From Stoke to Alan Pardew, via Arsène Wenger and the promise of a fakery-free future
Jesé – whose brilliant season-opening, match-winning debut against Arsenal predated months of mediocrity or complete invisibility – disappeared after being allowed to go back to Spain to care for his sick son, whose mother then accused him on Instagram of skipping hospital and spending time instead in a Madrid nightclub, “smoking, drinking and [enjoying the company of another woman] in the bathroom”. Goalless Saido Berahino arrived late for an Under-23 game and was fined and relegated to the reserves. Erik Pieters was fined two weeks’ wages for ignoring a club curfew to go to a nightclub the night before a match. Ibrahim Afellay’s attitude in training was so dismal Paul Lambert told him to stop turning up. After Stoke’s relegation was confirmed Jack Butland said their transfer dealings had been “farcical”, while Charlie Adam said “some players have been getting away with murder for a long time”. The cumulative effect of these stories was to suggest that part of the squad had experienced a total breakdown in discipline, while the remainder watched them and simmered with resentment.Future employers will want to consider this period of their careers very carefully, assuming they – unlike Stoke, it seems – do any due diligence at all.
Any number of Arsenal players might have appeared here – Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka have been largely terrible; the once-reliable Petr Cech tops the table of mistakes that have led to goals in the top flight this season with six; Alex Iwobi’s best performance of the season came in a Nike advert. So many players have underperformed that the only reasonable conclusion is to blame the manager, sentiment be damned. Wenger’s golden years were sufficiently impressive to allow him still to be considered something of a great as he departs this summer, but he has spent the last few years trashing his reputation and this was the only thing that, as the end reared into sight, he was still getting better at.
“You see how quickly your profile can change in the Premier League, it changes dramatically,” said Pardew when he was appointed West Brom manager in November. “I look at Sean Dyche now, his profile is really high and he’s doing superbly, and mine isn’t at the moment. I’ve just walked into a club so I need to get my flag up the pole.” He proceeded to remove his flag entirely, then tear it into ribbons and burn it, producing ashes so radioactive the urn had to be lined with lead before he buried it extraordinarily deep in an astonishingly remote location. Eighteen games and eight points later it was almost – if not, given Pardew’s apparently brilliantly-honed chairman-seducing interview patter, entirely – certain that Pardew’s flag would never see the pole again.
Of all the striking failures in the Premier League this season, from Álvaro Morata to Andre Gray, one stands alone in a personal field of haplessness. Benteke made 31 Premier League appearances, had 60 shots, of which one in three (21 in total) was on target and one in 20 (three) went in. As conversion rates go, this is ugly. Bakary Sako scored as many for Palace, and only started two matches and has been injured since January. Benteke has always been a feast-or-famine striker, but even for him this season has been barren. It’s not as if his all-round contribution has made up for his lack of end product: only eight players in the Premier League hit more inaccurate short passes than Benteke. Benteke attempted 672 passes, 44% of which went astray.
Retrospective suspensions for simulation
“Players who dive or feign injury could face a two-match suspension starting from this season,” read the Premier League’s announcement last August. “Footage from the weekend’s fixtures will be reviewed each Monday and any player found guilty of simulation will be banned.” But the promise of a fakery-free future never materialised: Everton’s Oumar Niasse was the only player to be punished, in November, while the season was as ever scattered with simulation-inspired strife. The rule change should in time come to be seen as a step in the right direction, but only once the people charged with enforcing it stop looking in the wrong direction.