Premier League 2020/21: April

Premier League 2020/21: April

So April was a quiet month for the Premier League, eh?

Ha! If only.

While the league came under attack from the supposed Big 6’s attempts to get more money for their owners – an event which backfired tremendously for everyone involved – the league season continued with some more thrilling matches. Manchester City may have lost to Leeds during the month, but with rivals Manchester United also dropping points to the same opposition at the end of the month, the Sky Blues find the league title within reach, with them likely to claim the title in their next match at time of writing. At the other end of the table, Sheffield United were officially confirmed as the first team to be relegated from the league, on the same day that Norwich were confirmed as the first team to secure promotion to the Premier League.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 21 goals; Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 20 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 16 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 13 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) & Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 11 assists; Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 17 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 15 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa)– 14 clean sheets


A step too far

On 18ᵗʰ April, the Premier League came under attack as the “Big 6” (Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur) announced that they were part of a group of 12 clubs (along with AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid) who had agreed to form a new breakaway midweek league, the European Super League, rather than continue with the planned UEFA competitions that are in place. It was very clear that this was a move to make the rich clubs richer while the poor clubs were left out.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Not only did it come completely out of the blue, with players and managers as shocked as fans and equally against the decision, but it came on the same day that Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by a Fulham side who will potentially be playing in the Championship next season. In fact, if we looked at the matches on that day or 2 days either side, there were 7 matches between a member of the Big 6 and one of the lowly teams not welcome with the big boys, resulting in just 3 wins for the Big 6 and 4 draws. Of course, within days all the teams had pulled out and were forced to make grovelling apologies.

The Premier League is the best league in the world, not because of its officiating (clearly), but because each team has a legitimate chance to beat any of the other 19 on their day, whereas the Bundesliga has been won by Bayern Munich for the last 8 (soon to be 9) seasons and La Liga has had the same top 3 (in varied order) for the last 9 seasons. The fact that managers and players unequivocally came out against the ESL shows just how loved the Premier League is.

The only people who seem to have been on board with the decision were the fat cats owning each club. And this is no surprise. As football has become more and more of a business, we have seen more clubs just become the shadow of their former selves as they just become a way of adding another 0 to the owner’s personal wealth. Hopefully, this show of solidarity from fans and club personnel alike will be a sign to the fat cats that they can’t have their own way, and hopefully lead us to a time when clubs are owned by those who care…

Special appointment

One giant story that went almost under the radar due to the ESL announcement was the removal of José Mourinho from his role as Spurs manager. The sacking came 2 days after Spurs came from behind to draw at Everton, but less than a week before they would face Manchester city in the Carabao Cup final. Former player Ryan Mason – who was forced to retire early due to a serious head injury – was moved from his role with the Academy into the interim head coach role until the end of the season, becoming the youngest manager in Premier League history, at 29 years old.

But beyond that, who will get the job? Mason is a Spurs man through and through, but it doesn’t sound like he is in contention due to this lack of experience, though it would be interesting to see if this would change if he has a super successful end to the season.

Rafa Benitez would be an ideal choice and is currently available, but I can’t see him moving to Spurs given how reluctant Daniel Levy is to get the chequebook out. Rafa was asked to work miracles with no financial support at Newcastle, and I can’t see him wanting to go into a situation where he is expected to compete against United, City, Liverpool and Chelsea on the pitch but not in the transfer market.

The odds on Antonio Conte taking over have dropped significantly over the last week, and he would be an attractive option, with Premier League experience and experience of teams with high expectations. But would Conte consider a move from perennial title chasers Inter Milan to a Spurs team who are probably pushing for top 3 at best an attractive move?

Eddie Howe is a young English manager who won plenty of plaudits during his time at Bournemouth, playing attractive attacking football. However deficiencies in defence eventually cost him and he has been without a club since, which does raise some flags. He remains the favourite to take over at Celtic, and a couple of strong seasons there could put him in good standing next time around, but not right now.

