Wing wizards of the Premier League

This season has been one of the most exciting Premier League-seasons in terms of entertaining attacking play and amdirable intentions. Bar a few notable exceptions, teams have played offensive football, and here’s my assessment on some of those we expect to keep us entertained whenever they set their foot on a football pitch.

Manchester United won a derby against City which pretty much followed the script any United-supporter would have written. Amidst the euphoria and hype surrounding Wayne Rooney’s fantastic winning goal, the contribution of United’s most dangerous attacking outlet this season once again went relatively unnoticed. Nani has played second fiddle to Berbatov and Rooney only in headlines, as his inventiveness, explosiveness and probing from the wing has been United’s greatest source of goal threat this season. Against City, his goal was expertly controlled and coolly slotted home after Ryan Giggs set him loose, and his delivery, albeit via a slight deflection of Pablo Zabaleta, prepared the stage for the magician Rooney to pull the rabbit out of the hat in the most spectacular fashion. Nani’s stats this season shows 8 goals and none less than 14 assists, formidable numbers for any wide player. It is his exciting style of play and the sheer brilliance he produces on the pitch that endears him the most to the United faithful, though, and he’s probably been the best winger in the league all season.

Nani: Flying high

The probably in the last sentence originates from our next subject of investigation. Samir Nasri might hardly class as a winger, more a wide playmaker, or at times even a central midfielder, but he’s certainly a wizard. The French schemer enjoys creating little triangles with his Arsenal teammates, but this season he has added even more end product to his polished passing game. More goals don’t detract from the overall assessment either. Nasri’s pretty much the best attacking midfielder around in the Premier League, he’s got a fearsome shot of both feet, much like Nani, great vision and a fantastic touch to free himself from tight situations. A delight to watch, Nasri is probably the ideal footballer in his managers eyes.

3 months ago people would throw all sorts of insults towards anyone bold enough not to rate Gareth Bale as the best winger in the league. Some argued even the best in Europe! The Welsh livewire takes the art of running the wing back to the roots, with chalk on his boots, dizzy opponents everywhere and pure pace. His peach of a left peg don’t do his claim of stardom any harm, and he’s regularly creating and scoring goals. All sorts of goals as well. He’s gone a bit off the boil since his fantastic early season form, but Gareth Bale do certainly belong amongst the leagues top wingers this season.

Bale: Lovely to watch

As is the case for Nasri, another wideman to get pushed infield to provide creativeness in more central areas is Ashley Young. A rather strange move when you think of his greatest asset which is his crossing and delivery from wide areas, but the Aston Villa-forward regularly wanders wide, partly due to his instincts and partly for tactical variation. His set piece-delivery and inswingers from the left remain a crucial weapon for his side, and his ability to get amongst the goals is also a valuable commodity. Young hasn’t enjoyed his best season in the top flight, but is still an entertaining sight for fans and neutrals alike, even if he isn’t quite in the class of the former players we’ve looked at.

Another one who can’t quite be classed up there with the leagues top wingers, but has been one of the most entertaining to watch, is WBA-winger Jerome Thomas. The former Arsenal-youngster has impressed for a side which, at least under the now sacked Roberto di Matteo, always looked to play football the stylish way. Utilizing their wings and a neat passing game, players like Thomas have contributed to the notion that West Bromwich have been one of the best sides to watch in the league, albeit an ineffective one at times. Thomas’ best performance was probably at the Emirates, where he scored and helped orchestrate a famous 3-2 win against Arsenal. He was also brilliant at the Hawthorn’s against Manchester United, a game the home side narrowly lost, undeservedly, 1-2. Thomas’s trickery, pace, quick feet and directness should make him an interesting option for a side like Liverpool, who lack genuine quality in their wide positions.

Thomas: Entertainer

Florent Malouda looked like he was about to go about this season like he did the last, floating effortlessly past defenders, playing smart through balls in to his strikers and scoring a lot of goals. Along with Chelsea’s downfall, Malouda has faded away and now finds himself in a more periphery role in Ancelotti’s Chelsea squad. Malouda at his best is a joy to watch, with his drive and purpose on the ball a rarity in the modern, congested game. He will need to do better though to outshine the other wing wizards in this league.

These are the men I believe to be the best and most entertaining wingers in the league, although dark horses could include Antonio Valencia, injury permitting, Aaron Lennon, Steven Pienaar and others. In summary, Nani and Nasri shares the spoils as not only the best wingers in the league but probably the best players alltogether, Bale following close on the heels of the duo. Then, there’s the rest, but what’s for sure is that the Premier League is more entertaining and much better to watch when one of these men are involved!

The week in words

The highs, lows, and flat out bizarre incidents of the Premiership week.

The happy one:

Sir Alex Ferguson must have watched wednesday’s happening with a big grin on his face. Not only did his team beat Stoke on Tuesday, more comfortably than many would have you believe, but he could relax, sit back and watch his title contenders falter one by one as well as enjoying a 0-0 draw at the Emirates, damaging both Arsenal and City’s title chances. Manchester United are in the position they dreamt of before the season, rather incredibly.

Ferguson: Reason to smile

The content one:

Roberto Mancini. The City boss came, saw and drew at the Emirates, all according to plan if we’re to believe his central defenders Kolo Touré and Vincent Kompany. City once again failed to make any sort of statement in a big match, and on another night might have gone down to any one of Arsenal’s rattlings of the post, but Mancini adjusted his already defensive minded team to deny Arsenal any opportunities of note after the first 20 minutes, and got the point he played for.

The Best one:

What is it with Newcastle and strikers? I mean, having Andy Carroll, this seasons revelation as far as Premiership hitmen goes, isn’t enough. The talented and physical Nile Ranger, who also boasts the coolest name in the league, and Leon Best, who in his first ever Premier League start fired 3 excellent goals as cooly as any seasoned marksman would can’t keep long lasting scapegoat Shola Ameobi out of the team. Bizarre. As for Best, the performance and display of finishing was of the very highest quality. According to Alan Pardew, the reason for his starting chance was constantly moaning about his lack of chances. Should have better reasons to start him in the next match, then.

