Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

Struggling Scarlets: What’s gone wrong?

In recent years, the Scarlets have become the team to watch in European rugby. Under the leadership of Wales-bound Wayne Pivac, the Scarlets have attacked from deep and spread the ball wide, leading to them winning the 2016/17 Pro12 and reaching the 2017/18 Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final.

However, things aren’t going as well this season as they are still without a win in the Champions Cup with just 2 bonus points from 4 games, while in the Pro14 they may be 2nd in their conference (on level points with Ulster) but their 6 wins and 4 losses with just 5 bonus points laves them 15 points behind leaders Leinster. It’s far from a disaster, but for a team that were so impressive last season it is a big drop. But what has caused it?

They’ve been found out

Scarlets have been playing the same style of rugby for a couple of seasons now and with that comes the chance for teams to pick up on their tactics and find ways to exploit them. It may not be easy to defend effectively against Scarlets’ expansive style but if it can be done, then it makes it very hard for them to score big points. In defence, they can be vulnerable as many of their back 3 are better attacking with ball in hand than competing for the aerial ball. Leinster’s kicking game gave them victory over the Scarlets in last season’s Pro14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, which will have given other teams a blueprint to follow in order to get victory.

Players leaving

Tadhg Beirne joined from Leinster ahead of the 2016/17 season and was one of the stars of the team in his 2 seasons at Parc y Scarlets. Capable of playing in the back row but at his best when playing lock, the Irishman was always a threat at the breakdown and had the range of skills to prove dangerous in the loose too – just ask Anthony Watson, who fell foul of his sidestep when they faced bath in last season’s Champions Cup. Beirne returned to Ireland this summer with a move to Munster, making him eligible for selection to the national team.

While Beirne is in my opinion the biggest loss, they also lost 2 great players with bags of experience in John Barclay (Edinburgh) and Scott Williams (Ospreys). To lose 3 such important players is always going to hit a team hard.

International call-ups

With the team’s success, there has big a large increase in the number of Scarlets being selected for the national team over recent years. Rhys Webb’s injuries and subsequent move to France have seen Gareth Davies become the first choice 9 for Wales, while Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Hadleigh Parkes and Rhys Patchell are just a few of the Scarlets to have spent significant time away with Wales recently.

While this is a deserved reward for the players’ performances, this does mean that the Scarlets will frequently be without top players. Losing them for a couple of matches while Wales are playing is bad enough, but they will also miss a number of training sessions, reducing their chemistry with the team – especially new arrivals – and they will also miss time while they recuperate from their international exertions.

Injuries

The Scarlets have had some horrible luck with injuries this season. Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, James Davies, Blade Thomson, Aaron Shingler and Rhys Patchell have all missed significant time this season with injuries, while an injury to Angus O’Brien has left the region short of depth at fly half. That is an entire international quality back row missing at the same time, bad enough at the best of times but worse when you remember they have just waved goodbye to Beirne and Barclay. Even when the players come back from injury, it will generally take a couple of matches at least for a player to get back up to the speed of the game.

Money

When injuries and internationals mount up, you need to have a deep squad to be able to cope. Unfortunately for Scarlets, the funding isn’t there to have the depth of squad that teams in England and France can boast, which then leads to the same players having to play regularly in the Pro14 and then take on much stronger squads in Europe the next week.

Does it all have to be doom and gloom? Not necessarily. Despite their struggles, they are still in currently in a playoff position and an early exit from the Champions Cup will give them extra rest weeks to recuperate, while some of their players are returning or close to returning form injury. There is still every chance that they could make the playoffs but if I’m honest, with the behemoth that is Leinster in their conference, I cannot see them getting further than the semi-finals.

August 2018 in the Premier League

August 2018 in the Premier League

Hi guys and welcome to my new series taking a look at each month in the Premier League season. Last season, I found that writing about each week’s matches helped get me back into the league after a couple of years of only taking a passing interest, but I did find that sometimes I was left with not much to write after just one round of matches. For that reason, I will this year be doing a monthly look back at the league – so you only have to read me championing VAR once a month! Usually this will be in the first week of the next month, but occasionally it may be a bit later if I get a little behind.

