Is Football Actually Coming Home?

Seriously, though? If we keep singing Three Lions does it win us more penalties or something?

Amongst the hype surrounding England’s journey to the quarter-finals, let’s try and assess whether we have any hope of lifting the World Cup come July 15th, and whether football truly could be coming home…

 

england wc 1

How are we looking?

The group games definitely left a number of unanswered questions for England. Wins against Tunisia and Panama were expected, whilst the loss to Belgium was effectively a B team game that nobody wanted to win, to avoid being on the tougher side of the draw. So we were the lucky losers, and when Japan were 16 minutes away from a shock win against Belgium the day before, many of us counted our lucky stars that we were playing Colombia.

How wrong we were.

The sheer number of Colombians fans immediately created the atmosphere of an away game, whilst some dirty and aggressive tactics could have provoked England past boiling point. Indeed, Maguire, Stones and Henderson appeared close to losing their cool at some points, but nothing like the Colombian players who constantly complained and even roughed up the penalty spot in a failed attempt to make Kane mis-kick. The last-minute equaliser by Mina could have been a mental dagger to England player’s hearts, and once we’d navigated our way through extra time we all feared the worst with penalties.

Despite all this, we emerged victors at the end. It was far from the most comprehensive win, but as Portugal proved at Euro 2016, it’s not about how you win. It felt like this win answered many of the doubts we had about the squad- showing huge resilience and character where you feel previous England squads may have crumbled.

Not only did Kane win and score the penalty in normal time, but showed outstanding leadership. He even started coming deep to collect the ball and create a different problem for the Colombians when England’s midfield was struggling to exert any creative influence. Harry Maguire was immense at Centre-back, and Jordan Pickford put media criticism from the Belgium game behind him with a spectacular save in the second half and a sensational penalty save against Carlos Bacca.

Having said that, questions still remain. How will England fare against the very best, should they reach the final? The attacking threats of Alli, Lingard and even Henderson were nullified significantly against Colombia compared to previous games. Defensively, Kyle Walker appears prone to the odd error that could prove catastrophic, showing his inexperience in an unfamiliar centre-back role, whilst Stones and the rapidly improving Maguire give the ball away with wayward passing. These questions will remain until we face top class opponents-whether we win or lose.

england wc 2

What about the Opposition?

Let’s take this “one game at a time”. A Zlatan-free Sweden stand in the way of England and a first World Cup semi-final since 1990. The Swedes edged Switzerland 1-0 in a game lacking in quality, but have kept three clean sheets in four games so far. Having lost to Germany, they needed a win against Mexico to guarantee a passage through the groups: they utterly dismantled “El Tri”, who many had began to tip as dark horses for the tournament. Although many have criticised their strikers Berg and Toivonen for suspect finishing, Sweden have managed to notch a goal in every game so far.

England can expect Sweden to sit back and do their best to make the most of set pieces- in a similar way to how Tunisia set up, but with players who are better equipped to carry out such a gameplan. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that England have enough quality to see off Sweden, having learnt plenty of lessons from the Colombia game.

If, and only if, we beat the Swedes, Croatia or Russia await us in the semi-finals. Any home team at a World Cup stands a chance, but Russia were thumped by Uruguay in the group stages and you feel that Croatia, arguably the best team so far the the tournament, could do a similar job. Yes, Russia beat Spain, but let’s not forget that this team sacked their manager 2 days before the tournament and were in complete disarray.

So, England vs Croatia on July 11th seems likely. How would we fare? Maybe it’s best not to speculate too much, but playing Croatia’s ‘Golden Generation’ with Rakitic and Modric won’t be easy. It’s the midfield where the game might well be won and lost -particularly Henderson who will have a pivotal (literally) role in keeping them quiet. Dele Alli may have to drop back to support Henderson too.

Anyway, assume we beat Croatia and make the final, and it’s one of Brazil, Belgium, France and Uruguay that would greet us. Could we beat any of them? On our day, probably. But Brazil and France produced more accomplished team performances against Mexico and Argentina respectively, and have XIs oozing with quality individuals-Varane, Pogba, Griezemann; Thiago Silva, Coutinho, Neymar. In this World Cup nobody can be discounted, but Belgiums leaky defence and Uruguays lack of midfield creativity may well prove their undoing.

So, is football coming home? If you were reading this article expecting a definitive answer, then I’m sorry to disappoint. BUT whilst we may be far from favourites, it wouldn’t be crazy to believe that we could win 3 more games in a World Cup that has produced an constant stream of surprises.

What any England fan could do to remember is that before a ball had been kicked in Russia, we were predicting quarter-finals at the very best. Southgate and his young squad should be praised for lifting the swarm of negativity that has surrounded The Three Lions at tournament matches since well, “that tackle by Moore and when Lineker scored…”

Charlie Widdicombe

 

Advertisements

England 2-1 Tunisia: What Next for Kane and Co?

