August 2018 in the Premier League

August 2018 in the Premier League

Hi guys and welcome to my new series taking a look at each month in the Premier League season. Last season, I found that writing about each week’s matches helped get me back into the league after a couple of years of only taking a passing interest, but I did find that sometimes I was left with not much to write after just one round of matches. For that reason, I will this year be doing a monthly look back at the league – so you only have to read me championing VAR once a month! Usually this will be in the first week of the next month, but occasionally it may be a bit later if I get a little behind.

The Premier League made a welcome return in August and football fans rejoiced around the country. Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and (surprisingly) Watford have set the early pace by winning all 3 league matches in the month, while draws for Manchester City and Bournemouth in Week 3 left them leading the rest of the table. It’s not been a great start for Manchester United or Arsenal however, United winning 2-1 at home to Leicester on the opening night before a loss at Brighton and a 0-3 humbling to Spurs, while Arsenal lost to City and Chelsea before finally picking up a victory over West Ham, who are the only team without a point from the first 3 rounds.


Transfer failed

This summer saw a move of the transfer deadline from the end of the month to 5pm on 9th August to make sure that all transfers were completed ahead of the season’s matches beginning. While a nice idea, the fact that the deadline day remained later around Europe led to somewhat of a damp squib, with very few teams making big-name transfers late in the window. What probably didn’t help either is the shortening of the summer due to the World Cup.

While I like the idea of the window closing before the football starts as it stops players holding out in hope of a move – as we have seen from players like Riyad Mahrez in the past – I do not feel that it worked well as teams were afraid to let someone go and then lose someone else after their window closed to a team on the continent. United and Spurs’ transfer activity was underwhelming to say the least, I imagine there would have been more action if they’d had the extra couple of weeks.

I would love to see this trialled again in the future, but the window cannot be for just the English teams; it needs to be across the continent so that all teams are in the same position. If that can’t be done, then let’s just keep the usual date at the end of the month!


Seeing red

What has been wrong with some players in recent weeks? Maybe it was just because we’ve had some time away from football, but it feels as if the red cards were being brandished much more often than usual in the opening 3 rounds. And not just reds for second bookable offences – though there were some of those too – but stupid red cards! Let’s just take a look back at some examples:

  • Week 1 – At 0-1 up, Everton are reduced to 10 men at Wolves after Phil Jagielka tries to compensate for a poor first touch by diving in when the last man, his foot going over the ball and taking the man on the leg. This is one of the softer reds I will mention but such an experienced defender should know better than to dive in as the last man and especially to keep his feet down
  • Week 2 – Jamie Vardy sees red against Wolves after lunging in hard with a high boot in an attempt to win the ball back. While the high boot can bean understandable mistake, he came in with such force it felt like the red mist descended for a moment
  • Week 3 – Richarlison and Adam Smith square up in the box during Bournemouth and Everton’s 2-2 draw. With their heads almost touching, Richarlison brings his forward and makes contact with Smith. While it may not be a “headbutt” in the same vein as Zidane on Materazzi, it is well known that what Richarlison did is a straight red card
  • Week 3 – With the score at 1-1 between Southampton and Leicester, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, already on a yellow card, receives a second yellow for diving in an attempt to win a penalty
  • Week 3 – Huddersfield’s Jonathan Hogg reacts badly to Harry Arter appealing for a hold at a set piece and pushes him over, making contact with Arter’s head

There were also 2 notable incidents that did not lead to red cards but definitely should have. Only minutes into Watford’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, Etienne Capoue receives just a yellow card after raking Wilfried Zaha’s achilles with a high foot. He went on to set up Watford’s opener. Somehow, Newcastle’s Kenedy escaped punishment during Newcastle’s draw with Cardiff after kicking out at Victor Camarasa right under the referee’s nose. Karma was a bitch for him though as he failed to complete a pass in the first half and had his injury time penalty (which would have won the game) saved by Neil Etheridge.

With all of these incidents, I can’t help but wonder what is going through the players’ mind in the moment! Football is such a big money business now, I can’t believe players make such a costly mistake so often. If clubs don’t already have a psychologist on staff, then I think they should all hire one and make sessions with them compulsory for player. Not only will it help them deal with rushes of blood to the head on the pitch, it can also potentially help them deal with life in the public eye – especially helpful for young players.


Theatre of nightmares?

What an awful start to the season for United! They may have started the season with a 2-1 victory over Leicester but after that suffered 2 embarrassing defeats, 3-2 at Brighton and 0-3 against Spurs, with 4 of their goals having come from the penalty spot.
Luke Shaw’s resurgence having been given a shot by José Mourinho at the start of the season – he has earned a call-up to the England squad – has been one of the only bright spots s far this season, but there has been little else to be cheerful about.

David de Gea is going through a rough patch and it is showing just how much he has saved the team in recent years as the centre of the defence has been awful. Bailly, Lindelöf, Smalling and Jones have shown nothing to suggest they are good enough to compete at the top of the league and with their struggles so far this season it’s been ridiculous that they were not willing to pay the money to get in a star like Toby Alderweireld. Meanwhile the man United shelled out money for, Fred, has struggled to make an impact so far – though it does appear to take South American players a bit of time to adapt to the league.

