Premier League: October 2019

Premier League: October 2019

The 100% record is over! After 8 rounds of football, Liverpool was the only team to have won all of their games, but a Round 9 trip to Old Trafford brought an end to their streak as they could only manage a 1-1 draw courtesy of a late Adam Lallana equaliser, though they remain the only team without a loss to their name heading into November and a loss for Manchester City at home to Wolves saw their lead grow. Chelsea were the only team to get maximum points in October with wins over Southampton, Newcastle and Burnley. Every team earned at least a point this month, but Southampton will be worried after dropping into the bottom 3 following a huge 0-9 loss to Leicester and with a trip to the Etihad next up in the league.


Premier League Round-up


What a VARce

It took until Round 10 for VAR to overturn a decision relating to whether a penalty should be awarded, but once it started, the floodgates opened. The first decision to be overturned was for Michael Keane catching Aaron Connolly in the box as they both went for an aerial ball forward – initially not given, but a penalty soon awarded by VAR, which was well dispatched by Neal Maupay. With the floodgates opened “dive” from Wilfried Zaha was overturned into a penalty for Crystal Palace, scored by Luka Milivojević to begin their comeback from 2-0 down to 2-2 at the Emirates, while Manchester United were awarded a penalty after VAR adjudged that Ben Godfrey had had illegally pushed Daniel James over.

While it is great to see VAR finally being willing to overturn a referee’s initial decision, this has ended up really muddying the water. While Zaha was clearly fouled, both of the penalties VAR awarded were extremely soft and less clear-cut than Jan Vertonghen’s challenge on Gerard Deulofeu, where VAR upheld the referee’s decision to play on. To muddy the water even more, VAR adjudged that Manchester City had scored against Aston Villa following a review, deciding that David Silva had not made contact with Kevin De Bruyne’s ball in, so Raheem Sterling was not offside, however Silva appeared to be trying to claim the goal with the referee and it was officially given to him by the Dubious Goals Panel (in which case the goal should have been disallowed for offside).

The most disappointing thing about all of this is that every Premier League ground has a screen pitchside for the referees to use alongside VAR if necessary, but is yet to be used in a match. As it stands, the screen is for if what the referee is being told dos not tally with what they are seeing. Surely that is the case with every VAR referral, or otherwise the referee would have made a different decision. Not only that, but aside from offside, most VAR decisions are subjective, so surely it would be beneficial to have the referee come over and look at the picture on the screen and talk it through with the VAR official rather than stand uselessly in the middle of the pitch with a finger in his ear.

The Premier League is possibly the best domestic league in the world, and VAR is definitely a step forward, but the league needs to figure out how to utilise it correctly, otherwise the league will become a laughing stock.

Early goodbyes

The official figures state that 28,726 fans attended Southampton’s Round 10 match against Leicester… There definitely weren’t that many by the end! A man down and with 3 goals conceded after just 30 minutes, the home fans were already beginning to leave in droves.

Now I don’t want to make this sound preachy, and I understand in this case it was a Friday night with horrible weather and the chances of a comeback were slim-to-none at best (they eventually lost 0-9), but I don’t understand why fans would leave so early. Tickets to a match are far from cheap, so to leave early just feels like throwing away money. I also can’t imagine how that must feel as a player to see so many of your fans walking out early – if your head wasn’t already dropping, surely that would finish you off.

When teams are struggling they need their support more than ever, hopefully this run of bad results doesn’t put people off going to cheer on their team.

Gunning for the captain

There is something not right at Arsenal at the moment. Think back through the years at the players who have captained Arsenal, does Granit Xhaka really fit the mould? The Swiss midfielder has never really cemented himself with the fans due to a number of costly fouls and moments where his desire have been questioned, so to make him the captain highlighted the depth of leadership options available at the Emirates.

During Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace, there we ugly scenes as Xhaka (who had again struggled to positively impact the match) was substituted to a chorus of boos from the Arsenal fans. Things only got worse as he reacted to the boos while walking off, goading the fans even more before taking off his shirt and walking straight down the tunnel.

Now I don’t think it’s nice seeing fans boo their own players, but they are invested in their team and have a right to be heard if they feel players aren’t pulling their weight. Xhaka meanwhile is the captain of this team and has to set an example. Like I just mentioned about Southampton, the support of the fans is huge, and they need to have them on their side. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Xhaka taken out of the firing line for a game or two, but then the question of who captains the team starts again. I bet they’re regretting letting Aaron Ramsey leave right now…

Fantastic Foxes

In the 2015/16 season, Leicester City shocked the world by winning the Premier League in only their 2nd season back in the top flight. After 10 rounds, they find themselves in 3rd place, just 2 points behind Manchester City and ahead of Chelsea on goal difference. Just how far can they go this season?

