Five-a-side TOTW: April 6th 2017

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

Arsenal maintained their relatively slim top-four hopes with a comfortable 3-0 victory at home to out of form West Ham. There were also home wins for Leicester and Watford against Sunderland and West Brom respectively. Burnley secured an important win at home to Stoke to allay their relegation fears. Liverpool could only manage a 2-2 draw at home to Bournemouth whilst both Southampton and Chelsea won at home; the Saints defeating a resurgent Crystal Palace 3-1, and Chelsea recovering from their brief blip at the weekend to win 2-1 against Manchester City. A defeat that all but ended their visitors already slim title hopes. Hull recorded an important 4-2 win over Middlesbrough in an entertaining game at the KC. Manchester United left it late but recorded yet another home draw against Everton; Zlatan Ibrahimovic saving their blushes with a last minute spot kick. And finally Spurs scored three goals in the final five minutes to come from behind and defeat Swansea 3-1 at The Liberty Stadium. But who made it into our team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Kasper Schmeichel

Before Craig Shakespeare took the job many were expecting last seasons champions to be plying their trade in English football’s second tier next season. The appointment of Shakespeare has led to a drastic turnaround in the Foxes form. The 2-0 win over Sunderland was Leicester’s fifth Premier League win in a row and sixth in all competitions. It was also a second consecutive Premier League clean sheet for Schmeichel, only the second time he has managed this all season. Schmeichel has indisputably been Leicester’s best player this season. He has galvanised him teammates at times where they looked downtrodden and hopelessly out of form. Leicester will stay up this season, and Schmeichel will have more than played his part.

The Stopper – Phil Jagielka

This guy is an enigma. I sometimes look at him and think “how on earth can he have won 40 England caps?” Well his performance on Tuesday evening against Manchester United justified those 40 caps and probably silenced many of his critics. He was nothing short of outstanding as he captained Everton to a very deserved point at Old Trafford. The ex-Sheffield United man threw himself in front of shots, made perfectly timed tackles, and managed to silence the Stretford End with a really smart finish. Out of favour under Koeman for much of this season, the veteran centre half demonstrated that he is more than able to compete with the biggest names. Ibrahimovic was kept quiet up until his late penalty earned Manchester United a point they hardly merited.

The Enforcer – Idrissa Gueye

I said at the beginning of this season that this man would be Everton’s key summer signing. He really does look to have been a snip at £7 million. Like Jagielka he was brilliant against United; he controlled the game and won the ball back for his team on countless occasions. The Senegal international has made more tackles and interceptions than any other player in the Premier League this season. If Everton are going to make a late charge for the European places then Gueye will have to maintain his impressive form.

The Free Role – Eden Hazard

When he wants to be he is absolutely brilliant and, more often than not, when he is, so are Chelsea. Against Manchester City was one of those nights that the mercurial Belgian decided he was going to turn it on. His two goals maintained Chelsea’s seven point lead over London rivals Tottenham. He has been involved in 18 Premier League goals this season and looks likely to break his previous best Premier League goals tally which stands at 14 (he’s currently on 13). Chelsea will almost certainly go on to claim their second title in three years, and Hazard will have been one of the key players in the success.

The Finisher – Jamie Vardy

He has got six goals in the six games that Craig Shakespeare has been in charge. Prior to that he had only managed the same number in his previous 38 games. The upturn in Vardy’s form has been a key factor in Leicester’s recent run of results. After scoring an absolutely brilliant goal against Stoke in the previous game, Vardy continued his goalscoring run against the leagues basement club, Sunderland. With the Champions League returning this week and City facing a tricky trip to Atletico Madrid, Shakespeare and Leicester fans will be hoping that the Vardy party will keep going on.

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Five-a-side TOTW: March 21st 2017

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

Chelsea continued their march towards the title with an impressive win over Stoke City. West Brom shocked Arsenal at The Hawthorns, and Manchester United won at Middlesbrough. The best viewing was at The Etihad as Manchester City and Liverpool played out a very entertaining one-all draw. Elsewhere there were wins for Crystsal Palace, Everton, Bournemouth, Leicester, and Spurs. But who did enough to earn a place in Someone On the Post’s coveted five-a-side TOTW?

