2022 FIFA World Cup: The Pools

2022 FIFA World Cup: The Pools

The first November/December World Cup is getting closer by the day and now with just 3 places still to be decided, the pools have been drawn. 37 teams (who will be whittled down to 32 in the final couple of qualification matches) were sorted into 8 pools of 4, with the top 2 from each pool proceeding into the knockouts.

As always, the pools were selected by a random draw, with confirmed teams split over 4 bands depending on their spot in the FIFA World Rankings to keep the pools somewhat balanced (though as hosts, Qatar earned a spot in the top band despite being ranked at 51), while nations from he same confederation could not be drawn in the same pool, with the exception of 5 pools having 2 European nations.

So how are the pools looking and who will be making the last 16? I’ve taken a look at each pool to give my thoughts. For each pool, I’ve listed the teams included in the order of the bands they were in (top to bottom), with their current pot in the FIFA World Rankings in [brackets].

Pool A

Teams: Qatar [51], Netherlands [10], Senegal [20], Ecuador [46]

The pool that everyone in Bands B-D would have wanted to end up in due to Qatar taking the Band A spot. The rankings certainly suggest that the Netherlands and Senegal should go through, but could home comforts give Qatar a boost and see them pull off an upset? And further to that, don’t ever rule out Senegal from an upset against a European team in the World Cup—France learned the hard way in 2002.

Pool B

Teams: England [5], USA [15], Iran [21], Euro Playoff Winner (Wales [18]/Scotland [39]/Ukraine [27])

The first pool still awaiting confirmation of their final team, and as such it makes it a little more difficult to predict. That said, this should be England’s pool for the taking with the quality of players they have. While the rankings would suggest that the USA would join them in the last 16, I can’t help but feel that Scotland or Wales could take the second spot should they qualify. But what of Ukraine? Well if they qualify, could they find that the current events going on in their country gives them extra impetus, similar to Denmark in the Euros following the loss of Christian Eriksen.

Pool C

Teams: Argentina [4], Mexico [9], Poland [26], Saudi Arabia [49]

The rankings are certainly a little misleading here in regards to Mexico, as they so rarely play teams who are currently ranked in the top 20. As such, I expect things to be relatively comfortable for Argentina, while the match between Poland and Mexico will be crucial in deciding who joins them. Don’t be shocked if this goes down to goal difference.

Pool D

Teams: France [3], Denmark [11], Tunisia [35], Inter-Confederation Playoff Winner (UAE [68]/Australia [42]/Peru [22])

While there are still 3 possible teams to fill the last spot, I must be honest and admit that I can’t see any of them seriously influencing the outcome here. France will be the obvious favorites to top the group, while I expect Denmark to be too strong for the other nations and secure the runner-up spot.

Pool E

Teams: Spain [7], Germany [12], Japan [23], Inter-Confederation Playoff Winner (Costa Rica [31]/New Zealand [101])

Again no offence to Costa Rica or New Zealand, but I can’t see either of them really troubling the other teams in this pool. A European 1-2 looks the obvious call here with the match between the pair deciding who tops the pool, but if one of them comes in struggling for form, then Japan could become a threat.

Pool F

Teams: Belgium [2], Croatia [16], Morocco [24], Canada [38]

Another pool where a European 1-2 looks the most likely, as the rankings don’t give justice to the difference in strength of squads between Croatia and Morocco. Meanwhile Belgium find themselves with a squad brimming with talent but without the trophies to back it up; could a solid group performance to top the pool set them up for their first appearance in a World Cup final?

Pool G

Teams: Brazil [1], Switzerland [14], Serbia [25], Cameroon [37]

A favourable draw for Brazil, who should be able to rotate and qualify comfortably for the knock-outs. Meanwhile I expect a tight affair behind that, but think that Switzerland have the experience to qualify just ahead of Serbia.

Pool H

Teams: Portugal [8], Uruguay [13], Republic of Korea [29], Ghana [60]

Oh how Ghana would love to get some revenge in Qatar for Uruguay controversially knocking them out of the 2010 World Cup on penalties, but I can’t see it happening here. Portugal v Uruguay will likely decide the pool winner as the pair qualify comfortably. I will however predict Uruguay getting the top spot in this pool.

