Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 10

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 10

Week 10 gave us a treat in a top-table clash between Manchester United and Tottenham. Coming into the game, United held second place ahead of Spurs purely on goal difference, but Anthony Martial’s goal allowed United to build a 3-point lead over the Londoners. City meanwhile continued their unbeaten start to the league campaign with a 2-3 victory at West Brom, which leaves them with 28 points from a possible 15. Elsewhere in the table Leicester, with new manager Claude Puel at the helm, pulled away from the relegation zone with a 2-0 victory over managerless Everton.

 

On the hot seat

West Ham’s owners may have stated last week that they would give manager Slaven Bilic more time to turn the team’s fortunes around, but that time must surely be running out. After coming from 2-0 down to beat Spurs 2-3 midweek in the Carabao Cup, then going into half time at Crystal Palace 2-0 up, it looked like they may have finally turned the corner. However they fell apart in the second half and did not manage the game well enough, allowing Wilfried Zaha to score a crucial equaliser in the 97th minute. Joe Hart – who had earlier made a number of fine saves to keep the Hammers ahead – branded his team’s finish ‘unprofessional’ and he is spot on. Michail Antonio should have kept the ball in the corner but instead crossed it into an empty box, then the players who were forward put no pressure on Palace as they moved it through the first 2 thirds of the pitch, before pedestrian defending gave Zaha the angle to slot past the keeper. They also gave away their 4th penalty of the campaign (a league high) to help palace start their second half fightback.

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Everton will be hoping a change of manager helps them climb the table, will West Ham do the same? – Picture from Flickr – Pete

While the last-ditch gain of a point does not greatly improve Palace’s position in the league table, these are a costly 2 points lost for West ham, who could have moved into mid-table but instead find themselves continuing to flirt with the relegation zone. I also feel sorry for Joe Hart, who was visibly upset with the final goal in his post-match interview. With Forster, Pickford, Butland and Heaton (when fit) all playing regularly in the top flight, he suddenly has competition for his England place, yet his defence seem unable to do their job at the moment which has led to him not keeping a clean sheet all month.

Bilic has done so well with the team over the years, but this current squad just isn’t performing for him despite the obvious quality. Leicester and Everton are finding themselves on similar points and have already moved on from their managers as they look to move up the table. With both these teams included in their November fixture list alongside Liverpool (Home) and Watford (Away), West Ham need to change something soon or they could find themselves playing in the Championship next season.

What was different about that?

It may not have affected the result at Anfield, but one incident caught my attention during Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Huddersfield. Liverpool won a penalty in the first half following a shirt pull by Tommy Smith on Roberto Firmino in the box at a set piece. In a perfect snapshot of Liverpool’s performance in the first half, Mohamed Salah’s penalty was a poor one and saved by the Huddersfield keeper.

What caught my attention is that referee Kevin Friend actually gave a penalty for this. It is 100% a penalty, but we see incidents like this at almost every set piece where the ball is coming into the box. In fact, I’ve seen many worse shirt-pulls or cases where the player’s body is pulled back that have gone unpunished! The officials need to get together and decide whether they let this contact go at set pieces or if they take a zero tolerance approach and give the foul anytime there is contact of this sort. If they choose this, it may lead to penalties galore to start with, but would quickly eradicate the problem.

The right role models?

Premiership footballers are meant to be role models, but if I was a parent I would be shocked at the behaviour of some stars this weekend.

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The Premier League table after 10 weeks – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Troy ‘the Equaliser’ Deeney may be fine going up against a team lacking cojones like Arsenal, but against a more physical defender like Ryan Shawcross his impact was limited. Eventually he boiled over and an innocuous incident between him and Joe Allen ended with his hands around the Welshman’s neck and face. There is no place for that in football and how he only got a yellow card is beyond me! I will be very surprised if he doesn’t receive a ban once the footage is reviewed by the FA.

The one good thing about this incident (if you can call it that) is that kids watching should already know that this is wrong. However I worry that Dele Alli’s antics might not be so obviously wrong to children watching. During Spurs’ 1-0 loss to Manchester United this weekend he earned a free kick by simulating contact with Phil Jones, who replays showed had withdrew his feet and avoided making contact. Back in their win over Huddersfield at the end of September, he was cautioned for diving in the box. He is a young lad full of talent and really does not need to rely on cheating, otherwise it could harm his career. More importantly, it needs to be very clear to children watching their ‘idols’ that simulation is cheating and has no place in the sport.

