Sep 302012

Aston Villa v West Brom 16:00

Aston Villa slumped to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Southampton last time out, after conceding four goals in the second half. Despite going in ahead thanks to Darren Bent, Paul Lambert’s men were unable to prevent a deluge of goals from the Saints after the break.

Karim El Ahmadhi has attempted more tackles than any other player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index with 33, although he has won only 13 of those.

Matthew Lowton on the other hand has been turning in some very impressive performances. He’s won 80% of his 20 challenges this season.

El Ahmadhi may do better to stay on his feet and read the game rather than dive in, as he has contributed more interceptions than any other midfielder in the league with 21.

West Brom continued their superb start to the season with a 1- 0 victory over Reading at The Hawthorns. Romelu Lukaku, making his full debut in the Premier League for the Baggies, looked dangerous throughout, seeing two efforts denied before 71st minute shot finally breaching the Reading defence.

Youssuf Mulumbu covered more ground against Reading than any West Brom player has in a game this season with 6.52 miles, contributing to the season best for West Brom as a team with 62.1 miles.

Jonas Olsson has been dominating in the box at both ends of the pitch. He has had seven attempts at goal, more than any other defender in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, and 17 defensive clearances, another high in the index.

Olsson has also contributed more interceptions than any other player with 45, ahead of team mate Gareth McAuley who is in third with 42.

Sep 292012

Man Utd v Tottenham 17:30

– Goals from Rafael and Robin van Persie proved enough to help Man Utd topple fierce rivals Liverpool in an emotional encounter at Anfield. They will have felt lucky to escape with a win though in a game where their opponents dominated for large stretches of the game.

Van Persie’s goal put him where many people will expect him to be at the end of the season – as the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top goal scorer with five goals in five games.

– There is a somewhat surprising stat for prolific Dutchman when it comes to shots on target though. The EA SPORTS Player Performance Index shows that he has only been on target with 50% of his 12 shots on goal this season.

Michael Carrick’s 6.53 miles is the best individual distance covered by a United player so far this season, and the 62.05 miles covered as a team is also a season high for United.

Tottenham gave Andre Villas Boas his first home win of the season as they beat QPR 2-1 at White Hart Lane. Along with a QPR own-goal, red-hot Jermaine Defoe grabbed yet another goal as he was in the right place to tuck away the rebounded shot of the highly influential Gareth Bale.

Defoe is the Premier League’s most prolific shooter with 28 shots at goal already this season, with 16 on target, both of which are the highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Gareth Bale continues to rediscover his form and confidence. His 11 shots on target makes him the highest ranked midfielder in that category on the EA Sports Player Performance Index.

Sep 292012

Sunderland v Wigan 15:00

Steven Fletcher was again the difference for Sunderland as they drew 1-1 away to West Ham. Martin O’Neill will undoubtedly be concerned as his side’s poor away form in the league stretched on for yet another week.

– Sunderland defender Titus Bramble has divided opinion throughout his Premier League career, but he was in dominant form against West Ham making 21 interceptions, the most by a single player in a match so far this season.

Steven Fletcher will likely need more support from his team mates in providing more threats on goal as the season progresses. According to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, his 4 shots on target is double that of his nearest team mate in the Sunderland squad.

Sebastian Larsson needs to refine some of his defending this week. He’s conceded 7 fouls so far this season and has lost out on 45% of his 11 tackles.

Wigan were foiled partly by returning striker Hugo Rodallega as they dropped to 15th in the table after a 1-2 defeat to Fulham. Despite the efforts of the likes of Jordi Gomez amongst others, Arouna Kone’s last gasp goal was not enough for the Lactics to take anything away from the game.

Jean Beasejour delivered 12 crosses in the game against Fulham in an attempt to turn around the game, that’s the joint highest from a player in one game this season.

Craig Gardner has been throwing himself into his defensive work this season. The Wigan man is the highest ranked midfielder on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for blocks with 4.

Ivan Ramis has had an incredible start to the season defensively speaking. He is the highest ranked defender on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for tackles won with 17, and is second overall for interceptions with 43.

– In fact Wigan’s reading of the game at the back has been superb this season. They have three of the top five players on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for interceptions, Ramis, Gary Caldwell and Maynor Figueroa, who have racked up 120 between them.

Sep 292012

Stoke v Swansea 15:00

Stoke lost 1-0 to Chelsea last weekend on an afternoon where Tony Pulis’ side had largely provided a typically bullish resistance to Chelsea’s attempts on their goal. The Potters even looked as though they might pull off the upset as Jonathan Walters came close just before half-time but was unable to convert.

Walters was one of the top performers in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for distance covered last season, and he put in the best distance of a Stoke player so far this season with 6.82 miles against Chelsea, while the 65.06 they covered as a squad is also a season high. Walters has also contributed 13 interceptions, more than any other striker in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Peter Crouch may be returning to form in front of goal but his defence could still use some improvement. He is the highest ranked striker on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for tackles lost with 20 and has the unwelcome distinction of being the player with the largest gap between tackles won and tackles lost. He’s lost out on 95% of his 21 tackles.

– Goals are likely on the way for midfielder Michael Kightly. He’s had more shots on target than any other Stoke player this season with 8.

Swansea’s great home record this season was tarnished as they fell to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of an in-form Everton. It was an afternoon to forget for Michael Laudrup’s side as they lost Nathan Dyer to a red card and saw Angel Rangel miss with the goal at his mercy.

– Despite that miss, Rangel has kept up his work rate from last season and has covered 31.5 miles so far, enough for fourth place in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Michel Vorm has been the second busiest goalkeeper in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index so far this season, making 28 saves, second only behind Mark Schwarzer. Eleven of Vorm’s saves came in the last game against Everton, the joint highest in a single game this season.

– Defender Ashley Williams has also been busy, making ten blocks so far this season, the most of any player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Williams is also the highest ranked defender on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for passes received with 263.

