Speaking before his Aston Villa side prepared to take on Swansea City last weekend, Tim Sherwood was clear. “This is a cup final for us,” he said. “We need three points.”
Did he realize that he’d said something silly straight away? Or did it fester at the back of his mind, nagging away at him. Cup final. Three points. Three points. Cup final. Maybe it was playing on his mind—Three points? Cup final?—as he sat down to pick his team. Maybe that’s why he ended up playing Rudy Gestede, one of the better headers of a ball in the Premier League, ahead of precisely no wingers.
Or maybe he didn’t notice at all. After all, football’s cliches are not to be questioned nor looked at too closely. And Sherwood, in his brief managerial career, has proved himself a natural at talking like a football manager. After every game, be it victory or defeat, there he was, eye twinkling, mouth open, sentences falling out. Sentences that sounded, in the moment, like exactly the kind of thing a football manager would say. Sentences that tended to simply collapse under any kind of momentary scrutiny. Wanted your team to play badly in the first half, did you? Right.
Perhaps Sherwood had told his players that they needed three points from a cup final. Perhaps they, too, were confused. That might explain why Joleon Lescott, when presented with the chance to steal a point, could only plant his shot over the bar. Perhaps he was momentarily overwhelmed by the thought that planting the shot beneath the bar might take the game to extra time. Elite-level sport requires clarity and focus. You don’t want your players trying to work out whether they might have to take a penalty.
After the game, Sherwood continued in his usual fashion, saying things, and then saying more things. “I said to the boys every one has to play to their maximum to get anything from a game. At the moment we are short.” And that would have been fine, had he not added, “The boys gave everything,” and so drowned himself in yet another contradiction.
It’s a cursed job, of course, that Villa Park job. Aston Villa is a club that carries its size around its neck; a motley squad patched together by a succession of failed managers and failed projects. To lose one of your best players over the summer might be considered unfortunate; to lose three or four is frankly disastrous, however much money comes back the other way. Managers are often made to carry the blame for the messes of others, and it’s impossible to look at a teamsheet that contains both Alan Hutton and Kieran Richardson—in 2015!—and see anything other than a cry for help. Or, perhaps, somebody struggling with the impossibility of getting points out of a cup final.
If it was a cry for help, it was answered. In the end, Tim Sherwood did exactly what he did in his last cup final, which is to say, he lost. His side got precisely as many points as they would have done from a cup final, which is to say, none. Then he got fired. And the skies wept mild cheddar.
Where to start with the Manchester derby, then? Let’s try and take some positives. United became the first team this season to stop City from scoring a goal. In your face, Crystal Palace. Have some of that, Borussia Mönchengladbach. Somebody sort an open-top bus.
City, meanwhile … well, like United, existed. Two teams, existing at one another, in just the right shape and arrangement to effectively cancel out one another’s existence. Wayne Rooney is more sensitive to these things than most, which is why he spent the afternoon slowly dissipating into the atmosphere, finishing the game as a transparent, barely perceptible cloud. Joe Hart made a nice save. Jesse Lingard hit the bar. Somewhere in Manchester, a pigeon laid down its head and breathed its last.
The numbers claim that both sides managed just one shot on target. The memory disagrees. The memory insists that neither side managed a single shot in the first half, nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth. The memory knows that both sides are still playing, trapped in a never-ending purgatory of extra time long after the television cameras have been turned off and the fans have all gone home. There they are, still, closing down space, harrying; there they are, looking up for a forward pass, seeing no movement, seeing no options; there they are, turning around, transferring the ball back across the defense.
Gary Neville liked it. Gary Neville reckons it was a game for the professional. Gary Neville has never made rank amateurism sound so appealing. Ultimately, it was a derby game in which nothing stupid happened, and in which nothing stupid even threatened to happen, and as such it was a complete and total waste of everybody’s time.
If Jose Mourinho Was Literally A Volcano update:
We give up. He’s broken us. There are volcanoes, and then there is Jose Mourinho, and in the face of the latter, the former must concede.