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Predicting Liverpool’s 14 Remaining Premier League Matches of the Season

After Liverpool’s frustrating draw against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday, the Reds now find themselves fourth in the Premier League table, with 47 points and a goal difference of +29 from 24 games.

An underwhelming January transfer window ultimately saw no new arrivals at Anfield, which means that Brendan Rodgers will be taking on his last 14 games of the season with the same squad he started it with, and with a few injuries currently on list.

But push on he and his charges must, starting with an important clash with Arsenal at home this Saturday.

And what lies ahead of the Reds for the rest of the season? Here’s a complete set of previews and predictions of all of Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League games of the 2013/14 season. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League fixtures are as follows:

Arsenal (H), Fulham (A), Swansea City (H), Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Manchester United (A), Cardiff City (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), West Ham United (A), Manchester City (H), Norwich City (A), Chelsea (H), Crystal Palace (A), Newcastle United (H)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s last league win against Arsenal came in August 2012, and we’d have to go way back to March 2007 for the victory before that.

Suffice to say, then, that the Gunners have been a bit of a bogey team for the Reds in recent seasons.

The reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium this season ended in a 2-0 win to Arsene Wenger’s men, as the visitors were quite comprehensively outplayed by a masterful midfield performance, with Aaron Ramsey at the heart of almost everything positive the home side had to offer.

Ramsey might not be able to make Saturday’s game in time due to injury, but in his place Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has blossomed in a central midfield role, while Jack Wilshere might also return.

Joe Allen’s anticipated return to Liverpool’s starting XI, however, will add some much-needed stability and balance to the Reds midfield. With Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez in ominous form and Liverpool’s fearsome home record this season, this looks likely to end in a home draw at Anfield on Saturday.

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

Liverpool’s next midweek fixture comes a week from this Wednesday, when they travel to Craven Cottage to take on bottom-placed and relegation-threatened Fulham.

Rene Meulensteen deserves credit for addressing his side’s shortages and weaknesses in January, and in Lewis Holtby and Kostas Mitroglou he might just have found two players with the right quality to turn their season around.

But the Cottagers defence and midfield will be facing a Liverpool attack in buoyant mood and looking to consolidate their position in the league table.

Expect Liverpool to roll over Fulham for a clean and easy three points.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

February 23: Swansea City (Home)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBefore Swansea City got promoted to the Premier League for the first time for the 2011/12 season, Liverpool’s last encounter with the Swans was in 1990, when they dished out an 8-0 hammering in the FA Cup.

Since then, however, barring a 5-0 home win at the end of last season, things have been a lot closer between the two sides: In fact, that 5-0 win was Liverpool’s only victory in their last six meetings.

But this season, Swansea have dipped just ever so slightly. With just 24 points on board from 24 games so far and just two over third-from-bottom West Ham United, they lie perilously close to the relegation zone and look short of confidence.

If Michael Laudrup doesn’t turn it around soon, the result on February 23 will be closer to last year’s five-goal hammering than to last September’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

Since Mauricio Pochettino took the reins at Southampton, he’s played and beaten Liverpool twice in the league in the space of just over six months.

With the Saints’ brand of relentless, physical and energetic football, complete with a quick, strong and young midfield core, Pochettino’s side is one of the few teams in the Premier League equipped to exploit Liverpool’s relatively weak central spine.

March 1 looks to be just a few weeks too early for Lucas to make his return from injury, and while Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho will likely be available by then, Liverpool don’t look like ending their barren run against Southampton here.

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

March 10: Sunderland (Home)
Gareth Copley/Getty ImagesAt the time of writing, Sunderland’s 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle United in the recent Tyne-Wear derby is still vivid and fresh in the memory, an indication of how Gus Poyet has managed to improve the Black Cats.

Just a few months ago, Sunderland were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League in a mini-abyss, but now they’ve clawed and climbed their way back up the table to be level with Swansea on 24 points.

And Sunderland, with an in-form Adam Johnson looking to gatecrash the World Cup and a composed distributor of the ball in Ki Sung-Yueng, look very much like a potential banana-skin fixture for Liverpool on March 10.

Fabio Borini may be ineligible to play against his parent club as part of the loan regulations, but the home side may well be surprised by a sprightly Sunderland side.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

A loss and a draw! Gasp—another mini-crisis developing at Anfield?

