Premier League: Offseason Needs for 2019/20

Premier League: Offseason Needs for 2019/20

The season is over for all but 4 of this year’s Premier League teams. With just the Champions League and Europa League finals still to play, the thoughts of most teams will have now drifted to next season and another push for Premier League success/survival.

With that in mind, I decided to have a quick look at each of the 17 teams still in the league next season and give my thoughts on the priorities for each team this summer. Obviously, some teams have many more needs than others, so I have decided to limit each team to a maximum of 2 needs for this article.


Brighton & Hove Albion:

Glenn Murray’s 13 league goals were crucial to Brighton avoiding relegation this season, but will be turning 36 early next season, so there is no guarantee how much longer he can keep performing at the top level. New head coach Graham Potter needs to bring in another striker who can contribute 10-15 goals per season to complement Murray over the next season (their next highest league scorer was Shane Duffy with 5 goals) and eventually take over from him in the long term.

Southampton:

Southampton need goals. Their top league scorers this season were Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse, who each had 7. Between Ings, Charlie Austin and Shane Long, they have a decent enough set of strikers to compete around mid-table, however they need someone to supply the ball to them in the form of a winger. If someone can put the ball into the right area, they have the players to put the ball in the back of the net.

Burnley:

Between Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, Burnley have a quality pair of strikers, yet they accounted for almost half of the team’s goals this season. In Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson, Robbie Brady and Aaron Lennon gives them a good supply of ball from the outside, but they need to bring in an attacking midfielder that can pop up with a decent return of goals to take some of the pressure off their strikers.

AFC Bournemouth:

First things first, Bournemouth need to find a way to hold onto Callum Wilson. While Josh King also hit double digits, Wilson showed himself to be one of the best strikers outside of a top 6 club with 14 league goals from 23 games. While they could likely get good money for him, a player who is used to the league and this club’s style of play is invaluable.

Newcastle United:

We move away from the pitch with Newcastle and look at the ownership of this club. Mike Ashley is holding back this team with his unwillingness to spend big money and eventually Rafa Benitez – one of the best managers in the league – will get tired of not being given any support in the transfer market. Signing Miguel Almiron was a step in the right direction, but will not be enough in the long term and until Ashley sells to someone willing to financially support their manager, this is a team that will be stuck in the bottom half of the table.

Crystal Palace:

Crystal Palace are relatively tight at the back and play in an organised way that really helps them limit the number of goals conceded, so the help they need comes up front. Michy Batshayi contributed 5 league goals in 11 appearances and Palace need to do everything they can to keep hold of him or find another striker that can play regular football with a goal every couple of matches. There’s no way they can continue to rely on Luka Milivojević being given umpteen penalties a season and their other strikers contributed nothing in the way of goals.

As well as making sure they have a reliable striker next season, Palace need to try to hold on to Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian international is the clear star of the team and has clearly matured as a player since his failed spell at Manchester United. He is so hard to defend, oppositions need to strategize against him, which gives space to other players and in many cases also results in a number of attacking free kicks courtesy of him being taken out.

Watford:

I’m going to move away from the pitch again for a moment and say that Watford’s priority should be to keep hold of manager Javi Gracia. Since Gino Pozzo acquired the club in June 2012, a whopping 10 managers have been in charge of the club, starting with Sean Dyche who was dismissed almost immediately despite the club’s best finish in 4 years. One and a half years in charge has been a long spell since then, but that is never going to allow a team to truly develop until there is consistency at the top.

West Ham United:

For me, West Ham need to take a look at their defence this summer. Pablo Zabaleta and Angelo Ogbonna are both the wrong side of 30, Aaron Cresswell is 29 and 30-year-old Winston Reid hasn’t played all season following an injury. While some of these players may still have a couple of good seasons in them, they need to start bringing in some talented youngsters either via transfers or the Academy and bed them in while they still have experienced stars there to learn off.

