Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Only nine months to go

The EPL is back, though it barely went away.

And after only one game, Manchester United, with Wayne Rooney's new tonsure to the fore, look most likely to win it again, despite a defence already succumbing to injury.

I was delighted to see Ashley Young slot in with aplomb. I watched a lot of him on and off the field when Jay DeMerit was at Watford and he is one of those quiet but brilliant performers whose gentle demeanour and raw talent make you really want him to succeed.

It's also great for me to see an Englishman with good feet instead of pure brawn reach the top. And Watford almost rejected him as a pro for looking too weedy. If only we had had his speedy weaving taking on the US backline in Rustenburg instead of those predictable 'tramliners' Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Phil Jones, a wise head on young shoulders, is another new Red Devil I want to see more of this season, after I noted his commanding displays at Euro U21 in June. Two other Man U rookies, Tom Cleverley and Daniel Welbeck, also played in Denmark but were less impressive. David De Gea, whose Massimo Taibi-esque exodus at West Brom made many a Mancunian jaw drop, is for now a cause for concern, but they should not worry.

Tim Howard started impressively at Old Trafford before eventually losing his touch, confidence and finally his job. Give De Gea time, although I have to say at Euro U21 he was not one of the young Spaniards who caught my eye - those were Thiago Alcantara (Barcelona), Javi Martinez (Athletic Bilbao) and Juan Mata (Valencia). Derby's England U21 goalie Frank Fielding I thought was better.

But however well United play this season, we shouldn't forget the fact England's best team were outclassed at Wembley by La Liga's finest only three months ago. We and the rest of Europe have to find ways of reaching the high bar set by Barcelona, and there is a lot of work to do. Had the yobs not been rioting last week, we could have seen what stage the national team is at, but the friendly with World Cup finalists the Netherlands had to be cancelled on police orders.

Unfortunately for 'the purists' who would wish a transformation of the national way of play, English-style soccer still gets results, even if it falls short of big trophies. Birmingham City won the League Cup over Arsenal last season and Stoke reached the F.A. Cup final with evolved versions of the direct and pressing styles which held center stage here in the late 1980s. Chelsea, Torres, Drogba and all, failed to win at the Britannia on Saturday, leaving André Villas-Boas much to chew over from his first 90 minutes of the English game.

The fact is Barcelona are good in the air and solid at the back and close down their enemies like attack dogs when they don't have the ball, like the great Liverpool and Milan sides, but better. The way to beat physical teams is to match them for muscle, then outfox them with superior movement, passing and ball-skills.

The other Manchester club hit the ground running last night with a 4-0 win over new boys Swansea, but Champions League football and yet more stars arriving mean escalating expectations, so don't expect Roberto Mancini to add any élan to his prosaic playing style for +the big games.

City's cherry-picking is getting absurd - aces Aguero, Tevez, Balotelli, Dzeko, Adebayor, Bellamy and Santa Cruz are all in their current forward arsenal and Samir Nasri could soon be added to the midfield...UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rules can't come soon enough for my liking.

Liverpool have a host of new faces and look rejuvenated, particularly with Copa America winner Luis Suarez on fire, while Fernando Torres' miraculous resurrection for Chelsea at Stoke, following his season in hell, was one to relish. If supporters of my age can't feel a spiritual or tribal connection to teams anymore, at least we can delight in the aesthetic value of the moneyed foreigners on display.

And then there is Arsenal, whose summer shopping phobia has swelled fears that the capital's old giants are falling off the pace, will be pipped for Champions League places and leave Arsene Wenger's throne at risk of overthrow.

Just the big five then? Yup, it's all about the green, and I don't mean the lush grass on show on opening Saturday. This ceased to be a 20-team tournament many moons ago and any Gunners fans' rancour at Cesc Fabregas' 'betrayal' is almost charming.

At the end of the season comes Euro 2012, but England (and some overseas stars) will turn up in Poland & Ukraine as jaded as they were in South Africa last summer. The Premier League's persistent failure to include a winter break means more Spring injuries than other leagues, and knackered footballers in June, but the directors won't countenance any interruption to their precious revenue streams. Club is clubbing country once more.

The vulgar wealth of the EPL not only harms national teams but its global pulling power fuels resentment in UEFA & FIFA corridors and was a factor in England being so comprehensively rejected as hosts for the 2018 World Cup, despite having the best technical bid.

Then there is the Olympic soccer tournament in August 2012, kicking off less than a month after the Euros finish in Kiev. If you are a young Premier League star with international ambitions, you might want to step out of a few crunching tackles this winter.

-Sean O'Conor, London

1 comment:

bhamhawker said...

I thought Danny Welbeck was impressive for ManU in their preseason and in the Shield. He's got incredible feel of the ball for someone so young and long. I remember 3 years ago seeing him and thinking "What is the hype about? He's fast, but where is the skill?". It's there, and I think it's going to start showing more and more.

Cleverly is what everyone in the United States thinks Sacha Kljestan is. He moves constantly and makes quick, decisive passes that add to the play. He'd probably be better suited to playing high with a true defensive player, but he sure looks comfortable playing deep alongside Anderson.

Honestly, De Gea's miss was pretty bad and it shook him clearly. But, he's shown plenty of talent and it's clear that the kid is really gifted with the ball at his feet (something that too often gets overlooked in judging keepers). He's going to have a steep curve, but I don't think ManU will make too many snap judgments.

You mentioned Phil Jones but not Chris Smalling? I don't see how England fans aren't just falling in love with this guy. He's 6'3, a tremendous athlete, and apparently has boatloads of skill to boot. He's been outstanding as a right back. How many physical, athletic right backs do you see with that kind of pace and skill on the ball? Certainly not many in England.

I think United was brilliant to snap up Jones, because he and Smalling are probably going to be England's best defenders for the foreseeable future (when the elders retire, obviously, if not sooner).