Bring on Old Trafford, a ground that Liverpool have historically struggled on, save for that famous 4-1 victory in March 2009.

But this season it’s a different Liverpool, and it’s an ever-so-slightly-different Manchester United side, who have drawn and lost as many matches at home as they have won (six).

As David Moyes struggles to string together a few decent results in succession for United and his defence continues to rotate due to injuries, this is a fixture that Liverpool could well come on top in—provided that they deal with the considerably talented attacking trio that is Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt’s not been an easy season for Cardiff City, and we foresee that, despite the best efforts of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Bluebirds will still be mired in a tough relegation battle by the time March 22 rolls around.

Sure, they’ve added some notable names in January—Kenwyne Jones one of them—but as long as Liverpool keep quiet the counterattacking force that is Craig Noone, they should be relatively safe.

The famous Cardiff City Stadium atmosphere has intimidated many a Premier League team this season, but a Reds side looking to enforce their top-four credentials will turn in a display that keeps the critics at bay for another week.

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

Mention Tottenham Hotspur to any Liverpool fan, and he’ll fondly recall the 5-0 December thrashing at White Hart Lane.

That was one of those rare occasions where everything that could’ve gone wrong for a team did for Spurs, and everything that could’ve gone right for a team did for Liverpool.

Of course, then-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas has since been relieved of his duties, and Tim Sherwood has lifted his Tottenham side to just three points behind the Reds at the time of writing.

But the adventurous style of play Sherwood has instilled in his team has led to such results as a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City.

Liverpool, with the league’s second-most potent strikeforce, could take advantage once again to send out a statement of intent, just as they did in the 4-0 Merseyside derby win over Everton in January.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

April 5: West Ham United (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFast forward to April 5, though, and it could be an entirely different story.

Liverpool, so susceptible on set pieces this season, will be facing a menacing and aerially dominant duo in Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan at Upton Park, and may well succumb to an incessant aerial bombarding.

Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel will put up a good fight against Carroll and Co., but will it be enough against a famously stubborn Sam Allardyce team fighting against relegation?

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

Just as Southampton and Arsenal have appeared to be Liverpool’s bogey teams recently, so Liverpool have seemed to hold their own against Manchester City.

While City have rolled over many a Premier League side in recent years, before last December’s controversial 2-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium, City’s previous win came in January 2012, with three consecutive 2-2 draws sandwiched in between.

And playing at Anfield is very much a different prospect than the fortress that is the Etihad, despite City’s recent (at the time of writing) loss against Chelsea.

Liverpool’s attack will have plenty to ask of City’s defence, though it’ll also be a big ask of the Reds back line to deal with Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Co.

Don’t be surprised if it’s yet another 2-2 draw here.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

April 19: Norwich City (Away)
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesA week after the City clash comes a trip to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City, who have once again flattered to deceive this season.

With just four wins out of 12 and an equal amount of goals scored and conceded (11) at home at the time of writing, the Canaries have had a tough time trying to get going this season, and they look to be fighting relegation right down to the wire.

By contrast, Liverpool will be looking for their first win in April to finish the season off strongly, and as they have done so often in recent seasons, will be in rampant mood against Norwich.

Don’t be surprised if Luis Suarez enjoys another one of his now-trademark hat tricks against his favorite opponents.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

Rounding off a relatively tough month of fixtures will be a home match against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who will be challenging near the top by the end of April.

Mourinho has traditionally enjoyed a stellar record against Liverpool in the Premier League, and the comprehensive manner of their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December means that Chelsea will travel to Anfield as firm favorites.

Brendan Rodgers has yet to show that his tactical mastery is as accomplished as that of his mentor, though by April 26, unless he encounters any new injuries, he should finally have a fully fit squad at his disposal.

Factor in the Anfield atmosphere and Liverpool’s appetite for the game, and we could have a cracker on our hands.

Plus, surely it’s time for Fernando Torres to open his account against his old club?

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s penultimate fixture for the 2013/14 Premier League campaign is a trip to Crystal Palace, where Tony Pulis has done a considerable job lifting the Eagles out of the relegation zone at the time of writing.

While he may yet lead Palace to Premier League safety this season, Liverpool represent a different prospect altogether.

