Prem Week 05: Utd embarrassment/Europe’s high fail rate

A highly entertaining weekend in the Premier League. Actually, let me rephrase that, a remarkably entertaining weekend.

Most of that entertainment was to be found at the King Power Stadium, where Leicester demolished Manchester United 5-3. Utd started the game on fire and were two up within 16 minutes, courtesy of a Robin Van Persie header and an exquisite chip shot by Angel Di Maria. Leonardo Ulloa continued his fine start to Premier League life by pulling a goal back in the 17th minute, but Ander Herrera’s back-heel restored Utd’s two-goal advantage and the game seemed to be over.

However, driven by a powerhouse performance from debutant Jamie Vardy, Leicester fought their way back into the game. In truth, referee Mark Clattenburg has some explaining to do after giving an outrageously bad penalty decision in Leicester’s favour. David Nugent converted in the 62nd minute, igniting a resurgence that would heap further embarrassment on Utd’s plagued defence.

Utd’s collapse was on a par with a game I distinctly remember from April 1996, when Southampton beat them 6-3. A stark reminder to Louis Van Gaal that battering teams into submission is not likely to work as a singular tactic every week. Still, credit the manager for not making a meal out of a couple of dreadful decisions that led to Leicester goals. He knows – like we all do, that there’s no excuse for letting a 3-1 lead slip.

One defender who I’ve always rated highly, and cannot understand why Liverpool and Man Utd have ignored, is Joleon Lescott. The centre back formed an excellent partnership with Vincent Kompany at Man City and put in a Man of The Match performance for West Brom during their 1-0 victory at White Hart Lane. OK, he’s 32, but both clubs are crying out for that sort of experience at the moment.

A flaccid Spurs side were not the only ones to struggle after a week of European football, Liverpool suffered their third defeat of the season away to West Ham (3-1) and Everton lost at home to Crystal Palace (3-2). Individual errors continue to haunt both Merseyside clubs.

European football clearly has a big effect on teams not used to the travelling and few rest days in between. Personally, I think the Europa League should be scrapped. It has no prestige, while for most clubs attendances are a third of what’s normally expected and the prize money a quarter of what teams make from Champions League income.

Domestic leagues would be stronger and more competitive at the top end if those trying to break into the top four were not stifled by participation in such a meaningless competition.

Indeed, Arsenal were the only team to win this weekend following their European exploits. According to newspaper reports, Mesuz Ozil requested Arsene Wenger play him in his favoured number 10 role and the German responded with a rare goal and an assist during his team’s 3-0 victory. Having said that, it would have been a completely different game had a virus not swept through the Villa camp decking three players prior to kick-off. Many were in no fit state to play either, including Andreas Wiemann who could not make it past half time.

Biggest game of the weekend was Man City vs Chelsea, which, thankfully for those seeking a Premier League that’s not over within two months, ended in a draw. Manuel Pellegrini was frustrated by Chelsea’s defensive-minded tactics (surpise, surprise), especially after The Blues hit 10-man City on the break with a goal from Andre Scurrle on 71.

City equalised five minutes from time courtesy of ex-Chelsea legend, Frank Lampard. As soon as Lampard came on, the script was written.

Diego Costa is a joy to watch. Manhandled all afternoon, he didn’t dive around like a cissy and only took umbrage when Zabaleta clattered him late from behind. He is a dream striker, and any club would have him.
A goal from Victor Wanyama settled the score in a game between two of the Premier League’s best footballing sides, Swansea and Southampton. However, the away team was assisted by the uncharacteristic psychosis of striker Wilfred Bony, who looked coked-up prior to his Braveheart-style barge on Maya Yoshida - followed not much later by a scissor-kick from behind on the same player. Bony was red carded after 38 minutes.

Elsewhere, Alan Pardew’s neck was saved by two late goals from Papiss Cisse in a 2-2 draw against Hull. Lessons not learned from the FA Cup final, as Steve Bruce once again rues his side’s inability to hold onto a 2-0 lead.


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Prem Week 04: Same old Arsenal; Chelsea could walk it

Big game of the weekend was at the Emirates where Arsenal squandered their chance to beat Chelsea’s only realistic threat to the title, Manchester City.

Despite starting the game better and scoring two brilliant goals, Arsenal’s frailties remain all too obvious and Pellegrini’s men were unlucky not to claim victory in the end after hitting the woodwork twice and being denied a blatant penalty following Jack Wilshere’s handball in the box.

Ultimately, however, 2-2 was probably a fair result. Best players on the pitch were Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez, while Jesus Navas tortured Nacho Monreal. City’s Fernandinho made another big impression, making his opposite number Mathieu Flamini look like a footballing relic from a previous generation.

