Category Archives: Football

Premier League Preview: 2017-2018

It all begins again…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Arsenal:

For the sixth consecutive season, Arsenal’s opening game is at home. They have only managed to win 1 of those matches. For Arsenal, a fast start is crucial. They lost at home to Liverpool early and ultimately lost out on a Champions League place by 1 point.

Arsenal’s aim this season has to be to get back into the top 4. They have made a good start with the much-needed signing of striker Alexandre Lacazette. It seems as though Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will remain at the club.

There remains a huge deficiency in midfield. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey performed well at the back-end of last season, but questions remain over their consistency in form and fitness. Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are good squad players but neither are good enough to be starting. Jack Wilshere’s fitness will always be an issue and Santi Cazorla, whilst providing guile in midfield, cannot do it all himself. A midfield signing needs to be priority before the transfer window closes.

From a tactical point of view, it seems Arsenal will continue with the back 3 that Wenger introduced at the end of last season. New signing Sead Kolasinac should help reinforce the defence with his physical prowess and enthusiasm on the ball. He has already endeared himself to Arsenal fans with a goal in the Community Shield. Arsenal will also have to adjust to a new Thursday-Sunday schedule, which could go a long way towards deciding their domestic season.

The atmosphere around Arsenal should be far less hostile than last season, with the certainty of Wenger’s future, for at least another 2 years.

Key man: Alexandre Lacazette. As always, Sanchez will be an important figure, but it is Lacazette who will make the difference in the box. He has been bought to score goals, and it is goals Arsenal need.

Bournemouth:

Eddie Howe has shown an appetite to work, improve and constantly evolve. With Howe leading the way, there is no reason why Bournemouth cannot continue their rise since promotion.

They have bought well in the transfer market, with Asmir Begovic, Jermain Defoe and Nathan Aké strengthening the core of the team. Goals should not be an issue for this free-flowing Bournemouth team, with Josh King looking to improve on last season’s heroics and the arrival of Defoe adding more goals to the team.

Defensively, Bournemouth can always look fragile because of how attacking they are, but the arrival of Ake and Begovic should provide some more certainty and discipline.

Key man: Jermain Defoe. With his track record of goals, there is no reason why Bournemouth cannot finish in the top 10 this season.

Brighton and Hove Albion:

A wonderful story of promotion, Brighton and Hove Albion start off as favourites for relegation. With Chris Hughton, they have a smart manager leading the way.

The key to survival will be home form, and the need to make the Amex stadium a fortress, in a similar way to Burnley.

The signings of Mathew Ryan, Markus Suttner and Pascal Gross are low-risk but could potentially be turn out as smart buys. The loan signing of Izzy Brown from Chelsea provides pace in attack. The injury to midfielder Beram Kayal is a blow, as he is expected to be out for 2 months.

Glenn Murray, Steve Sidwell and Liam Rosenior will be crucial as they have experience of the top flight from previous clubs.

Key man: Glenn Murray. Newly promoted sides often struggle with goals, so the pressure will be on Murray to get the goals to keep Brighton up.

Burnley:

Sean Dyche is the key man at Burnley. He has created a template for his players to follow and last season was a high point. In order to improve on last season, Burnley will need to vastly improve their form away from home. Whilst being one of the best in the league at home, they were one of the worst whilst travelling.

The signings of Jack Cork and Jon Walters will provide further top-flight experience. Whilst the loss of Michael Keane and Andre Gray is a blow, the combined £43 million fee could be used to invest in an ‘X-Factor’ player who could make the difference in games Burnley should be winning. Burnley need to invest or else they could find themselves in trouble.

Burnley appear weaker than last season, but Dyche’s management style could once again be the difference.

Key man: Tom Heaton. He saved many points last season and will need to do the same this season.

Chelsea:

The reining champions have it all to do if they are to retain their crown from last season. Chelsea were outstanding in Antonio Conte’s first season, but have had a shaky summer.

Recent history shows Chelsea are not as good defending a title. The summer has not been as good for Conte as he would have liked. The failure to sign Romelu Lukaku, the failure to sever ties with Diego Costa, the failure of Conte to keep Nemanja Matic and the failure of the boardroom to satisfy Conte.

Chelsea will have a much tougher fixture schedule with the addition of European football. This means they need to reinforce their squad. The arrivals of Alvaro Morata, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Antonio Rüdiger are a good start, but they need more. Faced with more games, Chelsea have let go of John Terry, Nathan Ake, Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, along with Matic and a probable departure of Costa.

It does not look like Chelsea are in a good way starting this season, however to count out an Antonio Conte team would be a mistake. He has shown a willingness to work, innovate and change. This Chelsea team will still be a force.

Key man: Eden Hazard. Once back from surgery, Hazard will be the key as a genuine world-class talent.

Crystal Palace:

Frank de Boer is the new man in the hotseat after Sam Allardyce and he will want to find a working formula quickly. De Boer is intent on improvement in playing style and the players will need to make a tactical adjustment.

There is change on the way with the arrival of ball-playing defender Jaïro Riedewald from Ajax and a one season loan of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. De Boer favours a 3-4-3 formation and will need another forward and wing-back to ensure his squad is sufficiently stocked.

Once again, the core from last season will be vital for Crystal Palace. The pace and skill of Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, Mamadou Sakho at the back, the industry of Luka Milivojevic in midfield, and Christian Benteke’s power up front.

De Boer is here for the long-term, so he will need to be allowed time.

Key man: Wilfred Zaha. He is the maverick who makes things happen for Palace.

Everton:

Everton have spent over £80 million in this window and look to have the determination to improve. Koeman made an impact last season with his tactical flexibility and ruthless management style.

The signings of Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane and Davy Klassen show a willingness to spend the big money, with £50 million rated Gylfi Sigurdsson also on Koeman’s radar. Bringing Wayne Rooney back to Everton on a free is a big move. Rooney, whilst not the player of old, still has the experience and ability to score/assist key goals.

The loss of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United leaves a void the size of 25 goals a season. It is unrealistic to expect Rooney or new signing Sandro Ramirez from Malaga to fill that gap, therefore Koeman will need to dip into the market for a proven striker.

Everton have a great core of players and have been strengthened this season numerically. In terms of quality, the players will need to show consistency in the league for it to be judged a successful season.

Key man: Wayne Rooney. So often the key man and it is no different this season. Where will he play and how well will he play are the two questions everyone has. He has a point to prove.

Huddersfield Town:

Huddersfield have the tag of underdogs, but through the years, they have come through spectacularly. One of the key reasons for this is the manager, David Wagner. Wagner has created a culture of togetherness between the players, fans and boardroom.

They needed to recruit big in the transfer window and they have done well so far. They brought in 9 players before pre-season and broke their own transfer record 4 times. The purchase of Steven Mounie and Laurent Depoitre offers goals and physicality.

Signing Aaron Mooy permanently offers smart possession in midfield and Tom Ince provides trickery and creativity on the flanks.

The big challenge for Huddersfield will be defensively. They will be tested more and will need to show more solidity. The signing of combative defender Mathias Jorgensen will help.

From a tactical perspective, Wagner prefers a high-press and possession game, much like his compatriot Jurgen Klopp. Yet, as the playoff final showed, Wagner can adapt to a more counter-attacking style.

Key man: Steven Mounie. Goals are the currency for any striker, and Huddersfield will need their record signing to score them to safety.

Leicester City:

From the highs of winning the title to the lows of being in a relegation fight to the satisfaction of survival. This season will see a Leicester City aiming for a mid-table finish.

The transfer activity by Leicester suggests a need to be more comfortable than last season. The signings of Eldin Jakupovic and Harry Maguire from Hull City gives quality and depth. Vicente Iborra will bring technique and versatility. Kelechi Iheanacho brings pace and goals.

They have had a tough pre-season and Riyad Mahrez wants to leave. If they keep Mahrez, and Vardy, Wes Morgan and Danny Drinkwater can maintain a consistent level, Leicester should avoid relegation quite easily.

Key man: Jamie Vardy. He epitomises the spirit of Leicester and when he plays well, Leicester play well.

Liverpool:

Playing a high intensity brand of football, Liverpool are a joy to watch when in full flow. Yet this was partly to blame for Liverpool falling away from a title challenge. In the busy winter period, Liverpool looked exhausted, owing to the lack of depth in their squad.

Liverpool are in good shape, stable and used to the manager’s methods and style. They have also bolstered options in the attacking department with the signing of £37 million Mohamed Salah. Much will depend on whether Philippe Coutinho will stay after strong interest from Barcelona. The prospect of Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Coutinho terrorising defences is frightening.

