allardyce knows exactly what it’s like to be unloved on aesthetic grounds.  The man from Dudley is football’s answer to brutalism.  Sure, there will be a few outcriers who see a beauty in Big Sam’s interpretation of football, but most of us just think it’s a big concrete mess.  A style of play that ought to have been torn down and reconstructed at the same time as Manchester’s old Arndale Centre was.

As sure as those less appealing orphans are left with a life-time of emotional scarring, so too has Big Sam been rendered damaged and hurt from being consistently overlooked.  A big tear rolls down his big cheek every time he sees a coach with a fitted suit and a more fluid style of play get plucked from the orphanage of crap football teams and nestled into one of the warm, cozy homes of the premiership elite.

The impact this has had on Big Sam is palpably evident.  You only have to scratch the surface to see the wounds:

“I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce.”

Sam Allardyce.

These aren’t the words of a defiant underdog; unapologetic for his misunderstood genius.  This is a statement laced with the brittle nomenclature of a damaged psyche.  Unresolved emotional trauma that won’t loosen its grip.  Sam’s stuck in the orphanage, and those idiot Top 4 foster parents just keep on picking more superficially attractive managerial alternatives.

It’s the final two words of the quote that yank the heart strings quite so taut.  “Just Allardyce”.  Leave them off and Sam might just have gotten away with a droll observation, evincing a wry smile and a wink from the assembled hacks.  Throw in the last two words and suddenly you’ve got a desperate and isolated man, struggling to control a wobbly lip.  Just Allardyce.  Just Allardyce.  Just plain old Sam Allardyce, nothing to see here.  Referring to oneself in the third person is usually an example of arrogance.  When used for the purpose of self-pity it’s just plain upsetting.

How did he end up feeling so unloved?  Maybe the quote was a defensive reaction; natural for a man who was sacked from his first permanent managerial post by a chairman sat in a prison cell at the time.  Maybe it’s the sniggering he hears when, trying to sound tech-savvy, he makes reference to analysing games on his laptop.

Preston, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton, Blackburn.  Big Sam’s career reads like a Who’s Who of places you wouldn’t want to live in the north of England.  Newcastle was supposed to be his big break.  A team with a huge following and, finally, some real money to spend.  This was destined to be the final stepping stone before Allardyce was installed at a Champions League team.  Sadly, it turned out to be a tiny Toon adventure, lasting barely eight months.  Newcastle fans sang “You should have stayed at the Reebok” and “Sacked in the morning” at him.

Those cruel words must have still been ringing in Allardyce’s ears when he was sacked again 24 months into his next position, this time at Blackburn.  Quite the transformation for a manger whose stock was soaring when he left Bolton in 2007.  Three years on and Sam was running out of filing space for his rapidly accumulating p45s.

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It’s hard to understand why Allardyce doesn’t resonate more with our footballing public.  Certainly, no-one can doubt his Anglo-Saxon credentials.  Here is a man so quintessentially couched in the British elements of the game that even his jowls look like a flat back four.  Maybe it’s the denial as to who he truly is, and what he truly stands for, that sticks in the craw.  There’s an air of intellectual honesty to men like Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy and Tony Pulis.  Men whose brand of football is as unattractive as the ginger one from Girls Aloud, but who make no protestations to the contrary. 

Not so, for Big Sam.  I don’t know if he’s trying to kid us or himself, but there’s a level of hypocrisy bordering on wilful blindness with Allardyce.  He rails against accusations of direct, turgid football but then goes and signs a front two battering ram of Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll[1].  He’s the dog that craps all over the kitchen floor and then gives it the old “What, me guvnor?” routine when his owner comes home.  You’re fooling no-one, Sam.  And no amount of references to being a “pioneer of using Prozone in football management” will persuade us to the contrary.

