Premier League 2021/22: August

Premier League 2021/22: August

Football may not have quite come home this summer, but the Premier League has returned, along with grounds full of cheering fans!

Kicking off midway through the month, we have had 3 rounds of football before the first international break of he season, and boy did it leave the table in an interesting place. Champions Manchester City opened up their campaign with a loss to a Tottenham side who were not even playing star striker Harry Kane as they tried to avoid loving him to the sky blues, while newly-promoted Brentford defeated Arsenal in Friday night’s opener. And for the two North London rivals things just continued in the same manner, leaving Spurs top of the table with the only 100% winning record, while the Gunners find themselves dead last, one of 3 teams yet to earn a point.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Michail Antonio (West Ham) – 4 goals; Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton) & Mason Greenwood (Manchester United) – 3 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Paul Pogba (Manchester United) – 5 assists; Michail Antonio (West Ham) & Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) – 3 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Hugo Loris (Tottenham Hotspur) – 3 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City) & David Raya (Brentford) – 2 clean sheets


Heading for trouble

Remember how both last season and during the summer professional football continued to show that it doesn’t care about player safety when it comes to concussions? Well it appears that narrative will continue this season.

The game: Chelsea’s 0-2 win at Arsenal. Reece James went up to compete with Nuno Tavares for an aerial ball and the pair made contact, with James flopping to the ground on landing, before lying there unmoving in a star shape. To everyone watching, it looked like James had been knocked out, but after the game was stopped and he received medical attention, the Chelsea fullback was allowed to play on. The incident conveniently didn’t even appear in the Match of the Day highlights.

Now if James was knocked out (more on this shortly), then it is absolutely disgusting that medical professionals allowed him to play on. Contact sports like rugby and American football continue to sponsor research that shows the danger of head injuries, and yet football—a game where you are legally allowed to play the ball with your head—continues to bury its head in the sand, which will likely have fatal (and expensive, to use language the people in charge may actually care about) consequences.

Of course, if you ask anyone at Chelsea, James never lost consciousness, with Thomas Tuchel saying that he stayed down as he was afraid that he had broken a tooth. Now watching the footage of James staying down, that is not how I imagine someone reacting if they think they’ve broken a tooth. Especially given the visible worry of players and officials, it feels like James would have had more of a reaction if this was the issue. It feels like a poor excuse to cover for the fact that they risked their players life. And if it is true, then you have to ask why acting as if you’ve been knocked out is acceptable.

Hopefully this is the last time we see an event like this, but given recent history, I very much doubt it!

Wingman

It’s been a strange old summer for Manchester City. The defending champions successfully brought in Jack Grealish, but with Sergio Agüero no longer at the club and Gabriel Jesus apparently not fully trusted as the lead striker (judging by the amount of times the team played without a recognised number 9 last season), many would argue that their summer spending was somewhat of a failure as they failed to come to terms with Spurs for Harry Kane and similarly failed to bring in a striker, which was even more noticeable given the signings some of their rivals made (more on that later).

So with no new striker signed, it has been interesting to see how City have began the season up front, with Ferran Torres in the middle of a front three, with Grealish on the left and Jesus on the right. And yet it’s working. Jesus has had a brilliant start to the season, causing all manner of problems for defenders on his side and putting in a number of super dangerous crosses, which should have led to more than 3 assists so far, while he has also been able to come in from a wider position to cause trouble in the box, or move more centrally once substitutions are made.

While I still think that City will regret not bringing in a bigger striker before the season is out, it looks like Gabriel Jesus may just have found the opportunity to become a regular in the starting XI.

Building for success

It’s been a mixed summer transfer-wise for the big six. But who has been put in the best position by their summer’s business.

While Jack Grealish is in my personal opinion an upgrade on Raheem Sterling, he is arguably a luxury in a position where City already have plenty of options, especially with Jesus now playing a wide position. Much more important was getting a star striker in. Harry Kane would have been the perfect option, as someone who can play as a classic 9 but also has the skill to play a little deeper, so to miss out on him could be costly. That said, with the depth they have elsewhere in the squad, don’t be shocked to see them still remain favourites for the title.

Moving across the city and Manchester United have had a busy summer! Though Dan James will be a loss, the Red Devils had already secured his replacement in Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho, while the arrival of Raphaël Varane should go a long way to solidifying things at the back, something the team has needed for years! But to then end the transfer window by bringing back the prodigal son in Cristiano Ronaldo was a masterstroke. Not only will his return pump up a crowd that is already excited to be back, but his talent belies his age and he will be such a threat leading the line and at set pieces. But what United also benefit from now is leadership. In Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani—who has vacated the 7 shirt to let Ronaldo have it back—United now have 2 world class strikers to teach Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood the finer points of the position whilst also ensuring the supply men are putting the ball in exactly the right position. But more than that, the leadership of those 2 and Varane, combined with a high number of top class players will hopefully bring out the best in Paul Pogba, whose prodigious talent has too often been outweighed by a lack of effort. They may still be a man short in the midfield, but this looks like a team that can compete for the title once again.

