The Game I Love is in a Bad State

The Game I Love is in a Bad State

Talking with one of my mates at work the other week, we both found ourselves feeling a bit of a disconnect in our interest for Premiership Rugby this season, despite competing against each other in fantasy rugby. I thought about that a bit over the next few days and realised that it’s not just the Premiership, I’m feeling some degree of apathy to rugby in general. Obviously not enough to stop me wanting to write about it, but enough that I’m finding myself less interested in watching everything I can over recent months.

But what’s causing this? Is it that I have reached rugby saturation due to the World Cup filling most of the usual break? Considering I’ve been known to watch 8 or 9 matches in a weekend and want to watch more, I don’t think it’s that. Is it Gloucester’s struggles this season? Well I’m used to that. Is it the frustration of watching players in the form of their life being ignored by Eddie Jones for players who don’t know the position? Potentially a little bit, but my apathy goes beyond England and the Premiership. Is it the absolute shambles of Sarries finally being found guilty of systematic cheating for years and the punishment that still doesn’t feel like it’s been dealt with right? Again, I think it’s had an impact, but my feelings go well beyond the Premiership.

Then watching the games the last few weeks, it hit me: I’m sick of watching every game get ruined by poor officiating. Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I have incredible respect for the officials and this is not an attack at them, more a point that officiating has reached a terrible level and things need to change soon in order to save the sport that I love.

What do I mean when I talk about the poor officiating? I’m not railing about seatbelt tackles being the softest of penalties, because I understand why the rules are how they are. It’s not even the prospective changes to the laws coming in, though I’m strongly against some of them. It’s the fact that officials are routinely ignoring even blatant offences, which is having a negative impact on the competitiveness of a game.

Let’s look at some examples. CJ Stander avoided punishment for taking the law into his own hands against England by striking Owen Farrell with an open hand multiple times after Farrell tried holding him in a ruck. Generally, retaliation will see the penalty reversed, while Law 9.12: “A player must not strike an opponent with the hand, arm or fist, including the elbow, shoulder, head or knee(s)” suggests that Stander was lucky to stay on the pitch, meanwhile Dragons’ Lloyd Fairbrother and Glasgow’s Oli Kebble were both yellow carded on the same weekend for a similar flare-up. Clear cases here of different referees treating the game different and not sticking to the laws of the game. And sometime’s it’s the same referee’s interpretation changing. In Round 2 of the Six Nations, Romain Ntamack’s try against Italy came off the back of Romain Taofifenua winning a penalty at the breakdown, despite Gaël Fickou making no attempt to roll after making the tackle, something that the referee had been quick to pick up earlier in the game. The breakdown is the wild west, with jackals winning penalties despite not supporting their weight and illegal cleanouts coming in form all directions except through the gate. Players are suffering serious injuries due to this, but Ben Ryan’s calls to start refereeing the breakdown correctly fall on deaf ears – cos we all know a 50-20 kick will benefit the game more than effectively-refereed breakdowns (note the sarcasm!).

Of course, it’s not just the referee in the middle, they have an AR on each touchline and a TMO to help them make the right decisions, but so much still gets missed. James Ryan appears to have somehow avoided a citing for the most ridiculous of cleanouts against England, where he basically torpedoed himself into England players twice in one breakdown, very clearly going against Law 15.12: “Players must endeavour to remain on their feet throughout the ruck.” In Gloucester’s recent loss to Exeter, the TMO rightly picked up a clear neck roll by Franco Mostert, which ended a promising Gloucester attack, but a later attack by Exeter was allowed to continue, with an equally clear neck roll from one of their players ignored. Gerbrandt Grobler found himself being called for a knock on as he stretched for the try line, but it was clear that the fumble was caused by an impact from Sam Simmonds, who had tucked his arm into his body and caused contact with his shoulder. It was a clear penalty try right under the referee’s nose, but was completely ignored not just by him, but also the TMO, despite it being obvious on replays.

