Monday, August 10, 2015

And how was your holiday?

Like that first September day of the new school term, football returned this weekend, with new uniforms, new pencil cases and pristine exercise books box-fresh from the stock cupboard. Old friends were reunited, the same old jeans sat in the same old seats, the same old banter flowed.

There were a few new faces and, in one case, new hair. A perennially shaven-headed bloke we christened 'Mr. 80-Minute Man' (on account of him always leaving ten minutes before the end), appeared with a bizarre sprouting of hair around the crown that unnerved our entire section of the East Stand Upper at Stamford Bridge.

We did, however, have to remind ourselves that it was only August 8. It seemed like it was only the previous week that I was standing outside the carcass of the Hand & Flower pub on the Fulham Road, awaiting Chelsea's open-topped bus as it trundled around SW6 in the obligatory, title-winning community relations ritual.

© Simon Poulter 2015

But in my head, the gap between season's end and season's start seemed impertinently short, if non-existent, seeing as we've had the Champions League final, the Women’s World Cup and the pre-season friendlies televised live from lucrative foreign ‘tours’. It was bad enough seeing the Community/Charity/YourBrandHere Shield on August 2 - the second day of August, for goodness sake! August 2 is close enough to July to make it actually feel like July, which is not the month that competitive football should be starting.

I’d hate to make all this about money, but face facts, it is. The Barclays Premier League - thanks to its £5.14 billion television deal - has become the most expensive domestic football competition in the world. Sky, BT or whomever is paying that sort of money, can demand what they want to deliver the audiences their advertisers need.

Why else would you open the new season with Manchester United and Tottenham at lunchtime, knowing that a large chunk of your demographic will have used it as an excuse to leave the heat of the Majorcan sun to watch it in the hotel bar. The same must have applied to defending champions Chelsea's 5.30pm fixture against Swansea - at 6.30 on the continent, it would have been ideal for anyone sneaking in a pint before the buffet dinner.

Managers and pundits like to cast these early days of the 10-month season as irrelevant, but despite the apparent lethargy of some under-prepared teams, this weekend meant business. Already there's a league table to look at.

Without getting too misty-eyed about it, whatever happened to the table not appearing after two or three fixtures?

Are we really to believe that, on this Monday morning, Leicester City, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Aston Villa will be the Top 4 come next May, with Arsenal relegated in 20th place?

Of course not, and apart from the cheap but momentary satisfaction of seeing such a snapshot, the common expectation is that the table will look predictably familiar, 37 games later.

As delightful a parallel universe fantasy would be to see Claudio Ranieri's Leicester crowned champions, and Arsenal dispatched to the second tier, one game - goes the conventional wisdom - tells us nowt.

That the defending champions, Chelsea, looked anything like candidates to retain the title on Saturday against an expectedly spirited, spoke volumes about the thin line that exists between good and better.

That Arsenal, puffed up by their acquisition of Chelsea's Petr Čech and the restoration (yet again) of self belief, floundered humiliatingly to a West Ham with a 16-year-old tearing them asunder, spoke volumes about how Arsène Wenger has a lot of work still to do before the phalanx of doubters can go quiet. The Frenchman, of course, put this aberration down to first-day nerves: "We will respond to that accident," he has promised, a phrase normally better suited to the London Ambulance Service.

Manchester United are also still, to be polite, work-in-progress. This is only the second season of Louis van Gaal's rebuilding job after the disastrous single term of David Moyes. But despite the pricey arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Dutch prodigy Memphis Depay, Old Trafford is clearly somewhat less of the cocky, swaggering theatre of dreams it was under Sir Alex Ferguson.

United's noisy neighbours, Manchester City, open their account tonight away to West Brom, but despite continuing murmurs about Manuel Pellegrini's job security and the club's apparent infatuation with Pep Guardiola, they've added Raheem Stirling for a ridiculous £45 million, and will - as usual - go about their business quietly and without any public histrionics.

Which leads me, inevitably, to José Mourinho. Saturday's 2-2 draw against Swansea was the result of a) Gary Monk's team doing what they do well against apparently grander opponents, and getting stuck in to brilliant effect; and b) Chelsea's mindset not being what it should be.

With the exception of Radamel Falcao (brought on as a late substitute) and Asmir Bergovic (brought on to replaced the dismissed Courtois), this was largely the Chelsea that had won the Premier League last season more or less by Christmas. The back four was no different to the quartet that had valiantly kept one of the leanest records of the entire last season, and yet at times on Saturday looked like they barely knew each other.

© Simon Poulter 2015
In pre-season, in the Community Shield, and on Saturday, Chelsea looked vulnerable at the back. Their doorman, Matic, seemingly let anyone in. Despite two goals from set pieces, there was little to speak of up front.

It's clear that something is not quite right with Chelsea, which explains why Mourinho senselessly lashed out at team doctor Eva Carneiro for treating a floored Eden Hazard. Mourinho may be a tactical genius, but to publicly blame your medical staff for doing their jobs when a player as key as Hazard had been lying prone for a couple of minutes lacks class. We all love Jose at Chelsea, but his incessant victimhood can wear very thin, very easily.

Compare Mourinho's diversionary ire with Eddie Howe, manager of newly-promoted Bournemouth. Seven years ago, the club almost went bankrupt, and yet here they were, making their Premier League debut at home to Aston Villa in a party at the appropriately named Vitality Stadium. Howe pulled the seaside club up into the Premier League through entertaining, committed football last season. and though they will face a huge challenge in staying there - especially given Howe's pledge to keep faith with the players that won promotion - it's sights like those from the South Coast on Saturday that should remind everyone why we watch football.

Not for the predictable and the banal, but for clubs enjoying their football, come win or defeat.

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