Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 6

It feels like only yesterday we were celebrating the return of the Premier League, but we’re already 6 rounds into the tournament! It is still early days but the table is clearly starting to take shape, with the usual suspects (and Watford) in the top 7, while Crystal Palace are 4 already 4 points away from safety and still looking for their first point of the campaign.

False dawn?

After a 1-0 victory against Stoke on the opening weekend, Everton have gone on a horrid run, with 1 draw and 3 losses from their next 4 league games. They may have pulled themselves out of the relegation zone with their 2-1 win at home to Bournemouth, but is this really the start of the improvement? Bournemouth’s only win so far came against newly-promoted Brighton and they have lost their other 4 games. Going into their match at Goodison Park, Bournemouth had scored 3 goals and conceded 9 so the result is no great surprise. Last week I mentioned that too many Everton players were not playing at the standard they should and once again they conceded a goal that was far too easy for Josh King. Everton must continue to improve quickly and a win at home to Burnley (2 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) is important for their climb back up the table.

Are you watching, Gareth Southgate?

Where would Spurs be without Harry Kane and Dele Alli? So many of the team’s goals are either scored or set up by one of these 2. Against West Ham, Alli set up Kane for the opener with a pinpoint cross and it was his initial shot that was parried straight back to Kane for number 2. They have such a good connection which makes it so hard for a defence to deal with them. If Gareth Southgate wants the national team to be successful in the later stages of a tournament, he would do well to base the team around these 2, especially considering fellow Spurs players Eric Dier and Kieran Trippier and former teammate Kyle Walker are all also in the squad.

The main man

In the same week that Diego Costa’s return to Atletico Madrid was announced, summer signing Alvaro Morata scored his first Premier League hat-trick.

Some fans were quick to judge after a less-than-perfect preseason, but already the young Spaniard has shown he is a more than adequate replacement for Costa. Already this season, he has shown that he is deadly in front of goal and strong in the air, against Stoke he also showed that has the pace to trouble defences.

He may already have 20 senior caps to his name, but now that he will be the main man up front at Chelsea, a chance that he has never truly had at Real Madrid or Juventus, I can see his international career going to a new level.

Finding the balance

Everton are not the only team struggling to get the results the quality of their squad suggests they should. Slaven Bilic needs to start winning soon or he could be following Frank de Boer out of the league.

Stage 1 to getting results should be playing Javier Hernandez in his right position. A couple of times this season, Chicharito has been played in a wide position, which clearly does not suit his playing style. As his goal against Spurs shows, he is at his best when he gets the ball inside the box, and as such he should be utilised in a central position. Andy Carroll has looked a handful for defenders in recent weeks, so depending on the tactics Bilic wants to use he could be used as either a great partner or change of pace replacement for the Mexican, with Michail Antonio and Marko Arnautovic supporting them from wide positions.

 

Week 7 predictions:

Huddersfield Town v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v Leicester City – Leicester win

Manchester United v Crystal Palace – United win

Stoke City v Southampton – Draw

West Bromwich Albion v Watford – Draw

West Ham United v Swansea City – West Ham win

Chelsea v Manchester City – Draw

Arsenal v Brighton & Hove Albion – Arsenal win

Everton v Burnley – Everton win

Newcastle United v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Ravens @ Jaguars

The 2017 NFL International Series kicked off in front of a record crowd on Sunday afternoon with the first of 2 games at Wembley. The Jags were calling London their home for the 5th consecutive year while the Ravens were playing their 1st regular season game over here. Despite the Ravens having won their opening 2 games with a combined 10 points conceded, the Jags dominated from the start (other than giving away a penalty on the opening kick-off) on their way to a 44-7 victory.

The game started with a protest seen throughout the league this weekend, with almost a quarter of the players taking a knee and the rest of the players and staff – including owner Shad Khan – locking arms in a show of solidarity against Donald Trump’s recent tweets. But this is a blog about sports not politics, so back to the game!

