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Football Journalist Q & A: Mark Ogden, Simon Mullock, Nick Miller & Rob Pollard

As another season drew to a close, I asked a few of our finest football journalists about the past season in the Premier League, both regarding Manchester City and their competitors. This is what they had to say…

Your general views on the Premier League season? A duller affair than previous campaigns?

Mark Ogden (MO): I think Chelsea’s flying start probably killed the campaign in terms of being a dramatic spectacle. City obviously moved level with them by the New Year, but once they got there, they seemed to lose momentum. Chelsea just kept going and the title race was as good as over by March, which is never a good thing.
Let’s be honest, last season was so full of stories – City winning two trophies, Liverpool almost winning the league, United in meltdown under Moyes – that it was always going to be a tall order for this season to match it for excitement and drama.

Simon Mullock (SM): Jose Mourinho is great copy for journalists, but the way Chelsea stonewalled their way to the title will have the Premier League big wigs praying that the Sky and BT execs who signed off on the new £5 billion TV deal have lost the receipt.
Mourinho’s Chelsea are the most boring champions since…well erm, Mourinho’s Chelsea. He is right about one thing though: City, United, Arsenal and Liverpool must share the blame for failing to mount a serious challenge.
With the title race over early, the other top-four places decided, and two of the three relegation slots filled before the final game, it was a dull, dull season.

Nick Miller (NM): Yeah, pretty tedious. It was pretty clear from months out who was going to win it, and who was going to occupy at least two of the top four spots (although I thought Liverpool would pip United for a while there), there haven’t been that many great games, even the best player in the league isn’t that exciting. Brilliant, obviously, but not like Ronaldo or Henry.

Rob Pollard (RP): Yeah, it was somewhat underwhelming. The lack of a proper title race was obviously the big drawback, but I do feel there’s a lack of quality in the Premier League at the moment and it needs addressing. The performances of the English teams in Europe only underlined that, really.

 

Does it matter if Chelsea’s style wasn’t the most exciting at times? Is such a claim even true?

MO: I’m not sure it is that big an issue. Chelsea still had players like Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas in their team and none of those can be described as lacking flair.
Maybe they just weren’t pushed enough by their rivals. Had they been forced to up their game to hold off City or Arsenal, then we may have seen more from them.

SM: It doesn’t matter if you’re a Chelsea fan. I’m of the opinion that football shouldn’t be a tickling contest, but do we really want the standard-bearers of the English game to play with such a snarl on their faces? Chelsea remind me of Don Revie’s Leeds side in their pomp. Feared, respected, but never loved. How can watching a team with players like Hazard, Fabregas and Oscar be such a joyless exercise?

NM: Not really. Mourinho’s not a boring manager but a very pragmatic one – he adapts to the situation. In any case, I’m one of those pricks who enjoys a really good defensive performance nearly as much as an attacking one.

RP: Chelsea are very pragmatic, which I think is something that shouldn’t be criticized too heavily. If they feel a point at home against one of their nearest rivals is enough, they go all out for that rather than risk losing the game. It irks Manuel Pellegrini, who’s much more of a purist, and I can kind of understand why, but the bottom line is it gets results. They finished eight points clear of City who dropped nine points to the three relegated sides. Perhaps if City had shown a touch more pragmatism, Chelsea wouldn’t have been allowed to run away with it in the way they did.
Having said that, the teams I’ve always most admired have been extremely attacking ones. Chelsea don’t, to my mind, come anywhere near the likes of the AC Milan side of the mid-2000s or the Barcelona side we all admire now.

 

Do you think Chelsea may dominate in seasons to come?

MO: No, because John Terry won’t go on forever and they will miss him in a big way when he retires.
Also, City are only a couple of players short of being a serious threat again. The same goes for Arsenal, if they find the players they need – but Arsene Wenger has had a blind spot about those type of players for the last decade.
As for United, they could go either way, depending on who they sign. I still think they have an awful lot of work to do before they can win the league again.

SM: No. City and United will spend heavily this summer and Arsenal must come good at some stage. It’s stating the obvious that Chelsea were the most consistent team, but they dropped plenty of unexpected points themselves. They got away with it because City fell off a cliff and Arsenal started the season in a sleep walk. A period of Mourinho domination would take English football into the Dark Ages.

NM: It’ll certainly be closer next season. Probably. Hopefully.

RP: No. They are very well equipped for success. Their academy is producing some seriously impressive players and they have a very clear, well thought-out transfer strategy, but City, too, have everything in place and they will like to think they can compete with them over the coming years.

 

Your team of the year? (4-4-2?)

MO: Courtois; Ivanovic, Demichelis, Terry, Azpilicueta; Sanchez, Matic, Silva, Hazard; Aguero, Costa.

SM: De Gea; Clyne, Smalling, Terry, Azpilicueta; Hazard, Matic, Silva, Sanchez; Aguero, Kane.

 

As for Manchester City, what do you think were the main reasons for such a disappointing campaign?

