The Trouble With… Mike Ashley

07/12/2010 by

The news yesterday that Newcastle, or more specifically Mike Ashley, had sacked Chris Hughton was something of a shock to say the least. After leading them back to the Premier League with a 102 point Championship winning season, Hughton has overseen comfortable start to the season with Newcastle lying 11th with 19 points from 16 games.

You're better off without him Chris...

Ashley cited the need for someone with more managerial experience to take the club forward which is reasonable if Newcastle were struggling but not in the current circumstances.

It’s not as if Newcastle are marooned in the bottom three, they’ve been mid-table all season and had impressive league victories over Arsenal, Aston Villa and Sunderland amongst others. Chuck in a League Cup win away at Chelsea and you’ve got the basis of good start to the season.

Perhaps there was the feeling that the current run of one win in six was a sign of things to come, but if that was the case then surely Chelsea would be sacking Carlo Ancelotti right now, given he has the exact same record over that period. If  Ashley looked at the table he’d see Everton and Liverpool below his side too.

The whole reason Newcastle were regarded  as a joke club for so many years was that there was always something ridiculous going on. Whether it was poorly thought out signings, directors making inappropriate comments, or hiring Joe Kinnear as manager, you always felt glad your own club wasn’t as stupid.

Hughton brought some stability and more importantly some dignity back to Newcastle. Conducting his business with little fuss, and managing to pretty much unite one of the most divisive squads in recent memory, he was doing well in his first shot at full-time management. Ashley obviously felt otherwise.

Let's shake on it. It won't make a difference but it makes me look good.

Perhaps he felt this season offers an opportunity – it’s a tighter league than normal so a higher than expected finish is achievable.

Perhaps he looks at how well fellow promoted sides West Brom and Blackpool are doing and feels Newcastle should be doing better having last season finished 11 and 32 points ahead respectively.

Perhaps he still plans to sell the club sooner rather than later and wants a bigger manager to attract higher bids and better players. The thing about most of these options is that if anything Newcastle are punching above their weight at the moment.

Ashley may feel that they should resume their place at the higher echelons of the league but times have long since changed from the heady days of title challenges. The main reason is the lack of investment in the team. I know Ashley has spent £300million since buying the club (including the cost price) and he the right to do what he wants but much of this was wasted on poor players and a big fat payoff to big fat Sam Allardyce.

This summer they spent around £6million and that’s being generous as a third of that was just to loan Ben Arfa. Considering how small the squad was to begin with, to currently be 11th despite a poor run of form isn’t to be sniffed at. A promoted side should be looking at staying up first and foremost. Who knows what changing manager now will have.

Mr & Mrs Average

In fairness, despite the difficulty in doing so, judgement has to be reserved until the next manager is named. If Newcastle end up with say Martin O’Neill (unlikely) or Martin Jol (expensive but maybe) then you could argue that a good decision may have been made, however harsh it is on Hughton.

There isn’t really a good time to change managers and it may as well have been done pre January transfer window. The backlash will come if Newcastle end up with someone like Alan Curbishley or Alan Pardew. Are they truly better than Chris Hughton? Really? It would smack of hiring the proverbial safe pair of hands or in other words complete mediocrity.

Curbishley has a track record of uninspiring mid table finishes, the exception being 7th with Charlton in 2003/04. I lost track of the number of times his team would be in a good position come January before collapsing once reaching 40 points. I suppose Alan Pardew is a slightly better option but that’s like saying Andy Townsend is a slightly better pundit than Robbie Earle – both are completely meh.

I wonder who Jol would pick as his assistant?!

By keeping out of the limelight for a while, Mike Ashley’s reputation improved in recent months but he’s destroyed any goodwill he had with Newcastle fans. Even if he brings in someone really quiet good, I’m not sure he will regain it. In the eyes of most, he’s probably the one who should be leaving the club.

T.

Arsenal 2 Fulham 1 – Na na na na na na…

05/12/2010 by

Post match thoughts on Arsenal v Fulham.

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Both of Samir Nasri’s goals were wonderfully taken; on each occasion his close control getting him past several players before providing a finish with either foot. I think part of Nasri’s ability to score such goals stems from his comfort shooting off either foot. It doesn’t limit his direction as he knows whichever route he’ll take, there will still be an opportunity to fire a shot on goal. Beyond Andrey Arshavin, there isn’t a player in the Arsenal squad as two footed. This versatility is a big factor in Nasri’s terrific start to the season.