Deficiencies remain in midfield and defence. The lack of a proper holding midfielder and question marks over the fitness of Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana creates doubt over whether Liverpool can mount a consistent challenge. Andrew Robertson arrives to provide James Milner with competition at left-back, but there has been no centre-back arriving- Virgil Van Dijk has remained elusive so far. Liverpool need to bolster these two areas if they are to have any success.

With an increased number of games this season due to European football – provided Liverpool get through the qualifier against Hoffenheim- Liverpool will need a deeper squad to avoid the mistakes of last season.

Key man: Philippe Coutinho. If he stays, he can catapult Liverpool to the next level.

Manchester City:

Manchester City have only one problem: the defence. They score goals, they play attractive football, but last season, Pep Guardiola refused to focus on the defensive side of the game.

City have been very active in the transfer market, signing 3 full backs but letting 4 full backs leave. Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo replaced Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, A Kolarov and Gael Clichy. Bernardo Silva comes in to bolster an already strong attacking line up and Ederson comes in as the new first choice goalkeeper.

Despite this spending, Manchester City still look weak in defence. Only Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi remain from last season’s defensive line. Kompany’s penchant for injury and the inconsistency of Stones suggests City have a long way to go before they are defensively ready to mount a consistent challenge.

City have spent plenty of money (£363 million by Guardiola across the last 3 windows) and Guardiola has had a full season with this team. With the likes of David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Jesus, Sergio Aguero and Bernardo Silva, this team should be winning trophies. There can be no more excuses.

Key man: Kevin de Bruyne. The midfield maestro is at the centre of most things good on the football pitch. His vision and creativity will guarantee goals.

Manchester United:

After winning the League Cup and Europa League last season, Manchester United will want to vastly improve their fortunes in the Premier League. A 6th place finish is nowhere near good enough, and with further investment in the summer, United should really be challenging for the title.

The arrival of Romelu Lukaku for £77 million is aimed at getting more goals into a team lacking in goals. Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in excess of 30 goals last season, his conversion rate was very poor for a top-level striker. It will be interesting to see the dynamic between Lukaku and Marcus Rashford this season. Most United fans will not want to see Rashford shunted on the left.

The purchase of Nemanja Matic will give United a stronger physical protection in midfield, and will reduce the reliance United have on Michael Carrick. It should also allow Paul Pogba to flourish with Pogba now free to create further up field. Victor Lindelof will need time to settle in defence.

Tactically, Jose Mourinho has experimented with a 3-5-2 in pre-season although his likely formation is going to be 4-3-3. Mourinho, much like Guardiola can no longer make excuses. He has had a year with his team and spent plenty of money. Manchester United should at the very least, be competing for the title.

Key man: Paul Pogba. This can be Pogba’s breakout season. He has all the tools, he just needs to show consistency.

Newcastle United:

With Rafa Benitez in charge, Newcastle have every chance of staying up this season. However, obvious disagreements between the manager and board could hinder what should be a promising time for the club.

With the exception of Christian Atsu on loan from Chelsea, Newcastle’s transfer dealings have been underwhelming. This is perhaps demonstrated in the singing of Javier Manquillo, a former Atlético Madrid full-back who was on loan at Sunderland and ultimately lost his place to Billy Jones.

There is talent in this Newcastle squad with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Dwight Gayle, but they need more before the window closes or else they could be in for a long season.

Tactically, there will be much reliance on Benitez’s skill and hours he likes to spend on the training pitch. A more defensive style of play with the main mode of attack being on the counter-attack being the likely method for Newcastle this season.

Key man: Dwight Gayle. With Newcastle likely to be playing on the counter-attack this season, Gayle’s pace will be key. The question remains whether or not he has the ability to score enough goals to keep Newcastle up.

Southampton:

With a new manager in Mauricio Pellegrino, Southampton fans will be hoping for points and a far more exciting brand of football than they saw last season. However, this summer has been dominated by the transfer saga surrounding Virgil Van Dijk.

Van Dijk is one of the best defenders in the league, but he clearly does not want to stay and Southampton would do well to get rid of him for the £50 million fee, which they could then reinvest.

Southampton have only signed defender Jan Bednarek and midfielder Mario Lemina this season. They really need to sign a striker before the window closes considering the lack of goals last season. Although there is an argument to be made that it was down to the style of play rather than the individual qualities of the players.

As always, Southampton’s success will depend much on the youngsters they bring through. Players such as Jack Ward-Prowse and Jack Stephens will be vital this season.

Key man: Manolo Gabbiadini. He exploded onto the scene late last season, and his goals in a team lacking goals will be important for Southampton.

Stoke City:

Stoke have transitioned from a physical unit under Tony Pulis to a far more expansive team under Mark Hughes. Last season, however, demonstrated a problem in the goals department and results department.

Stoke could only manage 44 points. Whereas the old Stoke would have been resolute against the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham, last season saw comfortable wins for both. The summer has seen Stoke’s squad losing talent rather than adding talent.

Marko Arnautovic, Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters have all left the club. Incoming players include Darren Fletcher, Kurt Zouma and Bruno Martins-Indi. These are three very good players but are not players who will push Stoke to the next level.

They look very thin in the attacking department. Xherdan Shaqiri as talented as he is, has fitness issues. Arnautovic has gone. Peter Crouch is 37. Ramadan Sobhi is inexperienced. Much will rely on Sadio Berahino and whether he can rediscover the form and confidence he had from a few seasons ago, before his issues.

Key man: Sadio Berahino. Stoke need goals and Berahino has to provide them.

Swansea City:

Swansea survived last season thanks to a Paul Clement inspired revival. This summer though, has seen a long transfer saga around the future of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson is Swansea’s best player and is understandably wanted by clubs higher up.

Assuming he is sold, Swansea will need to use his transfer fee wisely to ensure they are able to fill the shoes of someone who has been involved in 53 of the 133 goals Swansea have scored in the last 3 seasons.

Swansea’s transfer business has potential. Tammy Abraham on loan from Chelsea provides pace and trickery. Roque Mesa is very smart in possession. Players already at the club will be crucial. The likes of Ki, Tommy Carroll and Fernando Llorente will be crucial.

Defensively, Swansea look thin despite the promise of Alfie Mawson. They will need to continue with the organisation and discipline that Clement has brought to the club if they are to have an easier time this season.

Key man: Fernando Llorente. Llorente’s goals kept Swansea up and Swansea will be desperately hoping for him to stay.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Spurs have had a shaky summer, although there does not seem to be much concern at the club itself. The departure of Kyle Walker, the unsettled and injured Danny Rose and the ligament injury of Kieran Trippier leaves Spurs desperately short at full-back.

Although they have not brought any players in – they will need to if they want to compete with the best- they have still managed to hold onto their 3 prized assets in Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and Dele Alli.

Spurs will have to adjust to Wembley Stadium, where they did not have a happy time last season. The bigger pitch will also make it much harder for the players to continue in the high intensity and high-pressing style of play.

Spurs have most things in place. With the likes of Kane, Lloris, Alli, Eriksen, Vertonghen, Son, Dembele and Wanyama, they are strong. There is not a lot to change at the moment, but the difficulties will come when the depth of the squad will be tested.

Key man: Harry Kane. His goal record is supreme and has the ability to single-handedly win Spurs the league.

Watford:

With a new manager in Marco Silva who impressed in the league with Hull City last season, there is a renewed optimism at the club.

Watford have been smart in the transfer market so far. Andre Gray, Tom Cleverley and Nathaniel Chalobah will add quality and depth to the squad and starting lineup. Although the defence had a torrid time last season, with Silva’s coaching, it is nothing that cannot be fixed.

The reliance on Troy Deeney has been lessened with the arrival of Gray and also gives the attack more variety.

A Marco Silva team will be well organised, hard to beat and tactically sound.

Key man: Troy Deeney. He is the leader and main striker.

West Brom:

Tony Pulis has renewed his contract which should, in theory, guarantee survival for West Brom. They should have finished in 8th but for a terrible May finished in 10th.

The departure of Darren Fletcher was a shock. He will need to be replaced with another experienced midfielder or Jake Livermore will have to take up the mantle. Going forward, the signing of Jay Rodriguez should help with the goals, especially if he plays in partnership with Salomon Rondon. With Nacer Chadli and Matty Phillips, West Brom do have a threatening forward line.

As always, all eyes will be on Pulis in the final few days of the transfer window, where he historically does the majority of his business.