Allowing Allardyce the reins at a club like West Ham was the final straw for many.  Everybody loves the Hammers.  Easy on the eye, rich in history and never actually quite good enough to ruffle the feathers of other teams.  Yet here, at the club synonymous with Sir Trevor Brooking and Bobby Moore, we were forced to witness the convergence of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Carlton Cole in order to play out the logical end-game of Allardyce’s bleak philosophy.  It was like handing Peter Stringfellow the keys to a listed building.

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In the interests of balance, Allardyce has had his moments in the sun and we shouldn’t let that be forgotten.  “Bolton Wanderers finishing in the top 6” was a phrase few of us thought we would ever hear.  The last time Bolton were good enough to qualify for non-domestic duties, the concept of “European competition” was an entirely different affair that involved tanks and rationing.  Allardyce managed it, though. 

Again now at West Ham, despite the desecration of such holy ground, he returned the Irons to the top flight at the first attempt and finished 10th the following year.  In addition to usually one or both of Kevin Nolan and El Hadj Diouf, Allardyce brings stability to the table.

To quote Clive Owen in the motion picture Sin City, maybe Allardyce just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century.  I haven’t seen any footage of Allardyce in his playing days, but it is unlikely that he ever wore pink boots.  He’s an old-fashioned cannon in an era of drones and heat-sensitive missiles.  If he had been born thirty years earlier, he’d have probably been the England manager.

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The success of his time at Upton Park will likely now define Allardyce’s premiership career.  He did the business at Bolton, was booted out at Newcastle, and then walked into a lunatic asylum at Ewood Park (a spell from which we can conclude very little).  A positive report card at West Ham and you would have to concede that, on balance, his methods get results. 

Ultimately, though, I don’t think it is results that Allardyce craves.  It’s acceptance that he’s after.  It’s understanding.  It’s an arm around his Big shoulder.  More than anything, the ugly duckling from the midlands just needs a little love.  He just needs to be told “it’s not your fault” ten or eleven times, in the manner that Robin Williams did to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, so that he can have a good cry and release the demons that have plagued him for so long.

So here it is.  I love you, Sam.  Not massively, it has to be said.  And not in a particularly wholesome way, either.  But you seem to be able to consistently get results at a certain level within the game.  If I supported any team in the bottom half of the premiership, I’d be happy to have you as manager.  Newcastle were idiots to get rid of you so quickly.  And their fans sarcastically chanting “Big Sam for England” wasn’t right.  If I could have stopped them, I would have. 

I’d much prefer it if you didn’t sign players like Andy Carroll.  But such acquisitions are inextricable with your view on how the game needs to be played.  I accept that.  You could probably tone down the general levels of sarcasm in your interviews.  It gets weary season after season.  And stop talking about your laptop like you work for NASA – we’ve all got one.  But these are small things.  You’re not insufferable, Sam.  You’ll never irritate people to anywhere near the levels that Alan Pardew manages to achieve.  You’re not Alan Pardew, Sam.  You hear me?  You’re not Alan Pardew. 

You’re a good kid. 

Hopefully this provides you with some solace.

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“Please sir, I want two uncompromising centre-forwards.”


[1] While spending a short period of time in the U.S. playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, it may stun you to learn that Allardyce was a student of gridiron and subsequently applied many of the practices and techniques into association football.

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Space Cadet Hodgson steers his team of astronauts to the World Cup Finals

18 Oct

So, congratulations to Roy’s boys.  Obviously last night’s qualification is all just laying the groundwork for when Adnan Januzaj links up with the squad in 2018.   But let’s crack open the Babycham and enjoy a small celebration in the meantime anyway.  We’re off to Brazil!

Judging by the lack of dancing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square on Tuesday night, England fans appear to have taken the news in a measured stride.  Rightly so.  On a sheer numbers game alone, the fifth most populace nation in the European confederation really ought to be able to secure one of the thirteen berths on offer. 

Too Good has never been convinced that Roy Hodgson was a particularly good choice for England manager, but that’s for another day and another article.  Now would be an unkind and unjust time to shine a harsh light on that decision.  It’s touching that Hodgson has declared qualification as his proudest moment in football and he deserves praise for extracting an undefeated 10-game run through the qualifiers[1].