The pressure is seriously on José and it appeared to be showing with his rant after the Spurs loss. It does appear that he has some degree of sympathy from the fans as he did not appear to get the signings he wanted from Ed Woodward this summer. United are a big club but right now I cannot imagine them finishing in the top 4. If results and performances don’t improve soon, it’s hard to imagine a change coming at the top.


Top 6 prediction

So as I am no longer doing weekly write-ups it would be too difficult to try predicting all the matches for the next month, so instead I will make my predictions for how the top 6 will look at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how much this changes as the months go on.

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

 

Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Eyes On: 2018 FA Cup Final

Last weekend was a busy one for sport in the UK. Not only were the semi-finals underway for both the Pro14 and the Premiership, but British hopes looked good with Simon Yates leading the Giro d’Italia and as if that wasn’t enough, The FA Cup final took place on Saturday!

This was by no means the thriller that some previous finals have been, with few real chances actually being created, but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners over Manchester United, courtesy of Eden Hazard’s penalty, to provide the Italian with some silverware this season in (possibly) his last game in charge.

Rash decisions

Marcus Rashford has become the darling of fans in recent seasons, but he has not had the best couple of months. His minutes have been limited and when he has been started ahead of Romelu Lukaku, his performances through the middle have not matched the level of what he has produced out wide.

With Lukaku only fit enough for the bench, Rashford was given the start up front but was wasteful with the ball, frequently giving it away in the first half with poor passes or tame shots. Though he did improve after half time, he still couldn’t find a way to get the ball in the back of the net, with an attempted chip over Thibaut Courtois in the 72nd minute his best chance, but easily saved after being too low. He was removed just after this last attempt and right now it is hard to imagine him being a big part of José Mourinho’s plans next season considering the need to compete with free-scoring teams like Liverpool and Manchester City.

World Cup worry

I must admit that I was a bit surprised when Phil Jones was named in England’s World Cup squad for this summer. Though he can be a very good player, he is by no means consistent and has been part of a defence that has been bailed out too many times by David de Gea.

Chelsea’s goal lays squarely at Jones’ feet as he did not position himself well to defend against Eden Hazard and was thoroughly beaten by the Belgian’s first touch. Rather than take one for the team and bringing Hazard down about 35 metres out from goal, Jones tried to chase level with him and dived in to try and get the ball away inside the box, missing the ball completely and taking down Hazard to give away the match-winning penalty in the 21st minute.

There were a number of comments that this should have been a red card as he was the last defender, but I personally approve of the amended law that states a player can receive only a yellow card if there is a genuine attempt to win the ball, avoiding the “triple punishment” of a penalty, red card and subsequent suspension.

What worries me here is that Jones will potentially be playing in an England shirt soon against none other than Eden Hazard and Belgium. Hazard knows he has the beating of him and I would be shocked if Belgium don’t try to create 1-on-1 matchups between the pair should Jones feature in that match.

A classy touch

As President of the FA, Prince William would usually be presenting the trophy to the winners, but due to his brother’s wedding earlier in the day, he was unable to make the match (even royals have to miss football for family events). With a need to find someone else to present the trophy this year, I think the FA made the perfect decision.

The FA chose to give the job to Jackie Wilkins, the widow of Ray Wilkins, who passed away in April aged 61. The former England midfielder made over 300 appearances for Chelsea and Manchester United, before going on to help coach Chelsea in 1998-2000 and then 2008-2010, including 2 spells as caretaker manager in 2000 and 2009. For the FA to pay tribute to Wilkins in this fashion was wonderful to see. I have not always agreed with their decisions, but this one was spot on!

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

Hey guys, sorry for the delay in getting back to this series. It took me a little longer than I expected to catch up on life after my trip away so by the time I had caught up the final round of games was upon us.

So the Premier League is now over for another season. Manchester City are the Champions of England and have broken most records on the way to their title. Meanwhile West Brom’s valiant efforts under caretaker manager Darren Moore were not enough to overcome the odds and they were relegated along with Stoke and Swansea (even more galling as Cardiff have been promoted). Chelsea’s loss at Newcastle on the final day means that they will be playing in the Europa League next season along with Arsenal and Burnley, while Manchester United, Spurs (who waved goodbye to Wembley with a goal-fest against Leicester) and Liverpool will be joining City in the Champions League next season.

 


Record Breakers

What season City had. They ended up proving my prediction that their defence would lose them the league completely wrong, not only winning by 19 points, but also facing the fewest shots over a season since Opta records began (236). Their possession (71.9%), total passes (28,242) and pass accuracy (89%) were all records since Opta records began, as was their 15.9% shot conversion rate, which helped them towards a league-record 106 goals in a season. Their 32 wins and 4 draws saw them become the first team in the history of the league to reach 100 points, 10 more than the famed Arsenal “Invincibles” of 2003/4! This is a fantastic achievement and while I would expect their rivals to improve and get closer to them next season, it is hard to imagine this team not defending their title in 2018/19.

