Premier League fans did not have long to wait to see their team play again as the league was on a short week between Rounds 13 and 14. 6 of the top 7 won while Spurs’ 2-1 loss at Leicester drops them behind Liverpool and Burnley. Raheem Sterling’s last minute goal against Southampton helped the Sky Blues make history with their longest ever run of consecutive Premier League wins (12 and counting). Towards the bottom of the table, Wayne Rooney’s return to the Everton starting XI proved costly for West Ham as he scored a hat-trick – including a goal from his own half – in a 4-0 victory that puts them 5 points above the relegation zone.
I was going to write about this after the weekend but chose a few other topics instead. That turned out to be the perfect decision following Ashley Young’s brace in Manchester United’s 2-4 win at Watford on Tuesday.
Young and Antonio Valencia have done a fantastic job of keeping themselves relevant through the years at Manchester United. Initially used as wingers, the changes in tactics and formation over the years have limited the need for out-and-out wingers, while the club has brought in players who can work as a hybrid winger/striker or winger/attacking midfielder like Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. However rather than disappear from the club and move on to pastures new, they have both reinvented themselves by dropping back to the fullback positions. They are both still full of pace despite being in their early 30s and work hard to not be a weak link in defence whilst being a anger going forward with their quality of crosses and shots.
Many teams this season are also choosing to play 3 at the back and look at wing-backs, which benefits these players even more as they have the fitness to run up and down the touchline all game. I would argue that they have quietly gone about their business in becoming some of the best full backs in the league and it is certainly benefiting United.
In the past I have worried that Spurs’ lack of depth could prove costly for them this season and it currently seems to be the case. With Toby Alderweireld injured, Spurs are limited in how much they can change things up at the back and between Europe and the Premier League, the remaining players are tiring and getting caught out. In attack, they are in a similarly bad spot with Fernando Llorente struggling to find the new meaning they must continue to rely on Kane and Alli, who are getting limited chance to rest between their Spurs and England commitments.
Contrast with United who handed a rare start this season to Jesse Lingard against Watford, Chelsea who brought in match-winner Antonio Rüdiger in place of César Azpilicueta, Liverpool who were able to bring top scorer Mo Salah off the bench or City who could start David Silva on the bench despite missing Leroy Sané through illness. Unless they make some quality signings in January, I worry that their current lack of depth could cost them a spot in the top 3 or even, if they continue to progress in the Champions League, the top 4.
Round 15 predictions:
Chelsea v Newcastle United – Chelsea win
Brighton & Hove Albion v Liverpool – Liverpool win
Everton v Huddersfield Town – Everton win
Leicester City v Burnley – Draw
Stoke City v Swansea City – Stoke win
Watford v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw
West Bromwich Albion v Crystal Palace – West Brom win
We are finally here: Day 30 of Movember, the final day of the month. It feels like more than 30 days since I shaved the beard off and began to grow the Mo, but all good things must come to an end.
Thank you to everybody who has donated and supported me during the month, I would probably take part anyway as this is a cause that means a lot to me, but the reaction of the people around me makes it much more bearable.
The biggest disappointment for me this year has been that Movember does not seem as widespread as in some previous years. In sports circles, rugby continues to be a big visual contributor, with many players sporting questionable facial hair during club games and the Autumn Internationals this month. Though I haven’ seen much of the cricket, I have also noticed a lot of advertising for Movember around the ground during the first Ashes Test. However, what really disappoints me is the apparent lack of buy-in from football, especially the top flight. Football is one of the most visible sports worldwide and the Premier League reaches audiences everywhere, just think how much money could be raised if players in the top leagues began to take part in the numbers that rugby players do!
It may be the last day, but there is still time to go to my Mo-Space and donate. Help me to change the face of men’s health!
Now all that remains is for me to grow this Mo out…
Since taking over the England head coach job after their abysmal group stage exit from the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Eddie Jones has done a fantastic job of making England competitive again, to the point that they have only lost 1 game in 2 years!
