Pretty much every football blog has some kind of prediction thing going on, and seeing as I’ve never been one to avoid bandwagons I’m jumping right on to this one. In an effort to prove my amazing psychic abilities (and because if I get even one of the games totally right it makes me the best football predictor ever) I’m not just going to predict the scores for the games on Saturday, but also the goalscorers. But not the times of the goals though, because that would just be silly and gimmicky.
Liverpool vs Aston Villa : 2-3 (Sturridge, Aspas; Benteke (2), Weimann)
This is a pretty tough one to call. On the one hand, Liverpool’s attack looks incredibly slick, with them carving through Stoke with ease last week; on the other hand, Liverpool’s defence looks pretty damn shaky, with Toure and Agger being essentially the same player and neither being brilliant at defending against powerful forwards like Benteke. Villa were great against Arsenal and would have won at least a point against Chelsea if the ref had booked in to his much-needed laser eye surgery like his wife told him to, with Fabian Delph in particular looking like he’s really made progress from last season (and Benteke being brilliant too). I reckon there’ll be lots of goals in this one, more of them flying into the Liverpool net.
Hull City Tigers vs Norwich City 0-2 (van Wolfswinkel, Redmond)
Hull Tigers didn’t have a grrrrreat start to the season. (I couldn’t resist. Sue me.) Steve Bruce’s revolutionary strategy of not actually having a midfield didn’t really work against Chelsea, so expect him to start Tom Huddlestone, who is a midfield all on his own. Norwich, on the other hand, were pretty good against Everton, and having significantly strengthened their squad and their forward line in the summer, should prove too much for the Tigers to handle.
Fulham vs Arsenal 1-1 (Bent; Walcott)
Martin Jol is expected to deploy the laziest forward line ever, with Darren Bent probably joining Dimitar Barebatov up front; but these two must fancy their chances against an Arsenal defence that seems desperately short of any defenders. With Sagna starting at centre-back and the customary injury woes, Arsenal might struggle here; they still have big problems with their midfield and attack, with the only silver lining being the form of Walcott, who is far better than most people give him credit for. Arsenal might struggle to get in the top 4 this season but they aren’t in quite as bad a shape as the common consensus would have it.
Everton vs West Brom 1-0 (Pienaar)
With Nicolas Anelka being granted compassionate leave it’s difficult to see where the Baggies might get a goal, even though they’re playing against a back line organised by entertainment guru Roberto Martinez. Everton, on the other hand, looked fairly handy going forward against Norwich, and retain a threat from set pieces, although the form of Nikita Jelavic will be a concern. Hopefully Deulofeu will feature at some point; on loan from Barcelona, this youngster is class, and WBA might find him too much to handle.
Stoke City vs Crystal Palace 1-0 (Walters (pen))
This should be an interesting clash; an ultra-defensive team with a manager promising more attacking football facing off against a gung-ho side whose manager is promising more defensive stability, with the result that neither looked very good at really anything on the opening weekend. Stoke are the ones with all the experience, however, whilst Palace just seem to lack any quality; the Potters should sneak this one, but don’t expect their football to be free-flowing just yet.
Southampton vs Sunderland 2-1 (Lambert, Osvaldo; Sessegnon)
It’s hardly a “revolution”, but despite the loss to Fulham there were encouraging signs for Sunderland in the first game, and Di Canio deserves credit for his attempts to shake up a squad that was stagnating badly last season. Having signed 11 new players, however, they still need some time to gel; Southampton must be pretty glad they are playing this game so early in the season. Having just signed the excellent Pablo Osvaldo, a player who incidentally is very similar to the inspired yet frustrating Di Canio, Saints are in a great position to push on from their opening-day win.
Newcastle vs West Ham 0-2 (Carroll, Collins)
QPR mark 2 face up against former manager Sam Allardyce, and if they play anywhere near as badly as they did last week, will not be relishing the encounter. They were abysmal against City and it’s hard to see the combative Hammers letting them get over their lethargy on Saturday. Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan will no doubt want to prove something against their former club and with Taylor out after his stupid red card it will be down once more to Tim Krul to preserve some dignity for the Magpies. Something is rotten at that club right now; with Pardew destabilised and Joe Kinnear, despite his self-professed intelligence, having not procured any solutions as yet, things might well get worse before they can get better.
Well, there you go; I’m accepting no liability for money lost if you’re gullible enough to bet on any of these games based on my predictions.
