Hey guys, sorry for taking almost half of February to write this one, as I’m sure you can see from the amount of 6 Nations content, this is a busy time of year for me and that’s before I even take into account work and anything else going on in my life!
January saw the winter transfer window come and go with less excitement than in some previous years. While some teams were busy looking to improve on their season like with Chelsea bringing in Gonzalo Higuain and Newcastle breaking their transfer record to sign Miguel Almiron for £20m, some started planning for next year (Chelsea signed Christian Pulisic then loaned him back to Dortmund for the rest of the season), and some made no action at all, such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. United continued their resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, going unbeaten in the league to close the gap on the teams above, while a 2-1 loss to Manchester City at the beginning of the month and a draw at home to Leicester reduced Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table.
The January transfer window is far from easy. Swapping clubs halfway through a season can mean it takes a while for a player to bed into their new surroundings, while the club have likely signed them due to a pressing need for them to perform.
Alvaro Morata started his Chelsea career so well but then struggled to keep scoring the goals and this has led to Chelsea loaning him out t Atletico Madrid and bringing in Gonzalo Higuain on loan to replace him. While Higuain is clearly a talented player and has the experience of playing for Maurizio Sarri, but he has no experience of playing in the Premier League and at 31 years old it could be argued that his best years are behind him, so there is no guarantee that this move will have any more success than playing Morata. If Higuain does not work out as hoped, then they could be forced to once again rely on Eden Hazard leading the line, though it has been shown that playing him in the false 9 position is a detriment to his game and is not good enough to have consistent success in the league. I also feel surprised with the Pulisic signing as the playmaker positions (both out wide and centrally) are pretty well covered by Chelsea – to the point that England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek is not even a regular starter – whereas further forwards they are lacking that guaranteed quality to compete at the very top of the table.
A player who has made an immediate impact though is Ryan Babel for Fulham. The Dutchman has immediately improved the Fulham attack with his pace causing the Spurs defence serious issues in a 2-1 loss and a couple of his crosses leading to goals in the 4-2 comeback victory over Brighton. With a target man like Aleksandar Mitrović up front, you need quality wingers to get the ball in to him from wide positions and the former Liverpool man is doing exactly that.
One team who may be regretting some of their transfer activity is Liverpool, who allowed Nathaniel Clyne to go out on loan to Bournemouth. It is strange that he has so quickly fallen down the pecking order at Anfield but with Joe Gomez out injured long-term, Clyne was the clear backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back. With him moving to the Vitality Stadium, it was Sod’s law that Alexander-Arnold would get injured, and that has left Liverpool playing a range of midfielders at the position, leaving them vulnerable in defence, as we saw when James Milner was tasked with defending against Wilfried Zaha, leading to a red card following 2 bookable offences.
Perhaps the best work in the transfer market this January belongs to Bournemouth and West Ham, who both managed to keep hold of star strikers Callum Wilson and Marko Arnautović respectively. Wilson is having a career-best year in the Premiership with 10 goals and also marked his England debut with a goal, but the rumour mill suggested a move to Chelsea was imminent. Personally, I think that he would have been a safer bet for Chelsea than Higuain (who had scored 8 goals in about as many games while on loan for AC Milan). I can’t help but wonder if a knee injury that led to a minor operation during January helped save the Cherries from losing their star striker. As for Arnautović, he has helped make West Ham’s attack look much more dangerous since moving into a central striker role and is one of their top scorers this season, but looked set for a move to China that looked all-but certain when he waved to fans following his substitution against arsenal and then didn’t feature against Bournemouth. However, he chose to stay and signed a new contract with the Hammers. A player of the Austrian’s ability, able to play up front and in a wider position, is such a big part of the team and would not be easy for West Ham to replace. It will be interesting to see if either of these players looks to move in the summer…
On borrowed time?
Following Chelsea’s 2-0 loss at Arsenal, Maurizio Sarri shocked people with a scathing attack on his players, saying that they lack motivation and determination. It was an interview that divided fans and pundits and while it initially led to a reaction – with a 2-1 win against Spurs seeing them progress to the Carabao Cup final on penalties and a 3-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday putting them into the 5th round of the FA Cup – the next Premier League match was an unmitigated disaster as they lost 4-0 to a Bournemouth side that was missing start striker Callum Wilson. Since then, a 5-0 victory over Huddersfield will have barely started to paper over the cracks before 6-0 loss at Manchester City saw them drop to 6th in the table!
Sarri has such a talented squad and had a great unbeaten run at the start of the season, but now everything is falling apart. Despite their defensive issues, club captain Gary Cahill has barely featured this season in any competition and has apparently been barely spoken to by Sarri since his arrival, Callum Hudson-Odoi has barely featured yet was not allowed to leave with Bayern Munich keen to take him, there have been concerns over N’Golo Kanté being used in a more forward position than the holding role where he excels and the lead striker role has been a mess with neither Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud given a decent run of games or any confidence from the manager and Eden Hazard often wasted in a false 9 position when there is a legitimate striker on the bench.
The players may not have been at their best, but as we have seen with United this season, it is the manager’s duty to get them performing and if they cannot do so then they have no reason to be at the club. Roman Abramovich is not known to be patient with his managers and I will be shocked to see Sarri still in the role next season. With Chelsea currently on the worst run of form of anyone in the top 6, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him gone within the month unless performances and results improve considerably.
Another sad day
In what has been an exciting season of Premier League football, the 2018/19 season is one that will be looked back on with more than a hint of sadness. Following the terrible helicopter crash at Leicester that claimed the life of Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and 4 others, January saw the loss of Emiliano Sala after his plane went missing over the English Channel. The Argentine had just signed from Nantes to Cardiff for a club record fee of £15m on January 19th but his aircraft was declared missing on January 21st and the official search was called off on January 24th, though a privately funded search continued and found the wreckage of the plane on the seabed on February 3rd. A body was recovered on February 7th and identified as Salah, while pilot David Ibbotson is yet to be found.
This is yet another tragic story this season and my thoughts go out to the family and friends of both Sala and Ibbotson. As with the helicopter crash though, it was heart-warming to see the response of the wider footballing community, from players and pundits continuing to donate to the private search while Ibbotson remains unfound, to Arsenal including him on the programme’s team sheet when Cardiff faced them, with the image of a daffodil where his squad number would have been. Meanwhile Nantes plan to retire the number 9 shirt in his honour.
Unfortunately not all fans have reacted as well, with a pair of Southampton fans having been found to taunt Cardiff fans with plane gestures, but I am glad to see that Southampton acted quickly to ban those involved – hopefully forever!
Football, especially its fans, can have a bad reputation (I myself have been disgusted at fans actions in the past) but moments like this and the tragedy in Leicester show that there is still something to be proud of in this sport.
Top 6 prediction
- Manchester City
- Tottenham Hotspur
- Manchester United