Premier League 2020/21: November

Premier League 2020/21: November

While November may not have been a good month for the England national team – who failed to qualify for the Nations League Finals – it was another great month for the Premier League and especially for Spurs, who went unbeaten to go top of the table on goal difference to Liverpool, who have done well to keep in the fight following a spate of injuries including talismanic defender Virgil van Dijk. Chelsea find themselves in 3ʳᵈ after an unbeaten month, with Leicester rounding out the top 4 after 2 consecutive losses to end the month.

The middle of the table makes for interesting reading, as Everton’s early momentum stalled and saw them drop to 8ᵗʰ ahead of a resurgent Manchester United – who have a game in hand – only by goal difference. The season’s other strong starter Aston Villa rounds out the top half of the table, with last year’s runner up Manchester City finding themselves at 11ᵗʰ, level on points.

At the bottom of the table, Sheffield United are in serious danger of being cut off from all their rivals with a pointless month leaving them with just a point, while wins at the end of the month for Fulham and West Brom have lifted them ahead of Burnley (and in Fulham’s case, out of the relegation zone), but there is still a 3 point gap between Fulham and the next team in the table, leaving them in a precarious situation.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) – 10 goals; Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 9 goals; Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) & Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – 8 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 9 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) & Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 5 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 5 clean sheets; Rui Patricio (Wolves), Lukasz Fabianski (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Illan Meslier (Leeds), Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) & Alex McCarthy (Southampton) – 4 clean sheets


What’s in a number?

José Mourinho may be known as a defensive manager, but what he has done to the Tottenham attack this year is incredible! It’s still to early to say that they will win the title, but with the way that they are set up to attack and the skill of players like Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min, they are giving themselves every chance.

And it’s all down to one simple change at the top of the pitch, as Harry Kane still leads the line, but takes up a slightly deeper position, allowing the wingers to run beyond him and effectively become the strikers. The reason that they are able to do that is the spectacular skillset that Kane possesses.

Due to his height, strength and clinical eye for a goal, he’s generally been seen as a classic English centre-forward, a clear 9 in the mould of Alan Shearer. And yet when you watch him play, he is such a talented footballer and an incredible playmaker – hence his 9 assists this year- that he would not look out of place in a deeper role as a classic 10 with a striker playing in front of him.

Like another England star of recent years, Wayne Rooney, Kane is effectively a 9.5, able to lead the line and be the main goal threat, but also lying a little deeper and creating the chances for everyone around him. That is a special talent, and if he is used right, it is so hard for a defence to deal with him as they will struggle to find a player that can follow him around the pitch and match him both on the ground and in the air.

Heads up

From success with Spurs to an absolute embarrassment at their North London rivals Arsenal, I was absolutely appalled by the actions I saw at the weekend when Arsenal faced Wolves.

Just a handful of minutes into the match, David Luiz and Raúl Jiménez clashed heads at a set piece, resulting in a 10 minute stoppage that saw the Mexican stretchered off and taken to hospital with a fractured skull. Luiz however had a cut bandaged up and played on, eventually being removed at half time. Mikel Arteta said that all necessary tests were passed by Luiz, but I struggle to believe that those tests are sufficient if they can be performed on the pitch in less than 10 minutes.

As someone who loves both rugby and the NFL, the impact of head injuries has become clear over the years, and it is shocking that football is so behind in this matter of player safety – though as VAR has shown, this is an archaic game that nobody in power apparently wants to see changed. I understand that there are discussions ongoing around bringing in concussion substitutions similar to rugby, where a player can be temporarily substituted on while a player is taken off for an assessment following a head injury. However, I would argue that this is not enough in football. In both rugby and the NFL, contact with the head is accidental, yet in football, players are deliberately heading the ball, which is increasing the risk of second impact for a player who may have passed a concussion test due to delayed onset of symptoms. To me, anyone who has suffered loss of consciousness on the pitch or a head injury where there is any suspicion that damage is more than a cut, should be removed from the pitch immediately and not allowed back on.

Sadly, I can’t see any change of note happening until something serious happens to a player, and by that point, it’s too late!

Problem penalty

On 7ᵗʰ November, Fulham found themselves 1-0 down away to a dominant West Ham, but were given a lifeline with a 94ᵗʰ minute penalty. Ademola Lookman had the chance to salvage a much-needed point, but the 23-year-old chose to go for the Panenka and butchered it, allowing Lukasz Fabianski the chance to dive to one side and still recover to make the save to secure the 1-0 win.

Maybe I’m being harsh on the kid, but Lookman should be ashamed of his actions, especially as Fulham were always going to be fighting for survival so needing every point they can scrounge. A Panenka looks great when you pull it off, but when you get it wrong, you look like a complete tit, an when it costs you the game, there will be very few people ready to come over and console you. The moment I saw the penalty, my mind took me back to Yann Kermorgant’s disastrous failure of a Panenka in the 2010 Championship Playoff semi-final penalty shoot-out against Cardiff, which Leicester lost – leading to plenty of ridicule for the Frenchman.

There were plenty of other penalties missed in the league this month, but this is the one that will be remembered as all the others saw players picking a spot and trying to finesse it in or just smash the ball as hard as they can, and with cases like this people are much more understanding if they do not end with a goal. By trying to showboat, Lookman made his bed, now he has to lie in it. Hopefully he will learn from this and put the success of his team ahead of showing off next time he takes a penalty.


Team of the Month

Tottenham Hotspur

It felt right to name Spurs the team of the month after going to the top of the table following an unbeaten run. Their defence is solidifying, conceding just 2 goals in 4 matches over this spell, while their attacking play produces 5 goals, including a 2-1 victory at home to Manchester City that highlighted their quality against the big teams.

As well as a win over City, they came away with wins at home to Brighton and away to West Brom – matches they would have expected to win, that could have been potential banana skins – while they finished the month with a 0-0 draw at home to a Chelsea team that is growing into the season with a similarly dangerous attack and improving defence.

With December seeing Spurs face off against Arsenal, Liverpool (away) and Leicester among others, this month will be a key test of their credentials if they want to win the title.


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Premier League 2020/21: October

Premier League 2020/21: October

The Premier League is now well and truly underway, and if the rest of the season carries on like this then it will be one to remember. Defending champions Liverpool got off to the worst possible start to the month with a 7-2 humbling at the hands of newly-promoted Aston Villa and lost star defender Virgil van Dijk to an ACL injury in their next match against Everton, but recovered well to finish the month top of the table.

Leicester suffered disappointing losses to Villa and West Ham, but still found themselves in the top 6 with Wolves, Villa, Everton and Chelsea, with Spurs and City rounding out the top 8. At the bottom of the table, 4 teams remained winless, but 3 draws for West Brom left the Baggies just above the relegation zone, which is currently inhabited by Burnley, Fulham and last year’s surprise package Sheffield United, who each have just 1 point to their name.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 8 goals; Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 7 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 8 assists; John McGinn (Aston Villa) – 4 assists; James Rodriguez (Everton) & Aaron Cresswell (West Ham) – 3 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Rui Patricio (Wolves) – 4 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), Alex McCarthy (Southampton) & Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 3 clean sheets 


Safe hands?

Everton have had their best start to a league campaign in some time and with their quality up front and he struggles of some of the big teams, this looks like an opportunity for a first top-6 finish since the 2013/14 season. However if they miss out, I can’t help feel that a lot of it will come down to Jordan Pickford’s performances between the sticks.

While Pickford is certainly capable of pulling off some stunning saves, he is anything but reliable. Though they started the month with a win over Brighton, Pickford gifted the Seagulls a goal by fumbling Leandro Trossard’s shot, allowing Neal Maupay to score, while Tom Davies had to make a crucial block at 3-1 when Pickford slapped a cross straight to Maupay.