 

Bad day for Flacco

This was not a match that Joe Flacco will look back on with much fondness. With 6-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda out injured, the Jags pass rush had a field day, consistently pressuring the quarterback on the way to 2 sacks. By half time, the Ravens had amassed a total 15 yards on offense, with their pass game having attributed -4 yards to this. With the win out of reach, Flacco was eventually removed going into the 4th quarter having completed 8/18 passes for 28 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Things went slightly better for replacement Ryan Mallet, who completed 6 of his 9 passes for 36 yards and a consolation touchdown to Benjamin Watson, but this is to be expected in garbage time.

Other than their second half against the Titans in Week 2, the Jaguars defense has looked a dangerous unit with a set of quality pass rushers being covered by some underrated linebackers and some top level defensive backs. They may have struggled for a number of years, but this has led to them bringing in a lot of high quality players through early draft picks such as Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler, which combined with their shrewd recruitment through Free Agency has created a defense that will keep them in games and cause problems for a number of offenses.

An upwards curve

Blake Bortles is probably one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to judge. Often likened to ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger for his stature and his ability to stay on his feet, he has often struggled with accuracy, having never finished a season with a completion percentage above 60% and averaging just over 1 interception per game in his NFL career.

At Wembley, Bortles looked like a true franchise quarterback, completing 20 of his 31 throws for 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, before being replaced with 9 minutes remaining by Chad Henne. Bortles showed poise in the pocket and also good escapability to avoid the Ravens pass rush and keep plays alive, while also showing the maturity to check down to an open receiver short of the first down marker as opposed to making a risky longer throw. The Jaguars staff have built a strong set of targets for Bortles to aim at – Marcedes Lewis, Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee – while also putting together a strong backfield containing T. J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and latest first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette. The quality available in the running game will put less pressure on Bortles and force him into less dangerous throws, while the receivers will give him every chance of beating a team through the air once the defense stacks the box against the run.

Home away from home

As mentioned above, the Jags have sacrificed a home game to play in London for the last 5 consecutive seasons, but is this really a sacrifice anymore? Since the 2015 season, the Jags have gone 3-0 at Wembley (their 2015 and 2016 wins coming against teams who finished the season with better records than them) whereas over the same span, they have gone 4-11 at EverBank Field. Granted the sample size isn’t huge, but it looks like London suits the Jaguars.

As a regular team in London, they have understandably built up a fan base and the local fans certainly know how to make themselves heard during a game. They will also benefit from the London trips becoming part of their season routine now, whereas for a team like Baltimore playing in Wembley for the first time, it is a very different experience. By this point the Jags know when works best for the team in terms of when to fly over, as some teams have come early in the week whereas others come towards the end of the week. If they don’t look to fully overcome jet lag, they will also be more experienced at the earlier start time than usual, as to suit UK and US audiences, the London games kick off a couple of hours ahead of the earliest games in the US. In the past there have been comments as to the quality of the Wembley pitch compared to fields in the USA, the Jags know what to expect so come prepared with the right footwear, whereas the Ravens never spent time at Wembley until the day of the game. These may be little things, but they can add up to give a team a big advantage.

The Jags are locked in to at least 1 game per season in the UK through to 2020, but owner Shad Khan seemed open to increasing the number of UK games in the future. If the Jags continue to play like this then I’m sure the local fans won’t mind, the Jags certainly won’t if they continue to get the results over here!

Money Talks

In my perusing of the internet last night, I came across articles from RugbyLAD and WalesOnline discussing some findings from data collected by Esportif Intelligence about the salaries of players in the Premiership compared to last year’s Pro12. Unfortunately I was not able to find their data/findings directly, but looking through the summaries from these other sites, there were a few things that I thought were worthy of discussion:

It’s no real surprise that the data showed the average salary of a player in the Premiership last season was higher than in the Pro12. The Premiership’s bumper TV deals have allowed clubs to splash the cash in order to compete against the Top14, whereas the failure of the Pro12 to have a centralised TV deal has made it hard for the teams to compete financially with their European rivals. What was interesting though is that despite the average salary being £30k lower than in the Premiership, the salaries for top players in the Pro12 last year were actually higher than the Premiership, to the point that a Pro12 combined XV would be more expensive than a Premiership combined XV. The disparity in the average player salary comes from the squad players, who appear to be paid considerably more in the Premiership than in the Pro14. If you’re a Pro12 player that is not being considered for national selection then there is very little incentive to stay in country when you see players in the Premiership being paid more to do the same or less!

