Brendan Rodgers’s Carroll-conundrum

Brendan Rodgers needs to tread carefully. Despite learning part of his trade under the most media-savvy coach of all in Jose Mourinho, he has taken a few overly hasty steps in his handling of the Andy Carroll affair that could yet come back to haunt him. His recent about-face regarding Carroll’s utility to his plans (“he can fit into how I want to play…I’m certainly not wishing to push him out of the door”) has come off as indecision from a man who only last week implied that Carroll had no place in his tactical vision for Liverpool and would be better off seeking a loan route out of the club.

It is all very well for Rodgers to wish to stamp his authority on Liverpool early on by demonstrating firm commitment to his cherished 4-3-3 and acting decisively regarding the club’s most contentious player, but if Carroll cannot be moved on to everyone’s satisfaction and Liverpool fail to make a winning start, Rodgers’s unnecessary granting of the impression upon the public that there is an unsolvable problem between him and Carroll will be held up as the reason for his failure. Every occasion on which Carroll comes off the bench, fails to perform on the pitch, or doesn’t even make the squad, will haunt Liverpool’s team and Rodgers for as long as it needs them to adapt to a radically new system in 4-3-3 and start silencing critics with results. Doubt is easier and faster to spread than faith, and it would be catastrophic for Rodgers if the fans or players began forming opinions of him based on the media’s negative portrayal of his problems with Carroll. That would translate to a critical reluctance on the part of the players to help inculcate the 4-3-3, and the longer that takes, the more chance the swell of criticism would grow and the potentially exciting things Rodgers could offer Liverpool could be buried under their £35 million problem. Carroll does not look like a person who makes things easy for those who stand up to him, and after Rodgers’s ill-advised comments, his continued presence at Liverpool could overshadow everything he seeks to build at his new club.

Andre Villas-Boas’s travails at Chelsea serve as a useful reminder to Rodgers of the pitfalls of being a young manager at a club with history and an inclination for snap judgements. As a young manager seeking to implement a drastically new system, he needed players on his side and results to go his way for belief to grow and conformity to follow. Instead, Chelsea had an indifferent first half of the season and his falling out with Frank Lampard and other senior players became more of an issue than the good work he had to offer. Rodgers needs to avoid the same impulsiveness on all fronts of his management approach if he is to bring longevity and change to Liverpool.

Mancini pipes up again

“I don’t think we can play for the Champions League with this squad…We have to improve as players…if you don’t change a lot of players, you can’t hope to win like other teams.”

Is there not one Manchester City player who is as offended by Roberto Mancini’s most recent comments about them as I am? He professes his lack of faith that a team that won the Premier League can go far in the Champions League and urges his players to improve themselves, before declaring his wish “to change a lot of them” to continue winning.

With every plaintive comment expressing his dissatisfaction with those he coaches, Mancini reveals himself more and more as a myopic manager whose understanding of his profession excludes player nurturing and long-term development in favour of an almost childlike practice of buy, field, win. It would be interesting to see him cope at a club that did not have such a sizeable advantage to the rest of the field (City because of their riches, Inter because of Calciopoli), and where he would actually have to engage in coaching once again. In the meantime, it remains to be seen how City respond to his latest round of demands for players at a time when their expenditure has sent them on a head-on collision course with UEFA ahead of the onset of FFP rules in 2013-14.

Arsenal’s “mystery injuries”

There are few clubs whose fate in recent seasons can be tied as strongly to their management of player injuries as Arsenal. It remains a bittersweet proposition to imagine how Arsenal might have fared in 2009-10 if they had managed to field a team containing Thomas Vermaelen, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin on a consistent basis. On one of the few occasions that they did, Arsenal produced one of the games of the season enroute to beating Barcelona 2-1 in a thrilling contest at the Emirates. It appeared the sky was the limit, but by the time of the second leg, Vermaelen, Walcott and Arshavin were injured, van Persie barely made it and Fabregas started the match in such a bad state that he later admitted he could barely run.

Alongside the well-documented defensive lapses, and inability to adapt to games of attrition that hamper their fluid passing style, it can be argued that failing to keep his best players fit has had an equally important role to play in the deconstruction of Arsene Wenger’s work over the last few years. Fabregas and van Persie, the club’s fulcrums in midfield and attack, were constantly prevented by injury from developing a partnership that might have led to titles and them reconsidering their hastiness in wanting to leave. Many of these injuries were the result of tough tackles tailored for Arsenal’s perceived flimsiness (Diaby, Eduardo) or natural wear and tear (Fabregas’s hamstrings have all the makings of a chronic problem ).

However, more worrying have been the “mystery injuries” that have claimed large chunks of Tomas Rosicky’s, Thomas Vermaelen’s and Jack Wilshere’s careers; in each case, a standard and relatively minor initial diagnosis was somehow enlarged under the care of Arsenal’s medical staff into a head-scratching situation that required multiples surgeries and incredulously long absences. Rosicky’s simple hamstring injury ended up keeping him out for eighteen months, and Vermaelen’s three-month Achilles injury prevented him from playing for an entire season. In Wilshere’s case, Arsenal initially failed to determine that he needed surgery and confidently predicted his stress fracture would heal within six weeks. Who can tell whether their tardiness in sending him for the surgery he eventually had to undergo in October led to the further complications that arose in January and April, and that eventually required a second surgery on his knee? Wenger has now predicted his return in October (almost a year later), but given Arsenal’s incompetency or deliberately misleading information thus far, there should be no guarantee attached to his words.

