It’s been the week when the managers regained control. Player power? Not so much any more. It started with Tony Pulis getting full on and physical with his star striker over a Christmas party. It ended with Arsene Wenger producing a good, old fashioned half time explosion.
Arsenal’s manager was full of fury on the touchline at Anfield as his side went into the interval a goal down. I thought it was with the officials for the free kick decision that led to Dirk Kuyt’s goal. It turned out it was with his players, and in the dressing room he tore into them. “The manager told us we did not deserve to wear the shirt, I have never seen him so angry,” revealed skipper Cesc Fabregas.
The response was dramatic, and the 2-1 win that followed has put the Gunners back into the title race despite their injury problems. Three points behind Manchester United, and with a game in hand, their price for the title has dropped to 7.2.
Wenger’s turnaround underlined how much influence a good boss can still exert. Okay, it’s not quite like playing the computer games, where a set of algorithms dictate an exact outcome to buying the right players, picking the best team and choosing the most clever tactics.
David Moyes was trying to delay sending on substitute Yakubu until half time at Stamford Bridge – instead the Nigerian went straight out and scored one of Everton’s goals in a 3-3 draw. But by and large across a season the ability and experience of the boss is one of the most crucial factors.
Martin O’Neill, for instance, has an astonishing track record. A man who won proper trophies with Leicester, for heaven’s sakes, and then ended Rangers’ period of dominance in Scotland before taking Celtic to the UEFA Cup final, is now threatening to produce another miracle.
His Aston Villa side could be backed at longer than 8.0 on Betfair to win at Old Trafford on Saturday night and that’s exactly what they did. He’s put together a solid back four in which Stephen Warnock is emerging as a possible replacement to Wayne Bridge in the World Cup squad, and then given flair players like Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing the platform to strut their stuff.
They are full of confidence, and games this week at Sunderland and home to Stoke could cement a place in the top four. They are now in to 4.6 to finish the season there.
One of O’Neill’s great strengths is the discipline he exerts on his dressing room. He led the way in managers fronting up to their superstars, of course, with that training ground fracas with Nigel Reo-Coker. He also doesn’t tolerate dissent, something which both Mark Hughes and Gianfranco Zola could do well to learn from.
Hughes was in a fury about referee Mark Clattenburg’s wrong decision to give Craig Bellamy a second yellow card for a dive when he was clearly fouled by Bolton’s Paul Robinson. But if the Welsh striker hadn’t got his first booking for a stupid piece of dissent, arguing over a throw-in, it wouldn’t have mattered.
Instead, being down to ten men cost City the chance of getting more than a 3-3 draw at The Reebok. City should have been the club most likely to break up the big four, and are still 2.52 to finish that high. After one win in nine that’s one to lay.
As for Zola, he was grumbling about Mark Noble’s sending off for a nothing tackle in the 1-0 defeat at Birmingham. Again, if the England Under 21 midfielder hadn’t needlessly got booked earlier for kicking he ball away after a free kick decision it wouldn’t have mattered. Hammers are in trouble, they are 4.3 to go down, and Zola lacks the experience to deal with it. Tomorrow’s trip to Bolton, who are 2.3 to win, has become a massive contest.
Avram Grant also needs to learn to stop making excuses for players. He sympathised with Younes Kaboul who also got a needless second yellow for taking his shirt and jumping into the travelling fans to celebrate the last minute equaliser for a 1-1 draw at Sunderland. The draw – which means two games unbeaten for bottom club Pompey – hasn’t stopped them coming in to 2.62 to finish rock bottom. It’s still a safe bet.
Kaboul will now miss Wednesday’s trip to Grant’s old club Chelsea, and Pompey follow that with fixtures against Liverpool and Arsenal – oh, and then lose six players to the African Cup of Nations during January. They might yet lose ten points for going into administration too.
No manager – not even the Special One – could do anything about that.
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