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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The Wrongs of Roy’s England Squad

The Wrongs of Roy’s England Squad

Roy Hodgson was never going to please all the people with his England selection heading into this summer’s Euros. The first to be displeased would have been the omitted fringe players, followed by fans who have their own varying opinions. Before dissecting his choices, it should be noted that the England manager has an embarrassment of riches in certain areas and scant choice in others.

The area where England has plenty of choice is in attacking roles. The most notable inclusion is Marcus Rashford. After suffering injury in the FA Cup final, the debate may have been shelved, Roy’s final choice unknown forever. That aside, his selection does need examination.

There is no doubt Rashford looks like the real deal and has more to his game than just explosive pace and an eye for goal. Whether by fluke or invention, Louis Van Gaal has unearthed a gem. The question has to be if 18 appearances for United warrants a place in the final squad that heads to France.

The national team has a history of young stars bursting onto the scene at major tournaments, the best example of such an impact is perhaps Michael Owen at France ’98. Could France in 2016 be Rashford’s time. It’s this sort of thinking that has made Roy choose him over experienced poacher Jermain Defoe.

The accusation of favouring big clubs has inevitably reared its head again. Defoe bagged 15 goals feeding off scraps but his two-and-a-half-year absence from the England scene means Roy doesn’t see him as a potential shoe-in now. Andy Carroll would have been another that could have offered something different but like Defoe, was never in the running.

There has been a suggestion Rashford’s selection is about acclimatising to the England set-up but he won’t make the final cut. Managers have done this before. Bobby Robson took players in his Italia ’90 provisional squad that weren’t in the running to be selected but he wanted to help blend-in the next generation of players.

If this is Roy’s thinking, then why waste a space on a player that couldn’t even make the first friendly? He could have let Defoe prove his worth.

The midfield debate has largely centred on who missed out. Theo Walcott will spend the summer reviewing his career choices. He needed to nail down a place in this season’s Arsenal side. He didn’t. After declaring his intention at the start of the season to be a centre forward, Walcott failed to convince Arsene Wenger he could be entrusted with the role.

That failure led to him floating in and out of the side. The Gunners had a disappointing campaign overall. Finishing runners-up masks a missed opportunity to challenge and take the Premier League title. If Walcott can’t become a mainstay in an Arsenal side requiring extra spark, he can’t expect to head to France.

Some have argued Jack Wilshere shouldn’t be there based on lack of game time. Roy hasn’t helped himself with the excuses he used for dropping Walcott (a lack of starts) when Wilshere has been absent so long with injury. Hodgson is effectively allowing club managers to dictate who is a good player, rather than compare those in his squad based on his own experiences with them. But Wilshere’s lay-off could be a blessing; it’s not often a player goes into a tournament fresh.

Wilshere has been on the radar because many believe, including here at The Reflective, that Mark Noble should have been included. If Roy was worried too many new faces in midfield roles (Drinkwater, for example) would upset his squad harmony, he should have used one of the extra three places to test the theory with Noble.

Wilshere shouldn’t be the man people look to axe for Noble, the midfield is full of charlatans waiting to be found out. Picking Andros Townsend should be applauded, but by the same measure, placing him in the squad should have been the axe for Raheem Sterling.

If Walcott was dropped for lack of games, how can a player that has only started once for Manchester City in their last 11 games is baffling. During that period, if not before, his form and confidence faded. There has never been a better example of a player needing the summer off to reset their batteries.

The attention on Sterling allows Barkley to slip without inspection after indifferent form, Fabien Delph to snake in, and Jordan Henderson to take his place alongside the industrious, if not always effective, James Milner.

When you closely examine several players, Mark Noble has every right to feel annoyed he missed out.

Defence is an area where Roy did have his work cut out. But that doesn’t mean we’ll go easy on him. Only taking three centre backs is understandable considering the riches elsewhere, and if injuries or suspensions played a part, Eric Dier could slot in as a makeshift replacement. It’s his choice in the trio that should have people worried.

Question marks will hang over Smalling and Cahill’s ability at the top level, this being the case the best course of action is to include an experienced – if underwhelming – alternative. That player exists at Everton but Hodgson opted for the understudy instead.

John Stones appears to be there thanks to the early season hype, his recent performances cannot be the reason he makes the squad over Phil Jagielka.

