Tag Archives: Manuel Pellegrini

It’s Chelsea

2 Jan

A belated Merry Christmas to you all.  I trust Santa was suitably generous and got you that Starbucks gift card you’ve always wanted.  And a happy New Year too.  Warmest wishes for 2014 from The English Game.

The first day of the New Year is perhaps the most optimistic of them all.  A day when our outlook for the coming 12 months remains as yet unspoiled.  Daring to dream is still an option.  It was therefore chastening for my New Year optimism to be completely dashed by the stark realisation that Chelsea are going to win the league.

I’ve seen enough.  It’s happening.  Sorry to be the one to tread on your strawberries.  The West Londoners remain priced at a generous 7/2, so you can at least still more than triple your money on this now crushing inevitability.

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It wasn’t three wise men but two sets of festive league fixtures that crystallised what had been a nagging fear for some time.  The first of which was Liverpool’s consecutive games against Manchester City and then Chelsea.  Both scorelines finished identically (Liverpool lost both 2-1) but the manner of the two games was telling…

I spent Christmas at a Premier Inn near Luton.  This isn’t some sort of perverse festive tradition.  Rather, it was necessary for reasons of an expanding wider family and the usual constraints of space and beds that arise as a result.  They say that everything is premier except the price.  And they were right, too.  The room was lovely.  In fact, everything would have been completely fine were it not for the fact that, on arrival, my sister and her husband kindly passed on to me a weapons-grade stomach bug that they had been discretely harbouring.

As a result, I spent Christmas Day itself and Boxing Day in a purple-tinted hotel room with my head nestled deep into a toilet bowl.  I’m as weak as a baby now and still have haunting images of the picture of Lenny Henry on my dressing table guaranteeing me a good night’s sleep.  Believe you me, minor tea-making facilities and a shortbread biscuit provide little by way of comfort in the face of persistent and prompt bodily evacuations. 

In my feverish state, I just about managed to watch the Boxing Day clash of City versus Liverpool, although Lord knows it didn’t help matters.  The second half was almost as perilous for City as my own predicament.  Liverpool were moving through City’s defensive line quicker than the pigs in blankets were moving through me.  In noro virus terms, City’s careless defending was the equivalent of placing the vomit bucket in the diagonally opposite corner of the room to where I lay.  Foolhardy and likely to result in disaster.

This contrasted neatly with the manner in which Chelsea undertook the same task three days later.  The game couldn’t have started any worse for Chelsea, with Martin Skrtel firing Liverpool ahead from close range in under three minutes.  However, Chelsea’s response was urgent and professional.  Mourinho’s men were aggressive without being reckless and immediately asserted a businesslike control of the game.  Within 30 minutes of the initial hoo-ha, Chelsea had established a 2-1 lead and there was a certain accomplished inevitability of the result from that point on.

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The New Year’s Day fixtures provided further evidence to bulwark my sense of premier league foreboding.  Against Swansea, City again proved that if they want to win the league, they’re going to have to blast their way to the title.  At times, there are shades of Newcastle in 1996 about City’s on-pitch demeanour.  In a game they could and should have won easily, the scoreline finished 3-2.  There were full-backs regularly in the opposition penalty area.  Wide midfielders who didn’t provide any cover.  In the middle of the park, only Fernandinho seemed desperately keen to win the ball back when possession was lost.  It was unnecessarily risky stuff and the self-control seemed lacking. 

Chelsea, by comparison, put on another disciplined display against Southampton.  The lead took a while to establish but there was a care to their performance.  If the result was to go against them, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be because Mourinho’s well-drilled team were not following orders.

In short, Chelsea are starting to look rather like winners.  They are developing the aura of a team who not only know that they should win, but that they ought not to give even the impression that some other result is a possibility.  With Manchester City, there is always a feeling that the opposition has a puncher’s chance.  Just enough hubris is exhibited to leave the chin exposed to a lucky right-hander.  City will blow more teams off the park than Chelsea, certainly.  But they will also walk into a few more bear-traps along the way.  Especially when things get tight down the stretch and jangling nerves start to override raw talent.

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It’s turning into goals versus grit for the title this season and usually the latter triumphs.  There seems to be more fight about the Chelsea players.  A little extra in the way of pluck.  I love Ya Ya Toure more than life itself.  And, sure, it’s difficult to stop a man the size of a holiday home travelling at 25 miles an hour.  But he’s not a warrior.  Nor is David Silva. 

