Offside, 30 September
'Boring, boring Chelsea' aren't that boring - and neither is the Premiership.
‘The Premiership has been transformed from a thrilling sporting spectacle into a snoozefest overnight. Discuss.’
That seems to have been the topic of every football debate in the past two weeks. The argument is that since Chelsea cruised to the championship last season, conceding only three goals (okay, it was 15), every team in the league is now pulling 10 men behind the ball as soon as the opposition gets possession. This formation is generally summed up as 4-5-1 – which biblical scholars have now realised is the real Number of the Beast.
The reason Chelsea can get away with this, apparently, is that they can afford to spend gazillions, provided by Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich, on the fastest whippets money can buy: Duff, Wright-Phillips, Robben, etc. So when Chelsea get the ball, the team can leg it forward at top speed and score while the creaking free transfers playing for the other side are left behind.
In short: Chelsea are going to buy the Premiership title, just like they did last season, and we are powerless to prevent it. The league has been transformed into a tedious procession – so tedious, in fact, that fans, forced to pay huge sums of money to follow a contest that is over before it’s even begun, are turning away from the once-beautiful game in droves.
It is true that Chelsea have got a few quid to spend, and that they know how to stop the opposition scoring. It’s also true that they won the league last season while breaking all sorts of records along the way. And it’s correct that only four teams in the league have much chance of becoming champions this season.
But there is also a lack of historical perspective in the current debate. Last year everyone was worried about Arsenal running away with it. After the Gooners won the title in May 2004, remaining unbeaten for an entire season, BBC News ran a straight-faced article asking whether Arsenal were the best team ever. Not just in England. Not even just in football. Were they the best team in any sport ever? Up there with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, or the Australian cricket team of recent years, that sort of thing.
We were told that Arsenal had transformed the tactical landscape, that their team of fast and skilful players was the nearest thing to the promised land of Total Football. Wenger was a genius and, with Man United finally fading, his Arsenal could begin an extended reign as England’s premier team. After seven games of last season, Arsenal had won six and drawn one, and scored 22 goals and conceded seven.
A year later, Wenger is a miserable curmudgeon, who sells his best players and thinks you should get extra points if you score lots of goals. Now, Chelsea’s Mourinho is the tactical genius: after seven games, Chelsea have won seven, scoring 14 goals and conceding only one.
A more realistic assessment is that Chelsea have currently got a squad of very good players who know their jobs and are well-organised. And their manager is still the most entertaining boss in the Premiership (at least until Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United get promoted). But Chelsea have problems, too. They struggled to get anyone to join them in the summer, and paid way over the odds for those who did. And they still haven’t managed to find a free-scoring striker in the mould of Van Nistelrooy, Henry or Owen.
Meanwhile, United, Liverpool, Arsenal – even Newcastle – have got plenty of money, but they haven’t used it well. When United were dominating domestic football, they blew the best part of £30million on Juan Sebastian Veron, and repeated the trick with Rio Ferdinand. Liverpool squandered £10million on El-Hadji Diouf and even more on Emile Heskey – and still can’t persuade a decent central defender to join them, even though they are European champions.
We will have to wait to see whether Chelsea can reach the levels of dominance once achieved by United in the Nineties and by Liverpool in the Seventies and Eighties. But to assume on the basis of one good season that they will be the best team for years to come is premature. At the end of the day, as they say, it’s still 11 versus 11.
The jaw-dropping thing is the ignorance shown by football pundits, who seem to think that a lack of goals in the first few games of the season means it is boring. In fact, for every dour nil-nil draw, there are those tense affairs where teams create lots of chances but for one reason or another fail to take them. At least if it’s nil-nil after 89 minutes of a match, you know that all results are still possible. And if scoring were the measure of excitement, cricket would be the most entertaining sport on the planet, closely followed by darts. They have to score 501, you know.
What really makes football boring is when you have to watch a team that might have good individual players but whose organisation is all wrong, passes go astray constantly and it seems as if the players only met each other that morning; where highly paid players conduct themselves in a manner that suggests they have no team spirit and where the manager is about exciting as a wet Sunday in Skegness.
You know, like England.
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