Oliver’s refereeing hits the bull’s eye

Michael Oliver’s swift and firm reaction to Ander Herrera’s provocative second challenge on Eden Hazard, just moments after he had made clear his disapproval of such tactics to the United captain, was laudatory and must not be allowed to come to be seen as a mistake in hindsight. Oliver’s decision was brave in how early he was prepared to issue a red card to deal with the injustice of a team whose conscious tactic was to repeatedly foul and intimidate Eden Hazard, and nor must the characteristic bard delivered in the guise of innocence by Jose Mourinho be allowed to deter Oliver from acting in such a principled way in the future. At the current rate, he is well on his way to becoming one of the finest referees the English Premier League has had in quite a while, for his refusal to fold in taking big decisions and consistent accuracy in getting them right. For too long now, games have been marred by a combination of appalling refereeing and a tendency for players to treat fair play as nothing more than a slogan. Examples that flit to the mind range from present and past, including Luis Suarez’s recent dive for Barcelona’s crucial fifth goal against PSG to Wayne Rooney’s similar dive in front of an impassioned Old Trafford crowd against Arsenal a few seasons ago, to the deliberate manhandling of Jose Antonio Reyes by a United led by Roy Keane in the heat of the Ferguson years. Far from letting such incidents be characterised as cunning or gladiatorial sport at its finest, Oliver’s refereeing shows a satisfying determination to reveal it for what it really is: cynical cheating that is far from the heroic virtues English football tricks itself into believing it possesses. Given how hard it can be to make such hard decisions, as could be seen by the way the United players physically ganged up on Oliver after he issued the red to Herrera and by how Jose Mourinho publically highlighted his record of issuing (just) penalties and red cards against United this season after the match, Oliver’s willingness to make the right calls appears even more praiseworthy and brave.

The decision was also no more than Jose Mourinho deserved – not only for the nakedly cynical part of his strategy of fouling Hazard, but also for his persistence with his habit of choosing ultra-safe game plans in big games despite the players at his disposal before revelling in the praise showered on him afterwards for his winning habit. Rather than show him as a mercurial, dashing winner with a touch of gold, such continued decisions in big games reveal his character by the way they sacrifice all efforts to create a spectacle in favour of the one-upmanship of the final result. There is also an argument that this is not just the pragmatic tactics of a man who is nonetheless deeply versed in the inner language of the game, and what it means to be a key protagonist in it, but of one who instead occasionally treats football as some kind of conduit to an ongoing spectacle that revolves around him. The red card in this way served as a further satisfying rebuke to Mourinho’s ceaseless antagonism, both how he offered a wry grin straight after the red card and by the bad blood he had created before the fixture in targeting Antonio Conte.

Lest this article come across as entirely critical of Mourinho, however, two caveats must be added. The first is that Michael Cox has written a fascinatingly thought-provoking piece on how Mourinho’s tactics were designed to stop Conte – one that perhaps shows the other side to Mourinho’s big-game tactics, in which tactical preparation, psychology and execution are occasionally combined in hugely impressive fashion. The other is that Mourinho’s comments quite obviously got under the skin of Conte, whose Latin temperament never inspired confidence that his attempt to deflect his barbs would be successful, and which made you wonder whether gamesmanship would triumph over hard-fought success. However, the pre-match backdrop then came to life in gloriously compelling fashion during the match as Conte squared up to Mourinho and perhaps offered the latter a sense that he was beginning to meet his match. The dollop of genuine antipathy was enjoyable to savour and, as long as it doesn’t overheat into the naked and puerile insults that characterised the Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry in Spain, may add a refreshing authenticity to the battles of the Premier League in the future.

Chelsea might pine for Mourinho’s return, but others may shake their heads in dismay at the prospect

If Mourinho really is going to come back to English football, and thus switch on the perfect and most wanton receptacle for his unashamedly debased circus act of mocking others, stirring up hostility and pettily reducing the vastly imaginative and enriching scope of football to nothing other than a beaten and flayed donkey by which to enhance his self-image, then British football fans could do worse than to read this Guardian article on the subject by Barney Ronay. There is a boorish, confrontational, divisive streak in a vast tract of football fans in Britain that is awakened and swollen by someone like Mourinho, and clumsily articulated in their monopolisation of the word ‘legend’ and strident attribution of it to him. Some of these so-called ‘legends’ who see their worst traits glorified in this demagogue occasionally pop up on Facebook or other online forums to post pathetically derogatory comments about other teams and fans. Reading this might serve as a much-needed look in the mirror for them, and an absolutely necessary pre-emptory sedative for the rest of us from the anger, recriminations and fractiousness that will inevitably follow the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’s’ return to England:

Chelsea’s treatment of Benitez worthy of boos

If heaping abuse upon Rafael Benitez before he had even been given one match to prove himself was bad enough, Chelsea fans have now come out and said that they will continue to vilify him in the future. At a club whose capabilities to shock with their flagrant disregard for good conduct and good football people have been in the spotlight in recent times, this still stands out as an egregious injustice capable of showing yet another aspect of their multifaceted ugly side.

