England’s Magic Victories

England’s Magic Victories

For sports fans, Sunday 14th July is a day that will live long in the memory. Lewis Hamilton won a 6th British GP in a race that saw Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen praised for some of the best racing in years. The Scottish Open reached its end. The Tour de France continued towards its first rest day. England’s men’s and women’s rugby 7s team won their respective tournaments to qualify Team GB for the Olympics. New Zealand’s beat England to win the Women’s Rugby Super Series title and remain #1 in the world. Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon men’s final and England won the Cricket World Cup against New Zealand.

That win for Eoin Morgan’s men – by virtue of number of boundaries in the match, after the teams could not be separated over 50 overs and a super over – gave cricket one of its greatest finishes of all time and made England the only nation to have won the Men’s World Cups in cricket, football and rugby. While that stat may not be too surprising given the number of countries that play all 3 of these sports to an elite level, what makes this incredible is that all 3 of these victories have come following some form of extra time.

England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup victory saw them concede a late equaliser from Wolfgang Weber to make the scores 2-2 at the 90-minute mark, but 2 goals from Geoff Hurst in extra time – including one in the final seconds of the game – saw Bobby Moore lift the trophy as the nation celebrated a 4-2 victory.

The RWC2003 final saw defending champions and hosts Australia bring the scores level in the final moments, as Elton Flatly kicked a penalty to level the scores at 14-14. Extra time saw Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson trade a penalty each, before a Wilkinson drop goal won the game with just 26 seconds left on the clock.

Sunday’s final at Lord’s saw England hold New Zealand to a reachable total of 241, before struggling themselves with the bat. Requiring 15 runs from the last over, luck was on England’s side and they tied things up with the final ball, taking things to a super over. England got 15 runs from their over, but things got off to a bad start in New Zealand’s over as Jofra Archer started with a wide and was hit for 6 a few balls later. He tightened things up on the final balls though, leaving New Zealand needing 2 runs from the final ball to win. Martin Guptil got the first run to pull things level, but was unable to get back down the wicket quick enough and was run out, leaving the scores level and seeing England win through the tie-breaker of most boundaries in the match.

With all these matches, they have their moments that will be remembered for how differently they could have gone. Hurst’s first goal in extra time was an early case for goal-line technology, as the ball hit the crossbar, bounced off the ground and was cleared away, only for the assistant referee to decree that the ball had crossed the line. Ben Kay agonisingly dropped Matt Dawson’s popped pass with the try line at his mercy, while Wilkinson’s successful drop goal came with his weaker right foot after having missed 2 drop goal attempts earlier in the match. At Lord’s England’s saviour Ben Stokes was almost caught out in the penultimate over, only for Trent Boult to step backwards onto the boundary to turn the ball into a 6, while the next over saw an even luckier moment as a fielder’s throw deflected off his bat and reached the boundary to total 6 runs off that ball – though in hindsight it should have actually been 5 runs.

It’s safe to say England have had their fair share of luck, with the Rugby World Cup just months away, hopefully they haven’t used it all up at the weekend. Perhaps that will be England’s first victory in regular time. I’m not sure our hearts can take another close finish!

Premier League: Offseason Needs for 2019/20

Premier League: Offseason Needs for 2019/20

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

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


Brighton & Hove Albion:

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

Southampton:

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

Burnley:

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

AFC Bournemouth:

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

Newcastle United:

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

Crystal Palace:

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

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

Watford:

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

West Ham United:

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

Leicester City:

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

Everton:

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

Wolverhampton Wanderers:

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

Manchester United:

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

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

Arsenal:

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

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

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

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

Chelsea:

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

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

Liverpool:

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

Manchester City:

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


What would you say the biggest needs are?

May 2019 in the Premier League

May 2019 in the Premier League

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


A very special season

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

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

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


Going too far

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

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

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

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

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


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

April 2019 in the Premier League

April 2019 in the Premier League

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

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


Play on!

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

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

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


Under pressure

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

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

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

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

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


Just rewards

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

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

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

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


Final prediction

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

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


 

March 2019 in the Premier League

March 2019 in the Premier League

March was a month of beginnings and endings in the Premier League. Manchester United officially named Ole Gunnar Solskjær as their permanent manager after his time as caretaker manager got the team back on track. In slightly worse news for United, this month also saw their unbeaten league run under the Baby-faced Assassin come to an end with a 2-0 loss at Arsenal. Arsenal were also involved in Tottenham’s last league match at Wembley before moving into their new stadium at the start of April, holding their North London rivals to a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, the Brendan Rodgers era got underway at Leicester City with an injury time Andre Gray goal denying the Foxes a point, but 3 wins after that (including a 1-2 win at Burnley despite playing a man down for the majority of the game) got their season back on track. Less celebratory were Huddersfield, whose 2-0 loss at Crystal Palace, combined with victories for Burnley and Southampton, saw the Terriers become only the second team – following Derby County in the 2007/8 season – to be relegated before the end of March.