Sticking with young English managers and Scott Parker may be facing relegation with Fulham, but the team s unrecognisable now to the mess they were at the start of the season. He is a smart manager with expectations of his players, but again probably needs some more experience before a move to a big club.

Ralph Hasenhüttl has impressed on the whole at Southampton and it seems a matter of time before he gets a more prestigious appointment, but for a manager with only 2 appointments of note (Southampton and RB Leipzig) who has never managed a winning percentage of 50% or above, a move to a team like Spurs may be to big of a jump.

Brendan Rodgers and Nuno Espírito Santo are probably the most attractive managers in the Premier League right now, but this season has maybe shown a reliance on a couple of star players, with Wolves struggling following he sale of Diogo Jota and injuries to Raúl Jiménez and Pedro Neto, while Leicester have also struggled with key players missing.

Let down

And finally to a subject that seems to come up far too often: player safety surrounding head injuries. This time we journey back to the start of the month, as Leeds hosted Sheffield United. Sheffield right back George Baldock suffered a head injury and even from the television footage, it was clear that he appeared to be suffering concussion symptoms. Yet after the quickest of trials at the side of the pitch, Baldock was allowed to play on, only to go down again moments later and finally be removed from the match.

I may not be a medical expert but it was clear to me that Baldock was in no fit state to continue after the original incident. By being allowed to play on, Baldock was put at serious risk. So much work is being done in sports like rugby and the NFL to combat head injuries and protect players, yet football—a sport in which you can legally use your head to play the ball—once again seems far behind.

These players may be getting paid substantial sums to play in the Premier League, but their safety and wellbeing is being put at risk, and I worry that if something doesn’t change soon, it will take a serious and life-changing incident for the league begin caring about concussions and head injuries.


Team of the Month

Manchester United

This was very much a two horse race this month, with only Manchester United and West Ham managing 3 wins in the league this month. While West Ham’s 3 wins were probably against a stronger set of opponents, United’s win at Spurs highlighted their turnaround from the mauling they received earlier this season, and they also finished the month with a slightly higher number of points due to a draw at Leeds versus a loss at Newcastle, while they also had to do this around their Europa League campaign, which saw both legs of the quarterfinal against Granada and the 6-2 victory in the first leg of the semifinal against Roma.


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Premier League 2020/21: March

Premier League 2020/21: March

With the FA Cup and international football taking up much of March, we only had a few rounds of Premier League action, but that doesn’t mean nothing of note happened. Manchester City’s unbeaten run came to an end at the Etihad with a 0-2 loss to Manchester United, Fulham picked up a crucial victory against Liverpool, Arsenal came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 a West Ham and Sheffield United moved on from Chris Wilder with relegation looking likely, only to lose their next match 5-0.

Despite the loss to United, City remain in a commanding position and likely to win the title, with United and Leicester having opened up a small gap between them and 4ᵗʰ-placed Chelsea, with just 5 points separating them and 8ᵗʰ-placed Everton in the fight for European qualification. At the bottom end of the table, Sheffield United and West Brom may as well begin preparing for life in the Championship, while Fulham are keeping themselves in the hunt for safety, currently just 2 points behind Newcastle, who do have a game in hand.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) & Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 17 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 16 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 13 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 11 assists; Bruno Fernandes & Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 16 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) & Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 14 clean sheets


End of an era

The first story I will be looking at is actually something that has happened in recent weeks during the Premier League break, with the announcement that Sergio Agüero will be leaving Manchester City at the end of the season. The Argentine has been one of the best strikers of his generation, but after an injury-hit start to the campaign, he has featured infrequently in the starting XI, as Pep Guardiola has often preferred Gabriel Jesus up front, or a formation with a false 9, taking advantage of their midfield options and the goal-scoring form of İlkay Gündoğan this season.

After being such a key part of the squad for so long, it is a shame to see his City career coming to such an end. Along with Vincent Kompany and David Silva, Agüero ushered in a new era of success for Manchester City, so to see him getting such infrequent minutes is heart-breaking as a fan of football and just shows how cut-throat a business football is now.

