The price of failure weighs heavy on England’s Big Six
Posted Saturday, September 28 2013 at 01:00
Never has a single defeat meant so much in the English Premier League than it does this season, further testament that ‘Big Six’ has moved from being just a definitive phrase of convenience to a phenomenon so real it is scary.
It is only five games in and already five of this elite group have lost once; Manchester United have registered a couple of reversals which explains why they are the only ones not in the top six on the log at the moment, being kept out by high flyers Southampton and the only unbeaten side left in the league, Everton.
Following each loss for a Big Six side the criticism has been stinging, the obituaries have rang out, and the managers in the line of fire have not dared to find solace in the truism that it is only three points at the end of the day; the belief (make that fear actually) is that any lost ground will be hard to make up in what is expected to be the fiercest race to the finish line yet.
There was neither a trace of arrogance nor the beginning of a sneer as the characteristically defiant Jose Mourinho went philosophical after that loss to Everton, and because he has not earned any grounds to be bullish a haggard looking David Moyes instead went preemptive after derby day demolition by predicting that there would be more hard knocks along the way.
The dooms day scenarios being painted by the British media and fans each weekend are way premature though, more now than ever before, and they had better brace themselves for a long season in which nothing will be determined until the final few weeks. Sorry people, no champions at Christmas.
For pointers look no further than the cue that not long after Tottenham’s expensively assembled cast looked like a disjointed lot missing leading man Gareth Bale in losing to Arsenal, they are now a sleek machine rolling over opposition on three fronts – the Premiership, Europa League and Capital One Cup – and are level on points with their derby day conquerors.
Or that a few days and one win later, the same Chelsea vanquished at Goodison Park temporarily took pole position while the previously unbeaten Liverpool dropped from the top of the log to fifth after Southampton’s Anfield siege.
None of the Big Six have lost the league with the odd setback of course, but each one of those losses has exposed holes that need plugging if they are all going to stay the course.
Along with a huge chunk of the British public, old school Moyes has got to wake up to a few harsh realities. The games between the Big Six (the derbies therein) and a few more outside of that realm are no longer about the raw passion that used that once typified them, but about technical quality and tactical nous.
The graft of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and the like will come in handy on many other days but this, which like it or not now belongs to the craft of Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Rafael, Chicarito and even the young but gifted Adnan Januzaj.
Manuel Pellegrini preferred the guile of Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas, Fernandinho and Kolarov to the guts of James Milner, Jack Rodwell, Micah Richards and co for a reason, and having learnt his lesson Moyes opted for such technical prowess to good effect in yet another derby after, the win over Liverpool which perhaps explains why it was the first of his career.
Typical of the British blame game Marounne Fellaini became the fall guy, unfairly so. The big Belgian, pretty decent with his feet, was left with no outlets for the short passes he prefers because he was part of an outnumbered two-man midfield, with two touchline-hugging wingers far hidden and having a decidedly off day.
By contrast, for all their physical strength, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho did not hurt Fellaini and United in the tackle but on the ball, always presented with options because of the excellent movement of Nasri, Navas and Sergio Aguero.
Moyes is talking up transition but the fixture list and the demands of the job dictate that he has got to quickly move away from being a poor imitation of Sir Alex Ferguson to being his own man.
With two wingers and two strikers in a 4-4-2, the line-ups he put out in the losses to Liverpool and City had Fergie written all over them, and yet at Everton Moyes always had a third busy body in central midfield and sometimes put out entire teams of midfielders, with Fellaini up top.
The return of Luis Suarez will without a doubt have the expected impact, and in flashes at Old Trafford on Wednesday night one could see how deadly they will be when the Uruguayan gets on the same page with Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses.
Brendan Rodgers has to find the right balance in that expansive 4-3-3, which could mean Jordan Henderson playing more centrally or more trust in Luis Alberto. What the manager can’t continue to do, especially against teams with the technical sleekness and agility of Southampton, is to play centre backs in the full back positions.
The selection dilemmas aside, Mourinho’s problems are exaggerated really. But being one whose utterances were always calculated for effect and form a huge part of his legend, the change in style is curious.
The Special One never ever commented about his players in public unless he was commending or defending them, choosing to take the pressure off them by taking the limelight and the flak too. Sometimes he thrived in it.
Now he has gone from a man who never publicly chastised Adrian Mutu for his drugs issues to one who slammed Pepe while still in Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo after he had left, and who now pits Mata and Oscar against each other, criticises one and justifies his preference for the other.
Mata doesn’t represent the player power Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos – and by extension Pepe – had at Madrid, but Mourinho had better not get into the habit.