OK, Arsene, listen up. You’ve asked who you should buy to strengthen Arsenal’s squad, after desperate protests from understandably miffed supporters; I’m assuming, given that you haven’t actually bought any players yet, that it wasn’t a rhetorical question but actually a desperate plea for help after all your scouting records for the past few seasons have been mysteriously destroyed, possibly by a cackling Andre Villas-Boas. You may be looking at every player in the world, but if your “looking” consists of a quick Google Image search to check if any of them have been seen sporting a replica Arsenal shirt, it might prove a little helpless. But have no fear, because I’m here to help.
We all know you need, at the very least, another goalkeeper, centre-back, defensive midfielder, and striker. You don’t want to pay over the odds, and you want class. Well, Arsene, it’s your lucky day, because here are some options, both available and fairly cheap.
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas
Iker Casillas? Arsenal could buy Iker Casillas and they haven’t put in a bid yet? Well, yes; like I say, their scouting records, and apparently internet access, was sabotaged by a bearded, deep-voiced Portugese man, so they haven’t realised just how unsettled Casillas seems to be at Real Madrid. Spain’s No. 1 barely played last season because of a series of minor injuries and big disagreement with egomania’s Jose Mourinho, but any hope that he might be welcomed into the fold under Real’s new manager seems to have been dashed by Ancellotti preferring to play Diego Lopez against Betis at the weekend despite Saint Iker’s availability. Apparently the keeper is a bit mouthy in the dressing room, although with Arsenal’s squad of wilting wallflowers this might be more of a benefit than a drawback; and in any case, he’s an absolutely fantastic goalkeeper, probably second only to Gianluigi Buffon in terms of raw talent. Arsenal might well face competition for his signature, but honestly, if Wenger doesn’t at least try and sign him, he needs his head examined.
The backup: Julio Cesar. Aren’t I nice? I’m even giving you a second option in case the Casillas bid falls through. Cesar is the Brazilian national goalkeeper, and while he has flaws (a tendency to De Gea shots back into the box rather than parry them to safety being the most obvious) he’s still terrific, and anxious to get out of QPR, who’ll be just as anxious to get rid of his enormous wage-bill. Also, he’s being touted for £2.75 million, or approximately the left toe of Gareth Bale.
Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho
He’s young, he’s French; he appears to be the typical Wenger signing, then, except that he’s also pretty damn brilliant. After recognising his game-time will be limited at PSG, he’s also apparently quite willing to move; and he’d supplement Arsenal perfectly. Technically pretty nifty, his main asset is his physicality; put bluntly, he’s massive, incredibly strong and powerful, and would be the perfect foil to the more refined Laurent Koscielny. He’s definitely an upgrade on per Mertesacker, anyway, a claim I can make without any doubts because Sakho, unlike the German, moves faster than a tectonic plate. He can also fill in at left-back, if needed, which, given that Arsenal are rivalling the NHS for long treatment lists, can’t be a bad thing.
The backup: Tiago Ilori. He’s only 20 and so relatively inexperienced, but he’s played a few times for the Sporting Lisbon first team, and not looked out of his depth. He’s played in the Europa league as well, so has a bit of European experience; and again, he wouldn’t cost all that much, although Liverpool are apparently also trying to secure his signature. Also, his father is English, so he should be able to acclimatise pretty quickly to life in the land of rain and muggy, overcast summers.
Defensive Midfield: Mathieu Flamini
This is a tricky one, because my original recommendation was Lassana Diarra, who today signed for a Russian club instead. So, I’ll switch my attention to former Gunner Flamini, who’s struggling to get in the team at AC Milan but remains a competent, hard-working and hard-tackling midfielder who should fit right in to Arsenal’s team. He’s familiar with their style of play, and whilst not among the top tier of players in this position, he’ll give Arsenal some of the balance they so desperately lack right now. Plus, he’s better than Aaron Ramsey; definitely worth a punt, even if he’s no Luis Gustavo (oh, Arsene…).
The back-up: Vernon Anita. OK, bear with me. The Newcastle midfielder isn’t the most high-profile player, perhaps, but he’s been woefully misused under Alan Pardew in scenes reminiscent of Javier Mascherano’s stint at West Ham. Anita is pretty decent technically, certainly more proficient than Cheik Tiote who seems to be getting the nod at Newcastle despite having been out of form for about a year now; and whilst he isn’t too tall he’s solid and aggressive, quite willing to get stuck in and with the positional sense to do a job protecting Arsenal’s back four, or covering at full-back. Like Flamini, he probably isn’t, individually, up there with the best in the business, but he’d certainly help with Wenger’s balance issues, and let Wilshere, Rosicky and Cazorla push forward without leaving massive gaps in midfield.