Of course, the one thing Agüero hasn’t won at City has been the Champions League, but they are looking strong this season and are still in the hunt. Could Agüero still get the fairy tale ending to his Manchester City career by scoring the winner in the final?

Bale balling

It’s surely taken longer than Spurs would have hoped, but in the last couple of months, Gareth Bale has finally become an integral part of the squad following his loan move from Real Madrid.

After putting together some impressive performances in the cup, Bale has made his way into the starting XI in the league and has become such a key part of the attack, playing a vital part in their sole goal against Fulham and scoring a brace against Crystal Palace.

When on form, Bale is a fantastic player, but injuries and falling down the pecking order at the Bernabéu have left him not always reaching his potential, and for so long it looked like his return to Spurs would be a bust. But recent months will have given the team hope and it will be interesting to see if Spurs try to make the loan permanent. If he can carry on like this until the end of the season, letting him return to Spain would be a big loss for the team.

G-real problems

Aston Villa have struggled as of late, and it’s no surprise that these struggles have coincided with the loss of Jack Grealish to injury. While they have still had some attacking quality, Grealish has the talent to unlock defences and change games in Villa’s favour.

At 25 years old and now in and now pushing for a spot in the England XI, it’s hard to imagine that Grealish will be at the club much longer, as clubs pushing for titles and European qualification on the regular will want a player like this, who will also benefit for regular football in Europe when it comes to winning a place in the national team. I’ll be shocked if Villa don’t receive some hard-to-ignore offers this summer.

As a result, these recent weeks without Grealish could prove beneficial. They have shown that they are still a functional team, and it won’t take much to get them secure in the league and competitive around the middle of the table.


Team of the Month

Leicester City

With just 3 rounds of games, it’s certainly harder to pick out one team, but Leicester got my vote here. They have had a torrid time with injuries, but have pushed through to a draw and 2 wins during March. So many teams would come unstuck with their injury list – just look at Villa without Grealish – so to still be pushing into the top 3 is a great achievement. 


Premier League 2020/21: February

Premier League 2020/21: February

What a crazy season this is turning into! Having started the season so horribly that they looked completely out of the title race, a return to form for City has seen them gone on a run of unbeaten games stretching back a couple of months to finish February overwhelming favourites for the title with a 12 point lead. Of course it hasn’t been just their good form, but also the stuttering form of their rivals, as the goals dried up for Liverpool and their umpteenth centreback combination of the season saw team go on a run of losses, while Manchester United will have wished that they had spread the goals from their 9-0 win over Southampton more evenly through the month and Leicester have had to adapt to a growing injury list that had claimed star attackers Harvey Barnes and James Maddison by the end of the month. Meanwhile at the bottom of the table, Fulham followed up a 0-2 loss to Leicester with an unbeaten run that puled them within 3 points of safety, but Sheffield and West Brom remain in serious danger despite both picking up a win during the month.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 17 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 15 goals; Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 14 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) & Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 11 assists; Bruno Fernandes & Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists; Son Heung-Min (Tottenham) – 8 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 15 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 13 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 11 clean sheets


Revitalised

Jesse Lingard became something of a joke figure at Manchester United, with his lack of goals and assists in recent seasons making a mockery of his role as an attacking midfielder at one of the biggest clubs in the world. With the way United have increase the quality of their attack in recent years, there has not appeared to be a spot for him, and he was understandably sent out on loan to West Ham at the end of February.

Since then, he has been revitalised in a new environment and will surely be looking to make the move permanent. He has immediately slotted into the West Ham midfield and been not just involved, but a key part of February’s success, scoring a brace on his debut against Aston Villa and another goal in their 2-1 win against Spurs, while he has also been heavily involved in many of West Ham’s best chances and won the penalty against Sheffield United.

We see it all the time that sometimes a player just needs a change of scenery, just look at how Mo Salah was a bust at Chelsea but then a superstar for Roma and Liverpool. Sometimes it is just a chance to reset and take the weight of a poor spell off your shoulders, while sometimes a drop to a smaller club can take pressure off you as there is less pressure away from the trophy hunt and less superstars overshadowing you.