Decisions like these change games. Going back to that game between Italy and France, the TMO called in at one point for a missed knock-on my Matteo Minozzi, but a later knock-on from a French tackler that resulted in Italy going from attacking in the French 22 to cleaning up the ball int heir own 22 was ignored, while in the same weekend, Kyle Sinckler’s blatant and cynical strip of the ball after a tackle had been completed 5m out from the England line (almost certainly a yellow card) was also ignored by all the officials and the TMO – an event that completely changed the momentum of the game as Scotland had been pressuring the England defence until that point. I also recently saw the most ridiculous of decisions as referee and TMO combined to yellow card Cheetahs centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg for a “dangerous challenge” on Leinster’s Fergus McFadden that anyone with half a brain could see was just a rugby incident. Finally in England’s U20s Six Nations loss to Ireland, a clear neck roll on England fly half George Barton was ignored in the build-up to Ireland’s final try, while an earlier England knock-on at a maul was changed to an Ireland knock-on by the TMO, despite the replays clearly showing that the Irish player had illegally swam up the side of the maul.

As much as I want my teams to win, I’m a fan of the sport first and foremost and I hate to see so many games being affected by iffy officiating.

How does all of this happen? I can only put it down to narratives being in the minds of the officials. There is a constant narrative that Italy are not good enough to deserve a place in the Six Nations, so if there’s a close (or even vaguely close-ish call) it will go against the Italians. Of course the French tackler didn’t knock the ball on, these Italians don’t know how to throw a pass. Likewise there is the narrative this season that Gloucester are struggling at the scrum, so an offence at the first scrum by Val Rapava Ruskin results in an Exeter penalty, while the following scrums for most of the match saw Fraser Balmain dominating Ben Moon (who was illegally angling in), but the scrums were just getting reset. Once officials have a narrative in their head, it is hard for them to look past that.

So why doesn’t this get called out more? Because the media also buys into these narratives. All the talk during Italy’s Six Nations losses is how they continue to lose every match in the tournament and Georgia continue to dominate in the Rugby Europe Championship, never about how Italian Rugby has been rebuilt under Conor O’Shea to start bringing the talent into the national team, who handily beat Georgia last time they faced off. When even the media is buying into the narratives, how is a casual fan of the sport meant to really see what is going on.

Right now, we have a chance to stop this. To put the focus back on the 4 officials working together to effectively police the game and clean it up. It may lead to a period of penalty-ridden games, but players and coaches will have to adapt to the laws which are already in place or we will begin to see interest wane as the sport just becomes a mess.

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 3: A Rugby Ramble

The official verdict

There is a problem in international rugby that got far too much attention over the last couple of weeks: the standard of officiating. Right now there just don’t seem enough referees good enough for the importance for the matches. As I said the other week, I think Luke Pearce is a very good referee and on the whole had a good game on his Tier 1 debut, but should have probably gone to the TMO for the French yellow card and should have had much more support from the TMO for the Grosso incident and the final try. Last week, I was full supportive of Angus Gardner’s red card for Benjamin Fall, but World Rugby decided to rescind the card, appearing to go against every decision in recent months.

This week, the refereeing in some of the matches was, to put it nicely, dire! Not a single one of the New Zealand v France Tests could go without controversy, as this time John Lacey awarded a try to Damian McKenzie just before half time after clearly blocking Baptiste Serin from making an attempt to tackle the All Blacks fly half. With just 1 look at the replay, Lacey and TMO George Ayoub agreed that Lacey had not impeded Serin and allowed the try, despite evidence clearly to the contrary. An offensive line in the NFL would be proud of that block! I understand that it is not always easy for a referee to position himself, but in the first attacking channel, exactly where a defending scrum half will run, is definitely not the right place and this was not even the only time his positioning was off as he ran into the passing lane from the back of a ruck earlier in the half as the scrum half was playing the ball away.

Unbelievable as it may seem, the 3rd Test between Australia and Ireland may have been even worse in terms of officiating. Israel Folau was shown a yellow card after 30 minutes after playing Peter O’Mahony in the air, resulting in the Irish captain landing awkwardly on his back and having to leave the pitch. While I can’t argue with this decision – it was a fair contest for the ball but Folau then grabbed him in the air – this was not the first time he had done this to O’Mahony in the game, with an earlier challenge where the flanker landed on his head a shoulders (a straight red according to the laws) going unpunished. Folau should consider himself lucky to have made it to half time without a red, but he definitely should have seen one for a second yellow card late in the game as he was judged to deliberately knock on an Irish pass when they had a 2-man overlap. They may not have been in a scoring position but it was a professional foul with a chance of a break on and fully deserving of a second yellow. It wasn’t just Pascal Gauzere’s reluctance to send off Folau that could have cost Ireland the win, as they were also disallowed what looked like 2 certain penalty tries in the second half. With the ball at the back of a ruck on the Australian line, Conor Murray dived for the post with the ball in an attempt to score by placing the ball against the base of the post. Gauzere consulted the TMO and they agreed that he had been unable to make contact with the post, but theat he had been stopped by a player in an offside position. Sekope Kepu was still on the floor trying to (slowly) extricate himself from the last ruck, but moved his body to protect the post, while Adam Coleman’s low stance clearly saw him with hands on the ball ahead of the post rather than behind the try line. 2 players illegally stopping a chance to score, how that wasn’t a penalty try – or even a yellow card – is beyond me! Then not long later an Irish maul was advancing over the try line and clearly collapsed by the Australian pack. Gauzere awarded a penalty, but with the maul clearly moving forward and in the process of crossing the line, a penalty try appeared the only option to me