How do you see these pools finishing?

Premier League 2021/22: November

Premier League 2021/22: November

It feels like only days since I was posting about October’s football, but now I’m back on track and it’s time to look at November in the Premier League!

The month started with Nuno Espírito Santo being removed from his role at Tottenham, and that started off a crazy month of 4 managerial casualties, with Dean Smith (Aston Villa), Daniel Farke (Norwich City) and Ole Gunnar Solskjær (Manchester United) all being relieved of duty, with Antonio Conte, Steven Gerrard, Dean Smith and Ralf Rangnick filling these roles and Eddie Howe also finally being named as Newcastle’s new manager.

On the pitch, Chelsea finished the month top of the table, but draws at home to Burnley and Michael Carrick’s Manchester United allowed their rivals to close the gap, with Manchester City going a perfect 3/3 and Liverpool recovering from a 3-2 loss at West Ham with a pair of 4-0 victories. Newcastle still may not have been able to get a win in November, but 3 draws and a 2-0 loss to Arsenal kept them in touch with their rivals as they remained bottom of the table, with Burnley and Norwich joining then in the danger zone.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 11 goals; Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 9 goals; Sadio Mané (Liverpool) & Diogo Jota (Liverpool) – 7 goals

The race for the Golden Glove: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Alisson (Liverpool) & Ederson (Manchester City) – 7 clean sheets; Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal) – 6 clean sheets; Alex McCarthy (Southampton) & Robert Sánchez (Brighton & Hove Albion) – 5 clean sheets


Managerial moves

As detailed above, this was a big month for manager changes, with an international break giving a number of teams a chance to get a new manager in and have some time with the team before playing a match, while it also leaves a manager a handful of matches to evaluate their team ahead of the January transfer window. Throughout the month, the following managerial changes were made:

  • Newcastle, who had already sacked Steve Bruce last month, brought in Eddie Howe, moving on from interim manager Graeme Jones
  • Tottenham replaced Nuno Espírito Santo with Antonio Conte
  • Aston Villa replaced Dean Smith with Steven Gerrard
  • Norwich City replaced Daniel Farke with Dean Smith
  • Manchester United replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær with Ralf Rangnick, with Michael Carrick taking temporary charge until his arrival

So how are these working out?

Things are going in the right direction at Newcastle. A 2-0 loss at Arsenal would never have been a match where they realistically targeted points, and while I’m sure they would have preferred a win against Norwich, draws against the Canaries and Brentford could have very easily been losses earlier this season, and at time of writing they have now earned their first league win of the season at Burnley. This team needs to get better at the back, but they are clearly going in the right direction.

While he wasn’t given much time, Nuno sadly always felt like someone who got the job because everyone Spurs really wanted wasn’t available or willing to join. And he was immediately dealt a questionable hand with Harry Kane missing early games as his future was decided, and then forgetting how to score once he was back on the pitch. However with Conte now in, it feels like this is what Spurs really wanted in the summer, and while things may not have been perfect, 4 points from 2 games in November (their match at Burnley was postponed due to snow) suggests that things may be going in the right direction.

This was always likely to be a tough season for Villa after losing Jack Grealish, but this was a team who, with only 10 points, were running dangerously close to a relegation battle if the teams below them began to improve. Steven Gerrard may have been a risk due a lack of experience but he has done well at Rangers and a move to a Premiership team seemed the next logical step towards eventually becoming Liverpool manager. And sometimes what a great player who has not long left the game lacks in managerial experience, they can make up for in the empathy they can have for the team. Whatever the case, 2 wins from 2 in November has been the perfect start to life in the Premier League.