The Premier League made a welcome return in August and football fans rejoiced around the country. Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and (surprisingly) Watford have set the early pace by winning all 3 league matches in the month, while draws for Manchester City and Bournemouth in Week 3 left them leading the rest of the table. It’s not been a great start for Manchester United or Arsenal however, United winning 2-1 at home to Leicester on the opening night before a loss at Brighton and a 0-3 humbling to Spurs, while Arsenal lost to City and Chelsea before finally picking up a victory over West Ham, who are the only team without a point from the first 3 rounds.


Transfer failed

This summer saw a move of the transfer deadline from the end of the month to 5pm on 9th August to make sure that all transfers were completed ahead of the season’s matches beginning. While a nice idea, the fact that the deadline day remained later around Europe led to somewhat of a damp squib, with very few teams making big-name transfers late in the window. What probably didn’t help either is the shortening of the summer due to the World Cup.

While I like the idea of the window closing before the football starts as it stops players holding out in hope of a move – as we have seen from players like Riyad Mahrez in the past – I do not feel that it worked well as teams were afraid to let someone go and then lose someone else after their window closed to a team on the continent. United and Spurs’ transfer activity was underwhelming to say the least, I imagine there would have been more action if they’d had the extra couple of weeks.

I would love to see this trialled again in the future, but the window cannot be for just the English teams; it needs to be across the continent so that all teams are in the same position. If that can’t be done, then let’s just keep the usual date at the end of the month!


Seeing red

What has been wrong with some players in recent weeks? Maybe it was just because we’ve had some time away from football, but it feels as if the red cards were being brandished much more often than usual in the opening 3 rounds. And not just reds for second bookable offences – though there were some of those too – but stupid red cards! Let’s just take a look back at some examples:

  • Week 1 – At 0-1 up, Everton are reduced to 10 men at Wolves after Phil Jagielka tries to compensate for a poor first touch by diving in when the last man, his foot going over the ball and taking the man on the leg. This is one of the softer reds I will mention but such an experienced defender should know better than to dive in as the last man and especially to keep his feet down
  • Week 2 – Jamie Vardy sees red against Wolves after lunging in hard with a high boot in an attempt to win the ball back. While the high boot can bean understandable mistake, he came in with such force it felt like the red mist descended for a moment
  • Week 3 – Richarlison and Adam Smith square up in the box during Bournemouth and Everton’s 2-2 draw. With their heads almost touching, Richarlison brings his forward and makes contact with Smith. While it may not be a “headbutt” in the same vein as Zidane on Materazzi, it is well known that what Richarlison did is a straight red card
  • Week 3 – With the score at 1-1 between Southampton and Leicester, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, already on a yellow card, receives a second yellow for diving in an attempt to win a penalty
  • Week 3 – Huddersfield’s Jonathan Hogg reacts badly to Harry Arter appealing for a hold at a set piece and pushes him over, making contact with Arter’s head

There were also 2 notable incidents that did not lead to red cards but definitely should have. Only minutes into Watford’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, Etienne Capoue receives just a yellow card after raking Wilfried Zaha’s achilles with a high foot. He went on to set up Watford’s opener. Somehow, Newcastle’s Kenedy escaped punishment during Newcastle’s draw with Cardiff after kicking out at Victor Camarasa right under the referee’s nose. Karma was a bitch for him though as he failed to complete a pass in the first half and had his injury time penalty (which would have won the game) saved by Neil Etheridge.

With all of these incidents, I can’t help but wonder what is going through the players’ mind in the moment! Football is such a big money business now, I can’t believe players make such a costly mistake so often. If clubs don’t already have a psychologist on staff, then I think they should all hire one and make sessions with them compulsory for player. Not only will it help them deal with rushes of blood to the head on the pitch, it can also potentially help them deal with life in the public eye – especially helpful for young players.


Theatre of nightmares?

What an awful start to the season for United! They may have started the season with a 2-1 victory over Leicester but after that suffered 2 embarrassing defeats, 3-2 at Brighton and 0-3 against Spurs, with 4 of their goals having come from the penalty spot.
Luke Shaw’s resurgence having been given a shot by José Mourinho at the start of the season – he has earned a call-up to the England squad – has been one of the only bright spots s far this season, but there has been little else to be cheerful about.

David de Gea is going through a rough patch and it is showing just how much he has saved the team in recent years as the centre of the defence has been awful. Bailly, Lindelöf, Smalling and Jones have shown nothing to suggest they are good enough to compete at the top of the league and with their struggles so far this season it’s been ridiculous that they were not willing to pay the money to get in a star like Toby Alderweireld. Meanwhile the man United shelled out money for, Fred, has struggled to make an impact so far – though it does appear to take South American players a bit of time to adapt to the league.

