Press pack probing puts Jose in blue mood
Yesterday I was in the very fortunate position of being chairman for the day at Chelsea.
Now obviously this is largely a day of largesse bestowed on a fortunate individual, involving opulent hospitality, much hand-shaking of the great and the good and some behind the scenes access.
But the post-match press conferences were really interesting. The difference in the type of questions aimed at Ronald Koeman compared to those for Mourinho was very evident. Now I understand that Jose’s demeanour sets the tone, to a degree, but his demeanour is the result of enduring hundreds of press conferences where he is asked stupid, inane questions, confrontational questions and questions purely aimed to piss him off.
Very few actually relate to football. “How do you feel?” What kind of question is that? By the third time, he just shook his head and looked around for some sort of sanity, but all he faced was a sea of faces wanting to bait him, or too afraid to bait him but eagerly egging on those that were.
One “journalist” even turned up wearing Liverpool trainers and stretched his legs out to try and draw even more attention to himself. Immature doesn’t begin to cover it. He should have stood, arms aloft and given us a rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for good measure.
After the press conference, another very well known journalist/pundit spent a good 10 minutes slating Mourinho to a colleague, whining about how miserable he was and how he never gave them anything of value. Perhaps if the assembled hyenas asked intelligent questions, they’d get something more interesting.
Mourinho is largely acknowledged as one of the best managers in the world, They should have gone the whole hog and asked him what his favourite colour was and which member of Girls Aloud he fancied most.
In comparison, Koeman was asked about his tactics. The thinking behind his team selection, what had he feared, who played well etc.
Moving on: we are still stuttering. The Paris game was beyond comprehension, both in terms of tactics and performance. I think even Jose was shell-shocked. Lethargic, too defensive — I’d go as far as to say afraid — which is a worry as Mourinho teams rarely fear anyone. If they do, they never show it.
I felt that it was a performance that could make or break a season and I expected either a resounding win against the Saints or another wobble that would eventually hand the league to City.
But it was neither of these. On the whole, I think I must have seen a different match to those on social media who have been decrying a “woeful game”. I thought we generally played well against a very good Southampton side. Some of our players are not on their best form and we weren’t always direct enough, but we made more chances than we had in a while — perhaps since Swansea away. Only the woodwork, acrobatic goalkeeping and bad luck stopped us scoring at least two more.
But we do need to play better. Fabregas still looks injured, Matic either not fit or exhausted, Oscar — who knows? These problems cause issues for Costa as we are failing to get any service to him.
The squad also needs a few tweaks. We are certainly not the machine of Jose’s first tenure. He must know that, so I’m not sure why he expects us to play like that. I must admit to starting to feel very nervous about this league — journos think we’ve won it, City fans think we’ve won it, Jose thinks we’ve won it. I’m not counting chickens.
We need goals and we need to take advantage when City slip — two things we seem to find difficult at the moment. But although not an ideal weekend, another few inches have been added to the gap. This can only be celebrated, but not loudly. Not quite yet.
Rooney still to answer the leadership question
Kitchens have been at the centre of British news this past week. Jeremy Clarkson melted down because one was closed; Ed Miliband was shamefacedly caught in possession of two; and yesterday, Wayne Rooney was photographed, on the front page of Britain’s best-selling newspaper, sparked out on the floor of his kitchen after losing a boxing bout with a pal.
To be fair to poor Wayne, no-one seems certain when the photo was taken, so we’ll never know whether his early-winter performances in midfield could, in fact, be blamed on that bump on the head.
And at least it proved he is still up for socialising with other players — albeit ones belonging to other clubs, natch — rather than fully retreated into domestic pipe ’n’ slippers bliss. I’m picking up on this aspect of an otherwise ludicrous story because someone very close to one of United’s recent foreign imports has been heard complaining by one of my snouts that, although Rooney is a “decent” lad, he isn’t enough of a leader and facilitator off the pitch. Now, then: you may have thought the captain’s duties should be confined to the stadium. But it seems a lot of the Latin players are used to a different culture.
As another Old Trafford camp-follower explained to me, taking the example of what goes on at Athletic Bilbao, “players would go out together as a squad every single week, and the wives have their own night out too”.
The captain takes charge of all sorts of squad-bonding off-field aspects, rather than simply walling himself up inside a mansion with his family. Fostering team spirit “takes a village”, as Hillary Clinton might have put it: it’s not a nine-to-noon or three-to-five job.
You may think this is slightly trivial, compared to the allegation, increasingly believed by many Reds, than Manchester United may be being managed by a certifiable headcase. And you may say that as long as Rooney continues to score, and provide an on-pitch spearhead, as he did yesterday, he personally shouldn’t be faulted.
Nevertheless, the foreign player’s complaint speaks to something that most United fans have noticed for much of the season: that the team has often been so much less than the sum of the parts, and that there has been something lacking in the overall squad/staff cohesion and evident ‘feeling’ for each other. And you’re right: this wouldn’t really be Rooney’s fault. The buck stops at the boss’s office, as ever.