The endangered ones:

After Wednesday, speculation suggested that either one of Avram Grant, Roy Hodgson, Carlo Ancelotti and Gerard Houllier would be shown the door during the next 24 hours. As it was, Ipswich manager Roy Keane beat them to the proverbial gallows as his stint at the Championship club ended in tragedy. Houllier has since got a vote of confidence from his board, while Hodgson looks more and more like a dead man walking at Anfield. None of these are safe, not by a long shot, but so far they’ve all lived to see another day in their jobs.

Hodgson: Worried

The miserable one:

At Ewood Park, with his team 2 goals down and at the penalty spot, Steven Gerrard delivered probably his poorest penalty kick of his illostrous career. The England midfielder stroked the ball hopelessly over as if to emphasize the situation his club is in. The conspiracy theorists among us will point to his connection with the ball and claim he did it on purpose, as a comeback draw at Blackburn would only prolong the misery that is Roy Hodgson’s tenure as Liverpool-gaffer. Minutes earlier Gerrard scored a trademark piledriver off the post, but sported the look of one who had scored an own goal rather than a goal as he returned to his half of the pitch. Symbolic.

The honest one:

No surprises here, Ian Holloway did not disappoint in his post match interview after the late home loss to Birmingham City. The charismatic Tangerines-boss was dignified in defeat, as always, and shared his usual humouristic take on the faithful moment which caused his side defeat. Admitting that he was fuming in the aftermath of Scott Dann’s winner, he told reporters that after looking at the replays he would have to digest the biggest piece of humble pie ever as neither Dann nor the man with the assist, Roger Johnson, was offside as he initially thought.

Chelsea’s colossal collapse

As the Premier League entered the month of November, Chelsea were looking handsome at the top of the table. A fantastic start to the season saw them win 8 of the first 10 league matches, with bitter rivals Arsenal and Manchester United already trailing by 5 points. Fast forward 2 months, and it’s a different story altogether. What went wrong at the Bridge?

Ancelotti: Under fire

On a day that saw Chelsea draw in what seemed a certain victory against Aston Villa at home, questions are raised as to whether or not they are completely out of the title race. Some have even argued that they should be fearing for their Champions League place next season, as Spurs and Man City are looking genuine top four contenders. Meanwhile, Chelsea are faltering, and a scrappy 1-0 win at home to Bolton on Wednesday did little to calm the nerves of a team playing without confidence and selfbelief.

In fact, to even reach 80 points Chelsea would have to win 15 out of their 18 matches remaining, something they simply will not do. The chances of another league title seems slim at best, but more worrying are the long term prospects of Carlo Ancelotti’s squad.

Ramires was the only big signing this summer, and he was brought in to strengthen a midfield which in reality was one of Chelsea’s strengths. Of course, letting Deco, Ballack, Carvalho and Joe Cole go without addressing issues regarding squad depth, besides getting Benayoun in as exchange for the latter, could prove to be unwise. It’s especially at the back that the lack of depth has showed. When John Terry has been unavailable, and even after his return, they don’t seem like a cohesive unit. Ivanovic is no CB, and even Alex, first choice in his role, is not a flawless defender. The right back position has been a problem defensively for a while, although Ivanovic seems to do well enough there, and Ashley Cole hasn’t looked the same brilliant, complete fullback since the summer.

When Chelsea were going through the worst part of their slump, people argued that they lacked players like Lampard, Terry and Essien, and that any team missing players of that calibre would struggle. With those three back, and Didier Drogba, they are still struggling. It seems like they have lost the inner belief that they are stronger than their opponents in every match, and the fear factor of the side has vanished.

Of course, one could argue that a squad should be strong enough to cope without your strongest players. The teams leading the chase for PL glory have all missed key players this season. Fabregas, van Persie and Vermaelen are just as vital to Arsenal’s chances as the aforementioned trio are for Chelsea’s, and United have lacked Rooney, Valencia, Ferdinand, Carrick and Scholes for prolonged periods.

What’s worse than this season’s woes and disappointments though, is the general feeling that the Chelsea squad is on the decline. Their main players are all past the thirty-mark, and no apparent successors looks ready to take up the mantle from within the squad. Josh McEachran is a brilliant young player, Gäel Kakuta likewise, but it seems they are lacking in real quality and matchwinning brilliance when the likes of Malouda, Drogba and Lampard are off their game. With no defensive leader besides a John Terry who have been on and off, and with Ancelotti’s past history of never renewing his squad while at Milan, these are worrying signs.

Personally, I wouldn’t write them off yet. Today, footballers can perform at a great level well past the age of thirty, and they’ve still got the nucleaus of a great side. What they need is to regain their confidence, get their passing game going and strengthen their squad depth. If you look at their first XI, then there’s only about three places you could argue that they are weak. Right back, centre back and another attacking player wouldn’t hurt as Anelka and Drogba both are prone to the odd shocker.

As far as this season goes, I believe it’s game over for the Blues. So it seems Roman Abramovich again has a decision to make as to whether he will open his pockets again, for Ancelotti, or his potential replacement. As early rumours are being whispered about Pep Guardiola’s willingness to experience a fresh challenge in London, pressure mounts on the Italian. I suspect Abramovich’s impatience might have made it too late for Ancelotti already..

Confidence - not coincidence

When Harry Redknapp took the Tottenham job, with the team in the bottom three after an horrific start to the 08/09-season, even the most blinkered Spurs-fan would struggle to predict where they would be just over 2 years later. From being a side filled with journeymen, severely lacking in winning mentality, fighting will and steel, Redknapp took them into the Champions League. This season, there are still hopes he can take them beyond.

His business have been shrewd, as always, bringing back Jermain Defoe from a stint at Portsmouth being a prime example. Getting Niko Kranjcar for £2 million proved to be genious as they waited for his injured compatriot, midfield playmaker Luka Modric, to return from injury. This summer, Spurs managed to snatch Rafael van der Vaart and reignite the brilliant dutchman’s career as he were becoming a forgotten man in Madrid. The exit route to White Hart Lane proved his rescue, much like his fellow dutchmen Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben got out of their Bernabeu misery by signing for Inter and Bayern Munich. His price tag? £8 million.