Right now it feels like making the loan move permanent is a great result for everyone. United get a player off their books who was failing to produce up to expectations, West Ham get a player who has improved their attacking options and Lingard gets the chance to rebuild after a difficult couple of years. This deal feels like a matter of “when” rather than “if”.

King Kevin

If you want another example of a player whose career was revitalised by a move, look no further than Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian midfielder was highly touted when moving to Chelsea but only made 3 appearances for the club, but was revitalised by a move to Wolfsburg and came back to the Premier League just a few years later to star for Manchester City. And during February’s 2-1 win over West Ham, he made it onto the Top 10 list for Premier League assists with a beautiful ball into Rúben Dias.

Obviously, having so many world-class players around you and a squad deeper than any other team in the league certainly helps you climb that high in just 6 seasons, but there is more to it than that. De Bruyne is one of those players that even as an opposing fan, you just can’t help but enjoy watching him play, with his range of passes meaning that he seems to have an answer for every situation.

And at just 29, there is no reason that this can’t continue for another 4 or 5 years – at least! On 77 assists at the time of writing, James Milner’s 8ᵗʰ place (85 assists) looks easily beatable by the end of the season given City’s current form. And by the end of his Premier League career, Cesc Fabregas’s 2ⁿᵈ-place tally of 111 looks a distinct possibility. Can he reach Ryan Giggs’ 162? Only time will tell.

Free kick farce

Another month, another absolute shambles of officiating.

The setting this time was Brighton’s trip to West Brom – a vital match with the Baggies in the relegation zone and Brighton dropping perilously close. West Brom led 1-0 but Brighton had just won a free kick on the edge of their opponent’s box. Brighton’s Lewis Dunk asked referee Lee Mason if he could take a quick free kick rather than wait for the wall to be set back 10 yards, to which Mason assented. Mason blew the whistle to allow play to resume and Dunk – having seen keeper Sam Johnstone still on his near post organising the wall – calmly slotted the ball in at the far post. It was a wonderfully clever goal… or should have been, except that Lee Mason also saw the keeper out of position at the last moment and – in a blind panic – took the law into his own hands, blowing the whistle again to stop play. Of course, by the time anyone accounted for the second whistle, the ball was in the net, so Mason chose to say that Dunk had taken the free kick before he blew to restart play, disallowing the goal and ordering the free kick be retaken. Someone involved with VAR must have jumped in to confirm that Dunk had waited until after the whistle, as Mason suddenly reversed his decision and awarded the gaol, but then VAR was forced to intervene and deny the goal as Mason’s second whistle stopped play before the ball entered the goal. With this whole shambles finally resulting in a retaken free kick, the chance unsurprisingly came to nothing and the Baggies held on for a 1-0 victory.

Now first things first, while Brighton were clearly wronged here, I have limited sympathy for them as both Pascal Groß and Danny Welbeck wasted penalties that should have given them a 1-2 victory despite the free kick shambles. However, this is yet another example of the best football league in the world being let down by inept officiating.

What I don’t understand though is why the game needs to be slowed down by having the free kick taker wait for the referee’s whistle. The other team has committed an act of foul play and yet they are given the chance for their keeper to arrange a wall to defend his near post and position himself to perfectly defend his goal – so what advantage are the team who were fouled getting here? Dunk’s quick free kick was a moment of quick thinking and exploiting an opportunity within the laws of the game, and that should not be discouraged.

As I write this, my mind drifts back to a disallowed goal for Manchester United against Chelsea in 2009, where Wayne Rooney placed the ball for a corner before appearing to leave it for Ryan Giggs, though just knocking it out of the zone. Giggs, knowing the ball was live, did not return the ball to the corner flag but instead immediately crossed it in for Cristiano Ronaldo to head home – only for the goal to not be given as the linesman was not paying attention and adjudged that the corner was never taken. Both of these were wonderful, inventive moments that will teach defences to stay on their toes. The big gripe about bringing in VAR was the way that it would slow down the game, so why are we OK with these quick set pieces being disallowed?