Going to ground

We all hate diving and want to see it removed from the game. The problem is, too often a dive seems to be required in order to get the decision. Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Southampton saw a moment where Alexis Sanchez looked in with a good chance of scoring, only to be pulled back in the box by Jan Valery. Sanchez stayed on is feet in an attempt to get back on the ball and referee Stuart Attwell waved play on rather than give a penalty.

It was great to see Sanchez trying to play positively here and he should not be penalised for trying to keep his feet when he is clearly being fouled. We want to be eradicating diving from the game, yet players who honestly stay on their feet do not get the decisions they deserve so feel they need to throw themselves to the ground in order to get the referee to act. Credit must be given to Southampton’s Nathan Redmond against Tottenham, who refused to throw himself to the ground after Moussa Sissoko thrust his head into his face. That should have been a clear red card but the Spurs midfielder escaped with a yellow and you can’t help but think that referee Kevin Friend was influenced by Redmond keeping his feet.

Players should not have to go to ground to get a decision. In the same game between United and Southampton, Chris Smalling was lucky to not concede a penalty after pulling Ryan Bertrand back in the box. I can’t help but feel that Bertrand’s theatrical fall cost him here as it looked so over the top for the foul he received, yet that does not hide the fact that he was fouled.

VAR will hopefully help, but there is still a reliance on referees judging on the foul itself not whether a player goes down. Brighton’s 1-2 win at Crystal Palace saw Scott Dann and Shane Duffy tussle in the box and eventually pull each other to ground at a free kick. Craig Pawson should have been calling either a penalty or a free kick depending who made the first offence, but as we see at every corner and free kick, play was waved on and the incident ignored. On top of that, the highlights package of the Cardiff v Chelsea match alone had 3 clear penalties not given for players being pulled over in the box!

We need to get more consistency from the officials if we are to get rid of diving as players need to know that the officials will call fouls on them even if they keep on their feet and try to still get to the ball.

We’ve got a long way to go.


A mixed day

For Jordan Pickford, who came up through the Sunderland Academy and first team before moving to Everton, a match at Newcastle United will be a big deal. I can’t help but agree with Ian Wright’s comments on Match of the Day that the Everton keeper let this affect him in a negative way and that he should have been more focused on the game.

At 0-1, the England number 1 completely misjudged a Matt Ritchie cross and dropped it pretty much right into the path of Salomón Rondón. The only reason Rondón didn’t score? Pickford rugby tackled him well off the ball as he ran past the stranded keeper. Unbelievably, referee Lee Mason gave Pickford the benefit of the doubt that he was going for the ball and gave just a penalty, when Pickford arguably should have been heading for an early shower. This decision had an immediate impact on the game as Pickford saved Ritchie’s penalty and Everton doubled the lead through Richarlison just over a minute later.

If Newcastle fans weren’t already angry enough, Pickford decided to provoke them further as he was left stranded in his box when Rondón got through on goal and chipped him, only for the ball to bounce just wide of the post. Rather than recognise that he had been let off by the miss, Pickford decided to antagonise the home fans with a smirk and sticking his tongue out at them.

Karma had it’s say in this game though as Pickford (who looked shaky throughout) went on to concede 3 goals and lose the game, the second coming after he parried a long-range strike from Miguel Almirón straight into the path of Ayoze Pérez. And in a moment of poetic justice, Everton – who should have played an hour with 10 men – came away with no points as Peréz scored a winner that should have been disallowed for Rondón being offside in the build-up.

Pickford is a quality keeper on his day, but he has to sort out his mentality as he has had some awful flubs this year. He needs to focus on getting the football right as if you act up but don’t perform, you won’t keep your job for much longer.


Mic them up!

Pickford’s attempt at playing rugby against Newcastle wasn’t even the oddest moment of the month as it was beaten out by Raheem Sterling’s opener for Manchester City against Watford. Sergio Aguero chested on a ball forward for Sterling, who was in a clear opposition. Sterling was beaten to the ball by Daryl Janmaat, however the Dutchman’s attempted clearance was blocked by the England winger and deflected into the net. It initially looked like the goal had been (rightfully) disallowed as the linesman called the offside, but after going over to discuss with him, referee Paul Tierney overruled the initial decision and gave the goal.