Van der Vaart: Shrewd signing

The typically smart transfer dealings are not the primary reason as to why Redknapp has had such success with the club, though. The framework of a great team were already there. Gareth Bale, now hailed as the new wonderkid of British football, struggled to get into the side. In fact, it seemed like his very presence deprived Tottenham of any chances of winning matches. 19 appearances in a row without a win his incredible streak lasted before Redknapp broke the spell by bringing Bale on in a game long since won. Almost symbolic, the tide turned for the youngster. Surely Redknapp did most of his work with the young winger behind the scenes, but the hysteria surrounding the Welshman’s bad luck must have been a great relief to get rid of. A fine example of man-managing, and under Harry’s guidance, the sky seems the limit for the lightning quick wing wizard.

Bale: Master of the wing

Bale’s story is just one of many where the manager has instilled confidence, the most important attribute in every successfull sports team, into a player. Luka Modric struggled for a long time imposing himself in the Premier League. The croatian, known for his quick and flawless footballing brain and silky, mainpulative skills with the ball, was physically weak and too easily taken out by teams playing it rough. Redknapp somehow managed to make Modric believe that his quick wits and intelligence would defeat sheer force, and soon, he began running the midfield like he does for his country. No longer hiding from the physical battles, he relies on his little twists, turns and bursts of pace to escape attentions of midfield enforcers around the country. Modric is the brain, the hub and the imagination of the Spurs-midfield, and he links his strikers and wingers with the rest of the team in attack. He’s doing it brilliantly as well.

As we have seen the steady rise of Gareth Bale, from a living laughing stock, almost epotimizing the image of Spurs as bottlers, to a terror for most fullbacks around the globe, so have Aaron Lennon also come out of his shell. As a youngster, Lennon was predicted to be the heir apparent to David Beckham on the right hand side of the England midfield, an everpresent as one of the leagues top performers. Injuries, bad run of form, and a shaken confidence coupled with a Spurs side struggling saw Lennon sink into obscurity. Instead of taking players on, he started to play the easy backpass. The Lennon we saw before Redknapp took over was a world apart from the fresh breath of air we had seen in his early career. He cut a frustrated figure, looking more like a ghost than the whirlwind he can be.

Under Redknapp, though, he too has reignited his career. In Lennon and Bale, Spurs have got easily one of the most spectacular pair of wingers in the league, as well as a productive one. They strike fear into opposition teams, who think twice before employing a high back line. We’ve even seen teams restrict their own wingers freedom offensively in order to double up on the duo.

This last point is one of the clearest signs that Tottenham have in fact become a top side, and not a one-season-wonder like the Everton side that finished in the top four some seasons ago only to never repeat that accomplishment. Beating City on the last day of last season through a Peter Crouch goal granted them access to the Champions League. Although early season evidence suggests they have found it difficult to combine a sustained assault on a top place in the league along with a hard european campaign, they have gotten their act together and are now pushing for a top four place. Incredibly, the team most likely to give up their place for them is Chelsea, who lost 3-1 at Emirates and have gone 6 games without a win in the league. As for Spurs, their latest game was away to a Villa-side desperate for a win. An early goal from the confident and dangerous Rafael Van der Vaart gave them the lead, but what was the most impressive was their performance after Jermain Defoe harshly was sent for an early bath after a clash with James Collins. Spurs, with midfield duo Wilson Palacios and Modric along with Van der Vaart particularly impressive, grabbed possession and stroked it comfortably around a Villa-midfield who find it hard to get a kick against the ten men. That confidence, that will to control matches, even away from home, even with 10-men, is the very same ingredient that have formed the basis for their recent upwards surge.

Tottenham: Confident bunch

After the game, Harry Redknapp repeated his stance that Spurs are in with as good a shot as anybody on the title. His last claim came after the away win to Arsenal, another example of confidence and playing their own game even against the toughest of opponents. Although one would be hard pressed to see Spurs overtake City, Arsenal and perhaps in particular Manchester United, you could see them fight it out for one of the top four places. They have an excellent squad in place, with strength in depth, and most importantly: they believe they are better than their competitors. That inner belief is the thing that transformed mediocre looking players to men possessing the class to go to top sides, play their own game, and win. It’s the mentality which has seen Gareth Bale becoming arguably the best winger in the league, Rafael Van der Vaart delivering the goods in his freeroaming role and even a guy like Alan Hutton start performing like a quality right back. Tottenham are one of the big boys, and they are there to stay. It’s got to do with confidence, not coincidence.

The art of midfield play

Watching Manchester United demolish Sunderland at Old Trafford in a performance littered with movement, precision and swashbuckling attacking football, one comment from a fellow viewer caught my attention.

As Ji-Sung Park, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Dimitar Berbatov were the chief tormentors of Sunderlands troubled rearguard, Michael Carrick went about his work, as he so often does, without grabbing the big headlines. Carrick had an absolutely excellent game, sniffing out whatever hazards Sunderland had in store ages before they materialized with his reading of the game and positional play.

Carrick: Anonymous or essential?

The cultured midfielder, possessing qualities and a style of play often assosciated with players closer to the Mediterranean than the North Sea, is often written off as overrated or pedestrian. While there may be some substance to claims of him hiding in the biggest games, and lacking the character to take games by the scruff of the neck, the truth is that he’s closer to being underrated than overrated.

Carrick’s interceptions, positional sense, excellent and incisive passing(when on song) and ability to cut through opposition midfields and pick out players where they can hurt teams makes his biggest strengths the things that are difficult to notice without paying extra attention to it. Nevertheless, the amount of vital work he puts in is seldom appreciated. His metronomical presence in United’s midfield can be sensed if you study the goals against column prior to his return to the team and after.

Sadly, the Englishman is not alone in his struggle to earn appraisal from media and fans alike. The Premier League contains a lot of players who perform similar, vital duties to Carrick, and not all of them are rated as top players. One example is Chelsea’s anchor John Obi-Mikel, consistantly claimed to be a passenger in an otherwise classy midfield. It may be true that the things he does aren’t as spectacular as Malouda’s mazy runs, Lampard’s goals or Essien’s brute force, but his reading of the game is exceptional. Like Carrick, he keeps the play going by pushing the speed of play when in possession, not looking for the fancy 80-yard pass but rather the quick, easy pass to keep momentum going. He may not have the range of passing Carrick bolsters in his arsenal, but this season have seen more frequent positive and incisive passing from the Nigerian compared to his previous seasons. See his assist for Anelka’s goal away to Wigan for a perfect example.

