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!

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.

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.

Star Wars: A New Hope

You know the feeling.

You go out regularly with a group of friends – perhaps you are part of a group or club like Scouts that meets at weekends.

And maybe one of the people in your group like the leader has bad body odour that affects the group. It’s the sort of thing that gets tolerated but uncomfortable. Within the group no one dares to say anything about it, because it is after all a sensitive topic.

So you get on with it, and get on with doing the group things, and the discomfort is tolerated.

And the members don’t say anything also because the group leader actually has good skills to impart and leads the group well.

Things go on fairly smoothly, but one day after someone makes the casual observation, things take on a negative tinge. The leader, offended, decides he will transfer to another group at another location when the year is out, or whenever there is a vacancy. You all get on with your activities, but it seems a bit like following through the motions, enduring the smell, and waiting for the leader to leave. The leader is in demand because of his skills, and there are frequent calls asking if he would like to leave, but things never really materialise. One day he is, the next day he isn’t, and instead of focusing on your activities, you all live with the uncertainty of your leader’s situation. It becomes a distraction. In regional competitions, your group under performs under this cloud of negativity.

As it turns out there is another group elsewhere with a slightly disenchanted individual with whom the leaders agree to a mutual swap. And when that day happens, your group is glad, because the smell is no longer there, and also because the leader’s situation is no longer a distraction. You can get on with group activities, and when the new leader arrives, not fully integrated yet into the group, existing members are keen to impress, to show their abilities, and there is a positive drive to group activities. Perhaps in the next few regional competitions, this positive spirit comes with a run of good results.

Such is life at Arsenal without Alexis Sanchez. A breath of fresh air.

Arsenal followed up their 4-1 demolition earlier in the Premier League of Crystal Palace with a 2-1 win over arch enemies Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. If this is what jettisoning Alexis Sanchez brings you, then perhaps they should have got his situation resolved earlier in the summer. Who knows where they might have been now? Sure, Pep Guardiola’s men would still be occupying the top – no change to that, but perhaps Arsenal would have been in a better position then outside the top four, looking up Tottenham’s bottom.

While Arsenal are on winning ways, and negativity towards their manager is forgotten, the same cannot be said of Antonio Conte. Last year, he was favoured manager, just like Arsene Wenger was when he won the league titles earlier in his Arsenal career. This year, Conte is not looking great.

There is a story about how Antonio Conte revamped the pre-game diet at Chelsea. Doing away with high carbohydrate foods like pasta and egg and replacing them with nuts, seeds and other foods that prevented players from carrying extra weight in games, and giving them the sharpness over their opponents. When you are winning, that looks great. When you are losing, that looks like rabbit food.

Bottom of the table Swansea found a way to win 1-0 against Liverpool. What a fantastic result! I was hoping that they would be able to manage that against all odds and they did. And why was I hoping for that, you may ask? It’s because the gap between the bottom HALF of the table and the bottom team is a mere six points.

A two game swing with still plenty of games to play for. Lose a couple, and you could be in the bottom two. The relegation places will change positions faster than the six chair challenge in X Factor.

More English Premier League players? Change the youth game approach

Soccer has changed considerably over the past two decades. Tactics have evolved and are constantly evolving, often in reaction to previous tactical changes. Technically, there has been a shift towards a more possession-based game where keeping the ball for long sequences is emphasized. Physically, club scouts are now prizing speed rather than size and strength. More value, though arguably not enough, is being placed on the psychological element of the game. These changes have real and serious implications for the coach who is working to develop the youth soccer player. It is a necessity that coaches working within youth development are preparing their players effectively for a game that has changed significantly in recent decades, and which will continue to change.

Given the game’s rapid transformation, the coach is arguably preparing players for a kind of game that does not yet exist. It is therefore imperative that the coach remains up-to-date with the evolution of the game to keep their players up-to-speed. As a result, we need to examine how a ‘win at all costs‘ mentality affects the development of players in terms of their tactical, technical and physical development, within the context of how the game is evolving. We also need to inspect the implications of our coaching on the psychological and social growth of our players. We will find that all these changes are inextricably linked.

Creativity, imagination, risk-taking and personal expression are compromised to play in a safe and effective way. The greatest players in the world of soccer today grew up playing in the streets without adult coaching and supervision, and learned to play by freely trying things without the consequence of making a mistake. Learning becomes greatly impeded when mistakes are not tolerated.

