Lack of English representation

Should we take it to be a conspirital snub? For the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there will be no British referees for the first time in 80 years.

Those of you open to conspiracy theories may link this to the recent British government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats after a critic of Vladimir Putin was found assassinated in a quiet British countryside town. It is as if the Russian establishment is trying to say “Mess with us and forget any chance of a quiet life”. After a British expulsion of Russian civil servants, the Russian followed with a tit for tat response that triggered a world wide anti-Russian foreign service backlash.

So – the World Cup next year will be held in Russia. Do you think that any pressure was put on FIFA, a governing body plagued by corruption, to not have British referees?

One person perhaps not fussed by the decision is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has always been critical of English referees, saying they don’t work hard enough, and as we have seen from past examples, always criticising them when the odds are against him.

There will also be no British referees running the unpopular VAR system.

Arsenal face Stoke this weekend and are hotly expected to win, but don’t put it pass Stoke to pull off an upset. Arsenal traditionally don’t have a good record against hungry teams – you can debate if you like if this reflects on the lack of mental strength, or complacency – and often when you expect Arsenal at home to win against lower opposition, they disappoint, and the Wenger Out brigade returns. Remember Ostersands? Arsenal had a 3-0 first leg lead and then lost 2-1 at home to the minnows. Stoke is arguably tougher than Ostersands, and are an incredibly physical team who will try to resort to put Arsenal off their beautiful passing game with a bit of Northern welcome.

It appears more make or break for Arsene Wenger than Paul Lambert. Lose this one to Stoke, and he can really forget about a top four finish, and the fans won’t let him off for a poor result.

Not all Reds are rosy

Um … what is going on at Manchester United?

I wrote a while back about Luke Shaw, about this on again off again relationship he has with Jose Mourinho. Back in December I thought that while Mourinho was praising his form and suggesting he could be a part of greatness, he was merely talking Shaw up for a transfer sale. Then when the January window passed and Shaw stayed, I thought I was wrong. But it appears that Shaw is not in his manager’s good books. Replaced at half time in United’s most recent game, he has been called out by his manager again.

There are those in the Manchester hierarchy who are concerned with the slightly erratic behaviour of their manager. Now, in this day and age, that kind of psychological behaviour and tricks that Mourinho was famous for in his younger days no longer works – as he found out at Chelsea – and players really want to have a sense of where they are with their manager, not having him speaking in parables. You don’t need to go further to look at a manager like Sean Dyche. Dyche is straight-talking, speaks his mind, praises the effort of his players, or criticises them collectively instead of singling them out. Mourinho? No one can really get what he’s all about.

Even the star players are flummoxed. Paul Pogba’s form has been erratic of late, with manager questioning him and praising him in the next breath. No one yet knows if Pogba and Alexis Sanchez can play together, but even the latter is said to be struggling at the club. This is not really much of a surprise really, because you don’t really need to place doubt in the mind of a team. It appears as if Mourinho thinks these sort of mind games take the heat of his players, and gives reporters something to write about instead of the poor form of his players, but that is all in the past now. Instead the team is under a cloud of darkness thinking “What is he really on about?” and we have seen time and time again that doubt fuels poor form.

Is Anthony Martial staying? Who knows? Is Marouane Fellaini moving elsewhere? No reassurances about his future. And Shaw? There are many who believe Mourinho’s treatment of him leads to bullying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shaw, at some point, files for unfair dismissal against Manchester United. Now, you don’t have to be dismissed to be able to do that, you can resign based on the untenability of your position because of the treatment of superiors. There is plenty of evidence for Shaw to put forward.

And Mourinho? It all went downhill from the time of Eva Carneiro.

Sentencing postponed

Has Arsene Wenger earned a brief reprieve? Two good results, one away at Milan and another home win over Watford yesterday, have earned him some breathing space away from the ire of the Wenger Out brigade. Perhaps the Gunners boss will use the lack of animosity as a sign to the board not to sack him whenever the fans chant for him to leave. After all, when his back was against the wall, he managed to get the team to pull out two wins in a row. In a season where the team’s form has looked like yoyo-ing between wins and losses alternately, two wins in a row looks like a winning streak.