United aren’t the only team who look really set to challenge now, though. Chelsea looked a real threat under Thomas Tuchel last season, and the only thing that appeared to be missing was an elite striker, with Timo Werner struggling to get the results his effort deserved and Tammy Abraham never quite convincing. However, a return for Chelsea’s own prodigal son in Romelu Lukaku has given them the missing piece and I think that they will be genuinely pushing for the title this season.

As for Spurs, they’ve had some ins and outs, but arguably their most important piece of business was keeping hold of Harry Kane. They have started the season well with 3 clean sheets helping them earn 3 wins, but having a player of Kane’s quality around for another season is huge. Will it be enough for them to compete with some of the other teams for a top 4 spot? Only time will tell.

Liverpool’s summer has been largely quiet, with their one signing being defender Ibrahima Konaté. It’s a lot of money for a young defender and has the potential to be a bust, but if he can live up to expectations, he and the returning Virgil van Dijk could become one of the strongest—if not the strongest—centreback partnerships in the league. However, with the loss of Georginio Wijnaldum and no new names coming in up front (unless you count some of the younger players beginning to take a slightly larger role), there is a risk that things could get stale further up the field. With Chelsea and United both strengthening, I expect a top 4 finish but I think they will fall short in the title race.

And so we reach Arsenal, and what do I really say here? While they managed to sign Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith-Rowe to new contracts and sign Martin Ødegaard following a successful loan spell last season. However while Ben Smith looks a promising young player, £50 million is far too much for a young defender with just 1 season of top flight football under his belt, especially when previous seasons have continually shown the Gunners to have defensive frailties regardless of who plays in the defence. Elsewhere, signing Aaron Ramsdale for more money than the vastly superior Emiliano Martínez was sold for is just bad business. Arsenal have had a shocking start to the season, which hasn’t been helped by ongoing COVID issues, but even before the first 3 rounds, I would have struggled to envision the Gunners getting anywhere near a Champions League spot. If things don’t turn round soon, Mikel Arteta will be in trouble.


Team of the Month

Tottenham Hotspur

While West Ham were certainly in contention after scoring 10 goals in 3 games to finish the month second in the table, in the end I had to go for Spurs. Not only have they started the season with 3 wins from 3, but they are yet to even concede a goal! Meanwhile, they have barely used Harry Kane so far as it looked like just a matter of time before their star player left, and yet they still managed to pull out the wins, including what must have been an especially sweet victory over defending champions Manchester City in Round 1.

They certainly weren’t perfect and need to start finishing more of their chances, but after a positive start, keeping hold of Harry Kane will be a huge boost, which they can use to push on this month.


Continental Concerns

Continental Concerns

With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.

And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.

There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. I recently posted my thoughts focusing on England, today I will be looking at the wider tournament.


Heading towards trouble

One of the moments that stood out to me most during the tournament came just before the hour mark in the Group F match between France and Germany. France rightback Benjamin Pavard and Germany’s Robin Gosens both challenged for the ball in the France box, which resulted in the French defender going down with a knock to his head.

To anyone watching, it looked nasty, as Pavard just dropped to the ground without bracing himself, resulting in his head hitting the ground hard. You didn’t have to be a medical professional to know that he was knocked out. And so it was a massive shock when, after the quickest of tests and a squirt of cold water, the French medics sent him back on to continue the game!

Anyone who frequently reads my Premier League articles will have seen just how disgusted I have been by the way the Premier League and the clubs competing in it treat head injuries, well apparently the French Football Federation and UEFA are no better. When UEFA announced that they were investigating the incident, I finally thought that some degree of justice may be done, but that hope was quashed as they announced that following their investigation they were “satisfied the actions taken by the [French] medical team were in line with the concussion protocol” and that “According to reports we received from the team doctor, it seems a loss of consciousness did not occur.” Well that’s awkward, as Pavard even stated in an interview that he was “a little knocked out for 10 to 15 seconds – after that it was better”.

Head injuries are not a joke, they are deadly serious. Rugby and the NFL have been working hard to improve their act over recent years regarding head injuries—hell, even pro wrestling has improved the way they treat wrestler’s heads—but football seems determined to stick their head in the sand. I only hope that they get their act together before we are left with a tragic accident…

The best and the worst of us

Of course, we almost had a tragic moment during the pool stages, as Denmark’s star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch just before halftime in his team’s opening match against Finland. The 29-year-old required CPR and defibrillation on the pitch before being rushed to hospital, and the match was understandably abandoned, before eventually being completed later in the day, once it had been announced that Eriksen was stable.

This was a shocking incident and horrible to watch, and a stark reminder as to the fragility of human life that this fit athlete in his peak years was suffering a cardiac arrest. It was a reminder that their are things much more important than football, and while you hope it will never happen, it brought out the best in some people. From the medics who acted without hesitation to save his life, to the officials who immediately stopped the game and called for the medics, realising that this was out of the ordinary. From the Finland fans who began chanting his name as everyone remained in the stadium waiting for news, to Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjær, who acted as true leaders on the pitch, organising their teammates to create a human screen to give their comrade privacy as he was treated on the pitch, while also helping to calm and look after Eriksen’s partner.

