Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Monday, March 5, 2012

What we learnt

Written after Ryan Giggs scored the winner against Norwich on his 900th appearance for Manchester United, Arsenal’s derby win over Tottenham and Liverpool’s Carling Cup win.

If there is one thing we learnt this week it is the importance of the old guard. The guys that know the club and the players that understand what it means to play for the team. They are the guys that invariably come to the fore when things go wrong.

This weekend was at the same time a case study of two managers who have shunned this concept against one who has, and who has seen great results because of it.

The contrast is quite something.

When Giggs scored the winner against Norwich it was not only a fairytale but confirmation of how culture and experience has been central to the rise and rise of Manchester United.

Ryan Giggs celebrates his winner against Norwich
How United are in the title race is anyone’s guess. For two years at least they have been average at best. But yet United remain there, in the mix. The reason is guys like Giggs and Scholes (who also scored against Norwich) who know the club inside out and who are there through the rough times to somehow bail the team out.

There is nothing like culture, and that culture has been the glue that has cemented United to the top.

Too quick these days managers are prone to drive out these stalwarts.

But let’s look at United – Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic, Scholes, Giggs, and now even Wayne Rooney and Carrick, are players that have been there a while. They identify with the club and they are big personalities in the team and in the change-room. Their mentality rubs off on the other less senior players, and crucially they represent a culture to follow.

It’s like the great Liverpool teams. There was a crew of guys that were able to carry on the club legacy through the seventies and eighties. Now this is the same for Manchester United. So no matter how poor we can say United are, the culture and will remain strong; and as Zambia showed, few things are more powerful.

Great credit has to go to Sir Alex in this regard.

Flip the page and there you will find two managers who have just thrown this idea out of the window. For Chelsea’s Andre Villas-Boas he went too scientific, trying to be special. The Bolton game showed that Lampard and Drogba are and were always needed. You can’t just discard them and, what’s more, their teammates trust them.

Lampard’s numbers speak for themselves – nine consecutive seasons with at least ten league goals. It’s crazy. While there is no doubt that the majority of the Chelsea squad is advancing in years, the radical overhaul preferred by Villas-Boas was unneeded and not smart.

And anyway, an example is there. AC Milan were considered an ‘old team’ but they were able to win because they were a team molded around these ‘older’ champions, sprinkled with a few youthful talents such as Kaka.

For Arsene Wenger it is most puzzling because in his most successful era this tradition concept played a huge role. Firstly he had Adams, Dixon and Winterburn and then later Keown, Vieira and Bergkamp were there, able to bring forward the culture, the understanding and the passion for the badge. That was Arsenal’s best time. So it is puzzling why that was just thrown away.

Like an umbilical cord chopped off a new-born baby, there was no continuation in the dressing room, slowly, and then drastically when Gilberto, Gallas and Toure all left- guys you would have said filled this role.

It was shown on the weekend against Tottenham when Rosicky came up big alongside Van Persie and Sagna, the original warriors of the Gunners in this squad. Guys that bleed the club. You really need these guys. They lead. A ship with no leaders has no future. Hopefully Villas-Boas and Wenger will have learnt this.

Sticking with Arsenal
They won, but again their axis of Song, Vermaelen and Koscielny was horribly exposed. I’m still to be convinced totally by the abilities of these three players individually as it is, but as a trio I am particularly concerned. Arsenal are just too easy to get at the moment.

Alex Song
Talented, but ill-disciplined
Both Spurs goals came directly through the centre of the pitch which is pretty much unacceptable for a top level team. Even against AC Milan there was a similar lax in the central area.

In my opinion two of three have to sit out. Their common weakness is they are all action men. They each want to do too much, generally because their talent allows them to, but in the end they neglect their core job.

Arsenal need to get more solid players in that defensive midfield area, a Mahamadou Diarra or Van Bommel for example would be great.

Of course this is a short-term fix, but it is starting an example that can be seen by Song for example (for future years), and vitally, it is re-starting a winning culture at the club.

Liverpool win the Carling Cup
Speaking of winning cultures, Liverpool won the Carling Cup, their first trophy in six years and I have a sneaky feeling they can go on from here. I had a discussion with a friend recently who said they would rather have Champions League football than the Carling Cup. But for me there is no substitute for silverware and the confidence it brings.

Winning is a habit.

One remembers Man United. They were going through a bad phase during the middle of the past decade, during which they were notably knocked out in the Champions League group stages. They hadn’t won the league for three years and looked off the pace of Chelsea and Arsenal. There were questions marks over the squad, over Cristiano Ronaldo and even over the manager. But United were crowned Carling Cup champions in 2006 and it heralded one of the most successful periods in the club’s history.

Whether Liverpool can have the same sort of success after their Carling Cup success remains to be seen. The ingredients are there though and that biggest thing of all – winning culture – is being engrained by Kenny Dalglish.

Winning a trophy can only lift Liverpool to the next level

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