It’s so bloody foggy out!
All the time.
It’s dark and ominous and the rain penetrates to the core.
And that’s just the weather! You’re inside away from the cold and you want to turn to a bit of football to salvage the dreariness. But it’s just as ruddy bleak! I’m not referring to the actual kicking of the ball to players on the mucky grounds, but all the analysis and critiques and woeful attempts at banter. It’s pitiful. Everyone is not happy all of the time.
And there’s no need! What forms is a pure weariness that results directly from this very deluge of negativity around this time of the season. It is truly tiresome. But this is what happens when the business end of the campaign begins in earnest. Fans, players and managers are on edge. We’re all snappy and snarky. And we all are cracking up just a bit. This is where we are at.
Which is what leads me to wade through the murky and rank malaise and inform those in need of a spark, or just a laugh, that it’s not all that bad. There’s some good news out there for everyone. I think. Right?
Well, let’s find out!
If you’re a Manchester United fan, the constant bludgeoning from the cartoon anvil of despair, regret and falling short seems to have subsided for now. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho have come and gone and their distinct inability to fully understand how to drive the red, white and black purring Ferrari has gone with them. The club is smiling. The fans are smiling. The players are finally smiling. United have dropped just two points in the league since Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over. Add to that the fact that they’ve bounced Arsenal and Chelsea both from the FA Cup at their own respective homes en route to a quarterfinal berth, and you can see why the red half of Manchester is on the up. United had a setback against Paris Saint-Germain which saw the French side turn up to Old Trafford disciplined and with a more ravenous hunger than the home side. United showed too much respect to the Parisians and were visibly scared of phenom Kylian Mbappé. The tie is far from over, but what will define this season, and ultimately Solskjær’s future, is how United respond to this blip. Can the club kick on and get points against the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City in massive upcoming Premier League fixtures (the City match will be postponed due to FA Cup duties until closer towards the end of the season)? Can this side continue thriving despite the injuries to two of the most in form players on the Isles in Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard? Can the back line shore up enough to continue to grind out wins by keeping crucial clean sheets? By mid March we will know what this team is actually made of. Bowing out of the Champions League would not be a death blow. Anything less than four points from the Liverpool at home (February 24th) and Arsenal away (March 10th) fixtures quite possibly might be. A top 4 finish in the league and the FA Cup are the goals. That would be a wildly remarkable season for United. The fact that those are even possibilities and prospects is in itself genuinely indicative of the masterpiece Solskjær is in the process of composing. #BELIEVE
As for Chelsea, dearie me. How can I put some positive spin on this absolute avalanche of pig shite they’ve found themsleves in? Well, listen, it’s not all bad. I know it seems like the world is caving in right now, but it isn’t. That’s just the nature of how this sport works. It’s all WE’RE GONNA WIN THE LEAGUE or YOU DESERVE TO BE CRUCIFIED TO A GOAL POST and nothing in between. Maurizio Sarri is an adept manager. He is a process manager. A system guy. What that means is that Sarri comes in with his own plans and that is the only way his teams play. Which takes time to implement and develop. It worked for him quite spectacularly at Napoli. Unfortunately, he’s in London now. Without the benefit of playing Sassuolo or Chievo twice a season. The main issue is that he decided to take a job at a club with a thuggish Russian owner whose entire MO is ‘no manager gets any time to adapt because we need to win the millisecond he sets foot on the pitch’. And that’s not how this works. And is why Chelsea plow through managers year after year after year. And not just managers but trophy winning managers! Carlo Ancelotti, José Mourinho and Antonio Conte just three in recent memory to fall to the wayside after bringing success to the club. Sarri didn’t overnight become a futile leader. He needs time. He needs a full preseason with his players. He needs to bring in his own transfers. He needs to cull the players who don’t fit his system. He needs room to be able to adjust to the most difficult league in sports. But he doesn’t have those luxuries at a club like Chelsea, or anywhere at the top for that matter. But why appoint him then? He didn’t suddenly become this type of coach. He has played Sarri-ball for some time. And look, it’s not that novel of an approach. He plays a 4-3-3 with a holding midfielder. His major stumbling block and the reason why the fans have turned on him is that Sarri is stubborn. And it is this stubbornness which will see to his sacking. There’s no flexibility to Sarri-ball. It is a stringent system which sees zero rotation and clubs have duly figured Chelsea out. At 60 minutes of any match, Ross Barkley comes on Mateo Kovačić. Willian will come on for Pedro at some point before or after. And Jorginho will never ever lose his position at the base of the midfield pulling the strings. It works until it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t Sarri refuses to budge. Take Chelsea’s recent loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup as an example: the Blues were chasing the game at home down 2-0 and Sarri made the Kovačić/Barkley and Pedro/Willian moves. And then he befuddles every person who has ever watched a football match by then bringing on Davide Zappacosta on for captain César Azpilicueta. A full back for a full back? Davide Zappacosta?? Zappacosta never plays. And for good reason. In fact, Zappacosta probably forgot he was even eligible to play for Chelsea. The substitution was baffling because it wasn’t the defence that needed changing. It was the midfielders going forward. The move should have been to bring his beloved Jorginho off and bring high flying teen sensation Callum Hudson-Odoi on. That would allow N’Golo Kanté to move into his favored position in the centre of midfield and Hudson-Odoi to burst forward on the wing. Exactly what Chelsea needed to get back into the game. As a United fan, when I saw Zappacosta stripped off, I knew we had won the match. And that’s the issue for Chelsea fans. The problems on the day seemed so obvious and yet Sarri would not relinquish his process and would not deviate from the plan. There is no Plan B and that is rather unacceptable at this level.
