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?

Euro 2016: Tournament Preview

Euro 2016 is upon us… all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

A 24 team tournament. Bigger. Maybe better. Certainly more complicated. To accommodate the expansion, there has been a change in the format of the tournament. 2 extra groups in the group stage and an extra knockout round.

The six groups (A-F) would contain 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each group going through to the knockout stage. In the new format, the 4 best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of 16 knockout stage, ahead of the usual quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, and only 8 teams going out at the group stage.

Beyond the structure, it is the football in the tournament and the teams in the tournament which will catch the eyes of every ardent football fan and many part-time fans alike.

Group A contains France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland.

France are the hosts and will be spurred on by the home support. They will expect to qualify with ease in this easy group and will believe they can go all the way. They have, on paper, the most balanced team of all the teams. Defensively they have solidity and experience in the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris. In midfield, they have the power and skill of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.

France have a unique blend of pace, power and athleticism, which can be adapted to suit different styles of playing. They’ll be adept at keeping possession against lesser teams, but also playing a higher tempo against better teams. Attackingly, they have variety. The speed and skill of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann. The creativity of Dimitri Payet – who can also provide goals from set piece chances. The power of the in form Olivier Giroud. Giroud will be very useful against defensive teams who prove hard to break down.

Romania  have coach Anghel Iordanescu, who took Romania to the quarter-finals of USA 1994, back in the job, for his third spell. Vlad Chiriches and Costel Pantilimon are the most prominent members of the Romania squad. Romania qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed in. However, Romania also struggled to score goals, scoring only 11 in the 10 games. Romania have been effective sitting back and playing on the counter-attack, and will likely continue this approach against France and Switzerland in particular.

Albania have made it to their first ever tournament. The backbone of this team is the defence, as they only conceded 5 goals in qualifying. Taulant Xhaka (brother of Granit who is playing for Switzerland) will be an important player as he can be very versatile across defence and midfield with his intelligent dribbling and skill of winning the ball back. Amir Abrashi will also be key, as alongside Xhaka, the pair can can make quick and long passes to help start counter attacks. Like Romania, a big weakness is in the attacking areas. They have only scored 7 goals in 8 qualifying matches, and each of the 7 goals were scored by different players.

Switzerland will fancy themselves to qualify from this group in 2nd place due to the relative weaknesses of Romania and Albania. They will rely heavily on the known ‘names’ in the squad, including  Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, with support from Valon Behrami and Gelson Fernandes. In defence, the new captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus will be important due to his class and experience. Having won the Scudetto 5 times in a row, he will understand the standards that need to be set in this tournament.

Group B contains England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia.

England have made excellent progress since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. They have bright young talents who do not carry the mental scars of previous tournaments. Defensively, England have genuine concerns. They have only 3 natural centre backs with Eric Dier providing back up. Chris Smalling is the only one who has had a consistently good season. In midfield, Dier will provide protection to the defence.

There are several tactical dilemmas for Roy Hodgson. Does he start Jack Wilshere alongside Dier with Dele Alli in front, leaving out Wayne Rooney? Does Rooney play in midfield in a diamond formation? Do both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start? England have plenty of talent, but the biggest challenge will be relying on Hodgson to get the best out of his players tactically. England have looked jaded in the warm up games, suggesting the traditional tournament fatigue has already kicked in after a long and intense season. England will be relying on the forwards to score them to victory in individual matches and the tournament. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy whilst proving themselves in the Premier League, have yet to do it at the highest level. It will not be an easy group for England. It could be a group they struggle to escape from.

Wales are the team England will fear the most, and should they qualify, most teams will want to avoid Wales. The big focus is rightfully around Gareth Bale. One of the few genuine world-class players in the world, who can change the game in an instant. This is a big tournament for him, to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of world football today. Wales need him to fire. Yet he is not the only threat Wales possess. Proven defensive quality in Ashley Williams. Reliable midfield talents in Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and Joe Allen. Manager Chris Coleman has shown tactical nous in using a 5 man defence in a 5-3-2 formation. They play on the counter attack using quick transitional passes developed playing in the high-speed Premier League. The main problem for them will be breaking down teams who sit deeper and do not allow a counter-attacking game.

Russia are not a particularly exciting team, with a lack of youth and quality, yet they have good organisation which could make them a tough prospect to beat. They have some solid experience in Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Roman Shirokov. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since new manager Slutsky took charge replacing Fabio Capello, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France. Experience can go a long way and if they manage to get draws from the games against England and Wales, Russia could set up the prospect of reaching the round of 16.

Slovakia had an impressive qualifying campaign and will believe they can get through this group. In Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, they have players who play regularly for top European clubs. Kucka is the toughness and hard work to Hamsik’s flair and finesse, and should prove to be an effective shield for Slovakia’s star man. They have a compact style and defensively have discipline. With an average age of 28, they also have enough individual experience. However, this is the first European Championships they are competing in since becoming independent, and they are very reliant on Hamsik. If they can get a win against Russia, they will fancy themselves to getting through to the round of 16.

Group C contains Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland.

