Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Greatest Ever Premiership XI

This article will no doubt cause much conjecture, disagreement and even wailing and nashing of teeth and that is the entire object of the exercise.

For clarification, we are only looking at the period since the inception of 'The Premiership'. This allows for a smaller group of players to be compared as well as not running into the difficulties of comparing eras.

The criteria for selection are individual performances set over one season only in the Premiership, i.e. when they were at the peak of their powers, who was the best in a given position?

Given that ManYoo have been the dominant force since the inception of the Premiership we shall be using Sir Alex's tried and trusted 4-4-2 (just as he starts to tinker with employing a diamond formation...),
We will also be attempting to give a blend and balance to the side. So prejudices and rivalries aside, here we go.

There are basically three candidates for this slot which are Peter Schmeichel, David Seaman and Petr Cech. All three offer compelling arguements.

Schmeichel was one of the most dominating keepers in history as well as being a phenomonal shot stopper. His long flat throws from the penalty box were an incredible offensive weapon for ManYoo also. He was however prone to gaffs and his berrating and blaming of anyone else around him when something went wrong could be a destructive influence. Ferguson it must be said has never effectively replaced him.

David Seaman was an extremely good and reliable goalkeeper but never one suspects a great one. Neverthless he offered Arsenal a level of consistency over such a huge period that he remains one of their best ever signings. Like Schmeichel, he has never been adequately replaced.

Petr Cech has had two careers at Chelsea, one before his horrendous head injury and one after. The early Cech probably only lagged Gianluigi Buffon in terms of ability and performances. After the injury however he has never quite been the same, only starting to recover some of his former belief last season. Still remains a top class keeper.

It is tough between Schmeichel and the young Cech but Peter Schmeichel takes the No1 jersey for the team.

Right back
A relatively straightforward choice given the paucity of options. Step forward everyone's favourite Sky Sports pantomine villian, the ever 'busy' Gary Neville. Whilst not everyone's cup of tea, Neville was an exceptional and versatile defender who rarely let his team down. His haul of medals lay testament to that. The earlier vintage also had great attacking verve with fantastic link up play with David Beckham in particular.

Honourable mentions to Albert Ferrer, Lauren, Lee Dixon, William Gallas and Jamie Carragher.

Left back
Whilst there's not been a huge amount of quality at right back, there have been many good left backs with excellent players such as Patrice Evra, Graeme LeSaux and Gabriel Heinze all rating a strong mention. Ashley Cole however stands above all as possibly the best left back the world has seen since Paolo Maldini and Bixente Lizarazu (Roberto Carlos couldn't defend in case you were wondering).

Centre back pairing
Certainly one of the toughest conundrums in this entire process. There have been great rugged leaders such as Tony Adams, John Terry, Nemanda Vidic and Jaap Stam. Vincent Kompany has also developed into a true leader at City.

There have been exceptionally technically gifted and quick defenders such as Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King and Ricardo Carvalho and man mountains such as Sol Campbell and Marcel Desailly.

Tony Adams was a great leader and improved hugely under Arsene Wenger. John Terry for a couple of seasons under Mourinho was genuinely world class and seemed to find the extra yard of pace that he now so badly lacks. He remains an excellent passer of the ball as well as chipping in with some crucial goals.

Nemanda Vidic's recent injuries have only reinforced just how much he is missed whilst Jaap Stam recovered from a sticky start at Old Trafford to become one of the most dominant defenders in European football.

Rio Ferdinand is one of the most elegant central defenders in modern times although lapses in concentration can sometimes let him down, it's almost sometimes as if the game is to easy for him. There was always a suspicion that it was Carvalho that made John Terry look good and that says as much about him as anything although he had fantastic distribution and attacking verve also.

Arsenal have never really recoved defensively from Sol Campbell's departure, not a screamer or a shouter but simply an excellent defender. Marcel Desailly was coming to the latter stages of his career when he joined Chelsea but he remained one of the most dominant defenders in Europe with a wealth of experience. His distribution was also often underrated.

Given the array of attacking talent that will follow and the predilection for the full backs to get forwards, we are going with a solid and dominant pairing of Jaap Stam and Marcel Desailly. No centre forward would relish playing against those two (except possibly the one we have picked).

Right Wing
A straight forward shoot out between the two ManYoo No7s Beckham and Ronaldo. The Beckham of the turn of the century was a formidable force, running, tackling, crossing, shooting and with dead ball delivery with little compare. He was the geniune all action midfielder and one could sometimes understand his wish to play more centrally.

Ronaldo is almost a freak of nature given his stats, he is the only player who can remotely keep up with Lionel Messi's numbers. He arrived at ManYoo as a raw but incredibly talented winger and left the complete forward player who could score goals from anywhere including being a great header of the ball.