“It was a game before that moment, and after that decision the game changed” – Javi Gracia

First off, this is an awful decision and I can’t wait for VAR to come in to get rid of shockers like this. I think that football should go even further though and take another leaf out of rugby’s book by allowing us to hear the communications between the officials. I recently saw a video of Australian referee Jared Gillet wearing a microphone for his final A-League match and it was great to be able to hear his communication with the players.

Some people may argue that the language from the players means we shouldn’t hear this, but players should not be surrounding the officials anyway and having the audio available to the public may actually help to improve the way players act towards the officials. If nothing else, we’d understand what the officials’ reasons are for their decisions and it may also benefit VAR, similar to how TMOs in rugby league can be clearly heard talking through every stage of their decision.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

February 2019 in the Premier League

February 2019 in the Premier League

Hey there Premier League fans, thank you for you patience and sorry it has taken so long to get this written. The Six Nations largely took over my life over the last couple of months and typically my (usually quiet/non-existent) social life actually had some stuff going on to leave me with even less time. I promise you won’t be waiting anywhere near as long for my thoughts on March’s action.

Manchester City took the league lead back from Liverpool and 3 wins means that they are now in the driving seat (having a game in hand) over their title rivals, who dropped 4 points with draws at West Ham and Manchester United. The draw against Liverpool and 3 other wins continued United’s renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and a top 3 spot is beginning to look a real possibility. It was not all positive news though, as 2 more managers were let go in February: Claude Puel was dismissed by Leicester following an embarrassing 1-4 loss at home to Crystal Palace, while Claudio Ranieri lasted just over 3 months at Fulham.


Role models

Premier League footballers are watched by millions of people every week including thousands of children. They are some of the best players in the world playing in arguably the best league in the world. As such, they are arguably in a position where children will look up to them as role models.

So imagine my disappointment when I saw Burnley’s Ashley Barnes going absolutely crazy at a lineman after he was accused of diving to try winning a penalty. Yes, diving is disgusting and needs to be kicked out of the game, but this was a terrible call as he was clearly caught by Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy. It’s understandable that Barnes would be angry at not being awarded a clear penalty – the penalty given to them later in the game was their first in 68 league games – and in fact being given a yellow for diving, but that to me does not excuse the way he reacted to the officials and I am shocked he was not given a second yellow for this reaction.

This was not the first incident this season of players disrespecting officials as just the week before, Wilfried Zaha was given a second yellow card for dissent after sarcastically applauding the referee who had just booked him against Southampton.

There is no place for either of these reactions in football. Officials have a hard enough time doing their job and getting the right decision (more on that in a moment) without players and fans giving them abuse. Players need to control their emotions and cut out this behaviour as it will just lead to children doing the same in grassroots football, which will stop people wanting to become an official.


Costly decision

It takes just one second to potentially change the outcome of a game completely. During Brighton’s home match with Burnley, the Seagulls found themselves 0-2 down but on the attack with about 15 minutes left. The attack came to an end as Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick appeared to handle the ball, but this was missed by the officials. Burnley countered and Ashley Barnes beat the offside trap on halfway before being fouled by keeper Mathew Ryan in the box, scoring the penalty for a 0-3 lead and eventually a 1-3 victory.

Instead of a Burnley penalty, this should have been a Brighton penalty and the core would have likely been 1-2 rather than 0-3, which with 15 minutes left could have completely changed the result.

VAR is making its way to the league next season and while not everyone is sold on it yet, this is a perfect example of just how important it can be to get the right decision.


Penalty points

Leicester’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham threw up an interesting moment as the Foxes were awarded a penalty when 1-0 down. Demarai Gray had been given the start ahead of Jamie Vardy as Claude Puel wanted to develop other options, but as soon as the penalty was awarded, Vardy came on to replace him and take the penalty. Things didn’t work out for them though as his shot was saved by Hugo Lloris. This moment left me with a couple of questions:

  1. Why say you want to develop other options and then go back to the tried an tested for something that should be as guaranteed as a penalty. This could instead harm Gray’s development and confidence.
  2. Should Vardy have been able to take the penalty?

This second one is interesting to me as though there is nothing against it in the rules, it does not feel right to me. Much like how a team cannot substitute their keeper at full time for a penalty shootout but must instead bring them on before the end of extra time, I feel that the penalty should be taken by someone who was on the pitch when the penalty was awarded. As well as feeling right, it surely makes sense tactically as well as otherwise a player’s first touch of the ball is them taking the penalty, which as Vardy showed is not necessarily going to be good news for them.


