Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking at the scrums

The EPL is over with the crown going to the blue part of Manchester. This was a crazy, unprecedented season filled with shockers, the likes of which have never been witnessed before. Through this roller-coaster rider, I've gotten a bit of things right but also was off-base on quite a few others as well. Here are some observations that spring to mind.

The Ferguson factor. There is no doubt in my mind that SAF, or more his lack of participation, played a major part in the proceedings. With more or less the same Man Utd team, he won the league in the previous season by double digits. Sure, the team he left was not on the up-rise but that does not explain how the team can go worse off by 25 points within a year! That's over 8 matches. Football, particularly Man Utd, learned the hard way that the manager makes a difference, and even more so when the greatest of them all retires.

Among the things I got right was predicting that the title would go either to Chelsea or Man City. I explained that Man Utd had little chance under the re-building of Moyes, that Arsenal were still the same, and Liverpool could not possibly be of championship caliber. Got to admit that it turned out to be a close call. Sure, Man City are deserved champions but no matter what angle you look at it, it's Liverpool that threw the title away. With 3 matches to play and a 5-point lead, the Kops will regret for long their lack of pragmatism, particularly in the game they lost to Chelsea at Anfield. A point would have sufficed to stay in command, yet they fell into the defensive trap set by a maestro like Mourinho. That proved the impetus for their downfall. Although Gerrard and Rodgers have been at pains since yesterday to guarantee imminent success with this young Liverpool team, I am not that convinced. It's too early to say, but I see City and Chelsea being even stronger next season, and with Man Utd possibly re-energized and Arsenal re-inforced, the Kops will find it harder to creep under the radar as this season. We'll get to that in due time.

At the other end of the scale, I got it wrong with Fulham tipping them to be of top-10 potential at the start of the season. I think their managerial go-round and lack of stability therefof undermined a team that looked honest on paper. Felix Magath might have been an eye-opening and good long-term appointment but it came too late. If they get their focus straight, they could make a quick return to the EPL next year. On the other hand, tipping Crystal Palace to stay up after the appointment of Pulis proved right. Liverpool's Rodgers gets my vote for manager of the year but Pulis comes in a close second.

Some of the names that sparkled; first, Luis Suarez, evidently. The best striker in the EPL and one of the top 3 in the world, in my opinion. Sure, his defects are well-documented but he's got the agility and movement seen in Messi and a fantastic eye for goal. He carried Liverpool all season and if he leaves, gone are the Merseyside's chances of major silverware. Second, Yaya Toure, who I rate the most dominant in the EPL on his best day. He's got everything; power, vision and technique. The sight of his box-to-box runs leaving the opposition trailing in his wake is a joy to watch. He gives City the presence and platform they need in the middle of the field to unleash their fantastic offensive potential. Third, Ross Barkley, the revelation of the year. His goal against Man City at Goodison Park epitomises the gem of a talent that will serve England in the future. He can run, he can shoot, he's brave, he's going to the World Cup. If he does not stray, he's going to be a superstar.

And finally, the flops. Mourinho. Another trophy-less season for someone who makes it a point to win silverware by any cost. Sure, Chelsea is not the force of old but the way they petered out in the last few weeks of the campaign when there was all to play for, suggests that the Special One cannot always bring instant success. The pattern that seems to be emerging from his managerial record is that he is a master at getting a result against teams that need to be enterprising (think the Anfield game) but is less effective when it's his team that needs to dictate the play (think the UCL return game against Atletico Madrid). Dubbed the Semi-final One in lieu of Special One, for his growing record of failing to go past the semi-final stage of the UCL, he knows that any lack of silverware next year will hardly be tolerated by Ambramovich. It will be fascinating to see how Chelsea reacts next year but I would expect a fast start on their part. David Moyes, ok that has been well documented. Good coach but not good enough for Man Utd. He made them worse than what they actually are. Whether it's his or the player's fault is a moot point, they simply stopped believing in him and then stopped playing for him. Finally, Cardiff City, Norwich City and Fulham, the 3 relegated teams. I briefly mentioned Fulham above, but it is evident that the downfall for all these teams can be attributed to lack of leadership at the top. Cardiff were enjoying a good spell with Mickey Thomas and once owner Vincent Tan opted to change things and bring in Solkjaer in the second half of the season, things went inexorably downhill. Same story and failed policy for Norwich and Fulham. While it is very possible that the owners have good grounds for the changes they feel need to be imposed, even without the need of stating the reasons in public, the record seems to show that managerial changes done while the teams are doing reasonably well can indeed lead to catastrophic consequences.

Man City deservedly take it all at the end. They had the best squad, played the best football and have been the best representatives of English football.

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