Michu could do with improving the consistency of his tackling this week. He’s ranked fourth on the EA Sports Player Performance Index having lost out on 17 challenges so far this season.

Sep 282012

Reading v Newcastle 15:00

Reading continued to struggle to find their form in the league against West Brom as they fell to a 1-0 defeat at the Hawthorns. Despite it being a relatively closely contested encounter, with Gareth McCleary and Jobi McAnuff in particular impressing, the Royals could not force their way through a very well organised West Brom defence.

Jobi McAnuff delivered five dribbles in that game, a figure beaten only by Yao Gervinho and Santi Carzola for dribbles in a game so far this season.

Kaspars Gorkss has been at the heart of some of Reading’s best defensive work this season. He’s won more tackles than any other Royal’s player with 8 on the EA Sports Player Performance Index.

– A first half goal from Demba Ba proved enough to earn Newcastle a deserved 1-0 win over Norwich. The Magpies should have won by a much greater margin but they were unable to convert their chances, with Hatem Ben Arfa at the centre of most of them.

– Newcastle built their excellent start to last season on a great work rate, and are showing signs of returning to that form. They are now up to second in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for distance covered as a team with 306.66 miles covered.

– In fact, the 66.4 miles covered by Newcastle in their last game is second only to their opponent’s in the same game, Norwich, who covered 64.4 miles, as a team performance this season.

Yohan Cabaye also covered more ground than any other Newcastle player has in an individual match this season with 6.83 miles.

Demba Ba is clearly focused on forcing his way into Alan Pardew’s plans on a more regular basis. He’s been in great form in recent weeks and now sits 3rd on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for goals with 4.

Sep 282012

Norwich v Liverpool 15:00

Norwich fell to a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle last time out in a match where they wasted too many of the chances they carved out for themselves. Chris Hughton’s return to Newcastle was clearly not the one he would have hoped for and he will be looking for greater sharpness in front of goal this weekend against Liverpool.

Wesley Hoolahan covered more ground than any other player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index last weekend, putting in a shift of 7.05 miles against Newcastle. He was one of four players to put in a performance worthy of the top ten for distance covered in a game so far this season.

Hoolahan’s team mates also put in a massive performance in that game, and the 66.64 miles covered by Norwich against Newcastle is the biggest distance covered by a team in a single game so far this season.

– That’s put Norwich up to fourth in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for overall distance covered as a squad with 304.1 miles on the clock.

– Summer signing Robert Snodgrass is keeping pace with some of the league’s most dangerous wide players this season, having put in 19 crosses so far, behind only Leighton Baines and Steven Gerrard. The former Leeds man must be cursing his luck, however, as he is yet to register an assist.

– On an emotional weekend for Liverpool, as they remembered the victims of the Hillsborough disaster before kick-off, the Reds fell to a 1-2 defeat at the hands of their historic rivals Manchester Utd. Despite Steven Gerrard’s goal, Liverpool supporters will likely feel hard done by after losing Jonjo Shelvey to a red card and seeing Robin van Persie score the winner from a controversial penalty.

– Despite the result, there are signs that Liverpool are forming a good team and results should come soon. Joe Allen has worked hard to earn the Kop’s respect and is third in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for distance covered with 31.9 miles.

Steven Gerrard is also looking to be back to his imperious best, and is second only to Merseyside rival Leighton Baines for crosses delivered this season with 23 compared to Baines’ 29.

Gerrard continues to be the focal point of his team’s efforts moving forward. He’s completed 169 passes this season according to the EA Sports Player Performance Index, the highest in the Liverpool squad.

– While his confidence should be applauded, Luis Suarez really needs to tighten up some of his work in front of goal. Worryingly for Brendan Rogers, 52% of his 27 shots on goal have been off target this season.

Sep 282012

Fulham v Man City 15:00

Fulham earned a well deserved win against Wigan last time out, with Hugo Rodallega’s header against his former club proving to be the difference between the two sides. Along with Damien Duff, who scored the decisive second goal, Dimitar Berbatov again showcased why Martin Jol was so keen to bring him to Craven Cottage.

Mark Schwarzer has been the busiest goalkeeper in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index so far this season, making 32 saves. Eleven of those came against Wigan in the last game, a joint high for goalkeepers this season.

Mahamadou Diarra has excelled since arriving at Craven Cottage and his team mates clearly agree. He sits fifth on the EA Sports Player Performance Index for ball receptions with 259.

Bryan Ruiz is clearly keen to show Martin Jol he should be in his thinking despite the arrival of Dimitar Berbatov and Hugo Rodallega. He is the second highest ranked striker in terms of assists according to the EA Sport Player Performance Index with 2.

– Joleon Lescott’s first half header was unfortunately not enough to give Manchester City all three points against Arsenal last weekend as the Gunners battled back to claim a 1-1 draw. A clearly frustrated Roberto Mancini still has plenty of problems to solve if his side are to make a real attempt at defending their title.

– One bright point is the arrival of Spanish midfielder Javi Garcia Fernandez, who put in a performance covering 7.01 miles against Arsenal, enough to enter the top ten for individual distances covered so far this season and to be the most distance covered by a City player so far this season.

– As a team performance, the 64.28 miles covered by City was also the most they’ve covered in a single game this season.

– Nullifying the ever-present threat of Yaya Toure continues to by crucial to any team’s chances of success against the reigning champions. The giant midfielder has racked up an incredible 241 successful passes so far this season.

Sep 282012

Everton v Southampton 15:00

– Everton produced a magnificent performance to end Swansea’s unbeaten home record this season. Goals from Victor Anichebe, Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini formed part of a dominant 3-0 display from the Toffees who moved to second in the league.

