Gareth Bale was man of the match once again for Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night, as he scored a late winner from 25 yards to earn his team three valuable points at Upton Park against West Ham United. The game had appeared to be slipping away from Andre Villas-Boas’ men – Bale had given them an early lead with a well placed left foot shot, but a penalty from Andy Carroll – after the striker had been fouled by Scott Parker – and a clinical finish from Joe Cole, following some poor positioning from the Spurs defence, had given West Ham a 2-1 lead. Despite immense pressure, Tottenham could not find a way past Jussi Jaaskelainen, as the Finnish goalkeeper made a string of fantastic saves to deny Bale, Emmanuel Adebayor and – on three separate occasions – Steven Caulker. Nevertheless, Spurs were not to be denied a win that moved them above Chelsea into third in the table and they got exactly that thanks to a scrambled effort by Gylfi Sigurdsson, followed by Bale’s second goal of the game to secure the victory, which was the Welshman’s 13th in his last 13 matches in all competitions, 15th in the league of the season…I could go on, but I have already written enough superlatives about him this week.
To say that Tottenham are a one man team is wildly inaccurate; but without Bale – especially considering that we have no in-form strikers in our squad – Spurs would not be in pole position to secure one of the two remaining Champions League berths (after the two Manchester clubs). It is not realistic to expect him to be the club’s saviour every week, but Tottenham are hardly one-dimensional and in particular, the threat of Aaron Lennon’s pace on the right-wing means that opponents cannot focus solely on Bale. What is astounding is that everybody knows that the Welshman will attempt to get the ball onto his left foot, which should make him easier to defend against, yet time and again he finds time and space to unleash a strike from that side. Spurs fans everywhere will be hoping that this purple patch, during which Bale has been almost unstoppable, lasts for at least one more week, as they will need him on top form for this Sunday’s huge derby clash against Arsenal.
The Gunners head into the fixture on their North London rival’s turf behind them by four points, but they will still have confidence that they can overhaul that gap, given that they have not finished below Tottenham in the league since 1994/5. Last weekend, they stayed within touching distance of both Spurs and Chelsea (who are two points above Arsenal in fourth) with a 2-1 win at home to Aston Villa thanks to two goals by Santi Cazorla, the second of which came inside the final five minutes to give Wenger’s men the victory. In all likelihood, Arsenal need just a point on Sunday to be considered favourites to take third spot: after the derby, their final ten Premiership games include no away trips to anyone in the current top six (they go to Swansea, West Brom, Fulham, QPR and Newcastle); while their home matches, outside of Manchester United, all look winnable (Reading, Norwich, Everton and Wigan). By contrast, Tottenham must still travel to Chelsea, Liverpool and Stoke, as well as Wigan and Swansea; and their home matches include a fixture against Manchester City. If Spurs are going to have a realistic chance of finally finishing above their rivals in the Arsene Wenger era, they must go all out for a win on Sunday to give themselves a seven point cushion. However, if they defend as poorly as they did on Monday night, when time and again West Ham were allowed to get behind the defensive line, then the Gunners will have a field day and could match the five goal tallies they have racked up the last two times the clubs have met. Of course, if Arsenal prove to be as adept at stopping Bale as West Ham, Lyon, Newcastle et al, then there could be a repeat of 2004‘s 4-5 result, which some call a Premiership classic, but I remember – speaking from the perspective of a Spurs fan who was in the Paxton Road stand – as one of the worst matches I ever witnessed in person.
Yesterday, I began my analysis of the most valuable players currently plying their trade in the Premier League – for my criteria for selection and the players ranked from 50 to 26 – click here.
Part II – Numbers 25 – 1
(Name – Position – Club – Age)
25. Nathan Dyer – Midfielder – Swansea City – 25
Even before his two goal salvo helped Swansea win the League Cup Final on Sunday – which was followed by throwing a hilarious tantrum when Jonathan de Guzman would not give up penalty duties to allow the winger a chance to complete his hat-trick – Dyer has been one of the top performers for the Welsh club since their ascent to the Premier League last season. His pace and trickery on the right flank is a huge asset to Swansea and he can provide high quality crosses into the box, the only real doubt is about Dyer’s temperament. Alongside his histrionics at Wembley – after which he spent the remainder of his time on the pitch trying far too hard to score another, before his manager, Michael Laudrup, deemed it necessary to substitute him – he has also been sent off twice in the last two seasons, a number that is particularly high for a winger. Nevertheless, he is a fantastic winger – a surprisingly rare trait in the modern game – and any club would snap him up in an instant if he were to become available.