 

Week 11 predictions:

Stoke City v Leicester City – Draw

Huddersfield Town v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Newcastle United v AFC Bournemouth – Draw

Southampton v Burnley – Draw

Swansea City v Brighton & Hove Albion – Swansea win

West Ham United v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Tottenham Hotspur v Crystal Palace – Spurs win

Manchester City v Arsenal – City win

Chelsea v Manchester United – Draw

Everton v Watford – Draw

2017 Autumn Internationals: Eddie’s Men

2017 Autumn Internationals: Eddie’s Men

England kick off their Autumn Internationals on 11th November with a game against summer opponents Argentina with games against Australia and Samoa following. Eddie Jones has today named a 34-man squad for the series that has – as usual for an Eddie Jones squad – thrown up a few surprises. We are now only 2 years away from the next World Cup in Japan, and it is clear that this is in Eddie’s thoughts as he continues to bring in more younger players in place of the tried and tested old guard.

Having had a few hours to digest the announcement while at work, I’ve pulled together a few thoughts on the squad:

 

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England’s 34-man squad for the 2017 Autumn Internationals – from http://www.englandrugby.com

Versatility is key

The way that the squad is presented gives a clear idea as to Jones’ thinking behind a number of these selections. The squad has been split into 4 sections: Front Row, Back Five, Inside Backs and Outside Backs. While the front row section is obvious, the way that the other 3 sections have been split shows the versatility of this squad.

In the ‘back five’, Jones has named 6 players who would usually be considered second rows and 5 who would be considered back rows (including Zach Mercer who is not intended to be included in the match day squads). However of those second rows, both Itoje and Lawes have spent a large portion of time playing at blindside flanker for their clubs and also have experience playing there internationally. Sam Simmonds can easily cover 6 or 8 so could be used alongside or in relief of Nathan Hughes, while the other back rowers could all be considered 6.5s and play either side of the scrum dependant on the personnel on the field.

In the backs, we have Farrell, Ford, Lozowski, Slade and Francis all capable of playing anywhere in midfield depending on Jones’ needs, while Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly could both conceivably feature at 13 (though I think Daly will be kept in the back 3). With no obvious crash ball options in the inside backs, it would not surprise me to see Eddie Jones continue with a 3 man midfield of hybrid fly half/centres. In the back 3, Mike Brown looked back to his best in Argentina but I would love to see Daly or Watson given a chance to make the 15 shirt their own. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Joseph given some time on the wing as he now has much more competition in the midfield when everyone is available.

In a similar vein to the All Blacks, having such flexibility allows Eddie Jones more chance to get his best players on the field, rather than being limited by something as mundane as a position.

The Apprentice(s)

I really like Eddie Jones’ decision to bring in Zach Mercer and Marcus Smith as apprentice players for this series. Mercer is only just 20 and Smith still 18, but they are clearly both in the coaches’ plans moving forwards. I have been a fan of Zach Mercer for a while now and having seen Marcus Smith play against Leicester earlier this season I can see that he is going to be a great talent on the world stage. There is a lot of competition ahead of them but I think they are both in with a good shot of making the World Cup squad or becoming regular starters soon after, so to get them used to the environment and the tactics now will really help their international development going forward.

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6 Lions (Vunipola was picked for 1017 but pulled out through injury) are all unavailable for selection – from http://www.englandrugby.com

A costly ban

Joe Marler’s latest ban could have just cost him his England career. Eddie Jones has decided to streamline his front row to just 3 hookers and 5 props, so with Marler unavailable for the first 2 games of the series, he has been left out of the 34-man squad altogether. In his place comes Leicester’s Ellis Genge, who has been so impressive for Tigers. Genge and Mako Vunipola will make a dangerous 1-2 punch at loosehead prop as both are good quality scrummagers who are dangerous in the loose. If Eddie Jones is to continue only picking 4 props for his squads, then Marler may have to rely on injuries and suspensions in order to pull on the white shirt again.