I hope this doesn’t sound like a piece blasting officials as it is not intended as such, rather it is highlighting the need for an improved and more consistent quality of refereeing. Rugby is a professional sport and while these matches were not in a tournament they could have affected the rankings. Players need to know what they will and won’t be penalised for and until we have players and officials singing off the same hymn sheet, how are fans expected to not react to what they feel t be a clear injustice? With the World Cup just over a year away, either the quality of the officials has to improve dramatically, or we need to find a way to clone Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens soon.

The American dream

The USA finished off their fixtures this summer with a 42-17 win over Canada. This win leaves the Eagles undefeated in 2018 and 15th in the World Rankings. Argentina meanwhile slumped to an embarrassing 15-44 loss to an understrength Scotland. Despite the Pumas being ranked 10th in the world, if they were to play the USA this weekend I would not be surprised to see the Eagles emerge victorious.

The Eagles are on a wonderful run and their success will only push them on and make them even more successful as more people become interested in the sport. I would expect Argentina to begin improving in the near future under new leadership, but I can’t see them getting a single win against New Zealand, Australia or South Africa as things stand and it is quite possible that when we see these 2 teams meet in Pool C of the World Cup, the winner could be looking at becoming the top-ranked American team. What a moment that would be!

80 minute performance

New Zealand may have come away from the Summer Tests with a 3-0 series victory, but they looked anything but unbeatable. Over the 3 tests, the combined first half scores were 50-33 in favour of the Kiwis, but the second half saw them comfortably ahead 77-7. The French played very well in parts but were unable to put in the full 80 minute performances. Granted the yellow card to Paul Gabrillagues in the 1st Test won’t have helped in that match – they conceded 3 tries while he was off the pitch – but once the All Blacks got the momentum hey ran away with the 1st and 3rd Tests. The only one you could argue the French put in the full 80 minute performance was the 2nd Test, where they played the majority of the match a man down.

The All Blacks are beatable and I’m not sold on McKenzie as an international 10 when Beauden Barrett isn’t available, but you need to be at the top of your game to beat them and need to keep the performance going from the first whistle to the last.

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

2018 Summer Tests Week 1: A Rugby Ramble

Hey everyone sorry it has taken so long to get this done, unfortunately I was working all weekend so it took a few days to catch up with all the action before I could write this, hopefully next week’s should be much sooner after the matches.

Referees can’t win

Refereeing your first Tier 1 international is always going to be something to remember, but for Luke Pearce it turned into something of a nightmare. The English referee was handed New Zealand’s first Test against France and had a very good first half, getting the big calls right and not being afraid to march Aaron Smith back 10 metres for backchat following a penalty decision. However in the second half things started to go wrong for him. 50 minutes into the game and with the scores level, France lock Paul Gabrillagues brought down Ryan Crotty with a seatbelt tackle. Pearce called a halt to proceedings and had no hesitation in showing the second row a yellow card, though television replays after the card showed that though there was a seatbelt tackle, there was no contact with the head or neck so a penalty would have been sufficient. The All Blacks took advantage of the extra man, running in 3 tries to take control of the game. And then as France would have been preparing to get back to a full complement things got even worse. Remy Grosso attempted to come away from the back of a ruck but was caught by Sam Cane, while Ofa Tu’ungafasi also became involved in the challenge and caught him on the head. Grosso would leave the pitch and go to hospital with a double fracture to his face. Remarkably, neither player was shown his marching orders, with Pearce heard to be saying as Grosso was going to ground it was just a penalty for Tu’ungafasi. But that still leaves no excuse for Cane’s seatbelt tackle which caught Grosso around the face. In the same way Gabrillagues should not have been carded, Cane should have been. And as the match came to an end there was time for one more debatable decision, as Ardie Savea was awarded a try despite his knee appearing to hit the ground (completing the tackle). Pearce awarded the try and from his position that is understandable as he would have been unable to see Savea’s knee touch the ground, especially as it was for such a brief moment.

