Axe looks set to fall on more managers; Arsenal rues draw
Reflecting on the midweek mayhem in the Barclays Premier League:
The pack shuffled this week to leave Roy Hodgson (Liverpool lost 3-1 to Blackburn), Avram Grant (West Ham was hammered 5-0 by Newcastle), Gerard Houllier (Aston Villa fell 1-0 to Sunderland) and Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea was beaten by relegation-haunted Wolves 1-0) looking most vulnerable. With Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce already fired and a handful of Football League managers sacked in the last week, the scene in England is looking a bit bloody.
It's prompted a debate on Twitter, the natural habitat of the procrastinating soccerite, as to the rights and wrongs of firing managers during bad runs. In England, lengthy stints like those of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger used to be the norm, so we're more squeamish than most at the sight of a pink slip. Though the slightly dismal conclusion was that managers would keep being fired as long as chairmen thought it would keep the wolf from their door, it's difficult to see the sense in wielding the axe every time.
Ancelotti has come under pressure since Chelsea swapped its rampant start to the season for a string of frustrating draws and several incredible defeats. Only three teams are currently in worse form, and Chelsea is in fifth -- rightly or wrongly, Roman Abramovich has sacked managers in far better positions.
You have to wonder how much better another manager would do with the same personnel. It's been put to me that a change of manager might reinvigorate the players, but you only have to see the celebration of John Terry's goal against Aston Villa (when the team made straight for the bench) to feel that's not a given.
Grant may not feel so cozy at last-place West Ham, where he is surely one bad result away from the axe, but his squad is, realistically, among the three weakest. A new manager might eke survival out of it, but in the long term it's the playing staff that needs an overhaul if the Hammers are to make themselves comfortable in this league.
Villa is in the middle of that process, having lost key first-teamers to other clubs in recent seasons and using a young squad in this campaign. The transition hasn't been helped by a raft of injuries -- up to 10 players have been missing at any one time. The rational inclination is to say that Houllier needs more time -- wouldn't survival be acceptable if it gave youngsters like Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark and Jonathan Hogg a full campaign at this level? -- and Randy Lerner knows sacking him is as good as an admission that he hired the wrong man in the first place.
Least comfortable of all is Hodgson, whose protection by the English media is finally eroding. As Manager of the Year in 2009-10, his argument is that he hasn't suddenly become a bad manager, and he's got a point. But he's the
Still, Liverpool might write off this season if not for the restlessness of the players.
With Arsenal and Manchester City separated by only two points but worlds apart in their approaches to the game, Wednesday's meeting got the same buildup as the last: From it, we'd be able to tell how genuine the title challenge of each actually was.
In the aftermath of the 0-0 tie, City has taken all manner of criticism for being so defensive with a matchday squad worth in excess of £200 million ($309 million). The team was jeered off by Arsenal fans who sang, among other things, "What a waste of money." You wouldn't buy a Bugatti for a weekly trundle to the grocery store, after all.
It was faintly ridiculous watching so expensive a side repeatedly reject the idea of crossing the halfway line (apart from Yaya Toure's occasional bulldozing runs), even if the lineup, missing David Silva, told us to expect the bus. The match seemed to confirm that nagging feeling that City has got the suit but not yet the repartee for top-table events.
It shouldn't be criticized, though, for responding to Arsenal's breathtaking start to the game by abandoning even the counterattacking threat it hinted at in the opening minutes and rallying its defense. It was served pretty well by protecting the draw: Arsenal remains two points behind, in third.
And if we're right to question City's ambition at the Emirates, we might also wonder if the game highlighted Arsenal's limits. Arsenal brought its A-game and had the ball for 55 minutes of the 90, but became less penetrative as time went on. It managed five shots on target and only Robin van Persie's second-half effort required the very best of Joe Hart.
Wenger admitted afterward to reporters that his team had yet to develop a reliable cutting edge and Jack Wilshere said: "We just have to learn to break teams down. ... We know that teams will come here and defend." Both Wilshere and his manager were positive about the rest of the season, however. "We showed we can dominate games," Wilshere said. Added Wenger: "There is no way we should lose courage or belief.
It was certainly a compliment to Arsenal that City focused on stopping it rather than on its own game. Wilshere and Alex Song were excellent in midfield, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas started brightly and in defense (believe it or not, there were times when Arsenal had seven men behind the ball), Johan Djourou didn't seem at all fazed by Carlos Tevez duty.
And, although it's a little early to be talking about run-ins, Arsenal knows it has just two top-five matches left: Tottenham (away) and Manchester United (home). City still has to travel to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, as well as hosting Spurs. United, on top of facing Arsenal and City, has Tottenham to play and Chelsea -- twice. We're familiar with seasons where United has the title to lose, but both Arsenal and City showed they won't be too easy to shake off.
David Beckham's request for a winter loan move to the Premier League hasn't gone down well with L.A. Galaxy fans -- understandable after two loan spells with AC Milan that cost the Galaxy their most expensive player for half the following seasons. A forum post calling Beckham a "selfish damn pig" has been widely circulated.
He's not much more popular over here, either. The anti-Beckham brigade, already choking on his recent BBC Lifetime Achievement award, is spluttering loudly as the midfielder's potential move lingers in the news. He's a useless old man whom Spurs (or anyone else) would do well to avoid, apparently, and the underwhelming returns of fellow EPL veterans Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires are proof positive.
Ignoring those selective examples (wasn't Henrik Larsson also 35 when he went to Manchester United on a brief loan in 2007?), and putting to one side the moral imperative to stay in the U.S., I confess I'm intrigued to see Beckham in the Premier League again. I can't think of a single team that really needs him, but I'd wager there are fans (and staff) at every one of them that would like to see Beckham turn out for them, even temporarily.
And it's patronizing to say that they're simply wowed by the Beckham razzmatazz. It's futile to repeat the arguments about whether Beckham was ever as good as his press, but he has proved, as recently as October (when he scored with his only shot on goal versus Dallas), that he can make a difference from midfield. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs (both older) continue to do so in part-time capacities at Manchester United.
If, as it seems, Beckham ends up at Tottenham, it's unlikely that Harry Redknapp would anticipate more. He's already suggested that Beckham would be played selectively -- introduced in games such as Wednesday's defeat to Everton, when Spurs surrendered possession easily, and, if nothing else, to put the ball onto Peter Crouch's head. In Tom Huddlestone's ongoing absence (ankle), his addition won't hurt.
If anything, his presence will give younger or more peripheral members of the squad a steer. Redknapp has hinted that some fringe players lack focus when they're out of the team. Say what you like about his contributions on the pitch; off it, Beckham remains dedicated to his profession, trains hard and has lost nothing of his technique.