At Norwich things desperately needed to change. It was getting to the point that strikers Teemu Pukki and Josh Sargent would more likely miss than score if given an open goal and put just an inch out from the line in the middle of the goal. But much more damning was how Billy Gilmour was brought in on loan from Chelsea after an impressive summer at the Euros and then rarely played, as Farke preferred to grow the players on permanent contracts with the club. It would seem that there was a difference of thinking, and with the poor results, change was clear. In picking up Smith just days after his sacking by Villa, they have a manager with Premiership experience who you will hope will be driven to do well after having just been sacked. The return of Gilmour and Todd Cantwell brought immediate success with a win over Southampton, and while their strike force may still look questionable, 5 points from 3 games under Smith in November is a step in the right direction.

And finally we come to Old Trafford. I’m a big fan of Solskjær but something had to change. It’s just a shame that the manager is the one who pays the price while Ed Woodward still gets a long drawn out farewell after ruining the club for seasons, while yet another manager falls due to having to balance Paul Pogba’s incredible cost with an attitude that will see him put in effort for about 3 games a season. Rangnick seems a good move on paper, but as he is only being given a contract until the end of the season, how much support will he get in the January transfer window if he feels that he needs a new player or 2?

Time will tell, but right now it seems that all the month’s managerial moves were the right call.

Proving the doubters wrong

“Elsewhere, signing Aaron Ramsdale for more money than the vastly superior Emiliano Martínez was sold for is just bad business.”

Premier League 2021/22: August

While I still think that the business side of this whole story is a little questionable, I must admit that I have been proved wrong by Aaron Ramsdale. Despite the club’s relegation, Ramsdale looked promising for Bournemouth, but appeared to regress last season for Sheffield United despite being named their player of the Year. Being signed by Arsenal for a fee of up to £30m, I felt that he was going to be playing the role of an expensive back-up to Bernd Leno.

However that has not been the case and I must apologise to Ramsdale, as his form as the Arsenal starter has been incredible. He finds himself just 1 clean sheet off the pace in the race for the Golden Glove, and while part of that is also down to an improved defence, he is pulling off top class saves with regularity and this is likely helping to improve the defence as he is giving them more confidence.

And this leaves Gareth Southgate with an interesting decision to make for the World Cup. Jordan Pickford is his man but still rarely shows the same level of reliability for Everton as Ramsdale has been. Meanwhile Dean Henderson finds himself stuck behind a resurgent David de Gea—don’t be shocked to see him go out on loan to another club in January—and Nick Pope is in a struggling Burnley team.

To me, Ramsdale should be at least the back-up to Pickford by this point, but I would give Ramsdale the starting spot for any more matches this season in order to get him and the defence working on the same page and give him every chance of beating out Pickford. Even if he doesn’t quite manage that, he would at least be in a position to seamlessly take over should Pickford get injured or suspended during or right before the tournament.


Team of the Month

Manchester City

While Chelsea may have finished the month top of the table, it’s City who get the Team of the Month ward. The Sky Blues went 3 wins from 3 in November to finish just 1 point behind the league leaders, scoring 7 goals to just 1 conceded.

Granted Manchester United’s form was poor, but a trip to Old Trafford could have been a banana skin and yet they dominated the derby, while also beating Everton and a West Ham team that defeated Liverpool. And all that without a recognised striker (Gabriel Jesus the only one who could be considered such, if he wasn’t starting on the wing), and with Kevin De Bruyne only playing in the Manchester Derby.

City are just going from strength to strength and at this rate, I won’t be surprised to see them top at Christmas.


Premier League 2021/22: October

Premier League 2021/22: October

Hey all! Once again, apologies for how late this is, I get that we’re over halfway through November but it’s been a busy couple of months!

What a month October was! Liverpool kicked took big steps towards a league title with a draw at home to Manchester City and huge wins away at Watford and Manchester United, before giving away a 2-goal lead to draw against Brighton. It was a mixed month for City, whose draw at Anfield accompanied losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace and wins against Burnley and Brighton. Ahead of both these teams by the end of the month was Chelsea, whose 100% record in the month leaves them top of the table with 25 points.

