Do you know the way, José?

Football Manager 2017 is hard. I’ve managed two teams so far – West Bromwich Albion and Marseille – and been sacked by both. It seems that, without constant attention to tactical minutiae, an iron-clad training regime and a telepathic understanding with your players, you’re on a hiding to nothing with Sports Interactive’s latest release. It’s just not like the good old days, when you could find a formation, settle on it and watch your players conquer all before them.

I wonder if José Mourinho feels the same about Premier League football at the moment? Manchester United currently sit 11 points off the top of the table and, unlike his predecessors David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, he cannot convincingly make a case that he has an ageing, declining squad or an unfinished project, decimated by injuries, at his disposal.

Mourinho spent £150m in the summer, including world-record signing Paul Pogba, yet United have failed to record a victory against any side higher than 10th in the league table, a shoddy record considering the season has just ticked into its most hectic month, December.

Optimists will have you believe that there are signs of the squad gelling, that it’s still early days, and that may be true – but results aren’t forthcoming, and United may already be out of a title race they looked dead certs to be key figures in as recently as early September.

In United’s last 10 games, they’ve won two, drawn five and lost three, scoring 12 and conceding 14. Over a full season, that’s not quite relegation form, but it certainly should be enough to cause concern – whether you take bad luck or inspired goalkeepers into account or not.

Has José taken on too big a job?

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Confusion with team selection

The summer months may seem a long time ago now, but United won each of their first three league games. A large factor in this was a settled side. Between the opening game at Bournemouth and United’s third game of the season at Hull, Mourinho made just one change to his starting XI, bringing in Pogba – suspended for the Bournemouth game – in place of Ander Herrera for Southampton’s visit to Old Trafford.

Since then, Mourinho’s selection policy has been at best experimental and at worst baffling; the Portuguese admitted that starting an unfit Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the Manchester City defeat was a mistake, but that experience seems to have affected José’s thinking, with United only fielding an unchanged side once since. While fielding Ashley Young to counter Liverpool’s wide threat at Anfield worked to an extent, starting a lethargic Pogba and Marouane Fellaini in defeats at Watford and Chelsea backfired spectacularly.

Mourinho’s poor league form has meant that he’s had to prioritise the cups, so even when United do find the correct formula – as in Thursday’s mauling over Feyenoord – he has to rotate to protect against fatigue three days later.

Arguments with players

Mkhitaryan is the most obvious victim of Mourinho’s erratic man management at Old Trafford so far, but the treatment of two of the club’s great young hopes has been – to fans – both needless and petty. Why do Luke Shaw – still only seven league games into his return from a year-long injury absence – and Anthony Martial bear the brunt of the blame for defensive mistakes and poor performances when Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, often lethargic and uninspired, continue to play every minute?

And what of the U-turn on Bastian Schweinsteiger? Whatever you think of the German and the likelihood of him ever getting a run of games for the club again, ask yourself this: did Sir Alex Ferguson ever renegade on a promise never to pick a player in a Manchester United squad again? Ask Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy, among others.

Whether he’s dropping Shaw and Martial, nailed-on members of the first XI in August, or recalling Schweini, you could make the case that Mourinho’s making it up as he goes along.

Relationship with the media

During his first spell at Chelsea, Mourinho was ‘the Special One’ – he could do no wrong in the eyes of journalists, unlike his arch-nemesis over at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez. Similarly, in his second spell after returning from Real Madrid, despite water in the form of an eye poke on Tito Vilanova having gone under the bridge, the press were still prepared to give Mourinho an ell. They lauded his title winners, despite them being arguably the most negative side to claim the league in the Premier League era, and defended his increasingly childish behaviour.

But all that has changed now (with the exception of Duncan Castles, of course). Whether that’s due to José now being associated with the most hated club in the land or not is up for discussion, but witness the atmosphere surrounding his recent sending off against West Ham for kicking a bottle. Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and, hell, even Louis van Gaal have shown similar passion and frustration on the touchline in the past and have been defended by the press pack, but there seemed to be widespread condemnation of Mourinho’s behaviour on Sunday. One thing is for certain: the Portuguese is no longer the media’s golden child.

