September 2018 in the Premier League

September 2018 in the Premier League

September saw things get interesting in the Premier League for the big teams. Manchester City went unbeaten, scoring 12 goals and conceding just 1 to keep themselves top of the league. Liverpool and Chelsea continue to suggest they will be City’s closest rivals this season, drawing 1-1 against each other while Liverpool won all their other games and Chelsea drew with West Ham (who appear to have turned the corner) but won the others. Arsenal are also on a great run, winning all their league games with an aggregate score of 9-3. Tottenham did not start the month well with losses to Watford and Liverpool but have got back on track since then, but they will still consider themselves better off then Manchester United, who have had to deal with a rift between José Mourinho and big-money signing Paul Pogba while drawing at home to Wolves and losing 3-1 at West Ham.


Help them!

People who regularly read my round-by-round series on the league last year will already know my views that the officials need help in the form of VAR or something similar. Having watched September’s matches, I picked up on a number of incidents that would surely have had different results had VAR been in the league:

  • Burnley 0-2 Manchester United: following a face-off with Phil Bardsley, Marcus Rashford is rightfully sent off for a headbutt. Bardsley received a yellow but replays showed Bardsley doing the same back to Rashford, so he should have also received a red.
  • Cardiff City 0-5 Manchester City: Joe Rawls received a yellow card for a tackle on Ilkay Gundogan. Replays showed that Rawls’ foot was high so he should have received a red card.
  • Fulham 1-1 Watford: Timothy Fosu-Mensah gets away with a yellow card for a challenge on Troy Deeney. Like Rawls, replays showed that the foot was high with studs showing, so he should have been sent for an early shower.
  • Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored Arsenal’s second goal after Aaron Ramsey failed to control Mesut Özil’s cross. Replays clearly show Aubameyang was in an offside position when Ramsey touched the ball.
  • West Ham 3-1 Manchester United: Felipe Anderson slots home Pablo Zabaleta’s cross to put West Ham 1-0 up. Replays showed that Zabaleta was in an offside position when the ball was played to him.

2 wrongly allowed goals and 3 red cards not given in just 1 month of football! And those are just the incidents I noted down! In one of the best leagues in the world, that is unacceptable, but I find it hard to lay the blame firmly on the officials as there is only so much 3 people can pick up. Football needs to move out of the dark ages and start using more technology to help the referees make the right decisions.


Changing of the guard?

Petr Čech did not start the season well for Arsenal. It has been a long time since I considered him one of the best keepers in the league and in the early weeks he looked to be struggling with the style of play, often making mistakes with the ball at his feet. He played better in Week 6 however, keeping his first clean sheet of the season. Things went wrong a week later though as he went off injured in the first half against Watford, with summer signing Bernd Leno coming on in his place.

Though his sample size with Arsenal is still small, Leno looked impressive on his league debut and at age 26, I think it is time for him to take over the reins between the sticks. With Čech out for about a month, this is certainly a great chance for the German to take over.


Smart selections?

I was very surprised with Marco Silva’s team selection for Everton’s Week 5 loss against West Ham. Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was selected in the starting XI despite his father passing away during the week. The Frenchman had an indifferent game and was taken off just before halftime.

The job of a manager is (unsurprisingly) to manage his players to ensure the team gets the best result. While I respect Schneiderlin for being willing to play so soon after a personal tragedy, I feel that Silva should have given him the match off and picked someone whose thoughts throughout the week and the match would have been on the game. I will not go as far as to say this decision cost Everton the game, but it was just immediately making the game harder for them.


Top 6 prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham Hotspur
  6. Manchester United

 

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

Eyes On: 2018 Rugby Championship – Round 6

The 2018 Rugby Championship came to a close in Round 6 with a reverse of the Round 4 fixtures. If Round 4 will be remembered as the week of upsets, Round 6 will go down as the week of stunning comebacks as champions New Zealand scored 2 converted tries in the final 5 minutes to beat South Africa, while Australia overturned a 31-7 halftime deficit in Argentina to win 34-45, clawing themselves into third place in the standings at the Pumas’ expense.


