Category Archives: Best & Worst

Best & Worst of the weekend: Swansea & Manchester United/Bolton


Swansea’s performance against Arsenal

Such is the nature of the media in this country, I’m sure that most of the emphasis will be placed on Arsenal’s shortcomings – but really, the visitors were only as good as they were allowed to be.

The criticism of Swansea this season has been that despite their concentration of possession, they haven’t always used it particularly decisively. Not so yesterday; the triangles, the pretty patterns, the two touch play – it all seemed to have far more purpose yesterday. A cutting edge. Swansea were excellent and fully-deserved the three points.

A minor point but an important one; the reflex reaction to Theo Walcott’s equaliser was probably the most impressive moment of the game. There are too many sides in the league, and not just newly-promoted ones, who would have become very negative after such a concession. Passive play in the face of big reputation opposition is a default setting for a lot of teams – but Brendan Rodgers’ side showed the benefits of sticking to an original gameplan. Attack with pace, deploy as much movement in and around a shakey visiting defence, and hassle the opposition when they’re in possession in their own defensive third.

Two lovely finishes from Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham as well…


Peter Walton’s failure to send off Zat Knight

Every week.

At least when refereeing decisions are given in Manchester United’s favour there’s a semblance of explanation for them. Not so here.

Danny Welbeck is in on goal – or in ref-parlance ‘has a clear goal-scoring opportunity’ – and Zat Knight impedes him. It’s a penalty and it’s a red card. It’s not even contestable. Had the defender been dismissed by Walton, then not even the most partisan of Bolton fans could’ve found an argument to dispute the decision.

The saving grace of course, is that the decision didn’t effect the result of the game, but that doesn’t excuse it. With every decision like this, a new precedent is set – another example that confuses what should be a really straight-forward issue. Last-man commits a foul? Off he goes.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how difficult the job is, how many cameras there are scrutinising, the pace of the game etc – but sorry, this was just a clear failure to apply the rules. Ineptitude at its worst.

Segue out of that quickly – who read Richard Scudamore’s comments about refereeing this morning? Here, if you missed them.

Boxing Day Best & Worst – Blackburn & Sunderland/Everton


Blackburn’s defensive performance at Anfield

While Kenny Dalglish curses the profligacy of his misfiring team, credit where it’s due to Blackburn. Ravaged by injury, populated by teenagers, and rock-bottom of the league – a recipe for a hammering at one of the biggest grounds at the country? Not so.

Given the lack of experienced Premier League pedigree that Steve Kean has at his disposal, surely the much-maligned Scot deserves to take some credit for instilling within the players he does have enough desire to rage against the odds.

Blackburn are were they are in the league because of a lack of resources and the deception of their owners, conversely, the effort and determination of their players on Boxing Day was a credit to the club. Adam Henley, Grant Hanley, Jason Lowe, reserve goalkeeper Mark Bunn – Steve Kean has to be praised for equipping these players with enough belief to withstand the onslaught they faced on Monday.

What the fans who so shamefully abuse Kean might have to wake up to, is that while they may not like the manager, the players seem willing to play for him. Similarly, maybe they also need to recognise that they are part of the problem at Ewood Park.


Howard Webb’s penalty decision in Sunderland/Everton

Another game altered by another ridiculous refereeing decision. Those who cling to the ‘objectivity’ of an officials role need look no further than the Stadium of Light on Monday, because it’s an example of an ‘error’ rather than a ‘difference in opinion’. It’s not a penalty, it’s a farce.

How much longer must we wait before technology finally banishes this kind of absurdity from the sport? Maybe when the sport was amateur this kind of thing was acceptable, but not now, not with so much riding on each individual game. Fixtures should never be decided by referees, but the last few weeks has seen a flurry of games taken out of the hands of the teams by the official.

It’s just time, debating injustices has become utterly tedious – the game needs to catch up with every other major sport and embrace the assistance on offer rather than arrogantly dismissing it.


Honourable mention to Phil Dowd by the way.