Along with all these records they broke, they also held the top 4 spots on the list of assists this season, with Kevin De Bruyne’s last minute assist for Gabriel Jesus earning him the top spot with 16, one ahead of Leroy Sané and 5 ahead of Raheem Sterling and David Silva.

In fact, pretty much the only record City didn’t break this season was that of most goals for a player in a 38-game season. That went to Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah, whose opener against Brighton put him on 32 goals for the season, not only 2 goals ahead of Harry Kane’s impressive haul of 30 goals, but also enough to break Shearer, Ronaldo and Suarez’s record of 31 goals. Unlike City’s dominance, I doubt that Salah will be able to live up to these heights next year (though I would not be surprised with him making it into the 20s), but the guy has been on fire this season and rightfully earned his spot in the record books. It will be interesting to see if Liverpool can hold off attention from the more attractive clubs like Man City, Barcelona and Real Madrid, especially if he fires the Reds to Champions League glory.


Down but not out

With the season coming to an end, teams will now begin to turn their eyes to the future and start considering who they will sign for the coming season. While Stoke, Swansea and West Brom go down to the Championship, there are some players who I am sure will be leaving, either for another Premiership team or a different league. Stoke especially have a number of Premiership quality players who I will likely be finding a new club in the coming months:

Having spent time at Bayern Munich and Inter in the past, there is no way Xherdan Shaqiri will follow Stoke to the Championship. The Swiss international was one of Stoke’s stars in an awful season and topped the stats for goals (8) and assists (7) in the league this season. Only Joe Allen and Jack Butland played more minutes for Stoke than him in the league in 2017/18. With Marko Arnautovic leaving for West Ham and Jesé not working out as hoped, Shaqiri was not left with much help up front but still looked impressive during a doomed campaign. He may decide to move back to the continent, but if he does choose to remain in the Premier League, I could see him working well as a rotational player in the Spurs attack. They need more depth and more players who can chip in with goals and Shaqiri can certainly provide that, whilst also allowing the men up front to stay fresh throughout the season.

As mentioned above, Joe Allen’s 3,142 minutes in the league for Stoke was bested only by Jack Butland this season. He was also second to Shaqiri for assists (5) while also scoring 2 league goals. Though the numbers may not be anything special, he is a much more talented player than these stats suggest. The “Welsh Xavi” played 189 more passes than anyone else in a Stoke shirt and his 1,977 touches was almost 200 more than the next on the list for Stoke. He may not be the flair player that top teams will be looking for, but with 7 years of Premier League experience under his belt – including 4 at Liverpool – he will be an attractive prospect to a team towards the middle of the table hoping to push for Europe. With it announced that Scott Arfield will be leaving Burnley for Rangers, I think that Burnley are a potential landing spot for Allen, as they will want to get some players in to help them live up to this season’s exploits and also hold their own in the Europa League.

Jack Butland played more minutes than any Stoke player in the league this season and finished the season with the most saves of any keeper (144) despite Stoke having the joint worst number of goals conceded. A potential member of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, there is no way that he will be playing Championship football next season. He will want to maximise his chance of playing for England by signing for the best team he can, and as such I can see Liverpool as an attractive option, or Arsenal if they decide to move on from Petr Cech. Both squads have had somewhat questionable defences over recent years but will still look more secure than what he has had in front of him at Stoke, while both teams will appreciate a young, talented shot stopper who is English-qualified but due to relegation can probably come at a discounted price.

With so many influential players likely to leave Stoke, it will be a difficult job for whoever is in charge next season to bring them straight back into the top flight.


Back fighting?

What a great end to the season for Newcastle! At one point earlier in the season they looked at real risk of relegation, but pulled themselves up the table in 2018 and despite a string of losses towards the end of the season finished on a high with a dominant 3-0 victory over Chelsea to finish 10th. The Premier League needs a Newcastle side that is competing in the top half of the table, but that has been a rarity in recent seasons. But what do they need to do to give themselves the best chance of this?