Dud of the match was Mesut Ozil, a colossal waste of money that has so far failed dismally to integrate into the Premier League. When you pay £42.5m for a player, you expect game-changing quality almost week in, week out, not the pitiful performances Ozil has delivered.

My final observation on that match is that Vincent Kompany needs a suitable partner. If the Belgian gets a long-term injury, City’s defence will struggle badly, which could damage their title bid. It’s a good time to be a centre back in European football, as even the most average can earn big money moves in the current climate where there is a dearth of quality available.

Meanwhile, despite a good start to the game, Chelsea’s battering ram Diego Costa scored just before half time then went on to plunder a hattrick during the home side’s 4-2 demolition of high-flying Swansea. Even at this early stage, the title looks a formality for Jose Mourinho’s side.

Despite playing well, Fabregas looks uncomfortable in Chelsea’s blue and white, struggling to celebrate with conviction. We all know where he wants to be, and should be, but he can at least placate himself by knowing he’s at a team that can compete for major honours.

Southampton fans are back to loving life after a worrying summer. Despite the departure of key players, Mauricio Pochettino’s influence remains embedded in the club’s psyche. They battered Newcastle 4-0 on Saturday and left Alan Pardew staring down the barrel. Few managers could be more worthy of the sack; a charmless and thoroughly dislikeable individual, Pardew’s days are numbered.

Defeat of the week came at Anfield as Liverpool lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa. With Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling both absent – and Luis Suarez gone, canny gamblers will have laid money on this upset having taken into consideration Villa’s already excellent start to the campaign.

Elsewhere, Everton earned a much-needed clean sheet following a 2-0 win at West Brom, while Tottenham will need to tighten up if they’re serious about Champions League qualification after conceding a comedy late goal in their 2-2 draw against lucky Sunderland.

At Old Trafford, Man Utd thumped QPR 4-0. The Hoops were blown away by Utd’s abundance of attacking talent, but this is no yardstick from which to measure the improvement of Louis Van Gaal’s lop-sided team. Looks like they’re going to try and pummel their way to Champions League qualification; a bit like Liverpool did last season with an equally dismal defence.


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‘Deadline Day’, what's all the fuss?

And so the transfer window deadline, rebranded by Sky Sports as ‘Deadline Day’, closed on Monday evening in somewhat anti-climactic fashion.

Premier League clubs spent £835m in transfers this summer, a new record – although the fact that the outlay was only £165m more than six years ago tends to abate notions of some alarming upward trend. Spending could increase again next season when a new Champions League TV deal sees income double for those clubs taking part.

There has been a lot of talk about the so-called spectacle that is Deadline Day, mostly in the form of complaints by overzealous do-gooders that seem to have forgotten that football is part of the entertainment industry. One absurd article I read today compared Deadline Day to FA Cup Final day.

I suspect that, in reality, supporters are mildly entertained by events surrounding the closing of the transfer window, but no more than that – basically it’s something to do on a Monday night, if you’re bored. Of course, the media will try to fan the flames and make it appear a bigger event than it actually is, but that’s their job because they’re… in the entertainment industry.

The rising cost of transfers in England shows only one thing, an extremely healthy sport bursting at the seams in cash. Football’s massive influx of sponsorship and TV money has raised interest and competitiveness in the sport to new heights – and we all benefit from that as viewers, otherwise we wouldn’t be excited by it, spend oodles of money on it or watch it in our droves.

No doubt some clubs have chased that success to their own cost with debt and wages spiralling out of control, but I have no problem with that whatsoever. Businesses go into administration every day, so I don’t see why football clubs should be any different – they are businesses after all. Besides, if you analyse how many football clubs have actually gone into administration through overspend, it’s relatively few – and they usually survive, most businesses that go bankrupt don’t survive.

Notable recent victims have included Leeds United, who now suffer the ignominy of playing in the Championship (roll eyes) and Glasgow Rangers, but I doubt the rest of the SPL is embittered at having the genuine option of being able to challenge for Europa League football – a chance previously stymied by two clubs that have come first and second at the top of the SPL since time immemorial. Meanwhile, QPR and Leicester City are once again enjoying the financial fruits of the Premier League after near bankruptcy, yet neither seemed to have suffered much in exile.

Many clubs run a tight ship and still drop divisions, and for every club that fails – for whatever reason, the door opens for another that might previously never have had the chance to move up the football association pyramid.