Conclusion

I’m still behind Mourinho, and I still think that, given an upturn in attitude and the correct team selection, he can give himself the best chance of success at Old Trafford. As with van Gaal, the team has shown flashes of what it can do, most notably in home successes against Leicester, Feyenoord and Southampton. But there have also been some woeful performances. Chelsea was up there with some of the most spineless United performances I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, while Watford left me depressed for days. The opening third of the season has been poor for Mourinho, frustrating for fans and embarrassing for certain players, for the reasons outlined above. It might sound entitled, but United expect better.

 

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Do you know the way, José?

Lest we forget: remembrance is fine, but can we just keep it away from sport?

I don’t like American sports, and I don’t make a habit of watching them. I’ve read Moneyball, but I have to admit that, when it came to the technical jargon, I didn’t really understand what Michael Lewis was on about. I question whether British people can really ‘enjoy’ watching NFL and NBA, whether Josh, 29, from Nottingham is really a Boston Celtics fan or whether his girlfriend just picked up a green snapback the last time she went to Footasylum.

Anyway, the weirdest thing about sport over the pond – weirder even than wide receivers constantly feeling the need to ‘bump chests’ and grown men arguing about who has the best ‘slugging percentage’ – is the furious patriotism espoused by the majority involved.

The quarterback Colin Kaepernick attracted controversy a few months back by kneeling during the national anthem – a gesture designed to highlight the perceived negative treatment of African-American people by police. Instead of actually discussing the issue behind the gesture, conservative commentators clambered over each other to express just how much Kaepernick hated America.

Kaepernick’s example was notable not just for the thinking behind it, but also because it was an exception; his peers usually stand, hand on hearts, flanked by shaven-headed men in fatigues as the Star Spangled Banner is blurted out pre-game by the wife of an ex-serviceman. It’s like porn for patriots, and it’s strange for us in the UK to watch, because we don’t quite indulge in the same zealotry when it comes to sport.

Or do we? The events of the last couple of weeks would suggest otherwise.

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The row between the FA and FIFA over whether England and Scotland should be allowed to wear poppies for their game on 11th November is tedious, but it highlights just how tetchy the nation has become over the whole issue of remembrance. As several have highlighted, the little red flower wasn’t adopted on the shirts of Premier League clubs until 2010, while England have played plenty of games on Armistice Day in the past without visibly commemorating the war dead on their playing kit.

Now we have a situation where teams are wearing poppies towards the end of October; where a player is being openly vilified for refusing (with good reason) to wear one and where clubs are entrenched in a game of one-upmanship, coming up with fresh new ways to ‘pay their respects’. The poppy is a symbol and, like most symbols, it can represent a number of things. To many on these shores, it references the sacrifices made by the British war dead, particularly in the two world wars, but to others, especially abroad, it is an emblem of the very worst excesses of British nationalism.

So why has this patriotism permeated into the Premier League, in effect an international product? You have to wonder what the likes of Ahmed Musa, of Nigeria, and Argentina’s Claudio Yacob thought as they glided across the poppy-gilded pitch at the King Power at the weekend, not to mention the global audience who the clubs usually try so hard to appease. Just as we might see the singing of the Star Spangled Banner at every US sporting fixture as over the top, Premier League viewers overseas may look upon the weekend’s gestures of remembrance as overly exuberant, excessive and, ultimately unnecessary.

If you’re a fan, by all means remember the fallen however you like. Stop, however, making silly demands of this sport we all cherish: a footballer born in the late ’80s does not owe it to you to conform, or in any other way to be an embodiment of your morality. Remembrance should be an individual, voluntary gesture, not something we have to force upon others – surely, if we do that, it loses its meaning altogether?

Lest we forget: remembrance is fine, but can we just keep it away from sport?

Football’s coolest ever XI

The untimely death of Johan Cruyff at the age of 68 last week got us thinking: the Dutch artist, philosopher and footballer (in that order) is clearly the coolest player of all time, but who would join him in a coolest XI? Here’s our entirely subjective view, and you’ll notice there’s a distinct lack of current players in here. Sorry Raheem, but R&B, diamond-encrusted iPhones and a knack for saying ‘at the end of the day’ don’t cut it for us. Obviously we’ve gone for the coolest formation of all, the 3-3-1-3, with a stylish Argentine sitting in midfield and a Great Dane behind the fearsome front three.