Liverpool have struggled all season, but the one player besides Pepe Reina who consistantly have performed to a decent level is Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian has a remarkable percentage of completed passes and has developed his passing game to be more positive. Still, his name is often assosciated with a limited version of Mark van Bommel, a mere destroyer who does not contribute to teamplay other than hacking opposition players down.

Mikel and Lucas: Important cogs in the machine

Jack Wilshere is playing regularly at the heart of a team vying for the league title, but even he is questioned as to what he brings to the side. Whispers of deficiencies where heard after his lacklustre performance against United at Old Trafford, but they are baseless if you think about it. His tenacity, work rate and grit should be there for all to see, but it’s his maturity in usage of the ball, reminiscent of a younger version of his skipper Cesc Fabregas, that should earn him the real plaudits. England’s biggest talent since Wayne Rooney should not have criticism of his goal and assist output directed at him, as it is him who, like Carrick for United, often instigates the attacking forays which yield goals for the Gunners.

Wilshere: Prodigous but questioned

None of these players are as easy on the eye or as ingenious on the ball as the real passmasters of the Premier League, the likes of Scholes and Fabregas, but they’re not needed to be. They are proficient enough on the ball, and they do a lot of invisible work in central areas of the pitch. They’re blocking off room for the opponents, forcing them away from the key areas and denying them the opportunity to hurt their team centrally. The likes of Carrick and Mikel are just as efficient in shielding their back four as the Mascherano’s of this world, and they’re much more likely to help their team going forward.

The tale of Michael Carrick is the tale of the archetypical misunderstood midfielder. His role in the team is questioned by pundits and fans alike, but the biggest sign that he’s doing his job, and doing it properly, is the faith from his manager Sir Alex Ferguson. A man who should know a thing or two about this football. Next time you catch him or any of the other unsung midfielders play, be sure to look out for his quiet, understated but highly valued work in the middle of the park.

Will to win - the Premier League is up for grabs

As the dust settles on a Premier League weekend almost entirely decimated by foul weather and wintery conditions across England, it’s time to take a look at the title credentials, or lack of, the teams populating the top of the table boosts.

17 games into the season for most of the top teams, 16 in Manchester United’s case, and we’re starting to get an idea of how strong the various title contenders are. As the halfway mark of the season seems within reach, it seems natural to consider the opportunities of those looking to get their hands on the most prestigious domestic silverware at stake come May.

A quick glance at the table shows that there are signs of a newformed top 4, with Spurs sitting in 5th 4 points behind Chelsea at 31. Manchester United are currently leading the chase for glory on 34 points with a game in hand to the other top sides, with Arsenal and Man City sharing a total of 32 points in 2nd and 3rd respectively.

Only a couple of weeks ago one could be forgiven for thinking that the title race was quickly becoming a one-horse race with Chelsea dashing out of sight for the other teams. Since Ray Wilkins’ departure though, the Blues have picked up a horrific run of form and are without wins in their last 5 matches in the league. With Manchester United being the only unbeaten team in the league, and on the back of a home win at Old Trafford against Arsenal, it is suddenly Sir Alex Ferguson’s side that has the initiative in an intriguing season. The clash at Stamford Bridge, scheduled for today but postponed, would have been a great chance for the homeside to claw their way back in the title race and for United to deal them a crunching blow at their own turf, but it wasn’t to be.

Although you would be harsh not to include Spurs in the teams fighting for the CL spots, you could argue the league title seems a bridge too far for Harry Redknapp’s entertaining and likeable outfit. Their defensive stability have been under intense scrutiny, and rightly so, as we apporach the busy Christmas schedule. Man City and Arsenal therefore remain the biggest challengers to the two teams who have finished 1st and 2nd in the last five seasons bar one.

Arsene Wenger’s men have lost 5 league games this season, and seems vulnerable in clashes against the top sides, as has been the case the last years. Once again, allegations about the lack of a winning mentality have been directed at the Frenchman’s pupils, and evidence suggests there might be something to that. The side which lost at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, in addition to a heartwrecking 2-3-turnaround in the North London derby to Spurs, didn’t look like they had the belief needed to get a result in those matches. Bereft of their defensive leader Thomas Vermaelen it has been clear that while their offensive firepower at times seems formidable, it is possible to have a go at them and get away with it. Newcastle and West Bromwich have both exploited the defensive holes and lack of steel at Emirates as well. Over time, the questions asked about their defensive ability and their mental toughness might be to big to ask for Wenger’s men. Yet again, according to some..

Wenger: Problems at the back

Manchester City were allegedly in crisis earlier this autumn, but they have been slowly latching on to the top sides as the season has wore on. What will be interesting is how they choose to operate in January as skipper and talisman Carlos Tevez looks lost to the Eastlands side, at least in heart. Will they place their faith in wildchild-striker Mario Balotelli or go for a new, safer option in january? For a team struggling for goals as badly as they have been this season, that’s one key area Roberto Mancini needs to address. The italian has made City a strong, solid, cohesive unit, hard to break down but seemingly lacking the attacking impetus some of their main challengers can brag about. With creativity and drive in the shape of David Silva and Yaya Toure, and with young, exciting talent like Adam Johnson and Balotelli, there will always be goals in them though, it’s just a question of setting up the side in a balanced way. If they can negotiate the challenge of internal unrest, then this could well be the season that City challenges for the league title. Inevitable, really, with the kind of resources at their disposal.

Mancini: Serious challengers?