Anichebe had nine shots at goal in the game against Swansea, the most of any player in the last round of games and the second highest for a game in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

Fellaini has added a deadly attacking game to his performances this season, he has three goals in the Premier League so far and has had more shots on goal than any other midfielder in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index with 1.

– However he continues to let himself down in his defensive duties. Fellaini has lost out on 79% of his 29 tackle this campaign and has given away 17 fouls, more than any other player on the EA Sports Player Performance Index.

Leighton Baines has had a great start to the season, and has contributed more crosses than any other player this season with 29, ahead of Merseyside rival Steven Gerrard with 23. 12 of those crosses from Baines came in the last game against Swansea.

Southampton secured their first league win of the season with a 4-1 victory over Aston Villa. With Gaston Ramirez very impressive on his home debut, two goals from Rickie Lambert, along with one from Nathaniel Clyne and a Villa own goal, completed a excellent win for Nigel Adkin’s side.

– Southampton continue to build their performances on an exceptional work rate. They remain top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for distance covered as a squad with 317.26 miles. They have a nine mile lead on the second placed team Newcastle.

Morgan Schneiderlin remains top of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index with 34.56 miles covered so far this season, while team mate Adam Lallana is 6th with 30.83 miles.

Lallana does have the questionable honour of being the player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index to have had most shots on goal without scoring (12, with 7 on target).

Schneiderlin also holds the unwelcome distinction of having conceded more fouls than any other Southampton player this season with 10.

Sep 282012

Arsenal v Chelsea 12:45

– Arsenal played out a thrilling draw with Manchester City last weekend as a late equaliser from Laurent Koscielny earned a point for the Gunners. It was an impressive all-round performance from Arsenal, with Aaron Ramsey and Santi Carzola in particular turning in excellent games.

Carzola is closing on Yaya Toure in the race for the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top passer, and is now just four behind the Ivory Coast midfielder with 237 passes in his opponent’s half compared to Toure’s 241.

Aaron Ramsey went toe to toe with Man City midfielder Javi Garcia Hernandez in the game, and they were two of four players to put in performances that entered the top ten for distance covered in a single game so far this season. Ramsey covered 7.01 miles, enough for 7th place.

Ramsey’s 7.01 miles is also the most covered by an Arsenal player so far this season, and their team total of 63.56 miles is also a season high.

– Mikel Arteta was one of the top performers in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index for distance covered last season, and is fifth after five games this time around with 31.32 miles on the clock so far.

Carl Jenkinson has also had an excellent start to the season, and has completed more passes in his opponent’s half than any other defender with 126 so far this season.

Chelsea stole a win against Stoke at Stamford Bridge, with Ashley Cole poaching a late goal for the current league leaders. Chelsea struggled to breach Stoke’s seemingly impenetrable defence for almost the entire match, despite the best efforts of new signing Oscar who impressed again after his stellar performance in midweek against Juventus.

– Goal scorer Cole also covered the most ground of any Chelsea player in that game with 6.45 miles – a season high for a Chelsea player so far.

Fernando Torres has been moving back to something like his best form in recent weeks but could still do with improving on his defensive consistency. He’s conceded 10 fouls this season, more than any other Chelsea player according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index.

– Despite only playing 165 minutes in the league so far this season, Oscar is already joint second in the Chelsea squad for shots on target with 5.

Juan Mata has been quietly going about his business in midfield this season while new signing Eden Hazard has taken many of the headlines. Mata completed 55 passes in Stoke’s half last season as Chelsea plugged away at the Stoke defence, the highest of any player in the last round of games.

Sep 272012

John Terry was today found guilty of “using abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Ferdinand and which included a reference to colour and/or race contrary to FA Rule E3[2]” and banned for four games as well as handed a £220,000 fine.

The outcome of this case had been easily predicted since the Chief Magistrate’s summing up during the summer’s court case when Terry was found not guilty. It was deemed that Terry’s version of events were “unlikely” as the insult, ‘black cunt’, was “sandwiched between other undoubted insults”.

In the summing up for the prosecution, they reminded the chief magistrate that in his first interview with the FA, Terry claimed he said “you black cunt, you fucking knob head.” This story later changed to him repeating what Ferdinand said as a question (or sarcastically) as “a black cunt? You fucking knob head.”

Terry retired from International football this week, claiming the FA had made his position “untenable”. It was a strange accusation, considering the FA allowed him to go to Euro 2012 with a criminal case hanging over him, and the fact that Terry still opted to play for England after the charge. It appeared as though his decision followed the realisation that he was going to be found guilty.

It was an Independent Regulatory Commission that found Terry guilty though and he will miss Chelsea’s next four games against Arsenal, Norwich, Tottenham and Manchester United. If he appeals the decision, he would be available for some of these although would run the risk of extending his ban.

However, the decision to ban Terry for four games has left people wondering what was different with this case to that of Luis Suarez, who was banned for eight games on the same charge.

Suarez was deemed to have called Evra a “negro” several times, in comparison to Terry, who just said “black cunt” once. The FA explained Suarez’s longer ban at the time. “Given the number of times that Mr Suarez used the word ‘negro’, his conduct is significantly more serious than a one-off use of a racially offensive term and amounts to an aggravating factor.”

Suarez was only fined £40,000 though, in comparison to Terry’s £220,000.

Sep 272012

Nico Yennaris joined Arsenal when he was just 7-years-old, having been born just five miles from Highbury. He was a mascot for the club in their Premier League fixture against Coventry that year. Sylvain Wiltord and Paolo Vernazza scored their first goals for the club in a 2-1 win.

Twelve years later, now aged 19, Yennaris made his sixth appearance for the first team in Arsenal’s 6-1 thrashing over Coventry yesterday in the League Cup.

