Boxing Day roundup

On a day when Tottenham striker Harry Kane broke Alan Shearer’s calendar year scoring record with a 5-2 victory at Wembley over struggling Mauriccio Porchettino’s former Southampton team, what else happened?

Manchester United recovered from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2.

Liverpool put five goals past bottom placed Swansea. 5-0.

If you were Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, and you knew Harry Kane was seeking to break a record, would you not double team him for much of the game? Take him out of the equation, force the others to make plays without Kane, yet still try to go through him, and then strike on the counter? One wonders why Pellegrino did not consider that kind of tactic.

Bournemouth and West Ham drew 3-3, but the match ended in controversy when former Stoke striker Marco Arnautovic’s injury time goal was cancelled out by the Cherries Callum Wilson, who appeared to be in an offside position, and to also handle the ball.

The guy must think Thierry Henry is his idol. Henry, of course put the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup with his infamous handball.

If you take into account all the diving, handball and other misdemeanours on the field you may conclude that the modern game nowadays is about gaining an edge by deceiving the referee. And many players are tumbling like flies at the slightest jostle, yet referees seem apprehensive about awarding yellows for dives, or straight reds for lunges. Remember Harry Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling at Manchester City? Had he been sent off, he might have been banned and could have kissed the record goodbye.

How Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen. Last year after Sam Allardyce was sacked, he was touted as a possible manager, a young hand being steadied by an old manager such as Harry Redknapp. But now his team are in danger of being relegated, he no longer hears his name associated with being England manager any more.

It was goals galore at Liverpool and Tottenham, but the fact of the matter remains that outside the top six, only one other team – Burnley – has a positive goal difference. And that’s not much, because Sean Dyche’s men have only scored one more than they have conceded. And with James Tarkowski banned for a flagrant elbow that looked less intentional that Charlie Austin’s boot to the goalkeeper’s face, it is unlikely that Burnley will continue to maintain that positive goal difference.

Tottenham are posed to make a move for Everton’s Ross Barkley, currently out injured. Barkley was the thorn in former manager Ronald Koeman’s summer, as speculation over his future at Goodison continued to overshadow things at the club, even the departure of Romelo Lukaku. In a way Barkley was like the Alexis Sanchez of Merseyside, and perhaps when the transfer window opens both may find themselves being linked with other clubs again.

Ronald Koeman was boasted that he had Olivier Giroud nearly ready to sign for the Toffees but the deal collapsed because Giroud preferred to remain in London. Will Giroud consider Goodison again? He is behind Lacazette in the pecking order and also perhaps behind Sanchez, so it pretty much remains if Sanchez is going and Lacazette and Giroud play together. It would be interesting to see a 3-5-2 featuring Lacazette and Giroud as the forwards, as it would give the Arsenal wingers the chance to lob balls in the penalty area to trouble opposing centrebacks.

But the last Boxing Day word must remain with Harry Kane. He has only scored one less goal than Lionel Messi in all competitions and surely he must be in the running in the Ballon d’Or this year with a high chance of winning.

And then maybe it’ll be Kane to Spain. To one of the big two anyway.

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.

Slap in the face

Big Sam Allardyce claims to have been baffled by the poor defending at the club he took over.

To be fair though, he can claim to have tightened up the defence. In the four game he has taken charge of, they have only conceded one goal.

But while Allardyce claims credit for his work, he should not forget that the person he replaced, caretaker manager David Unsworth, used to be a player for the club.

In fact, Unsworth was a defender.

Oh well, maybe Unsworth unfortunately doesn’t get enough respect from the club management. After all, he wasn’t aware of the club’s progress of his successor’s appointments.

The case for video replay

This is why we need video replays.

In the local derbies on Sunday – the Mancunian derby featuring Manchester City and Manchester United, and the Merserside derby featuring Liverpool against Everton – all four managers found themselves discussing penalty decisions or ones which could have been given but were not, and which turned out to have significant impact on the game and the final scoreline.
In the game of two Manchesters, United manager Jose Mourinho fumed that a late clash of feet between Ander Herrera and Nicolas Otamendi, which resulted in the former tumbling in the box, was deemed a dive and resulted in him receiving a yellow card. The game’s other talking point was the dive by City’s Gabriel Jesus, one where no contact was made but he grimaced and fell spectacularly, more so than Herrera, yet received not so much as even a talking to.