Chelsea started the season in flamboyant, swashbuckling mood, putting six past West Brom and Wigan in the seasons opening two games, and scoringa host of goals almost without reply in the first month. You could still sense that overall, they weren’t as strong as results told us though. They were never as impressive as the scoreline suggested, rather clinical and effective, although it wouldn’t be fair to knock their ealy season form. Every time they’ve been faced with a decent team though, they have struggled. The loss to Liverpool at Anfield, admittedly without players like Frank Lampard, Alex, John Terry and Didier Drogba(on the bench from kick-off) revealed their relative lack of squad strength. Without Lampard, their midfield have seemed pedestrian and workmanlike, without the creativity and invention to unlock good defences. The defensive leadership and no-nonsense apporach of their skipper Terry has also been evident, but even the return of him and Drogba to the side has failed to turn around their bad form. They were both lucky and unlucky to draw at Tottenham in their last league match, but it’s a rather strange experience seeing a Chelsea side so lacking in confidence and swagger take to the field in the Premier League.

Ancelotti: Rough patch

As for Manchester United, they have seemingly turned their season around without too many noticing it. They have gone about their business following a uncharacteristic start to the season, dropping points from a winning position against West Brom, Everton and Fulham, to go top 2 points ahead with a game in hand. Unbeaten, as well. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have done so without Antonio Valencia, who broke his ankle against Rangers in the Champions League, with a Wayne Rooney seriously underperforming as his private life and conctract turmoil took it’s toll, and with Rooney seemingly finding form and Valencia’s return in late februay, two of their most important attacking components might add some potency to their offense. A sloppy start to the season at the back has changed since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have come back, with young Brazilian Rafael complementing their rearguard with a newfound maturity and toughness. As Ji-Sung Park and Nani have covered for the loss of Valencia, and with a midfield that in the last couple of weeks have seemed more and more like something befitting of Old Trafford, and not a flock of rabbits caught in the headlights of a truck, the stage looks set for yet another charge at the title. United, like their main challengers, have their deficiencies, but so far they have coped better than the others with them.

Ferguson: Seen it all before

The next couple of months will carry huge significance as the title race toughens up, and the January transfer window is of course the huge unknown variable which can tilt the advantage one way or another. United have already signed danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, while Chelsea and City are likely to spend. In Chelsea’s case at least, they probably have to if they are to keep any hope of retaining the title. A new centre back is a must, and they should look for more options up front as well. City looks light in defence and up front, so a signing or two would go a long way in freshen up a rather rigid-looking side. Arsenal, as always, looks reluctant to spend in January, although Arsene Wenger today secured the services of young japanese forward Ryo Miyaichi, but he will likely be one for the future. Arsenal still look lacking in defence, although their strength in depth up front and in midfield is a huge plus.

As it stands per now, it looks like United are the team to beat this season. Their main problem have been in the engine room, but a resurgent Anderson and a Michael Carrick looking slightly more like the metronomic midfield stabilizer of 06/07 and not the Liam Miller-impersonation of last year have lessened their dependancy on old passmaster Paul Scholes. Although other teams have players coming back from injury, Frank Lampard in Chelsea’s case and Cesc Fabregas in Arsenal’s, United seem less dependant on individuals. If Wayne Rooney can recapture his best form from last term, coupled with the goal threat that Dimitar Berbatov has possessed in parts this season, it looks a mouthwatering prospect for United-fans. Let’s not forget that Paul Scholes himself is returning to the United-midfield over New Year. Considering Chelsea’s lack of squad depth and reliance on individuals, injury-prone ones at that, and Man City’s vulnerable squad harmony and lack of winning experience, I don’t think they’ll be there all the way. Taking into account all these conditions, here’s the prediction of the top four come the end of the season.

1. Manchester United

2. Arsenal

3. Chelsea

4. Manchester City

Agree or disagree? Share your views, feedback is much appreciated!

Houllier - Blind faith or masterful foresight?

Most Aston Villa-fans were outraged by the news that Martin O’ Neill had left his post at Villa park-only days before kick off in this Premier League-season. In the afterwake of the Ulsterman’s departure rumours spread that it was owner Randy Lerner’s failure to make money for transfers available, as Villa were in the process of selling James Milner for £24 million to Man City, that left O’ Neill fuming. A couple of weeks into the season his replacement was announced in the shape of experienced french manager Gerard Houllier.

Houllier: Placing faith at young feet

As we approach the busy Christmas schedule Villa, who finished in the top six three season in a row under O’ Neill, currently find themselves hovering over the relegation zone at 14th, only 4 points over Wigan who’s 18th. Roberto Martinez’s struggling side are the Villains next opponents as a trip to the JJB awaits at the weekend. Gerard Houllier’s side has struggled for wins, playing some decent football but lacking that cutting edge which has been so prominently delivered by players like Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew in recent seasons.

Houllier has had his options cut short through injuries to players like Stilian Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker, Carew and Agbonlahor, and so has decided to place his faith in the hands of the younger members of the squad. Players like Barry Bannan, the cultured midfielder with a peach of a left foot, Jonathan Hogg, only recalled from his stint at Darlington as a backup solution and former WBA-reject Marc Albrighton who’s shone at times from his wide position all have featured heavily. While his youngsters have taken to the task impressively, there’s no coincidence that Villa’s erratic form are connected to their relative lack of experience.

As the january transfer window loomes ever closer, most Villa-fans doesn’t quite know what to think about their future. Realizing that the turmoil surrounding their early season with regards to both MON, James Milner and a list of injuries long enough to pass as a WikiLeak-document make it difficult to form an opinion of Houllier’s early work, they sit back and await an interesting month for football lovers. Most fans expect a couple of signings that signals intent in challenging for european spots, and Houllier with his network of contacts around football-Europe should be able to provide one or two solid additions to the squad.

What we have seen so far of Houllier’s reign suggests he’s willing to trust his young players in coming up with the goods. If that’s the road you choose as manager, you’re also going to go through a rough patch or two as the players mature and gain confidence and consistency. In fact, weren’t it at Villa’s very own Villa Park that Sir Alex Ferguson and his fledglings were dealt a harsh 3-1 blow on the opening day at the 95-96-season, prompting that infamous quote from pundit Alan Hansen? “You’ll never win anything with kids.” Come may, and Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville-brothers had rammed those words equally infamously down his throat, winning the double and playing some great football along the way.

There’s of course a long way to go before anyone can claim that the likes of Hogg, Albrighton, Lichaj and Bannan can develop into good, consistent Premier League-players, let alone top class players like Beckham, Giggs etc. What we have seen from Villa’s youngster suggests that there are great raw materials to work with though.

