Going around, coming around

Brighton missed the chance to advance further up the table this weekend, losing 2-0 to Leciester City. Question though, does it matter much? Further down the table, both West Brom and Southampton lost today, so as things stand, we’re all no better or worse off, but there is one game less to play.

The Seagulls hosted Leicester at home, facing Leonardo Ulloa’s old team, the team which he felt had not treated him right – remember his tweet saying he would not play for the team again, in the time of Ranieri? Ulloa transferred back to his even more previous team, the team he had played for during the Championship, but Brighton were unable to make it past Claude Puel’s team. No matter. Claude Puel’s old team, Southampton, were soundly beaten.

Wonder why Southampton let Puel go? He apparently was doing well enough. But since his departure Leicester have rode their way out of the relgation zone, while Southampton has slid into it. Bet Puel is laughing now.

Southampton lost 3-0 to West Ham at the Wembley Stadium. Fans will remember the chaotic scenes weeks ago when the Hammers played Burnley – who incidentally showed class by allowing West Ham kids to watch the game from their subs bench. The Hammers did well on the back of a stellar performance by Marco Arnautovic, facing his old manager Mark Hughes. In the previous meeting, when Hughes was still at Stoke and Arnautovic at West Ham, the Stoke home fans gave their ex-player a torrid time, and as he was substituted even Mark Hughes had a go at him, telling him to go off. Arnautovic obviously remembered this, gesturing at Mark Hughes after he had scored the Hammers’ second goal. Perhaps Hughes presence with his new club was the motivation for the ex-Stoke player’s magnificient performance. The Hammers seemed galvanised and the events of a few weeks ago were forgotten.

Mark Hughes current team are a place ahead of his old team. Now, Opta does not probably keep track of this, but is he the first manager to manage two of the bottom three that – on the current state of things – end up relegated?

Everton lost to Manchester City at home, with two old Man United boys, Wayne Rooney and Morgan Schneiderlin playing in the middle of the Everton field. Rooney had a stellar career with Man United but against City he was way past his best and one fan remarked that he should retire to America for a golden payday on that form, where he would end up playing with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Did you know that Los Angeles was The Zlatan’s preferred destination instead of Manchester United? After his signing was complete, Zlatan claimed that America had been his preferred place but he signed for United instead. What a stab in the back for the Reds fans who had sung his name from the terraces and supported him during his rehab! But that is what arrogant players do.

Romelu Lukaku, formerly of Everton, helped Manchester United close the gap on the league leaders, but let’s face it, you should count on City picking up the title now. They are one point away from the Premier League points record of Chelsea, Lukaku’s previous team, and could better that.

Isn’t it strange how ex-teams and ex-players merry go around in this little world of football?

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.

VARdy denied by VAR

International week is here. The week where a series of friendlies, decided by FIFA, sees teams try out their different players and formations. England played the Netherlands a couple of days ago and yesterday played Italy. Jamie Vardy scored in the early stages of the game and would have been on course for the winning goal had a penalty not been awarded to the Azzuri via VAR. So that is how Vardy was denied the chance to be the match winner.

England manager Gareth Southgate was disappointed with the decision, and for good reason too. James Tarkowski, the England defender who has had a brilliant season marshalling the backlines at Burnley, along with goalkeeper Nick Pope (who has yet to play a friendly), conceded the penalty in the later stages of his debut. What a debut it would have been for the centre back. And despite the fact that England in their last eight games have had five wins and three draws, Southgate would have taken six and two if he could.

Italy did not have much to play for, having not qualified for the World Cup. Can you imagine a World Cup without Italy? The country that is shaped like a boot not going to the World Cup? But just as transfer windows are good opportunities to showcase skills to the Premier League team scouts, so are friendlies. The Azzuri had a quiet first half and England seemed in control until the late penalty.

“If you look at the replay, Tarkowski stood on his foot but it was in the act of running and he was already going down.” Southgate said. Tarkowski himself conceded – like a true Burnley player not afraid to man up – that he had stood on the opposing player’s foot, but it may have been a case of 50-50 and the referee chose to give it against England.

VAR has not really had a satisfactory debut and is still rough around the edges. I have been calling for so many times now, stop the referee reviewing each decision. Just let the referee control the game, and give managers a challenge in each half, or two per game. Once they use it it is gone, and if there is undisputable evidence that the decision was incorrect then it is overturned. If not, the referee’s decision stands. Just like in the NFL. The game is more likely to flow because of the relative lack of stoppages (no more than four a game), and if the referee made a wrong decision then it is not his fault, it is the fault of the manager for not challenging it (or not managing his use of challenges wisely).

It really is that simple, but of course the media loves VAR and its problems because it fills column inches. But for a reader, it is just boring to see teams going var, var, var when a result doesn’t go their way.

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.

So close, yet so far

Chelsea missed another opportunity to progress furtherin the Champions League when they ere beaten 3-0 at the Nou Camp yesterday.

The competition has traditionally been dominated by Spanish and German giants, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly making it into the top four. While you may see it as them having strong teams, one cannot help but wonder if the weaknesses of their leagues help in some way or not. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, which other team in the Spanish league do you know of that can regularly pose a threat to other teams?

Chelsea’s loss in the Champions League means the FA Cup and a top four finish suddenly look like they have taken more importance. For many teams, the FA cup is the only chance of silverware now – particularly the big spending ones of Man United and Chelsea. Chelsea are almost guaranteed at least fifth place but need to overhaul a deficit of four points to overtake Liverpool or Tottenham and Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Do you thinking Arsene Wenger is quietly smiling before this evening’s match with AC Milan? Only Manchester City and Liverpool have chances for European glory, and Arsenal are also in the fold thanks to the Europa Cup. Never mind that the latter is actually Champions League Division Two; teams are so desperate for success that if you took a rusty metal plate and called it the Universal Champions trophy, which would be contested among a professional football team and three other under-11s teams, the teams would still take it, and the hollow success. The shame!

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.