Two Months To Go: Who’s Actually Happy?

For many Premier League clubs this has been a season full of miserable moments. In this era of moaning on the radio and venting on Twitter, I’m willing to bet many sets of fans will be happy to see the back of the 2017 season.

With less than ten games to go in the Premier League season, how many fans are actually happy? The shining example of happy fans – despite recently losing their undefeated home record – comes from the Stamford Bridge faithful. Chelsea collapsed inexplicably to tenth last year but have surged back to the top of the Premier League to the tune of a seven point advantage. They’ve got a manager every bit as passionate at Jurgen Klopp, more tactically shrewd than Pep Guardiola and a far better man manager than the present day Jose Mourinho. However, beneath The Blues, who’s actually had a season to be happy about?

Tottenham are on course to smash their previous points tally and should reach the elusive 80 point milestone. Despite this, fans will likely be left feeling sorry for themselves again. They’ll finish above Arsenal, but could very easily end up trophy-less and with another bout of ‘we won’t be this good next season’. After snatching third in a two horse race last year they won’t be over the moon with a distant second to Chelsea despite playing some of the best football in the league.

Whatever way you wrap it up, Manchester City fans won’t hold this season in high regard. The more sympathetic folk will focus on glimpses on Guardiola’s vision but the Spaniard’s debut season has been full of embarrassing moments. As for Liverpool – how can a team play so well against so many top teams and be so far from the top of the league? Deadly in big games, Klopp has done little to fix Liverpool’s familiar flaws against beatable opponents.

Moving down the league we reach Arsenal. Their fans are fighting eachother. Enough said.

Manchester United have had to put the Mourinho revolution on hold. The Slightly Deranged One’s tried and tested tactics haven’t been a roaring success at United. He may still drag them to fourth but it hasn’t been an easy ride.

Everton are next and the common consensus is that they’ve had a good season under a savvy new manager in Ronald Koeman. But have they really? They’ll finish higher than last year but defeats to Bournemouth, Burnley and Watford plus two Merseyside derbies and a hammering by Chelsea have confirmed their status as ‘just’ a top eight side. They’re hardly banging on the door of the top four. They’ve merely returned to where they were four years ago.

Next come West Brom who, on paper, have had a fine season. Credit to Tony Pulis for delivering everything West Brom could possibly have hoped for, but are the fans happy? You get plenty of Baggies on Talksport speaking of their uninspiring performances and lack of risk-taking football. Pulis has worked hard to get into a position of safety and security, can we see them try something else now?

Southampton have wilted badly since the League Cup final. A good season for James Ward-Prowse and the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini are scarce few high points; the transition from Ronald Koeman to Claude Puel a very obvious low. Recent form has seen a very ordinary Watford side climb to a flattering high. Staying up is an achievement of sorts but I doubt their fans will be particular enamoured with Walter Mazzarri.

With five straight wins and a Champions League quarter-final, Leicester fans will be almost as happy right now as they were last May. Let’s not be blinded though, losing Claudio Ranieri and plummeting to the relegation zone has made this a remarkably sticky campaign.

Stoke City have had somewhat of a classic Premier League campaign. An abysmal start, strong winter form and a recent dwindle see them sit twelfth in the table. Mark Hughes has become a highly divisive character and Stoke have had very little to cheer about. Below them sit Bournemouth and we may finally have found our second set of happy supporters. Bournemouth will now stay up and their Premier League dream will extend to a third season. Shipping 54 goals in the first 28 games was a cause for concern but I doubt they’ll be too many unhappy faces at the Vitality.

What do Burnley do on away days? I will never understand the home/away differential but Sean Dyche’s side have gone winless on the road despite winning ten of sixteen home games. However, with Burnley we might have found our third set of happy supporters! Assuming they stay up, it will be the first time Burnley have avoided the drop in their Premier League history.

West Ham are struggling and Slaven Bilic’s job is hanging by a thread. One of the best teams in the league last year, The Irons have endured a dismal campaign. They aren’t yet safe and neither are Crystal Palace. The Eagles will be ecstatic with their recent form and the long-awaited ‘Allardyce effect’ has finally kicked in. Nevertheless, I’m going to be cruel and say their fans won’t be happy with the 2017 season. Form under Pardew was horribly stuttered and they’ve left it far too late to do anything memorable.

Hull City fans have a handful of reasons to be happy. Marco Silva has turned the club’s form around and – to be fair to Mike Phelan – the club have punched above their dismal expectations all season. Are the fans happy? I’ll put them down as a weak yes due to recent form and renewed hope.

Hull are in a lively scrap with fellow struggles Swansea City. Even the most negative of Swansea fans wouldn’t have expected the side to be this perilously close to the drop with seven games to go. Bad decisions and Bob Bradley have made this is a season to forget.

Not only are Middlesbrough doomed for relegation but they’ve scored just 22 goals all campaign. Four wins and many miserable outings have confirmed their fans’ despair.

Sunderland? Give me a break.

Final Score: Unhappy Fans 16 – 4 Happy Fans

Mike Franchetti

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One Daniel Sturridge, there’s only one Daniel Sturridge…

Why doesn’t Daniel Sturridge have a song!?

Daniel Sturridge has scored 58 goals for Liverpool; 21 in a single Premier League season, nine in eight straight games, four against Everton, three against United and a splendid opener in a European final. You can throw in an International winner against Wales for good measure. And he doesn’t have one song. Not even a song that only four people know the words to. Not even a song that’s actually another player’s song but with his name substituted in. Sure, I haven’t been at every single Daniel Sturridge match – but can anybody enlighten me?

This singsong analysis is, admittedly, not an exact science. Olivier Giroud has a fantastic song which frequently rips round the Emirates whilst the more acclaimed Alexis Sanchez suffers from a collective lack of creativity. Nobody’s to blame for the fact that ‘Gir-Oud’ sounds way more like ‘Hey Jude’ than ‘San-Chez’ ever will. Some people just catch a lucky break.