Striker: Samuel Eto’o
Again, it baffles me that more clubs haven’t tried to sign this guy after Anzhi’s spectacular financial collapse. He’s probably Cameroon’s best player ever, he’s won multiple European cups and only a few years ago was playing with Messi and Henry at Barcelona; he’s a brilliant, instinctive finisher with vast amounts of ability and experience and would fit in absolutely perfectly at Arsenal. His wages might be an issue (he’s on £300,000 a week at Anzhi, although he’s probably resigned to taking a pay-cut), but his fee could be as little as £5 million; more than worth it, for me.
The back-up: Alessandro Matri. The Juventus striker has been pushed down the pecking order by the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente at the Turin club, and apparently wants out. He’s a decent, if not spectacular, finisher and a hard worker; he’s scored nearly a goal every other game for the Old Lady, and whilst again probably not one of Europe’s hottest strikers around now, might be worth a punt, if only to cover for the inevitable injury to Olivier Giroud if Wenger doesn’t buy some back-up.
Well, there’s my two cents; any thoughts? Have I missed some bargains, or should Arsenal just be trying to sign Luis Suarez until the transfer window closes, leaving them to again finish a season trophyless?
I’m not one to make bold, sweeping predictions on how teams are going to finish in a league based on little more evidence than one 90-minute period of football-oh no, wait, I, like most people who watch, write about, or think about football totally am one to make bold, sweeping predictions. And today, there’s a free bonus; I’m not going to make one prediction, I’m going to make two.
Prediction number 1: Newcastle are so, so going down. The only plus point they could take from last night’s performance against Man City is the performance of Tim Krul, who made a series of world-class saves (particularly from a unfortunate and otherwise excellent Edin Dzeko). That’s right; the only player on the Newcastle team who looked decent, or even like he was really trying, was their goalkeeper. In a 4-0 defeat. Which could, and should, have been more. Amongst the worst offenders in what was a performance of farce rather than football were Cheik Tiote, who seemed terrified whenever the ball came near him, like an elephant seeing a small, round, plastic mouse, and Mathieu Debuchy, who got pushed off the ball by the 5’ 6” David Silva, who managed to also score a header. I mean, come on.
It’s hard to tell what’s going wrong at Newcastle. Look at their squad and it seems pretty solid, maybe lacking a true goalscorer (Cisse had a good half season and since then has been awful) but otherwise boasting internationals throughout. Tim Krul is an excellent goalkeeper, Yanga-Mbiwa, Taylor and especially Coloccini are strong, committed defenders, Sissoko and Tiote are decent, powerful enforcers, Hatem Ben Arfa is one of the most talented players in the league when he wants to be… It should be enough to put up a fight, at least, even if their best player’s head has been turned like the girl in the Exorcist’s by Arsenal. But there was none, absolutely no fight at all in the team yesterday, apart from maybe Taylor who didn’t exactly pick the best moment to let out his aggression on the back of Dzeko’s head. It speaks of big problems within the club and within the team, problems that can’t have been helped by the whole Joe Kinnear situation; watching it felt exactly like watching QPR last season, and we know what happened there. When a team gets itself this far into the mire, it usually finds it difficult to drag itself back out; and let’s face it, Newcastle have form for this kind of thing.
OK, point made; on to prediction 2: Manchester City are going to win the Premier League and, perhaps more amazingly, get out of the group stage of the Champions League this season. Only group stage because Barcelona and Bayern are waiting out there for them; Barca scored 7 on Sunday with Neymar and Iniesta on the bench. But still, much better than under Mancini, and playing far better football too. What was interesting yesterday wasn’t so much their attacking play when they’d patiently built up a move, brilliant as that was; no, what was interesting was their desire and prowess at playing on the counter-attack, something they aren’t exactly famous for but which they executed brilliantly. They pressed high and fast (something playing Fernandinho, rather than Gary Barry, allows them to do), with their front players always moving to pull Newcastle’s defenders out of position, and playing direct passes to their quickest men whenever possible. Yes, they were helped by Newcastle’s lack of, y’know, skill and effort, but still, this is a team under a new manager, implementing a new style of play, with two expensive new signings missing, and being forced to play Lescott in defence…and they looked pretty much unstoppable.
Aguero’s goal, if you didn’t see the game, was just brilliant from start to finish, and showcases exactly what I mean; Kompany pressed high up the pitch, shrugging Cisse off before delivering a direct ball up to Dzeko, who’d pulled off Coloccini to leave some space in behind, and Dzeko flicked a lovely first-time ball to an already running Aguero, who held off Taylor and finished brilliantly past Krul. It just spoke of pace, physicality and technical brilliance, and with the depth of their squad (admittedly slightly light at centre-back right now due to massed injuries) I can’t see them faltering in the coming season, unlike Moyes’ United and Mourinho’s Chelsea once Lampard gets injured or once Terry starts mouthing off again.