Goalkeeper – Tom Heaton

The Burnley stopper has excelled this season, and this has been evident by the fact that he has been included in our five-a-side TOTW no fewer than 5 times. Burnley’s trip to relegation favourites Sunderland was always likely to be a tricky affair. The Clarets had picked up just one point on their travels prior to Saturday’s dour 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light. Although both teams were impotent in front of goal, Heaton always looked assured when called upon. It makes such a difference knowing you have a top keeper between the sticks.

Stopper – Mamadou Sakho

People accuse me of bias, and they probably do have a point – but I don’t really care. I love this guy and I am not ashamed to admit it. Since his introduction to the team in late February, the Eagles have won three consecutive games, all while keeping clean sheets. The big-Frenchmen is not solely responsible for this of course, however his strength, power, pace and reading of the game has certainly contributed to Palace’s upturn in form. How Liverpool could do with a central defender of his calibre…

The Anchor – Craig Dawson

I know this makes this team very defensive, but how can you leave out a defender who scores two goals? The simple answer is that you can’t! Dawson’s brace came from corners – it was almost as if West Brom had done their homework and decided to target Arsenal’s vulnerability in the air. Arsenal certainly had not done theirs, and it was evident as feeble marking allowed the ex-Rochdale man to treble his goal tally for the season in one afternoon.

The Playmaker – Jesse Lingard

I have been a fierce critic of his, and I must admit I continue to be unconvinced by his ability to hack it at both Manchester United or at international level with England. Yet even my cynicism cannot deny that Lingard’s performance, albeit against a woeful Middlesbrough side, was absolutely outstanding. He caused havoc amongst the Boro defence – taking them on at will and looking to run in behind. His goal was absolutely superb too. Receiving the ball just inside the Middlesbrough half, he ran at the retreating defenders before unleashing a ferocious shot into the top corner. It really was a sensational goal, and it capped off a very impressive individual performance.

The Finisher – Romelu Lukaku

If he is going to leave Everton in the summer he looks determined to do so as the leagues top scorer. His two goals on Saturday were typical strikers goals; what’s more they took his tally beyond 20 goals for the season – the first Everton player to do that since one Gary Lineker. Lukaku is a brilliant striker – big, strong, and deceivingly quick. The Belgian really does tick all the boxes. It is no surprise that some of Europe’s biggest clubs are sniffing around the ex-Chelsea striker. Still only 23, his best years are almost certainly ahead of him. Everton don’t want him to leave, and the fans sang his name throughout the 4-0 win over Hull. It will be interesting to see how his future plays out in the next few months.

Five-a-side TOTW: March 5th 2017

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

Another round of Premier League fixtures – another five-a-side team of the week. Chelsea kept their 10 point lead at the top of the table with a hard-fought win at West Ham. Harry Kane outdid Romelu Lukaku in the battle of the leagues top scorers as Spurs won 3-2 against Everton. Liverpool beat top-four rivals Arsenal at Anfield, while, in a tasty clash, Manchester United could only draw at home to Bournemouth. Swansea scored a last minute winner at home to Burnley, and Leicester won for the second time in a row under caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare.

Goalkeeper – Artur Boruc

It’s not often that an opposition goalkeeper goes to Old Trafford and wins the man of the match award. However, that is exactly what the big Pole did this weekend. He was absolutely fantastic as he repelled numerous efforts on his goal. His fine all round performance was rounded off by an excellent save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s penalty. Boruc has found himself heavily criticised at points this season. Having conceded an average of nearly three goals a game in 2017, Boruc and his teammates will have been relieved with this highly spirited defensive performance.

The Stopper – Mamadou Sakho

I actually cannot believe that this man is playing at Crystal Palace. When he was coming through the ranks at PSG he was tipped to be the next mega superstar centre back. His move to Liverpool has been disrupted by injuries, poor form, allegedly inappropriate behaviour and poor attitude. In my opinion he remains Liverpool’s best centre back – what he is doing playing for a team fighting for Premier League survival I will never know.  Manager Sam Allardyce has decided to pair the French defender with summer signing James Tomkins in recent weeks. It certainly looks like the partnership could provide the foundations for Palace to move away from the drop zone. The 2-0 away win against West Brom was the first time that Palace had recored consecutive clean sheets this season.