If there was more than the thinnest wisp of substance behind the campaign to deny Benitez a chance, neutrals may grudgingly turn the other cheek to the rampant humiliation of him that was on display on Sunday. Yet Benitez’s crime extends to nothing more than ousting a Mourinho-led Chelsea in two titanic Champions League tussles in 2005 and 2007 as well as 2006’s FA Cup, and offering some platitudes implying that nothing – not even Chelsea’s flag-waving fans – could match the passion of the supporters of the club he was in charge of before a particularly important match between the two. It is understandable that the manager of a club would have wanted to rally its most important constituents – players and supporters – before a match by choosing fighting words, and one need scarcely remind Chelsea’s fans of the scandalous lengths Jose Mourinho would go to in his attempts to rally them. Such attempts led to one referee retiring to protect his family, after receiving death threats from Chelsea fans whose anger had been stirred by their manager’s vapid accusation that he had colluded with Barcelona to oust Chelsea from the Champions League, and also included complaining bitterly about Liverpool’s “ghost goal” that led to Benitez triumphing over them in one of the Champions League semi-finals. Was it the then-Liverpool manager’s fault that the lack of goal-line technology had claimed another victim, or was Mourinho’s subsequent sniping at Benitez the product of a man who has never known how to take defeat and the vacillating fortunes of a game hostage to human error in the right spirit?

All Benitez did in those duels with Mourinho was prove himself a manager capable of holding his own against the best, and offering some stability to the steering wheel at Chelsea. Instead he has been greeted with the seething and spitting venom of a crowd who were given a lesson in bitterness and shifting blame from their most famous manager in the Abramovich era that they have been only too happy to display frequently. In the malicious mocking of every fan on Sunday one could see the evidence of Jose Mourinho’s legacy at Chelsea, and one reason why that club have become such a symbol of scorn and recrimination in the Premier League. Rafael Benitez is merely a very credible manager with an impressive track better who deserves better, and no amount of digging up the past history of Liverpool and Chelsea will point to anything more than the fact that their fans are acting out of a sense of spite and hate that was taught them by Mourinho and which they have proved reluctant to relinquish since.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.

Madrid’s recent success over Barcelona owes a lot to rapid starts

Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.

However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.

Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins).  It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.

It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.

Ferguson driven silly by City’s relentless spending…

The most surprising aspect of Manchester United’s capture of Robin van Persie is the amount they have stumped up for his services. United have been squeezed both by Arsenal, who forced them to increase their original bid of £15 million by 9 million to £24 million before selling, and the player himself, who stands to enjoy a £50 million reward if he stays the length of his contract and millions more in bonuses should United win trophies during his time with them. For a club saddled with frightening amounts of debt, and a manager acutely aware that the largest weaknesses in his team remain in midfield, the glamour of such a move cannot entirely put to bed questions it prompts of Ferguson’s management. Is it possible that City, in the way they riled him last year through the 6-2 annihilation at Old Trafford, and tortured him with the illusion of a close-fought race before confirming the brutal truth of their superiority in the dying seconds of last season, have clouded his judgement? Reports are circling that Ferguson is planning a final stand against the new might of City over the next two years, and that the pursuit of van Persie was part of a strategy to bequeath a legacy worthy of Manchester United to his club. However, at the risk of sounding condescending, the modern-day manager has more to worry about than winning trophies at any cost, and should Ferguson’s incredulous outlay on an injury-prone player be a contributing factor to United’s continuing slide into financial trouble in the future, then his impact on the club will be up for review.

Besides, the neutral always associated Ferguson’s stature as a manager with his ability to address every one of the great challenges of their profession: from balancing the books to developing youngsters, from playing an entertaining style of football to winning trophies with tactical acumen. In his apparent desperation, it is doubtful he has even gotten that last part right: overloading his team with strikers and comparing them to the 1999 vintage overlooks the fact that his trophy-winning team were anchored by a dynamic, powerful midfield that is missing today. If reports linking Ferguson to Kaka are to be believed, then that would reassure that he has not completely lost sight of how to tackle a City team that is strong in every area of the pitch, but still doesn’t clear him of the charge of being financially negligent and strategically short-sighted. Kaka and Van Persie will both need replacing by the time Ferguson is believed to be pulling up sticks, and the perils of leaving a team’s long-term future in the vicelike grip of senior players can be seen at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho did the same thing and cast a shadow over the club that was not fully redeemed by their negative triumph in the Champions League.

Fans are in thrall to the win-at-all costs mentality that Mourinho has spread in the game, and Ferguson’s embracing of the same approach has reduced his appeal to the neutral. Watching Manchester United sweep all before them in the most unlikeliest of fashions in 1999, through thrilling attacking play and script-defying comebacks, was a transforming experience that sparked my love of football, but Ferguson has flattered to deceive since then. His 2008 crop that repeated Champions League success owed too much to the individual talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to really extend his reputation beyond being a pure winner in the same way to a creator of great teams thrilling to the mind and soul. Some pinpoint conceding goals like a hole-filled boat against Real Madrid at home in 2003 as the moment when Ferguson sacrificed his pure attacking instincts in favour of a more pragmatic, trophy-sure approach to playing the game. Since that concession, he has also struggled under financial constraints to replicate his successes with the kind of young players he was once famed for developing. Even though fans point to Tom Cleverly and Chris Smalling, there can be no doubt that Ferguson has changed as a manager to keep up with those who splurge to win and has sacrificed some of what made him previously stand out from the managerial crowd in the process.

Robin van Persie might bring him goals and confirm his place in the pantheon of great sporting managers, but one cannot help but feel the achievements that made Ferguson a sporting icon stood for more than just winning while paying scant attention to the collateral damage.