I’m also delighted to see Samir Nasri having a great season.  But we saw all we need to know about his resolve when he ducked in the wall against a Robin van Persie free-kick last year.  When you’re looking into a player’s eyes to see who has the fire within them to get the job done, it’s hard to eradicate the pitiful image of Nasri on the end of that wall, cowering like Dennis Bergkamp in a first class lounge. 

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In a close title race, having the best manager in the league is also going to be a huge help.  Mourinho is a winner, plain and simple.  A more irritating winner than he was in his first spell at Chelsea, admittedly.  But a winner nonetheless. Contrast this with the Manchester City helmsman.  In nine long years managing in La Liga, Manuel Pellegrini didn’t win a single thing.  Not a Spanish sausage.  For a manager who can include Real Madrid on his CV, that doesn’t make for good reading.  I’m not saying he’s a bad coach; he isn’t.  However, there is a critical, if subtle, distinction between being a good coach and being a winner; in much the same manner as how playing well and winning are not the same thing either.

I thought Mourinho had made a fatal mistake with the paucity of his strikers this year.  I struggled to see where the goals would come from.  It is quite something that no recognised Chelsea striker scored an away goal in the premier league for the entirety of 2013.  Crucially, though, they do have goals in the team.  Hazard, Oscar, Lampard, Ramires and Schürrle have all played their part in making sure the net ripples on a regular basis.  Chelsea may win the premier league with the least effective strike-force ever to do so but, ultimately, the back of net makes no enquiry as to the identity of the scorer.  If you have three or four midfielders all capable of getting well into double figures, the need for the Number 9 to do likewise diminishes.

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So, there you have it.  Chelsea – premier league winners 2013/14.  Sorry for ruining the ending.  About three minutes in to watching the film Titanic at the cinema, I distinctly remember someone very loudly shouting in from the vestibule “it sinks, he dies”.  I fear I may have just done something similar.  Like a botched surprise party, you’re just going to have to fake your reaction when the time comes.  No spoiling it for Juan Mata if you see him though, please.  It looks like he’s going to be forced to sit through it all as well.   

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button at the bottom-right corner of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

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All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

All the frappuccinos he can drink up to a value of £20 will do little to console Mr Pellegrini.

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Hypotheticals

30 Aug

In 2006, OJ Simpson, tried to release a book called, I kid you not, “If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened”.  Said tome puts forth a hypothetical description of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (his ex-wife) and Ronald Goldman, both of whom Simpson himself was tried for the first degree murder of and, ultimately, acquitted.  OJ was at pains to point out (as you would be) that he didn’t actually do it.  But if he did do it, the book explains how it would have happened.  As money-spinning tactics go, it seems a bit high risk to me. Then again, I was the one who didn’t think the Bounty ice-cream would ever be a success; so I can’t always be relied on for sound commercial judgment.

Nevertheless, the premise of the aforementioned yarn is an intriguing on.  Essentially, denying the possibility of a proposition, but then exploring it anyway.  Anyone who read my season’s opening article will know that, sadly, I don’t think Manchester City will win the league this year.  However, in the spirit of the former gridiron star turned wife-slasher novellist, I present to you “Manchester City Won’t Win The League This Year, But if They Do Win it, Here’s How It Will Happen”. 

As with all doomed projects, it involves a 3-point plan:

1.  Learn to stretch teams

A wives’ tale exists in commentary boxes that opposition teams can be tired out by playing possession football.  At the top level, this simply isn’t true.  It’s a misnomer to suggest that premiership teams can be physically worn to the ground.  At peak fitness, a professional footballer is conditioned to be able to last for 180 minutes of high intensity football.  Even allowing for marginal differences in the greater work expended defending rather than attacking[1], it just isn’t enough to have a tangible impact on the outcome of matches.

Teams can be stretched, though.  Pulled out of position.  Tired or not, if you’re defending not in the right place at the right time, even the biggest pair of lungs won’t save you.  If there is one thing City could learn from peering over the fence at their Carrington training ground, it’s how well Manchester United stretch teams.  Too many times last season, City were been unable to break down massed ranks of opposition defence.  The Bank Holiday clash against Cardiff showed that this was a lesson still to be learned.  Pellegrini’s men must work out how to find their way through a stodgy final third.

