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Arsenal vs. Liverpool Preview: 6 Key Battles to Watch This Saturday

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Before the Capital One Cup rolled around this midweek, Arsenal and Liverpool were heading toward Week 10 of the English Premier League in good spirits and fine form, having dispatched confident wins last Saturday.

But Tuesday night saw Jose Mourinho continue his impressive record over Arsene Wenger, with Chelsea knocking Arsenal out of the Capital One Cup with a 2-0 away win at the Emirates Stadium.

Not that the first-team’s momentum should be dented in any way, given that it was a trademark Wenger B team selection on Tuesday, but suddenly the mood among Arsenal fans has turned just a little tenser, a little testier, while the Liverpool camp are starting to feel optimistic again.

Saturday will see the league-leading Gunners welcome the visit of the third-placed Reds in a surefire spectacle. Let’s look ahead at six key battles that will have a huge say in where the points go at the end of the 90 minutes.

 

Per Mertesacker vs. Luis Suarez

Here’s the current situation: Per Mertesacker on form is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Luis Suarez on form is one of the best forwards in the Premier League. Both are on form playing in teams that are riding high.

But how will this duel turn out?

Mertesacker excels in his positioning, aerial dominance and composure. Suarez has all three in abundance—his two headed goals in the recent victory over West Bromwich Albion, especially his first one, were of such superlative quality that they’ve surely added “heading” to his skill set—but it will be his unpredictability and propensity to pop up almost everywhere on the pitch that will make things tough for Mertesacker.

Add the other half of the SAS strikeforce, and the Arsenal defence may have a huge in-form headache on their hands.

 

Laurent Koscielny vs. Daniel Sturridge

So this brings us to the other half of the equation.

Laurent Koscielny has been a standout at the back for Arsene Wenger in recent seasons, and his pace and tackling have been rightly praised as he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the league.

But he’s up against a Daniel Sturridge surging with confidence and self-belief, well on his way to becoming a top international-class striker, and with a new-and-improved Luis Suarez alongside him to help.

The constant movement and interchanging of Sturridge and Suarez will present a nightmare to all four of Arsenal’s defenders on the day, and their barnstorming form—Sturridge has a league-topping eight league goals with Suarez having scored six in four games—means that keeping a clean sheet at home will be no mean feat.

 

Aaron Ramsey vs. Steven Gerrard

Thankfully for them, Arsenal have got a brilliant midfield to take the spotlight and pressure off their defenders, and despite Mesut Ozil’s high-profile arrival (more on him later), no one has hogged more of the headlines surrounding the Emirates than Aaron Ramsey.

With five goals (from just 21 shots) and four assists in just nine league games, Ramsey has stepped up his game several notches, in the process becoming one of the Premier League’s most in-form and all-round box-to-box midfielders.

Which, curiously, is the kind of form and description that used to be attributed to his opposite number on Saturday.

Steven Gerrard delivered an impressive midfield performance as one half of an advanced pressing pair against West Brom, but he may find himself looking on at Ramsey and reminiscing the years (and legs) gone by if his colleagues don’t afford him enough support.

 

Jack Wilshere vs. Jordan Henderson

Ramsey has been in such peerless form that Jack Wilshere, erstwhile Arsenal’s “Golden Boy,” has had his mantle taken off him by the Welsh international.

But while Wilshere’s displays this season have yet to reach the lofty heights that his early performances suggested he would consistently, he has still been a useful outlet in the Arsenal midfield, and his movement, passing and now goalscoring will represent a threat against Liverpool.

He will find himself up against the Reds’ unsung hero this season in Jordan Henderson, who has run his socks off delivering relentless pressure toward opposing midfields.

Henderson’s energy will be essential to nullify the talented Wilshere—and with Philippe Coutinho likely to start on the bench after his injury layoff, he will have to provide a creative spark too.

 

Mesut Ozil vs. Lucas

But if there were one key battle to triumph over all key battles, it would be Mesut Ozil’s against Lucas in Arsenal’s attacking midfield.

A fluid and dynamic Gunners midfield has Ozil as its tip, and he has shown in his two months in the Premier League that he can influence any game and wreak havoc with his movement, vision and passing.