Unfortunately, this incident also showed the worst in some people. With the game not even 50% completed, UEFA officials gave the Danes the choice of completing the match later that evening or the following day at noon, or face the game going against them as a 3-0 loss. This led t a team that was clearly not in the right headspace returning to the pitch and suffering a 0-1 upset loss, with Kasper Schmeichel failing to make a save that you know he would have made on any other occasion.

But the absolute worst were the broadcasters, who clearly wanted to immortalise this moment on film. It is generally expected that a serious injury like a leg break will not be replayed on a broadcast, while in the final of this very same competition, cameras quickly cut away from the pitch as a streaker (just topless, not even fully nude) invaded the pitch, and yet those of us who were watching the Denmark game on BBC were forced to watch 10 minutes of the camera trying to get the best view it could of Eriksen undergoing CPR, only cutting away to show his partner’s visible distress.

The BBC eventually apologised, using the excuse that they were getting the images from an outside broadcaster: UEFA themselves. This is certainly true, as I got confirmation from a friend in Sweden that they were also forced to watch these horrific images for 10 minutes, and that in itself is truly shocking that nobody in the booth had the decency to order a cut to a wide image of the stadium. But the BBC can’t get out of it that easy, as they could have chosen to cut the feed at any point, but chose to go along with it for 10 minutes before cutting back to the studio. I completely understand that even the pundits would need a moment to take in what they have seen and be ready to go onscreen, but it’s impossible for me to imagine that they could not have cut to a commercial break for a couple of minutes to give them time.

On the plus side, Denmark recovered from this harrowing start to the tournament, and if anything it appeared to give them a focus, going all the way to the semifinal, while 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard did a fantastic job filling Eriksen’s boots. Hopefully, broadcasters and tournament organisers will also react positively off the back of this incident, just in case anything similar happens again in the future.

Failed experiment

While the major tournaments are usually hosted by just 1 country, Euro 2020 was unique in that it had 11 host nations each providing a stadium. While this was a romantic idea, I can’t help feel that it was a failure and should not be tried again.

Of course, one thing that certainly didn’t help things was the timely arrival of a global pandemic, which heavily limited travel and stadium capacities. But the big issue really was how some teams were able to get such an advantage. Take England for example, who were able to play all 3 of their group games at Wembley, stayed in London for their match against Germany, took a short trip to Rome for their quarterfinal, before returning to Wembley for the semifinal and final. In contrast, semifinal opponents Denmark (another host nation) played their 3 group games at home, before travelling to Amsterdam, then a pointless trip to Baku to face the Czech Republic and then on to Wembley for their eventual loss. And then there’s Belgium, who had to play in Russia, then Denmark, then Russia, before trips to Spain and Germany in the knockouts. How is it fair that some teams are able to spend almost the whole tournament at one venue, while others are travelling the length and breadth of the continent after every match?

Personally, I feel that the tournament needs to remain as just 1 host nation, or a collection of a couple of smaller nations who border each other. That way, even if one team is travelling twice as much as another, the distances are still relatively small, while the whole country can then benefit economically from the influx of fans during the tournament.

feat football Euro 2020 logo

England’s Euros

England’s Euros

With annual events like Wimbledon and the Tour de France being joined by the Summer Olympics and the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the summer of 2021 was always going to be a busy one for those of us brave (or stupid) enough to fall in love with multiple sports. However, the COVID-19 pandemic then mad this summer even busier, with the postponement of Euro 2020 to this summer.

And what a tournament it ended up being. Unfancied Hungary caused plenty of scares in their group of death that saw them face France, Germany and Portugal. Defending champions Portugal went through as one of the best 3ʳᵈ-placed finishers in the pools and found themselves eliminated in the Round of 16. Denmark overcame the loss of their star player Christian Eriksen, who collapsed before halftime in their opening game, and recovered from losing their first 2 games to go all the way to the semifinals, while becoming everyone’s second team. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score at 5 European Championships, and in 11 consecutive major tournaments, while breaking Michel Platini’s record for European Championship goals and Miroslav Klose’s record for goals scored in tournament finals for World Cups and European Championships combined. England defeated Germany in the knockouts of a major tournament for the first time since 1966. And after 51 matches and 142 goals, 2 saves from player of the tournament Gianluigi Donnarumma in a penalty shootout saw Italy declared European Champions, with England the heartbroken runners-up at Wembley.

There was a lot to look back on during this tournament, too much to put into adequate words, so I will be focusing on what really stood out for me over a series of 2 posts. Today, I will be putting the focus on England (for obvious reasons). Keep an eye out for my second article later this week, which will look at some wider thoughts for the tournament.


Redemption

Sometimes when you look back on a team’s campaign, it can be summed up in a word. For me, watching England on their run to the final, the word was clear: Redemption.

