Five-a-side TOTW: April 29th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

We are almost over the line. This weeks five-a-side TOTW includes just the five matches. Chelsea maintained their four point lead over Tottenham with a 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal left it late and needed the help of a Robert Huth own goal in order to seal three important points against Leicester City. Christian Eriksen’s ‘golazo’ was the difference in Tottenham’s match against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Middlesbrough won for the first time 2017 to all but condemn Sunderland to Championship football next season. And on Thursday the Manchester derby ended goalless.

Goalkeeper – Brad Guzan

Very much seen as the back up to Victor Valdés, the ex-Aston Villa keeper has had to accept a bit-part role. In fact, Wednesday’s 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Sunderland was only the 10th time that the American had appeared in a Middlesbrough shirt this season. Guzan looked assured between the sticks, and made an impressive four saves. The win was Boro’s first since in 2017. They had not claimed a Premier League win since the 3-0 hammering of Swansea City way back mid-December. That miserable run has all but confirmed that they will be playing their football in the Championship next season.

The Stopper – Eric Bailly

Injuries have not helped the young Ivorian settle. After starting this season as first choice and appearing in 13 of United’s first 15 matches, it seemed as though United manager, José Mourinho, had found his rock at the back. Since injuring his knee in United’s 4-0 defeat against champions elect Chelsea in late October, the ex-Villareal man has only appeared in 19 out of a possible 42 matches. He has started in United’s last nine games, a run that has seen them keep five clean sheets and only concede four goals. In the 0-0 draw over Manchester rivals, City, Bailly was absolutely superb. His speed, strength and reading of the game really shone through. If he can remain fit and injury free, United will have a serious player on their hands.

The Midfielder – Cesc Fàbregas

He’s in, he’s out. Poor old Cesc Fàbregas. He just can’t seem to get a solid run of games together. It is is true that he is competing for places with the PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté, and the vastly improved Nemanja Matic. Nonetheless, the ex-Arsenal man must be frustrated with his situation. If he was looking to make a point then his display in Chelsea’s entertaining 4-2 win over Southampton would not have done him any harm. Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, cannot have helped but been impressed with the Spaniards intelligent use of the ball. Time and time again he picked out teammates with perfectly threaded passes, even assisting Costa for his first. Rumours continue to circulate regarding AC Milan’s interest in taking the ex-Arsenal and Barcelona man over to Italy in the summer. Fàbregas turns 30 next week, and he will no doubt be keen to ensure that he is part of a team that picks him more regularly than every other game.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

I must confess – I have never really been convinced by this guy. I have always felt that he has flattered to deceive. Yes, his set pieces are nearly always on the money, and yes, he scores the odd spectacular goal; however, I have always felt that there has been something lacking from his game. I was astonished to find out earlier this week that the Dane has covered more ground than anybody else in the Premier League this season. Furthermore, he is second only to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne for Premier League assists, with an impressive 12 to his name. His brilliant match winning goal against Crystal Palace was his eighth of the season, and it kept Tottenham’s unlikely title charge on track. I am going to have to eat my words over the ex-Ajax man and admit that he has turned into a really fine player.

The Finisher – Diego Costa

His form blows as hot and cold as his temperament. He scored 15 goals in his first 19 Premier League games of the season. In the following 12 he has managed just four. Against Southampton the Brazilian born Spain international was back to his best. An assist and two goals ensured that Chelsea kept their distance over Tottenham. His second goal was absolutely brilliant. Exchanging one-twos with two of his Chelsea teammates; Eden hazard first, then Pedro second, before rifling in a low drive past Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal. A brilliant performance overall.

Five-a-side TOTW: January 17th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton and Spurs all enjoyed big victories, whilst at the other end of the table Crystal Palace lost heavily to leave them sitting perilously close to the danger zone. Elsewhere there were good wins for Burnley, Hull and Stoke. But who impressed us enough to make it into this weeks five-a-side TOTW?