Barry Bannan looks a very good box-to-box-midfielder with a great left foot and a keen eye for a pass, who’s also not afraid to get stuck in. He could develop into a great central midfielder for years to come. Marc Albrighton, who was found wanting at rivals West Bromwich Albion has looked a real menace in tandem with Stewart Downing at opposite flanks. His tenacity, work rate, willingness to take on defenders and run at teams as well as a good cross make for the early signs of an exciting, old-fashioned winger. While Jonathan Hogg and Eric Lichaj has shown signs of their lack of maturity in their early performances, it’s way too early to write them off.

Albrighton and Bannan: Dazzling youngsters

If Houllier can continue to give his talented youngsters games, and let’s not forget that players like Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor aren’t excactly golden oldies either, then he might have the framework of a very strong side already in his squad. Previous examples goes to show that putting faith in youngsters do eventually pay off, even if you’ll have to navigate some obstacles on the way. If Houllier can merge his young and hungry talents with some experienced quality imports, and I suspect that’s the idea of signing Robert Pires(what else could it be?), then this Villa side might come out of this rough period stronger than it went into it. Patience is key, though.

Houllier has previous history of constructing squads decent enough to challenge for major honours. His Liverpool-side from his former period in England doesn’t get the credit it deserves. In a challenging enviroment at Anfield, Houllier finished second in 2001-02, and it was largely his squad that Rafa Benitez won the Champions League with in 2005. It was his guidance which took Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher to the heights they achieved at was perhaps the peak of their respective careers, arguable in Gerrard’s case.

Coincidently, if there’s one major criticism that you could target Martin O’ Neill with, it’s his reluctance to bring in foreign imports which make better use of limited transfer funds than overpriced english talent. He did a fantastic job in creating a coherent side using mostly british talent, and most of his signings were good, but could he have found equal or better players from other leagues for a lower price? Could this be connected to Lerner’s unwillingness to fund another spending spree this summer, and if so, did O’ Neill have a hand in his own downfall? If Houllier can supply his Villa-side with quality signings from abroad, then he could really take them that one step-further than O’ Neill ever did. The frenchman’s pedigree as coach and manager simply cannot be argued with.

If there’s a time for Villa fans to show patience and faith then it’s now, because the timing could well be set for great times ahead. The question have to be if they, and more importantly the demanding, ambitious but still respected and fair Randy Lerner, are willing to fight through the rough patch with Houllier and his young side. The price could well be worth it by a long shot, in the end.

Hodgson hanging on - for now..

Fresh Liverpool-owners New England Sports Ventures(NESV) has promised manager Roy Hodgson more time in the hot seat at Anfield. As the club’s normally so loyal supporters scream for his departure, NESV-boss John Henry has issued a statement of support to his manager as well as additional funds made available in the January transfer window. Can Hodgson turn his Merseyside-fortunes around?

Hodgson: Dead man walking?

Most of the discontent surrounding Hodgson’s time as boss concerns below-par results, of course, but let’s not forget that Liverpool at 22 points are only ten points behind Arsenal at second place, and only five behind Spurs who sits in fifth. One could argue that the top teams have dropped points all over the place so far, but as this doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon, that’s perhaps how close and competitive the league has become. As such, there’s no need to panic with regards to european qualification at least, which should be an absolute minimum for a club of Liverpool’s stature. As far as Champions League places go, it does look difficult, really difficult.

Rafa Benitez finished last season in 7th place as he ended his reign as Liverpool-gaffer on a sour note with a squad in shambles and at war with most of his colleagues. Roy Hodgson was brought in as an old fashioned manager, a gentleman and a pair of steady hands to oversee a period of transition as the club was in full conflict with it’s former owners, americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Looking at the appointment in isolation it didn’t look as a too bad idea. The fans hoped that Hodgson, on the back of a fine job with Fulham, whom he stabilized in midtable and took to the final in the Europa League, would lead Liverpool back to the exclusive company of the Champions League. Considering the fragile morale and general mood in the camp at the back end of last season, if Hodgson did take them to a top six finish this season it wouldn’t be the end of the world, although the fans surely hoped for better.

Fast forward half a season from his appointment, and disappointment have floated to the surface. Hodgson’s Liverpool have played some predictable, slow-paced football and his overcautious approach away from home, which to be fair has haunted his entire career, has led to very few points on the road. His star striker Fernando Torres doesn’t look like he cares too much about the cause anymore, Steven Gerrard has struggled with niggling injuries and of his summer signings only Raul Meireles looks like money well spent with Hodgson intent on leaving playmaker and creative spark Joe Cole on the bench. Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen are decidedly average footballers at Premier League level, and top class performers have been few and far between.

If one were to cast judgement on Hodgson’s performance as Liverpool manager from a footballing perspective, one would have to take into account how good his squad really is, a squad largely inherited from Rafa Benitez. In my opinion it is a squad that should challenge for Champions League places, although the competition for those places has tightened since their last appearance there with Tottenham and Man City improving. A natural comparison would be the three preferred starting elevens.

As it goes, I do think both Spurs and City are slightly stronger, but both those clubs lack genuine world class talent like Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina. The comparison is close, but Liverpool could hold their own against those teams if set up in a sensible way. As such, the next step would be looking at the strength in depth at the respective squads, and it is there Liverpool fall short. Replacing Torres with Ngog or Gerrard with Poulsen or Jovanovic doesn’t quite sound as straight forward as replacing Tevez with Balotelli/Adebayor, which might well be required rather literally soon, or Defoe with Pavlyuchenko. Harry Redknapp and Roberto Mancini has a bigger pool of impact players, more ways of changing a game and more ways of configuring their squad as they see necesarry.

I do think Liverpool should be at least top six, and Hodgson is still capable of delivering that. So why are Liverpool-fans so adamant, in general, that he must go as soon as possible? The answer lie in his mentality.

Hodgson always sets up his team in a rather rigid 4-4-2, leaving Joe Cole either on the bench or awkardly trying to have a say in proceedings as a left winger. Steven Gerrard is separated from Fernando Torres, a partnership which has produced so many of Liverpool’s greatest moments the last years, and Raul Meireles has been utilised as a right winger which does not fit him. Dirk Kuyt, who have proven rather effective in a wide role, is shifted back as a striker where his lack of a sharp first touch and restricted space hampers his importance to the side. His disposition of the players are all over the place as I see it.