You heard it here-well, probably not first, but hopefully fairly eloquently for all that.
So, news has filtered through that Manchester United have bid £28 million to try and sign Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini from Moyes’ old club Everton. Now, apart from the fact that, whilst £28 million is probably a fair reflection of the actual worth of the two players, in the current market (and with Fellaini having had a now expired £23.5 million release clause in any case) it seems a little low and a little desperate, there’s another reason to criticise this particular piece of business. In short, United don’t need Baines-at all- and Fellaini, for all the hype, isn’t actually that good.
Apparently even the most confident opinions need justification now, so we’ll start with Baines. Manchester United already have Patrice Evra and Alex Buttner competing for the left-back spot; that is, France international Patrice Evra, who has been consistently one of the top three left-backs in the Premier League (usually after Ashley Cole and in front of Baines himself) for the past few seasons, and promising, maverick attacking left-back Buttner, who has plenty to learn but also plenty of potential. Baines is a good left-back, if often (like Evra) caught out of position, and is much better at crossing the ball than Evra, although he is slightly slower and not as intelligent with his forward movement as the Frenchman. But the plain fact is that Manchester United have two excellent left-backs, and they don’t need another one. They have bigger weaknesses in their squad, especially if Rooney actually goes; they need another winger, with Nani playing, as well as looking, like Michael Jackson last season and defenders finally realising that Antonio Valencia only has one foot, and perhaps even more importantly, they need another central midfielder.
Why not Fellaini, then? He’s been hyped to the rafters by the media, touted as Champions League quality; he’s big, he’s strong, he’s part of an incredibly talented Belgium squad, and he was unplayable in last year’s opening fixture against Manchester United. And, like I’ve said, United desperately need to strengthen in central midfield, especially if they want to compete in Europe. The problem is, big and strong doesn’t necessarily translate into Champions League class, and Fellaini doesn’t really bring anything more into a midfield (unless we count his, admittedly remarkable, chest control). He was a great fit for Everton under Moyes because, when he played in an advanced role, he was excellent at holding up long balls whilst his teammates got up to support the front men, and when he played in a defensive role, he had enough talent to play a long ball up to the tall, powerful Victor Anichebe or the tall, powerful Nikita Jelavic.
But for Manchester United under Moyes? Judging from the Swansea game, United aren’t a team that want to play long balls up to a big man up front and get him to hold up the play; they wanted to pass it through midfield, employing quick, short passes to get through the opposition’s centre before spreading play to the wings or trying to find a killer ball through the centre. Their midfield was far more fluid than it had been under Ferguson in his final season, with Cleverly, Giggs and Welbeck especially interchanging positions and working hard to make angles for short passes into feet, then quickly laying it off to a teammate. When it clicked-and admittedly, it didn’t always click, and is obviously a work-in-progress that will improve once Kagawa and possibly Rooney return- this rapid movement on and off the ball pulled Swansea out of position, tempting their centre-backs out and leaving plenty of space for RVP and Welbeck to get in behind the Welsh defence.
Fellaini, for all his robust qualities, just isn’t capable of doing this. He isn’t quick or intelligent enough to perform this kind of movement; he isn’t a good enough passer to open up tight defences or consistently spread play to the wings; he doesn’t have the vision to pick out teammates in crowded areas, or the skill to quickly get out of the tight spaces that United midfielders, often trying to pick through massed ranks of opposition players desperately trying to close down the ball, have to get out of. He’s too strong to easily knock off the ball, yes; but his feet aren’t quick enough to quickly move the ball on, he can’t accelerate quickly enough for the little give-and-goes which are so effective at unlocking defences, and he doesn’t have the creative vision to regularly play in teammates. In short, a word not often associated with the Belgian, he isn’t good enough to play in any kind of advanced role for United, like he did at Everton.
Well, then, defensive midfield? It’s where he played for Everton in their first fixture this season against Norwich, and it showed up his qualities and his flaws. He’s comfortable enough on the ball not to surrender possession too cheaply, and he’s good at breaking up opposition attacks through the centre with his physicality; but, he’s not good at covering his attacking full-backs. Norwich were dangerous on the wings all day as Baines and Coleman pushed forward, and it’s the defensive midfielder’s job to snuff out counter-attacks and cove for his fullbacks if they’ve been caught out of position. Also, he’s not skilful enough to quickly move the ball forward when he gets it in deep positions; a holding midfielder, a good one, has to be able to take a touch, escape the first press from the opposition midfielder, quickly play the ball on, be ready to get it back… If you need proof, watch Sergio Busquets play. He rarely takes more than two touches, one to control and turn anyone trying to put pressure on him, one incisive ball forward to Xavi, Iniesta or Messi. Fellaini just isn’t capable of this; he isn’t technically skilled enough. He won’t lose the ball easily because he’s very strong ; but he’ll also drastically slow down the pace of United’s attacks, allowing the opposition to get into position to defend, and pretty much put paid to any of the swift counterattacks United are famed for.