His sheer weight of goals in his final two seasons at Old Trafford mean that Cristiano Ronaldo gets to put back on the No7 shirt he had to give up to Raul.

Left Wing
Ryan Giggs we hear you cry and there is certainly a compelling arguement for ManYoo's most decorated player. Again we must stress the selection criteria is not consistency. Giggs has had a phenomonal career and on balance of sheer Premierships won it is hard to suggest not picking him. His final ball and lack of goals meant that amazingly enough he never truly realised his full potential however.

More recently, Gareth Bale has developed from an awkward full back into a full grown monster of a left winger with alarming pace and directness as well as great ball striking. If he continues to develop and realise his limitations (he is no Lionel Messi as he showed when given a roaming role last season) then he can become a devestatingly effective footballer of the highest class. Consistency and staying injury free will be the keys for Bale.
For a period at the end of the nineties however, Marc Overmars produced the kind of football that everyone knew he could prior to sustaining a potential career threatening injury. The highly skillful Dutch winger was a genuine match winner such as with his famous goal at Old Trafford as Arsenal won 0-1 to overhaul ManYoo for the title that year. Quick, direct and with a wonderful eye for goal, Barcelona were spurred to spending 25M on him (when 25M was still a lot of money).

An honourable mention to the man that replaced him, Robert Pires. Also David Ginola who played some incredible stuff for Newcastle in particular. Arjen Robben's short stay at Chelsea also produced some fantastic displays but the mercurial Dutchman was never able to put an entire season of excellence together.

Central Midfield Pairing
The key to this discussion is again balance. The league has seen combative box to box players with great defensive qualities such as Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Emmanuel Petit. More creative goal scoring box to box players such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes and most recently Yaya Toure.

There is the defensive midfield tour de force that was Claude Makelele and the attacking creative schemer and goalscorer that was Cesc Fabregas as well as a diminutive Brazilian going by the way of Juninho. Luca Modric was also a truly wonderful player for Spurs during his time there, full of craft and guile.

For the first more defensively minded place, it is a fight between, Keane, Vieira and Makelele. Makelele gives a compelling arguement given the calls for balance but Roy Keane edges the arguement.

Keane as a force of nature had few peers. The aggression in his game left many to forget what a supremely talented player he was. Keane of the late nineties was one of the finest players of his generation and whilst not a Premiership match, his perfomance in the second leg of their Champions League semi final in Turin in 1999 was the stuff of legend.

His ill displicine added to the fuel of his general decline but for several years he was the driving force behind ManYoo's relentless success.

For the second place, it is a toss up between Scholes and Fabregas, both superb masters of ball retention and passing. Scholes has won everything in his career but whilst his consistency is admirable, Cesc Fabregas added a fantastic goal scoring pedigree to his performances during his final two seasons at Arsenal putting his contirbution onto a different level.

For those of you crying out for Steven Gerrard, the simple reality is that Gerrard is a very good player but not a great one. His inability to control the pace of a game renders him poorer in comparison to the true greats with everything always at one hundred miles an hour. Sometimes you need a scalpel and not a sledgehammer.

The 'No 10'.
With the wonderful football that has eminated from Spain in the past decade, so has a brand of attacking midfielder that doesn't really fit into a 4-4-2 system. Players currently such as Juan Mata or David Silva fit this profile, as did Joe Cole and Juninho to a large degree before him. These players as such don't really slot into this system - wonderful players that they all are.

Ferguson's teams have always been at their best with a withdrawn striker, be it Cantona, Sheringham or Rooney when he's played in his best position. All three would certainly put their hands up for selection but they have strong competition from Matt Le Tissier, Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp.

More recently Manchester City have added Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez who can either lead the line or play in the withdrawn role. Neither is a true 'No 10' however and nor is Wayne Rooney.

Le Tissier was probably the most gifted of all of these players yet he lacked the ambition to play at the very highest level shunning the brighter lights to remain a huge fish in a very small pond, his fitness was always an issue too.

Zola's impact on Chelsea was huge, voted their player of the century but Eric Cantona's influence was even bigger at Old Trafford with many memorable match winning performances.

Despite this, Dennis Bergkamp gets the nod for our first slot up front. His craft bordered on genius at times with goals both scored and created from all angles. Like Cantona he had a fiercely competitive streak and was part of Arsenal's most successful period in modern history.

There have again been many fantastic strikers to grace the Premiership. From the early days with Ian Wright, (Sir) Les Ferdinand and the emergence of the young Alan Shearer to the exciting arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann. Mark Hughes also gave many seasons of his masterclass of back to goal play and ball retention.

