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

 

December 2018 in the Premier League

December 2018 in the Premier League

Happy New Year all!

It may seem odd to say that a league spanning from August to May can be decided in one month, but with 7 rounds of football in December and some huge results, the Premier League title may have been all-but wrapped up the title for Liverpool by the end of the festive period.

Elsewhere, two managers followed Slaviša Jokanović into unemployment with Mark Hughes being replaced at Southampton by Ralph Hasenhüttl and Ole Gunnar Solskjær replacing José Mourinho at Manchester United.


Pushing forward

I have some real sympathy for Sean Dyche. His Burnley side have not been awarded a penalty in the Premier League since 15th April 2017 against Everton, despite a number of incidents since that looked like they should have resulted in the referee pointing to the spot. The latest incident came in their 3-1 loss to Arsenal, where Kevin Long was bundled over by Sead Kolašinac in the Arsenal box. Soft? Maybe, but by the letter of the law it should be a foul, and by extension in this case, a penalty.

What will be even more galling for Dyche is that in the same round of fixtures, Dominic Calvert-Lewin had a goal disallowed for Everton for a push on Davinson Sánchez during their 2-6 loss to Tottenham – a push that was arguably a softer foul than Kolašinac’s. Then, just 2 matches later, Kolašinac did concede a penalty in the 5-1 loss to Liverpool by pushing over Dejan Lovren. 3 pushes, 2 fouls… the maths just doesn’t add up.

One of my real bugbears in football is the amount of pushing and pulling that goes unpunished. The powers that be need to decide that either any push or pull is legal or every push or pull is a foul, and the officials then need to enforce this. Otherwise we see games ruined by players being penalised one week and not another for the exact same act.


A crazy few minutes

Brighton’s 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace gave us one of the craziest moments of the season, and unfortunately not many people come out of it looking good.

Glenn Murray went down in the box under pressure from James Tomkins – perhaps a little easy, but that’s another debate altogether – but referee Kevin Friend did not award a penalty. Murray stayed down with an injury and in the afters, Shane Duffy inexplicably thrust his head into Patrick van Aanholt, earning himself a deserved red card. Having lost a defender, manager Chris Hughton replaced Pascal Groß with the more defensive Leon Balogun. Things didn’t end there as Friend had awarded a corner, thinking the ball had been played by Tomkins rather than Murray and the corner resulted in Balogun scoring a stunning volley with his first touch of the ball!

While I would hope the officials would be able to get the decisions between a corner and a goal kick correct at this level, this incident to me really highlighted one of the differences between football and rugby. In rugby, an offence like Duffy’s headbutt would cause a reversal in the referee’s original decision as well as any necessary cards. This way, the aggressor is punished with a dismissal and his team are also punished. Had that been the case here, Duffy’s indiscretion would have seen the corner (that they already shouldn’t have) be reversed to a Palace free kick, which could have made a huge difference given the 1-0 scoreline at the time.


Great month for Liverpool

December couldn’t have really gone much better for Liverpool. They continued their unbeaten campaign with 7 wins from 7, including victories over Manchester United, Arsenal and local rivals Everton. Meanwhile, title rivals Manchester City dropped points with losses to Chelsea (2-0), Crystal Palace (2-3) and Leicester (2-1); Tottenham lost to Arsenal (4-2) and Wolves (1-3); Arsenal lost at Southampton (3-2) and drew at Manchester United (2-2) and Brighton (1-1) and Chelsea lost 1-0 to Leicester.

8 of the last 9 league leaders on Christmas Day have gone on to win the title, while Liverpool’s leade on New Year’s Day would be the biggest margin overcome in Premier League history were they to lose the title, so the signs are very good for the Reds. Mohamed Salah may not be scoring with the same regularity as last season, they look much more secure at the back with Virgil van Dijk looking one of the best centrebacks in the league and Alisson currently sits top of the league in terms of clean sheets.

I don’t expect them to go unbeaten this season, but barring a slew of injuries to key players, I find it hard to imagine they will drop enough points to allow anyone else to overtake them, especially as I expect their rivals to also drop more points in such a hotly contested league this season.


Throwback to the past

The inevitable finally happened this season as United’s loss to Liverpool saw the end of José Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, with the Special One being replaced by former fan-favourite player Ole Gunnar Solskjær until the end of the season. The move has had instant results, with the team playing a much more attack-focused gameplan with the players looking much freer than before. They may not have played table-topping teams, but 4 wins from 4 has made Solskjær only the second manager in the history of the club to win his first 4 league games in charge, the first being Sir Matt Busby.