So it’s just as well that Lucas has seemingly returned to form at the right time. His anchoring of the flipped midfield against West Brom was his finest performance in many a month and will need to be repeated on Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers will have it drilled into his team that the Arsenal midfield isn’t just about Ozil: His masterful manipulation of space brings his midfield colleagues into play and into threatening positions, and Lucas will need the three center backs behind him to provide as much support as he can get.

 

Olivier Giroud vs. Martin Skrtel

Speaking of space and movement, there’s no finer No. 9 around at the moment than Olivier Giroud, currently on five goals and four assists in the league (just like Aaron Ramsey).

After a decent first season at the Emirates, Giroud has blossomed this term and has struck up a productive understanding with his supporting acts, and Ozil’s arrival and Santi Cazorla’s return has only augmented the attacking setup.

On paper, it’s just the one out-and-out striker that Liverpool’s three-man defence has to deal with, but in reality, when Arsenal move forward as a unit, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho will need to be at their best to keep the hosts at bay.

Especially Skrtel, the man who has kept vice-captain and recognized cultured center back Daniel Agger at bay in recent weeks. Brendan Rodgers has hailed Skrtel’s resurgence in form, according to the Liverpool Echo, but Giroud will have something to say about that.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal and Liverpool Shine, Steve McClaren Returns, The New Manager Effect

EPL Week 6 Recap: Manchester? It’s all happening in London and Merseyside!

You’ve probably heard, but it wasn’t a great weekend for Mancunian football, especially with Manchesters United and City both losing games they were expected to win, and indeed should have won.

We’ll have more on the David Moyes effect later in this week’s column, but suffice it to say that without Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney looks the Red Devils’ only hope of finding any match-winning inspiration these days. Rio Ferdinand was to blame for both of West Brom’s goals—and what fine goals they were from Morgan Amalfitano and Saido Berahino—but with Old Trafford’s invincible and indestructible aura at stake, Moyes opted for a League Cup lineup to rest players for their upcoming Champions League commitments. He’ll be hoping a limp 1-2 home loss won’t have affected those preparations.

If there were any consolation to be taken from Manuel Pellegrini, it would be that Manchester City actually played well at Villa Park, only to concede a third to the most hopeful of long punts from a goalkeeper and to come away with exactly zero points. Not an ideal Saturday for City, but they should take solace from the fact that they have kept up their performance levels, which somewhat justifies Pellegrini’s confidence in his side. 10 points from six matches—and seventh place—isn’t too bad, but the results and points must come if they are to re-up their title challenge.

Speaking of title challenge, let’s be honest: It’s been a downright impressive start to the campaign from Arsenal, who actually lost their first game of the season to Christian Benteke and Aston Villa (which wasn’t very impressive), but have won five straight games since. Perhaps Mesut Ozil’s arrival has really lifted the Emirates; perhaps it’s Olivier Giroud’s improved form and excellent movement to create space; perhaps it’s Aaron Ramsey rediscovering the sparkle that saw him labeled as one of the Premier League’s top rising talents before his horrendous injuries. Either way, when Santi Cazorla returns, this is one heck of a squad assembled by Arsene Wenger, and clinching a clean 2-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium provided ample proof.

Arsenal have dominated the headlines, but the other high-profile London clubs aren’t too far behind: In fact, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy third and fifth place in the table currently, and a thrilling encounter at White Hart Lane on Saturday showed just the abundance of talent currently in the English capital. For both teams, though, it seems that a top-quality, consistent striker is sorely needed: After a fine two-goal start, Roberto Soldado has vanished from Spurs’ overall play, and Fernando Torres followed up an encouragingly barnstorming performance with a needless red card. More to do then for the sparring Portuguese managers.