West Ham squeezed Payet’s name neatly into Billy Ray Cyrus’ ‘Achy-Breaky Heart’ but the Frenchman has turned his back on the club and ‘Lanzini’ will have too many syllables to function as a realistic replacement.

The ‘Sturridge’ surname isn’t the easiest to work with but this is Liverpool we’re talking about. There is special table in a pub opposite Anfield rumoured to be reserved for a mysterious group who claim writing credits to all of the Kop’s favourite chants. This is a club who briefly sang Lucas Levia’s name to the tune of John Paul Young’s ‘Love is in the Air’ before settling on a more familiar tune (adopted shamelessly from a Crystal Palace chant/any number of other clubs).

At the start of this campaign Daniel Sturridge had a Premier League goals-per-game ratio of 0.623; strangely similar to Luis Suarez (0.627) and Liverpool’s table topper Fernando Torres (0.637). However, his goals-per-minute ratio would blow the other two away. The Englishman has been on and off the bench more than he’ll care to remember mainly due to injuries but also a little lack of manager love.

He’s fit now but is arguably Jurgen Klopp’s third choice striker. Sadly, there’s little justification for him currently being in the Liverpool side. If you were tasked with designing a striker Klopp wouldn’t like you’d come up with something a lot like Daniel Sturridge; he doesn’t pressure the full width of the pitch, he goes for the spectacular far too frequently and he’s often stationary whilst planning his next move.

But this isn’t a Klopp issue. This is a more wide-spread issue that stems from the fact people just don’t love Daniel Sturridge. At Chelsea he was seen as a problem player, at Liverpool’s he’s seen as an individualist. It’s just unfortunate that Sturridge is a million miles away from the archetypal Kopite. Most of Anfield just can’t connect with the hip-hop producing, Instagram-loving, openly Christian striker. His celebratory dance remains popular but they’ll be a few eyes rolling these days.

Academy graduates receive a wealth of support from the Kop. Birmingham-born, ex-City, ex-Chelsea Sturridge can’t fall back on this. A second option is to ‘run your heart out, son’ the sole reason Dirk Kuyt was able to get over with the fans during his time at Anfield. The Dutchman gave 110% every match with the sort of performances that would make James Milner look lazy.

At the last few Liverpool games I’ve attended there’s been a loud (but ugly) Divock Origi song. It’s nothing special – a simple ‘Divock Origi, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap’. The young Belgian has done okay for the Reds but when did he jump up the queue? His song started during a touchline warm-up and continued for a solid five minutes. Away at Southampton last year I witnessed some lunatic start a Jordan Ibe chant. I still don’t know what the tune was and I’m not sure he did; it was strangely impressive. Nevertheless, these were sloppy efforts by Liverpool. What happened to the genius of the Buddy Holly inspired Maxi Rodriguez song?

Sturridge has a reputation of somebody who sulks but he’s behaved a lot better than some Premier League undesirables these past few transfer windows. I can’t recall him whinging too much about his lack of game time or demotion to the EFL cup side. He’ll likely leave Anfield soon – but can we at least sing him out the door? I don’t think Liverpool will ever top the ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ Fernando Torres song but surely that special table of musical minds can come up with something?


Mike Franchetti – a Liverpool fan

The most underrated player in European football (maybe)

The concept of ‘underrated’ is highly subjective. The term is thrown around frequently when evaluating a footballer’s ability and covers a mixed bag of players.

You might, for example, think Luis Suarez is underrated. You might think he deserves to be mentioned alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You might question why he has been a distant top five in the last two Ballon d’Or votes.

Likewise, you could think Charlie Austin is underrated for his ability to score bundles of goals wherever he has been. Being ‘underrated’ isn’t even reserved for just current players. You could say that Park Ji-Sung was underrated. Or Danny Murphy. Forwards Diego Milito, David Di Natale and even Samuel Eto’o could be classed as underrated. There’s plenty more in the Premier League today – Dusan Tadic, Jose Fonte and maybe still Kante. What about workhorses such as John Walters?!

There’s really nothing that this ragtag group have in common other than that their perceived value is not equal to what they offer on a football pitch. Over the last few years there’s been one Belgian constantly delivering for his Italian club side whilst attracting very little in terms of media attention, footballing accolade or transfer speculation. He is, at least, incredibly useful on the PlayStation.

Dries Mertens has just bagged back-to-back Serie A hat-tricks and, in doing so, very nearly ruined this post. The January transfer window is just round the corner and the Premier League may finally sit up and take note (he’s got plenty of international teammates to persuade him).

Nevertheless, Mertens is 29. Where have his pursuers been for the last five years?

Signing for PSV from Utrecht, Mertens scored 21 in 33 in his first season. Scoring for a top club in the Eredivisie is not much of a litmus test (Afonso Alves got 34 for Heerenveen…) but Mertens found the net with alarming regularity for a winger. He was on six league goals by the end of his first month.

Napoli would soon get clued up and, after scoring 37 in 62 for PSV, the Belgian moved to Serie A in 2013 to play under Rafael Benitez.

Napoli’s attacking options that season were mouth-watering. Gonzalo Higuaín had also arrived along with Jose Callejon. The trio would join the exciting Lorenzo Insigne with Duvan Zapata and Goran Pandev also looking for game time. It was obvious that Benitez would utilize Higuaín centrally with two of Callejon, Insigne and Mertens on either side. However, there were a couple of things working against the Belgian. Insigne was young and Neapolitan. He had (and still has) the potential to be a leading Italian international. Callejon was a similar age to Mertens but had joined from Real Madrid and it was likely compatriot Benitez knew more of his talents. By comparison, Mertens was seen as an untapped late bloomer – despite being just 26 years of age. Nevertheless, Benitez freely rotated his plethora of attacking options and Mertens ended with an impressive 11 league goals, scoring six in the last seven games.