Are vast sums of money being thrown away? Yes, certainly, but vast sums of money are thrown away in every sector of the entertainment industry. No one seems to care if Arnold Schwarzenegger or Leonardo Dicaprio is paid $30m to rehearse a script, yet there’s furore when a footballer gets £200k a week. The fact of the matter is, it’s about supply and demand, and people stop spending when you stop giving them value for money. Like any business, you live and die by the quality of the product you’re selling.

When it comes to morals in sport, I say, what morals? As well all know, football’s governing bodies are corrupt and by allowing that to continue unabated society is, in itself, morally bankrupt. If you don’t like the way the sport is run, vote with your feet and bail out – yes that’s right, stop going to games, stop writing about football and stop watching it on TV. Are you prepared to do that? If not, quit whining.

Another common complaint that seems to spring up is that big clubs sign all the big stars thus stifling young talent. This philosophy is absolutely ludicrous. All the players at the top of the football pyramid were young once and, quite obviously, today’s young players will fill those positions in equal number once they mature. Besides, what’s the rush? Thanks to all the money swilling around, most footballers are paid a king’s ransom even when plying their trade in League 1. And who says supporters want to see young players playing for their team? Methinks, given the opportunity, they want to see the best players, not young players, and so do the clubs who are under pressure to live up to supporter expectations – pressure we all enjoy watching and talking about.

Apart from all but the most exceptional, leave the young players to clubs that are financially constrained, they do a perfectly good job preparing kids for the next step in their careers and future riches. If anything, we see too many young players grossly overpaid before their time, often ending up disinterested and arrogant with a distorted sense of self-entitlement.

Finally, the timing of the transfer deadline itself. Some question whether there should be a transfer deadline one month into the start of the season, yet nobody seems to complain about the January transfer window slap bang in the middle of the season.

I suspect one of the reasons to have a transfer window late August is to allow clubs a small preparation period to bed in new signings etc. before making some final tactical adjustments and also to compensate for any serious injuries that players might receive in pre-season or few opening weeks of a season. This seems an entirely sensible way to approach things.

If you had the transfer deadline on the 31th July, Sky would simply move “Deadline Day” to 31st July instead and turn that into a big event, so does it really matter?

Most clubs want to do their business early and will do their business early – for obvious reasons. Only those that are badly organised or suffer late squad injuries will make a late entry into the market, and this year’s deadline cut-off appears to endorse that with only £80m in transfer fees exchanging hands by all clubs combined in England and Scotland.

Indeed, there were only two notable signings in the Premier League, strikers Radamel Falcao (Monaco to Man Utd) and Danny Welbeck (Man Utd to Arsenal). And it was only because Robin Van Persie got injured that this double-deal took place at all, almost making ‘Deadline Day’ a completely redundant spectacle.


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Prem Week 03: Chelsea entertain shock; Balotelli thrown in

The third week of the Premier League season sees Chelsea share top spot with Swansea City after the Blues fought out an incredible nine-goal thriller at Goodison Park.

Everton continued exactly where they finished the previous week at Arsenal; conceding silly goals as Chelsea went 2-0 up within three minutes. Everton pulled one back via Kevin Mirallas just before half time, but a Seamus Coleman own goal saw the Toffees forced to overcommit resulting in an avalanche of goals at both ends of the pitch.

Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa impressed once again in a 6-3 victory, particularly Costa who looks better with every viewing.

In three games Everton have already conceded a quarter of the goals they did the whole of last season. For a team that has aspirations of qualifying for the Champions League, such bad starts can be difficult to fully recover from.

Swansea, meanwhile, brushed West Brom aside 3-0 to move joint top, but something will have to give when they meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after the international break.

Shock of the week came at the Etihad Stadium, where Man City lost 1-0 at home to Stoke. Mame Biram Diouf ran the length of the pitch to net the winner, although Joe Hart was guilty of allowing his angled shot to fizz through his legs – is it me or does Hart simply not convince?

Three penalty shouts were turned down, one for each team – probably due to over-exaggerated dives, however, City should have definitely had a spot kick when Youssuf Mulumbu practically caught the ball in the penalty box.

Regardless, City should not be losing matches in this fashion. Last season, Chelsea dropped silly points but had the excuse of a dud strike force; City have no such excuse and it will be a worry for supporters if Manuel Pellegrini has to put in overtime to keep his players focused for every game.

At White Hart Lane, Spurs lost 3-0 to a Liverpool side that needed to bounce back following last week’s comprehensive defeat at City. Mario Balotelli made his debut but, perhaps understandably, lacked sharpness in the final third. Despite that, Brendan Rodgers team played the same brave attacking football as they did last season and got the result they deserved.