Leicester have been in great form since bringing in Brendan Rodgers, while Jamie Vardy continues to defy my expectation that he will begin to decline now he is beyond 30, with 9 goals in 10 league games this season. They may have lost Harry Maguire over the summer, but put the money to good use by bringing in Ayoze Pérez from Newcastle and Youri Tielemans from Monaco, both of whom have played big roles already this season.

While Leicester have improved, they have also done so at a time when a number of the classic big 6 are struggling. Chelsea and Manchester United are in the middle of a rebuild, Arsenal are struggling for consistency and Tottenham find themselves in the bottom half of the table, already 8 points behind the Foxes.

Can they keep a top 3 spot? Personally, I think that the other clubs mentioned still have the strength in depth that Leicester are missing, but I am confident that they will be able to keep a place in the top 5, and if pushed to make an exact prediction right now, I would guess that they will finish 4th, with Chelsea jumping above them.

feat football prem league logo yellow

Premier League: August 2019

Premier League: August 2019

Premier League football is back! It feels like only yesterday that I was finishing off last season’s write-ups and I am back again this year to continue the monthly format. August saw us get through the majority of 4 rounds of fixtures but some things never change as Manchester City and Liverpool already occupy the top spots, with Liverpool the only team on maximum points with 4 wins including a 3-1 victory against Arsenal. A 2-2 draw for City at the Etihad sees them 2 points behind but still unbeaten, while Leicester City are the only other team in the league to still be unbeaten. At the other end of the table, Watford’s lone draw sees them bottom, with newly-promoted Aston Villa and Norwich City also occupying the drop zone.

VAR from the finished article

After the amount of time that I have spent in the last 2 seasons complaining about the number of wrong decisions and lack of support for officials, I couldn’t really talk about the first month of the season and not take a moment to give my thoughts on how VAR is getting on.

Though many people seem to be completely against it and now willing to give it a chance, I think that VAR has done a generally good job so far. The vast majority of its decisions have been spot on and I would not say that there have been any monumental errors from VAR.

Many people (fans, players and pundits alike) debated the merits of VAR after Leander Dendoncker’s disallowed goal for Wolves in Round 1 at Leicester and Gabriel Jesus’ disallowed last minute winner against Spurs in Week 2. In both cases, the goals were disallowed as the ball came to the scorer after contact with the hand of a teammate – though in both cases it looked unintentional. VAR came in for a lot of grief for these decisions, but it worked perfectly and any criticism should instead be directed towards the new handball rules, which state that any contact with the hand or arm by an attacking player in the build-up to a goal is an offence. This rule was made very clear to everyone throughout the summer, yet the sight of Wolves and City players arguing with the referee was disgusting and I was furious with the way the media focused on the merits of VAR – big shout-out to Sam Quek who did correctly state in her column that it was the handball rule that was wrong not VAR – when discussing these decisions rather than the unfair handball rules, which will only feed into the public’s dislike of VAR.

Unfortunately there are still situations where the decisions are horribly wrong. The Premier League appears to have decided that any subjective decisions will not be overruled, so any incidents like players being dragged down in the box at set pieces. The introduction of VAR is a step in the right direction, now the league needs to make sure offences are being picked up appropriately.

Early days

August was a very mixed month for Chelsea. With a new manager arriving in the form of Frank Lampard, a transfer ban until next summer and star player Eden Hazard leaving for Real Madrid, this was never going to be easy. Their first 4 league matches have resulted in a big loss to Manchester United, 2 draws and a win over Norwich. Across all competitions, Lampard became the first Chelsea manager to go winless in his first 3 games since Rafa Benitez, and just 2 weeks into the league season, the morons on social media had already started the hashtag #LampardOut.

Personally, I think that while the team has not got off to the best start, there is plenty to be happy about. The transfer ban has led to Lampard giving a chance to a number of young English players and we are already seeing some great performances from Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount among others. The team still has much to learn, but they will learn quickly from playing in these matches and though the first couple of months may be hard, I feel confident that they will come through and be all the better for it.

