A season that will be remembered… for the wrong reasons

A season that will be remembered… for the wrong reasons

As we prepared for the lights to go out to mark the beginning of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we knew that the race would end with history being made. Either Lewis Hamilton would earn his record 8ᵗʰ title, or Max Verstappen would have his name added to the list of World Champions. With the pair going into the race level on points, we expected a close fight, but nothing could prepare us for what would come next.

With 10 laps left of the race, Lewis Hamilton seemed destined to win. Having got a lead on the opening lap, his pace had been consistently better than Verstappen during the early and middle phase of the race, and while Max had gone for an extra stop for fresher tyres, he was not getting enough of a pace advantage to catch the Brit before the end. As Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal Christian Horner stated to the Sky commentary team, it would take a miracle from the F1 gods for Max to win. 

f1 abu dhabi gp safety car lapped cars

That miracle happened as Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps to go, prompting a safety car. With the work max had put in to catch Lewis, there was not enough of a gap for Lewis to pit for fresh tyres and retain his lead, however Max was able to pit for a fresh pair of soft tyres and still come out in 2ⁿᵈ, however with a handful of cars between them that Max would have to lap. Now normal process under a safety car would be that all lapped cars would be allowed through once the track was clear to unlap themselves, however the initial call from Race Director was that no lapped cars would be let through. However, on the penultimate lap, the call suddenly came for all lapped cars between Max and Lewis (not the rest of the lapped cars) to be let through and get down the road, with the remainder of the cars getting 1 lap to race to end the season. With faster, fresher tyres, Verstappen passed Hamilton for the lead and successfully held off the Brit to win the race and his maiden title.

f1 abu dhabi gp 2021 lewis hamilton max verstappen

What should have been a wonderful moment for Max became overshadowed though, as Mercedes lodged protests as to the way the final laps were handled by Michael Masi, while social media was rife with people saying that the FIA were corrupt and did not want Lewis to win, some even going as far as to say it was racially motivated. Meanwhile others saw it as karma, after Lewis was allowed to retain the lead on the opening lap despite going off track and cutting a corner, a decision that baffled the assorted former Champions who were on pundit duty.

Sadly these issues dogged the whole season, with no consistency in any decisions, and many going in favour of Mercedes. When Lewis crashed into Max and sent him to hospital at Silverstone, it was Max who was blamed. Valtteri Bottas received little punishment for truly reckless driving after taking out a number of cars at the opening corner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, which left Max racing with a damaged car so struggling for pace and Sergio Perez out of the race. The just last week in Saudi Arabia, Mercedes escaped punishment for a number of questionable acts, and yet when a lunge up the inside from Max saw both him and Lewis go wide, he was forced to give the place back to Lewis, only for the Mercedes driver to slow down and remain right behind him, which resulted in him rear-ending the Red Bull as Max braked unexpectedly.

Personally, I feel that the right person won the championship for the season, but the wrong person won the race, as Lewis’ car looked much faster than Max’s, so much so that even giving the place back on the opening lap would have probably only delayed the inevitable, especially as the Mercedes miraculously (or illegally, depending who you ask) managed to stop losing performance in dirty air in the final few weeks. To have the title decided in such suspicious circumstances just harms the credibility of the sport where already so much of the action is manufactured. Take away the DRS and you lose the majority of overtakes in a race, while the Netflix series Drive To Survive may be bringing in more viewers to the sport, but is creating manufactured rivalries and tension for entertainment purposes.

Despite that, there has been so much to love about this season, with so many fantastic drivers out there, and moments that should be remembered fondly: Think of Esteban Ocon benefitting multiple times from the big names all fighting for space in early corners and passing through the chaos like Moses parting the Red Sea. Think of Lewis Hamilton beating Sergio Perez off the final lap restart in Azerbaijan after tyre failure saw Max crash out, only for Lewis to get the braking wrong at Turn 1 and go straight on as everyone else made the turn, going from maximum points to no points in the space of a second. Even in this race, think of Sergio Perez—who at one point looked like he would not have a team for this season—playing the ultimate wingman role by holding up Lewis with a couple of laps of fantastic racing to allow Max to come up. Sadly, too many moments like this will be forgotten in the controversy of the season.

So what next? 2022 is going to be a new era for F1, with very different cars. What also needs to change is the inconsistency of the FIA, Michael Masi and the Stewards, as another season of decisions like this will see drivers taking things into their own hands, and that’s when things will get deadly…

Premier League 2021/22: November

Premier League 2021/22: November

It feels like only days since I was posting about October’s football, but now I’m back on track and it’s time to look at November in the Premier League!

The month started with Nuno Espírito Santo being removed from his role at Tottenham, and that started off a crazy month of 4 managerial casualties, with Dean Smith (Aston Villa), Daniel Farke (Norwich City) and Ole Gunnar Solskjær (Manchester United) all being relieved of duty, with Antonio Conte, Steven Gerrard, Dean Smith and Ralf Rangnick filling these roles and Eddie Howe also finally being named as Newcastle’s new manager.

On the pitch, Chelsea finished the month top of the table, but draws at home to Burnley and Michael Carrick’s Manchester United allowed their rivals to close the gap, with Manchester City going a perfect 3/3 and Liverpool recovering from a 3-2 loss at West Ham with a pair of 4-0 victories. Newcastle still may not have been able to get a win in November, but 3 draws and a 2-0 loss to Arsenal kept them in touch with their rivals as they remained bottom of the table, with Burnley and Norwich joining then in the danger zone.