 

It’s never easy watching England at the World Cup. The humiliation of losing to Iceland at Euro 2016 had brought expectation down to an all-time low-nevertheless, the Three Lions were widely expected to beat Tunisia, and were saved by a stoppage time rescue act from Harry Kane. Despite only scraping their way to victory, there were plenty of positives for Gareth Southgate to take from the game in Volgograd. So what lessons have England learnt, and how can they be applied to the other group games against Panama and Belgium?

Southgate gets the XI Spot On…Almost

Prior to Monday’s game, there were 3 spots in the England line-up that were yet to be nailed down by a particular player, but it would be hard to disagree with Southgate’s picks based on their respective performances. Ashley Young was selected ahead of Danny Rose at left wing-back despite the latter’s strong showing in the final warm up game against Costa Rica, proving the right call as a more offensive option against a very defensive Tunisia side. At centre-back, Harry Maguire was selected above the vastly more experienced Gary Cahill. Maguire was careless in possession a couple of times but brought the ball forward magnificently and was a menacing aerial presence- it was his header that set up Kane’s late winner. The third position of uncertainty was Jordan Henderson starting in the lone holding midfield role ahead of Eric Dier. Henderson provided creativity from further back, silencing the critics who claim he lacks urgency in moving the ball, and got forward at the right times.

However, it was one of the more cemented positions that caused some concern. Raheem Sterling was lively but missed some crucial opportunities. Playing as a second striker in effect, just behind Kane, he would be expected to take his chances, yet Sterling hasn’t scored in his last 21 England games. Marcus Rashford replaced Sterling 70 minutes in and looked far more likely to score. England cannot rely on Kane, no matter how good he is, for the entire tournament; perhaps Rashford would be a better option than Sterling.

sterling.jpg
It’s been 21 games since Sterling last scored for England

Jesse Lingard provided a solid threat but should have converted two goalscoring opportunities, whilst Dele Alli was unspectacular and will need a good performance against Panama to put him above Lingard in the pecking order, should Southgate decide to drop one of them for later games. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came on for the last 10 minutes and caught the eye with driving runs forward and tenacity that exposed the Tunisian defence. Whilst many would consider it controversial to play Loftus-Cheek over one of the established attacking midfielders in Lingard and Alli, another substitute appearance of the same level would surely bring RLC into consideration for the XI against Belgium and beyond.

 

What Does this Mean for the Rest of England’s World Cup?

Ultimately, a win means 3 points regardless of how it’s achieved. England managed something that the majority of pre-tournament favourites failed to do: Spain, Brazil and Argentina were held by Portugal, Switzerland and Iceland respectively, and defending champions Germany suffered a shock defeat to Mexico. The opening game of a Country’s World Cup is all about soaking up the pressure, which England dealt with in a manner seemingly poles apart from crumbling against Iceland 2 year ago; this bodes well for the rest of the tournament.

This first game was also key for England as Tunisia surely posed the biggest obstacle to reaching the knockout stages. Monday’s victory means a win against minnows Panama would effectively guarantee a place in the last 16, taking the pressure off the final group game against Belgium, undoubtedly the hardest task faced by England yet.

As mentioned previously, Southgate’s team selection was hard to argue against, and with the exception of Sterling for Rashford it would make sense to stick with the same XI against Panama. The match against Belgium may force Southgate to reconsider the selections of Young, Maguire and Henderson, in favour of the more conservative options of Rose, Cahill and Dier. The option of two holding midfielders could also be explored, with one of Alli or Lingard making way for Dier to play alongside Henderson.

There are plenty of reasons for England fans to be optimistic, and with a greater burden of expectation following the events of past tournaments, we should enjoy England at the World Cup whilst we can and back the team, no matter who Southgate picks to wear the shirt.

Charlie Widdicombe

 

 

So VAR, So Good?

To many, the FA Cup is the ultimate showcase of British footballing tradition. There’s nothing like watching Jurgen Klopp giving an interview in a tea room in Exeter, or Jose Mourinho crammed into a small Yeovil dugout. It can, and does, provide upsets like no other competition.