Pulis will have this team well-drilled and organised and avoiding relegation.

Key man: Jay Rodriguez. It will be intriguing to see how this promising youngster gets on in a new team and if he can stay away from injuries.

West Ham:

After a torrid first season at the London Stadium, compounded by a terrible 2016 summer transfer window, West Ham seem far more stable this time around.

They have signed players of genuine quality in Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Chicharito. In that group of players, there is an improvement in defensive solidity, creativity and goal-scoring. West Ham have signed proven players with very little unknown.

With Michail Antonio, Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini supplementing attacks, there is a good variety of skill and power.

Defensively, West Ham need to improve their discipline. Slaven Bilic has to take a big share of the blame, as he has looked defensively inept when setting up his team.

West Ham should have enough for a top 10 finish, if they do not, it will be the end for Bilic.

Key man: Chicharito Hernandez. Goals are what he lives by and goals are what West Ham need.

PREDICTIONS:

Champions: Manchester City

Champions League: Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Relegation: Burnley, Huddersfield and Brighton & Hove Albion.

Mourinho has lost his shine and been left behind

Mourinho in crisis mode? ... all rights are reserved for this image ©

Mourinho in crisis mode? … all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

All it takes is one bad week at a club like Manchester United and the doom and gloom sets in. A club the stature of Manchester United should not be having a week where they lose 3 games in a row.

Yet it has happened. More than the outcome, it is the way in which such a week has unfolded which is troubling. Full of optimism before the derby, there is now a feeling of impending crisis at the club with Mourinho at the centre of that.

Paul Pogba has not produced. Wayne Rooney looks finished. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s performances have deteriorated. There is little defensive discipline. And yes, Jose Mourinho has started to publicly criticise his players.

An argument can be made that it is too early to make any kind of judgement on Mourinho at United. However, the signs at the moment, are not encouraging at all. Mourinho’s powers look to be on the wane.

Mourinho at the minute, resembles a man who is not in control. He seems startled at the size of the club and the job in hand. He has shown no clarity in decision making.

Mourinho at his peak- between 2004-2010- was a man who knew what he wanted. He had a formula for success. Defensive discipline, tactical awareness and a powerful team which had control of the game. He was the man who was the banker in the big games.

Currently, it is the complete opposite. There is no set way of United playing football. For a man who many thought had plans ranging from A-Z – there now seems to be no Plan A. At best, United have been a long ball team. Long balls against City, Feyenoord and Watford represent a hopeful strategy.

Defensively, United look even more susceptible than they did under Louis van Gaal. There seems to be a real lack of organisation. Not something associated with a Jose Mourinho team.

Ruthlessness. A trait in many Mourinho teams and the manager himself. The team have been far from ruthless, not taking the few chances they’ve created. The manager has shown himself to being weak by persisting with Wayne Rooney.

Rooney has had a great career and still has much to offer. Without doubt, however, the time has come for Rooney to increasingly offer his services from the bench and not the starting XI. There are players who are better equipped to doing what Mourinho is currently asking of Rooney, and players who are in far better form than Rooney.

The Rooney problem is small relative to the wider problems at the club, but is perhaps symbolic. His power at the club is so great than managers since Sir Alex Ferguson seem unable to reduce his role.

Instead of trying to shoehorn his captain into the team, Mourinho needs to do what is best for the team. Rooney is not the best in any position that he plays, of the players available.

Mourinho needs to take a look across Manchester and see how Pep Guardiola has created his Man City team.

Guardiola came in with a set of ideas, a system he prefers and he chose the players best suited to that system. That meant no place for Joe Hart, Yaya Toure or Samir Nasri. Formidable footballers, but not part of Guardiola’s thinking.

On the contrary, Mourinho is the man with no plan. He has shuffled his starting XI often, showing no idea of knowing what his best team is. There is no idea as to what his best centre-back partnership is, what the best midfield combination is, nor who his best wingers are. These are significant areas of the pitch.

Muddled decision making has been best displayed in the derby and against Watford. Jesse Lingard and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were brought into the derby despite the fact that they had barely played any football all season. They looked off the pace and were subbed at half-time.

Against Watford, Mourinho played Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, despite the fact that they had played just 3 days earlier. Memphis Depay came on for Luke Shaw at left-back in the closing stages. Baffling.

Michael Carrick has not played a single second of football this season. What was the point of him signing a 1 year extension?

Increasingly, Mourinho’s demeanour is now resembling that of a Mourinho who is in the midst of a meltdown. We have seen it before at Real Madrid and Chelsea.

The blame of the referees. The public shaming of his players. The lack of taking responsibility himself. An inability to understand medical welfare (his reaction to Anthony Martial’s injury was bizarre).

Mourinho of old, on the way up, made players love him. Now he expects them to obey him. Criticising players publicly can be dangerous and can impact dressing room morale.

He no longer has the shine of the old Mourinho. The charming man, who was cocksure and so full of self-belief. His antics whereas entertaining before, now seem tiresome and boring.

Now he seems full of self-doubt and negativity. The reasons behind this can be seen through his tactics, and more deeper, his time in Spain.

His experience of Spain has undoubtedly dented his confidence and belief.

Mourinho prior to his time at Real Madrid, was the leading tactician in the world. He had a script and the game would often play to that script.

At Real Madrid, however, he encountered a challenge and a foe which has left him badly bruised and feeling tactically vulnerable. That foe being Barcelona and Pep Guardiola in particular.

Guardiola’s brand of football has been revolutionary in the modern day. Many have said it was due to having Xavi, Iniesta and Messi that he was successful. But just looking at the way his teams have played subsequently at Bayern Munich and currently at Manchester City, it is clear that his idea of football is something great.

The football has been scintillating. It has been attacking, striving for perfection. It has been a style of football that makes Mourinho look outdated.

Mourinho never found a solution. He tried very hard, putting Pepe in midfield, tinkering with the tempo and fluidity of the game. Never did he find a way to overcome which would work. We saw it in the derby. It looked like City had 15 men on the pitch they were finding that much space.

There is no doubt that Mourinho is less effective now than before 2010. His main success came within 6 years (2004-2010), at a time when Europe moved to a more defensive brand of football. Since then, a return to a more attacking mindset has seen Mourinho win only 2 titles this decade.

The other super-coaches in the premier league, Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte have a fresh energy about them- much like Mourinho did when he first arrived in England.

The teams they manage also play with positive energy, looking to attack and score goals. In contrast, Mourinho seems old, tired and yesterday’s news.

Even the title that Mourinho won with Chelsea in 2015 was not a typical Mourinho title. He did not storm the league and charge over the finishing line, rather limped to success. Within that, his dealings in the transfer market left much to be desired.

Of course it is dangerous to write off a coach with the CV of Mourinho. It is key to remember that most coaches (with the exception of Sir Alex Ferguson) enjoy 10 years of greatness. The game moves on fast.

Mourinho is resembling Roy Hodgson more than he is vintage Jose Mourinho.

He needs to find his best team. He needs to get the best out of Pogba. He needs to build positivity, not negativity amongst his squad. He needs to be ruthless and drop players out of form. He needs to increase the energy and intensity of the team. He needs to do this fast.

14 defeats in his last 32 games suggest a deeper issue with Mourinho, one which should cause concern for Manchester United fans.

 

Premier League Preview: 2016-2017

It is time for the football…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Arsenal:

It has been a typical summer for Arsenal. A promising signing in Granit Xhaka but relative inactivity which has fans tearing their hair out. Many are predicting Arsenal to be the team to falter this season, in the wake of the summer resurgences of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Yet Arsenal always find a way. In statistical terms, they have improved league position season on season, finishing in 2nd last season despite never really being in the title race. A natural progression to 1st then?

Well, football does not work in such a way. Arsenal need to invest. A central defender is a must- it was essential even before the injuries to Per Mertesacker and Gabriel – it is even more crucial now. They most certainly need a striker. Arsene Wenger last season said Arsenal lacked goals. However, he is unwilling to invest big money in a big player. Money in a Lacazette or a Higuain or a Morata. Arsenal have eye-watering bank reserves of £159 million – what are they waiting for?

This is also Wenger’s last year of his 3 year contract, so it will be interesting to see how he copes with the inevitable questions about his future. They have a good team and a good squad and like seasons gone by, they are not far away. They have an excellent midfield, which will be reinforced with the midfield steel and guile of Xhaka, along with the in form Aaron Ramsey and the returning Santi Cazorla from injury.