South Africa 30-32 New Zealand

At 30-18 with just 10 minutes left, South Africa looked set to do an incredible double over the All Blacks. At the final whistle, they were left shell-shocked, trying to figure out how they were on the losing side. I would argue that things started going wrong for them slightly earlier in the match, just after the hour mark. From this point, the Springboks made the following changes:

  • 60′ Vincent Koch for Frans Malherbe
  • 63′ RG Snyman for Eben Etzebeth
  • 66′ Damian Willemse for Willie le Roux
  • 70′ Sikhumbuzo Notshe for Francois Louw
  • 73′ Embrose Papier for Faf de Klerk, Mbongeni Mbonami for Malcolm Marx
  • 74′ Tendai Mtawarira for Steven Kitshoff
  • 78′ Elton Jantjies for Damian de Allende

Now I think some of these substitutions, especially the removal of de Allende and le Roux, were due to injury rather than tactical reasons, but that is a lot of experience leaving the pitch in the final 20 minutes – a time when New Zealand are know to be at their most dangerous. Koch is a quality replacement but has been away from international rugby for years, while Jantjies lacks the same physicality of de Allende. But the sheer quality and – probably even more importantly – the experience of the players coming off the pitch was always going to make things difficult for the Springboks. De Klerk and Marx had been arguably 2 of the best players on the pitch, so if they were able to continue, they should have remained on til the very end. It’s important to build experience and strength in depth, but the chance to beat the All Blacks (twice in a handful of weeks!) should have been too good to turn down. Hopefully moving forwards, Rassie Erasmus will be a bit more careful with his substitutions in big games.

 

It feels crazy to say when talking about New Zealand, but their midfield struggled on Saturday. Much like the week before, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty failed to consistently create a threat in attack and Beauden Barrett also struggled. The back 3 of Ioane, Naholo and Smith were arguably wasted for the first 50 minutes. However, once Richie Mo’unga came on for Waisake Naholo (with Ben Smith moving to the wing and Barrett to fullback), the back line suddenly looked more dangerous and the All Blacks’ fortunes improved. I wonder if Steve Hansen has inadvertently found a new way to set up his squad, making up for the lack of creativity provided by this centre pairing by playing a 10/15 hybrid like Damian McKenzie or one of the Barretts at 15, but using Ben Smith as a more reliable option with more attacking midfield pairings. With the quality of players available and the versatility of many of the New Zealand backs, Hansen will have so many options at his disposal when he comes to creating his match-day 23s, even when he has a more limited number of players in the squad come the World Cup.


Argentina 34-45 Australia

Momentum is a cruel thing in professional sports, just ask the Pumas. They could not have had a much better start, Pablo Matera crossing for a try within 2 minutes on the way to a 14-0 lead by the 5 minute mark. Despite a try from Michael Hooper, the momentum was clearly with Argentina, who went into halftime 31-7 up despite having lost Nicolas Sanchez to injury during the half. However, their momentum stalled at halftime and the Wallabies got an early try through Izack Rodda, while Israel Folau and Dane Haylett-Petty also crossed in quick succession. The momentum was now firmly against the Pumas who could only muster a single penalty in the second half to the Wallabies’ 38. Argentina had 68% possession and 68% territory in the first half, but were limited to 35% possession and 33% territory after the break.

A bit like the Springboks’ final 10 minutes, I think Argentina struggled with a lack of leadership when it was so desperately needed. Agustin Creevy is not the superstar he used to be anymore and I would argue that the Pumas would benefit from swapping him and Julian Montoya around, as Montoya has recently appeared more reliable at set pieces while bringing Creevy on against tired defences could get the best out of him while also bringing a highly experienced leader onto the pitch later in the game. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to get their European-based leaders back in the fold, sooner rather than later!

 

Full credit to the Wallabies for a stunning comeback, but I do not think that this should save Michael Cheika’s job. I’m not one to enjoy seeing coaches lose their job, but despite a strong team, the results have been poor and the first half performance at the weekend was an embarrassment! They have never been lower in the world rankings and should consider themselves extremely lucky not to finish bottom of the table in this Rugby Championship. It may not be ideal switching coaches especially just a year out from the World Cup, but they have just under 3 weeks until Bledisloe 3 (where there would be no pressure on them, having a new coach and being 2-0 down) followed by Autumn Internationals against Wales, Italy and England… there will be no better time before the World Cup. It will be interesting to see how the ARU act…


 

Start or Sit?

