Premier League resolutions for 2017: pragmatic Pep, Leicester revival, more
I think we can all agree that 2016 was an awful year for humanity, unless you happened to be a Leicester fan. The rest of us are eager to kick the past 12 months to the curb and move on to what we're sure will be a glorious 2017. That is, until two consecutive losses in early January ruin everything.
For now, though, the spirit of bonhomie reigns, and even an embittered Arsenal fan can open his heart (or what's left of it after 12 years of breakage) to his fellow Premier League supporters and hope the coming year affords them peace, prosperity and Mark Clattenburg realizing his dream of refereeing in China.
And, as always, I have a few resolutions of my own.
Grant Pep Guardiola a dose of pragmatism
It's not like he wasn't warned. Way back in February, Guardiola's friend Jurgen Klopp tried to tell him that life in the Premier League wouldn't resemble the seamless procession to the title he was accustomed to in his last two gigs.
"I don't think that it will be the same situation as he had in Spain, with Barcelona on the top level, or in Germany with Bayern on the top level," is the way the Liverpool manager put it.
Pity that Klopp didn't go into more granular detail, because it would have saved Guardiola considerable agita. Then again, there are certain constants endemic to the English game you'd have thought the Catalan would have already known without a German having to point them out. Things like hard tackling and a nonsycophantic media.
And yet, Guardiola appeared absolutely gobsmacked two weeks ago when he was asked about the former by the latter after City's meek capitulation to Leicester City, in which Pep's men didn't "win a tackle" in the opening 35 minutes.
"What is tackles?" Guardiola bristled, "I don't coach tackles."
The palpable disdain with which he uttered those words made him sound at once petulant and clueless. Just because his Barca and Bayern teams were so accomplished in the art of pressing and closing down the opposition that they didn't need to resort to agricultural challenges doesn't mean that leg-scything hard men don't have a place in the game, especially in a country where Roy Keane once roamed the earth.
Did Pep really believe that City could afford to let Liverpool's in-the-form-of-his-life Adam Lallana race 35 yards, unmolested on the left flank and pick out Georginio Wijnaldum in the box without suffering any consequences?
The Dutch midfielder still needed to soar over a scrambling Aleksandar Kolarov and meet Lallana's cross with a powerful header to score the lone goal of the game but not for the first time this season, Guardiola's laissez-faire tactics had been ruthlessly exposed. It was yet another example that Pep might not be the Supreme Managerial Being that his acolytes had made him out to be the past decade.
For me, the first hint had come in the summer of 2014 when I was watching his Bayern side play the MLS All-Stars.
Knowing they couldn't compete with the mighty Bavarian club in terms of anything resembling creativity and skill, the All-Stars opted for a Burnley-esque approach that occasionally went over the top. Throughout the match, Guardiola complained to the referee about MLS's rough tactics and gestured to his coaching counterpart, Caleb Porter, after every overly zealous challenge.
Eventually his frustration morphed into rage over a tackle that forced Bastian Schweinsteiger to limp off near the end of the game that the All-Stars happened to win. So incensed was Guardiola that he angrily wagged his finger at the MLS bench and walked off without shaking Porter's hand.
Sure, Pep's artisanal brand of soccer is a joy to behold, but his purist ideology has become as tiresome as Mourinho's constant paranoia. Tackling happens to be an integral part of the English game, and by now, after four not-so-smooth months in the Prem, you'd think Pep would have learned that.
After all, how many times does he have to watch an opponent steal John Stones' watch and wallet to ignite a counterattack before the lesson sinks in?
Let Zlatan Ibrahimovic play forever
Remember when Manchester United signed the big Swede and the "Einsteins" in the media reacted as if Jose Mourinho had acquired a lamppost with a man bun? No less a pedigreed finisher than Michael Owen, now employed as a professional TV haircut, opined that Ibrahimovic"isn't world class." Ibra, it was generally agreed, would be lucky to score 10 goals for United.
Apparently, Owen is even more worthless as a prognosticator than he was in his three seasons at Old Trafford. After just four months of wearing Manchester Red, the lamppost has 17 goals, the same number Owen managed in his entire United career.
More importantly, the peripatetic Swede has injected an edge of bravado and menace into a United team desperate to restore the aura of intimidation it radiated under Sir Alex Ferguson. He is also enjoying himself, so much so that he recently turned down the latest ludicrous Chinese offer in excess of $160 million.
Mourinho, who recognizes arrogant perfection when he sees it, had already extended his striker's contract for another year. Age to Zlatan, you see, is just another defender to muscle out of the way.
"Even if I'm 35, in my mind I'm 20," Ibra says. "I think I could play at 50."
You only have to take one look at his ripped torso, which he flaunts with preening Cristiano Ronaldo regularity, to know that Ibra is built to last. With his rigorous taekwondo regimen (he holds a black belt in the kicking and punching discipline as Antonio Cassano can readily attest), there's no reason why he can't maintain his physical conditioning into, well, 2031.
By which time, he should be ready for MLS.
Let Leicester blow our minds one more time -- in Europe
What a joyride Leicester and Jamie Vardy gave us last season. It's tough to say which was the more truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot twist: the plucky little club from the East Midlands that only a year before was on its way down to the Championship as late as March and went on to win the title at 5,000-to-1 odds, or the whippet-lean, knee-sliding-into-folklore striker who was playing at nonleague Fleetwood Town only four years ago and went on to represent England in the European championships last summer? No wonder Hollywood decided to weave the two strands together into a feel-good movie.
The problem with once-in-lifetime scenarios is obvious, as Leicester and Vardy discovered in the first half of the current season when both thudded back to reality. Or as Claudio Ranieri put it so eloquently: "Last season we were out of this world. Now we are back in it."