The pressure is seriously on José and it appeared to be showing with his rant after the Spurs loss. It does appear that he has some degree of sympathy from the fans as he did not appear to get the signings he wanted from Ed Woodward this summer. United are a big club but right now I cannot imagine them finishing in the top 4. If results and performances don’t improve soon, it’s hard to imagine a change coming at the top.


Top 6 prediction

So as I am no longer doing weekly write-ups it would be too difficult to try predicting all the matches for the next month, so instead I will make my predictions for how the top 6 will look at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how much this changes as the months go on.

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

 

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 24

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 24

Liverpool came into Week 24 of the Premier League looking to continue their hot run after becoming the first team to beat Manchester City in the league this season. They came away with nothing following a 1-0 loss at bottom of the table Swansea, despite some close chances in the dying minutes. This is the real attraction of the Premier League: on their day anyone can beat anyone, which is a lot less likely in most of the top European leagues.

Elsewhere, Stoke saw an immediate improvement under new manager Paul Lambert. Their 2-0 victory over Huddersfield lifted them out of the relegation zone and put more pressure onto Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, who could only hold Spurs to a 1-1 draw this weekend. Meanwhile Watford’s 1 point from the last 4 league games marked the end of the Marco Silva’s tenure as he was sacked following their 2-0 loss at Leicester.

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I doubt this was how Liverpool were planning to build on their victory over City

Unfortunate accident

I hate to start this week on a low note, but what a horrible injury for James McCarthy to suffer! The Republic of Ireland international suffered a horror fracture of the tibia and fibula as he attempted to tackle West Brom striker Salomon Rondon, ending his season. This was a horrible injury and it is no surprise that the replays were halted right before the injury itself so as not to distress viewers. The quick reactions of Jordan Pickford, Jay Rodriguez and Rondon to call a halt to the game and get medical assistance to McCarthy was proof enough of the severity of the injury. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for Rondon, who had done nothing wrong but was visibly affected by his part in the injury and I couldn’t help but be impressed that he was able to put that to the back of his mind and continue playing for the remainder of the game. This was a complete accident and nobody could be blamed for it. As horrible as it is, injuries can and will happen in sport.

It is unfortunate that this has happened now to McCarthy. He has only played in 6 games this season (4 in the league) having only just recovered from another injury. He is a very good player and when on form an important part of the Everton squad, but such long-term injuries could make it difficult for him to get back into the squad next season. Hopefully the recovery goes well and we see him back in the league on a more regular basis next season.

Every cloud has a Silva lining

When I have been looking at managers at risk over the last few weeks, someone who I did not consider was Marco Silva (now formerly) of Watford. Watford may not have been on the best run, but they were still in the top half of their table, which is a great achievement considering the quality of the league. However what I didn’t account for was the willingness of the Pozzo family to change their manager when they feel they can do better. From the fact that Javi Gracia has already been named as Silva’s replacement, it would seem that this has been in their mind for a while.

Watford started the season so well, but in recent months they have gone off the boil and struggled for results. They currently lie 10th in the league, but the league is ridiculously tight this season and they are only 4 points outside of the relegation zone – 20th placed Swansea are only 6 points behind them now following their win last night! When the difference between mid-table and the drop is so small, every result matters and that would have put Silva at risk with the owners, however their statement was very telling.

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The bottom half of the table is incredibly tight, it’s impossible to predict who will finish in the bottom 3

In the statement announcing Silva’s removal, Watford cited Everton’s approach for him following their decision to replace Ronald Koeman, saying that since that saga there had been “a significant deterioration in both focus and results to the point where the long-term future of Watford has been jeopardised.” Strong words, but they do have a point. Watford were flying high before Everton’s approach, yet since then they have struggled for results and began to drop down the table. Silva never publicly distanced himself from the Everton role and you can’t help but wonder if his heart has been in the job since then. It could just be unfortunate timing with the run of bad form, but it certainly looks as if the Everton approach has affected the squad.

The good news for Silva is that he is still considered a good quality manager, I will be shocked if Pellegrino makes it to the end of February and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Silva as one of the names towards the top of Southampton’s list.

Transfer talk

Probably the biggest story of the round was the announcement that Manchester United agreed a swap deal with Alexis Sanchez moving to Old Trafford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the other way. I think this a great deal for both parties involved.