The other big talking points come from the breakdown of average salaries by position. These figures were calculated by looking at player salaries and their starting position last year. From highest to lowest, the positions with the highest average salaries are:

Premiership:

  1. 10
  2. 12
  3. 4/5
  4. 15
  5. 3
  6. 11/14
  7. 8
  8. 7
  9. 9
  10. 13
  11. 1
  12. 2
  13. 6

Pro12:

  1. 10
  2. 4/5
  3. 8
  4. 15
  5. 9
  6. 6
  7. 11/14
  8. 13
  9. 2
  10. 7
  11. 1
  12. 12
  13. 3

It’s no real surprise that fly half is the best-paid position in both leagues as the fly half really is the quarterback of the team. A starting quality fly half is always in demand so this will also help to drive up the cost at this position. Combined with this, the fly half will often be a reliable goal kicker, so that will push the price of the position up even further.

What did surprise me was that open-side flanker was so low on the list in both countries, especially compared to second row, which features in the top 3 of both leagues. I think this shows something of the mentality of Northern Hemisphere rugby, as they prioritise a dominant set piece and dealing with the breakdown as a team rather than focusing on a specialised fetcher in the mould of Richie McCaw or David Pocock. The role of the second row is also becoming more diverse, with the set piece still vital but also an impact in open play now expected from even the average player. It would be very interesting to see the comparative salaries for Super Rugby over this time period.

It’s very interesting the discrepancy in salary for inside centres between the 2 leagues. In the Pro12 they are one of the lowest salaries, however in the Premiership they are second only to the fly half! As this looks at the starting positions of players last year, I think part of this comes down to the way the position is viewed. Over recent years, a number of Premiership clubs have regularly played a fly half at the centre position – Harry Mallinder, Henry Slade, Ollie Devoto and Jimmy Gopperth immediately spring to mind. We have already established that fly half is an expensive position, if fly halves are also plying their trade at 12, then it makes sense that this position is becoming more expensive.

The other big discrepancy was with the salary for a tighthead prop. This has traditionally been one of the most expensive positions in rugby due to the importance of the scrum and the technicality of the position. I’m pretty certain John Afoa has been one of the highest paid players in the Premiership over recent seasons. I think 5th in the Premiership sounds about right for the position, but I am shocked that it is actually the worst-paid position in the Pro12 last season. Beyond Tadhg Furlong and WP Nel, I would argue that there is not a depth in quality at the position, so it may be that clubs are currently hesitant to pay big money until they know a player is deserving of it.

 

It will be interesting to see how these figures continue to change over the coming year. The report suggests the salary gap will be even higher this year, but with the addition of the South African sides to the (now) Pro14, will this see the salaries become more competitive over the coming years? Only time will tell…

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 5

Week 5 of the Premier League is now behind us. The Manchester clubs continued their early domination of the league with a combined 10 goals scored over the weekend, while Bournemouth’s win over Brighton has left Crystal palace bottom of the league as the only team with no points. Elsewhere, David Luiz saw red as Arsenal and Chelsea shared the spoils at Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham continued to drop points at home, this time to Swansea.

 

A long road back

Crystal Palace’s decision to replace Frank de Boer with Roy Hodgson after just 4 weeks of Premiership football is an odd one. De Boer is an attack-minded boss whereas risk-averse Roy is anything but, favouring an organised defence. To bring in such a contrast in styles right after the transfer window closes means that Hodgson must try to build success with a crop of players that may not even be right for his style of football. Palace failed to score against Southampton, where Steven Davis’ early goal condemned the Eagles to the unwanted record of becoming the first ever club to lose their opening 5 games without scoring a goal. To make matters worse, their next 3 games in the league are Manchester City (away), Manchester United (away) and Chelsea (home), so it doesn’t look like their record will be improving any time soon. On paper they have a talented squad, but they are already 4 points away from safety and that just looks set to grow over the next few weeks. It would not surprise me to see them in the Championship next season.