Poland had more than enough chances in the final group game to keep England fans entirely honest about their prospects in Brazil.  As many opportunities as England had at one end of the pitch, Robert Lewandowski could have had three goals at the other end in the first half hour alone.  The best of the bunch, whistling past Joe Hart’s post on 22 minutes, caught the palpably relieved Hodgson mouthing the words “f*** me” on camera.  While we all await Roy’s donation for the swear jar, I ought to confess I muttered something awfully similar.  It could have been bleak.

This was England’s last competitive game before tournament play begins next June.  There’s still quite a few things for Hodgson to mull over between now and then.  Too Good has a look under the bonnet of the Three Lions, takes a sharp intake of breath, and gives its tuppence on what’s running well and what needs a little tinkering with.

Strikers

Let’s start with something positive.  If Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge can stay fit, that’s a great front pairing.  Both are genuinely classy players.  In Rooney’s case, world class.  England can count their lucky stars that Scotland narrowly missed out on laying claim to Wazza as a youngster. He is looking composed and on form. 

While still no stranger to rage’s hypnotic grip, Rooney seems to have calmed a little in recent years.  Perhaps, with a certain amount of good fortune, he may manage only his second ever international tournament unfettered by suspension, red cards or injury.

Sturridge has parachuted into international football with all the same lethal composure he has been showing in domestic competition.  England’s best chances of prosperity this summer will come from hitching our wagons to these two gifted strikers.  Which is just as well, given that the options up front fall off a cliff after that.  Best not to even think about it.

Midfield

As odd as it sounds, the centre of midfield needs a bit of careful thought between now and June.  There’s plenty of players to choose from, just no obvious pairing/triumverate.  Since he’s made him captain, you have to assume Hodgson will play Steven Gerrard if fit.  He’ll need someone to do the running though, as Gerrard is no longer the cavalry charge on legs that he once was.  A 36 year old Frank Lampard is unlikely to be a starting option by the summer, although academics of the game postulate that he and Gerrard never really gelled together anyway. 

It’s difficult to see Gerrard and Jack Wilshere playing as a two, but then a three-pronged central midfield runs the risk of sacrificing Sturridge and leaving a one-man Rooney-shaped attack.  This cannot be allowed to happen.  It is not impossible that Wilshere may find himself being accommodated in a wide midfield position for country, as he has found himself for club recently.

Some of you are probably already mumbling “Michael Carrick” under your breath as you read this.  The Emperor’s New Carrick has his proponents, but I swear to God he’s just wandering through the streets naked.  People watch Carrick never attempt anything glamorous and praise this as “assured” and “steady”.  I’m fine with him being slow of foot but he’s slow of ball too, and that’s unforgiveable in his position.  He practically needs a signed letter from the opposition that they won’t trespass into his passing lane before he attempts a first-time pass. 

If a designated holder is required, Gareth Barry is a better option.  I occasionally amuse friends and acquaintances by referring to Gareth Barry as “one of the quickest players in England”.  The fact of the matter is that when it comes to recycling the play, when it comes to keeping the football hurtling around at pace, and when it comes to dragging opposition players out of position because a player is willing (and capable) of risking a fist-time ball, there are few to match Gareth Barry.  Bloody well watch him if you disagree.  The difference between he and Carrick is a sense of urgency.  Critical when you have to unlock an opposition constantly readjusting and reforming their defensive shape.

Lest we forget, despite being consigned to the international scrapheap, Barry has been a starting choice in a Premiership midfield much better than the one Michael Carrick plays in over the last two years.  His loan move to Everton this summer was a very clear indication that Barry wants to guarantee game-time this season to ensure his world cup selection chances aren’t unduly hampered. 

Maybe Hodgson can conjure a formation that requires neither of the two, but Barry should get the nod if one is deemed necessary.