At the end of the season FourFourTwo ran an article on Mertens, introducing him to readers and flagging up his exciting style of play. The Belgian may fall behind compatriot Eden Hazard in terms of mesmerizing runs but he can add to his game a deadly right foot (and a crafty left one). He packs a punch for a man of 5ft7 and can rifle the ball home from distance; both at free-kicks or in open play. He’s far from a traditional winger. He is a nuisance down the middle and perhaps only his lack of aerial threat stops him functioning as a predatory centre forward.

The end of the 2013/14 season was the best it got for Mertens for quite some time. Rafa would continue to hand him game time but plenty of his minutes came in Europa League football. He would eventually find his way off the bench and ended the season with a flourish but there was no magazine feature this time around and many forgot about him.

The following year his hard-working performances would again go unnoticed with a fine season for Insigne limiting his Serie A opportunities. New manager Maurizio Sarri saw much the same in Mertens; a skilful winger with the ability to come off the bench and grab a goal. By the end of the season he had appeared more times from the bench than as a starter. This theme has continued into the current season but his goalscoring exploits are getting harder to ignore.

Higuaín has left and replacement Arkadiusz Milik (who started so well) has been hit by injury. Napoli are lucky to have Mertens right now and his ten league goals have helped boost them back towards the top of the league. At 29 years old he’s unlikely to get a big move and as long as he’s on and off the subs bench he’s unlikely to get the recognition he deserves.

Mertens provides support to the argument that if you do lots of things well, you’ll be asked to cover a lot of different roles. I hereby crown Mertens the most underrated player in European football. Or one of them. There’s quite a few.


Mike Franchetti

French flop five-a-side

Only 20 miles separates Britain and France at their closest points, and apart from the Republic of Ireland, no other foreign country has been more represented in the Premier League. Whilst you could count on two hands the number of British players to have crossed the Channel, the number of French players to have made the reverse trip is well into three figures. Since the Premier League’s creation in the early 90’s, some of France’s greatest ever players have graced its grounds. Players like Ginola, Vieira, Petit, Desailly, Deschamps, and Henry to name just a few have had huge impacts. However, not all those who have arrived on these shores have had quite the same level of success. Here is our list of five French flops who failed to live up to expectations.

Goalkeeper – Fabien Barthez

Apart from Iker Casillas, Barthez probably has the best CV of any other goalkeeper in the last 25 years. A Champions League winner with Marseille, twice a Ligue 1 Champion with Monaco and of course a World and European Cup winner with France, there really were great hopes for him when Manchester United snapped him up for just shy of £8 million in 2000.

In many ways Barthez’s stay in Manchester was not as unsuccessful as is often made out. He did win two Premier League titles and even made it into the PFA Team of the Year at the end of the 2000-01 season. Yet despite these successes Barthez is often remembered for high profile errors and an inability to dominate his area. His diminutive frame was perhaps not cut out for the weekly rigours of the Premier League. Despite his undoubted talent, Barthez’s three year stay in Manchester will always be considered a disappointment.

The Stopper – Sébastien Squillaci 

Squillaci was 30 when he joined Arsenal for £4 million in the summer of 2010, and was seen by many as an impulsive signing. Indeed Squillaci’s time at The Emirates was pretty much a disaster from start to finish. Despite being a regular in his first season, playing in 32 of Arsenal’s 58 games, his poor form forced Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, to once again dip into the transfer market. The signing of Per Mertesacker, coupled with the emergence of Laurent Koscielny, meant that Squillaci’s first team opportunities were greatly restricted, and he appeared only seven more times for the Gunners over the following two years.

Widely regarded as one of Wenger’s worse ever signings, Squillaci left Arsenal on a free transfer in 2013 to join Bastia in his native country.

The Ball Winner  – Jean-Alain Boumsong 

This guy is perhaps one of the most famous failed Frenchmen in English football history. Outside of football Boumsong holds a degree in financial control and has forged a career as a respected pundit on French TV. Yet on the pitch at Newcastle United the defender could hardly have looked more out of place.

Newcastle United manager, Graeme Souness, the man behind the worst signing in Premier League history, Ali Dia, spent £8 million in order to bring Boumsong from Rangers. Boumsong’s career in the North-East was not far short of a catastrophe. He only lasted 18 months in the Premier League before Juventus, yes JUVENTUS, decided to try and make a success of the 27 time France international. Newcastle made a £5 million loss on Boumsong and his transfer was later part of Lord Stevens’ inquiry into corruption in football. An unsavoury episode all round.

The Playmaker – Florian Thauvin

The most recent addition to the team. Although Thauvin’s career to date has failed to live up to expectations, at still only 23 he has time to recover. When he joined Marseille for €15 million in 2013 there was a feeling that the winger could be one of the great French players. His two years at the Vélodrome were a success, he scored 15 goals in just shy of 80 games and looked to be developing into a decent player.

His performances prompted Steve McClaren, the then Newcastle United manager, to fork out £15 million in the summer of 2015. His displays in a struggling Newcastle side were underwhelming to say the least and he featured only 13 times and scored just once before rejoining Marseille on loan after half a season on Tyneside.

The Finisher – Stéphane Guivarc’h

Who do you think Stéphane Guivarc’h turned out for in the Premier League? Yep, you guessed it, Newcastle United. It seems the North East of England is a graveyard for French footballers – perhaps it is just that little bit too far from home? Anyway, Guivarc’h is one of those players that will constantly appear in football trivia questions. You will almost certainly come across questions such as who started up front for France in the 1998 World Cup final? or who wore France’s No.9 shirt during the 1998 World Cup? For those of you who did not know the answer already, you do now!