While he did not have the best of times with these incidents, I would not be quick to start a witch hunt. Yes it was a shame that Pearce chose to give a card to Gabrillagues without checking with the TMO, but then at the same time how often have we found ourselves moaning that referees refuse to make a decision without 5 minutes of replays. As to the other incidents, while the collision with Tu’ungafasi looks horrible, I can understand Pearce’s reason no not give him a card. Cane deserved a card, but despite clear evidence in the replays and a substantial gap in play as medics saw to Grosso, I did not hear TMO George Ayoub give him any indication that Cane’s challenge needed looking at, nor did he give any indication that Savea’s try needed a second look despite the replays clearly showing his knee hitting the ground. The TMO needs to be working along with the referee and his two assistants, yet Ayoub threw Pearce under the bus with his silence.

I personally rate Pearce as a good referee and hope these incidents don’t hold him back in the matches he is assigned moving forward.

Back row balance

David Pocock made his return to the Australia squad at the weekend in their 18-9 victory over Ireland and it was like he’d never been away from the squad. While the whole defence looked strong and put in big hits, the breakdown nous of him and captian Michael Hooper constantly makes it difficult for teams at the breakdown. Not only are they both incredibly experienced players, but they are expert fetchers and also bring a lot to open play. With turnovers (and resultant penalties) so important to modern rugby, when I see the two of them combining so effectively, I can’t help but wonder why more teams don’t play 2 fetchers in a similar style. Ireland have unearthed so much talent at the number 7 position with Saturday’sstarter Jordi Murphy arguably 4th in the order behind Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. However as long as Peter O’Mahony is on the park I don’t believe they would go for 2 specialist 7s at his expense as he is a force at the breakdown – though maybe not as finessed as some fetchers – while also contributing a lot to the game with his leadership and potential in the lineout. Wales however could really benefit from playing two specialist 7s. Aaron Shingler was great during the 6 Nations, but Josh Navidi, James Davies and Ellis Jenkins are all incredible talents that could make it into most international teams, and yet they also have to compete with captain Sam Warburton and his fellow Lion Justin Tipuric. Thomas Young can’t even get in the squad… I think many international coaches would love such depth! Warburton is a classy player and so experienced, but could also make room for one of the younger fetchers by moving to 6 at the expense of Shingler, allowing one of the younger 7s to play alongside him. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he retires from international rugby after the World Cup to allow the next generation 4 years to develop. With other back row options including Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate, and Welsh-qualified Lewis Ludlow starring for Gloucester this season, the Welsh back row is one of the units to watch over the next 18 months.

Strength of schedule

Currently ranked 6th in the world, Scotland’s opponents this summer make for strange reading. After impressive results over the last year they appear to be hitting their stride nicely in preparation for the World Cup, but this summer they are playing Tests against Canada, USA and Argentina. At best, Argentina will be ranked 9th when they play Scotland, providing they beat Wales, but USA are 15th and Canada are a disappointing 21st. I am all for Tier 1 teams playing Tests against Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations, but this does not seem to be the opponents I would expect such a highly ranked team to be playing so close to the World Cup. How many of the young lads making their debuts against Canada will have a realistic chance of getting on the plane to Japan next year? And what will the coaches learn of the players competing for starting spots against teams that are not up to their level? Argentina are the only team that should give the Scots a realistic challenge, and as such this you feels like a lose-lose situation for the squad, as they either field a highly weakened team that will barely benefit them come the World Cup, play their full squad and learn nothing from outclassing a weaker team or risk a poor performance against a minnow that should never have a chance. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Scots’ American tour goes.

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Rounds 28 & 29

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Rounds 28 & 29

Hey guys, apologies for no Round 28 Ramble, when planning my week I hadn’t taken into account the round continuing until Thursday evening, then I didn’t have enough time to write anything before Round 29, so I have once again combined both rounds for this piece.