We then moved on to the likes of Robbie Fowler and the young Michael Owen before the arrival of Thierry Henry and Ruud Van Nistelrooy and finally Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres of the early Liverpool vintage. Along the way Andy Cole scored a barrel load of goals.

Again, both Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez have proven to be fabulous players either as a main or support striker. Robin Van Persie enjoyed an incredible season at Arsenal last year playing much more as a lead striker than as a withdrawn one, he plays with a huge level of skill.

It is incredibly hard to pick just one as Drogba had several fine seasons. Robbie Fowler was tremendous in his earlier Liverpool days, Thierry Henry was often unplayable and Van Persie was sensational last year.

We are however opting for Alan Shearer of circa '95/'96 vintage where he was in his absolute pomp. Pace, power, technique, he had absolutely everything with an unquenchable thirst for goals. It is possibly tough on Henry but there was always a suspicion that he went missing in the big games.

So there we have it, the best players in England's top division since the inception of the Premiership in 1992.


                                          Neville      Desailly    Stam       Cole

                                        Ronaldo      Keane   Fabregas   Overmars



Subs Bench
Petr Cech, Rio Ferdinand, Graeme LeSaux, Claude Makelele, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Thierry Henry

Whilst there will be calls for Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger and possibly even for Davie Moyes and whilst there are questions about his tactical accumen in the Champions League, few would argue that Sir Alex Ferguson has proven to be the master of the Premiership seeing off all comers.

The debate can now commence and whilst everyone will have an opinion and ultimately that's all that it is about, it is interesting to note that including the substitutes, only one player who is not from Chelsea, ManYoo or Arsenal has made selection - Alan Shearer.

Liverpool have endured their most barren domestic period which is reflected by not having a single player selected. ManYoo contribute the most players - 8. Arsenal contribute 4 (five if you include Ashley Cole) and Chelsea 5 (4 if you include Cole for Arsenal). It is little surprise those three until City last year were the only teams to win the Premiership since its' inception other than Blackburn (step forward Alan Shearer).

What is also interesting is that in the first eleven, only one player is currently playing. This is a reflection that in recent seasons, ManYoo, Arsenal and Chelsea (as well as Liverpool) have all been fading forces as has the quality of the Premiership been falling. Of the teams at the top, only really Spurs and Manchester City could claim to have significantly improved. If we were to do this exercise again in a few years times one suspects a few more Manchester City players will be replacing Arsenal ones - No Nonsense.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lance Armstrong

Stories about doping in cycling have been so widespread for so long that they usually barely register as 'news', such is the level of global apathy towards cycling that the 'Tour De Cheats' has created.

Cycling has an almost incomparable history of cheating. Eddy Merckx a five time Tour champion and hero to many once said 'you don't win the Tour on bread and water'. Merckx rode in the 60s and 70s.

This had led to many cycling fans turning off their television sets. The Tour is the greatest endurance sport on the planet yet no one any longer believes what they see, any great performances immediately throwing up suspicions in the same way that wides and batting collapses now confound in cricket.

In sports, there have always been athletes such as Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan that transcend the sporting world and become global superstars, known to all. Lance Armstrong was and is one of those people.

Armstrong's story was utterly compelling, fighting back from near death from cancer was a story enough without winning seven Tours De France afterwards, it was amazing stuff and now it seems it was all too amazing.

The evidence that Armstrong was involved in and even led a systematic doping programme designed with the simple aim of delivering victories for himself is compelling. It was done with not a single thought for ethics, rules or even law and even now he shows no remorse.

Armstrong's defence is built around the simple premise that he has never failed a drugs test. Quite how this could possibly stand up to such an avalanche of detail, times, places, people, facts seems entirely implausible.

Quite why nearly every single cyclist or protagonist has owned up and made their peace - whether for their own ends or another reason - would do such a thing seems entirely at odds with Armstrong's statements also. Success always comes with people bearing grudges, but everyone?

Armstrong has always defended himself vociferously to anyone who would care to listen, he has always been a fighter whether it was cancer, cycling or anything else he cared to get involved with. For him to go to ground so meekly seems highly telling also, the case for the prosecution is so overwhelming, what else can he do?

Armstrong has of course crossed many lines with charges being suggested as strong as witness intimidation, perjury and even trafficking in controlled substances, criminal charges could be a very strong possibility never mind the prospect of being sued for countless prize money and performance related bonuses.

The man has of course done a huge amount of good, his Livestrong Foundation has raised countless millions for the fight against cancer and he has inspired many through his actions and his books. The question is now is what the motivation was for doing all this work? Was it genuine concern or was it simply to provide a distraction and a smoke screen to protect him from his real life's work, winning Tours at any cost?