The Runner – Georginio Wijnaldum

The Dutch international was in absolutely brilliant form during Liverpool’s dominant 3-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday evening. With captain Jordan Henderson injured, the responsibility fell on Wijnaldum and Emre Can to marshall the Liverpool midfield. Both played very well, yet the Dutchman really was the stand out performer. He absolutely ran the midfield – winning tackles, linking the play, and even managing to get on the scoresheet when finishing off an excellent team move. Having now grabbed goals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, the former Feyenord and Newcastle player is proving that he is the man for the big occasion.

Free Role – Andros Townsend

After initially seeming out of favour under new boss Sam Allardyce, the former Tottenham and Newcastle winger has really started to establish himself at the South-London club. His goal against West Brom was as good as it was important. It sealed a valuable three points for The Eagles and ensured that they moved further away from the relegation places. It would be nice to see Townsend go on a real run between now and the end of the season. He deserves the chance to establish himself in the Premier League after frustrating spells at both Spurs and Newcastle. If he continues his recent good performances there is no reason why he can’t become one of the best wide-men in the league. With England’s game against Germany coming up in just two weeks, there is further incentive for him to keep turning in the performances.

The Finisher – Harry Kane

I love this guy. I saw something in Kane on Saturday that made me think that he really has reached the elite level. With the scores at 0-0, both teams struggling to make an impact on the game, the Tottenham striker dropped deep to receive the ball. Thirty yards out and with his back to goal, Kane swiveled, and moved the ball onto his favoured right foot. From there the Tottenham no.10 did exactly what he does best – thumping the ball into the back of the net. The goal was brilliant and provided the turning point in the game. Grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck is really the sort of thing that the best players in the world do. In my opinion, Kane has now reached that level. For someone who has scored nearly 80 goals in the last three seasons, he has an unusually large number of critics. I would love nothing more than for the England man to top the scoring charts once again at the end of the season.

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.

Huw Jenkins: The Swansea Slayer

Swansea are bottom of the table and seemingly destined for relegation to The Championship. Simmo looks at why the Swansea chairman, Huw Jenkins, is to blame for the clubs pitiful demise. 

I feel sorry for Bob Bradley – if you were to ask most neutrals then they would probably say the same. The job he took on at Swansea really was a mission impossible.

Looking through that Swansea team it is difficult to see any other outcome other than their relegation to British footballs second tier. I can’t think of a single player, bar the goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and playmaker Gylfi Sigurðsson, who would get into any other team in the Premier League.

The demise of Swansea City is a sad one. When they were promoted under Brendan Rodgers they were an exciting, dynamic outfit that looked to play good expansive football. Players such as Scott Sinclair and Ashley Williams had excelled in the Championship and took their good form into their debut season’s in the Premier League.

It really was refreshing to see a newly promoted team play football out from the back. This was largely down to the philosophy that Brendan Rodgers instilled in the team. He believed that his teams should play in a particular way. It was brave and certainly admired. Rodgers’s reputation soared to the extent that he took over the reins at Liverpool in the summer of 2012. Huw Jenkins acted quickly and sealed the services of ex Denmark and Barcelona legend Michael Laudrup.

Laudrup’s appointment was seen as a bit of a coup, and indeed he was able to use his substantial connections within the game to convince a host of players to join the Swans during that summer. Players such as Michu, Pablo Hernández and Ki Sung-yueng arrived with burgeoning reputations.

At the beginning of his tenure, Laudrup looked to be building on the good work done by Rodgers. Whilst Rodger’s teams had often been exciting to watch, they lacked the defensive nous to succeed on a weekly basis in the Premier League. Laudrup looked to rectify this, and added steel to the Swansea backline through signings such as Chico Flores. Laudrup had looked to have taken the Swans to the next level. He was establishing them as a Premier League team and was picking up some very impressive results along the way.

Under the Danes stewardship, Swansea won the 2013 League Cup by beating fourth tier Bradford City 5-0 a Wembley Stadium. But even Laudrup’s success was not enough to prevent him from being fired. Poor form and alleged wrangling over contracts and signings led to Jenkins dismissing him in in February 2014.