Thomas Ince, on loan at Selhurst Park from Blackpool until the end of the season, will be eager to impress against his former club, but the Reds attack will surely have too much in their locker, even for a Pulis defence.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

We’d need to travel as far back as 1994—more than 10 years ago by the time May 11 rolls around—for the last time Liverpool lost at home to Newcastle United in the league.

This matchup has thrown up plenty of no-holds-barred attacking football and goals galore down the years, and Liverpool’s last home game of the year looks to be no different.

The difference for Alan Pardew’s men? They don’t have Yohan Cabaye anymore: The French midfielder, who left for Paris Saint-Germain in January, has scored a few good goals against the Reds in recent seasons.

Does that give the license to Liverpool to end their season on a high at Anfield?

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

All the predictions above culminate in 28 additional points for Liverpool on top of their current haul of 47 at the time of writing, giving the Reds a season total of 75 points.

Would that be good enough to take Liverpool into the Champions League next season?

Well, as a reference, in the last five seasons, when the Reds have failed to finish in the top four, the points total for the fourth-placed team has fallen between 68 and 73.

Perhaps even in an extremely tight Premier League season, 75 points would do the business.

 

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.

EPL Transfers: 10 Best Value-for-Money Signings This Summer

Just like that, an entire summer of transfer sagas (Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney), big-money bids (Manchester City) and outrage over the lack of signings (Newcastle United, Manchester United)—culminating in a wonderfully exciting transfer deadline day on September 2—has ended.

In case we forgot, English Premier League football actually started in August, but now that the transfer window drama is all over it’s onto the football for real.

In the past few days, huge transfer sums have dominated the headlines, with Bale’s record-breaking move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid and the sensational deadline-day signing of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

But this is the Premier League, which has been awash with cash for most of recent history. Just look at Chelsea’s stacking of their midfield this summer and Manchester City’s spree following Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment—not to mention Tottenham’s stockpiling of attacking players in the wake of Bale’s big-money departure.

In a market with premium price tags and bloated wages, there is actually value for money out there. So at the end of all this, let’s take a moment to recognize the less heralded work being done around the Premier League.

Here are the 10 best value-for-money signings in the EPL this summer. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

As with any top 10 list, there are bound to be close calls that ultimately don’t make it in the final selection. The following three players were great pickups for their clubs and deserve an honorable mention.

 

Tom Huddlestone (Hull City, £5m)

When Hull City were promoted at the end of last season, critics and fans could’ve been forgiven for taking a look at their squad and expecting of an immediate relegation dogfight.

10 summer signings later, they don’t look so bad. In fact, even though their opening three games have just yielded three league points, their performances have belied the results, and at the heart of those performances is the new midfield duo from Tottenham Hotspur, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore.

Steve Bruce has strengthened well this summer, and in Huddlestone he has added a midfield schemer with class, quality and plenty of top-level experience for just £5m, as reported by BBC Sport.

 

Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City, £2m)

For a reported £2m, according to the Daily Mail, Stoke City and Mark Hughes have landed an Austrian international with experience all across the continent at Werder Bremen and Internazionale.

On the surface, Marko Arnautovic seems like the perfect bargain buy for Stoke—not to mention, his considerable physique and height suit the Potters to the hilt—but underneath the low transfer fee is a history of controversy and trouble.

If Hughes manages to get his new forward to get rid of his attitude problems, he may well have pulled off one of the signings of the summer.

 

Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, £3m)

Ajax, Italy, Fulham. Dutch. Goalkeeper. Sound familiar?

No, not Manchester United great, Edwin van der Sar, but if all goes well, you wouldn’t bet against Maarten Stekelenburg taking the same path (though David de Gea will have something to say about that).

For now, Stekelenburg will be focused on doing his job for Martin Jol, who brought him to Craven Cottage for just £3m this summer, according to the Daily Mail. If his performances at his previous teams and for the Netherlands international squad are anything to go by, Fulham have pulled off a brilliant signing.

 

10. Loic Remy (Newcastle United, Loan)

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

In January, Loic Remy joined Queens Park Rangers, then in a relegation battle but flush with Tony Fernandes’ cash, in a reported £8m, £70,000 a week deal, beating out competition from Newcastle United, according to BBC Sport.

Fast forward seven months, and QPR are mired in the Championship after a dismal Premier League campaign and need to reduce their wage bill, so they have offloaded a number of players on eye-bulging wage packages, including Remy.