Leicester City:

Leicester’s success this season falls heavily on striker Jamie Vardy, who scored 18 goals in 34 league appearances this season. However, he is 32 and as a player who relies heavily on his pace, it is just a matter of time before time catches up on him. Brendan Rodgers needs to start looking at life after Vardy while also maximising the time they have him by finding a younger striker who can share time with him next season. Kelechi Iheanacho has not lived up to his promise from his time at Manchester City and Shinji Okazaki has been let go. Will Demarai Gray be the answer, or will Rodgers look to bring someone new in?

Everton:

Everton have a strong squad, but they need to find themselves a striker who can get them 15-20 goals a season. Cenk Tosun has only managed 8 goals in 39 league appearances since joining in January 2018, and while Dominic Calvert-Lewin is only young and could be the man to lead the line in the future, his 3 seasons at the club have resulted in just 11 goals from 79 games. With Richarlison and Gylfi Sigurðsson in their ranks, it won’t take much for the Toffees to push themselves back towards the top 6.

Wolverhampton Wanderers:

For Wolves, it is a simple one: get some strength in depth. 10 members of the squad played over 30 times in the league, while a further 4 played over 20 matches. With them now also in the Europa League next season, there is a distinct risk that they will struggle in the early months like Burnley did, unless they can spread the appearances around the squad more.

Manchester United:

Get David de Gea’s contract sorted. He had a poor end to the season, but is a world class goalkeeper and if he wants to stay, then the board should be doing everything in their power to get a new contract signed as soon as possible. This guy will continue to make match-winning saves for the team and make any defence look better than it really is when you look at the number of clean sheets and goals conceded.

After such a poor season for United, this need to be the moment where things start over. Players who are not up to the quality needed, or who don’t want to put in 110% for the club should be offloaded and replaced with talented, driven individuals. Paul Pogba cares about himself rather than the club, but could still warrant a decent price on the market. Martial has not done enough consistently to prove himself worthy of a place. Very few of the defence are good enough to be there, with Victor Lindelöf, Luke Shaw and Diogo Dalot probably the only regulars who should continue to regularly play next season. Alexis Sanchez, Fred and Romelu Lukaku both deserve 1 more season to prove themselves worthy of a place in the United team, unless the right money is offered. 2018/19 is a complete reset year.

Arsenal:

The Gunners’ 73 goals scored put them comfortably 3rd in the season’s rankings, however their 51 goals conceded was more than Manchester City and Liverpool combined and seriously harmed them this year. They kept only 8 clean sheets, which is nowhere near good enough for a team hoping to make the top 4. The fullbacks are great attacking talents, but defensively leave something to be desired, while the centre backs are too slow, don’t position themselves well enough and are prone to errors. If Unai Emery can bring in a couple of talented centre backs, I can imagine a drastic improvement similar to what we saw with Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool this season.

Tottenham Hotspur: So for Spurs, I spoke to an old friend and die-hard fan, Chris (who has also supplied a number of pictures for the sight in the past), as I had a few ideas but wanted to also include his expertise.

First up is a central midfielder. The defence on the whole is OK and there is talent further forward, but the middle of the park was lacking. Injury in November, then his transfer to the Chinese Super League in January left Spurs really missing a midfield presence to balance out the team. Daniel Levy does not like to spend big money, but if they want to take the step forward and follow up a Champions League final with a chance of winning the Premier League, they need to find an elite player at the position.

Next up is finding a second striker to back up Harry Kane. Vincent Jansen played so little I forgot he even played for the club, while Fernando Llorente scored just 1 league goal and at 34 is a player reaching the end. Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura are versatile enough to chip in with enough goals to keep Spurs going in Kane’s absence, but they do not have the aerial presence that he does, which makes it more difficult if he is rested or injured.

Chelsea:

Chelsea’s transfer ban limits what they can do this summer, which makes the first need all the more important: find a way to keep hold of Eden Hazard! The Belgian, who looks set to leave for Real Madrid this summer, scored 16 of Chelsea’s 63 Premier League goals this season (25%) and has been the shining light in a questionable team. Like we have seen this season with some of David de Gea’s struggles highlighting just how poor his defence has been over the years, losing Hazard and hoping that Pedro, Willian, Christian Pulisic et al. can do in his absence could see the Blues struggle next season.