The quality of officiating needs to improve quickly, or else it may be time to start removing underachievers for their roles.


Team of the Month

West Ham

It would have been easy to pick City again this month after they won all of their games, but that would just be boring. Instead, I have gone for West Ham. Despite a lack of big names, they are getting results, with 3 wins, a draw and a loss at the Etihad making up February’s Premier League schedule, with 9 goals scored and 4 conceded (2 of which were to City). Only City and Wolves had a better month, while Leicester matched them for results.

At a point in the season when many teams are going through a slump, West Ham are going under the radar while picking up points consistently, to the point that I was shocked to see they were up to 4ᵗʰ. While they are far from guaranteed European football next season – they are only 6 points ahead of Spurs and Villa in 8ᵗʰ and 9ᵗʰ, both of whom have games in hand – if they can keep up the performances, they are well on track for a best finish since the 2015/16 season.


Premier League 2020/21: January

Premier League 2020/21: January

It was a January with a difference entering 2021 as we had very few big signings during the transfer window, with the ongoing pandemic seeing teams more focused on getting unnecessary costs off their books and loans from other English clubs as opposed to spending big money on new names from the continent.

On the pitch, Liverpool’s 68-game unbeaten run in the Premier League at Anfield came to an end with a 0-1 loss to Burnley, while a draw against Manchester United – who themselves lost to Sheffield United during the month – and a loss at Southampton saw the defending Champions drop behind both Manchester Clubs, as Pep Guardiola’s City’s improved form saw them end the month top of the league.

Wins over United and Newcastle were not enough to lift Sheffield United off the bottom of the table, as Fulham and West Brom also started to pick up more points. However, it’s not looking good for any of these teams as they all finished the month some way from safety and begging for a miracle, as well as the safe return of fans to stadiums.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 15 goals; Son Heung-Min & Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 12 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 11 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) – 10 assists; Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 9 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 12 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 10 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 9 clean sheets


Loss of the legend

On 25ᵗʰ January, Blues legend Frank Lampard was dismissed from his role as manager of Chelsea after a run of 8 league matches with just 2 wins, with his replacement Thomas Tuchel announced the next day. While there is a standard that the big teams expect, it feels like this was just another example of panicking at the first sign of trouble.

Lampard hasn’t been given a fair shot. Last season, he had to contend with a transfer ban and the loss of star player Eden Hazard, but utilised a squad of young English players to finish 4ᵗʰ – probably outperforming their own expectations – but some of their big summer signings have struggled to adapt to the league at a time when things are already weird enough with no fans in the stadium. These are strange times, so to let go of Lampard the first time his team has hit a bad patch seems an overreaction, especially when you look at how other teams have gone through similar bad spells this season and made their way back to the top of the table.

You could definitely argue that Lampard was given a big job too early in his managerial career, but after doing so, he should have been given the time to work with his squad and get through this tough time. Give it a year or two and they’ll be looking for Tuchel’s replacement, while Lampard will probably be getting the respect he deserves at another club.

Keep your distance

One of the crazy things in January was the call that players have to remain socially distanced when celebrating. While it has led to some fun celebrations – James Maddison’s 1 metre distant handshakes has been a personal favourite – this rule seems to have been largely ignored. And to be honest, I can completely understand why.

In a game where it’s apparently legal to crowd the referee to get a decision you want or to wrestle players to the ground in the box as a dead ball is played in, not being able to celebrate with your teammates – who you will be around all match and in training anyway – is just ridiculous

If there is that much of a worry about passing on the virus then the games should not be going ahead. And if it is merely to set an example to the public, then that is pathetic as there is a big difference between 2 elite athletes celebrating within their team and me breaching lockdown by going round to Joe Schmoe’s house for a party.