Defence

Defence is probably the area which will engage Roy’s worry the least.  The centre-back pairing of Jagielka and Cahill looks solid enough and we have sufficient full-backs to populate the remaining 31 teams in the competition.  At right-back alone, any of Kyle Walker, Glenn Johnson, Micah Richards, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones could more than adequately do the job.  Teddy Sheringham recently mooted that even Steven Gerrard could do a job thereThe suggestion is one rich with temptation.  England benefiting from Gerrard’s range of distribution and general ability, while freeing up space for other options in the centre of the park. 

Indeed, Gerrard played right-back during extra-time of a particularly memorable evening in Istanbul a little while ago.  He did an excellent job, too; making vital blocks and interceptions.  Such hare-brained tactical juggling wouldn’t be without historical precedence for England, either.  Against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro ’96, another roving, goal-scoring midfielder was deployed at right-back.  David Platt.  Keep an open mind, Roy.

Goalkeeper

Eyebrows have been raised in the direction of Head and Shoulders’ poster-boy, Joe Hart, in recent weeks.  A few less mistakes from the England’s number one would certainly be most welcome.  But let’s be absolutely frank about this, Hodgson better damn well hope Hart doesn’t pick up an injury between now and the end of the season.  The thought of an untried Fraser Forster, John Ruddy, Ben Foster or Jack Butland donning the gloves in Brazil is enough to put any England fan off their pre-game caipirinha.  In terms of sheer lack of a viable replacement, only Rooney is more indispensable than Hart.

Conclusion

A favourite game of mine since childhood has been to speculate on whether I will live to see the day England win a World Cup. 

Historically, given my comparative youth and England’s odds usually being somewhere in the region of 10 or 11-1 at World Cups, I have always given myself at least a 50% chance of seeing England hoist the trophy.  It was a comforting thought; knowing that I had a better-than-evens chance of seeing us do the business before I set sail for the great penalty box in the sky.    

As I become a little more advanced in years, and England’s odds begin to creep out[2], I’m now not so sure.  Assuming I have maybe fourteen more tournaments left in me, would I say I have a forty per cent chance of seeing it happen in my lifetime?  Thirty per cent?  Twenty?  You’d be a bullish punter to still put it at 50:50. 

Sadly, when August rolls around, I suspect I will be looking at even longer odds again. 

You never know, though…

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Roy’s preparations for the summer are already under way.


[1] Although, to keep this in context, Italy have now gone 40 games without losing a World Cup or European qualifier.

[2] Betfair currently has England at a decidedly limp 23/1 for the win in Brazil 2014.

The Blackwood Redemption

11 Oct

The celebrity version of the game show Pointless that aired this week gave us a beautiful glimpse into the most important aspect of any narrative.  Redemption.  Watching the protagonist rise again, having withered the storm. 

Few people have withered more storms than Richard Blackwood.  They say success is getting up one more time than you fall over, and nobody’s fallen over more times than Richard Blackwood.  From a critically and commercially unsuccessful pop career, to a critically and commercially unsuccessful acting career, by way of a critically and commercially unsuccessful comedy career.  Blackwood has stared into the abyss so many times they’re practically on first name terms with each other.  But he keeps coming back.  He won’t die. Every dog has his day.  Fittingly, Celebrity Pointless was to be his.

Blackwood was pitted against an absolute titan.  Only Tim chuffing Rice.  Only an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy winner.  The doyenne of the west end musical.  That Tim Rice.  No boxing board in the world would have sanctioned this fight but, sadists that they are, the British Broadcasting Corporation not only filmed it, they beamed it to a daytime television-watching public.

Blackwood had clearly had an apparition just before the lights went on, though.  He’d seen a chance to win back some of that lost respect.  All that was between him and a second bite at B-list celebrity was Tim Rice’s jugular.  And, my word, he absolutely went for it.