Germany are the reigning world champions and despite a few retirements, they are the fancied choice for many. They are the most cohesive team in the tournament, filled with world-class talents. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are now in peak form, with Muller in particular being lethal in the big tournaments. The class of Toni Kroos in midfield ensures control, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger on his day (as shown in his man of the match performance in the 2014 World Cup final) can win any game for his team.

In goal, Germany have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer, who is another match winner for them. Germany have the ability to switch from being a possession orientated side to being a counter attacking side, meaning they are able to adapt for both the big and small teams. If there is a weakness, it is that they do not have a proven natural striker, as the recall of Mario Gomez shows. Mario Goetze is likely to start as a false ‘9’. Defensively, with the exception of Mats Hummels, there is no other stand out.

Ukraine will look to improve on the disaster of 2012. This is the first ever European championships for them where they have earned a place through qualifying. The wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko will hold the key for Ukraine to have any chance in this group, with the ability to score goals. The experienced squad, with many players having Champions League experience will hold them in good stead, as they will know the levels they need to reach. The ageing squad however, also means they are susceptible to energetic teams. Ukraine will be tough to beat, but should not be making the knockouts in this group of death.

Poland like Wales, will be relying heavily on a single individual: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals to his name, a European qualifying record. The ability to score goals at will makes Poland an extremely tricky team to encounter. They will believe that goals can fire them to the knockout stages. Defensively, Poland have been poor and inconsistent, keeping only four clean sheets in qualifying. Poland will need Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki to fire to provide service to Lewandowski. If the rest of the team can keep it tight, and Lewandowski can fire, there is no reason why Poland cannot make the round of last 16.

Northern Ireland are the fierce underdogs in this group. Michael O’Neill has Northern Ireland playing attractive football, with qualification for this tournament the most important thing. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a willingness to work for each-other. They are determined and will never give up. They have proven Premier League defensive quality in Jonny Evans, Gareth McCauley and Craig Cathcart. Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty provide hard work and goals further up the field. Northern Ireland will be relying on Lafferty’s goals if they are to have any chance. However, the lack of quality in the squad suggests they will not progress from the group. The hard work and discipline means they will provide a challenge to the other teams, but they do not have enough quality to trouble other teams.

Group D consists of Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.

Spain will be looking to bounce back after the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Spain, they still have a hugely impressive array of players, many of whom have won it all. Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva would be cause for delight in most countries. Spain are not currently playing the Spanish way of the past 10 years.

The passing has lacked the pace and precision that once characterised them and chances were few and far between. Spain lacked spark, freshness, an apparent sense of purpose, edge, creativity and speed. The manager, Vincent del Bosque talked about the importance of releasing longer balls more quickly, of being able to play on the counter-attack, of a willingness to mix the game up. This though is coming at the cost of their identity and is not seemingly effective. They do however, have a natural striker in Alvaro Morata and still have individual brilliance. If the individuals can turn up, there is no reason why Spain cannot go all the way and retain the crown that currently belongs to them.

Czech Republic were one of the more impressive teams in qualifying. They topped Group A scoring 19 goals and only losing 2 of their matches. They have a determined style which can compensate for the poor defence that they have- they failed to keep a single clean sheet. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech who can make the difference in crucial pressure situations. Even if they fail to keep a clean sheet, Cech can pull off vital saves which ensures the game can still be won. The team does not have many world-class players, but its team spirit and unity can cause problems for opponents. They have a good chance at making the round of 16 in this relatively evenly matched group.

Turkey have momentum on their side after an excellent qualifying campaign and they will be driven on by one of the most popular and eccentric managers in the game, Fatih Terim. Turkey have immense quality in the attacking areas which could make the difference in this group. Arda Turan has immense quality and drive. Alongside him, Mehmet Topal and Burak Yilmaz provide experience and technical class. Turkey also have a promising crop of youngsters, with Hakan Calhanoglu a free-kick specialist, Gokhan Tore providing explosive talent and Oghuzan Ozyukap being able to run with the ball and control the tempo of the game. Having only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and only 3 after the first game, Turkey have a solid defence. They will believe they can cause an upset and qualify to the knockout stages. Turkey are the dark horses of the competition.

Croatia have experience and quality and will believe they can beat anybody in the group. Ante Cacic has remained undefeated in competitive matches since taking over as manager. In Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic they have experience and quality at the highest level. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are both energetic midfielders with the pace to burst forward. With creativity and attacking prowess, Croatia will be a handful and threat. They do however, have a big defensive weakness. The Croatian defence often are unable to cope with sustained pressure put on them by opponents. The manager has yet to find a tactical solution, experimenting with a 3-5-2. If the defence can tighten up and become reliable, Croatia have a real chance at getting to the quarter finals and beyond.

Group E consists of Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Belgium have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years in world football, officially being the best team in Europe. They have an incredibly talented squad even without Vincent Kompany, but football is not won on talent alone and the questions about the mental strength of Belgium will remain unless they do something significant. Coach Marc Wilmots has to find the correct balance. Defensively, they have the best centre back pairing in the Premier League in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, yet Wilmots will choose to play them at full back. Thibaut Courtois will look to prove his doubters wrong after a difficult season in the Chelsea goal.

In midfield, Belgium have a plethora of options of both creative skill and combative nature. Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembele, and Marouane Fellaini provide the power and tackling, with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco providing the flair and spark. In attack, Romelu Lukaku will be the key man as a focal point and goalscorer in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Wilmots. Belgium have the class, and they will provide a threat to every team they face.