At the other end of the table, Norwich earned their first points with draws against Burnley and Brighton, but any hope was soon gone following a 7-0 humiliation at Stamford Bridge and they remain bottom of the table, just behind Newcastle, who finally got rid of Mike Ashley but ended the month without a manager and with just 1 point more than they started. Meanwhile Burnley may still fill the final spot in the drop zone, but earned 5 points during the month to edge closer to the teams above them.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 10 goals; Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) – 7 goals; Sadio Mané & Michail Antonio (West Ham) – 6 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Paul Pogba (Manchester United) – 7 assists; Mo Salah (Liverpool) – 6 assists; Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) & Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) – 5 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 6 clean sheets; Alisson (Liverpool) & Ederson (Manchester City) – 5 clean sheets; Alex McCarthy (Southampton), Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal) & Robert Sánchez (Brighton & Hove Albion) – 4 clean sheets


A new era

It finally happened! After years of being ruined by Mike Ashley, October saw Newcastle finally taken over by new ownership. While it’s obviously not been their ideal start to their era—Steve Bruce sacked after 1 more game; then a protracted search for a new manager that included Unai Emery pulling out after news of his appointment breaking prematurely, before Eddie Howe was finally announced earlier this month; 1 point from their first 3 matches—but this ownership needs to learn, and it will take a little while for the rot of the Ashley era to fully go away, but things are going in the right direction.

The atmosphere at St James’ Park in that first match after the sale was incredible, and it certainly seemed that the players were buoyed by this, scoring almost immediately against Spurs. They have some quality players like Allan Saint-Maximin, Jonjo Shelvey, Callum Wilson, Jamaal Lascelles and Joe Willock, while the appointment of Howe a the start of the international break gives him tie to start working with the majority of his squad before his first match, while still having a couple of weeks in November and all of December’s fixtures to assess what he needs to bring in this January, and while it’s probably too early to imagine the club bringing in the world class players that many have been imagining, the new ownership should at least be looking to make a statement in their first transfer window and give Howe the financial support to bring in who he can.

With just 5 points and a goal difference of -12 (at time of writing) it’s not going to be easy for the Magpies to escape the drop, especially considering the potential quality of some of the teams just above them and Southampton’s recent run of results—10 points from 4 matches has left them with 14 points—but a year down in the Championship to begin a rebuild under new ownership would be far from the worst thing.

If nothing else, the future feels more promising than it has for a long time.

Major improvement

It’s no secret in the past that I have been critical under Graham Potter. The Seagulls have often been far from impressive in the past, earning enough results to avoid the drop in seasons where there were significantly less impressive teams. However, despite this year’s league looking tighter on the whole, they found themselves finishing the month not just in the top half of the table, but in 7ᵗʰ, behind just the Big 5 and West Ham!

The main reason for it is their defence. At time of writing, they have conceded just 12 goals in 11 games, which can only be bettered by 3 teams. This was also the case last season, where their 46 goals conceded was bettered by only 6 teams. In fact, only Manchester City and Chelsea have kept more clean sheets than Brighton’s 13 in this calendar year. Last year however, they seriously struggled with goals, as a constantly rotating front line struggled for consistency. Well this year it has been much more consistent and though 12 goals may still not sound much, it is a 1:1 ratio, whereas last year they ended up conceding more than they scored.

It may just be small changes in the numbers, but it makes a massive difference. Last season they won 9, drew 14 and lost 15 in the league, whereas they find themselves on 4 wins, 5 draws and 2 defeats to date this season. With just a small change in the number of goals, they have turned losses into draws and draws into victories, making a drastic change to the to the most important number: the points earned.

A high-scoring offence and leaky defence will only work for so long, until defences find a way to nullify you, but by going the route Graham Potter has by building on a strong defence, he is giving the team a chance for a much longer term success.

Offside?

While Liverpool’s 0-5 win at Watford may have been most notable for the game being Claudio Ranieri’s first game in charge of the Hornets, there was also a goal that was of real note to me.

With the score at 0-2, Andrew Robertson sent in a cross towards Mo Salah, who was in an offside position. The cross was cut out by Craig Cathcart, but in doing so the ball was directed goalward and needed to be saved by Ben Foster, allowing Roberto Firmino to tap in the rebound for his second goal of the match. He would go on to complete his hat-trick.

