As I watched Manchester United take on Blackpool an epiphany took place based on one of my favourite bible verses that the race is not given to the swift or to the strong, but to those that endure to the end.
I saw definite parallels between that and the current football season. Tottenham and Arsenal have played faster football – arguably the slickest and fastest. Manchester City and Chelsea are definitely the strongest when you consider heavyweights like the Chelsea midfield and the Manchester City midfield and the bulk all over the place then you cannot deny that. And yet the winners of the Premier League remain those who have endured. 2-0 down against Aston Villa – they endured. 2-0 down against West Ham United – they endured.
Funnily enough the turning point that stopped me sympathising for Blackpool was when they went 2-0 up against United and failed to endure. Up until that point I’d bought into the Holloway bandwagon and loved his media profile and the ‘breathe of fresh air’ with which Blackpool approached the game. Yet I was stymied and frustrated at that patent inability to win games that were there to be won. I found their inability to endure galling and beyond being naïve. It came across as lacking that enduring power that makes clubs get draws from losing positions or better still eek out wins from losing positions.
Ryan Giggs is no longer the fastest and has never been the strongest but there can be no denying, he has proven himself to be one who endures. One who endures with class and an unflappable (relatively unflappable) spirit that does not know when they are beaten. Not only will he fight to gain superiority, but he’ll have the savvy to pace himself to maintain control once superiority is gained. That level of influence has been crucial in allowing United to grind out results over the season and pace themselves to be able to pick up points where others have been dropping them. Their unbeaten run at the start of the season is typified by that dogged persistence to keep going even against all odds. They have not played the best football in the league. They are not the best Manchester United side of the last 10 years, let alone the last 25, but when it’s come down to it this season, they have done what is needed – they have endured.
As it happens, being a believer in justice, I hope that United don’t win the Champions League, only because they are playing the best side in football at the moment. Justice and righteousness suggests that Barcelona should win this match. Yet as with the culture that we live in righteousness and justice are not necessarily always appreciated and exercised.
Sticking to the theme of enduring – this is the reason why Wigan and Wolves have stayed up and Birmingham have gone down. Wigan especially have shown a timing and tenacity that the teams coming up that want to stay in the division can learn from. That is also why Stoke City is now an established Premier League club. That is why Bolton is an established Premier League club. It’s not about playing fancy football, it’s not about playing football that leaves people talking about how you’re a breathe of fresh air – it is about doing what it takes to endure. It is about making the most of your resources, to put in the effort to get those results. That is particularly typified in the mystery of how a team with a spine of England internationals featuring the Football Writer’s Player of the Year with exciting young players to boot can end the season at the bottom of the table. Simply because they know not how to endure.
Now who is responsible for that? Certainly the players are the first port of call, but actually the real source of responsibility is always the manager – and rightly so. Can’t sack the players, won’t sack the board, and it is the manager who selects, it is the manager who motivates, it is the manager who is to keep people focussed, it is the manager who should make the changes necessary. The excuse of a crippling injury list is not good enough – every club in the division have had a number of injuries to key players. The job of a good manager is whether he can motivate and develop players and a system to cope. In as much as I admire Alex McLeish and think he is a good manager, the collapse of Birmingham since the League Cup win has only highlighted the problem you have if you put all your eggs in one central defender’s basket. (If Birmingham had a pound for every pundit who says it’s the loss of Scott Dann that brought their downfall, they could buy another central defender who knows how to defend!)
Likewise the only reason why Manchester United have that enduring, dogged determination to succeed is down to their manager. I have no doubt that any other manager in charge of a squad of players like that would not have been able to get them over the line. (Am I the only one who thinks Lineker sounds weird when he says ‘congratulations’? No, I didn’t think so.) Sir Alex Ferguson is just an immense, ferocious, uncompromising, single-minded beast when it comes to success, which is why he’s been at Old Trafford longer than anyone else (OK Sir Bobby Charlton was there since the war, but you know what I mean).
Where Ferguson differs from Arsene Wenger is that Ferguson isn’t as much bothered by finesse as he is bothered by winning. If Wenger could be a bit more flexible … I guess he wouldn’t be Wenger. His failure to get a decent goalkeeper, his failure to inculcate a side with that killer instinct and winning mentality, his failure to instil steel in key areas has meant that whatever he says a side that one point could have legitimately won four trophies, was still in the hunt for three trophies, surely could have competed realistically in two trophies and should have won one ended up with none. Players? Yep, but that all started and was sourced in the manager. At the start of the season would someone have settled for that? For Liverpool – sure! For Tottenham – definitely! For Everton – but seriously. Any other club other than the current top three would comfortably accept a season like that. Arsenal should not be a club that accepts that. Fourth place? Seriously? That’s an acceptable season? For Arsenal Football Club? With no trophies? Acceptable? Really? No. And any other club with the expectations that Arsenal should have with the length of time the club has gone without trophies would thank Wenger for his services and give him his settlement and P45. Wenger, admittedly, has been given room to build an empire and a philosophy of football that has made him the most successful manager in their history … with the notable exception of European success, where even George Graham can have a chuckle and say he won more in Europe.
Manchester City have had a great season – they have made the progress they were looking to make. Mancini is developing a team the way he wants it. Again it’s not pretty on the eye all the time. But people who witter on about ‘for the amount of money they’ve spent’ expecting fantasy football are drinking the wrong Kool-Aid. The mentality Mancini is bringing in is right as proven by that golden standard – results. I didn’t have to love Arsenal’s play under Graham as long as he won things. He stopped doing that and there was room for complaints that lead to them being easy to sack him when financial irregularities came to light. Mancini has hit the targets expected. However much you spend it’s not money that makes a team it’s the right combination of players in the system fit for purpose. Mancini has been able to develop that in what has to be remembered is his first full season in Premier League football. So it is next season that will really see his mettle tested for nothing less than a top three finish and progress in the Champions League will do.