Italy are always threats in major tournaments, but this is undoubtedly one of its weaker squads of recent times. Injuries to key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio have not helped Italy. As expected, the defence of this Italy team is its strongest suit. The Juventus back 3 of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will be more crucial than ever as Antonio Conte will look to deploy a back 3. Gianluigi Buffon’s world-class abilities as goalkeeper and leader will have to make a difference. The forward line is a big weakness, with Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne being the only reliable forwards. Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi have proven quality in midfield, but Italy are very thin in those areas to make much of a difference. It is always hard to rule out Italy in big tournaments, but this tournament seems too competitive for Italy to make much of a mark.

Republic of Ireland led by Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane along with the vociferous fans they will bring along make for an interesting proposition. They face a tough group and lack the all round quality to make much of a difference. They have a big team spirit, are well organised and are all consistently at a similar level, meaning they can use the depth of the squad without a drop off in quality. ROI have Premier League quality players in Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea. Shane Long will be a menace up front and Robbie Keane can always find the goal. In order to progress, they will have to consistently produce team performances with every individual contributing, as they do not have an individual match winner.

Sweden have historically struggled to exit the group stage. In this tough group, they will be relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who delivered in the playoff against Denmark to drag Sweden to the Euros. Sweden have a balanced squad with decent footballers, none of whom compare to the skills of Ibrahimovic. Kim Källström and Pontus Wernbloom will be important in the midfield battle. Sweden are defensively susceptible to long balls over the top due to a lack of pace in the defence, so will need to play deeper against teams with pace. Ultimately, if they are to have any chance, they will need their talisman to fire.

Group F contains Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary.

Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo which means Portugal can beat any team. The strength of Portugal will be their defence. Whilst that seems strange, Portugal do not have any other attackers on the same level as Ronaldo, but they do have a solid defensive unit, proven through England’s difficulty in breaking them down even when they were reduced to 10 men. The central defence is particularly strong with Pepe and Bruno Alves,  assisted by Southampton’s Jose Fonte and veteran Ricardo Carvahlo who is the best form of his career. In the attacking areas alongside Ronaldo is Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, who are experienced but have struggled to set the stage alight. Whilst they should easily make it through the group, they will struggle against tougher opposition. If Ronaldo fires though, anything could happen.

Iceland are a very small nation of only 330,000. Yet the achievement of them qualifying is no fluke. Iceland have a very talented generation of players who have been playing together since youth football. Iceland are a team very capable of producing attractive football. They had balance in attack and defence in qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding only 6. They defeated the Netherlands twice, with Gylfi Sigurdsson being the star man. He will be crucial to their efforts in this tournament, being a threat on the dead ball, creating chances and scoring goals. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will be another attacker to keep an eye on. Iceland have a terrific team unity and work ethic, yet they lack genuine world-class quality. They also do not have a very deep squad and lack the experience of tournament situations. They will believe that they could make it through to the next round in 2nd place because of the similarity of skill levels with fellow group competitors Austria and Hungary.

Austria are another one of the dark horses of the competition. They qualified unbeaten and are ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Austria have several big name players including Premier League winner Christian Fuchs as captain, Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer, Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic. The squad is extremely well-balanced with a nice blend of youth and experience. Austria under manager Marcel Koller are able to adapt at playing attacking football and counter attack, depending on the strengths of the opposition, with high tempo transitions. Austria have a real chance to progress and will need stars such as Arnautovic and Alaba to perform consistently. Much like Iceland, they will also believe they can qualify because of the similarities of skill level.

Hungary are possibly the weakest team in the group, with few standout players. Yet they have a new-found resilience and team spirit which saw them overcome Norway in the playoffs. Former Premier League stars Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, despite being past their very best, remain key men in the squad and will provide important experience. Skipper Balázs Dzsudzak is their biggest threat going forward. He has the pace and skill to beat a man in a 1v1 situation and is crucial to the counter-attack that Hungary employ. Whilst not being the toughest group they could have been given, Hungary do lack individual quality, the kind of quality that Austria and Iceland contain. If Hungary can muster the resilience and team spirit of the playoffs, they will feel they can get something against those 2 teams, giving themselves a chance at qualifying.

This tournament will be a close tournament, with several teams containing the quality which could cause a few upsets.

The increase in the number of teams will potentially make the group stages a more defensive affair. The underdog teams will look to limit the defensive damage and will seek to counter attack, much in the vein of Leicester City, because they know they cannot compete in the attacking third with the bigger nations. There are many sit back and counter-attacking teams in the group stages: Albania, Romania, Wales, Russia, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Austria. Perhaps the unfortunate success of a defensive approach is reflected in the stat that there is an 87% of qualification from the group if a team obtains 3 scores of 0-0 (credit to Michael Cox).

This tournament will have its high and low points. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some bore-fest draws, there will also be lots of attacking and exciting football. Groups D, E and F look the most entertaining and competitive. There is plenty of individual quality on offer for us to enjoy. As is the way in football however, anything can happen.

Let us hope Euro 2016 in France provides us with rich summer entertainment.