Improvement needed

Putting my neck on the line here: Manchester City will not win the league this year. I think they have one of – if not the most – potent attacks in the league, however I feel that they are still just too weak at the back. City have spent big money at the back in recent years and while I feel that new keeper Ederson will be a big help, there are still too many questions over the men directly in front of him. Vincent Kompany is a top defender when on form but misses too much time through injury. John Stones shows promise but is prone to stupid errors, while so far Nicolas Otamendi and especially Eliaquim Mangala have proven to be expensive mistakes. Against teams like Watford, they may be able to get away with a leaky defence but once they play other teams competing for the title and Champions League places, they will struggle.

Liverpool are another team who will struggle to reach the heights they should because of a poor defence. Against Burnley, the defence made it far too easy for Scott Arfield’s goal and they were lucky to not concede a second following a couple of minutes full of errors: Burnley went for a long throw into the box. With no players in claret and blue close, it should have been easy to deal with, however 2 players both went for the same ball and they ended up giving away a cheap corner. The marking at the corner was almost non-existent and for 2 corners in a row Ben Mee was able to get a free header. At one of the corners his shirt was quite clearly pulled as the ball came in too, so it could have easily been a penalty for Burnley.

If both of these clubs are to reach the level they should, then they need to look at their defence. This does not necessarily mean buying new players, but improving the organisation of the defence so that they are a unit the managers and fans can rely on.

Money can’t buy you wins

September could not have gone much worse for Everton so far. After their 3-0 loss to Spurs in Week 4, they lost 3-0 at Atalanta midweek before going on to lose 4-0 at Old Trafford on Sunday. They may have lost star striker Romelu Lukaku to United, but they have also spent heavily on their squad and should be pushing for Europe rather than sitting in the relegation zone. Against Manchester United, Rooney and Sigurdsson were unable to get the ball in the back of the net, while recent signings Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane and Ashley Williams (brought in last summer) all gifted the home side chances with individual errors and Morgan Schneiderlin (signed from United in January) gave away the penalty for the final goal of the game.

 

Week 6 predictions:

West Ham United v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw

Burnley v Huddersfield Town – Burnley win

Everton v AFC Bournemouth – Everton win

Manchester City v Crystal Palace – Man City win

Southampton v Manchester United – United win

Stoke City v Chelsea – Draw

Swansea City v Watford – Draw

Leicester City v Liverpool – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v Newcastle United – Newcastle win

Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion – Arsenal win

Taking Sport to Another Level

We all know that technology is being used to improve sport. From GPS technology to help in training to Hawkeye and other systems being used to ensure correct decisions are made in a game. These things are obvious. But there is another way that sport is being improved by technology that probably doesn’t get enough of a mention: the fan experience.

Now I’m only 26 and it’s only in recent years that I’ve become sports mad and started paying attention on a larger scale, so I can’t properly say what it was like “back in the day” but some of these changes are so big they are clearly improving the experience for fans and possibly even drawing fans into the sport:

First up is one of the obvious ones: TV. It wasn’t that long ago that the average household only had 5 television channels. Now that we’ve had the digital switch-over, even someone without paid-for channels still has a much wider range of channels, including ones like ITV4 that will often show sporting events – just these last few months we have had live coverage of the Tour de France, Tour of Britain, Women’s Rugby World Cup and World Rugby U20s Championship! Red Button channels like on the BBC add even more chances for fans to watch sport, as we see events like Wimbledon and the Olympics shown almost in their entirety. Subscriptions for Sky and BT are much more common too, giving viewers access to multiple channels dedicated to sport, so we can see not just sport from the UK but also other countries (Sky show NFL, Super Rugby and Rugby Championship matches live). tvFor those who don’t have the time to sit down and watch all the sport that is on, we are also treated to plenty of highlights shows on free-to air TV. Match of the Day has been a staple of the Premier League for as long as I can remember – except for those few years where we had The Premiership on ITV – and there are many similar shows for other sporting events, from daily highlights of the Grand Tour cycling events to Channel 5’s football highlights covering the Championship to League 2 and their Premiership Rugby highlights show, which they have recently acquired from ITV. If it is easier for someone to watch a sport on a regular basis, then they will be more likely to become fans of the sport. We are also starting to see some sports like the NFL and Rugby League using player mics to improve the fan experience even more by putting you right in the action. I love this as not only do we get some wonderful moments on the field like banter between opponents, but we also get a chance to see the way that players communicate in a game, much in the same way that the referee’s mic in rugby allows people watching on TV to understand what is going on.

