Offside, 3 November
What was all that about the Premiership being predictable?
What was all that about the Premiership being predictable? Hands up how many of you predicted that, with a quarter of the season gone, Wigan would be second, Everton would be in the drop zone, Arsenal would be faltering and outfootballed by a resurgent Spurs for much of the north London derby, Liverpool fans would be turning against Rafa ‘tactical genius’ Benitez, and, most gobsmacking of all, that the Manchester United empire would be imploding so spectacularly?
Of course, no trophies are handed out in November – but the Premiership table, as it stands, is making a mockery of the bookies’ odds. The only thing that is predictable this season is Chelsea’s relentless consistency in the league. Even taking Chelsea’s recent micro-wobble into consideration, it is difficult to see the Premiership title going anywhere other than Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are dominating English football not because they are the greatest team ever – a ridiculous accolade which some overexcited Arse-fixated idiots bestowed on the Gooners two seasons ago – but because their rivals are performing so abysmally. Chelsea are a class act but they are not infallible, as Charlton and Real Betis have shown in the past week. It is difficult to assess how good Chelsea really are because no other title challengers are putting them under any real pressure. Last season, football writers welcomed the prospect of the United-Arsenal duopoly being replaced by a three-horse title race. Few predicted that two of those horses would be fit only for the knacker’s yard a year later.
United’s decline has been evident for some time, but now, as the United fanzine Red Issue put it, it feels like the last days of the Roman Empire. Even though United’s league form has been faltering, few would have predicted a 4-1 spanking by an unexceptional Middlesborough team. More predictable was Roy Keane’s withering tirade against his own teammates after their inept performance at the Riverside Stadium. Fergie’s Rottweiler slipped his leash and savaged a number of United players. ‘Just because you are paid £120,000 a week and play well for 20 minutes against Spurs, you think you are a superstar’, Keane is reported to have said. It is only a pity that Keane’s interview was given to MUTV – Pravda as United fans call it – because the programme was immediately pulled on Fergie’s orders.
So where did it all go wrong for United? Where does one start? Fergie has stayed on too long; United have spent too much on a few big name players and too little on strengthening the squad; the Glazer dollar is no match for the Abramovich rouble; the core of the treble-winning team has been broken up but not adequately replaced; Roy Keane is a fading force but without Roy Keane the team is leaderless; Rio Ferdinand forgot a drugs test and has now forgotten how to defend…I could go on. United no longer overwhelm opponents – in fact these days they struggle to score goals. Opposing teams no longer fear United. Most worryingly of all, as spiked editor Mick Hume has warned, United are ‘in danger of losing [their] most cherished title of MUFC – Most Unpopular Football Club’.
Arsenal’s travails are somewhat easier to explain. The Gooners’ decline can be traced back to last November’s Battle of the Buffet at Old Trafford, which demonstrated that they didn’t like being roughed up. Arsene Wenger has been moaning ever since that opposing teams are too defensive and don’t let them play football. And when teams sit deep and stick bodies behind the ball Arsenal simply have no Plan B. The loss of Patrick Vieira in the summer hasn’t helped either, leaving a gaping hole in midfield that has not been filled. If Thierry Henry follows Vieira out of Highbury next summer then Wenger will have serious problems. Henry’s groin injury has exposed Arsenal’s over-reliance on their talismanic French striker. Arsenal can still do the pretty football but without Thierry Henry they look pretty toothless.
The other club who might have been expected to be challenging for the title are European champions Liverpool. Yet the Merseyside club are currently lying thirteenth in the table and are already 18 points behind Chelsea. Liverpool’s problem is that, while they have looked assured in Europe, they have at times looked more like a pub team in domestic competitions, particularly away from home where they haven’t won a single league game.
None of this has come as any surprise to me. I have long maintained that Liverpool are an utterly mediocre team who won the European Cup through a mixture of competent defending, extraordinary good fortune, and the most astonishing act of charity on the part of AC Milan. If any Liverpool fans still think Rafael Benitez is a tactical genius, just have a look at your substitutes’ bench where you will see one Peter Crouch. Is spending £7million on Peter Crouch (Appearances – 13. Minutes on the pitch – 856. Goals – 0) the work of a genius? Clearly not. I rest my case.
So, Arsenal and United are losing their legs and Liverpool are inconsistency on legs. Even Chelsea have been shown to have feet of clay. (I’ve run out of ambulatory metaphors.) If this is predictable then give me more of it. Whatever next? Wigan for champions?
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