The apparent misdiagnosis of Jack Wilshere’s injury by the Arsenal medical staff, coupled with the infuriating fact that it is only at Arsenal that so many injury situations seem to develop into career-threatening crises harming both player and team, should at the very least be prompting internal scrutiny. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger wants to protect his players and staff by presenting a unified front to the outside world, but that shouldn’t preclude him from conducting the urgent review of Arsenal’s set-up that is required to maintain excellence and is often dependent on the pressure exerted by external opinion. Wenger stoutly defended Pat Rice for many years, and frequently laments how “everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they’re right”, but a thorough inquiry would be the only way to clear the suspicion hanging over yet another facet of the club’s operations.

Manchester City recently conducted a fascinatingly detailed feature with BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/18887653) about their methodology for player injuries and injury prevention. That kind of open and accountable ethos has not existed around Arsenal’s communication of Rosicky, Vermaelen and Wilshere’s injuries, and one can only hope that is not because they were either in the dark about the problem or unwittingly guilty of mistakes they’d rather not disclose.

One thing is for sure: if any more of Arsenal’s players disappear for a similarly unfathomable length of time, it will be increasingly hard to put it down to coincidence.

Mancini’s transfer demands know no end

As Roberto Mancini’s thinly disguised complaints over Manchester City’s lack of transfer activity become more and more frequent, the sense of disbelief at his ignorance of the irony of his stance grows. Mancini presides over the most expensively assembled squad in the history of football, yet never fails to take an opportunity to demand that the club’s owners continue their excessive spending habits on his behalf. Last year, his request that he needed “two or three more players” to win the Premier League was attended to by the City board who sanctioned the buys of Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Sergio Aguero. However, by January, Mancini was complaining that player injuries and the African Cup of Nations meant he would “need more players” to maintain the club’s lead at the top of the table. It has been a familiar story this summer, with Mancini adamant that the burden of “winning again” rests on City’s ability to buy new players and “to change some players in some positions.”

Apart from his qualities of solid defensive organisation and a unique rapport with Mario Balotelli, it has been difficult to see what Mancini has added as City manager. Despite making full use of City’s riches he still required a last-minute goal to secure the Premier League title, and his obsessive quest to acquire new players ignores a manager’s duty to develop those he has already bought. Micah Richards, Adam Johnson and James Milner might feel short-changed by his public declaration that he “needs to change some players in some positions”, while Samir Nasri pointedly spoke of his need to “feel loved by the manager” in order to perform at his best. Mancini’s quotes and actions have never served to portray him as a manager who is also an individual fan of his players, and who embraces all aspects of management beyond the imperative to win. He jars most negatively in this regard with Nasri’s old manager, Arsene Wenger, whom Thierry Henry fondly described as having the rare ability to give players “confidence in themselves.” It was Wenger, not Mancini, whom Kolo Toure chose to call for advice upon discovering he had failed a drugs test in March last year.

If Robin van Persie follows through his intention to leave Arsenal, he would do well to remember what he will be leaving behind. He will be hard pressed to find a manager anywhere who cares as deeply about his players’ careers, or creates tactical systems that consider giving them a platform to shine as important as the function they serve in a team. Many scoff at Wenger for failing to bring trophies home to Arsenal but, setting aside the dedication and professionalism that propelled Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero to new heights last season, there has not been one player who can be said to have flourished under Mancini’s watch. This, along with his timidly defensive playing style, are indictments of his management that cannot be totally papered over by his ceaseless observations that his squad requires strengthening.

Sympathy abounds as Adam Scott suffers at the hands of golf

To watch Adam Scott throw away a four-shot lead over his last four holes to surrender the British Open was to be reminded that few sports can match golf’s intensity for shredding a man’s nerves so completely. Everyone will have their own haunting image or decisive moment, but for me it was the concern clouding the normally affable expression on his face as he held his swing finish after his final tee shot and the bewildered look that replaced it once he had missed that final putt that were most affecting. Golf’s cruellest finish seems to have happened to one of its nice guys, whose dignified reserve in its aftermath only heightened the pathos around his plight.

As Adam Scott attempts to recover from the abrupt wreckage of his dreams at Lytham, he should reflect on one or two facts that may bring him some comfort. One, apart from those last few holes where mental frailty tampered with the hitherto faultless rhythm of his swing, he confirmed that he remains one of the most talented golfers in the world today with every chance of setting himself up for another major win soon. Two, his soft-spoken and genial manner, particularly in the face of such a bruising defeat, has won him many new fans around the world. They will be watching him with new interest in the future, and fervently hoping he shares their belief that he can shatter the myth about nice guys lacking the steel to deal with major-tournament golf’s ultimate pressures.