I’ve been critical of Maurizio Sarri this season and in my opinion, Chelsea need to move on from him this summer and find a new manager. Despite having quality strikers this season in Alvaro Morata, Gonzalo Higuain and Olivier Giroud, he never felt that he could rely on any of them and often wasted Hazard as a striker. Getting rid of Sarri and bringing in the right manager could be just what is needed to convince Hazard to stay. With the transfer ban, this would be the perfect opportunity as well to give a new manager a season to bed themselves in with the team, so that next summer they can look to bring in their own players after a year of seeing who fits in their squad.

Liverpool:

Having come so close to the title this season, it will not take much for the Reds to push for the top again next season. Liverpool have a strong XI and even most of their replacements are of high quality, but they are currently finding themselves short at both fullback positions. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are one of the best fullback pairings in the league, but should anything happen to them, they are lacking the depth behind them. James Milner is a quality player who will always put in 100% for the club, but he is not someone who you want to see lining up at fullback if you are hoping to win your first Premier League title.

Manchester City:

What do City need to improve on after winning the league title with the best goal difference despite one of their stars Kevin de Bruyne being hampered by injury for much of the season? Not much, but I did still manage to pick out one area to strengthen. Fernandinho’s work in the holding midfield role has been a key part of City’s defensive success, but at 34 years old, he is the oldest outfield player in this season’s squad. City could do with finding his replacement and using the next season to rotate between the pair so that the new player is ready to take over sometime in the next few years.


What would you say the biggest needs are?

RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Italy Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. While the announcement of the Wales and Scotland training squads understandably got the majority of airtime over recent week, Conor O’Shea also announced a 44-man preliminary squad ahead of the tournament.

Having really enjoyed testing myself predicting the final 31-man squads for Wales and Scotland, I decided to challenge myself to do the same for Italy. This one was definitely the hardest so far, as I found that some areas of the squad were full of talent so it was hard to narrow it down, whereas in other positions I found myself only knowing a couple of players. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Conor O’Shea will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Italy’s World Cup squad will be…

Prop

As with the previous squads I have predicted, I have predicted 5 props in the squad, which appears to be a common number for World Cup squads. Simone Ferrari and Tiziano Pasquali were the starters at tighthead during the Six Nations so I think they will make the squad, along with Andrea Lovotti and Nicola Quaglio at loosehead. The final spot goes to Cherif Traore, who was on the bench for every game and added a real physical presence when coming on.

Hooker

Having picked 3 hookers in the 2017 and 2018 Six Nations squads, O’Shea only selected 2 this year, which I think is a sign towards him only taking 2 players at this position to Japan. Provided he can recover in time, Leonardo Ghiraldini is surely nailed on for a spot a part of the leadership group, while Benetton’s Luca Bigi will continue to back him up. Should Ghiraldini not recover in time, I expect Oliviero Fabiani to take his place as the more experienced of the remaining options.

Second Row

This was one of the hardest to pick as O’Shea has named 5 quality players in his extended squad, but I expect him to only take 4 of them with him to Japan. Dean Budd, David Sisi and Federico Ruzza covered the starting positions during this year’s Six Nations, so I have them nailed on, leaving just 1 spot. Marco Fuser is a talented and experienced international, but you don’t get much more experienced than Alessandro Zanni, who is also able to cover in the back row, which I think earns him the final spot.

Back Row

Captain Sergio Parisse is a definite, along with Seb Negri and Braam Steyn, who were heavily involved in the Six Nations. I also think that Jake Polledri’s strong performances for Gloucester will earn him a spot on the plane. Jimmy Tuivaiti gets the next spot for me, having been a physical presence off the bench in the Six Nations. Assuming that O’Shea chooses to take one more back rower, I think that Maxime Mbanda gets the spot, though I can also envisage a situation where O’Shea chooses to take Zanni as his 6th back rower and take Marco Fuser as an extra lock.