Best & Worst of the weekend – Manchester United & Chelsea


Phil Jones’ performance against QPR

A performance to warm the heart of Englishmen everywhere. What a player he is. There was an interesting moment in Sky’s analysis yesterday, where Graeme Souness was asked where the young Manchester United player was best utilised – ‘anywhere’ was the answer.

That’s the beauty of Jones, he’s just a footballer. He’s not categorised as a right-back, a centre-back, or a holding midfielder, because his attributes are such that he can bring something to every position. He still has to develop some nous in certain parts of the field, but how can you not be excited by his energy, drive, physicality, and enthusiasm?


Petr Cech’s error at Wigan

The time has come for Chelsea to seek alternatives arrangements between the sticks. Petr Cech has been a cornerstone of the most successful period in the club’s history, and while that shouldn’t be forgotten, you can’t trade off nostalgia forever.

One of the challenges of being a goalkeeper at a big club, is that the action you see during a game will be sporadic – 88 minutes a spectator, two minutes a point-saver. Cech used to be a living and breathing example of how to play that role, but now his errors are costing Chelsea points in games they need to be winning.

At 29, Cech is hardly finished as a goalkeeper, he’s just no longer in that elite bracket. A lot has been made of the size of Andre Villas-Boas task, and the egos he must navigate on his way to refreshing this team – but one of the biggest challenges he faces is finding a replacement number one.

If you’re searching for excuses for Wigan’s equaliser, you can point to the traffic infront of Petr Cech, and Ashley Cole’s obstruction of his goalkeeper, but really it wasn’t good enough – Chelsea should be heading into their game with Tottenham ahead of their London rivals on goal difference, and not two points behind.

Interestingly enough, Thibaut Courtois is making quite a name for himself in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, so it will be interesting to see if the Belgian – although only 19 – can make a run at being first-choice number one next season.

Football’s cruel in the way in which it disregards the past, but Petr Cech’s present is unfortunately undermining Chelsea’s future. Time for a change.

Best & Worst of the weekend – Blackburn and Bolton


Yakubu’s Quadruple

That’s how you finish. He may not be in the best shape, and I don’t believe for a second that he’s under thirty, but what a priceless commodity the Nigerian has in his game – goalscoring. I wrote last week that one of the few positives that Blackburn fans can cling to, was their team’s ownership of a proven Premier League forward.

His first was sensational, his second and third were studies into goalscoring instinct, and his penalty was the knockout blow that did for Swansea.


Gary Cahill’s sending off

A nonsense. It’s not referee Stuart Attwell’s fault that this occurred on the same day as Mike Dean’s failure to dismiss David Luiz, but that it did just serves to demonstrate the lack of consistency in Premier League officiating.

If that’s William Gallas or Younes Kaboul making that tackle, are they seeing red for it? I doubt it. Apply some common-sense here – Scott Parker is fifty yards from goal, there are covering defenders on the other side of the pitch. How is that a clear goalscoring opportunity? I can accept bad decisions when they’re debatable, but not when they contradict the rulebook.

Attwell likes to give big decisions, that they’re frequently incorrect seems to go unnoticed by the FA and Keith Hackett – this is also the referee that awarded the phantom goal between Reading and Watford in 2008. Do you want a conspiracy theory? Go on then…

Attwell, at 25, was the youngest referee to ever take charge of a Premier League game. He took charge of his first football league game in 2007, and by 2008 was officiating at the top of the pile. That’s a pretty steep progression. Attwell has been fast-tracked to the Premier League for the public relations benefit of having a young and visible referee at the top level.

What do you see if you look back on his career? A history of ‘losing control’ of games and of baffling decisions. Not just ‘poor’ decisions, but ones that are genuinely mystifying.

He’s making ‘big’ decisions in order to demonstrate his authority in games – he’s taking every opportunity to show that he can face-up to the personality of the league.

Tenuous? Maybe, but still…

Best & worst of the weekend: Manchester City and Manchester United


Joe Hart’s double-save at the end of Liverpool/City

So far ahead of his rivals for the England goalkeeping jersey that it has ceased to be a contest. Arguably the national team’s most important player now, given the lack of a credible replacement.