Arsenal’s win against Watford was notable for reasons other than making two wins in a row for Wenger. Firstly, Petr Cech finally reached the milestone of 200 clean sheets in the Premier League. The last one had taken a long time to come, amidst a run of bad form by the team, and it was good for him to get the monkey off his back. The problem with goalkeeping records is that they are really dependent on the team defence as a whole, and playing for Arsenal means you are slightly disadvantaged in that respect.

Back in the reverse fixture at Watford, Hornets captain had made the remark about Arsenal lacking cojones. So it was slightly ironic that Deeney made a penalty miss in the game, and you could tell once that happened, Watford was going to lose the game. When your captain says the other team lacks balls, then doesn’t live up to his words, the psychological battle is lost. Lesson to learn? Hold your tongue.

Mesut Ozil made 50 Premier League assists. Confirming his reputation as an assist king, with that ability to unlock defences, Ozil provided the assist that allowed Mkhitaryan to score. How should Arsenal get the best out of Ozil? Creative players don’t like to do the dirty work like defending. When Ozil has to track back too much and play defense, it taps into his offensive capability. Perhaps this is how other teams have played Arsenal in the past to good effect, by sending midfielder up to pin Ozil back. If you watch the Manchester City triumphs against Arsenal, you would have seen how far up the midfield went, and then how they passed the ball around to sap the creativity from Arsenal’s attacking flair.

Is Wenger out of the sack race? Don’t count on it yet. The Gunners followed up a 3-0 win at Ostersunds with a loss to the minnows. Anything can happen. Don’t get too optimistic about Milan. They are still capable of an upset at the Emirates, and even if Arsenal triumph, the road back to the Champions League goes through Atletico Madrid.

Is Alexandre Lacazette the world’s most expensive bookmark?

Barca in top spot

You would not have wanted to be Andreas Christensen last Wednesday morning.

The Chelsea centre-back, so solid for much of this term that last season’s star, David Luiz, is now relegated to be a substitute, misplaced a pass in the match against Barcelona, allowing the Catalan visitors to score with one of their few chances in the match.

In a game where the visitors stifled possession, controlling over three quarters of the game, Chelsea scored from one of their few attempts at goal. The energetic Willian, secondary to the big names of Hazard and Morata, had two attempts hit the post before scoring. It would have been a game that would have had the London club in the spotlight had the scoreline remained. You could have seen headlines such as “Catalan Crumbling” and read about how the dominance of Messi and Suarez, the MS of MSN (minus Neymar) were reduced to a postscript.

Then came the misplaced pass and how the world turned.

The Catalan club take away an important away goal. With the score tied 1-1, Chelsea must now be on the offensive as away goals count for double in the event of a tie. And you know what Barcelona do to teams who try to play open football on their turf.

Barcelona will be content to sit back and try to get Chelsea on the counter. When they don’t have the ball, then they would employ their stifling brand of football to win possession, and then keep it.

A 1-0 lead would be better one to bring to the Nou Camp, but perhaps Antonio Conte will be playing videos of the previous Chelsea win at Barcelona, where they won 2-0.

In another group match, Bayern Munich hammered Besiktas 5-0 on their own turf, and will take that aggregate lead back to the Allianz Arena. Should Besiktas field a weak team? Or should they play their strongest and try to get a 0-0 draw? The best thing to do is perhaps the latter. One should only look back at the 10-2 aggregate humiliation inflicted on Arsenal to realise that Bayern never offer any mercy. And at home, they definitely won’t.

And neither will Barca.

Sharpening their Spurs in Europe

It’s not been a bad week for Tottenham Hotspur, has it? Even though the North London derby win brought them up to third in the table, before wins by Chelsea and Liverpool brought them sliding down to fifth again – out of the Champions League spots, they showed their mettle in the current Champions League campaign with a 2-2 away draw at Juventus.

