It’s among the most basic pieces of football wisdom: try to be the last side a team faces before it sacks its manager. All the evidence says this works out well.
Whatever you do, though, don’t be the first side a team faces after it has sacked its manager. That way madness lies.
Except in the case of Arsenal, obviously, where, as both Norwich and then Brighton were able to find out, sacking the manager didn’t seem to make an awful lot of difference either way. But there’s always an exception to prove the rule.
And the rule in this case is what traders call the ‘dead cat bounce’, wherein a share price which has been plummeting for ages finally hits rock bottom and recovers a little. Or in football terms, the cat practically dies and the manager gets the heave-ho, whereupon a caretaker comes in and gives the cat a good kicking and there’s a bit of lift again.
How time-sensitive football turns out to be. If our club had been in charge of its own destiny with regard to the fixture schedule, we would no doubt have been trying to get to play Everton a week ago. Our performance analysts would have run the data through the software and identified the moment of peak vulnerability – namely, the round of night games last week. Then the request would have gone in: ‘Everton next, please.’ And bingo: three easy points.
What we wouldn’t have chosen to do was face them a couple of days after the dismissal of Marco Silva. As soon as that news broke you didn’t need to be Nostradamus, or even the great Shelley von Strunkel, to see what was coming. No team had been more like a dead cat in the autumn of 2019 than Everton. Accordingly, simply on the basis of logic, no team was due a bouncier dead cat bounce.
To this extent, Saturday’s unhelpful result at Goodison Park can be written off as the simple operation of immutable laws well beyond any of our controls, and we can all move on and start thinking about other things, such as tonight’s must-win Champions League group game at home to Lille, followed swiftly afterwards by Bournemouth in the Prem on Saturday.
That said, before we consign it to the past completely, it probably would be worth acknowledging that the goals we conceded to this bouncing dead cat were dire, to say the least. One came from an entirely uncontested header in the six-yard box, and two arose from moments of slapstick in the heart of our defence which would even have been quite funny if it had been someone else’s team.
To have one moment of comedy spinelessness in the course of a 90-minute football match may be accounted unfortunate. But to have three… Those goals were the equivalent of tickling a dead cat under its chin. The thing was already bouncing; why would you want to do that?
Yes, there was consolation to be found, once again, in the performance of Mateo Kovacic, who clobbered in another one from distance, and even managed to produce a muted, ‘we’re trailing in the game’ version of the thumb-to-nose-with-finger-waggle goal celebration which is now officially his trademark. And it’s good to have a gesture which is adaptable to these more muted circumstances, which certainly isn’t true of other bespoke celebrations, such as 20-yard knee-slides, mimed machine-gun fire, etc. Yet, that aside, there is no disguising that, after the coherence shown against Aston Villa, this was a glum display.
Of course, news has recently broken that a Court of Arbitration saw fit to halve the penalty imposed by FIFA, and we can start signing players again in January. Now, I have no idea whatsoever what the club’s actual thinking is about this, but I really hope we don’t. The altered direction partly imposed on our organisation by that summer transfer ban resulted in so much that we have been enjoying this season. It may even be said to have given birth to a whole new Chelsea. Therefore I really hope that we set down an unignorable marker of our ambition in January by not signing anybody.
Yet, watching that Everton performance, maybe the lifting of the ban will have its advantages – just quietly, in the background, like a gently ticking clock. No team, at any stage in its development, can afford to allow complacency to enter, and when your defence is shipping goals as lame as Saturday’s it might not, in the short- to medium-term, be entirely negative for a few people to know that signing replacements is at least possible again.
Elsewhere in the same weekend, with City unfathomably stumbling again, it suddenly looks as though it’s down to Leicester to prevent the worst imaginable outcome at the top of the table in May, so our best wishes urgently go with them as we head towards Christmas. Meanwhile, much lower down the table, Son Heung-min of Tottenham produced a solo effort which caused many observers to fore-close the goal of the season competition.
Well, maybe. I can only say that, personally, I prefer a bit more thunder in my goals of the season. And also, call me picky, but I prefer a bit more invention in my solo goals, too. Wherever we end up ranking it against the products of 2019/20, I think we can swiftly agree that Son’s goal against Burnley was not a patch on Eden Hazard’s goal against Arsenal in 2017.
Lots to admire about it, don’t get me wrong. But let’s be honest: nobody tries to tackle him. It’s a push-and-go number, essentially – a straight-line job. There is no difficult ball-retention, because nobody really attempts with any seriousness of purpose to take if off him. He dumps exactly nobody on their backside in a potentially career-ending fashion. And there’s no lovely, off-balance dink at the end of it.
So, good goal, sure. But as solo efforts go, I wouldn’t rank it anyway near Hazard’s that day, nor even against John Spencer’s against Austria Vienna in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994, which, to my mind, remains the true benchmark for solo endeavour in a team sport. Spencer only had to beat the goalkeeper, too, but his was both more dramatic and funnier because he was completely on his own out there, sprinting the length of the pitch with the entire defence in hot pursuit, and flashing the occasional look over his left shoulder, which added a rich Tom & Jerry element to the spectacle. It wasn’t so much a run at goal as a cartoon escape attempt, at full pelt. Would he make it? I can feel the backs of my legs tingle just thinking about it now.
By comparison Son essentially floats through an oddly compliant Burnley defence like Theresa May through a field of corn (as we were once invited to imagine). So, yes, good goal, but let’s not go overboard. It wasn’t a patch on some others we can immediately think of.