Too soft

Manchester United’s shock loss at home to Sheffield United highlighted an issue that seriously needs looking at: the way goalkeepers are protected. For Sheffield’s opener, David de Gea was clearly impeded from competing at the corner by getting pushed from behind as he went to jump, yet this was deemed fair contact and the goal was allowed to stand. And yet a little later in the game, Anthony Martial had an equaliser ruled out for Harry Maguire supposedly fouling keeper Aaron Ramsdale, though replays showed that it was clearly the keeper coming forward who initiated the contact.

To me, keepers get far too much protection in this day and age. When you consider that they are the only players allowed to use their hands, so should in theory be able to get to the ball before a striker’s head, it seems laughable that they will usually get a free kick in their favour the moment an opposition player comes within 3 feet of them, and I can’t help feel that this is (at least in part) behind the drop in quality of goalkeeping, as too many of them expect help from the officials, so then struggle if put under pressure legally.

To me, the keepers need to be treated no differently to the other 20 players on the pitch, but then as an aside to this, all the shenanigans that go on in the box at a set piece need to be eradicated.


Team of the Month

Manchester City

This month’s selection was easy as only Manchester City went the month with a 100% winning record. The Citizens went 4 from 4 in the league while also winning all their cup games – including a potential banana skin in Cheltenham Town. Not only that, but despite having played so much of the season without a recognised striker, they managed an aggregate score of 13-1 over those 4 games, as the recovered from an awful first half of the season to reach the top of the table by the end of the month.

Their oft-suspect defence has solidified, with John Stones finally showing the form that earned him a move to the Etihad, while players like Phil Foden and İlkay Gündoğan have stepped up to replace the stars who have moved on or been unavailable.

If City go on to win the league this season, January will be looked back on as a crucial month.


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Premier League 2020/21: December

Premier League 2020/21: December

Happy New Year Premier League fans!

Before I get into this, I have a sincere apology to make, to my good friend Chris and all Spurs fans. It was beginning to look like this would finally be their season, but it would appear that I jinxed them by praising them so much in last month’s article, as they promptly went off the boil and dropped right out of the Champions League qualifying spots.

Tottenham were replaced at the top of the table by Liverpool, who led the league at Christmas as saw in the new year at the top spot, though Manchester United finished the month just3 points behind with a game in hand. Leicester and Everton filled out the top 4, though Villa are just 3 points behind, with a game in hand on Everton and 2 on the Foxes. The rest of the big name teams (other than 13ᵗʰ-placed Arsenal) fill out the rest of the top 8, with Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City all finishing the month on the same number of points as Villa, though games in hand favour City and Villa.

At the bottom of the table, Chris Wilder’s seat must be feeling pretty toasty, as Sheffield United’s 1-1 draw at Brighton saw them double their points tally for the season, 6 points behind West Brom, who have turned to Sam Allardyce to keep them up. Fulham fill the final spot in the relegation zone, but they are only 2 points behind Brighton with a game in hand, while Burnley will hope that their improved form helps continue to pull them away from danger.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 13 goals; Son Heung-Min (Tottenham), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Jamie Vardy (Leicester) – 11 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 10 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) & Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 7 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa) – 8 clean sheets; Ederson (Manchester City) & Alex McCarthy (Southampton) – 7 clean sheets


Rewarding honesty

Anyone who has been reading my Premier League thoughts for years will know that I hate diving. It’s cheating, pure and simple, a way to deceive the officials into giving a penalty or a free kick.

Now, we’re certainly in a much better place then we were a few season ago, but there are still far too many occasions where you see players either going to ground without being touched or feeling the slightest brush from a defender and Launching themselves through the air as if they were taking flight.

This issue (and the obvious solution) was highlighted to me as I watched 2 matches on 5ᵗʰ December: Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Leeds and Manchester City’s 2-0 win over Fulham. With the score 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, Ian Poveda was caught in the box by Ben Chilwell. Rather than go to ground, he stayed on his feet in an attempt to still make something from the situation, but the chance was now gone. What should have been a clear penalty to Leeds ended up being nothing. Meanwhile at the Etihad, Fulham defender Joachim Andersen caught Raheem Sterling in the box. Though there was less contact than in the Poveda incident, Raheem didn’t hesitate in throwing his legs into the air and doing a dramatic belly flop, and the penalty was awarded for Kevin De Bruyne to double the score and secure the win.