Guivarc’h is very much the forgotten member of that victorious French team. He started four matches in the tournament, but failed to score in any. Despite this disappointment, his performances had clearly done enough to convince Newcastle United to splash out something in the region of £4 million later on that summer. His arrival from Auxerre was seen as a major coup and many believed that he could go on to form a formidable partnership with Alan Shearer. However, it was not meant to be. Although he scored on his league debut he did not find the net again for the St James’ Park outfit and after just six further appearances, he crossed the border to join Rangers.

Why I still believe in Theo Walcott

Help! I still believe in Theo Walcott. I can’t be the only one.

The Google search ‘Is Walcott any good?’ brings up three separate Guardian articles ranging from April 2015 to February of this year. The fourth suggestion is a Telegraph piece headlined ‘Theo Walcott remains the great Arsenal mystery’. The Walcott wrangle has been ambling along for the best part of five years but has come to head – along with many Gunners’ frustrations – in the last eighteen months. The guy was adored by Arsenal supporters for gesturing a 2-0 scoreline to Tottenham fans when stretchered off in 2014, but is now the target of consistent lambasting.

Walcott’s one of those players whose bad games are really obvious. I’m sure Alexis Sanchez has bad games – likewise playmakers Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey –  but it’s hard to remember what they look like. By contrast, we all know exactly what a Walcott bad game looks like; he’ll run into defenders and fluff one-on-ones by firing tamely at the goalkeepers’ legs. He’s done the latter enough times to at least deserve a little criticism.

He’s not alone with this trait of having really obvious bad games. It’s not uncommon in centre forwards – along with centre halves – and I can recall the likes of Christian Benteke, Andy Carroll and post-prime Fernando Torres having genuine nightmares.

Walcott is a player who’s good in patches of form and there are plenty of contributing factors; he’s been on and off the treatment table, in and out the England squad and up and down the touchline waiting for substitute appearances. The injuries have taken their toll – not least on his frightening pace – and he’s struggled to reinvent himself stuck between a forward and a winger.

For whatever reason, he’s now under the microscope. But, hey, Gooners, what about the good times?

One of my favourite – but simultaneously least favourite – Walcott moments came against my precious Liverpool in 2008. In what was a memorable all-English Champions League quarter-final, Walcott broke on the counter following a Liverpool cross. I remember spotting the danger but what Theo did next was superb. He carried the ball at speed the full length of the pitch before laying on Emmanuel Adebayor for a crucial equalizer.

A few years in the first team followed – Walcott’s not Jack Wilshere, he has racked up 240 league appearances – before he seemed to hit his stride in 2012. He played 32 Premier League games finding the net 14 times. Additionally, he picked up 12 assists to total a contribution in 26 Arsenal goals. He bagged a hatrick in a 7-3 win over Newcastle and scored a great third goal. Drifting in menacingly from the left wing, Walcott darted between two defenders and was cut off by a reckless Gael Obertan leg – a clear penalty. The referee delayed the call and Walcott floated through the challenge, bounced up off the ground, and then, just metres from the near post, beat Tim Krul with a clever chip.

There was also that hatrick vs. Croatia in 2008 – the most obvious explosion of potential in Walcott’s career. His England calling seems to have been put on hold for now with new options, new Walcotts, preferred for the time being.

Walcott’s preference for the central striker role has being a sticking point over the last few years. Much of this is to do with his size and physical presence. The little, quick centre forward is dead in the water. Would Michael Owen make it through the Liverpool academy today? No chance. He’d be shifted out wide in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 and called a ‘left winger’ or ‘inside forward’. The little man down the middle doesn’t exist in England. Javier Hernandez never stood a chance of earning a starting place at Manchester United. Jermaine Defoe is still making it work, but perhaps he is the last flag-bearer for speedy goal-getters. The trend is for big, effective ‘number 9s’ or, if you’re a radical thinker, no out-and-out centre forward at all.

I like Walcott and his playing style. His technical progression has been slower than most expected but, on occasion, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is a natural finisher. It’s unfair to chalk Walcott up as another player mishandled by Arsene Wenger but a move away would likely do him good.

He won’t leave though. He likes Arsenal and wants to be successful. He also has a ridiculous paycheck which, unfortunately, is a sure fire way to irritate the Emirates regulars.

Nevertheless, he seems like a good guy and is more level-headed than some players thrown into the media eye in their teenage years. I don’t like scapegoating and I’m going to continue celebrating Walcott goals. I hope he scores the winner at White Hart Lane and runs down the touchline shushing the stands with a finger on his lips. This time his target won’t be the Spurs fans. He’ll be silencing the red and white boo-boys.


Mike Franchetti

Gareth Barry: 600 Not Out

As Gareth Barry reaches an extraordinary 600 Premier League appearances, SOTP has a look at his remarkable career to date.

Like much of his career, this astonishing achievement will likely be overlooked by many this weekend. Gareth Barry will become only the third player, and the youngest to do so, to reach 600 Premier League appearances.

Scholes (499), Gerrard (504), Lampard (609), and Giggs (632) have all had stellar careers, yet Gareth Barry’s name is rarely uttered in the same sentence as those Premier League legends. However, Barry has surpassed the number of appearances of the former two, and is fast catching up with Lampard’s haul. It seems silly, especially considering the success he has had, but Barry has never really been appreciated; in fact, he’s often been maligned.

The reasons behind this are puzzling. Unlike the aforementioned he has seldom been a scorer of spectacular goals, nor has he been one for jinking wing play. In other words – he has rarely been a headline writer. Nevertheless, Barry’s contribution to Aston Villa, Manchester City and now Everton, has been immeasurable.

When John Gregory gave him his Aston Villa debut in early May 1998, few would have expected that Barry would go on to reach 600 Premier League appearances. On that day at Hillsborough he lined up as part of back three in a 3-1 win. Whilst his debut was at centre back, in his early days at Aston Villa he was considered to be primed for the left back role. Indeed, much of his early career, both at club and international level, was spent there. However, there was a feeling amongst many that Barry’s talents were being wasted. A move forward to left wing saw Barry add more goals to his game, yet there was a sense that his footballing intelligence, discipline, and reading of the game were still being underutilised.