Much like his 2000 hit “1-2-3-4 Get with the wicked”, RB ran the show.  Rice was floundering from the off as Blackwood pulled out an impressive “unaware” when asked for an obscure word ending in “-are”.  A follow-up teaser on the land-locked countries of South America left Blackwood, the picture of concentration, unphased.  “Paraguay” put Rice into further trouble.  By the time a question on So Solid Crew came around, the Legend of the Musical knew he was on the ropes.  Of course Blackwood knew the bloody answer.  21 Seconds (To Go) was meat and drink to the big lad.

There’s something wonderful when, against all odds, the underdog stands up and says “you know what, I’m not having this anymore, not today”. Blackwood was up on his hind legs throwing punches like his career depended on it.

This was a man who, in May 2003, appeared on Channel 5’s Celebrity Detox Camp and self-administered a coffee enema, which involved him being filmed pumping 18 litres of coffee solution into his stomach via a non-traditional entrance.  Without ever achieving fame yourself, it’s difficult to imagine how far a star must fall before they feel compelled to appear on Channel 5.  Clearly, Blackwood was not enjoying a halcyon. 

Yet here he was, going to toe-to-toe with Tim Rice – an artist so successful he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999 and named a Disney Legend in 2002 – and besting him.  Allowing himself to dream for a minute, you could sense this critical moment would form the turning point in Blackwood’s as-yet-unwritten autobiography, “Blackwood Battling Back”.  The book could be ready for Christmas.  Britain’s answer to Will Smith on the cover, wearing that half-desperate, half-maniacal look of a man prepared to do anything, anything, to keep a career alive.

What Tim Rice made of being comprehensively beaten by a man wearing a skin-type muscle vest underneath a velvet blazer, we’ll never know.  All we know is he was helpless in the face of a Blackwood battering.

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I mention this warming tale because the big premiership teams are getting “Blackwood-ed” left, right and centre at the moment.  Davids everywhere are playing Goliaths off the park.  Not just a cheeky tweaking of the nose, either.  Some real whoopings.

West Ham United went to White Hart Lane on Sunday and pulled Tottenham’s trousers down.  They didn’t turn up and grab a plucky 0-1. They taught them a lesson.  While Spurs’ all-star cast and their gravel-voiced manager huffed and puffed, the team from the unfashionable end of London showed Tottenham  a clean pair of footballing heels.  Despite having not scored an away goal all season (nor having registered a win at the Lane in fourteen long years), the Irons put three past Spurs unanswered. 

And this is the point.  Upsets happen every year in football, but this season we are seeing unfancied sides also outplay their supposed superiors.  Everyone likes to watch an underdog prevail but it’s gratifying in the extreme when they do so in style.  West Ham were simply better than Tottenham.

Cardiff seemed to have Manchester City completely figured out when the teams met on Game Day 2.  They looked like they could soak up the pressure all day long and City continually over-exposed themselves trying to break the Bluebirds down.  As a result, getting caught repeatedly on the break led to corners being conceded and, consequently, goals scored. Pellegrini’s men looked like a ball of wool in the hands of a crafty Welsh kitten.

It was no better for Manchester United when West Brom came to visit. Having gone a goal down, United duly equalised and then a very strange thing happened – West Brom went back on the attack.  Rather than hang on to their precious point for dear life, as is customary for small teams at Old Trafford, the Baggies were having none of it.  They smelt blood in the water.  Here was a collection of rudderless yesterday’s men, they sensed, there for the taking.  West Brom duly took ’em.  It was as startling as it was heartening.

Before Arsenal became flavour of the month[1], Paul Lambert’s team of toddlers dismantled the Gunners 3-1 on the opening day of the season.  At the Emirates[2].  Gaby Agbonlohor tore them apart.  It was brutal enough for many members of the national press to start reading Arsene Wenger his last rites.

This was a Villa team whose courting of the drop-zone was last season’s biggest flirtation outside of Jose Mourinho’s unrequited ankle-flashing in the direction of the vacant Manchester United manager’s seat.  Yet, within six games of the new campaign, Villa had had already beaten Arsenal and followed it up with a victory against, you’ve guessed it, Manchester City. 