The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 11 goals; Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 9 goals; Sadio Mané (Liverpool) & Diogo Jota (Liverpool) – 7 goals

The race for the Golden Glove: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Alisson (Liverpool) & Ederson (Manchester City) – 7 clean sheets; Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal) – 6 clean sheets; Alex McCarthy (Southampton) & Robert Sánchez (Brighton & Hove Albion) – 5 clean sheets

Managerial moves

As detailed above, this was a big month for manager changes, with an international break giving a number of teams a chance to get a new manager in and have some time with the team before playing a match, while it also leaves a manager a handful of matches to evaluate their team ahead of the January transfer window. Throughout the month, the following managerial changes were made:

  • Newcastle, who had already sacked Steve Bruce last month, brought in Eddie Howe, moving on from interim manager Graeme Jones
  • Tottenham replaced Nuno Espírito Santo with Antonio Conte
  • Aston Villa replaced Dean Smith with Steven Gerrard
  • Norwich City replaced Daniel Farke with Dean Smith
  • Manchester United replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær with Ralf Rangnick, with Michael Carrick taking temporary charge until his arrival

So how are these working out?

Things are going in the right direction at Newcastle. A 2-0 loss at Arsenal would never have been a match where they realistically targeted points, and while I’m sure they would have preferred a win against Norwich, draws against the Canaries and Brentford could have very easily been losses earlier this season, and at time of writing they have now earned their first league win of the season at Burnley. This team needs to get better at the back, but they are clearly going in the right direction.

While he wasn’t given much time, Nuno sadly always felt like someone who got the job because everyone Spurs really wanted wasn’t available or willing to join. And he was immediately dealt a questionable hand with Harry Kane missing early games as his future was decided, and then forgetting how to score once he was back on the pitch. However with Conte now in, it feels like this is what Spurs really wanted in the summer, and while things may not have been perfect, 4 points from 2 games in November (their match at Burnley was postponed due to snow) suggests that things may be going in the right direction.

This was always likely to be a tough season for Villa after losing Jack Grealish, but this was a team who, with only 10 points, were running dangerously close to a relegation battle if the teams below them began to improve. Steven Gerrard may have been a risk due a lack of experience but he has done well at Rangers and a move to a Premiership team seemed the next logical step towards eventually becoming Liverpool manager. And sometimes what a great player who has not long left the game lacks in managerial experience, they can make up for in the empathy they can have for the team. Whatever the case, 2 wins from 2 in November has been the perfect start to life in the Premier League.

At Norwich things desperately needed to change. It was getting to the point that strikers Teemu Pukki and Josh Sargent would more likely miss than score if given an open goal and put just an inch out from the line in the middle of the goal. But much more damning was how Billy Gilmour was brought in on loan from Chelsea after an impressive summer at the Euros and then rarely played, as Farke preferred to grow the players on permanent contracts with the club. It would seem that there was a difference of thinking, and with the poor results, change was clear. In picking up Smith just days after his sacking by Villa, they have a manager with Premiership experience who you will hope will be driven to do well after having just been sacked. The return of Gilmour and Todd Cantwell brought immediate success with a win over Southampton, and while their strike force may still look questionable, 5 points from 3 games under Smith in November is a step in the right direction.

And finally we come to Old Trafford. I’m a big fan of Solskjær but something had to change. It’s just a shame that the manager is the one who pays the price while Ed Woodward still gets a long drawn out farewell after ruining the club for seasons, while yet another manager falls due to having to balance Paul Pogba’s incredible cost with an attitude that will see him put in effort for about 3 games a season. Rangnick seems a good move on paper, but as he is only being given a contract until the end of the season, how much support will he get in the January transfer window if he feels that he needs a new player or 2?

Time will tell, but right now it seems that all the month’s managerial moves were the right call.

Proving the doubters wrong

“Elsewhere, signing Aaron Ramsdale for more money than the vastly superior Emiliano Martínez was sold for is just bad business.”

Premier League 2021/22: August

While I still think that the business side of this whole story is a little questionable, I must admit that I have been proved wrong by Aaron Ramsdale. Despite the club’s relegation, Ramsdale looked promising for Bournemouth, but appeared to regress last season for Sheffield United despite being named their player of the Year. Being signed by Arsenal for a fee of up to £30m, I felt that he was going to be playing the role of an expensive back-up to Bernd Leno.

However that has not been the case and I must apologise to Ramsdale, as his form as the Arsenal starter has been incredible. He finds himself just 1 clean sheet off the pace in the race for the Golden Glove, and while part of that is also down to an improved defence, he is pulling off top class saves with regularity and this is likely helping to improve the defence as he is giving them more confidence.

And this leaves Gareth Southgate with an interesting decision to make for the World Cup. Jordan Pickford is his man but still rarely shows the same level of reliability for Everton as Ramsdale has been. Meanwhile Dean Henderson finds himself stuck behind a resurgent David de Gea—don’t be shocked to see him go out on loan to another club in January—and Nick Pope is in a struggling Burnley team.

To me, Ramsdale should be at least the back-up to Pickford by this point, but I would give Ramsdale the starting spot for any more matches this season in order to get him and the defence working on the same page and give him every chance of beating out Pickford. Even if he doesn’t quite manage that, he would at least be in a position to seamlessly take over should Pickford get injured or suspended during or right before the tournament.

Team of the Month

Manchester City

While Chelsea may have finished the month top of the table, it’s City who get the Team of the Month ward. The Sky Blues went 3 wins from 3 in November to finish just 1 point behind the league leaders, scoring 7 goals to just 1 conceded.

Granted Manchester United’s form was poor, but a trip to Old Trafford could have been a banana skin and yet they dominated the derby, while also beating Everton and a West Ham team that defeated Liverpool. And all that without a recognised striker (Gabriel Jesus the only one who could be considered such, if he wasn’t starting on the wing), and with Kevin De Bruyne only playing in the Manchester Derby.

City are just going from strength to strength and at this rate, I won’t be surprised to see them top at Christmas.