What a horrible month it has been for Arsenal! Following their 5-1 victory over Everton in Round 26, they have only won 1 match in the next month – a 0-3 Europa League victory at Östersunds FK – losing 1-0 at local rivals Spurs and 1-2 in the home leg of their Europa League tie (going through 4-2 on aggregate), before losing 0-3 to Manchester City twice in a week in the Carabao Cup final and the league, before Sunday’s embarrassing 2-1 loss at Brighton. These results have left them with little chance of qualifying for the Champions League through the Premier League as they are now 13 points behind Spurs, who currently occupy 4th. West Brom’s troubles continue and their 3 league wins all season (1 under Pardew) leaves them rock bottom of the league 8 points behind Southampton in 17th. Crystal Palace currently have an injury list longer than their list of league victories this season and currently sit just within the relegation zone level on points with Stoke and 1 behind Southampton, while Swansea, West Ham, Huddersfield and Newcastle are all within 3 points of the relegation zone.


pl 28Jobs available in the Big 6?

With the way things are going at the moment, I think there will be 2 vacant manager positions at Big 6 teams by the end of the season.

As mentioned above, Arsenal are on a dire run and a second year without Champions League football, combined with a series of shocking performances in defeat, will surely spell the end of his reign. He has given so much to Arsenal over the years that I hope he is given the chance to walk rather than being sacked, however I cannot see how he can remain in the job another season. Despite finally spending big money on players like Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and signing Mesut Özil to a new contract, they were unable to keep hold of Alexis Sanchez and their results have been awful compared to the teams they should be competing against. They may have improved their attack, but even though they gained Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, they lost proven influential players in Sanchez and Olivier Giroud to their rivals. Their defence is also shocking still despite a couple of signings in recent years. There is no pace in the centre and little confidence throughout the defence, while Petr Cech is nowhere near the keeper he used to be any more and should have done much better for both goals against Brighton. Too often as well the midfield and attackers only seem interested in going forward rather than helping the defence, the balance is completely off in the squad and it needs sorting for next year if they are to have any chance of making it back into the Champions League.

As it currently stands, Chelsea are also looking at a season without Champions League football as losses to United and City have left them 5 points behind Spurs – not the way they would have wanted to defend their title! Antonio Conte has a squad full of quality but when you look at some of his squad selections, you would not think so. Chelsea have shelled out almost £90 million for strikers Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud this season after deeming Diego Costa surplus to requirements, but in a big game against City’s arguably shaky defence, Conte chose to keep Giroud on the bench until the 78th minute and Morata until injury time, instead playing Eden Hazard in a false 9 position that will not trouble the best teams enough. Giroud is getting used to a new team and Morata a new league, but if Conte is not willing to keep faith with them how will they adapt and be able to excel in this team? It does not sound as if Antonio Conte is happy at Stamford Bridge and I expect to see a new man take the reins this summer.


Hanging refs out to dry

If stories in the last week are to be believed, VAR will not be utilised in next season’s Premier League matches. What a ****ing joke! I understand that there are still some kinks to be ironed out, but there are so many wrong decisions being made that are costing teams vital points. Only 7 points separate Brighton in 10th from Stoke in 19th, so a couple of dropped points (or worse, goal difference) due to a bad decision could be the difference between Premier League survival and playing in the Championship next season.

pl29.jpgIt wouldn’t be so bad if the officials were making the right decisions but anyone who reads this series on a regular basis will know that they’re not! In fact I’d argue there is on average at least one completely wrong decision per week! Some of them you can see why the officials may have given the decision they did, but can someone explain to me how Charlie Daniels can be clearly shoved over in the box and not get a penalty? Dele Alli should have also won a penalty against Crystal Palace in Round 28 with the score at 0-0, though I wonder if the decision wasn’t given due to his history of diving. It’s the most blatant penalty I’ve seen in weeks! If a referee and 2 linesman are still struggling to consistently make the right decision, they need that technology to help get the calls right as soon as possible. Football is a big-money business, but technology-wise, it needs to come out of the Dark Ages.

As an aside while writing about officials, I don’t understand how a referee can interfere with play and then allow the game to continue! Bobby Madley (who I praised in Round 25) arguably cost Burnley the game in their Round 28 match against Southampton by blocking off Ashley Westwood from a pass leading to the Southampton equaliser, before then not giving a penalty for a pull on Ashley Barnes in the box. Maybe I am coming from too much of a rugby background, where a referee would stop the game and award a scrum to the team in possession if the ball hits him or he blocks a tackler, but I don’t see how an official should be able to influence the match in such a way. I have a lot of sympathy for Burnley and their fans as that is 2 points lost that they should have had, while a Burnley win would still see Southampton in 17th but only due to goal difference rather than a 1 point advantage.