When he named his first squad, the players picked were for the most part the same ones that Stuart Lancaster had called on, but as each subsequent squad has been named we have seen more and more young players earning their first caps as Jones looks to build towards 2019’s tournament in Japan. While I’m sure he would have done this anyway as he has talked about his desire of having at least 60 players to pick his EPS from, he has also had his hand forced somewhat by injuries, suspensions and this summer’s Lions Tour.
In the back row, Billy Vunipola is arguably one of the best number 8s in the world, but his England appearances have been limited recently due to a succession of injuries, which has given Nathan Hughes the chance to develop into a more-than-able deputy a international level. Chris Robshaw’s move from 7 to 6 has seen him become an integral part of the team despite Jones’ misgivings about him before taking up the role. James Haskell also played some of the best rugby of his international career early in Jones’ tenure, but has struggled to regain that form since injury. Tom Wood, a former contender for captaincy under Lancaster, was brought back into the fold for a while to help give the team some experience, but his ban at the end of last season has pushed him down the order as the Australian has looked at other options.
Maro Itoje and Courtney Laws are regulars in the England squad and are generally considered as second rows, however Jones has not been afraid to move one of them to 6 in order to give the team more physicality – though I personally prefer them at lock. Jack Clifford was one of the first young players to be given a chance under Eddie Jones and certainly brings more pace to the back row in attack when compared to most of his rivals, but he has also suffered with a series of injuries that have seen him drop down the order. At only 24 though, he has plenty of time to force his way back into the squad. Ben and Tom Curry are both on Jones’ radar but at 19 it is probably slightly to soon for them to be regulars, though they could still force their way in before the World Cup, as could Zach Mercer whose form for Bath and England U20s over the last season and a half have seen him join the senior squad as an apprentice player.
People have been looking forward to Sam Underhill’s return to England for a coupe of years and he has not really disappointed when given a chance in the England back row so far, showing himself to be a tackling machine in his first couple of starts. Sam Simmonds has broken through in the Premiership this year in a way similar to Mercer last season and certainly deserved his debut this autumn. He had a quiet first half against Samoa but really grew into the game. Compared to many of the players around him he seems quite small, though he runs stronger than many bigger players. He also has that extra turn of pace that many of his rivals (other than Clifford) don’t have.
With so much young quality coming through, it will be interesting to see how much longer Robshaw can hold onto his place in the squad. At 31, you can imagine that RWC2019 will be the end of his international career at the latest, but Jones may decide that he has the quality to leave him out before this, so that the world cup becomes just the next stage in a quest for dominance rather than the end of a cycle. I have nothing against Robshaw, but his big draw outside of his experience is his tireless tackling, which is now able to be covered by Underhill. I enjoy a back row with a balance of speed, strength and defensive capability, so would love to see Jones start to focus in on combinations containing Vunipola, Hughes, Clifford, Simmonds and Underhill going forward.
The Pacific Island problem
I’m not going to write much about this because I am no expert on Pacific Island rugby and the issues that Samoa in particular are having. Every day in the build-up to this weekend’s game there seemed to be a different story coming out about the state of Samoan rugby: the head of the SRU says their bankrupt, World Rugby says that’s not the case. Regardless, rugby benefits from strong Pacific Island teams and currently only Fiji makes the top 10 and Samoa aren’t even in the top 15!
Samoa showed they have quality against England, with Jack Lam especially having a good game, but I felt that Tim Nanai-Williams was wasted at fly half as he is at his best further out where he can take advantage of space.
So many players are lost to the Pacific Islands due to choosing to commit to other unions who can provide more financial security. Just this morning I read that former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Frank Halai are considering switching allegiance to Tonga in time for the World Cup, as they will have both gone long enough without playing for New Zealand’s representative teams so will be eligible if they play a couple of Olympic qualification 7s tournaments for Tonga. While I would rather players committed to these countries straight away rather than as a second option once being deemed surplus to requirements by the Tier 1 nations, having players of this calibre in the national team can surely only help the Pacific Islands.