 

Even with all these extra TV channels, it is still impossible for everything to be televised. That’s where online streaming comes in. I was disappointed by ITV’s lack of live coverage for the U20s World Championship this summer (they had highlights shows for each round but only the final was shown live) but World Rugby are very good at streaming games online if there is no TV coverage available in the country. I’ve lost count of how many matches I’ve watched on their website or Facebook page so far this year! NFL.com also has the option of signing up to NFL Gamepass, which allows you to watch all NFL matches live or watch them back during the week. Much like the increased TV coverage, the extra online coverage gives people more chance to watch a sport that they are interested in, and allows them to widen their experience of the sport to other competitions.

I mentioned Facebook above, but social media in general has been huge for sports fans. Just this last week I’ve had a conversation on Facebook that I haven’t seen since i left school about 8 years ago as he saw me post about the NFL! Personally I think that Twitter is brilliant for sports fans as you will find that the majority of teams/clubs will have their own dedicated account, as will many of the players, especially at the professional level. Twitter_Icon_(Official_1)I absolutely love Twitter as it gives fans like myself the chance to not just keep up with games and news, but also interact with players and pundits in a way that fans would not have previously been able to do. It is also a brilliant place for fans to interact with one another, even if they have never met before. I doubt I’ve met even 10% of my followers on Twitter and yet a number of us can be discussing the exact same thing together from completely different countries. I can’t talk about Twitter without mentioning #rugbyunited which is led by fans and has helped bring rugby fans around the world together and even played a big part in arranging the RugbyAid charity match a couple of years ago. If you’re a rugby fan and haven’t checked them out, I highly recommend it!

Finally, there are games, a brilliant way to get people into a sport and help them get to know the rules and teams. EA are one of the biggest companies in the gaming world and they put out annual sports titles including FIFA (football), Madden (american football), NHL (ice hockey) and NBA Live (basketball). madden-18-brady-ogUnfortunately there has not been a decent rugby game for over 10 years now, but I will continue to hold out hope that we will get one soon. It was Madden that got me into the NFL, as I had seen games on TV when visiting family in the USA but had been too young to understand. However back in 2004 a friend from school let me borrow his copy of Madden 2004 and to say I was hooked is an understatement. When a game gets it right, like Madden and FIFA do, they can help you learn not just the basics but also enough of the intricacies of a sport and are a great way of learning the rules in a fun and engaging way. Not just this but they allow fans of a sport to broaden their knowledge by finding out about less known players and leagues – I think everyone has found at least one star before they were famous on FIFA career modes or playing Football Manager.

While video games are a great way for fans old and new, another type of game that is more tailored to existing fans would be fantasy leagues. For those who have never tried a fantasy league, they take real life matches and assign points to players according to their performance. ‘Fantasy managers’ select their squad and compete against friends in leagues for bragging rights, while many fantasy competitions will also have leagues for everybody from an individual country, fans of individual teams and also an overall league that contains every competitor. 20170910_190538.jpgI have been doing the Official Premier League Fantasy Football for over 10 years now, competing originally against my classmates, then uni friends and now my work colleagues. However this year I wasn’t organised enough and missed the first gameweek so have instead focused on other fantasy leagues. I frequently use the ESPN fantasy 6 Nations competition and this year have also decided to attempt a fantasy NFL league and Fantasy leagues for the Pro14 and Premiership Rugby. The Rugby Magazine’s fantasy game for the Premiership is by far the deepest fantasy game that I have ever played and I am thoroughly enjoying it 2 weeks in! The good thing about these is that it encourages people to keep up to date with how a league is going in order to stay competitive against their peers, and it allows players to spend anything from a couple of minutes sorting their team to a couple of hours, depending how serious they are taking it.

 

And the best bit about technology: It continues to improve! Live sport will continue to become more accessible and companies will continue to find new ways to improve the fan’s experience with apps and games. And all the while, us fans will continue to interact on social media. Long may it continue…

A Race to be Remembered

Chris Froome continued his rise to greatness with victory on the 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España. The Team Sky rider took the general classification red jersey at the end of Stage 3 and refused to relinquish it for the rest of the 3 week race, while also going on to win the green jersey for the points classification and the white combination jersey all on the way to making history.

