The trouble with Jari
By Monsignor Bonehead and Bryan Walker, Issue 55, Winter 2002
Writing these pieces is all about timing. It’s very easy to work yourself up into writing a diatribe after letting another home banker slip by, but less so just after we tanked Leeds 4-0. However, the pessimist in me never quite believes these upsurges in form – there’s surely another kick in the balls around the corner. So while Heskey is finally justifying the unbelievable faith shown in him, I still have to ask – why in the name of God can we not play Jari Litmanen a bit more?
I’m in danger here of repeating many of the moans in the last issue, and probably quite a few of the moans in this issue too. Let’s face it, the style of play is becoming a bit embarrassing. I remember Pegguy playing for Leicester at Anfield one time and he actually seemed to be aiming for touch with each kick, rugby style. How long before that one’s introduced? Any team that can repeatedly try Heskey at right-wing because he’s bigger than the full-back hasn’t much further to fall. (I presume Xavier is being bought as cover on the right-wing when Emile’s injured or needed elsewhere). The distribution from the back seems to be based on the Jack Charlton coaching manual, and surely Jerzy’s recent ‘groin strain’ is merely Repetitive Strain Injury from launching Jamie C’s back passes. Incidentally, am I alone in feeling that Jamie was merely trying to knock the infamous coin down the line to Riise? If the midfield have ever heard the phrase ‘Pass & Move’ it seems it was only on a single a few years ago. Meanwhile, the forwards chase nothing balls all day. I feel sorry for Anelka, who seems to be trying hard but has so far received sod all service – if he used to think that the Arsenal players were slow to pass to him what is he making of our lot? We’ve become what the legions of detractors say we are – ever so slightly dull. In all honesty, if you weren’t a Red, would you look forward to seeing us on the box again?
Into this side, occasionally, comes Jari. More often than not, we’re a different side. He drops deep, he looks for the ball, he can control it, he can use it. Anyone who has played football at even the lowest level (a level I’ve become very used to) knows that you are a lot more likely to make a run if there’s a half-chance of getting the ball. When Jari gets on the ball, the other players know that the right run will be spotted, and there’s at least a chance of seeing the ball. They also know, praise the Lord, that there’s no point in launching balls at his head. He seems to get the ball to feet, and in this one player we become a team who can pass the ball, hold on to the ball, and bide their time. Unlike many touch players (and Everton’s new signing Daveeed springs to mind here), everything he does is for the team, not showboating for the sake of it. To use SK’s word in issue 54 on the same player, every trick and shimmy is functional, never just to show off.
The treatment of Jari this season has been extraordinary, and was summed up for me in one shot on ITV’s rightly derided Premiership show from a few weeks back. Some friends and I were sitting in a pub in Chester on the way back from the 1-1 with Southampton. A game crying out for someone to get hold of the ball, show a bit of invention. Anyway, Jari wasn’t even on the bench for this one, and I’ve no idea why. During the highlights, the camera pans to the Main Stand to show him sitting beside Kenny, neither looking too impressed with what they’re looking at. Christ knows what the conversation between these two consisted of. Kenny: “We used to play football here” or perhaps Jari: “I’m even worse than Smicer, apparently”.
Who could put up with treatment like this? Our hero starts against Spurs, and scores the only goal. He starts the following game, and scores the only goal. In both games he has fans drooling at some of the touches. Naturally, he gets dropped for the next one, and gets recalled for the best-forgotten Grimsby game. The most naturally talented player at the club then starts one of the next twelve (yes, TWELVE) games. You wouldn’t treat a dog this way. As SK said in 54, some of us believed that the one silver lining that Robbie’s departure had was that at least Jari would play more now. I’m so gullible, I really believed it. The old joke says that the word ‘gullible’ isn’t even in the dictionary – I fell for that one too!
Since God’s departure, the sequence has gone: Played against Middlesbrough, hand in both goals, dropped. Played against Chelsea, bit of a freak result, dropped. Comes on against Arsenal and scores, then puts the pass of the match through for Berger. Starts against Villa, scores but is then dropped. In fact, since scoring against Villa I make it one start in 10 games, and for at least 5 or 6 of those games we didn’t even create a chance, much less score . Why don’t we just make him train with the youth team and be done with it?
During his (waste of) time in Spain, Jari was left kicking his heels as an occasional replacement for Rivaldo, who might just be the best player in the world on his day. Here, he’s lower down in the pecking order than Emile and Anelka, who might not be the best in the world. Every other top team sees the need for a bit of guile along with the workhorses. United, much as I hate to say it, have a superb creative midfield. Arsenal’s midfield only really has Pires to do this, so Wenger always tries to find room for Bergkamp or Kanu. Chelsea, even with two strikers on fire, are still trying to squeeze the 35-year-old Zola into the team. Newcastle, a breath of fresh air if you ask me, are playing with 2 wingers and Dyer in the midfield when fit. I do sometimes feel that if we had got Zidane in our squad we’d have him in the reserves.
