Monday, 12 May 2014

Some thoughts on the season part 1

So in a season of surprises the biggest surprise on the final day was that there wasn't one. Manchester City strolled confidently past West Ham whilst Liverpool's endeavours at Anfield ended up not mattering - Newcastle could have been thrashed and it wouldn't have mattered a jot.

A lot of guff has been written and said about City since yesterday afternoon. Some have said that the victory seems a little hollow. It didn't seem hollow to me watching the joy on the faces of the team and the spontaneous pitch invasion from the fans. Others have said that they didn't deserve it. What utter rot! The simple fact of the matter is that the league table doesn't lie. They were the finest team over the piece and deserve the title. Congratulations to a fine side who played joyful football over the piece managed by a man (and this is a rarity in the modern game) it is hard to dislike.

For all the talk of Liverpool's exceptional eleven wins on the bounce, there was a consistency to Manchester City over the whole season that won them the title. They had the league's outstanding midfielder in Toure, the outstanding full-back in Zabaleta and the league's most magical player in Silva. They were ably supported by Kompany (not at his brilliant best but fine nonetheless), Aguero, Dzeko and a whole host of others. So many of their team chipped in with vital contributions.

The only solace for the other teams in and around the title race is that the wise old eagle Pellegrini might not notice that his team, perhaps, should have won this title by some margin rather than letting it going down to the last game. This is a forlorn hope. There will be comings and goings at City over the summer and my guess is that they'll be stronger again next season.

Of course, Liverpool fans will be disappointed that the league title didn't return to Anfield. That they are disappointed with a second place when most, at the start of the season, hoped for a fourth place finish shows just how Rodgers has transformed the club. From 7th to 2nd is quite a turnaround - particularly given the swashbuckling brand of football Liverpool generally played - but the nature of football is that one's ambitions change with one's achievements.

Simply put Liverpool not winning wasn't about Gerrard's slip, Toure's pass at West Brom, the capitulation at Palace, Sterling's disallowed goal or the abomination of a performance against Hull. Liverpool just conceded too many goals to be champions.

It is the first time in 99 years that Liverpool have conceded 50 goals in a top-flight season (Hull in 16th place only conceded three more goals). It may be that Liverpool's astonishing attacking prowess (101 league goals) could only be achieved by a comparative flakiness in defence.
Possibly. Regardless, City outscored them by a goal and had a finer defence by a considerable margin - it should be no surprise that City won but, as above, that it was so close should be a slight worry for the Citizens over the summer.

Rodgers needs to add to his squad. Amongst others, Suarez and Sturridge have barely had a rest in months and the squad was shown to be shallow as soon as Henderson was suspended. With three midfielders on the pitch there often in the last few games there was often no one on the bench. That cannot continue longer-term and the news the club has already bid for Lallana suggests that the club wants its business done early. More importantly though, Rodgers needs to work on his defence. A ruthless manager would be sharpening the knives and looking at Skrtel, Lucas and (in particular) Johnson.

A few weeks ago many in the media were crowing about how Mourinho had outsmarted Rodgers. He did in the short-term. But if we accept the league table doesn't lie when it comes to first and second we have to accept the same when we discuss second and third. Mourinho may have won the battle of Anfield but he lost the war. All the talk about ''the end justifies the means' only has any resonance if the end actually happens. As it happens, Mourinho - more than anyone - let this title slip through his fingers. It seems scarcely believable that he let a 6 point margin over Liverpool slip (indeed, an eight-point turn around to Liverpool and a six-point turnaround to City is very non-Mourinho). It is a measure of his media genius that more people are talking about Rodgers and not him. One wonders what the Chelsea fan reaction would have been if Rafa Benitez had managed them to third place like that after last summer's spending, Manchester United dropping like a stone, and with them ahead in the run in. Jose managed to outfox Liverpool and Manchester City in their individual match-ups but it was the teams outwith the elite that foxed him. There seems - to me - something missing in Mourinho this time around at Chelsea. A sort of feeling of going through the motions. What next for the man who has done everything and done it so young? International football management? Or digging in somewhere and trying to dominate for a decade?

Good old Arsenal won their annual fourth place trophy but are, perhaps, the most relieved of the top four that Liverpool did not win the league. Not because of any real enmity between the clubs but because Rodgers propelling a team from 7th to 1st would have shown Wenger in a terrible light.  For years we have heard we are building, we are in transition, the spending power of the other clubs is so vast et al. If a manager with an - in my view - inferior squad and only a year of incumbency on his side had won the title then the questions for Wenger would have been brutal. Indeed, he might have been asked to perform Hari Kiri.

Arsenal fans will point to the fact they were, at one point, a good number of points clear and then injuries derailed their challenge. 

All teams suffer injuries though and if a team struggles with injuries disproportionately year after year then the excuse does not hold water. In fact, it suggests there is something wrong at the club - in terms of acquisitions (i.e. buying injury-prone players), in terms of training, or in terms of how the club rehabilitates its players. The curse of injuries quite possibly robbed Arsenal of a title - would Ramsey, Walcott, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain being available have pushed them to the top? Possibly. But then 'What if' is the refuge of the dreamer. Even Wenger admitted that he had rushed Ramsey back - that, my friends, is his fault and nobody else's. With 13 games to go, Arsenal were five points clear of Liverpool. They finished 5 points behind them. 

Freed of David Moyes, Everton played throughout the season with a flair and panache that reminded older supporters of the School of Science (not something that one could reasonably have said during Moyes' tenure). Whilst much will be written about the top four, there were fine stories here too - Martinez got the very best out of Mirallas and of the reinvented Naismith, he has nurtured Barkley into a World Cup player (potentially even a starter), and has played the transfer market wisely. Whilst many will focus on his clever loans of Barry, Lukaku and Deulofeu, there's a case for saying James McCarthy was the signing of the summer. What would Manchester United have done for a player of his capability in midfield? Everton - like their neighbours - are disappointed with their final position. They will be disappointed that Champions League football eluded them. If they can keep Martinez there is no reason they cannot improve next year.