  • Keep hold of Rafa – Rafael Benitez is a former Champions League winner and has arguably worked wonders with the side he has this season. A manager of his quality should not have been relegated to the Championship but such was his willingness to take on the role at Newcastle in 2016 despite their precarious position, and his willingness to see the Magpies back into the Premier League at the first opportunity, he has the good graces of the fans. The worry now will be losing him. He has been frequently frustrated by the lack of support financially in the transfer market and many will be worried that he may look for greener pastures, especially with an attractive position available at Arsenal and possibly a spot at Chelsea too. With Rafa at the helm, I feel that this Newcastle side can do better than expected, but I do worry for them should he leave.
  • Make the loans permanent – Newcastle’s results improved in 2018 following the arrivals of Kenedy and Martin Dubravka on loan. These 2 players made such a huge impression on matches the improvement in performance was clear to see. If Newcastle want to compete in the right parts of the league, they need to be getting players like this on the books as permanent deals rather than as short-term loans, otherwise the squad will struggle to get the consistency over the seasons.
  • Get a reliable striker – Especially in the first half of the season, Newcastle struggled with goals. Though they improved as they went through 2018, only Burnley (36) scored less goals out of the top 14 than Newcastle’s 39. Ayoze Perez was their top scorer with a “whopping” 8 goals, whereas fellow strikers Dwight Gayle and Joselu only managed 6 and 4 goals respectively. When your centre back is 4th on the list of goals scored with 3, you know there’s a problem! Newcastle desperately need a player who can score 12-15 goals per season if they want to regularly challenge in the top half of the table. Jay Rodriguez may not have head the best couple of seasons since his injury issues, but 7 goals in a struggling West Brom team suggested he could be getting back to his best and a better supporting cast. Southampton may have only just avoided relegation this season but they will be at risk next year if they don’t substantially improve after the season. Charlie Austin missed a number of matches through injury and yet still ended up as their top scorer with 7 goals. He’s a quality striker but has never quite managed to hold down a starting spot at Southampton on a regular basis, so I would not be surprised to see him move on to a team that can guarantee him a starting spot while also providing him the players around him to provide him with the opportunities. But of course for this, Newcastle will need to likely put their hand in their pocket and spend a bit of money.

And each of these ends up coming back to the same point: Newcastle needs to spend money to get the players in that Rafa Benitez wants. I have genuinely felt sorry for Newcastle fans in recent years when prospective takeovers have fallen through. If Mike Ashley will continue to refuse to spend money then he needs to find a buyer soon!


 

Thanks to everyone who has been reading this series over the past year. I do not know if I will do exactly the same next year but writing these has really helped me get back into the Premier League after a couple of years of not really caring, so I’m sure there will be something. Watch this space guys!

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 36

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 36

We are now just 2 and a half rounds away from the end of the season and for some teams there is still plenty to play for. West Brom’s late revival has probably come too late to save them from the drop, but their 0-1 win at Newcastle leaves them currently just 3 points behind Swansea in 17th, though the Swans do have a game in hand. Burnley’s point against Brighton has secured them a place in the top 7 barring a 15-goal swing in goal difference, while Crystal Palace’s 5-0 victory at Leicester (their largest win in the Premier League) sees them jump up to 11th and be all-but certain of safety. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s hold on 3rd place is under threat as their goalless draw with Stoke means Spurs will leapfrog them if they win their game in hand.


Right guy, wrong time?

Looking at their results in recent weeks, I can’t help but wonder what might have been for West Brom. Following Alan Pardew’s introduction, the Baggies won just 1 league game out of 18 and took just 8 out of a possible 54. Yet under caretaker boss Darren Moore they are unbeaten in the league and have picked up 8 points from a possible 12, including wins against Manchester United and Newcastle. West Brom have earned 28.6% of their points under Moore despite him having only been in charge for 11.1% of their matches this season! It’s not even just the results, but the quality of teams played as he has taken 7 points off of Mourinho, Klopp and Benitez – 3 of the best managers in the league!

Moore has got these players working for him in a way they never did under Pardew. The Barcelona incident was a clear indication that he did not have the support of the dressing room that he need to keep the club up, but Moore appears to have their support and also got results by – as suggested by Chris Brunt – going back to the West Brom way. Whatever he is doing, it is working! A couple of weeks back, the Baggies looked certain to be down. I still find survival unlikely, but under Moore there is at least a belief that the great escape could be possible.

At the moment, he is merely the caretaker manager, but I hope he has shown enough over the last couple of weeks to convince the board to make him permanent. Dropping down to the Championship could see them lose a number of top players, but a manager like Moore may convince some of them to stay and also give them the confidence to push for an immediate return to the top flight.


Handball?

Burnley just can’t buy a penalty in the league this season! They had 2 appeals turned down in their draw against Brighton, the first when the ball ricocheted off the post and onto Shane Duffy during a goalmouth scramble, the second when a knock-down at a set piece struck Bruno’s outstretched arm from close range. Away from Turf Moor, Erik Pieters survived a late handball shout at Anfield as Georginio Wijnaldum’s cross hit him on the arm in the 87th minute.

So what actually constitutes a handball? The FA website’s rules and regulations section states:

HANDLING THE BALL

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

  • The movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
  • The distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
  • The position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence
  • Touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) is an offence
  • Hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) is an offence
  • The goalkeeper has the same restrictions on handling the ball as any other player outside the penalty area. Inside their penalty area, the goalkeeper cannot be guilty of a handling offence incurring a direct free kick or any related sanction but can be guilty of handling offences that incur an indirect free kick.