In the lovely football world that we live in the sacking of Ancelotti has made people sad. Yet – if you’ve brought the standard of a Double and you don’t get anywhere near repeating that and you fail to progress in the one trophy your owner desires, then up to those standards the result should be no surprise. The problem is however, real success will only happen through consistency – just ask Manchester United. Chelsea’s inability to invest in the manager may prove to be the undoing and if City stick with Mancini, Chelsea could find themselves playing perpetual catch-up.
Harry Redknapp is quite a character. Having a go at critics who complain at the side running out of steam since the end of their European journey is not so clever. Yet in the context of the demands made on them this season they are the only team that can say they’ve kind of reached their targets. They evidently don’t have the stamina to deal with the demands of Champions League football and sort out the bread and butter of Premier League football. In as much as people rave about the exciting European journey they’ve made, it won’t count for that much in the larger scheme of things. Also back to the management issue – how do you account for three relatively prolific strikers all of a sudden drying up? Could it be because the manager chops and changes at whim and prefers to play a system that doesn’t bring the best out of a quality striker as it suits RVDV? Errr … yeah. So Spurs just have to do what’s necessary – get rid of the strikers who don’t fit and get strikers who will. Although in my opinion this is the best season Gareth Bale will ever … EVER have. He’s a good winger, no doubt about it. I just think he’s been hyped to the stratosphere which has successfully clouded people’s judgement to the fact that he’s a good winger who can be tamed if a defender plays him right.
How about my beloved Liverpool? Well to start off, despite the way things have been at Anfield since Dalglish took over, there is an element of me that feels for Hodgson. I don’t believe you can judge a manager on six months work, I was for a long time in favour of giving him the season to prove himself. I was not upset that he never got it, but I do feel it was only right that he should get back into football and prove what a good manager he is by taking West Brom to their highest position in over a generation – and also beating Liverpool to boot.
Yet when Hodgson left Liverpool the league position did not leave me with much hope. When Benitez left I thought the squad he left was a poor squad … for Liverpool – it was still capable of finishing in the top 7. The bad start to the season didn’t help that impression. Dalglish proved it and proved it by slowly but surely getting the players to feel free to express the best in themselves. That is the reason for such optimism for next season. Yes we will need reinforcements if we want to be serious about making progress. I don’t expect us to win the league next season – City will scrap it out with United and the Chelsea manager will determine if they’ll be a part of it. I have been happy to see young players given a good run in the team. I was glad to see the side do so well essentially without what were apparently our two best players in Gerrard and Torres.
Some pundits have called this Premier League the most exciting in a long time. I have actually been disappointed in the actually quality of the teams that should do better – Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. Their inability at times to draw clear was annoying. It was not as thought they were being outplayed, they just appeared less up to it than usual. There is a steady medium of Premier League teams, probably starting with Everton and including the likes of Bolton, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Fulham, West Brom, Stoke City and Newcastle United. These are teams who flatter to deceive in having inconsistent periods over the season. Some are just happy to maintain Premier League status, others have pretensions to do better, but either don’t have the players (Everton) or don’t have the manager (Sunderland). For these teams to take points off some of the top has made the actual quality of play in the league disappointing for me. Having said that, it has been good to watch football this season, overall. I’ve enjoyed it and there is enough with what’s going on at the top especially to get me intrigued as to what will happen in the 2011-12 season.
You’ll notice that the big teams didn’t spend big last season (except Man City of course) and the transfer window was fairly muted. I don’t think that will be the case this summer. I can imagine that it will be very different with so many teams needing – NEEDING – to bring in reinforcements to make good on whatever they’ve done this season. United will get at least three players. Chelsea are in transition and definitely need to ship out four or five and then bring in a similar number if they want to be contenders for the League and for Europe. Manchester City are not the finished article and like Spurs this season have to learn how to deal with Champions League football as well as the Premier League and so will need to strengthen – as well as that the amount of deadwood at the club that needs to be cleared out suggests it will be a bust season there. Spurs won’t progress unless they sort out their striker situation at the very least. Liverpool want to go places. If Aston Villa want to progress they’ll have to buy and buy well.
As for those coming up. I fully expect QPR to survive and survive well next season as long as they strengthen the squad significantly and retain Neil Warnock as their manager. I’m not a Warnock fan, I acknowledge his ability to get the best out of a mediocre bunch and that’s what it takes to maintain Premier League status as Tony Pulis will tell you. I fully expect Norwich to go straight back down, I have no confidence whatsoever that the side are capable of dealing with the demands and enduring requirements of the Premier League. Despite my respect for Lambert’s achievements, there is too much of a muchness in the Premier League at the moment for them to get up to speed with their current playing staff and let’s face it Norwich City spending £40 million? Nope. £30 million? Nope. £20 million … if that – and that is not enough to survive. But hey, I’m up for being wrong on the issue (you know I won’t be). Swansea or Reading – either has to be favourites to go back down though when you consider Wolves, Wigan and Blackburn will struggle next season there’s no reason to be optimistic about their chances … though I won’t be.
Congratulations to Manchester United for enduring to the end. I don’t begrudge their status as the most successful team in English football. They deserve it. It’s what I love about league football, unlike the Cup where you can complain about incidents in a one-off game, a league programme is a good test of the elements that make a good team – the table truly does not lie. Hey I hope they don’t win next season, but if the others don’t sort themselves out the side with the title could make it a nice round 20 – which I have to say is a lot better than 19.