From an outfielder’s perspective, Andy Carroll should’ve scored – but don’t let that detract from Hart’s agility. On his wrong side, Hart showed both the athleticism and the strength in his wrist to preserve his team’s unbeaten record. Part one.

Part two is what goalkeepers train day-in and day-out for; make the first save, and get-up and make the second. While we all stood and applauded the first stop, Luis Suarez had a tap-in to win the game – and if the Uruguayan scores then nobody’s talking about the Carroll save this morning. Bouncing too your feet after saving at full-stretch is one of the hardest parts of goalkeeping, and Hart’s denial of Suarez was arguably the more impressive of the two saves.

These are the little moments that add up to winning a Championship.


The penalty decision at Old Trafford

Mystifyingly awful. If as an assistant referee you’re going to give such a decision, you better make sure it’s correct – otherwise you look like your trying to crowbar yourself into the game. John Flynn’s decision was that of someone who seemed determined to give a ‘big’ decision at a big ground. “Nobody gives penalties at Old Trafford, but I will.”

Maybe that’s harsh, but what other explanation can you come up with for the assistant putting his flag across his chest? Look at the crowd’s reaction, look at Rio Ferdinand’s reaction, and look at the trajectory of the ball. Even referee Mike Jones doesn’t even hesitate before giving a corner.

That this happened to Manchester United, and that it’s hard to have sympathy for a team that so often benefit from such decisions, are both equally irrelevant. An unforgivable mistake that changed the outcome of a game – officiating has got to be better than this.

Best & worst of the weekend: Liverpool, Wolves & Southampton/Brighton


Craig Bellamy’s pass to Maxi Rodriguez.

Simple but game-defining. Given the way that Chelsea are defending at the moment, it’s not surprising that the tone for yesterday’s game was set by a mistake – and Bellamy was key to ensuring that Liverpool profited from it.
The one-two with Luis Suarez may have created the opportunity, but the lay-off to Maxi made sure that it was converted. I wrote yesterday that Craig Bellamy is the perennially undervalued player, and he gave us another example of why – how many players in that position would have slashed the ball at goal rather than up the percentages with a pass to a teammate? If Andy Carroll had started, and found himself in that position, Liverpool would’ve gone in level at half-time.
Plaudits to Bellamy obviously, but also to Kenny Dalglish for recognising the time and the place to deploy one of his less-heralded Summer signings.


Mick McCarthy’s post-match interview

Oh be quiet. McCarthy’s ‘not maybe, definitely’ passive-aggressive approach to his post-match interview may have been symptomatic of the pressure that he’s currently under, but even so. Penalty box shenanigans are one of the greyest areas of the rule book, but Stephen Ward did foul Louis Saha – soft or not, it’s a penalty. Please don’t tell me that if that happens down the other end, that McCarthy’s not howling for a penalty himself – and complaining if it’s not given.
Look at the rule-book, it’s a penalty.

Honourable mention…

Peter Walton’s performance in the Southampton/Brighton game

So it’s not often that Championship football features in these pages, nor are expletives commonly-used, but Walton’s refereeing was an utter fucking disgrace. Five different penalty decisions, probably four of them wrong – and one of which was a laughably inept collaboration between referee and linesman. As you know from the previous paragraph, I’m not an advocate of the hounding of officials, but when they perform as poorly as they did at St Mary’s, it equates to a disservice to everybody involved – fans, players, managers.
Find the highlights, watch them, feel confused.

Best & worst of the weekend: Tottenham & Chelsea


Scott Parker’s performance against Queens Park Rangers

In a world without Owen Hargreaves, the national team has been left unanchored in midfield. A player with a clearly defined role of minimal glory and maximum effort.

If you were to teach youngsters how to play this position, you could do worse than just show them all 88 minutes of Scott Parker’s performance yesterday. He chased, he hassled, he disrupted, he won the ball back, and he distributed it with no nonsense or risk. Parker is a case study in what doing the basics of the game well can do for a career. In amongst the Modrics, the Bales, and the Van der Vaarts of Tottenham’s midfield, he’s the foundation upon which everything the team does offensively is built. He frees those around him to play with expression and without as much defensive obligation.

