Regular readers of my blog (which is the same as saying “imaginary friends” in many ways) will know that, when last we saw him, Mystic Matt was in hiding after several Russian gentlemen objected to his continuous slander of a certain London-based football team. Well, it’s impossible to hide forever, and so Matt has spent the last few months tied to a chair somewhere in Siberia, undergoing the worst torture imaginable: watching all of Manchester United’s games on repeat. However, following recent difficulties on the pitch, the Russians were distracted long enough for Matt to escape (rumours that a certain doctor was involved are, of course, entirely spurious), and so…
He’s back! And ready to type up some Premier League predictions with the fingers he has left…
Manchester City 3-1 Liverpool (Sterling (obviously), De Bruyne)
The best attack in the Premier League against Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet. Jurgen Klopp has already made an impact at Liverpool, the team looking far more solid and organised under the German than it ever did under the “outstanding” Brendan Rodgers. But his methods will take time to properly implement, especially given the general lack of tactical intelligence inherent in English football, and he seems to lose another key player to injury every week.
The latest, of course, being Mamadou Sakho, who is quite possibly my favourite Premiership player (he’s like a talented Djimi Traore, a phrase which admittedly constitutes one of the signs of the Apocalypse). Without him martialling the backline and providing incisive passes into the front men, Liverpool will struggle both in defence and attack. Man City, on the other hand, have two of the best defenders in the league in Kompany and Otamendi, currently the best Belgian in the Premier League in Kevin De Bruyne, and morality’s Raheem Sterling stepping up in place of the injured Silva. Oh, and Aguero might be back (so might Daniel Sturridge, but only if he avoids being injured by a light breeze in the next couple of days). Still, at least Chelsea are crap…
Chelsea 2-1 Norwich City (Willian, Costa; Mbokani)
…but they’re still more than capable of beating Norwich, a team that made Liverpool look half-decent earlier in the season. Whilst Chelsea’s back line is increasingly resembling one of those elderly rock bands that reform after losing all their money and realise that while the wallet’s willing the vocal chords just can’t cut it any more (deep breath), Norwich don’t have enough to really exploit that. Having said that, big powerful strikers do seem to be doing well against John Terry in particular, so Mbokani (or Cameron Jerome, although “striker” isn’t the best word to describe him) could snatch something there. Chelsea have better players, even if one of them spends more time telling people they smell than actually playing football, and after 3-1 defeats to both Southampton and Liverpool, won’t want to let Norwich extend the talk of a Chelsea crisis. See, I managed to get through a whole piece about Chelsea without mentioning how much Jose Mourinho is coming to resemble Peter Finch’s character from Network….
Everton 3- 0 Aston Villa (Lukaku (2), Kone)
Everton are in a good place right now. Keeping John Stones at the club over the summer and signing the excellent Gerard Deulofeu (who has scored 5 goals for Spain Under-21s in the last two games) were both excellent pieces of business, and with their passing game, so stale last season, has shown signs of rediscovering its zip and zing this
season. Defensive injuries apart, they should prove too much for an Aston Villa side that approached last summer’s transfer window like a twelve-year-old who’s discovered Football Manager for the first time. Admittedly, they looked much better against Swansea than they have at any other point this season, possibly due to having a manager who realises it takes more to build a team than a gilet, but they’re still weak in both defence and attack and have Alan Hutton in the starting line-up. Expect Lukaku to avoid Micah Richards, who’s actually half-decent, and pull onto Ciaran Clark/ Joleon Lescott, who aren’t.
Newcastle United 2-2 Leicester City (Wijnaldum, Sissoko; Mahrez (2))
Will Jamie Vardy break a Premier League record? Nope- partly because he might not shake off an injury, partly because fairy tales don’t happen in football (oh, Stevie…). Leicester, though, have been brilliant this season. Mahrez has obviously been their creative spark, but Kante, Schlupp, Albrighton and Kasper Schmeichel have been excellent too, and Claudio Raneiri has deservedly shaken off all the critics who deem getting Chelsea into second place somehow proof that he’s rubbish. As for Newcastle… well, sometimes the league table does lie, and they’re better than the 17th place they currently find themselves in. Steve Maclaren is another manager who’s been unfairly pilloried by the media, and despite the annual inexplicable loss to Sunderland the Magpies have looked pretty decent in recent weeks. With the aforementioned Leicester players facing off against Mitrovic, Wijnaldum, Sissoko and the superb if mercurial Florian Thauvin, expect lots of goals in this one.