Scalps are going to be piled high this year and that’s a great thing.  Football thrives on its unpredictability, in both passages of play and results.  And it’s currently more unpredictable than it has been in quite some time.  Competition has replaced procession.  Big teams stumbling is not indicative of a league losing its talent; it means that the division is strong. 

Whisper it quietly, but this season we might even witness the majesty of a record low winning points total in the modern era[3].  Maybe it’s fanciful to conceive that Manchester United’s 75 point haul of 1996/97 will be “bettered”, but it’s pretty exciting to think we could dip below 80 – something that hasn’t yet happened this century.  The team that wins the league loses an average of 4½ games en route.  Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have lost six between them already.

Diversity isn’t just a dance troupe.  It’s a concept, too.  One that is alive and well in the top flight of English football.  There’s strength and variety throughout the division.  We are all richer for it.

Blackers knows I’m just playin’.


[1] They’re now bookmaker’s 3rd favourites for the title, having leap-frogged Manchester United.

[2] It’s interesting to note that all three of the above-mentioned victories were masterminded by Scottish managers (Steve Clarke, Malky Mackay and Paul Lambert). 

[3] Since the inception of the Premiership in 1992/93.

The lion, the witch and the midfielder who doesn’t track back

4 Oct

Industrialist and long-time owner of Juventus, Gianni Agnelli, once caught a young Michel Platini enjoying a crafty cigarette in the dressing room before a game.  “That worries me,” Agnelli said to Platini.  The riposte was instant.  “You only need to worry if he starts smoking,” said Platini, pointing at Massimo Bonini, the tireless midfield ball-winner in that Juventus team.

Younger readers, who know him only as the president of UEFA, may be surprised to hear that, as a player, Platini relied on trickery and cunning rather than hard work and honest endeavour.  “Le Roi” wasn’t the only one, either.  History is riddled with number 10’s who leveraged their undoubted talents in order to get away with the minimum of effort.  Back in the day, you practically had to promise your playmaker time off in lieu in order to cajole the lazy so-and-so into his own half of the pitch.  A football would need to be primed with hors d’oeuvres before Matt Le Tissier even considered putting in a tackle.  One man’s artistry is another man’s lazybones.

The extent to which the modern game can indulge such work-shy fecklessness has been cast into the limelight by the recent goings-on at Stamford Bridge.  Juan Mata was one of football’s outstanding performers last season.  In many people’s eyes, the best midfielder in the English league.  Yet despite being in everyone’s team of the year last time round, Mata can’t even get his own first XI this semester.

The underlying problem

The problem stems from the fact that Jose Mourinho didn’t return to a very Mourinho-like team.  It says a lot about Mourinho’s sustained legacy that he could have taken over any Chelsea side up until 2012 (five years after he left) and he would have slipped back in like a glove[1].  But the arrival of Oscar and Eden Hazard in the summer of 2012 (with Mata already in situ) signalled that a fundamentally different Chelsea side had finally emerged from the Special One’s long shadow.  Chelsea had moved on.

Three attacking midfielders floating care-free behind a centre forward never looked like being part of a Mourinho team.  He could just about cope with one playmaker in the side.  Three of the buggers would be enough to give him kittens.  For an unrepentant pragmatist like Jose, there was always going to be an opportunity cost.

Mourinho teams are built with an iron rod running through the middle.  Players like Lampard, Makelele, Essien, Ballack, Mikel, Costinha, Thiago Motta, Cambiasso, Alonso, Khedira.  All strong.  All aware of their defensive duties.  All team players committed to the cause.  It wasn’t that you weren’t allowed skill.  It was just that you had damn well better work hard in a system before you thought about using it.