Manchester United are in dire straits

On the brink…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

This is not just a reaction to the shambolic and embarrassing performance by Manchester United in the Europa League first leg against Liverpool at Anfield. For a number of months now, Manchester United have been without direction. Paul Scholes was famously nicknamed ‘Sat-Nav’ by his team mates for his positive passing and ensuring the ball always reached its desired target. It seems Manchester United’s club ‘Sat-Nav’ is currently suffering from a severe malfunction.

Despite a stuttering first season under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United showed enough promise to suggest that this season would be a season of real improvement. Outstanding performances and results against Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool, along with a terrific performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge led to many fans and pundits alike thinking ‘next season, Manchester United will be in the mix’.

Van Gaal’s first season involved lots of injuries, formation changes and inconsistency. Yet coming into the back end of the season, it seemed he had found the right formation and a tactically balanced team. The 4-3-3 had a little bit of everything. It had the passing of Michael Carrick, the energy of Ander Herrera and the power of Marouane Fellaini in midfield. It had the creativity of Juan Mata, the industry of Ashley Young and the discipline of Wayne Rooney. It looked like a cohesive unit which understood what it needed to do. It looked like a team capable of playing attractive football.

Of course there were shortfalls. They did not have a world class defender. Radamel Falcao and Angel di Maria were expensive flops. Robin van Persie looked like a player whose injuries and age had finally caught up with him. A striker was needed to help Wayne Rooney. The squad needed reinforcing. The team needed a sprinkle of stardust. Yet the fundamentals were there in place.

Fast forward to the start of this season, and United’s squad looked incomplete. There was still no world class defender. The midfield was reinforced and young players such as Memphis and Anthony Martial gave fans something to look forward to. Still, there was no stardust. Di Maria opted for a more relaxed lifestyle at PSG, Falcao and van Persie both moved on. Strangely, Javier Hernandez was also allowed to leave, just days after van Gaal stated he was the 2nd choice striker.

This season has demonstrated that the Louis van Gaal that is currently at Manchester United, is not the Louis van Gaal Manchester United and its fans were expecting. Fans were expecting a winner. A strong manager who would put ‘team philosophy’ over individual interests. A tactically flexible manager who would play attractive football. Instead, this season has shown Louis van Gaal to be rigid, weak and tactically backwards- all culminating in providing Manchester United fans with an extra 90 minutes of sleep.

From the strange decision to move away from the 4-3-3 to accommodate his plethora of midfielders, to playing 2 defensive midfielders, to playing Daley Blind at centre back even after he was exposed as a poor defender, to refusing to release the shackles and show adventure to refusing to drop out of form players because of favouritism. This season has been an Argos catalogue of errors by the Dutchman. Results poor, performances even worse, going into 2016, van Gaal was on the brink.

“Sacked in the morning” were the chants. “Mourinho to Manchester United” were the headlines.

2016 saw the blooding of youth. Notably Marcus Rashford. A bit more adventure. Impressive and unlikely victories in a few games had van Gaal in full boast mode. His players followed. Ander Herrera declared United were fighting on all fronts. Mata’s weekly blog posts talked about the turning point. Then came West Brom. Soon after, Liverpool.

One of the many lessons the players could learn from this season is to talk less and perform better consistently.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool over the past month has shown how it wants to play football. High energy, quick transitions and a fluidity in the team. Klopp’s identity is filtering through the team. United’s identity on the other hand seems to be floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere.

Starting with a midfield 2 of Morgan Schneiderlin and Fellaini was tantamount to footballing suicide. The switch to 3 centre backs was a desperate move by a desperate manager going through his last bag of tricks. There was no direction. No way of playing. The players seemed confused. Was the plan to pass the ball through the midfield as they usually do? Or was it to knock it long to Fellaini?

Switching back to experience once players returned was not something the van Gaal of the 1990s would have done. He would have continued with youth all through the team, like his famed Ajax team.

It’s not as though the experienced players are providing any leadership. Juan Mata more often than not goes missing when the going gets tough. Ander Herrera talks off the pitch but rarely dominates a game on the pitch. Daley Blind is not a leader. Morgan Schneiderlin is not a leader. Fellaini is not a leader. Michael Carrick should be a leader, but his current form is seeing him lead himself out of the club in the summer. Wayne Rooney is a leader. Perhaps the only leader Manchester United have. Yet his form is inconsistent and he’s not worth a place in the team on footballing abilities at the moment.

Lightweight, passive and powerless. That is what Manchester United currently look like.

It is not all down to van Gaal and his players. Ed Woodward and the Glazer family must take blame too. His inability to secure transfer targets has seen him become a laughing stock amongst Europe’s top administrators. His pursuit of ‘marquee’ players has been laughable.

There has been a severe underinvestment for a number of years, which has caught up with United. The academy is unable to attract local talent against competition from Manchester City’s modern academy. There is still no Director of Football. Standards have been allowed to drop in all aspects of the club. It was not so visible under Sir Alex Ferguson, whose force of personality acted as a bandage for United’s problems. Since his retirement, standards have fallen dramatically. Slowly and steadily, Ed Woodward and the Glazer family are ruining Manchester United Football Club.

