Centurions

Centurions

Before 2017 was even over, pundits and fans started to ask: Is the current Manchester City side the best the Premier League has ever seen?

By April, the mere suggestion had morphed into serious debate. It seemed the crown was to be contested by Pep’s latest side, and this season’s Premier League champions, Arsenal’s Invincibles, and Manchester United’s treble winning team of ’99.

All had merits that were difficult to argue against. Arsenal hold one of the few records that the current City team didn’t break. It was of course, the honour of going a full 38 games without tasting defeat.

Nothing should take away from that feat – one which may never be beaten – but the table never lies (we’ll keep coming back to that cliché). This season, the Citizens won an incredible 32 games; the Invincibles drew 12 in their unbeaten campaign.

If Mayweather gets criticised for winning without being exciting, the old chants of “Boring, boring, Arsenal” can be shoehorned (if a little unfairly) into this debate. Arsenal took a great singular achievement – going undefeated – and have traded on it ever since. It kept Arsène Wenger in a job for a decade longer than necessary.

The United team from 1999 is remembered as an all-time great because of how it captured the perfect treble: league title, FA Cup, European Cup. The injury time heroics against Bayern Munich helped give the season a Hollywood ending, almost on a par with that Agüero moment.

But the table from that year paints a different picture. They edged out Arsenal by a solitary point, tying with them on most wins that year – 22. It was actually Leeds United that held the record for consecutive victories with seven.

It hardly reeks of domestic dominance.

By comparison, this season City smashed records for most away wins in a season (16); most goals scored in a season (106); best goal difference (79); and one that will stand the test of time like Arsenal’s Invincible record – breaking the 100 point barrier.

City were head and shoulders above the rest of the league during the 2017/18 campaign. Detractors can’t say the league isn’t as competitive as it was in 1999. Back then the traditional Big Four played without fear of failing to qualify for Europe. Nowadays there is a strong top six, and anyone outside it can win any given match.

The results, week-after-week, promote unpredictability. The only certainty, the season defining constant, was Pep’s men would continue to march onward.

The competitiveness and response to it was best summed up in the home game against Southampton. A team that would avoid relegation by three points managed to hold the Blues until the fifth minute of injury time.

Then along came Raheem Sterling, he linked up with Kevin De Bruyne with a quick return pass, and curled the ball into the net, and was probably this writer’s favourite goal of the 106 scored all season.

It kept the winning streak going, making it 19 on the bounce.

That defiance and determination to keep excelling propelled City to unimaginable heights. Guardiola’s style of football, which had faced doubters the season before, was now controlling the English game.

Armchair experts – whose simple solution to Pep’s possession-based attacking football was simply to press City into submission – had to sit stunned as the Blues steamrolled every team they faced. They made the Premier League look like the top-flight North of the border.

Unfortunately, the seven days of destiny became a week of despair as City lost to Liverpool in the Champions League twice and missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clinch the title at home by beating arch-rivals United.

In a way, it had to be this way. A strand of “Typical City” will always exist in the club’s DNA. If there’s a hard way to do something, that places untold strain on the hearts of supporters, City will find it.

But this time, it was a blip rather than a prolonged period of pain. It acts as a slight taint on an otherwise perfect league campaign. No one remembers the three teams that beat United in the league back in 1999, or the 12 times The Invincibles dropped two points as they went unbeaten.

City’s slight imperfections make for more dramatic stories.

But they shouldn’t be the story or cloud judgement. Remember, the table really doesn’t ever lie. After 38 games the only story that matters is told by points acquired, goals scored, goals conceded, and the gap created by these in relation to other teams.

If those damning statistics aren’t enough, remember how City achieved such a massive gulf. It was by playing the sort of football that turns drunks into poets. It’s more than just possession football; the ball isn’t kept for the sake of keeping it away from the opposition, it is kept to create dreamlike sequences.

No team’s highlight reel from any era is a such a pleasurable viewing experience.

Pep’s team are the first Centurions, this alone makes them deserving of being named best team the Premier League has ever seen. The manner in which they achieved it just underlines the point.

The scary thought: they are only going to get better.