Incredible depth

As strong as this England squad looks on paper, it can be even stronger. Due to injuries or suspensions, there were a number of players not included, which includes a couple of Lions. Further to that, there are also the players who were available but still missed out on selection. Don Armand won his first cap in Argentina but despite a great start to the season with Exeter has been left out of this squad. More experience players like James Haskell and Tom Wood have also missed out as the youth gets its chance, while wingers from the last squad like Nathan Earle, Marland Yarde and Joe Cokanasiga also fail to make the 34.

In the summer, I wrote about a number of players who continued to be overlooked for England squads. Once again, none of these players feature, despite some of them like Dan Robson and Semesa Rokoduguni having brilliant starts to the season. There may have been much made in the media in recent weeks about injuries and suspensions limiting Eddie Jones’ options, but when you take a minute to look at the situation, Jones could probably name another 34-man squad that could legitimately compete this autumn. If we have everyone available for the 6 Nations, Eddie will be spoiled for choice!

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 9

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 9

Another week, another win for the underdogs. This time Huddersfield have played the role of David as they take down the Goliath that is Manchester United. Elsewhere in the league Chelsea escaped losing 3 league matches in a row with a late surge to beat Watford 4-2, while Manchester City remain unbeaten following a 3-0 victory at home to Burnley. Towards the other end of the table, Leicester – currently without a manager after the sacking of Craig Shakespeare – won 2-1 against Swansea, while Ronald Koeman was shown the door following Everton’s 5-2 loss at home to Arsenal.

 

Buy British

Anthony Martial burst onto the Premier League scene in the 2015/16 with 11 goals in 31 league games and was one of the few good points of Louis van Gaal’s reign at Old Trafford. However he has found his chances more limited under Jose Mourinho and has also found it harder to score. Against Huddersfield, he was probably lucky to not be penalised after appearing to lash out following a strong challenge from Tommy Smith. This got me thinking, maybe the issue is that he is not ready for the physical demands of the Premier League.

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David de Gea took time to adapt to the Premier League – Picture from Flickr – nguyễnlong15

The Premier League is always touted as being a physical league and England has always been known as a country that is more famous for its physically dominant players like Tony Adams rather than its more skillful players. In that regard, it is almost the exact opposite of La Liga. Even some of the more skillful English players of recent years, like Wayne Rooney, are always noted as being physically strong and you rarely hear of him or Harry Kane being out-muscled. For players who are used to less physical leagues – Ligue 1 and La Liga for example – this would be a big change of style that they may struggle to get used to. Victor Lindelof (signed from Benfica) had a poor afternoon at Huddersfield and was culpable for the second goal due to misjudging the long ball forward. Renato Sanches has also not yet lived up to the hype at Bayern Munich or Swansea and again this could be down to the Premier League and the Bundesliga being more physical than the Primeira Liga that he was used to.

This isn’t even a new phenomenon; so many players have excelled in other leagues but struggled in England – such as Diego Forlan – while even David de Gea initially looked like he could be a bust until he got used to the physicality of the league and the difference in style. As great as a player can look when playing internationally or in other leagues, there is no way to know how they will adapt to the Premier League until they are featuring regularly. I’ve noticed that players who are used to the Bundesliga don’t seem to struggle that much and I think that this is because this is probably the closest of the top European leagues to the Premier League in terms of playing style and physicality. It must also be remembered that there are very few top leagues where the teams towards the bottom can even consider beating the top teams, whereas the Premier League loves to remind us this season that anyone can beat anyone!

We always hear that English players are overpriced, and to be honest when you look at the quality of imports that were brought in for the same money that is often true, but at least with an English player who has spent his career playing in the Premier League and Championship, they are already used to the physical demands of the league. While the ceiling may be higher for an import, the floor may be much lower, so if in doubt, I can see why some clubs would prefer to stick to the more reliable middle ground rather than risk a big money bust.