His replacement Garry Monk was a popular choice amongst fans. Having been with the Swans for a decade, he knew the way in which the club worked, and most importantly, was familiar with the squad of players available to him. As a young English manager, the Premier League can be a daunting place. Indeed, a host of far more established names have fallen victim to the trials and tribulations of England’s top tier. Monk, however, took it like a duck takes to water. He looked assured, tactically astute, and most importantly strong enough to deal with the pressures of the role. What’s more, he made what can sometimes be a difficult transition, from team mate to manager, look effortless.

Monk really did look like he had all the credentials to become a top Premier League manager. That was until Jenkins once again wielded the axe. A poor run of one win in 11 games led to Monk being ‘relieved of his duties.’ Jenkins will look to justify his decision by saying that Monk had accomplished all he had been brought in to do. When he replaced Laudrup there had been an almost instant upturn in form. Monk steered the ship to safety, but as soon as it entered difficult waters Jenkins was more than prepared to make his manager walk the plank.

The appointment of veteran Italian, Francesco Guidolin, was not seen as particularly inspiring. However, the 2015/2016 season proved to be a good one for veteran Italian coaches. Guidolin took Swansea back to basics and led them away from the relegation zone. They sealed Premier League survival with an impressive 3-1 win over Liverpool. Guidolin’s appointment had proved to be a successful one. He won seven of his 15 league games, including impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham.

Under Guidolin, Swansea started the new season well with a 1-0 win at newly promoted Burnley. However, he had lost the services of his inspirational captain Ashley Williams to Everton in the summer. The signing of Mike van der Hoorn for £2 million From Ajax was not the sort of signing that gave Swansea fans a great deal of confidence. Elsewhere, Andre Ayew joined West Ham in a £20 million deal. A sizeable income, however, nearly £16 million of that money was reinvested in the young Spaniard, Borja Bastón, a player who had made fewer than 40 appearances in Spain’s top tier.

It seemed glaringly obvious that Guidolin’s team lacked the required experience to maintain their Premier League status. After winning only one of their opening seven league games, Jenkins once again decided that enough was enough.

This led to the appointment of Bradley – one that was unsurprisingly met with a great deal of skepticism. Although he had managed both the United States and Egyptian national teams with moderate success, his last job in football had been in the French second tier with Le Havre. It was hardly the ideal pedigree.

However those who were judging Bradley by his past managerial experience were simply being naïve. Many managers have arrived in the Premier League from lesser know leagues and enjoyed great success. Look no further than Arsène Wenger, who was brought in from Japanese football.

Indeed there was a certain level of arrogance amongst pundits and British football aficionados. What could an American possibly know about the English game? Whilst it is true that Bradley’s results were not great, people focused on irrelevant details, such as him referring to a penalty kick as a ‘PK.’ The vocabulary that Bradley used certainly was not the reason that his Swansea team struggled so much. Bradley was brought in to try and help ward off another inevitable fight with relegation – yet he wasn’t even given a transfer window to bring his own players in. What was he supposed to do?

People will point to the fact that the Swans leaked goals under the American. Yes, this was certainly true. However Bradley would almost certainly not have sanctioned the sale of Williams had he been in charge.

Therefore the problems at Swansea seem to all lead back to one man – Huw Jenkins. He is the man that has now sacked four managers in the last three seasons. He is the man who let Wilfried Bony go, sold Ben Davies to Tottenham, and of course let Williams join Everton. He is the man that seemed to crave rapid Premier League success over a long term and clearly defined project.

His latest appointment, that of Bayern Munich assistant, Paul Clement is again an odd one. Whilst Clement is widely regarded as one of the finest British coaches around, having held positions with Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid, and of course Bayern, he has only had one very brief experience in first team management, a partially successful half season with Derby County. Once again it is hardly the sort of appointment that gives you much hope of ensuring Premier League survival.

In my opinion Swansea’s six year stay in the Premier League will be over come May. Either way, whoever is in charge when this Swansea side goes down must be given the chance to rebuild. Not since Rodgers has a Swansea manager been in charge for two consecutive seasons. This lack of stability is an inherent problem, and breeds uncertainty right the way through the club. Sustained long term success is only ever really achieved when people are given a chance in the short term. Jenkins has so far been unwilling to do that.