It’s been a while, but I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the Premier League so far.
Man City look good…
There are some players that you want to hate, but can’t quite bring yourself to. Maybe they’re a bit rubbish but seem like nice people (the Jose Enrique/ Peter Crouch syndrome); maybe they cost you a title by slipping at the worst possible moment but were bloody good in their day (oh, Stevie…). And then there are those who seem like petty, egotistical, badly-advised arseholes who nevertheless happen to be fantastic players. Raheem Sterling is one of them.
He’s been brilliant at times this season, dovetailing with Aguero, Silva, and Bony, beating full-backs for fun and proving tactically intelligent to boot. Along with the also-excellent De Bruyne, who seems out to prove some form of point to an ex-manager who didn’t think he was good enough, he’s given City another dimension this season. Added to the acquisition of Nicholas Otamendi, and with Fabian “U-Turn” Delph still to come, this team is going places, and with style.
Unless they still have a bit of the old Man City in them, in which case they’ll somehow manage to mess it up.
…but Man Utd don’t…
Pragmatism can be an excellent trait. If you’re starving in a forest, for example, with nothing to eat except your elderly relative who, let’s face it, won’t last much longer anyway, well, pragmatism will save your life (and quite possibly keep a therapist in business further down the line, so there’s that). When you’re Manchester United, when you’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds, and when pragmatism takes the form, still, of lumping a ball up to Fellaini, well, it’s not so admirable. Frankly, despite being fourth, that United are still scraping out wins whilst looking stodgy and dull is a bit concerning.
There’s an argument to be had, as well, that Van Gaal isn’t even being pragmatic with his stifling style of play. Pragmatism (in football) is about taking the best route to victory, no matter the ethics or unwritten rules it breaks. Being incredibly boring, with a squad containing Depay, Mata, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Darmian and the genuinely Henry-like Martial… well, there’s probably a better way for them to play than passing it back to Chris (Michael?) Smalling every twenty seconds.
…and Chelsea are even worse…
What the hell is going on at Chelsea?
I’m not a Mourinho fan. Not in the slightest. But even I’m starting to feel sorry for a man who, at times, seems like
he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some of his decisions- dropping Matic for Mikel (which is like, on the opening night of a Led Zeppelin tour, replacing Jimmy Page with Mr Blobby), persisting with a clearly struggling Ivanovic, the whole Eva Carneiro debacle, buying Radamael Falcao- have been bewildering, so much so that you wonder if he’s channelling Willy Wonka without any of the magic. Add that to the paranoia, and there’s some inkling as to why things are derailing…
But then, you have to look at the players too. When they have played, Matic and Fabregas have been shadows of what they were last season, Hazard even more so. Ivanovic seems to have deteriorated faster than a molecule of Hydrogen-7. Terry, who looked impervious last season (admittedly with a great deal of midfield protection in front of him)…well, if he was a Grand National horse, the boltgun would be being loaded by now, however much that might get me the Robbie Savage treatment.* All the defensive solidity exhibited – well, not just this season, but by every single Mourinho team that’s ever existed- it’s gone, in the blink of an eye.
Not that it won’t get sorted out in short order. But still, enjoy while it lasts.
Speaking of which…
Isn’t the Premier League odd?
On the one hand, it just seems a bit…well, dull, this season. Leicester (and the usual City and Arsenal) aside, a lot of the games have been a bit turgid, a bit lacking in quality, a bit blood-and-thunder without the usual excitement these things bring. There aren’t many games I can think of that will go down as classics- maybe the Arsenal-Man Utd game, maybe Newcastle’s 6-2, maybe a couple of Leicester’s comebacks. But otherwise, it seems to have been a case of teams cancelling each other out (possibly because everyone wants to play on the counter-attack these days, so everyone sits too deep and can’t break down packed defences)…
And on the other hand, have you seen some of the players mid-table clubs have managed to get? Stoke now have Shaqiri to push alongside Bojan (who I really, really like). Newcastle have Florian Thauvin. Swansea have Andre Ayew. Saido Mane looks excellent for Southampton. And, perhaps best of all, West Ham have managed to lure Dimitri Payer to the Boleyn Ground, the best player in France last season (sorry, Zlatan) who already looks a cut above in terms of class. Add that to Salomon Rondon, Gerard Deulofeu, and Yohann Cabaye, and the Premier League, at least on paper, looks better than it has for a long time.