A great turnaround

Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at home to Liverpool would probably be considered a good result for them looking back at how the first half of the season went, but when you look into the match even further you realise just how good the result was.

With Nemanja Matić already missing through injury, United’s midfield was dealt a blow about 20 minutes in as Ander Herrera left the pitch with an injury to leave United with a midfield pairing of Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay. Things got even worse as Jesse Lingard had to replace the injured Juan Mata about 5 minutes later and then himself left the pitch injured just before halftime, being replaced by Alexis Sanchez. Marcus Rashford had also been struggling with an injury from around the same time as Herrera’s injury but with no subs remaining had to play the rest of the game.

Granted, Liverpool lost Roberto Firmino to injury as well in the first half, but that still left them 2 available subs in the second half, so for United to hold on with 10½ men against the title contenders and in fact almost win it (Joel Matip’s own goal was disallowed due to Chris Smalling’s offside) shows just how far United have come under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.


Sarri v Kepa

Chelsea may not have had a league game in Round 27 as they were losing on penalties to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final, but they were still making waves that would continue into the next round of matches.

As extra time edged towards penalties, Maurizio Sarri chose to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga – who had gone down with cramp twice in the extra period – with Willy Caballero, who is known to have a good record against penalties. Kepa however refused to leave the pitch, leading to Sarri having to back down and be moved away from Kepa after the whistle.

While this was a public embarrassment, Chelsea media moved quickly to play the incident down, with Kepa’s statement saying that it was a misunderstanding and he was making it clear that he was fit enough to continue. Sarri’s actions in their next league match against Tottenham said otherwise though, as he dropped Kepa in favour of Willy Caballero. When asked about the change of keepers, Sarri stated:

“Kepa made a big mistake and so it was only a message for the whole team, all the dressing room”

While I completely agree with the decision to drop Kepa under normal circumstances, the fact that this went completely against the public line taken by Chelsea may have put him on shaky ground (as if he wasn’t already with the performances and results his team were getting) and showed that when push came to shove in the match, player power beat out the manager. If Sarri makes it beyond the end of this season, I will be shocked!


Top 6 prediction

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

 

January 2019 in the Premier League

January 2019 in the Premier League

Hey guys, sorry for taking almost half of February to write this one, as I’m sure you can see from the amount of 6 Nations content, this is a busy time of year for me and that’s before I even take into account work and anything else going on in my life!

January saw the winter transfer window come and go with less excitement than in some previous years. While some teams were busy looking to improve on their season like with Chelsea bringing in Gonzalo Higuain and Newcastle breaking their transfer record to sign Miguel Almiron for £20m, some started planning for next year (Chelsea signed Christian Pulisic then loaned him back to Dortmund for the rest of the season), and some made no action at all, such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. United continued their resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, going unbeaten in the league to close the gap on the teams above, while a 2-1 loss to Manchester City at the beginning of the month and a draw at home to Leicester reduced Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table.


Transfer talk

The January transfer window is far from easy. Swapping clubs halfway through a season can mean it takes a while for a player to bed into their new surroundings, while the club have likely signed them due to a pressing need for them to perform.

Alvaro Morata started his Chelsea career so well but then struggled to keep scoring the goals and this has led to Chelsea loaning him out t Atletico Madrid and bringing in Gonzalo Higuain on loan to replace him. While Higuain is clearly a talented player and has the experience of playing for Maurizio Sarri, but he has no experience of playing in the Premier League and at 31 years old it could be argued that his best years are behind him, so there is no guarantee that this move will have any more success than playing Morata. If Higuain does not work out as hoped, then they could be forced to once again rely on Eden Hazard leading the line, though it has been shown that playing him in the false 9 position is a detriment to his game and is not good enough to have consistent success in the league. I also feel surprised with the Pulisic signing as the playmaker positions (both out wide and centrally) are pretty well covered by Chelsea – to the point that England international Ruben Loftus-Cheek is not even a regular starter – whereas further forwards they are lacking that guaranteed quality to compete at the very top of the table.

A player who has made an immediate impact though is Ryan Babel for Fulham. The Dutchman has immediately improved the Fulham attack with his pace causing the Spurs defence serious issues in a 2-1 loss and a couple of his crosses leading to goals in the 4-2 comeback victory over Brighton. With a target man like Aleksandar Mitrović up front, you need quality wingers to get the ball in to him from wide positions and the former Liverpool man is doing exactly that.