24. Danny Welbeck – Striker – Manchester United – 22
Although not the most prolific of strikers – especially this season with Robin Van Persie playing in front of him – Welbeck is an excellent team player who works hard for the cause whether he is asked to play up front or on the wing. His headed goal against Real Madrid in the first leg of Manchester United’s Champions League tie showed that he can be dangerous in the air, alongside the devastating pace he possesses, and should he become a more clinical finisher, he will become a first choice striker for both his club and country.
23. Joe Hart – Goalkeeper – Manchester City – 24
Although he has made a couple of high-profile mistakes this season – such as the error against Southampton earlier this month, for which he was called out by his manager, Roberto Mancini – Joe Hart has been one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the Premiership over the last four years. In both 2010/11 and 2011/12, Hart won the Golden Glove award (given to the keeper who keeps the most clean sheets) and he has two more than anyone else so far this campaign. The current England number 1, Hart was also an integral part of Manchester City’s title-winning team last season.
22. Mousa Dembélé – Midfielder – Tottenham – 25
Described by his former manager at Fulham, Martin Jol, as the best player on the ball he had ever seen, Dembélé plays in the centre of midfield and provides an attacking threat with a ferocious left foot shot – as witnessed by his goals for Spurs on his debut against Norwich and versus Lyon in the Europa League last week. Two dominant performances at Old Trafford this season – the first while still playing for Fulham – showed the reason that Tottenham were willing to spend £15 million on the Belgian. In the first half of the campaign, he and Sandro were formidable partnership in the centre of midfield, prior to the Brazilian being ruled out until August due to injury. He has quickly established himself as an automatic selection by Andre Villas-Boas when he is available, despite Tottenham’s abundance of central midfield players.
21. Papiss Cisse – Striker – Newcastle – 27
After joining Newcastle in the January transfer window last season, Cisse was unstoppable, scoring 13 goals in his 14 Premiership appearances including two spectacular strikes to give his team a win away at Chelsea. Although this season he has found the net just six times, that is in part due to a general drop in Newcastle’s performances, combined with the departure of his fellow Senegalese international, Demba Ba, he is still a danger to opposition keepers when the ball is in the vicinity of the penalty area, as his fantastic volley against Southampton at the weekend proved.
20. Edin Dzeko – Striker – Manchester City – 26
He may not like it, but Dzeko has earned a reputation as a player who can come on as a substitute for Manchester City and provide a crucial goal to swing a match – in much the same way as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – having done so against Fulham, West Brom and Tottenham earlier in the campaign. The Bosnian has scored 5 times from the bench this year – with a total of 12 overall in the league – and, although it does not get as much attention as Aguero’s title-winning strike, it was Dzeko’s equaliser in the 92nd minute in the match with QPR on the final day of last season that set up the grand finale. His strike rate this season has been a goal for every 99 minutes of playing time in the Premiership, suggesting he would be a strong contender for the golden boot should he start on a more regular basis. Continue reading →
Recent performances by a certain Tottenham midfielder have got me to thinking – who is the most desirable player in the Premiership right now? If there were to be a complete reset of the clubs and everyone currently plying their trade in the English top flight were available via a draft system – who would be taken as the number one pick? There are several things to consider:
Skill level – obviously
Age – preferably, you want a player who is going to be able to play at the top-level for the next five years, so Ryan Giggs would not be a top choice in 2013, when he would have been for at least a decade starting in the mid 1990s.
Position matters – there is a shortage of great right-backs in the league, but their value is limited as they do not have as many opportunities to win their side a game, or save them, as an elite striker or goalkeeper.
This is completely subjective and of course I may display a Spurs bias – but fear not, my top ten will not be made up of Defoe, Lennon, Holtby, Vertonghen, Lloris, Dempsey, Walker, Dembele, Adebayor and some left winger from Tottenham.