That leaves a lot of discretion for referees, and anytime there is too much discretion involved, mistakes can be made far too easily. We the viewing public get the benefit of multiple replays whereas the officials get one chance and will not necessarily have the best angle. This may be a controversial suggestion, but I wonder if it would benefit the FA to trial a zero-tolerance approach to handling the ball in a similar way to touching the ball with the foot in hockey. It may lead to a number of penalties initially as defenders get used to the new rules, but in the long run the clear stance on what constitutes a handball could be a real benefit.


Sliding down and out?

Things are not looking good for Huddersfield right now. They started the season so well but in recent months they have been sliding down the table and now find themselves just 3 points above the drop zone. They have just 3 matches left in the league this season but they are away to Manchester City, away to Chelsea and at home to Arsenal… not really the way you want to end the season when fighting for survival. It gets even worse when you realise that they are yet to win a match where they have gone behind!

Southampton looked much improved in their 2-1 win over Bournemouth and have a slightly easier set of remaining games (away at Everton, away at Swansea and at home to Manchester City). None of these are easy matches, but I still see more potential for Southampton to build some momentum off this week’s win and pick up the points to leapfrog Huddersfield by virtue of their better goal difference.

Right now I can see Huddersfield joining Stoke and West Brom in the Championship next season.


Round 37 predictions and the missing matches:

I’m going to be away this weekend so Round 37’s write-up will join with my thoughts on the games in hand. At that point we will have just one round left in the Premier League this season.

 

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United – United win

Stoke City v Crystal Palace – Palace win

AFC Bournemouth v Swansea City – Swansea win

Leicester City v West Ham – Leicester win

Watford v Newcastle United – Newcastle win

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Everton v Southampton – Draw

Manchester City v Huddersfield Town – City win

Arsenal v Burnley – Draw

Chelsea v Liverpool – Draw

 

Swansea City v Southampton – Southampton win

Chelsea v Huddersfield Town – Chelsea win

Leicester City v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Manchester City v Brighton & Hove Albion – City win

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United – Spurs win

West Ham v Manchester United – United win

Premier League Ramble – The Elongated Week

Premier League Ramble – The Elongated Week

It’s been an odd week of Premier League action. With just a few teams still involved in the FA Cup, teams have been playing league matches throughout the week, leaving just over half the league still with a game in hand. Champions Manchester City were welcomed onto the Etihad pitch by a guard of honour by Swansea and thanked the Welsh side by putting 5 goals past them. Stoke and Southampton drew their matches, moving them closer to the Championship, while West Brom followed up their win over Manchester United by coming back from 2 goals down to draw at home to Liverpool, who still had something to cheer this weekend as Mo Salah was named PFA Player of the Year.

Possibly more important than the football this week was the announcement that this season will be Arsene Wenger’s last in charge at Arsenal.


End of an era

Though results over the last 2 seasons have suggested change was coming and despite me even predicting as much, it was still a shock when the news broke on Friday that Arsene Wenger will be stepping down as manager of Arsenal at the end of the season. Having taken over at Arsenal on 1st October 1996, he has been the Arsenal manager through the entire time I have been watching football! I doubt the Premier League will ever see another manager have such a long tenure with a single club.

The results and standings may not have been to the level Arsenal – and Wenger – would have hoped over the last couple of seasons, but at a time like this it is important to look back at his achievements with the Gunners. These last 2 seasons are the only times Arsenal have not finished in the top 4 of the Premier League under Wenger, with the Gunners always finishing in the top 2 until 2005/06, while he has won 3 league titles (1997/98, 2001/02 and 2003/4), 7 FA Cups (1997/98, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2016/17) and 7 Community Shields (1998, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2014, 2015 and 2017). “The Invincibles” of 2003/04 remain the only team to go an entire 38-match Premier League campaign without losing a single match. Individually, Wenger has been named Premier League Manager of the Season in 1998, 2002 and 2004 and was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He has always sought to create teams who play attractive football and has maintained a high level of success throughout the years with only a handful of big-money signings, while also seeing the club through their move from Highbury to the Emirates in 2006.

wengUnfortunately for Wenger, his long tenure has perhaps harmed Arsenal in recent years as they have been unable to adapt to the football played by some teams, with organised, physical defences often denying them points they should not be dropping and expensive attacking teams exposing an inconsistent defence. For this reason, I do not think we will see managers getting anywhere near Wenger’s 22 years with a single club moving forward as managers will be changed to freshen things up once a team does not adapt. It is a credit to Arsenal that in such a cut-throat business they have stuck by Arsene Wenger despite the lack of silverware between 2005 and 2014. I can’t imagine any of the other classic “Big 4” teams would go more than a couple of seasons without silverware before changing manager. There has been a lot of fan hostility towards him in recent seasons, but I sincerely hope that they continue to use these final games as a way to thank Wenger for his service to the club over the year.

This summer, the focus turns to who will replace him… I don’t envy that manager at all!


The king has been crowned

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Mohammed Salah has won the PFA Player of the Year award for 2017/18. The Egyptian has been in fine form this season and looked a completely different player to the one who struggled for minutes at Chelsea.