It was not until Martin O’Neill’s arrival at Villa Park in the summer of 2006 that Barry was given a consistent role in his favoured central midfield position.

O’Neill’s appointment gave Barry a new lease of life. Appointed captain that summer, Barry thrived, and led the team brilliantly during his two-year spell as captain; scoring 17 Premier League goals in the process.

His performances were beginning to get the recognition they deserved and England manager Steve McClaren brought Barry back into the England fold after 4 years in the international wilderness. Barry’s assured performances during England’s ill-fated Euro 2008 qualifying campaign were one of the few plus points in McClaren’s otherwise dire England reign.

All looked to be going so well until the summer of 2008. Amid a dispute with the Villa hierarchy regarding a prospective move to Liverpool, Barry was fined two weeks’ wages, banned from training with the first team, and had the club captaincy taken from him. When Barry’s move to Liverpool never materialised, there were those who thought that he may sit and sulk. Indeed, Villa fans were fervent and vociferous in their disapproval of their former captain, booing him heavily during a pre-season game against Walsall.

Yet, unlike many other players, Barry did not let his own personal disappointments get the better of him. That season he started all 38 Premier League games, and chipped in with 5 goals in the process.

By the following summer it was clear that Barry’s ambitions no longer matched those of Aston Villa. He craved Champions League football and when newly rich Manchester City came calling in June 2009, Barry left Villa Park after 12 years’ service which had yielded 441 appearances, and 52 goals.

Barry’s move to City was an unprecedented success. An FA Cup win in 2011 was followed by a Premier League winners medal the following year. A key player in both triumphs, Barry was enjoying the pinnacle of his career.

Barry’s England career continued to prosper under McClaren’s successor, Fabio Capello, and he was handed the England captaincy on several occasions. Such was Barry’s importance to England that when he suffered an injury playing for City towards the backend of the 2010 season, England’s World Cup plans were thrown into disarray. Capello himself was concerned and went as far as to describe Barry as “really important.” This was particularly high praise from the notoriously unemotional Italian.

Although selected for the tournament Barry was never fully fit. When England were unceremoniously dumped out by a rampant German team in Bloemfontein, Barry became the scapegoat and unfairly bore much of the blame. Thankfully those within the England management team continued to value Barry’s influence on the team, and he remained a mainstay in the England team during the following qualifying campaign.

When Capello quit England after falling out with the FA, Roy Hodgson, his replacement, included Barry in his squad for Euro 2012. During a pre-tournament friendly against Norway, Barry injured his lower abdomen and was subsequently ruled out of the tournament. This would turn out to be his last England appearance.

Back at City and ready for the new season, Barry once again found himself as the linchpin of the Manchester City midfield. By City’s new high standards, the season was a disappointing one; missing out on the Premier League title to their Manchester rivals, and losing to Wigan Athletic in the last minute of the FA Cup final.

City manager, Roberto Mancini, was sacked and replaced by Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean failed to see what others had seen in Barry. Facing a season on the bench, Barry secured a last minute loan move to Everton. The loan move was made permanent the following summer.

As one of the few older statesmen in an otherwise very inexperienced Everton side, Barry continued in his role as a defensive minded central midfielder. Roberto Martinez, the then Everton manager, described Barry as “one of England’s greats!”

Yet Barry is consistently undervalued by many football fans. However, those who have managed and played alongside him have never wavered in their praise. Indeed, whilst there are a few impressive statistics that separates Barry from many of his peers (namely the fact that he has 110 Premier League yellow cards, 11 more than anyone else!), there is one startling stat that stands out from all the rest. In the 18 seasons since Barry made his Premier League debut, he has only failed to appear in fewer than 30 games once (2001/02). In fact, since the start of the 1998/99 season, Barry has played in 594 out of a possible 684 Premier League matches.

His longevity, consistency, adaptability as well his ability to remain injury free are testament to how he has handled his life both on and off the pitch.

Whilst he may not enjoy the same acclaim as many of his peers, Barry has gone on to become a Premier League stalwart. He will probably never be considered amongst the very elite that this country has seen, yet his achievements to date have been remarkable. Barry will no doubt go on to break Giggs’ record and will set a new high that will probably never be broken.

Changing of the Guard

Conte, Guardiola, Mourinho. There can be no doubt the Premier League has the best managers in the world. But who will adjust quickest to their new club? And how will the players fare?


Chelsea

Manager: Antonio Conte

Favoured Formation: 3-5-2 or 4-3-3

Philosophy: Dogged and direct

Antonio Conte will demand plenty of passion and grit from his players. So far, Chelsea have been in full swing this season with three wins out of three. Perhaps more importantly, Conte has restored confidence to team who are a contrast to the calamitous side of last season. Dynamic and sharp, Chelsea fans may be forgiven for thinking they are title-challengers once again. They’ll be hoping that Conte’s touchline celebrations become a regular occurrence.

Who will thrive?

The signing of N’golo Kante has given a balance to the Chelsea team who lacked consistency last season. Eden Hazard and Willian have been allowed to prioritise attack over defence which will come as a relief to the wide-men who often had to track back under Jose Mourinho. Nemanja Matic and Oscar are preferred to complete the midfield engine. Activity on deadline day may suggest that Marcos Alonso and David Luiz will freshen up a back four. However, it remains to be seen whether they will become mainstays or additional personnel. There is a lot of buzz at Stamford Bridge around new signing Michy Batshuayi, though he won’t be a starter for the blues, he can play a key role as a substitute for Conte who has so far utilised his bench to great effect.

Who will struggle?