The entire race was a great spectacle, with a number of attacks – often from the retiring Alberto Contador – keeping many of the fights for the GC podium going down to the wire. The final standings for the race were:

  • General Classification
  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Ilnur Zakarin
  • Points classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Mountains classification
  1. Davide Villella
  • Combination classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Team classification
  1. Astana
  • Combativity award
  1. Alberto Contador

2 out of 3 for my GC podium prediction isn’t bad…

There was plenty to talk about from this race, but I’ll leave the full breakdown to the cycling experts and instead focus on a couple of big talking points:

 

The history maker

This win has made Chris Froome only the 3rd rider to win the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in the same year. What makes this even more impressive is that he is the first to win it since the Vuelta was moved after the Tour. He may not have looked at his best for much of the Tour, but it looks like he timed his season perfectly to peak just in time for the Vuelta’s climb-heavy race. He was one of the few racers able to consistently stick with Contador’s breaks in the opening weeks (more on those later) which quickly helped him get a lead on GC and consistently place well enough to keep the battle for the green jersey going right to the final sprint. Once again he had a lot of help from a strong Sky team, with Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon keeping him in the right position and pulling him through the stages where he struggled. It’s no real surprise to see Nieve and Poels make the top 20 on GC considering the work they did for Froome and the dominance of Team Sky throughout the race.

Over the last 3 weeks, Froome has once again showed that he is a strong climber but, more importantly a terrific time trialist, having won the Stage 16 Time Trial by 29 seconds to Wilco Kelderman and just under a minute to his closest GC competitors. He has done something unprecedented this year and will surely be targeting a record-equalling 5th Tour de France next year. He may not always be the most popular of sportsmen, but considering what he has done this year, he must surely be in the running for Sports Personality of the Year.

Farewell to a legend

Alberto Contador may not have got the fairy-tale podium finish that he would have liked to end his career with, but this race was a perfect example of what makes him such a great rider. The 7-time Grand Tour winner (not counting the 2 wins that were voided) struggled on the first couple of stages but as a result was allowed the chance to attack on pretty much every stage after. His attacks opened up the race to a point that the GC race was completely shaken up. There was something right about Contador’s last ever mountain stage being a victory on the Angliru and it was wonderful to see the peloton allow him to lead the way into Madrid on the final stage. It was a shame that he couldn’t finish on the podium for GC, but it was great to see him win the combativity award and I don’t think anyone can argue with that call.

Given his history I understand that he will not be universally loved, but he will certainly be missed moving forwards.

The importance of a good time trial

In a race that is over 3,000km long, the impact that a 40.2km stage can have on the general classification cannot be understated. Time trials do exactly that. They are the only stages on a race where a rider is racing purely on their own ability with nobody there to pull them along if they are struggling, and it clearly shows on the race results. All 3 Grand Tours this year have been won by riders with a strong time trial pedigree (Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome). On the Vuelta, Froome added almost a minute to his GC lead, which allowed him make up the time he lost with his 2 crashes on Stage 12 and take it easy on the more dangerous descents.

Esteban Chaves did lose time on the later stages, but his big loss was a poor time trial that dropped him from a possible podium to only just inside the top 10. It may only represent a small fraction of the total race distance, but a better than average time trial is now a must for someone who wants a realistic chance of winning a Grand Tour.

Teams to watch in 2018

Team Sky may be losing a number of riders at the end of this season, including Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve to Movistar and Orica-Scott resepectively, but they have recruited well and bringing in quality riders like Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) so I am sure they continue to lead the way in 2018.

Quick-Step will be interesting to watch next year as they are losing their 2 most recent GC riders (de la Cruz and Dan Martin) along with sprinters Marcel Kittel and Matteo Trentin. However they still have Fernando Gaviria, who won 4 stages on the way to winning the points classification at this year’s Giro d’Italia, so I still expect them to be pushing for the Grand Tour points classifications.