Lucky Chelsea

Chelse may have come out of their game against Watford with all 3 points, but they should consider themselves very lucky. Pedro’s opener was a beautiful strike but should never have stood as replays clearly showed that Eden Hazard was the last to touch the ball before it went out of play, so Chelsea’s corner should have actually been a goal kick. Not only this, but Richarlison missed 2 gilt-edged chances at 1-1 and 1-2 that looked easier to score than to miss! If either one or both of these goals had been scored, then it may have been too much of a mountain for the defending champions to climb in this game.

A season away

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Everton’s drop into the relegation zone has cost Ronald Koeman – table from http://www.premierleague.com

How much will Spurs be regretting their slow start to the season right now? 4 league victories on the bounce have left them 3rd in the league, 5 points behind Manchester City and level on points with Manchester United. Their 4-1 demolition of Liverpool at a packed Wembley Stadium showed just how effective the team is. I think that Spurs will be able to finish top 3 – possibly even top 2 – this season, but I don’t think they have quite enough to win the title this year.

They have a very strong starting XI and have probably the best balance between attacking quality and defensive solidity, however I think beyond the starting lineup they are lacking the depth of their title rivals, especially if they are looking to challenge in multiple competitions. Just look at how often this year United’s substitutes have come on to win the game! If Spurs can spend the next 2 transfer windows deepening their squad, then I think next year could see them go all the way in the 2017/18 season.

 

Week 10 predictions:

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw

Arsenal v Swansea City – Arsenal win

Crystal Palace v West Ham United – Draw

Liverpool v Huddersfield Town – Draw

Watford v Stoke City – Watford win

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester City – City win

AFC Bournemouth v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Brighton & Hove Albion v Southampton – Draw

Leicester City v Everton – Everton win

Burnley v Newcastle United – Burnley win

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Cardinals @ Rams

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Cardinals @ Rams

Twickenham played host to its first – and London’s third – NFL game of the season this weekend, between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams (4-2 before this game) lost here to the Giants in 2016, but came out on top this year against their 3-3 divisional rivals, with the final score 33-0 in their favour.

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Larry Fitzgerald now has a catch in 202 consecutive games played – Picture from Flickr – Jack Kurzenknabe

The Rams now have their first London victory at the third time of asking, but the Cardinals will not be looking back fondly on their first visit to the UK, as they not only failed to score, but also lost starting Quarterback Carson Palmer to a broken arm.

 

Another bad day for All Day

When I wrote about the Saints’ victory over the Dolphins at Wembley, I suggested that Adrian Peterson needed to move to a different franchise if he wanted to reignite his career. It looked like I was proved right when he was traded to the Cardinals, who have been in desperate need of a rusher since David Johnson was put on Injured Reserve in mid-September. In last week’s win over the Bucs, Peterson looked back to his old self with 134 rushing yards (he managed just 81 in 4 games with the Saints) and 2 touchdowns, but he came back down to Earth with a crash at Twickenham.

Peterson amassed just 21 yards from 11 carries (1.9 yards per rush) against the Rams, while catching 1 pass for 12 yards. Granted the 20-0 halftime score meant Arizona had to go away from the rush in the second half, but even when given the chance he struggled to produce anything in this game, with his longest rush being for a whopping 6 yards. Jared Goff is not considered a running threat and even he managed 2 rushes for 13 yards and a 9-yard TD in this game.

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Over 2 London games in 2017, Peterson totalled 37 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches (rushing and receiving)

There were plenty of things against Peterson in this game: the 2nd half scoreline, the loss of Carson Palmer (when the starting QB goes out of the game, shutting down the rush becomes the priority for a defense) and the quality of the Rams front 7, but if Peterson wants to remain a major force in the NFL once Johnson returns form injury he needs to find a way to up the quality of his play to a level we would expect of a former NFL MVP. It is a shame to see Peterson struggling so much, but he missed most of last season with a knee injury and is the wrong side of 30 in a physically demanding position that generally favours split reps rather than a main rusher now. I would love to see him recapture his old form, but I would not be surprised to see him hang up his boots at the end of the season.

Use it or lose it

Turnovers can prove costly in a number of sports, but maybe none more so than American Football. In this game the Rams won the turnover battle with 2 interceptions of the Cardinals QBs to just 1 interception of Jared Goff – which if I’m honest shouldn’t have stood as the officials missed a pass interference by the Arizona secondary that stopped the Rams receiver making it to the ball. Turnovers are costly because it stops an attack in its tracks and allows the opposition to control the game and run down the clock if they are ahead.

