Author: Kris

The writer.

5 Ways Football This Season Is Going To Differ From Any Other

1. A big name will go down

By big name, I certainly don’t mean Chelsea, but there are a number of Premier League mainstays who could see their status threatened.

The biggest of these is Southampton, who have had a tepid start to the season at best. They were dumped unceremoniously out of the Europa League, and have garnered an unwanted reputation as a stepping stone club, due to the turnover of high-profile players.

It can’t be understated how much damage has been done to this squad, and how much can still be done. The table below details their key outgoings and replacements over the last two seasons.

Last season’s replacements performed admirably, but replacing Clyne, Schneiderlin and Alderweireld is much more difficult. While Soares and Clasie looks like capable players, Steven Caulker has spent the last two seasons being relegated, which is never a good thing. Defending will be a massive problem for them, particularly when you consider the team’s lack of pace.

Notably, they struggle to retain players who are theirs to sign. A deal for Toby Alderweireld should have been discussed as early as the January window; instead, his loan finished and Tottenham flexed their financial muscles to bring him to White Hart Lane. As much as they want to complain, it’s their own fault.

And with Victor Wanyama and Sadio Mane linked with moves to Spurs and Manchester United respectively, the transfer window couldn’t close soon enough.

Aston Villa can consider themselves lucky to still be one of seven clubs to have played in every Premier League season since its inception. Since the departure of Martin O’Neill, the club has endured season upon season of abject mediocrity that has seen them progressively slide closer to the relegation zone over time.

How Paul Lambert survived in the job as long as he did is a mystery. Over three seasons, I can only remember one time where they played well – the 3-1 win over Arsenal on the first day of the 2013-14 season.

Tim Sherwood has come in and at least turned them into a side that poses a goal threat, but they still lack creativity in general.

The likes of West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle will also be nervously peering over their shoulders.

2. A home away from home

We’re only into the fourth week of the season, and already this has happened.

Perhaps a little under the radar, football is undergoing a paradigm shift psychologically. Only 33% of all wins this season have been at home, and only undefeated Manchester City can boast a 100% record on their turf. Meanwhile, the Sky Blues, Crystal Palace, Arsenal and West Ham all have 100% away records. Of those, West Ham are yet to score a point at home, and Arsenal have recorded a draw and a loss.

Even though the season is still in its infancy, your team is statistically more likely to win at someone else’s ground. Even looking down to the Championship, the data from this season compared to last suggests a decline in home wins by around 10%.

This is down to a few things. Firstly, football fans have become increasingly fickle and vocal, demanding managers be sacked and players be dropped after a couple of bad results. In other words, patience is dead, and home fans are poisonous to players.

Secondly, the influx of attacking talent from abroad has led to more teams going for the win away from home, as opposed to grinding out a result. For example, Crystal Palace’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (Mourinho’s second loss in 100 Chelsea home games) came courtesy of fast, powerful attacking play.

Finally, the quality of defending has declined. Most teams seem to be short of one or two quality defenders. Chelsea lack pace. Liverpool and Sunderland lack composure. Arsenal lack physicality. Manchester City seem to be the only resolute team out there, and after last season that is some achievement for them.

We live in an age where West Ham can concede four goals against newly-promoted Bournemouth at Upton Park, and score three and keep a clean sheet at Anfield against a side with a front three of Roberto Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho and Christian Benteke. Strange as this is, it’ll be the norm for this season.

3. A dramatic January transfer window

Clubs haven’t been afraid to open their TV money vaults this summer. And if things aren’t working out, you can bet that they’ll do it again.

I’m probably alone when I say this, but I think the January transfer window needs to be completely overhauled. All it does is allow clubs to steal players who are performing well for other clubs, which isn’t right. If a club needs to sort out a position, it should be done in the summer, and if it isn’t done, the club should suffer the consequences. Maximally, a limited transfers window, swap window or loan window would be necessary. I also believe that the summer window should start on the 1st of June and finish at the end of July. Clubs sign players before the start of the current window anyway. On top of that, we wouldn’t be having these issues surrounding England’s best young players like John Stones and Saido Berahino, where they are expected to play well while surrounded by intense media speculation.

That said, the current situation is that there is a winter window. We’ve seen some big movers in the past; Juan Mata and Fernando Torres being the most memorable and controversial. This season, we may not see more in the way of big money moves, but plenty of mid-range, £10m-£20m deals.

4. Falling giants

Crystal Palace claiming the scalp of Chelsea will set in motion a number of surprise results to come.

Chelsea has been a magnet for negative attention due to their appalling start to the season. Jose Mourinho’s management of the team has been really poor; he’s too focused on starting fights with everyone around him, rather than kicking Branislav Ivanovic into gear, or onto the bench.

Tottenham must be thanking them, because they’ve been even worse and no one seems to be picking up on it. Their key issue is a lack of leadership. Their player and manager never look comfortable when in a winning position, so naturally they throw results away. Ledley King, despite his cartilage-free knees, had qualities Spurs are yet to replace.

Similarly, Arsenal have toiled their way to a miraculous seven points, Liverpool look completely toothless and Manchester United, despite all the money they’ve spent on players, still play a laboured, pedestrian style, which is fine if you want a catalog of boring, uninspiring 1-0 and 0-0 games.

Only Manchester City look like a title-winning team so far. The rest look just as beatable as any other team.

It’s not outside the realms of possibility for a team like Swansea to assume a top five position, or even push for the Champions League places.

And it’s just as easy to see Tottenham record their first bottom half finish since 2008. Again, unlikely, but not impossible.

5. Poor refereeing will put in motion revolutionary changes

Already this weekend, we’ve seen five red cards. Of those red cards, none of them were cut and dry.

Mitrovic’s 16th minute red card could have been a yellow with a different official. The two red cards in the Liverpool vs West Ham game were farcical, while Stoke can consider themselves hacked off for the inconsistency shown by the referee who sent Afellay off for a slap, when Robert Huth saw a yellow for punching a guy in the face. Charlie Adam’s stamp is the most red of the red cards, but that’s still more of a deep orange.

How long can football go on like this? Games are being ruined by these decisions. West Brom should still be in search of a first win. Those three points could keep them up.

With decisions like this set to continue (and probably get worse), there will either be riots or a major rule change. Could it be video review technology? Could it be a challenge system, as seen in tennis? Could it be extra officials? A second referee? No referee? Or just free-for-all carnage?

Surely anything is better than this.

A SmokedSammon Prediction-Based Preview of the Premier League Season

Happy new football season everyone!

And what a season we have in store for us. With the rise of the multi-billion pound television deal, English clubs have really been able to flex their financial muscles, even those considered to be way down the pecking order. Even looking down into the championship, Middlesbrough’s recent £14m bid for Jordan Rhodes demonstrates that we could be entering a new, different era for football on the Isles.

Every team has been throwing money at their problems, desperately trying to out-marquee-signing each other.

It’s brilliant to bear witness to. Is it economically healthy? Probably not.

With that in mind, it’s time to preview what is set to be a defining Premier League season.

What key questions do each team need to answer?

Arsenal – Can they mount a legitimate title challenge this year?

Towards the end of last season, Arsenal looked like title contenders in terms of their form and performances. That’s exactly the issue though.

For the last decade, they have been unable to sustain title winning form over an entire season. They will have a patch of form where they look invincible, but they will also go through a period of average performances and mediocre results. In last season’s case, they started badly.

This season, they need to assert their authority and quality over the teams immediately below them in the table. No more losses to the likes of Swansea and Spurs.

Additionally, firepower to go alongside Olivier Giroud wouldn’t go amiss. He’s been clamoring for more competition upfront, and with Welbeck inconsistent in front of goal, an additional 20 goal a season striker is required for them to push for the title.

Signing Petr Cech is fantastic business, though, and finally puts to rest a goalkeeping dilemma that has been a major issue since Jens Lehmann first left the club.

Player to watch: Mesut Ozil

Aston Villa – Will their French Revolution mirror Newcastle’s?

The Villans have reinvested the money from the sale of Benteke, but have they invested wisely?

From the outside, it seems like they have taken a lot of risks, none less risky than the £12m signing of Jordan Ayew. While only 23, his goalscoring record does not suggest he will be a capable replacement for the big Belgian. 12 goals in 29 games, while solid, isn’t enough to justify that kind of fee.

Additionally, Tactics Tim has decided that a dip into the French market, which is something we saw with Newcastle United in the 2012-13 season. Where did they finish? 16th. A lot will be expected of Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Amavi and Jordan Veretout early as they replace key figures like Fabian Delph in their first team.

Rudy Gestede looks like a solid piece of business. If he can carry his Championship form from the past two seasons into the Premier League, he could be one of the signings of the season.

Player to watch: Rudy Gestede

AFC Bournemouth – Will they live up to their “surprise package” title?

“Everyone loves a feel good story”. Apparently, Bournemouth is that story.

While their rise to the top flight has been nothing short of miraculous and meteoric, it’s easy to forget that they have been bankrolled by the incredibly wealthy Maxim Demin since 2011. With great achievement comes great financial backing.