Sep 272012

English journalists, particularly the tabloid ones, already have a well-rehearsed guide on what to say about Andre Villas-Boas. That he’s arrogant. That his only achievements were ‘lucky’ in a league Porto always win. That behind the tactics talk and gruff voice he’s actually clueless. That he’s a terrible man-manager. That he’s too young and inexperienced. And that he’ll be a failure at Tottenham like he was at Chelsea.

If these journalists were to actually do their jobs properly and not still be under the powerful spell of clichés cast by footballing Voldemort Harry Redknapp, they’d have noticed differences between Chelsea AVB and Tottenham AVB. Where the young Portuguese coach has learned lessons and done things differently.

The biggest difference is the way he has dealt with the press. Despite getting some ridiculous treatment from the press pack, whether it was the ‘AVB has three games to save his job’ story doing the rounds after only three league matches in charge or the furore over Villas-Boas’s supposedly bad man-management not putting Hugo Lloris straight in the side ahead of a man who’s started over 300 consecutive Premier League games, he has by all accounts been more accommodating with the press than he was at Chelsea.

In some press conferences this season, he has actually overrun in terms of time, just to make sure he answered every question asked of him. Managers’ talking more to the press than is required of them is very rare indeed. He’s talked at length and with passion about his footballing philosophy, about how and where he will improve Tottenham and coax them into achieving even better results. The fact that an hour of talking about his views on football will result on a few lines in the next day’s paper about how he’s ‘under pressure’ hasn’t deterred him from being more press friendly yet.

Compared to his predecessor, Villas-Boas talks far more about tactics and strategy. After the frustrating 0-0 draw with Lazio he talked of how he told Clint Dempsey and Jermain Defoe to pressurise Lazio holding midfielder Christian Ledesma, to force them to build attacks through their goalkeeper and not through their midfield. Redknapp would talk in soundbites, saying we ‘played fantastic’, ‘we were terrific’, ‘we didn’t kill the game off’, ‘my lack of squad rotation was largely at fault for blowing a 10 point lead over Arsenal with 13 games left’. Well, maybe not the last quote.

This makes a difference from his Chelsea days, when Villas-Boas at one point said there was an anti-Chelsea crusade in the press and seemed to be about as helpful to the press as Tory Chief Whips are to the policemen outside No 10 Downing Street. He’s, if not on a charm offensive, then certainly treating the press like friends rather than enemies, even if so far he hasn’t got much in return in the way of praise.

On the pitch though, Villas-Boas has obviously learnt from his Chelsea days. For all the talk of how he’s making radical changes at Tottenham, the change in tactics and the way Spurs play hasn’t been as extreme as most people would think. The high defensive line that he utilised at Porto and his early days at Chelsea hasn’t been seen yet in a proper fixture.

At Chelsea, he implemented this high line from day one, despite it being a bad fit for his personnel. John Terry was about as suitable for a high defensive line as Aaron Lennon is for the Olympic Shot Put and basically undroppable because he’s England’s (No Longer) Brave John Terry, yet Villas-Boas used it anyway. The 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal, which managed to pull off the oracle of making Theo Walcott look like a world class winger, showed the shortcomings of a high defensive line with slow defenders.

At Tottenham, despite having quicker defenders, the defensive high line is yet to be used in a competitive match. Pre-season saw a few goals conceded through the high line being prone to opposition attacks getting in behind the defence. Villas-Boas, perhaps learning from his Chelsea days, simply hasn’t implemented this defensive high line in the serious games. Almost certainly for the better.

He’s also taken steps to be a better man-manager compared to Chelsea, where even placid types such as Frank Lampard engaged in histrionics and made clear their displeasure at Villas-Boas. There were reports of players being dropped and not having it explained to them why they were sitting on the bench rather than playing on the pitch. You got the impression he couldn’t have alienated the players more if he was an actual alien.
Well at Spurs he’s been far less prone to chopping and changing the team, and has also taken care to keep older members of the squad like Jermain Defoe and William Gallas in the first team. Someone like Defoe, who has shown in previous seasons his willingness to express his displeasure at not being a first team regular, has got an extended run in the side despite the arrival of Emmanuel Adebayor.

It must have been tempting for Villas-Boas to put Adebayor in the first team. Despite Defoe scoring four goals from the opening five games of the season, his tally of five total passes at home all match against QPR show that he’s still unsuited to playing up front on his own. Adebayor is the all-round better player and was excellent for Spurs last season.

But Villas-Boas, perhaps wary of upsetting a senior player, has given Defoe an extended run in the first team, managing to placate Adebayor by saying he wasn’t fit enough and needed to get acclimatised in training to the style of play. Adebayor’s recent hamstring injury will further give Defoe a first team berth.

With Gallas, an occasionally volatile character who at various points threatened to score own goals for Chelsea in a contract dispute and went into a fairly mad strop after Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Birmingham (the game where Eduardo saw what was his ankle turn into a mesh of bones vaguely stuck together) he has consistently picked him when Steven Caulker, a younger, quicker and extremely talented centre half is waiting in the wings. For the same reasons perhaps, Brad Friedel is continuing to start in goal ahead of Hugo Lloris.
Of course, this may be nonsense and it may be Villas-Boas not trying to get older players on his side but merely picking the team he thinks is best. But the fact senior players likely to carry more influence in the dressing room are either getting picked or in the case of Rafael Van der Vaart were amicably sold indicates that Villas-Boas intends to be more diplomatic at Spurs and a better man-manager. The fact he’s dealing with players who don’t have Petronas Tower sized egos also helps.

You’d expect over time, as the Spurs squad get further used to Villas-Boas that he will slowly phase out the veterans in favour of the younger players. The likes of Lloris and Caulker may well be regular starters very soon. They may have been the better players from the start. Villas-Boas may be losing some early battles to win the war, gaining the trust of the dressing room leaders by giving them more playing time, even if it means his best eleven players not playing. Whether this is the right way to go or not is debatable, but if true it shows he’s learnt from his time in West London.