Now granted the offside rule has already become more harsh over the years, with daylight originally needed between the striker and defender, and now one out of place strand of facial hair is enough to condemn a striker, however I think further amendment needs making. Much as a player is considered offside if they are in an offside position that obstructs the sight of a keeper—as we have seen a number of times—I feel that a player should be considered offside in situations like this, when the ball is played in their direction and a defender is forced to account for them, as they are interfering with play by forcing the defender to stop the ball coming to them. You could perhaps argue that the defender should just let the ball go to this player, but that is too big a risk in case they have missed someone playing them on, or if the ball stays in play and is ignored by the offside player, allowing a supporting player to come from an onside position to take the ball.

Will the rule change? Probably not, but I think will argue that situations like this need looking at.


Team of the Month

Chelsea

I’ve already mentioned their 100% record this month, so it’s probably not much of a surprise to see the Blues get the pick here. Thomas Tuchel’s men finished the month with 4 wins from 4, scoring 14 goals and conceding just 1. Granted 2 of these wins came against the bottom two sides in the table, Newcastle and Norwich (which accounted for 10 of the goals), but when you consider that these 2 games were played without a recognised striker, it becomes more impressive.

The defence has improved under Tuchel, and Romelu Lukaku has shown that he was one of the missing pieces of the puzzle, while partnering him with Timo Werner has helped get the best out of the German, who often played well but was just lacking the goals last season. Meanwhile, they have a range of attacking talents to create chances for the strikes, and arguably 2 of the form fullbacks going forward or back in Ben Chilwell and Reece James.

It’s been 4 years since Chelsea’s last title, with performances like this, that could all be about to change.


Movember 2021: Day 16

Movember 2021: Day 16

It’s that time of year again! That time when I brave cold cheeks in the name of charity. Yes it’s Movember!

I’ve been doing Movember for about 10 years now as it’s a cause that is close to my heart, and this year, as we are now able to be more sociable again, I am back to fundraising for the Movember Foundation. For those who haven’t heard of the Movember Foundation, they focus on “changing the face of men’s health” with a focus on testicular cancer, prostate cancer, mental health and suicide prevention. If you wish to donate, every little helps, and there are 3 ways you can do so:

  • Head to my Mo Space
  • Check out my Instagram (@pstetheridge), where I have set up a second fundraiser
  • Write a cheque to ‘Movember’ referencing my registration ID (13438480) and mail it to: Movember Europe, PO Box 485, Wilstead, Bedford, MK45 3XN

This year, I’m planning to chart my “Mo-gression” with a series of posts on here. I’m aiming for one every 5-6 days but don’t hold me to that. For each one, I’ll let you have an update on how things are going along with my latest picture so that you can see how the growth is going. But this site is all about sport, so of course I have added a slight sporting twist, as each of my Mo-gression posts will also include a quick look at someone in the sporting world who has a notable moustache. I won’t promise that they will be the most famous moustached sport stars in the world, purely the ones who first came to mind as I put this together.

So… let’s get underway!

Day 16

We’re at the halfway point already and as is always the case around this point in the month, I’m growing attached to the Monkeytail and having to stop myself not thinking about keeping it long term!

Once again, a big thank you to those who have already donated this year. I set myself a relatively low initial target of £100, and thanks to your generosity I am already 60% of the way there, but I would love to hit this target ASAP and push for a higher amount. I’ve have also had my first donation on the Instagram fundraiser, which has been great! As always, any donations would be greatly appreciated!

Sporting Mo

So for Day 16, I move away from the racetrack and to the football pitch, with a look at David Seaman

David Seaman is an English former footballer, who played as goalkeeper in a career spanning from 1981-2004. At his peak, Seaman was regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world during the 1990s.