That financial backing has shown its face already, with 16-goal Max Gradel joining the most promising attack of all the promoted teams. A lot of their season will depend on Callum Wilson, who was incredibly prolific in the Championship and has the pace to cause problems in the Premier League. Sylvan Distin is an excellent signing, bringing experience and fortitude to a young back line.

Tyrone Mings for £8m was a strange deal. He’s a player more well known for his random acts of kindness than his on pitch performances. Their money could have been invested more wisely across their entire squad instead of on an unproven commodity.

Even with their spending, they still remain the potential surprise package of the division. Perhaps not surprising enough to breach the upper echelons of the mid table, but definitely good enough to stay up under Eddie Howe’s management.

Player to watch: Max Gradel

Chelsea – Will a lack of strengthening hurt their title defence?

With those around them spending, Chelsea have been somewhat quiet, mainly because they have so few issues to address after a dominating season.

Defensive cover is firmly on the agenda though, with a new left back a priority after the sale of Filipe Luis. John Stones has been heavily linked with a move, much to the chagrin of Bobby Martinez.

In general though, they remain the team to beat, and still have easily the best squad in the division. Their only real issue of note is Diego Costa, who struggled to remain fit last season. If he can remain healthy, they should have no problem defending their title this season.

Player to watch: Eden Hazard

Crystal Palace – Where will the goals come from?

Palace are a team that have no right to be a solid mid table side, but after 11th and 10th place finishes in their two top flight seasons, people firmly believe that they are now a Premier League mainstay.

And nothing punctuated that notion more than the shock signing of Yohan Cabaye, which acts more as a statement of intent to their rivals over anything else.

The spine of the team is strong, especially with Scott Dann signing a new deal. They also have some of the best wide options in the division, with highly-rated Bakary Sako joining Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha. Menacing.

What isn’t menacing is their striking options. £9m for Conor Wickham is excessive at best and bone-headed at worst. If he has any potential left, he needs to show it this season, or Palace may have to rely on Dwight Gayle (who for some reason never seems to get a look despite his impressive goalscoring record) and Patrick Bamford, signed on loan from Chelsea. A lot is expected of the Championship Player of the Year; will the pressure get the better of him? And can Alan Pardew finally prove that he is a quality manager?

Player to watch: Bakary Sako

Everton – Was last season’s slump a one-off?

Everton were unfortunate last season. Romelu Lukaku was one of the most disappointing players of the season, and they only started picking up the pace in the last third of the season.

A lot of this was down to Roberto Martinez’s one-dimensional tactics. The season before, they narrowly missed out on Champions League football; a lot of this down to the extraordinary form of their full-backs, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman. Last season, they were much quieter.

They got found out. Teams set up to prevent their swashbuckling play. The quieter the wide threat was, the less potent Everton were.

In addition, they were surprisingly leaky, shipping 50 Premier League goals. With Distin gone and Stones unsettles, they need defensive reinforcements and fast.

I expect this season to be much better, though. Martinez is still a young manager, and will have learned from last season. The return of Gerard Deulofeu is huge, and could provide the impetus needed for a top-half return.

Player to watch: Gerard Deulofeu

Leicester City – Can Ranieri keep them up?

No.

Leicester City are in complete disarray. Their situation has a lot of the qualities of Palace at this point last year.

They lost a manager that kept them in the division. For reasons only known to Leicester’s owners, Nigel Pearson was axed after performing miracles last season. The likelihood is that Pearson Junior’s hanky-panky antics with a couple of his fellow players, all laced with a few spoonfuls of racial discrimination, had something to do with his position becoming untenable.

Similarly, they seem to have missed out on a number of their transfer targets. Christian Fuchs and Shinji Okazaki are the two that stand out, but they have failed to replace the influential Esteban Cambiasso, who is set to be a huge miss.

Finally, they both hired past-it, out of touch managers. While not nearly as bad as the man lovingly dubbed Colin Wanker, Claudio Ranieri hasn’t managed a Premier League side since 2004. Since then, his record has been checkered, with the biggest blot on the copybook coming courtesy of a horrific four month spell as Greece manager, where he led them to two losses to the Faroe Islands. Yeh, that tiny place in the North Sea.

At least they retained Robert Huth, who Stoke have let go in favour of more techincally-gifted defenders. Even so, his presence is fearsome and leadership qualities undeniable.

Player to watch: Shinji Okazaki

Liverpool – Can they become a top four mainstay again?

The stars say… maybe?

It’s between them and the two Manchester clubs for the last two Champions League places. Last season was one they would rather forget; they just never really got going. Instead, the season served the function of being one ten-month long testimonial for Steven Gerrard, who was sent off in style with humiliating losses to Crystal Palace and Stoke City.

They’ve had a few pounds to spend following the £49m sale of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City, and have invested some of that money shrewdly. Big money was spent on highly-rated Roberto Firmino, who they are looking to to fill the hole left by Sterling. Christian Benteke comes in to solve their striking issues. With Daniel Sturridge seemingly never fit, they needed someone much better than Balotelli, and Benteke fits the bill. Their attack was bullied last season, not any more.

The rest of the team has been padded out by free transfers in James Milner and Danny Ings, while Divock Origi returns following a loan spell at Lille. Suddenly, they look like a threat again.

Their defence, unfortunately for them, is still awful. The addition of Clyne is brilliant, but at centre back, nothing has been added to a notoriously error-prone selection. They’d better hope they score much more than they concede, but it should still make for some great matches.

Player to watch: Roberto Firmino

Manchester City – How will their aging squad cope this season?

This season will be something of a transitional one for The Sky Blues.

With a lack of English talent amongst their ranks, their transfer policy has been heavily focused on luring English talent to the Etihad, whatever the price. This is the only explanation for forking out £49m for someone like Raheem Sterling. Fabian Delph is cheap and reliable, but not a top 4 player. Patrick Roberts from Fulham was a signing out of nowhere.

Their squad is getting older as well. Yaya Toure is declining as a force to be reckoned with, and the likes of Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy are no longer as potent going forward as they once were.

Their attacking options outside of Sergio Aguero are weak after the sales of Stefan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko, with a misfiring Wilfried Bony and 18-year-old Enes Unal their only other options. Signing Kevin de Bruyne for £60m isn’t going to solve this given that Aguero is relatively injury prone.

City are the club in biggest danger of losing their top four status.

Player to watch: David Silva

Manchester United – Will their latest signings come off?

Last summer, The Red Devils were making headlines with big money signings like Luke Shaw, Falcao and Angel Di Maria. A revolution was afoot.

Fast-forward 12 months, and both di Maria and Falcao have gone. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out.

Still, they made the top 4, which was their primary goal, so mission accomplished on that front. Pushing on should be their target this season, given that they have had to rebuild again.

Despite the £30m pricetag, Memphis Depay could turn out to be the best signing of any club in the world this season if he performs well. He’s versatile, powerful and a great finisher, so hopefully he can be the one to ease the goalscoring burden that lays firmly on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney.

Speaking of Rooney, he will no longer have to cover in midfield, as they have finally solved their problems by signing Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin to compliment Daley Blind, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini.

Another problem area, right-back, has been sorted as well, with Matteo Darmian arriving to replace the departing Rafael. With his versatility, he can also fill in across the backline if needed.

However, their inability to sign a centre back defies belief. Currently, they are pursuing Pedro, who would serve as nothing more than a luxury. They should be actively looking to sign a defender. Instead, they are holding out hope that Sergio Ramos will form part of a swap deal for David de Gea, which seems a bit unrealistic with neither party willing to budge.

Despite this, a top three finish looks to be on the cards this season.

Player to watch: Memphis Depay

Newcastle United – Can Steve McClaren rebuild his reputation further?

Forget Bournemouth as the surprise package. It’s Newcastle who you should be keeping tabs on.

Under John Carver, they were hugely underwhelming last season, and should have been nowhere near the relegation places. Their squad is much better than that.

They’ve not made many signings this season, but the ones they have look the part. Heading up their trifecta of signings is Aleksandar Mitrovic, who is developing into a very complete striker. He’s also, coincidentally, genuinely passionate about Newcastle United. He’s been a fan of the Toon since watching a Champions League game between Partizan Belgrade and Newcastle in 2003, and looks up to the quintessential No. 9 Alan Shearer as his idol.

Joining the big man at St. James’ Park are Georginio Wijnaldum, who was impressive for PSV last season, and fellow Anderlecht alumni Chancel Mbemba, who is a powerful imposing centre back. So, much better than Mike Williamson then, despite his lack of date of birth.

Steve McClaren himself went a long way to rebuilding his reputation in England with an impressive spell at Derby County, where he was unlucky not to achieve promotion in his first season. Unfortunately, last season ended in disaster. They looked like a shoe in for at least the top end of the playoffs all season before a dramatic late season slump saw them finish in a lowly 8th place.

With his reputation just about intact, he still has a lot to prove, especially to the highly volatile Toon support.

Player to watch: Remy Cabella

Norwich City – Will a compact, resolute setup be enough to keep them up?