Like all elephants in the room, he has been left until last: Wayne Rooney. For experience and influence, he has to be on the plane. That was never in doubt. The problem is, as pointed out by Alan Shearer and voiced around the country for months, he isn’t England’s first choice striker anymore. He isn’t even second or third in line. His performances in deeper roles haven’t convinced he should start there either.

So Roy is left with two awkward choices: start a player based on his assumed psychological benefit to those around him, or have a disgruntled captain taking a seat on the bench.

We all know Hodgson will go with the former and play Rooney from the start. Whether this resides England to their usual fate or if the captain has one last moment of magic he’s been saving, only time will tell.

Pound Sterling

Pound Sterling

So after much mudslinging, with press speculation on the reasons why and possible motives, Raheem Sterling has joined Manchester City for a fee that could rise to £49M. Liverpool fans are soothing themselves with the loss of a prized asset by revelling in the amount received. Openly taunting at taking the coffers to the cleaners. To put it another way: Scousers are laughing at committing robbery. But as high as the fee sounds – and it does sound a lot – it’s the same fans that tried to convince the world £35M for Andy Carroll made sense. It wasn’t, whereas the Sterling figure won’t seem so stupid if he reaches his potential.

Therein lies the first problem. Is Sterling going to reach that “potential”? City fans have heard this term banded about a lot in recent years. Mario Balotelli was given all the chances in the world because he had lots of it. Rodwell and Sinclair were brought in as it was assumed City could fill them out into the players we all hoped they could be. Buying potential is a trip to the casino.

Sheikh Mansour is justified – on this occasion, especially – to feel he can bet on red or black a few times. In reality the chances are stacked higher in his favour than the slightly less than half a roulette spin offers. If Raheem becomes the next big young talent his value will quickly eclipse the £49M shelled out. Take Paul Pogba, another City target, the fee floating around for him currently stands at £71M. This is with the proviso he still hasn’t reached his full potential.

Transfer fees will always be a bone of contention. They continue to rise in a time when the world is facing tough austerity measures and countries like Greece face economic collapse. To make matters worse, they continue to rise from an already over-inflated base line. Yes, £49M is a lot. But it also happens to be the market value for a young promising, home-grown talent.

What I find more disturbing than the price is the treatment of a young twenty year old by members of the press, former teammates and “fans.” Stevie G, the Liverpool legend that never won a league title, not so subtlety sounded Sterling out as unprofessional and possessing a bad attitude when comparing him to the new Liverpool captain Jordan Horrenduson. Nice to know Steven helped nurture that talent under his watch.

Gerrard is obviously offended that a player would choose to leave his club for a rival. It makes the statement that the modern day professional sees Liverpool as a place less likely to collect titles. He should remind himself he once thought the same and agreed to join Chelsea, only changing his mind when the threats from fans came in.

Raheem has also faced disgusting abuse and threats to his wellbeing along with his daughter’s. He has stood tall and will see out the storm. Hopefully there’ll be an added element of protection surrounding him during this time. And perhaps a little TLC will work wonders too. I can’t begin to imagine how he feels reading such threats when his own father was murdered back when Raheem was only nine years of age.

Jamie Carragher has also been outspoken and condemned Sterling. It doesn’t come from the mouth of a neutral Sky Sports presenter. He lacks the ability of Gary Neville, who can be a Manchester United man at heart but still speak sense, of reporting the news rather than opinion as fact. He clearly wanted Sterling to stay and arrogantly assumes it will be better for Raheem if he did. Apart from the argument he would get more game time at Liverpool, it is founded on nothing more than blinkered hearsay.

It’s typical of the anti-City media to turn the transfers of the Citizens into a carnival while applauding preferred click-bait teams for their market endeavours. Memphis Depay, not exactly a snip at £25M, has been packaged as future world-beater. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say either way. It seems only bitter former pros and bad journalists can see future events with any clarity. To top off this sentiment, SportYapper notified users today Sterling had asked for a nap during his Man City medical.

Back to the price, it also needs to be noted QPR receive a slice as part of their sell-on clause. This will have ramped it up. Add this to the home grown quota he fills, along Liverpool’s reluctance to sell, and it’s less grotesque. The price tag will hang heavy for a while. Di Maria still carries his around in a wheelbarrow. All Raheem Sterling can do is produce form on the field. With every successful game the pounds will drop away. With success he can prove this was never about cash but about football.

About winning.