He's run out of fingers to count his goals this season.

Arshavin himself also had a pretty good game, and has also had a pretty good season thus far. Yes he is a luxury and yes he often stands around but he makes things happen and is often a step ahead in terms what he’s trying to pull off. It might be prudent to play someone a bit more defensive in tough away games but at the same time he is more likely to produce something out of nothing.

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Fulham played pretty well on the whole and with a little more ambition could even have won the game. The main tactic of trying to play in Kamara behind the defence didn’t work often (mainly due to Kamara’s tendency to mistime his runs and caught offside) but it did result in Fulham’s goal. I can’t complain that the game wasn’t stopped for Koscielny’s head injury, ultimately he hadn’t fallen to the ground and so it was difficult to know the full extent in the short space of a few seconds.

It was interesting that at 1-1 and with control of the ball in midfield, Fulham would often play it all the way back to Schwarzer in goal. Similarly they would spend an age over every throw and goal kick – it was clear that Mark Hughes considered a draw a good result, but that lack of ambition has seen him become the draw specialist in the Premier League.

Ouch.

I was impressed by Johan Djourou when he came on for Koscielny. He’s been good when he’s played this season but Wenger is obviously being cautious with regards to playing him every game. He was authoritative in the air and seems to have made a conscious change in terms of attacking the ball/player. Clichy and Sagna were also solid, the former having his best game in quite some time. Perhaps the fit again Kieran Gibbs has focussed the Frenchman’s mind somewhat.

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The game was closer than it perhaps should have been but in part this was due to the poor performances of Arsenal’s midfield. Wilshere looked quite tired after playing against Wigan and faded as the game went on. Rosicky was fairly anonymous but neither were as bad as Alex Song who seems to have forgotten what his role is.

There were plenty of misplaced passes from him and his tendency to wander forward unnecessarily remains unabated. This often left the defence exposed both in terms of Fulham attacks but also as an option for them to pass to. He needs a few games where he curbs his attacking instincts, especially if you consider the upcoming games against Man Utd and Chelsea.

Just 72% completed.

The tension made for a better atmosphere in a way. For once Arsenal had got going early in the first half and produced a number of chances (and indeed the goal) which got the crowd going. But as Fulham came back into it, mistakes were made and calls were not received from ref Chris Foy, meaning there was considerable crowd noise generated. The crowd often feeds off the team but I think it works both ways.

I should mention Theo Walcott briefly too. He was only on for 15 minutes but it was one of those horrible games were nothing he did came off. The worst thing was that his job was to play off the last centre back/left back but he seemed unwilling to do that, and simply jogged around not wanting the receive the ball or to make any runs. With Van Persie returning and Nasri and Arshavin in such good form, it’s tricky to see where his starts will come from at the moment.

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T.

Live Report: Arsenal v Wigan Thoughts

01/12/2010 by

A few thoughts on last night’s victory over Wigan…

The performance wasn’t a vintage one but this was partly down due to the awful conditions. Freezing temperatures, falling snow and swirling winds did not for flowing football make. The atmosphere was pretty good all things considered but there were certainly far fewer people then the advertised 59,525.

I’m sure many people felt that they’d rather sacrifice the tenner they paid instead of sitting in the cold for two hours. Indeed, the guy sitting next me bailed at half time, clearly thinking “Sod this, I’m freezing”.

Kick off

On the pitch there were a few impressive performances. Wilshere kept things ticking at a reasonable pace, hitting probing passes and telling people where he wanted them to run. Van Persie, the captain for the night, had some lovely touches including a couple of flicks that Vela should really have finished off. His set pieces were always hit at a threatening pace too.

Kieran Gibbs has been getting rave reviews whenever he’s played and this game was no different. Always comfortable in defence, he consistently overlapped Vela down the left wing. The crosses/cutbacks didn’t always pick someone out but as many others have said, Gael Clichy should be looking over his shoulder.