The Chelsea youth stars? Over the last ten years, Chelsea’s youth academy has seen very little first team action aside from the odd League Cup cameo. The club have thirty-three players out on loan which shows they have a long way to go if they want to build an academy which will develop future stars. Looking at the first team, Cesc Fabregas is Chelsea’s big name casualty thus far. The Spanish international has only played eighteen league minutes for the blues in a very effective cameo against Watford. He will remain at The Bridge for now to fight for his place but he may well not be a Chelsea player next season. The back four could have a shake up in personnel and formation; rumours suggest Conte may integrate his favoured 3-5-2 which he previously utilised with Juventus and the Azzurri after his last minute signings. Ageing defenders Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic may be under threat. However, early signs would suggest that Captain John Terry will continue to play a pivotal role for Antonio Conte both on and off the pitch.

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Manchester City

Manager: Pep Guardiola

Favoured Formation: 4-3-3 or 3-4-3

Philosophy: No deviation from the beautiful game

When Pep Guardiola was announced in February as the next Manchester City manager the City fans were ecstatic to say the least. This is not surprising considering the forty-five-year-old boasts fourteen major trophies making him one of the most successful managers of all time. The Spaniard hasn’t disappointed in his opening three games. City look like a team fizzing with finesse and quality. Guardiola will expect nothing less. He will want his side to win his way which may impact results in such a competitive league. There is no doubt that this will be Guardiola’s toughest test.

 Who will thrive?

So far Raheem Sterling has been thriving at the Etihad under the new boss proving that confidence is the key to his form. More good news for England is that John Stones will see plenty of game time. The twenty-two year old is a technically gifted centre-half and Guardiola will be looking for him to carry the ball out of defence to initiate play. When Vincent Kompany is back and fit this could be a formidable partnership. Evidence from the opening few games would also suggest that Fernandinho has a large role to play for City this season. Marshalling the midfield and dropping into a back three, will test the defensive midfielder but his character looks well suited to the role.

Who will struggle?

Joe Hart’s departure has shown us that under Guardiola no one is safe if you don’t suit his style of play. Yaya Toure’s time with City is now at an end which suggests the squad will see some young blood enter the fold. Interestingly, the fullbacks are being asked a lot of in a new system that sees them cut into the midfield. They’ll need to show neat footwork and strong passing, otherwise they could be on the block. In the past, Guardiola has used Philipp Lahm, David Alaba, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba in these positions. Needless to say expectations will be high.

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Manchester United

Manager: Jose Mourinho

Favoured Formation: 4-2-3-1

Philosophy: Win at all costs

Jose Mourinho is a Manager who has won wherever he has gone. He has Manchester United ticking again and probably looking their best since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013 (albeit we are only four competitive matches into his tenure). Mourinho will want to win at all costs, particularly when he is in competition with arch-rival Guardiola which promises to be a fascinating battle. What does Jose have over Pep? His Premier League experience is likely to give him an edge over the course of the season. Mourinho is a winner. The question is whether he has a team of winners with him.

 Who will thrive?

It has been a summer of high profile signings at Manchester United. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly now form the new spine of the team. With the talent surrounding him, it looks as though Wayne Rooney will enjoy life under Mourinho more than Louis Van Gaal. Acting again as a number ten he will be expected to be United’s chief provider. Perhaps most surprisingly, Marouane Fellaini has played every minute of the first three games. His time with United so far has been unspectacular to say the least but the tall Belgian could be a key figure for Mourinho if he can maintain his work rate.

Who will struggle?

For lots of football fans you will either love or hate Jose Mourinho. For the United squad it could very well be the same. Bastian Schweinsteiger has been banished to the reserves and Italian right-back Matteo Darmian is also out of favour to the resourceful Antonio Valencia. As expected, Mata looks set to be a fringe player. New signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan will have to play his way into the side after starting each game on the bench. Chris Smalling will also have to prove his worth to upset Daley Blind and Eric Bailly’s current partnership, though this seems more likely than a return for Phil Jones whose time at Old Trafford looks limited.


Jack Parker

Your Premier League team’s key signing

Simmo takes a look at who your club has signed this summer.

ARSENAL – Granit Xhaka – £35 million from Borussia Monchengladbach

Granit Xhaka is the big new signing at The Emirates. The Switzerland international comes with a burgeoning reputation, but also a questionable disciplinary record. Having been sent off 3 times last season for Borussia Monchengladbach, the ex-Basel man will have to watch his step. Nevertheless, with a venomous left-foot, and an eye for a pass, the 23 year old has all the credentials to be a real success in the Premier League.

BOURNEMOUTH – Jordon Ibe – £15 million from Liverpool

There were a few eyebrows raised when Eddie Howe parted with £15 million for the ex-Wycombe youth. The young winger has flattered to deceive for much of his career to date, yet the Cherries clearly saw enough to warrant smashing their transfer record. At only 20 years of age his best years are ahead of him – it could be a big year for both Ibe and Bournemouth.

BURNLEY – Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson – £2.5 million from Charlton Athletic

Fresh from Iceland’s extraordinary run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, Guðmundsson will look to make an impact in the top flight. He impressed last year in a Charlton side that was eventually relegated to the third tier. This will be a big step up, but if he can replicate the form he showed during the summer, then Guðmundsson could turn out to be a shrewd acquisition.

CHELSEA – N’Golo Kanté – £32 million from Leicester City

At £32 million this guy is a snip. The outstanding midfielder in the league last season. He covers every blade of grass, wins tackles and keeps things simple. Will be perfect for Conte’s new-look Chelsea, and will act as a foil for the likes of Willian and Hazard further up the pitch. If Chelsea do lift the trophy in nine months’ time, then Kanté will no doubt have played his part.

CRYSTAL PALACE – Steve Mandanda – Free Transfer from Marseille

Possibly the best value signing made thus far. The Zaire born French stopper is a class act. After 9 years and nearly 450 games on the French Riviera with Marseille, the France international decided that it was time for a clean break. With 22 caps for Les Bleus, (he would’ve had many more it weren’t for Hugo Lloris), Mandanda brings a wealth of experience. Will oust Wayne Hennessey from the No.1 spot, and is a must for your fantasy team. An inspired signing by Pardew.

