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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Fabregas the answer to solving Mourinho's attacking rigidity

Cesc Fabregas joined Arsenal in September 2003 - aged just 16, and was thrust into the first team by Arsene Wenger within two months of his arrival to become Arsenal’s youngest ever first team debutant.

By the age of 21, Fabregas had been made Arsenal’s captain and the Spanish youngster spent eight years at the club in total. His technical brilliance, allied to his agile, light frame created a ticking metronome at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield. An assist machine, with a steely determination to win, he soon become one of the Premier League’s hottest imports and most sought after talents in European football.

Arsenal had repeatedly rejected advances for Fabregas to rejoin his boyhood club, but the Spanish club’s unsettling tactics, combined with Fabregas’ clear desire to move, resulted in a bid of approximately £30m being accepted by Arsenal in August 2011.

When Fabregas joined Barcelona, the assumption was that he would be on the bench acting as understudy to Xavi before gradually taking over his role in the first team. However, Pep Guardiola had other ideas. Despite 212 appearances in the Premier League and 61 in Europe, and although Fabregas was considered by Pep Guardiola to be far from the finished article, the plan was to convert Fabregas into a ‘False 9’ striker - not to replace Lionel Messi, but to give the manager another option.

For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘False 9’, the role is similar to that of the central attacking midfielder, but perhaps more difficult to fulfill. The idea is that the False 9 acts primarily as a lone striker but drops deep into midfield where defenders can be dragged out of position, allowing the exploitation of space in behind via through balls to onrushing wingers or late runners from midfield. However, apart from having to be able to create in an instant, the False 9 also has to have the adaptability to be assertive in the final third, and be able to score goals too. Successfully adapting to the position requires tactical intelligence; intelligence that Guardiola believed Fabregas either possessed or could be honed to possess.

Having broken his tibia and with little hope of participating in the 2011/12 season, David Villa’s loss was Fabregas’ gain, with Guardiola deeming the Spaniard ready to fulfil the False 9 role – albeit ahead of time. Alexis Sanchez was recruited to play on the left flank, with Lionel Messi on the right and Fabregas rotating in-between. 

Few people really understand the level of detail, intelligence, focus and exertion required for a manager like Guardiola to create his brand of attacking football. Every run and movement has to be strategised and tirelessly rehearsed in training. There is a reason that Guardiola has become one of the most revered, successful and tactically disciplined managers of his era – and, like all managers, it stems from detailed work on the training ground.

Indeed, Fabregas commented on his period of adaptation, “I was free to do whatever on the pitch at Arsenal, and I wasn't tactically good," he said. "I was playing wherever I wanted, up and down. Here I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically.”

This is not a position that any player could easily adapt to, and make no mistake, Fabregas did struggle to adapt. He no longer had the naive freedom offered to him at Arsenal, and his tendency to play a more direct style, which had almost become part of his DNA, tended to upset the fragile balance of Guardiola’s precise choreography.

As Barcelona lost grip of the title in 2011/12 to Real Madrid, Guardiola grew impatient and started to lose faith in Fabregas’ ability to fully adapt. Despite putting in some impressive performances, Fabregas struggled to fit convincingly into the manager’s jigsaw.

When Man Utd came forward with a £40m bid in the summer of 2013, Barcelona were keen to sell, but Fabregas was not keen to give up his dream so easily, or move to Manchester. However, two months later, a change of heart. In an interview with The Guardian, shortly after the dawn of a new season, Fabregas opened the door to a return to Arsenal with a thinly disguised patronage of his former club.

The interview also made interesting reading for another reason, with Fabregas offering a reasoned analysis of why it was easier for him to flourish in the Premier League, but not Spain. On English football, Fabregas stated: “It's much more crazy, out of control, everyone attacking, pouring forward” The crowd plays a part. The crowd roar and the full-back bombs forward and then the other full-back goes forward… sometimes in England it feels like you don't have time to think, but that's more a mental question; it's more about your own aggressive intuition, the atmosphere. It motivates you but it means you lose control.”

In England, the aggression and high tempo was not a detriment to Fabregas’ ability to spot a pass or control a game from midfield, but an asset. Unlike Spain, players get caught up in the atmosphere of a match, move out of position, lose possession easily in the searing pace, thus creating more space for the likes of Fabregas to operate, not less.

Fabregas continued: “In Spain, teams work much more on shape; they're more tactical, more positional. A Spanish-style footballer, like [David] Silva or Özil, if they can find two seconds to think, will see the pass because there'll be space. In Spain, you're up against a Mario Suárez or a Gabi and what a pain they are! In Spain, reducing space is worked on more.”

Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso once mocked the English mentality towards aggressive football: 'Tackling is not really a quality, it's more something you are forced to resort to when you don't have the ball…I can't get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.’’ Fabregas agreed, “That's how we tend to see it in Spain: defenders don't swallow the dummies as quickly. In England the attacker goes, ping! and the defender dives in quickly, flying by, wheeee! In Spain the defender stays on his feet longer. “

For all the criticism of Fabregas’ perceived failure to adapt to Spanish football – or the Barcelona way, in his final season, the Spaniard's stats as a creator were only bettered in the whole of Europe by Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria. It is true that Fabregas’ goalscoring did show a trend of dropping off towards the ends of each season, but 42 goals in 151 matches can hardly be described as a poor return. Indeed the ratio was far better than he managed at Arsenal.

Throughout 2013/14 Fabregas’ was Barcelona’s third most used player behind Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano – but then, for Barcelona it was never about goals scored and assists provided, but adapting to a philosophy where anything other than perfection was dissected. At Barcelona, if a cog has a blunt edge and cannot be quickly polished, it's just as quickly discarded. 

From a winning perspective, Fabregas’ time spent at Barcelona could not be considered a failure; he got the domestic trophies he wanted, including La Liga, plus the Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Supercups. With Fabregas feeling he was being forced out, and Barcelona keen to sell, it was Arsenal that had first refusal, yet Wenger declined, preferring to stand by Mesut Özil and the emerging Aaron Ramsey.

Instead, Fabregas made his return to the Premier League at Chelsea in June for £30m, where once again he is likely to find the space to terrorise defences as he had done at Arsenal three years earlier. He might not fit into Barcelona's system, but back in England it will be like hand in glove. Indeed, Fabregas is perhaps even more dangerous now than before, operating under one of the most tactically astute managers in Europe whilst still coveting Guardiola’s principles in his memory bank - Fabregas could be the key to unlocking Mourinho's Chelsea potential, particularly their stilted attack.


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Martin Keown documentary

Not sure if this was broadcast on TV, but the following documentary on Martin Keown is very good. For some reason it has a dismal amount of views on YouTube, but I would recommend it.


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Prem Week 01: Van Gaal sweats, Fab delights

The Premier League season 2014/2015 kicked off with close games across the board, the ‘shock’ result coming at Old Trafford where Manchester Utd succumbed to a 2-1 defeat to Swansea.

Utd still look to be carrying the burdens of last season. Lacking in confidence and nervous at home, I watched most of the game and it seemed that half the team wanted to attack and the other half was frightened to. Understandable, considering Rio Ferdinand has never been replaced, and with Vidic gone too, the team cannot function adequately while the defence is martialled by distinctly average players such as Tyler Blackett and Chris Smalling.

Utd need to spend big, yet have been quiet due to Van Gaal’s late return from the World Cup and his need to analyse from their opening games exactly what they need. Expect some big spending late August, with Real Madrid’s Angel De Maria a plausible option on the attacking side.

Props to Gary Monk who is doing a great job at Swansea in giving continuity to the passing philosophy instilled by Michael Laudrup (now manager of Lekhwiya in Qatar).

Man City looked a completely different team to the one Arsenal trounced in the Community Shield nine days ago and swatted Newcastle Utd aside comfortably away from home, 2-0. Chelsea are my tip for the title, but having watched £12m defensive midfielder Fernando in action, that might have to be revised; he was an absolute beast.

Liverpool struggled at Anfield, narrowly beating Southampton 2-1. Despite losing a plethora of players in the summer, Southampton played well and were unlucky not to get a point. Last season, Liverpool conceded too many goals but had the firepower to overcome that. Now their threat has been blunted with the departure of Suarez, they’re going to struggle to adapt – and I think we saw that at the weekend.

Monday evening, Burnley were two yards off Chelsea all night, yet managed to get an early goal after sloppy defending from a set piece. Chelsea stormed back and were 3-1 up by half time. Diego Costa equalised within minutes then got booked for a dive when a penalty should have been given and Burnley keeper Tom Heaton sent off.

Fabregas ran the show from midfield. His half-volley pass for Andre Schurrle’s goal - Chelsea’s second, was exquisite. It’s only one game, but on this evidence Fabregas will be the signing of the season.

At the Emirates, sleepy Arsenal were dismal against a Palace side coming to terms with the departure of manager Tony Pulis. Aaron Ramsey popped up in injury time to complete a fight back after Arsenal conceded a first half header to Palace debutant Brede Hangeland. The poor performance of Santi Cazorla might be deemed a concern – he looked distracted amidst rumours of cash rich Atletico Madrid sniffing around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Wenger tried to claw back some of the £63m he’s spent this summer by letting the Spaniard go.

Goal of the weekend came at Filbert Street, where Aidan McGeady scored a cracking curler from the edge of the box in Everton’s 2-2 draw with Leicester City. West Ham were the weekend’s chumps, missing a penalty against 10-man Tottenham, then losing the game in the last few minutes to debutant Eric Dier.

By all accounts, Dier is a classy, composed ball-playing centre-back. Not so surprising… until you discover he’s English.

Aston Villa got off to a good start, beating Stoke 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium. Ron Vlaar and Philippe Senderos looked a commanding centre-back pairing. Early days, but with Roy Keane on hand to add his experience and death stares, Villa could be one of the season’s surprises.


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