What World Rugby needs to do though is find a way to stop the talent drain away from the islands in the first place. It is far too rare that a Tier 1 nation plays one of the Pacific Island teams in that country and if the vast majority of the revenue goes to the home team then that is not fair on the Islands. I feel that having a Pacific Island team in Super Rugby would also help as players would not have to leave for Tier 1 countries in order to play top flight rugby.
While rugby continues to grow in countries like Georgia, Japan and the USA, it would be a shame if this was at the expense of countries that have given fans so much to cheer about over the years.
Return to greatness
Those days are past now, And in the past they must remain, But we can still rise now, And be the nation again, That stood against him, Proud Edward’s Army, And sent him homeward, To think again.
The final verse of Flower of Scotland, which along with the first verse is sung as part of the national anthem before matches.
As someone who did not get into rugby until late 2002/early 2003, I have no memories of Scottish rugby success, but Gregor Townsend’s men are rising again. They were clearly improving in recent years under Vern Cotter, but Townsend seems to have taken the players to another level again.
After a win against Samoa that left them disappointed with their leaky defence, they put in a great performance against New Zealand and lost by just 5 points despite playing much of the second half with a hooker in the back row, and even then could have won the game had Kieran Read’s cynical playing of the ball on the floor been picked up with less than 10 minutes less, or if Stuart Hogg had not lost the ball forward at the death. In many years past, I feel that such disappointment would have resulted in them getting hammered by Australia in their final match, yet instead they ran out 53-24 winners. They were certainly helped by Sekope Kepu’s red card just before half time, but I feel that they had already shown enough to suggest they would beat Australia for the second time in 2017, despite losing Hogg in the warm-up.
Probably the most impressive thing about these results is that they have done so well despite a number of players – including Richie Gray, Ross Ford, Fraser Brown, Matt Scott, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg, Alasdair Dickinson, Allan Dell, WP Nel, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and captain Greig Laidlaw – missing some/all of the games through injury. For a nation with only 2 pro teams, that should be a crippling injury list, yet they have had probably the most impressive Autumn Series of all the Home Nations.
If Scotland can continue this trend that they’re on and get as many of their players available as possible, I fully expect them to finish at least top 3 in the 6 Nations and possibly even push for their first title since the last season of the 5 Nations in 1999.
Another week down in the Premier League and the idea unlucky number 13 proved to be the case for Burnley who were denied a well-deserved draw courtesy of a late Alexis Sanchez penalty. Elsewhere in the top 7, Mohamed Salah’s goal against his former club was cancelled out by Willian’s cross/shot (definitely a shot despite what he says in interviews!) and Tottenham dropped 2 points at home to mangerless West Brom. Towards the bottom of the table, Crystal Palace got just their second Premier League win of the season to leave themselves just 3 points (and 8 goals) away from safety, while Everton conceded 4 goals at Southampton.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
I can pretty much guarantee there will be a similar incident each week in the league, if any of them lead to penalties it will be interesting to see if they all result in charges, as the FA have set a precedent now. It will be interesting to see the result of this charge and what impact it has moving forward.
I wrote this last week after the news that Everton’s Oumar Niasse was charged with “successful deception of a match official“. Niasse was given a 2-game ban as it was decided that he “exaggerated the effect of a normal contact to deceive the referee”. So what has the reaction been in this weekend’s league matches?
Burnley’s 0-1 loss to Arsenal came at the hands of a late Alexis Sanchez penalty that had me fuming. As the ball was crossed into the box, James Tarkowski put his hands on he back of Aaron Ramsey. Moments later, Ramsey was lying in a heap on the floor and referee Lee Mason was pointing to the spot. It may have been a foul and it was certainly a big risk for Tarkowski to put hands on Ramsey, but there is no way the contact justified the Welshman’s theatrical fall. If that wasn’t exaggerating the effect of a normal contact, then I don’t know what was! Yet Niasse gets a ban and Ramsey will most likely getaway with this.