EVERTON – Idrissa Gana Gueye – £7 million from Aston Villa

One of the few bright sparks in a Villa team that was relegated from the top division for the first time since 1987. Gueye has few supporters back at Villa Park, but new manager Ronald Koeman thinks that the Senegal international can add some steel to an Everton team that has massively underperformed for the last two seasons.

HULL CITY – No signings made

It’s been a summer of upheaval at the KC. The Tigers are currently without a manager since Steve Bruce left, citing differences between himself and owner/chairman, Assem Allam. There are only 9 outfield players fit at the point of writing with the future looking pretty bleak for last seasons playoff winners. With under a week to go until the start of the season Hull need to invest in a squad that is desperately short on not only numbers, but also quality.

LEICESTER CITY – Nampalys Mendy – £13 million from OCG Nice

The French midfielder has a nigh on impossible task on his hands – replace N’Golo Kanté. Mendy is not a like-for-like replacement; he’s less dynamic, and his reading of the game is not as good. Having said that, he’s a better passer of the ball than his fellow Frenchmen, and may even be a better defensive shield for the back four. With Danny Drinkwater alongside him to guide him through difficult periods in games, Leicester will recover from the blow of losing Kanté. Mendy will need to have a big season if Leicester are to once again upset the apple cart.

LIVERPOOL – Sadio Mané – £34 million from Southampton

Another player Liverpool have pinched from Southampton. Mané joins no fewer than three of his ex- St Mary’s teammates at Anfield. At £34 million big things are expected, but there are signs in pre-season that he has what it takes to manage the expectation. Places in the Liverpool frontline will be hotly contested, yet Mané offers pace and a natural width that few else do in the current squad. It could be a big year for the red half of Merseyside, and the 24 year old could well play an important role.

MANCHESTER CITY – Leroy Sané – £37 million from Schalke 04

The initial fee is £37 million, but this could rise by another £9.5 million depending on trophies and appearances. It’s a huge fee to pay for someone with fewer than 50 league games under their belt. Nevertheless, Guardiola clearly saw enough in his final year in the Bundesliga to convince the City board to fork out the cash. In doing so, Sané became the most expensive German player of all time. This season he will be competing with Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and fellow newcomer Nolito for a place on the City flanks. Much is expected from the young German, and he will have to contribute a lot in order to justify his huge transfer fee.

MANCHESTER UNITED – Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Free Transfer from Paris Saint Germain

He’s finally in the Premier League. United and Ibrahimovic are a perfect fit. At 34 years old, age is no longer on Zlatan’s side. However, a career best 50 goals in 51 games (including 38 in Ligue 1) last season for PSG, goes to show that age is merely just a number. Early signs are that he will make a big impression; he scored the winner in the Community Shield on his competitive debut. Having worked under Mourinho before, both will know what to expect from one another. Don’t be surprised to see him with the golden boot at the end of the campaign.

MIDDLESBROUGH – Victor Valdés – Free Transfer from Manchester United

This is a man who has won 3 Champions Leagues, 6 La Liga titles, 2 Copa del Rey’s, and countless other trophies, not to mention a World Cup and a European Championship. Since leaving Barcelona two years ago Valdés has only played 10 games. It has been a bizarre decline for a goalkeeper with such pedigree. Usually used to challenging for titles, this season will be the reverse. He will be kept very busy and could well be the difference between Middlesbrough staying up or going down.

SOUTHAMPTON – Pierre-Emile Højbjerg – £13 million from Bayern Munich

The young Danish international said he needed to move in order to gain first team football. If he wants to re-join one of Europe’s elite clubs then Southampton is the perfect stepping stone. The ex-Bayern man is a really clever player; good on the ball, and not afraid of a tackle. Could be one of the surprises this season.

STOKE CITY – Joe Allen – £12 million from Liverpool

Outstanding in Wales’ run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016. Mark Hughes has changed Stoke’s long ball approach since taking over from Tony Pulis three years ago. Allen ticks all the boxes for Hughes. An intelligent ball playing midfielder; he will form an exciting midfield partnership with Gianelli Imbula.

SUNDERLAND – Papy Djilobodji – £8 million from Chelsea

Djilobodji is Sunderland’s only signing in what has been an incredibly disrupted summer. Losing manager Sam Allardyce to the England manager’s job meant that little in the way of transfer activity took place. Djilobodji was one of José Mourinho’s last signings at Chelsea. He made one cameo appearance in the League Cup before leaving in January to join Werder Bremen on loan. In Germany he impressed, and new manager David Moyes was quick to make his move upon his appointment last month.

SWANSEA CITY – Fernando Llorente – Free Transfer from Sevilla

The Navarrese native has pedigree. A 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 winner – there aren’t many of them in the Premier League. Nevertheless, at 31 years of age his best years are behind him. Swansea will struggle this season, and the ex-Juventus striker will do well to reach double figures. If Swansea are going to stay up then Llorente’s goals could be vital.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR – Victor Wanyama – £12 million from Southampton

The Kenya international re-joins Pochettino after two years apart. The ex-Celtic man scored against Barcelona in the Champions League and can look forward to more European nights with Spurs this season. With Moussa Dembélé suspended for the opening 5 games of the season, Wanyama will have to be at his creative best. Disciplinary issues have previously been a problem, and he will have to watch out when coming up against Europe’s stricter referees.