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GK: Rene Higuita

Like the man he edged out for this slot (see substitutes) Higuita is often lambasted by the unimaginative English as a bit of a clown. Of course, at times he was, but Higuita’s flamboyance and, ahem, extracurricular activities masked (or should we say embellished?) a footballing talent that was actually ahead of its time. Higuita was one of the first ‘sweeper keepers’, regularly patrolling the zone outside the box and calmly playing one-twos with defenders while opponents stalked the space in-between. OK, Higuita was a risk-taker and, fair enough, that sometimes backfired on him, but you don’t usually take such a shine to Colombian goalkeepers, do you?

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RB: Carlos Alberto

The Brazil World Cup winning-side (there’s a trend starting here) of 1970 are probably the most loved of all time. Broadcast to homes around the world in glorious Technicolor, Pele, Jairzinho, Gerson and co. delighted football fans of all ages with their samba trickery, defeating world champions England and old foe Uruguay on their way to the final, where they’d go on to demolish Italy. Captain Carlos Alberto wasn’t the most notable figure on the team, but he gets in here purely because: a) there aren’t that many ‘cool’ defenders and b) he was the scorer of arguably the coolest goal of all time – despite the ball taking a cheeky bobble just before it was struck.

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CB: Franz Beckenbauer

If the football world wasn’t so obsessed with goalscoring strikers and graceful playmakers, Franz Beckenbauer would probably be considered the greatest footballer of all time. Seriously. The lynchpin of Germany and Bayern Munich’s finest ever sides, ‘Der Kaiser’ (how about that for a nickname?) called on the experience of playing in midfield in his youth to redefine the sweeper position, languidly yet forcefully carrying the ball forward out of defence and launching attack after attack. He scored 14 goals for his national side – no mean feat for a defender – but is most famous for lifting the brand new World Cup trophy in 1974, as his Germans overcame the Netherlands’ side of Johan Cruyff. They often say no one remembers that German side, but it would be impossible to forget old Franz. Oh, he also played for the coolest club side in history, too: the New York Cosmos.

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LB: Paul Breitner

Known throughout his time with Germany and Bayern Munich as ‘der Afro’, Breitner was known for his socialist views, speaking out against the Berlin Wall and carrying Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ around on team outings. Breitner featured in most of the notoriously efficient German sides of the 1970s and early ‘80s, but his curly hairstyle and beard set him apart as an individual. In retirement, he has remained critical of the establishment, once replacing Berti Vogts as Germany boss for a matter of hours before the appointment was deemed ‘too radical’. A shoo-in for the left-back slot, even if he’ll have to sit back a little bit more in this team.

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DM: Fernando Redondo

A slightly left-field choice, given his lack of playing time in later years, Redondo built on everything Andrea Pirlo did before the Italian maestro even started doing it. A defensive midfielder by trade, Redondo boasted all the tricks in the book, as a certain Henning Berg will reluctantly testify. During his time as captain of the all-conquering Real Madrid side of the late 1990s, Redondo became known as ‘El Principe’ (The Prince), and we’re sure you’ll agree he was a pretty dashing looking chap. Another cool thing Redondo did: while at Milan, the Argentine suffered what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury, keeping him out for over two years. Rather than sit back and do a Winston Bogarde, Redondo suspended his salary, and even tried to give his house and car back to the club. What a legend. There’s never been a deep-lying midfielder like Redondo.

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CM: Socrates

Ask your Dad about his favourite international side and, the chances are, depending on his age, he’ll say Tele Santana’s 1982 Brazil team. Well Socrates, a qualified doctor, was the midfielder who made that glorious bunch tick. Striding out on to the pitch in his headband, yellow shirt, tight blue shorts and long white socks, Socrates was the epitome of cool for schoolkids everywhere in the early ‘80s, and his playing style matched his effortlessly chic appearance. That the Brazil side he captained crashed out early – sending joga bonito into a 34-year deep sleep from which it is yet to return – is one of football’s great shames.

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CM: Carlos Valderrama

Valderrama is an iconic figure despite – OK, it was mainly because of – boasting a Hair Bear Bunch haircut for his entire career. Captain and midfield lynchpin of Colombia’s exotic team of the 1990s, Valderrama never seemed to leave the centre circle, but when you can play assists like this, why bother? Sadly, the South American never played at the highest level in club football, despite being his country’s most capped player, although he did break records in the nascent years of MLS, crafting an incredible 26 assists for Tampa Bay Mutiny in the 2000 season. Valderrama made it look effortless, and you could always pick him out on TV, no matter how bad the picture.