Remy has now taken up the No. 14 shirt at the club he turned down in January, having arrived at St. James’ Park on loan for the season, as reported by BBC Sport. Alan Pardew obtained a player who scored six Premier League goals in just four months, who has been rated as Marseille’s star forward in the past, and who has international experience for France.

Given Newcastle’s underwhelming transfer window this summer, Remy is the sole shining light among the club’s summer arrivals, and will become a key member of a team desperately short in attacking quality.

For a loan deal, however, and with the prospect of the World Cup looming next summer, Remy could be the striker to save Newcastle from relegation.

 

9. Victor Moses (Liverpool, Loan)

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Clive Rose/Getty Images

Victor Moses completed a triple haul for Liverpool in a deadline day that also saw defenders Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori arrive at Anfield, but the on-loan Chelsea man will surely represent one of the best deals of the summer.

Scoring for the Blues in all competitions last season—the Capital One Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Premier League—Moses played an integral role in Rafael Benitez’s squad, but with the influx of attacking midfielders under Jose Mourinho, has now been deemed surplus.

In stepped Liverpool, who, in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, have an outstanding recent record in rehabilitating hot young prospects whose stars have fallen slightly.

Prior to Moses’ move to Chelsea, he made waves across the Championship with his dazzling displays on the wing for Crystal Palace, and was considered one of the finest young players in all of England.

Will he find his form again in a red shirt? If so, his reputation will be restored, and even if there isn’t an option to buy at the end of his season-long loan deal, he could provide just that spark to take Liverpool to an elusive Champions League spot.

 

8. Darren Bent (Fulham, Loan)

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

Darren Bent’s place at Aston Villa might have been taken by rising force Christian Benteke, but he still possesses the prized asset that Premier League clubs value and need: the art of goal-scoring.

And Bent knows how to score goals. To quote Martin Laurence’s ESPNFC column, “despite starting just 29 of a possible 76 league games in the last two campaigns, Bent remains one of only six Premier League players to have netted more than 50 goals in the last four seasons (53).”

So when mid-table clubs were looking for a proven striker this summer, Bent stood out as a player to take a chance on, even though his lack of involvement in build-up play impeded his career at Villa Park.

Martin Jol took a chance. Bringing Bent on loan and pairing him with the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov may well turn out to be a masterstroke. He’s already scored on his debut as a substitute against Arsenal. More of the same then.

 

7. Kolo Toure (Liverpool, Free)

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Title-winning experience, pace, heading, physical ability and dressing room presence.

That’s what Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool got for free when they brought in the out-of-contract Kolo Toure from Manchester City, as reported by BBC Sport.

Taking over the No. 4 shirt (whose previous bearers include a certain Sami Hyypia), Toure instantly imposed himself on the dressing room and on the pitch. Brought in to replace the experience of the retired Jamie Carragher, Toure featured prominently in the Reds’ preseason matches and started their first two league games.

His pace allowed Rodgers to maintain a high defensive line when Liverpool were on the attack, and his power and heading kept the Reds at bay while defending against a pacy and strong Aston Villa forward line.

His all-action display and enthusiastic interviews have already seen him elevated to cult hero status at Anfield. Those same fans who wrote off his signing will have been the ones cursing the injury he sustained in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County.

 

6. Peter Odemwingie (Cardiff City, £2.25m)

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Hands up if you still remember Peter Odemwingie’s shenanigans on deadline day last January (Independent).

Any wonder, then, that the Nigerian international has finally left West Bromwich Albion?

Cardiff City have added the likes of Gary Medel and Steven Caulker to their squad this summer, but for a paltry £2.25m, as reported by BBC Sport, their deadline day signing may prove to be Malky Mackay’s most important.

After all, Odemwingie was once West Brom’s top single-season goalscorer ever in the Premier League, and held the Premier League Player of the Month three times in his career at the Hawthorns. So his ability to put the ball in the back of the net will not be questioned.

Now he takes his talents to Wales, where he will be an important member of the first-team squad. Spearheading the Cardiff attack alongside Frazier Campbell or Andreas Cornelius, Odemwingie has every chance to resurrect his Premier League career at age 32.