2 weeks later in the Merseyside Derby, he was lucky to stay on the pitch after an awful and completely unnecessary challenge on Virgil van Dijk, causing an ACL injury that has ended the Dutchman’s season. It was a disgusting challenge that deserved a red card all day long, but Pickford got away with it as an offside was called in the build-up, so the challenge was never looked at – a ridiculous decision in my eyes. And yet despite this lucky break, he still went on to almost cost his team the game, with a poor effort to stop Jordan Henderson’s late shot, an offside picked up by VAR the only thing saving him.

That’s just 2 matches, but it’s already more than you expect to see off a top keeper in the space of a couple of months, and with a shaky defence you need someone reliable in goal. Frankly, it was no surprise to see him dropped for the first Premier League match of November (though he was back for this weekend’s game against United), but Carlo Ancelotti must surely realise that he made a mistake by not bringing in a legitimate upgrade at the position during the transfer window – something that Chelsea did, to the tune of 3 clean sheets in the league already!

Missing piece

Who would have though that after 2 months of Premier League football, Manchester City would be down in 8ᵗʰ? Pep Guardiola’s men have not started the season well, winning only 3 of their opening 6 games, while November saw them only manage draws against Leeds and West Ham.

It’s crazy to say, but the team is struggling to score goals, with just 4 goals scored in 4 games in November, despite the plethora of attacking options that Pep Guardiola has to choose from. And there is a simple reason for this: while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are great strikers, they have not been regularly available in these opening weeks of the season, and City have not had the depth to cover for it, instead playing wide men like Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres in the central position, to limited effect.

I understand that with the 3-up-front formations that many teams go for these days, less strikers are needed on the roster, but both Aguero and Jesus have spotty injury histories, so it makes sense to have at least one more specialist striker in the squad, as in a league as strong as the Premier League, you will not have the time to think about where you should be or what you should be doing, you just need to act on instinct, and that will not come naturally to a winger.

Carry on

Liverpool’s opening 2 matches of the month could not have gone much worse: an embarrassing 7-2 loss at Villa, then losing Virgil van Dijk for the season against Everton. The Dutchman is arguably one of the best centrebacks in the world and I’m sure many still remember the dismal defensive performances the Reds put in before his arrival – the Villa loss wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much of an aberration back then!

Can Liverpool cope without him? Clearly yes, as they won both of their following league matches to complete the month top of the table, while they still have talented – just not reliable – defenders in their squad. Don’t be surprised to see the Reds looking to bring in a replacement for van Dijk in January – someone who could then realistically go on to become his partner once he is back.

But until then, don’t be surprised to see Liverpool go on the idea that “a strong defence is a swift and decisive offence.” In Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, they already had one of the most potent attacking units, while the acquisition of Diogo Jota just adds to that either as a 4ᵗʰ weapon on the pitch or to allow some rotation in the front 3 with minimal drop in quality. Oh and then let’s not also forget that they have playmakers like Thiago Alcântara and Xherdan Shaqiri and 2 super dangerous fullbacks in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Expect them to have an answer for any goal they concede.


Team of the Month

Wolverhampton Wanderers

It looked like Villa were going to be the obvious choice here with a huge victory over Liverpool, but their 0-3 loss to Leeds came at just the wrong time and game me the chance to look elsewhere, eventually landing on Wolves.

While they may not have had the same challenges as Villa this month, they successfully navigated matches to 3 wins and a draw, with an aggregate score of 5-1, to leave them 3ʳᵈ in the table. But what made this more impressive is that they have continued this success despite the loss of Diogo Jota to Liverpool. They are far from the strongest of squads in the league, but are so consistent as a team, you never want to rule them out in a match.


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Premier League 2020/21: September

Premier League 2020/21: September

It feels like only yesterday that we finished the 2019/20 season of the Premier League but we’re already back up and running with many teams already 3 matches into the 2020/21 season.

4 teams made it through September unbeaten: defending champions Liverpool, local rivals Everton, Leicester City and Aston Villa (who have only played 2 games), while newly-promoted Fulham find themselves without a point in 3 games, alongside Sheffield United and Burnley (though the Clarets have only played 2 games).

As with last season, I’m back again to give my big thoughts from each month’s action and stories. I will also be unveiling a few new features for this season’s articles. So without further ado, let’s get to the football!


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 5 goals, Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 4 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 5 assists, 7 players on 2 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 2 clean sheets, 11 players on 1 clean sheet


A welcome improvement

After last year’s farce, I was worried about how well VAR would work given the limited time between seasons, but – and I hope I’m not jinxing anything by saying this – things appear to be going much better this season. Personally, I put this down to 2 main factors.

First of all, it seems that when it comes to checking offsides, we’re not getting the ridiculous checks to see if the attacking player is offside by the narrowest of margins. I’m not sure whether this is down to attacking players holding their runs a little more to ensure they are onside, or if there has been some directive that VAR hasn’t got to atomic levels of precision when checking an offside (or maybe a bit of both). Regardless, getting rid of these incidents is saving so much time and making the system look much less pathetic when making its decisions.

Secondly, the VAR is now being used properly by having many of the subjective decisions checked by the referee. Part of the VAR system has always included a pitchside monitor for the referee to use, but it was largely ignored last year as those in the booth made all the decisions. Using the pitchside monitor leads to a much better experience as there is the consistency of the same person making the decisions as during the rest of the game. VAR is not a way to catch the referees out and berate them for getting the initial decision wrong, instead it is there to give them an opportunity to view an incident again to ensure they are making the correct decision.

Having followed a number of sports for years that utilise video replays, I know how effective VAR can be if used right. Hopefully we are now seeing things go in the right direction.

Poorly handled

While VAR seems to be improving, the way that handballs are being dealt with this season is absolutely ridiculous!

The Premier League went against the curve last year with how they refereed potential handballs, but this year they have had to come in line with the other leagues around the world. And it has shown to have an impact, with a massive rise in the number of penalties for handballs in these early rounds.

Now firstly, I want to say that I do agree with bringing the Premier League in line with other leagues. Football is one sport and to me all the leagues should be in line with each other as it creates a consistency to the product.

However, the way that the law is being refereed is an absolute joke! The idea of what constitutes a handball relies on the arm being outside a standardised silhouette of someone standing with their arms by their sides. However, this same silhouette is used for all circumstances, including a player jumping for the ball. Try jumping for the ball while keeping your arms by your sides and you won’t get very high and will look ridiculous, but this means that as soon as a player uses their arms to help propel them into the air, they’re giving away a penalty if the ball hits their arm. But then things get even more ridiculous as Gabriel escaped a handball penalty against West Ham when the ball struck his arm away from the body, only for nothing to be given as the ball struck his upper arm where his sleeve is – which apparently doesn’t constitute a handball!

Something needs to change. Is the answer to say that any contact between the arm and the ball is a handball, similar to how any contact with the foot or the back of the stick is an offence in hockey? Or do we need more situational parameters set as to what constitutes a handball in different circumstances – eg challenging in the air, going to ground to make a challenge, protecting body with arms? That’s for people who get much more than me to decide, but something has to change.

Immediate impact

Is there anyone who would argue right now with the opinion that James Rodríguez has been the signing of the summer?

The Colombian, signed from Real Madrid, has had an immediate impact at Goodison Park, providing the range of passing and movement to find holes between the midfield and defence and create space for Richarlison to run into, while also being a goal threat himself on the edge of the box.

After his World Cup heroics, it looked like he would be fighting with Messi and Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or for years to come, but he was just anther big name at Real and eventually fell out of favour, leading to a loan spell at Bayern Munich. However coming to Goodison Park and reuniting with a manager that has a good history with him is really bringing out the best in him and I think that we are going to really see that quality for Everton this year.

Perhaps he is the missing piece that can see the Toffees compete for Europe again.

Same old story

While Everton may have brought in just the player they needed in the offseason, Manchester United are looking pathetic in the transfer market once again.

Not only are they struggling to offload the players deemed surplus to requirements, but the only signing they have made is Donny van de Beek, who appears to be giving some depth to midfield rather than fixing some gaps in the starting XI. The Jadon Sancho transfer saga is dragging on and it’s not hard to imagine United missing out on their man, while they are also in desperate need of an upgrade at centreback and on the left side of defence.