Nothing encapsulated the “Mourinho way” quite like the performance of his Inter Milan side in the 2010 ECL semi-final 2nd leg against Barcelona.  Reduced to ten men (unfairly), Inter were the very embodiment of team-work and an “all hands on deck” policy.  Strikers Milito and Eto’o worked their socks off as makeshift wide midfielders, dropping into the second bank of defence against the Catalan onslaught.  Together with Cambiasso and Chivu, they formed a wall on Inter’s defensive third.  Behind them, Walter Samuel and Lucio defended the penalty area as if they were two female elephants protecting their young.  There were no passengers, only warriors. 

Despite losing the game 1-0, it was enough for Inter to progress to the final and arguably remains to be Mourinho’s finest hour.  He is a coach very much wedded to what Brazilians call “futebol de resultados” rather than “futebol d’arte”.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised if there is no room for Mr Tumnus in Mourinho’s Narnia.

Square pegs

As Charles de Gualle once said, the graveyards are full of indispensable footballers who couldn’t fit a formation.

For five years at Old Trafford, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was more lethal than Dignitas.  However, as the team evolved, it became apparent that the need to accommodate his style of play was holding United back.  Ferguson packed him off to Real Madrid and the triple helix of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez went on to win the European Cup.

Glen Hoddle was the nation’s most talented footballer for a generation.  He’s got less England caps than Phil Neville.

For all his excellence going forward, Juan Mata is not an all-round player.  In the very best teams, and Chelsea’s ambitions are to be the very best, attacking midfielders don’t ignore their defensive duties.  Wayne Rooney is never neglectful of his responsibilities when United don’t have the ball.  It was noticeable how much Frank Ribery tirelessly tracked back under Heynckes at the business end of last year’s Champions League run. 

Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s philosophy was to press high and aim to win the ball back within six seconds of losing it.  This required the whole attacking unit to swarm opponents the moment possession was surrendered.  Juan Mata does not seem to possess the energy levels for high tempo pressing.  Vincente Del Bosque’s no fool, but he never starts Mata for Spain – even in friendlies.

For all their cup success, Mata has been Chelsea’s player of the year in two of their worst seasons domestically for a decade (finishing 6th and 3rd). Winning league titles is the stamp of a great football team and Chelsea haven’t even challenged since he arrived.  Maybe Jose recognises this. 

Let’s not be too hasty in our judgment, though.  Great players achieve their status through humility and a willingness to work on all aspects of their game.  There’s plenty of season left for Mata to prove he can do all aspects of the job required. 

Mourinho isn’t likely to give up quickly on a player who is not only one of the best passers in the league, but also a genuine goal threat.  Mata scored a Lampard-esque 20 goals from midfield in all competitions last year.  That was more than Wayne Rooney.

Smoke and mirrors?

In any case, attacking midfield isn’t the position of concern for Chelsea.  As Too Good has twice tried to bring to Mourinho’s attention, having someone up front to convert their chances is the problem, not creating them.  The inclusion of Mata won’t solve this.  There’s a Chelsea striker who has scored 20 goals in his last 38 league games.  Unfortunately, none of the blue shirts Romelu Lukaku was wearing were embroidered with the Chelsea crest.  Maybe it suits Mourinho to have a bit of misdirection, creating a storm in a teacup around Juan Mata, while leaving the real problem out of focus?

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It would be nice if real football teams worked like their fantasy equivalents and you could just pick whoever you want.  A team of mercurial individuals forged by the brilliance of the man in charge.  But it never works when people try.  Where there’s a conflict in style of play, the manager should always be allowed to win out.  

Teams have to be moulded according to one man’s will.  Ultimately, Mourinho will pay the piper with his job if things go badly, so he should get to call the tune.  If a player can’t, or won’t, fit to the vision, they need to go.  Let’s hope this doesn’t prove to be the case with Mata – he would be a sad loss for both Chelsea and the league in general if it doesn’t work out.

Tummers needs to put a shift in.


[1] Andre Villas-Boas was actually assigned the task of overhauling the “Mourinho side” a year earlier (2011) but never actually achieved it.  He just benched Frank Lampard a lot.