Let’s finish off the recap and top six watch with a tribute to the happenings and developments on Merseyside, where Liverpool bounced back with a fine 3-1 away victory at Sunderland, and Everton continued their unbeaten start with a 3-2 win against Newcastle. The Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge tandem is working well for Brendan Rodgers, and when Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho return (and SAS get back to full fitness), this new-look 3-4-1-2 Liverpool have potential in abundance. Everton aren’t too shabby either: A fine deadline day at Goodison Park (Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry) has added quality and experience to the squad, while Ross Barkley has continued his precocious form with dominating displays in midfield. Good times for Merseyside so far this season.

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

On September 30, it was confirmed that Steve McClaren, he of Middlesbrough and FC Twente fame—and England and Nottingham Forest infamy—would be making a return to football management, after his appointment as head coach at Derby County.

A subdued but sensible return for a coach formerly considered to be one of the country’s top talents, especially with his achievements at Middlesbrough in the early 2000s. Yes, that ill-fated spell as England manager ended with the image of “the wally with the brolly” seared into many fans’ minds forever, but even his Dutch-accented English couldn’t mask what was a successful first spell in charge of Eredivisie side FC Twente, whom he led to the league title and into the Champions League.

It’s been just three years since he was awarded the Rinus Michels Award for Dutch manager of the season, so it’s clear that McClaren still possesses the quality to possibly make it back to the Premier League yet. He deserves commendation for being the first Englishman to manage in the Bundesliga, and no doubt his connections with top-flight clubs and around Europe will aid his cause, if his board are prepared to back him. After a few challenging years, Derby will provide a stern test of his credentials, but don’t be surprised either if we see the Rams back in the top flight within the next few years.

 

What good (or bad) can a new manager do at a club?

As Paolo Di Canio proved last week, sometimes a manager can outlive his stay. But this season, there have been marked changes in the management of Premier League clubs, with contrasting fortunes—and most of them not so good. The effect a new manager can have at a club can be the subject of many hour-long debates, podcasts and talk shows, but let’s consider three contrasting cases already evident six games in.

The elephant in the room is of course David Moyes, who took the toughest job in English football in the toughest circumstances this summer. Make no mistake: Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a tall order—just finding that aura and presence in the dressing room and among rival clubs alone was a significant challenge—but this is a squad that, compared to United’s all-powerful team in the Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Edwin van der Sar era, was in need of major strengthening anyway. But Moyes’ recent public admissions have harked back to his Everton “everything against us” days and a far cry from the bullish Ferguson reign. If Moyes is still hanging on to a small-club mentality at Old Trafford, this won’t go well.

On the more borderline contentious side, there’s Mark Hughes at Stoke City, who has notably changed the Potters’ style from long-ball, “rugby”-like under Tony Pulis to predominantly possession-based and progressive. Has this worked? A quick glance at the Premier League table shows that Stoke are placed 15th in the league with seven points from six games, which would land them just outside the relegation places come next May. Early days, but this is an evolution that has already drawn criticism: There’s a line of thought that Hughes is trying to do too much with a limited squad. The saving grace is that with his experience and reputation in football, he could easily bring experience and quality to the Britannia in January. Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic are but three reminders of the caliber of manager Stoke have.

Finally, we’ll end our case study with Roberto Martinez, who is in charge of a club that’s threatened to break into the European places but never strongly enough for the top six to consider as true rivals. Which is why Everton was granted two excellent Premier League players on loan on deadline day—Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry were presumably allowed to move to Goodison Park as they wouldn’t be strengthening a direct rival, but also because they wouldn’t have marched straight into the starting XI’s of any top six team. When Martinez was appointed in the summer, his latest project would either have ended underwhelmingly—like Wigan ultimately did with a team aspiring to play like Barcelona with Championship-level players—or in unexpected joy. So far, with a playing style considerably more aesthetically pleasing than Moyes’ last year, Martinez looks as if he’s confounding expectations: Everton are fourth and still unbeaten.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal – Set Piece Kings, The Rainbow Laces Movement, and More

EPL Week 5 Recap: Set-Piece Arsenal, Self-Destructing Newcastle, Slick City

Imagine a 3-1 Arsenal v. Stoke City game at the Emirates where the victor has scored all three from set pieces and the loser from a slick passing move. In any other era, this would’ve been another loss for the Gunners against their rugby-playing bogey nemesis. But things have gotten weird since Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. They’ve taken on a new identity: increased confidence, better results, and—curiously—stronger set pieces. Imagine Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna all scoring—and a £42.5m Özil providing all three. Strange times in north London.