Seaman began his career at Leeds United, the club he supported as a boy, and eventually retired as a Manchester City player due to a recurring shoulder injury, but is most famous for his time at Arsenal, where he won three league championships (1991, 1998, 2002), four FA Cups (1993, 1998, 2002, 2003), the League Cup in 1993 and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994. The full list of teams he played for is:

  • Leeds United (1981-1982) – 0 appearances
  • Peterborough United (1982-1984) – 91 appearances
  • Birmingham City (1984-1986) – 75 appearances
  • Queens Park Rangers (1986-1990) – 141 appearances
  • Arsenal (1990-2003) – 405 appearances
  • Manchester City (2003-2004) – 19 appearances

Seaman made his England debut in 1988 and appeared for the side in fifteen consecutive years, which was a national record. He went on to earn 75 caps, leaving him as the joint-second most capped English goalkeeper, level with Joe Hart and behind only Peter Shilton.

Movember_Iconic Mo_Black

Premier League 2021/22: September

Premier League 2021/22: September

Hey all! So before we get into everything, apologies for how late this is coming out. These last few weeks at work have been super busy, while my free time has been largely taken up recently moving house and a world that is slowly opening up again. With everything going on, it took be the best part of a week to realise we were even in a new month!

September may have only had 3 rounds of matches, but there was plenty to get football fans talking. Early pacesetters Tottenham followed up their 3-0 start to the season with 3 consecutive losses, including at local rivals Arsenal, which has dropped them behind the Gunners and into the bottom half of the table. The Top 4 has a rather unsurprising look, with Liverpool, Chelsea and the 2 Manchester clubs filling the spots, but the big surprises early in the season are Everton and Brighton, who are just 1 point behind leaders Liverpool and level with the other big names. Meanwhile at the other end of the table, newly-promoted Norwich ended the month still without a point, with Burnley and Leeds joining them in the bottom 3 and Newcastle on level points with Marcelo Bielsa’s side.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester) & Michail Antonio (West Ham) – 5 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United), Neal Maupay (Brighton & Hove Albion) & Ismaïla Sarr (Watford) – 4 goals

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 5 clean sheets; Alisson (Liverpool) – 4 clean sheets; Hugo Loris (Tottenham Hotspur), Édouard Mendy (Chelsea), Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa), & David Raya (Brentford) – 3 clean sheets


Crucial posting

Football tactics have changed a lot over the years, even just the 30 I’ve been alive! We’ve seen the 4-4-2 go from the most common formation to a rarity at the top level, we’ve seen centrebacks requiring the ball skills of a midfielder… and let’s not even start on the sweeper keeper!

But there is one tactical change that I just can’t wrap my head around: no longer putting a man on the posts at a corner. The goalmouth is extremely wide and even if you assume a keeper stays on his line rather than trying to come claim the corner, they will struggle to reach the ball if it’s right at the far edges of the goal, and that is where having a man on the posts could save you a goal, as it likely would have in Manchester United’s 0-1 loss to Aston Villa.

The only reason that I can think a team would not do that is in the hopes that they can catch a player in an offside position “interfering” with the keeper, as happened twice to Harvey Barnes in Leicester’s 2-1 loss to Brighton. But that seems highly risky, as you are relying on the in-stadium officials to decide that the player has impacted the game, or VAR to feel that there was sufficient interference to overrule.

To me, the man on the post will always be the way forward.

Shades of Gray

Ahead of the new Premier League season, I was considering doing a post looking at some of the newly-transferred players to watch out for this season, similar to what I did with rugby’s Premiership and Ultimate Rugby Championship. While I ended up not going ahead with it, one player who I had circled to talk about was Demarai Gray.

When the winger signed for Leicester from Birmingham, he looked like a player who had an incredible potential. And while he showed flashes of quality, he never quite managed to step on in the way the Foxes hoped. However, after a short spell in Gerany with Bayer Leverkusen, he returned to the Premier League with Everton this summer for a fee of just £1m.

With such a small transfer fee, Gray always looked like he could be in a decent spot, with a chance to shine in a team who should have been on the up, and a small price tag leading to not too much pressure. Well after just 2 months of football, Gray is looking like he could be in the running for the bargain of the season, with 3 goals already in the league this season (he only scored 10 in 133 league matches for Leicester) just the tip of the iceberg. He is already becoming a key player for Rafael Benítez, while Everton have been one of the top-scoring teams in the league over the opening 2 months, despite both Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin missing games.