Norwich were the best outfit in the Championship in the second half of last season, and their momentum carried them to playoff glory.

The good thing about bouncing back immediately after a relegation is that a number of the players that played in the Premier League are still there, notably the likes of Johnny Howson and John Ruddy.

Alex Neil has turned Norwich into a side that is very tough to break down, and they will be heavily reliant on their home form to survive. Their transfer business has been good as well, signing proven Premier League quality on the cheap, with the exception of Robbie Brady.

Their issue is similar to Crystal Palace’s in that their striking options are limited to the untested Lewis Grabban and the tried and tested failure that is Cameron Jerome, who is a Championship level player. Ricky van Wolfswinkel has returned to little fanfare, while Gary Hooper hasn’t been able to reproduce his best form. If they can bring in another striker, one who is  a proven outlet for goals, they should be fine.

Player to watch: Johnny Howson

Southampton – Can they build on last season despite more losses?

Southampton have seen all their best players leave over the last year or so, but have been able to replace them with cheaper, better players.

Rickie Lambert was replaced by Graziano Pelle, Adam Lallana by Dusan Tadic, Luke Shaw by Ryan Bertrand and Dejan Lovren by Toby Alderweireld. This summer, they’ve had to do it again.

Morgan Schneiderlin will be a huge loss, by Jordy Clasie is a very capable replacement to slot in alongside Wanyama. Nathaniel Clyne will be missed, but the highly-touted Cedric Soares will provide a great option there. Toby Alderweireld is also a huge miss. Unfortunately, Steven Caulker is far from the man to fill his boots after successive relegations in teams with dreadful defensive records.

Overall, it’s going to be a hard season for The Saints. While a top half finish is a given, they can’t expect this season to bring the successes of last season, especially with the demands of the Europa League too.

Player to watch: Jordy Clasie

Stoke City – Will a less physical approach bring them European Football?

It’s official: the Stoke of old is dead.

Gone are the days of Rory Delap long throws, leg-breaking challenges and bloody physicality. Enter the Hughes era of pace and power combined with finesse, flair and skill.

The departure of Steven N’Zonzi marked the end of a stylistic transformation that has been taking place. That transformation is finally complete.

Nothing accentuates this more than the signing of Ibrahim Afellay, last seen warming the physio’s table at Barcelona between loan spells at Olympiakos and PSV, but has the flair and technique that Stoke now look for when recruiting players.

Filling the N’Zonzi-shaped hole is Chelsea outcast Marco van Ginkel. Robert Huth has been replaced by Philipp Wollscheid.

The issue here is that what made them a success last season was a combination of class and physicality. Now that the physical side of things is nearly gone, are Stoke going to be the ones who get bullied?

Player to watch: Bojan

Sunderland – Is their luck finally up?

Yes.

Their transfer business hasn’t been great, for a start. Nothing really stands out as an inspired transfer.

Secondly, they have developed a habit of not being able to win games. Last season, they drew 17 games, winning only 7. They’re resolute, but dreadful going forward.

Finally, they don’t seem to have any character. They became famous last season for their ability to spontaneously capitulate at any given moment. Nothing highlights this more than Santiago Vergini’s exquisite own goal against Southampton. After that, they conceded six more goals.

They’ve been living on borrowed time for a while. The perennial survivors surely cannot survive again.

Player to watch: Jeremain Lens

Swansea – Just how good are they?

Last season’s mid table was bizarre. Anyone could beat anyone, and no one was particularly consistent. Swansea took full advantage of this, and nearly claimed an unlikely Europa League spot.

Garry Monk has built an excellent side. Gylfi Sigurdsson was one of the signing of last season, and Jefferson Montero was a standout winger. When Wilfried Bony left, Bafetimbi Gomis stepped up well. Outside of de Gea and Courtois, Lukasz Fabianski was probably the best goalkeeper in the division.

This season, they’ve made the signing of the summer in Andre Ayew on a free transfer, despite interest from bigger clubs, such is the power of the TV deal. In addition, Franck Tabanou is a solid signing to compete with Neil Taylor at left back. Eder from Braga is a dumb signing, as he is just a worse Gomis. Overall, they look like a side that could spring more surprises like last year.

Don’t expect this season to be like last season for Swansea, though. The mid-table is hyper competitive this year, and with Everton expected to be much better this year, holding a place in the top half should be their aim.

Player to watch: Andre Ayew

Tottenham Hotspur – Will they drop out of Champions League contention?

Yes.

Signing a new defence was a priority, and they have done that well. Toby Alderweireld will likely partner Jan Vertonghen, with Kevin Wimmer providing solid cover. Kieran Trippier is an excellent signing at right-back and a player with much better upside and fitness than Kyle Walker.

However, everything in front of them looks surprisingly weak. They were already reliant on Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane, and it looks like they still will be. They haven’t signed anyone to ease the pressure on Kane, nor have they acquired anyone creative to accompany Eriksen. The wide areas of the squad look thin; while Chadli proved himself to be a great player at this level last season, Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend did not. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the previously exiled Aaron Lennon actually starts ahead of them, or even DeAndre Yedlin.

In central midfield, the losses of Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Benjamin Stambouli have left them threadbare, with just Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Mousa Dembele available.

They seem to have lost out big time this window, and as a result, the squad they have is too thin to compete on all fronts. They shouldn’t worry the top four this season.

Player to watch: Nabil Bentaleb

Watford – Will the new signings gel?

Watford remind me of QPR. That’s not a good thing, by the way. In fact, that’s a terrible thing.

In the Premier League solely because of the transfers they were able to make via their links to Udinese and Grenada, they’ve only gone and added yet more talent for expensive fees.

Language barrier issues are set to be a huge problem. They have Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, Czech, Greek, Uruguayan, Spanish… how can Quique Flores expect them to gel.

They could be easy pickings early on this season while they all adapt to each other. We’ve seen time and time again that signing multiple players from different places never works out well. This will cost Watford in the long run.

Player to watch: Matej Vydra

West Bromwich Albion – How far can Tony Pulis take them?

Teeps did what he was asked to, and kept West Brom out of trouble.

This season, the same thing will be on the agenda.

But we know Pulis will keep his side up. The big question is, can they surprise anyone?

It’s possible, but unlikely. They’re a step behind those above them, and will likely be duking it out with Aston Villa in the lower mid-table. Still, they’re a Pulis side, so it’s always possible that they could get some shock results at The Hawthorns.

Their transfer window has been relatively quiet, but the big signing is undoubtedly Rickie Lambert, who is such a Pulis player. He’s big. He holds play up. He can finish. But Big Rick also has a wicked free kick in his arsenal, and an eye for a pass too.

He will be supplied by James McClean, who has been signed to run down the wing and cross the ball, simply.

It’s a simple approach, but one that Pulis has used to great effect before at Stoke and Palace before him. However, a standard 14th place finish is to be expected.

Player to watch: Saido Berahino

West Ham United – Can they leave Upton Park in style?

Judging by their embarrassing performance against Astra Giurgiu, hell no.

Yes, they were playing their second string, but their second string should be good enough to win comfortably. That raises questions about Slaven Bilic, who must be the favourite to get sacked first.

Signing Dimitri Payet was a real coup. The fans get the creativity they crave with him, having claimed 20 assists last season. That’s massive.

Similarly, the arrival of Angelo Ogbonna is a real statement, and the highly-rated Italian will be keen to erase memories of his torrid time at Juventus.

However, the squad they have is still struggling with injuries. Enner Valencia is out of commission for 3 months, leaving Diafra Sakho to pick up all the slack solo, given Andy Carroll’s perpetual lack of fitness.

Next season sees them move into the Olympic Stadium, so a top half finish is a must. From what we’ve seen so far though, there’s a lot of work to do before that’s possible.

Player to watch: Dimitri Payet

Arbitrary Table Prediction Time

  1. Chelsea
  2. Arsenal
  3. Manchester United
  4. Liverpool
  5. Manchester City
  6. Tottenham Hotspur
  7. Everton
  8. Southampton
  9. Newcastle
  10. Swansea
  11. Stoke
  12. Crystal Palace
  13. West Ham
  14. West Brom
  15. Aston Villa
  16. Norwich
  17. Bournemouth
  18. Sunderland
  19. Watford
  20. Leicester

Contenders for Top Scorer

Sergio Aguero – If he can remain fit for a full season, he is guaranteed to get 25 goals. Aguero is the benchmark, it’s up to everyone else to beat him.

Diego Costa – Explosive first half of last season which tailed off due to injuries towards the end. He is a menacing presence in the box and is sure to be a key player again.

Olivier Giroud – Being touted as a “15 goal a season” striker is basically saying that you aren’t good enough. Giroud is still the main striker at Arsenal, and this could be the season he finally bags 20+ goals.

Aleksandar Mitrovic – His pre-season interviews have painted a picture of him as a physical #9 who will literally throw himself at anything. That’s sure to stand him in good stead in the Premier League.

Wayne Rooney – Has hit 25+ goals in a season on two occasions. With a more frequent starting birth at striker, he could hit those heights again.

Golden Glove

Thibaut Courtois – If he doesn’t win, something is wrong with life.