It is ironic, then, that the hugely controversial VAR (Video Assistant Referee) system is being tried out extensively in the FA Cup. In its six games in English football so far, it has contributed to a number of decisions, such as instating a goal for Kelechi Iheanacho when the Leicester striker initially had an effort ruled out for offside. There was an infinite number of perspectives on VARs use, and these games have created just as many questions as it has answered.

var 2.jpg
West Brom-Liverpool was full of VAR Controversy

The most controversial game of the Fourth Round was undoubtedly between Liverpool and West Brom. Won 3-2 by the latter, VAR was used to rule out and confirm West Brom ‘goals’, and award Liverpool a penalty. Although not many would argue against the final decisions that were made, complaints about the delay in making decisions, was widespread. This was especially obvious in the awarding of the Liverpool penalty, when referee Craig Dawson made contact with VAR before heading to a pitch side monitor to see the action himself. This delayed the game by a whole 3 minutes and is exactly what those against VAR don’t want.

What bemuses me here is why Dawson felt the need to view the incident himself. Isn’t the point of VAR an ‘assistant’, who’s judgement should be more informed as they have time to review the incident? The need for a referee to question the VAR decision only means that they don’t trust the judgement made by another qualified referee. The always be huge if the on-field referee continues to have the option of consulting a pitch-side screen?

 

VAR 1
Pitch-side monitors for the referees will always result in very long delays when using VAR

Despite its obvious flaws at present, VAR ensures that the correct decision is made. Compare the Liverpool-West Brom game to Manchester City-Cardiff a day later. When 1-0 up, City midfielder Bernardo Silva had a goal ruled off as Leroy Sane was ‘offside’ and ‘interfered with play’ in the opinion of the linesman, neither of which were the case. But there was no VAR, and after extensive discussions with the linesman, referee Lee Mason decided to disallow the goal. Even after play had resumed, Mason had to go and speak to Man City manager Guardiola, who was incensed by the decision. So, the decision was made incorrectly, AND the time delay was almost as long as the VAR decision-making in the Liverpool-West Brom game, where the decisions made with VAR were the right ones

Whatever your view is on VAR, it’s hard to see it not being used. Many have cried out for it for years, and football needs to adapt to an ever-increasing technological age and modern society. Other sports such as PDC Darts and Formula 1 are in the process of scrapping walk-on girls and grid girls respectively, despite a huge backlash from many. Although not the same category of issue in society, VAR has and will cause controversy through ‘breaking traditions’ (or something along those lines); but football could not turn its back on something that makes the correct decisions and that has been so heavily invested in.

VAR is here to stay- whether you like it or not.

Charlie Widdicombe

Sanchez and Mkhitaryan: Winners and Losers

It feels like speculation has gone on for years, but at long last Alexis Sanchez is on his way out of Arsenal. While this doesn’t come as a surprise to any football fan, it appeared a foregone conclusion that he would be reunited with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but instead he has ended up at Manchester United instead, in a straight swap deal with Henrik Mkhitaryan.  So, who are the winners and losers in this situation?

Man Utd

Having taken Sanchez from under the nose of rivals City, Ed Woodward, Mourinho and United couldn’t be much happier with their work. There is no doubt that Sanchez is valued much higher than Mkhitaryan, so the nature of Sanchez’s expiring contract at Arsenal has meant United have acquired a world class player at a deflated price. Sanchez will surely be above the plethora of attacking options in the 4-2-3-1 system that united tend to play, such as Martial, Rashford and Mata. He can also play as an out-and-out striker, which may be useful for Mourinho to give Lukaku a rest whilst Zlatan Ibrahimovic is out injured. The deal has also meant the offload of Mkhitaryan, who never quite fitted in with the club, despite spells of utter quality.

Verdict: Winners. Sanchez adds an attacking verve to United and this is a statement from United that they will not let City walk all over them.

Arsenal

If Arsenal hadn’t managed to offload Sanchez, they would have lost a player worth at least £60 million without any compensation in summer. It seems extremely unlikely that Arsenal will finish in the top 4 this season anyway, so the only real purpose of keeping Sanchez would have been to try and ensure champions league qualification by winning the Europa League. Sanchez was clearly unhappy with the club too, so to exchange him for a player of Mkhitaryan’s quality is good business considering the situation. It was vital that Arsenal replaced Sanchez with a high-quality player, otherwise Ozil, Lacazette and others would become increasingly disenfranchised with the club and be far more likely to leave. An attacking front 3 of these players is surely guaranteed to bring Arsenal goals.

Verdict: Winners. Arsenal have offloaded Sanchez in return for an extremely good player in Mkhitaryan which makes it clear that they are still an ambitious club that aims for champions league qualification and more. To do that, however, maybe they should be looking to sign a better holding midfielder and defenders.

 

Man City

City pulled out of signing Sanchez because the fee demands were too high for their liking (even though they undoubtedly had the finances to make the deal). However, would Sanchez have been good for City in reality? Sane and Sterling are both playing sublimely this season, and Bernado Silva is a more than able back-up. If he were to play as a number 9, this would surely alienate Aguero, and could cause one of the greatest goalscorers of recent times to pack his bags and leave the Etihad. Having said this, losing out on a world class player to your local rivals and closest rivals for the title is never ideal.