Keep an eye on this lad as the season goes on.


Team of the Month

Arsenal

Granted a 1-0 win at home to fellow pointless team Norwich isn’t anything spectacular, but you could have easily imagined the Gunners dropping a couple of points here after such a poor start, while a trip to Turf Moor always feels like a potential banana skin for them, and yet they came away with the win. But then to end the month with a dominant 3-1 win over your biggest rivals to leapfrog them in the table was perfect.

The Gunners were always better than a 0-3 start suggested, and while I never felt that they could compete for a top 4 spot, October and November will be crucial for how their season goes.


Premier League 2021/22: August

Premier League 2021/22: August

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

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


The race is on!

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

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

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


Heading for trouble

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

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

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

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

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

Wingman

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

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

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

Building for success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Team of the Month

Tottenham Hotspur

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

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


Continental Concerns

Continental Concerns

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

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

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


Heading towards trouble

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

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

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

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

The best and the worst of us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed experiment

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

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

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

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England’s Euros

England’s Euros

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

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

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


Redemption

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

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

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

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

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

Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fandom Menace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Premier League 2020/21: May

Premier League 2020/21: May

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

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

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


And your winners!

football manchester city premier league champions

Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 23 goals

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

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


A perfect end?

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

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

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

A crucial moment

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

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

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

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

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

On the move

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

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

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

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


Team of the Month

Liverpool

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

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

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


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Premier League 2020/21: April

Premier League 2020/21: April

So April was a quiet month for the Premier League, eh?

Ha! If only.

While the league came under attack from the supposed Big 6’s attempts to get more money for their owners – an event which backfired tremendously for everyone involved – the league season continued with some more thrilling matches. Manchester City may have lost to Leeds during the month, but with rivals Manchester United also dropping points to the same opposition at the end of the month, the Sky Blues find the league title within reach, with them likely to claim the title in their next match at time of writing. At the other end of the table, Sheffield United were officially confirmed as the first team to be relegated from the league, on the same day that Norwich were confirmed as the first team to secure promotion to the Premier League.


The race is on!

The race for the Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 21 goals; Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) – 20 goals; Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 16 goals

The race for Playmaker of the Season: Harry Kane (Tottenham) – 13 assists; Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) & Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) – 11 assists; Jack Grealish (Aston Villa) – 10 assists

The race for the Golden Glove: Ederson (Manchester City) – 17 clean sheets; Édouard Mendy (Chelsea) – 15 clean sheets; Emiliano Martínez (Aston Villa)– 14 clean sheets


A step too far

On 18ᵗʰ April, the Premier League came under attack as the “Big 6” (Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur) announced that they were part of a group of 12 clubs (along with AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid) who had agreed to form a new breakaway midweek league, the European Super League, rather than continue with the planned UEFA competitions that are in place. It was very clear that this was a move to make the rich clubs richer while the poor clubs were left out.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Not only did it come completely out of the blue, with players and managers as shocked as fans and equally against the decision, but it came on the same day that Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by a Fulham side who will potentially be playing in the Championship next season. In fact, if we looked at the matches on that day or 2 days either side, there were 7 matches between a member of the Big 6 and one of the lowly teams not welcome with the big boys, resulting in just 3 wins for the Big 6 and 4 draws. Of course, within days all the teams had pulled out and were forced to make grovelling apologies.

The Premier League is the best league in the world, not because of its officiating (clearly), but because each team has a legitimate chance to beat any of the other 19 on their day, whereas the Bundesliga has been won by Bayern Munich for the last 8 (soon to be 9) seasons and La Liga has had the same top 3 (in varied order) for the last 9 seasons. The fact that managers and players unequivocally came out against the ESL shows just how loved the Premier League is.