Manchester United is now a business with a football team attached to it. It is all about the money now. There are no football brains on the board. Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton are mere symbolic figures with little power left at the club. It is one of the reasons why they are so strongly in favour of Ryan Giggs becoming the next manager.

Louis van Gaal’s time is up. It’s only a matter of when. He’s a brilliant manager with a glittering career. Sadly though, he is way past his best.

The next manager will firstly need to understand the size of the job. It is no ordinary football management job. The system of transfers will need to be overhauled. The squad will need to be built again. There has to be a clear direction for the club to move in. The next manager has to be a figure which can unite the entire club. Someone who respects and follows the traditions of the club. There was a lot of nonsense printed that Manchester United had lost their identity because they spent big money. Manchester United have always spent big money.

The identity of Manchester United has been based around winning, playing attacking football and trusting youth players. Gary Neville has often described the “fury” and “urgency” of Manchester United teams when chasing a goal. Consistently taking risks, but being sensible and using common sense. It has not always been successful, but more often than not, that mentality drove fear into the opposition.

It is a mentality which is now missing. United are weak. They have no backbone. They have no leadership. They have no clear direction. They risk going down the path of Liverpool in the 1990s and 2000s.

Manchester United need to act swiftly and decisively. Louis van Gaal has no future. It is time for change.

Premier League 2015-2016: Team by Team Preview:

The Premier League begins…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.


They are the team who are fancied by many to lift the trophy this year. Last season, they got over the mental hurdle of struggling in the big games with wins at the Etihad and Old Trafford (FA Cup), and they have started this season with a Community Shield victory over Chelsea. They have strengthened in goal with the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea, a signing which brings leadership, experience and class. Arsenal have a strong team, with the only visible weakness being in the strikers department, with no recognised world class striker. There is also a question mark over defensive midfield, with this season being the key season for Francis Coquelin to prove he is the real deal. The signing of a world class striker such as Karim Benzema would make Arsenal the favourites to lift the trophy. Arsenal’s success also depends much on the injury record, with Jack Wilshere already ruled out of the start of the season.

Key man- Alexis Sanchez- his form will be important in deciding Arsenal’s form, with his speed and creativity resulting in high level output. Can he better his 16 goals and 8 assists from last season?

Predicted finish: 2nd

Aston Villa:

Tim Sherwood inspired a turnaround in Villa’s fortunes, culminating in the FA Cup final. They have been hurt badly with the loss of key men Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph. There will be a lot of pressure on Gabby Agbonlahor and new signing Jordan Ayew to provide the goals which could keep Aston Villa up. An area of weakness in recent years has been the defence, and despite the arrival of the versatile Micah Richards, once again the Aston Villa defence looks extremely weak going into the new season.  Sherwood will look to bring in another midfielder after the double departures of Cleverley and Delph, currently his options look thin with Idrissa Gueye, Carlos Sánchez and Ashley Westwood. Jack Grealish was a shining light for Aston Villa last season with his distinctive style, his ability to cope with the added pressure will be an important factor in his form and Villa’s form.

Key man: Gabby Agbonlahor – his speed and goals are what will win Villa matches.

Predicted finish: 16th.


Newly promoted, Eddie Howe’s men will deem survival as success. They are a side who are comfortable on the ball and use Swansea City as a template. Right-back Simon Francis and right-sided midfielder Matt Ritchie were in the Championship team of the season, and striker Callum Wilson scored 20 league goals  in the last campaign. Harry Arter chipped in with 8 goals from the centre of midfield and is considered to be their best player. Recruitment has seemingly been clever with the acquisitions of midfielders Christian Atsu and Joshua King adding speed to attacks, Sylvain Distin will bring experience to the backline, with Tyrone Mings adding size and power at left back. In goal, Arthur Boruc will bring proven Premier League experience. Bournemouth have a chance due to the hard working and analytically obsessive nature of manager Howe.

Key man: Harry Arter – can he continue his good form into the Premier League? A vital cog in the machine.

Predicted finish: 18th.


The current champions. The team with the best defence and the standout player of the league in Eden Hazard. Chelsea have also added to the forward line with the loan signing of Radamel Falcao, who if he can reproduce his old form, will be a banker for Jose Mourinho. John Terry is one year older and it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his form from last season. Chelsea were lucky last season in that they did not suffer as many injuries as challengers. The squad of Chelsea looks thin, particularly in defence at left back. Whilst Chelsea’s first team has undoubted quality, there are question marks over squad players such as Juan Cuadrado and John Obi Mikel. In Mourinho, Chelsea have a man who knows how to win by any means. That is why they are the favourites to retain the crown.

Key man: Eden Hazard- if he reproduces his world class form from last season, Chelsea will win the league.

Predicted finish: 1st.

Crystal Palace:

Under Alan Pardew, there is huge amounts of optimism after the improved performances last season. This is perhaps the best squad ever in the history of Crystal Palace, particularly in midfield. Mile Jedinak provides the strength for the trio of players – Yohan Cabaye, Jordon Mutch and  Jason Puncheon to create and provide the energy going forward. Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha provide pace, skill and incision from the wings, with consistency now the aim. The forward line of  Glenn Murray, Dwight Gayle and Marouane Chamakh fired in bursts. A new striker will be the aim, though this trio should be helped with the greater creativity behind them provided by Cabaye. The first aim will be survival, but the final aim will be to finish in the top 10.