Verdict: Mixed. They can cruise to the title without the need of Sanchez, but they have let United improve which could come back to haunt them in a cup competition this year, or next year…

 

Chelsea

There were rumours that Chelsea were interested in Sanchez (Who wouldn’t be?), especially as the blues are on the lookout for a striker. These were quashed by manager Conte, and they never materialised into a formal bid. However, considering that Morata is having a dry spell in which he seems to lack confidence, and back up striker Batshuayi is not trusted by Conte in the slightest, a move for Sanchez would have made sense; taking him off a local rival instead of letting him go to close competitors United, and for a bargain price, would have been ideal. Instead, Chelsea are considering signing Peter Crouch from Stoke. Even though I am (genuinely) one of Crouch’s biggest admirers, signing a player who often doesn’t even start for a relegation threatened team seems baffling, considering Chelsea may have been able to get Sanchez. I would be delighted for Crouch to prove me wrong…

Verdict: Losers. They let Sanchez go from one rival to another for a reduced price, despite clearly being in the market for a forward. The alternative options are of nowhere near the same quality.

crouch
It seems that Chelsea won;t have the last laugh in this situation

Mkhitaryan

The focus of the whole saga has been on Sanchez, and many have forgotten that there are huge implications for Mkhitaryan too. He never really cemented himself into the United XI, but if he can reproduce the form he produced at the beginning of this season then he can be a force to be reckoned with at Arsenal.

Verdict: Winner. Although moving to Arsenal from United can be seen as a downgrade, the Gunners are still a big club with some top quality players such as Ozil and Lacazette (if he can re-discover prolific form).

mkhi
He’ll hope to perform more consistently with a regular spot in the Arsenal XI 

Sanchez

Alexis finally has got his wish, leaving the Emirates for good. But was United really his preferred destination?  Yes, he’s guaranteed to start every game of importance with the Red Devils, but at City the chance for silverware is much greater, and I’m sure that he fancies his chances of getting into the City Xi ahead of Sterling and Sane. Many will talk about the huge salary that Sanchez will gladly receive, but for a world-class footballer trophies are much harder to come by than money.

Verdict: Mixed. Finally got a move away but surely would have preferred to be in the Blue side of Manchester rather than Red.

 

Charlie Widdicombe

Momentum and mindset: why United’s lightning start has faltered

Heading into the international break at the beginning of October, United looked unrecognisable from the side that scored fewer goals than Bournemouth in 2016-2017. New signings Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have structured United’s shape, allowing players like Henrik Mhikitaryan and Anthony Martial the space to break out of the defensive dungeon Mourinho had forced upon them the year before.

Nine wins out of ten in all competitions, with 32 goals in return for 4 setting up 7 clean sheets. Not a bad start.

However, with one stale victory out of 3 and a first defeat to Huddersfield Town for 65 years on Saturday as the Sky Blues march on under the heavenly hand of Pep Guardiola, questions must be asked. It is this blatant comparison of tactical rivalry alongside the tedious Mourinho traits that inform a damning critique of a money-drenched, under-achieving, yet promising band of Red Devils.

False sense of security

By early September, Manchester United were grabbing headlines. Free-flowing, attacking football on the break blew the dust off a creaking Old Trafford ground, reaping 22 goals in 7 matches, four 4-goal hauls, and a spot at the top of the scoring charts for Lukaku. Undoubtedly, Mourinho’s second-season syndrome was kicking in. However, doubts could surface when you acknowledge the fact that of the 4 PL teams they played in September, three are currently placed 17th or lower, with a combined goal difference of -38.

On the other side of Manchester, Champions League rivals Liverpool were hit for 5, and last season’s champions were humbled a goal to nil in their own backyard. Out of context the difference was negligible at the break for World Cup qualifiers – after all, the top of the Premier League was separated by a single goal – but the flair and fortune of the Manchester giants has been markedly differing since then, beginning at Anfield on October 14th.

Mourinho won’t budge

In October 2016, United scraped 3 points away from Anfield with an attack centred around the elbows of Marouane Fellaini. Nevertheless, in Mourinho’s first season this would prove to be a precious win, accompanied by a record 15 draws and fewer goals than mid-table miracles Bournemouth.

Fast-forward a year, and United were running riot, full of confidence with goals overtaking draws as Mourinho’s preferred commodity. A new start, a new squad, and a chance to rub the nose of a bitter, struggling rival in the dust and dirt. Throughout an international break void of any resemblance of attacking football, English Premier League stars were made to look amateur in a broken setup. The mouth-watering prospect of one of the biggest matches of the year after England were done boring Lithuanian fans in the name of football, was exhilarating for both sets of fans.