Will your under-10 team learn more by ‘chasing’ a game and bombarding the opponent’s goal area with Alamo-style attacks and Rory Delap-esque throw-ins? Or by remaining calm and trying to penetrate the opposition’s defence with creative passes or a flamboyant individual pieces of skill? Will the players gain more in the long-term by forcing a crude equalizing goal or by problem-solving more creative ways of scoring a goal? Both questions are clearly rhetorical, but they appear frequently on youth pitches the world over.

A pet hate of mine is the simplicity of the pre-match team formation screens shown before televised games. It depicts, to the wider world, that tactics and movements are performed in straight lines when, in reality, they are free flowing and chaotic. I will accept that these simplistic visuals help the viewer quickly understand their favourite team’s formation, but basing our understanding of tactics in this way is very misleading. Soccer is not chess. The variables of a game are unending.

In Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, Matthew Syed points this out in an explicit manner, noting that the complexity of predicting soccer is virtually impossible, unlike the predefined moves of pieces on a chessboard. [Some may argue that set-plays or ‘restarts’ are predictable as they can be rehearsed and staged. This argument, however, is only partly true as a successful set-play still hinges on the correct technique and decision-making of players, and also on the ability and reactions of the opposition.]

Syed tells a story of a group who were attempting to create a computer program that simulated the complex combination of combinations and variables involved in a soccer game – and found it impossible. We therefore need to produce players who can deal with these variables and chaotically unpredictable occurrences, rather than teach them to become tactical robots as represented to us on our television screens.

The role of the forward player is changing immeasurably. There has been a huge tactical shift towards playing with one striker, and indeed, with the success of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2008 to 2012 and the Spanish national team’s European Championship victory in 2012, more teams are willing to consider playing with no natural striker at all. Playing with no recognized striker (or 4-6-0) is expected to be the next revolutionary tactical shift in the game over the next decade. As a consequence, strikers are becoming a dying breed, or at least those that are only goalscorers are.

Jonathan Wilson sums this up concisely in his excellent book on the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid: “The modern forward… is far more than a goalscorer, and it may even be that a modern forward can be successful without scoring goals.” Wilson traces the career of Michael Owen. Midway through his career, with the impact of teams prioritizing one multi-functional striker, a 25 year old Owen, with an international goal-scoring rate of almost one in every two games, was unable to find a Champions League club to invest in his services, and ended up joining (and being relegated with) Newcastle United. [Owen later joined Manchester United where he arguably became the club’s fourth or fifth choice forward, making an average of ten appearances a season for three seasons.]

Winner of the Ballon d’Or (the award for being the best player in Europe) in 2001, Owen himself admitted that he needed to evolve his game by adding skills such as link up play, dropping off the front, and holding the ball up. He felt he could no longer just be a goalscorer that made runs off the shoulder of the last defender. Had soccer tactics not evolved to prioritizing the use of just one main striker, there is a strong argument that the careers of goalscorers like Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe may have been even more prolific. The tactics or strategies that coaches adopt and implement need to reflect footballing chaos and variables, and allow players to survive in these types of scenarios. Players also need to be taught the technical skills required to thrive in this environment.

Due to the variables involved in a soccer game, a coach must encourage technical creativity and risk-taking in his players. How else can they learn to deal with the diverse situations that are thrown up by the game? The same coach, however, must accept that if you facilitate this creativity, players will make mistakes, and the team may lose games as a consequence. FC Barcelona’s risk-taking in possession, and their ultimate effectiveness of ‘possessioning’ the opposition into submission, is a direct product of players being allowed an abundance of trial and error as they evolved as youngsters. The club and its coaches had the foresight, during these early years, to allow this risk-taking to flourish and allowed players to develop into the adult footballers they are.

Taking risks, being creative, and ultimately making mistakes are true learning curves for players. It is vitally important to foster this. Ensure players know that it is okay to lose, so long as they learn the lessons from defeat. Technically, defenders and goalkeepers must now have the skills in possession that are at least comparable to their midfield team-mates. It is therefore exceptionally important that, during the full pressure of match days, these players are allowed to test and develop their technical skills in ‘real’ situations.

Asking a goalkeeper to whack it down the other end of the pitch any time he is in possession does not develop any type of skill. It stunts their ability to play out from the back and stunts the development of receiving players. Defenders are also required to have the technical traits to be able to manipulate and move the ball. The modern defender no longer just kicks and heads it. He receives possession from the goalkeeper and is the starter of attacks. He relieves pressure from midfield players and advances up the pitch in possession.

