Premier League: December 2019

Premier League: December 2019

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

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


Premier League Round-up


The ugly side of the beautiful game

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

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

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

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

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

Some fine tuning needed

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully we see some improvement soon.

Where is everyone?

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

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

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

feat football prem league logo pink

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 The Final Rounds

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

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

 


Record Breakers

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

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

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


Down but not out

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

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

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

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

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


Back fighting?

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

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

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


 

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

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 25

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 25

It was goals galore in most matches of Round 25, with Stoke’s 0-0 draw against Watford the only game not to include at least 2 goals. Before I go any further I need to apologise to my friend Chris, who is a Spurs supporter. When I was predicting this week’s results on my last roundup, I was so tempted to predict a Spurs win against United but I saw them coming up short and failing to capitalise on home advantage against another rival. How wrong I was as Christian Eriksen’s goal after just 11 seconds put them on their way to a deserved 2-0 victory.

Elsewhere Bournemouth shocked Chelsea with a 0-3 victory at Stamford Bridge and Swansea continued their revival with a 3-1 victory over Arsenal, while Liverpool got back to winning ways with 3 goals at Huddersfield.

In other news, the January transfer window closed with Premier League clubs having spent a record £150 million on deadline day and a 3-way deal taking place between Arsenal, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund. But more on that later.

Before we get into the big stuff, a quick shoot-out to Southampton defender Jack Stephens who scored their equaliser against Brighton with a lovely backheel – if Messi did that we’d be raving about it for weeks!

Top refereeing

People are always quick to criticise referees and their assistants when they make a mistake – I myself have mentioned a number of errors this season as examples for why more technology is needed in the sport – but it is much less frequent that a ref gets praised for his actions. But watching Manchester City’s 3-0 victory over West Brom, I saw a moment of refereeing from Robert Madley that deserves much more attention and praise.

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Chelsea’s loss was great news for Liverpool and Spurs in the race for the Champions League – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

With the score at 1-0, City began an attack from halfway through Kevin de Bruyne. Knowing the danger that West Brom were in, Baggies winger James McClean chose to dive in and bring down the Belgian with no attempt to get the ball. A cynical foul that will clearly result in a yellow card, but also bring a halt to the game and allow the defence to organise. His challenge failed to bring down de Bruyne, though he was clearly impeded and I don’t think anyone would have blamed Madley for blowing the whistle and awarding a free kick, however seeing de Bruyne managing to keep his feet, he chose to hold his arms out for advantage. City used this advantage to continue into the box and through a lovely combination down the left, which was finished by de Bruyne putting the ball in the back of the West Brom net. While City’s players and fans celebrated, Madley found McClean and gave him a deserved yellow card.

I feel that this was great refereeing and use of the advantage by Madley. Many would likely have blown for the foul immediately and watched the resultant free kick come to nothing against a reorganised defence, however to play advantage gave City the chance they deserved and (as usual this season) they took it. To book McClean as well also ensured that he was given the punishment that he deserved for his actions.

It is not always easy to see in a split second whether there is an advantage or not. When a referee gets it right like Madley did, he deserves to get recognition for his actions.

Bad business

I really feel for Newcastle fans. They are a club with a long history of success and their fan base has stayed loyal even through their struggles in the Premier League and their previous relegations. They also have arguably one of the better managers in the league in Rafa Benitez, but are sadly missing the most important part: a squad capable enough of winning in the top flight.

The majority of Newcastle’s players this season are part of the squad that played in the Championship last year, but despite impressive players like Jamaal Lascelles and players like Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie who have Premier League experience, this is not a squad that can expect to be challenging any higher than mid-table. To make things even worse for them, the difference between mid-table and relegation is minimal this season, with only 5 points separating 10th placed Bournemouth and 19th placed Swansea. Newcastle drastically needed signings in January in order to stay up.

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Spurs; win over United was in front of a Premier League record crowd, a benefit to playing at Wembley this season – From http://www.premierleague.com

The problem though, is that Mike Ashley does not like to put his hand in his pocket. At all. To him, Newcastle United is a business and he is doing very well in that regard, but the fans need and deserve results and a financial input that he is just not willing to give. The takeover that was giving fans hope fell through in December and rather than seeing the club compete for long-term signings, the fans once again had to settle for 3 short-term loans, namely Kenedy, Islam Slimani and Sparta Prague keeper Martin Dubravka.

Newcastle’s issues have not been so much at the back – only Brighton and West Brom have conceded less goals out of the teams in the bottom half of the table – but up front, where they have struggled to find the back of the net. Is Slimani going to help here? He has not really impressed at Leicester so the immediate signs are not good. The only one of the 3 loan signings that currently looks promising for the Magpies is that of Kenedy, who looked impressive on his debut against Burnley and won the penalty that Joselu (unsurprisingly) failed to score. Ashley needs to sell the club soon to someone who cares, or Newcastle will find themselves back in the Championship, while Benitez will choose to move on to a club that will allow him to bring in the players he wants.

Transfer talk

Their results and league position may not be ideal, but I would say that Arsenal have had a great time in the transfer market. They were already resigned to losing Alexis Sanchez (who was out of contract in the summer) but managed to offload him while bringing in a player with the potential to star in this team as a direct replacement. They also offloaded Olivier Giroud who was clearly not seen as a starter this season despite a record of 4 goals in 16 league appearances mainly off the bench, while bringing in the highly rated Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and also securing Mesut Özil to a new contract. Combined with the signing of Alexandre Lacazette in the summer, the Gunners are putting together a formidable team, but they are suspect at the back and this will likely stop them from getting Champions League football again next season. I expect to see them looking to strengthen their defence in the summer.

Continuing the 3-way swap, Chelsea upgraded their striking options for a steal at a reported £18m, while managing to offload Michy Batshuayi to Dortmund on loan. This a great signing for Chelsea as Giroud is a striker with enough quality to start and will surely push Alvaro Morata when he is fit, whereas Batshuayi was clearly not high in Antonio Conte’s thinking due to the number of times Eden Hazard was deployed as a false 9. As good as Hazard is, that is not something that will work on a regular basis, so to sign a proven goal scorer with years of Premier League experience will help them so much.

For Everton, Theo Walcott looks revitalised following his move from Arsenal and with Seamus Coleman returning from injury, they could form a deadly partnership down the right flank. Sticking with wingers and Watford’s signing of Gerard Deulofeu on loan from Barcelona is another astute signing as he has undoubted talent and experience in the league.

It will be interesting to see how much Riyad Mahrez features for Leicester over the next few weeks. The Algerian wanted to leave in the summer and handed in a transfer request on Tuesday amid speculation that Manchester City were interested, but the Sky Blues were unwilling to meet Leicester’s valuation having just shelled out £57m for Aymeric Laporte, who on early evidence may finally be a centreback worth the price tag (as far as anyone is worth millions of pounds). Mahrez did not feature this week against Everton and I can’t help but wonder how much his heart will be in it over the next few months. He will surely move in the summer so it would not surprise me if Claude Puel limits his game time going forward and uses it as a chance to start developing other players as replacements for him.

Round 26 predictions:

Burnley v Manchester City – City win

AFC Bournemouth v Stoke City – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v West Ham United – Draw

Leicester City v Swansea City – Draw

Manchester United v Huddersfield Town – United win

West Bromwich Albion v Southampton – Draw

Arsenal v Everton – Arsenal win

Crystal Palace v Newcastle United – Draw

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur – Liverpool win

Watford v Chelsea – Chelsea win