Scrum Half

Tito Tebaldi was the go-to starter during the Six Nations so looks an obvious choice for the squad, while I think his back-up Guglielmo Palazzani will also make it onto the plane. I initially had O’Shea only taking 2 scrum halves, but having gone through the rest of the back line, I found myself with 1 more spot to use here. One of my concerns about Italy during the Six Nations was how basic their attacking was off 9 as I don’t feel either of the scrum halves selected did the best job of controlling the game. Callum Braley has been called into O’Shea’s recent training squads and I think again his experience this year as a regular for Gloucester could just get him onto the plane as the 31st man.

Fly Half

Tommaso Allan appears to be the incumbent in the 10 jersey at the moment, earning his place in the squad. Ian McKinley was the man on the bench in the Six Nations, so I feel that his incredible story continues with a place in the World Cup squad. Due to McKinley being able to shift into the centre, I think this also opens up a spot in the squad for Carlo Canna.

Centre

If you’re keeping count, you’ll realise that I have only 8 spaces left on the plane to cover both the centres and the back 3. In a group of 5 talented individuals, I think that 4 of the players selected for the training squad make it onto the plane. Michele Campagnaro is one of the best backs in the squad so is a certain pick if he is fit, alongside Luca Morisi, who was impressive in this year’s Six Nations. Tommaso Castello also looked impressive when he came in for Campagnaro, so earns a seat on the plane. Marco Zanon has limited international experience and with the lack of numbers left for the back 3 and McKinley able to cover centre, I think Tommaso Benvenuti’s versatility sees him going to Japan.

Back 3

And so we come to the final 4 players. Matteo Minozzi was the star of the 2018 Six Nations so will make the squad, as will Jayden Hayward, who covered his absence this year and can also cover a range of positions in the back line. The final 2 spots go to Edoardo Padovani and Angelo Esposito, who were regulars in this year’s Six Nations starting XVs.


So those are my picks for Italy’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?

May 2019 in the Premier League

May 2019 in the Premier League

It’s hard to believe but the Premier League season is already over for another year. April had just 2 rounds of football left to play but there was still plenty of importance to these matches, as Cardiff’s 2-3 loss to Crystal Palace saw them become the final team to be relegated with 1 game left. At the other end of the table, Chelsea and Tottenham managed to hold onto the top 4 spots to earn Champions League football over Arsenal and Manchester United, while the title chase went down to the final day and saw Manchester City emerge victorious, beating Liverpool to the title by a single point.


A very special season

We have had title races finished later in the season (“Aguerooooooooooooooooooooo!”) but this season’s battle between Manchester City and Liverpool will be one that lives long in the memory. Coming into the day, it was highly likely that both teams would win their respective matches to give City the title, but there was still a chance that a miracle could happen for the Reds. It almost did too, as Sadio Mané put Liverpool ahead in their match against Wolves and Glenn Murray put Brighton ahead. Sergio Agüero equalised almost immediately and Aymeric Laporte put City ahead just 10 minutes later to put them back ahead in the title race and goals from Riyad Mahrez and İlkay Gündoğan confirmed the trophy would be staying at the Etihad for another year.

City and Liverpool were head and shoulders above the rest of the league this season. They were top 2 for goals scored (95 and 89 respectively, next was Arsenal with 73), goals conceded (23 and 22, Chelsea and Spurs were closest with 39) and clean sheets (20 and 21, next was Chelsea with 16), leaving the gap between 2nd and 3rd at 25 points and a goal difference of 43! Of the 10 preceding seasons, Liverpool’s 97 points would have won them the league in all but the 2017/18 season. They lost just 1 league match all season: a 2-1 loss at the Etihad, which involved John Stones clearing the ball off the line just 11mm before a goal would have been awarded. What ultimately cost Liverpool was too many draws in the early months of 2019, as they drew at home to Leicester and away at Manchester United (who struggled with injuries in this game), West Ham and Everton between January and March to throw away what had been a 7 point lead heading into 2019.

Both teams will be aiming to be as good, if not better, next season, while you would hope that the other teams from the top 6 will also improve. We could be in for a treat next season!


Going too far

Jefferson Lerma scored a beauty of a goal on the final day of the season in an eight-goal thriller between Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, but should he have even been on the pitch?