Whether he can be as prominent against a more potent midfield remains questionable, but how nice it is to see an English midfielder play with such discipline. It’s become fashionable over the years to praise engine-room players who revel in the blue-collar parts of the game, but this was as clear an example of how important that role is as you’ll ever see. One of the best midfield tacklers in the league, and as consistent in possession as you could ask for.



The Chelsea defence

Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? I thought, like just about everybody else, that it would be Arsenal’s defence that would flounder at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Two myths for you; Petr Cech is a top-class goalkeeper, and John Terry is an elite centre-half. Both completely untrue.

In Cech’s case, his biggest ally is his past, the reputation he created for himself in the middle of the last decade is one that he’s still eating-out on today. At fault for the second, third, and fifth goals, he costs his side more points than he preserves now. It’s a sad tale, because his decline seems almost inextricably linked to the horrendous head injury he suffered all those years ago, but unfortunately that’s neither here nor there – Chelsea need a new goalkeeper. Whether it’s a physical problem or a mental one, he’s no longer within the top five of his position in this league – let alone the continent. Football’s brutal sometimes, but a replacement is still needed, having loyalty to players that have won you titles in the past will win you no points in the present.

John Terry? I’ve read in a couple of places today that the blame for Arsenal’s fourth on Saturday should really lie at the door of Florent Malouda for his misplaced pass. Maybe – but a player of the supposed quality of Terry should be able to change direction with a little more effectiveness and grace than he managed. The problem is that he’s been protected in that Chelsea team for a long time – most notably by Ricardo Carvalho’s pace during the club’s most successful period and by Michael Essien’s industry ahead of him. Has anyone ever wondered why the Chelsea and England versions of Terry are so different?

He can’t seriously still be considered first-choice for the national team.

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Best and worst of the weekend – Manchester City & Aston Villa


Manchester City’s performance at Old Trafford.

Perfect. It’s ironic given the typical concerns over big spending clubs, that this was result owed to the collective rather than the individual. From back to front this was a complete performance that showed off City’s diverse range of assets on the biggest stage of all.

The assurance of Joe Hart, the raiding and defending of Micah Richards and Gael Cichy, the presence of Vincent Kompany – all the way through to the delightful imagination of David Silva, and the high-octane qualities of Mario Balotelli.

The first twenty minutes aside, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a side leave Old Trafford having faced so little resistance. City were comfortable, there was no assault on their lead at any point – they were comfortable and in control. That’s a huge complement to Roberto Mancini, he’s built a team – or squad – capable of strangling the life out of the best that the league has to offer.

I wrote in the preview to this game that I hoped City didn’t freeze at Old Trafford, and that if they expressed themselves they could win this game. They did more then express themselves, for once we’re not talking about United’s failure to perform as a reason for a loss – it was the other team that just completely handled them.

How many times has that been said in the Premier League era? Put aside United’s anomalous results from the past – the Southamptons, the Middlesbroughs, and the Newcastles – this was different. This was not a team playing up to a home crowd, this was not a side showing ‘disgusting effort’, this was just a team going into United’s backyard and out-footballing the Champions.

Terrifying for the rest of the league.


Alan Hutton’s tackle on Shane Long.

Yes the tackle, but also Alex McLeish’s attempt to explain it away.

“Shane Long was maybe favourite to get it, but Hutton’s gone from the ball and he’s collided in the follow through and that’s what’s injured him. Everybody doesn’t get injured from these challenges. He’s followed through and collided with the player. But how can you stop in mid-air?”.

Why was Hutton in ‘mid-air’ in the first place. Out-of-control, reckless, and incredibly dangerous – it’s indefensible. I’m all for managers showing solidarity to their players, but not when it’s at the expense of their own credibility.

A place well-deserved in this column for Alan Hutton, his manager, referee Phil Dowd for not sending the player off, and prematurely the FA – who will presumably be their usual spineless selves in not handing down retrospective punishment.