Key man– Yohan Cabaye- a wonderful midfield player who is as creative as any midfielder in the league.

Predicted finish: 10th.


It was a disappointing campaign last season, with Everton hampered by the Europa League. They have the style of football to succeed but now they need the consistency. The summer acquisitions of Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley provide skill and creativity. It will be important to sort out the future of talented defender John Stones as soon as possible, to find a replacement if needed. The 2013-2014 season showed how dangerous this Everton team can be when on form, with Roberto Martinez tactically flexible and astute. They will be aiming for a top 8 finish with hopes of making the Europa League once again.

Key man: Romelu Lukaku- after a disappointing last season, his goals will be vital to Everton’s hopes.

Predicted finish: 7th. 


Leicester have lost 2 key men in Nigel Pearson and the legendary Esteban Cambiasso. It will be vital for Claudio Ranieri and Shinji Okazaki to fill those holes. Despite appearing as a distasteful character in the media, Pearson ensured he had the backing of his players and it was that team spirit which propelled Leicester to safety. Robert Huth will be a key man for Leicester in the 3 man defence which Ranieri seems intent on keeping. The arrival of Austria international Christian Fuchs has bolstered the defence, but Leicester still look extremely thin going forward despite the signing of Okazaki. Cambiasso’s creativity has not been replaced and Matty James will be out injured at least until the new year. Danny Drinkwater, Andy King and Dean Hammond are all good but none look capable of doing what Cambiasso did. The battle to survive will be tough.

Key man: Shinji Okazaki – can the new signing score goals to inspire Leicester’s survival?

Predicted finish: 17th.


The much talked about future of Raheem Sterling was resolved early on, and allowed Liverpool the financial capacity to sign Christian Benteke. He will provide goals, power and energy up front, and can work in tandem with Daniel Sturridge or as a lone striker. Liverpool’s area of weakness last season was the forward line, which has been bolstered by the arrival of Benteke and Roberto Firmino. The signing of Nathaniel Clyne boosts Liverpool at full back, a position which saw the likes of Sterling and Lazar Markovic playing in. The upturn in Simon Mignolet’s form was important to Liverpool in not signing a new goalkeeper, and it will be interesting to see if that pans out to be the correct decision.

Key man: Philippe Coutinho – he is a class player and will be vital in the supply to the forward line.

Predicted finish: 5th.

Manchester City:

Despite finishing second, it was a disappointing campaign for Man City who never looked like retaining the title. The arrival of Raheem Sterling should galvanise a team which looked lethargic at times last season. Manuel Pellegrini has employed a 4-3-3 system in pre-season which should give City more control and give Yaya Toure more of a license to roam forward with an extra midfielder protecting him. The burden of goals will once again be on the shoulders of Sergio Aguero whose main battle will be to stay fit for the entirety of the season. Vincent Kompany will also be hoping for an upturn in form after a season of errors and injury. Though City have the individual quality, it will be key for them to work as a team, something they did not do much of last season.

Key man: Sergio Aguero – one of the few world class strikers around, his goals can win trophies.

Predicted finish: 4th.

Manchester United:

Louis van Gaal achieved the minimum target of a top 4 finish last season, along with the implementation of his much talked about philosophy. He used last season to experiment with formations and players, but after the astute signings of Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis and Morgan Schneiderlin, there is an expectation that Manchester United should be competing for the title this season. There are still gaps, notably at centre back and the lack of a viable forward should Wayne Rooney get injured. The future of David de Gea casts a dark shadow as he was the standout player for Man United last season, his future needs to be resolved quickly. The departure of Angel di Maria is a blow, as he has much needed speed and creativity, but it seems his individualistic brilliance did not fit into the team based philosophy of the manager.

Key man: Wayne Rooney – has the order to play up front, can he get 20+ goals and fire United to the title?

Predicted finish: 3rd


A team and club in much turmoil over the last 3 years. The owner has been criticised for lack of investment and the appointment of Steve McClaren has not gone down well with many Newcastle fans. However, the purse strings have been loosened with almost £35m being invested so far on Georginio Wijnaldum, the Holland attacking midfielder who joins from PSV Eindhoven, Aleksandar Mitrovic, a young Serbia striker who proved so prolific for Anderlecht last season and Chancel Mbemba, a highly talented Congolese centre-half also recruited from Anderlecht. On paper, Newcastle have a good pool of players – as individuals. Yet so often in recent years, they have been criticised for a lack of mental strength and team work. If McClaren can bring the team as one, they will be dangerous.

Key man:  Georginio Wijnaldum- a man who can provide the ammunition for goals.

Predicted finish: 13th.


Alex Neil has been a fine manager for Norwich since taking over, but this may be one challenge too far. The group of players is very similar to the players who were responsible for relegation a few seasons back. The need for new signings and quality signings at that is huge. The full-back Andre Wisdom has come in from Liverpool on loan. Midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu looks a fine import from West Brom and the loan move of his more creative former Baggies team-mate Graham Dorrans has been made permanent. The left-sided midfielder, occasional full-back and set-piece genius Robbie Brady has joined from Hull City. They are all decent mid- to lower-end top-flight players but none who can be depended on for consistency. The lack of quality and goals up front means relegation is a near certainty for Norwich.

