Monday, April 26, 2010

A Non-Vintage Year

I’m getting a bit fed up with people stating that this Premier League season hasn’t been very good. At first it was just Alan Green, so I didn’t pay any attention because (a) he’s a miserable git and (b) I don’t pay any attention to him anyway. But quite a few commentators and columnists have said it (although not a lot of ordinary fans have – not that I’ve heard).

Admittedly – and yes, this is QUITE a big caveat – I’ve seen very, very few Premier League matches live. Possibly none at all – I don’t have Sky or ESPN and I don’t think I’ve been motivated to make a trip to the pub to watch any games. I’ve been following it in the form of radio and highlights. So my view is up against that of people who have watched loads more of it than I have. But the fact that I’ve enjoyed this season more than any for a while – including last season, which a friend of mine persistently said had been amazing, but which I thought was just pretty good – may be because the actual quality of football on display has been less of a factor for me.

This sounds stupid. But there is clearly more to enjoying football than the quality of the matches: an element of surprise also makes a big contribution, and the two are sometimes mutually exclusive. Surprise results generally require one of the two teams to play either surprisingly well or surprisingly badly, and you can argue that we’ve seen more of the latter than the former in this season’s numerous enjoyable upsets and high-scoring matches. There’s certainly been a lack of consistency – the same Wigan team which beat Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal this season also got spanked 9-1 at Tottenham (and matches like the latter are probably more fun to watch as 15 minutes of highlights than if you witness the entire defensive farrago).

It’s also the case that the title is going to be won by one of the two teams who’ve won it each of the past five seasons, both of whom have won it with better squads. Even the excitement of the ‘race for fourth place’ is fundamentally devalued by the fact that nobody in their right mind should be getting excited about a race for fourth place, and there is something fundamentally wrong with any competition where such excitement is liable to occur. Also, the four teams who’ve been gunning for that have been pretty fallible themselves: Tottenham have been excellent, yet lost to Wolves. Twice.

But to my mind, this creeping inconsistency is making the Premier League more interesting. Consistency was throttling the life out of the division, with its settled top four who often lost insanely small numbers of games per season. This year we’ve had a genuine three-horse race until a couple of weeks ago when Arsenal bottled it, and the title will probably be decided on the final day. It’s still far from clear who the top four will be. A lot of foolish predictions have been made, which adds to the fun.

But perhaps what I’ve enjoyed most about this season isn’t the season itself, but the possibility it’s presented of change in the established order. United might yet win the title and become the first to do it four times in a row, but they’re markedly inferior to the line-ups that won the other three and they’re mired in a hilariously abysmal ownership situation. Chelsea need to be totally refreshed over the next few seasons and seem to be banking on their young players coming good. As I type that, I’ve just watched Daniel Sturridge score an excellent goal against Stoke on MOTD2 but I think the Premier League is gearing up for a sea change and I am happy to let that be my own foolish prediction.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I was going to write something about Tim Lovejoy, but then I realised that’s what he wants me to do. He’s like international terrorism in that respect. So I’ve decided to write something about how bad we all are at predicting football.

A couple of weeks ago, all the talk was of how wonderful Barcelona were: how they’d given Arsenal a taste of their own pass-and-move medicine and were the best team in the whole bloody world. And yes, they did play terrifically well. But I quickly lost patience with all the commentators and pundits droning on and on about how great they were, partly because it was adding nothing to the experience of watching them, but also because we’ve been here before.

When Real Madrid put Manchester United out of Europe in 2003, they were the best team in the world, unbeatable, amazing. Yet they went out to Juventus in the next round and immediately began a three-season slump as the galacticos project collapsed under its own weight. Even with the heavier exposure of the Champions League, we’re still prone to watching one or two great performances by a team and swooning OMG THEY ARE SOOO DREAMY!!! Especially if the team they’ve just beaten is English, because that paves the way for a load of navel-gazing about whether English teams are as good as we think they are.

If I was less of a coward, I might have pointed this out before Barca went down 3-1 at Internazionale on Tuesday night, but I’m not so I waited until now. But anyone who’s ever played any kind of football regularly knows that form is an elusive thing. I’m rubbish at football and even I have my good and bad days, and if I knew how to be as good as I am on a good day all the time, well I’d be slightly less rubbish. This happens to proper footballers too. All too often we seem incapable of remembering this, and forget that we may have just seen a team that their very best.

Quite clearly Barca have it in them to be awesome all over again and win this tie with Inter – they might be the first Barcelona team ever to take inspiration from the exploits of Fulham. But if they do, let’s try to keep calm and not act like we’ve never seen a team play good football before. (That said, all English teams should take note of how Barca’s possession game works – it really is extraordinary.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Blue Monday

Great – I needed another thing to add to my list of ways in which the Champions League has ruined football, because I currently only have 708. Due to the way that Champions League fixtures now pile up towards the end of the season (and UEFA’s decision to spread the ‘round of 16’ over four weeks), chances are that the week following Easter is always going to have some Champions League action in it. Which means that the grand old tradition of a full programme of fixtures on both Easter Saturday and Easter Monday has gone out of the window. The Football League is running a full programme but the Premier League isn’t bothering.

Perhaps it would have gone that way anyway, as it would mean no fixtures on Sunday and Sky would hate that, and also the big teams cry these days if they are given fixtures 48 hours apart, the poor lambs. There’ve been no New Year’s Day matches for the last two years because it was a bit close to the FA Cup third round, which never used to bother anybody. I know football is more physically demanding at the top level than it used to be, but there is a real benefit to supporters if matches can be played on bank holidays rather than midweek evenings and I think this is a tradition worth keeping. But as I say, the Champions League is doing its best to get in the way.

Couldn’t they just arrange the fixtures anyway and then postpone those involving clubs who are still in the Champions League, as they do with the League Cup final?But then, the FA probably arranged these fixtures on the assumption that all four English clubs would still be in the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, as they were last season and the season before. Fortunately the tournament is finally getting more competitive again, with six nations represented and no more than two from any one country. The British media got terribly excited by the English dominance of the competition’s latter stages, but it was actually rather dull, throwing up overly-familiar fixtures. I used to happily support the English teams in Europe, but at that point I realised their success was running counter to the interests of my own team: it was making them ever richer and more glamorous, thereby consolidating their stranglehold on the top four of the Premier League.

So I started wishing they would fail, which they have, and this pleases me. The Champions League is better for it, and I’m sure Michel Platini will take the credit, although even he probably didn’t expect his revisions to the competition’s format to have quite such an immediate effect. But I would be happier if he’d make it less intrusive. God, I sound like a Daily Express reader – HEY EUROPE! HANDS OFF OUR TRADITIONAL EASTER!