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The Rams are leading the NFC West after 7 weeks of football – Standings from http://www.nfl.com

But as important as the turnover is, how the team performs off the back of the turnover is also crucial. In this match, the Rams converted the first interception into an 18-yard TD. They then converted the second (with just half a minute left in the 2nd quarter) into a field goal as the clock ran out. By contrast the Cardinals, who had missed a field goal on their opening drive of the game, were forced to punt after a hold and a false start on consecutive plays by Tight End Jermaine Gresham pushed them back 15 yards to take them out of field goal range. As important as it is to win the turnover battle, these turnovers must be taking advantage of. At 10-0 points scored off of turnovers, the Rams certainly did that!

Moving forward

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7 weeks in, the Rams are looking good for at least a Wildcard spot – Standings from http://www.nfl.com

Last season the Rams finished their first season back in LA with a 4-12 record. Even if they lose all their remaining games this season (highly unlikely!) they will finish with a better record in 2017 as they are already 5-2 this year. It’s not just that they are getting results, everything looks so much better!

Sean McVay may be the youngest Head Coach in NFL history (10 of the Cardinals players were older than him!) but he has done a good job of getting this offense going to complement a defense that has terrorised teams in recent years. By bringing in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, the Rams upped the quality of their receiver corps, giving the young Jared Goff more options in the passing game. The improved quality of the passing game also means that opposing defences cannot stack 8 in the box to stop the rush, so it is no real surprise to see Todd Gurley back to the form he showed in 2015. His 106 yards and 1 TD off 22 rushing attempts this weekend was his 4th 100-yard game of the season and he also chipped in with 48 yards off 4 catches against Arizona. With improved receivers and a better rushing game, a lot of pressure has been taken off of Jared Goff who looked poor last year, now he is looking like the number 1 overall draft pick that people expected.goff

The Rams already had a competitive defense and special teams, now they have the offense as well and look the complete package. As it stands, they are currently sitting to of the NFC West. I think that Palmer’s injury will be the end of Arizona’s playoff chances, so it now comes down to a shootout between them and the Seahawks for the Division title. I think that Seattle will have enough to beat them to 1st this year, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the Rams make it into the playoffs as a wildcard, especially considering the state of the other divisions.

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Eyes On: Australia v New Zealand – Bledisloe 3

Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane played host to the third and final Bledisloe Cup match of 2013. Having won both of their matches during the Rugby Championship, today’s result couldn’t affect the destination of the cup, but this match looked anything but a dead rubber. In a game full of big hits, handling errors and the odd bit of unbelievable skill, the Wallabies outscored the All Blacks 3 tries to 2 on their way to a 23-18 victory that many will feel a fitting send off to the retiring Stephen Moore and coach Mario Ledesma, who is off to take the reins of the Jaguares Super Rugby side.

 

Room for improvement

The rain in the buildup certainly won’t have helped matters, but this was an error-strewn display from both teams.final

Australia saw a number of attacks ended though handling errors. Some were due to the ball being dislodged in contact, like when Ofa Tu’ungafasi obliterated Bernard Foley, but there were also a number of passes that either didn’t go to hand or were simply dropped. On top of this, Tevita Kuridrani allowed himself to be stripped by Sonny Bill Williams in his own 22 – which eventually resulted in 3 points for New Zealand. Foley (who had missed a couple of kicks at goal before giving the tee to Reece Hodge) kicked out on the full from inside his 22 despite Wayne Barnes calling that the ball had been taken in due to TJ Perenara’s box kick being touched in flight – which resulted in Rieko Ioane scoring a try in the corner. It’s very difficult to beat the All Blacks even when playing at your best, so when Ioane scored I genuinely thought all these errors were going to cost the Wallabies.