The only people who seem to have been on board with the decision were the fat cats owning each club. And this is no surprise. As football has become more and more of a business, we have seen more clubs just become the shadow of their former selves as they just become a way of adding another 0 to the owner’s personal wealth. Hopefully, this show of solidarity from fans and club personnel alike will be a sign to the fat cats that they can’t have their own way, and hopefully lead us to a time when clubs are owned by those who care…

Special appointment

One giant story that went almost under the radar due to the ESL announcement was the removal of José Mourinho from his role as Spurs manager. The sacking came 2 days after Spurs came from behind to draw at Everton, but less than a week before they would face Manchester city in the Carabao Cup final. Former player Ryan Mason – who was forced to retire early due to a serious head injury – was moved from his role with the Academy into the interim head coach role until the end of the season, becoming the youngest manager in Premier League history, at 29 years old.

But beyond that, who will get the job? Mason is a Spurs man through and through, but it doesn’t sound like he is in contention due to this lack of experience, though it would be interesting to see if this would change if he has a super successful end to the season.

Rafa Benitez would be an ideal choice and is currently available, but I can’t see him moving to Spurs given how reluctant Daniel Levy is to get the chequebook out. Rafa was asked to work miracles with no financial support at Newcastle, and I can’t see him wanting to go into a situation where he is expected to compete against United, City, Liverpool and Chelsea on the pitch but not in the transfer market.

The odds on Antonio Conte taking over have dropped significantly over the last week, and he would be an attractive option, with Premier League experience and experience of teams with high expectations. But would Conte consider a move from perennial title chasers Inter Milan to a Spurs team who are probably pushing for top 3 at best an attractive move?

Eddie Howe is a young English manager who won plenty of plaudits during his time at Bournemouth, playing attractive attacking football. However deficiencies in defence eventually cost him and he has been without a club since, which does raise some flags. He remains the favourite to take over at Celtic, and a couple of strong seasons there could put him in good standing next time around, but not right now.

Sticking with young English managers and Scott Parker may be facing relegation with Fulham, but the team s unrecognisable now to the mess they were at the start of the season. He is a smart manager with expectations of his players, but again probably needs some more experience before a move to a big club.

Ralph Hasenhüttl has impressed on the whole at Southampton and it seems a matter of time before he gets a more prestigious appointment, but for a manager with only 2 appointments of note (Southampton and RB Leipzig) who has never managed a winning percentage of 50% or above, a move to a team like Spurs may be to big of a jump.

Brendan Rodgers and Nuno Espírito Santo are probably the most attractive managers in the Premier League right now, but this season has maybe shown a reliance on a couple of star players, with Wolves struggling following he sale of Diogo Jota and injuries to Raúl Jiménez and Pedro Neto, while Leicester have also struggled with key players missing.

Let down

And finally to a subject that seems to come up far too often: player safety surrounding head injuries. This time we journey back to the start of the month, as Leeds hosted Sheffield United. Sheffield right back George Baldock suffered a head injury and even from the television footage, it was clear that he appeared to be suffering concussion symptoms. Yet after the quickest of trials at the side of the pitch, Baldock was allowed to play on, only to go down again moments later and finally be removed from the match.

I may not be a medical expert but it was clear to me that Baldock was in no fit state to continue after the original incident. By being allowed to play on, Baldock was put at serious risk. So much work is being done in sports like rugby and the NFL to combat head injuries and protect players, yet football—a sport in which you can legally use your head to play the ball—once again seems far behind.

These players may be getting paid substantial sums to play in the Premier League, but their safety and wellbeing is being put at risk, and I worry that if something doesn’t change soon, it will take a serious and life-changing incident for the league begin caring about concussions and head injuries.


Team of the Month

Manchester United

This was very much a two horse race this month, with only Manchester United and West Ham managing 3 wins in the league this month. While West Ham’s 3 wins were probably against a stronger set of opponents, United’s win at Spurs highlighted their turnaround from the mauling they received earlier this season, and they also finished the month with a slightly higher number of points due to a draw at Leeds versus a loss at Newcastle, while they also had to do this around their Europa League campaign, which saw both legs of the quarterfinal against Granada and the 6-2 victory in the first leg of the semifinal against Roma.


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