This is a team that needs time. Providing the improvement is clear as the season goes on, Lampard should be given a free pass this season given he was unable to sign any players, allowing him to focus on building the team this season for a title challenge in 2020/21.

Pick one… Liverpool edition

In Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool have one of the best front lines in European football. But if you had to pick just one of these players to build a team around, who would you go for?

Since the start of the 2017/2018 season, each of the players has almost the same number of appearances. Mané’s played the least games (69) but has an impressive 34 goals – almost 1 goal every 2 matches. Salah has an incredible record of 57 goals in 78 games. Surprisingly considering he is the central striker, Firmino has the worst return of the trio with 29 goals from 75 matches.

On those figures, Salah would be the obvious pick, however I would actually go a different direction if forced to pick just one. His diving issues aside, whenever I watch Salah, I find myself disappointed by how selfish he can get in the final third. Mané is another who I have often looked at and thought to be quite selfish and while I completely agreed that he should have been given the ball when wide open against Burnley, I thought his strop after being substituted was childish. If I was going to pick one of these players to build the team around, it would be Firmino, The Brazilian is a highly skilled front man and a proven goal scorer, but more importantly than that, he always looks like he is putting the team above his own personal success, being fully willing to turn provider if one of his teammates is in a better position to score, probably in part due to his versatility, being able to play a wider or slightly deeper role as well as leading the line.

If I was building a XI, Bobby Firmino would be my man. Who would you pick?

March 2019 in the Premier League

March 2019 in the Premier League

March was a month of beginnings and endings in the Premier League. Manchester United officially named Ole Gunnar Solskjær as their permanent manager after his time as caretaker manager got the team back on track. In slightly worse news for United, this month also saw their unbeaten league run under the Baby-faced Assassin come to an end with a 2-0 loss at Arsenal. Arsenal were also involved in Tottenham’s last league match at Wembley before moving into their new stadium at the start of April, holding their North London rivals to a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, the Brendan Rodgers era got underway at Leicester City with an injury time Andre Gray goal denying the Foxes a point, but 3 wins after that (including a 1-2 win at Burnley despite playing a man down for the majority of the game) got their season back on track. Less celebratory were Huddersfield, whose 2-0 loss at Crystal Palace, combined with victories for Burnley and Southampton, saw the Terriers become only the second team – following Derby County in the 2007/8 season – to be relegated before the end of March.


Going to ground

We all hate diving and want to see it removed from the game. The problem is, too often a dive seems to be required in order to get the decision. Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Southampton saw a moment where Alexis Sanchez looked in with a good chance of scoring, only to be pulled back in the box by Jan Valery. Sanchez stayed on is feet in an attempt to get back on the ball and referee Stuart Attwell waved play on rather than give a penalty.

It was great to see Sanchez trying to play positively here and he should not be penalised for trying to keep his feet when he is clearly being fouled. We want to be eradicating diving from the game, yet players who honestly stay on their feet do not get the decisions they deserve so feel they need to throw themselves to the ground in order to get the referee to act. Credit must be given to Southampton’s Nathan Redmond against Tottenham, who refused to throw himself to the ground after Moussa Sissoko thrust his head into his face. That should have been a clear red card but the Spurs midfielder escaped with a yellow and you can’t help but think that referee Kevin Friend was influenced by Redmond keeping his feet.

Players should not have to go to ground to get a decision. In the same game between United and Southampton, Chris Smalling was lucky to not concede a penalty after pulling Ryan Bertrand back in the box. I can’t help but feel that Bertrand’s theatrical fall cost him here as it looked so over the top for the foul he received, yet that does not hide the fact that he was fouled.

VAR will hopefully help, but there is still a reliance on referees judging on the foul itself not whether a player goes down. Brighton’s 1-2 win at Crystal Palace saw Scott Dann and Shane Duffy tussle in the box and eventually pull each other to ground at a free kick. Craig Pawson should have been calling either a penalty or a free kick depending who made the first offence, but as we see at every corner and free kick, play was waved on and the incident ignored. On top of that, the highlights package of the Cardiff v Chelsea match alone had 3 clear penalties not given for players being pulled over in the box!

We need to get more consistency from the officials if we are to get rid of diving as players need to know that the officials will call fouls on them even if they keep on their feet and try to still get to the ball.

We’ve got a long way to go.


A mixed day

For Jordan Pickford, who came up through the Sunderland Academy and first team before moving to Everton, a match at Newcastle United will be a big deal. I can’t help but agree with Ian Wright’s comments on Match of the Day that the Everton keeper let this affect him in a negative way and that he should have been more focused on the game.