Andre Villas-Boas has a tough job at Tottenham. His predecessor, for all of his faults did a t’riffic job and gave Spurs some of their best moments in decades. Villas-Boas will be expected by the press and some fans to match those achievements, if not eclipse them. And he has to do that with Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart having been sold, Ledley King retiring with the insides of his knee looking like Hiroshima after the bomb fell and a press who loved his predecessor but don’t love him.

But what he’s shown so far at Tottenham is that he’s learnt from some of his mistakes at Chelsea, and that he isn’t the arrogant, aloof tactics nerd with ‘borderline Asperger’s (Ian McGarry coming up with that insensitive and unnecessary remark). He’s realised the mistakes he’s made, is trying not to make them again, and if he fails at Tottenham it’s unlikely to be because he’s repeated the mistakes he made at Chelsea, on and off the pitch.

Sep 262012

Every club has its unsung heroes – players who are either unfairly criticised or simply under-appreciated. At bigger clubs where standards are permanently high, it’s very easy for a player to fall out of favour with impatient fans. Things are no different at Manchester United, particularly now that fans have an ever more vociferous online voice.

As Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans have slowly won over doubters, their previously held roles as ‘boo-boys’ need replacing. So far this season, the early signs are that Nani will take up that berth. On the surface, that seems every bit as harsh as doubting both Carrick and Evans’ value to the team. Strangely, when you think about it, Nani is a tricky footballer to analyse – the eye sees things that make him appear selfish, unintelligent and ultimately, for some people, dispensable.

Before going into any kind of details about Nani, it’s important to understand the role of a winger and the kind of freedom a wide player is allowed, particularly at United. The club play with natural width and have done regularly throughout their history. Traditionally, the central midfielders have been about function – winning the ball and shifting it accurately around the pitch – playing a percentages game to some extent. Wingers are often the players receiving the ball and can be expected to beat men and deliver crosses, helping to create goalscoring opportunities.

To really understand wingers, you have to think of their position allowing them to be ‘high risk’. To beat men, get crosses in and get in goalscoring positions requires skill and the ability to outwit opponents. When this works it looks brilliant, but when things go wrong – a failed flick, a misplaced pass, holding onto the ball too long – it’s one of the most frustrating things for fans and players. It’s almost verging on naive to think that ‘keeping it simple’ applies to wingers. Sure, some of the time they need to but even Antonio Valencia, the most predictable of wingers, often picks the harder route when faced with options.

Nani’s case is curious. Fast closing in on his 26th birthday and the list of Portugal’s top 10 most capped players ever – he should be reaching a point where he’s not only mature but consistent. For club and country he averages a goal every five games and has a similar looking ratio for assists. On the face of it, he’s a valuable player. Yet, fans are completely split over him and many are happy for him to leave.

In fact, it seems United themselves were willing to part with Nani too. All summer long there were rumours that they were entertaining bids for him – a theory that is only strengthened by the pursuit of Lucas Moura. Nani himself has been quite vocal about wanting to stay and was unable to agree a contract with Zenit St Petersburg because he made his wage demands purposely high to ensure they would pull out of the deal.

His start to this season has been uninspiring at best. With Valencia firmly first choice on the right hand side he’s more often than not been used on the left – it allows him to cut inside onto his right foot but also somewhat imbalances the shape of the team. What’s gone unnoticed is his improved defensive work with his tracking back markedly better than in past years. That’s hardly enough to appease fans who rightly are angry with his errors, really simple errors too. Inability to complete passes or play the obviously correct ball are basic skills that, at present, are not good enough. So much so that against Liverpool at the weekend, he was taken off at half time and is likely to have been a recipient of a Fergie-blast that he said he told Sky he handed out to the team.

Would I get rid of Nani though? At present, no, as it would be hard to justify unless the money was extortionate. One reason that Nani may have gotten lax is because of the lack of competition. Only Ashley Young is challenging him for the left wing berth and at present he’s injured. Fergie’s not against playing other players out of position there though – Welbeck and Giggs have been used wide left whilst Kagawa, Buttner and even van Persie could do a job if need be. The fact is though that the wide areas represent the one part of the pitch where United don’t have sufficient back-up or competition. Even in the U21s and U18s there is a serious lack of natural wingers – maybe part of the wider trend that’s seeing managers prefer narrow wingers.

Maybe most importantly with Nani is that he’s one of the few genuinely creative and unpredictable players in the side. For every frustrating moment he has, there’ll be an assist or spark that’ll lead to a chance. Players can’t just be judged on numbers and stats but Nani often comes out on top as the most productive winger in the league. Love him or hate him, losing a player who has played a key part in so many goals over the past few years would be hard to replace.

Despite what he thinks and hopes, he’ll never be one of the very top players in the world but that’s ok. He might disagree but he doesn’t have to be like Ronaldo, in fact he’s already shown himself to be much more of a team player than Ronaldo ever was. Nani’s been as valuable as any other player since January 2010 – he just needs to turn his current form around for people to see his worth again.

Nani’s value is best found when attempting to try and fathom out who could feasibly replace him and have a similar level of impact. Fans don’t have to like him but the nature of being a tricky winger means that many things he’ll try won’t come off. Every club has a scapegoat but Nani, despite an erratic start to 2012/13 is an odd choice for ours.

Sep 252012

Looking back 18 years, any Colombian will tell you that 1994 was supposed to be their year. With a crop of talent that featured the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Leonel Alvarez they were deemed one of the favourites. The story ends in tragedy as an own goal eventually would lead to a murder and Colombian football never really seemed to bounce back.