Arsenal and Sanchez have been going through the motions for a while now and it was only the inability to sign a replacement that stopped Sanchez moving to Manchester City in the summer. Sanchez was ready to leave and has not performed at his best this season, but a move to United will likely (hopefully) see him back to his best. He is a versatile player, able to lay up front, on either side or just behind the striker, which allows Mourinho plenty of tactical flexibility when picking his squad. It also means that all the attacking players will have to up their game to compete against him rather than just the players in a single position. Since 2014/15, Sanchez’s 85 Premier League goals scored or assisted is behind only Harry Kane (108), Serio Aguero (104) and new teammate Romelu Lukaku (86) so he will surely improve the United attack.

Mkhitaryan has not had the best of times at Old Trafford. He had some great moments but also a number of dreadful moments that lost him Mourinho’s trust. It was clear that he was surplus to requirements with United, yet I can see him playing well at Arsenal as I think they will fit his style of play. Hopefully such a talented player will be able to turn his career around and show the Premier League just how good he can be.

This deal works well for both clubs as United offload a player that they do not need while getting in a quality player at no cost. Arsenal would have lost Sanchez for free in the summer, so they have managed to effectively get a player that should fit their system that they likely wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.

From one completed transfer to transfers that I wonder if they will happen or are even being looked into. Fraser Forster has lost his place in the Southampton starting line-up to Alex McCarthy, while Joe Hart’s loan spell at West Ham has turned into a nightmare as he has fallen behind Adrian in the pecking order. With the World Cup this summer, both of these keepers need to be playing regular football in order to earn their place in the England squad, so I would not be surprised if they are looking for other clubs – though Forster could be banking on a return to the starting XI if/when Pellegrino is replaced. Liverpool are looking to become more competitive and the signing of a new keeper would probably help this.

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City got straight back to winning ways with a 3-1 victory over Newcastle

But would they want to make a transfer now? While Hart and Forster have impressed in the League, neither was having the best of seasons, so would they be much of an upgrade on Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius? Nick Pope’s form for Burnley in place of the injured Tom Heaton has been immense, I struggle to imagine one of these players warming the Burnley bench next season. Heaton is probably the one closer to international recognition, so a move to a club competing at the top of the league and in Europe would certainly help his international aspirations.

Round 25 predictions:

Swansea City v Arsenal – Arsenal win

West Ham United v Crystal Palace – Draw

Huddersfield Town v Liverpool – Liverpool win

Chelsea v AFC Bournemouth – Chelsea win

Everton v Leicester City – Draw

Newcastle United v Burnley – Burnley win

Southampton v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw

Manchester City v West Bromwich Albion – City win

Stoke City v Watford – Draw

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United – Draw

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 22

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 22

Round 22 is in the books (and the leftovers from Round 20) and the battles for position continue throughout the league. Manchester United’s win at Everton put them back into second ahead of Chelsea, who drew 2-2 at the Emirates. Liverpool currently hold a 3 point lead over Spurs for the final Champions League spot after their Ragnar Klavan’s late winner against Burnley, who are going through a hard spell of games and now sit 5 points behind 6th placed Arsenal. Towards the bottom of the table, West Ham’s win over West Brom lifts them out of the relegation zone to 16th, while Stoke, West Brom and Swansea currently occupy the bottom 3 with Southampton just ahead of stoke courtesy of goal difference.

On the hot seat

Mark Hughes took a gamble by fielding a heavily weakened side against Chelsea in Round 21 with a view to starting his top players against Newcastle, a game that looked much more winnable. However his Stoke team were routed 5-0 at Stamford Bridge and lost to the Magpies 1-0. His team selections made this a must-win game and as defiant as he was in interviews afterwards, I can’t help but think that his time with the Potters is coming to an end. He may not have had the best of luck with injuries at the back this season, but Stoke’s 47 goals conceded is the most in the league despite having a prospective England international goalkeeper in Jack Butland. With the sale of Marko Arnautovic, they are struggling to put the ball in the net at the other end, leaving them in the bottom 3 by way of goal difference.

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The Premier League table after 22 rounds – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

The team directly above them, Southampton, are likely also considering a change of leadership at the moment. For so many seasons, the Saints have continued to impress in the league despite selling the vast majority of their players to Liverpool other clubs and also losing a couple of successful managers to bigger and better things. Claude Puel was unpopular last year and got the sack after just one season despite an 8th place finish, yet his replacement Mauricio Pellegrino has not lived up to his predecessors and their loss at home to Crystal Palace leaves them flirting with the relegation zone. There was always going to come a time when Southampton’s heavy turnover would catch up with them, but under Pellegrino they look a shadow of their former selves. It wouldn’t surprise me if the board are considering alternatives.

