Here arriveth the third installment of the “Things” column, covering random highlights and lowlights from last weekend’s football. Musings this week are brought to you as ever from Nik, Doron and Rob (he’s the funny one); with the added treat of James from Written Offside sharing some thoughts on Aston Villa. Enjoy.
Owen Coyle is being found out
Bolton Wanderers are in a perilous state right now, and nothing sums up their season’s woes more than the 1-2 defeat to Martinez’s side at the weekend. If ever there was a true ‘6-pointer’ then this was it, and surely Bolton fans had every reason to expect a performance against a side who have managed just 2 wins in their last 11 games. The bigger question however is subsequently emerging; at the highest level, given the sinking ship at Burnley, and last season’s incredibly poor finish (2 wins in last 9), has Owen Coyle finally been found out?
It’s far from a new concept (see this very good piece here by the Ghost Goal blog) but what is clear from their position right now (2nd from bottom having lost 17) is that it was Coyle’s ability to ‘man manage’ and get the best out of what he had last season that allowed him to ‘thrive’. And Stuart Holden. The football certainly wasn’t ‘attractive’ as his side had some of the least possession and pass completion ratios in the league. But Bolton fans remained optimistic that the gaffer could continue his tactical evolution this term. Coyle has since dispatched with the highly functional Elmander; seemingly adjudged Kevin Davies’ effectiveness to be on the wane (N’Gog clearly isn’t ready to replace Davies just yet); and Bolton’s overall application has been entirely devoid of shape and direction. Additions such as Eagles, Prately and Reo-Coker have all shone in patches but have failed to embed, and were never going to produce instantaneous reward (unsurprising when you consider their previous output). Aside from the attacking quandary it is when you fail to replace a key position such as the goalkeeper (Jääskeläinen is now plainly a liability) that you can’t blame your misfortune on bad luck/ lack of finances alone. A largely unavoidable circumstance for Coyle then (who now has a worse league ‘win ratio’ than Megson) and Bolton join fellow North West teams Wigan and Blackburn in battling for survival alongside likely candidates Wolves and QPR. He must act fast if his side are to turn this turgid mess around and stay in the Barclays Premier League.
Evans versus Holt: an intriguing battle awaits
Grant Holt is having a fabulous time for the Canaries this season, and this despite falling briefly out of favour with manager Paul Lambert. Back in the side, and indeed captaining a Norwich side that is playing some silky football and showing some defensive grit to boot (like a more sophisticated Blackpool from last season then), Holt is in the form of his life. Standing at 6’1” his obvious threat is in the air, but he has also excelled in hold-up play with great upper body strength – and he can finish too, as goals against Chelsea and Everton maintain. Long gone are his more static and one dimensional days of Rochdale and Nottingham Forrest, the striker can be found linking the play and running the channels, allowing the likes of Hoolahan and Jackson to exploit the space in behind. On Saturday he scored two goals in a very impressive 2-3 away win at Swansea, and generally performed the lone striker role with aplomb. Next up is United at Carrow Road, and he will come up against a United defence that has struggled to find cohesion (having used 8 different central defensive partnerships is testament to this). However, Holt will come up against the one constant in this position for United, Ulster-man Jonny Evans, who himself is enjoying a rich vein of form. Turning in a man of the match performance versus their old rivals Liverpool last weekend, Evans was practically bounding around the pitch, tackling, blocking heading and passing anything that came his way superbly. Whilst not as commanding in the air as captain Vidic (as his weak attempt to avert the danger versus Carroll at Anfield in the F.A. Cup highlighted), Evans is however a great reader of the game, and relies on a lucid anticipation and agility in order to win his aerial duels. It all points towards a fascinating battle ahead; one of the league’s form strikers comes up against one of the league’s form defenders – the duel being pivotal to the outcome of the game.
Villa fading as McLeish struggles to re-align club’s ambition
It was not so long ago that a visit to Villa Park was one of those away games to fear with the home side bristling with attacking intent and stout defence. Despite an excellent record there, it was always a fixture where you knew dropped points for United were a possibility. Since the departure of Martin O’Neil, this historic club has become a shadow of its former self. Firstly, the misguided appointment of Gerard Houllier led to deep splits in the dressing room thus eroding what was left of any semblance of team spirit nurtured under O’Neil. Coupled with a tightening of the purse strings by owner Randy Lerner, Villa hobbled their way to mid-table where really a top 6 finish should have been their ultimate aim. The summer led to departures for influential players such as Downing and Young and the dubious appointment of Alex McLeish. Secured from their bitter City rivals, this was unacceptable in the eyes of most supporters but the fact that “Big Eck” had taken them back to the Championship further alarmed the Villa fanbase, leading to pre-season demonstrations.
The final straw may well have come yesterday when the home side were impotent for all but the last few minutes against a Manchester City side expecting a much tougher challenge. It almost seemed as if McLeish set out his side to play for a goalless draw and when their defence was breached there was no ‘plan b’. The defeat leaves them teetering on the brink of a relegation battle and the prospect of a long hard fight for survival. Coming fresh on the heels of the meek surrender at the Emirates in the FA Cup the week before, the natives are getting restless. No team that can boast the talents of N’Zogbia, Keane, Bent, Agbonlahor and Petrov should be in such a predicament, leaving McLeish and his negative tactics in an almost untenable position.