(Photo credit: http://www.mancity.com)

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Time for Arsène to Go

Time for Arsène to Go

The indignity of an overhead plane calling for your removal is a moment no manager can survive. While it raises questions about the class of fan that arranges such a display, it is a clear watershed moment. Arsène Wenger wasn’t the first to befall this treatment, but he is the latest and it means bridges can never be rebuilt with a large section of the Gunners’ support. Before the situation declines further, he should do the most logical thing: announce this is his last season at The Emirates.

If only it was so clear cut. Wenger is an open book. His achievements during his time in North London are as obvious as his weaknesses. The main hindrance now being his stubborn nature. It’s that single purpose and drive that once made his Arsenal side become Invincibles. But that was a long time ago – a different era, even. His way is no longer the way. With each passing season when he digs in, Arsenal fall further behind.

His presumed principles should be applauded. On the surface he is against the modern way of buying success. He’d rather develop players. A by-product of this has been the club’s ability to quickly payoff the outstanding loans on their new stadium.

For a while, a new stadium – bought and paid for – was enough to satisfy the supporters. It was always accepted with the understanding once it was paid off, they’d once again compete in the transfer market. Well, the bricks and mortar no longer require financial nurturing but the team does. And Wenger refuses to budge.

What is baffling, is how the stance on transfers is broken now and again (Mesut Özil £42.5m; Alexis Sánchez £35m; Shkodran Mustafi £35m; Granit Xhaka £34m) without an air of caution or appreciation for market value. Still, a feeling persists they are two or three players short of a title winning team. The problem is, they’ve been short for years now.

ozil snachez

Not to take anything away from Leicester’s achievement last season, but that was Arsenal’s best chance to put a decade of being happy with top four, and title nearly rans, behind them. Chelsea were recovering from a Mourinho meltdown, Manchester City had a long, painful goodbye with Pellegrini, Manchester United and Liverpool were still missing in action.

Their local rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, showed they lack experience and maturity when it comes to leading the pack, eventually finishing below The Gunners. It was a case of “now or never.” Arsène’s players opted for the never.

And no matter how long he clings onto power, further success will continue to elude him at The Emirates.

FA Cup victories are not sufficient. Top four finishes – as lucrative as they are – are not satisfying. Success in Europe is, but that’s gone for another year. A Premier League title is, but even in the unlikely event Chelsea implode, other teams will be more likely to capitalise.

The truth is, players and fans alike no longer believe in the Frenchman. It is sad to see such a great record at Arsenal be bookended by disharmony and a lack of respect. But he has to realise his continued presence is having a negative effect as the club try to evolve.

Outsiders will never know if Wenger is carrying the can for the board. They say he has money, but behind closed doors the story could be much different, with his professionalism forcing him to tell the press a skewed version of events. There must have been pressure on Wenger from above because when they moved stadium in 2006, and up to 2013, they actually turned in a profit of £40m in the transfer market.

Had his ideology always been to spend less, develop more, why hadn’t Arsenal turned in a stadium-sized profit every season before this?

Historically, he was happy to bring in imports that required a final stage of development. The team that went unbeaten all season during the 2003/04 campaign added José Antonio Reyes in the second transfer window for £13m. That’s about £18m adjusted for inflation, which doesn’t take into account the new TV money and modern day premium on Premier League transfers.

Could you imagine Wenger sprinkling a player short of £20m on his squad in January nowadays? It’s less likely than when his team hadn’t lost a single league match.

Reyes was the final cog that had followed a series of highly priced acquisitions. The list reads something like this: Marc Overmars £7m; Patrick Vieira and Freddie Ljungberg £3m; Kanu £4.5m; Sylvinho £4m; Thierry Henry £10.5m; Lauren £7m; Robert Pires £6m; Sylvain Wiltord £13m; Francis Jeffers £8m; Edu £6m; Giovanni Van Bronckhorst £8.5m; Richard Wright £6m; Gilberto Silva £4.5m.

Thierry Henry

Those are just the most eye-catching (not adjusted for inflation) from the summer of 1997 to 2002, they are punctuated with many more that exceed millions and offer sparse evidence that Wenger has treated his time at Arsenal as a place to develop cheaper players.

When it suited, he spent big. It’s hard to believe he had a paradigm shift in attitude, unless he’s an all-out hypocrite. But even these big names moved on to pastures new, including golden boy Theirry Henry.