I am very much looking forward to watching Orica and Sunweb next year. They may have faded in the last week of the Vuelta, but I expect Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers to be even better next year, especially with a domestique like Nieve joining the team. On top of this I expect them to work a bit harder on the sprints next year with both Matteo Trentin and Caleb Ewan on the books next season. Sunweb may be losing Tour de France King of the Mountains Warren Barguil but they have 2 impressive GC options in Giro winner Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman, who are both strong climbers and time trialists. Bringing in Edward Theuns from Trek-Segafredo will be a big help to them and they will also have Michael Matthews there looking to back up his green jersey from the Tour whilst backing up his team leader on climbing stages.

Astana will be interesting to watch but not necessarily for the right reasons. Fabio Aru is clearly a talented rider, but there were questions about his actions on the Tour as his teammates appearing to turn against him – Michael Valgren’s response to hearing his team leader had lost the yellow jersey on Stage 14 was to smile and say “Good” – and this apparent lack of teamwork continued into the Vuelta with the Italian riding off on his own rather than to the benefit of Miguel Angel Lopez. Sunweb kicked Barguil off the Vuelta for not supporting Wilco Kelderman, will Astana have the balls to do the same to Aru if he continues to be selfish next season?

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 4

Only 4 weeks into the season and we already have our first managerial casualty. Frank de Boer has been sacked by Crystal Palace after only 7 days in charge, with Palace having lost 4 form 4 in the Premier League without having yet scored a goal. Elsewhere in the league, Manchester City’s 5 goals were overshadowed by a controversial red card to Sadio Mané, whilst Brighton scored their first ever Premier League goal and followed it up with 2 more to register their first win in the league.

Since the last round, we have had an international break and the transfer window has closed, so there has been plenty to think about this week. Obviously I don’t want to bore you so have tried to limit myself to just a few topics:

 

That red

Where else could I really start this week, other than looking at Sadio Mané’s red card for a high boot on City keeper Ederson. The only thing that surprised me about the decision is how many people feel shocked that he was given a red! Granted there was no intent to injure and his eyes were always on the ball, but when has a referee based an incident on intent rather than outcome? The outcome was the Ederson got Mané’s studs in his face and was unable to continue playing. Kevin Kilbane was spot on with his assessment on MOTD2 when he said that it was a dangerous challenge due to height of the foot regardless of intent so deserved a red. Players know that going in with a high boot or showing studs is a red card under the current regulations, I agree with Lineker, Wright and Shearer that in that position a striker should be going for the ball, but they must be aware of their surroundings to ensure the safety of anyone around them.

By this logic though, I 100% feel that Matt Ritchie should have also received a red rather than the yellow he was given by Mike Jones. The only real differences between the two were that Ritchie appeared to just miss the Swansea player’s head, so the outcome did not look as serious as Saturday’s Mané incident. However as both had their feet raised to at least chest height, I cannot see why one should be a red and not the other. This is already the second time I’ve moaned about consistency of decisions this season, having done so following Round 2. Referees need to sit down and work out how they can consistently make the same decision, otherwise we will continue to have issues throughout the season.

Transfer fallout

Transfer Deadline Day was notable for some of the moves that didn’t complete: Alexis Sanchez is still at Arsenal and Philippe Coutinho failed to get his move to Barcelona. Both are stars at their clubs, yet neither made the starting XI this weekend and Coutinho didn’t even make the bench for Liverpool. It does not appear that either of them wanted to stay where they were and I do worry about the impact this will have on the clubs as they could potentially make the atmosphere toxic. I think the clubs would have done better getting the big money and using it to bring in a couple of players – or in Liverpool’s case a new back 4!

Dark Horses

I know that it is early in the season, but I feel that Stoke could be dark horses for European qualification this season. Always a team capable of pulling off an upset, mark Hughes has quietly gone about his business and, despite losing Marko Arnautovic and sending Bojan out on loan, has put together a strong team including Jack Butland, Kevin Wimmer, Kurt Zouma, Ryan Shawcross, Jesé, Darren Fletcher, Ibrahim Afellay, Xerdan Shaqiri and Charlie Adam, to name but a few. This is not just club with a strong starting XI, but also a deep squad with an experienced manager in Mark Hughes who knows how to combine good attacking play with a strong, organised defence. They coped well against a Manchester United team that had scored 10 goals and conceded none in the first 3 games. I’m sure that United will not be the last of the big teams to struggle in Stoke, regardless of whether it is a cold rainy night or not!