How many times have we looked at past England teams and seen a bunch of overpaid prima donnas who seem out of touch with the public? Well that has been one thing Gareth Southgate has been keen to dispel in his time with the team, and as such we find ourselves cheering on players that we love for more than just their football. Nowhere was this more obvious than Tyrone Mings’ dignified response to Priti Patel calling the team’s anti-racism stand (taking the knee at the start of every game) as “gesture politics” and supporting those who booed them, or Marcus Rashford, who even managed to unite both sides of Manchester in their love for him over the last year as he campaigned for free meals for deprived schoolchildren during lockdown.

football Everton Ashley Williams Jordan PickfordBut it goes even further than that. Just look at the starting line-up. This time last year, it would have been laughable to suggest that Luke Shaw would be starting for England. The Manchester United left back had always shows flashes of quality, only for serious injuries to then leave him out of the game for months, while former manager José Mourinho was vocal of his criticism of the player. Flash forward to now and he was arguably England’s player of the tournament, with his impressive performances seeing him finish with 3 assists and the opening goal of the final. Sticking with the defence and John Stones looked to be just the latest in a long line of expensive flops at the back for Manchester City, but never gave up and became a key part of their title-winning season and was a key member of an England defence that allowed just 2 goals in 7 games. Similarly, Kyle Walker has had his ups and downs over the last couple of seasons, but was ever-reliable in an England shirt, whether at rightback or playing as part of a 3-man defence. And let’s not forget Jordan Pickford, who I have repeatedly made clear that I had no faith in as he appeared unable to play a match for Everton without getting a case of the yips… well he was largely cool and composed throughout the tournament on his way to winning the Golden Glove with 5 clean sheets and 2 saves in the final shootout.

And it was even redemption for Gareth Southgate. Go back to Euro 96, and England found themselves in a penalty shootout at Wembley against Germany hoping to end 30 years of hurt and get back to a the final of a major tournament. All of the initial 5 spot kick takers for each team found the back of the net, and when Andreas Möller scored his penalty, it was Gareth Southgate who stepped up and—with the weight of a nation on his shoulders—saw his shot saved by Andreas Köpke. Now, 25 years later, he has backed up his tea’s run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup with an appearance in their first major final since 1966, which also saw them defeat Germany in the knockouts for the first time since they won the World Cup.

They may not have won on the night, but they should still be counted as winners.

Foundations

While England’s run to the final is something to be proud of, there must also be some realism. England’s pool should always have resulted in 3 wins, and after defeating Germany, the team was left with a favourable route to the final. Yes they kept 5 clean sheets, but they shouldn’t have found themselves overly threatened.

Looking back over the tournament, it is clear that Gareth Southgate was taking a very safe approach. Despite having some of the most exciting young players in Europe in Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, it was the experience and reliability of Raheem Sterling, Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips that got the minutes, while the direct attacking of Jack Grealish—which clearly improved the team up front—was limited to cameo appearances.

Nothing highlights this more than the final itself. Shaw’s early goal should have been perfect for England. The Italians would have to attack and that would leave space at the back for a goal. However by the middle of the first half, England were already starting to sit back too much, defending the lead they had rather than looking to build on it, and it let the Azzurri grow into the game, and become dominant in the second half, by which point the England team was barely getting the ball in the Italian half. Harry Kane didn’t even manage a touch in the Italian box other than his penalty, but while he can put in a great delivery, he did not have the players around him to take advantage of this and fill the space in the box. Rather than going out and trying to win the game, Southgate sent the team out to not lose, and in doing so, they came up short when it mattered.

football england ben white jadon sancho jude bellingham mason mount marcus rashford harry kane bukayo saka phil foden jack grealishThe good news though is that this is a young team. Only 3 of the squad are in their 30s (Trippier is 30, Henderson and Walker 31), so they should still be pushing for the World Cup next season, while the median age of the squad is 25. This squad should grow together over the next couple of years, with young superstars like Sancho, Foden, Saka, Bellingham and Mount only set to improve. Add to that the potential for Dean Henderson to come back and push Jordan Pickford to remain at the top of his game, and the return of Trent Alexander-Arnold. The success we have seen from England over the last 2 tournaments does not have to be the peak, but just the foundation for a run of strong tournaments.

But for this to happen, Southgate also needs to start taking more risks, picking players who can go out to win a game, and rewarding form players like Foden and Sancho rather than the tried and tested players—Raheem Sterling may have scored in some crucial moments, but these moments often masked poor performances. Meanwhile a decision must be made about how to best utilise Harry Kane: by forcing him to stay in the box as a 9, or by giving him the freedom to drop deeper and selecting players who will make the attacking runs beyond him like Son Heung-Min does at Spurs.

England have the chance to become one of the best in the world over the next couple of years, but the way they react to this tournament is crucial.

The Fandom Menace

Sadly, while the performances of the England players left much for us to be proud of, the same cannot be said of the so-called fans.