The other game ended in a draw but the taking point was one in which the tying penalty had been attained. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp was in an explosive mood, claiming Dominic Calvert-Lewin had gone to ground under the slightest of challenges. Everton manager Sam Allardyce of course defended his centre-forward’s actions, claiming that there had been a push in the box by Emre Can.

The referees were criticised in the post match interviews. Under Premier League rules referee performances should not be discussed, and both managers will pick up a fine for doing so. Klopp’s bitterness was apparent for all to see in his criticism of the referee and how he felt Everton had been let back in the game. Mourinho went one step further, criticising the referee by name and giving his own personal critique. “Michael Oliver had a good game but made a bad decision”.

But the managers were not the only ones questioning the referees. Players confronted the referees during key points in the game, and also after. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson could be seen raising his arms and shouting “What??” when the penalty was given.

The speed of the modern game has increased, and also the intent to deceive. Players are now playing more to get an opposing player sent off, because one men less means a numerical advantage at set pieces and changes the intent on the team with less players. If you have ten players you are more defensive and less attack minded because the other team will have more players and you will soon run out of energy if you try to match them, which is when you concede goals. Some teams – hello, Jose Mourinho even play defensively when they have eleven men, let alone ten! At the Manchester United game, the City fans taunted the home fans with “Park the bus, park the bus, Manchester United” – which is what they were doing with eleven men in a home game at Old Trafford.

How would video replays be implemented? This is where football could take a leaf from its American cousin’s book. The American football has a referee, sideline judges, ball judge, video official among other officials to manage a game of 60 minutes. Each team is allowed three challenges and if a challenge is unsuccessful a team is charged with a timeout. The modern football game could implement a system where teams get two challenges over the whole game. And if they lose a challenge then perhaps one player in the team has to sit out for five minutes of the game.
Implementing video replays has wider implications outside the game.

Football managers always blame the referees after a game because it is way of taking the heat for the team, deflecting the press. But it is not the reason for implementing video replay. The real reason is to stop a whole generation of youngsters challenging officials in game, copying what they see on the pitch from their idols, and developing a disrespect for authority, not just in the game but outside of it.

Video replay has implications outside of football. And that is why we need it.

Reasons behind player motivation

In the previous post, I mentioned how managerial uncertainty affects players. I also mentioned how players are unwilling to give their best if things appear as if any manager is on his way out. Why is this so? Firstly, if you are seen to be too loyal to the old gaffer, when he is shipped out you could be too. So it makes sense, as a player, to distance yourself slightly from the manager, and this may manifest itself in the form of not listening fully to instructions, either on the field, or during team tactical talks. Of course, it is better to have any doubt about the manager eradicated, if the board make a public statement. Then the players know the manager’s way is the only way.

And what happened when news of Everton’s appointment of Sam Allardyce filtered through at Everton? They win 4-0. Against all odds they score four goals, and don’t even concede one!

The appointment of a new manager always brings a run of positive results. Why? Because it is likely that the new manager might be there for a while, so players subconsciously see it as an opportunity to impress the man, and align himself with him. In the first few matches you often see players digging deep, finding reserves they didn’t display for the previous boss. Failure to impress the new incoming boss could mean a quick exit from the first team or club.

Player motivation is also affected by externalities, even though you have to be professional and give your all on the field, and managerial in-outs are not the only factors. Sometimes you can find players performance spike in in late November or December. Arsenal’s duo of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, linked with other clubs since the summer, have recently experienced a resurgence in form. Yet not long ago they were seemingly transferring out, Sanchez to Manchester City and Ozil to Manchester United. And when news of their possible moves affected their form, the fans turned on them. Yet they are playing their best now. What has happened? Have they now decided Arsenal is their future home?

Actually, no. They are playing to impress. Just not their existing boss, or any incoming one. Arsene Wenger is not going anywhere yet. But Sanchez and Ozil are playing to attract interest from elsewhere, to earn themselves a trade in time for the January window.

But Sean Dyche at Burnley seems to have the best of most worlds. The owner likes him, he and his team evaluate themselves on performances and not results, knowing they are not going to win every game. And his players have heart, and fight for him. But maybe they are just fighting for interest from the big clubs.

Player motivation. It’s a funny thing.

Managerial uncertainty affects your team’s form

If your football team manager is sacked, how long would it take to appoint another manager? Three games? Four games? It seems like David Unsworth has been at troubled Everton forever, and he can’t stop the sinking ship from listing.