South American football have in the last 20 years been circled around Brazil and Argentina. There has been the occasional “challenge” from nations such as Chile and Uruguay, but no one have ever managed to topple the two heavyweights. Much of the secret behind their success has been their ability to manufacture top-tier talent to Europe and implementing a European style to their game. Another reason is that those two countries have both seen its share of financial upswings which has given them the edge in talent development. With Argentina now suffering, the pendulum swings in the direction of “the little teams”. With Chile having seen its fair share of success after the “Bielsanian revolution”, Uruguay followed suit by grabbing the Copa America-crown this past year. With both those nations seeing a change in generation, in terms of staff and squad, it has opened space for another one of South Americas former big boys. Cue the Colombians.

The state of the Colombia has always been one of controversy. The most controversial Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror where Colombia were notorious for their drug cartels and corruption. Escobar, perhaps the most famous drug lord to ever step foot on this planet, was estimated to have a fortune of $25million in 1989. However, his soft spot for football made it profitable for footballers to stay in the country. This led to a growth in the domestic football as well as more money to finance football pitches, training areas and general funding the national team. The downside was perhaps Escobar’s passion to his own team, Atletico Nacional. The story of how referee Alvaro Ortega was murdered for not having ruled in favour of Atletico against rivals Deportivo Cali paints the picture on the influence Escobar had on football. The end of both Escobar and the spurring growth of Colombian football came in 1994. Escobar was captured and liquidated and Colombia didn’t make it out of the group stages after the unlucky own goal by another man named Escobar. Andres made a mess of a USA cross and slid it into his own net. Upon returning home “The Gentleman of Football” featured in a Colombian newspaper writing “life does not end here” to the heartbroken Colombian public. He couldn’t be more wrong. He was shot and killed on July 2th 1994 in a parking lot in Medellin, his own hometown. The killer, Castro Muñoz, was said to have shouted “GOOOOL!!!” after every shot he planted in Andres Escobar’s body.

The other major problem has been the Colombian government’s never-ending battle with the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerilla organization FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo). Their initial objective was revolutionize Colombia in terms of land reform and to inject social equality to Colombia through violent means such as murder and kidnapping. Between 2002 and 2007 it was reported a total of 557 acts of terrorism in which thousands of Colombians, majority being civilians, lost their lives. As they were struggling financial it has become widespread knowledge that they too have involved themselves in the highly profitable Colombian drug business. However, as their profile has sunk and their support has dropped since they announced themselves to the world in 1964, the call for peace talks was finally echoed by leader Timeleon Jimenez. 50 years of struggling against drug cartels and guerilla groups is not over in the least, but the gradual turnaround in Colombian society can only fuel positivity.

This gives Colombia a new platform to build upon. In terms of the Colombia state, their reputation will only skyrocket with their national team finally starting to produce again. And the foundation to do so is present. They are led by national team coach José Pekerman. The man who by many is given the credit for building up Argentina’s youth teams in the 90’s and early 2000’s. In terms of knowledge and patience with a blossoming project, the Colombians couldn’t have picked anyone better than Pekerman. Alongside him stands the player many rate as the best pure striker in the world, and the first real Colombian superstar of this decade; Radamel Falcao. The pressure will be on him to raise the Colombians from the ashes. After winning the 2011 Toulon tournament, attention will also be given towards young superstar James Rodriguez. Popularly hailed as “the new Cristiano Ronaldo” James Rodriguez stands upon his biggest season yet. As Porto decided to let Hulk move to Zenit St.Petersburg, it’s expected of young James to start showing the goods and grow into a real leader both for his club and national team. Players such as Juan Cuadrardo, Fredy Guarin and Luis Muriel are others that are expected to wave the Colombian colours come 2014.

Albeit ageing, Mario Yepes is still the national team captain at age 36

The big and obvious Achilles heel lies in defence. Mario Yepes, the sole survivor of the 2001 Copa America championship winning squad, is still a regular feature. At age 36 it has become quite obvious that despite being a quick reader of the game his legs and body are not up to par. With Cristian Zapata’s development having reached a frustrating stagnation, one wonders how Colombia will fend for themselves defensively. The team that won the Toulon tournament featured Luciano Ospina and Pedro Franco who into their early 20’s still find themselves playing in the Colombian domestic league. Pekerman has instructed his team to take the game to the opponent, thus hiding the fact that his team is desperately in need of an emerging young centre back. The decision to play a man just ahead of the defence is another way Pekerman has managed to shield their weakness. But sweeping the dirt under the rug doesn’t really make it go away, does it?

The 4-0-victory against Uruguay in Barranquilla and the 3-1 upset in Chile has placed Colombia second in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the World Cup in Brazil in two years. The vision of another “dark horse”-type side may be on the horizon for a country who not only are in desperate need of sporting success, but a nation that for the first time may go into a tournament without any widespread news story clouding their reputation. Perhaps, for the first time, Colombia could go into a tournament with a sense of joy about themselves. Not only because they get to represent their country, but because of the pride they can take in helping in their country’s growth. And who knows? Perhaps Colombia just ended up in the wrong (Esco)bar andfound themselves in a FARCking mess? All of which could lead up the summer of 2014 becoming the biggest party Colombia has ever seen.

Sep 252012

John Terry retired from International football this week after claiming the FA had made his position in the squad “untenable”.

This is a huge turnaround from the statement he made less than five months ago, claiming that nothing would convince him to make the decision to stop playing for his country.

“I’m not going to throw away my international career for anyone, I am proud to represent my country, I will never turn my back on England,” he said. “I was baffled by these rumours about me quitting. I even had players coming up saying they heard I was going to quit. But I never considered quitting.”

Terry had to be confident that he was going to be found not guilty when he went to court, given how limited the evidence against him was, so thoughts of quitting the England team were far from his mind. Whatever people’s opinion on what happened at Loftus Road that day, nobody could seriously claim that he could have been found guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” with anything the prosecution had on him.

The most damning evidence probably came from the lip-readers and even then it was something or nothing. In their opinion, which was deemed to be “educated guesswork”, Terry said “you fucking black cunt”, which would negate his claim that he was repeating back what he heard Anton Ferdinand say to him, as “a fucking black cunt?”. Still, there was no way anyone could be found guilty of a crime on such minimal evidence.