MO: I don’t think the World Cup helped, but you could argue that Chelsea overcame similar issues. Still, City had more players involved in the latter stages than Chelsea and I think it had a knock-on effect.
There has also been an element of City failing to truly strengthen last summer. They went for potential or experience, with nothing in between in terms of players in their peak.
Kompany’s form has been poor, Yaya has also been up and down, while Pellegrini’s tactics have become predictable.
There just seemed a general lack of motivation, which should be a worry.

SM: Last summer’s recruitment policy should by itself be a sackable offence – and I don’t blame Pellegrini for that. Yes, City were unfairly hampered by their FFP punishment, but Mangala, Fernando, Caballero, Sagna and Bony didn’t improve the squad, even slightly. I can only assume Mangala and Bony were bought with the future in mind, but the fact that City still managed to pay well over the odds at a time when they needed to be extra vigilant with the pennies doesn’t fill me with confidence.
City’s failure in the transfer market was then compounded by players like Kompany, Zabaleta and Toure looking like they have been asked to go to the well too many times.
But the big disappointment for me was that the likes of Dzeko, Nasri and Navas lacked the cojones to step up to the plate.
There also seemed a lack of motivation in some games (Stoke, Burnley x 2), Hull, Newcastle in the League Cup and Boro in the FA Cup) – and that is down to the manager.

NM: I think the players have got away with a lot of criticism – Yaya’s obviously got some, but people like Zabaleta, Nasri, Clichy, the strikers who aren’t Aguero, and obviously Kompany and Mangala have all been poor, or at least nowhere near as they could/should be. Pellegrini obviously takes some blame, but I’d say it’s as simple as lots of players having bad years at the same time.

RP: Loads. Their results against the lesser sides certainly harmed them, as did the lack of pace going forward, something that needs addressing this summer if they want to compete for trophies again. This group of players have been great for City but that’s twice now they’ve tried to defend their title and done so disastrously, which is a concern.

 

You may not want to commit – but do you think Pellegrini should go this summer?

MO: I actually think he should stay and it would do City great credit if he did. You can’t sack managers for finishing second.
Maybe he should be given a new contract to make him believe that he will be given the time to rebuild and take the team forward. The current situation of one year remaining on his contract will just lead to uncertainty.
I don’t think he is the world’s greatest tactician, but in two seasons, he has won two trophies and twice progressed to the CL knock-out stages.
Who knows? Had they been handed the route to the final that Juventus have had, City could have gone to the semis or even further.
It’s just the luck of the draw. But for Barcelona, United could have had two more European Cups on the honours list and, in a sense, City have only been denied greater progress in the competition because they have hit the same roadblock on two occasions.

SM: It would be a mistake if Pellegrini keeps the job by default. If City don’t think he will be the right man for the job this time next year then they should part company now. Not just for the good of the club, but out of respect to Pellegrini.
Serious clubs don’t tread water in the hope that they will land the golden boy at some point in the future. If Pellegrini is the man, then hand him a contract extension or risk a season of paralysing uncertainty.

NM: Depends if there’s anyone better out there. I’d replace him if Klopp fancied it, or if you could get someone like Simeone or Conte, but if not there’s no real point in changing for the sake of it. Oh, actually, Ancelotti – he’d be good. Yeah, ignore all that – get Carlo in.

RP: Not unless there’s a viable, long-term option who provides City with an upgrade, and I’m not sure there is one this summer, certainly not one the club wants. They’re desperate for Pep Guardiola, it’s that simple.

Do you think he will go? Is Pep Guardiola a pipe dream?

MO: I think Pellegrini stays this summer and no, Guardiola isn’t a pipe dream.
He has strong connections to City in Txiki and Soriano, but what I do think is a pipe dream is the perception that he will take the job just because his mates are in charge.
He will need a lot more than that to persuade him that City, rather than the likes of Arsenal, PSG or AC Milan are the club for him.

SM: I think Pellegrini will stay, but for all the wrong reasons. City clearly believe that Guardiola will eventually arrive as manager – and two Spanish executives have staked their reputation on it. My worry is that if or when Guardiola arrives it will be because he’s doing his two old mates a favour by slumming it in Manchester. The biggest mistake City could make is employing someone who thinks you’re beneath them, a bit like Robinho did.

NM: This summer, yes. Next, maybe not.

RP: You would have to assume the club have been given strong indications that he’s at least interested, otherwise the apparent strategy of putting all their eggs in one basket would be absolutely foolish.
He would provide City with many of the great things Pellegrini has brought, such as a continuation of the team’s attacking style, but he would bring a bit of excitement, too. Pellegrini has been seen, quite rightly, as somewhat dull and uninspiring in press conferences and so on, and perhaps City need a bit more than that to raise the profile of the club worldwide.

 

Is the age of the team as big a problem as some make out?

MO: Yes, because too many key players are in the same age group. If you want a warning sign of the future if the situation is not addressed, just think of the problems United have had with Giggs, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra all going at the same time. That was terrible planning on United’s part and City cannot allow the same to happen. They need new blood alongside the old heads.

SM: I don’t think age was necessarily the problem this season, but the team has now definitely gone stale. Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Toure, Silva and Aguero were carrying the club three years ago. Another year on, though, and there does need to be an injection of youth, either from the Academy or through the transfer market. Top teams should really evolve, but City have got to the point where their poor recruitment strategy since 2012 means they now need perhaps five top-class signings all at once.