Where did it go wrong for Labour?

I find myself using my old football blog to vent on the topic of the election.

As the most bizarre in history, I’ve been thinking about where Labour lost out.

1) They failed to tackle the notion that they were solely responsible for the economic crisis

When the coalition took the reins of the UK in 2010, they found a note left by former Labour treasury secretary Liam Byrne. This now infamous note, which read “I’m afraid there is no money”, has become something of a trinket for David Cameron. It’s been widely reported that he carries it on his person regularly.

Anyone with a vague understanding of economics knows that the situation between 2007 and 2009 was pretty poor. A double-dip recession and uncontrollable inflation levels cannot be purely attributed to overspending by Labour.

The banks had let their borrowing and spending get out of hand as well. Businesses such as Woolworths and Zavvi suffered from a lack of demand for their supply, and a failure to adapt to the growing e-commerce industry. This is without mentioning the tax dodging by big corporations that has been going on for years now.

Miliband always dodged questions relating to Gordon Brown era economics in the debates. He never once admitted his party overspent, and as a result he never shook the Brownite stigma attached to him; he was a key figure in Labour economics at the time of the recession.

2) They failed to convince people that “New Labour” was dead

Speaking of Gordon Brown, Labour made the mistake of assuming everyone had memories shorter than Verne Troyer.

2009 was only six years ago; did they really expect a population of millions to just forgive and forget what had happened with the economy?

I don’t understand why politicians are so obsessed with saving face in the public eye. People will vote for someone who is genuine. Miliband should have admitted the mistakes of the previous Labour government and told us why they were different this time.

He didn’t.

The over-borrowing, over-spending Labour of the 00s proved that they could monstrously fuck up an economy like no other. A lot of voters weren’t convinced it wouldn’t happen again.

3) Things would have been different if proportional representation was in place

With the official figures released, you will find that the Conservatives and Labour are separated by 6% of the vote. As it stands, Cameron and co have roughly 100 more seats than Labour. Let’s do some basic maths.

100/650 simplified is 10/65. Simplified again, it’s 2/13. As a percentage, that’s around 15%.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 6% ≠ 15%.

UKIP can feel aggrieved about this too.

They are the third largest party on % of votes by a significant margin over the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, yet they only have 1 seat to show for 13% of total votes. Their party leader, Nigel Farage, didn’t win South Thanet and has now resigned (I believe this to be purely down to his controversial comments on HIV and women’s rights, among other things, but that’s for another time).

By comparison, the Lib Dems have 8 seats and the Greens have 1. The SNP have a smaller proportion of national votes too: they have 56 seats. Plaid Cymru have 3. DUP have 8. The third largest party has 1 seat.

Whether you like UKIP or not, that’s not fair voting.

4) They appealed to an audience that wasn’t there

Over the course of the campaign, one section of the population really took to Ed Miliband (and Ed Balls): Twitter.

Unfortunately, people who use Twitter and latch on to trends are young people. 18-24 year olds have has the lowest turnouts for every election since 1964. For the last three elections, the turnouts have been 40.4% (2001), 38.2% (2005) and 51.8% (2010). After the Lib Dems drove a huge, tuition fee shaped dagger into the backs of 18-24 year olds in 2011, I can’t see the turnout being high this year either.

Young people, for whatever reason, don’t exercise their right to vote. They’re wrong for not voting, but the fact remains that they don’t. Older people vote in droves, and because they have more money, they’ll vote Conservative. You won’t see a 70 year old joining the #Milifandom.

Similarly, Labour seemed to lean left-wing during their campaign. Who loves socialism? YOUNG PEOPLE. Who doesn’t? OLD PEOPLE.

To stand any chance of winning next election, they have to balance their stance to appeal to everyone.

5) Failure to capitalise on the rise and fall of opposition

No one could predict that Exit Poll. It shook politics as we know it. All signs pointed to a tight finish.

It predicted the Lib Dems would lose over 80% of their seats – a drop to 10. THIS WAS AN OVERPREDICTION. They got 8.

Those seats should have been more heavily targeted. The Conservatives jumped the gun on them.

Then there’s UKIP and the SNP. If there’s anything these two have in common, it’s that they’re both good at taking Labour votes. Did they do enough to stop this happening? No.

Instead, they focussed on the Conservative’s most vulnerable seats. There was one issue, though.

6) The SNP and the fear of “being held to ransom”

Ed could deny it all he wanted to; the only way he was getting into #10 was to get into bed with Nicola Sturgeon.

Judging by the surprise of the Conservative majority, it would be fair to speculate that many in England and Wales didn’t want Westminster held captive by Scotland. As a result, they didn’t vote for Conservative, they voted AGAINST Labour.

Politics is changing in one way. From the people I have spoken to, there seems to be a consensus that a fear of bad things happening is driving them to other parties.

I am a victim of this. I’ve been able to vote at one key election, which was the European Parliament election last year. I voted Lib Dem; despite broken promises at home, I thought they had the best policy moving forward for Europe.

I voted Labour yesterday. While I thought they had some shrewd policies on the NHS and the private housing sector, I still believe that the Lib Dems have the most sound economic plan of any party.

However, I knew that votes for them were going to avalanche, and if it came down to it, they would go into coalition with the Tories again.

I felt like a vote for Lib Dem would, for reasons outside of my control, be a vote for Conservative. That isn’t democracy.

I voted against Tory by voting for Labour.

On the flipside, those in fear of an SNP coalition with Labour would have changed their voting beliefs to vote against Labour, by voting for Conservative.

Would there have been a referendum on independence if Labour-SNP won? We’ll never know. There could still be one, given their new-found authority in The Commons.


This election has been memorable for its surprise, but also for a nationwide loss of hope.

I just finished watching Nick Clegg’s resignation speech. Tears streaming down his face, he spoke passionately and defiantly about his achievements in the coalition. His work deserved more than 8 seats and 8% of the vote. The tuition fees decision has cost them dearly.

He was bawling his eyes out as he walked off stage. We sometimes forget that politicians are human, especially the ones who go into the field to make a real difference. Clegg was one of the few genuine politicians we had.

Instead, David Cameron and the Eton massive are free to do whatever the hell they want to the UK. They don’t care about you. If it doesn’t line the pockets of the wealthy, they aren’t interested.

If David Cameron had won just 8 seats, you wouldn’t see him crying. He’s not human. He doesn’t care like Clegg does.

But what can the average worker, the student, the mentally unable, do to survive the next five years of right-wing, austerity-driven rule? Prepare.

Prepare for a private NHS.

Prepare for the mentally and physically ill to be afterthoughts.

Prepare for a housing crisis.

Prepare for a youth unemployment crisis.

Prepare for unaffordable education.

Prepare for overcrowded schools, while private schools are treated like charities.

Prepare for cuts to public services.

Prepare for welfare cuts, except the ones that go to those who don’t deserve it.

Prepare for an in-out referendum on Europe not happening.

Prepare to see the tax breaks go to millionaires and big corporations.

Prepare for an expansion of sensationalist Murdoch media.

Prepare (and this is a spoiler, not a prediction) for worse rioting than in 2011. (If you’re going to riot, leave housing and small businesses out of your targets)

Be prepared.

Evaluating the pros and cons of Wayne Rooney as a football captain

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Ahh, Wayne Rooney, the newly-dubbed double captain of Manchester United and the England National Team. A few short games into his tenures, his ability to lead from the pitch is already being called into question. As per the norm, Twitter went wild with armchair criticism. His antics even drew the ire of the former X-Factor contestant, paragon of musical genius and Crystal Palace’s most reviled fan, Steve Brookstein.

Fear not, Wayne. I got your back bro.

Pros

Highly-Gifted Footballer

There is simply no doubting his innate qualities as a footballer. We’d all love to see more consistent performances in an England shirt (and thus show us he deserves his place), but his class remains permanent. Rooney has given us a lot of moments to savour, from his delightful chipped finished against Portsmouth in the 2007 FA Cup, to the overhead kick that put Manchester City in their place in 2011, all the way back to when his winning goal broke the streak of Arsenal’s Invincibles, firmly placing him on the map as one of England’s hottest prospects in years.

Being a gifted footballer helps those playing around you play better, as they often look to Rooney to provide a moment of magic capable of changing a game. His work ethic for a while was hard to rival, always running back in search of the ball, making tackles. His determination and ability rank him highly in terms of being captain material.

Experienced and passionate

A good captain at the top level needs passion and two kinds of experience: the experience of winning, and club loyalty. There is no denying that Rooney has passion for football in spades, but I’ll get onto that a little later. The guy gets criticised for running his mouth at his players and officials, but what kind of good captain doesn’t demand more for his teammates? That doesn’t fight for every throw in?

During his 10-year spell at The Red Devils, Rooney has won 13 trophies. Few players in the English game can claim the accolades Rooney has to his name. Some may question his loyalty, bringing up all the bumper contracts he has signed and his transfer requests, but at the end of the day, he’s the most experienced player they have in their ranks and he’s still there. If he really wanted to leave, he would have done a long time ago.