The problem is that this isn’t a one-off, but just another example of Ed Woodward’s inability to deal effectively in the transfer market. Manchester United remains one of the biggest names in football, but the lack of success has not been helped at all by an inability to bring in the players required on a consistent basis. When you look at the signings that Chelsea and Arsenal have made for this season and the players Liverpool have brought in to to strengthen their squad – hell, even Spurs have actually had a decent transfer window with Højbjerg, Doherty and Bale arriving – United need to be doing better if they want to consistently finish in the Champions League places and look to compete for the title again.


Team of the Month

Leicester City

I wasn’t intending to just pick the league leaders for the first month, but when I looked deeper into things I had to pick the Foxes.

An away match at newly-promoted West Brom is far from the hardest way to open a season, but it could still very easily be a banana skin, yet Leicester came away with a 3-goal win despite having a goal disallowed. They followed this up with another goal-heavy win over Burnley, and ended the month with an incredible 2-5 victory at the Etihad where they completely outplayed Manchester City.

And all this while having limited options at centreback and having to use a midfielder there at times! You couldn’t ask for a much better start to your campaign!


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Premier League Offseason Needs 2020

Premier League Offseason Needs 2020

With the 2019/20 season finally over (except for those teas still competing in Europe) thoughts can turn to preparing for the upcoming 2020/21 Premier League season, which is set to start 12ᵗʰ September. Unfortunately for Norwich, Bournemouth and Watford, they will be looking to regroup in the Championship, while for the other 17 teams it is time to strengthen for another year of fighting for the title/Europe or avoiding relegation.

Now this offseason is interesting, as the delayed finish following the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many teams were already busy in the transfer market before the season was even over, most notably Chelsea, who already had a couple of big names announced before their final game.

But what is the biggest need for each team? Well I have combined with 2 of my close friends and occasional contributors who are football fans, Chris (Spurs) and Ed (Arsenal) and we have picked what we believe to be the biggest offseason need for each of the 17 teams remaining in the league. Let us know what you think of our picks!

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Aston Villa

Villa stayed up by the narrowest of margins this season and will surely be scrapping near the bottom again next season, so this summer will be key for them.

Our initial thoughts went towards a keeper after a series of blunders from Ørjan Nyland, but Tom Heaton’s return from injury will sort this for them. Instead, the need became obvious: find a way to hold onto Jack Grealish. Despite the millions of pounds Villa spent on new players this season, Grealish was by far the star,  scoring more goals than any of his strikers and being a key feature of the attack. It’s just a matter of time until he leaves for a bigger club and Villa should be glad they have kept hold of him as long as they have, but with such a short offseason they have little time to find the players to sufficiently replace him, so will be hoping to get another season from their talisman.

West Ham

West Ham were saved from relegation by having more goals than the team around them It looks like they were improving up front, so where they need help is in the defence. Though it may not be as old as in some recent years, there is still a dearth in experience and quality at the back that will need sorting if they want to rise up the table.

Now where West Ham go here depends very much on the money they are willing to spend. There is the potential that if they were willing to spend the money, they could bring in one of Manchester United’s out of favour defenders – Marcus Rojo, Chris Smalling or Phil Jones – which would give them that high quality defensive experience. However I can see them looking for a cheaper option, in which case they could look to raid relegated Norwich, who have a number of younger defenders fresh off a season of Premier League football who may be available at a cut price as the canaries prepare for Championship football.

Brighton & Hove Albion

It’s pretty clear where Brighton need to strengthen: up front. With just 39 goals in 38 games, they had one of the worst scoring records in the league – only 4 teams had worse, 2 of whom were relegated – and another season like that will probably prove costly. Neal Maupay finished with 10 Premier League goals, but nobody else managed more than 5 league goals, while none of the other strikers Aaron Connolly (3 in 24 games), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (2 in 10 games) and Glenn Murray (1 in 23 games). With Adam Lallana incoming, he deserves better quality getting on the end of his crosses.

The good news for Brighton is that there should be players available. Bournemouth need to offload Callum Wilson as they cannot afford to keep him in the Championship, while Norwich’s Teemu Pukki may also be available following relegation.

Crystal Palace

So the usual call here has been to say find a way to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha, but he’s coming off his lowest scoring season since 2014/15 and does not look as irreplaceable as he once did. Instead, we’ve gone for the striker, as Palace’s 31 goals was better than only Norwich. Roy Hodgson does a great job of organising a defence that is better than the sum of its parts, and if they can bring in someone to provide 10-15 goals a season then they could find themselves in the top half of the table.

While Wilson and Pukki would also be good fits at Crystal Palace, I feel that Palace may find Josh King a better fit for the squad as he is more mobile, to go with that current attacking unit, while they could also benefit from Michy Batshuayi, who scored 5 goals in 11 games for Palace while on loan a few seasons back, or trying to get Divock Origi on a season-long loan. Even Watford’s Andre Gray is worth a look, to see if a change of scenery can improve his fortunes, but that seems like another risk akin to Christian Benteke.

Newcastle United

Newcastle are that special case where their biggest offseason need is nothing to do with the players, or even the manager: Mike Ashley needs to go!

What was once a proud club has been run down into the ground on his watch and the sooner he has gone, the sooner the team and its fans can begin to heal. It says it all that Newcastle fans were willing to get behind a Saudi-backed bid full of controversy due to human rights issues.

Dear Mike Ashley, kindly f*** off. Sincerely, Football fans

Everton

Remember when Everton were consistently one of the best teams in the league once you got past the big 6? Well Carlo Ancelotti’s men are a long way off that at the moment. While it feels like they need an upgrade at most positions, and I was very close to saying a more trustworthy keeper, what we decided was key for them is getting a striker who will contribute 20+ goals a season.

Their top scorers this season were Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who both finished with 15 goals in all competitions. However, I don’t feel that Calvert-Lewin is reliable enough to be a lead striker for a team who wants to play in Europe, while Richarlison is a winger as opposed to an out-and-out striker. With Timo Werner arriving at Stamford Bridge, Ancelotti could do much worse than checking the availability of Giroud, who will score goals if given a chance to regularly lead the line. Alternatively, they could take a risk by putting in an offer for Rangers’ star striker Alfredo Morelos and see if they can beat Lille to the Colombian’s signature.

Southampton

Well first things first, Southampton need to find a way to bottle whatever it was that saw their performances drastically improve halfway through the season. On a more serious note, the Saints need to find someone to back up Danny Ings. The former Liverpool striker finished with 22 league goals – almost half of the team’s tally – while the next nearest was Stuart Armstrong with 5 goals.

Judging by the final months, Ché Adams will be more of a factor next year, but they still need to find another striker to supply 10-15 goals a season and provide a legitimate option to lead the line should Ings be unavailable. With the quality of service he would receive, it could be just the spot for Callum Wilson to push himself back towards international contention, as could Norwich’s Teemu Pukki.

Burnley

Burnley were a difficult team to decide on their biggest need. Obviously a bit more strength in midfield and defence would never go amiss, but we couldn’t help feel that they were in a strong position to keep themselves around mid-table through their chemistry and the top work of manager Sean Dyche.

Finally though, we realised that the key need wasn’t bringing someone in, but instead holding onto Nick Pope. Despite having a much cheaper defence in front of him, Pope finished 2ⁿᵈ to Ederson on clean sheets (15 compared to 16), yet he made considerably more saves, making this a much more impressive feat. If there is any justice in the world, the battle for the England starting spot would currently be between him and Dean Henderson.

With this in mind, he would be an attractive option for a number of teams who look like they may be willing to make a change between the posts. With Chelsea’s increased focus on the young English talent this season, Nick Pope would not look out of place at all in the number 1 shirt at Stamford Bridge, while he also looks more reliable than Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris and Everton’s Jordan Pickford. The other season, this wouldn’t have been the end of the world with Joe Hart and Tom Heaton also on the books, but they are long gone now and therefore they need to do everything they can to keep hold of the 28-year-old.