The one thing in Arsenal’s favour is the stability they have. The other clubs that will be competing with them will need time to get used to new managers and new playing styles which could mean a slow start to the season. If Arsenal get it right at the start, they will be very dangerous.

Bournemouth:

Bournemouth not only survived, but they survived in some style, playing some of the most attractive football in the league. With style came hard work. They squashed the myth that technical players do not need to work hard and they put in tireless performances week after week. Tactically astute, this was a successful season for Eddie Howe.

In some ways, the second season for newly promoted teams can be tougher than the first season. No more the air of freshness, now they will have been figured out and will be presented with new challenges. They will need to come up with a Plan B – something they lacked last season. They have lost two key players in Tommy Elphick and Matt Ritchie. However, as is the way with Eddie Howe, he is relentless, obsessive and will not stay still.

Bournemouth have had an effective transfer window so far. Lys Mousset for £5.4m from Le Havre (the same club which nurtured Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez) is a promising player. Brad Smith and Jordan Ibe from Liverpool and Lewis Cook all represent promising signings which will cause problems for opponents.

Callum Wilson will return from injury and Howe will hope that he can lead the line and stay fit. A problem for Bournemouth last season was the lack of organisation and solidity in the backline. For Bournemouth to improve on their 16th place finish last season, they will need to plug the hole in the leaky defence.

Burnley:

It is hard enough to survive in the Premier League with a strengthened squad from the Championship, but Burnley are currently weaker than they were last season. They have lost Joey Barton and Michael Duff among others, and have added very little.

They do not just need to spend money to improve, they need to spend money to survive. The last time they were in the Premier League, they spent little and were relegated with 2 games to spare. However, in Sean Dyche, they have a manager who is willing to drag his team to safety. He is called the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ for a reason.

Dyche’s 4-4-2 could either be boom or bust. 4-4-2 has made a comeback in football with many teams and defenders being unable to defend against 2 strikers. However, it is also quite easy to attack against a 4-4-2 if the defenders are not able to defend in 1v1 situations. This explains Burnley’s desire for Michael Keane.

Burnley should have more goals in this team than they did the last time around. Andre Gray and George Boyd should score enough goals between them to give Burnley a fighting chance of staying afloat.

They currently have a thin squad. There is still time to improve and add depth and quality to the current squad. In order to squeak to safety, Burnley will need to use the final few weeks of the transfer window wisely.

Chelsea:

It was an extremely disappointing 2015-16 season for Chelsea. The worst ever defence of a title in history. It was a season which cost Jose Mourinho his job just 7 months after winning the title. Now, under Antonio Conte, they will seek to return to the levels they have been at in the years gone by.

Conte and Chelsea will be feeling quietly confident. They know that in Conte they have a master tactician and man manager who is on a high from the Euros and has a tremendous managerial record. The exploits of the two Manchester clubs in the summer also makes Chelsea the dark horses. The team that not many are focusing on. The lack of attention will suit Conte whilst he tries to convey and implement his ideas.

Conte will need to improve the performances of the under-performing players of last season – in particular Eden Hazard, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic. Hazard looks to be sharp again and willing to perform. He is a manager who appreciates experience so will be keen to use John Terry. However, Terry no longer has the same mobility of old which makes the signing of N’Golo Kante a very good one. Kante was the best midfielder in the league last season.

Conte is an attacking manager who uses his defence as the first step of attack. He will likely deploy a 4-2-4 formation, with Matic/Fabregas and Kante holding, allowing the 4 attackers – including new £33 million signing Michy Batshuayi – to be set free. Playing with 2 strikers is something Conte favours, seen in his work at Italy and Juventus. This also explains why he is so keen to add another striker to his ranks, either Alvaro Morata or Romelu Lukaku.

Conte cannot take too long to make his mark, or he could find himself as a victim of Chelsea’s notorious managerial axe. Should he inspire and drive his team on like he did with Italy over the summer, Chelsea could be serious challengers.

Crystal Palace:

Crystal Palace started last season in a promising manner. Yet come the back-end of the season, they were sliding down the table rapidly. They will now need to strengthen and Alan Pardew will need to come up with a formula to ensure a consistent season for Palace.

From Boxing Day 2015, they won only 2 games from 21. That is simply not good enough.

Injuries to Yannick Bolasie, Jason Puncheon, James McArthur and Connor Wickham last season derailed them, therefore the need to beef up the squad is evident. The enigma that is Bolasie seems to be on the way to Everton.

They have lacked goalscoring forwards in recent years, a problem they have recognised and tried to solve. They have more money to spend thanks to the new TV deal, with a club record transfer for Andros Townsend and a bid of over £30 million for Michy Batshuayi. They have attempted to sign Christian Benteke, Saido Berahino and Diafra Sakho. They need to act cleverly to ensure they find a solution to the striking woes and do not just place bids without substance.

The arrivals of Steven Mandanda and James Tomkins will help add experience to the squad.

Pardew has attempted to introduce a new system in pre-season with a 3-4-1-2. If Pardew can sign some good quality strikers such as Benteke or Sakho, they will go a long way to achieving a much improved finish this season.

Everton:

Ronald Koeman has taken over from Roberto Martinez and this season promises to be an excellent season for Everton. The last week has seen tremendous progress on the transfer front for Everton.

Yannick Bolasie and Lamine Kone seem to be on the way to Merseyside to join Ashley Williams, Maarten Stekelenburg and Idrissa Gueye as known names in. John Stones has left for Manchester City and there is still a question mark over Romelu Lukaku’s future, yet everything seems to be calm at a club where chaos was the buzzword last season. The Koeman Effect.

In Koeman they have a manager with Premier League experience, tactical nous and an attractive playing style. He exudes calm and flourished at Southampton at a time when everybody was writing them off.

Gerard Deulofeu has been playing up front in pre-season, which suggests he has a key role to play this season. He has the talent, now he has to show his consistency at the highest level.

Huge credit should be given to new owner Farhad Moshiri. He has restructured the club and given them the intent to succeed. A new Director of Football was brought in- Steve Walsh from Leicester City – the same man who brought in Kante, Mahrez and Vardy.

Koeman will bring a new style to Goodison Park. They will be more direct, more pressing from the front, greater intensity all round and with more physical presence. All things missing under Martinez. It will take time, but with Koeman, Walsh and Moshiri, Everton are building something big.

Hull City:

Unless something drastically changes in the last few weeks of the transfer window, Hull City are a certainty to be relegated. They are a mess. They are weaker than they were in the Championship.

Inactivity in the transfer market has led to the resignation of Steve Bruce. The owner Assem Alam is seriously ill with his son falling out with Bruce. It has been a strange pre-season with Hull struggling to find enough players to field a full team.

They have no successor to Bruce. They have lost Chuba Akpom, Isaac Hayden, Mohamed Diame, Sone Aluko, and Ryan Taylor. Incomings have been scarce.

Hull City have concocted a perfect cocktail for relegation. Nobody will be surprised if they end up back in the Championship.

Leicester City:

The reigning Premier League Champions. Words I never thought I would ever be writing when writing about Leicester City. They are the team to beat. They have looked good in pre-season and have made some clever signings to bolster a squad that also has the added joy of competing in the Champions League.

They have lost N’Golo Kante, but have crucially managed to retain Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez so far. The core of the team remains the same.

The acquisitions of Ahmed Musa and Nampalys Mendy provides speed, power and energy – all traits of the successful Leicester side from last season. Mendy in particular looks like another Kante with his speed across the ground and robustness in tackling.

Leicester have a better squad than last season, with more depth thanks to the incomings. Things could be even better if the likes of Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey progress at the expected level.

The big challenge will be defensively. Can Leicester repeat the defensive solidity of last season? Can Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson repeat the same disciplined performances as last season? The signing of Luis Hernandez is a shrewd one as he adds defensive cover but also has a long throw which can be used as an attacking option.

The big thing in Leicester’s favour is the stability they currently enjoy. They have not needed a huge makeover or transitional summer, unlike their rivals. They may not win the league again, but they will certainly provide a stiff challenge.

Liverpool:

Liverpool are well placed under Jurgen Klopp in their transitional process. He is used to the tempo of the league and has had a good transfer window so far.

Klopp has managed to restore belief at the club and he has an aura about him. His charisma and work ethic is endearing to the players who look as though they are willing to run through walls for him.

The lack of European football will favour Liverpool this season because of the high energy, high intensity and high pressing game Klopp will employ. The extra time on the training field will allow them to understand the tactical detail behind the high energy system.