Andre Ayew got away with diving during West Ham’s 1-1 draw with Leicester as Martin Atkinso chose to play on, while Fernandinho was shown a yellow card for his dive at Huddersfield. In both these cases they have done the same thing as Niasse (I would even go as far as to say these were more of a dive) yet they will get away with no further punishment as they did not successfully deceive the official.
The ability to retroactively punish a successful dive is a step in the right direction, however to get diving out of the game, I feel this needs to be expanded to include any attempts of diving, whether the referee falls for it, penalises the dive or waves play on. Only once a player knows any dive will result in a ban will we see it become less common in the beautiful game.
A day to forget
Ryan Shawcross will not be looking back on Stoke’s 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace with any fondness at all. Usually such a reliable player, he had a awful game. For years, Shawcross and his fellow Stoke defenders have been know as a well-organised group that are very effective at dealing with balls into the box. Yet both goals they conceded at the weekend came from their defence – and Shawcross in particular – not reading the flight of the ball correctly.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, with the score at 1-1, he had a chance to tap in a cross from a yard out. Rather than going for the ball with his head, he chose to stretch a leg out and eventually made too much contact with the ball, diverting it away from the goal!
Shawcross is a very good Premier League defender, but unfortunately seems to be in a period of poor form. It is poor fortune for Stoke that many of their top players seem to currently find themselves in the same circumstance.
Signs of improvement
They may not be sorted defensively yet, but Liverpool are looking very impressive in attack. New signing Mo Salah has been a revelation for the Reds this season and has already scored more goals than their last 3 top scorers have in the entire season! Mane and Coutinho are always going to be an danger going forward and with other players in the squad like Firmino and Lallana they have enough depth to not need to rely on Daniel Sturridge’s fitness.
After 13 matches, they are behind only the Manchester clubs in the number of goals scored, but they could still improve here if they want to move up the table, especially as they continue to struggle at the back. Firmino does a good job up front for Liverpool but I don’t see him as an out-and-out striker and Daniel Sturridge spends too much time out injured and often seems too selfish in my opinion, so I think that picking up a striker like Olivier Giroud in January – we know he considered a move from Arsenal as Ronald Koeman said they almost signed him at Everton – could help them take the next step.
Less than a week to go know. It feels like November is going fast, but I also feel like I’ve had the Mo for years!
It’s been great having the support at work and it really makes taking part in Movember more enjoyable. This year I’ve had a Mo-Bro in Mike who can actually grow facial hair – no offence Alex – so it has been nice not being the only one with questionable face-fuzz. As well as this the support from one of our managers, Kate, has been great, as she has helped get the word out around the business rather than just in our office, while another of our managers, Alan, continues to find new people or things to compare me to – WWF’s Legion of Doom being the latest!
But as much as Movember is a great laugh, there is a serious side to this. Please take a moment to visit my Mo-Space and donate whatever you can afford. As Tesco say, every little helps!
Together, we can help change the face of men’s health!
There were goals galore in this week of the Premier League, with every game having at least 2 goals. Manchester City’s 0-2 win at Leicester keeps them 8 points clear at the top of the table and chasing the accomplishments of the ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal’s 2003/4 season. Elsewhere, Chelsea’s 0-4 demolition of West Brom proved the end of Tony Pulis’ time in charge whilst also leapfrogging them above Spurs, who lost the North London Derby 2-0 at the Emirates, whilst Liverpool and Burnley made it 3 wins in a row with victories over Southampton and Swansea respectively. And the less said about West Ham, the better!
Diving into the history books
So Oumar Niasse has become the first player in the Premier League to be charged by the FA for “successful deception of a match official” following his dive in the 6th minute of their 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace, which resulted in a penalty scored by Leighton Baines. While it is great to see retroactive punishment being used for dives, which will hopefully lead to more honest play, I wonder if this was deserving of its place in history.
Phil Neville and Alan Shearer were both certain that this was a dive, but there was clearly contact between Niasse and Scott Dann – even if Niasse’s fall was worthy of an Oscar! Discussing this with a colleague at work who plays football regularly for a local club, he echoed my thoughts that strikers are taught to go down under contact, especially in the box. It is one thing to fall theatrically following minimal contact, it is another thing entirely to throw yourself to the floor without being touched. It is still technically a dive, but he has been impeded at least marginally.