Sheffield United

The darlings of the season did a fantastic job of keeping the goals conceded down, but it was the goals scored that saw them drop out of contention for Europe. While it is easy to blame the strikers here, I can’t help think as well that they would benefit from improved attacking options to supply them and chip in with goals.

And what a summer this could be for them to fill this need. Ryan Fraser is a free agent and Gerard Deulofeu may be available following Watford’s relegation. But beyond that, there may be eve better options. Ross Barkley has been announced by Chelsea as for sale, Juan Mata and Xherdan Shaqiri found their appearances limited at Manchester United and Liverpool respectively. And the there’s Gylfi Sigurðsson, who could be available following a down season at Everton. If Sheffield can get the money together to pick up one or two of these players, they will be feeling much more confident about their chances of scoring next season.

Arsenal

How the mighty have fallen. The Gunners can always be relied upon to score goals (though even there they struggled to match their rivals) but they are so soft at the back it costs them.

While a much-publicised move for Willian – or even Wilfried Zaha – would help up front, it is in their own half of the field that they need to strengthening with some leaders in midfield and defence. Guendouzi is a liability and while Xhaka has come through a season of ups and downs, he needs some help securing the midfield, while the centreback positions see a conveyor belt of players brought in who prove to be too skittish to cure the team’s woes at the back.

Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey is a known target of the Gunners, while Chelsea have also made N’Golo Kanté available -though whether they’d sell to a local rival is another matter. At the back, Cédric Soares will be almost like a new signing after spending most of the season out injured. Eric Garcia is supposedly available for £30 million from Manchester City after turning down a contract extension, but if Arsenal wanted a more experienced option, they could do much worse than to look at James Tarkowski of Burnley.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves’ first first European campaign since 1980–81 took them to within minutes of extra time in the quarterfinals and they were unlucky to not make it into the Europa League again next season due to Arsenal finishing below them but winning the FA Cup.

Wolves have a great shot to keep pushing for European qualification, but they need to get more depth down the centre of the team. Their season ended with 7 players amassing 50+ appearances, and the majority of those players were along the spine of the team: centrebacks, midfielders and central striker Raúl Jiménez. That’s not something that can continue long-term, especially with a shorter offseason, and for that reason Nuno Espírito Santo needs to find some players that can come in to help take some of the weight off these players. Fabian Delph would add an experienced central midfield option to cover for Rúben Neves and João Moutinho, while Chris Smalling could provide European experience, while Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen are both available this summer and would be great acquisitions for teams hoping to regularly fight for European qualification.

Tottenham Hotspur

So our first pick here was going to be a holding midfielder, but the signing of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg means that they will probably not be looking for further options here. Instead, we have gone in a different direction, and that is fullback.

Aurier is inconsistent and more of a cult figure than a superstar, and may not even be at the club next season. Meanwhile, Kyle Walker-Peters supposedly is set to sign for Southampton which leaves Spurs with no options at right back. Danny Rose’s loan spell at Newcastle suggests his time at Spurs is limited, leaving Ben Davies as first choice and Ryan Sessegnon as his backup. Mourinho has said he sees Sessegnon as more of a winger than a left back, leaving Spurs very short in key positions.

Right now, Tottenham have to be making an effort to sign Norwich right back Max Aarons, who was linked with Bayern Munich in recent weeks. At just 20-years old, Aarons is a great talent who will just get better over the coming years in the right environment. They are being heavily linked with Lille’s Turkish international Mehmet Zeki Çelik, who would provide a slightly more experienced option but not one with experience of the English leagues. Failing that, free agent Nathaniel Clyne would be a great addition if he could prove his fitness, or they could contact Hertha BSC about Belgium international Dedryck Boyata.  Meanwhile at left back, Marcos Alonso is available this summer from Chelsea and Ben Chilwell would be an upgrade if he felt that Spurs were a better option in the long-term than Leicester

Leicester City

So near yet so far for the Foxes, who could not quite hold on to a top 4 spot. While Vardy’s age remains a worry for me, he continues to lay to a high level and has not appeared to lose much pace yet, while there is also more attacking support available for him now than in many previous seasons. As a result, while an extra attacking threat and a back-up striker in case Vardy was injured would never go amiss, we have instead looked at the back 4.

Ben Chilwell is a high quality left back and they need to try hard to keep hold of him or find a quality replacement like Marcos Alonso or Danny Rose, while bringing in Andreas Christensen or Kurt Zouma would help the team get deeper and younger at centreback as Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan are both the wrong side of 30. Alternatively, John Stones  or Dejan Lovren could see a move to a smaller team pushing for Europe as a chance for redemption after falling out of favour at Manchester City and Liverpool respectively.

Chelsea

The Blues have recruited well up front to make up for the loss of Eden Hazard, while the rise of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham – and improved trust in Olivier Giroud – have left them with plenty of attacking options. Instead I have looked at leadership in their own box.

Kepa fell out of favour and is available for transfer and Willy Caballero is a good back-up but not someone you want to rely on all season, so Chelsea will want a keeper to inspire confidence and start taking command of the defence. While it would not surprise me to see the enquire as to the availability of either David de Gea, Sergio Romero or Dean Henderson from Manchester United, I think that Nick Pope would be a great option for them, while a centreback like James Tarkowski could create a solid pairing alongside Antonio Rüdiger. Stones and Nicolás Otamendi would provide experienced options if either of them could be picked up from Manchester City, but both would probably come with price tags too high to justify given the mistakes they have made.

Manchester United

The second half of the Premiership season showed just how strong United’s ideal XI is, however matches like their laboured win over LASK highlighted their need to improve the overall depth of the squad. With Odion Ighalo’s loan lasting until the end of next season, they will be in a great place up front if they can seal Jadon Sancho’s signature, while if United choose to keep hold of Dean Henderson, I can imagine they will look to offload David de Gea to free up some funds. Also leaving will probably be Chris Smalling, who spent the last season out on loan and Jesse Lingard, who is nowhere near productive enough for a team pushing for top domestic titles.

In their place, United need to bring in players to build some depth through the squad. Another attacking midfielder to relieve some of the pressure on Bruno Fernandes, who has revolutionised the team since his arrival – Jack Grealish would be an ideal option for them. Another reliable centreback like free agent Jan Vertonghen would make the team much more solid at the back, while some cover at fullback, especially on the right, would help give the team options.

Manchester City

City’s big area of focus is one that they failed to deal with last summer: centreback. Aymeric Laporte is a fantastic player, but Vincent Kompany was never replaced and Fernandinho is wasted at that level. Nathan Aké could be a great signing for them but feels overpriced at £41 million. Beyond this, Eric García is for sale after deciding not to extend his contract beyond next season (continuing a trend of young talent leaving), while nether John Stones nor Nicolás Otamendi seem fully trusted by Guardiola.

Jan Vertonghen would be a great option for them as he is comfortable on the ball while also reliable and experienced in defence. Similarly, with money never being an issue for City, who can sign whoever they want an get away with breaking Financial Fair Play, don’t be surprised to see them look to some of the smaller teams pushing for Europe, with James Tarkowski and Çağlar Söyüncü both looking solid options that could probably be prised away from their clubs for ridiculous prices.

Liverpool

How do you improve the Champions? They don’t need much and for that reason, it is more a matter of keeping hold of the big names if clubs like Barca or Real Madrid come calling, while building for long-term success by replacing some of the more expensive players who don’t feature much in order to promote the youth coming through.

This has already began with Adam Lallana leaving, while Nathaniel Clyne is a free agent. Xherdan Shaqiri made only 11 appearances in all competitions, while it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see one of Dejan Lovren or Joël Matip considered surplus to requirements.