It has been wonderful watching their recent performances and with Solskjær in charge and Mike Phelan on his staff, this is probably the closest feeling we have had to the classic United since Fergie retired.

However, I do not want to get carried away. United are still struggling to keep clean sheets and are in desperate need of a top-quality centre back, but the rumours have been that United will be limited to loan signings with Solskjær currently only on loan from Molde until the end of the season. That will not be enough to keep up with the top teams and if players like Pogba begin to act up again (I cannot believe that his new form is down purely to him being given more freedom on the pitch as opposed to him now actively putting in effort) then things could turn horribly again.

Personally, I really hope things work out for the rest of the season and would love to see the Baby-faced Assassin get the role on a permanent basis.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:

The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.

The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.

Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?

League Format

The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.

While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).

Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.

This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.

This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).

Conference Format

The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.

However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.

Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.

For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.

My preference

For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.

So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?

November 2018 in the Premier League

November 2018 in the Premier League

3 more rounds of Premier League football were crossed off the list in November. Manchester City and Liverpool both remain unbeaten in the league this season after City won 3/3 (including a 3-1 humbling of derby rivals United at the Etihad), while Liverpool drew at Arsenal but got back to winning ways against Fulham and Watford.

Meanwhile it was announced this month that VAR will come to the Premier League next season so in celebration, I will avoid moaning about the slew of poor decisions this month and instead leave that to Charlie Austin… Park Life!


A star in sky blue

Sergio Agüero netted his 150th Premier League goal in their 5-1 thrashing of Southampton to cement himself as one of the greatest strikers to have played in the league. The Argentine was always going to be remembered by scoring 23 goals in 34 matches in his debut season (including that goal in the eleventh hour to win the league), but his exploits over the years since have left it in no doubt and his 151st goal in the match against United has moved him to 8th in the Premier League goals chart, ahead of Michael Owen. What makes it even more impressive is that his goal:game ratio is so much higher than the players around him, with a ratio of 0.69 (151:219) comparable to only Thierry Henry (0.68) and Harry Kane in the top 20!

Granted, he has benefited from being in a great team, but he has also missed substantial time with a number of injuries over the years, while he has often had competition from a number of strikers and yet kept his place as the top dog through 3 managers and one caretaker manager. At 30, he still has a couple of good years in him and does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down, while the quality around him to supply him with the ball is improving. Alan Shearer’s record of 260 goals is likely beyond him, but I would not bet against him beating Wayne Rooney’s 208 goals before the end of his career.


A mixed start

It’s safe to say that Tottenham’s young centre-back Juan Foyth has had a mixed start to his Premier League career. Signed in the summer of 2017, the 20-year-old made his league debut at the start of the month at Wolves, where he almost cost Spurs the win by giving away 2 penalties, which were both converted to turn a comfortable 0-3 into a close 2-3 that should have actually been 3-3 had the officials not wrongly disallowed a goal at 0-2 for what they adjudged to be an offside by Matt Doherty.

Credit to Mauricio Pochettino, though, as he kept Foyth in the starting XI the next week away to Crystal Palace. He had a shaky start again, conceding a cheap corner after playing an errant pass in the vague direction of Hugo Lloris, but he popped up in the right place at the right time to score the only goal of the game after Harry Kane’s shot was blocked.

After the game, Pochettino described him as a “potential top player” and it is really great to see him doing this as the manager’s faith will help Foyth’s morale and motivation so much. He does need to be careful though as he was lucky not to concede a 3rd penalty in 3 matches when he came through the back of Eden Hazard in the box with Spurs ahead 1-0, only for the referee to wave play on.

Spurs have had a number of talented centre-backs play for them in recent seasons. With the right management, has Pochettino found another gem?


First one down

Slaviša Jokanović became the first managerial casualty of the year following the 2-0 loss at Liverpool with former Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri coming in as his replacement. It’s never nice to see a manager given the boot, but in this case it’s hard to argue that there was any option. After 12 matches, they found themselves with just 5 points from a win and 2 draws. They were scoring goals, but not consistently enough, while they were shipping far too many goals and could not settle on a consistent set of personnel at the back. The Premier League is a huge step up from the Championship and while they signed a number of players with experience in the league (including the loan signing of World Cup winner André Schürrle) the quality of performances has not been good enough. Fulham need to strengthen their squad if they want to stay up, but if things are going poor then it is understandable to want to change manager ahead of the January transfer window so that he has time to settle in and decide what personnel he needs. The change has certainly appeared to have a positive impact on the team as they won their first game under Ranieri 3-2 at home to Southampton and have also drawn against Leicester, almost doubling their points in the 3 games he has been in charge for, which has left them just a point (and 5 goals) away from safety.