 

5. Ki Sung-Yueng (Sunderland, Loan)

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When South Korea international Ki Sung-Yueng signed for Swansea City, for what was a then club-record fee of £5.5m (per The Guardian), it was widely believed that Michael Laudrup had pulled off a coup, given Ki’s reputation as a hot midfield prospect.

He had, after all, become one of Europe’s top young midfielders during his time at Celtic, where he scored nine league goals in 66 appearances and impressed with his vision and creativity.

At the Liberty Stadium, Ki displayed time and again his excellent passing skills and composure on the ball, and even filled in in a central defensive role in the Capital One Cup final in February in a show of versatility. But he was made available by the Swans this summer.

Now on loan at Sunderland, under the tutelage of Paolo Di Canio and in a side that desperately needs composure and passing quality in the midfield, Ki has the perfect platform to restore his reputation.

His undoubted ability will be needed in what looks to be a tough campaign ahead for the Black Cats.

 

4. Allan McGregor (Hull City,  £1.5m)

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After 205 appearances for Scottish club Rangers where he established himself as a Scotland regular, Allan McGregor has arrived, via a year in the Turkish Super League with Besiktas, in the Premier League with Hull City for £1.5m, as confirmed by BBC Sport.

Judging by his opening-day clanger against Chelsea, where he conceded a penalty five minutes into his Premier League debut, and subsequent conceding of a long-range Frank Lampard free kick, McGregor looked as if he might face a challenging first year in England’s top flight.

Not quite.

His stop from Lampard’s penalty was every bit as exciting as his double save towards the end of the first half, and from then on he has gone from strength to strength.

In subsequent league games against Norwich City and Manchester City, McGregor has been a reliable goalkeeper for Steve Bruce, manning the sticks with confidence and pulling off spectacular stops.

For just £1.5m, Bruce has acquired an established goalkeeper who will be instrumental to his sides’ hopes of Premier League survival at the first time of asking.

 

3. Leroy Fer (Norwich City, £4.5m)

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Out of all Premier League clubs, and certainly out of all mid-table clubs, Norwich City’s transfer business stands out in terms of both quality and value for money.

Chris Hughton has brought in a plethora of players who will slot right into his starting XI—including international-class players like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Johan Elmander, as well as promising stars like Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond, all of whom could arguably feature on this list.

Most impressive of all, however, is the £4.5m capture of Netherlands international Leroy Fer, whose arrival at Carrow Road was confirmed in mid-July, according to the Telegraph.

A central midfielder with imposing physical strength and pace, tidy passing skills and an eye for goal—he scored 12 Eredivisie goals in just 47 appearances at previous club FC Twente—Fer adds energy, dynamism and goals to the Norwich midfield, as well as a “Dutch connection” that may be crucial in his partnership with van Wolfswinkel.

Fer has had no trouble settling into the Premier League and threatened to open his account on Saturday against Southampton, playing in the center of the park alongside Bradley Johnson. If he keeps it up, he could lead Norwich to a top-half finish this campaign.

 

2. Stewart Downing (West Ham United, £5m)

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Sam Allardyce caught Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers at the perfect time: For the price of a Liverpool-era Stewart Downing (a very much eye-opening £20m), West Ham United have signed both Downing and Andy Carroll.

Andy Carroll was the vastly more expensive one at £15m, and while he will look to repeat his barnstorming performances for the Hammers last season, Downing—who, according to BBC Sport, cost just £5m—may prove to be not just West Ham’s most astute signing, but one of the best of them all.

Here is an England international who has impressed at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, with both assists and goals from either flank, and who has shown his versatility at Liverpool by playing on both wings and even at left-back.

A player who buckled down amidst reports that he would be let go by Rodgers last season and earned his place back in the starting XI with a series of hardworking and impressive performances.

A winger whose crossing will be a perfect fit for Allardyce’s wing-heavy play, a perfect complement to Matt Jarvis on the opposite flank, and a constant source of chances for Andy Carroll.

Sure, he cost way too much when Kenny Dalglish signed him—but for £5m, West Ham have acquired one of the signings of the summer.

 

1. Romelu Lukaku (Everton, Loan)

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When the new season started with Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge, the main striking position at Chelsea was up for grabs. Lukaku, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were all candidates, until that infamous 4-6-0 formation against Manchester United—and until Samuel Eto’o signed on a free transfer (BBC Sport).

And so on deadline day, Everton swooped in for Lukaku, and now the Belgian international will spend the campaign on loan at Goodison Park.