The long-awaited debut

Leicester fans finally got to see Adrien Silva on the field after months of training with the club due to him having not been available for selection until January. The Portugal midfielder was signed from Sporting CP on transfer deadline day in August, however the documentation did not reach FIFA until 14 seconds after the deadline, so he remained ineligible to play until he could be registered once the next transfer window opened.

I’ve heard many people comment on the ridiculousness of Leicester being penalised for the sake of 14 seconds, but deadlines are in place for a reason. If you let it go this time, then you open up a can of worms where you can ask how long after the deadline is still acceptable: 30 seconds? A minute? The deadline should have been known by everybody in the business, so the club should not have been leaving things to the last minute. Get your business done early in the window and there is no need to panic or risk missing a deadline.

If anything, the delay has probably helped him, as it meant he was not involved in the poor start to the season and was also able to spend months acclimatising to the team tactics and building chemistry with his teammates, rather than being thrown straight in at the deep end as most deadline day transfers would be.

That said though, whoever decided to give Silva the number 14 shirt at Leicester deserves a bonus!

Transfer watch

Over recent weeks I’ve noticed a few selection decisions that could be pointing to the intention of some teams in the transfer market this month.

Luke Shaw has not had the best of relationships with Mourinho this season, but in recent weeks has been getting more game time, helped by injury to Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young’s suspension. These appearances are great news for United as I always felt that before his injuries he was destined to become the first choice left back for the national team. These appearances give him a chance to prove he still deserves a spot at United and could help him revitalise his career at Old Trafford, while if he is considered surplus to requirements it is a chance to put him in the shop window and try to recoup more of the £31m the paid Southampton to sign him in 2014.

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All the results from the latest round of matches, plus Round 20’s postponed fixture between Spurs and West Ham – From http://www.premierleague.com

Yaya Touré has also come off the bench for Manchester City a couple of times recently. I’d completely forgotten the Ivorian was still even at the club and he seems very much on the periphery of Guardiola’s plans. At 34, he is past his prime but could still have a couple of seasons in him, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him move on by the end of the month.

If Chelsea don’t look to sign a striker this month then I will be shocked. Michy Batshuayi on paper looks to be second fiddle to Alvaro Morata, but in actuality Antonio Conte has preferred playing Eden Hazard as a false 9 when the Spaniard is unavailable. With Chelsea currently still playing in 4 competitions, they need to have another striker they can rely on and will surely look to bring in some reinforcements. If they do get someone, I would expect Batshuayi to leave Stamford Bridge in search of more regular football.

Outside of Liverpool’s ‘Fab 4’, Dominic Solanke appears to have become Jürgen Klopp’s favoured alternative at the striker position, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one of Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings leaving Anfield this month. Sturridge is a talented player when on form (though I often feel he is a little too selfish) but he is too much of an injury liability for a club that wants to be winning multiple trophies and I can see Liverpool looking to cash in on him. Ings is the harder one to judge. His last couple of seasons have been blighted by injury, but I am a fan of him and think that at 25 all it may take is a successful loan spell to get him back in Herr Klopp’s plans. If I was Klopp, I would look at loaning him out until the summer in order to get him regular first team football, then make a decision on his future after the season. That said, many teams need a reliable goal scorer this season, so if the offer is good enough I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ings move on a permanent deal sooner rather than later.

 

Round 23 predictions:

Chelsea v Leicester City – Chelsea win

Crystal Palace v Burnley – Burnley win

Huddersfield Town v West Ham United – Draw

Newcastle United v Swansea City – Newcastle win

Watford v Southampton – Draw

West Bromwich Albion v Brighton & Hove Albion – Draw

Tottenham Hotspur v Everton – Spurs win

AFC Bournemouth v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Liverpool v Manchester City – City win

Manchester United v Stoke City – United win

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Rounds 19 & 20

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Rounds 19 & 20

Hey guys, apologies for the delay in getting this one up, the last couple of weeks have been pretty busy so I was left with a lot to catch up on after Christmas. Hopefully I should be back onto a more regular schedule going forward!