Jokanović is clearly a good manager. Unfortunately for him, this was just one step too far this time around.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

October 2018 in the Premier League

October 2018 in the Premier League

Just the 3 rounds of football in October as the international break took place after the first week of matches. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea continue their unbeaten starts to the season with 2 wins and a draw each. City’s results were probably the most impressive of the 3 as they drew with Liverpool (who remain level on points) and won against Burnley and at Spurs. Arsenal matches the results of the teams ahead of them, as did Manchester United – who were denied a win at Stamford Bridge courtesy of a late Ross Barkley goal – and Bournemouth, who continue to surpass expectations and hold onto a spot in the top 6. The only team to win all their games in October was Brighton, who managed 3 consecutive 1-0 victories, while Fulham were the only team not to pick up a single point this month.


The best of football

Football fans don’t always get painted in the best light – often for good reason – but there were some instances this month that really caught my eye and thought were worthy of praise.

The biggest of these has come in circumstances that we wish had not happened, but centres around the reaction to the helicopter crash following Leicester’s 1-1 draw with West Ham that saw 5 people including Leicester owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Football fans have not always been the best at showing respect for other clubs’ previous tragedies, but the way that the entire football community has responded to the incident is highly commendable.

On a lighter note, the other moments of class have been related to former players returning to their old home ground with new teams. I remember the shock when Juan Mata was sold to United. Mata was a fan-favourite at Stamford Bridge and has understandably become one at Old Trafford too, so it was wonderful to see both home and away fans give him a standing ovation as he left the pitch during United’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Similarly, it was great to see Manchester City fans give keeper Joe Hart such a warm welcome on his return to the Etihad with Burnley. He was such a big piece of the club through their early years of success and it never felt right with me the way he was so easily discarded by Pep Guardiola, so it was great to see the fans give him the respect he deserved. It’s just a shame that he was left picking the ball out the back of his net 5 times, especially given a couple of huge decisions from the officials really went in City’s favour during the game.


Kick it out

From some of the best of football to some of the worst.

We quickly find ourselves back at Stamford Bridge and in the final moments of the match as Ross Barkley salvaged a point for Chelsea. While I can understand that emotions would run high at a moment like that, there was no excuse for Chelsea coach Marco Ianni to come running out of the dugout and celebrate not just in front of the United bench, but also to direct his celebration towards them. There is no need whatsoever, it is taunting plain and simple and I have to comment José and the United bench for not reacting the first time. But because they didn’t react, Ianni decided to do it again, sparking ugly scenes at the tunnel. It’s great to see that Sarri apologised and that the FA reacted to the incidents, but a £6,000 fine is pathetically small. This is the Premier League, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – and most popular leagues in the world. Children will be watching Ianni’s actions and thinking that’s acceptable. It isn’t! It was a disgusting and blatant act of disrespect towards Mourinho and the United team and the punishment should have been much more severe.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t it this month as the diving epidemic continued in October. Now first things first, credit to the referees who are coming down hard on the players, with Laurent Depoitre, Aboubakar Kamara and Willian all booked this month for blatant dives, while Alvaro Morata was also cautioned for going down easily during a face-off with a couple of Burnley defenders. Diving is disgusting and needs eliminating from the game. The only problem is that as the referee has picked up on these instances of simulation and given the punishment they can (a yellow card is the maximum punishment on the pitch), the FA cannot give any further punishment. This needs to change if the FA are serious about stamping out diving. If a player knows that they will face a 3-match ban for diving regardless of whether or not they deceive the officials (or better yet get a longer ban if their deception is successful) then after a while players will not want to take the risk as they will know they are putting themselves at risk.


He needs to go!

At almost £90m Paul Pogba was always going to be considered an expensive signing, but I would also call him a costly one. The player has often felt like a distraction in the changing room this season, and if it comes to a matter of someone having to leave Old Trafford and the board picking between Pogba or Mourinho, then I am firmly behind keeping Mourinho.

Pogba has been frustrating on the pitch this season. He has some wonderful moments where he plays beautiful passes, but then he also has plenty of other moments where at best he is anonymous and at worse a liability. He lost his man Antonio Rüdiger far too easy at a corner to allow the German to open the scoring and his showboating lost the ball against Everton, leading to the foul by Chris Smalling that earned a penalty.