Liverpool do not have a world-class player in their squad, but under Klopp, this does not matter so much. It is more about the collective than the individual for him. They have added pace in Sadio Mane, calmness in Marko Grujic, defensive depth in Ragnar Klavan and Joël Matip and power in midfield through Georginio Wijnaldum. They still need to address the situation at left-back where there is no real quality presently.

Liverpool have a tough opening 5 fixtures in Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Chelsea. They will need to be ready and switched on to avoid a bad start.

Whilst Liverpool do not have the same quality as their rivals, they can still make life difficult and a top 4 finish is very much on the cards.

Manchester City:

They have long coveted Pep Guardiola. Now they have Pep Guardiola. The best coach in the world is in the Premier League and is at Manchester City.

There seems to be a long-term approach at City with the arrival of Guardiola. In order for City to gain success once more, Guardiola has a lot of work ahead of him and lots of changes to make.

City have a good group of players with some genuine world-class talent in Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Vincent Kompany (when fit). The signings of  Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sané and Nolito increase midfield and forward options, with the signing of John Stones bolstering the backline.

In Aguero, City are guaranteed goals. If he stays fit for the whole season, he will get over 30 goals. Big concerns however, remain over Joe Hart, Kompany’s fitness and Raheem Sterling’s form and confidence. These are key players for Guardiola so it will be interesting to see how Guardiola approaches these problems.

There have already been signs in pre-season that City have struggled with Guardiola’s possession philosophy of passing out from the back. It will be a challenge for Guardiola to cope with this new league, the pace of the league, the tempo and the physicality.

If the City players can learn quickly enough what Guardiola wants, they will be successful. However, big doubts remain over whether he can do that with this group.

Manchester United:

They have had a 3 years to forget since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Now, with Jose Mourinho in the hotseat, there can be no excuses. He is an elite level coach. He won the title just 2 seasons ago. United have bought well in the summer transfer window too.

The signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba give United personality and power. They have an aura about them. Some call it arrogance, but they call it confidence in their abilities. Proven players and proven winners. How they adapt to the Premier League will be their biggest test.

In Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly, they have creativity and defensive potential. Mkhitaryan was a star in the Bundesliga, recognised by his fellow professionals. Bailly has put in terrific performances in La Liga, against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

The big conundrum is Wayne Rooney. What is his best position? Mourinho has indicated that he will be playing the No 10 position, just behind Ibrahimovic. Does he still have the legs to play such a role? By having both Rooney and Ibrahimovic central, United lack pace. There is a lot of pressure on Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial to provide speed and creativity.

The return of Luke Shaw will provide United with balance on the left, as his speed can cover both going forward and backwards. United still lack a world-class centre half. Chris Smalling will again carry the burden of defensive discipline, so his fitness will be crucial.

They should compete for the title. They should win a trophy. Mourinho will get time and will have a honeymoon period. But he will know better than anyone, results matter and they will need to come fast.

Middlesbrough:

In Aitor Karanka, Boro have a man who knows what he wants and he is not afraid to upset people. He had a furious row in March and was away from the club. Then he returned and they achieved promotion. His summer transfers have been exciting and give Boro a good chance of survival.

Marten de Roon represents a tough tackler from the Italian league. Victor Valdes provides undoubted class in goal. Alvaro Negredo is a proven goalscorer who will be looking to prove his doubters in England wrong. Fabio da Silva will provide energy and bravery.

Karanka will prefer a 4-4-2 formation, although in pre-season he has shown signs of flexibility, switching to a looser version in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The partnership of Gaston Ramirez behind Negredo will be interesting to watch. Both are highly skilled, but can they do it in the toughest league of all.

Boro’s strength last season was their defence. They will seek to keep the same solidity as last season, but will face a much tougher test facing the attacks of the Premier League. Boro will look to get Dani Ayala back to fitness as quickly as possible.

Middlesbrough will fight and with the investment of the summer, they should survive. However, it has been many years since they were last in the Premier League, so as a newly promoted team, they will find it tough.

Southampton:

They have been written off summer after summer because of summer after summer of upheaval. Could this finally be the season where they fall or will the arrival of Claude Puel be exactly what they need.

They have lost some very good and important players. Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle in particular, along with Victor Wanyama will give a big loss to the Southampton ranks. The incomings of youngsters Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Bayern Munich and Nathan Redmond will refresh the midfield and forward line. There are high hopes in particular for Hojbjerg.

Southampton have always said, it is not the manager on whom the club is dependent on, it is the structures already put in place. The academy, transfer policy, scouting network and training facilities.

Puel has a reputation a process driven manager, who gives youth a chance and plays attractive football. He had a good spell with Nice, finishing in 4th place with few resources. He does not need to change much.

The structures are in place. They will likely play a 4-2-3-1 formation. They have a solid defensive line, with Ryan Bertrand an accomplished fullback, Fraser Forster solid in goal, Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte striking a good partnership at the back. More will be expected from Oriol Romeu and Jordy Clasie. Dusan Tadic is highly effective providing 7 goals and 12 assists.

Goalscoring could be a huge problem with the loss of Pelle and Mane. A lot of pressure will be on Shane Long and Charlie Austin to come up with the goods.

Southampton should finish in the top half of the table. They will need to cope with the added demands of the Europa League so will need to strengthen even further before the window closes. If Puel can follow his predecessors, Southampton are in for a good season.

Stoke City:

Stoke are in very good shape to achieve something big. They have quality in the midfield and forward areas with genuine matchwinners in Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan.

They have issues in the defensive areas but in Mark Hughes they have a manager who knows what to do. He has guided Stoke to 3 consecutive top 10 finishes, for the first time in history. He has done so playing attractive football with flair players.

They do need a top quality striker. For all the flair of the players above, they need someone to make use of the creativity and put the ball in the back of the net.

Joe Allen coming in should add some creativity and reinforce the midfield options and depth.  Ramadan Sobhi will add flair to the attackers with a wide variety of tricks and creativity.

On paper, this team should be scoring goals. They need to add defensive solidity if they are to improve on the 9th placed finish of last season. Some investment in defensive areas should go a long way to improving Stoke.

They have the ingredients for success, but they have to show it on the pitch.

Sunderland:

David Moyes is now in the hotseat at Sunderland. The 7th man to take that hotseat in 5 years. There is no stability at the club and they are one of the favourites to be relegated.

Moyes is an honest and sincere manager, who brings discipline and effectiveness. Yet he will need to splash the cash in the transfer market if he is to keep this side up. There is a serious lack of quality across the pitch.

Yann M’Vila and DeAndre Yedlin have returned to their clubs which means Moyes has a weaker squad than Sam Allardyce last season.

The signing of Adnan Januzaj on a season long loan is a boost in attacking areas, with more service for Jermaine Defoe. Defoe is the key. He scores goals for fun and if supplied correctly, he can keep Sunderland up.

Moyes will aim to be the first manager in a long time to stay the full season at Sunderland. If he can do that, it will have been a successful season for Sunderland. Looking at Moyes from his Everton days, a transformation of Sunderland will take time.

Swansea City:

Swansea are not in a great state to improve on last season’s 12th place finish. The late sales of Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams could have a devastating effect.

However, they have signed world cup winner Fernando Llorente and Borja Bastón. This is a big move for Swansea. Two fowards with undoubted quality, especially in the air.

With Jefferson Montero, Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Modou Barrow on the wings, they will be expected to beat a man and cross the ball in for the new 6ft forwards in the box.

In Gylfi Sigurdsson they have a creative master who is also able to contribute with goals and assists. He is the key man for Swansea if they are to have any type of chance of competing this season. Leroy Fer will add energy in midfield, although there are question marks over Ki Sung-yueng after his military summer in South Korea.

Francesco Guidolin has yet to prove himself as manager. Many are attributing his success at keeping Swansea up last season down to luck. The atmosphere around Swansea does not seem the same as a few years ago. Guidolin has a lot to do to prove himself.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Mauricio Pochettino’s men were so close yet so far last season in their pursuit for the title. The way of playing and the preparation they put in for each match puts them in good stead for this season.

Pochettino is an obsessive and his decisions are driven by beliefs about football. He has long identified Victor Wanyama as a transfer target and he finally landed his man this summer. Wanyama will bring power and energy to the Tottenham team.

Vincent Janssen is an intelligent striker and gives Tottenham more depth up front. Harry Kane looked exhausted by the end of the season.

Pochettino has driven a serious work ethic into the team, putting to the front the idea of team work. There are no individual egoistic stars. It is all about the team. It is this mentality which will lead Tottenham into a position of success.