 

We’ve reached the halfway point of the season and City’s winning streak continues while the chasing pack dropped points over the the last 2 rounds. The title is all but guaranteed to be returning to the Etihad and it would require a monumental collapse in the second half of the season for the title race to even be considered a contest now! At the start of the season, Burnley fans would have probably been happy with a point from these 2 rounds (Spurs at home, United away) but given their performances this season they may actually be disappointed with a 0-3 loss and 2-2 draw, which shows just how far the club have done. Towards the bottom of the league table, West Brom may be improving their performances under Alan Pardew, but they are still not getting the results they need and must go back to August to find their last win (1-3 at Accrington Stanley), while Swansea were clearly thinking along the same lines as me when they announced the sacking of Paul Clement mere hours after I suggested change may be needed. Just call me Nostradumbass!

 

Shooting into the record books

39 Premier League goals in 2017

56 goals in all competitions in 2017

6 Premier League hat-tricks in 2017 (8 in all competitions)

What a year Harry Kane has had! His opening goal in the 5-2 rout of Southampton on Boxing day saw him break Alan Shearer’s record for Premier League goals in a calendar year, and by the time the full-time whistle was blown, the Tottenham striker had completed PL hat-trick number 6 for the year – the first player to ever achieve this! As if that wasn’t enough, his 56 goals in all competition this year made him the top goal scorer in Europe’s top 5 leagues in 2017, a record that has been held by either Messi or Ronaldo for the past 7 years.

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Round 19’s results – From http://www.premierleague.com

Kane is an incredible talent, his eye for goal could make you think he is a modern day Alan Shearer-esque number 9, but he is so much more than that as he has the movement and the passing ability to play slightly deeper an link up with the midfield and wingers. He has the aerial ability to cause problems at set pieces, the strength to hold the ball up but also the pace and control to terrorise defenders when on the run. If he can continue to play like this in 2018 – and most importantly on the big stages like the Champions League and international tournaments – then I doubt it will be long before his name is being thrown around in the discussions about the best strikers in football.

Is he the man to fire England to World Cup glory next summer? I’m not sure he has quite the supporting cast for that yet, but if England can continue to develop players of his quality, the 2020 Euros and the 2022 World Cup could become a possibility.

For Spurs, the important thing right now is to find a way to keep hold of him. The ‘top’ teams will surely come calling over the next few transfer windows and Spurs need to do everything they can to convince him to stay. I’m sure the fact Spurs have been a huge part of his development from his academy days will give them a bit of an advantage, but they need to start winning trophies or it will be all but impossible to keep him in a Spurs kit long term.

Silly season starts early

The January transfer window doesn’t open until January (from Nostradumbass to Captain Obvious) but we have already had the first deal announced as Liverpool broke the news on Wednesday that they were signing defender Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for £75m.

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Round 20’s results – From http://www.premierleague.com

Seventy-five million pounds… I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

In my opinion, the money bandied around in football these days is ridiculous, but even by modern standards this figure seems obscene! This figure has smashed the record fee for a defender, but I have seen very little to suggest he is worth anything near this amount. At 26, he is probably only just reaching his best years and still has 5+ years at the top of his game as a centre back, but it certainly feels like Liverpool have massively overpaid for an average defender… again. For £75m, I’d expect Liverpool to never concede while he is on the pitch and van Dijk to pop up with at least 1 absolute worldie per month. However I struggle to imagine him making much of a difference in that crazy spell against Arsenal when they conceded 3 goals in less than 5 minutes.

Van Dijk has a heavy price tag to live up to, for his and Liverpool’s sake, I hope he can.

Shut up and play

Pep Guardiola hasn’t been a fan of the way some teams have been setting up against him this season. Following their 4-0 win over Bournemouth, he was moaning about how many teams are putting 10 men behind the ball in defence and trying to stop City playing through them. But what else does he expect?!

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The Premier League table at the half way point – From http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

City’s defence is doing better than I expected this year, with 12 goals in 20 games actually being the best record in the league despite having a central midfielder at left back. Scoring against the Sky Blues is not as simple as it sounds. Despite so many teams trying to park the bus against them, their 61 league goals is still 15 goals more than the next team in the goal scoring charts (Liverpool). If teams were to try and take the game to City, that would just leave them even more vulnerable at the back against one of the best attacks in football and while the goals conceded figure may be a little bit higher, I imagine the goals scored figure would be considerably higher.