There are some early relegation candidates…
Bournemouth might be the unluckiest club in the league. Having lost half of their first-team to long term injuries, having lost to Liverpool thanks to an incredibly offside goal and a wrongly-disallowed effort of their own, and having by far the lowest budget of any of the league teams, their goalkeeper goes and does this. They’re on course to join Burnley and Blackpool in the elite “Teams you didn’t really want to go down but did” club, almost certainly not just because of the alliteration.
Aston Villa are crap. That’s all that really needs to be said, there; their defence is poor, their midfield is poor, and their strikers are poor as well. Remi Garde (see, Villa, I can spell his name right) has a hell of a job.
As does Sam Allardyce, the man with chip onn his shoulder so big that it could feed a family for a fortnight. This isn’t a new observation- it holds true for the last three seasons, at least- but Sunderland are awful. Their defenders, indeed, have managed to reach a new peak of awfulness which makes it look like they’re just vessels controlled by small alien life-forms who’ve never seen football before but quite enjoy the round white thing going past the tall man with the disbelieving expression on his face. I mean, of course they beat Newcastle, but even George “Tax-Credit-Defeat” Osborne could have predicted that one.
And the obligatory Liverpool analysis…
Klopp is fantastic. That is all.
This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, but I really love Phillippe Coutinho.
I mean, what isn’t there to love? There’s the way he controls a ball, all deft little touches with the instep, luring defenders into a
challenge and then, at the last millisecond, as their lunge gets inches away from the ball, moving it out of the way with a taunting little flick that would have Phil Neville in a rage. There’s the way he runs with the ball, too, all feints and half-twists, defenders going one way then the other only to find the little Brazilian has picked a third direction no-one else was even aware of, bursting away with his new-found acceleration whilst their heads are still fixed on where he was a second ago, and his passing, the delicate stroked balls into space, the audacious overhead kicks or first-time reverse passes. There’s his patented high-energy nuisance-tackling, like a Yorkshire Terrier snapping at the postman’s ankles before running off with the mailbag.
And, most of all, there’s the fact that he couldn’t score in the seediest, most depraved of brothels.
It might seem a strange thing to like about a player, and I’ll admit it isn’t 100% accurate; he does, occasionally, score goals, important ones, like the one against Man City last year (as far as I’m concerned, the last Liverpool game of the season). It can also be incredibly frustrating at times, don’t get me wrong; with Daniel Sturridge missing, Lambert ageing, Balotelli being… well, Ballotelli, and Borini having no talent, Liverpool have struggled for goals this year, and it would have been nice, in a way, for Coutinho to have scored a few more (though he isn’t entirely to blame, is he, Jordan?). But it’s still true. I like that he doesn’t score, and here’s why.
In the modern football game, results are everything. As Jose “Satan Incarnate” Mourinho has grasped so completely, if you win, the fans love you, no matter how insipid/downright immoral your team might be; if you lose, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made women weep and men orgasm with your style of play, there’s talk of “crisis” and “sackings” and “who’s going to clean all the semen up, then?” It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, really; you win, or you get sacked, no matter how much everyone likes you.
But, surely football is about more than that? After all, I can go down the pub and watch old men play tiddlywinks (yes, my local is stuck in the 1930s), and one will win and one will lose… but football should be, indeed is, something more. It’s not called the “beautiful game” for nothing; there is beauty in the artistry of a well-constructed move, a daring bit of skill, even in a thumping header or perfectly executed tackle. Focusing on success at the expense of all else is… well, it’s wrong, like chopping off (SPOILERS) Ned’s head.