And herein lies the issue and the reason that players will continue to dive: if they are honest and stay on their feet, officials will not react. Officials need to go back to basics and look at what constitutes a foul – it does not need to include the player going to floor. If they start rewarding the honesty of players by awarding a free kick or penalty even when the player keeps their feet, then players will not have to dive in order to win the decision they are due – and anyone who continues to can be rightly vilified!

Classless

On 16ᵗʰ December, West Brom became the first Premier League team this season to part ways with their manager, with he announcement that they had sacked Slaven Bilić. That very same day, Sam Allardyce was announced as the new manager. It’s understandable why West Brom made the change, as they were 19ᵗʰ in the league on just 7 points. The problem is, this came less than 24 hours after the team held Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at the Etihad.

No offence to West Brom, but a draw at the Etihad is likely going to be one of the best results of the season, and the fact that both the sacking and the new appointment were announced the next day says to me that the decision was already made ahead of the match, so to sack a manager right after such a positive result shows a certain lack of class.

Big Sam may be an expert in keeping teams up, but this is a weak team in a strong league, and I can’t see this appointment paying off. Bilić will find another team and it would be a beautiful irony if West Brom drops to the Championship and Bilić manages in the Premier League before the Baggies make it back up.

Boom or bust

Leeds have been a breath of fresh air in the league this season. Under the watch of Marcelo Bielsa, the Whites have brought a flashy attack-minded gameplan that has surely been winning them the support of neutrals in a number of matches.

Of course, it hasn’t been all success for them, as their big wins (like 5-2 against Newcastle and 0-5 at West Brom) are a flip side to equally big losses, like the 6-2 loss at Old Trafford. They find themselves entering the new year with 7 wins, 7 losses and 2 draws, with 30 goals for and 30 goals against.

While this level of success will be enough to keep them up this year, they will need to find some way to adapt their game in the long-term, so that they can continue to be super dangerous in attack, but not at the expense of their defence. After all, a focus on attacking brilliance is fine, until your star striker gets hurt or hits a barren spell – I’ve learned that the hard way on FIFA!

Transfer talk

The new year means that the transfer window is open again, and some teams certainly need to be utilising it, as some teams have a clear need.

While Manchester City may finally be creeping back up the table, they are still feeling the impact of playing much of the season without a recognised striker. With Aguero and Jesus, they don’t need to break the bank on a superstar, but they need to get someone who has a striker’s natural instincts if they want to start winning the close games.

Other teams that are in desperate need of a striker are Wolves – who have really missed Raúl Jiménez since his head injury – and Brighton, who are rotating between Neal Maupay, Aaron Connolly, Florin Andone and Danny Welbeck of all people!

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani has been a great option for Manchester United while Bruno Fernandes has helped drag the Red Devils into the title hunt, but they will need an elite winger and centreback if they legitimately want to win the league – though their early elimination from the Champions League will make it even harder for them to get that kind of quality, especially with Ed Woodward still in his role!

What other teams do you think have a burning need to fill during this transfer window?


Team of the Month

Everton

The Toffees get my vote for December as, following a drop in form, they returned with an unbeaten month. Things kicked off with a 1-1 draw at Burnley, and then they followed this up with 4 wins: 1-0 against Chelsea, 0-2 at Leicester, 2-1 against Arsenal and 0-1 at Sheffield United. That’s a 7-2 aggregate score in December, including wins against 2 of their rivals for European qualification and another big name team to boot!

They are certainly not the perfect team, with Jordan Pickford skittish between the sticks and summer loan signing Robin Olsen not sufficient competition, but in this season where nobody looks like they will run away with the league, a Champions League spot looks a real possibility, so long as they can stay consistent.


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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