Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Old Wenger

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger looks on ahead of their English Premier League soccer match against Newcastle United at St James' Park, Newcastle, England, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Do you remember that Friends episode when the other five find out that Phoebe has never seen the end of tear-jerking films such as Its A Wonderful Life and Old Yeller, never realising that Old Yeller is shot by his owner. Something struck me as odd last night listening to the reaction of the Arsenal v Barcelona Champions League tie where the Spanish holders won 2-0 to be in the driving seat before the second leg in three weeks time at the Camp Nou.

If Arsenal are eliminated it will be the sixth consecutive season they have been eliminated from the first knockout round of Europe's most prestigious competition without troubling their rivals.  True, they have been unlucky in drawing the elite clubs. Yet that is always the risk you take in predominantly finishing second in the group stages.

It happened again this season, when Arsenal were on the back foot immediately after losing in Prague and then at home to Olympiakos. Yes, they finished second but the risk of drawing a Barcelona was very real.

What was surprising was the way Wenger are '95%' through today and how frustrated Barcelona would be that they did not firmly put the tie to bed with a more emphatic scoreline. Yet Wenger's honourable reaction to the defeat not making excuses and virtually falling on his sword for his players own failings was eyebrow raising.

Following the desperate performance at home to Hull City in the FA Cup at the weekend, which came less than a week after the euphoric home victory against Leicester City, you do wonder why Wenger struggles to motivate his players and why he fails so often with bad selection policies.

From playing Olivier Giroud as a lone striker when a quicker forward like Walcott or even hard working Danny Welbeck to press high up the field and pester the Barcelona defenders would have played into a gameplan. Instead the Giroud selection smacked of tried and tested, failing to see the necessity to innovate or try and disrupt Barcelona's tempo, too much respect was given to the Catalans.

Wenger strikes me as a manager on his last legs, one who is living off of past glories and bereft of inspiration in terms of formulating a plan, a manager too loyal to players who do not warrant it and a man who looks like he is running out of time.

The past two years of FA Cup victories have given him a stay of execution. The golden chalice is the Premier League title, something that has not been in his hands for 11 seasons. And now he stands on the brink of losing that to not only a competitor but his club's fiercest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. A team led by a vibrant young manager full of tactics and an insatiable hunger to succeed.

Arsene Wenger seems to think he has a divine right to the title and to challenge for it, and yet with the failings of Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool as challengers the title was there for the taking for Arsenal, and yet he slipped on his lines and failed to get the purchases in either transfer window to support his injury prone squad.

Should he lose the title to Tottenham, there will be a huge sense of embarrassment and bemusement at the Emirates. He might well retire or be put out of his misery; and just like Old Yeller, Arsenal and Arsene never saw it coming.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Night Manager

Spy master… Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager

The BBC have brought to the small screen in their 'Pure Drama' field an updated and altered John le Carre adaptation to fill up our Sunday evenings for the next six weeks.

The novel, The Night Manager, was released in 1993 and set in Cairo; the adaptation by David Farr (Spooks) has been updated to January 2011 in the same city during the now famous Arab Spring.  We encounter a white British man, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston - all charm and confidence) walking through the battered backstreets of the Egyptian capital as revolution takes place.

At work, he is suave and debonair, breezily dealing with rocket attacks on his hotel as international guests attempt to flee the city.  That night he meets a mistress of a renowned family man, Freddie Hamid; she is Sophie, a middle Eastern jewel. They flirt and they inevitably sleep together, she imparts upon Pine some information relating to the Hamid family buying weapons and munitions from renowned wicked man, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Sophie calls Roper, 'the worst man in the world'.

Image result for the night manager images

Pine fears for Sophie's wellbeing after giving this information to a delegate at the British embassy, Simon (Russell Tovey) who hands it on to a bitter worker of the International Enforcement Agency in Victoria, London; Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), who is seemingly at loggerheads with MI6 in how to capture Roper and his machavellian ways of trade and commerce.