However, in the summing up from the chief magistrate, there were some fairly critical statements that left questions hanging over Terry’s innocence. He claimed it was “inherently unlikely” that Ferdinand accused Terry of calling him a “black cunt” which is what Terry’s defence hung upon. He also said that Terry’s explanation of why he uttered the words “black cunt” is “unlikely” as “it is sandwiched between other undoubted insults.”

Terry’s decision to quit suggests he had previously thought the FA would let this one go, but there is no way they could be taken seriously again if they didn’t pursue this matter with an investigation of their own, after the summary from court seemed to suggest that “not proven”, the name given to this verdict in Scotland, was more fitting than “not guilty”.

The laws of football and the laws of this country can obviously not work in the same way. If they did, both Jonjo Shelvey and Jonny Evans could have been charged for ABH on Sunday and the FA would struggle to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that a player intended to stop a goal-bound shot with their hand, or the difference between assertive play (no intent to harm) and dangerous play. The FA has to rule based on probability because the vast majority of the cases are judgement calls without any great deal of evidence to consider. When a player is banned for three or more games because of a nasty tackle, decisions over the length of the ban will be made based on their opinion of the potential danger of a challenge and the intent behind it. They will decide when a natural protest to a sending off decision oversteps the mark and warrants an extended ban. They make judgement calls on where the line is drawn between an accidental swing of the arm when jumping for the ball or an intentional elbow.

The FA, you would presume, therefore have no choice but to apply the same rules to Terry’s case, just as they did Luis Suarez. No court would have been able to prove the motivation of Suarez was not just a cultural misunderstanding either and he would have been found “not guilty” too. The stakes are higher, being tarnished a racist for the rest of your career, but the FA can’t change their own rules, can they?

Paragraph 6.8: ‘Where the subject matter of a complaint or matter before the Regulatory Commission has been the subject of previous civil or criminal proceedings, the result of such proceedings and the facts and matters upon which such result is based shall be presumed to be correct and the facts presumed to be true unless it is shown, by clear and convincing evidence, that this is not the case.’

Terry’s defence reminded the FA of their own rule, believing this would be enough to have the case thrown out, however it is likely that Terry’s confession of directing the words “black cunt” at Ferdinand, despite his explanation of context, has forced the FA to act.

The FA might also point to an interview that Terry gave them immediately after the incident. Terry was asked ‘can you remember what you said to him?’ and he replied ‘I think it was something along the lines of ‘you black cunt, you fucking knobhead.’ In an interview with The Daily Mail, Terry changed his story, claiming he said ‘Do you think I called you a fucking black cunt?’ which was his version of events for court too. ‘You black cunt, you fucking knobhead’ is neither sarcastic nor repeating what Ferdinand said as a question, as was the defence in court.

Other convincing evidence might be the fact that contrary to Ashley Cole’s statement, there is signal in the Loftus Road dressing rooms, as confirmed by QPR. Cole and Terry claimed that they went to speak to Ferdinand after the game because of the accusations that were made on the pitch, but Ferdinand claimed he didn’t accuse Terry of anything on the pitch and only heard about the “black cunt” remark after the game. The reason why the lack of signal was relevant is because the prosecution claimed that the reason why the Chelsea players went to the home dressing room after the game was because they had been told that Terry’s verbal abuse had been caught on camera and was spreading around the internet like wildfire.

These two pieces of evidence could warrant the FA looking at the case again, therefore complying by their own rules.

So, with the rulebook being thrown back at him, Terry is obviously jumping before he is pushed, with it looking as though the FA will almost certainly ban the former England captain. His decision to play the victim, insisting the decision is down to the FA’s behaviour, is one that has come under criticism from some sections of the press.

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian, writes: Terry’s argument is a tenuous one, undeserving of sympathy and badly undermined by the fact the FA has a duty, surely, to convene its own inquiry when a Premier League footballer – at the time the England captain, no less – is accused of calling an opponent a “fucking black cunt”. Terry denies the charge and his grievance seems to boil down to one thing: that the FA wants to make sure there was no wrongdoing within its own rules, rather than just letting it pass and doing, well, what would be best for him.

Terry, in short, has no right to depict himself as being victimised when the FA has actually been pretty good to him given the seriousness of the allegations. Previous England managers were not allowed to pick players who were facing criminal charges but the current FA regime never enforced that rule with Roy Hodgson. Terry played in Euro 2012 and the FA relieved him of media duties.

If Terry is saying that the FA should just have moved on to the next subject and ignored a case in which Kick It Out is firmly aligned to the Ferdinands, then the Chelsea captain sorely misses the point.

Henry Winter, The Telegraph, writes: John Terry claimed on Sunday night that the Football Association had made his position in the England squad “untenable”. Nonsense. Terry was the author of his own downfall. Too many scrapes, too many embarrassments. John Terry rang the division bell too often in the England dressing room. If he was chasing the sympathy vote by yesterday’s swipe at the FA, Terry is unlikely to have swung the debate his way.

His “untenable” critique does not ring true. He continued to be picked by England managers during his troubled times, first by Fabio Capello and then by Roy Hodgson. Hodgson backed him strongly, a tactic that looks even more questionable now that Terry has walked away.

Terry’s inclusion in the Euro 2012 squad came at the expense of Rio Ferdinand’s involvement. Nobody fully believed Hodgson’s claim that Ferdinand was omitted “for footballing reasons”. It was to do with the dressing-room dynamic, with the tension between the pair following Terry’s dispute with Ferdinand’s brother Anton. Hodgson invited a man with significant character flaws to the party in Poland and Ukraine.

There is roughly a 0.5% chance of Terry not facing punishment but the fact he has given up playing for England suggests he knows he will join the 99.5% of players who the FA charge and then convict.

