Premier League Roundup – Tottenham Top Early Table and United Humbled

My new wallpaper
My new wallpaper

Spurs Top of the League!

Ah, if the season were but two games long, my pre-season prediction of Tottenham winning their first title since 1960/61 would already have come true!  Spurs sit atop the early table thanks to a 4-0 demolition of Queens Park Rangers at White Hart Lane, the visitors being managed by Harry Redknapp and tactically coached by Glenn Hoddle, two of Mauricio Pochettino’s predecessors in the Tottenham hot seat.  Neither Redknapp, nor club legend Hoddle, had the depth of talent in their squad that the Argentinian has available to him – though ‘Arry did of course have Gareth Bale – but what has impressed most about Pochettino’s tenure in the early stages has been the manner of Spurs’ performances.  A high, pressing game has been adopted and when in possession, there is a fluidity about the movement of the ball and players; last saturday, that was particularly true of the triumvirate of Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.  The latter’s excellent showing against QPR, on the back of two assists that helped turn around the Europa League qualifying playoff against AEL Limassol, has led to many declaring that he will finally live up to the £30m transfer fee he cost Tottenham last summer.  In truth, he was barely given a chance in his first season, making cameos off the bench and being played only in Europa League fixtures – during which he displayed a nice touch but was obviously playing like he had something to prove – before injury curtailed his campaign at the start of the calendar year.  Now that Lamela looks likely to start every game (including in pre-season), he is has been able to establish himself and is playing with more confidence and that is paying off wonderfully for Tottenham – particularly in the third goal last weekend when he picked up a pass (the 44th of a lengthy spell of possession), glided past three defenders, then delivered a pinpoint cross for Chadli to head into the back of the net.

It is not just the resurgent Lamela that gives Spurs fans reason to be cheerful: 20-year-old Eric Dier looks like he will be one of the best buys of the summer, at a cost of just £4m he already looks assured in either the centre of defence or at right back, plus he has scored in both of his first two Premier League matches; the addition of Ben Davies to the squad has seemingly put a rocket under Danny Rose, who played fantastically against QPR as he now faces competition at left-back; and although Michael Dawson has been a great servant to the club who gave his all in every match, it was the right time for him to move on – Dawson joined Hull this week – as he lacks the pace needed to succeed in Pochettino’s pressing system.  With the transfer deadline approaching on Monday, it is likely that a few players will leave, but I doubt there will be any major new additions at White Hart Lane.  Federico Fazio joined from Sevilla in midweek and is likely to form a central defensive partnership with Younes Kaboul; but other than up front – where the combination of Emmanuel Adebayor, Harry Kane and Roberto Soldado still seems to be lacking a 20 goal a season striker – it is hard to see where else the squad can be realistically improved at this point.  Finally, Tottenham also made the Europa League group stages on Thursday with a 3-0 home victory over AEL Limassol and will now face Besiktas (knocked out of the Champions League by Arsenal on Wednesday), Partizan Belgrade and Greek side Asteras Tripolis in the next round.  As for the league title, you do not get anything for being top in August, but it is still better to be 1st than anywhere else no matter what the stage of the season – but my clairvoyance will have to wait until May to be proven correct!

United Continue to Stumble

With Louis van Gaal sticking to his guns and attempting to implement his favored 3-5-2 system at Manchester United, the teething problems continued this past week.  Last Sunday in the league, the Red Devils were lucky to hold on to get a point against Sunderland; then they were demolished 4-0 by League One outfit MK Dons, in the second round of the Capital One Cup.  Since 1996/7, clubs that have been involved in European competitions have not had to play in the second round of the League Cup, instead being given a bye to the third round, so this was the first time that United had played in this stage since 1995, when they were also knocked out by lower league opposition as York City beat them 4-3 over two legs.  This time it was not even that close, as MK Dons took advantage of poor defending – particularly from Jonny Evans who was returning from injury – to completely humiliate a side that was crowned Champions of England less than 16 months ago.

Alongside the new tactics, van Gaal is also trying to improve the quality available to him in his squad: Angel DiMaria joined this week for a British transfer record fee of £59.7m, while the Dutchman is still pursuing Arturo Vidal and Daley Blind.  Whatever van Gaal might say about the talent available to him, his current squad is the most expensive in Premier League history as their total transfer fees are £401.2m (though Wilfried Zaha – who cost £15m – has just been loaned back to Crystal Palace), whereas MK Dons assembled their playing staff for just £500,000.  If only all management was as easy as bringing on a substitute keeper for a penalty shootout to fluster the mighty Costa Rica…

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Premier League Recap and Preview – Week 2 2014/15

United lose to Swansea

"You make the squad better, than I'll take over and become a legend.  Cheers."
“You make the squad better, than I’ll take over and become a legend. Cheers.”

In his first Premier League match in charge of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal was able to return normal service to the club – at least “normal” in the post-Ferguson era – as they were beaten 2-1 at home by Swansea.  The Welsh team have been widely predicted to struggle this year under the stewardship of Garry Monk, but they were full value for their first ever league win at Old Trafford.  In the 28th minute, the Swans exploited gaps in the United back line to take the lead, as Ki Sung-yeung was unmarked as he converted Nathan Dyer’s pass; but an acrobatic volley from new Red Devils’ captain, Wayne Rooney, leveled the score early in the second half.  However, Gylfi Sigurdsson – who had a successful loan spell at Swansea prior to his tenure at Tottenham – celebrated his return to the club with the winning goal 18 minutes from the end, as the visitors hung on to the lead despite much United pressure at the end of the match.

