How to be champions

THERE’S a scene in ‘What A Carve Up’, Jonathan Coe’s brilliant satire of 1980s greed, in which the novel’s narrator (called, would you believe, Michael Owen) describes the realisation that his intelligence is being insulted by a piece of ready-meal packaging.

After heating up his bangers and mash, the narrator discovers a picture on the packet of said meal laid out very simply on a plate, with the caption ‘serving suggestion’.

A feeling creeps over the narrator that someone, somewhere, is having a joke not just at his expense, but at the expense of the world in general.

I had a similar feeling creep over me at Old Trafford this lunchtime while reading the programme for Manchester United’s match against West Ham. In the bottom left-hand corner of page 23, underneath Denis Irwin’s tactical analysis, was this diagram.

I’m not sure which part of this little graphic is the most astonishing.

Perhaps it’s the picture itself, which tells us nothing other than that United’s attacking players would try to beat West Ham by running towards their goal.

Perhaps it’s the need for a key underneath the diagram, to underline for anyone unsure that the green arrows indicate player movement.

Perhaps it’s the words above the diagram, which give us the following additional tactical information: “Rooney and co will be looking to ruffle some feathers in the Hammers’ makeshift back four.”

Or perhaps it’s the diagram’s title, which tell us in brief the tactical masterplan that United would employ: “Key Battle: Get Stuck In.”

There’s only one conclusion I was able to draw from all of this. Someone, somewhere, is taking me for an idiot. And by extension, they’re taking all of you for idiots as well.

(Just as an aside, Irwin featured elsewhere in the programme too, as the host of stadium tours at Old Trafford. Why not treat your dad to a guided tour round Old Trafford as a Father’s Day present, asks the advert. Having done a highly unscientific poll of men I know who are fathers, the reason for not doing so is this: If you do, your dad will disown you.)

Of course, United’s tactics are slightly more complex than the above diagram would have you believe. The goalkeeper, the back four and the three central midfielders stay roughly in formation, but the three attacking players – today it was Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani – have scope to switch from the middle to either wing.

It worked a treat early on: Ronaldo cutting in from the right to score a wonderful goal after three minutes, then bundling in a second just over 20 minutes later. That second goal was a bit flukey, but as this blog has pointed out before: he is only human. (Think Phil Oakey but with even more ludicrous hair.)

When Tevez banged one in from 25 yards almost straight from the kick off, West Ham manager Alan Curbishley might have wondered if his pre-match words were coming back to haunt him.

Curbishley had written in his Daily Express column in the week: “It would be a great injustice if Manchester United were to lose the Premier League title and not reach the final of the Champions League.”

Cue lots of carefully-worded harrumphing from Stamford Bridge yesterday. Avram Grant didn’t accuse Curbishley outright of taking his foot off the gas, but the Chelsea manager clearly wasn’t pleased. Goodness knows what he would have made of the scoreline at Old Trafford after 25 minutes.

If it’s any consolation, Avram, West Ham have given the impression of being half-asleep since about mid-January. They must have had the quietest second half to a season in top-flight history.

Anyway, Dean Ashton scored a spectacular overhead kick to pull one back for the Hammers, then Nani got himself sent off for head-butting Lucas Neill. The second half was never going to match that – and it didn’t.

Michael Carrick became the second former West Ham player to score for United with a deflected shot, and there was still half-an-hour to go. If Chelsea are to win the title, they certainly won’t be winning it on goal difference.

Despite Chelsea’s impressive late burst into contention, the title race will effectively be all over on Monday if they lose at Newcastle. If so, that will give Grant an extra week to work on his tactics to beat United in the Champions League final. Hope the diagram above is of some use to you, Avram.


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