Start or Sit?

When Baker Mayfield was named the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, it was always going to be a question of when, not if, he would become the starting Quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. In Week 4 of the season, Mayfield made his first start after coming on in relief of the injured Tyrod Taylor the week before and leading the Browns to their first win since December 2016. After the hit-and-miss play of Taylor over the first 2 and a bit games, it’s highly likely that the Mayfield era has now begun in Cleveland. But is it right for a QB to become the starter (permanent, not just as injury cover) in their rookie year?

The NFL does have its stories of stars being picked early and quickly becoming stars in the league. Peyton Manning was an immediate starter for the Colts in 1998 and didn’t miss a start in the regular season until injury saw him miss the 2011 season, while his heir Andrew Luck was also starting from the very beginning.

But for every star like Manning and Luck, there are busts. Manning’s rival for the number 1 draft pick, Ryan Leaf is probably one of the most famous draft busts and was out of league by May 2002. One of Luck’s fellow 2012 first round picks, Brandon Weedon was a regular starter for only his first season and has predominantly been a journeyman backup since the 2013 season, having last played in the regular season in 2015.

As a Titans fan, the 2011 draft was one of the few I paid attention to as I knew the Titans would be going for a new QB with the number 8 pick. After everything I had read and heard, I remember hoping that Blaine Gabbert would be available at the spot. He was available, but the Titans chose to go for Jake Locker instead and Gabbert went to the Jags 2 weeks later. After 2 bad performances by Luke McCown, Gabbert was given his first start in Week 3, but he seriously struggled behind a questionable O-line and has only started 50% or more of his team’s games in 3/7 completed seasons for 3 different teams. He’s now made his way to Tennessee as a backup for Marcus Mariota.

Gabbert is a prime example of the issue for so many rookie QBs, being thrust to the fore without having the real chance to adapt from college football to the NFL. Most QBs coming out of college will not be used to a pro-style offense and instead be more used to hurry-up offenses or spread offenses. Suddenly as well they will be up against players 10 years their senior who know every trick in the book and many that aren’t. Let’s look at Baker’s first start, against the Raiders. He may have made some lovely plays and thrown for just under 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, but he also had a number of bad plays, being picked twice and losing 2 fumbles, the second of which came on a fumbled snap likely caused by his lack of experience under center (he never played there in college).

For me, the ideal situation for a team is to go down the route of 2 of the best QBs currently playing. Tom Brady was never meant to be a star judging by his 6th round pick, but after a season on the bench behind Drew Bledsoe, he took over the reins of the Patriot following Bledsoe’s injury in the 4th quarter of their Week 2 match during the 2001 season and has never looked back since. Perhaps a more comparable tale is that of Aaron Rodgers. Picked by the Green Bay Packers 24th overall in 2005 (behind Alex Smith), Rodgers only appeared in 7 matches over his first 3 seasons as he sat behind the legend that is Brett Favre. Rodgers was made starter for the 2008 season following Favre’s retirement (he later returned but was traded to the Jets) and he has since gone on to win a Super Bowl and be named NFL MVP twice, while being regarded as one of the greatest QBs of all time.

Sitting a QB for their rookie makes sense as they can get used to the environment and adapt to the way football is played in the NFL. The big problem is that the NFL is a business and if a team is not getting results, then the people in charge won’t be there long enough to sort things out. Too often a team is taking a QB in the first round because they need someone who they feel is good enough to start and win immediately. A rookie QB may be able to do enough in the first season or two to keep a coach in their job while they build a team around their star.

But if a coach was brave enough to let that young lad sit for the first year, would the lack of results in year 1 be outweighed by the benefits down the line? I think so. A good QB is a comfortable QB and one year on the bench is surely worth it for potentially developing the franchise QB of the next 10 years. Now teams just need to start thinking a couple of years ahead and picking up a promising rookie while they still have a reliable veteran there to learn from.

How will Baker, Sam Darnold and the other rookie QBs work out down the line? Only time will tell…