The reason why Manchester United never seem to have this problem is their fulsome embrace of wing play.  From Andrei Kanchelskis to Antonio Valencia, whenever the Old Trafford middle has looked congested, United take to the pitch edges.  Such was Alex Ferguson’s pious devotion to flanksmen he even tried to play Gabriel Obertan for a while.  City would do well to learn that if you can’t go through a team, you ought to try to go round them.

To this end, the signing of Jesus Navas is a positive step.  The benching of him on the hour-mark at the Cardiff City Stadium, however, was not.  This was exactly the sort of fixture where City struggle.  Away from home against a well-organised team fully prepared to play with a 10-man iron curtain between the ball and their goalmouth.  In any case, one winger isn’t enough.  Anyone who has tried to stretch a jumper knows you need to use both hands.  Stevan Jovetic might provide said width on the other side when Pellegrini decides to throw him into the fray.  Otherwise, selotaping Samir Nasri to a touchline might have to do.  But do it we must.

2.  Stop playing Edin Dzeko from the start

The Sky Sports narrative is clearly one of redemption for Edin Dzeko this year[2].  Underused and destroyed of confidence by mean old Mr Mancini.  Now blossoming in the soft hands and warm eyes of Manuel Pellegrini.  This is all very well if wasn’t nonsense. 

A comparison of Edin Dzeko against the dearly departed Carlos Tevez is as illuminating as it is damning.  Whenever Tevez and Aguerro were given the nod last year, City were unstoppable.  Whenever Dzeko was paired with either from the start, my full replica kit immediately started to feel clammy.  Dzeko’s not a bad option off the bench, for when all bar the kitchen sink needs to be sent goalwards.  But he’s not the starting centre-forward of a title-winning team.

It’s a bit sad at times watching Dzeko try to keep up with the speed of thought and delicacy of touch of messrs Aguerro, Silva, Tevez and now Navas.  It’s like an overly-eager instructor at Sea World is trying to involve a killer whale in one of the dolphin displays.  He’s willing enough but he simply can’t fit through the hoops.  One hopes that Alvaro Negredo can follow the routine a little better in his stead.  Otherwise, too many critical moves will break down around the big Bosnian this season. 

3.  Sign a bloody centre-back!

A bit of an obvious one, but nevertheless…

Going into a premier league season with three centre-backs was a folly that really oughtn’t to have happened.  Now we’re down to one fully fit one.  Given the not inconsiderable funds floating around Eastlands these days, this should be the easiest part of the puzzle to solve.  It needs to be solved quickly, though.  Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain had better be wearing out their Nokia 3310s in order to rectify the problem before September 2nd.

All rise…

It’s too late for us to pass judgment on OJ Simpson’s innocence (and, in any case, Too Good’s entire legal budget for this year has been earmarked for a forthcoming Ashley Cole article…), but there’s still time for Manchester City to change their own guilty verdict.  A smidgeon of the transfer window remains and, better yet, the training ground stays open all season.  Use both wisely and, who knows, this strictly hypothetical tale might just become the truth after all…

Available for a reasonable sum.


[1] And even this is a proposition open to contention.  Strikers actually do more running than defenders in football games.  The average breakdown of distance covered for premiership footballers is as follows:

Striker:                 10 – 12km (6.2 – 7.5 miles)

Midfield:              11 – 14km (6.8 – 8.7 miles)

Defender:             6 – 11km (3.7 – 6.8 miles)

So it’s at least arguable that, in fact, attacking is more tiring than defending.

[2] Evidenced by him bizarrely receiving Sky Man of the Match against Newcastle.  In a game full of star turns (Navas and Aguerro, in particular, were excellent), Dzeko was given the award for a performance that could best be described as “busy but ineffectual”. 

Principles or pragmatism? The Lady Macbeth guide to sacking Mancini

16 May

I’m beginning to think this blog is cursed.  In a week when Wigan exposed Manchester City’s fleshy behind at Wembley, one would have assumed that this was embarrassment enough for the chaps from East Manchester.  Not so.  The footballing gods demanded further sacrifice. 