Unfortunately for them, the team sheets brought haunting memories of 0-0 draws and a brain-numbing lack of attack. Setting up with 5 at the back is never a good sign for the purists.

Mourinho, whether you admire his style or not, loves a scrap against the big teams, aiming to break the waves of attack teams like Liverpool and City conjure up rather than breaking the opposition’s defence with his own team’s creativity.

However, the efficiency of his style in big games is becoming increasingly outdated. Ten years ago, the battle at the top of the league centred around four teams. With Spurs and City cementing their place alongside the ‘Big Four’ in recent years, the ‘Big Four’ has become the top 6. Only last week Jamie Carragher pointed out an unsurprising statistic: since 2015, Mourinho has not won away from home in any of his top 6 encounters (D5 L5, Sky Sports).

For a mid-table side, digging your heels in against a top side or rival is expected and often necessary. However, when you are one of the biggest clubs in the world hitting a sharp run of form whilst fighting on all fronts in a hotly contested title and Champions League race, crawling back into your corner to fight for your life doesn’t seem sustainable, with the battle at the top now shared across 30 points, rather than 18. Whilst it is understandable against a bitter rival away from home, I would focus on the immediate effect it has had on the team.

All teams can have dips in form, but often football pundits and faithful fans are scared to pinpoint triggers or weaknesses that have caused a drop, simply because managers are put (or in Mourinho’s case put there themselves) on a pedestal above the watching crowds.

Liverpool (A) 0-0 D

Benfica (A) 1-0 W

Huddersfield Town (A) 2-1 L                                    

(Hardly the stuff of champions.)

Had Benfica been a blip and another 4-0 thrashing against a bottom half side restored order, perhaps I would not be writing this. But it is the manner, style and direction of the team’s play that I would focus on…

Note: Some United fans may want to turn away now, as I dive into comparisons with the Sky Blue half of Manchester. Deemed to be the two-legged title race at the beginning of the season, City are the only club to rival the money spent, the man in charge and fan’s expectations of United. And before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the injury to Paul Pogba as a minor factor. An injury to Kevin de Bruyne would also leave a hole in Guardiola’s plans. However, Jose, you spent £200+ million, so I don’t accept injury complaints.

Philosophy

The philosophies of Mourinho and Guardiola have always been contrasting, and never more so than on October 14th. The day Mourinho drew 0-0 against the team City hit for 5, whilst Guardiola’s side put seven past Stoke’s traditionally stubborn back line.

Both coaches had a year to implement their ideas and train their teams. Both had huge sums of money to invest in the players they needed. Last season they both faltered as Chelsea’s unrivalled consistency led them to the title. Even when City seemed to lose their way, with the 4-0 hammering away to Everton sticking in my memory, Mourinho’s cautious approach could never capitalise on dropped points, and they ended the season with one loss fewer than their rivals, but more importantly 26 goals, 9 points and three places lower.

Despite having the best goalkeeper in the world and one of the top defences in the league, Mourinho still insisted on playing through Fellaini and restricting the game time of several magical forward players. A brief vindication in Europa League success only emphasises the false sense of security around Old Trafford.

Since Ferguson left, the managers have all had an overbearing defensive approach, and as United dug their heels in at Anfield, you could feel the weight descending on the shoulders of the players.

Man Management

A significant contrast between Pep and Mourinho is the way in which they set out to achieve control in a match. Both record high levels of possession, but the focus remains on attacking or defending, respectively. This is clear in the way Pep frequently defended a rocky CB partnership of Stones and Otamendi by instead slating the attack that ended with the third-highest goal tally at the end of the season.

On the other side, Mourinho cut Henrik Mhikitaryan and Anthony Martial from the team, consigned Juan Mata to the bench, and often played five at the back, stifling any attacking confidence. I am sure Pep would play them from the off, rotating them with more experienced players. His attacking mentality and confidence that his team would score, would allow for inexperienced and the defensive risks of playing young players.

The beginning of the 2017/2018 season showed how dangerous Mhikitaryan, Martial and Rashford could be around Romelu Lukaku, and yet the same old story returned against Anfield, continuing into the lacklustre performance against Benfica, and an embarrassing performance against a sensational Huddersfield Town pressing game, which Jose at least had enough humility to acknowledge post-match.

The way Mourinho prioritises defensive, destructive players has been shown up crystal clear alongside Pep’s ferris wheel of sublime attacking flair. Mourinho’s trust in defensive players is itself destructive, and cracks are beginning to show.