Spurs - marvellous, bonkers old Spurs - have managed to finish 6th and win the booby prize of the Europa League. Their season was the oddest of all. A talented manager gone, a buffoon in place and - despite it all - they weren't a million miles away.

Manchester United's travails have been well documented on this blog and elsewhere. Rodgers shows that it is possible for a team to go from 7th to 2nd in a year and van Gaal, if that is who they get, is more than capable of doing so. The problem for the grand old Dutchman is that this is a United team even more in need of radical surgery than it was under Moyes. It is likely that a new centre-back is needed. It is clearly the case that a left-back and, arguably, a right-back are needed as well. That is before the midfield is considered - and that's the area most in need of help. There is a hell of a lot of talent in that United squad but van Gaal will likely have to be at his ruthless best to take them back to the top. If anyone can, he can.



dearieme said...

"the reinvented Naismith": the Ian St John de nos jours.

Wenger - it was 'im too wot over-played Wilshere when he was young.

Pity that we highlights-watchers lost Young Theo part way through: he'd been looking better and better.

A lesson missed by Uncle Woy - there's no need to take three goalies when you have the Ox in your squad.

Anonymous said...

I think it will be very expensive to retool Utd enough to catch up with City.

What Liverpool (& Man City) have shown this season is that scoring goals matters - and that is the downfall of both Arsenal and Chelsea. The difference is that you'd expect Chelsea to get a goalscorer in - although it seems Mourinho has a strange blindspot about Lukaku… which is fortunate for the rest of the league...

Anonymous said...

Some interesting goings on at the bottom of the table as well - a number of teams gathering pace in the second half of the season, Sunderland for one, Crystal Palace another, or West Ham second bottom at Christmas and surviving. Maybe you'll blog sometime soon around the turnarounds in the fight against relegation - would make interesting reading... might also be worth thinking about an article on top teams v top teams, as this year has probably seen unprecedented batterings...

For the top half, at the half-way point, Arsenal only sat a point ahead (and far less GD than City behind them). Ending the January window with the likes of Kallstrom on a long term injury just doesn't win titles. Sure, you don't get any great value in the winter transfer window, but if you're looking to win first silverware in near a decade, and fill the post-Utd vacuum, you've got to bring in new signings - another striker, another defender at least for the Gunners. Wenger seems a cautious type at best, but after years of under-investment, you have to start thinking that he's loyally fronting a board that just won't pay what it takes to transform a club. We've seen Arsenal sides of the past blitz the top teams and then struggle against lesser opposition, but this year, the reverse - some of the performances were abject (or by my current yardstick, sub-Moyes). As a fan, I don't want to call time on our best ever manager but, realistically and even with a cup victory possible, where do we go from here? What's the grand plan, the strategy for the future? You could have argued the same for Ferguson, or for many long-standing managers, but trophies in the cabinet can mask a number of ills...

And I worry where we are - even with fair play rules, after two titles in three years and champions league, City could attract a couple of tent-pole signings; Chelsea may not be as toothless in attack as they are tight at the back; even without transfers, and goodness knows they need them, a disciplinarian like Van Gaal could rejuvenate Utd; Liverpool might kick on, though I hope that in a south american world cup, Suarez shines enough for Uruguay that bigger fish move in - no offence Left Back in the Changing Room. And as a gooner, there's always Spurs - receive a massive transfer fee for your best player, and splash it all over the first folk that can kick a football you find!

Rob Marrs said...

Dearieme - There's almost never any point in taking three keepers but no team is going to be brave enough to admit it...

Anonymous @13.41 - agreed. What they also showed was that goals from around the pitch are important. As stellar as Suarez and Sturridge were Liverpool needed the input of Coutinho, Gerrard, Sterling and Skrtel too.

Anonymous @17.04 - yes, I hope to make this a series of pieces. The top 7 seemed the obvious place to start though the next bunching (including Newcastle, Southampton and Stoke) will be interesting too.

With 13 games to go - as I say in the piece - Arsenal were five clear of Liverpool. They finished five back. That's a ten point swing in 13 games which is, I think, at least worthy of remark.

I think you can get value in the winter transfer market (Sturridge, Coutinho) and one would have thought Wenger would excel there.

I think you are right about next season being a worry for Arsenal but it shouldn't be too bad. I think United are a multi-year project and Spurs probably are too. That suggests that it is likely that the top four will be similar (if not in the same order).


dearieme said...

"I think United are a multi-year project ...": they could accelerate it by buying the whole Southampton back four.

"... and Spurs probably are too." Multi-decade? Multi-century? Millennia? Aeons?

dearieme said...

Is Jay Rodriguez injured enough to appeal to Wenger?

On a more serious note, I really hope Derby win the play-off; I'd love to see how Maclaren does in the EPL. He's an under-rated manager, I suspect.

P.S. On Hodgson's squad - I'm a fan of Roy and think you can see the handicap he's operating under by looking at the calibre of the seven standby players. His talent pool is awfully shallow, isn't it?

dearieme said...

Is Jay Rodriguez injured enough to appeal to Wenger?

On a more serious note, I really hope Derby win the play-off; I'd love to see how Maclaren does in the EPL. He's an under-rated manager, I suspect.

P.S. On Hodgson's squad - I'm a fan of Roy and think you can see the handicap he's operating under by looking at the calibre of the seven standby players. His talent pool is awfully shallow, isn't it?