Personally I would like to see both incidents like this and actual dives both outlawed, but I think that when there is even slight contact, it can be questionable as to whether this is a dive or a foul, or quite possibly both! I can pretty much guarantee there will be a similar incident each week in the league, if any of them lead to penalties it will be interesting to see if they all result in charges, as the FA have set a precedent now. It will be interesting to see the result of this charge and what impact it has moving forward.
United’s 4-1 victory over Newcastle on Saturday saw the return from injury of 2 fan favourites for the Red Devils. Paul Pogba made his first start after 9 weeks out while Zlatan Ibrahimovic came off the bench for his first appearance since mid-April following a serious knee injury. While Zlatan’s late cameo had a limited impact on the game, he looked sharp and will be putting the rest of the league on warning, but Pogba’s return may have won United the game.
I have never been completely sold on Pogba when I have watched him in the past, but seeing the way United’s title challenge has faltered during his spell out and the way they looked back to their best on Saturday has helped me see the quality that the Frenchman possesses. His play on the edge of the box to make the space to provide the cross for Anthony Martial’s equaliser was so assured for someone who has been out for 2 months, and he had a clear desire to be involved, leading to him making a great run from halfway as United broke downfield and being in the perfect position to receive Marcus Rashford’s cushioned header to score United’s third goal of the game. Romelu Lukaku also seemed to benefit from Pogba’s return and got on the score sheet in the league for the first time since the end of September.
With Pogba & Ibrahimovic’s returns and Lukaku starting to find the net again, United may be able to get back to challenging for the title. They now just need City to drop 8 points somewhere along the line…
It’s gone somewhat under the radar in my posts this season, but how well are Burnley doing?! Sean Dyche’s men have quietly gone about their business this season and find themselves not just in the top half of the table, but behind only the Big 6. Not just that, but they’re currently pushing for Europe as they are only behind Arsenal and Liverpool due to goal difference and trail Spurs by 1 point and Chelsea by 3!
Burnley under Dyche have always been known as a team with a well-organised defence, and that is no different this year as their 9 goals conceded (level with Spurs) puts them behind only Manchester City (7) and United (6). Not bad when you consider Tom Heaton’s injury means they have played most of the season with the previously unknown Nick Pope in goal! But unlike other defensively-oriented teams like those managed by Tony Pulis, Burnley are also playing attractive football, their 12 goals putting them firmly in the middle of the table.
I think that their defence may be good enough to get the odd point against the teams currently above them, but if they want to take the next step they probably need to get another striker who can get 15-20 goals a season. Former Claret Danny Ings has struggled to break into the Liverpool squad since he recovered from injury. I’m sure both parties would benefit from him returning on loan to Turf Moor in January. His goals could push Burnley to the next level while regular football could reignite his Premier League and International career.
Week 13 predictions:
West Ham United v Leicester City – Leicester win
Crystal Palace v Stoke City – Stoke win
Manchester United v Brighton & Hove Albion – United win
Newcastle United v Watford – Draw
Swansea City v AFC Bournemouth – Bournemouth win
Tottenham Hotspur v West Bromwich Albion – Spurs win
I’m sure many fans remember where they were when they saw the 6 Nations match between France and Wales last for 100 minutes. More than that, I’m sure many remember how wrong it felt watching the French conveniently need to switch props due to a ‘head injury’, which benefited Les Bleus by providing them a better scrum with the game on the line. Fans and pundits everywhere felt that this was an exploitation of the HIA laws to cheat the Welsh out of the win.