One manifestation of this becoming an issue is the amount of ‘chatter’ people are starting to pick up on our antennae, which is also reflected in Paul Scholes’ outspoken newspaper columns. Some examples? One team source tells me the Spanish players collectively dislike Van Gaal, and we can all see that he’s not been too enamoured with a couple of them either. Another claims that there is some jealousy and resentment of the under-performing Di Maria, with one quote jumping out: “Here for the money and gone next year.” A third, with his ear very close to the Giggs camp, insists a supposedly resigned Ryan will be ready to listen to offers from elsewhere at the end of the season.
Well, as yesterday reminded us, as long as Louis keeps getting lucky by pulling out victories just at the right moment — and straight after the Arsenal catastrophe was definitely one of those rebellion-deflating moments — we can pretend not to hear any clattering of loose marbles. Besides, as one of the aforementioned Old Trafford-watchers put it to me: “You don’t have to worry about ‘meals out with the lads’ when you’re winning, though — nothing builds team spirit like success.” True enough. And you’ve seen who’s coming next: now there’s a match with the potential to raise team spirit, if it goes well. Or raise your consumption of spirits, if it doesn’t.
Now it’s not Monte Carlo or bust
There was always likely to be something of an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” feel to Saturday’s encounter with the Hammers, following the intensity of last Monday night’s triumph at Old Trafford. Sandwiched in between our increasingly promising conquest to retain our domestic trophy and our waning prospects of maintaining our assault on European glory in Monaco, it was nevertheless essential for us to keep the home fires burning, by negotiating the inconvenient obstruction of Sam Allardyce’s obdurate side.
It’s bizarre to think we went to Upton Park just after Christmas one point behind West Ham and after Saturday’s win, we’re now 18 points ahead of the Hammers. Moreover with Man City losing at Turf Moor, instead of constantly glancing behind us, fretting about the heated fourth place battle for Champions League qualification, as unlikely as a Chelsea collapse would be, it’s hard to avoid harbouring misguided hopes of us making a miraculous comeback into the title challenge.
The victory at Man Utd was crucial, not merely to get the monkey of psychological inferiority off our back but also because a defeat and our exit from the FA Cup would’ve meant that we’d have been left travelling to the South of France, knowing that if we failed to turn around the 1-3 deficit from the first leg, this would’ve pretty much signalled the end of our season.
Instead of which, after progressing to a Wembley semi-final against Reading or Bradford and having maintained our momentum in the Premiership with a comfortable win against West Ham, we travel to the Côte d’Azur this week with the pressure off.
AS Monaco have conceded so few goals at the Stade Louis II that I still expect our Champions League campaign to end in the customary “close but no cigar” glorious failure. So while I might still be travelling more in hope than expectation, instead of dreading an agonising encounter with our entire season resting on the outcome, I’m looking forward to an interesting European jolly, knowing that there’s the possibility that we might relax and express ourselves sufficiently, to pull off a massive surprise.
The brooding dense storm clouds that greeted our arrival in the north west last Monday reminded us that “it always rains in Manchester”. We should’ve realised that something special was on the cards, when even the inclement weather blew elsewhere. We’re accustomed to Man Utd raising their game against us and ironically, most of my Utd pals agreed that their performance on the night was as good as they’ve seen them play this season. Yet LVG’s side was still laboriously tame, compared to the way in which they usually tear into us at 100mph.
When the referee not only denied the exhortations of the Stretford End for a penalty, but booked Di Maria and then sent the Argentinian off for daring to make physical contact with the sacrosanct match-official, it seemed as if the fates were smiling on us, to such an extent that if we weren’t going to win this match, we were never going to beat Man Utd on their turf.
After bemoaning the absence of Giroud and Gibbs in this game, only for both their replacements, Welbeck and Monreal to score our goals, I have to bow to this evidence that “Arsène knows”.
With Cazorla on the bench and with the Hammers parking the proverbial bus, we struggled for the ingenuity to unlock their defence, until Giroud finally battered the ball past Adrian’s admirable resistance, with virtually the last kick of the first-half. Walcott snatched at his couple of opportunities to improve his bargaining power, in respect of his new contract and it wasn’t until Theo was replaced by Welbeck that we really began to run the Hammers a bit ragged. By bagging the sort of goal that he was scoring with such profligacy last season, hopefully Ramsey might receive a much needed boost to his confidence, after slotting home our second.
However the final scoreline was somewhat flattering. Most of the Hammers fans had departed before Flamini entered the fray at the death and sealed a comprehensive victory with his first touch. Aside from Allardyce’s love-affair with the aged Kevin Nolan, their ire with their soon to be departed manager is demonstrated by the fact that they don’t really expect to win this derby game and as a result, they don’t want to be watching a West Ham side that comes to our place, with the sole objective of depriving us of a goal. If they were destined to lose 3-0, with so many absentees, they would’ve much preferred to have seen some of their promising youngsters afforded an opportunity.
Meanwhile, such are the fine margins between elation and melancholy that we are fortunate to be heading off to the continent in a buoyant mood, knowing that, mercifully, it’s not “Monte Carlo or bust”. But if we’re capable of scoring three goals, while keeping a clean sheet tomorrow night, who knows, anything might be possible...