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Premier League: July 2020

Premier League: July 2020

The longest Premier League season in history finally came to an end on the 26ᵗʰ July and what a season it was. This season gave us a newly promoted team pushing for Europe, teams turning their season around in the January transfer window, Manchester City being banned from European competition for breaking Financial Fair Play rules then being welcomed back with open arms because the sport is too corrupt to really punish any team with money, a global pandemic causing a 100-day pause to the season, controversies caused by the systems brought in to eradicate controversies, almost daily football for the final weeks of the season, and finally the first Premier League title for Liverpool.

It seemed somewhat fitting that the Reds found themselves on 96 points as they lifted the trophy to celebrate their first top flight title in 30 years. But the Reds will prepare over this shorter offseason for a much tighter challenge next ear as a number of their rivals look to bounce back. Meanwhile at the other end of the table, a win on the final day of the season was not enough to save Bournemouth as they joined Watford and Manchester City in being relegated to the Championship.


Premier League Round-up


Fond farewell

I may be a Manchester United fan, but even I won’t let any bias get in the way of admitting that we are losing a truly incredible talent from the league in the form of Manchester City midfielder David Silva.

The Spaniard is leaving Manchester City after 10 seasons with the club, and has been a key figure part of the team that has won 4 Premier Leagues, 2 FA Cups, 5 League Cups and 3 Community Shields. While he has chipped in a highly impressive 77 goals in 434 appearances for Manchester City, it is his 124 assists and numerous other goals where he as instrumental in the build-up that he will be remembered for.

The league may never have seen the talent of Lionel Mess, but with a player like Silva who has such incredible control and an eye for a pass, favourable comparisons to the stars of Pep’s old Barcelona are certainly fully deserved. Even with the arrival of Kevin de Bruyne in recent seasons, it may have taken some of the focus off of Silva, but it has not negatively impacted his impact on the team or the league. And with his style of play, he still has a few seasons of elite football in him at 34. Whoever picks him up is onto a winner.

VAR’s worst day

Thursday 9ᵗʰ July was a day that will live long in infamy for VAR, as the Premier League had to make statements confirming that the system brought in to improve the accuracy of the officials’ decisions had made mistakes in all 3 matches played that day.

In Manchester United’s 0-3 victory over Aston Villa, United were awarded a penalty after Bruno Fernandes was supposedly tripped just inside the box by Ezri Konsa. A VAR review clearly showed that if anything, it should have been a Villa free kick as Fernandes in fact stood on Konsa’s foot, but despite this the penalty decision stood.

It was another penalty that was wrongly allowed to stand in Everton’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, as the Saints were awarded a penalty for a foul by André Gomes on James Ward-Prowse, only for the VAR review to show that Ward-Prowse simply fell into Gomes… and still allow the penalty to be taken!

Finally in Bournemouth’s goalless draw with Spurs, the Cherries were lucky to avoid giving away a penalty after Josh King clumsily bundled Harry Kane over at a corner. No penalty was given and following a review, the decision inexplicably stood.

The one good thing from these incidents is that the league came out and admitted that the decisions were wrong, but now they need to sort out the system ahead of next season. And I can suggest a simple amendment: for all subjective decisions, make the referee review it on the pitchside monitor and make the decision rather than gormlessly standing around in the middle of the pitch. If they’re still getting the decisions wrong, then they clearly aren’t ready to referee in the supposedly best league in the world.

Faith pays off

Remember back in the opening months of the season when everyone was clamouring for Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Frank Lampard to be removed from their roles as managers of Manchester United and Chelsea? Well I hope those morons feel stupid now, as the season ended with them in 3ʳᵈ and 4ᵗʰ respectively.

It takes time to establish yourself on a team, and then you are limited by the players at the club. Luckily for Manchester United, they finally admitted that the quality of player wasn’t there for the manager and brought in Bruno Fernandes, who revolutionised the team in the second half of the season, while the front 3 they eventually settled on (Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford) have more goals over all competitions than Liverpool’s much-vaunted Sané, Firmino, Salah trio – and their season still isn’t finished with Europa League matches still to be played! Chelsea meanwhile managed to rely on youth to overcome the loss of Eden Hazard and the transfer ban.

Of course, neither team is the finished article and they both finished well behind both Liverpool and Manchester City. Both teams need to do some good work in the transfer window to compete for the title – Chelsea have definitely started well – but the future looks bright for these 2 teams.

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Premier League: June 2020

Premier League: June 2020

Premier League football is back. 100 days after the last match prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league returned to finish it’s season.

And what an end to the season it is already proving to be. Games are being played in empty stadiums, while being broadcast on a range of streaming services and channels including some matches on free-to-air TV. Marcus Rashford’s campaign to force the government into a U-turn on free school meal vouchers saw Manchester City and Liverpool fans praising him and defending him against online trolls like Katie Hopkins. The league as a whole took a stance to support the Black Lives Matter movement with everybody taking a knee for the opening seconds of each match, while matchday kits also had the players’ surnames replaced with “Black Lives Matter” for the early matches after the return. We had our usual dose of thrilling football, beautiful goals and controversies… Oh and Liverpool finally won the Premier League, their first top flight league title in 30 years!


Premier League Round-up


Champions

At one point, it looked like they may be denied or have an asterisk next to their name on a technicality, but thankfully the season was able to return and Liverpool were able to win the title that they had thoroughly earned this season. Their last top flight league title was back in the 1989/90 season, back before the Premier League existed. Since then, they have come close on occasion, most notably when Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea proving costly in the 2013/14 season.

The Reds were fully deserving of the title this season. Yes, they have had limited injuries to their key players and certainly benefited from all of their title rivals having a down year, with City not suitably having suitable options at centreback to cope with the injury of Aymeric Laporte and most of the other “Big 6” going through rebuilds, but the Reds can only play the teams that are put in front of them and did so with aplomb, with just 7 points dropped over their first 31 matches meaning that Manchester City’s 2-1 loss at Chelsea on 25ᵗʰ June secured their 19ᵗʰ league title. They have an incredible front 3 in Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, who have contributed 40 league goals to date this season, while the rest of the squad has supplied a further 28 goals spread between 13 players, as well as benefiting from 2 own goals. Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch, the acquisitions of Virgil van Dyke and Alisson in recent seasons have solidified a defence that used to be called porous by people who were being polite!

But how will they do defending the title next year? You have to imagine that many of their rivals will be more competitive and, as defending champions, Liverpool will have a target on their backs. But as long as they can continue to score with regularity and stay tight at the back, they will be hard to beat. Young players like Trent Alexander-Arnold will have another season of experience under their belt and probably be an even better player for it, while if you look at the goal tallies for the team, there is room for someone beyond the front 3 to stand out from the crowd with a higher goal tally, much like Steven Gerrard back in the day. Don’t rule out a 20ᵗʰ league title for the Reds next season.

Sad end to special season

While the return to action has been great for Liverpool, another team in the top half of the table has not had it so well. Nobody would have thought at the star of the season that newly-promoted Sheffield United would be pushing for European qualification, but the Blades were having a sensational season, finding themselves in 7ᵗʰ when the league stopped – which in terms of European qualification was actually 6ᵗʰ due to Manchester City’s European ban.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gone so well since the return. In the opening match, they were denied a clear goal by a freak failure of Hawk-Eye’s goal-line tech and a failure of VAR (more on that soon) and had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Aston Villa. In their next match at Newcastle, a questionable yellow card for John Egan proved costly as he later received a second yellow, with the game going from 0-0 to a 3-0 loss following his dismissal. And then finally so far, a trip to face a resurgent Manchester United at Old Trafford.

3 away matches in a role is a far-from-ideal way to start off a run of games, and they certainly had some bad luck with some questionable (or just downright wrong) decisions going against them, but it is clear that the break has robbed them of any momentum that they had. What also really hurts them is that they have nowhere near the same strength in depth of the teams around them, which is going to really hurt them now as the remaining games are jammed into the shortest amount of time possible.

While this season can still be considered a resounding success, I think fans will have a legitimate excuse to wonder what might have been had we not had to cope with a pandemic.