After a 1-4 opening-day capitulation against Manchester City, Newcastle United looked to be in trouble for the campaign ahead, not least because of their lack of signings (Joe Kinnear excepted). After two wins and a draw, and Yohan Cabaye returning to the fold, things seemed better. So the last thing anyone expected in a home game against newly-promoted Hull City was for another disastrous capitulation, but that was exactly what the 2-3 loss, surrendered from a winning 2-1 scoreline, on Saturday was. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, has notched the same number of points (7) as Alan Pardew, and the Tigers have been wonderful underdogs this season.

Not that Newcastle were the only ones to turn in horror shows this weekend, mind. Liverpool’s 0-1 reverse at Southampton showed all the things that could go wrong at Anfield if their opponents have the right setup to take advantage. The Saints have fast become the Reds’ bogey team in recent years; after all, the last league game Brendan Rodgers lost came earlier in the year at St. Mary’s. Speaking of losing away and things going wrong (Liverpool are, after all, only two points off table-topping Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), Sunderland turned in an abysmal performance again on Saturday—and lost their manager afterwards. More on that later.

The infamous 1-6 home loss in the Manchester derby remains a harrowing nightmare for many a Manchester United fan, but at least that was under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. So for his successor to begin life as a United manager by losing first to Liverpool and then to Manchester City—1-4 no less—surely even fewer encouragements. Yet it was the manner of the loss—that only Wayne Rooney, who scored a brilliant consolatory free kick—that was worrying. It was a limp display yet again, epitomized by the anonymous Ashley Young. Why David Moyes persists with the unconvincing and increasingly infuriating Young every week, only he knows.

On the home side, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s finest result since taking the reins at the Etihad Stadium this summer, and a scary proposition of what City could look like when they’re firing on all cylinders. We saw Sergio Aguero back to his best alongside Alvaro Negredo, who has surely usurped Edin Dzeko in the pecking order now, and Jesus Navas was equally rampant on the wing. Let’s reserve the biggest praise for Samir Nasri, who was castigated by Roberto Mancini for his part in Robin van Persie’s free-kick winner at the death last season. A complete turnaround—and this sets Pellegrini well on his way.

 

Arrivederci, Paolo Di Canio

13 games after his appointment on March 31, 2013, Paolo Di Canio has returned to the unemployment circle. He lasted less than six months at the Stadium of Light, and by the end, it was just a matter of time before chairman Ellis Short made the decision to let him go.

This was a guy who had a larger-than-life ego and a larger-than-life character, whose passion meant equally the provocation of his own fanbase and the spiting and crossing of opponents. For the last few weeks of last season, this could be tolerated, justified and even celebrated, as his 3-0 win in the Tyne-Wear derby and ultimately his rescue act earned himself a productive summer transfer window.

But in the end, Di Canio was just about talking the talk and not walking the walk. He talked a good game, especially when he first signed for Sunderland, criticizing predecessor Martin O’Neill and lambasting his players for their fitness levels. Just a week ago, there was his public shaming of new summer signing Cabral, and his confrontation of the angry away section after the dismal 0-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

Such controversial antics could be tolerated if the results were delivered along with them, but given that it all seemed to just be empty rhetoric, it became all the more inevitable that those fans would’ve given him abuse that they temporarily shelved following his salvation of Sunderland’s Premier League status. (Lest we forget, his political views and allegiances have courted far more controversy than necessary.) And it wasn’t just the fans: The final nail in the coffin was the players’ decision to complain about Di Canio’s actions. If your staff go beyond their means to get rid of you, your position is well and truly untenable.

What will last long in the memory and in his reputation, though, is the fact that he won’t change his style. If you’re to continue your career as a manager, Paolo, you’re going to have to work on that.