Fellaini and Baines are both good players; Arsenal, in particular, could do with Baines, whilst Fellaini is pretty much perfect for a team that doesn’t rely on short passing and plays fairly defensively. But they aren’t right, at all, for Manchester United; and though Moyes knows them well, he shouldn’t rely on them in his attempt to challenge for the Premier League title.
Sometimes, football is all about the endgame. It’s all about the finish, the final strike of the ball into the net, the moment when the move, be it a finely constructed, intricate series of brushstrokes or one massive swipe of paint, a ball lumped up to the forward to chase, ends with the roar of the crowd, the striker’s carefully choreographed celebration and another point on the scoreboard. It’s all about the goals.
Except that sometimes, it really isn’t. Sometimes, the artists’ work shouldn’t be judged on the final painting, but on the quality of the brushstrokes which made it.
It is May 12th, and Fulham host Liverpool in the Barclays Premier League. The match has turned a little turgid, typical end-of season fare. Neither set of players has a lot to play for, and both seem content not to play.
And then a slim, five and a half-foot tall Brazilian with a baby face and gloriously curly hair picks up the ball in the centre of the park, and suddenly the beautiful game is back. He’s already set up one goal, and had two shots saved by the goalkeeper, but he’s saving the best ‘til now.
A Fulham midfielder, Damien Duff, comes to pressure him, and the Brazilian sets off. One careful, caressing touch with his instep, then another touch, another, the ball mesmerised into behaving like he wants. Duff starts to turn his back, and the ball is gone, the Brazilian changing direction so stealthily that Duff hasn’t finished turning round before he’s been bypassed.
One more touch, a glance down, and then, with the outside of his boot, the Brazilian sweeps the ball through the Fulham defence for his teammate Daniel Sturridge to run on to. It is so perfectly placed, so subtly weighted, that the Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer charges out of his goal to get to it, hypnotized by its flight; and, goalkeeper committed, Sturridge chips a gentle finish into an unguarded net.
The Brazilian, Philippe Coutinho, smiles a sheepish smile while his colleague celebrates. But the fan watching knows this wasn’t Sturridge’s goal, not really. It’s Coutinho’s, all over.
Signed from Inter Milan for £8.5 million in the January transfer window, it didn’t take long for the 21-year-old to make an impact at Liverpool. He scored in his first start for the club, against Swansea City, and would add two more goals and seven assists before the season’s end, quickly becoming one of the side’s central creative hubs, making more key passes than anyone save Steven Gerrard. He is skilful, clever, menacing with the ball.
The outside of his right boot is the most beautiful thing in the Premier League.
It doesn’t matter whether the move is finished or not. Given Liverpool’s profligacy, it often isn’t; Opta tells us they convert only 14% of their chances, 5% fewer than Manchester United, for example. Sometimes, though, the point isn’t in the finishing; it’s in the approach play, the beauty of a chance created rather than a chance scored, the bemusement and despairing lunge from the defender as the ball curves gently, softly, just out of their reach. Sometimes, it’s the little soft-shoe shuffle, the stepover, the cushioned caress through a back line that’s enough in itself. Not for me the powerful, driven shot into the far corner, the curling, swooping finish into the far corner, the looping cross battered home by a broad forehead; all these have nothing on the subtle, stealthy sliderule pass, perfectly judged and weighted, putting the beautiful into the Beautiful Game.
Coutinho isn’t the only player who does this, of course; Juan Mata, David Silva, Santi Cazorla and Shinji Kagawa prevent him having the monopoly on perfect passes, but there’s an innocent genius in Coutinho’s boot which always seems to take the breath away. There’s no better sight than Coutinho stroking a ball through to an onrushing forward, no better sight than seeing the ball dance and spin through the air, no better sight than the subtle bounce which takes it perfectly into the attacker’s side. Not just at Fulham, but against Swansea, against Newcastle, against every opponent Coutinho has faced in the Premier League to date, there has been at least one breath taking outside-of-the-foot pass, defenders’ eyes widening in shock and awe at the dextrous manipulation of the ball even as the Liverpool players swarm forward after it. Watching him, watching what he can do, you forget about the finish; what sticks in your mind is the perfect vision, the perfect placement, the perfect moment. The perfect pass.