The away side were slow to settle and gave away a 2-0 lead inside of ten minutes. You could have said that Juve deliberately targeted the Spurs backline, with youth in its side, and Gonzalo Higuain was on his way to a hat trick before he had even warmed up sufficiently. But Spurs showed their mettle and fought back slowly, first with Harry Kane slipping past Gigi Buffon to slot it, and then Christian Eriksen rounding a free kick past the wall to earn the Spurs an important advantage in the competition.

The 2-2 away draw means that Juventus are on the back foot on away goals – remember that after 90 minutes away goals count as double. The away goals rule was implemented to stop sides playing defensive football and hoping to make it through on penalties. It has been one of the more positive changes to the game to make it more exciting. Another has been the back pass rule – remember when a goalkeeper could pick up the ball from his own players and defences just kept rolling the ball back to the goalie? (You’d have to be a certain age to recall that, actually.) A change still not quite well-implemented yet is VAR.

Coming back to the game, the 2-2 draw in Turin at the Allianz Stadium means that Juventus have to go on the offensive. Spurs only need a 1-1 draw or better to progress. But it would be a mistake to simply expect to sit back and defend. Juventus with their front line of Higuain and Mandzukic et al are very good at scoring, and if you were behind that’s when their defence clamps down on you.

That was not necessarily the case yesterday, but should make for good football in the return leg. Spurs are definitely the better team to watch in North London; have been for the last few years – if you haven’t already realised that!

Alexis brings Arsenal poison to Manchester

Man. Man. Man.

Second-placed Manchester United recorded a shock loss to Newcastle this afternoon. The Magpies, many many places below, somehow managed to conjure a 1-0 win against the cash-rich Reds with Pogba, Lukaku, and Sanchez, all in the team.

It just goes to show spending money doesn’t necessarily transfer to winning.

You could say the same thing again.

Arsenal have splurged millions on Mkitharyan and Aubameyang and the summer signing Lacazette is now the third choice striker! Like United, they have splurged millions on the front line, also tying Ozil down to a new contract.

Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! If you are a seasoned Arsenal fan, you would have known that is where the problem lies.

Actually, it seems the problem lies with the gaffer.

Tottenham showed Arsenal who currently rules the roost in the North London derby and are the best-placed London team now in third.

How have they done it? With a solid backline to complement a good front line.

It’s not rocket science – as Newcastle showed. Defend well, and catch the offensive team when they are tired or mentally unprepared.

The best teams always play a solid back four.

Managers out of control

Is Arsene Wenger off his rocket again? The Frenchman has recently made the headlines again for his claim that “English players are the best at diving”. We can be absolutely certain that he is not referring to Tom Daley. Hot off the game of Liverpool and Tottenham, where Harry Kane, using his clout as one of England’s top players, went over in injury time, expecting that referees were not going to flag him up for diving and won his team a penalty which was later saved, Wenger offered his comments about how the art of diving is being refined by English players.

First of all, that is an unequivocally silly statement to make. Wenger himself has English players within his Arsenal team, so it would be an awkwardly embarassing insinuation that the ones in his team are learning how to go over, how to initiate contact and how to fall properly. Has the Premier League become so competitive that teams are sending players to ju-jitsu lessons to learn how to land on the floor without injuring themselves, then looking for contact in the game?

This is not the first time Arsene has opened his mouth and said something he shouldn’t have. Referring to his team’s defeat by Manchester City in November, he accused Raheem Sterling of diving then. Wenger seems “locked in” in his ideas that the manager should take the heat off his team, and seems to be saying something controversial to avoid any discussion of his team’s form in the league, or to take away the media attention on his defence – or lack of defence, not that the courting of Jonny Evans has failed. But the problem is that each time Wenger thinks he is deflecting attention away from his players, he really – by attracting media attention – is drawing attention to it. Yesterday, the media would have been happy focussing on Antonio Conte’s poor form at Chelsea, and how Chelsea managers don’t last very long in the owner versus manager battle. That story still had long to run. The only thing is now Mr Wenger has accused English players of diving, after the Tottenham game, ahead of the North London derby where Harry Kane will be in attendance.

