Wednesday
Oct082014

Prem Week 07: Arsenal escape 4 red cards/De Gea rescues Utd

The Premier League saw a full complement of games this weekend as attentions turn to another yawn-inducing international break.

The big game of the weekend was to be found at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea hosted Arsenal. Unlike last year’s 6-0 mauling, Chelsea lacked verve and energy up front. Despite repeatedly winning the ball in midfield, they failed to counter-attack with any pace or conviction. However, they did fight from back to front, unlike their opponents who were physically, mentally and tactically inferior.

The two managers had a spat on the touchline after Gary Cahill committed a late and clumsy tackle on Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger waltzed into Jose Mourinho’s technical area spoiling for a fight, which only served to rouse a lethargic Chelsea, as Eden Hazard swiftly dribbled through the Arsenal defence to win and bury a penalty. A game of few chances, Diego Costa finished Arsenal with a late goal following a delicious long ball from Cesc Fabregas!

Arsenal should have had four players sent off; Laurent Koscielny for his penalty foul on Hazard, Callum Chambers for deliberate obstruction when already booked, Danny Welbeck for a two-footed lunge on Fabregas, and Alexis Sanchez for a violent punch that connected with Branislav Ivanovic.

Post-match, Wenger degraded himself by stating that the team with the most money won. An undignified excuse, and partially incorrect considering Arsenal now have a higher wage bill than Chelsea, and let’s not forget Arsenal’s £108,000,000 four-man attack, which cost £80m more than Chelsea’s back five yet could not manage a single shot on target throughout the entire game.

At Old Trafford, Man Utd looked potent going forward, but Everton ran them close after another nervous defensive display from the home side. David De Gea had his best game for the club, with several outstanding saves, including a penalty, helping Utd to a 2-1 victory.

Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, showed signs of successfully implementing an attacking philosophy during Spurs 1-0 victory over Southampton. Emanuel Adebayor held the ball up top, while Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli and, pick of the bunch, Christian Eriksen, rotated in attacking positions.

Liverpool and Man City also recorded wins, beating West Brom 2-1 and Aston Villa 2-0 respectively. Pool boss Brendan Rodgers preferred Ricky Lambert to Mario Balotelli who will need to adapt his style of play if he is to be a success at the club – presuming he can be arsed.

Hull beat Crystal Palace 2-0, a late goal from Nikica Jelavic preventing the sort of comeback that Hull are susceptible to, while West Ham reached the dizzying heights of 7th following an impressive 2-0 win over QPR, where Harry Redknapp finds himself entrenched in another battle for survival.

For the second time in a matter of weeks, Pape Cisse threw Alan Pardew a lifeline with two goals – this time at the Liberty Stadium, although Newcastle could still not achieve victory. Burnley also showed some fighting spirit to rescue a point at Leicester in the weekend’s other 2-2 draw. 

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Tuesday
Sep302014

Prem Week 06: Derby sides not up to title challenge

This was the weekend that proved none of the teams on show in the North London and Merseyside derbies will be challenging for anything other than a domestic cup and a place in the top four – at best.

On Merseyside, Liverpool and Everton fought a 1-1 draw after Steven Gerrard’s set-piece free-kick was cancelled out in the dying seconds by a spectacular long-range drive by Phil Jagielka. Both sides have already dropped 23 points between them.

Down South, the score was the same in the London Derby. Spurs chief Mauricio Pochettino knows his team does not yet have the players to play his style or system, but any half-decent side can negate Arsenal – and so it proved. Spurs took the lead early in the second half after Mattieu Flamini was mugged in midfield by Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli set up to finish. Arsenal levelled after Danny Welbeck’s laughable miskick fell straight into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Arsene Wenger can’t see the wood for the trees. Nobody knows why he plays who he plays or the logic behind who plays where and when. He has nine attacking central midfielders spread out all over the pitch, and can’t get consistency out of any of them. In Wenger's world, why bother with tactics? And herein lies Arsenal's malaise. Also, Wenger continues to exacerbate injuries by adopting prehistoric training methods and pushing players to their physical limits, hence injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mikael Arteta in the first half. All three injuries were non-contact, a sign of nervous-system fatigue due to poor conditioning or insufficient rest.

Meanwhile, Chelsea and Man City proved why they alone will battle it out for the title. Chelsea comfortably demolished Aston Villa 3-0, and Man City saw off Hull 4-2 despite having to recover from £32m new signing Eliaquim Mangala gifting the opposition a goal and a penalty.

City looked potent up front with a fully fit Sergio Aguero, while Edin Dzeko is purring having seen off Alvaro Negredo - now on loan at Valencia.

Desperate for a win, Man Utd struggled to beat West Ham 2-1 at Old Trafford. Angel Di Maria was anonymous and Wayne Rooney sent off for a stupid high kick on Stewart Downing. West Ham complained after Kevin Nolan appeared to equalise in the final minute, but his tap-in was ruled offside. I thought Nolan was onside because his feet were level with the last man, but didn’t realise this rule was changed in 2005. Regrettably for Nolan, even if a player’s nose is ahead of the opposition’s last man he’s deemed to be offside.

After humiliating Utd last week, Leicester were brought back down to earth by Crystal Palace who beat them 2-0, but the best goals of the weekend were to be found at St. Mary’s. With Southampton ahead, Charlie Austin levelled for Q.P.R. with a seamless touch, turn swivel and shot, the brilliance of which was equalled two minutes later by Graziano Pelle’s superb scissor-kick, set up artfully by his own first touch.

Southampton held on for a seventh straight win in all competitions. Having sold numerous key players in the summer, what Southampton have achieved so far this season has been truly remarkable.

Elsewhere, Sunderland and Swansea fought out a bore draw, and West Brom thrashed doomed Burnley 4-0. Alan Pardew, meanwhile, moved closer to the dole queue after Newcastle lost 1-0 to Stoke on Monday night.

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Monday
Sep222014

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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Tuesday
Sep162014

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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Wednesday
Sep032014

‘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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