At 0-1, the England number 1 completely misjudged a Matt Ritchie cross and dropped it pretty much right into the path of Salomón Rondón. The only reason Rondón didn’t score? Pickford rugby tackled him well off the ball as he ran past the stranded keeper. Unbelievably, referee Lee Mason gave Pickford the benefit of the doubt that he was going for the ball and gave just a penalty, when Pickford arguably should have been heading for an early shower. This decision had an immediate impact on the game as Pickford saved Ritchie’s penalty and Everton doubled the lead through Richarlison just over a minute later.

If Newcastle fans weren’t already angry enough, Pickford decided to provoke them further as he was left stranded in his box when Rondón got through on goal and chipped him, only for the ball to bounce just wide of the post. Rather than recognise that he had been let off by the miss, Pickford decided to antagonise the home fans with a smirk and sticking his tongue out at them.

Karma had it’s say in this game though as Pickford (who looked shaky throughout) went on to concede 3 goals and lose the game, the second coming after he parried a long-range strike from Miguel Almirón straight into the path of Ayoze Pérez. And in a moment of poetic justice, Everton – who should have played an hour with 10 men – came away with no points as Peréz scored a winner that should have been disallowed for Rondón being offside in the build-up.

Pickford is a quality keeper on his day, but he has to sort out his mentality as he has had some awful flubs this year. He needs to focus on getting the football right as if you act up but don’t perform, you won’t keep your job for much longer.


Mic them up!

Pickford’s attempt at playing rugby against Newcastle wasn’t even the oddest moment of the month as it was beaten out by Raheem Sterling’s opener for Manchester City against Watford. Sergio Aguero chested on a ball forward for Sterling, who was in a clear opposition. Sterling was beaten to the ball by Daryl Janmaat, however the Dutchman’s attempted clearance was blocked by the England winger and deflected into the net. It initially looked like the goal had been (rightfully) disallowed as the linesman called the offside, but after going over to discuss with him, referee Paul Tierney overruled the initial decision and gave the goal.

“It was a game before that moment, and after that decision the game changed” – Javi Gracia

First off, this is an awful decision and I can’t wait for VAR to come in to get rid of shockers like this. I think that football should go even further though and take another leaf out of rugby’s book by allowing us to hear the communications between the officials. I recently saw a video of Australian referee Jared Gillet wearing a microphone for his final A-League match and it was great to be able to hear his communication with the players.

Some people may argue that the language from the players means we shouldn’t hear this, but players should not be surrounding the officials anyway and having the audio available to the public may actually help to improve the way players act towards the officials. If nothing else, we’d understand what the officials’ reasons are for their decisions and it may also benefit VAR, similar to how TMOs in rugby league can be clearly heard talking through every stage of their decision.


Top 6 prediction

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

 

February 2019 in the Premier League

February 2019 in the Premier League

Hey there Premier League fans, thank you for you patience and sorry it has taken so long to get this written. The Six Nations largely took over my life over the last couple of months and typically my (usually quiet/non-existent) social life actually had some stuff going on to leave me with even less time. I promise you won’t be waiting anywhere near as long for my thoughts on March’s action.

Manchester City took the league lead back from Liverpool and 3 wins means that they are now in the driving seat (having a game in hand) over their title rivals, who dropped 4 points with draws at West Ham and Manchester United. The draw against Liverpool and 3 other wins continued United’s renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and a top 3 spot is beginning to look a real possibility. It was not all positive news though, as 2 more managers were let go in February: Claude Puel was dismissed by Leicester following an embarrassing 1-4 loss at home to Crystal Palace, while Claudio Ranieri lasted just over 3 months at Fulham.


Role models

Premier League footballers are watched by millions of people every week including thousands of children. They are some of the best players in the world playing in arguably the best league in the world. As such, they are arguably in a position where children will look up to them as role models.

So imagine my disappointment when I saw Burnley’s Ashley Barnes going absolutely crazy at a lineman after he was accused of diving to try winning a penalty. Yes, diving is disgusting and needs to be kicked out of the game, but this was a terrible call as he was clearly caught by Southampton keeper Alex McCarthy. It’s understandable that Barnes would be angry at not being awarded a clear penalty – the penalty given to them later in the game was their first in 68 league games – and in fact being given a yellow for diving, but that to me does not excuse the way he reacted to the officials and I am shocked he was not given a second yellow for this reaction.