Louis van Gaal’s favored formation of 3-4-1-2 would take any squad time to get used to if they had not played it before, but one of the biggest issues for Manchester United is that they do not have the personnel for that system.  The central defensive trio of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and youngster Tyler Blackett are all reasonably talented, but there is no dominant player like Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand (in his prime) to hold them together and keep everyone disciplined in their positioning.  On the flanks, neither Ashley Young nor Nani is the type of winger that enjoys tracking back to defend, but at least the addition of Marcos Rojo will help there.  The center of midfield was an obvious weakness last season and new signing Ander Herrera will take time to embed himself in the team, while Michael Carrick – someone who helps protect and use possession so well – is out injured with ankle ligament damage.  For all the problems that face United, they expect Robin Van Persie to return this Sunday against Sunderland and van Gaal will be hoping that his fellow Dutchman can help instill some much-needed confidence back into a club that were crowned champions just 15 months ago.

Spurs win at West Ham

In my ridiculously optimistic season preview, I had Tottenham winning the league and, if I had written a script for the opening match of the campaign to back up that viewpoint, it would not have deviated too much from what actually happened at Upton Park last Saturday.  Firstly, Spurs were reduced to 10 men after just half an hour, as Kyle Naughton was harshly red carded for a handball in the box.  Without doubt, it was a penalty as Naughton’s hands were up above his head and blocked the shot, but the right-back was less than a yard away from Kevin Nolan, so there was nothing deliberate about the handball.  However, Mark Noble dragged the penalty badly wide and despite dominating the game for the next 30 minutes, West Ham were unable to find a breakthrough and the numbers were then evened up when James Collins was dismissed for a second bookable offense.

Putting the "Chav" into Xavi
Putting the “Chav” into Xavi

Up until the 90th minute, the best efforts for both sides had been a Stewart Downing chance in the box, which Hugo Lloris did brilliantly to block; and a free-kick for Spurs, which was first taken by a pitch-invading West Ham supporter, who got the attempt on target, something that Christian Eriksen failed to do when the intruder was caught and removed.  However, during injury time, Eric Dier – the young central defender who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer – popped up in a striking position and scored on his Tottenham debut to give Mauricio Pochettino a win in his first Premier League match in charge of the club.  Not only did that goal secure all three points for Spurs, it also helped banish the memories of the 2013/14 season, a campaign that saw us lose three times to West Ham. Continue reading

Premier League Preview 2014/15

New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year's Champions League
New teammates John Terry and Diego Costa square off during last year’s Champions League

Over the last month, while I have been preparing to write this preview for the 2014/15 Premier League season, I have only been able to envision one team winning the title: Chelsea.  Jose Mourinho has an incredible record in his second year at all of the clubs he has managed (lifting the domestic title with Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid in such campaigns) and this will be his sophomore season in his return to Stamford Bridge.  Add to that the fact that they have invested very shrewdly in the summer with the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa – filling two of their main holes in their team from last year – and all I could imagine was Chelsea topping the Premier League and to be honest, the odds are on that happening.

However, in the last week I have started to doubt this viewpoint – after all, I had Argentina claiming the World Cup every time I filled out a bracket – sometimes, things are just too obvious.  For the last seven days, the image of one other club lifting the league title just could not be shaken from my head – so which team?

Arsenal: the arch-rivals to the side I support and who have brought in the Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez during the summer, strengthening their options up front, while they have the best collection of creative midfielders this side of the German national team.  On that note, they have also hired a fitness coach from Die Mannschaft and that should help them avoid them suffering the costly injuries of recent campaigns, last year most notably to Aaron Ramsey, who looked stronger than ever in the Community Shield last Sunday.  Nevertheless, there is still a fragility in Arsene Wenger’s side in the centre of defense and they would need a dramatic improvement in their results away from home against their main rivals if they were to make the leap from fourth to first this year.

Manchester City – the reigning champions and a team that has maintained stability this summer by securing David Silva and Sergio Aguero on long-term deals, while only adding a couple of new faces, including the veteran Frank Lampard on loan from the new MLS club, NYCFC.  Although the Citizens will be strong once again this campaign, but I think their primary focus will be the Champions League and their domestic challenge will falter as their progress in Europe.

Liverpool – the club that finished second behind City in 2013/14 and were within a Steven Gerrard slip of maybe claiming their first title since 1990.  They have invested wisely and brought in three of Southampton’s best players: Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert, while Brendan Rogers showed how much improvement he can garner…wait, they sold Luis Suarez? No chance – they will be out of the top four this season.

Manchester United – now led by self-proclaimed genius Louis Van Gaal (to be fair, a lot of people in the media seem to agree with that prognostication).  Many pundits are tipping United to be back among the title contenders, I’m assuming they have not looked at the Red Devils squad list and seen that their central defensive options amount to Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.  Look for Tim Krul to make a crucial save from the penalty spot to deny Manchester United a victory against Newcastle. Poetic justice.

Everton – a side that made significant progress both stylistically and results wise last year under the guidance of Roberto Martinez.  However, though they have improved their playing squad with the addition of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry as permanent transfers over the summer, both of them were at Goodison Park last term on loan, so their team has not actually progressed from where they were in 2013/14.  I think they will be competitive in the league, but the added pressure of the Europa League will see them drift away from the top four by March.   Continue reading