Addressing Certain Cons

Discipline

There seems to be some misconception when it comes to Wayne’s disciplinary record. He has six career red cards. Here’s a list of the current captains of last season’s top 10 Premier League clubs and where they rank when compared to Rooney. Oh, and Lee Cattermole is thrown in there for good measure. All figures are taken from premierleague.com

Someone is beating Cattermole in the red card stakes? The world I knew is gone.

Purely based on top flight club football, Jags is surely all of the haters’ choice for perfect captain, because he rarely gets booked or sent off. In Rooney’s case, it’s clear he gets a lot of yellow cards, probably because he likes to get stuck in, like Kevin Davies always used to. This thing about red cards though, it’s not founded when he’s wearing a red shirt. In this list, the likes of Vincent Kompany and Steven Gerrard rank lower than he does, with most of those reds likely coming at a time when they were captain.

His England record is pretty poor though. 3 reds in 97 England appearances is pretty bad, especially considering that two of them came for the stamp on Ricardo Carvalho at the 2006 World Cup and the kick on Miodrag Dzudovic against Montenegro in 2011. Hardly the actions of a captain, but again, we’ll come back to his ways in an England shirt later.

Outside of Football

A lot of people, including good old Brookstein above, often criticise Rooney for his public antics, such as that time he solicited sexual relations from two older women, one a mother of 6 and the other a grandmother. That was ten years ago. You want to talk about public image? Everyone was screaming for Steven Gerrard to be England captain all those years ago… the same Gerrard who gets into bar fights? This article claims Rooney isn’t “a John Terry“… the same John Terry who sleeps with people’s wives and racially abuses fellow players? Come off it. A lot of footballers are monumental assholes off the pitch, and have done stupid things; that doesn’t mean they can’t lead.

Legitimate Cons

“Falling into” United Captaincy and The Curious Case of England

While I do believe Wayne Rooney is the correct choice for the United captaincy, I also believe that he fell into it. If it’s not Rooney, who would it be? RVP? Carrick? Fletcher? Jones? They’re all too injury prone, and a captain should be a regular starter. All the other players available aren’t leadership material either. Being the only candidate for a job doesn’t make you the best candidate.

As for his England captaincy, I always felt like it should have been given to Gary Cahill. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe that the captain shouldn’t be an attacker. Defenders are natural leaders as they always have to marshal the back line (in England’s case, Gaz Caz), making them ideal captains. For England, other, better options were available. His disciplinary record and God awful performances in a white shirt in recent years makes me consider his position in the England squad, let alone as captain. If he wants to lead England, it’s time he started pumping in consistently world-class displays like we know he can.

The Media

Probably Rooney’s biggest obstacle is the media. Twitter gives regular people the freedom to publicly run their mouth from the safety of their own keyboard, and the two tweets above are but two examples of innumerous hate tweets for Rooney, from people who are supporters of United to those who just have an irrational hatred for him. These articles here are just examples of attacks on Rooney without looking at the facts and the statistics. Rooney has been poor this year? Well, he’s a striker, his job is to score. He’s scored at least double figures in every season in a United shirt, and has 3 in 6 this season. He’s capable of double figures for assists too, like we saw last season, a season where United finished 7th with Rooney’s form as their season’s sole positive.

Henry Winter calls it perfectly in this article. He’s being set up to fail by a media intent on tearing him apart for every mistake he makes, no matter how minor it may be. He hadn’t been sent off for three years. He has curbed his enthusiasm somewhat recently. He’s growing into the role and will have learned from his mistake, but people, in particular United fans, need to get off his back and let him do his job. Judge him, and the whole United/England squads, at the end of the season.

How can we bring the shine back to the League Cup?

Last night, Crystal Palace lost in extra time of their Capital One Cup tie against Newcastle, thanks to a Paul Dummett goal. I found myself caring more about the fact we let Dummett win it for them and Emmanuel Riviere score twice than the fact that we find ourselves out of the cup yet again. Hey, it’s just the Pointless Massive Waste Of Mickey Mouse’s Time Because You Didn’t Quite Go The Distance In The FA Cup And You Need To Focus On The League Second-Tier Cup, right? It’s one less distraction in our fight for survival. But why? The last time we won a trophy was when we got promoted to the Premier League last year, and that was for winning the play-offs. In terms of major silverware, we’re looking at over two decades ago, when we won the 1991 Full Members Cup, a cup designed to be a temporary stop gap for English Clubs banned from European Competitions between 1985 and 1992, as a result of the Heysel Stadium Disaster.

My point is that the League Cup presents the best opportunity for more lowly Premier League sides, and Football League sides, to win a major piece of silverware. Our opponents, Newcastle, have maintained a “we don’t care about the cups” stance for a while now, having not advanced past the 4th round of a cup under Mike Ashley’s seven-year reign of terror. Their focus is on the Premier League. But why exactly? In their current state, it’s unlikely they would ever mount a challenge for a European place like they did in 2011-12. If it’s relegation they’re looking to avoid, you only have to look back to 2008-09 when they got relegated despite not advancing in cup competition. So really, they’re focusing on a Premier League they won’t realistically finish higher than 9th in, and more than likely won’t get relegated from. Now that they’ve beaten Palace, why not go for it? The fans have been pretty miserable for several years now, and a trophy would be something to cheer for, and something which would also grant them the European qualification they would get if they miraculously finished 5th or 6th in the League.

2014_Capital_One_Cup_-_before_the_game

So what can we do to make the cup more appealing? More prize money would be the most obvious and soulless answer to give. According to leaguecupodds.co.uk, prize money for winning the cup is £100,000, with £50,000 for runners-up and £25,000 for semi-finalists. On top of that there is some TV revenue for the lucky few. What exactly is financially appealing about going on a cup run in a cup with such poor financial return? The FA cup winners receive a more handsome £1.8m, with runners up raking in £900,000. A prize money figure that isn’t eighteen times less than the FA Cup would likely raise more interest from teams, especially considering that the competition ends in February, leaving the end of the season to focus on other cups or the League.

One idea that wouldn’t work is a restriction on the amount of changes a manager can make for a League Cup game. Taking power out of coaches hands totally undermines the good work they do, and while it encourages the use of more first team players, I’m against managers not being able to do their jobs properly. Not to mention, there will inevitably be ways around it.

The way I would do it would be to restructure the way European competition works. The other cup no one has any real interest in is the Europa League, and a simple way to make that more relevant is to increase the quality of opposition in the competition. This can be done by only allowing the champions of each country’s major league to compete in the Champions League, alongside the winners of the Europa League. Let’s face it, third or fourth place in your league does not make you a champion, and should not earn you the right to face champions. Winning a cup makes you a champion of something, which leads me to state my wish to see a return of the Cup Winners Cup, which would lie in between the two in terms of prestige. A new system would look like this:

Champions League: Champions of each top league in each European country.

Cup Winners Cup: Winners of each country’s major domestic cups.

Europa League: The runners up of each league, plus a few thirds and fourths from the major leagues.

Winning the Cup Winners Cup or Europa League would grant entry into the Champions League. This would add value to the League Cup and FA Cup as ones that give teams an indirect route to the Champions League, adding to their appeal. Every team dreams of Champions League football, and giving them opportunities to get there via two cups would be a great way to earn it, and regain lost interest in the trophy. The issue here is implementation: every country’s footballing body, UEFA, etc. would have to agree to it and it would take a while to implement. If Newcastle are that focused on the league just for the sake of European qualification, going through two cups could prove an easier route while collecting silverware on the way.

For fans, it’s a simple case of exposure. For years, the League Cup has been restricted to being televised on Sky Sports, which most people can’t afford. Putting more cup ties on freeview would increase interest among neutrals and die hard fans alike as the cup is made available to more people. Manager attitude is also a major issue. Everyone wants to win, but certain managers simply don’t care if they lose, and therefore don’t put enough on the line. Manchester United pretty much used their tie vs MK Dons as a youth team/reserves match. If they really wanted to win, they’d have put out a stronger team. I suppose you can’t really change someone’s opinion though.

There is no doubt extra incentive is needed, but in it’s current format, I’m still relieved to be out of the cup. We’ve seen Birmingham and Wigan win cups only to bow out of the Premier League the same season, and ultimately if a cup run decreases our chances of Premier League survival, and with no incentive, financial or footballing, to want a run, then no cup run is fine by me. Still, it’d be nice to see people care again, and it’d be great to see a new trophy in our relatively baron cabinet. But for that to happen, there needs to be more to fight for.

Refereeing standards must improve for the sake of football

Many of you know by now that referees generally grind my gears. Since I can remember, fans and viewers have been subject to normally at least one reprehensible decision a game, some minor like an incorrectly awarded throw-in, and some major, like what Mark Clattenburg did in the awesome spectacle that was Leicester City vs Manchester United.

Clattenburg

That match finished 5-3 to The Crisps and left United fans and staff scratching their heads as to how a 3-1 lead was thrown away in such a spectacular manner. Twitter erupted, fans and neutrals alike criticising the decision of the referee to award a penalty for Rafael’s challenge on Jamie Vardy, amongst a host of other decisions, including but not limited to Ritchie de Laet remaining on the pitch for a host of hard challenges on Angel di Maria.