Tech troubles… again

Warning: Rant incoming – including some bad language

VAR is an absolute fucking mess! The technology itself is sound and has been shown to work in other tournaments around the world, but in the Premier League it is an absolute shambles.We didn’t even have a full month of matches and yet the amount of errors were staggering…

In the opening game after the return, Villa keeper Ørjan Nyland clearly carried a Oliver Norwood cross from a free kick over his own line, but in a freak situation, the position of the ball, keeper, post and nearby players meant that Hawk-Eye were in a position where the goal-line technology could 100% confirm the goal. Luckily, TV crews had an angle that clearly showed the ball fully over the line, but for some unbelievable reason, VAR never intervened, costing Sheffield United the win.

Arsenal’s midfield moron Mattéo Guendouzi looked certain to face a ban after grabbing Brighton striker Neal Maupay by the throat following Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at Brighton. It was a clear red card, but he escaped a ban after it was revealed that VAR had reviewed the incident and determined that it was not sufficient to deserve a red card… I give up!

Sticking with red cards not being given, VAR also decided that Jordan Ayew did not deserve a red after his forearm made contact with Josh Brownhill’s face. VAR took about a thousand looks and, despite Ayew clearly taking a look to see Brownhill was and raising his arm into an unnatural position, ruled that Ayew was not deserving of a red card.

I am a big supporter of VAR and technology being brought into football to help the officials get the right decisions, but the Premier League will just become a farce. As one of my close friends said to me when we were discussing VAR earlier, “there’s a lot of things they could improve if the FA just stopped being assholes.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Sounds like a waste of money

While we may be watching games being played in empty stadiums, the broadcasters have tried to make the experience seem as close to normal as possible buy including artificial crowd noise. I really hope they didn’t spend too much money on this because it’s completely unnecessary and in my opinion actually harms the spectacle.

Though you are focusing on the football, you can still see that the stands are empty, which means that something just feels off as you’re watching. The other problem is that the broadcasters are limited to certain soundbites, so it will never feel as natural as a real crowd, while there is also the issue of this relying on Joe Bloggs in the studio pressing the right button on his soundboard at the right point. It all just becomes a distraction. And it’s not even necessary!

You’re not trying to create an atmosphere for people living at home, so the crowd noise isn’t needed. Instead, it is a chance for us to take advantage of the situation to hear how a pair of professional football teams sound in a live match. Thanks to the “crowd” noise though, my mute button has been getting a lot of work.

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Premier League: March 2020

Premier League: March 2020

Well… this was an odd month!

It feels like forever since we had any football, but we did in fact manage to get a week’s worth of matches (and those from the latter half of the week before) before all football was shut down due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought not just sport, but everyday life to a standstill. This is a very strange time for us all and the season is currently in a strange form of limbo, but in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible, I am still here with a look at the action and stories to come out this month.


Premier League Round-up


Offside?

Manchester United’s improvement was continuing in March with a 1-1 draw at Everton and a 2-0 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford. A big moment in the Everton match came when VAR overruled an own goal from Harry Maguire (which would have won Everton the match) due to an offside decision against Gylfi Sigurðsson.

The Icelandic international was on the floor in the 6-yard box after having his shot saved by David de Gea. The ball came to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who’s shot towards the far post took a heavy deflection off Harry Maguire and into the goal at the near post after Sigurðsson – who was still on the floor with less than 2 United players between him and the goalline – pulled his legs out of the way. Sigurðsson was definitely in an offside position, but was he offside?

Per the FA’s Laws of the Game on their website:

A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched* by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by:

  • interfering with play by playing or touching a ball passed or touched by a team-mate or
  • interfering with an opponent by:
    • preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision or
    • challenging an opponent for the ball or
    • clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent or
    • making an obvious action which clearly impacts on the ability of an opponent to play the ball

*The first point of contact of the ‘play’ or ‘touch’ of the ball should be used

or

  • gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when it has:
    • rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar or an opponent
    • been deliberately saved by any opponent
    • A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save by any opponent) is not considered to have gained an advantage.

A ‘save’ is when a player stops, or attempts to stop, a ball which is going into or very close to the goal with any part of the body except the hands/arms (unless the goalkeeper within the penalty area).

The clear argument here is that Sigurðsson was in de Gea’s line of vision, which is in itself enough to disallow the goal. I would also make an argument that the offside could be given for another point as well: “clearly attempting to play a ball which is close when this action impacts on an opponent”. In this case, the playing of the ball is the deliberate lifting of the legs just in time for the ball to pass by untouched, in a similar way to a player deliberately stepping over a pass as a dummy to allow a player behind them to get the ball. Were it not for this action, the ball is being blocked by him, and it is only this late evasion that stops this.

If nothing else, I’m sure we can agree that Sigurðsson had more than enough time to get back to his feet and get onside, but chose instead to just stay on the floor, which proved costly.

How do we proceed?

The Premier League is in limbo at the moment as we wait to see how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic clears up. If it happens relatively quickly, then I imagine we will see the league continue as it was and finish slightly further into the summer than usual, which is now possible due to the Euros being pushed back a year. Obviously this would be the ideal situation, but what if the pandemic carries on for another couple of months and completing the season becomes impossible?

Should the season stand with the final standings as they are? Should we go back a couple of weeks to the last point every team had played the same number of matches? Or should the season just be struck off and replayed next season?

There is so much to consider. If the season in stopped early, there is plenty of argument to award Liverpool the title, but as it is not mathematically impossible for them to be caught at this stage, I feel that their title victory would need an asterisk next to it. European places and the bottom 3 also become very contentious decisions as it can be argued that some teams will have had a harder or easier playing schedule, giving advantage to some teams. There is also the issue that right now, not all teams have played the same number of games, but going back to the last time all teams had played the same number of matches could see a team drop down a position that they had fairly climbed above. Any partial season automatically gives an advantage to teams who had a strong first half of the season. Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal started the season poorly but have seen their results improving of late, and could have found themselves rising even higher in the standings.

Though it is harsh on the teams that have been doing well this season like Liverpool and Sheffield United (also teams pushing for promotion from the Championship), I think that the only fair way to deal with this season is to strike it off, with prize money split equally between all the teams, no champion, no promotion/relegation and the same teams competing in European competition next season (with Manchester City’s ban being pushed back a year). It is far from ideal and would really need all UEFA nations to agree to do the same to basically replay the competition next season, but these are unheralded times and I can’t see a fairer way to deal with such an unprecedented situation.

Let’s hope the situation improves quick enough for the seasons to be completed to make all of this a moot point!

Coping with the times

In this very difficult time, clubs have been reacting in very different ways to the COVID-19 pandemic and I just wanted to take a moment to praise a couple of teams who have acted admirably in the circumstances before throwing some shade at others whose actions have been less praiseworthy.

First of all, a massive credit to Brighton, who announced that they will donate 1000 tickets to NHS staff once matches are back on, and Bournemouth, who agreed to match this. NHS Staff are so underappreciated and are putting themselves at risk to look after those who are ill, so I would argue that 1000 tickets from each team should be an absolute minimum! A shout-out too for Burnley, who announced earlier in the month that all the matchday and non-matchday staff (including those in the community) will receive their usual pay while the break goes on.

On the flip-side however, a number of teams including Newcastle and Tottenham are taking advantage of the government’s job retention scheme to pay 80% of staff’s wages to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Meanwhile the players and big-earners remain on full salaries. The average Premier League player has a salary of over £3m per year, so it is disgusting that they are still getting full salaries while the public’s taxes are used to help the rest of the club staff survive. In my opinion, a minimum salary should be set in place, players above which should automatically receive a pay cut with their cut wages going to the rest of the staff being affected. Let’s be honest, those diving primadonnas earn ridiculous money for what they do anyway!