Key man: Youssouf Mulumbu – the only reliable player with proven premier league experience.

Predicted finish: 19th.


Many tipped Southampton to be relegated last season, but nobody will make the same mistake this season. After an outstanding campaign, despite falling away in the last few months, Southampton have the players and manager to continue in good form. The loss of 3 key players in Clyne, Schneiderlin and Toby Alderweireld is a big blow and the form of the replacements will be important in determining whether Southampton can finish in the top 8. The squad looks strong again with the signing of experience Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg on loan, Portuguese right-back Cédric Soares, Steven Caulker at centre back, Jordy Clasie in midfield and Juanmi in attack. The return to regular football for Jay Rodriguez will also be a big boost for Koeman.

Key man: Jordy Clasie – can he maintain the class of Schneiderlin?

Predicted finish: 11th


The old tag of Stoke as ‘long ball’ no longer rings true, with Mark Hughes assembling a team of fine footballers. Stoke have signed Ibrahim Afellay and Moha El Ouriachi ahead of this campaign. Bojan was wonderful until he was struck down by knee ligament damage in January. If either of the latest arrivals from Camp Nou have a similar impact, then Hughes will have pulled off another masterstroke. In midfield, the impressive Steven N’Zonzi needs to be replaced, with Marko van Ginkel being given that responsibility. Asmir Begovic will not be badly missed if Jack Butland does as well as expected, and Shay Given could serve as a reliable stand-in at times. This could be an impressive season for Stoke, once again.

Key man: Bojan – the little magician has the stardust which makes Stoke so watchable.

Predicted finish: 9th.


Repeated underachievers, Dick Advocaat has lifted the mood at Sunderland. Advocaat has to bring in creativity, pace, power and hard work as all those elements have been missing from Sunderland’s game. The acquisition of Younès Kaboul from Tottenham Hotspur and Sebastián Coates from Liverpool will improve a slow and old defence. Jermain Lens should bring improved creativity, Yann M’Vila and Leroy Fer should also add much-needed physical presence and energy to the engine room. Looking forward, if Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe can be given sustained service, they will be bankers for goals, which should help to keep Sunderland up.

Key man: Yann M’Vila – comes with a big reputation and has the authority to guide Sunderland.

Predicted finish: 15th.

Swansea City:

Under Gary Monk, Swansea have confounded the doubters and progressed to the highest points tally in the club’s history. Can  Bafétimbi Gomis can step up to the role of being the frontline striker? He needs to add consistency and continue his form from the last 6 games of last season. Eder is another striker, from Braga and the star signing of André Ayew, the experienced Ghana international will lift spirits slightly dampened by Bony’s departure in January. Ayew is likely to be used out wide, but he is also able to play across any of the attacking positions. Franck Tabanou will bolster the left back spot. It will be key for Ki Sung Yeung, Jonjo Shelvey and Gylfi Sigurdsson to continue the great form they displayed last season.

Key man: Gylfi Sigurdsson- creativity with goals and assists – the team is built around him.

Predicted finish: 8th.

Tottenham Hotspur:

Mauricio Pochettino’s first season can be considered a success, but building on that will be a challenge he will relish. The signing of Toby Alderweireld from Atlético Madrid along with Kevin Wimmer and Kieran Trippier strengthened a weak defence which conceded too many sloppy goals last season.  Tottenham have shed plenty of their unwanted players and trimmed the squad fat– Younès Kaboul, Vlad Chiriches, Etienne Capoue, Benjamin Stambouli, Paulinho and Lewis Holtby. The squad still needs reinforcements up front with Soldado barely playing in pre-season, Adebayor not wanted and Harry Kane the only senior striker. There is much pressure on him to repeat his heroics from last season.

Key man: Harry Kane- his goals hold the key to progress.

Predicted finish: 6th.


This team resembles nothing like the team which was promoted. Quique Sánchez Flores, the former Valencia manager is now in charge. Heurelho Gomes is the only player expected to start automatically from last season. The rest will most likely make up the squad. The Greece left-back José Holebas arrived from Roma, the centre-backs Sebastian Prödl, from Werder Bremen, and Miguel Britos,  followed, with the Cameroon right-back Allan Nyom joining from Udinese. The defensive midfield slots were filled by Valon Behrami, and Étienne Capoue, a club-record £6m arrival from Tottenham. José Jurado, who flourished under Sánchez Flores at Atlético, has been reunited with his former manager and AZ winger Steven Berghuis will also provide left footed delivery. Despite the massive activity in the market, it will take a big effort to get all of these players to join together as a unit.

Key man- Étienne Capoue – he has to justify his fee and rule the midfield.

Predicted finish: 20th.

West Brom:

Under Tony Pulis, there is no chance of relegation. However, the squad is looking quite thin. The recruitment has been good if not swift.  James McClean is a good signing, with wing play and hard work fitting into the Pulis thought. The signing of Rickie Lambert is also a smart move by Pulis. His side were far too reliant last season on the brilliance of Saido Berahino. James Chester is a shrewd move which will provide cover in defence thanks to his versatility. Pulis will want more players, particularly in goal, defence and to cover the forward line.

