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Wednesday, 23 January, 2019

Time to face facts: Guardiola has proved a Premier flop

The Thursday column

Many are calling for Arsene Wenger to wave goodbye
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Life should be as fair as possible and the world would be a fairer place if people stopped slaughtering some football managers while virtually exonerating others whose teams have performed even worse than expected.

On Monday I sat incredulously through a radio broadcast in which two former professional footballers agreed with one another what a good job Jose Mourinho has done this season.

Earlier they offered only the mildest trace of an opinion that Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge of Manchester City had not gone as well as it might have.

I hope Arsene Wenger wasn’t listening. If he was he’d have no doubt wondered yet again why he is such a dartboard of a manager despite his long record of success at Arsenal, the most recent example of which was his side’s elimination of City in the FA Cup semi-final the previous day.

Wenger is continually criticised yet his team punch comparatively strongly compared to the Manchester clubs, both of whom have spent far more money in their quest for success.

When City and United do battle tonight Sky should be billing it the losers derby because both clubs have been woeful this season without getting anything like the stick they deserve based on the mud that flies Wenger’s way.

Let’s remind ourselves what was expected of the two clubs at the start of the season. City were general 5-2 favourites for the title with United at 3-1, Chelsea and Arsenal 6-1 and Liverpool and Tottenham 8-1.

Yet the two sides go to war tonight in fourth and fifth places and sharing a desperate need for points for a Champions League place and no pride whatsoever at stake because even the winner will have nothing to be proud of.

City’s season has been a monumental failure, let’s be perfectly clear about that. Guardiola came in, spent big, and started like he was going to turn the campaign into a sky blue monopoly.

City won their first ten matches, scoring 30 goals and conceding six. They looked virtually perfect, and were as short as 4-7 to win the league with barely a month of football played.

But then their progress stalled surprisingly and dramatically as they drew three and lost three of their next six games, after which they have been dazzling, dismal and everything in between.

It is hard to believe sometimes that this is the same team who produce such a variety of performances. They were superb against Barcelona in November but then four days later stumbled to a home draw against Boro.

If someone held a gun to my head and told me to pick an English team to play Real Madrid and they would shoot me if they didn’t win, I’d still pick City because when they click they are awesome, but their inconsistency is staggering.

Having been eight points ahead of Chelsea after six matches, City will have gained an astonishing 22 points fewer than the Blues in the next 25 matches if they lose to United, and yet still you hear barely a murmur of criticism of Guardiola.

I like the man and hope he succeeds in England, but the bottom line is if Sam Allardyce was put in charge of City in the summer and endured such a wretched campaign he would probably have been sacked by now.

And with fellow Premier League rookie Antonio Conte having done such fine work at Stamford Bridge Guardiola’s excuse that this is his first season in England is invalid.

He has done some daft things. Jettisoning Joe Hart was not a wrong move but replacing him with Claudio Bravo was; left-back Aleksandar Kolarov has popped up in central defence; Jesus Navas has been showing how not to play right-back, and it may be that the relentless nature of the Prem has caught him by surprise.

Things have been barely less abysmal for Mourinho’s side, although in his defence I have to write the following sentence for the first time in my life: United have been quite unlucky this season.

They have dominated matches they somehow failed to win and have had injury problems, although that still doesn’t excuse their moderate overall output.

Paul Pogba has struggled for United this season

Paul Pogba has been the most laughably terrible signing in football history (although I spent a few seconds shaking my head in disbelief when being reminded this week that Arsenal liability Granit Xhaka cost £35 million), and far too many home games that Fergie would have won with one of his famous late onslaughts have been drawn.

Mourinho, largely annoying whenever he opens his mouth, has redeemed himself to an extent by making it clear he covets Europa League victory far more than fourth place in the league (“fourth place is not a trophy,” he commendably points out) but it has been a feeble effort by and large and he looks to have even more rebuilding to do than Guardiola to make United a threat next term.

Meanwhile, Wenger has taken Arsenal into the Champions League knockout stage for the 794th consecutive season and has a decent chance of landing a third FA Cup final triumph in four years, yet operates under a constant chorus of calls for him to lose his job. It’s not fair.

Blues’ leaky run just a quirk 

Statistics and sequences are a constant source of fascination for football fans. My current favourite concerns Chelsea’s clean-sheet record this season.

Here is the number of goals they conceded in their 33 league matches, with the most recent game shown last: 110223000000110000220011111121122.

In summary, they shut out their opponents in 13 of their first 22 fixtures but have since failed to do so in 11 consecutive games.

There is little obvious reason for this. They have not changed personnel drastically, and there is nothing to suggest teams are coming at them with less reluctance than before.

Perhaps opposition coaches have found ways to unpick the defence, but the likeliest explanation is that it has just happened.

It’s yet another reminder that it is wise to use stats to influence your betting decisions but that the moment you start leaning on them too heavily you risk finding yourself flat on your face.

Labaik should be stopped until he can start  

Labaik must be a monumentally frustrating horse to own. When he consents to start with the others he is a world-beater, but more often than not he decides he would rather stop when they say go.

Most owners turn up to watch their horses run with only the mystery of where they will finish to occupy their thoughts. Labaik’s owners cannot allow themselves to look beyond whether he will start.

But while I sympathise with their frustrations, there is no way the horse should be allowed to line up for tomorrow’s Punchestown Champion Hurdle, having once again misbehaved at the course on Tuesday.

I am truly staggered that he has not been suspended, pending proof that what must already amount to exhaustive attempts to solve the problem have done the trick, which certainly is not the case as things stand.

Officially the horse has refused to start four of his last nine races, although that is effectively six of nine given two of the others were on Tuesday when he jumped off so late it was absurd not to declare it a refusal and three starts ago when he was miles too late to be competitive and only avoided a ban by finally completing the course.

Labaik showed what he can do at Cheltenham
In between times, he reminded everyone what a talent he is by winning the Supreme. No ordinary horse is Labaik, but after his most recent late start it is absurd that no action has been taken to protect punters from having to guess whether or not he will jump off with his rivals.

And it is pure snobbery to say, as some have, that keen students of form should know the risks they are taking by backing him. It should not be possible that those having a fun day out and a few bets have to suffer the experience of losing their bet within five seconds of a race starting.

Nor do I understand the glorification of other serial non-starters like Mad Moose and Vodkatini. Such horses are not lovable rogues, they are a nuisance.

If horses on the Flat misbehave more than once at the start they have to pass a stalls test before they can race again, and it is high time Labaik’s connections were told he cannot race again until he can prove he is a reliable starter. 

Wenger is continually criticised yet his team punch comparatively strongly compared to the Manchester clubs, both of which have spent far more money
E.W. Terms
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