That’s only one issue with his mentality, another one being that he arguably lacks the toughness reqiured to manage a massive club like Liverpool. Looking at his press conferences and post match interviews, which have varied from almost inviting Manchester United to lure Fernando Torres from Anfield to claiming a 2-1 loss at what should be rivals for CL-qualification Tottenham was a great performance, he sound apologetic and defensive. It doesn’t sound as he thinks Liverpool belong in the top, but rather excuses his own ineptitude in getting them there before he’s even had a fair crack at it.

The third thing which makes me doubt he’ll be in charge when the next season kicks off in August is his transfer policy. Signing decent players and making them look good in Fulham is one thing, signing good players and fitting them in so they look top Premier League-quality is an entirely different matter. Christian Poulsen was a disaster waiting to happen, presumably signed because he had a decent spell under Hodgson ten years ago. Konchesky was an old favourite from Fulham but has looked out of his depth at Anfield. Joe Cole has to be given a free role somewhere, in my preference in the hole in a 4-2-3-1, to be at his most effective. His current position on the bench certaintly doesn’t suit him. Raul Meireles is the only signing looking like he might add something to that Liverpool-side alongside Lucas Leiva in midfield. That is, when Hodgson doesn’t play him wide to accomodate Steven Gerrard in a midfield role too deep for my liking. If he’s given money in january, can he be trusted to provide good enough signings with the resources at his disposal? Previous experiences from Inter amongst others point to other conclusions.

Roy Hodgson’s time at Anfield looks to be borrowed whichever way you look at it, but the most concerning thought for their supporters must be that it isn’t even results up to now that are the most frightening aspect of his reign. It is what the future holds if they stick with him. I wouldn’t be too confident about him turning it around, and I’m almost certain that he won’t even get that chance past the summer. In football, being a gentleman sometimes isn’t enough, Roy.

The managerial merry-go-round

November is usually a busy period for football clubs in the Premier League. Boardroom meetings with calls for a change of management as the main agenda are not a rare sight, and clubs struggling for results and feeling the heat from the fans, media and playing squad usually start getting rid of their respective gaffers before the festive period of christmas. Short-term solutions and revolving managerial doors seemingly being part of english clubs strategy plans is to be expected, then, but few would have predicted who the first two managers to pack their bags and leave this Premiership season would be.

Newcastle United announced last week that their manager Chris Houghton had parted ways with the club, and a few days later his replacement was announced in the shape of Alan Pardew. A couple of days later Blackburn Rovers got rid of experienced manager Sam Allardyce as their relatively fresh owners wanted someone else at the reins at Ewood Park.

Big Sam: Out of work

Chris Houghton took over Newcastle more reluctant than anything following Alan Shearer’s short but failed cameo as the Magpies alleged saviour. The legendary frontman managed little more than going down without much of a fight during his stint as the man in charge at Tyneside, and former Tottenham-coach Houghton accepted the job of trying to get the black and whites back to the top flight following relegation to the Championship.

Houghton managed to keep most of the core in the squad, and the magpies wasted little time in getting back to where they’ll feel they belong, among Englands finest football clubs. A impressive Championship season saw them crowned champions and gaining promotion, and Houghton’s Newcastle had done it with style.

Their return to the upper echelon of english football saw them handed a 3-0-defeat at Old Trafford to Manchester United, but already in this seasons second game they showed some of what they are capable of. A brilliant display against an admittedly awful Aston Villa-side saw Newcastle record a 6-0-win, while the Tyneside-fans newest hero Andy Carroll announced himself on the Premiership scene with a hattrick.

Houghton: Brought success back to Newcastle

Since then Newcastle has fared admirably in their comeback season, and when Houghton’s sacking was announced they were sitting neatly at eight in the table. The dismissal of the former Republic of Ireland-international brought shockwaves through the footballing community. As this wasn’t enough, only days following his departure, Blackburn announced the end of Big Sam’s tenure as Rovers boss. Although his side recently slumped to a 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford, they sit neatly at 13th in the table and Allardyce delivered good results last season, as he usually does.

So what is the motivation of these, at the surface at least, shocking decisions? Why do Newcastle fire a man who has made them a respectable and competitive Premiership-force again before he’s even had a full season in charge in the league? Why do Blackburn Rovers fire a proven PL-manager who’s gotten results on a tight budget at Bolton before, and who was respected and held in very high esteem amongst his playing staff?

The answer might lie in a lack of qualified footballing knowledge at the boardrooms at St. James’ Park and Ewood Park. At Tyneside, owner Mike Ashley has only enhanced the clubs reputation for being an eternal revolving door for managers. The season they went down, they employed three different managers. The last five years at St. James’ has seen five different managers. In addition, the fans in Newcastle are almost religiously enthralled by how their heroes perform, and they’ll be sure to let the club know when they’re not happy. Ashley has proven himself unable to take the club in any one direction, and his ownership has reminded more of a maze without an exit than a designated route to greatness.

At Ewood Park the new owners, indian company Venky’s Limited London, has wasted little time in getting the fans on their back. Sam Allardyce was warned early on that they would not make much cash available for spending in january, and as it turned out, Big Sam himself wouldn’t be available to spend those resources at Blackburn’s disposal at all. The owners probably want to put down a marker and shape the club as they see fit, and some has speculated that it was Allardyce’s physical playing style, often resorting to route 1-football and deadball situations that became his bane in the end.

What both these sackings have in common, if you’re ignoring the obvious shortsightedness displayed by both clubs, is the amazing fact that neither club has had a bad season. At all. 8th place in the table, an away win at Arsenal, a derby trouncing of arch rivals Sunderland and some great attacking football has seen many a neutral fan developing a soft spot fot the magpies. While the same may not hold true with regards to Blackburn, 13th is about their level, and certaintly not way below expectations. It may well be that Mike Ashley and Venky’s view things differently, of course, but expecting them to do better than they currently are both displays a lack of patience and knowledge and basic understanding of the sheer competitiveness of the Premier League.