Goalkeeper – Simon Mignolet

Mignolet has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent weeks. So much so that he is featuring in his second five-a-side TOTW in five weeks. It’s been quite a turnaround for the Belgian stopper. His early season jitters saw him replaced by new signing Loris Karius who proved to be just as, if not more, jittery. Since returning to the side Mignolet has impressed. He’s looked more confident, he’s been braver, and crucially he’s been more commanding. He was solid against United; denying several United players what would have been equalising goals. When the inevitable equaliser did come he certainly wasn’t to blame.

The Right Wingback – Antonio Valencia

He won’t have made everyone’s team, nevertheless I thought the Manchester United man had a fine game. He bombed up and down the right channel, and kept Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino quiet when they came up against him. To cap off a thoroughly decent display, he found himself in the penalty area to provide a cute assist for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to head United level. A draw was not the result that either team would have wanted or indeed needed, however it was probably a fair one.

The Anchor – Gareth Barry

I would have to disagree with those who would say that the young Tom Davies outshone the veteran Gareth Barry in Everton’s 4-0 drubbing of Manchester City. It really was a quite superb performance by the former England midfielder. He bossed his old Manchester City team mates with such ease that you were made to wonder why exactly they got rid of him. Barry has never been renowned for his pace, but his reading of the game is a match for anyone in the league. Time after time he nipped in ahead of a City player, winning back possession before using the ball intelligently. It seems quite incredible that he is still ONLY 35 – it certainly feels like he’s been around for ever. This was Premier League appearance No.614; he will surely go on to break Ryan Giggs’ all time Premier League record within the next 12 months.

The Left Wingback – Marcos Alonso

Chelsea fans could have been forgiven for worrying about where the goals were going to come from in this match. Diego Costa’s ‘injury’ had meant that the Stamford Bridge outfit were without their star striker and the league’s top scorer. They needn’t have worried though – as up stepped Marco Alonso. There were many questions asked when Chelsea boss Antonio Conte parted with £24 million for the former Bolton Wanderers man. However, Alonso has turned out to be something of a revelation. He has made the left wingback position his own, and chipped in with two goals against Leicester City. He so nearly had a hat-trick to his name when his sumptuous left foot volley narrowly missed the far post.

The Finisher – Harry Kane

Who else could have got the nod here? The Spurs man was in quite superb form, taking his Premier League goals tally to 13 for the season. Spurs have been on fire in recent weeks, but it’s been Kane’s Spurs team mate, Dele Alli, stealing all the limelight. On Saturday it was the Tottenham No.10 who stole the show. His first goal was an emphatic finish that rattled in off the crossbar. The second was vintage Kane – taking advantage of some sloppy defending, before finishing smartly past the despairing dive of Ben Foster in the West Brom goal. The hat-trick was sealed after yet more good build up play, as Kane latched on to a deft lobbed pass by Alli and smashed the ball into the back of the net. Spurs are currently seven points behind leaders Chelsea, and on this weeks’ evidence, they look like the only team capable of catching them.

Why Chelsea must now be seen as favourites for the title

After extending their winning run to 9 games, Simmo looks at why Chelsea must now be considered favourites to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

Nobody wins the title in December, but you can most certainly lose it. Chelsea’s 3-1 win at The Etihad last weekend put down a marker to all the other teams in the title race. It is the sort of result that makes a big statement – and didn’t Chelsea do just that?

It was not just the the result that was impressive, it was the manner in which they won. Gary Cahill’s own goal just before half time had given Manchester City a deserved lead. In the first half they had outplayed Chelsea and had missed several good chances. Chelsea’s seven game winning run looked like it could well come to an end.

The second half began in much the same way as the first half had ended – City were still on top. However, the game was to be turned on its head in the space of three extraordinary second half minutes. When Jesus Navas crossed the ball to Kevin De Bruyne in the 57th minute, the Belgian looked destined to make it 2-0. The City winger was just six yards out with the whole goal to aim at, yet still, inexplicably managed to miss.