The team play with a very high intensity and aggression. They have a solid mentality and a never-say-die attitude, always believing they can come back in a match. That is the work of the manager.

The structure and foundations that Pochettino has built are there. They have to perform now to show they are real A Team players.

Watford:

Quique Sanchez Flores has departed and Watford’s policy of managerial changes has continued. Walter Mazzarri has taken over and brought his unique style to Watford.

They have done well to hold on to strike duo Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. The two will be crucial to Mazzarri’s plans as he plans to switch to a 3-5-2 formation.

They have added many centre backs and wing backs in order to cope with the demands of playing 3-5-2. Christian Kabasele, Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Brice Dja Djédjé have arrived to bolster the backline.

Watford have an extremely hard list of fixtures to begin with. The first five league games include visits to Southampton and West Ham as well as home matches against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

Watford have a changed manager and a changed squad. Therefore it will be difficult for them to survive this season. Many wrote them off last season and they proved doubters wrong. It will take a considerable amount of Mazzarri’s tactical nous to ensure safety for Watford.

West Bromwich Albion:

With a new owner comes a new set of expectations.

A positive for West Brom is that Tony Pulis stays. He has a great track record of keeping clubs up and his pragmatic style can work wonders. Will this be enough for the new owner?

They have a wonderful defensive record but a woeful goalscoring effort. With the Pulis style, this is not so surprising. They failed to score in 13 of their 38 games last season.

There is a lot of pressure on Salomón Rondón to perform consistently through the season. He will surely need some help to ease the goalscoring burden.

Pulis has spoken of needing at least 5 more players. The saga of Saido Berahino has continued and could leave Pulis without another striker if he finally completes a move away.

Jeffrey Schlupp is rumoured to be joining West Brom, he will add some much-needed pace and energy going forward.

If they can continue getting draws and the odd win, West Brom should meet the magic 40 points mark. Pulis has a wonderful record, he knows how to survive.

West Ham United:

New stadium. 60,000 fans each week. West Ham are on the way to big club status with some very savvy commercial deals and business acumen behind the scenes. It is on the pitch though, which will decide West Ham’s future.

They had a wonderful season last season. Slaven Bilic has instilled a winning mentality into the club. They no longer fear the bigger clubs. They beat the big clubs. They play fast, aggressive football. They are no longer a yoyo club.

Yet this season, they face challenges. Adapting to the new stadium, coping with the Europa League, coping with a slightly depleted squad in the early part of the season. All these things matter and how Bilic uses his squad will be key.

They have made some shrewd investments in the transfer market. Manuel Lanzini is now a permanent player, Sofiane Feghouli is a clever winger, Gokhan Tore is another winger who offers depth, Havard Nordtveit in midfield will add protection to the back 4 and Arthur Masuaku is a flying full back.

Keeping them fit and rotating will be vital for Bilic. Ultimately, the form and fitness of the spine of the team will determine how this season will go.

Adrian, Winston Reid, Mark Noble, Dimitri Payet and Andy Carroll are the key men. If they remain consistent through the season, West Ham should earn a top 8 finish.

 

EURO 2016 Review: Portugal the surprising victors

The victors…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

After 51 matches in an expanded tournament, Portugal ended as the champions of Euro 2016, beating France in the final in extra time.

The final was symbolic of the tournament as a whole. Dull, low quality and very defensive. It took Portugal 80 minutes to get a shot on target. France were slow and wasteful. Antoine Griezmann and André-Pierre Gignac missed easy chances to wrap up the game. Didier Deschamps was negative in his strategy, waiting until Portugal went 1-0 up to bring on Anthony Martial. In truth, it was a forgettable final.

Expanding the tournament to 24 teams was a big mistake. Yes it gave the opportunity to some nations to play on the biggest stage whereas they would not have had the same chance under the old system. This came at a huge cost. At the cost of quality of football, entertainment and excitement for the fans.

The statistics are a damning indictment of the lack of adventure shown by the teams. Euro 2016 produced 108 goals in 51 matches, an average of 2.12 per game, which is the lowest since 1996 and the third lowest since 1980.

Teams were happy to spend most of the group stage defensive and on the back foot. Even the winners Portugal were through to the knockout stages without needing to win a single match. 3 draws. 3 points. Easier half of the draw. Job done.

Northern Ireland made it as far as the round of 16 scoring only two goals.

The lesser teams being defensive had a knock-on effect on the bigger teams. They could not break down defences and play with the same assertive freedom that entertained in years gone by. Even Germany struggled to score goals. Games were largely decided by moments of individual magic rather than cohesive attacking performances.

A major positive of this tournament was the tactical nous and flexibility shown by most managers. Antonio Conte’s Italy were the best tactically, operating a 3-5-2 formation with class and determination. The sight of Conte barking out instructions every second of the game was a joy. The fact Germany changed their entire system to neutralise Italy is perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Italy.

Wales under Chris Coleman were also magnificent. Operating in a 3-4-2-1 formation gave them balance and flexibility. Reaching the semi-final was a brilliant achievement and a testament to Chris Coleman’s abilities to get the most out of his players. Giving Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – the two best players- the freedom to operate without being burdened by defensive roles meant Wales could create chances and score goals. Ramsey’s absence in the semi-final was a huge loss to Wales and had a major impact.

The tournament winners Portugal, were also tactically aware and well-drilled by manager Fernando Santos. Santos was probably the MVP of the entire tournament. He drilled his team defensively and they were exemplary in defending, with Pepe’s Man of the Match performance in the final a symbol of the rest of the tournament. They conceded one goal in 420 minutes of knockout football.

It was not pretty to watch for a neutral, but in a tournament, it is ultimately about winning. Santos also showed tactical flexibility in the final, even after the injury to Cristiano Ronaldo. Santos switched to a 4-3-3 once he brought on Eder for Renato Sanches. This shift was too much for Didier Deschamps to handle and ultimately was the decisive moment, with Eder getting the winning goal.

For all of the tactical marvel of some teams, there was equally tactical ineptitude to gargantuan levels, namely by England and Belgium. It should be no surprise really. Coached by Roy Hodgson and Marc Wilmots, there was a high probability that both of these teams would be dragged down to each manager’s low-level of tactical acumen.

The struggles of England under Hodgson are well documented. Marc Wilmots however, has consistently been responsible for Belgium’s failure at major tournaments. The ‘Golden Generation’ of England could not get past the quarter finals, it seems it will be the same story for Belgium.

So what will we remember this tournament for?

The tournament of the underdogs perhaps. Iceland and Wales inspired. Their attitude and sporting culture of unity was a lesson to others.

Possession is not as important as once thought. Spain, Germany, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine were all in the top 10 for pass completion rates. Between them they won 11 matches out of 33. Four of the quarter-finalists were among the 10 teams with the lowest percentage of possession overall.  The champions, Portugal averaged just 51.6 per cent possession, the 12th highest of the 24 teams.

Age is just a number was rather true in this tournament. Talents who by age should be past their best showed some undeniable class. Dimitri Payet was a star in the group stages. Andreas Iniesta rolled back the years. Nani was perhaps the most exciting 103 cap stalwart around. Ricardo Quaresma was the most effective substitute in the tournament. Gigi Buffon showed his world-class abilities at the age of 38. Andrea Barzagli at 35 was part of the formidable Italy back 3.

The stress of being manager on the touchline can impact managers in very different ways. Some such as Roy Hodgson are left with a confused expression on their faces. Others such as Antonio Conte scream and shout, feeling every kick of the football. And some have a very unique and never seen before reaction on the touchline, namely, Joachim Löw. The adrenaline can make people do strange things.

There is also a debate to be had on the growing importance of club football against international football. Something needs to be done to cure the tiredness on show from most players at the Euros. It does not make for a good spectacle and ultimately, fans want to be entertained watching the game.

From the next Euros on, we will no longer enjoy the simplicity of watching football in one country. Instead, we will be taken on a journey around Europe, playing in some notable cities- 13 cities to be precise.

Let us hope future tournaments provide us with more entertainment than this one.

Team of the tournament: (3-4-1-2)

Rui Patrício;

Boateng, Williams, Bonucci;

Kimmich, Kroos, Ramsey, Guerreiro;

Payet;

Griezmann, Nani.

Player of the tournament: Antoine Griezmann

Abject England humiliated against Iceland

Dejected…England humiliated…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Who expected that? Iceland, a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers, outplayed England. They beat England. England, that supposed football powerhouse. Reality check? Yes. Wakeup call? Yes. The same old story? Damn right.