He may not have had the best of performances at the weekend against West Brom, but he still managed to score another goal, leaving him with 31 goals from 33 Premier League games, level with Shearer, Ronaldo and Suarez for the most in a 38-game league season. I can’t imagine many people would bet against him breaking that record against Stoke. In fact at £34m he has already been worth less than £1m for each goal he has scored in all competitions, good value for money in the modern game!

When Philippe Coutinho was sold to Barcelona many fans may have been worried, but Salah has more than picked up the slack and has been a big part in one of the most destructive attacks in the league this season, providing 9 assists to go along with those goals. Liverpool’s 80 goals scored leaves them comfortably second in the league rankings, and Salah has been directly involved (scored/assisted) half of them! I can’t even begin to imagine how many others involved him playing a big part in the build-up.

The question now will become what happens going forward? Will he have a sophomore slump in 2018/19 or will he be able to keep up the performances, even if the numbers drop slightly (I can’t imagine anyone being able to keep scoring so regularly over 2 seasons)? More than that, how long until Real Madrid or Barcelona inevitably come calling? And how long can Liverpool keep hold of him when they do?


A long-awaited goal

931 days. That’s how long Danny Ings went without scoring ahead of his 4th minute opener against West Brom. He’s had 2 serious knee injuries since moving from Burnley to Liverpool and as such was making only his second start under Jurgen Klopp. As well as his goal, he also had another great chance and should have also had a penalty when he was impeded by Craig Dawson trying to reach a ball through.

Ings remains a quality player and at 25 years old he can still be a star in the league if given the chance to play regularly, but despite Klopp backing him to start scoring I can’t see him getting the minutes he deserves with Roberto Firmino ahead of him in the pecking order and the front 3 being so effective as a group. There are very few top class English strikers so regular football could easily see Ings pushing for a spot in the England squad. I really think that Ings would benefit from a move away this summer to get his career back on track. But where could he go?

Spurs could do with another reliable goal scorer to back up Harry Kane, but that leaves Ings in the same situation as he is in now. The rest of the Big 6 are sorted up front or will be looking for more expensive options. In my opinion, the best spots for him would be the teams currently occupying 7th to 10th: Burnley, Leicester, Everton and Newcastle. All of these teams will be looking to compete for the spots outside the top 6 and a striker who can score 15-20 goals a season would be a huge benefit. Of those, I would see Burnley and Everton as the most attractive options. Burnley are Ings’ former club so he is used to the environment and 0Sean Dyche’s style of management, while I’m sure the fans would love to have back a player who was their top scorer in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons. Everton on paper probably have the strongest of the squads and Ings would certainly benefit from the calibre of players providing him with the ball.

Personally, I’d suggest he pick Everton, they have had a poor season but I would expect them to be more competitive next year, whereas Burnley’s smaller squad could struggle to repeat their heroics of this season. That said, if Burnley do manage to make it into the Europa League, the chance of European football would be a huge draw and really help his aspirations. A return to his former club to help them in Europe would be a wonderful story heading into next season.


Round 36 predictions:

Liverpool v Stoke City – Liverpool win

Burnley v Brighton & Hove Albion – Burnley win

Crystal Palace v Leicester City – Draw

Huddersfield Town v Everton – Everton win

Newcastle United v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Southampton v AFC Bournemouth – Draw

Swansea City v Chelsea – Chelsea win

West Ham United v Manchester City – City win

Manchester United v Arsenal – United win

Tottenham Hotspur v Watford – Spurs win

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 34

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 34

Congratulations to Manchester City whose 1-3 win at Wembley, combined with United’s shock defeat at home to West Brom, won them their third Premier League title, proving my early season prediction wrong in the process. Despite the win at Old Trafford, West Brom’s chances of survival are still slim (at best) as they are at least 9 points behind Swansea – who have a game in hand – with an inferior goal difference. Andy Carroll’s late equaliser may have doomed Stoke to life in the Championship, while Southampton’s 2-0 start against Chelsea was ruined by 3 goals in 9 minutes and leaves Mark Hughes close to his first ever relegation as a player or a manager.

Congratulations also to Wolves, who are now guaranteed a place in the Premier League next season!


What’s next for the best?

City’s run to the title has been dominant this season! In 33 matches, they have only failed to take maximum points 5 times (2 losses and 3 draws) and they currently have a goal difference of +68, 25 higher than the next best goal difference (Liverpool). Pep Guardiola will have very little competition for Manager of the Season – I would argue only Sean Dyche can potentially beat him to this award – as he has made this team almost unbeatable in the toughest of the top domestic leagues. He has clearly worked hard on developing his players and it is helping players like Raheem Sterling begin to live up to their potential.