Since then the state of domestic leagues has changed. The Premier League has more cash but foreign top flights have the wealth of better players. The time to develop unproven talent is forever diminishing. To make matters worse, his record with young talent reads very poor.

Has Theo Walcott improved that much under Wenger? He’s one of many young players that have stagnated under him rather than reach full potential.

His methods are antiquated, his views romantic but out of date. One more season isn’t going to bring about the change he’s struggled to find in the last ten years.

The Arsenal fans should be eternally grateful to Wenger, likewise, he should acknowledge that those buying the most expensive seats in the Premier League deserve a fresh direction.

Vardy right to remain but Kante Seen Chelsea Move Coming

Vardy right to remain but Kante Seen Chelsea Move Coming

N’Golo Kante has made a £30m switch to London club Chelsea, threatening the start of a break-up of Leicester’s title winning team. At first glance, it makes Jamie Vardy’s choice to reject an approach from Arsenal all the more puzzling. At the time it was believed this was made after consulting key members of The Foxes squad about their future plans. So what does it all really mean?

Firstly, it means Vardy’s seemingly difficult decision, takes on a whole new dynamic. Let’s say during the pause he took from making an immediate choice, he did ask the likes of Kante and Mahrez what their next career choices were going to be. When he turned The Gunners down, it was a sign the squad was about to adhere to the wishes of Claudio Ranieri, and give Leicester one more year before moving on.

Perhaps Vardy was never given that reassurance from the key players. It’s unlikely they would outright lie to him if asked, so at best, he would have gotten an unsure response.

This does mean Jamie Vardy analysed his choices and made what he felt was the best decision for him. And he made the correct one.

He’s at the Premier League champions. Arsenal may be a bigger club, and with a new manager could have offered a fresh alternative, but the reality is they haven’t got a better chance of taking the title than Leicester.

Size and stature mean little if stunted by stubborn ideas.

That lack of desire to change approach is of course driven by Arsène Wenger. Other than teasing Vardy with the grandiose setting and a chance to take his place in the history books along former players like Thierry Henry, there’s very little that made logical sense.

Jamie Vardy is already 29 years of age, everything that is occurring now already supersedes what he would of dared dream a few years ago. From a professional standpoint, other than Arsenal mythology, there is no tangible evidence he would further develop under Wenger’s watch.

The Arsenal boss has a history of taking promising young players from other clubs and freezing their potential in the same room as he keeps his title aspirations.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must fear he will become another Theo Walcott. The latter now looking for a move to another club to reignite a career the Frenchman killed. One of those clubs is West Ham, where another former Southampton youth talent, Carl Jenkinson, went on loan for the same reason. Calum Chambers will be hoping he isn’t the Oxlade-Chamberlain to Jenkinson’s Walcott.

During this time, Vardy’s talent has risen exponentially.

These must have been considerations the striker took, along with a major one: Wenger was disrespectful trying it on before the Euros.

For Kante things look decidedly different. He’s only 25, and is looking beyond a glory year with underdogs in the Champions League. His new manager, Antonio Conte, was equally absorbed with the Euros and approached at a more appropriate time.

With age on his side, the move should be (using historical data) a wise one. With Roman Abramovich’s desire and resources, Chelsea will get back to the top of the English game. It remains to be seen if Leicester can remain in the top four after coming from nowhere and against all expectation.

Conte is also a close confidante of Ranieri’s, so one has to assume the move was sanctioned, even if somewhat begrudgingly, without any negativity.

With it now looking like Riyad Mahrez will follow N’Golo Konte out of the King Power Stadium, a positive atmosphere is something Ranieri will need to maintain at the club. Losing two-thirds of the important title winning trinity will test his minerals as a manager. Who would have thought, after taking 5000/1 outsiders to championship glory, his biggest test was yet to come?

But it was a title success built on togetherness and shared belief. Whoever comes in must have passed a character suitability test and can converge into the psyche that shook the Premier League.

Leading that line is Jamie Vardy. He’s already living the dream. A move now doesn’t give a Hollywood ending to this story; it would show a betrayal to an ethos that allowed hard work and desire to overcome the odds and those with greater financial clout.

Kante moving on can be understood, but Vardy staying is to be applauded and admired.