There are many reasons for why England continually fail to perform at major tournaments. We have exhausted the individual reasons down the years, from fatigue to youth coaching to senior coaching to the players. So why did England fail at Euro 2016?

Let’s start with the man responsible at the end of the day: Roy Hodgson.

Hodgson is the man who has control over every aspect of the England team. It is his job to ensure his players are ready and prepared for each game. It is his job to ensure he has plans ready for different in-game scenarios. Ultimately, it is his job to select the right players.

Hodgson’s managerial background, in particular in the last 10 years, should have told us that England would at best be mediocre. A man used to fighting relegation battles was England’s manager at a major tournament. Not once, not twice but three times. Let that sink in.

Tactically, Hodgson has proven himself to be inept. We all expected Iceland to sit behind the ball and absorb pressure. They surprised us. Iceland chose to employ a high press, left 2 strikers up front so England’s defenders were unable to attack as much as they would want to. Hodgson seemed flummoxed by this tactical surprise.

Throughout the tournament, England had no tactical plan and that is the fault of the manager. He did not know his best team. He did not know his best formation. Having played so many matches since the last world cup, Hodgson did not know a thing.

He selected players who were unfit, tired and simply not in good enough condition to play for England at a major tournament. Raheem Sterling warmed the bench for Manchester City in the 2nd half of the season. Why was he selected ahead of an in form Andros Townsend? Even worse, he started in the knockout game against Iceland despite being below average in the opening two games of the tournament.

Why was Jack Wilshere selected? Why was Jordan Henderson selected? Both players coming back from injury were quite clearly unfit. Wilshere was deemed bad enough to be subbed after 50 minutes against Slovakia yet was tasked with creating an England revival in the 2nd half against Iceland. Henderson looked off the pace against Slovakia and did not do much to catch the eye.

Why take James Milner? He played 3 minutes. Why take Ross Barkley and John Stones if they are not going to play?

The Slovakia game told us much about Hodgson and his ability (or rather inability) to read his players. Wayne Rooney was England’s star man in the opening 2 games of the tournament. There is a common thought around football that when Rooney is fit and firing, he should be playing every game to keep his momentum and should not be ‘rested’. Inevitably, Hodgson chose to ‘rest’ him and he only played just over 30 minutes.

That is by no means an excuse for Rooney. It was his worst performance during his reign as captain. He let the team down and displayed very little leadership in a time the young players needed leaders.

Worse than the Rooney decision, Hodgson changed the make up of a team that had some momentum from the lucky last minute victory over Wales. The buzzword is momentum. Why break up momentum of a winning team? You can change 1 or 2 players, but you need to have a settled lineup, especially if like England, there was no clear plan before the tournament. When you stumble upon a formula, you must stick to it.

The entire country could see Harry Kane was exhausted. Even at the back end of the season, he was not the same as a few months ago. Yet Hodgson chose to play him in all of the friendly games. Surely in training, Kane could not have been showing the usual levels of energy. So why did Hodgson persist with him? He went on reputation not form.

Dele Alli did not perform in any of the games he played in, in the group stages. So why did Hodgson persist with him? Why did he not try a different player or a different system? The answer lies in the next part of the article, namely the manager failed in planning and preparation.

Planning and preparation is the most important role a manager has. Everything in the team links to the manager’s planning and preparation. Hodgson had no plan. The evidence of this is in the confused nature of the players throughout the tournament. Having a plan helps the mentality of a player and takes the pressure away.

England players should have been aware of different gameplans for different situations. The best coaches at major tournaments can relay information to their players about what will happen in each game and will give them a solution.

Looking at the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch players repeatedly said that Louis van Gaal would inform them about a gameplan for different phases of the game and that gameplan would work. In turn, the players confidence in the manager increased. Van Gaal had a plan involving the water break in the game against Mexico. Did Hodgson have any type of strategy or was he just desperate?

Playing in a tournament has its own pressures. Had Hodgson been able to conjure any type of gameplan, the players would have been able to stay calm under the pressure of potential defeat, instead of having dizzy minds.

Instead, we saw a complete meltdown of the England players. Misplacing 5 yard passes, loose 1st touches, ball rolling under the feet and running as if boots were full of lead. These were the hallmarks of England’s attempted fightback, in the face of tournament elimination.

Even in the group matches, you could not discern how England wanted to play. There was no evidence of patterns of play being worked on in training.

What was the Plan B? I said in my preview of the game that England needed to be radical if things went wrong. They had to do something different. Hodgson ended up bringing Marcus Rashford on which was smart. Of course it would have helped had he brought him on with more than 4 minutes left.

Rashford was England’s best player having only been on the pitch for 4 minutes. Imagine if he had been on for 15 minutes more.  Proactive management? Never for Hodgson. He froze.

Tournament after tournament, England managers do not have a clear gameplan. That translates to the players. Players who already feel the strain of the England shirt, cannot rely on the manager to help them.

Preparing for a job interview or exam, those who have prepared well always feel more confident and under less pressure, than those who have not prepared as well. The same theory applies to England in football.

Alas, it is that pressure which creates so much fear. Fear which inhibits the players and makes them play as though they are playing Sunday League. They were not playing the situation. They were not playing the game. They were playing as if they had the future negative headlines in the mind.

Joe Hart is the most visible example of an England player playing with fear. Of all the players, he has the biggest insecurities and self-doubts. All the bravado and shouting in the tunnel whilst jumping up and down, getting ‘pumped up’ is just that – bravado. Trying to act the leader and show the world he is the man. In reality, he is an overrated goalkeeper and mentally soft.

An example of under-preparation can be seen in Iceland’s opening goal. Everybody knew about Iceland’s long distance throw. We all knew they had tall players. Why then was Wayne Rooney marking a player over 6ft? Why did Kyle Walker forget to track his man? Surely having seen Rory Delap at Stoke for so many years, coaches and players understood that the 2nd ball in the area is always the most important.

Nobody would say Iceland have better players than England. Yet Iceland had a clear gameplan. They knew what to do and when to do it. They pressed high, they attacked, they left 2 strikers forward for most of the game. It was only the last 20 minutes did they decide to defend deep. The players trusted in the gameplan. They emerged as deserving winners.

Whilst Hodgson rightfully shoulders a lot of the blame, it is important to not absolve the players.

Ultimately it is the players out there on the pitch. Some of those players have had stellar club seasons but could not produce under pressure. These players are mentally weak. They are the 3G generation of academy players. They are not street smart in life so why do we expect them to be able to handle the pressures of tournament football.

Nowadays, everything is done for the players. They have agents and assistants and cleaners and drivers and so on. The players nowadays do not actually have to do anything which shapes them as characters. Everything is manufactured, from image to press conferences. The inability to do anything for themselves and think for themselves in life, eventually translates onto the pitch.

Young kids aged 11/12/13 are being offered agents and large sums of money. Clubs are offering £50,000 to families just to enter into negotiations to get a player to join the academy. Can we really expect players growing up in this environment to be street smart?

The manager cannot tell you when to commit a cynical foul, waste time or kick long. It is about decision making under pressure, something only the individual player can do. England players need to toughen up in life and then they can learn to play like men.

The children growing up nowadays, will have a warped idea of football. For them, it will only be what they see on Sky Sports & BT Sports. They will play on 3G pitches, perfect surfaces and have the best equipment. That is not a true love for the game. This, as Jamie Carragher says, will lead to us producing babies not grown up men.

In different countries across Europe and especially South America, children grow up playing football on the street. There are no signs saying “no ball games allowed”. Children play on grass which has more mud than grass. They use jumpers as goalposts. There is seemingly an organic love for the game.

In our country now, children do not go out and play football on the street. They do not spend hours kicking the ball against a wall like Dennis Bergkamp did. Instead they turn on the XBOX and PlayStation and are addicted to video games.

These seem like petty and insignificant at a time when England have been knocked out of a major tournament, but these things all matter for the coming generations.

So where do England go from here?

They need to find the right manager. A manager with the right mix of tactics and psychology. A manager not afraid to make the big decisions. Preferably, a manager who already has tournament experience.

There are no English candidates who fit the bill.

Approaches should be made to Slaven Bilic. Laurent Blanc is another who should be a contender. Jurgen Klinsmann has the right attributes.

They need someone who can change the mindset of England players. By whatever means.

As it stands however, the England job looks very much like a poisoned chalice.

 

England vs Iceland: Preview

Can England finally perform? … all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

England’s result against Slovakia has left them in a precarious position.