Round 30 predictions:

Manchester United v Liverpool – Man Utd win

Everton v Brighton & Hove Albion – Everton win

Huddersfield Town v Swansea City – Draw

Newcastle United v Southampton – Newcastle win

West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City – Leicester win

West Ham United v Burnley – Burnley win

Chelsea v Crystal Palace – Chelsea win

Arsenal v Watford – Draw

AFC Bournemouth v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Stoke City v Manchester City – Man City win

 

Both images in the text are from http://www.premierleague.com

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

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 23

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 23

Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/4 can sleep soundly for another year knowing their record is safe. Manchester City finally came away from a game with no points following a thrilling 4-3 loss at Anfield on Sunday. This result cuts City’s lead over Manchester United (who beat Stoke 3-0) to 12 points, while Liverpool rise up to 3rd, level on points with Chelsea. A second straight loss for Burnley, this time a 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, sees them dropping back towards their mid-table rivals, while Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at Bournemouth sees them losing ground to the top 5.

The upset on Merseyside

What a result for Liverpool! Despite having lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona earlier in the month, there was no clear impact on their attacking quality as they came out 4-3 winners, courtesy of goals from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Firmino, Mané and Salah (obviously). When I was predicting the results at the end of my last article, I was tempted to pick Liverpool for the win due to how prolific their attack has been of late. Their defence may still need some improvement – 2 goals in the last 10 minutes made it squeaky bum time at the end) but as long as they can continue scoring more than their opposition they can beat anyone on their day.

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Liverpool are the first team to score 3+ goals in a match against Manchester City this season – From http://www.premierleague.com

Firmino and Salah are surely having the best season of their careers (Firmino already has more goals in any competition this season than in any other season), while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is looking better by the week as he gets more comfortable in the squad and scored a lovely goal to give the Reds an early lead. Adam Lallana has recently returned from injury and will continue to improve with more minutes. The one place Liverpool do need to look is at the back. Virgil van Dyke was missing for this game and there were mistakes from individuals, most notably for Leroy Sané’s goal, where Joe Gomez misjudged the flight of the ball to leave Sané in acres of space, then Loris Karius failed to save at his near post.

Liverpool are clearly improving as the season goes on and it’s clear where the money needs to be spent at the moment. We have just under half a month left, so it will be interesting to see if they make any more signings this season.

Taking the next step

Burnley may be having an impressive season (7th in the league with 34 points, behind only the big 6) but it could be going so much better. Injuries to Chris Wood and Robbie Brady have left Sean Dyche with limited attacking options and while they may have the 4th best defence in the league, they are also one of only 5 clubs to have not yet scored 20 league goals this season.

This is a team that are not currently able to win from a losing position and to take the next step and challenge for Europe, Sean Dyche needs to find a striker that can contribute 12-15 goals a season. The beauty of the Premier League is that anyone can beat anyone on the day, so if Burnley can start turning some of these draws and 1-0 losses into wins, they will be able to continue pushing for European football.

Bringing football into the 21st century

I know not everyone has been happy with the impact of the video assistant referee (VAR) in recent tests during cup games, but this weekend gave us 2 incidents that highlight exactly why VAR needs implementing sooner rather than later.

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Wrong decisions could prove crucial at the bottom come the end of the season – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

While it can also be argued that Southampton threw away a 2 goal lead (again, not looking good for Pellegrino), the equaliser from Abdoulaye Doucouré should never have stood as on review it was clearly controlled at least in part by the hand. The 2-2 result leaves the Saints just a point above the relegation zone, so those 2 points they have been denied could prove crucial in their fight for survival.

Swansea will also feel aggrieved that they had to settle for a 1-1 draw at Newcastle considering they should have had a penalty in the first half when Mohamed Diame clearly (although apparently not to the ref) raised his arm to block a goalbound shot. Not only should this have been a penalty, but this would have also left the Magpies playing the rest of the game a man down and more than likely resulted in Swansea taking the full 3 points. The extra 2 points would still leave them bottom of the table, but within a win of escaping the bottom 3.

