MONDAY’S BIG STORIES
NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DIS-CONTE-NT
Football clubs, being complicated entities made up of many different people with different desires and fears, don’t make new year’s resolutions. But if they did, then we’d expect them to look a lot like any other list of hopeful self-improvements. Stop doing this bad thing. Do more of this good thing. Eat more of this, drink less of that. “Yoga” followed by a question mark.
So Tottenham Hotspur, for example, didn’t spend the early hours of 2023 with an arm around a friend shouting ‘This year. This is the year. This is the year I stop being… like that, you know. You know?’ And just as well, since on the evidence of new year’s day, Spurs are going to spend this coming year being more Like That than ever.
Earlier in the season, when Spurs were playing badly but still picking up points, it was just about possible to persuade yourself that this was the sign of a proper team waiting to happen. Imagine how they’ll go when they start playing well! But it turns out the false half of that equation was the points, not the performances. And Antonio Conte? He knew all along.
“Last season, we made a miracle. We did a miracle. But I knew what was the situation and was very clear with the club. Then I recall very well people talked about Tottenham as title contenders this season but this was a bit crazy to read this.”
Conte’s interviews are fascinating things. Break them down into their component parts and it’s hard to find much to argue with: yes, Spurs probably do need a couple more creative players; yes, Spurs are unfortunate to have rivals for the top four that can and do spend more; yes, perhaps anybody calling Spurs title contenders was being a little silly. But he delivers all this sensible stuff with the air of a very concerned builder shaking his head and sucking in air through his teeth. It’ll cost you, mate. It’ll cost you. And maybe it will. But also, he’s been working on it for a year and a half. Perhaps he’s a lot more collegiate on the training ground, but with the press, in the rancid afterglow of defeat, he does often seem to be a person that bad football performances simply happen to.
Still, it’s January. Every football coach in the world is suddenly very concerned about these huge holes in their squad that have appeared overnight but have also been obvious for ages. Put Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison back in this Spurs team and they’ll immediately get a lot more interesting, and if Spurs do look a bit unreliable, then the same is true for every other team trying to squeeze into the top four as well. And if a rapprochement can’t be found, then Conte’s contract is up at the end of the season.
But whatever happens with that, there’s also the terrible question of time’s onward march. Villa’s first goal came after an error from Hugo Lloris, and while we’re not writing him off entirely, it’s a little awkward that the three most important players at Spurs, Lloris, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, are all getting old at much the same time. (Yes, Kane is 29. But we reckon his ankles are about 35.) With all three at their best, Spurs can irritate anybody, but the business of replacing them will be expensive and probably should have started already. Whatever you make of Conte, Tottenham are going to have to spend money, and soon.
THE NOT SCORING BLUES
Six points from seven games. Sure, there’s been a World Cup in the middle of that run, but still. It would be a little over the top to describe it as relegation form, given that Chelsea are pretty comfortable in upper mid-table, but equally: Chelsea aren’t here to be comfortable in upper mid-table. We don’t mean to be cynical about the project, but perhaps Graham Potter is lucky that he’s still in that blessed early zone where a sacking would reflect less badly on him than it would on the people who gave him the job in the first place.
But when the first option on the How To Fix A Football Team checklist – “fire the coach” – is out of bounds, it’s time for option No. 2: “go shopping”. David Datro Fofana has signed and Benoit Badiashile is imminent, according to actual news reporting, while the rumour mill suggests there are deals in the air for Enzo Fernandez and Mykhailo Mudryk, who has still somehow not signed for Arsenal. There’s probably worse ways of doing business than following Mikel Arteta around and shouting ‘We’ll double it. Whatever it is. Double. And a free hat, would you like a free hat?’
Obviously the wider circumstances of Roman Abramovich’s enforced departure have a lot to do with this, but the churn at Chelsea has been remarkable, even by the club’s own high standards. This is a club that won the Champions League less than two years ago, and now they’ve got a new owner, a new coach, most of a new defence, and another couple of big reputations have been consumed by the ongoing striking curse.
But then, they were playing Nottingham Forest, who have been through eight whole first teams since you began reading this sentence. After the game, Potter was asked if his side had been “bullied”. He rejected the idea, but it’s one of those questions where the answer is almost irrelevant. Once it’s being asked, there’s a problem. Once it looks like you’re being bullied, you’re being bullied.