A friend suggested that for this piece I would dig out the dreaded Opta stats for passes completed and so on and compare them to Emile’s. In the end I didn’t, because I don’t feel that this should ever turn into a Jari v Emile debate. Despite my ravings above, of course Jari has weaknesses. He drops so deep at times that he’s in danger of bumping into Henchoz. The goal against Arsenal is the only header I’ve seen him win in his year or so at the club. To even discuss his pace would be cruel, my mother can run for the bus as quickly. He isn’t godlike every game, Southampton away he was as poor as most of the others.
And crucially, I remember reading a Simon Kuper article in the Observer when he joined us which suggested that he simply isn’t physically able to play 2 games a week all season, something which he certainly hasn’t had to worry about in his years since Ajax. And Emile, despite his mouldy form and our purist instincts, has other facets to his game that all clubs need from time to time: after his display against the Mancs earlier this season we simply had to pick him against them for the return, and he didn’t let us down. The other reason it shouldn’t just come down to Jari v Emile is that it is possible for both of them to play on the same pitch – is there anyone out there who doesn’t think 3 battlers in midfield with Litmanen feeding Owen and Heskey might improve our dismal scoring form at home? We’ve tried Smicer in this position at times (Worthington Cup Final for one) and if that waster can be tried then why not a real player?
Enough rhetorical questions. One of many exasperating things about this is the fact that I do not know one single Red who wouldn’t have him in the team more often. Not one! Watching the West Ham game after Christmas in a pub over here on the satellite TV, the place erupted at the sight of Jari coming on after an hour. I just thought to myself “I’m not the only one”. Every player that joins a big club these days announces that he’s always been a fan of said club. It’s part of the ritual. The difference here is that when Jari signed, he was able to name the 84 treble winning side in a flash. It mightn’t sound like much, but I guarantee you most couldn’t do it. He’s one of us! And unless things change beyond belief, the best player of his type we’ve had since Beardsley won’t be here for much longer. And after Robbie, we’ll be another hero down.
I am writing this the day after our 1-1 draw at West Ham so subsequent events may well have rendered my thoughts as we go into the New Year way off beam. Here goes anyway. Basically, I fear greatly for our chances of lifting the title this year, and the annoying thing is that it is there for the taking – it really is. Even after our recent run of 5 points from a possible 15, we still have the best record in the league in terms of points dropped. And yet I am full of dread, not confidence. The Nicolas Anelka signing certainly took me by surprise – but my initial thoughts were, and still are after two games, not strong one way or the other about him. There is no doubt the guy has bags of talent (Arsenal have won bugger all since he left) but he also has baggage. I’m happy to give him a fair crack of the whip. But there lies my deepest concern at present – it seems certain players never get a fair crack of the whip under the present management.
And when I say the present management, I mean Gerard Houllier himself as there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the team selection and tactics are still entirely his, despite the admirable performance of Phil Thompson. My major gripe is with the treatment of Jari Litmanen. When Jari plays, we play so much better – the guy is a class act, an absolute gem. Yet he never seems to play two games in a row – and when he does start, he invariably gets substituted. The team selection at West Ham was baffling. At Villa three days earlier (regardless of ITV’s highlights which were so far removed from what actually happened I can scarcely believe it – and clearly the Cockney Spiv and his sidekick for the day Robbie Earle [why?] had only watched those highlights) we played arguably our best football of the season with Jari at the nub of it all. I must confess I was apoplectic with rage when Jari was subbed instead of Vlad who of course went on to score the winner – so I don’t purport to know everything! But the fact remained that it was Jari who was the key reason for our much improved showing – not Didi Hamann, despite what Chris Bascombe wrote in the Echo (which I shall return to shortly).
So how could Jari have been omitted from the starting line-up at Upton Park? Thommo said afterwards that Owen and Gerrard were left on the bench due to the hectic festive programme – something I can understand, even if not agree with. But Jari? He had hardly been pushed to exhaustion this season, had he? No, the problem lies in the tactics of the team. Despite the protestations of the management, Jari is falling into the same trap that did for Robbie – despite obvious class, he doesn’t fit the brand of one-dimensional football which we will continue to play. And therein lies the true reason for signing M. Anelka. He has been brought in to fill the boots of ton-up St Michael if injury should strike again (God help us). So what you can guarantee is that our latest French import is playing, as a rule it will not be alongside Owen as he will be out injured or rested. No, it will be alongside the prolific Emile – one goal in 25 games at present – and the battering ram tactics employing the big lummox will continue ad nauseam. And from what I hear, Milan Baros is an Emile clone, so there will be no respite there either. And the end result of all this? In my humble opinion, our title hopes will lie in tatters yet again. Please prove me wrong lads – but somehow I doubt it.