That miss seemed to galvanise Chelsea. When Cesc Fàbregas collected the ball inside his own half there seemed to be little in the way of danger for the City defence. Fàbregas, like Chelsea, has endured a difficult 18 months. Much maligned, criticised, and even at times written off, the Spaniard has looked a shadow of his former self. Persistent rumours have linked him with a move away from the club, yet in this game he perhaps demonstrated his value to the team. His 50 yard pass into Diego Costa was inch perfect, nevertheless, the Chelsea striker still had an awful lot to do. He chested the ball down beyond the hapless Nicolas Otamendi, before smashing the ball past Claudio Bravo.

The goal had come out of nothing – it really was the classic sucker punch. In many ways it was indicative of the sort of tactics Antonio Conte has brought to the Stamford Bridge outfit. It was unpredictable, quick, and lethal. City, for all of their possession had been outclassed and outdone by a goal that really was a throwback to goals scored in years gone by.

Fàbregas’ ingenuity, and Costa’s skill and technique were to be ably backed up by the finishing of both Willian and Eden Hazard. Willian, Chelsea’s best player last season, has had to settle for a peripheral role throughout much of this campaign. His introduction from the bench seemed to further reveal City’s frailties when facing pace. When Costa once again got the better of Otamendi, Chelsea used their pace to deadly affect. Breaking  on the City backline, Willian was able to out run Aleksandar Kolarov before calmly slotting past Bravo.

Chelsea’s third goal once again saw City’s lack of pace exposed. Pushing for an equaliser, they neglected their defensive responsibilities, allowing Eden Hazard to this time beat Aleksandar Kolarov before firing into the City net.

All three of Chelsea’s goals had a certain ruthlessness about them. Whilst City had their chances, Chelsea were devastating with their finishing. It is that sort of deadliness in front of goal that wins you titles. When Leicester City visited The Etihad last season they won by the same score line, and there were certainly parallels between Chelsea’s display last weekend and Leicester’s back in January. Both teams absorbed City’s attacks before breaking in numbers and showing good composure in front of goal. City, on both occasions were unable to respond.

Yet, despite the impressive nature of Chelsea’s win, the acid test for a title chasing team is to win when you are not playing well. Before this weekend, Chelsea were yet to demonstrate this. However, their 1-0 victory against West Brom proved that even when were things were not going as well as they hoped they were still able to find a way through.

West Brom had set themselves up to frustrate Chelsea. The 3-4-3 formation that has served Conte and his side so well in recent months was not having the desired impact. A change to a more conventional 4-5-1 proved the catalyst for a change in fortune, and the introduction of Fàbregas from the bench once again proved to be telling.

For much of the game Costa had looked isolated; his teammates had been unable to find any sort of decisive pass. Although the winner was more than a little fortuitous, it came from one of the few times that Chelsea went direct. Costa’s persistence and work rate paid off as Gareth McAuley dallied whilst clearing the ball. Still with a lot to do, the Brazil born Spain international rifled an unstoppable shot past Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.

The performance against West Brom was certainly not vintage, and it was not necessarily the sort of performance that sends out an intimidating warning to rivals. What was impressive was the fact that Chelsea were struggling and yet still managed to find a way to get the win.

This sort of resilience is what title winning teams have to demonstrate. You cannot play well for 38 games in a season – it is nigh on impossible. Therefore, it is important that on your off days you are able to grind out results.

A win is three points wherever you get it. It does not matter who it is against, it still is only ever worth three points. The match against West Brom was perhaps a greater test of character than the win against City. Had Chelsea lost at The Etihad few would have bat an eyelid; had they lost at home to a West Brom team who had not won at Stamford Bridge for nearly 40 years then there would have been many questions asked.

Chelsea have proved twice in the last week that they have the ability, steel, and capability to mount a genuine title challenge. They have proved it against the favourites, and they have proved it in a game where they were struggling to perform. There will be other tests before May, however Chelsea have certainly laid down a marker over the last eight days.

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