Take defender Jamie Carragher as an example. Carragher is not a player who is especially renowned for his technical qualities. Despite this, the Liverpool centre-back had a somewhat surprising pass completion rate of 92% from 24 games in his last Premier League season at the club (2012/13) (source: Squawka.) In addition to this, of the 10 players with the best pass completion rates in Europe in the 2012/13 season, three of them were centre-backs (Dante 90.8%; Gerard Pique 91%; Per Mertesacker 92.2%). [Players must have played at least 20 games and completed at least 1,000 passes.

The unsurprising number one on the list was Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez, with almost a 3% higher pass success rate than the list’s number 2, Mikel Arteta (source:]

If your young defender is taught to ‘get rid’ (an often heard term to clear the ball as far away as possible), the coach is doing him a great long-term disservice. A young defender needs to be taught passing and receiving skills, as well as the key movements needed to be able to play his position in a modern way. Once again, it is only by allowing players to trial and error this within competition that you can affect real improvement, tolerating a mistake and a lost goal along the way.

The technical qualities required by the modern midfield player are vast given the different types of midfielders that exist. They vary from those who sit deep and distribute, to those who ‘carry’ and run with the ball, to those who score and provide goals. Midfielders need to be expert in terms of passing and receiving, taking the ball in defensive areas, and controlling and manipulating the ball in tight attacking situations. They need the ability to score goals, intercept passes, cross, dribble, and more. If these players spend their youth watching their defenders ‘getting rid of the ball’, and goalkeepers thumping goal-kicks as far as they physically can, it is unlikely that they will develop their skills sufficiently to move their game on.

The rate of change in the role occupied by strikers has huge implications for youth coaching. During their development of young strikers, coaches need to add more and more traits to their forwards’ repertoire. José Mourinho is quite clear about the need for “multifunctional strikers”. He noted, “To them (English youth coaches) a striker is a striker and that’s it. For me, a striker is not just a striker. He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross…”

The changing role of forward players has had knock-on implications in other areas of the pitch. More and more midfield players are given greater freedom and license to get forward, score goals, provide assists and bridge the goalscoring gap that not playing with a natural goalscorer leaves. These attacking midfield players ‘play between the lines’ and are constantly searching for pockets of space between the opponent’s midfield and defence. They have excellent receiving skills and make penetrative passes between defenders. Plus, they score goals. Certainly in England, this type of player is rarely produced.

Arguably the most prominent player of this ilk produced in England in recent decades has been Joe Cole. Cole, however, spent a career being asked to play in more stringent wide positions rather than his natural position playing ‘in the hole’. As a teenager he was constantly summed up as a player with lots of quality, but someone who needed to eradicate maverick-type flamboyancy from his game. It is possible that had Joe Cole been born ten years later, this flamboyant nature may have been prized more highly.

With the prominence of these types of creative players, and a future reliance on them, it is imperative that youth coaches work to produce attacking midfield players that encompass these skills. In the English Premier League (2012/13) the top five players to play passes in the final third were all foreign imports: The Belgian Eden Hazard, Spaniards Santi Carzola, Juan Mata and David Silva, and South Africa’s Steven Pienaar, all of whom could be considered physically diminutive.

Over the longer term, players that develop physically earlier and who dominate games purely because of size can, in fact, see a huge reversal in their influence on games as they age and their peers begin to catch them up physically. Big players need to be taught other skills involving ball manipulation, vision and fundamental movements so that they have the tools to adapt their game as their physical advantage diminishes.

Likewise, those that develop late physically need to be trusted by coaches and be given ample playing time to learn the game, rather than being cast aside as ineffective in the short-term. With this trust and foresight, their long-term development is secured and the moral fibre of the coach remains intact.

If these late developers can learn, on a regular basis, how to affect games through technique and individual traits, they will possess a very accomplished armoury once they hit their growth spurt and will able to match other players physically. Because they lack relative size and power initially, maybe they will inherently adapt their game and start to play in-between players, rather than in close combat against them? Maybe they will learn to receive more quickly and move the ball on more quickly before the big guy gets too close? Maybe this will produce more Carzolas and Pienaars that have spent a childhood playing in tight areas and pockets of space? They would have the physical, technical and tactical skills to bypass their peers. Not to mention the ability of taking and dealing with physical contests where they are disadvantaged.