2 incidents this weekend, plenty of other throughout the season. It may interrupt the flow of the game slightly, but surely it is more important that the matches are not affected by wrong decisions.

Round 24 predictions:

Brighton & Hove Albion v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Arsenal v Crystal Palace – Arsenal win

Burnley v Manchester United – United win

Everton v West Bromwich Albion – Everton win

Leicester City v Watford – Leicester win

Stoke City v Huddersfield Town – Draw

West Ham United v AFC Bournemouth – West Ham win

Manchester City v Newcastle United – City win

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Swansea City v Liverpool – Liverpool win

The Man in the Middle

The Man in the Middle

Congratulations to Wayne Barnes, who will tonight break Chis White’s record for refereeing the most Premiership games. Since turning professional in 2005, he’s reffed 7 Premiership finals and 77 Tests, including matches in 3 World Cups.

I wasn’t always a fan of Barnes, but over the years as I’ve started watching more rugby I’ve become very impressed with him and would argue that he is up there with Nigel Owens as one of the 2 best referees in the world.

He may not get every decision right – though I would argue that he does better than many – but what makes him really stand out to me is how well he communicate, not just during play but also explaining his decisions to players and discussing incidents with the TMO and his assistants. I’m also always impressed when he makes an appearance on Rugby Tonight to discuss a certain area of the law and to review recent incidents as he breaks it down in a clear manner that allows everyone to clearly understand.

In recent matches that I’ve watched hi referee, he is clear and does everything he can to help the players and keep the game flowing as best as possible. Look back to the final Bledisloe Cup game of 2017, when he tried to communicate to Bernard Foley that the ball had been touched in flight so could not be kicked out on the full – I assume Foley’s ears were still ringing following the huge hit from Ofa Tu-ungafasi as he kicked it straight out – or more recently, Rory Kockott’s yellow card against Racing 92, where Barnes blew his whistle seeing the danger of playing on with Kockott lifting a player upside down and promptly gave him a yellow as the situation would not have ended well, then he communicated well with the TMO to ensure there was clear evidence of Juan Imhoff’s headbutt making contact before giving him a red card.

If Barnes carries on I can see him breaking other refereeing records as well and they would be well deserved. In terms of his quality I feel he should ref a World Cup final, unfortunately I will hope never to see this as it means England have not made the final!

Congratulations Wayne and good luck moving forward!

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 18

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 18

The turn in fortunes continued in Round 18 of the Premier League as Everton, Crystal Palace and West Ham all earned 3 points in their respective fixtures to climb up the table. Palace and West Ham now find themselves 2 points above the relegation zone while Everton are up into 9th and are getting closer to where we would have expected them to be before the season started.

Swansea and Newcastle both find themselves in the relegation zone, with Stoke and Bournemouth only a point above the drop, and you wonder how much longer things can continue before a change is made somewhere in the setup.

 

Room for improvement

Played 18, Won 17, Drawn 1, Lost 0, Goals scored 56, Goals Conceded 12… The stats are outstanding and you wonder who (if anyone) will be able to halt City’s charge into the history books, but perhaps the scariest thing is that the Champions-in-waiting could be even better.

With the world’s most expensive left back Benjamin Mendy out long-term following a ruptured ACL, former midfielder Fabian Delph has become the Sky Blues’ first choice in the position. While City have continued to win, Delph’s performances haven’t quite matched the quality of his attacking teammates. In recent weeks, Delph was at fault for Manchester United’s best chances in their Round 16 clash and picked up a yellow card for a desperate challenge on Kieran Trippier, who had gotten away from him inside the final third. While this has not proved costly in either match, the time could still come where a Delph mistake in an unfamiliar position could cost City a result.

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The latest round of Premier League results – From http://www.premierleague.com

Injuries can never be predicted, but the decision to allow both Aleksandar Kolarov and Gaël Clichy to leave in the summer was an odd one considering both are experienced left backs and there was no real backup for Mendy in the squad. It will be interesting to see in January whether Guardiola decides to bring in another left back to bolster the squad or decides to continue with the Delph experiment.

A refereeing lottery

Let me start this section by making it clear that I appreciate the work of match officials and respect that the job they do is not an easy one. This is by no means an attack at them. However, there were a number of incidents at the weekend where I couldn’t help but question the officials’ decisions.