Player Performance

Phil Neville’s MOTD analysis highlighted a particular passage of play against Huddersfield Town summing up United’s performance, in which 7 or 8 players attempting to bring the ball under control, with Antonio Valencia, one of United’s most consistent, calm customers over the years, committing a foul.

The energy and commitment of Huddersfield’s players from the off was an incredible turnaround from an absent performance in their 2-0 loss to Swansea. In spite of this, top class players like Matic, Herrera and Mata who were passing rings around teams before the international break should be able to remain composed in that instance. Mourinho reacted badly to Ander Herrera’s comments, who concluded United lacked the passion to get the three points. Is it a coincidence they lack passion when they’ve had their momentum severed by negative tactics?

Formation falling flat

I have already mentioned Mourinho’s five-man defence against Liverpool, and this was the first step towards stifling United’s attacking momentum. With an unnecessary extra CB on the field, United were unable to breach the pressing game of Liverpool’s midfield and attack, hardly ever making it through to put pressure on an unreliable defence.

Moving into midweek and Benfica came with similar intensity to put pressure on United’s return to a four-man defence, and it was only a freak goalkeeping accident that ensured Marcus Rashford’s quick thinking spared his team’s blushes against a side pegged back in fifth in the Portuguese league.

Come Saturday and Huddersfield Town looked like a chance to open the floodgates once more. They had not scored in 600 minutes prior to kick-off, their last win coming in the League Cup in August against Rotherham United.

But in a sense, the damage was done. The team lacked confidence, poise and passion, and were run off the park by a magnificent newly-promoted side, who now sit handsomely in eleventh.

Mourinho returned to the 4-2-3-1 that is fast becoming a tactical past-time in the upper echelons of the football elite. With the sometime exception of Tottenham Hotspur, teams playing four at the back are rarely sitting two midfielders in front of the defence. Henderson at Liverpool, Casemiro at Madrid, Allan at Napoli, Motta at PSG.

Whilst Herrera does not occupy as defensive a role as Matic, the rigidity of Mourinho’s setup seems unnecessarily cautious for a team with such a top class defence. The once derided City defence of Stones and Otamendi have only Fernandinho in front of them, and as a result City have six if not seven attacking players on the pitch at one time, when against Liverpool you could argue United had as little as three – Lukaku, Rashford and Mhikitaryan.

Defensive dungeon

The formation alone is not enough to cause such a falter in form, as Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1 was still used earlier in the season. However, with Herrera’s natural defensive tenacity compared to Paul Pogba’s hunger to join and create the attack, combined with Mourinho’s naturally defensive style, there is a mindset that has killed United’s momentum, causing the kind of hapless episodes Phil Neville analysed on Saturday night.

The sudden shift to a defensive approach against Liverpool will have rekindled the slow approach to attack United had last season, causing indirection and an unclear gameplan in the final third. Against Huddersfield Town, United had 78%, the same amount Manchester City had against Burnley on the same day, winning 3-0. Whilst it wasn’t their most dazzling display of the season, City remained fluid and in control.

A control that had direction to their play, much of it feeding through de Bruyne and Silva. There is a definitive route from defence to attack through their partnership, and an ability to rotate in the midfield to create space and attacking momentum.

In contrast, since the international break, United have looked lost at times, unsure whether Mhikitaryan is a winger or a no.10, whether Rashford is a winger or a striker, and whether Mata should play centrally or further wide, which incidentally leaves the 4-2-3-1 looking rather lop-sided and vulnerable.

Against Huddersfield, the Red Devils looked visibly shaken. Both goals came from nervous moments under pressure. Particularly for the first goal, when Juan Mata had come so deep to try and receive the ball and create, that he had slipped behind Nemanja Matic and thus succumbed to a rapid press from Aaron Mooy who subsequently finished the move off with a well-deserved goal.

There is no denying Juan Mata shouldn’t have lost the ball so easily and Victor Lindelof, another player Mourinho has shown no trust in, should have dealt with a simple goal-kick to prevent the second goal. However, these are the same players who scored 3 goals or more in five of their seven September fixtures, and it is the drastic tactical changes at Liverpool by Jose Mourinho that has slid United back to the stodgy style of attack as United racked up 15 draws last season to Manchester City’s 9 (and Arsenal’s 6!).

The first test

In recent times, the rigidity of formation has loosened extensively under the tutelage of managers like Guardiola, Klopp and Zidane, preferring to adopt a more holistic approach that extends back to the great Ajax and Barcelona sides of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.

Not since Mourinho battled and bruised through to the treble in 2010 has such a defensive side – even with the frightening attacking promise of Inter that season – won the Champions League. And I believe this will continue as long as the top European teams are coached in such a way.