Key man: Saido Berahino/Rickie Lambert – goals are what will enable progress, these are the men to get them.

Predicted finish: 14th. 

West Ham United:

No Sam Allardyce brings its own risks, just ask Blackburn and Bolton. Appointing Slaven Bilic brings swagger, style and unpredictability – and that’s just the man. Preparations for the new season have not been ideal, with West Ham’s unexpected entry into Europe via the Fair Play League forcing them to start their season with a qualifier against the Andorran part-timers of FC Lusitans. However, they are no longer in Europe so the domestic campaign should not be affected. Enner Valencia’s long term injury is a blow, but the recruits brought in by Bilic, such as Payet must fire for West Ham to stay up before the big move to the Olympic Stadium. Andy Carroll’s return will also be pivotal, with his role in Bilic’s system yet to be seen.

Key man: Andy Carroll- his return and form upon return will go a long way to deciding West Ham’s future.

Predicted finish: 12th. 

In defence of Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling, a Manchester City player now…All rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Defending Raheem Sterling is not the most popular thing  in football right now. The words ‘greed’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘bench’ are the buzzwords when describing Sterling’s move to Manchester City. Yet, it seems Sterling having ambitions is somehow a tainted thing.

Loyalty is a much talked about notion in football. It adds to the romance that many of us see in football. But at the end of the day, Sterling is a professional footballer, he has to do what he believes is best for him and his career.

Could he have conducted himself better? Yes, of course, but why should he bother? In the cut throat tribal football industry, he would have been still seen as greedy and arrogant for moving to Manchester City, regardless of whether he would have publicly stated that we was ‘loving life at Liverpool’. His aim is to win trophies, and with the greatest of respect to Liverpool, he has a far superior chance of winning trophies at Manchester City.

Like most footballers, Sterling is a hard and cold individual when surrounded by football. That is no bad thing. It is the reason he is, where he is, at the top level of football. Sterling would have grown up with a number of young lads, trained with them and seen them suffer rejection when clubs and coaches deemed them not good enough.

Loyalty they call it. Most of the footballers playing at the top level have seen the loyalty that clubs show to young footballers. They have seen how quickly clubs can get rid of players on account of it being ‘best for business.’ Clubs have no emotional attachments, why should players?

We often talk about the amount of money footballers earn, looking at the cars, houses and holidays they have with considerable envy. We hardly ever talk about the hard work that footballers put in just to get to the top level.

Take Sterling as an example. Sterling lived a life away from home, uprooted and sent to live with family he did not know, away from his parents, instead lodging with people he calls his ‘house parents’. He moved to Liverpool from his North London estate at just 15.

Looking at the childhood Sterling had, it’s not hard to see why he is so keen to maximise his limited footballing shell life. He left Jamaica for England with his mother at the age of 5, without knowing his father who was murdered.

There are many stories around football about some young players who cannot make it to the top level because of the mental pressures. Players being punished for embarrassing senior players in training with skills, or players being forced to play whilst injured, or even homesickness playing a role in some youngsters being forced to give up the game.

Making it as a top level footballer, or even making it to the top level in any walk of life means you need to have a single track mindset, focused only on what needs to be done in order to succeed. Footballers have seen what will happen if they do not help themselves, they will be binned like the youngster they were training with aged 14.

Footballers are adored and praised for the performances they put on the pitch. Yet it is a selfish nature which has allowed them to perform at the highest level. The one goal they strive to achieve means they have developed a ruthless nature.

Sterling has no deep seated emotional bond to Liverpool. They served a purpose to him, giving him a chance to play football. In the same way for Liverpool, Sterling served a purpose. He was an asset, a commodity for which they were paid £35 million (with further £5 million in add ons and £9 million being given to QPR).

Of course fans who idolised Sterling can feel aggrieved, but the idea of a player forming some type of deep attachment to a football club is fantasy.

Instantly we had ex players and fans rushing to compare Sterling to some of the other English flops at Man City. The pictures of Sterling on a bench were rushed out. He has ruined his career were the calls in some quarters. Steven Gerrard rushed to point out his disappointment in Sterling. Sorry Steven, it’s not as though you ever rejected a contract offer to play in a team with more lucrative riches.

Sterling, in that now infamous BBC interview, said it was not about the money and hinted he would reject a contract offer from Liverpool whatever the wages, because his main aim was to win trophies. Did he believe Liverpool were progressing in the right way to winning trophies? Clearly not, considering they had just lost Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard in consecutive summers.

Will he be financially better off with this move? Yes. Will his chances of winning trophies be higher? Yes. Will he be stuck on the bench? Most certainly not.

For all of his apparent ‘character flaws’, Sterling remains a shining light in English football. Paying close to £50 million means he will most certainly be starting week in and week out for Man City. He also has the qualities to be a world class talent. His game will only improve playing alongside the likes Sergio Aguero and David Silva. Manchester City have paid for potential, overpriced right now? Most certainly, but that is the added price for buying English.

Liverpool received a big sum. Manchester City received a player with lots of potential. Sterling got his desired move. Winners all around.

We should not feel sympathy for Sterling. But to direct so much vitriol towards him is uncalled for.

This is football, it’s business, not personal.