The wild, wacky world of English football
From Leicester’s fairytale revival to the Special One’s jibes at just about everyone, and Pep Guardiola’s unexpected fall from the Champions League — English football has served up some scintillating action both on and off the pitch in the past seven days. Ahead of the weekend’s action, TODAY football analyst Adrian Clarke (email@example.com) gives his take on some of the men making the news.
SHAKESPEARE’S CHAPTER IS OFF TO A FLYER
The course of true love never did run smooth, and don’t the Leicester City fans know it.
Gloom. Survival. Glory. Heartbreak. Revival. That is the past two years crammed into just five words.
Foxes supporters must be complete emotional wrecks.
They are clearly educated too. An enormous pre-match banner unfurled at the King Power before their stunning 2-0 triumph over Sevilla in midweek, read: “Let Slip The Dogs of War.”
It was an apt motivational message for their fighters on the pitch, but it was not lost on many that the line was taken from Julius Caesar, the story of a Roman leader who was stabbed in the back. Clever.
Claudio Ranieri’s replacement for the remainder of the season, Craig Shakespeare, must be feeling pretty smart at the moment.
Taking control of a dressing room that had lost trust in their master looked problematic, but three spectacular home victories in a row have saved a season that was spiralling towards the gutter.
Leicester’s turnaround, from woeful to wonderful in the time it took Ranieri to pack his bags, outlines just how fragile a team’s relationship with a manager can be.
When everyone is on the same page, as they were last season, mountains can be climbed. But the moment players lose confidence in tactics and decision-making, if they think the boss has “lost it”, you can easily hurtle backwards.
Shakespeare has taken a back-to-basics approach.
I am told the former No 2 has focused his messages almost entirely on what he wants his players to do, rather than spending hours poring over the strengths of the opposition.
Sometimes footballers prefer that. Information overload can be counter-productive.
He is not messing about with fancy formations or worried about keeping new signings happy either.
Without fuss he has simply rewound the clock 12 months, played 4-4-2 with 10 of last season’s mainstays, and demanded the same levels of aggression, courage and appetite that etched their names in history.
The players have lapped up those messages, and remembered how to play. They are not out of the woods yet, but no one at the King Power is worried about relegation anymore. They are even starting to believe in a Champions League fairytale.
JOSE’S HEATING UP
Any other manager would still be basking in the glory of his first piece of silverware, but Jose Mourinho is already back in that dark place where it is him against the rest of the world.
Over the past week, we have seen the Portuguese bite back hard at “Judas” jibes from Chelsea fans, resort to murder-ball tactics in a bid to stop Eden Hazard, fall out with his fitness coach at the training ground, and launch a vicious attack on the media for its criticism of Paul Pogba, claiming pundits are jealous of the Frenchman’s pay packet.
That last dig was laughable. If it came from anyone else, we would say he has lost it, but when the going gets tough, the Manchester United manager always creates these storms in a bid to gain strength.
Many would view his barbed attitudes as a sign of desperation, but he feeds off the aggravation.
His sensitivity over Pogba is understandable. His world-record signing was ineffective again at Chelsea on Tuesday morning.
Until he finds the right shape and style to extract more attacking output from his colossal purchase — without losing the teams’ defensive solidity — you fear United will struggle to crack the top four.
A CLEAR-OUT IS COMING
They said Pep does not do last-16 exits in Europe, but he does now.
Defeat to Monaco typified an underwhelming season for the fabled Manchester City boss, who must now be ready to wield the axe.
He blamed his forwards for blowing their chances in a 3-1 loss that marked his 100th European tie in miserable fashion (and he had a right to be critical of the missed chances) but deep down, the wily Spaniard knows he cannot cover up a dodgy defence forever.
He will not want to bury them at a time of the season where he needs their focus, but Aleksandar Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolas Otamendi, Fernando and Claudio Bravo all have to go.
The City chief loves picking five ultra-attacking players — Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero at the moment — and against mediocre opposition this tactic tends to blow rival sides away.
But to make that work against decent opponents, Guardiola requires a far sturdier platform behind them. You cannot prevent the best sides from spending time in your half, and when they do, City cannot cope.
If Pep was pragmatic he would sacrifice one of those creative stars for an extra “stopper”, but compromising his ideals is offensive to him. So for now he will muddle on.
City’s front five are great, but this summer they must invest in five or six new defenders.
Once that happens, fans at the Etihad should get excited.
BIG MATCH PREDICTIONS
West Ham United v Leicester City (Saturday, Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub TV Ch227, 10.50pm)
So far so good for Shakespeare but the next step is to apply his winning formula to away games. Providing they reproduce the gritty counter attacking football that’s been the hallmark of their revival, I believe they can make it four in a row, and end their winless away run. The Hammers are very average.
Score call: 1-2
Middlesbrough v Manchester United (Sunday, Singtel TV Ch103 & StarHub TV Ch228, 7.55pm)
There will be no Zlatan Ibrahimovic (suspended) or Paul Pogba (hamstring problem) for a trip that’s been complicated by Aitor Karanka’s sacking this week. The Middlesbrough players had looked bored by the Spaniard’s defensive tactics, so I’m expecting a liberated response from the hosts. This will be tough for United.
Score call: 1-1
Manchester City v Liverpool (Monday, Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub TV Ch227, 12.30am)
This is the last top six clash of the season for Liverpool, and they want the full set. Going unbeaten in 10 matches against their chief rivals would be some achievement, and they know they’ve got City’s measure having beaten them four times in a row.
Football isn’t as straightforward as that though, is it? Fired up to make amends for their flop in France, I can see the hosts taking the fight to the visiting Reds.
Score call: 2-1