Which brings me back to Coutinho. He has no end product at all, and that’s wonderful, because it means you can focus on the beauty of everything else in his game without having to worry about the success at the end of it. When he cocks back his leg to shoot, defenders flailing all around him, the whites of the goalie’s eyes staring terrified at the ball… you know he won’t score, so you can just switch your brain off and focus on how he got into the position in the first place, how beautiful his first touch and first piece of skill was.
The best example of this comes from the recent Chelsea game, or as I prefer to think if it the alternative ending of the Lord of the Rings where Sauron wins. Coutinho picked up the ball midway inside the Chelsea half, Mikel in his face and Matic lurking just behind. One insouciant first touch, a quick hip-shuffle and, somehow, he was past the two midfielders, past Cahill and Terry behind them, and clean through on goal, Chelsea players gawping in amazement and terror. Like the hero in a Western, Coutinho eyed up his opponent, Thibault Courtois; stared him down, floodlights above glowing like High Noon sun, confident grin just about to appear on his face as he saw the goalkeeper make a tiny move and adjusted his finish to compensate… and clanked it off the Belgian’s shins.
But that last bit didn’t matter. It was what went before-the previous hour of the Western, if you will, Ned’s unveiling of the Lannister secret, Frodo and Sam’s definitely-not-homoerotic journey… that’s what mattered. That’s what we’re missing, in this
success-driven football culture; and that is what Coutinho (now that Joan Riquelme, the fabulous Argentinian, has retired) is the only player I know to remind us of.
It’s not about the goals; it’s about how you reach them.
I’m still glad Sturridge is back, though.
Well, it’s been a while since Mystic Matt has been able to post anything (apparently it’s quite hard to type when your fingers have been broken by burly men DEFINITELY NOT UNDER ORDERS FROM PUTIN), but after a lengthy recuperation at
Nigel Farage’s house (where no Russians are allowed. Or Albanians, Romanians, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, or Presbyterians, but Germans are apparently fine)… he’s back!
So without further ado, some predictions for the most exciting ties in the Premier League this weekend. Which necessarily precludes any mention of Aston Villa, since there’s more chance of Mystic Matt actually getting one right than the Villains scoring any time soon…
Manchester United vs Leicester City: 2-1 (Rooney, Fellaini; Nugent)
Let’s have a look at the facts for a moment. The last game between these two teams ended 5-3 to Leicester, after a United collapse that made the Twin Towers look fairly sedate in comparison, and United have not improved at all since then. It is one of life’s great mysteries how the Red Devils are fourth (if you turn to the last page of the book you might see the words “David de Gea” in bold print, right before “off to Madrid”); their midfield is insipid, their forward line one-paced and their defence laughable. Then again, Leicester aren’t exactly pulling up trees; with Uchoa’s goals drying up of late, Kasper Schmeichel nursing a broken foot and Paul “2 England Caps” Konchesky anchoring their left flank they may not be able to capitalise on United’s shitness. The difference between the two teams will be Fellaini, who seems to be excelling in Louis van Gaal’s “lump it up from the back” system; United to once again edge a result and continue their mystifying rise up the table.
Liverpool vs West Ham: 1-3 (Lallana; Carroll (2), Sakho)
Sturridge is back! STURRIDGE IS BACK! But will probably only feature from the bench, and after such a long injury will probably barely touch the ball, let alone score. The mid-week game with Dirty Chelsea (which I’m definitely not still bitter about, no sir, not me) left pretty much all of the central midfielders in the squad exhausted (save Can, now a centre-back, and Allen, who has severe talent-knack), and perhaps just as worryingly Mamadou Sakho, the subject of my latest player-crush, has a groin injury. This may mean Glen Johnson takes the field to slow down every Liverpool attack, or possibly Dejan Lovren, who plays like Djimi Traore without any of the lovability. Meanwhile, for West Ham, Andy Carroll will be relishing the chance to batter some weary defenders about, Alex Song (why is he at the Irons again?) is poised to boss the midfield and Adrian is relishing a quiet afternoon of shots whistling past the post from various diminutive Liverpool players. West Ham won the reverse 3-1; expect them to strive for that scoreline again.