A goal down early in the game, Spurs had a harsh penalty awarded against them on 49 when Eric Dier touched, rather than tugged, Joe Allen in the box. Spurs never recovered as poor cameo roles from substitutes Moussa Dembele and Andros Townsend became an impediment rather than a route to achieving a fight back.

There were goals galore at St James’ Park where Newcastle shared a six-goal thriller with Crystal Palace, for whom old-school managerial legend Neil Warnock replaces Tony Pulis. His second spell at Palace, Warnock has now been employed 14 times since 1980.

Man Utd struggled again, this time at Burnley in a goalless draw. There was an early scare for Louis Van Galle’s men when the home side struck the woodwork early, otherwise neither side were much of a threat going forward. £60m debutant Angel Di Maria impressed in spells with his range of passing and willingness to get stuck in – he came off with cramp, otherwise Utd still look horribly disjointed.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa continued their fine start to the season with a 2-1 home win against Hull, with Steve Bruce moaning that the first half was one of the worst he’d witnessed in his two years at the club. Southampton beat Jekyll and Hyde West Ham 3-1 at Upton Park; discontent amongst the supporter base at the appointment and methods of Sam Allardyce continues to simmer like an Icelandic volcano.


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Prem Week 02: Man City coast Liverpool; Spurs impress

Match of the weekend, even though it took place last night, was unmistakeably Man City v Liverpool, but in the end it was a damp squib for the neutral. Throughout the 3-1 defeat, Liverpool still looked to be suffering the absence of Luis Suarez. Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Stirling suddenly seem all-too ordinary, but then it was a difficult match.

More worrying for Pool fans is their leaky defence. New signing Alberto Moreno did not cover himself in glory with his ludicrously lax attempt at a clearance which allowed Stevan Jovetic to nip in and score City’s opener. From then on it was a cruise for City, who never really needed to get out of second gear.

Attending the match was Mario Balotelli, who Liverpool are now expected to sign for £16m despite the concerns of manager Brendan Rodgers. Although Suarez was a bad boy he was never a problem off the pitch or in the dressing room and didn’t need motivating. Balotelli, however, is quite the opposite. Neither Jose Mourinho nor Roberto Mancini could withstand his lack of professionalism, and it seems AC Milan have also grown tired of his lackadaisical attitude, hence a cut-price deal.

Top four hopefuls Man Utd struggled again in their second game of the season away to Sunderland, where, despite a 1-1 draw, the disconnect between defence and attack looked even more apparent. Utd looked lost in the middle of the park with duo Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher both equally inept at shielding the defence or stimulating the attack.

Van Gaal appears to be toying with personnel and formations, and the big question is whether Utd panic buy over the next five days or allow the manager time for further analysis of the squad right up to Christmas. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Angel Di Maria looks destined for Old Trafford this week in a £60m move.

Jose Mourinho had to wield the big stick at half-time to enable a lacklustre Chelsea to raise their game and beat Leicester 2-0. This was not before an almighty scare as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois raced out of his box to prevent David Nugent putting the away side 1-0 up.

Diego Costa seems like the goal poacher that Chelsea needs. Nothing flash, just good movement and positional awareness in the box, and no-fuss execution of anything played into his path.

Meanwhile, Arsenal looked the same old tactical mess at Everton. The Gunners started the game with Alexis Sanchez playing up front as a lone striker, but, along with his team mates, ran around like headless chickens for 45 minutes. Sanchez was replaced at half-time by Olivier Giroud.

Everton picked off Wenger’s men, led 2-0 by half time and looked comfortable throughout, but collapsed in the last 7 minutes conceding two appalling goals. Credit to Arsenal for sticking with it, but if Everton are to make further progress under Roberto Martinez then you would expect him to be more critical of his team, who looked sloppy and over-confident rather than “mentally fatigued” - not a quality you would associate with Everton in recent years.

For Tottenham, it all seems to be coming together quickly for Mauricio Pochettino. After the board blew £100m on players that struggled to integrate last season, suddenly the likes of Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela are having an impact.

I mentioned last week that centre back Erik Dier was one to look out for, and he scored in successive matches as Spurs routed QPR 4-0.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa looked surprisingly solid again earning a 0-0 draw at home to Newcastle, Swansea dispatched Burnley 1-0 to record back-to-back wins, and West Ham played surprisingly good football to comfortably beat Crystal Palace 3-1.

The transfer window, rebranded by Sky Sports as “Deadline Day” closes at 11pm on Monday. Most teams look quite settled having done their business early this summer, but you would expect Man Utd to be busy, and perhaps Southampton, who must have a bulging wallet having spent the last three months selling their crown jewels.


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