WATFORD – Jerome Sinclair – £4 million from Liverpool

Sinclair moved at the end of his contract, but due to being under 24, Watford and Liverpool had to agree a compensation package. A £4 million fee was agreed, and this could well turn out to be a bargain. Sick of not getting a chance at Liverpool, Sinclair will have to settle for a place on the bench initially. With Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo in front of him, Sinclair will have to bide his time, yet, should an injury occur then Sinclair will be ready to make his mark.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION – Matt Phillips – £5 million from Queens Park Rangers

I don’t know why more weren’t chasing the Scotland international. He’s quick, tricky, and hard-working. Pulis has shown a penchant for speedy wingers at West Brom, and Phillips certainly fits the role. Could be a real player to watch this season.

WEST HAM UNITED – Sofiane Feghouli – Free Transfer from Valencia

The French born Algerian international has managed to gain a bit of a bad boy reputation. Under Slaven Bilić any nonsense will not be tolerated. If Bilić can extract some of the Algerian’s potential then he could well turn out to be a smart piece of business.

Why does Roberto Martinez always have a good job?

Why disliking Roberto Martinez is really quite difficult.  But is he any good?

Towards the end of his time at Everton I began to feel sorry for Roberto Martinez. This annoyed me because I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. I wanted to laugh at Everton’s demise and point out all the reasons that Martinez wasn’t the master tactician people had previously championed. I guess that’s the problem with wanting to criticize an inherently nice man.

I can trace my attitude towards Martinez back to the summer of 2012. Liverpool, my team, were manager-less and rumoured to be after the then Wigan manager. He was far trendier than Swansea’s Brendan Rodgers – who would arrive with his own host of quirks and, ultimately, flaws – but I was stubbornly against the Spaniard. I didn’t want to appoint the manager who had guided Wigan to 16th, 16th and 15th since taking over from Steve Bruce.

How they came 16th in 2010 I’ll never quite understand. They had the worst goal difference in the league and mustered a measly 36 points. A touch of class by Charles N’Zogbia here and there plus ten important Hugo Rodallega goals helped Martinez navigate out of the firing line. On the last game of the season they lost 8-0 to Chelsea.

They started the following year with 0-4 and 0-6 defeats to Blackpool and Chelsea again. A predictably tough season followed before Wigan had a jubilant finish to the campaign winning their final two league games and escaping relegation. They had only lost four games since the end of January and Wigan’s love affair with springtime had started.

The 2012 season cemented the Martinez/Wigan style. In the autumn they lost eight straight matches and had limped to just four wins (one at home) by March 17th. Martinez rallied the troops and his side won seven of the final nine games. 21 huge points saw Wigan climb to 15th with Martinez owing to Shaun Maloney and Victor Moses this time around. The worst thing about this pattern was that it left summer conversations peppered with talk of Martinez being a great manager.

For the record, I wanted Wigan to stay up. But I didn’t rate Martinez. For starters, his sides had a tendency to concede. It’s difficult to criticise the Spaniard’s fluid Swansea side (2007-2009) but they were known for scoring, not stopping, goals and claimed a dominate League One title whilst conceding nearly one a game. His Wigan side, admittedly up against it in the top division, were never far away from a drubbing. However, the season before Martinez arrived Wigan had proved what could be achieved finishing 11th and conceding just 45 goals. They shipped 32 extra the following year.

I’m usually not one to pile everything on the manager’s shoulders. I always look to attribute both success and failure to players first – especially if a manager’s intervention isn’t abundantly obvious. However, Martinez has always been successful at putting his print on a side and Wigan’s questionable campaigns were at least partly down to him. He stayed a further year and Wigan stunned the country by winning the F.A cup courtesy of a Ben Watson header. However, Martinez’s magic, or luck, had finally worn off and a terrible winter had sentenced Wigan to relegation at last. And then Everton came knocking.

Instead of struggling on his arrival in Merseyside, Martinez guided Everton to a huge 72 points winning 21 games and conceding just 39 goals. Romelu Lukaku excelled, Ross Barkley emerged and full-backs Leighton Baines and Sheamus Coleman netted 11 times between them. Martinez had never had such riches at his disposal and sparked a sleeping squad into life.

At the end of his first season at Everton I was a Martinez convert – or at the very least happy to say I was wrong – but the next two exploited his flaws. The following year started with one win in six, conceding 14 times. Patchy form continued and a dismal Christmas period saw Everton adrift of the top ten. The defence would only partially improve and goals began to dry up – at one stage the Toffees scored four goals in nine games. Everton would pick up in the spring – as per any Martinez season – but issues remained all over the pitch. A fair share of the blame went to the misfiring squad but Martinez looked out of ideas.

Everton kept faith, Lukaku and John Stones stayed, and a return to the top six was targeted. The season was defined by a failure to turn draws into wins, often conceding late goals or throwing away winning positions. They were never in the hunt for the top eight, let alone top six, and finished 11th once again. Everton’s flaws transcended Martinez but people seemed reluctant to blame the Spaniard at all.

There’s been plenty of high points in Martinez’ managerial career but his reputation is still highly flattering. He failed to take Everton to the next level and instead replaced the stability laid by David Moyes with a tactical patchwork. He’s almost impossible to dislike – I’ve really tried – but I’m not sure how he’s snuck into the upper managerial tiers.

And he’s just done it again! Last week Belgium, ranked number two in the world, approached Martinez with a chance to turn their rough diamonds into tournament winners. He must interview well because there’s little in his past that suggests he is befitting of the role. He’ll be joining up with Lukaku once more and I’m not sure how happy the big man will be.

Having watched a lot of Martinez interviews over the last few days I’ll give him his due – he’s a good talker and the sort of figurehead you would want to represent your club. He’s very humble, holds no grudges, and isn’t afraid to break the status quo. He’s also mastered the managerial dark art of moaning without sounding like you’re moaning. It’s for these reasons he’ll carry on floating from good job to good job. If Belgium fail to qualify for the World Cup he’ll probably wind up managing Barcelona. After two baron seasons at the Nou Camp he’ll land the FIFA presidency.

It seems nice guys don’t always come last – but they come 11th a lot.