The big difference between Chelsea's 3-2 defeat to Stoke last season and 2-0 win on Monday was Nemanja Matic's dominant display in midfield, writes Matt Stanger...
A topsy-turvy, manic encounter, and yet entirely predictable when neither side can defend. Immense fun, but weren't these two teams with title ambitions in August..?
Last week Luke Edwards of the Daily Telegraph wrote a story in which he claimed that factions had started to appear in Newcastle United's squad, with the sizeable French contingent within the club isolating themselves. The underperformance of the team, culminating in the 6-0 home defeat to Liverpool, had allegedly led to these cliques becoming even more greatly pronounced.
Edwards, for his part, was not going out on a limb. He had received the information from a source within the club, and then verified such reports via text message and telephone with an alternative individual. Edwards was, to all intents and purposes, doing his job. After 12 years working on the Newcastle Journal before moving to the Telegraph, his contact list stretches far into north-east football. In an industry in which the term is obscenely over-used, he had himself an 'Exclusive!'.
Except that Newcastle United didn't like the story. The next day, the Telegraph received a letter from the club's solicitors: 'Unless a full apology is received from the Daily Telegraph and the article is immediately withdrawn from the Telegraph online edition...any representative of the Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph will be banned from attending St James' Park...any Newcastle United pre-match press conferences and all Newcastle United player interviews at the training facilities.' That's quite some reaction (and yet contains no official denial of the story itself).
Cases of such heavy-handedness from football clubs are an unacceptable norm. Alex Ferguson infamously spent seven years refusing to talk to the BBC over their portrayal of his agent son, and his banning of newspapers from press conferences became comical. In August, the Telegraph themselves were banned from Old Trafford press conferences for three months by Fergie for simply reporting that Rio Ferdinand would miss the opening game of the season through injury. Ferdinand missed the opening game of the season through injury.
In 2011, Southampton banned all press photographers from attending games, and in January announced that media outlets would not be permitted to speak to fans outside the ground. Just last month, Crawley banned Kaylee Seckington, a local reporter, from attending the club after they disagreed with the headlines (which she had not even written) on two of her news stories about the club, whilst Rangers and Celtic have notoriously issued similar bans to various individuals. Such incidents are not isolated, though Edwards' Newcastle farce has received extensive coverage, perhaps because his employers (editor Tony Gallagher took to Twitter to express his views) have backed their man.
You will all be more than aware that Football365 is a website that often treats the media with the air of cynicism, and there are 'stories' created that very much warrant the sarcastic applause that Mediawatch expertly provides. But it cannot be reinforced enough: the examples above are simply people doing their jobs (and doing them well). Woe betide anyone that dares to report the news.
The reason for this demand for control is evident. Football's global appeal and vastly increased commercialism has led to a situation where PR rules supreme. Clubs have their own programmes, television stations, websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and official supporter's clubs in all areas of the globe, creating a multimedia wave of deliberately generated and exactly sculpted publicity. That's verging on Stasi in its approach.
The number of tickets sold for home games, the number of shirts sold online and even the performance of the players on the field are all intrinsically linked to the perceived 'mood' of the club, fuelled by media stories. The reason Newcastle were so alarmed by the Telegraph's story is because, on Tyneside, such a story will damage the very atmosphere and disposition of the club (and therefore the city). During a relegation fight, such things may be crucial.
But that does not vindicate their actions, and clubs have suitable channels if they believe stories to be false. When the Daily Mirror revealed the debauched extent of QPR's mid-season jaunt to Dubai, Harry Redknapp vented at "disgusting untruths". But QPR never made any official denial, and the Mirror were never handed with a libel writ.
And therein lies your answer. Because players hold so much power in the game, and have the future of clubs at their feet, clubs will bend over backwards (or forwards, with pants pulled down) to protect their stars. They will release photos of players in a hospotal at Christmas and circulate propaganda information of a 'fabulous spirit in the squad, the lads are truly behind the manager' nature because it helps to demonstrate the desired image of the club. Therefore, conversely they will also move to quell any news that portrays the players in a bad light or examines any squad disharmony.
And now a stand must be taken. If the Football Association will (or are only able to) deal in nominal financial penalties, then the Football Writers Association and media outlets must fight for their own. No interviews with fans you say? Well then no live coverage. No stories of squad disharmony? No match reports. No pre-match press conference? No regurgitation of 'good news' interviews set up at the club's disposition.
Media control is typically saved for the worst in society - if you are stopping stories being written, there is usually something to hide. But so long as we allow out clubs to rule with a Stasi air over the censorship of selected media, the problem will simply become exacerbated. Football is now an industry in which propaganda is both rife and considered vital. As with so many issues today, if you give clubs an inch they will only take a mile.
Daniel Storey - Make sure you follow him on Twitter