Is it a clever move to say things that will ignite your opponents? Wenger probably hopes that his comments may influence the game such that if a Tottenham player like Kane goes down again, the referee will be less inclined to blow his whistle. But he is out of touch to think that. If anything, the subtle attempt to influence the officiating is such a distasteful act that any referee would probably blow the whistle just to annoy Wenger.

And if one of his English players go do down under a Tottenham challenge, don’t expect Wenger to eat his words.

The point is – if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it!

Arsenal players probably play best when the focus of expectation is not on them. But Wenger’s recent talk is probably going to just put them under the media glare again. So despite the new improved attack, don’t expect them to emerge winners at White Hart Lane this Saturday.

And Antonio Conte? The longer his war of words with the team continues, the less it does for him.

As a supporter voiced on BBC Radio 5 Live, the fans just want to see the old Conte from last year back again, they don’t want to see him whinging about things, especially considering how much he is being paid. They just wish he would get on with the job.

And Wenger? Arsenal fans probably wish he would step away from it now.

Chelsea in Crisis

With reference to the last post, could Olivier Giroud have made a winning debut at Chelsea.

Not a chance.

Giroud joins former team mate Theo Walcott (now Everton) in the “thumped on their new debuts” list.

Is the clock ticking for Antonio Conte? You might think at Chelsea they don’t use clocks, they use hourglasses.

All about Liverpool – well, not all …

Umm, wasn’t Virgil van Dijk brought in with the intention of shoring up the Liverpool backline? The criticism of Liverpool all season is that while they had a good strike force of Coutinho, Mane, Salah and Firminho, and while the fab four are now the terrific three, and still scoring goals, everyone is still talking about the leaky backline.

Liverpool’s only win in their last four matches have come against Huddersfield Town. They lost 1-0 to Swansea (Swansea!), 2-3 to West Bromwich Albion and then now managed a 2-2 draw with Tottenham. On the basis of all those performances, you would be slightly pressed to see the impact of Van Dijk. That’s two losses, a draw and a win in four games – not exactly what you might call plugging the hole.

Jurgen Klopp might have some grievance with the way Tottenham earned the draw though. Having charged down the sideline after an injury-time penalty made it 2-1 in LIverpool’s favour, in the same style as Jose Mourinho ran the Old Trafford line with Porto, the fist pumping and head banging all came to a quick end when a Tottenham player ran over van Dijk’s outstretched leg. It’s like a heavy metal concert coming to an end after a power cut. Harry Kane, having been denied by Lloris Karius, this time managed to squeeze one away for a draw.

There’s no denying Liverpool are associated with a leaky defence. They are like the Arsenal of the north. Old boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain must be wondering what he has gotten into. Having secured a move away from Highbury with the intention of playing more in central midfield and in a team that can make it into the top four, he is still on a team with a dodgy defence. A big expenditure on a big player who has yet to make an impact on the team.

Is Virgil van Dijk twinned with Alexandre Lacazette? The latter must be the world’s most expensive bookmark, not played much in the season (such as being left out against Liverpool) and now behind Aubameyang and Mkitharyan.

The penalty against Livepool was awarded after the referee Jon Moss and assistant referee had a long chat to determine if a penalty should have been awarded or not.

Aubameyang should have had his debut goal against Everton cancelled out for offside. His goal made it 4-0 for the Gunners before halftime. But why was there no video replay? Again, this brings into question the necessity of VAR and how it should be used. Rather than make it the referee’s prerogative, give managers a challenge in each half and let them use it when they want to. They can only have one in each half, or two over the game, so there is more impetus to save it for more important challenges at the end of the game – and it keeps the game moving.

Can Arsenal maintain their momentum? So far their January signings have done good, just like Batshuayi’s debut for Dortmund. Everton’s former Arsenal signing, Theo Walcott? On the end of a 5-1 drubbing. Can Olivier Giroud match a good transfer for Chelsea too?