Pacemakers play peacemakers

Ah Alexis Sanchez. How many times have we said all those words in the same breath? He continues to impress yet frustrate, the will-he won’t-he saga threatening to overshadow much of Arsenal’s season. It is best they deal with it as fast as possible, and in this it might be better if he were released in January, rather than the Gooners holding on to a toxic asset.

The Arsenal striker’s skill has been clear for all to see in recent weeks. Against Liverpool, he led a fightback by scoring a goal from a header he should have had no business in winning. Hector Bellerin whipped in a cross, and Sanchez sprinted ahead of Joel Matip to nod the ball through Mignolet’s legs. The goalkeeper, who has been blamed for Liverpool’s struggles and may be slightly relieved to see Virgil van Dyke in front of him now – although it may mean he carries more blame if goals get conceded – absolutely had no chance with Sanchez’s goal. Yet while he may have been at fault with Granit Xhaka hitting his belter from far, there is no denying that Sanchez did inspire a comeback of sorts.

Sanchez also inspired a win over Crystal Palace, a 3-2 grab at three points. He scored two of the goals, but as many have noted, a few of his team mates refused to celebrate with him. The refuseniks – mainly the Arsenal defence – were Saed Kolasinac, Hector Bellerin, Laurent Kosicleny and Calum Chambers which may lead us to believe the training ground bust up after the game at Burnley’s Turf Moor last month may have been about Sanchez voicing his displeasure about a leaky defence. If that were the case, then it is not good news, considering that a division between attacking players and defensive players is not one you wish to have.

So the real question is why Arsene Wenger continues to hold on to Sanchez. See what happened at Southampton with Virgil van Dyke? The protracted discussion about his future with the club caused them to play under a cloud and go on a slide. Now that he is gone, watch for Southampton to play better with a better sense of team spirit.

Arsenal have managed to do well with Sanchez in the squad but Wenger is playing a dangerous game. Arguably his best player, Sanchez is increasingly becoming an influential but divisive figure. Arsenal have had a good run of results on the back of their out-of-contract players, Ozil and Sanchez, but Wenger needs to weigh up the results with the team spirit. Favour Sanchez, and he risks losing the faith of the eleven other players. And by the time Wenger lets Sanchez goes, he may find he may need to earn back the respect of the other players. If anything, having Sanchez around for the moment deflects from the Wenger Out cries, and turns attention away from the team’s results and performance.

Another fortunate event has been the form of leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men have so dominated the league that it is a case of will they win it or will they lose it. It is them against the chasing pack of teams traditionally in the top six. But this means Arsenal no longer have the expectation of winning the league, and are not expected to by their fans, and are not being blamed by them for every poor perfomance because they are still in the same boat as high spending Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal fans this year will be content with a top four finish, a return to Champions League football, and the Kings of North London football crown; their fans will be happy as long as they beat Tottenham after 38 games.

It should make for an interesting transfer window when it opens on Jan 1 2018. And one player pleased to see the new year will be Adrien Silva, the signing that Leicester tried to make previously but ended up a mere fourteen seconds late. Fourteen seconds! It was a high price to pay, those fourteen seconds. It meant he remained a Sporting Lisbon player even though he had also disengaged from the team, but could not train with Leicester. In a bit of limbo. A bit like Alexis Sanchez.

And so, with the transfer window opening again, it should make for an interesting start to 2018. And you can be sure all eyes are on the Alexis Sanchez situation. Will City sign him now and risk losing their chemistry? Will they wait for the end of the summer when his value drops? It may make better sense but waiting may mean other teams may start to consider him, as his affordability would drop to theirs. It is likely that Manchester City or some other team will sign him first to snap him out of the others’ grasp.

But for now, while Sanchez lingers at Arsenal, and the rift between him and the defence continues, the midfielders, the engine room of the team – the pacemakers – have to play the peacemakers.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Just focus on the more important prizes

Ah. Jose Mourinho.

While he may not have admitted that at the press conference, to the one member of the media – pulling another quick media conference, after the Bristol City boss Jose Mourinho may be the next happiest person. Why? Because it leaves him free to concentrate on the things that matter. Such as:

  1. The Premier League race
  2. A top four position
  3. Champions League football
  4. Catching Man City

Jose Mourinho may not be under any illusions that the Premier League title is going to swing the other way to Manchester Red but believe me, he is going to go all out to make the gap respectable. This is what he meant when he said he would be on holiday if he were conceding the title. While the other football teams may be hearing the Manchester City fans chant “We beat you to the title” or words to that effect, United fans are going to be hearing “We beat you to the title by XX points.” The gap does matter. At least, in Manchester it does. And for the fickle football fan it may be a reason to switch sides from Red to Blue. So it does matter.