England fans already (deservedly) don’t have the best of reputations, but they have gone out of their way to show the worst of themselves during this tournament:

  • Booing the players while they take a knee as a message against racism
  • Booing the opposition’s national anthem
  • Use of a laser pointer during England’s semi-final against Denmark, including shining it in Kasper Schmeichel’s eyes during Harry Kane’s penalty
  • Trashing much of London before and after the final
  • Breaking into Wembley without a ticket for the final
  • Racist abuse of Saka, Sancho and Rashford online following their failure to score their penalties in the final

Of course this behaviour is being widely vilified, but what will change? All that will be done is that many people will try to distance these so-called fans from the England national team, while the FA are paying a fine for the fan issues revolving around the Denmark game. But that’s clearly not enough, as otherwise this would have been sorted long ago.

It’s time for the governing bodies—FIFA and UEFA—to start taking real action relating to fan behaviour. Too many serious cases of misbehaviour in a space of time, and the governing body should ban that nation from the next major tournament. Only with such a punishment will individual associations start putting in the real work to deal with the c***s who are only their to cause harm and upset. 

Can I see this happening? Sadly, no. The governing bodies will continue to pay lip service towards supporting inclusivity and decrying poor behaviour, but they would never be brave enough to throw a top team out of a major tournament.

To all those out there causing trouble and spreading hate: You have no place here. Be better, or f*ck off!

feat football Euro 2020 logo

Premier League 2020/21: May

Premier League 2020/21: May

And so, we have reached the end of the season. A season like no other, which saw empty grounds around the country for all but a few weeks of the season. A season that saw fans and players united against the greed of the “Big Six” owners. A season that Manchester City go from looking completely out of the title hunt to winning it by a country mile. A season that saw Arsenal’s 25-year streak of European qualification come to an end, despite the creation of a 3ʳᵈ European competition opening up an extra spot. A season that saw the return of Leeds United to the top flight in stunning fashion.

Congratulations to Manchester City for their 5ᵗʰ Premier League title in 10 years. They will be joined in the Champions League next season by Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, while Leicester must suffer the disappointment of just missing out on the top competition for the second year running and must settle for a place in the Europa League alongside West Ham, while Spurs must settle for a place in the new Europa Conference League.

At the other end of the table, Sheffield United bid farewell to the top flight as they finished bottom of the table, while West Brom and Fulham make an immediate return to the Championship. They will be replaced by Norwich and Watford, who are both making immediate returns after relegation last season, and they will be joined by the winner of Saturday’s playoff final between Brentford (who have the chance of making it into the top flight for the first time since the 1940s) and Swansea.


And your winners!

football manchester city premier league champions

Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 23 goals

Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 14 assists

Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 19 clean sheets


A perfect end?

We’ve known for a few months now that legendary Manchester City forward Sergio Agüero would be leaving at the end of the season, but who could have predicted how things would pan out in his final Premier League game. The Argentine came off the bench with 25 minutes remaining and took just 6 minutes to find the back of the net after Fernandinho won the ball back deep in the Everton half. But that wasn’t enough to make this special day perfect, and just 5 minutes later, he scored again, securing a 4-0 victory in front of a returning home crowd, but in the process, setting a new record of 184 Premier League goals scored for 1 club, beating Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United tally of 183.

Having scored that famous goal in the final minute of injury time against QPR to win the Premier League over Manchester United in his first season at the Etihad, he was always going to go down in Manchester City history, but over the years he has become such a key part in the rise of Manchester City to a global superpower, while he leaves the Premier League with the best minutes per goal figure (108) of any player with a minimum 50 Premier League goals.

In terms of bowing out of the Premier League, it was a almost perfect ending. But can things still get better? The one thing that has eluded Agüero and City this last 10 years is winning the Champions League. On Saturday, they face Chelsea in the Champions League final. Whether he starts or not, how fitting would it be to see Agüero score the winning goal in the final, securing his and the club’s first Champions League title before riding off into the sunset? As a United fan, any City success hurts, but it would be hard to deny such a legendary player such a perfect ending.

A crucial moment

Agüero isn’t the only person calling time on their Premier League career this month, and the most notable is probably Roy Hodgson, who announced a few weeks back that he would be stepping down as manager of Crystal Palace at the end of the season. The oldest person to have managed in the Premier League, Hodgson did not officially retire, but has said that he is stepping back from football for a time. He has had a long and varied career, having managed 16 different teams in 8 countries, with notable achievements including:

  • Guiding Switzerland (who had not qualified for a major tournament since the 1960s) to the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup and qualification for Euro 1996
  • Guiding Finland to their highest-ever FIFA ranking of 33ʳᵈ place
  • Fulham’s Europa League campaign that began in the third qualifying round and went all the way to the final—their first major European final—where they went to extra time and were minutes away from taking Atlético Madrid to penalties

Of course, as well as the good, there has been the bad, with a move to Liverpool not working out and resulting in him leaving after just 6 months, while his time as England manager is not looked back at fondly—despite a strong start which saw them become defensively solid and rise to 3ʳᵈ in the FIFA World Rankings—as the team struggled to hit the highs that their personnel suggested they should, with dull performances, finishing bottom of their group with 2 losses and a draw at the 2014 World Cup, and dropping to 20ᵗʰ in the FIFA World Rankings.