One team who may be regretting some of their transfer activity is Liverpool, who allowed Nathaniel Clyne to go out on loan to Bournemouth. It is strange that he has so quickly fallen down the pecking order at Anfield but with Joe Gomez out injured long-term, Clyne was the clear backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back. With him moving to the Vitality Stadium, it was Sod’s law that Alexander-Arnold would get injured, and that has left Liverpool playing a range of midfielders at the position, leaving them vulnerable in defence, as we saw when James Milner was tasked with defending against Wilfried Zaha, leading to a red card following 2 bookable offences.

Perhaps the best work in the transfer market this January belongs to Bournemouth and West Ham, who both managed to keep hold of star strikers Callum Wilson and Marko Arnautović respectively. Wilson is having a career-best year in the Premiership with 10 goals and also marked his England debut with a goal, but the rumour mill suggested a move to Chelsea was imminent. Personally, I think that he would have been a safer bet for Chelsea than Higuain (who had scored 8 goals in about as many games while on loan for AC Milan). I can’t help but wonder if a knee injury that led to a minor operation during January helped save the Cherries from losing their star striker. As for Arnautović, he has helped make West Ham’s attack look much more dangerous since moving into a central striker role and is one of their top scorers this season, but looked set for a move to China that looked all-but certain when he waved to fans following his substitution against arsenal and then didn’t feature against Bournemouth. However, he chose to stay and signed a new contract with the Hammers. A player of the Austrian’s ability, able to play up front and in a wider position, is such a big part of the team and would not be easy for West Ham to replace. It will be interesting to see if either of these players looks to move in the summer…


On borrowed time?

Following Chelsea’s 2-0 loss at Arsenal, Maurizio Sarri shocked people with a scathing attack on his players, saying that they lack motivation and determination. It was an interview that divided fans and pundits and while it initially led to a reaction – with a 2-1 win against Spurs seeing them progress to the Carabao Cup final on penalties and a 3-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday putting them into the 5th round of the FA Cup – the next Premier League match was an unmitigated disaster as they lost 4-0 to a Bournemouth side that was missing start striker Callum Wilson. Since then, a 5-0 victory over Huddersfield will have barely started to paper over the cracks before 6-0 loss at Manchester City saw them drop to 6th in the table!

Sarri has such a talented squad and had a great unbeaten run at the start of the season, but now everything is falling apart. Despite their defensive issues, club captain Gary Cahill has barely featured this season in any competition and has apparently been barely spoken to by Sarri since his arrival, Callum Hudson-Odoi has barely featured yet was not allowed to leave with Bayern Munich keen to take him, there have been concerns over N’Golo Kanté being used in a more forward position than the holding role where he excels and the lead striker role has been a mess with neither Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud given a decent run of games or any confidence from the manager and Eden Hazard often wasted in a false 9 position when there is a legitimate striker on the bench.

The players may not have been at their best, but as we have seen with United this season, it is the manager’s duty to get them performing and if they cannot do so then they have no reason to be at the club. Roman Abramovich is not known to be patient with his managers and I will be shocked to see Sarri still in the role next season. With Chelsea currently on the worst run of form of anyone in the top 6, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him gone within the month unless performances and results improve considerably.


Another sad day

In what has been an exciting season of Premier League football, the 2018/19 season is one that will be looked back on with more than a hint of sadness. Following the terrible helicopter crash at Leicester that claimed the life of Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and 4 others, January saw the loss of Emiliano Sala after his plane went missing over the English Channel. The Argentine had just signed from Nantes to Cardiff for a club record fee of £15m on January 19th but his aircraft was declared missing on January 21st and the official search was called off on January 24th, though a privately funded search continued and found the wreckage of the plane on the seabed on February 3rd. A body was recovered on February 7th and identified as Salah, while pilot David Ibbotson is yet to be found.

This is yet another tragic story this season and my thoughts go out to the family and friends of both Sala and Ibbotson. As with the helicopter crash though, it was heart-warming to see the response of the wider footballing community, from players and pundits continuing to donate to the private search while Ibbotson remains unfound, to Arsenal including him on the programme’s team sheet when Cardiff faced them, with the image of a daffodil where his squad number would have been. Meanwhile Nantes plan to retire the number 9 shirt in his honour.

Unfortunately not all fans have reacted as well, with a pair of Southampton fans having been found to taunt Cardiff fans with plane gestures, but I am glad to see that Southampton acted quickly to ban those involved – hopefully forever!

Football, especially its fans, can have a bad reputation (I myself have been disgusted at fans actions in the past) but moments like this and the tragedy in Leicester show that there is still something to be proud of in this sport.


Top 6 prediction

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