So it may be relief for Manchester United that they are out of the competition. Let City, Arsenal and Chelsea fight for that title. Maybe they may get a few injuries in the process, like Olivier Giroud and his hamstring injury last night. Jose Mourinho is probably thinking that any injuries picked up in the Carabao Cup may impact on the Premier League race, and that can only work to his advantage.

Does winning the Carabao Cup mean anything?

Well … you get to be the notable winner of a competition that:

Paired Charlton with two opponents, Exeter City and Cheltenham;

Messed up some first round draws and opponents;

Had problems with feeds;

Made you watch a pre-recorded video for a draw in one of the rounds;

Selected a match to kick off at 4:15am.

Yep, no one should win the Carabao Cup. It is a laughing stock of a trophy.

Mourinho would be delighted to let his adversaries squabble over it.

What Chris Froome could learn from Jamie Vardy

Ah. Chris Froome missed out on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did it come as a surprise? Unfortunately in the week leading up to one of the most important sports awards of the year, the cyclist had a bad week in the press, savaged for his use of medicine in his sport … and the BBC of course could not risk giving him that kind of prestigious award under that kind of ominous cloud.

So Mo Farah got it instead.

Rewind back to 2016 in Leicester City’s magical season where they emerged champions. When the short list for the PFA Footballer of the Year was announced, it looked like this:

Dmitri Payet

Harry Kane

Jamie Vardy

Mesut Ozil

N’Golo Konte

Riyad Mahrez

Given that three of the six nominees were from Leicester’s team, it was a sure sign that one of them would win it.

But which one? If defense is your thing, then you would have voted Konte, now protecting the back four at Chelsea. But surely the award seemed destined for Jamie Vardy, in a fairy tale era where an Englishman set scoring records by scoring in consecutive matches and breaking the record long held by Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.

BBC. English corporation. English talent. Jamie Vardy. You might argue that Harry Kane was also in the running, but if you read the signs well, Leicester’s incredible season was not going to be overlooked. Harry Kane winning it over the three Leicester men? Unlikely.

Vardy seemed a shoo-in for the award, of which the ceremony was to be held on 24 April 2016.

Unfortunately for Vardy, in a match against West Ham on 17 April 2016, he was sent off. Not just sent off, but sent off for a theatrical dive with the intention to deceive the referee. He basically ran over his opponent’s outstretched leg and did his famous half-twist in mid-air. If you watch him now, he’s still doing it on the pitch. He must have had a lot of practice at that, the form’s almost always the same.

Vardy’s red card at a time the FA was trying to crack down on diving meant that it was impossible that he would receive the award. His subsequent protest and disrespect for the referee meant that if he were won the award, the FA would be endorsing a whole generation of disrespect towards referees.

So Vardy’s great season was undone by that one game close to that award.  It went to Mahrez instead.

Mo Salah won the recent African Footballer of the Year and impressed in the games leading up to it. But one wonders if he had slipped up in the run-up, whether he would have received it.

And Sadio Mane? While he may have been on the shortlist for the December announcement, he wouldn’t have been remembered for his outstanding play. It would have been remembered for the souvenir he gave to Man City keeper Ederson earlier in the season.

The lesson here? If you are nominated for any award, don’t do anything silly in the process.

Last Chance Saloon?

You get the feeling Chelsea manager’s last few chances at silverware lie with the Champions League or the FA Cup. The former has just been made more difficult with a tie at Barcelona, although the Catalan giants aren’t really the feared forces they once were. Was the departure of Neymar a big factor? The feared triumvirate of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, abbreviated to MSN, is now, well MS.

Chelsea may win the FA Cup, but let’s face it, something short of Premier League repeat as champions or European glory is likely to be seen as satisfactory. Still, the FA cup is the one thing managers try to win as a baseline silverware measure – one enough to say to their fans, “Hey, I won a trophy!” (Hello, Arsene Wenger.)

Chelsea seem to be missing a certain toughness and teams seem to fear them less. Do you think Diego Costa is laughing at their form somewhere? Troublemaker as he was, he gave them a bit of an edge, and will Morata is technically gifted, he’s too nice.