Teams need to do whatever they can (legally) to get a result and if they feel putting 10 men behind the ball in defence is the best way, then I have no issue with this. Pep will be getting a considerable wage (and the rest!) to find a way to win. This isn’t La Liga, where the top teams only have a few challenges each season, anyone can win in the Premier League on their day. Maybe he should stop moaning about the other teams’ legitimate tactics and spend the time thinking of ways to keep the winning run going.

 

Round 21 predictions:

AFC Bournemouth v Everton – Everton win

Chelsea v Stoke City – Chelsea win

Huddersfield Town v Burnley – Burnley win

Liverpool v Leicester City – Liverpool win

Newcastle United v Brighton & Hove Albion – Newcastle win

Watford v Swansea City – Watford win

Manchester United v Southampton – United win

Crystal Palace v Manchester City – City win

West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 7

Hi guys, sorry for the delay in posting this one, it’s been a busy week at work and catching up on last weekend’s Wembley NFL game put me behind schedule.

Round 7 brought us one of the biggest results of the season so far: Manchester City – without the injured Benjamin Mendy and Sergio Aguero – took all 3 points from Stamford Bridge courtesy of a great goal from Kevin De Bruyne. This loss leaves Chelsea outside the top 3, already 6 points behind both Manchester clubs and also a point behind Tottenham, who won 4-0 at Huddersfield. Meanwhile Crystal Palace are still looking for their first points – and goal – of the season after a 4-0 loss at Old Trafford.

 

A costly injury?

In my last Premier League Ramble I talked about how Chelsea had found their new main man in Alvaro Morata. Unfortunately for the Blues, Morata left the pitch in the first half against City with what has been diagnosed as a Grade 2 hamstring injury. An injury of this type usually has a recovery period of 4-8 weeks, so it could be a while before we see the Spaniard in the league again. I’m starting to think I may be a curse, as some of the players I’ve picked on fantasy rugby games this year have either got injured in the next match or been on the end of a blowout loss. If so, I sincerely apologise to all Chelsea fans!

Antonio Conte now has a big decision to make as to who leads his line until Morata is back. Michy Batshuayi would be considered the go-to replacement up front, but it was interesting to see that he was left on the bench until the final 20 minutes against City, with Willian coming on for Morata and Eden Hazard moving forward instead. Does Conte not trust Batshuayi to lead this attack or was it a decision to focus on not losing and maybe nicking a goal rather than playing for the win? Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t work.

Already 6 points off the pace in the title race, any more poor results while Morata’s out could see their title defence over before Christmas. Suddenly the decision to freeze out Diego Costa and offload him to Atletico doesn’t seem so smart.

Give the refs a hand?

With some of the other results in this round of football, one incident that didn’t get much mention was a vital decision (or non-decision) in Bournemouth’s 0-0 draw with Leicester. Marc Pugh clearly felt his team deserved a penalty when his shot was blocked on its way to goal by a raised hand from Leicester defender Danny Simpson. Referee Graham Scott waved play on but having seen the replays I agree 100% with Bournemouth gaffer Eddie Howe’s assessment of it being a stonewaller, as there is no reason that the hand should be in that position. Had Bournemouth gone on to win anyway it wouldn’t have been so bad, but Bournemouth can feel that this is 2 points taken away from them. Bournemouth currently sit on 4 points with only Crystal Palace below them, while Leicester (5 points) are above the relegation zone through goal difference. Had Bournemouth won courtesy of the penalty, they would switch places with the Foxes. It may be early days, but these points could prove crucial come the end of the season.

People who know me will know that rugby is my favourite sport and for the second time already this season, I find myself writing about how something from rugby could benefit football. Rugby have been using Television Match Officials (TMOs) for as long as I can remember and their role within the game has grown from confirming if a try has been scored to also helping identify moments of foul play. A football referee’s job is hard enough at the best of times keeping an eye on 22 players at once, surely anything to help them make the right decision benefits the sport. VAR will already help with allowing or disallowing goals if brought into the league, but it should be used for much more than just that. The Premiership has a bumper TV deal and all games are being recorded either to be broadcast whole or on a Match of the Day highlights show, so it should not be hard to set up an official in front of a bank of screens who can quickly replay a possible incident and alert the ref if a foul occurred. This could even be expanded on in one of 2 ways, which are both used in other sports:

The Rugby Way – if the referee is uncertain, he should be able to stop the game and refer to the TMO. This could be used for incidents like the Simpson handball to see if there was a foul, or also to help the referee to decide on the appropriate punishment (red/yellow card) following an incident. The referee could even go as far as to say what his on-field decision is so that conclusive proof must be found for the decision to be changed.