Now, having said all that, I don’t believe that it’s all doom and gloom for Chelsea. I think they should stick with Sarri (they won’t long term but they should until the end of the season). Give him a vote of confidence and allow him to tinker with the squad to try and find their early season form. Their goal is to finish top 4 and then have a full summer window (the transfer ban will be on appeal and will not affect their ability to conduct business) to buy and sell (Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund already will be on his way once this season ends, and will add a needed boost on the flanks and behind the striker). The club has at its disposal a world beater in striker Gonzalo Higuaín, one of the best players on the planet in Eden Hazard, the best central midfielder in the world in Kanté and one of the brightest young goalkeepers in Kepa Arrizabalaga. Andreas Christensen needs to come back into the fold. He’s such a quality defender and he simply can’t be worse than what we’re seeing from David Luiz right now. And Kanté needs to be played in position in the middle and not isolated on the right like a commoner. It’s there for the taking. This is an elite side with legitimate superstars. Chelsea have a cup final this weekend against City and then play Tottenham in the league. I know it sounds crazy right now (and is certainly a tall order) but if they can win those then their season goes right back to looking rosy again. If they don’t, Sarri will be gone and then we really will see if it was indeed him or the players who let this club down.
Tottenham fans, Harry Kane is back in training! That man is a machine and returns early to a side that kicked on spectacularly without him. They picked up 12 points out of 12 in the league and thrashed Dortmund 3-0 in the first leg of their Champions League tie. They did get knocked out of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup, the latter a major disappointment in their long and arduous quest for silverware of any sort, but were energized and carried by Heung-min Son in Kane’s absence. This team won’t win the league but they’re at least making a good showing of themselves as well as keeping Liverpool and City honest. They play Chelsea away (February 27th) and Arsenal at home (March 2nd), which will go a long way in demonstrating whether their title credentials are legitimate or not. Son is a Player of the Year candidate and thanks to Korea’s early exit from the Asian Cup, was able to come back to London and rescue an injury ravaged squad also lacking Dele Alli, and for a spell key components Moussa Sissoko, Eric Dier and Lucas Moura. This team is on the rise and have a chance to prove they belong with the best by a sustained deep run in the Champions League and a full throttled attempt at the Premier League throne.
Arsenal fans have been having a good moan of late. And rightly so. The club has been inconsistent and dropped recent points against West Ham and Brighton. And they never really know which players they can rely on. But listen, Arsenal have the best chance of a top 4 finish than any of the other contenders. They have the easiest run-in compared to Tottenham, Chelsea and United. Besides matches against Tottenham away (March 2nd) and United at home (March 10th), Arsenal play teams they will be expected to beat. If they can get results in those two matches then I don’t see how the Gunners won’t find themselves in the Champions League next season. What’s more, they don’t have the fixture pile up the other sides have as Arsenal aren’t in the Champions League, FA Cup or Carabao Cup. They are still in the Europa League after ousting BATE Borisov of Belarus. If I was Unai Emery and seeing the schedule, I would focus on the Premier League and chase the fourth spot over wasting resources in tetchy European ties on Thursday evenings. The odds are better domestically even though the Arsenal brass will see themselves as favorites in the Europa League (I fancy Inter, Napoli, Sevilla and Chelsea to fare better in the tournament than Arsenal). And to add to this swarm of good news is the fact that Henrikh Mkhitaryan is back from injury and new signing Denis Suárez is available and ready to contribute to the attack (he’s an incredible option off the bench if Emery continues to not start him). And that man Mesut Özil has woken up and ready to finally pay the club back for their monstrous investment in the 30 year old German. Chins up, Gooners, it’s looking alright.
What’s going on with Wolves?? This lot is one of the most impressive elements of this whole Premier League season. Nuno Espírito Santo is my leader in the Manager of the Year polls as he has guided his squad to the much sought after 7th position (a wonderfully organized Watford just took over 7th today with an extra game played). 7th in the league is essentially top of the tier 2 Premier League. It’s a spot in the table that all of the sides outside of the Big 6 covet. In reality, Everton should be fixed here. They are a big club with the players and experience to be the best of the rest. But they’ve been disappointing again this term. After them, Newcastle United and West Ham should be thereabouts with legitimate shouts at 7th every season. And then come the dreamers who see the best case scenario of a campaign as finishing in that top of the second level: Leicester City, who believe they belong anywhere in the standings after their recent title, Bournemouth, Watford, Crystal Palace and now Wolves. Santo and Wolves are cruising. They are playing extremely solid football and have taken major scalps along the way (drew with City, United and Arsenal; beat Chelsea and Tottenham and knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup). They have one of the best strike partnerships in the league in Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota and in Rúben Neves a reliable midfield force able to dictate matches. Wolves have a trying run-in so will struggle to keep ahold of the ballyhooed 7th place, but they’ve been playing the consistent and positive football that generally results in that type of success. Whilst also currently in the throes of a dominating FA Cup run (they next face Manchester United at home for a place in a Wembley semifinal), this could be a truly unforgettable season for the Wanderers.
See! There’s boat loads of happiness to go round. And teams have a ton to look forward to. The title race is alive. The top 4 scrap is alive. The battle for 7th is alive. Two out of the three relegation claims seem to have been sorted already (commiserations to Huddersfield Town and Fulham). There’s plenty there for sides to cling to and finish their seasons with a relative pomp.
And soon we can bring back the white balls to properly signal in the Spring. #YUM