The move was an astute one by new manager Roberto Martinez, who has already noticeably stamped his authority on Everton’s playing style and is in need of a striker who can deliver the goods.

New signing Arouna Kone hasn’t settled at his new club yet, while Gerard Deulofeu will provide more of a creative thrust rather than out-and-out goal-scoring—Nikica Jelavic has yet to rediscover his barnstorming form of a season and a half ago—which means that Lukaku has a chance to establish himself as the main striker at Everton.

17 league goals in 35 appearances for West Bromwich Albion last season. Thus stands Romelu Lukaku’s Premier League record and pedigree.

Lukaku turned out to be one of the signings of the 2012/13 campaign for Steve Clarke. He could be the one to lead another challenge for the European places for the Toffees.

On, and by the way, both Lukaku and Downing featured on our list of the Premier League’s 10 worst signings of the 2011/12 season.

Football, bloody hell.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

Sunderland 08/13/11: The Proverbial Game of Two Halves

So. This marks my first official foray into football journalism, if I am qualified to call it that. The alternative name would just be rambling about the team that I follow like a madman week in, week out. Either way, it’s the start of my new project, one that I’ll be keeping up with every week this football season. Very ambitious.

Just like the project that’s going on at the magnificently-sponsored Etihad Stadium, whose bloated coffers are bringing in a terrifyingly effective Sergio Aguero. Or our own Kenny Dalglish’s project here at Anfield. Oh, didn’t you see that coming.

Speaking of which, you know what Luis Suarez didn’t see coming? Kieran Richardson’s tug from behind on 5 minutes. And what Kieran Richardson didn’t see coming? A yellow card instead of a red for a professional foul. And what I didn’t see coming? All the above, plus El Sua’s talent for emulating Steven Gerrard at shooting down clay pigeons from the pitch. Pssst, Luis, that ad was not entirely real.

Let me go off on a tangent here and posit this thoughtful question: why was Charlie Adam not in charge of that penalty kick? I presume he was brought here for his dead ball skills, and a penalty kick is a dead ball situation. The (variable) pecking order for PKs should be Gerrard, Kuyt, Adam. I still hold fond memories of the tail-end of the 08-09 season, where we seemed to score within the opening 10 minutes in every single match. When we got that PK in the 5th minute, I had a brief, pleasant sense of déjà vu. Alas.

Well, I suppose notching the first goal on 11” kind of makes up for that. Mr. Deadball doing what he does best, being in charge of dead balls, and Mr. Suarez picking up those great little pockets of space. A great combination. Of course, we would go on to see plenty of good combination plays and confident, flowing football in the first half, which was a pleasant surprise, given the minimal amount of time that these players have had together. We saw Stewart Downing slalom his way from the halfway line and hit the bar. A couple of decent long-range hits from Charlie Adam. Good link-up play between Downing and Jose Enrique. Quick, assured passing from the midfield.

And then half-time happened. Somewhere in that dressing room, some memories, collective and individual, were lost. We forgot that we were playing at Anfield, not the Stadium of Light. John Flanagan forgot that he has a far more accomplished predecessor (Martin Kelly) and an England international (Glen Johnson) in front of him at right-back. Jordan Henderson forgot that he is a ways away from being the big-game, consistent workhorse that is Dirk Kuyt. Stewart Downing forgot that his main job as a winger, be it left or right, is not to disappear from the match entirely. Andy Carroll forgot that he was capable of producing such great finishes as the one that got chalked off in the first half. Or, God forbid, Kenny Dalglish forgot all of the above.

Now, I recognize that Kenny is widely regarded as our best ever player, and that our last league title came under him. I think it’s an appropriate time to announce that I only truly started following us when Rafa Benitez came in. I am a huge Rafa fan. To me, just like Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish will need to prove himself as manager. He’s had us produce some scintillating stuff at times, but if we are ever going to get back in the top four, we need to reproduce that on a weekly basis. There will come a time when I comment on his transfer policy, not in the least because the new guys have only had so much time together.

But our season opener, while offering plenty of good moments in the first half, showed our Mr. Hyde in the second. Without European football this season, there will be no escaping the spotlight. We will need, and we are looking forward to, more of the same, Kenny. Just please make it the pass-and-move from the first half, not the non-existent second.