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Wayne Barnes called that Perenara’s box kick was touched in flight straight away and could clearly be heard yelling to Foley that the ball had been taken into the 22

New Zealand, however, were far from perfect in this match. This was by no means the strongest All Blacks lineup – Ben Smith, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody, Jerome Kaino, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder were all missing – but it still looked strong enough to win the game. However like Australia they made too many handling errors which, combined with an impressive Australian defence stopped them getting into their usual attacking flow with any regularity. Ioane was limited to just 2 runs of any note and besides the tries, the only other chance that stuck in my mind was a chip ahead from TJ Perenara – who upped the tempo after his introduction – after a quick-tap penalty. When Sam Cane knocked on at the back of a ruck as they went in search of a game-tying try in referee’s time, it was the kind of ending that summed up the day for New Zealand. Despite an early intercepted pass for Reece Hodge’s try, Lima Sopoaga had a decent game and I feel he deserves another chance in better conditions to prove he is an able backup for Barrett.

Stupid and costly

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…It did

By far the biggest killer for New Zealand were the penalties that if I’m being kind can be described as brain-dead. Cane may have inherited Richie McCaw’s number 7 shirt but apparently not his cloak of invisibility, as he was rightly pinged by Wayne Barnes for cleaning out a man who was off to the side of a ruck as the All Blacks were mounting an attack. Incredibly this wasn’t even the most moronic penalty of the night, as Tu’ungafasi obstructed the Australian kick chase as New Zealand began a counterattack that was not going to be affected by the impeded Australian. Not only did this deny the All Blacks an attacking opportunity with the score at 20-18, but this penalty was put through the posts by Hodge’s monster right boot, leaving them needing a try to draw rather than a penalty/drop goal to win.

I have said it so many times when writing about the Lions Tour and other matches, but good discipline is vital when playing against top teams. If they continue to give away penalties like this, the All Blacks will suddenly become that bit more beatable.

Culture shock

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The commentary on Sky Sports mentioned how they would live to see the didgeridoo used in future – Picture from Flickr – Bernard Spragg. NZ

I know a lot of people aren’t fans of seeing cultural shows like the haka at sports events, but personally, I love it! As well as the expected Kapo o Pango haka from the All Blacks, the Wallabies were also showing some of their culture by celebrating the role of Indigenous Australians in rugby. The new Indigenous kit looked beautiful and with the Wallabies having a 100% record in it I’m sure it will make a return, but it was also really good to see the Welcome to Country before the national anthems.

So often we moan that rugby is becoming like all other professional sports, so I would love to see more teams and unions embracing their national history and culture as part of the matchday experience.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 8

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 8

Round 8 of the Premier League was a week for the home teams, with 5 home wins, 5 draws and no away wins. Watford came from behind to beat Arsenal 2-1 but by far the more notable result was at Selhurst Park, where Crystal Palace finally got on the scoresheet and in doing so beat defending champions Chelsea 2-1. Meanwhile in Manchester, City’s 7-2 demolition of Stoke helped them open up a lead over local rivals United, who drew 0-0 at Anfield.

 

No depth

Sitting 5th in the league 8 weeks into the season, it is hard to definitively write off a team’s title hopes, but I don’t see Chelsea defending their title this year. 2 losses in a row have left them 9 points behind leaders Manchester City and losing to a team that have been unable to score in their opening 7 games will be a huge knock for morale.

In my opinion this is a problem of their own making, as they are relying too heavily on just a couple of players. N’Golo Kanté was a vital part of Leicester and Chelsea’s title runs the last 2 seasons as he elevates the defence to a much better level by dealing with most dangers before the ball even gets that far. With him – and Nemanja Matic, who was transferred to Manchester United – missing, the defence was exposed by Palace, who caused them a number of problems. They have conceded 8 goals already this season, which is more than the 2 Manchester clubs combined and need to shore up at the back to avoid dropping out of Champions League contention.

As well as Kanté, they are also currently missing star striker Alvaro Morata. I mentioned in the last round that leaving Michy Batshuayi on the bench after Morata’s injury suggested Conte didn’t really trust him to lead the line, and judging by this performance it is clear why! However Chelsea have sent so many squad players out on lone, with Morata injured and Costa gone he is their only recognised striker. It is terrible planning from Chelsea to keep only 2 strikers as there is now nobody who can step in if Batshuayi continues to struggle. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham (who scored twice for Swansea at the weekend) are both out on loan at other Premier League clubs. I understand that regular game-time at other Premiership clubs will be good for their development, but considering Conte knew Costa wasn’t in his plans, surely it would have made sense to keep one of these strikers as an extra option.