Back on earth, maybe, but definitely not in the Premier League race. After the defending champions edged West Ham 1-0 Saturday, they were in 15th place, a mere six points out of the relegation zone, and Vardy, who scored 29 goals last season, had reincarnated as the current version of Wayne Rooney.
OK, I get it. Leicester was having too much fun in the Champions League to bother with a competition (the Premier League) they had already won, and besides, if we're being honest, this was the first and last shot at European glory for these overachievers, save maybe Vardy and his silky co-conspirator Riyad Mahrez.
And then, after topping their relatively weak CL group despite a 5-0 stomping by Porto in their final match, they stumbled upon the perfect cure for their Prem woes-Manchester City. Not only did Leicester demolish City 4-2 for their first league win since October, but Vardy ended his 16 game goalless drought with an exhilarating hat trick.
Unfortunately, what felt like the turning point in Leicester's dismal campaign was nothing more than a mirage, thanks to a dubious red card -- and three game suspension -- Vardy earned in the next match against Stoke.
Now all that's left for the Foxy Faithful is to watch Leicester's "Miracle 2: Winning the Champions League."
Don't allow Chelsea to break Arsenal's record (even if it means Tottenham wins a game)
I'm all for epic winning streaks as long as they don't interfere with Arsenal's place in the record books. So while it would be thrilling if Chelsea ran the remaining table, I'm hoping that after having survived a tough test from Stoke on Saturday, the Blues' run ends at 13 consecutive wins or, as luck would have it, one short of the gold standard that Arsenal set across two seasons in 2002.
The problem with my chosen scenario, however, is it calls for Spurs to play the spoiler (Tottenham host Chelsea on Jan. 4). What are the odds that the team that has finished below Arsenal for the past 21 years (there's even a running clock to commemorate this nonachievement) would find it in their bitter hearts to do the Gunners a favor?
I'd say they're around 5,000-to-1, which means it could happen.
Teach Jose Mourinho to hug it out with those mean referees
One of the Portuguese's many inferiority complexes stems from his utter lack of success as a player compared to his managerial peers. But even former high-class internationals like Guardiola and Antonio Conte had to appreciate Mourinho's immaculate technique when he kicked a water bottle during United's match with West Ham at the end of November. Mourinho caught the plastic canister clean on his right instep and, with no back lift whatsoever, sent it hurtling 15 yards down the touchline.
Here, finally, was a piece of skill from their manager that could command the kind of respect from his players that Guardiola and Conte get daily on the training ground. And yet, all Mourinho received for his heroic effort was a lousy sending off, his second in four games.
Referee Jon Moss had just booked Paul Pogba for simulation, and Mourinho disputed the call in his usual understated manner by glaring balefully and gesticulating wildly at the fourth official. When the official ignored his theatrics, Mourinho took out his frustration on that poor, unsuspecting water bottle.
I like defending Jose as much as I enjoy a Brussels sprout shake, but how many times this season have we seen equally histrionic touchline responses from Guardiola, Conte and Klopp that have been greeted with wry smiles from referees.
Of course, Mourinho does himself no favors with his perpetual scowl and litany of tedious conspiracy theories, but it's not like abusing a water bottle is bringing the game into disrepute. Yet Moss sent him to the stands -- or wherever it is that he goes when banished (he once memorably turned up in a laundry cart at half-time in the locker room when he was managing Chelsea) --- and the next day the FA duly suspended him for United's following game.
So, unless I missed the latest meeting of the SWBFP (sparing water bottles from punishment), can we please just treat His Surliness the same as all of the other adult managerial children?
Sam Allardyce to reap karmic payoff
I never particularly liked Big Sam. He always struck me as someone with a bloated sense of self-regard who conflated avoiding relegation with being a good manager. His football style would make West Brom fans weep, and his temper can sometimes make him look like Baby Huey. I mean, if he's unable to keep his cool in the face of harmless antics by Watford's mascot, Harry the Hornet, you can only imagine his reaction when he finds out that Joe Ledley has been storing small animals in his mountain man beard.
And yet for all that, Allardyce didn't deserve the raw deal he got from the FA, and I, for one, hope he throws a pint of wine into the faces of those craven blazers-wearers. If everyone in the Premier League were to be indicted for the crime of stupidity, all you'd have left would be Conte, Klopp and three holding midfielders.
But now, Big Sam is back in his sweet spot, attempting to keep Crystal Palace from falling into the tar pit of the Championship. Let's hope he orchestrates the Eagles' escape without turning a relatively attractive side into a bunch of lumpen hoof and hopers. Allardyce may have limited tactical wisdom, but at the very least, he will bring some organizational sanity to the defensive mess that Alan Pardew left behind at Selhurst Park.
And no matter how he comports himself on the touchline, it's doubtful he will commit the unpardonable sin of dancing like a soused dad at his daughter's wedding as Pardew famously did after Palace had scored the go-ahead goal in the 78th minute against Manchester United in last season's FA Cup final. I don't think there was a soccer fan (or soused dad) in the world, save for those in Pardew's immediate family, who wasn't delighted when United roared back to win in extra time to wipe that unbearably smug smile off his face.
Fortunately, Big Sam limits his artistic endeavors to giant toothy grins and grainy video displays about transfer policies.
Chelsea will win the league
Close readers of this column -- both of you -- will notice that I've shifted my traditional year-end pick from Arsenal. Given that it didn't exactly work out for me the last 12 times I went with the Gunners, I'm hoping this egregious example of reverse psychology will actually do the trick. After all, Arsenal will need all the help it can get to overtake Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
So rather than sit idly by and watch them crumble under the pressure like they did last season when the title was there for the taking, I want Arsene and the lads to know that I'm willing to do just about anything for the greater cause.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.