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Premier League: February 2020

Premier League: February 2020

We’re in to March and in a shock moment, the unbeatable Liverpool have fallen to a defeat. The Reds went into the final day of the month looking for a 19ᵗʰ consecutive league win that would be a record across all 4 of England’s professional leagues, but they found themselves losing 3-0 at home to Watford. At the other end of the table, Brighton’s 0-1 loss to Crystal Palace on the same day means that they remain the only team in all of England’s top 4 leagues to have not won a match in any competition.


Premier League Round-up


Liverpool lose

“He’s cut! He’s cut! The Russian’s cut and it’s a bad cut. And now it’s Rocky Balboa coming after Ivan Drago!”

– Rocky IV

It finally happened: after 44 league games unbeaten, Liverpool lost at home (of all places!) to Watford (of all teams!). Liverpool looked poor in this game as Watford put them under pressure, with Ismaila Sarr scoring the first 2 goals and playing a key role in Tory Deeney’s to defeat the Reds – who had just 1 shot on target – by a score of 0-3.

For the last couple of months, I have been suggesting that barring a massive slip-up, Liverpool had the title confirmed, but they have been far from great in recent weeks and have now lost 3 of their last 4 games in all competitions following a Champions League loss to Atlético Madrid and Tuesday’s FA Cup loss to Chelsea. Is this the beginning of the slide?

Not likely, as they are in such a strong position. With 28 league games played, they have the same amount of wins as Arsenal’s “Invincibles” managed in the 2003/04 season and they find themselves on the same amount of points as runners-up Chelsea managed that year, 11 less than Arsenal. Yet they will find themselves leading Manchester City by 19 points, or more if City fail to win their game in hand. Such has been the lack of competition from their league opponents this year.

Will they lose the title from here? Highly unlikely as I still see the teams below dropping point even if Liverpool do have a bit of a bad run, but after their bad luck in recent title run-ins, they need to make sure that they get back to winning ways soon. With March seeing them host Bournemouth this weekend, host Atlético in the second leg of their Champions League Tie, travelling to Goodison Park for a Merseyside Derby and returning home to face Crystal Palace, it is imperative that Liverpool get some good results from these games.

Sky Blue Brexit

Probably the biggest news affecting the Premier League this month was the announcement that Manchester City would be banned from European competition for the next 2 seasons due to “serious breaches” of UEFA’s financial regulations. As well as reigniting the race for the top 4 (or top 5 if City finish in the top 4 as expected), it has left City fans worrying about who will choose to move on, as stars like Sergio Agüero and manager Pep Guardiola may decide that European football is too big of a draw to ignore for the next 2 seasons.

To me, there is another discussion that should be had for the rest of the season: the players used in the remaining games. With the Premier League looking all-but gone this season and top 4 not important now due to their European ban, the focus should be on keeping the stars fit to compete in this season’s Champions League, with a view to winning this season before their ban takes effect.

This would also allow them to look to the future in the league matches. We already know that David Silva is leaving at the end of the season, Leroy Sané has been a transfer target and others may chose to move on. Without European football, City may not be able to pull in the big names, so this is a chance to look at the younger players in the squad like Phil Foden, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus to see if they are good enough to become key members of the starting lineup if required, while also trying to find a centreback combination that can be successful if Aymeric Laporte is unavailable.

Breaking new ground

February saw the Premier League’s first official mid-season break, as Round 26 was spread over 2 weekends. While I like the decision to have a mid-season break as it will help keep the players fit during a long season, I do not personally agree on the break being split over 2 weeks.

I completely understand why it has been done that way, to maximise television revenue by giving the broadcasters 2 weeks to broadcast 1 round of games, however it does lead to some level of inequality. A team forced to play on the first week of the break could desperately need that break a week earlier if they are struggling with injuries to put together a viable starting XI, while a team who play on the second week could find themselves struggling in an extra match as they return following a break in football.

There is also the issue of the weather. We know these days that weather will cause havoc at this time of year and having all games on the same weekend in my view makes it fairer as poor conditions in the second week will force teams to reschedule in an already busy schedule, but poor conditions in the first week could allow those teams to just play a week later while still getting a break from football, leading to them having a less congested fixtures list.

For me personally, a mid-season break is the right idea, but all teams should have the same week off in order to keep things fairer across the park.

Aiming high

We all know that a high boot is illegal in football as it endangers other players. But when does it suddenly become legal? Answer: when it’s a striker attempting a bicycle kick in a crowded box. Such was the case in Arsenal’s 3-2 win over Everton, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s opener was allowed despite his scissor kick bringing his foot dangerously close to the head of defender David Luiz.

I have some sympathy for defenders and midfielders in cases like this, as these overhead kicks are often more dangerous than high boots that everyone else gets penalised for around the pitch – my mind immediately goes to a red card given to Nani against Real Madrid – despite not even getting close to the head – the most important part of the body!

Why do we allow these overhead kicks in crowded areas? Let’s be honest and admit it is purely for the spectacle of seeing the player execute one of these for a shot at goal – visually they look great, in terms of safety… less so.

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Premier League: January 2020

Premier League: January 2020

February is here and the inevitable Liverpool slip-up to lose the title is looking less and less likely. The Reds won all their Premier League games in January, whereas both of their closest rivals dropped points, with Manchester City being held to a draw at home to Crystal Palace and Leicester losing 2-1 at Burnley.


Premier League Round-up


Legend in sky blue

While City’s draw against Palace made Liverpool’s title victory all the more likely, January 2020 was a big month for Sergio Agüero. The Argentine scored his 12ᵗʰ Premier League hat-trick (a league record) during their 1-6 demolition of Aston Villa, which saw him score his 176ᵗʰ Premier League goal to become the top-scoring non-British player in Premier League history. Then, against Palace, he scored his 250ᵗʰ and 251ˢᵗ goals for the club.

Agüero is a world-class player and a fantastic talent, and he has been a key part of Manchester City’s success over the last decade – it was in fact his goal with his first touch off the bench that saw them win at Sheffield United recently. A few years ago, it looked like his time at the club may be coming towards an end as he initially struggled to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style of play, but he has got pas those issues and got back to looking like the elite player he had proved himself to be.

Only once in his Manchester City career has he failed to reach 20 goals in all competitions (17 in the 2012/13 season), which considering the issues that he has had at times with injuries shows just how good a player he is. At 31, he probably has a couple of good seasons in him as he relies on movement and positioning rather than outright pace, but City need to start making sure they have a quality replacement ready for when he is no longer available. Will Gabriel Jesus be the man? Time will tell…

Fair reward

Regular readers will know how much I hate simulation and diving. It’s disgusting, cheating and has no place in the game. I am fully on board punishment for players who are caught simulating in matches, but I also think that there needs to be more of a look at promoting good behaviour.

During Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Norwich, Anthony Martial was fouled in the box with the score at 0-0, but though he went to ground, he did not make a big deal about the challenge and instead got back to his feet to try to keep playing, however the chance was gone. And yet despite this, no penalty was awarded. The same weekend saw Theo Walcott fouled by Lewis Dunk during Everton’s 1-0 win over Brighton. Walcott was passing Dunk to go clean through on goal when Dunk pulled him back. Though Walcott tried to keep his feet, he was clearly off balance, which affected his shot, but again no penalty was awarded.

If we want to get rid of simulation, then it is important to not just penalise offenders, but also to reward players who are honest and try to play on when fouled if they are clearly not gaining an advantage. If players know that they won’t get the free kicks and penalties they deserve without throwing themselves to the ground, can we really blame them for going down so easy?

Transfer talk

The January transfer window is not really the place to get fantastic deals done, but even by normal standards, the big teams were largely underwhelming this season.

Steven Bergwijn and the permanent signature of Giovani Lo Celso add some good depth to the squad despite the departure of Christian Eriksen to Inter, but I feel that Spurs needed to find a central striker to lighten the load on Harry Kane, which became even more important with him getting injured.