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The latest Premier League Standings from http://www.premierleague.com

Brilliant Belgian

Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the best midfielder in the Premier League – and perhaps even the World – at the moment! Against Stoke on Saturday, it looked like the Belgian was on another planet. He has moved into a slightly deeper position this season and while he may not be getting on the scoresheet so much this season, he is dictating play and controlling the attack like a quarterback.

The disguise on his through ball to Leroy Sané for City’s second goal was brilliant and caught the defence flat-footed, his cross for their 4thgoal was inch-perfect and his through ball for their 6th was a pass that many players wouldn’t have even thought about playing, let alone been able to execute! His 32 Premier League assists since his Man City debut is the highest of any player in this time period. The scary thing is that at 26, he is probably only just starting to hit his prime! With Aguero coming towards the end of his time as City’s star striker, and Sané, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva leading the next wave of young stars, this is a chance for the Sky Blues to build the team around the Belgian and finally start having the European success they crave.

The Arsenal way

Arsenal’s at Watford will be a huge negative for Arsene Wenger. The loss leaves them 6th in the league (Watford have leapfrogged them into 4th) and they are already 9 points behind Manchester City with a vastly inferior goal difference. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Troy Deeney’s comments after the game will be a huge headache for Wenger.

In interviews after the game, Deeney stated that when he competed against the Arsenal defenders ‘none of them were up for the challenge’ and he said that they lacked the cojones (his word not mine). I’m not surprised that Martin Keown was unhappy with the comments, but I doubt he was very surprised. The Arsenal way has been about playing attractive football for so long, they have often lacked the enforcers to front up in defence since players like Keown and Patrick Viera moved on. Wenger clearly prefers players who are comfortable with the ball like Laurent Koscielny, but while it is good to have a player like this, it is also important to have a stronger no-nonsense defender who will not allow a physical striker to rough them up as Deeney did. Manchester City and Chelsea have generally looked more defensively sound over the years when Vincent Kompany and John Terry were playing and probably the best defensive pairing of recent years has been Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at Manchester United. With Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and both Manchester clubs regularly competing towards the top of the table, Wenger needs to look at finding a proper holding midfielder to shield the defence and a more physical defender to deal with the Troy Deeneys of the league, otherwise Champions League football will be beyond them.

 

Week 9 predictions:

West Ham v Brighton & Hove albion – Draw

Chelsea v Watford – Chelsea win

Huddersfield Town v Manchester United – United win

Manchester City v Burnley – City win

Newcastle United v Crystal Palace – Draw

Stoke City v AFC Bournemouth – Stoke win

Swansea City v Leicester City – Draw

Southampton v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Everton v Arsenal – Draw

Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool – Spurs win

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

Eyes On: Toulon v Scarlets

The 2017/18 European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup began this week and boy have we been treated to some fantastic games. Saracens piled on the tries at Franklin’s Gardens to beat Northampton 13-57, Castres were denied a late penalty and missed a last-gasp drop goal at home in a 17-17 draw with Munster. Meanwhile Russian side Krasny Yar pulled off the shock of the round in the Challenge Cup with a 34-29 over last season’s winners Stade Francais, while last season’s other finalists Gloucester left Pau with a losing bonus point after a 27-21 loss.

The game that I will be focusing on, however, is the visit of the Scarlets to Toulon. Last season’s Pro12 champions had a poor start to the game at the Stade Mayol to find themselves 18-3 down at half time. However they recovered well to go ahead, only for a Francois Trinh-Duc penalty to give last season’s losing Top 14 finalists a 21-20 victory.

 

A killer start

When Scarlets watch this game back, they will know it was lost in the first quarter. In the first 20 minutes they tried to play a territorial game but found themselves 18-0 down after 2 tries (1 converted) and 2 penalties from Anthony Belleau, while Leigh Halfpenny had missed a kickable penalty. As the half wore on, Scarlets finally switched to the expansive attacking play that has won them so many fans and finally began to get on the front foot, with a succesful kick at goal and Johnny McNicholl knocking on as he stretched for the line in the corner. They continued to take control in the second half, adding a further 17 unanswered points before Trinh-Duc’s late penalty sealed victory. They did well to hold on at the end and keep the losing bonus point as Toulon came on a late charge.