It is a tragedy that two of the most dominant sportsmen of the previous decade, Tiger Woods and Armstrong have been exposed as frauds.

Whilst Woods' troubles have nothing to do with golf, there is little question that Tiger pedalled a myth about his being a family man to earn endorsements and cash in on his magnificent skills as a golfer. His public image was one of perfection, a golfing machine with the perfect home life off the course, everyone wanted to be Tiger Woods.

How wrong we were and even with a highly contrived public apology, Tiger has and never will fully recover from those events. The other players no longer fear him as they have seen him in reality to be as fallible as anyone. It was Tiger's mental strength more than any of his physical golfing attributes that set him apart. He had already beaten the other players before he teed off - Ernie Els admitted as much in his autobiography.

None of that of course makes any real difference in a sporting sense but on a personal level it does, Tiger is not the saint he painted himself to be and in Armstrong's case, the image of perfection has become utterly tainted given his exposure as a ruthless cheat and bully. This leads us back to the question of his motivation for all his charity work.

The other issue that Lance Armstrong has created is that whilst he has created hope for so many through his foundation, he has destroyed so much hope for many through his blatant cheating.

The problem is that cheating and in such an organised way taints your view of all sports. Athletics hit a new low when Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in Seoul in 1988. The problems of the actions of the likes of Johnson, Armstrong, Marion Jones is that it kills sport for everyone else.

One hopes for instance that Usain Bolt is just a freak of nature, such an incredible physical specimen of huge proportions that his records are legitimate. But one cannot help having the nagging doubt that in a few years time we are set to be hugely disappointed when we find out otherwise. How many days, weeks and even months of Tour De France viewing over the years have been rendered entirely meaningless? Was any of it legitimate?

The Armstrong story will eventually fade from public view, the likes of Nike are even now standing by him referring to the amount of good that he done in his life. What no one knows is what his motivation was for this work outside of cycling.

And no one has yet counted the cost of what his doping actions have meant for up and coming professional cyclists, induced into his drugs culture, for would be future cyclists or athletes and for simple sports fans across the globe, shame on you Lance Armstrong - No Nonsense.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

England Not Upto The Task

England surrendered their T20 crown last night, going out to the hosts with the merest of whimpers as they were well beaten by a talented and hard working Sri Lankan side.

For what seems the longest time now, England have had an obsession with changing their personnel hugely for different formats of the game seemingly forgetting that the basics of cricket, i.e. scoring runs and taking wickets remain paramount.

During England's horrible home performance at the 1999 World Cup, Sir Ian Botham lamented the introduction of so many 'bits and pieces' players who would not get into the side on the strength of either their batting or bowling yet were picked because they could do a bit of both, just not very well.

Since then, England have also developed an obsession with finding 'pinch hitters' and as of yet have still not figured out that when picking wicket keepers to open the batting in shorter formats, not one of those players is Adam Gilchrist.

Despite not being Adam Gilchrist however, it seems bizarre in the extreme that one of the most destructive test batsmen in the world right now, Matthew Prior is deemed not good enough to club a few overs for an England team hardly flush with established batsmen. Ian Bell is considered good enough to open the batting in ODIs for England yet isn't good enough to even get in the T20 squad, it beggars belief.

Looking at the England team last night, it had all the appearances of a development squad, hopelessly out of their depth against a first class International team. It is also time to stop the pretence that Ravi Bopara is an International cricketer, he has neither the technique nor the mental strength. Eoin Morgan also failed badly again last night when the team needed him.

England's sub continent travails against spin have been well documented and the irony is that in protecting the integrity of the England team by keeping their players from the IPL, England are going backwards (in all formats) against spin bowling and sub continent conditions where it appears more and more cricket is going to be played.

Whether anyone likes it or not, T20 cricket is here to stay and players are adapting and changing their skills accordingly through the IPL. Spin wasn't even the main culprit last night, more a devastating first over from Malinga that England simply couldn't cope with. Malinga's bowling in the T20 format is phenomenal and England had simply no idea how to deal with his clever use of cutters, length and changes of pace.

Stuart Broad is a fine player but it is questionable whether he is the right choice for captain given his propensity for hot headedness. T20 is a format that is often highly charged with fine margins, it is a cool head that is required and a batsman directing the bowlers at the end might serve England better. Unfortunately all the experienced batsmen were in TV studios or watching on TV at home.

This has been a year to forget for England across the board and with a daunting series in India to come followed by an energy sapping trip to New Zealand, all is not well in the England camp ahead of the Ashes. Maybe a certain Kevin Pietersen will be welcomed back more readily than anyone may have thought - No Nonsense.