Pine's fears are realised when Sophie is killed in her hotel room, this leads to a fast forward to four years later where Pine has relocated to Zermatt, Switzerland at the Meiseters Hotel in the Alps over the Christmas period. The hotel is expecting a late arrival of guests, namely Roper and his entourage including a fay Tom Hollander as Roper's dogsbody.

Pine sees this as a chance to help the UK government entrap Roper and so contacts Burr who comes to Zermatt personally to meet up, and so begins their mission to get Roper.

If this all sounds so BBC, so British and so Bond; you would not be wrong with that assumption. The film (and it is a film, under the guise of a television series) is directed by Suzanne Bier and she does well to shoot a sense of place from the sweaty humidity of Cairo, to the juxtaposition of a freezing London office with no heating ending with the picture postcard beauty of the Alpine landscape.

This can be construed as one long James Bond audition for Hiddleston, who does well with his calm moments and allows Pine moments of sensitivity and naturalness, such as throwing up after checking Roper into his room.  Yet being an ex-soldier who served in Iraq, he knows how war works and how it affects you; Pine is self-effacing and ready for a challenge, the way he gets the sim cards from Roper's phones is both ingenious and smart.

This is event television the like of which the BBC has strained for a number of years, but it shows that to gain that event status of a high water mark series you need the perfect storm of three actors (Hiddleston, Colman, Laurie) at the apex of their careers, a stellar supporting unit of familiar BBC faces (Hollander and Tovey), a renowned internationally acclaimed director (Bier). And the story, it is always about the story. The combination of le Carre, the BBC and Hiddleston makes this a drama not to miss.

Premier League: Age of Entitlement

 The Premier League has seen a teutonic shift in its landscape due to the achievements of both Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur in rocking the apple cart. Some are flummoxed and perplexed that two teams; one a perennial under achiever and the other a team that flirted with relegation to the Championship last season, are now challenging for the title.

Those who are most perplexed are the typical top four contenders - Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United - at one time or another this season, each side has flattered to deceive their credentials to be in the top four.

Chelsea, the title holders, were in trouble by the end of September and ultimately sacked Jose Mourinho in December. Since inserting Guus Hiddink they have not lost a game, yet they will not be playing European football next season unless they win either the FA Cup or the Champions League - a task made more difficult by the unfavourable draw versus a rampant Paris St. Germain this week.  Yet Chelsea fluffed their lines by not strengthening their squad in the close season and reinforcing a squad that may have won at a canter but did so because nobody challenged them.  Nowadays, football is about squad rotation keeping players fresh and motivated but healthy and vital at the same time.  Chelsea did not add a striker to help Diego Costa, did not sign another central defender to fill the obvious problem of an ageing John Terry nor get quality cover in midfield yet allow Mohammed Salah and Cuadrado go to Italy; whilst their former player Kevin De Bruyne signed for Manchester City.

Whilst Chelsea and here Mourinho is at fault, did not bolster a squad that was thin on paper, they were seemingly surprised that Manchester City and Manchester United did strengthen their squads albeit by splashing the cash in their reserves and mocking the financial fair play system.

Manchester City were the second best team in the country, yet they also did not fix a problem of defence and a prestigious central defender to sit next to and replace the injury prone Vincent Kompany. Instead, the attractive signings of flair players Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne indicated a direction to succeed in European competition at the expense of domestic success.

Manchester United however, are suffering for not doing the correct managerial appointment following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and not giving David Moyes the necessary time or funds to succeed.  When Sir Alex retired they should have thrown the money pot at Jose Mourinho to maintain the culture of success and victory at Old Trafford or promote Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt to do a partnership whilst they waited for a more illustrious manager as Pep Guardiola became available.  By inserting a manager who has never won a trophy into the most trophy laden club of the last twenty years was both naive and incorrect, Moyes is not a winner for a reason and it showed although he will one day win a trophy with someone.