Sep 242012

It was thought that Kenny Dalglish had seemingly got his Twitter mixed up with his text messages, tweeting something that appeared to be a private bit of advice.

However, it appears as though Dalglish is just guilty of poor Twitter skills, having failed to directly reply to a jokey tweet from his daughter. D’oh.

Sep 242012

The Premier League threw up its usual amount of excitement and quality again this weekend.

Vote for your favorite goal of the weekend from the following 5 GIFS:

1. Demba Ba (Newcastle United v Norwich City)

2. Ricky Lambert (Southampton v Aston Villa)

3. Steven Fletcher (Sunderland v West Ham United)

4. Steve Gerrard (Liverpool v Manchester United)

5. Rafael da Silva (Manchester United v Liverpool)

Which was the best goal?

View Results

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Sep 242012

Pete Sixsmith thought for 81+3 minutes that he might be watching a team that had learned at last how to hang on to or, better still, build on a lead. Alas, old habits returned and the Hammers got their deserved equaliser against a Sunderland defence once again playing – or made to play – far too deep …

It was almost a very good day out. Glorious weather, a couple of enjoyable pints in excellent company and the likelihood of hanging on for the first win of the season meant that getting up at 4.45 wasn’t such a bad deal. And then …

Along came Kevin Nolan, who has been a bête noir as far as we are concerned. His hat trick at the SDA was followed by a goal that we just managed to cancel out in the return game. As he departed the Premier League for what looked like a couple of seasons in the Championship, it looked as if we would never see him again.

No such luck. Up he popped, 93 minutes into the game, to score what, in truth, was a deserved West Ham equaliser, turning on the ball and squeezing it past the impressive Simon Mignolet to foil our attempts to pinch a win at the Boleyn Ground.

For much of the game we had defended stoutly and with intense concentration, repelling the aerial bombardment that the Hammers had subjected us to. Bramble and O’Shea were outstanding, and although some of the defending was skin of the teeth stuff, it looked as if we were going to keep a second successive clean sheet in London.

In fact, we could have been two up and sitting comfortably. As West Ham pushed forward, there were gaps to exploit and a good run by McClean led to a low cross that the onrushing David Vaughan was a smidgeon away from turning into the net with a diving header. But he didn’t. And we weren’t. And they came back.

Steven Fletcher (who else) had given us the lead in the ninth minute, when Seb Larsson took advantage of a Nyron type pass by Collins to play the Scots goal machine in. One touch and a shot across Jaaskelainan, and the ball was nestling in the back of the net and we had 78 minutes to hold out.

Mignolet made a cracking save from Mr Bête Noir and in the second half, Big Sam clearly told his team to disregard any forms of subtlety and throw the ball up in the air as high and as often as you could.

We helped the West Ham cause by sitting too deep so that when we did have possession, we usually gave it back to them so they could lob in even more balls into the box.

Fortunately for us, they were lobs and not particularly dangerous crosses, and the fact that Carlton Cole was the target for them helped us considerably. He looked a Championship player throughout and when Andy Carroll is fit it could well be curtains for Carlton.

Had we won, it would have been the classic smash and grab raid, one that had it been perpetrated on us would have lead to vitriolic outbursts from bloggers, condemning the away team and bemoaning our misfortune. When the boot is on the other foot, as I suspect it will be a number of times this season, it may well be wiser to keep schtum and accept the point(s).

There were some very good performances, starting with Mignolet who looks a very good keeper indeed. Danny Rose did well, with one great header foiling an earlier second half equaliser. Gardner turned in another steady performance and one run and cross set up McClean for a chance which he scuffed.

The Tweeting Derryman is still looking a little off the pace. He worked extremely hard, tracking back, coming across into the centre, but the spark from last season has not yet been fully re-ignited. He had an excellent chance in the first half but hurried his shot where an extra five yards going forward might have made all the difference.

The remaining midfield three were hard working and industrious without ever really threatening to open up the Hammers. They were faced with an extra body in midfield and at times looked as if they might be overrun, particularly by the flying wardrobe known as Mohamed Diame.

But they stuck to their task and when Larsson went off to be replaced by David Vaughan, there was a hope that our ball retention might improve. If it did I failed to notice it, although Vaughan was as busy as ever and could have sealed the game for us.

Sess still looks rusty, but there were some signs of improvement. He moved the ball on quicker and chased and harried when he dropped back, but he is rarely seen in the opposition box and he has yet to show that he can link effectively with Fletcher.

As the clock wound down, the gnawing of finger nails continued, but when Fraizer Campbell limped off to be replaced by David Meyler with seconds remaining, there was hope that we might close it out. Alas no. Jarvis chased a loose ball, Meyler missed him, the ball was lobbed back over into the box, where Maiga helped it on for Nolan to spoil the day.

Four games played, four games unbeaten, but also, four games without a win. There is an inner strength about the team which indicates that the players have clearly bought in to MON and his philosophy. That feeling was not there 12 months ago under his predecessor and it was around this time that the serious grumblings started.

I did not detect any undercurrents yesterday, but fans do feel that we need to be a little more proactive when we are ahead and go for (and score) that goal that will kill off the opposition. Maybe we should use Saha more – if his knee is up to it.

West Ham worked hard and they will be in no danger of relegation, unlike the two who came up with them. Like us, they have a work ethic and an experienced manager who knows where all the elephant traps in the PL are located.

The trip down was a dream as the autumn sun shone over the English countryside and Sounds of the Sixties rang out in my earphones. Brian Matthew and his producer Phil Swern always look for a real stinker to play and they found a gold plated one on Saturday, a 1967 ditty called Peace by The Wedgewoods. Mr Horan and myself sat open mouthed in disbelief at this one; it was almost as awful as a last minute Kevin Nolan equaliser.