The deciding factor I have used in my rankings is whether or not Club A would do a straight swap for a player with Club B and vice versa – so for example, if the contest was between Michu and Adam Le Fondre; Reading would agree to the deal, whereas Swansea would not even consider it – thus Michu is the more valuable player. Or to put it another way, which one would I rather was on Tottenham’s books
While players like Phillipe Coutino and Lewis Holtby may turn out to be fantastic signings for Liverpool and Spurs respectively, they have not yet had the opportunity to prove themselves in the Premiership and thus will not be included in the list. Maybe next year.
Manchester City players are perhaps grossly underrated due to their abundance of talent – Samir Nasri, Joleon Lescott, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell may all thrive at other clubs, but none of them have played more than 15 games in the Premiership this season.
These players were close to making the final list, but excluded for either age, injury concerns or performance that is too erratic:
Age: Chelsea –Frank Lampard (34), Ashley Cole (32); Fulham – Brede Hangeland (31); Damien Duff (33); Dimitar Berbatov (32); Liverpool – Steven Gerrard (32); Manchester United – Ryan Giggs (73 39); Reading – Nicky Shorey (32); Southampton – Rickie Lambert (31); Tottenham – Jermain Defoe (30 – just too old for the type of player he is to have long-term value).
Persistent injuries: Arsenal – Bacary Sagna (Not his fault he had two broken legs from bad challenges, but it raises doubts about his long-term availability now he is 30); Manchester United – Nemanja Vidic; Liverpool (currently on loan at West Ham) – Andy Carroll (who also fits into the next category).
Erratic Performances: Everton – Nikica Jelavic (would have made the list for his performance at the second half of last season when he scored 9 in 13 appearances, but has managed just 6 goals in 25 games meaning he just missed out); ManchesterCity – Carlos Tevez (won the title with both Manchester clubs, but you never know when he’ll refuse to play or disappear back to Argentina for an extended sabbatical); Manchester United – Nani, Ashley Young (When either are on form, they can be devastating to opponents, yet both struggle perform consistently enough to make the team on a regular basis); Tottenham – Aaron Lennon (has a great season once every three years – this campaign is one of them, but his final ball lets him down far too often).
Other honourable mentions who were just outside my top 50: Everton – Steven Pienaar (his spell at Spurs suggested he may not have as much value away from Goodison Park), Leon Osman; Liverpool – Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson; Norwich – Anthony Pilkington; Stoke – Robert Huth.
Part I – Numbers 50 – 26
(Name – Position – Club – Age)
50. Adam Le Fondre – Striker – Reading – 26
His record of 10 goals in his first Premiership season may not rank him in the upper echelons of the scoring charts, but six of them have come as a substitute and Le Fondre has racked up a goal for every 103 minutes of playing time he has had this year – a better strike rate than even Robin Van Persie (111 minutes per goal). ALF (his initials and thus nickname) has found the net in every division of the English leagues, having played for Stockport (his home town); Rochdale and Rotherham prior to his transfer to Reading in 2011.
49. Phil Jagielka – Defender – Everton – 30
At his previous club, Sheffield United, Jagielka was renowned for his versatility, playing most of the time in the centre of midfield, but also being able to fill in as a defender and – when called upon – as goalkeeper. Since his transfer to Everton for £4 million in 2007, the Englishman has played almost exclusively in the centre of defence and has established himself as one of the most reliable in the league for that position, earning 16 international caps in the process. Jagielka has played in all 26 of Everton’s games this season, helping them stay in the race for a European qualification.
48. Tim Krul – Goalkeeper – Newcastle – 24
The Dutch goalkeeper has proved himself as first choice goalkeeper for Newcastle United at a young age, ahead of veteran Steven Harper and last season kept fifteen clean sheets to help the club to 5th place in the Premiership. With his team in a relegation battle this year, his importance has been highlighted with the concern that Newcastle have over the news that he will miss the next five weeks due to an injury, which could end up costing them their top flight status.