The NFL Way – in the NFL, a team has 3 challenges available per half, where a coach can stop the game and ask the officials to review a decision that they feel should have gone the other way. The challenges must be made before the next play begins. This could be adapted to football by allowing either the on-field captain or a nominated person in the dugout to call the challenge, with a set time-frame that the challenge must be called within. The amount could also be reduced to 3 challenges per game rather than per half due to the nature of the sport. Other sports like cricket and tennis have similar challenge systems so it would not be something new to UK sports.

I can imagine some football purists would be against this as it would be seen as adding unwanted stoppages to the game. However, surely we want the right team winning rather than the lottery of if the referee is in the right angle to make the right decision. Plus we have enough stoppages for injury caused by players doing a somersault and 20 rolls on the ground the moment someone comes within a few feet of them.

Next on strike

As mentioned above, Crystal Palace are still looking for their first goal of the season after 7 matches, which is not being helped by a lengthening injury list up front. The next-lowest scoring team have been Swansea, who started the season without the injured Fernando Llorente who has now moved to Tottenham. They re-signed Wilfried Bony in the hopes that he can find the form that earned him a move to Manchester City, while they will also be hoping Tammy Abraham can continue to improve while on loan from Chelsea. Meanwhile Newcastle’s joint-top scorers in the league after 7 weeks are new signing Joselu and defender Jamaal Lascelles, each with 2. Joselu’s second, against Liverpool was the epitome of good luck too as he completely wasted Shelvey’s brilliant pass that cut the defence apart by allowing Matip to catch up with him and make the tackle, only to see the ball ricochet off his knee and into the net. Pretty much every club in the league seems to have at least one striker they can rely on, except these 3 at the moment, so unless things start to change soon, it would not surprise me to see these clubs looking for a new reliable striker in January. I was discussing this with a friend during the week and there could potentially be some great options out there who could need a move for more game-time or a change of scenery where they don’t appear to be reaching the level they would expect:

Charlie Austin – It’s been a few seasons since he lit up the league with QPR and he has had some issues with injuries but on the whole his profession football career has been full of goals, with his average of 1 goal every 3 games at Southampton considered low for him. The manager merry-go-round at Southampton in recent years will not have helped him and he has not appeared to be the lead striker this season, with Manolo Gabbiadini being preferred. He’s only 28 so still has years in the tank and if given the right service could easily start climbing the goal scoring charts again. I imagine Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie would love a player like Austin getting on the end of their passes.

Danny Ings – Charlie Austin wasn’t the only striker to earn plaudits after guiding his team to promotion and continuing the good form in the Premier League, as Danny Ings was doing exactly the same with Burnley at the same time. Ings has had awful luck with injuries since Klopp took over the reins at Liverpool and it with the quality that the Reds have up front now it would look very difficult to break back into the starting XI on a regular basis. Only 25, he should be hitting his prime and as such I think he would benefit from either a transfer or a loan to a striker-needy team where he can prove he is still a top talent.

Troy Deeney – He may not be as prolific as Ings and Austin have been, but Troy Deeney is an experienced striker who knows how to find the net. Now aged 29, he seems to be falling down the pecking order at Watford, especially considering the great start to the season from new signing Richarlison. He’s been a great servant for the Hornets, but it may be time for him to find new pastures.

Saido Berahino – This was probably the hardest sell. With the exception of the 2014/15 season with West Brom, Berahino has never had the same level of consistency as the other strikers mentioned, and he is in fact still without a goal since he moved to Stoke in January. There is clearly talent there – Spurs offered £15m for him in the summer of 2015 – but I think he needs to find an atmosphere and a team that is right for him. I think Berahino would really benefit from a change of scenery to a team where he can start fresh and try to find the future England star we thought he could become when he was banging the goals in for the Baggies.

 

Week 8 predictions:

Liverpool v Manchester United – United win

Burnley v West Ham – Burnley win

Crystal Palace v Chelsea – Chelsea win

Manchester City v Stoke – City win

Swansea v Huddersfield – Draw

Tottenham v Bournemouth – Spurs win

Watford v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Brighton v Everton – Draw

Southampton v Newcastle – Draw

Leicester v West Brom – Draw