Looking back, it is clear that Hodgson was at his best with smaller teams, who he could train into solid organised units that were hard to break down defensively, allowing them to pick up points against stronger teams by frustrating them and holding on for draws or catching them on the break or at a set piece for unlikely victories. And this has all been on show when you look at Palace’s place in the league tables. Though their position has fluctuate, they have always been in a secure position with a considerable points advantage over those relegated.

And now, with Hodgson stepping down, Crystal Palace find themselves in a crucial position. First of all, the wrong manager could easily turn things around in a heartbeat. While they have anew young star in Eberechi Eze, its just a matter of time before more attractive clubs come after him and their star of the last 10 years Wilfried Zaha, while the squad is full of players who are getting on in age, and it will be hard to replace their consistency and experience, made even worse by the sheer number of influential players who are out of contract this summer, including Christian Benteke, who has had something of a revival this season. This is a key moment for Crystal Palace, which could define their next couple of seasons. Don’t take your eyes off the situation as it unfolds.

On the move

It’s never an easy situation when you get relegated to the Championship. The Championship is full of teams desperate to jump up to the next level so there’s no easy match, just like in the Premier League. But it can often be harder than that as you lose some of your top players, who impressed enough in losing efforts to stand out and attract the attention of other teams in the Premier League and other top flight leagues. So who could be on the move this summer?

Well first of all, half the Fulham squad this season were loanees, including Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain), Joachim Andersen (Lyon), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea) and Ademola Lookman (RB Leipzig). While they may not be required by their parent club, it is hard to imagine that they will be loaned out to the Championship, and it is more likely that these players are allowed to sign for (or be loaned to) other Premier League clubs or other top flight leagues. A defender with a year of Premier League experience will be very attractive for mid-to-lower-table clubs looking to shore up their defence, and while Loftus-Cheek and Lookman had ups and downs this campaign, they certainly feel like the kind of players that teams will be looking to bring in to help secure Premier League safety.

As for Sheffield United, I can’t help feel that there were no true standouts in what was truly an awful season, but someone like John Egan could again look attractive for a team who wants to bring in a defender with top flight experience.

Meanwhile at West Brom, vice-captain Kyle Bartley could be another potential pick-up in the same vein as Egan and Andersen, but the true shining star was Matheus Pereira, who had a strong season, scoring 11 goals in 33 league games. As if that scoring record (ore than double that of his closest teammate, and almost a third of the club’s league goals this season) wasn’t enough, he was also top within the team for assists (6), with his dead balls a nightmare to defend. I will be shocked if the Brazilian remains at the club next season as he would be a great addition for any team expected to be fighting in the middle of the table or below, and I can’t help feel that a team like Aston Villa could come calling as Jack Grealish’s injury highlighted their lack of creative options.


Team of the Month

Liverpool

It’s not been a great season for Liverpool, with the loss of Virgil van Dijk just the tip of the iceberg as they suffered an injury crisis especially at the back, going through millions of different centreback combinations. And yet a strong end to the season saw them creep into the top 3, only 5 points behind Manchester United.

The team went perfect in May with a 100% winning record, winning 2-0 against Southampton before a 2-4 victory at Old Trafford, a last-gasp 1-2 victory at West Brom, a 0-3 win at Burnley and a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace to secure a Champions League spot at the end of the season.

The strikers got scoring again and the defence got settled, and once again Liverpool looked like a top Premier League team. Expect them to be back in the title hunt next season.


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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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Time for an Update: Changes I’d love to see in FIFA 22

Time for an Update: Changes I’d love to see in FIFA 22

With much of the last year being spent alone in lockdown, I have found myself putting much more time into FIFA 21 than I usually would, getting through a number of years in my career and even dabbling for a little bit in Ultimate Teams. Having spent so much time playing, there are a number of things that I have picked up on that could make the FIFA experience better. Of course, EA don’t generally care too much about the player experience and just wants to make money off game sales and money being spent in UT, so I doubt many of the things on this list will come to fruition even over the next couple of years, as I will be focusing mainly on gameplay and the manager mode career.


All the licences

Now I know this is going to be a hard one due to FIFA not being the only football game, but having licences missing is a real drawback, especially when you get big name teams like Juventus, Roma and the Italian national team under different names and having generic kits. Coming up against one of these teams really takes out some of the immersion, which is a real shame and even worse for people who are fans of those teams.

More leagues

A couple of seasons into my career mode with Cheltenham Town, I picked up an Italian striker called Sebastiano Esposito, who has gone on to become my star striker. If I were to lose my save and restart career now, he would be unavailable as he has moved to a team in Serie B, which is not included in the game. It seems crazy to me that there is only 1 Italian league and I feel that all the top European leagues need at least their second tier, if not also their third, to allow for players who may be out on loan from big name clubs to lower tiers, while also providing more options for progression in career mode – it’s been great being able to rise up from League 2 to the Premier League as manager of Cheltenham Town.