47. Thomas Vermaelen – Defender – Arsenal – 27
A product of the Ajax academy, Vermaelen has been a cornerstone in the Arsenal defence since his move to London, gaining a reputation as a goal scoring defender after scoring 13 in his first 67 Premiership outings, though has not yet netted in the league this year. At the start of this campaign, he was made Arsenal’s captain following Van Persie’s transfer to Manchester United and has continued to perform strongly in central defence, though has looked slightly more vulnerable on the occasions he has been required to deputise at left back.
46. Steven Fletcher – Striker – Sunderland – 25
It was not until Sunderland’s 10th Premiership match this season that one of their players other than Fletcher scored a goal (of the club’s 6th to that point, 5 had been scored by the Scot, with the other coming via an own goal by Demba Ba). Since then he has taken his tally for the campaign to 10, just two shy of his best ever return in the Premiership – achieved last season with Wolves – and although that might not rank among the leaders, he has been played predominantly as a lone striker throughout his career and leads the line well, providing a useful outlet for his team when they are under pressure.
45. Wes Hoolahan – Midfielder – Norwich City – 30
If he was five years younger, Hoolahan’s performances for Norwich since their return to the Premiership would justify him being higher up this list. The attacking midfielder was the creative force behind Grant Holt’s impressive season last year, providing seven assists as well as scoring four times himself in the league and this year he has continued his fine form even with the frontman struggling.
44. Hugo Lloris – Goalkeeper – Tottenham Hotspur – 26
When the French international keeper started in place of Brad Friedel against Aston Villa on October 7th, it ended a run of 310 consecutive Premiership appearances by the American and Lloris’s form since then has seen him win the job full-time. At 26, he already captains his national team and is considered young for a goalkeeper – he could be playing at a top-level for more than a decade more. For Spurs this season, Lloris has shown great shot stopping ability as well as confidence in dealing with crosses and has conceded less than a goal a game in league games (14 in 16 starts, compared with Friedel’s 16 allowed in 10 matches).
43. Michael Carrick – Midfielder – Manchester United – 31
The oldest player on this list, Carrick is likely to be able to continue his form level for slightly longer as any drop off on pace he suffers will barely be noticeable as he hardly has any to begin with. What he does provide is an anchor in midfield, someone who can take care of the ball and provide incisive through balls to create chances for the more flashy Manchester United players in front of him to convert. Because of his style of play, during his spell at Tottenham his influence on the side was most evident when he had been sold – as his absence set the team back significantly. Continue reading →
During Arsene Wenger’s first nine seasons in charge of Arsenal, they won the league three times (1997/8, 2001/2; 2003/4) and the FA Cup on four occasions (1998, 2002, 2003, 2005); but results in the last week make it look likely that it will be eight successive campaigns since then with no trophies. Against Blackburn in the FA Cup last Saturday, Wenger named a weakened team and was made to pay for it – as he saw his team exit a cup competition at home against lower league opposition, for the first time during his 17 year reign. On Tuesday, their attention turned to the Champions League as the beaten finalists from last year’s competition, Bayern München, visited the Emirates. Despite a bright looking start by the Gunners, the German team were in complete control of the match for all but a 15 minute spell in the second half – during which time Lukas Podolski gave Arsenal some hope with a free header from a corner – but goals from Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Mario Madzukic ensured that Bayern returned to the Allianz Arena for the second leg with a healthy 3-1 lead. Munich will be wary of complacence as they have given up strong positions against English opponents before (most notably in the 1999 and 2012 finals against Manchester United and Chelsea respectively), but if Wenger’s men continue to give away so much space between their defence and midfield, it is much more likely that they will be without silverware once again and have only a top four place to fight for in the Premiership. The good news for Arsenal fans on that front is that, with Tottenham the team they are chasing, they are almost certain to pass their rivals as they have done on every other occasion during Arsene Wenger’s tenure as manager. Continue reading →
All thirteen episodes of House of Cards – the first original series commissioned by Netflix – were released on February 1st, giving viewers the opportunity to watch the show at their own rate, without having to wait for a new installment each week. The story revolves around Congressman Francis Underwood – played by Kevin Spacey – the House Majority Whip for the Democrats, who helped win the election of Garrett Walker as President, but the new administration fails to keep their promise to make him the Secretary of State. This slight sets Underwood’s Machiavellian brain in motion to formulate a plan that will enable him to right this perceived wrong and – supported by his wife, Claire (Robin Wright) – Francis begins to manipulate all those around him: colleagues in Congress; the White House; and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young journalist at the Washington Herald. Below I discuss events right up until the end of the season – if you have not watched the show do not read on, it is definitely worth sticking with through the first three of four episodes, as it took that long for my wife and I to get hooked – we then watched the rest of the season within a week. Continue reading →