Just before halftime in the penultimate match against Tottenham, Lerma was involved in an awful moment with Son Heung-min. The Korean had won a foul but as h reached out for the ball well after the whistle was blown, Lerma came in to step on his outstretched hand. Son certainly overreacted by shoving Lerma in the face and was deserving of his red card, but Lerma pathetically chose to stay down on the ground curled up in a ball and should have received at least a yellow for his part in the altercation.

Later in the match, he and Dele Alli got into an altercation on halfway, which resulted in the pair receiving yellow cards, which should have seen Lerma dismissed at this point even if he had not been red carded earlier.

Against Palace, he may have scored a stunning goal off the woodwork, but was also involved in a couple of moments that left a bad taste in my mouth. In a moment reminiscent of the week before, Lerma reached out for the ball after being fouled, only for Zaha to kick the ball out of his hands, leading to a shoving match, however Lerma once again avoided any punishment and Zaha was cautioned. Lerma did not appear to let the issue lie, though, as the build-up to Palace’s final goal involved a strong run by Zaha that could have potentially been stopped by a good tackle by Lerma, only for him to instead try to body-check him and fail miserably.

From his altercations to his diving, Lerma was an embarrassment this month. Bournemouth would do well to move on from him quickly as he will likely bring bad press to the club if he continues in this vein.


Thanks everyone for reading this season! I have plans for a couple of Premier League posts over the summer and will back with a similar series of articles next season.

RWC2019: Predicting the Scotland Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Scotland Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. Last week saw Gregor Townsend name a 42-man training squad ahead of the tournament, with the intention stated to bring in 2 more players later in the summer.

Though there are still a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced,  I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that will be representing Scotland in Japan, something I have also done recently with the Wales squad. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Townsend will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases towards any specific players.


So without further ado, having tried to get inside Gregor Townsend’s head, I think that Scotland’s World Cup squad will be…

Hooker

Stuart McInally looks to be nailed on as the starter for Scotland, so the question is who will back him up? Fraser Brown brings the experience and can also pack down at flanker in an emergency, which is always beneficial in a squad with limited numbers. That likely leaves Grant Stewart and George Turner fighting for the final place, and I think that Turner’s time in the Scotland setup over recent seasons will see him take the spot.

Prop

In my opinion, WP NelZander Fagerson and Allan Dell are guaranteed spots if they are all fit. Given Nel’s injury history for Scotland and Fagerson having also missed time recently with injuries, I expect a third tighthead to make the list and that will be Simon Berghan. Gordon Reid brings experience at loosehead, but a season playing in the Championship for London Irish may count against him as he has not been up against the same quality of player, so I think Jamie Bhatti will travel as Dell’s backup.

Second Row

Sam Skinner was unlucky to get injured at the start of the Six Nations, but I think that his quality and ability to cover second row and back row will guarantee him a spot. Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray will also travel as specialist locks. I think that Skinner’s versatility will see Scotland take another specialist lock and while Ben Toolis has a very good chance of getting the spot, I think that Richie Gray will use Toulouse’s success as a springboard to take one of the 2 remaining spots in the training squad and convert that to a spot on the plane.

Back Row

The experienced trio of John BarclayRyan Wilson and Hamish Watson will surely make the list providing they are all fit. Jamie Ritchie had a great Six Nations, which I feel will earn him a seat on the plane. Despite Skinner and Brown both being able to cover the back row, I still feel that they will take another specialist in the back row. Blade Thomson is a highly talented player and gives something different to his rivals, but I think his concussion issues that ruled him out of the Six Nations and much of 2019’s action will count against him. Matt Fagerson is an impressive player but one for the future, while I think Gary Graham also needs a number of rivals to get injured in order to get the final spot in such a deep position. Josh Strauss gives experience, but questions over when Premiership clubs will release their players could hamper him here and I think Magnus Bradbury will get the final spot due to his ability to play 6 or 8 and his highly physical approach.

Scrum Half

Greig Laidlaw and Ali Price have become Gregor Townsend’s go-to pairing at 9 and the question is likely not “will they make the squad?” but “who starts and who comes off the bench?”. With matches coming thick and fast, I think that Townsend will take a 3rd scrum half and while Henry Pyrgos has the greater experience, I think George Horne will get the spot as he can cause a nightmare for a tiring defence and will gain great experience with a view to the next tournament in 2023.