Fast forward to this November and we see some more conveniently injured props, but this time from the Welsh! Against Georgia, the inexperienced pairing of Nicky Smith and Leon Brown were dominated by the Lelos’ scrum for the opening 56 minutes before being replaced by Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis. The new props shored up the scrum considerably and made the set piece a much more even contest… until Francis decided to give away a stupid penalty on his own line with the clock in the red and get sent to the bin. With Wales a man down in the pack and the score at 13-6, it was no surprise to see the Georgians choose the 5m scrum, which meant that Wales needed to bring one of their original props back on. In a shocking twist though, both Brown and Smith had conveniently started suffering from cramp after their removal and were unable to come back on, meaning that any scrum would be uncontested and the Georgian advantage nullified. The Georgians switched their decision to a 5m lineout (I’m not sure if this was entirely legal but given the circumstances I think it was fair) but were unable to get across the line and had to settle for a 7-point loss.
I’m not even close to being a medical professional so it may be that Brown was genuinely injured – Smith does not play tight-head so the scrum would have still been uncontested – however he did not seem to be hindered when leaving the pitch and looked to be ready to come back on following Francis’ yellow until he “remembered he’s supposed to be injured” as Martyn Williams put it. We’ve had a couple of dubious ‘injuries’ in international rugby over the last 12 months and there was also a similar incident in the Challenge Cup Final. I think that it would be prudent for World Rugby to mandate at least one independent medic at games to confirm a player’s injury status, as this would probably make any similar situations in the future less controversial if a neutral entity is declaring a player unable to continue.
Just days after Steve Diamond finally gets banned for his outburst about the match officials following Sale’s loss to Exeter, we were reminded that he is not the only angry man leading a rugby team. Michael Cheika is known to wear his heart on his sleeve but his actions at Twickenham crossed a line. I can understand being frustrated at the way the game was going, but his anger seemed directed towards the officials and it certainly looked like he called the ref a “cheat” after one of the decisions went against him. He also appeared to get into some verbals with a fan on his way down to the pitch and appeared to be remonstrating with the officials at half time. Granted the 50/50 decisions did seem to go England’s way, but did Cheika really have any argument that the officials’ calls were wrong?
I can also understand why Michael Hooper was shown yellow considering he gave away a couple of cynical penalties close to the try line in quick succession, but I would have also understood him getting a final warning rather than a card. However I am totally in agreement with Beale’s yellow as it did not realistically look like he had a chance of catching the ball and his professional foul stopped an England break down the wing.
Looking to the tries that were allowed and disallowed, whether Elliot Daly’s try should have stood will come down to which side you support. I initially thought the ball touched the line, but there was no camera angle that clearly proved one way or another. I am 100% behind the referee disallowing Hooper’s try as he was clearly in front of Tevita Kuridrani when he initially kicked the ball and continues to move forward before being played on by Marika Koroibete, so I feel that the offside penalty was right despite Hooper being onside by the time Koroibete kicked the ball on. The decision as to whether Koroibete’s try should have stood comes down to whether you feel Stephen Moore was interfering with play. He was clearly in front of the ball and in my opinion he impeded Chris Robshaw – who appeared to try tackling both players at the same time – so I feel the decision to disallow the try was correct… but then I am an England fan so I may be a bit biased.
Regardless of the decisions, Cheika is meant to be a role model in a sport that prides itself on its respect of officials and I feel that his actions on Saturday reflect badly on him. I have read today that World Rugby have referred the case to the disciplinary authorities, it will be very interesting to see what punishment (if any) he gets for his outbursts.
The gaps are closing
The best news from the second week of the Autumn Internationals is that the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations is closing. Wales and Ireland may have both fielded less experienced teams, but they still had plenty of talent and experience, yet still only beat Georgia and Fiji by 7 and 3 points respectively. The Georgian scrum looks like it will be a match for most national teams and if their backs continue to improve the calls for them to join the 6 Nations will just continue to grow. Romania also beat Samoa and Scotland will consider their loss to New Zealand the one that got away, despite being down to their third choice at some positions and spending most of the second half with a hooker playing flanker.
As the gap closes between the tiers, this will just improve the quality of international competition – both the Summer & Autumn Tests and the World Cup – which will then just continue to improve the popularity of the sport in Tier 2 and Tier 3 countries. I for one can’t wait for the day we have to re-think the Tiers or scrap them altogether!