Arsenal did not strengthen their squad either besides the signing of Petr Cech as goalkeeper, therefore not putting the blame on the outfield players but on Wojech Sczeceny at fault a number of times but the problem was a defence that was slow and an overwhelmed midfield and a less than potent strike force over-reliant on too many passes before taking a shot at goal.  By not injecting a squad with competition for places and saying to the same players, what you did last season was okay by me and not making them angry it invites the continual notion that Arsenal are not going to win the league based on 38 games, but you won the FA Cup so that is okay.

All four clubs were guilty of gross arrogance by thinking that we as the four biggest clubs in the country are good enough year-in and year-out, so we can play anybody and we will be good enough to beat the also rans of Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton.

And then Leicester City showed up.  Claudio Ranieri, the tinkerman, became the manager who entrusted in his small and inexperienced squad a notion of responsibility and system.  If you have decent players and give them a role to fit into a system of invention and robustness, you will get results.  Players do only what they are good at, the defenders defend; the midfielders win the turnover ball and distribute efficiently and the forwards shoot at goal and score.

Leicester show you can be inventive and have flair whilst being difficult to break down and physical in the midfield without being aggressive.  Leicester show what you can do on a budget and when you entrust a young squad with a mandate.

Tottenham have a younger squad and follow much the same blueprint; defending from the front, winning turnover ball in the midfield, a reliable defence with a world-class goalkeeper to beat.  Much is made of a spine in the old top four sides, yet Tottenham have two good central defenders, two good midfielders and a prolific striker. As do Leicester. Gone is the spine and now you need the magnificent seven.

The arrogance of the top four is due to the wealth of riches and income they have not just from television deals but worldwide global sponsorship. This age of entitlement has been ripped up by Leicester and Tottenham and fittingly, both sides have a wealth of English and British talent in their best starting XIs; do you see that in the top four.  A mixture of European flair and British grit can get you places.

This age of entitlement might well be coming to an end, yet the new television deal might bring it back in years to come until another team - do not ignore what Ronald Koeman is doing at Southampton; undervalued keeper, young academy outdoing itself and potent strikers - comes along and rips up the rule book. That is the continual fascination with football in England, there is no recipe for success, you have to adapt or watch the world fly by you as you stand still in corporate boxes.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Shetland; Series 3, Episode 3

Following the climatic death of Ciaran Hinds, Michael Maguire, at the end of episode 2, and following a two week absence due to the BBC's FA Cup coverage, Shetland returned to these shores with more intrigue and drama.

In episode 3, Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and Tosh goes to Glasgow to investigate why Michael Maguire's witness protection identity was kept from him and his team on the island.

Back on the island, Sandy goes door to door looking for answers to the identity of who helped the shooter getaway after driving to Maguire's location.  This leads to Sandy attempting to confront his partner's cousin, Craig, who we know was on the ferry the night Robbie Monroe disappeared.

The trip to Glasgow allows Archie Punjabi as Asha Israni to speak at last as Maguire's handler, and her deliberate motion of avoiding questions in the interview with Perez leads to a rendez-vous in his hotel and eventual romatic clinch which will know doubt lead to something he regrets.

The connection between Robbie and Michael is further established when not only do they have matching tattoos, they are father and son which leads us to further understand that Michael did not kill his son on the ferry.

Perez was shown to have a vengeful streak also when he encounters the person Maguire was going to inform on, O'Malley played chillingly. O'Malley promises "he can get inside your life, get inside your head" during a confrontation in a dive bar. This prompts Perez to beat up one of O'Malley's heavies in the car park. This leads to the romantic clinch with Asha.

The episode ends with an onimous looking figure burning some evidence in a field, we only see his shadow, is it Craig doing more work to cover up his mistakes or doing what he is told?

This episode at times did drag but the injection of the father-son bond between Maguire and Robbie means there is more than meets the eye, and whilst the clinch between Perez and Asha was a bit telegraphed you get the sense it was building up to something greater. So another four star episode for this reviewer.