Fly Half

With Laidlaw able to cover the position if needed, I think that Duncan Weir’s exclusion from the current 42-man training squad hints towards Townsend only selecting 2 specialist fly halves. If that is the case, they surely select themselves in the form of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings, who have been the clear choices at the position in recent international windows.

Centre

With just 2 specialist 10s being selected, I think that opens up a space for Peter Horne to join brother George on the plane, as he can work as a playmaker at in the centre or at fly half. Huw Jones has been one of the best 13s in internationals rugby and will surely make the squad, along with Sam Johnson, who had a great Six Nations. Due to Horne also covering fly half, I think Townsend will take the opportunity to take one more specialist centre. Duncan Taylor has the versatility to cover most of the back line but has not played all season, Rory Hutchinson has had a great breakout year with Northampton but is probably lacking the experience to make this squad and will be one to come in early int he next 4-year cycle. Both remaining options in the training squad are defensively adept individuals, but I think Chris Harris will miss out on this occasion in favour of Nick Grigg, who has the added benefit of playing with many of these players regularly for Glasgow.

Back 3

Stuart Hogg is an obvious pick here as one of the best fullbacks in the world, which leaves 4 more spaces. Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour have been so reliable for Scotland over the years, so I think that their experience will see them make the list, while I also think Darcy Graham has impressed enough to earn a spot despite his limited experience at this level. While all 3 of these players are able to cover both wing and fullback, I think that Hogg’s injury issues in recent years will lead to Blair Kinghorn taking the final spot as a second specialist fullback, who would also be equally adept on the wing if Scotland are facing a team who they expect to kick a lot.


So those are my picks for Scotland’s 31-man World Cup Squad, who do you think makes the list?

RWC2019: Predicting the Wales Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Wales Squad

With the Northern Hemisphere seasons coming to an end, thoughts are beginning to shift towards the World Cup and who will make the squads. As April came to an end, Warren Gatland announced a 42-man World Cup training squad, while players currently omitted due to injury still have a chance to make it into the list of 31 players who will jump on the plane.

There may still be a couple of months until the trimmed squad has to be announced, but I thought that it would be fun to test myself and try to predict the 31 players that Gatland will take with him to the tournament. To make it even more fun, I challenged a good friend and cross-border rival, Gez (who supports Wales and the Scarlets), to see who he was predicting so that we could see how similar our thoughts were. This is not a matter of picking the 31 we would take, but rather who we think Gatland will take, so we have tried to avoid any biases we have towards any specific players.


So without further ado, having tried to get inside Warren Gatland’s head, we think he will select…

Hooker

Ken Owens was a clear selection for both of us here. One of the best hookers in the UK, he is a proven leader and I would imagine one of the first names on the team sheet. Both of us agreed that Gatland would only take 1 other hooker (injury replacements can be brought in during the tournament) and the consensus pick was Elliot Dee, who has become Owens’ backup at international level this season.

Prop

The top 4 rather picked themselves here by being the regulars in the matchday squads. Gez and I were in agreement that Rob EvansTom FrancisSamson Leeand Nicky Smith would be the main 4, but we had differing opinions on who would take the 5th spot (both of us are predicting 5 props, in line with Gatland’s 2011 and 2015 squads).

It appears that our difference has come down to which side of the scrum they expect to give extra reinforcements too. Gez has picked tighthead Leon Brown, whereas I think that Wyn Jones scrummaging ability at loosehead will earn him the spot.

Second Row

Having spoken to Gez a little about our picks here, it would appear that we both initially went for 3 locks, but on finding our totals reaching 30 men, chose to select a 4th player at this position. Alun Wyn Jones is the captain of the squad so an obvious pick here, while his Ospreys partner Adam Beard also earns a spot along with Cory Hill. We both found that when selecting a 4th lock, Jake Ball was getting the selection over Bradley Davies, who has fallen down the pecking order at the Ospreys.