Southampton vs Swansea: 1-0 (Pelle)
Southampton are third. I’ll just give you a moment to process that-third. And, what’s more, and unlike a certain red-shirted Mancunian team, they actually deserve it. With a superb defence marshalled by the excellent Jose Fonte and screened by the considered strength of Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin, it’s hard to see Swansea scoring. The loss of Wilfried Bony will hit the Swans hard; Batefembi Gomis might have a physique like the Ivorian but seems to lack his killer touch in front of goal, not to mention Bony’s understanding with their other attacking threat Gylfi Sigurdsson. Of course, where Saints fall down is in the lack of depth in their squad; with Wanyama injured (along with Toby Aldeweireld, another major factor in their defensive solidity), Swansea might feel a little more optimistic. Still, Saints should have enough to beat the Welsh team, and stay ahead of Man Utd in the process.
Nasty Chelsea vs Man City: 1-1 (Hazard; Lampard)- 3 broken toes, 1 bruised ankle, 3 stamps missed by the referee
And, finally, onto the game that many are billing as a title decider. We know how Mourinho approaches these games; expect Ramires and Matic in front of the defence kicking anything that moves, surrounded by teammates who also kick anything that moves, with a couple of sly elbows thrown in for good measure (not bitter!). Facing the massed ranks of the Chelsea bus will be a team that had struggled somewhat without Yaya Toure, the lack of verticality in their midfield making it too easy for teams to nullify David Silva and leaving Sergio Aguero isolated. Vincent Kompany has been shaky since his return from injury, though he should be confident of keeping 90-year-old Didier Drogba quiet with Costa (probably) out for his cowardly stamp on the magnificently hirsute Emre Can. Honestly, I’m not expecting much excitement from this game, though there’s always the chance that Mourinho, Dr Evil-style, will renounce his wicked ways and allow some form of entertainment to seep through…
The more astute of my readers (disclaimer: I have no justification in making that word plural) will have noticed that I haven’t updated this blog in a long time. This is for a variety of reasons, but mainly because Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea caused such intense psychological damage that it’s taken several months and several hundred counsellors to get over it (though that is still probably less time than it will take Stevie G).
Anyway, I’m back, at least until Gerrard slips again. And now that the new season is almost upon us, it’s time for some almost-certain-to-be-wrong predictions. To that end, I’ve manage to rescue Mystic Matt from the hideout of some nice gentlemen in Russia (it was like Die Hard V only I have hair), and he’s agreed to write some out as long as I don’t reveal the location of his safe house.
So without further ado, his predictions for the Top 4…
1st: Manchester City
Oh boy, oh boy. Let’s face it, it’s between Man City and Chelsea for the title, all the way through. They have the best squads, the best first elevens, the most money, and though it pains me to say it probably the best managers too. City won the thing quite easily in the end (MAN ON STEVIE! MAN ON!), and have only strengthened their team since. Bacary Sagna and Eliaquim Mangala have come in to replace Joleon Lescott (the man
with the world’s largest forehead) and the poster-boy for overhyped and English, Micah Richards; midfielder Fernando has replaced Javi Garcia, the one Spaniard who can’t play football*, and Willy Caballero has come in to challenge Joe Hart, who is no longer Head and Shoulders the best‘keeper at the club. All excellent players in their own right, all improving a squad that was easily the best in the League last season, and all coming in quietly and with little fuss. If Pellegrini can keep Jovetic injury-free to ease a little of the burden on Sergio Aguero, I can’t see them dropping many points to anybody. Except maybe…
Another side that have strengthened significantly over the summer, Chelsea are going to push City all the way this season. Having managed to get
rid of liability David Luiz, who during the world cup showed all the footballing skill of Sideshow Bob, for a ridiculous €50 million is already the best transfer deal of the year. When you consider he’s been replaced by Felipe Luis (which will in turn allow Azpilicueta to push across to right-back and Ivanovic into the centre), well, they aren’t going to be letting in many goals this season, especially with Thibault Courtois between the sticks. Admittedly this wasn’t Chelsea’s problem last year; they deservedly finished behind Liverpool thanks to their inability to break teams down or play anything like pleasing football unless given space to counter-attack (NO STEVIE, MAN ON!). The signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa should help there, you’d think, especially if Oscar can be reintegrated alongside them. Mourinho, for all his personality flaws, remains an excellent and proven manager, and will be confident of leading his team to success… but they’ll come second, because despite Costa’s arrival, you won’t win a league when your back-up strikers are Fernando “How did he miss that?” Torres and Didier “How old?” Drogba. They’ll score more goals this season, yes… but it still won’t be quite enough.