 

Rainbow laces aren’t enough

There’s been excellent work done around the globe in eradicating racism from football over the past decade, and barring some high-profile incidents resurfacing nowadays, most football fans proclaim that the beautiful game has come a long way, and long may it continue. Such organizations as Kick It Out have become part and parcel of the English game, and so it was just a matter of time before the winds of social change blew football’s way again, this time with homophobia as the focus.

This weekend, we saw the start of the Rainbow Laces Movement, if we can call it that, with high-profile players like Joey Barton, Phil Jagielka, John Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie about to adopt the laces, while BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker will also don a pair. Their attempts to publicize the plight and difficulties faced by gay footballers are admirable, as is the attempt to make #RBGF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) a trend on Twitter.

As ever, though, we have to consider both sides of the coin, and what the impact and legacy of this “movement” may be. It’s all well and good to don a pair of rainbow-colored shoelaces—which doesn’t require much of an effort at all—but the headlines and PR that this could and should attract on national TV run the risk of those involved becoming complacent in their actions. Ensuring a social movement is sustainable and productive isn’t just about the flag-bearers; it’s about what the follow-up actions are and how the lessons are taken on board.

And it’s also about how the movement is conducted. The gay-rights group behind the Rainbow Laces Movement, Stonewall, has seen considerable criticism with its PR approach, choosing to partner with a controversial commercial partner, Paddy Power, and not providing adequate communication in advance of its decision to send the laces directly to football clubs. This arrangement has allowed top clubs to, rightly or wrongly, boycott the campaign, either due to sponsorship interests or the lack of preparation time to decide whether or not to join up.

Either way, these shoelaces mark only the start of what will be a long, hard fight against homophobia in a testosterone-laden sport—if racism has taken this long to deal with and still remains a problem (albeit among just small sections of football fans), homophobia will surely take at least just as long. But a more sensibly run campaign could do wonders, and a more legitimately established organization like Kick It Out could see the right kinds of PR and activities involved. The FA, for one, have a toolkit that highlights several case studies involving football clubs, including Liverpool.

One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll take a lot more active involvement and inventiveness for any progress to be made. But this is a fascinating new movement in football, and we should pay attention to how the game is affected as a result.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

Arsenal 3/3/2012: Over and Out

Same old Anfield, just without a point.

Once again, Liverpool won in all the statistical battles but came out inferior in the most important one of all.

Perhaps, with two posts hit, a penalty missed and a few fine stops from Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny, Liverpool were unlucky to win. But with a total goal tally of 30 (Robin van Persie has 25 himself), Liverpool are just not doing the business in front of goal.

Which means our unimpressive home record this season is a deserved result from such a profligate attack. No two ways around it.

It certainly didn’t help that Craig Bellamy, arguably Liverpool’s most effective player this season, and Andy Carroll, who would have enjoyed a field day against Arsenal’s porous and ponderous backline, weren’t thrown on until it was too late for them to have any sort of significant impact.

Not that the defence are to be absolved any blame. Far from it.

To say that the two goals conceded were not a result of a defence falling asleep would just be a false statement.

Liverpool proved that Daniel Agger will be a massive loss over the next few weeks. Without his cultured style, Liverpool resorted to Jamie Carragher’s long-ball-first strategy that was as unfruitful as it was unpretty. As far as Carragher is concerned, his performance was one that fully justified why he’s been left out of the starting eleven this season. It was his poor positional play that led to van Persie’s first goal, and he didn’t look convincing at all in the Liverpool defence.

And it’s not that Liverpool didn’t want the result, either.

The players played their heart out today. Jay Spearing and Dirk Kuyt summed up Liverpool’s desire to get something out of the game with a typically wholehearted and never-say-die performance. When game-changing genius like van Persie’s is in short supply, it is at least comforting to see that the players want it as much as we fans do, but only somewhat.

Because alas, work ethic is just not enough at the top level.

But at least it’s better than whining and exaggerating, the kind of play that Luis Suarez has come to perfect in recent months.

By making himself the center of negative attention in every play he’s involved with, he’s making the same mistake that Fernando Torres used to make during his time at Anfield: spending an inordinate amount of time each game trying to win fouls, protest decisions and generally not being constructive. What happened to getting up and getting on with it? Where are his priorities?