Back Row

A harder group to pick due to the number of players currently out injured or just returning from injury. Assuming they can prove themselves fit, both of us selectedJosh NavidiJustin TipuricRoss MoriartyTaulupe Faletau and Ellis Jenkins, which gives a good balance to the position.

Both of us felt that there would be 1 more back row selected, but we had different players in mind. My pick was Aaron Shingler, who was playing so well before picking up an injury in last year’s Pro 12 final. He is still on his way back, but if he can prove himself fit, adds a different dynamic with his ability in the lineout. Perhaps Gez has inside information on Shingler’s health as he omitted him from the 31, but went for his fellow Scarlet James Davies, which would leave Wales with a dangerous set of jackals to pick from each match.

Scrum Half

Both of us were in agreement that Gatland will take 3 scrum halves with him to Japan and it appears that neither of us are expecting some shock early return to Wales for Rhys Webb. With just 3 scrum halves in the training squad, it made it easy for both of us to select Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams and Aled Davies, though I must admit I was a little surprised not to see Scarlets’ Kieran Hardy in the training squad as reward for such a good season.

Fly Half

After combining to win the Grand Slam earlier this year, Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar are nailed on as the main fly halves. However, it appears that both myself and Gez think that Rhys Patchell will also make it onto the plane as both him and Anscombe are able to also provide cover at fullback and could also step in at centre if required.

Centre

It’s no real surprise that both of us have Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies nailed on as they have become the go-to centre pairing during Wales’ recent success. With Patchell/Anscombe able to slot in as a second playmaker in an emergency or George North (more on him shortly) able to fill in at centre, Gez and I were in agreement that only one other specialist centre will make the 31.

Gez picked Owen Watkin, who looked good when given the chance in recent Tests, however I went for the more experienced Scott Williams given his experience pairing with Parkes/Davies from his days at the Scarlets and previous internationals.

Back 3

Anyone good at maths or with an abacus to hand will have figured out that both Gez and I have 5 spots left to fill with players from the back 3. Leigh Halfpenny has not been at his best since a lengthy layoff with concussion issues, but he is still a premier defensive fullback and goal kicker, so makes the list alongside Six Nations starters Liam Williams, George North and Josh Adams. And that leaves just 1 spot…

Owen Lane has looked really impressive whenever I have seen him play for Cardiff Blues, but injuries have hit at the wrong time and stopped him gaining any international experience, which I think rules him out here. Hallam Amos is a reliable option but has never been able to hold down a regular spot in the national team and I think the poor form of the Dragons will have hampered his chances. Jonah Holmes gets my vote off the back of his strong performances for Leicester and Wales this season, while he has the versatility to cover the entire back 3 if required as well as being an emergency scrum half. Gez, however has gone for Steff Evans, which I think may have been a twinge of Scarlets bias coming through as he has had a roller-coaster season, but his attacking talent could certainly come in handy against Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay.


So on the whole we had very similar squads, with just a handful of differences between individuals at the same position to round out the squad. I think part of this could be down to Gatland not being quick to change his squad and having quite a large degree of loyalty to players who have been big for him in the past even if they are going through a difficult stage. But will this be the time Gatland decides to shock us…?

Who do you think will make the squad?

April 2019 in the Premier League

April 2019 in the Premier League

The Premier League took another big step towards the end of its season in April with the confirmation that Fulham would be joining Huddersfield in being relegated to the Championship following their 4-1 loss at Watford.

Spurs played their first league game at their new stadium (the imaginatively-named  Tottenham Hotspur Stadium), a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, with Son Heung-Min scoring the first league goal at the new stadium. Lucas Moura wrote his name in Spurs history 10 days later by scoring the first league hat-trick at the stadium (against Huddersfield) and Michail Antonio became the first player to score an away goal there in the league with the only goal of a loss to West Ham.


Play on!

After a poor start to the season, Burnley’s escape from relegation continued with a huge 1-3 win at Bournemouth. The third and final Burnley goal was for too easy for the Clarets, as the entire Bournemouth team appeared to stop to appeal for a throw in (replays showed the ball stayed in play), allowing Chris Wood to be the first to a cross in and tee up Ashley Barnes.