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AM: Michael Laudrup

As the playmaker in the ‘Danish Dynamite’ team – one of Europe’s coolest ever sides – Laudrup first caught the imagination with his flair and creativity in the chevron-daubed Hummel kit at the 1986 World Cup. He seemed to effortlessly glide into space, or find it for his teammates with a carefully measured pass. One of few players to appear in the colours of both Barcelona and Real Madrid, Laudrup is adored by fans of both clubs and would probably be more highly rated had he not played for a relative international minnow.

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RF: George Best

The first rockstar footballer, Best – on these shores, at least – is renowned for three things: his outrageous footballing talent, his extraordinary prowess with the ladies and the legendary drinking to excess, which would ultimately lead to his untimely death at the age of 59. Despite effectively retiring from top-level football at 27, during Manchester United’s infamous relegation season, Best will be forever known as ‘el Beatle’ to some, blurring the lines between pop culture personality and sporting great. Franz Beckenbauer called him “one of the most talented players of all time” and, wherever he takes his place among your pantheon of legends, he was certainly one of the coolest.

“George Best was simply one of the most talented players of all time.” Franz Beckenbauer

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CF: Ferenc Puskas

Despite harbouring a physique like your Dad’s mate Frank from down the pub, Puskas was the most gifted – and most famous – member of Hungary’s Aranycsapat, or Golden Team. In 1953, Puskas amazed the conformist English press by performing keepie-ups at Wembley, before going on to embarrass the Three Lions’ most capped player Billy Wright in a performance that went down in footballing folklore. Puskas later went on to play for Real Madrid, winning three European Cups and notching almost a goal a game for one of football’s most iconic sides. Later in life, he could be found prowling the touchlines as a coach, his growing rotundity failing to mask his outrageous skill.

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LF: Johan Cruyff

If Wayne Gretzky is ice hockey, and Michael Jordan is basketball, Johan Cruyff is football. Quite simply the most imaginative, inventive and probably the most intelligent player who ever lived, Cruyff understood – and could manipulate – space on the pitch like no-one else. Without Cruyff, there would be no Total Football, no Guardiola’s Barcelona and, of course, no Dutch footballing heritage worth speaking of. Despite only featuring at one World Cup, Cruyff will be forever associated with the vivid orange of his home country and the number 14 shirt. Since his death, we’ve been trawling the archives for our favourite images of the iconic man, and here are just a few of our favourites: 1, 2 (how much does he look like Lionel Messi?) and 3. And this quote, doled out with the pithiness to which we all became accustomed, strips back the unending gossip, the vulgar streams of money and the storm-in-a-teacup controversies to describe the game at its most basic:

If you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible.”

Now that, Louis van Gaal, is real philosophy.

Substitutes

GK: Fabien Barthez

Barthez made short sleeves between the sticks acceptable. And he was a smoker.

CB: Claudio Gentile

Gentile was ‘efficiently cool’, man-marking Diego Maradona out of the game in the 1982 World Cup and teaching the world all about the dark arts of Italian defending.

LW/RW: Garrincha

Twice a World Cup winner, silky winger Garrincha lost his virginity to a goat, fathered at least 14 children and died of alcoholism at the age of 49. Some Brazilians think he was better than Pele; he was certainly cooler.

AM: Eric Cantona

With endless pop culture references – from the Arctic Monkeys’ leather jacket collar popped like Cantona’ to his puppet gracing the nation’s screens on Spitting Image, the Frenchman’s poise, grace and volatility caught the imagination like few others.

CF: Dimitar Berbatov

Tottenham and Manchester United’s Andy Garcia lookalike learned English by watching The Godfather and once interviewed himself after a game in Bulgaria. Never broke a sweat while playing in England; didn’t really need to.

Manager

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Cesar Luis Menotti

The chain-smoking, silver-haired Argentinian coach of the 1978 World Cup wins his place in the dugout due to his socialist views and his ‘coffee house’ philosophical approach to the game.

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Football’s coolest ever XI

on football and ticket prices

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A brief brush of blue in a blanket sky of grey – how it felt as a football fan, hearing that FSG decided against the proposed increase in top-tier ticket prices at Liverpool games from £59 to £77. This proposed increase created a furore over the price of watching football at Anfield which, stoked by the team’s abject performances on the pitch, has been whistling in the background for a few years now. The issue ignited a week of debate between club and fan, with the former arguing that the ticket raise was balanced out by an atomic portion of tickets being priced at £9 at the other end of the scale.