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You could argue Vela, Walcott and Bendtner were disappointing, and I suppose they all had presentable chances to score (the latter of course did) – however it would be unfair to simply judge them by the scoresheet. Bendtner of course is still working his way to full fitness and as usual was often in the right place at the right time; his scoring touch will come.

Walcott didn’t really trouble Figueroa in the 1st half but found a little more joy in the second where he started to roam. Indeed his best effort came when cutting in from the left and curling a shot just wide.

Vela was the most interesting. He missed two glorious chances which he normally puts away but generally was always available as an outlet. He’s in the trickiest situation of those three, I just don’t see where he fits in long term.

Swirling snow.

I should mention Wigan’s performance which wasn’t especially bad but lacked a butting edge. Their early tactic was to hit balls out wide to the left where Victor Moses was situated – clearly they thought Eboue was not fully fit. However he went off with a dislocated shoulder towards the end of the 1st half and with that Wigan’s threat somewhat disappeared.

They had some half chances but these stemmed from sloppiness on Arsenal’s part rather than any real creativity. Perhaps I was most impressed with the fact that Caldwell, Alcaraz and Boselli all wore short sleeve shirts and no gloves. Hardcore!

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Once the second goal had gone in the game somewhat petered out. A few chances were missed and everyone was willing the final whistle. Some mild entertainment was provided by a pitch invader who ran the length of the touchline to shake Wenger’s hand.

Clearly the cold had numbed the stewards’ reactions. This was proven a few minutes later when two more kids tried their luck. They were more interested in putting on a show and spent the next minute or so sliding around the Emirates pitch whilst players stood bewildered and stewards chased in vain.

Eventually Eboue got them to stop. It wasn’t particularly clever on their part but I do think it is an isolated incident unlikely to be repeated. The combination of freezing cold weather, bored kids and stewards who weren’t alert is not a particularly common one. After all the one near me was sharp enough to spot me swigging from a hip flask. Given the choice/ultimatum of confiscating it or drinking it all at once in the concourse, I chose the latter naturally.

Pitch invaders...

An intriguing night all in all, with the victory being the most important aspect. The news that Ipswich will be the semi-final opponents should provide a great opportunity to play at Wembley in February.

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T.

Weekly Photoshop – Scottish Referees

30/11/2010 by

Quick one this evening, as I’ve got a Carling Cup game to go to in a mo.

You may have heard about the referees in Scotland going on strike after their integrity was questioned. It all seemed like a massive storm in a teacup but basically stemmed from Celtic getting a penalty overturned in a  game against Dundee Utd. A good explanation from the Beeb is here.

Anyway, it was a quite a random topic but what can you do…

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'The evil pigs sat there in their castle, smug at having stolen the referees' integrity. It was time to strike back...

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More can be found here.

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T.

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Archive.

Weekly Photoshop – Asamoah Gyan

23/11/2010 by

A tricky theme in this week’s Guardian photoshop challenge – Sunderland striker Asamoah Gyan. The main two options seemed to be a pun on lawnmowers or some kind of Strictly Come Dancing effort following his goal celebrations with Bolo Zenden. Never one for the obvious (unless strapped for time…) I went for this:

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If Obama's presidency is anything to go by then we have the initial euphoria of Sunderland finding themselves a previously unknown hero. This is followed by mid-season flirtations with the idea that occasional right winger Frazier Campbell is a better option, before culminating in the eventual realisation that Gyan is the best way forward...

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Catchy caption as I’m sure you’ll agree. More here.

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The Six Pointer – Complacency, Financial Burdens & more…

23/11/2010 by

That was the weekend that was.

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1. I don’t know where to start with the north London derby. Cruising at 2-0 going in to half-time, Arsenal had run rings around their neighbours in the first period. A smart tactical change by Redknapp at the break coupled with a complete mental collapse from the Arsenal players resulted in a famous Tottenham comeback.

You can’t even say this was a massive shock, as it’s happened too many times in recent years for it not to be a serious problem. A very good analysis can be found over at Arseblog while there was an interesting post on Arsenal Vision which documented every game where a lead had been lost and Arsenal had not won the match in the last five years.

Déjà vu.

I think it’s a touch unfair to include every instance where 1-0 ended 1-1 but what I found telling was in the last three seasons alone there have been 11 occasions where Arsenal have taken the lead and gone on to concede at least two goals. There in lies the crux, be it through complacency or the fact they haven’t held on against a top side when gaining the advantage.

