As we approach the business end, minds already drift to business time at the Premier League’s fallen powers.
Maddened by stalled momentum, even in pursuit of modest targets, fans are fed up calculating how many points it will take, and have begun to ask how many players they will need.
At Arsenal, where they could at least see the sunrise from the cell where Arsene Wenger held them, they had grown accustomed to being two or three players away. But now they wonder if it is closer to six or seven.
At Manchester United, Roy Keane has been turning that up to 11.
And yet, before any shopping lists are put together, perhaps both clubs ought to come up with one good idea.
It is now taking big ideas to claim the big prizes.
Pep Guardiola has the budget to think biggest. To shoot for perfection, for total domination of the ball, built on the belief that “an extra pass helps you always be together”.
The foundation of Jurgen Klopp’s work is winning the ball back, the idea that focused destructiveness is a more potent creative force than any playmaker in the world. That and a sense of destiny.
And even Mauricio Pochettino is miming the growth of large testicles and imagining a formidable force built on “controlled disorder”, with an insistence there can be “no separation between tactics and emotion”.
At Chelsea, meanwhile, they have their own version of chaos theory, involving riding waves of toxicity for whatever short-term gains are available, though that method may be running out of steam and finance.
While Poch hasn’t yet been given a warchest for his battle plan, Pep and Klopp bedded in their big ideas before realising they were still two or three players away, and purchased accordingly. And it may be instructive that they bucked the safe old conventions of English football by building their teams from the front rather than the back.
As though big ideas cannot truly be born with a safety net in place.
At United and Arsenal, meanwhile, it is not yet clear whether there are ideas men at the helm.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Unai Emery seem so far content to operate in the shadows of the two great totems of the Premier League age.
Emery has studiously avoided any mention of Arsene Wenger, while selling himself as a details man, in town to tidy up after an absent-minded genius.
Emery reportedly arrived with a PowerPoint presentation providing astonishing detail on the players he inherited and how he could improve them.
He took fruit juice out of the canteen and there were brief hints of a grand plan involving Petr Cech as a playmaker in his own six-yard box, before Emery perhaps noticed, in his dossiers, that there was nobody in his defence to whom it was advisable to pass.
So unless you count the slight rugbyfication of Arsenal’s play, where they attempt to get a chunky full-back over the gain line as often as possible, it is not yet entirely clear what Emery is trying to achieve.
In an introspective interview with Spanish paper, Emery himself outlined the problems with being a details man.
“Once a Chinese coach came to see us at Sevilla and he repeatedly said to me: ‘Unai, your work on the details has impressed me’. And it stuck with me. I said to myself: ‘Well that’s a positive!’ But it can also be negative, you might say, a bit tiresome, wanting to influence the players too much, so I don’t know.”
We don’t know if Arsenal’s players have already grown tired of analysing opponents and watching videos, but those opponents have noticeably begun to head in free-kicks again.
Meanwhile, over at the Theatre of Dreams, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Alex Ferguson tribute act is doing Paul Ince’s head in.
We do know, from Fergie’s second autobiography, that he saw great similarities between himself and the little Norwegian.
“Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a natural finisher. I always saw myself in our strikers.”
Though Fergie’s views on Solskjaer the manager are unclear, save for one digression into talent identification.
“Mame Biram Diouf was recommended by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through his contacts at Molde in Norway.”
Now, as Roy Keane demands United build from the back, we know Ole’s one big idea is to do everything the way Fergie used to. As Paul Pogba explained, “He came back to the time of Ferguson, I would say. The training, the way we use the box, it’s everything like before.”
This week Ole brought United back to their old training ground and he refuses to park in the manager’s car park space, because it is still Fergie’s in his eyes. Just as he once wouldn’t knock on the manager’s door to demand a place in Fergie’s team.
The problem for Ole is that Fergie’s big idea was to win, and win again. And he had no problem getting somebody else in to look after the details. So it may be no surprise that Ole already finds himself chasing shadows.
The suspicion is Poch would have been the safer bet, that he would have no difficulty hoisting his large testicles into Fergie’s spot. But unless he somehow wins the Champions League, Poch must, for now, be satisfied with kudos for picking up the third and fourth-place trophies Wenger invented, to much sneering.
Wenger once represented the suspicious threat of ideas that the safe conventions of English football resented. He was still seeing the big picture until the end, though he would have needed Pep’s budget to “facilitate the beauty in man”.
It was around then people began to see some beauty in details.
Still getting our kicks at the Crucible
We thought it was another of the great traditional sporting spectacles lost; like the overhead pull, or the big man-little man front two combo.
But thankfully, the ‘kick’ lives on, at least at the Crucible.
They hate the kick in snooker, of course, and thought they’d eliminated it altogether, through an anti-static cloth and new Taom chalk. In some quarters, they called last year’s tournament the first kickless World Championship. That would be ‘utopia’, according to Stuart Gardiner, from World Snooker’s cloth supplier WSP Textiles.
But would it really?
In the sport of metronomic order, do we really want to shut out entirely the occasional teasing of fortune — the remorseless provocation of science that occasionally sends a ball astray with a telltale clunk. Fair warning that friction can never be entirely controlled.
The best part is the commentary, of course. How aghast pundits are at a “horrible kick”, as though a player has suddenly come up lame. Their sorrow as traditional as John Virgo’s warnings about where the cue ball is going.
So thankfully this week the kicks were coming thick and fast.
It’s not utopia, but perfect nonetheless.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Nice to see the man who will run all day hit the ground running faster than anyone before him.
Some day, he’ll complete the circle of life and come home and pundit for his country.
Amid all the City-Pool fuss, two Ireland internationals could seal a Women’s Super League title tomorrow, if Arsenal beat Brighton.
HELL IN A HANDCART
Perhaps it’s just the central crotch positioning. No need.
Even if they were simply testing arcane GAA rules in the manner of a Stephen Fry blasphemy challenge.
The end of the dinked spotter? Parra was sacked by Independiente for fluffling a Panenka to cost Copa Sudamericana progress.