If you haven’t seen it, take a quick look here.

http://gfycat.com/ifr/WhimsicalCoarseCattle

There’s three fundamental things wrong with this decision. One: it isn’t a penalty. There is barely any contact and Vardy has moved his body in front of Rafael before going down in a rather flimsy manner. Two: there is a foul about 6 seconds before the penalty is given. Vardy has shoulder tackled Rafael to the floor. It’s debatable whether it is a foul (I think Rafael needs to be stronger), but it’s worse than the penalty. Three: it’s the same kind of foul. Take a look again, and you’ll see the two incidents are very similar, both are shoulder to shoulder until Vardy twists his body for the penalty, except Vardy’s is much more forceful. As a referee, if you can’t recognise that those two incidents require at least identical punishment then you should perhaps identify a new vocation and focus on that.

He had a terrible game, but, as an intriguing segue, he is not a biased referee. A lot of United fans have been claiming that Clattenburg has biased against them, reciting recent red card/penalty statistics as their evidence. If he hates you then he must really deteste Tottenham Hotspur, because in games between the two sides in 2005 and 2010, it’s not like he was totally “biased” against Spurs or anything. Remember the Nani-Gomes free kick drama? Remember Roy Carroll dropping Pedro Mendes’ shot over the line only for it not to be given? Clearly you’ve all conveniently forgotten the decisions that have been given your way by Clattenburg that were wrong. In my eyes, he’s just an awful official who let’s occasions and personal grudges get to him far too often.

He has been embroiled in sagas relating to the racial abuse of Chelsea players, the critique he gave Adam Lallana with regards to his supposed new diving mannerisms, and he is a man who let his personal vices get in his way when sending off Craig Bellamy back in 2009. Who could forget the his deplorable performance in a 2007 Merseyside derby; a performance so bad he wasn’t appointed to officiate an Everton game for five years. And yet, he will walk out at St. Mary’s this weekend to referee Southampton vs QPR like he’s actually trusted to do his job properly.

It’s unfair just to pick out him though. Incidents involving beach balls, dives, and more have all marred games and it’s something referees can easily avoid by just making the right decision.

What can we do about this? Video technology is the primary solution. Quite obviously, some referee’s cannot be trusted to get all the major decisions right, and may also not be able to make a decision due to poor visibility, etc. Most premier league and Championship grounds have big screens in their ground for all the fans to see, so why not replay decisions on there? An even better solution would be to utilise a review system, much like the three challenges in tennis and DRS in cricket. That way, managers have to be careful with what they protest about. I would argue rather than three challenges to decisions, one would be sufficient, as to stop constant challenges and keep the game flowing. I also believe that a referees job can be made easier if players were booked for getting in their faces. Players influencing decisions is just as bad and ruin the outcome of matches. This goes as far as certain players quadruple barrel rolling after a challenge, legitimate or not, to try and get them booked/sent off. In my eyes, if you’ve rolled over screaming, you are unable to continue as a result of a serious injury, so any player doing it should be substituted or booked.

Perhaps most of all, referees need to be trained to do the right thing… as obvious as it sounds. By this I mean, instead of looking at a match as being Leicester vs Manchester United, it’s Team A vs Team B, and you are not to show any sort of bias towards a bigger/smaller club, or towards the home team, etc. This should form a big part of training. You can be the most technically gifted fireman in the world, but if you’re afraid of fire, you’re useless. Similarly, you can be the greatest referee in history based purely on attention to detail, but if you can’t pull off the big decision in a big match because the crowd and players get to you, you aren’t a good referee. They need to be made of steel mentally. You can always get better at spotting fouls, but the right mentality is something that you’re more often than not born with, and takes a long time to acquire otherwise.

Football should be about football. Replacing referees with technology eliminates all possibility of an error, but would ruin the ebb and flow of a game, so isn’t viable. Referees as a result need to get better at making key decisions. At the moment, football is a bit like professional wrestling: it’s all about the story and the drama. It shouldn’t be this way. It isn’t entertainment. It’s competitive sport. I should be writing about a brilliant performance by Leicester to overcome great odds, but instead a referee is the centre of attention.

Less drama, less controversy, more football please.

A message to Steve Parish: WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Back when Ian Holloway left Crystal Palace late last year, I earmarked Tony Pulis as the one candidate I didn’t want to see as manager. I have just finished baking a delicious humble pie, and I relish eating every last bite of it, leaving no crumbs, such is my commitment to admitting how atrociously wrong I was.

Less than a year later, all of his astonishing work has been undone, shredded, left in tatters, all in one fell swoop by a chairman who himself has performed minor miracles over the last 5 years in getting the club to the Premier League.

12405776333_2514835fc7_kPulis has been something of a managerial revelation, though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who has never been relegated as a manager, lest we forget. His forte seems to be taking relegation-threatened teams and turning them into competent mid-table teams with the potential to push on to promotion and the higher reaches with the right investment. He has done what he did at Palace numerous times in the lower divisions, with clubs like Gillingham, Stoke City, and Plymouth Argyle all benefiting from his managerial wizardry.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t come without a certain caveat, something that all football fans associate with Pulis: unattractive football. His second stint at Stoke ended after the owners felt a change in play style from Delap long throws, hitting long balls, and selecting an XI that rarely contained a player under 6 feet in height. When he came to Palace, though, the long ball style was a little less prevalent; instead Selhurst Park was treated to his usual rock solid defensive displays, but also a brand of counter attacking football which saw Yannick Bolasie, Marouane Chamakh and Jason Puncheon thrive as a trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and later saw Dwight Gayle(the physical embodiment of the antithesis of a Pulis centre-forward) hit major form, scoring two braces in the final two matches of the season. Pulis was a man who had reinvented his style to match the players he had. It married perfectly.

This season’s transfer window has bee somewhat of a disappointment. The only signings of note up until today were Frazier Campbell for a fee of around £600,000, while Brede Hangeland signed on a free transfer. Martin Kelly joined today for a fee of £1.5m. A total of £2.1m spent on a club trying to stay in the division? Leicester spent £8m just on one player in Leonardo Ulloa: that’s intent to stay in the division.

Steve Parish will no doubt have his reasons for not wanting to invest heavily. It wasn’t so long ago that the club was on the brink of not existing, after all. He will want to put money into developing the area around the stadium, redeveloping the training ground, and bringing forth youth.

But there is not statement of intent. No key signing. We remain without a proper left-back, and quality midfield options are hard to come by. What intent he has shown has been in the form of interest in re-signing Wilfried Zaha, a player Pulis reportedly has no interest in. The conflict then appears to be between what the manager thinks is best for the club, and what the owner thinks the fans want to see. After the award-winning season Pulis has delivered, Parish has to comply with his needs. Now that he’s gone, less than two days before a massive game against Arsenal, the club appears to be entering a state of ruin. Parish only has himself to blame.

The club’s biggest asset and arguably greatest manager has gone. Steve Parish needs to act fast to regain the fans trust. Let this be a message to all owners: you do NOT run the club, you merely fund it and own it, hence OWNER. The MANAGER manages the club, hence MANAGER. Literal terms, intended to be used literally.

A SmokedSammon prediction-based preview of the 2014 World Cup

Ladies and gentlemen, it is upon us at last. Football’s greatest festival starts on the 12th of June with a match between the host nation and sure-fire favourites Brazil, and Croatia, a solid team praised for nurturing great footballing talent for a nation of it’s size. And already, many micro-stories have developed; Neymar, Brazil’s golden boy, goes over on his ankle in training and remains a doubt for the opener, Eduardo will sing the national anthems of both his birth country Brazil and his national team Croatia before the game, and of course, the riots rage on, continuing to cloud what is supposed to be a wonderful event that serves to bring the world closer, not drive it apart.

As a result, I start off this post by offering a few words on the situation. To those that have been negatively effected in any way by the riots, I speak on behalf of the world when I say our thoughts are with you. Pictures like the one below are examples of things no one wants to see happen, and the emotional and physical harm caused to innocent citizens over the last year by rioting is something I cannot articulate in mere words.

35 buses were set ablaze by rioters in April. Image sourced from http://www.saach.tv

Brazil brought the World Cup back for the first time in 64 years to catalyse a change in fortunes for the largely impoverished nation. Instead, it’s served to only anger the public further. The corrupt democrats in charge have pumped all their resources into the World Cup, leaving those sectors in real need of monetary defibrillation to survive on their own. Indeed, some $10bn has been spent on stadiums and infrastructure alone. How dearly could those in need have used a mere fraction of that money? And, given this state of affairs, is the World Cup affordable? Will it leave the country in a more dire situation than before? As someone who doesn’t claim to be a financial expert, I’m not really in a position to answer these questions, but I assume those in charge will have to at some point, as more and more people, enraged by a corrupt, ethically uneducated and financially unstable system, continue to be ravaged by racism and poverty, and prove that the face we see of a nation that is all about samba, heat, partying, women, and of course football, is nothing more than a facade.