Going by results, Spurs had the worse day yesterday, and going by vibes, they are closer to being the Premier League’s designated Crisis Club. But they also have five more points than Chelsea, albeit from one more game; perhaps more remarkably, Spurs have scored 13 more goals in the league. That’s uncreative Spurs, can’t make chances Spurs, need a million new playmakers right now Spurs. Chelsea have managed a mere 20 goals all season, the fewest in the top half. (One fewer than Erling Haaland.) Manchester United have scored more, and they’ve spent the season locked in uncivil war with the man who was supposed to be leading their line.
‘Chelsea could do with a goalscorer’ has been true since the fall of Rome. But looking at the squad at the moment, they could also do with some more goals from everywhere. Raheem Sterling has just four in the league, Kai Havertz the same. Bullies thrive on weakness, after all. And nothing says weakness like a big team that can’t actually get on and kill a game.
We’re going to try something here. We’re going to make a prediction, in the full and certain knowledge that we might end up looking very silly. We’re going to guess that with the honourable exception of Chelsea, with Todd Boehly still enjoying that new toy feeling, it’s going to be a quiet January for the big beasts of the Premier League.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t business that needs doing. Manchester United, as you may have heard, could do with a striker. Arsenal, as you may have read, quite fancy Mudryk.
But everywhere you look, circumstances suggest that the big splurge will come in the summer. Arsenal are in the envious position of not really needing to do anything, particularly since Eddie Nketiah scores goals now. Spurs, if they’re being sensible, will work out what they’re doing with Conte’s contract before buying him the phalanx of playmakers he’s demanding. Manchester City don’t really need anybody new. Manchester United are being sold, maybe, perhaps, which puts them in the market for bargains and loans. And Liverpool have already found their bargain.
Or to put it another way, we’re about to see how much excitement Sky Sports News can squeeze out of Newcastle thinking about the possibility of maybe going after a midfielder.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and quiet times at the top mean noise at the bottom. The relegation scrap is hilariously close, with Southampton in 20th just five points behind Leicester in 13th. This means that the conditions are right for the rescue mission. For somebody to come in and score 10 goals in the second half of the season, drag their team to safety and become a cult hero, before reverting to the mean horribly in the next campaign and then quietly packing off to Turkey.
There’s our prediction. Nothing much at the very top, bar Chelsea, and a whole lot of frantic gambling at the bottom. Very excited to find out just how wrong we are.
IN OTHER NEWS
The Warm-Up once saw a seagull lift the sausage out of a hot dog just as it was being lifted to its owner’s mouth. In a similar vein, here’s Pablo Sarabia about to score the freest of headers into the openest of goals, and here comes Brice Samba.
It’s interesting that “the next Pele” never quite became a thing in the manner of “the next Maradona”; the latter concept even has its own Wikipedia page, with a list of names including Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, and of course, Franco di Santo. Perhaps it says something about how crucial Maradona was understood to be to his Argentina side, the extraordinary elevating the ordinary, as opposed to Pele, who was brilliant in a brilliant team.
But one player that was identified as the heir to Pele – by none other than the man himself – was Ghanaian prodigy Nii Lamptey, who was destined for the very top but never quite got there, his career sinking away into a morass of poor transfers, dodgy contracts and plain old fashioned bad luck. He was just 14 in 1989, when Pele identified him as his “natural successor”; in 2019 he released his autobiography “The Curse of Pele”.
So as you might expect, Pele’s death has aroused some complicated feelings for Lamptey. Michael Walker has interviewed him for the Athletic:
“I never met him. I was young and I didn’t know who Pele was. He chose me as the man of the match and said I was going to step into his shoes. But I didn’t know what it meant. It was only after the tournament, in fact maybe a couple of years after, that I found out what kind of person Pele was. Then I started watching him, his videos — him and Maradona. I was in Belgium by then. That’s really when I got to know who Pele was. It was a big name to carry. I realised then what the praise meant, what his name meant.”
OTHER HAT TIP
Continuing the theme of “talking to people about Pele”, the Guardian have put together some reminiscences from his opponents at the various World Cups that he won. We particularly enjoyed this, from the great Italian defender Tarcisio Burgnich:
“I played against Pele a few [more] times, in New York. What I could do with my hands, he did with his feet. He was a universe contained in just one player: he had the pace, the headers, then his feet … either right or left, he always found a way to be lethal.”
An Old Firm derby just after midday, a handful of Championship games at 3 o’clock, and then it’s Brentford v Liverpool. You weren’t thinking of actually doing anything else with your day, were you?
We’ll see you back here for further Warming Up tomorrow.