NM: I think we’ll see next season. The age isn’t necessarily a huge problem in itself – Kompany’s only just 29, etc – but if they’re all declining then obviously it’s a big problem. We’ll just have to see if this season has been a blip.

RP: Kompany got this right in his interview with Mullock earlier in the season when he said if City were winning, it’d be down to experience, but because they were losing, it was down to tired legs and an aging squad. Juventus have a similar aged squad and they’ve done well this season.
Having said that, it’s unsustainable. Youth and pace are needed this summer.

 

Where do you think the team needs strengthening this summer? Will City still be restricted, despite rumours of FFP changes?

MO: City will spend big this summer, but only within their means. The FFP relaxation is a bit of a red herring because Michel Platini is doing it because of concerns of the power of English clubs when the next TV deal kicks in next year. So if it is being devised to clip the English clubs’ wings, I don’t see it being too beneficial. But City want to run a sustainable model anyway, so they shouldn’t be worried. As for reinforcements, they need a decent left-back and two young, powerful midfielders.

SM: A Right-back, a centre-back, a central midfielder, an attacking wide midfielder and at least one striker. City swallowed the FFP pill last year and I’m told that the brakes will be off this summer. For Platini to look to relax the financial regulations now also shows what a con the whole sorry affair has been and I’d love City and PSG to take UEFA on in court to try to recover the fines they paid.

NM: I’ll ignore the FFP stuff because I still can’t quite get my head around it, but I reckon you need some pace in attack (up front or wide), someone to replace Yaya, another centre-half & maybe another holding mid, unless you’re going to persist with Fernando.

RP: As far as I am aware, the restrictions will be lifted and City fans can be confident of a big spend. The midfield needs reconstructing. I like Verratti at PSG and, as everyone knows, Pogba is a world star in the making. A striker will have to arrive if both Dzeko and Jovetic go, too. A left-back wouldn’t hurt either.

 

What has been your personal favourite moment of the season, both in your job and as a football fan?

MO: I think being in the Allianz Arena to watch Bayern hammer Porto 6-1 was the highlight, both as a fan and as a reporter. They were brilliant for half an hour and played football which was just beyond anything we have seen in the Premier League this season.

SM: I know it’s puerile, but Phil Jones doing his impression of the human centipede was a classic moment. If you want something a bit more serious then it has to be watching Messi, Suarez and Neymar take a wrecking ball to Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp.

NM: Both the same, as it goes: Ben Osborn scoring the winner for Forest in the 92nd minute at Derby (https://youtu.be/iw3lF-Z4VSo?t=55m48s), about which I wrote a piece that made both my parents cry (http://www.inthetopone.com/2015/1/18/7689541/catching-the-dragon-derby-1-2-forest) – in a good way. Enjoyed all that.

RP: Personally, it was City’s win in Rome, which was a long-overdue, patient European display. City were much better than Roma and they showed it for the majority of the match. Watching Silva and Aguero play is also an absolute joy.
Professionally, interviewing Patrick Vieira, Colin Bell and Brian Marwood the day we were shown around City’s new academy was great fun.

 

As a football journalist, what are the most tedious and exciting parts of your job?

MO: Sorry Manuel, but those Friday press conference are the most tedious part of the job, simply because he shows no sign of wanting to engage in any conversation about anything. I think underneath the surface, there is an interesting football manager, but he never shows it and I don’t know why that is.
The best parts are turning up at big games, when there is an edge to the atmosphere and something at stake.

SM: 1: Waiting around for hours to ask players for an interview, only to be told to fuck off. 2: If getting paid to watch football doesn’t give you a buzz then you should indeed fuck off.

NM: There aren’t too many tedious or massively exciting parts to my job – it’s all a fairly steady level of ‘good’.

RP: Most tedious is having to read the comment section and my Twitter mentions. There’s only so many times you can be called a cunt before it gets incredibly boring. The most exciting is having an opportunity to cover the game and have a say. Simple as that, really.

 

And finally: how to fill a summer without football?!

MO: My last game will be June 14 and the first of next season will be July 17, so it’s a pretty brief summer!

SM: I’m delighted to say that my sports editor’s plan in this Ashes summer is to get me to cover some cricket.

NM: Cricket, baseball, books, going outside, talking to friends about things other than football, and endless transfer rumours. And then there’s all the football – Copa America, women’s World Cup etc. You’ll not get bored.

RP: I’ll be going on holiday to Chicago and watching tennis! The football will be back before we know it.

 

Bonus question if you support Notts Forest: (78% probability): Do you regret the Stuart Pearce reign?

NM: I really shouldn’t answer on principle because you called us ‘Notts’, but I’m a kind man willing to overlook these things. I didn’t want him as manager, but it was worth it for two moments: when he came out before his first game – I’ve never heard a noise like that at the City Ground – and the Derby win I mentioned before. I wish it had all been better, but those two made it worthwhile.

By way of an apology to Nick, be sure to check out his excellent piece about Pearce’s exit.
http://www.inthetopone.com/2015/2/2/7960863/so-farewell-then-stuart-pearce

 

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