As Paul Cope explained in The Anfield Wrap, the debate itself was one which ignored the main issues at hand: that the general level of ticket prices at Anfield are pricing those who have travelled to games for years and younger fans out of attendance. I’ve done a bit of digging myself, and trying to find cold hard statistics on the average price of a ticket at Anfield, let alone the Premier League in general is a bit of a nightmare – the closest I got was a Daily Mail article (no chance am I linking anything in my writing to that rag) which claimed the Anfield average stood at nearly £50. Furthermore, David Conn wrote a brilliant article in the Guardian a few years back which showed that, for example, the cheapest-seat ticket at Old Trafford has increased some 700% since 1990, an increased mirrored and also surpassed at Anfield, the Emirates, and at many other of the league’s stadiums.

Inflation meanwhile, as Conn described has increased a mere 77% in the same time period, while average real wages appear to have risen somewhere in the region of 50%. Ultimately then, the price of watching top-tier football has absolutely hammered its way beyond the income growth of the average local supporter over the last 30 years, outstripping the growth of people’s pocket money in excess of ten times over.

At the minute, protests against high ticket prices are unlikely to reverse this trend, namely because the entire model of modern football is fuelled by the relentless chucking spin of hyper-inflation. In the Premier League, the game’s bosses broker record TV deal after record TV deal and saddle stadiums, club shirts and television channels with the signatures of lucrative sponsorship deals. This in turn arms clubs with the power to purchase players for obscene levels of money at equally preposterous wage rates. And as with bees to a pot of honey, rats to a sewer, armies of agents, PR squads and bureaucrats flock to throw added timbre down the landslide, siphoning off their own chunks of wealth while they do so. In this sense, the issue of ticket prices is only a stream within, and sprinting off from the sea of the problem: that football has become an ultra-commercialised, venture capitalistic patch of social terrain. And it is on this very terrain that the lines dividing and crafting footballing success from lucrative business have become dissolved and now obliterated, into a point of corporate nihilism.

It’s clear that ultimately, Liverpool’s owners have no intention at all of reducing prices to truly affordable levels: this would work to undermine their entire project, driving against the staggering efforts over recent years to commercialise every last drop of the club’s blood. As fans, we need to look elsewhere. Only a football which is owned and run collectively by fans, rather than businessmen, will work and operate towards fan interests. There are various models of this in today’s game, each working to differing degrees of success. The obvious example is in Germany, where a ‘50%+1’ law requires nearly all clubs in the Bundesliga to be owned by a supporter-collective majority shareholder stake. Tickets are much cheaper than they are in England, and the example of Germany offers a clear indication that even in modern football’s tiring reality, there is an alternative. In England, this alternative requires installation from institutions such as the Premier League and the FA: two institutions who’s devotion to the status-quo and greed still astounds, with every new announcement of McDonalds partnerships and proposals for ‘marketing league matches‘ to be played in Dubai. It therefore falls to us, as fans, to wrestle our domestic game towards this near-utopian glimmer in modern football.

Yet even in Germany, fans still pay vulgar amounts of money to watch live football at times. Dortmund fans recently protested by throwing tennis balls onto the pitch away at Stuttgart, after a quarter of their fans paid 70Euros for a ticket before travelling over 400kilometres to watch the game. And in a Bundesliga team, the remaining 49% of shares typically belongs to a variety of corporate entities – usually team sponsors. The sheer power of Bayern Munich’s sponsorship deals over the last 30 years with companies such as Adidas, Allianz and Audi, has fattened the club’s transfer budgets for new players in monstrous proportions and helped rifle the club to levels of domestic and continental success which absolutely dwarfs that of any other side in Germany. Such gross inequality in resources suggests that the model needs refining yet more. And why not. The one-fan one-vote policy of FC United of Manchester, a club thrashed together in fury upon Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United, is unlikely to find international success on the pitch any time soon. But a more a much difficult task is at hand: the task to save the spectacle of modern football from the prying lense of a furious desire to commercialise and profiteer from all of its earthy, utopian brilliance. And any success at all in this battle, is a victory worth fighting for.

 

 

 

 

 

on football and ticket prices