Danny doesn’t need to defer
One of the best things about this season for Manchester United, in keeping with the club’s traditions, has been the emergence of bright young players all over the pitch: Phil Jones has settled in beautifully, Smalling’s improved even more since his breakout last season, Rafael’s been impressive of late, Clever Tom’s been a revelation when in the team, Pogba made a stunning cameo against Stoke, and this little Paul Scholes guy seems like an intriguing signing. But the most impressive of the young players for me has been Danny Welbeck. Strong, fast, positive and blessed with delightful touch, Danny’s quickly becoming one of my favourite United players*. That he wears Dwight Yorke’s old kit number and comes across as genuinely humble and nice only adds to my burgeoning love for the kid.
His performance against Liverpool exemplified all these qualities, with Danny running hard, closing down Agger right up to the final whistle, dropping into good positions, exhibiting some outrageous pieces of skill and control (especially in the first half) and constantly linking up well with Rooney.
One thing he definitely needs to improve on, though, is his confidence in front of goal. A lot of Danny’s goalscoring opportunities go to waste because he often chooses to pass timidly when he’s better placed to shoot. A few times in the first half against Liverpool, and against Arsenal recently, hesitations like this have crept into his game, and have prevented him from adding to his (admittedly decent) goal tally. I’ve noticed this especially when he’s partnered up with Rooney, and it seems to me that he’s eager to defer to the senior players when these situations arise. What he needs to realise is that he’s one of the senior players now! It’s a problem that will no doubt fade as he grows into his first-team place, but at the moment, it’s something to watch out for.
* In fact, if he starts rocking the full-on Kid n’Play hi-top haircut, he might very well become my favourite footballer of all time.
The Lonesome Death of Andy Carrot, and other thoughts
All the excitement, emotion, wildness and sporadic good football of the United-Liverpool match shouldn’t obscure the bigger picture: during ESPN’s coverage, Steve McManaman called him “Luis Carroll” at the start of the match, and Ian Darke called him “Andy Carrot” coming down to the end. McManaman calling him “Luis Carroll” cannot be improved on as a piece of commentary. This is the image it created in my mind: a drunken, racist writer of children’s fiction and nonsense poetry.
In other news, the 5’8” behemoth Rafael da Silva beat Mr. Carrot to not one, but two headers late in the game. Also, look at this picture.
Chelsea are looking and playing like a dishevelled raccoon whose house has just been repossessed.
Swansea-Norwich was by far the Premier League game of the weekend. Brilliant stuff. Our next league game away to the Canaries is going to be very, very tough.
Whatever you think of ‘Arry, he’s helped turn Spurs into a genuinely excellent side. This season they’ve been absolutely thrilling in attack, and far less kamikaze defensively than they’ve been in past seasons. Personally, I think it’d be a shame if he left Spurs for the England job.
Finally, Jay Spearing is/was the Dancing Baby. Those of you who were on the Internet in the mid-1990s would know what I’m talking about. Ooga Chaka.
That boy Ronaldo…
He’s one scary mo-fo. His sixth hat-trick of the season last weekend for Real Madrid saw him equal and then surpass the number of goals he scored for United – 118 in 292 games. Unbelievably, the Portuguese machine now has 120 in 122 games for Real. It sounds even better when you consider 93 of them have come in the league… in erm, just 85 games. Maybe La Liga is too easy for him but he’s still producing moments of magic that are too good for any league.
His transfer was a bargain. £80m just isn’t enough for someone who gets near enough a-goal-a-game for three consecutive seasons; and, at 27, he’s probably still not at his peak. What a footballer!
African Cup of Nations: Zambian uplift, superb spot-kicks, and maybe good news for United
What a thrilling, emotionally perfect ending to the African Cup of Nations that was. While the 90 minutes and extra time on Sunday were by no means classic, and ended 0-0, the game always had an element of intrigue and action at both ends. Zambia looked the more fluent side but Côte d’Ivoire threatened on the break at times, especially during the second half of normal time. Fatigue more than nerves kept things back.
After 120 minutes came a penalty shootout of immense quality, which ended 8-7 to the underdogs. With most of the spot-kicks flying unstoppably into the top corner, it showed again that far from being a “lottery,” a shootout is just as much a test of skill, nerve and cojones as the game that precedes it. If England are to have any hope at the Euros, they would do well to watch and try to learn from this shootout.
Bringing things a bit closer to home, I found it interesting that of the four most high-profile players in the final, all Premier League players, three of them missed penalties for Côte d’Ivoire – Drogba skied one in normal time, Kolo Touré and Gervinho missed in the shootout. I briefly wondered if “bottling it” was a thing that footballers learn only when they come to Europe. The fourth of the Ivorian superstars, Yaya Touré looked shattered, had a poor game and was subbed off around 70 minutes. While a lot of pundits are expecting the younger Touré brother to return to Manchester City and push them over the line, things may be a bit more complicated than that, especially given the typically energetic performances he put in for most of the tournament.
But back to the real highlight. You could not write a better story than Zambia winning this tournament in Gabon, the scene of their nation’s darkest footballing moment 19 years ago. The parallels with United’s triumph 10 years after Munich should be acknowledged, but to compare the two remarkable triumphs would be missing the point. After the immaturity and sheer unpleasantness we witnessed during and after Saturday’s United-Liverpool game, this was a reminder that sometimes, football can be truly uplifting.