On the opening weekend of the season, Manchester City – in their first league match since winning the title the previous May – came from behind to beat newly-promoted Southampton 3-2 at the Etihad, while Manchester United lost 1-0 away at Everton. Last week’s fixtures were an exact reversal of those encounters – as was the case for all of the Premiership games that were played – and once again City fell behind to the Saints, but this time they were unable to find a way back as they were beaten 3-1 at St. Mary’s, with Southampton’s first goal coming from Jason Puncheon -who had been forced to take a “comfort break” in his team’s match against Everton last month – leading to a goal celebration and chant referencing the incident. The loss leaves the reigning champions 12 points behind United at the top of the table, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had a routine 2-0 home victory over Everton, which was the Toffee’s first defeat of 2013. That gap represents the largest that has even been blown by a side leading the Premier League – as both Newcastle in 1995-6 and Manchester United in 1997-8 were caught despite having held such an advantage, though the latter case is somewhat misleading, as eventual champions Arsenal had three games in hand on the Red Devils. With no extra matches to play and with Ferguson being far less likely to allow the pressure to rattle him than Kevin “I would love it if we beat them” Keegan, Roberto Mancini recognises the chances of City retaining the title are slim and, should he fail to keep the club within close proximity of United, he may find himself out of a job this summer.
The blue half of Manchester must also look over their shoulders and be concerned about their chances of maintaining their current second position, as Chelsea are now only four points behind them following a 4-1 win over Wigan, which included another goal for Frank Lampard – the fourth consecutive league game he has found the net – and the midfielder is now just four strikes away from Bobby Tambling’s club record of 202. The two North London clubs once again appear to be headed towards a battle for the last remaining Champions League qualification place, as both Tottenham and Arsenal gained victories last week, leaving Spurs four points ahead of their rivals in fifth. Arsenal got their three points with a narrow 1-0 win away at Sunderland despite having to play the final half an hour with 10 men following Carl Jenkinson’s sending off; while Spurs made it 10 unbeaten in the league with a 2-1 defeat of Newcastle at White Hart Lane, with both goals coming from their talisman, Gareth Bale.
Liverpool – who lost to West Brom in their opening game of the campaign 3-0 – were beaten by the same opponents on Monday night, 2-0 at Anfield. The home side had wasted a number of chances – most notably a Steven Gerrard penalty that was saved by Ben Foster – before goals from Gareth McAuley and Romelu Lukaku secured Albion’s first win in seven matches. There is more good news for manager Steve Clarke, as he will have Peter Odemwingie back available for selection for their next fixture – the striker was last seen on the final day of the January transfer window trying to engineer a move to Queens Park Rangers by spending more time in a car park than anybody since Richard III (whose burial-place, by the way, was close to a branch of Tesco’s – meaning that the last Plantagenet King was finally able to get a horse). Continue reading →
Manchester City fell a further two behind their neighbours in the title race last weekend, as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium. It could have been worst for Mancini’s men in there bid to retain the Premiership trophy, as the Reds took the lead with 15 minutes to go through a wonder strike from their captain, Steven Gerrard, a goal that was reminiscent of the crucial ones he scored against Olympiakos in the Champions League group stages in 2004/5 and his late equaliser against West Ham in the 2006 FA Cup Final. On both occasions, those goals helped Liverpool go on to win the competition, but this time his effort earned only a point for his team, as Sergio Aguero ensured the spoils were shared by rounding Pepe Reina, then finishing from an acute angle into an empty net. There had been some controversy in the first half surrounding the first goal for Brendan Rodgers men, as Edin Dzeko – who had opened the scoring for the hosts – was down “injured”, but Liverpool refused to kick the ball out of play and Daniel Sturridge found the net playing against his old club. Dzeko made a miraculous recovery and was able to continue for the rest of the match and, despite the argument that surrounded that goal, the Scousers were worthy of at least a draw, as they enjoyed 56% of the possession and had twenty-one shots, versus the home side’s nine.