History goes to show that the clubs that seek long-term stability almost always gets the best results in the end. Manchester United being an obvious example, but Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and David Moyes at Everton on comparably low budgets are other examples. Changing things around without giving people time to build a team rarely proves beneficial. When Chelsea started their own merry-go-round, arguably the most talented squad in english football went three years without the Premier League-trophy.

Alan Pardew was given a 5 and a half year-deal at Newcastle. The man who’s CV consists of getting relegated with West Ham and Southampton, as well as a spell at Charlton, hardly fills the loyal magpie-fans with confidence. He needs to develop an understanding of the special relationship the fans have got with the club, as well as overcoming the obvious scepticism that will inhabit his group of players. Chris Houghton, meanwhile, a man who’s proven he understands the club and can get results and improvement from them, sits at home pondering over what excactly went wrong. Pardew will probably be gone in a year, and Newcastle once again will be sent into complete chaos. As far as Blackburn Rovers goes, it remains to be seen who will get the nod as new manager. But don’t expect the owners to sit back and let their new man work in peace, he’ll be hard pressed to deliver results, and deliver them fast. A trait that, funnily enough, are often assosciated with Sam Allardyce.

Now, it remains to be seen when the clubs that really do struggle will fire their man. Avram Grant, Mick McCarthy and Roberto Martinez, beware!

Teveztated - why City should have known better..

Tevez - tired of City-life

Tevez: Tired of City-life

This week, Premier League-fans all over the world, and in particular those supporting the nouve rich gallery of big name signings that is Manchester City, were shocked by the news that talismanic striker Carlos Tevez has had enough and wants to leave the Eastlands outfit. Tevez was chosen as club captain before the beginning of the season, and even though his relationship with manager Roberto Mancini has looked far from rosy, few people foresaw this latest twist in a career littered with controversy and chaos.

The 26-year old argentinian hitman has enjoyed a rather succesfull spell at the Blues since jumping ship from bitter rivals Manchester United across town, and with 39 goals in 60 appearances he looks to have found the goalscoring prowess which he was so often accused of lacking while playing in red. There can be little doubt that his signing has been perhaps the most influential since City fell under arabic ownership, but can Man City honestly blame anyone but themselves?

A quick bit of research reveals the short length of his spells with former clubs. After first exploding onto the scene at Boca Juniors in his native Argentina, he transferred north to Brazil and the lure of Corinthians in 2005. There, he quickly established himself as a fans favourite. His honeymoon period was to be short however, and in august 2006, just a year-and-a-half since his arrival, he announced on his website that him and fellow argentinian Javier Mascherano had signed for Premier League-club West Ham.

After spending the first half of the season on the fringes of the team, he finally made an impact in the relegation battle for his new club, scoring 7 goals in his last 10 games to save the Hammers from relegation, including a last day winner at was to be his new home Old Trafford against champions Manchester United. A summer of intense transfer speculation and controversy followed, with claims over illegal registration with sport ownership company MSI(Media Sports Investment) prompting Sheffield United to file a protest against West Ham. Ultimately, it ended in the Hammers awarded a fine and Tevez earning a move to Manchester United, just a year after coming to England. The deal which was agreed was a two-year loan deal, with the option of signing the striker after the end of that.

At United, Tevez again established himself as a hero with the fans, scoring some famous goals for United notably against Liverpool at Anfield and against Lyon in the Champions League. The next summer, however, manager Sir Alex Ferguson purchased a man he had wanted for a long time. The languid, elegant bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov arrived from Tottenham Hotspurs, and with him a hefty price tag which signalled that Tevez’ status as an automatic starter came to an end.

His second season at Old Trafford saw Tevez fall down the pecking order and earn less starts in big games, and as the season drew closer to an end speculation intensified over his future. No deal was sorted, and ultimately Tevez decided to leave United for rivals City, a move which sparked huge reactions from both sides of Manchester.

Then, barely one and a half year later, Tevez again has grown disillusioned about his whereabouts. Claims that his relationship with key men at the COMS has broken down and talk about missing his daughters in Argentina is cited as reasons for him wanting away, but City currently refuses to sell their striker without a fight. Leaving aside the obvious arguments about whether there’s any point in having a player that don’t want to contribute to the cause on your books, why did City really think it would end differently this time? Why should everything Carlos Tevez and his much talked about representative Kia Joorabchian have done so far in his career suddenly count for nothing?

There’s a clear pattern emerging from the path of the tireless bulldogg’s steps. Since his transfer to Brazil, he has spent no more than two years at every club he has been at. His reasons for leaving can be questioned, whether it’s wishing to compete in one of the top leagues(West Ham), wanting to play for a top club with european pedigree(Man United) or wanting to be the main man(Man City). One constant factor which has followed his every move is a steep upwards step in his pay packet. Whether Kia Joorabchian, the player himself or more likely a combination of both is responsible for the itchy feet and the struggle to settle at one place, fact remains that Carlos Tevez do not stay at one place for a long time.

Even overlooking the clear concern over the loyalties of a player changing kit from Manchester-red to Manchester-blue, Man City should have known better than to think, or rather hope, that this time would be different. Even though they’ve reaped the rewards of a striker finally being restricted to doing his work in the final third and scoring more goals as a result of it, the ripples he’ll create in the pond that is the Man City-locker room will not be free of consequence. Kolo Touré will feel hard done by as he was stripped for the captaincy before this season, presumably to help feed the ego of a player looking for more than just being one of many stars in an ambitious outfit. Other players will be looking at his behaviour and wonder why his tantrums don’t result in City flogging him off and getting someone in who’ll want to play for them.

Carlos Tevez probably haven’t played his last game for Man City, but it can be argued that we’ve seen the best of him. Without his heart in it, and his desire, he’s half the player. What City should do now is to stop the rot by letting the restless nomade go to pastures new once again, and rather hope that another controversial talent in the shape of young Mario Balotelli can grow up and start producing what his early promise once showed signs of. That is, until he too starts repeating his proclaimed wish of linking up with Zlatan Ibrahimovic with increasing frequency. Wonder what players like Stephen Ireland and Richard Dunne must be thinking?