Further to this, it’s beyond time that the Women’s game was added beyond just the international teams, with the top women’s leagues and competitions being added, so that those who dream of seeing Daniëlle van de Donk score the winner for Arsenal in the Champions League can make it a reality in the game.

Change throw-ins

Watching Ben Tozer and Cheltenham Town this season has reminded me just how dangerous a player with a giant throw-in can be. Unfortunately, if you try to utilise that in-game when you reach the final third of the pitch, you’re lucky to have any players positioning themselves in the middle of the box.

The usual throw-in system could stay as it is, but with a button you can press to change to a throw deep into the box, which will see whoever has the “long throw” or “giant throw” trait prepare to throw in and players to set up in the box similar to a corner, with he throw either using the current corner dynamic of picking the rough area you’re aiming for and how long you hold the power bar deciding if the throw is looped in or more of a bullet, or instead going for a power cone, where you can choose the rough direction, but more powerful throws will be less accurate.

Just this one simple addition to the game will make it feel more realistic and give more importance to the players with long throws.

Make management jobs more realistic

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot about the manager mode that doesn’t feel realistic. and it could be simple changes that help this. For starters, let’s just use my career as manager of Cheltenham Town. I started with them on a £13,000 contract, and despite 3 promotions in 4 years, my contract has remained the same every year. I’m not saying that I should now be theoretically getting Pep Guardiola money, but I think that these contracts could be more realistic and have a range of salaries dependant on the league, success in previous years and the club’s own financial situation.

Similarly, through all 4 seasons, I have received offers from pretty much every national team in the game. It’s hard to imagine that one of the top 10 nations will come asking me to be their manager when I’ve never managed above Championship level. Even more crazy is the thought that these top national teams would allow someone to manage them on a part-time basis while still managing a club team!

Obviously they would be shorter seasons, but I think that the international management role should become a full-time role, with us choosing to focus on international football rather than club football, as is the case in real life. Similarly, to make managerial opportunities more realistic, I would add a new feature – reputation points – which group and down according to how well you perform as a manager, but higher weightings to more prestigious competitions, with each team having a minimum amount of reputation required before they would consider you.

FIFA 21 Career (In Menus)
FIFA 21 Career (In Menus)

Imagine for example my Cheltenham Town manager mode. I have taken them from League 2 to the Premier League, with 3 promotions in 4 seasons and some strong cup runs. A decent first season in the Premier League could lead to a team like Everton – who are pushing for European qualification – to offer me a role, but a poor season with them that saw us close to relegation could then leave my reputation at such a point that only the bottom couple of Premier League teams would offer me a contract, leading to me needing a couple of seasons of success in the Championship or fighting at the bottom of the Premier League in order to become an interest to a mid-ranked international team.

Manager profiles

Not all managers are the same. We’ve seen for years how Pep Guardiola favours a possession-heavy game, José Mourinho favours a solid defence over a stunning attack, while Eddie Howe provides a more attacking game. Currently in the game, the manager is basically just a unique character you see in some cutscenes, with the team already being set to their usual formation and tactics. But what if the tactics were changed to rely on the manager?

Imagine if each manager came with 3 or 4 preferred formations (which could account for differing personnel between teams) and their own unique tactical set-up. This will lead into my next point, but imagine then if we had Burnley go from Sean Dyche as manager to Pep Guardiola, and you would see the team go from a super-organised defence-first team to a possession-first team. This could be taken even further in career mode with certain managers having certain player types they prefer, for example players with high technical and short passing skills for Guardiola, while a manager who favours route 1 football would be more likely to be in the hunt for a tall and physical striker like Diego Costa than a small but agile striker like Sergio Agüero, while some managers will be more willing to use the Academy and some will prefer to bring in veterans.

Add more of a story to career mode

This would be something relatively simple to do, and would actually be a great culmination of some of the earlier points.

In my career mode, Manchester United are currently 9ᵗʰ in the league with just a handful of matches left, well below the position they should be with the quality of players in their squad, and yet Ole Gunnar Solskjær is still the manager. The only manager who currently moves around is you, despite many players having played for 3 or 4 clubs in the 4 and a half seasons that I’ve played. It doesn’t feel natural.

But how easy would it be for even the managers of all the other teams to have a meter tracking their own safety at a team – and thereby getting sacked if they drop below a certain level – as well as their own reputation meter to see what jobs would be available for them. Let’s take the example above from my career: United’s troubles would lead to Solskjær’s sacking. If our reputation was high enough, we could be offered the role, with our offered salary being affected by a base range for a Premier League team, United’s finances and prestige, and my own reputation meter. If I turned down the offer, or my reputation wasn’t high enough, the AI would pick a manager with suitable reputation from another less/equally prestigious team – let’s assume Sean Dyche has earned enough reputation – and they take over the role, while some managers could spend some time unattached and older managers could choose to retire like players do.

