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A Small Minority of Idiots

Five Things We Learned From This Weekend’s Football

A false dawn for Manchester United, and a sad end to Burnley. In non-north west news: Newcastle are awful.

(Illustration by Sam Taylor)


United's remarkable run of fourth place-securing form has come to a rather abrupt end, with the club not only returning to stale mediocrity but also regaining the susceptibility to alarming defeats that has been pretty much a constant in the post-Ferguson era. 3-0 at a bad Everton side is – whichever way you look at it – a disastrous result, and the same old problems with the team were on excruciating show: the lack of leadership in defence, the lack of penetration up front, mental fragility, and Falcao coming off the bench and doing the square root of fuck all.

More worryingly for United, however, is that the weaknesses of the manager were there, too. The strange thing about United is that Van Gaal's successes have been ones of desperation and improvisation, of getting the best out of unfashionable players against the odds. Players like Fellaini and Young might have been reinvented Moneyball-style this season, forged with angry Dutch hands into a surprisingly balletic battering ram and all-over wing destroyer, but can surely never be starters in a seriously good team – which, one assumes, United have the ambition of becoming.


Nothing that was designed and planned at the start of the season has worked, and that doesn't bode well for another big summer at Old Trafford. There's a great and tremendously valuable skill in finding a plan to get out of a sticky spot, but it's not a winning formula for the long-haul. United had a good run of form which is now over, and they desperately need new ideas.


It's an obvious point, in response to the howling at the Emirates of Chelsea's dourness, that José Mourinho's job description does not include allowing Arsenal to win football matches. Yet as much as that sense of entitlement is laughable, there is a truth there. Chelsea are a dull team who practice gamesmanship, have a dodgy captain and who haven't had an ounce of joy in them since Gianfranco Zola hung up his boots.

Unfortunately, they're also by a distance the best team in the Premier League. That's no great compliment in an astonishingly poor field, and the fact they were ushered calmly out of Europe by a mediocre PSG team should probably cause alarm for your dad and other assorted figures who 'like to see English teams do well'. But as much of a rut as England is in, Chelsea are the only team remotely worthy of being Champions, so we have no choice but to suck it up.

A Premier League title race being wrapped up in an election year is often a weird moment, and the parallels are pretty similar – dull, forgettable, and with moments that will be lucky to form the basis of a David Schneider tweet, let alone resonate through the ages. And if you're feeling disillusioned, consider this: for perhaps the first time in history, the reality is worse than the escapism. In football, the right-wing lads in blue really can win just by presenting themselves as the least incompetent option.


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The sad tale of this Premier League season looks set to be Burnley, perhaps the only likeable team in the relegation battle and who are now almost certainly doomed to the drop. Danny Ings, George Boyd and a few others will probably still be with us next season, but the team itself will not.

It seems a strange and cruel fate – Burnley have been in the habit of nearly winning football matches for most of the season, but if your good run consists of narrowly-lost defeats against Leicester City, you're going down. Gallantry is not rewarded in the Premier League, and neither is running around a lot more than everyone else – grinding down your fellow dross is what the Sky money pays for, and The Clarets couldn't cut it. Now it just remains to be seen which lower-half team will take a punt on Sean Dyche, a hard dinnerlady in the body of a hard bouncer and inexplicably wrapped in a manager's tracksuit.


We may be about to witness the Premier League's first meta-relegation, as Newcastle prepare to fully 'do a Newcastle', just as Newcastle once did before them. It's not the most likely of scenarios, but even Avram Grant's Portsmouth didn't look quite this incapable of winning a game, and being caught up by the teams below them – most of whom are playing well – is now a distinct possibility.

John Carver's boys took incompetence to new levels against Swansea, somehow managing to look like a beaten team even when they were 1-0 up. Tim Sherwood and Garry Monk might be qualified successes, but if your manager is going to lose a derby and then blame it all on his foreign players whom he has no choice to pick, promotion from within suddenly doesn't look like such a good idea. If there's another reason needed to drive Mike Ashley out of Tyneside, it's that not a soul will weep for them. And that's before the Panorama documentary.



Manchester United's surprise tonking at the hands of their rivals ought to have opened up a window of opportunity for Liverpool, but instead their miserable draw at West Brom has seen the opportunity pass even before it appeared.

Tony Pulis is a man with two functions in this world, not only as a belt-and-braces he'll-keep-you-up lower-mid-table stalwart, but also as a shatterer of dreams. Nobody knows how many hopeful, youthful, fresh-faced young teams have had their dreams of titles, trophies and European qualification shattered by a 0-0 draw away at a Tony Pulis side, but the man can now add another notch to his bedpost.

Perhaps it's a valuable service. The gatekeeper to better worlds, testing anybody who wishes to pass and making sure a modicum of quality is retained at the upper echelons of the league. A draw against him is the ultimate proof for a team who weren't quite the finished article, were a bit soft, or who just didn't want it enough. He's not the head of the FA yet, but he might as well be.


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