I have never understood why players at the top level so frequently stop playing to appeal for a decision. One of the first things I remember being taught when I started playing rugby was to play to the whistle! It can be hard enough for a defence to keep up with an attacking team if they get in behind, giving them an extra advantage by coming to a complete halt while appealing makes it far too easy for an attacker.

With VAR coming in next season, it will be interesting to see if players continue to appeal at the time or if they begin to play on and then appeal if the goal is scored.


Under pressure

April was not a good month for David de Gea, with a number of costly errors both in the league and against Barcelona.

In their 2-1 win over West Ham, Felipe Anderson’s equaliser came about after the Spaniard rolled the ball out but put it between 2 players. Something similar happened a couple of weeks later in the 4-0 loss at Everton as he rolled the ball out to Diogo Dalot at a moment when he was not expecting or looking for the ball, while he also conceded a long-range effort from Gylfi Sigurðsson. Both goals in Machester City’s 0-2 win at Old Trafford were arguably due to de Gea errors too. Arguably the most high profile in the league, though, was a costly fumble of a long-range strike from Antonio Rüdiger, which led to the ball dropping at the feet of Marcos Alonso for an equaliser, the 1-1 final score putting a huge dent in United’s top 4 hopes (by time of writing, a draw with Huddersfield has left it mathematically impossible for United to qualify for the Champions League).

While he has clearly gone through a bad spell at the end of this season, the amount of people jumping to criticise him is crazy when you consider just how many times he has saved United over the years and also how poor the defence has been in front of him, not to mention the rest of his teammates for much of the season! Paul Pogba can choose to put in the effort for maybe half of the season and get away with it, yet due to de Gea’s position in goal, a couple of errors cause an uproar. It’s a lonely position and I feel for him.

I was so happy to see Ole Gunnar Solskjær come out in support of him as he recognises that de Gea is still one of the best shot-stoppers in the world and I’m hoping that the love and support he has received from so many around the team will make him want to stay at the club despite the lack of Champions League football next season.

It would have been interesting to see if Sergio Romero would have been given the start against Huddersfield had a knee injury not ruled him out, but with just 1 game remaining and nothing at stake, it makes sense to me now to keep de Gea in the XI to see out the season.


Just rewards

While the season may not yet be over, the PFA Men’s Player of the Year and PFA Young Men’s Player of the Year have been announced as Virgil van Dijk and Raheem Sterling respectively.

Personally, I find it odd that the award is given before the season itself is over, as the success of the player’s team could have a huge impact on who deserves the award. That said, I am really happy with this year’s winners despite the league results.

I have not been a big fan of Sterling in the past as he would not back up his club performances for England, but now he is putting in the performances for both club and country I am really starting to appreciate just how good a player he has become. In a team of stars, he has been the star for them this season, with 17 goals and 10 assists in 32 games. That said, take Sterling out and I think it has a minimal impact on City’s season as they have such an incredible set of attacking talent.

Van Dijk would have got my vote as if you take him out of the Liverpool back line, I can’t see the Reds doing anywhere near as well this season. Having played in every league match this season, he has lost just 1 match and kept 19 clean sheets. Liverpool have conceded a league-best 22 goals (level with Manchester City, who have played a game less at time of writing) and while Alisson has certainly helped steady things at the back, I feel that the introduction of the Dutchman has been key to their improvement, while also adding 4 goals this season – the most he has scored in a Premier League campaign.


Final prediction

So with Manchester City v Leicester City and just 1 round of games remaining at time of writing, the top 4 is guaranteed barring a Spurs loss, Arsenal win and an overall 8-goal swing in goal difference. So for this piece, I am going to focus on the top 2.

At time of writing, Liverpool have a 2-point lead but City have a game in hand over their title rivals and I will be shocked if they don’t beat Leicester at the Etihad. The final round of matches sees Liverpool at home to Wolves and City travelling to Brighton, and I honestly can’t see either team dropping points there, which means Liverpool finish on an impressive 97 points, but come up just short against City’s 98.