3rd : Arsenal
And so onto the least remarkable of all the Top Four positions, second loser. Though on many internet message boards the arrival of Messiah Van Gaal has persuaded football fans that Man Utd will claim this spot, Arsenal are clearly a superior team, and for once have recruited pretty damn wisely in the transfer market. Alexis Sanchez has a good shout of being the best player in the Premier League this season, he really is that good; with Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey and Walcott around him, not to mention excellent support acts in Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain, the Gunners are going to play some lovely and what’s more effective football. They look a little light at the back-Debuchy in for Sagna is reasonable, but asking Calum Chambers to deputise for all four defensive positions is a little risky- but like Liverpool last season, an irresistible attack should make up for any shortcomings there. They haven’t quite got the squad depth to mount a consistent title challenge, not with the way Chelsea and City’s squads have lined up; but with Liverpool losing Suarez, and Man Utd retaining Chris Smalling, they should have enough to finish a comfortable third.
Right, that’s it for the top 3. I’m off to cry about Liverpool again. More predictions to follow, if Mystic Matt can keep a low profile….
Well, well. It’s the third part of the current series, and the one that some people will actually care about. So who, in my ill-informed and ever-changing opinion, will be crowned the Champions of the Premier League in 2014?
Well, nobody, because they don’t make you a monarch for winning it. But anyway, here goes…
They’ve been the pacesetters for most of the season but injuries are just starting to tell in this Arsenal side. With Theo Walcott out for the rest of the season, and the team thus lacking the threat his pace and finishing abilities, they might not quite have enough in their lockers to sustain a challenge, especially with the tough run of fixtures they have around the Bayern Munich ties. They’ve been reverting to a kind of past-Arsenal stereotype in recent weeks, passing the ball prettily but without penetration and having a couple of wobbles in defence; the ball doesn’t seem to be sticking to Giroud as much as it did earlier in the season, and they miss Aaron Ramsey (a sentence I never thought I’d type). Of course, they can always fall back on Niklas Bendtner…
As much as I genuinely hate preening arrogance-machine Jose Mourinho-and it is genuine hate, burning up in my gut like a bad vindaloo- he’s a pretty good manager, all told, and I can’t see Chelsea finishing lower than the top two this season. They’ve not been particularly convincing this season, and should definitely have been better to watch with the creative players they have, but with Matic (re-) signing, they’ve actually got a midfield now, rather than having to rely on Frank Lampard, who I’ve been informed is eligible for a free bus pass at the end of this season. It is a bit saddening to see genuinely amazing players of the past struggling as much as Eto’o (til the last few games) and especially Torres have this season; it’s like watching Elvis in his final few years, when the burgers started catching up with him. But they are increasingly solid at the back and seem to get away with nasty niggling fouls more than any other team in the league, with that combination, and Hazard and Oscar’s current form, set to see them challenging right to the wire.
1st: Manchester City
Some might accuse me of trying to please my one reader here, but seriously, Man City are the best team in the league by fair, and one of the most entertaining teams to watch as well. Granted, any defence with Martin Demichelis included is asking for trouble-he dives in more than a scuba team- but going forward, I can’t see how any team can honestly hope to stop them scoring. They have the best midfielder in the league in Yaya Toure, a superb foil for him in Fernandinho, and the forward line is second only to Liverpool’s in terms of lethality. Their home form is frankly ridiculous, and though they might drop a few points on their travels, where they’ve looked a mite patchy, it won’t be enough to stop them lifting the Premier League Trophy (again). What with Man Utd’s current travails (read: shitness) and my obviously 100% certain-to-happen prediction, City fans must be pretty happy right about now…
They aren’t going to win the Quadruple, though.