Now on the hard side of the draw, with teams such as Spain, Italy and Germany, England’s Euro 2016 hopes have taken a huge hit. However, before they even think about those teams, they must first overcome Iceland. They must not underestimate this very clever team. Nor should they feel inhibited.

Roy Hodgson made 6 changes from the starting XI against Wales. 4 changes from the team that finished the 2nd half very strongly against Wales. Those changes backfired. There was no need to change a team that was on a high. It disrupts rhythm and player momentum.

The disruption was evident with England’s failure to score a goal and create several clear cut chances. As Germany showed against Northern Ireland, the best way to play against a packed defence is for quick passing and transition in the final part of the pitch. England were slow and laboured. How many clear cut chances did they create?

By in large, we know the team that Roy Hodgson will play against Iceland. The two fullbacks, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will return. The midfield will be a 3 of Eric Dier, Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli. Harry Kane will most likely be recalled as the main forward. Adam Lallana will start on the left and Daniel Sturridge will replace Raheem Sterling and start on the right.

Jamie Vardy will most likely have to settle for a place on the bench, and he will be hoping to make an impact like he did against Wales.

Iceland will look to play a 4-4-2, aiming to counter-attack. They will be happy to play on the back foot, absorb the pressure and then break whenever England give the ball away. They will be on a high after the 94th minute winner to send them through to the Last 16 stage.

There will be a big battle in midfield. Rooney will have to shake off pressure from Aron Gunnarson, a hard working, tenacious and always running midfielder. He is used to playing in the Championship so will be fierce in his contest against Rooney, trying to stop Rooney from dictating the tempo.

Eric Dier will have to cope with the clever movement and passing of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson has terrific movement, and a wonderful technique. England will have to make sure he is unable to control things for Iceland.

If as expected Iceland play with a packed defence, opting for a conservative approach, the onus will be on England’s attacking midfielders to open up the gaps with short, sharp passing.

They need overlapping runs from Walker and Rose. They need to start fiercely attacking the Iceland goal. They need to try and take more shots from outside the area. England so far have been trying to be too clever and pass the ball into the net.

They need to become assassins. Ruthless and cold in front of goal.

England should learn from the way Germany played against Slovakia. There was a quick tempo, clever movement and space created for the attackers. In knockout games, England often play with pressure and with a complex. They need to learn from Germany.

Germany play with confidence bordering on arrogance. They believe they are better than the opposition. They want to teach the opposition a footballing lesson – as they did against Slovakia.

England, whilst respecting the strengths of Iceland, should adopt a similar mentality. They have the better players. They have the better bench strength. So they need to believe they can go out on Monday evening and obliterate the Iceland team.

All too often we see England players shrink under pressure. The lack of goals in this tournament so far suggests England are suffering from a mental block once again. They are nervous in front of goal and unable to perform. Against Iceland, we need to see a clinical performance from all players.

It is not just about the strikers scoring. Every player whether it be a defender or midfielder, has to believe they can score goals if they get the chances.

If things are not going well, Hodgson needs to be radical in his subs. Ross Barkley has not been used so far and he is someone who is- as Slaven Bilic says – a ‘joker’ in the pack. He can provide something different and a moment of magic.

Hodgson should be afraid to experiment with a Plan B in the game, by bringing on John Stones to play up front if England are chasing the game.

Hodgson should be bold and pick Marcus Rashford if he feels he can offer something different. England should look to dominate. This does not mean being reckless by throwing 10 players forward at every set piece.

It means the midfielders being clever and picking the right moments to flood the box. It means good, quality balls into the box from the fullbacks. The best way to play against a 4-4-2 is to get in behind by stretching the play and moving the Iceland fullbacks out of position.

For England to have any hope of winning this competition, they cannot just be satisfied with a victory over Iceland, they need to send a message that England have arrived at Euro 2016.

This is tournament football.  All too often England have not achieved what they should have. They have been weak and stumbled through even against the smaller teams. This England team needs to put it right.

There is enough technical quality. Do England have the mental stability to perform as well as they should?

England vs Wales: Preview

The showdown…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

After a disappointing late draw for England and a boosting late win for Wales, the stakes of the second round of games in Group B have risen.

England having controlled most of the game against Russia, failed to take the chances they created and allowed Russia to grab a late equaliser. There was lots of promise from the England forward players but very little output and substance. Adam Lallana missed 2 relatively easy chances, Harry Kane was lethargic and ineffective and Raheem Sterling’s decision making was very questionable.

The big talking point before the tournament was England’s ability (or inability) to defend properly as a unit. James Milner and Dele Alli were weak in clearing the ball. Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill were ball watching which allowed Vasili Berezutski to climb over Danny Rose and score the equaliser. In the crucial moment, England as a defensive unit failed.

The tactics and in game management of Roy Hodgson also left a lot to be desired. The decision to take off Wayne Rooney was bizarre. Rooney was not only the best player on the pitch, but he kept a calm hold on proceedings and had the experience and leadership to help England close out the game. Whilst Jack Wilshere has a wonderful technique and creative mind, England did not need his unpredictability at that time.

Wilshere was involved in losing the ball on England’s left when he went charging forward, resulting in the corner kick which preceded the goal.

After going a goal ahead and switching to a counter-attack, Hodgson persisted with the ineffective Kane, instead of bringing on the pacier Jamie Vardy or even Marcus Rashford.

Such decisions cost England 2 points against Russia and could cost them all 3 points against Wales.

Wales were by no means impressive in performance nor was Gareth Bale a big threat in the game. Tournament matches though, are decided on moments. Wales had the character and self-belief to grab the moment.

Gareth Bale scored a wonderful free-kick. Hal Robson-Kanu ensured he got some type of contact to score the late winner. In contrast to England, Wales defended valiantly as a unit, led by Ashley Williams.

Unlike Hodgson, Wales manager Chris Coleman got his decisions correct. He acted decisively, introducing Joe Ledley, five weeks after breaking his leg, and Hal Robson Kanu from the bench. A lucky 13 minutes later Ledley began a move that ended with Robson-Kanu scoring.

England will have to be tactically smart to cope with Wales.

Wales employed a 3-4-3 formation against Slovakia, with Aaron Ramsey and Jonny Williams very narrow either side of Gareth Bale, allowing the full backs to occupy the space. The 3 centre-backs were very comfortable, as they should be having played a 3 at the back system through qualifying.

England should look at the Belgium vs Italy game to learn how not to play against 3 centre-backs.

Belgium had a lone striker in Romelu Lukaku, isolated against 3 centre-backs. Therefore England must try and occupy as many of the centre-backs as possible. Playing another striker is an option. Pushing the midfield further forward is another option.

The space to exploit in any back 3 system is always down the sides. So England must push the full backs high up the pitch. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are central to England’s attacking success. The midfielders must also occupy wide areas. England have to try and stretch Wales across the entirety of the pitch. This in turn creates space in the middle of the pitch to exploit.

England also have to be wary of the counter-attacking threat posed by Gareth Bale. Wales enjoy playing on the back foot so they can have an effective counter.

There is no one way to defend against Gareth Bale, but there are ways to try and limit his influence by improving the defensive positions of the defenders.

As a general rule, one of full backs should always remain behind Bale, whilst the other full back pushes forward. Chris Smalling should also remain back and create a 2v1 situation against Bale to try and crowd him. Eric Dier should act as a defensive screen to prevent supporting runners and stop the ball getting to Bale.

It would though be a mistake to focus purely on Bale. Wales play very much like a team. Bale is the difference maker but the qualities brought by Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Jonny Williams cannot be underestimated.

England could also have a problem in midfield. Wayne Rooney will not get the same amount of time on the ball as he did against Russia. Rooney notoriously struggles when pressed quickly and not given much time on the ball. Therefore if England are to retain possession, they must ensure there is always a release option, even if that means being defensive and passing the ball backwards.

It is imperative for England to take any chances they create, and the best way to do that is to get the best finishers on the pitch. Too many of the chances on Saturday fell to Lallana and Sterling who are not renowned finishers as they showed on Saturday. Ultimately goals win you matches.

Perhaps the best gauge of how far behind England are in international football is by comparing them to the experienced Italy and Germany.

Germany managed to defend a 1 goal lead resolutely, but also got the killer 2nd goal on the counter-attack late on. The same with Italy, who produced a masterclass in defending, but also counter-attacking late on to get the killer 2nd goal. England failed to get a killer 2nd goal and instead conceded a late equaliser.

It is always difficult to find the right balance between attack and defence. It is a balance England will need to find if they are to progress in this tournament.

England face an uphill struggle, can they deliver?