Chelsea were another team who I felt needed to look at bringing in another striker as they don’t seem to trust Olivier Giroud, yet they celebrated having their transfer ban reduced by signing nobody. They are currently holding onto 4ᵗʰ spot and the potential of Champions League football next season, but this lack of a new striker could be costly.

For Arsenal, the loan signings of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí could be just what they need to solidify their defence and see them start to climb up the table. I feel however that City made a mistake to not bring in another centreback as they have proved themselves to be weak at the back when Aymeric Laporte is missing.

Manchester United’s signings are interesting. Bruno Fernandes could be a great signing to improve the team’s chance creation and goal scoring (at time of writing after 25 rounds, they have scored just 36 goals). The signing that has the potential to be either brilliant or terrible is that of Odion Ighalo, who has joined on loan from Shanghai Shenhua until the end of the season. Ighalo has Premier League experience, having spent a couple of seasons at Watford that saw them promoted from the Championship, but his prolific start quickly faded and he went from 20 goals in 38 games to 17 in 42 to 2 in 19 before moving to China. His time in China has been prolific, with 36 goals in 55 games for Changchun Yatai and 10 in 19 for Shanghai, but at 30 years old, there will be questions over his ability to transition back from the Chinese league to one of the toughest leagues in the world. He is a United fan though and has taken a pay cut to make this dream move a reality, so it may be that this is able to help propel him on and if he can chip in with a decent number of goals, the experience he will bring to the young forwards around him will be invaluable.

The nation’s hopes in the palm of your hands…

Major tournaments and goalkeeping errors have often gone hand in hand for England over the last couple of decades. So many times we have seen an absolute howler one of the main memories from England’s World Cup or Euros campaign. Things appeared to improve for a time, first with Joe Hart then more recently with Jordan Pickford, but both began to look skittish and if I’m honest, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Everton keeper.

What also can’t help is that it is rare in recent years that an England keeper has come from a top-table club. My personal feeling is that this harms our keepers, as even the best keeper in the league will struggle to avoid conceding if he doesn’t have the players in front of him. Jack Butland looked to be the next big thing a couple of years ago, but a disastrous campaign for Stoke saw them relegated and though Butland rarely seemed at fault for the goals, it looked like an entire season of picking the ball out of the back of his net took its toll and he has not reached the same level again since.

So with the European Championship coming up this summer, who should England take in their squad? I used the Premier League website to check the stats of the English keepers in the league as of the end of January.

Keepers
I have calculated the Save % by dividing the number of saves by the combined number of saves and goals conceded

Assuming England carry 3 keepers in their squad, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale would be my top 2 choices – with Henderson taking the number 1 shirt as not only does he have the best save percentage, but he is also playing for the most successful team this season. Henderson and Ramsdale are both inexperienced at internationals level, so I would probably look to take someone more experienced to help them adapt to the new environment, which unfortunately rules out Alex McCarthy. Ben Foster and Tom Heaton would be the next best options, but Foster is retired and Heaton out injured. Pope has been around the squad for a while, but again does not have the experience of playing in a tournament, so Jordan Pickford would take the third spot for me, more by process of elimination than on the strength of his performances.

Who would you select for the Euros?

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Premier League: December 2019

Premier League: December 2019

Happy New Year to all you football fans! With the Christmas and New Year period, December is always a busy time in the Premier League as we had 6 rounds of matches (or 7 in the case of teams who played on Sunday in Round 14). Losses to Manchester City and Liverpool over the space of a week all-but ended Leicester’s title chances and it now looks like Liverpool’s first Premier League title is as good as won, barring a monumental slip up.

December saw 3 managers given their P45s, with Manuel Pellegrini, Marco Silva and Quique Sanchez Florez being replaced by David Moyes, Carlo Ancelotti and Nigel Pearson respectively.


Premier League Round-up


The ugly side of the beautiful game

Football may be the beautiful game, but far too often it is being overshadowed by the acts of the so-called fans watching the game.

When we hear of the racism that is rife in the Italian leagues or incidents like the racism from the Bulgarian crowd directed at England players, we decry it… and yet December’s Manchester City v Manchester United and Tottenham v Chelsea matches made it very clear that it is an issue here as well! In the Manchester derby, the abuse of Fred from Manchester City fans was obvious, with footage clearly showing a fan making monkey chants and gestures, while objects were also thrown at him. Then in London just a few weeks later, Antonio Rüdiger reported hearing racist chants towards him in the crowd, which seemed to stem from an incident with Son Heung-min.

In both cases, the home clubs came out with public statements saying the right thing, but this means nothing if we’re being honest. You just need to watch the footage of the City v Liverpool game and a number of the culprits are there clear as day standing right in front of the stewards… who do nothing.

The thing is though, why should we stop at racism. Why should any player be getting abused by rival fans, regardless of his race/religion. The behaviour of so many fans is disgusting. Banter and some fun chants is one thing, but the vitriolic hatred that we see fans spewing towards players every game really puts me off my enjoyment of the game and makes me never want to go to a live match, whereas at a rugby game I feel safe and feel like I could still have a great time even if i was the only Gloucester fan who turned up to the Rec.

Football needs to take a no-nonsense attitude towards abuse of any kind, or we can say goodbye to the beautiful game.

Some fine tuning needed

Shock! We’re moaning about VAR again. It’s understandable, as it’s impossible to go a weekend without some VAR controversy at the moment. This month, we have had a spate of goals disallowed for the most marginal of offsides, often so narrow that I’m still struggling to tell if the attacker is onside or not when I look at the graphics.

A couple of times this month we heard chants along the lines of “It’s not football anymore” and to be honest, I think you’re a moron if you think that football is better without VAR. We want to make sure that the games are not ruined by the wrong refereeing call, we just need to get to the point that VAR is being used right, as it we see in rugby, cricket, tennis… all these other sports that have had it for years that the Premier League could and should have learned from when they decided to implement it.

The way I see it, there are 2 words that would massively improve the use of VAR: clear and obvious. In rugby, a referee has to make the call of try/no try and it is then the job of the TMO to review and see if there is any clear and obvious reason to overturn the on-field decision. Meanwhile, cricket has Umpire’s Call when checking LBW on reviews – an area where regardless of whether the umpire has called Out or Not Out, the decision will stand as it is too close to accurately call whether the original call is correct or not.

Imagine if football brought this in for offsides. The official awards the goal but checks VAR, which has a graphic with 1 line/vertical plane marking the offside point. If we can clearly see a part of the attacker beyond that mark, then the goal is chalked off. If it is clear that the attacker is behind the mark, or if it is unclear without zooming in until the screen is about 10 pixels, then the on-pitch call stands. Likewise, if the offside is called but the review clearly shows that the player was onside, it is overruled, but if not clear then the call stands. Technology is not good enough for us to pause the image at the exact moment the ball is played away, and it is certainly not good enough for us to get close in on an image without the pixel quality making it unclear. Making a margin for error may lead to some calls that were technically wrong, but it will still bring an end to the bad missed that lead to people complaining about the work of the officials.

With VAR being given an easier job there, though, I would also extend its use elsewhere to correcting any clear and obvious mistakes, such as in Everton’s 1-2 win over Newcastle, where Everton’s opener came from a corner that replays clearly showed should have been a goal kick after Moise Kean headed over. With the number of cameras at these games, there should be enough time for VAR to notice a clear and obvious mistake of this kind before play continues.

Hopefully we see some improvement soon.

Where is everyone?

Earlier this month, I saw a story on BBC Sport that I couldn’t help have a quick chuckle at. Newcastle were offering their season ticket holders a free additional half-season ticket in a bid to help fill St James’ Park.

Now I have respect for Newcastle and its fans, so it has been horrible watching the decline of such a great club with Mike Ashley at the helm. The Newcastle fans would come to support their team regardless of results, but they are sick and tired of Ashley’s reign and the way that he has turned such a proud club into a business. The only way they can get their point across is by not turning up to matches and denying the club ticket revenue.

So, Mike Ashley, kindly get out and let this club get back to where it should be.

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