Nevertheless, the show must, and will, go on. As a result, I shall now proceed to not predict the path of the World Cup. Indeed, I have learned my lesson from the last time I tried to do that.

The Small Matter of England

What will the starting line-up be against Italy?

This question can be answered two ways: 1) Who I want to start, and 2) Who Roy Hodgson will actually select. Below are the answers to both of those questions.

                                                                            1) 

                                                                            2)ScreenHunter_04 Jun. 10 16.28

I have gone for the line-up that I feel that most people would like to see walk out in the first game; a standard back 5, a Gerrard-Henderson central partnership, starts for Lallana, Barkley, and Sterling, and a complete lack of Wayne. I don’t feel the need to justify this too much, but this, in terms of momentum and form from the Premier League season just gone by, is our strongest XI. Plenty of attacking guile and creativity, Gerrard pulling the strings, and Henderson doing the legwork. The back 4 looks suspect, but it’s more or less the best we have available to us.

My prediction for Hodgson’s XI is based in a couple of things. Firstly, the infatuation with HAVING to playing Rooney, as staggeringly unbelievable as it is after the completely uninteresting season he has had, is present, and we have to deal with it. Crow-barring Rooney in the side is seemingly Hodgson’s priority if recent friendlies are anything to go by, so expect to see Wayne fill in at right-back if Glen gets injured just to squeeze him in (you never know, it might work, not hard to be a better defender than Glen is it). Secondly, is a similar infatuation with Wilshere as the saviour of our central midfield. This isn’t necessarily Hodgson’s problem, but the country seems to love him to bits, so I could see Hodgson going with him. I have so many issues with this; he’s barely played this season and, given how much of a glass cannon he is and how people target him, it’s a bit like putting a plate of Jaffa Cakes (other cakes/biscuits are available) in front of a 7 year old and telling them not to eat them. Not to mention, what do people see in him exactly? 4 assists from 29 games for someone who supposedly has such a great eye for a pass is poor. All I see him do is run forward with the ball and give it away, it’s frustrating. He mustn’t start. Finally, the inclusion of Welbeck in friendly teams is very divisive. His record for England speaks volumes; 8 in 23 is decently prolific for someone stuck in a left midfield position. However, I would not consider any Manchester United player for the starting XI. They’ve been dreadful this season, and none of them should feel entitled to starting place just because of the badge they wear on weekends. You have to earn your place, and Sterling, Lallana, and Barkley have all done that.

How far will England get?

I wasn’t entertaining the idea of anything above 3rd place (in the group, of course) up until this recent bout of friendlies. Italy however, have lost a crucial player to a broken leg in Montolivo (we wish him a speedy recovery). A 0-0 against Ireland and a shock 1-1 against Luxembourg of all teams sees them enter the tournament with precisely no momentum. At this stage, I can’t see them trouncing us, and a draw could see it go down to goal difference for second place, and we can do that. Uruguay will win the group with 9 points, of course, but 4 points and a lot of goals will see us through. I would then expect a match against Colombia, and on paper, the two are very evenly matched. Should we beat them, the quarter finals would see us more than likely face Brazil, and that is as far as I could see us going. Realistically, reaching the last 16 can be seen as a relatively successful campaign.

Who will be top scorer?

I’ve earmarked five potential top scorers for this tournament. Some come as no shock, some do.

Neymar

As much as his injury scare could throw this into doubt, and as much as I strongly dislike the little wussbag (1. n. bag of wuss), he is Brazil’s star man, and his record of 31 goals in 49 appearances speaks volumes of his ability to conjure goals. The Confederations Cup Player of the Tournament goes into the World Cup as the man to take the Golden Boot from.

Fred

Looking to steal Neymar’s spotlight is strike partner Fred, who has come right back into the fold in recent years after a baron patch in his career between 2006 and 2010. Now that he is back firing on all cylinders, and fresh from being joint top scorer with Fernando Torres at the Confederations Cup with 5 goals, he can be considered a real threat to opposition defences.

Miroslav Klose

As sentimental as this selection may be, Klose has the opportunity to go down in World Cup history. Currently on 14 goals, he needs 2 goals to beat Ronaldo’s record of 15 goals at World Cups. No one will be hungrier for goals than Klose.

Lionel Messi

He’s in the very lucky position of having accomplished everything there is to do at club level at the age of 26. He has 86 appearances for Argentina and 39 goals, but only 1 at a World Cup, in the 6-0 drubbing of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Trust me, he will be as motivated as anyone there to cap of his gleaming collection of medals and trophies with a World Cup win, and the conditions will suit him down to a tee. But first, he has to break his scoring drought, and I can see him doing that in fine style in a group Argentina are set to walk through.

Edin Dzeko

My surprise inclusion here is Edin Dzeko. In the same group as Argentina, he will be up against Iran and Nigeria, and with a record of 35 goals in 62 games, he’s more than capable of causing severe damage. Providing they fend off Nigeria for second, which I predict they will easily, they’re likely to meet Switzerland or France in the last 16, and again, Dzeko can make them pay too. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Honourable Mentions

Probably the biggest omission is Luis Suarez. After the season he has had, the momentum he is carrying into the World Cup is tremendous, and he is also someone acclimatised to the heat and humidity of South America. He is however, in a group with Italy and England, who tend not to roll over easily.

Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t make the list. His group is very difficult much like Suarez’s (Germany, Ghana, USA), and Portugal have been wholeheartedly unimpressive in qualifying. He’ll need his team to up their game if he wants to progress out of the group stages and score goals.

The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard miss out too. With Lukaku potentially out for the first two group stage games, his task could prove too difficult, and Eden Hazard, despite a quality season for Chelsea, only has 6 international goals from 45 games, which is simply not good enough.

Last tournaments’ Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller also doesn’t make the cut. He’s been totally anonymous this season, and, despite being excellent for Germany overall, Joachim Low could opt against starting Muller altogether. We’ve sen both Gotze and Schurrle play down the middle, and Klose and Podolski are both experience international strikers.

Finally, Brazilian-come-Spaniard Diego Costa doesn’t make the list. A big advantage he has over other European strikers is… he’s Brazilian. This will feel more homely for him. Currently being treated for a hamstring injury though, he may not be match fit, by which point Vicente del Bosque may have already decided to stick with his tried and trusted false 9 formula which bought him the European Championship in 2012. Then there’s the question of whether he’ll fit into the tiki taka style of play, and also his lack of international experience.

Surprise Packages?

I touched upon Dzeko being a surprise contender before, and I would like to extend that to Bosnia and Herzegovina. They should finish 2nd in their group, and a game against Switzerland or France could see them advance to the quarter finals, some achievement given they were nearly banned from competing in 2011 by FIFA, which would surely have set them back.

People keep talking about Belgium as surprise contenders. With their squad, what exactly is a surprise? If they got 9 points from Russia, South Korea, and Algeria, I would be totally unsurprised. If their beat second place in Group G, likely Portugal or Ghana, again, not surprised. They should make the quarter finals at least with their team. A more likely surprise would be if the Netherlands could repeat 4 years ago and beat Brazil, provided they can advance from a tough group B.

My major pick for a surprise though is Ghana. The World Cup 2010 semi-finalists* could go all the way there again this time if recent dominant results in friendlies give any indication. With Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan back out of retirement, their side is full strength, and I would love to see them get retribution for that act of footballing terrorism.

The Winners?

It’s boring to say Brazil or Argentina, but they’re too obvious to look past. However, I do fancy Germany to go the distance, their team is ridiculously strong and they all have a lot to prove given a lack of international trophies since 1990.

Everything said, let’s try and enjoy the World Cup as a united World. We can joke about Martin Demichelis and watch in awe as Luis Suarez commits sin again. Our jaws can drop to the floor as one as Ross Barkley spanks one into the top corner from 25 yards, and we can cry in unison when we do tumble out. But let us not forget about the tragedies and realities the World Cup is bringing, and pray that in the end, football can bring everyone together and to their senses, and someone does the right thing.

*Uruguay don’t count

The story of football’s secret title

I start this article with a question. Which title has been held by both Brazil and Curacao (formerly Dutch Antilles)? Has been defended successfully by England more times than Argentina and Germany? Has been held by 48 different nations? A title Scotland has had more success with than any other nation? Not got it yet?

It’s Friday 30th May. Uruguay take on Northern Ireland in what would seem like any ordinary friendly. However, there are penalties if the game ends in a draw. People across the country take to the internet to find out why, and notice there is something on the line.

“Northern Ireland can win something tonight. Their friendly against Uruguay will see the winner take home a trophy, could see penalties.” – @FullPitchPress on 30/05/2014

What is this trophy? Well, Uruguay are the current holders of the Unofficial Football World Champions (UFWC) title, spawned in 1872 and virtually manifested by the CW Alcock Trophy, and a goal from Christian Stuani secured a successful defence over the Northern Irish. They won on the 16th October 2013 in a stunning back-and-forth encounter with Argentina, ending 3-2, their 17th of 19 (and counting) UFWC victories. Let’s first lay down the rules: a nation wins the title by defeating the current title holder, winning one ranking point in the process. A draw sees the title remain with the holders, though draws do not contribute a ranking point. The title is defended in every single international “A” match played by the holder, be it a friendly, qualifier, or World Cup final. The title has it’s own official reptilian mascot called Hughie and even an array of merchandise.