But the Sky Blues cannot rest on their laurels and will need to work hard to defend their title next year, especially if they plan to progress further in the Champions League.So what do they need to look at ahead of next season:

  • Plan B – As dangerous as City have been in attack this season, they will eventually come up against teams who set up well enough to stop the Sky Blues’ current tactics. For that reason I feel they need to look at finding another striker. Jesus and Aguero (if he stays) are both fantastic strikers but they have similar playing styles, I would argue that Guardiola needs to find a taller and more physical striker to give their attack an extra dimension and a more direct option. Imagine the fun De Bruyne and Sané would have crossing the ball in to a target man. The quality of the supporting players is such that it will not require a top name to fill this spot, as they will get the chances and just need to be able to finish them – just look at how Kelechi Iheanacho has struggled since leaving the Etihad. If they could get him, a player like Fernando Llorente would probably have more success in this team than he has had at Spurs this season.
  • Increased depth – If City want to defend their league title and win the Champions League next season then they need to improve their depth. They were heavilylinked with Riyad Mahrez in January and I think that he would be a great addition for them as he, Sané and Starling will give Guardiola great selection headaches and allow for greater rotation, while Phil Foden should also continue to get more minutes as he develops. Fernandinho is probably one of the most underrated players in the squad and I would recommend Guardiola try to find a capable understudy to ensure City do not struggle if he picks up a long-term injury, while the team could also do with improving their depth at fullback, as we saw this year that the quality wasn’t quite there behind Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, who missed so much of the season he will almost feel like a new signing next season.
  • Settled defence – 
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    Is Pep set for the Manager of the Season award? – Image from Flickr – Pedro Haas

    Last week when discussing the importance of David de Gea to United’s season, I compared some of his key stats to the main keepers in the other Top 6 clubs. Despite playing the same number of games and Ederson having to make only half as many saves, United had still managed to keep more clean sheets in the league so far this season. City have a number of quality centre backs (Stones, Kompany, Laporte and Otamendi) yet they still concede more goals than they should. Injuries have not helped, but the form of these players has been up and down like a yo-yo. It will be difficult for City to keep scoring at such an impressive rate next season, so they need to make things safer at the back. They have the players, now they just need to perform.


Crime and punishment

2 challenges this weekend, both awful, but different punishments. Ben Davies put in a horrible high challenge on Vincent Kompany with his studs catching him not far below the knee. How he did not receive a red card I don’t know, I can only assume the officials had a bad angle as he only received a yellow. Even more ridiculous was the lack of punishment from Mike Dean when Marcos Alonso planted his studs in the top of Shane Long’s calf right under the referee’s nose. It was an unnecessary and horrible challenge, but luckily as Dean missed it Alonso will receive a retroactive punishment, unfortunately Davies will not receive any further punishment as the referee clearly saw the incident and acted on it during the match. To me, this is ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time this season that I have suggested introducing an idea from rugby, but I think that football could benefit from a citing system. In rugby, a player can be cited for an on-pitch incident regardless of whether the referee has seen and acted on the incident. This means that if an independent panel finds that the referee’s punishment has been too lenient – as with the yellow card to Davies – the player can still receive a fitting punishment for his actions. For such a professional sport, there is far too much of an opportunity for a poor refereeing decision to impact the league, not just that week but for the next couple of weeks! I can see already the arguments that football has managed fine without this for years and that it is taking away the authority of the referee, but nobody treats the referee with any respect or authority as it is (just look at the hordes of players around him every time he blows his whistle) and surely as fans of the sport we would rather see the right decisions being made and players receiving the punishments they deserve. Just imagine if Davies nets the winner against Brighton…


The race for Europe

Who would have thought all those months ago when Burnley started the season well that they would still be in with a shot of qualifying for the Europa League with just 5 games remaining. They had a poor spell towards the middle of the season but have recovered well and are back to winning ways, just 2 points behind Arsenal. Regardless of whether they do qualify, for a team with the smallest playing budget in the league, to be pushing for such a high league position – despite having lost Robbie Brady and Tom Heaton to injury early in the season –  is fantastic and I would argue Sean Dyche is the only person who can realistically compete with Guardiola for Manager of the Season honours.

They have been solid at the back all season and players like James Tarkowski and Nick Pope have deservedly received England call-ups during the season, but earlier in the season they did not necessarily look overly dangerous up front. Recently though, the decision to pair Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes has made them look much more dangerous up front. It reminds me of Stoke’s progression in the past from a defensively organised team under Tony Pulis to a team that could also attack well under Mark Hughes, but this has been done over the space of a season and with the same manager, which is very impressive.

The high league position will be huge for the Burnley budget and with such an impressive manager I think players will be interested in coming to Turf Moor next season. However I have faith that Dyche will be smart with his signings and continue to bring in players that complement the team. Could a return for Danny Ings or Charlie Austin be on the cards this summer? I wouldn’t bet against it.


17/4/18 – 23/4/18 predictions:

So the next week of football will be interesting for the table as some teams try to make up their game in hand while other teams end up playing twice. I have no idea how soon I will be able to write about any of these games (it will most likely not be until after the weekend), so rather than class it as a specific round of matches, I have decided to group all these matches together for my next set of predictions. Typical cup football getting in the way of league schedules, eh?