The gap between City, the reigning champions, and Manchester United sits has now been stretched to nine points, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men earned a narrow 1-0 win at Craven Cottage against Fulham, thanks to Wayne Rooney’s strike with just over ten minutes to go. While United are going to suffer fixture congestion due to their upcoming Champions League tie with Real Madrid – compared to City, who have no further involvement in European competition this season – their only remaining away game against a side currently in the top 8 is at the Emirates in April, while Mancini’s men must go to Everton, Swansea, Tottenham and Old Trafford before the end of the campaign. Any more slip-ups from the Blue half of Manchester between now and their fixture against United, they are likely to be playing for pride rather than any realistic hopes of the title.
Tottenham’s decision not to purchase a striker in the January transfer window was made to look all the more foolish in their match last weekend against West Brom, as Jermain Defoe was forced off in the first-half with ligament damage that will rule him out for at least another three weeks. Despite being forced to play with as many forwards on the field as Spain had in the European Championships last summer – none – they came away from The Hawthorns with a victory thanks to another great individual effort from their talisman, Gareth Bale. The victory for Spurs consolidated their position in fourth place, while it also moved them to just a single point behind Chelsea in third, as the Blues were beaten 3-2 at St. James’s Park by Newcastle, with Moussa Sissoko scored twice on his home debut, including the winner in the final minute of normal time. Just below Tottenham in the race for Champions League qualification are Everton – who were held to a 3-3 draw by Aston Villa at Goodison Park – and Arsenal, who beat Stoke 1-0 at the Emirates last Saturday. Continue reading →
Queens Park Rangers played their seventh game in January on Tuesday and held the reigning champions, Manchester City, to a 0-0 draw at Loftus Road. In their contests during the month, QPR drew with City, Tottenham, West Ham, and West Brom (the latter in the FA Cup); beaten West Brom (in the replay) and Chelsea; and lost just once – 4-2 at home to League One’s MK Dons in the 4th round of the Cup. Harry Redknapp will be pleased that his new charges are showing a resilience that had been lacking prior to his arrival and he has clearly made them hard to beat, but they remain at the bottom of the table, four points away from safety. Because of this – and Redknapp’s history of buying and selling many players at all of the clubs he has managed – Rangers were the busiest Premier League side on the last day of the January transfer window (yesterday), when they paid £12.5 million for central defender, Christopher Samba, and also brought in midfielders Jermaine Jenas and Andros Townsend from his former club Spurs. If the month’s new recruits – QPR also signed Loic Remy from Marseille for around £8million earlier in the window – are able to help the club survive in the Premier League, then the outlay will prove to be worthwhile; but, with Samba alone reported to be earning £100,000 a week, relegation could send them into a financial downward spiral similar to the one Portsmouth suffered after Redknapp had departed.
Before their encounter with Chelsea on Wednesday night, Reading had won their two previous Premiership fixtures thanks to late come backs – scoring 3 times against West Brom in the final 8 minutes to turn around a 2-0 deficit; then beating Newcastle 2-1 with two goals in the last 20 minutes from the substitute, Adam Le Fondre. At the Madjeski Stadium against Rafa Benitez’s side, the Royals once again found themselves 2-0 down, as Juan Mata and Frank Lampard had given the visitors what looked like a comfortable lead, which they held until the final 3 minutes or play. However, once again Le Fondre – whose name is actually French for “the great replacement”* – struck twice to earn another crucial point for Reading and increased the frustration of the Blues fans with Benitez. Chelsea now find themselves thirteen points behind the leaders Manchester United, who came from behind to beat Southampton 2-1 at Old Trafford, though they also suffered some nervous moments at the end of the game as the Saints searched for an equaliser. Because of City’s draw with QPR, Ferguson’s men once now hold a 7 point lead at the top of the table heading into February.