Below is a table of the top 10 most successful nations, and the results may seem a little surprising.

ScreenHunter_02 May. 31 18.31

*Adapted from Ranking table at http://www.ufwc.co.uk/rankings/.

You are reading that correctly: in it’s most unofficial sense, Scotland are the best team on God’s green Earth, with England a close second. 48 years of hurt my backside, right? It’s not quite as clear cut as that, it never is. We’ve haven’t held the title since 1975, which spanned from the first victory against West Germany in March until a 2-1 loss to the former Czechoslovakia in October. Since then, we’ve had four shots at the title, the first being the unforgettable loss to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup on penalties, then a loss to France in a friendly at Wembley in 1999, followed up by draws in friendlies against France (1-1) in 2000, and the Netherlands (2-2) in 2009. So really, it’s only 39 years of hurt and counting, thanks Baddiel and Skinner. In fact, the legitimacy of the table has come under scrutiny from many sides, as a lot of Scotland and England’s points came before the inception of the World Cup, where there was a lack of competitive opposition and the two spent the better part of 60 years trading victories, in matches solely competed between nations of the British Isles until Hungary got a shot in 1909. But hey, who are we to complain?

The first ever UFWC match was England vs Scotland, and, in an exact mirror of modern day British Isles-based football, it was a dour 0-0. Their second encounter ended in a 4-2 victory to England, so yes, we we’re the first (unofficial) world champions. The first non-Isles nation to capture the UFWC title was Austria in 1931, winning it from Scotland in style with a thumping 5-0 win. A full match report can be read here. The first team outside of Europe to clinch their first title victory was the USA, beating England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, only to lose their newly-won honour THREE DAYS later in a 5-2 thrashing by Chile. As mentioned earlier, Curacao won their only title as Netherlands Antilles. This puts them level on wins with a much bigger footballing nation: Mexico. Mexico had won their title from Czechoslovakia in June of 1962 and held it for the next 9 months undefended, until one of the shocks of competitive football saw Netherlands Antilles beat them 2-1 for their title in June 1963 at the CONCACAF Cup in El Salvador, an own goal by Jesús del Muro proving all too costly for the Mexicans.

As I have already mentioned, England haven’t held the title since 1975 and have only had four opportunities since then to reclaim it. Well, shot number five could well be around the corner. If Uruguay can overcome Slovenia on Thursday 5th June, the UFWC will make its 12th appearance at the World Cup, a competition in which no team has entered with the title and walked out with it still wrapped around the proverbial waistline, the Netherlands coming closest by reaching the final in 1974 and 2010 before being defeated by West Germany and Spain respectively. The first defence would be against Costa Rica, and provided that there are no shocks there, England are next in line. Can they take our tally to 74 victories in the group stages of the World Cup? We shall have to wait and see if they can defy the odds against Uruguay and reclaim the title which we held before anyone else.

All statistics sourced from the UFWC wesbite at http://www.ufwc.co.uk.

But David, you were The Chosen One

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After month upon month of fan unrest and heavy speculation, David Moyes has finally been put out of his misery. His sacking puts one final coat of gloss on what has been a truly harrowing season for everyone involved with the Red Devils. The dossier for what went wrong is full of fan and professional opinions, containing varying degrees of aggression, sympathy and philosophy.

For a start, Alex McLeish was one of the first to come out and say what has been said about every sacking this season: he needed more time. This got me thinking: What exactly is time? Managing a football club is not about how much time you have to make slight advancements, it’s about how well you use this time to get the best out of your club and players. Take Brendan Rodgers and Tony Pulis as examples. In two seasons, Rodgers has taken Liverpool from Mid-table obscurity to the verge of their first Premier League title in 24 years. Pulis, who I was not originally fond of as the man to save Crystal Palace, has taken them from relegation fodder to mid-table consolidation on merit in 23 games. David Moyes has had 35 games and three cup competitions to prove his worth, and clearly, he hasn’t used what time he has had effectively enough. This is Manchester United, the creme de la creme, and there is no place for time wasters at the top. You’d think, over the course of the season, they would have got better, gone on a run of form, or maybe won a trophy. But they haven’t even shown signs of improving performances on the pitch, let alone winning matches. When Mauricio Pochettino entered the fray at Southampton last season amidst a relegation scrap, the fans were on his back from the get go; what he did was use the time he had to make them a defensive unit who could break out quickly from opposition attacks, and now they’re more than secure in a lofty 8th place after a phenomenal season. Moyes? He’s come in, and by the looks of it tried to teach canny playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata that the only way to attack is to pummel the box with crosses until something goes in. This has been the one major disappointment for me this season: severe one-dimensionality.

Clearly, as a second point, Moyes has been tactically inefficient. Insistent on utilising the outdated 4-4-2 formation, Kagawa and Mata have find themselves playing as widemen this season. Let’s take a short walk across the conurbation to Manchester City; they also play a variation of 4-4-2, but Silva and Nasri have all the freedom they could wish for, playing more as a rank of attacking midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 formation than wingers in a 4-4-2. Moyes tried to change the formula when van Persie succumbed to injury, and it worked to a degree, with Mata proving to be much more effective in his natural #10 role. However, drafting in Ashley Young on the right was a massive mistake. Being ambidextrous, he can play on either side, but he still favours his right peg, which means one thing: a barrage of crosses from the right. Even a change in formation to one that suits his players more did nothing for his one-dimensional approach to attacking. And yes, Kagawa was still stuffed out wide where he doesn’t belong. Playing Januzaj or Zaha would have been a much better decision than Young. They both have the ability to create and excite, and having them mix up their positions with Kagawa and even Mata would have made for a visually pleasant and effective attacking display. The defensive issues haven’t been addressed either. Phil Jones needs to play in a single position to develop as a world-class talent, and none of the old guard have replacements lined up. £27.5m for Fellaini looks even worse when you consider some of the transfer dealings for some the world’s most promising defenders have gone right under their noses: Medhi Benatia and Angelo Ogbonna cost a combined £23.3m in the summer to Roma and Juventus respectively, a brand new defense for £4m less than the cost of Fellaini, and they’ve missed their chance. His relentless and hopeless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas wasted, you guessed it, TIME. While not like for like, Christian Eriksen, Tottenham’s most impressive player this season, cost £11m. Can someone please explain to me the logic in not signing him over the overvalued and out-of-reach Fabregas? One final note: giving Wayne Rooney a £300k-a-week deal is not a statement of intent, it’s a statement of witlessness. Let him cry about his “lack” of wealth and sign a new, promising, hungry player on the back of a solid world cup; Abel Hernandez, Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Son Heung-Min and others all have the potential to break out if taken.

It wasn’t all Moyes’ fault though: the fans have to take their portion of the blame. They’ve been blowing hot and cold about facing the prospect of a life without Fergie, knowing this season wouldn’t be as good as the last 20 or so they’ve enjoyed. There was a sense of optimism around the club at first, but when things started to go sour a few months into the season, and home losses racked up, that turned to disdain. Not being used to not succeeding is hard, I know, but speaking from experience, you back your team and manager through everything. From Moyes’ first loss to his last, the majority have been the exact opposite of supportive and silent at matches, barring boos for their own team. Sure, you cheer the team when they win or draw, but the reaction to losses has, on the whole, been pretty sad. Take Crystal Palace again; not to be biased, but we have the loudest support in the Premier League at home regardless of the result, and are always topping the away support numbers lists. United fans just don’t have that in them, particularly since the Glazers have come in, where everything has just felt like a business and not a club.

While I believe this sacking is long overdue, the timing means that no one is going to gain anything from this sacking. Sure, Ryan Giggs gets his chance to interim-manage the team, but three games from the end of the season, it isn’t going to make any difference. Sacking managers at this stage is just pointless unless there is a ready-made replacement in the pipeline, so they should have given Moyes those three games, and then sacked him if they were poor, or just sacked him anyway, considering how dogged a campaign it has been for them. Same goes for Hughton, who was sacked with five games left: if he was that bad, why not sack him sooner to give a new face the chance to resurrect the season? With Norwich now looking certain to be relegated, one has to wonder whether the power to sack a manager should be taken well out of the owner’s hands. Of the twenty managers who started this season, only eleven have made it to the end of the season, and ten have been sacked altogether. That number is far too high, so something in the regulations has to change in order to protect managers.

All in all though, Moyes’ time is up. The shortlist is being drawn up as I write this. One can hope, for the neutral, Steve Kean, Terry Connor, Leroy Rosenior, or the dynamic duo or Paul Jewell and Chris Hutchings make stunning returns to high-end football management, or maybe even a management consortium comprised of all five. For United fans, they’ll be hoping the second dawning of the post-Fergie era goes markedly better than the first. Hell, it can’t get much worse, right? Only time will tell.