Brighton & Hove Albion v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v Manchester United – United win

Burnley v Chelsea – Draw

Leicester City v Southampton – Leicester win

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Watford v Crystal Palace – Draw

Arsenal v West Ham United – Arsenal win

Stoke City v Burnley – Burnley win

Manchester City v Swansea City – Man City win

Everton v Newcastle United – Draw

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 33

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 33

Manchester City were denied the opportunity to celebrate winning the title against their fierce rivals Manchester United following a United comeback at the Etihad that saw them go from 2-0 down to 3-2 up. While City will still win the league (though maybe not away at Spurs on Saturday), it will have felt good for United and their fans to escape the title celebrations that would have been at their expense. Despite resting a number of regulars in attack, Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Southampton brings them closer to Chelsea – who could only draw 1-1 at home to West Ham – while the Saints’ loss leaves them 3 points away from safety, but with a game in hand over Crystal Palace.


The Manchester Derby

There was so much that took my attention during United’s 2-3 victory over City, but many of the points wouldn’t join into a coherent post of its own, so I have instead looked discuss my thoughts on the match in a quick-fire fashion:

  • Full credit to United for coming back from 2-0 down at half time and win 2-3. Against a team as good going forwards as City, going 2 goals down in the opening 30 should be terminal as teams would generally have to open themselves up so much to find the goals needed to draw level that they would leave gaps at the back for City to exploit and score more goals. Away from the tactical side of things, to go 2-0 down in 30 minutes away at your local rivals should hit the morale so bad, it is a measure of the quality of the United players that they held their heads high and kept pushing to get back in the game rather than capitulating under the occasion.
  • That said, how City did not get a penalty for Ashley Young’s challenge on Sergio Aguero is beyond me! The days of a challenge being legal as long as the player got the ball first are way back in the past, Young may have got the ball first but his foot then clearly came over the ball and caught Aguero high. There is no doubt in my mind that it was a penalty and in today’s climate I would have found it difficult to argue against a red card for the fullback.

    table
    A comparison of the keepers who have played 5+ games for clubs in the top 6 this season (stats from the league only)
  • Where would United be without David de Gea? The Spaniard’s distribution may not have been at its best in the build-up to Ilkay Gundogan’s goal, but he more than made up for it with a world-class save from Aguero late on. Only City (24) have conceded less goals than United (25) this season and de Gea’s 16 clean sheets puts him top of the league this season, but these stats do not show the full story. His 103 saves in the league this season is the 4th most of any keeper this season, but you need to go down to 12th in the list to find the next keeper currently playing for a top-6 team. Compared to his fellow top-6 keepers, de Gea is having to make too many saves! Data from Opta suggests that where de Gea has conceded 23 goals (excluding own goals) he would have been expected to concede 37 goals, the highest differential for a keeper in the league this year. This guy is saving United’s season! United need to look at upgrading their defence this summer as they cannot continue to rely on de Gea every season.
  • Following Young’s challenge on Aguero mentioned above, United broke on City but the attack was stopped by a foul on Jesse Lingard. While the foul was clearly stopping a chance to counter against the Sky Blues, Lingard’s decision to roll around on the floor 100 times (only a slight exaggeration) was absolutely pathetic! If the FA are serious about getting simulation out of the game and attempting to deceive an official by exaggerating the effect of a challenge then he has to be banned for this.

The Great Dane

It must be hard when in the same team as Harry Kane, but Christian Eriksen rarely seems to get the love he deserves in the Tottenham attack. Considering the quality of Kane and Alli and the improved form of Son Heung-Min it is understandable, but he is such an important part of the attack. In terms of goals scored he is on pace to have one of his best seasons ever – especially if the FA do award him the second goal against Stoke rather than switch it to Kane – and in recent weeks he has done a great job of keeping Spurs’ attack going while Harry Kane has been injured. His ability to play across the width of the pitch behind the striker allows him to move around and pick up the space that gives his team the best advantage, while he has a great range of passes and is lethal over a dead ball.

Spurs need to improve their depth throughout the squad, but I think they would struggle to adequately replace the Dane if he was out with an injury.


Double trouble

When you’re fighting against relegation, you should be trying to do everything you can to get all your best players on the pitch at the same time. To me, therefore, it is a shock that Javier Hernandez seems to start so rarely for West Ham. With 34 points, they are only 6 points outside the bottom 3 so every goal they can score is vital.

Marko Arnautović has been revitalised since moving from the wide position to the central striker role, but Chicharito is another proven goal scorer and has showed in the past that he is more effective with regular playing time rather than appearances off the bench. With relegation still a threat, I think David Moyes needs to find a way to fit both of these players into the starting XI as a strike partnership. I can’t imagine he’d be able to pick either player next season if West Ham get relegated…


Round 34 predictions:

Southampton v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Burnley v Leicester City – Draw

Crystal Palace v Brighton & Hove Albion – Palace win

Huddersfield Town v Watford – Watford win

Swansea City v Everton – Draw

Liverpool v AFC Bournemouth – Liverpool win

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City – Draw

Newcastle United v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion – United win

West Ham United v Stoke City – West Ham win