Despite guiding Manchester City to their first league title since before Sheikh Mansour was born, Roberto Mancini was invited in for a “meeting without coffee” with the City top brass and politely asked to pack his things.  Three trophies in three years.  Two cup finals.  Champions League football secured every single season.  It wasn’t good enough.  The mind boggles as much as the heart despairs.

People forget, but bookmakers had Manchester City at a mere 5 to 1 (17%) to win the 2011/12 premier league.  The year before that we scraped 3rd place thanks to a final day Chelsea capitulation, in a season spent mostly battling it out with Spurs for 4thThe scarf-toting Italian won the league ahead of schedule and is now being punished for it.

My official Too Good-branded cotton pyjamas have been wringing with nervous sweat following three sleepless post-Mancini nights.  The Premiership top-table feels like it is at a critical juncture.   With United and Chelsea both chopping and changing their managers, this was a rare opportunity for City to capitalise on comparative stability.  Instead, we have sportingly levelled the playing field by giving Bob the boot, too.  Our owners displaying a hitherto unseen sense of fair play.  We’ve joined the uncertainty and it doesn’t feel very nice.

There are two ways of looking at the Mancini sacking.  There is the “principled approach” and then there’s the “pragmatic approach”.  The “principled approach” says we should have stuck with him.  There is simply no way he deserved to be sacked.  Without any hint of exaggeration, he gave Manchester City fans what, for many of them, will be the greatest singular moment of their lives.  No team wins the Premiership every year, and City had every reason to expect to be right up there again next May.  Especially so, given the recent departure down the road.

Then there is the “pragmatic approach”.  Principle’s uglier sister.  Brace yourself readers; the pragmatic approach is a far more sinister affair.  However, there is a time for the blunt edge of pragmatism.  For in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences.

The “pragmatic approach” says that if Mourinho agrees to come, then it’s worth getting rid of Mancini.  Not a nice thing to do, granted, but sometimes you’ve got to make a pact with the devil.  Nobody wanted to get rid of Lee Sharpe.  But if you’ve got a Ryan Giggs waiting in (/on) the wing, then it doesn’t matter.  Pontius Pilate knew better than most that, while there was a time to keep your hands clean in the first place, there was also a time to give them a good post-backstabbing scrub.

Here’s the thing, though.  The pragmatic approach has to be worth it.  Pragmatism is an ugly bedfellow and one ought not to take it home from the night-club all too often.  As the saying goes, you can shear a sheep many times; you can skin it only once.  If City were going to skin Mancini, there had to be a damn good reason.

Mourinho provides reason enough for the moral compromise.  He is the outstanding manager of his generation.  I was flabbergasted when it became clear he was not Manchester United’s first choice to replace Ferguson.  Mourinho to United was the Doomsday scenario for me.  Another 26 trophy-laden years of misery.  Thankfully, the power men at Old Trafford came to the conclusion that the defining factor in Ferguson’s success was his Scottishness rather than his managerial brilliance. 

Those who tar Mourinho with the trouble-maker brush miss the bigger picture.  Jose might be fond of a little “creative tension” but his record is exceptional.  Two European Cups in his first decade of management.  League titles wherever he has gone.  Remember the nine year unbeaten home league record?  The time for compromising your principles is when you think a Mourinho-sized fish might fancy a nibble.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t look like the new City manager will be Mourinho.  It looks like it’s going to be Manuel Pellegrini.  Pellegrini is a fine manager and may, if hired, prove to be a success at City.  But then so was Mancini.  Why take the risk?  Why go through the upheaval?  Simply put, Pellegrini is not worth wielding the pragmatic sword for. 

The other great fear now is a backlash against the new manager.  The analogy is clear between City and Chelsea.  Chelsea fans cannot bring themselves to complain about Roman Abramovic, even though the mad oligarch goes through managers like I do portions of potato dauphinoise.  So Chelsea fans direct their ire towards the new coach instead.  Let’s hope Mancini’s successor is not subject to any similar misplaced anger.  

One thing you can be quite sure of – you won’t see any mass demonstrations outside the Etihad calling for the billionaire oil men to take their money elsewhere, whoever they choose.  We know which side our bread’s buttered on.  And there’s an awful lot of butter on that bread.  Like a good trophy wife, we’ll keep our mouths shut.  After all, rich husbands are in short supply.

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“A pleasure to have you on board, Mr Mourinho.”