This was not the first incident this season of players disrespecting officials as just the week before, Wilfried Zaha was given a second yellow card for dissent after sarcastically applauding the referee who had just booked him against Southampton.

There is no place for either of these reactions in football. Officials have a hard enough time doing their job and getting the right decision (more on that in a moment) without players and fans giving them abuse. Players need to control their emotions and cut out this behaviour as it will just lead to children doing the same in grassroots football, which will stop people wanting to become an official.


Costly decision

It takes just one second to potentially change the outcome of a game completely. During Brighton’s home match with Burnley, the Seagulls found themselves 0-2 down but on the attack with about 15 minutes left. The attack came to an end as Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick appeared to handle the ball, but this was missed by the officials. Burnley countered and Ashley Barnes beat the offside trap on halfway before being fouled by keeper Mathew Ryan in the box, scoring the penalty for a 0-3 lead and eventually a 1-3 victory.

Instead of a Burnley penalty, this should have been a Brighton penalty and the core would have likely been 1-2 rather than 0-3, which with 15 minutes left could have completely changed the result.

VAR is making its way to the league next season and while not everyone is sold on it yet, this is a perfect example of just how important it can be to get the right decision.


Penalty points

Leicester’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham threw up an interesting moment as the Foxes were awarded a penalty when 1-0 down. Demarai Gray had been given the start ahead of Jamie Vardy as Claude Puel wanted to develop other options, but as soon as the penalty was awarded, Vardy came on to replace him and take the penalty. Things didn’t work out for them though as his shot was saved by Hugo Lloris. This moment left me with a couple of questions:

  1. Why say you want to develop other options and then go back to the tried an tested for something that should be as guaranteed as a penalty. This could instead harm Gray’s development and confidence.
  2. Should Vardy have been able to take the penalty?

This second one is interesting to me as though there is nothing against it in the rules, it does not feel right to me. Much like how a team cannot substitute their keeper at full time for a penalty shootout but must instead bring them on before the end of extra time, I feel that the penalty should be taken by someone who was on the pitch when the penalty was awarded. As well as feeling right, it surely makes sense tactically as well as otherwise a player’s first touch of the ball is them taking the penalty, which as Vardy showed is not necessarily going to be good news for them.


A great turnaround

Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at home to Liverpool would probably be considered a good result for them looking back at how the first half of the season went, but when you look into the match even further you realise just how good the result was.

With Nemanja Matić already missing through injury, United’s midfield was dealt a blow about 20 minutes in as Ander Herrera left the pitch with an injury to leave United with a midfield pairing of Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay. Things got even worse as Jesse Lingard had to replace the injured Juan Mata about 5 minutes later and then himself left the pitch injured just before halftime, being replaced by Alexis Sanchez. Marcus Rashford had also been struggling with an injury from around the same time as Herrera’s injury but with no subs remaining had to play the rest of the game.

Granted, Liverpool lost Roberto Firmino to injury as well in the first half, but that still left them 2 available subs in the second half, so for United to hold on with 10½ men against the title contenders and in fact almost win it (Joel Matip’s own goal was disallowed due to Chris Smalling’s offside) shows just how far United have come under Ole Gunnar Solskjær.


Sarri v Kepa

Chelsea may not have had a league game in Round 27 as they were losing on penalties to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup Final, but they were still making waves that would continue into the next round of matches.

As extra time edged towards penalties, Maurizio Sarri chose to replace Kepa Arrizabalaga – who had gone down with cramp twice in the extra period – with Willy Caballero, who is known to have a good record against penalties. Kepa however refused to leave the pitch, leading to Sarri having to back down and be moved away from Kepa after the whistle.

While this was a public embarrassment, Chelsea media moved quickly to play the incident down, with Kepa’s statement saying that it was a misunderstanding and he was making it clear that he was fit enough to continue. Sarri’s actions in their next league match against Tottenham said otherwise though, as he dropped Kepa in favour of Willy Caballero. When asked about the change of keepers, Sarri stated:

“Kepa made a big mistake and so it was only a message for the whole team, all the dressing room”

While I completely agree with the decision to drop Kepa under normal circumstances, the fact that this went completely against the public line taken by Chelsea may have put him on shaky ground (as if he wasn’t already with the performances and results his team were getting) and showed that when push came to shove in the match, player power beat out the manager. If Sarri makes it beyond the end of this season, I will be shocked!


Top 6 prediction

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