Comparing three matches within the context of a long season to the overall direction of football tactics may seem exaggerated and reactionary. However, the drop in form is part of a much wider pattern, and I believe Mourinho’s tactics at Anfield resurfaced an unsustainable style of play in this era, not least because the noisy neighbours running riot at the Etihad are mounting pressure on the Portuguese manager, affirming an increasingly successful tactical trend in European football.

There has undoubtedly been great improvements to the performances of last season, but this blip offers Mourinho and Manchester United their first real test this season. Unless Mourinho breaks the shackles from a stunning attacking line-up, it is hard to see how United will rival a City team intent on a journey to footballing perfection – which of course couldn’t possibly exist.

 

Frank de Boer: Blink and you’ve missed him

 

5 games. 77 days.  450 minutes of football. 11% of a premier league season.

Whichever way you look at it, Frank de Boer’s tenure as Crystal Palace manager has been sickeningly short. There was plenty of optimism at Selhurst Park following his appointment in late June, but four defeats in four premier league games was enough for chairman Steve Parish to swing the axe, making Boer the first managerial casualty in the top flight this season. But is his sacking justifiable?

 

The Case to Sack de Boer

Speculation had been mounting around de Boer’s future ever since a third consecutive league loss at Swansea. A poor opening performance at unfancied Huddersfield, losing 3-0, immediately drew attention to de Boer’s philosophy of playing attractive football that won him 4 Eredivisie titles in a row with Ajax. A tight 1-0 loss to Liverpool followed, before defeat and Swansea and then Burnley. On paper, 0 points from 4 games is most certainly worrying for any football chairman. Considering the teams faced- a newly promoted side that have been widely tipped to go straight back down, the teams that finished 15th and 16th in last season’s premier league, and a team notorious for leaking goals in Liverpool- to score no goals and lose all four games is certainly unacceptable. Steve Parish may also have been thinking about the previous reign of Alan Pardew, whose expansive football sent Palace into freefall at the beginning of last season- Parish was extremely patient, waiting for Pardew to turn results around for several months, but to no avail. Maybe the risk of a repeat with de Boer was simply too much to cope with.

de boer.jpg
Frank de Boer has lasted just 162 days in his last 2 managerial jobs

The Case against Sacking de Boer

As a chairman, if you hire a manager with the idea of completely changing the style of football your team plays, you simply cannot expect results and performances to be immediately as desired. This is even more obvious when arguably the team’s best player, Wilfried Zaha, is out with injury from the opening match of the season. De Boer clearly lacked support in the transfer market, with Palace only signing two players on permanent deals-Riedewald for £8m, and Sakho on deadline day. To change the style of play from Sam Allardyce’s robust, “ugly” style would surely need more signings than that, and particularly attacking players- of which the loan of Ruben Loftus-Cheek was the only one.  It also appears that Parish has decided against continuing with an expansive style, as Roy Hodgson is set to be de Boer’s replacement. This is bizarre considering that Palace took their time to appoint de Boer, unveiling him a month after Allardyce announced he was leaving the club. Many have also forgotten Allardyce’s first few games as manager- he picked a solitary point in their first 5 games, only scoring 2 goals and conceding 9 in the process, against Arsenal, Everton, Watford, Swansea and West Ham. The latter 3 teams certainly didn’t set the premier league alight last season, all finishing in the bottom half of the table, and a fairly similar set of teams to Palaces opening few fixtures of this season. On this basis, it appears incredibly unfair that de Boer wasn’t given more time.

roy hodgson.jpg
Roy will be hoping to do a better job than he did for England

When Palace’s first 4 games are looked at beyond results, many elements of the performance make de Boer’s sacking seem even more strange. Admittedly, Palace were all at sea against Huddersfield, but against Liverpool they were extremely well organised and were unlucky not to keep a clean sheet against one of the, if not the best, attacking teams in the league. This also showed that de Boer was willing to curtail his expansive philosophy in order to try and get results. Benteke had two chances he could and should have buried in the game too- it could have so easily been a Palace win at Anfield. At Swansea, James Tomkins was forced off injured; with Damien Delaney unavailable and Sakho yet to be signed, Martin Kelly was brought on at centre-back and made two crucial errors that led to both Swansea goals.  Finally, at Burnley, a moment of madness from Lee Chung-yong led to the Burnley goal that won them the game, and in turn decided de Boers’s future. Benteke was again at fault for not burying a golden chance, whilst Scott Dann had two headers cleared off the line and missed an open goal. Ultimately, errors such as those by Kelly and Lee, and a failure to put chances away, from Benteke and Dann, cannot be blamed on de Boer. The actual performance was very good-even Sean Dyche admitted that Palace played much better than Burnley. But despite the encouraging signs of improvement, it wasn’t enough.