Suarez is definitely not in a purple patch right now. Unfortunately, it just seems that there will be no period this season when Liverpool as a team will be on form.

Just ask Charlie Adam.

His £10-million corner kicks once again came to nothing against Arsenal. And not only did he fail to create any set piece threat, he didn’t manage to trouble the Arsenal defence at all. He showed a lack of inexperience at the top level and a serious deficiency in decision-making as he broke down Liverpool’s attacks time and again, choosing the wrong pass option and going for a Hollywood pass instead of a more constructive one.

If he’s to be the crux of our midfield play and creativity, he’s got a damn long way to go yet to fill the humongous shoes of Xabi Alonso.

At this point, I’m getting so tired and so used to the fact that our attack almost seems unwilling to score and put away chances that I’d be surprised if we got out of Anfield with anything more than a point. I’d even guessed that it’d be another bore draw for both teams, which would’ve been bad enough for both teams.

I just never thought we’d come away with nothing.

 

Modified from a Bleacher Report article

Arsenal 08/20/11: Efficiency

You don’t go from a top side to an average one overnight.

Much has been said about Arsenal’s depleted squad, but just think for a moment about RVP’s capability to produce random moments of genius, Arshavin’s 4-goal haul, Walcott’s terrifying run to set up Adebayor. Thomas Vermaelen had a cracking game matching up to the underwhelming Andy Carroll and Wojciech Szczesny will clearly be a top-class goalkeeper (and there will come a time when I won’t need to look him up on Wikipedia every time I write about him). The Emirates is not an easy stadium to go to by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and I almost forgot about Samir Nasri (no, I’m not a closet Gunner).

This was no swashbuckling performance in the class of our 4-0 demolition of Madrid, 4-1 of United and many other breathtakingly ruthless dispatches towards the tail-end of the 08-09 season (yes, here I am again, reliving my Rafa memories). Nor was it a depressing show a la our 0-3 reverse against City last year (we all have our fair share of Woy’s woes). This was somewhere in between. Yet, the result was as ruthless as United’s dismantling of Arsenal’s Invincibles at Old Trafford and as rock-solid and impenetrable as Mourinho’s Chelsea: you also have to add in the Fat Lady’s blessings to complete the whole picture.

Of course, hindsight is always twenty-twenty. I would be singing a different tune had Suarez and Meireles not had enough time to freshen things up from the bench, had Frimpong not been walking a fine line all match, had Miquel’s clearance not ricocheted off Aaron Ramsey. But besides our luck lining up nicely, this was a believably efficient performance.

Without Suarez, there wasn’t much of the pass-and-move football on show in the first half against Sunderland last week, but rather plenty of long balls hauled up to our man mountain (who should start learning how to be less of a mountain and more of a mobile striker). But with Dirk Kuyt running his rainboots off (his immense run to take the ball off…Nasri, was it? was phenomenal) and Lucas destroying plays as destroyers are wont to do, and with Martin Kelly fully justifying Fabio Cappello’s post-match praise, JC and Dagger gobbling up most Arsenal attacks (and the latter making some fine runs of his own), and new-kid-on-the-block Enrique dominating Theo Walcott – we controlled the midfield and were beyond comfortable at the back. Make no mistake: Arsenal didn’t get played off the park at all, but we were good enough, efficient enough.

Even after we managed to get an Emirates-sized monkey off our back, we’re still taking flak from all sides and quarters on how we didn’t tear apart a depleted Arsenal as full-strength United and Chelsea sides oh-so-definitely would. Well, we’re formulating a new side and integrating new signings into our lineups. And without our captain and our erstwhile first-choice right back, we’re not at our full strength yet, either. We won’t go from an average side (over the last couple of seasons, we Liverpool fans have to admit we’ve been average) to a top one overnight. But we’re adding a certain efficiency to our game.

I experienced a new and strange feeling when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle on Saturday. A strange, anti-climactic feeling at a frankly average attacking display, but a new, refreshing feeling that only comes from winning on the back of a not-so-good performance. At last, it seems we’ve gotten that winning mentality in our systems. Took us long enough.