This could then be taken even further by having some players who retire also go into management roles – generally with less prestigious teams initially. We see it all the time in real life, how great would it be to see a player like Jordan Henderson or James Milner become a manager after retiring from playing and working their way to become Liverpool manager later in their career. This could also utilise Ultimate Team having likenesses of retired players to have players who have previously retired (including some who have gone on to become pundits) also appear.

With the men’s and women’s game and international football all combined in one large story, how great would it be to see Steph Houghton finish her playing career, become a manager of a League 2 team, lead them to the Championship before being picked up by a team in the WSL, where a couple of years of strong performances sees her earn a role as a Premier League manager and after a few years there, take over the lead the England Women’s national team to World Cup glory.

Further to this, take out the option to include a financial takeover and just have these happen as random events, with between 4 and 10 happening around the footballing world each season. We saw how the influx of money changed Manchester City, imagine if an AI League 2 team suddenly had a huge financial influx that allowed them to bring in top players and earn back-to back promotions, while you do the same on a shoestring budget, creating a great rivalry over the years.

This could also tie in to the increased story potential, but it seems really odd to me that I have led Cheltenham Town to the Premier League… and yet we still play in a stadium with a capacity below 10,000. Though it does not fall under the manager’s remit, it would make sense to be able to upgrade stadiums as teams move up through the leagues, with the option also available if a team goes on a rapid rise – like in my career mode – to build a new stadium tat is more fitting for where a team finds itself. In order to do this though, teams need to be regularly reaching capacity, which brings me to my final point in this category…

fifa 21 town park

How great would it be to see dynamic crowds?! If we stick to my aforementioned career, my success with Cheltenham Town would surely be leading to capacity crowds week in week out, but Manchester United’s poor season would probably see empty seats in the crowd. Further than this, imagine if Cheltenham took a 0-3 lead over United by the hour mark, how great would it be to see a shot of some United fans leaving early, with shots of the crowd showing more empty seats as the match progresses. Such small touches, and yet it makes everything feel and look more realistic.

More commentary options

I should begin this with an admission: When I play the game, I have it muted and just listen to podcasts. The reason? We have just 1 pair of commentators, so once you have played a few games, it gets boring. While I’m sure that it would involve some time and cost, it would be great to have 3 or 4 commentary pairs, each with a fair degree of unique dialogue. Whether you have these pairs in a rotation, or just randomly selected for each match, that little bit of variety just adds to the whole experience.

Expand the youth development

Youth development took a great step forward in FIFA 21, but it could be taken even further. To properly grow a young prospect once they are promoted from the Academy, they need regular gametime. But imagine that you have a young centre midfield who has the potential to become one of the best players in the game, but is currently a mid-50s overall, while you play with 2 centre mids and already have 3 with overalls in the mid-high 60s. You can’t really justify playing him with any regularity, and a loan probably won’t see him get many more starts either.

But what clubs would do in real life, is have him train with the seniors and play with the u20s. Though we wouldn’t need u20 games to be playable, selecting as much as you can of an u20 matchday squad from youth players in your senior team and also the youth academy (which could be renamed your senior academy), while any empty spots would be hypothetically filled by other members of the academy who are younger and less ready for promotion tot he senior team. Then at the start of each season, the game could create 1 or 2 of these players who would have filled the blank spots and have them be “promoted” to the senior academy, while we can also use the current scouting system to find kids for the senior academy.

Regular selection in these u20s games would allow the players to keep progressing and growing better than if they were an unused substitute, while also making them available if you did want to play them in the occasional senior fixture to test how they are developing.

Scouting changes

While I do appreciate the way scouting is at the moment, I have thought of a way that this could be improved. At the moment, the focus of the scouting is fully on attributes, with just a quick mention of their form. I feel that the specific attributes should actually be something that only the best scouts can get. I would suggest Scout Judgement decide what you are able to view in the following way:

1 Star – Already know player’s age, height, weight, position(s), preferred foot, market value, release clause & current wage. Scout to learn player’s OVR and stats (eg appearances, starts, goals, assists, yellow cards, red cards, clean sheets – for current season, previous season, career)

2 Stars and above – Already know player’s age, height, weight, position(s), preferred foot, market value, release clause, current wage, OVR and stats.

2 Stars – Scout to learn work rates, weak foot, skill moves

3 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes

4 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes, skill attributes

5 Stars – Scout to learn work rates weak foot, skill moves, physical attributes, skill attributes, mental attributes

In doing so, you are getting a real benefit to what information a scout can get you. Even the worst scout would be able to get a player’s overall and stats, so you can get an idea of how well they are doing, but it would take the best scouts for you to see accurately if a player fits your style.

Improved loan system

Usually if you are loaning a player out, it will be a youth player who you want to develop by sending to a team where they can play more regular. However, there is currently little way to validate this.

Taking the loan system deeper could see you coming to an agreement as to how often the player plays, with monthly updates from the club as to how the player is doing to ensure they remain within the terms of the agreement, and allowing us to see how our loaned out player is developing. 

What do you think about these suggestions? Is there anything you would add?

Thanks for reading. Until next time…

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.


feat football prem league logo blue

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.