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I hate to imagine how this conversation would have gone if my mate had been able to see the first 20 minutes…

Looking at the game as a whole, I would say that Scarlets were good for the win, but the opening 20 minutes were so catastrophic it cost them the game. Much like Gloucester’s losses at Leicester and Pau so far this season, a poor start has been the difference between defeat and a possible victory. If they can put in the 80 minute performances in the remaining games then I think they have every chance of topping the group.

The right calls?

In this game, there were a number of interesting calls from both coaches.

Considering he is the national team captain and arguably one of the best hookers in the world, I was surprised to see Guilhem Guirado taken off just before the hour mark. Other than his try, he may not have been having the same visible impact he has on many matches, but he brings so much experience to whatever side he is playing in. It didn’t prove costly, but had they gone on to lose, could Fabien Galthié have been on the receiving end of some flak for that call?

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Luckily the Scarlets did get going and we got a great game

Wayne Pivac also made a couple of surprising calls in his team selection. Considering stars John Barclay and James Davies were both missing through injury, I would have expected the Scarlets to start with their strongest possible lineup against a Toulon side overflowing with big names and talent. However, they started with captain Ken Owens and Wales scrum half Gareth Davies on the bench. Nothing against Aled Davies, but would the more experienced Gareth Davies have thrown the pass that was intercepted for the first try, or would he have held on to the ball under pressure and allowed the forwards to recycle? There is no way to know for certain, but playing the best available XV from the start may have been enough to avoid the poor start and win the game. That said, having such quality come on later in the game could have saved Scarlets as Toulon went in search of another try near the end. At the end of the day, the records will show that Toulon won this game by a point, but I’m sure some Scarlets fans will beleft wondering what might have been had Davies and Owens been in the starting XV.

A mixed return

Having been deemed surplus to requirements by Mourad Boudjellal, I’m sure Leigh Halfpenny would have had extra incentive to have a big game at Toulon. He had a mixed day at the Stade Mayol with a try but missed 2 penalty kicks that he should have scored.

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Could Scarlets’ losing bonus point prove crucial? From http://www.epcrugby.com

In defence, he was willing to put his body on the line as usual and at one point saved a try by forcing Josua Tuisova into a knock on. However his attempt to tackle Tuisova for Guirado’s try was terrible! Players much bigger than Halfpenny may also struggle to stop the Fijian winger, but Halfpenny’s technique was terrible and he got his head int he complete wrong place and required a HIA after being bumped off. This is not the first time he has tackled like this – I mentioned when he first moved to the Scarlets that his tackle technique was questionable – and he really needs to work on this soon or his career will be ended early and not on his terms.

Credit where it’s due

Referees don’t often get the recognition they deserve after a good game, so I’m saying it here: I was very impressed by Luke Pearce’s performance at the Stade Mayol.

He may not have got every decision right, but what referee does? The important thing is that he got the big decisions right and considering the way that everybody will interpret the same incident differently that is no easy feat. Just take the penalty against Tadhg Beirne for his challenge on Belleau. Beirne attempted to charge down his clearance kick, only to catch the fly half’s left leg after the ball was gone. Pearce initially allowed play to continue, saying the Berine was already committed, however after watching the replay he gave a penalty to Toulon, which I can understand as the contact is nowhere near Belleau’s kicking leg and is entirely on the other side of his body. #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) ran a poll on twitter, which at the time of me writing this has had 57 responses. 47% felt that the clash was nothing, 40% felt it was a penalty, while a further 13% felt the incident warranted a yellow card! As fans, we can all check the Laws of the game and we have the benefit of multiple replays, so if we struggle to agree on an incident it must be even harder for a referee who has thousands of home fans baying for blood all around him.

Pearce kept his cool throughout despite the ‘assistance’ of the home fans on any possible incidents. My one criticism would be the lack of communication in French, but this is the case with most referees from outside of France. Pearce frequently impresses me and I would argue that he is one of the best referees in the Northern Hemisphere.