The fact another game comes tomorrow will give the players an immediate opportunity to make partial amends but this side has a long way to go before it can be considered winners.

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2. Chelsea were pretty unlucky not to have beaten Birmingham with Ben Foster making at least five or six top saves while the defenders in front of him stood firm.

Like Ancelotti said, their problem at the moment is they’re not firing on all cylinders going forward which means they’re vulnerable when conceding (which in turn is currently more likely with their centre-back woes). Drogba has not scored since October 3rd (while admittedly recovering from malaria) while Malouda also has just one goal since late September.

I feel in part this is down to the midfield three they’re forced to regularly play at the moment – Mikel, Ramires & Zhirkov. There’s not much creativity there nor the control that is offered when Lampard and Essien are fit. Lampard’s absence has been perhaps a little easier to cope with but it’s no coincidence these three recent defeats have been without Essien in the side.

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3. Bolton were very impressive in beating Newcastle 5-1 and it will be interesting to see what happens in January if they are still riding high in the top half of the table.

Admiring glances are being aimed at the likes of Lee, Cahill, Holden and even Owen Coyle himself and with the club recently announcing a debt of £93million there may be some pressure to sell a star to ease the burden.

But for how long?

Another twist to this is the impending expiring contract of Johan Elmander, who is having by the far the best of his three seasons at the Reebok. He finally seems to have adapted to the Premier League but now Bolton risk losing their record £8m signing for nothing next summer.

Unless I’ve missed the Swede professing his undying love for the Trotters, I suspect we may see a gentleman’s agreement when a one year deal is signed but with him being sold in the summer.

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4. I don’t see Blackburn’s new owners pumping too much money into the Ewood Park coffers but it would be interesting to see what Sam Allardyce does with a bigger budget. He claims he’d win the double every year at a top club, but I seem to remember him being something of a flop the last time he had a bit of money to spend when managing Newcastle.

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5. Roberto Mancini has been saying for a while that a big part of  his tactical plan was to have full backs who bomb forward and support Tevez/the notional front three. We saw a glimpse of that in the victory over Fulham with both Kolarov and Zabaleta consistently getting into the Fulham half and attempting several crosses and four of their 11 shots on goal.

Shoot!

I think while Mancini is at heart a cautious manager, we will eventually see a relatively attacking side with Milner and Toure in the central midfield trio and Silva and Balotelli properly supporting Tevez. Reasonable upcoming fixtures should provide opportunity to experiment.

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6. Fulham have lost just four times but are 17th. Chelsea have lost four times and are top of the table. An extreme example perhaps but it shows how destructive draws can be to your league position. Mark Hughes should remember that a win and a loss is better than two draws. Of his last 27 games with both Man City and Fulham, Hughes has overseen 15 stalemates.

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T.

Weekly Photoshop – Marouane Chamakh

16/11/2010 by

Arsenal’s new striker Marouane Chamakh has settled in very well since moving over from Bordeaux, scoring five goals and showing off some well rounded hold-up play.

He has certainly added another dimension to the Arsenal attack and it will be interesting to see what happens once Van Persie and Bendtner are fully fit. Meanwhile his gelled mullet and avatar-like neck lend themselves well to some good Photoshop opportunities.
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Wenger's new toy/blunt instrument should help Arsenal be more successful in tackling Premier League defences this season...

SUCCESS! I got 3rd place this week which means I win a copy of Peter Storey’s autobiography True Storey: My Life and Crimes as a Football Hatchet. He would certainly be useful in today’s Arsenal squad. The rest of the gallery is here.

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T.

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Weekly Photoshop – Carroll & Nolan

09/11/2010 by

Andy Carroll is a naughty boy who often ends up doing naughty things. However instead of being sent to his room to think about what he’s done,  he’s instead been sent to live with Newcastle club captain Kevin Nolan. I bet Mrs Nolan is thrilled…

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I'm sure this year's Nolan family Christmas card won't be at all awkward...

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More here.

T.

Archive.