Huddersfield’s opener in the 1-4 victory at Watford should have been disallowed for offside not once, not twice, but 3 times! Yet amazingly the officials never picked up any of the offences. The main job of the linesman is to watch for the offside in these situations, so to miss all 3 is embarrassing! Leicester’s attempted comeback at home to Crystal Palace was dealt a blow when Vicente Iborra’s goal was disallowed for a push on the defender in front of him. While it was arguably the correct decision by the officials, I imagine Leicester players and fans would have been less than amused watching the City v Tottenham match and seeing the referee allow play to continue when Danny Rose did the same to Eliaquim Mangala in the Spurs box. 2 pushes in the back, yet one ends in a foul and the other play gets waved on.

Staying with the City game, there were 6 yellow cards given out in total by referee Craig Pawson, but 3 of these could arguably have been straight reds. Nicolas Otamendi’s boot into the face of Harry Kane may not have been leading with the studs, but it was still a dangerously high boot and warranted a red card. Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling with his studs showing looked a worse challenge then that of Troy Deeney on Collin Quaner, yet Kane gets away with a yellow and the Watford captain gets an early bath. Paul Pogba will have likely been unimpressed to see Dele Alli receive just a yellow for his challenge on Kevin de Bruyne, considering the Frenchman saw red the other week for a similar challenge.

I appreciate that referee’s positioning can greatly impact what they see and that different officials may see an incident slightly differently without the benefit of replays. But surely the FA should be doing everything it can to ensure consistency, otherwise the players will not know what they can and can’t do. I love seeing Wayne Barnes’ appearances on Rugby Tonight talking about how the Premiership referees get together to look over incidents from the weekend and feel that the Premier League would benefit from something similar if they don’t already have this. It would also help referees if they had some access to video replay technology if there is uncertainty over the severity of a challenge to ensure the correct decision is made.

After all, nobody wants an official’s mistake to affect the result of a match.

Dive! Dive! Dive!

Have the new FA laws surrounding retroactive bans for diving helped solve the issue? So far, I’ve got to say no. Manuel Lanzini has just become the 2nd Premier League player to be banned for “successful deception of a match official” after earning the penalty that put West Ham ahead at Stoke. The dive was in my opinion much worse than the one that resulted in Oumar Niasse’s ban, as Niasse exaggerated the effect of contact whereas Lanzini was clearly going to ground without any contact being made.

There have been so many dives in the league this season, but the new FA laws are too limited at when they can ban a player, as the dive must result in a benefit to the diving player’s team in order for the FA panel to intervene. So many times this season we’ve seen players get a yellow for a dive or the referee to wave play on. Other than the referee’s decision, what real difference was there between the Lanzini dive and the one by Brighton’s José Izquierdo against Burnley? Yet Lanzini is now banned for 2 games and Izquierdo didn’t even get a yellow.

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The Premier League table after 18 rounds – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

The only way to get diving out of the game is to retroactively punish each offense, regardless of the impact it has on a game. If a player knows that simulation will result in a 2-game (or more for serial offenders) ban regardless of if it results in a goal, then the FA panels may have a few busy months initially but simulation will soon come down to a bare minimum when players see there is zero tolerance.

As it stands, the current laws are a step in the direction, but there is still a long way to go to kick diving out of the game.

Round 19 & 20 predictions:

Due do Christmas plans taking me away from my trusty TV, I’m going to need some time to catch up on the action over the Christmas period so will be combining the next 2 rounds of Premier League action into one article. I’m sure 20 matches will give me plenty to talk about…

Round 19

Arsenal v Liverpool – Draw

Everton v Chelsea – Draw

Brighton & Hove Albion v Watford – Brighton win

Manchester City v AFC Bournemouth – City win

Southampton v Huddersfield Town – Southampton win

Stoke City v West Bromwich Albion – Draw

Swansea City v Crystal Palace – Palace win

West Ham United v Newcastle United – West Ham win

Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur – Draw

Leicester City v Manchester United – United win

Round 20

Tottenham Hotspur v Southampton – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v West Ham United – Draw

Chelsea v Brighton & Hove Albion – Chelsea win

Huddersfield Town v Stoke City – Draw

Manchester United v Burnley – United win

Watford v Leicester City – Leicester win

West Bromwich Albion v Everton – Everton win

Liverpool v Swansea City – Liverpool win

Newcastle United v Manchester City – City win

Crystal palace v Arsenal – Arsenal win