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Best and Worst of the weekend – Arsenal & Manchester United/Liverpool


Robin Van Persie

Where would Arsenal now be without him. Not just because of his goals, but because of what he manages to do with so little else around him. A true captain’s performance.
Aside from an energetic first half-an-hour from Gervinho, Van Persie was Arsenal’s sole attacking and creative threat – and it’s mark of his importance that they don’t look in any way threatening when anybody else is on the ball in the final third. Theo Walcott is more of a hinderance than a source of supply, Mikel Arteta isn’t forward-thinking enough to play the role asked of him, and Tomas Rosicky is nothing more than an adequate midfielder.
Two moments of ruthlessness from the Dutchman – and so very nearly a wondrous third in between them – were the difference between three points and possibly nothing. A classy, classy player, and finally looking fit.

Robin Van Persie to be top scorer this season?


Sky’s build-up to Liverpool & Manchester United

There’s an invisible line between anticipation and melodrama, and Sky are usually quite good at knowing where that line occurs. Football is football, and as such it needs to remain in context. If you overplay the significance and potential drama of something that you’re about to broadcast, then invariably it ends up disappointing its audience.

Yes yes, these are the most successful two teams in British football, and they’re playing each other – as they do every year twice – but sometimes you have to let the significance of the occasion just speak for itself. Don’t draft in special reports from New York and Singapore to artificially inflate the gravitas – the Premier League is global, we know this already. Sky’s pre-match filler started to reek a little of colonialism: ‘look how much of the world loves our product!’

The irony of this of course, is that within the Premier League era, only a handful of the clashes between these two teams have been more than palatable in their quality. As significant as the game is, it’s not actually a great advert for our domestic football.

I know football is a business now, but it’d be nice if at every opportunity we weren’t reminded of its ‘global appeal’, its marketability, its profitability overseas, and the like. The league is ours, lets at least try and keep the locality and roots of the game relevant.

Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League?

Best & worst of the weekend: Chelsea & Everton


Frank Lampard’s hat-trick

Compare Lampard’s reaction to that of Glen Johnson last season, who after having his form questioned by Paul Merson went on a childish and deeply unprofessional Twitter rant against the ex-Arsenal star. Lampard has been dismissed and belittled by almost every section of the media – ‘England career over’, ‘should be dropped by Chelsea’ etc – yet you haven’t heard a word from him. Get on with, get your head down, and answer back on the pitch. An example that others would do well to follow.

‘But he only scored three tap ins’ is a claim that I’ve read more than once today, and it needs to be dismissed. The hallmark of Lampard’s game has always been his goalscoring, which in itself is predicated on his late arrival in the box and the chances that that creates. That the goals he scored on Sunday were fairly routine is a testament to him and his ability to read the game.

His legs may be ageing, but his mind is still sharp – a good moment for all those who dislike the knock-you-down culture of our media.


Jack Rodwell’s red card against Liverpool

If a fixture has historically produced a lot of red cars, then maybe a referee with Martin Atkison’s fondness for dismissing player is not the right choice of official?

The first, and most obvious, point is that the decision was incorrect – all ball, no studs showing, no intent, and not even a foul. The default defence available to referees is that the game moves so quickly, that it’s difficult for them to weigh all those factors into the decision they make – irrelevant in this case, Martin Atkinson wasn’t even two yards away. To make a decision of that magnitude so early in the game, surely you need to be completely convinced that it was a dangerous and reckless tackle. Atkinson guessed, and in so doing ruined the game as a contest. Later tackles by Tony Hibbert and Marouane Fellaini were also both worse and punished less-severely – a mystifying refereeing performance.

Not that Luis Suarez was an innocent bystander in this, as his three-stage (Jump-roll-scream) delayed reaction encouraged intervention by the official. It’s a shame, became Suarez is such a gifted player that the negative frills of his game just detract from perceptions of his ability – but his constant simulation, melodrama, and petulance are as prominent as his goals. Watch him next time he’s tackled, he does exactly the same ‘agony face’ every time.