And then there’s the penalties. The most pathetic thing I have ever seen on a football pitch. forgoing a run-up for over 20 tiny steps, leaving no power in the shot and making him look stupid if he doesn’t score (he was lucky against Everton that Pickford’s save sent the ball back to him to score on the rebound). With the players in the United squad, there must be someone who can take a proper penalty and if United can get some decent players in January then I will have no problem with them selling Pogba for what will likely be a loss financially.


Attitudes need to change

It was good to see that Glenn Murray made such a quick recovery following Brighton’s win at Newcastle. Murray and Magpies defender Federico Fernández clashed heads competing for an aerial ball and as Murray landed, his body folded and his arms did not protect his fall, leading to his head hitting the floor with sickening force.

Full credit to the players and officials for stopping the game immediately and the medics for their quick actions to stop things from getting worse, but watching Match of the Day, I was shocked to hear commentator Guy Mowbray describe the incident as “something and nothing” as the replays showed Murray’s head hitting the ground. Concussion is a serious worry and this is unfortunately not the first time that the actions of people involved in the Premier League have made it look as if they are not so focused on it. I really hope they prove me wrong.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

September 2018 in the Premier League

September 2018 in the Premier League

September saw things get interesting in the Premier League for the big teams. Manchester City went unbeaten, scoring 12 goals and conceding just 1 to keep themselves top of the league. Liverpool and Chelsea continue to suggest they will be City’s closest rivals this season, drawing 1-1 against each other while Liverpool won all their other games and Chelsea drew with West Ham (who appear to have turned the corner) but won the others. Arsenal are also on a great run, winning all their league games with an aggregate score of 9-3. Tottenham did not start the month well with losses to Watford and Liverpool but have got back on track since then, but they will still consider themselves better off then Manchester United, who have had to deal with a rift between José Mourinho and big-money signing Paul Pogba while drawing at home to Wolves and losing 3-1 at West Ham.


Help them!

People who regularly read my round-by-round series on the league last year will already know my views that the officials need help in the form of VAR or something similar. Having watched September’s matches, I picked up on a number of incidents that would surely have had different results had VAR been in the league:

  • Burnley 0-2 Manchester United: following a face-off with Phil Bardsley, Marcus Rashford is rightfully sent off for a headbutt. Bardsley received a yellow but replays showed Bardsley doing the same back to Rashford, so he should have also received a red.
  • Cardiff City 0-5 Manchester City: Joe Rawls received a yellow card for a tackle on Ilkay Gundogan. Replays showed that Rawls’ foot was high so he should have received a red card.
  • Fulham 1-1 Watford: Timothy Fosu-Mensah gets away with a yellow card for a challenge on Troy Deeney. Like Rawls, replays showed that the foot was high with studs showing, so he should have been sent for an early shower.
  • Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored Arsenal’s second goal after Aaron Ramsey failed to control Mesut Özil’s cross. Replays clearly show Aubameyang was in an offside position when Ramsey touched the ball.
  • West Ham 3-1 Manchester United: Felipe Anderson slots home Pablo Zabaleta’s cross to put West Ham 1-0 up. Replays showed that Zabaleta was in an offside position when the ball was played to him.

2 wrongly allowed goals and 3 red cards not given in just 1 month of football! And those are just the incidents I noted down! In one of the best leagues in the world, that is unacceptable, but I find it hard to lay the blame firmly on the officials as there is only so much 3 people can pick up. Football needs to move out of the dark ages and start using more technology to help the referees make the right decisions.


Changing of the guard?

Petr Čech did not start the season well for Arsenal. It has been a long time since I considered him one of the best keepers in the league and in the early weeks he looked to be struggling with the style of play, often making mistakes with the ball at his feet. He played better in Week 6 however, keeping his first clean sheet of the season. Things went wrong a week later though as he went off injured in the first half against Watford, with summer signing Bernd Leno coming on in his place.

Though his sample size with Arsenal is still small, Leno looked impressive on his league debut and at age 26, I think it is time for him to take over the reins between the sticks. With Čech out for about a month, this is certainly a great chance for the German to take over.


Smart selections?

I was very surprised with Marco Silva’s team selection for Everton’s Week 5 loss against West Ham. Midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin was selected in the starting XI despite his father passing away during the week. The Frenchman had an indifferent game and was taken off just before halftime.

The job of a manager is (unsurprisingly) to manage his players to ensure the team gets the best result. While I respect Schneiderlin for being willing to play so soon after a personal tragedy, I feel that Silva should have given him the match off and picked someone whose thoughts throughout the week and the match would have been on the game. I will not go as far as to say this decision cost Everton the game, but it was just immediately making the game harder for them.


Top 6 prediction

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