Arsenal v Birmingham Thoughts

17/10/2010 by

For the second year running the weekend of my birthday featured a home match against Birmingham. As I made my way to the Emirates in an ever so slightly tender state, I hoped for a repeat of 2009/10′s result, a 3-1 victory with goals from van Persie, Diaby and Arshavin.

My fear however was that without Fabregas and post international break, Arsenal would struggle to break down a Birmingham side who would play 451 and come for a draw.

The first 30 minutes were very flat – the atmosphere was subdued with Birmingham fans making all of the noise. The ironic cheers when the Arsenal fans roused themselves to sing a chant said it all. Even the so-called singing section wasn’t up to much.

It didn’t help the action on the pitch was a bit lacklustre too. Plenty of possession for the home team but the forward line felt a little one paced while Diaby was his usual dallying self as the most forward of the midfield trio.

It took ‘two’ goals to liven things up; one disallowed for Arsenal and one against the run of play for Birmingham. From where we were sitting it was unclear why Squillaci’s header had been disallowed. Indeed it took me a good 30 seconds to realise, my brain not fully up to speed from the night before.

Twitter would tell me it was for offside but the decision was somewhat tight. Not long after a Birmingham player wasn’t closed down and hit a deep cross to the back post. There, 6’8″ Zigic lost Clichy and planted a bullet header back across goal. Fabianski needed a second to set himself and dive but it’s hard to blame him – it was a great header.

I was concerned at this stage given the lack of cutting edge thus far and the fact Birmingham are pretty solid defensively. The taunts from the away section were cutting. Something along the lines of “how shit must you be if we’re winning away” – indeed.

Thankfully things were soon evened up. Chamakh was played in and fouled by Scott Dann, at least it looked that way from where I was sitting at the opposite end of the stadium.

Replays I’d see later would suggest he was on his way down before contact was made but to be honest it looked worse in slow motion and we were the victims last season when Rooney did the same thing. Anyway, Nasri sent Foster the wrong way to make it 1-1 at HT.

The second half saw an immediate improvement. Chamakh, who was having an excellent game with plenty of intelligent runs and hold up play, was played in by Song and he rounded the keeper to slot home his fifth goal of the season.

Despite the lead there was still lack of chances being created from the improved running. This was mainly due to Diaby’s continual failure to release the ball early.

He didn’t have a bad game per se but you see the difference when someone like Cesc is playing in that position – he knows when to drive and run with the ball and when to play an early through ball instead. Time and time again Diaby would reach the box and not know what to do and the attack would break down.

Frustrating, but he was not entirely blameless – Arshavin had a very quiet game and offered little running off the ball and little creativity on it.

Bendtner came on and looked busy in his cameo – he will be a useful option in the coming weeks and months. Rosicky meanwhile had one or two decent efforts having replaced Arshavin. You just feel he needs a goal for his confidence, though it must be said his shooting is much more on target than at the start of the season.

The game started to fizzle out somewhat though there remained a slight tetchiness throughout with plenty of running arguments and niggly fouls. This culminated in Wilshere receiving a straight red card for a late foul on Zigic.

It was entirely unnecessary as it was by the halfway line near the touchline but let’s be honest it wasn’t that unexpected. He’s been flying into tackles all season long and it was only a matter of time before one was mis-timed and he was punished for it.

Though I didn’t see it, 7amkickoff informs me Wilshere had been on the receiving end from Zigic not long before so this was essentially retaliation. Wilshere still has that slight hot headedness about him and the sending off will no doubt teach him a few things. That aside he was one of the best players on the pitch yet again, constantly probing and keeping things ticking over.

All in all it was a decent victory, one of those where it was important you got three points despite missing a raft of first team players. I would have liked more goals on my birthday but I’ll take a win and the knowledge that Chelsea and Man Utd both dropped points.

 

T.

Weekly Photoshop – Liverpool’s Woes

12/10/2010 by

Every week sees something ever more ridiculous happen at Anfield; it feels right they should be the theme this week. I can understand Hicks and Gillett desperately trying to hold on to the club given they stand to lose the best part of £140m but sometimes you have just cut your losses and let go. Tomorrow’s high court decision should be interesting to say the least…

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The Conservative child benefit cuts certainly affected some clubs more than others...

 

(Underwater scenes are quite hard, sorry)

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More here.

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T.

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