Crystal Palace certainly have a group of players good enough for the premier league, and their results somewhat belied an accurate showing of their performances. But de Boer has now gone, leaving many utterly and rightly bemused with Steve Parish. When a manager is sacked, the blame is often laid solely at their feet- but Parish and the rest of the Palace board should take even more responsibility for their decision making.

 

Charlie Widdicombe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arsenal and Sanchez: What Now?

alexis.jpg

The end of the summer transfer window can often leave many premier league teams with plenty of optimism, having splashed the cash. However, for Arsenal fans, it seems to be even worse than “same old Arsenal” under Arsene Wenger, with after a troubled start to the season with a stale 1-0 defeat and Stoke, and a truly abysmal performance losing 4-0 at Anfield. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain left for Liverpool, and Alexis Sanchez ended up staying at the club having almost signed for Manchester City. So, were Wenger and Arsenal right to keep Sanchez anyway, and what now for the Gunners?

What’s Gone Wrong??

Resigned to the fact that Arsene Wenger had signed a new contract and would be in charge of the gunners for 2017/18, Arsenal fans still had reason to be optimistic following the signing of Alexander Lacazette, finally bringing in a prolific goalscorer that many feel Olivier Giroud is not. However, Lacazette wasn’t even selected in the XI to play Liverpool. Many will also question why Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started the first 3 league games despite being unsettled, following bids from both Chelsea and Liverpool. Their only other summer signing, Sead Kolasinac, was also left out despite being a more natural wing back than Chamberlain, and showing some promising performances in the Community Shield and against Leicester. Wenger’s decision to play 3 at the back has exposed the weaknesses of Arsenal’s central defenders to play alongside Koscielny; Shkodran Mustafi has failed to settle at the club and a move to Inter Milan only fell through due to wage demands, Per Mertesacker is extremely injury prone and not getting any younger, Nacho Monreal is not a natural centre back, whilst Rob Holding and Calum Chambers are yet to fully convince at the top level of English football.

Despite all this, the biggest question marks remain over the futures of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Ozil continues to receive criticism despite an impressive number of goals, assists and chances created, and has been voted player of the season for Germany in 5 of the past 6 years. Neither Ozil nor Sanchez appeared to have shown much desire to sign new contracts, with their current deals expiring at the end of the season. It is difficult to work out Ozil’s aspirations, but it seems that Sanchez is intent on leaving. The deal that was struck with Manchester City fell through after Wenger’s replacement in waiting, Thomas Lemar, rejected a deal to bring him to the Emirates.

 

With Sanchez extremely unlikely to sign a new contract, what Arsenal have done in effect is lost in the region of £60 million to keep a player for one season. Many might say that if Sanchez propels Arsenal back into the top 4 then it would be worth it, but with the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool looking strong, and Tottenham sure to settle at Wembley, it doesn’t appear a likely prospect. Such money could have been used to buy a new centre-back, and a replacement for Sanchez. Riyad Mahrez was most certainly available on deadline day, and would have provided goals and assists from the wing, although not as many as Sanchez- but then Lacazette was signed with the intention of taking away the reliance on Alexis. Or why didn’t Arsenal cash in on Sanchez and save the money to use in January where necessary, rather than selling Oxlade-Chamberlain? The departure of Sanchez may well have been enough to entice the Ox into staying, with the guarantee of more game time-last season Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lucas Perez, Sanchez, Welbeck and Walcott all played out wide, with the latter 3 also deployed as a striker during some games. Except for Sanchez, none of these players started more than 23 games, and none enjoyed particularly exceptional seasons.

 

Arsenal Wide Attackers- 2016/17 Premier League Starts

Alexis Sanchez- 36

Theo Walcott- 23

Alex Iwobi- 18

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain- 16

Danny Welbeck-8

Lucas Perez-2

Perhaps if Wenger decided on preferred positions for Welbeck and Sanchez (Lucas Perez left on deadline day), and gave an offensive group of players a regular run in the side, injury permitting, he might begin to reap the rewards. It’s worth noting that Arsenal spent most of last season playing 4-2-3-1 and have now switched to a variation of 3-4-3, so if Wenger sticks with this and the front three consists of Ozil, Lacazette and a returning Sanchez, this won’t be as much of an issue. Nevertheless, a lack of regular starting wide players most certainly did not help Arsenal last season.

welbeck walcott.jpg
Welbeck and Walcott could benefit from a settled position and an injury-free run in the side

If and when Sanchez returns to the Arsenal fold, Wenger must use him- having resigned Arsenal to losing him next summer there’s no point letting £60 million worth of talent rot in the stands.

Then again, maybe Sanchez isn’t the biggest issue- perhaps Wenger should have left in June, with a FA Cup in hand and a reputation just about intact.

Charlie Widdicombe