Unsworth was appointed caretaker manager after Ronald Koeman was axed. Of course, it would be fair to give him a fair few games to try and stabilise the rot, and he would have done well to have secured a few draws, but Everton under him seem no better than they were under his predecessor.

When Koeman left, Unsworth fancied himself in the running for the vacant position, announcing that it would be a great honour to be in charge of the club he had played for. It seemed he was given a chance to show his mettle, and while pundits suggested he was the right person, being Everton through and through, it now seems the job is too big for him. He is no longer in the running for the job, and as he admitted, the “sooner this gets sorted out the better”.

The problem with a managerial crisis is that it develops uncertainty, and this filters down to the players. From the moment a manager is rumoured to be axed, and the news is picked up by the media, the constant back page media storm undermines the manager’s credibility. Who will listen to him, and take instruction, if the rumours are he is going? Players will probably unconsciously start aligning themselves with who they think is next in line. And if they have a bad run of results, this negative run and doubt continues, and leads to more decay. You can usually feel the sinking of the ship before you see the gaping hole.

But delay over appointing a new manager does not address the doubt. And that is the position Unsworth finds himself in. The players may not take instruction from him either, because he may be gone soon.

Did the Everton board not learn a lesson from Arsenal the previous season? The protracted situation regarding Arsene Wenger’s contract renewal proved so divisive that it affected everyone around the team, fans and players, and caused a late season dip in form. Let’s face it, when planes are flying Wenger Out banners, do you think players on the field can give their best? Did it make a difference mentally? Of course it did. When a manager is undermined by the press or any circumstances, the players don’t give their best for him.

Would stating publicly that Unsworth is only temporarily in charge help his cause? Not really. But it would help if the board told the players that whoever was in charge of the team would have the power to decide if they remained with the team past the transfer window in January, or got traded to another less desirable team in the Chinese or Scottish League, doomed to travel to far flung places, playing in front of unknown crowds or going to cold freezing places. Now that would get the players focussed.

Everton striker’s ban only increases call for video ref

Oumar Niasse was banned after being found guilty of “exaggerating contact in order to deceive”. The Everton striker was the first player in the top flight of English football to receive such a ban, although two other players in the lower leagues had also been similarly charged.

For those trivia buffs among us, Carlisle forward Shaun Miller was the first.

Niasse was found by a three-man panel to have exaggerated the impact of a normal contact under a challenge by Scott Dann in a game against Crystal Palace. The resulting penalty brought the game level at 1-1, and when Palace went ahead later on in the game, the equaliser from Everton was scored by … you guessed it, Niasse himself. The match finished 2-2, and there were various talking points:

Had Niasse been cautioned for the dive, the match might have taken on a different twist.

The tactics of the game change according to the flow of the game – that is what managers are for, to make changes to enable the team to best respond to how the game is developing. Had there been no 1-1 scoreline, and Niasse on a yellow, one might feel Crystal Palace might have played a more attacking game, instead of playing with caution in other to gain new boss Roy Hodgson a point.

And how terrible for the game that Niasse scored the goal that forced the draw. Crystal Palace might be correct in thinking that Niasse caused them two points in the grand scheme of things.

Would it hurt so much to have a video referee like they already do in sports such as rugby and American football? The pace of the modern football game has picked up so much that things happen quickly and decisions that could affect the game have to be made without the benefit of hindsight or review.

The argument against video referees is that it slows down the game. But this is really nonsense, and where football could take a leaf out of the book of sports such as tennis and American football. Each opposing player is granted three challenges in tennis, so over the course of a game there are a maximum of six stoppages. But the game can hinge on one or two major decisions going the wrong way, so players normally play on and leave dubious decisions early on in the game to save up of challenges they might need later.

In American football, both teams have three challenges. If a team is unsuccessful in overturning a decision with their challenge, they lose a timeout. The video referee has a certain amount of time to make a conclusive decision, and if the video replay is inconclusive then the ruling on the field stands.

A video official would not hurt football. Each team could be given two challenges in a game – either one in each half, or to be used at any point. It would save debates such as whether a ball crossed the goal line, whether a hand ball was deliberate, or whether there was an off the ball incident. In the same weekend that Niasse dived, Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi scored from an offside position after a free kick gained from a fair challenge. Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany should have been sent off in the second minute. Did those decisions have any significant impact in the game?

You bet. It is time to bring on the video referee as part of the evolving game.