Five-a-side TOTW: December 15th 2016

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

A full round of mid-week fixtures? It must be nearly Christmas. Chelsea benefitted from Arsenal’s 2-1 loss to Everton at Goodison Park by extending their lead to six points at the top of the Premier League. Manchester City won a league game at home for the first time in three months, and Liverpool halted their mini bad run of form with a resounding win at Middlesbrough. But who has made our five-a-side team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Simon Mignolet

Recalled for the first time in 10 Premier League games, and the Belgian did not disappoint. He looked solid and assured, particularly when he denied Victor Fischer’s rasping drive. The 3-0 win over Middlesbrough saw Liverpool claim their first clean sheet in three games, a welcome relief after conceding six in their previous two league games. Mignolet has been much criticised in the past, yet very few pundits would have found fault with his performance against the relegation candidates.

The Stopper – David Luiz

I have previously voiced concerns about this mans defensive abilities, but boy has he proved me wrong. He’s been a rock since rejoining Chelsea in the summer and has been the lynchpin in a defence that has conceded just two goals in ten Premier League games. Assured in possession and strong in the tackle, the Brazilian centre half really has been a revelation. Antonio Conte has deployed him in the centre of a back three with Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill either side. Together the trio have provided the foundations for a 10 game winning streak. Chelsea fans will hope that the big-haired Luiz will continue his impressive form.

The Runner – Adam Lallana 

In his first season at Liverpool he scored five league goals all season. In his second he could not even match that as he found the net just four times. This season, and bearing in mind we’re not even half way through, he has already six Premier League goals to his name. The goals he scored in Liverpool’s 3-0 win were testament to how he has improved as a player. The first was a bullet of a header from an impeccably timed the run. The second was a calm finish after he once again checked his run at the back post. He is fast becoming a key player for both club and country.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

It took a while for the Dane to join the party – but after five goals in his last four Premier League games it would seem that Tottenham’s little maestro is back to his best. His double against Hull City was his second in as many games at White Hart Lane. Pochettino altered Tottenham’s formation slightly, choosing to go with a back three and two wing backs. This enabled Eriksen to play a little more centrally – a role that undoubtedly suits him better.

The Finisher – Salomón Rondón 

A hat-trick of headers! I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. The Venezuelan usually goes under the radar, but he is certainly one of the most underrated centre forwards in the Premier League. The West Brom No.9 certainly benefitted from some hopeless Swansea marking for his first two goals. On both occasions the Swans defence just simply seemed to switch off. However his third goal of the evening was a thing of beauty. Towering above two defenders, Rondon flicked the ball over the despairing Lukasz Fabianski. Rondon’s eight league goals this season have propelled West Brom up to the dizzy heights of seventh.

Why a Scotland victory is not as unlikely as some may think

Simmo looks ahead to the England vs Scotland game, and discusses why Scotland could cause a huge upset. 

 

England versus Scotland. It’s the oldest fixture in international football. Ever since its first contest way back in 1872, the two Auld Enemies have faced each other with unprecedented passion and pride.

Tonight’s encounter will be the 113th contest between these two great footballing nations. England lead the head-to-head 47-24 and are expected to increase their lead. Yet whilst England go into the game as overwhelming favourites, the Tartan Army travel south with great hope and anticipation. It could be argued that this confidence is somewhat misplaced.

The importance of tonight’s fixture is further exacerbated by the fact that neither team can really afford to lose. Scotland know that this game is crucial if they are going to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Both teams are in the middle of poor runs of form. Scotland arrive at Wembley on the back of a terrible 3-0 loss in Slovakia, a result that left them three points behind England in Group F. England did not fare too much better last time out either, escaping  with a point during a dour 0-0 draw away in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.

Prior to that, England had claimed two underwhelming victories away to Slovakia and at home to Malta, results that hardly washed away the pain of the dismal Euro 2016 campaign. Scotland on the other hand won convincingly in Malta but then suffered disappointment as they could only muster a  1-1 draw at home to Lithuania.

These recent results have left both teams in difficult situations. Internal investigations have yielded more questions than answers. Neither team has been able to find a remedy to the problems they currently face.

However, the problems facing Scotland are certainly of a different nature to those that England face. A quick examination of both squads would lead most footballing ‘experts’ to conclude that there can only be one winner. England’s squad beats Scotland comfortably, on paper at least. However, football matches aren’t decided on paper – if they were then England would have comfortably defeated Iceland back in June.

For Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan, the dearth of talent available will be a real concern. Indeed this has been an inherent problem for Scotland managers for the last 10 to 15 years. There probably has not been a single Scotland player, barring Darren Fletcher in his Manchester United heyday, who would have got anywhere near the England team since the turn of the century. The chasm in quality between the two teams has never been wider.

The reasons behind this are perhaps not as simple as one might think. The difference between the players is certainly not down to England’s exceptional pool of talent; no, it is more a result of  Scotland’s extraordinary lack of.

A quick glance through the Scotland squad reveals a stark reality. Just over half of those selected by Strachan ply their trade in one of Europe’s top tiers. Six play in England’s Premier division, but none for a team in the top half of the table. A further seven play in Scotland, of which four play for reigning champions and runaway leaders, Celtic.

Of those four only two can be considered first team regulars, one being Scott Brown, the Celtic captain, whose retirement from international football lasted only marginally longer than Sam Allardyce’s reign as England boss. Ollie Burke, the only player to play outside of the British Isles, features for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, but even he has only started one match since his big money move from Nottingham Forest. Of the remaining twelve, eleven play for clubs in England’s second tier, and one, John McGinn plays for Hibernian, in Scotland’s second division.

That compared to the group of players which England’s interim manager Gareth Southgate has been able to call upon. His squad of  25 consists of 24 players in England’s top flight, with Joe Hart, on loan at Torino in Italian’s Serie A, the only exception to the rule.

Certainly the two squads differ in quality. There can be no doubting that England have a very good group of players available, yet they seem completely incapable of gelling as a team.

This lack of unity and cohesion has never been more apparent than when England have played at Wembley. Indeed, the last time that Scotland visited the self-proclaimed ‘home of football‘ they led twice before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat. That night, like many others at Wembley, England players seemed incapable of dealing with the pressure of playing there.

There could be no serious suggestion that the players felt intimidated by the raucous crowd. Since reopening, Wembley has become notorious for its mellow and subdued atmosphere. It has even been argued that this may well have an adverse affect on those playing there. In other words there are those who believe that the tame atmosphere transmits itself onto the pitch affecting the players, the intensity of their game and vice versa. Yet to believe that would be an implying that correlation equals causation. Footballers are professionals, and they ought to be able to adapt to the the situations in which they find themselves in.

A stronger argument would perhaps be England’s inability to deal with situations in which they are the overwhelming favourites, as evidenced by the Iceland game. Whilst the following statement might sound clichéd, England players must endeavour to play the opposition rather than the occasion. They have to show bravery, strength, and most crucially, not wilt under pressure.

Too often England players seem unable to transfer their often excellent club form onto the international stage. This ultimately leads to accusations that England players are simply not good enough, or that they are overhyped – neither statement has any foundation at all.

If the pressure and expectation inhibits England, then the lack of certainly prohibits Scotland. The mantra ‘nothing to lose’ has never been more apt. A draw would be considered a highly successful result – a win would immortalise this group of players.

For this reason it is perhaps fair to assume that it is Strachan’s ideal fixture. If he could have picked any team to face it probably would have been England. He knows that he will not have to give a team talk. He knows that he will not have to rile his team up. His only job on the night will be to make sure that his players keep their emotions in check when the game inevitably begins to boil over.

If England allow that to happen then they will have really played into Scotland’s hands. Scotland will want a scrappy, fast, and aggressive game. They know that if they go nose to nose with England they will likely end up on the losing side. They will want the match to descend into a feisty and bad-tempered affair. If that happens then Strachan and his Scotland players will know that they have rattled their opponents.

The game will probably lack in quality but definitely not in intrigue. Both teams will approach this game with a certain level of trepidation, not wanting to take unnecessary risks; both know exactly what is at stake.

Defeat for England would lead to an internal inquisition perhaps even more severe than the one that followed the Iceland result. Defeat for Scotland would almost certainly signal the end of another qualifying campaign.

The winner really will take it all; the lose will be left standing small. Having said all that, it will most probably end up being a draw!

Five-a-side TOTW: November 8th 2016

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

Chelsea were the only team to keep a Premier League clean sheet in match week 11, as they romped to a 5-0 win over Everton at Stamford Bridge. Sunderland finally claimed their first league win of the season and Arsenal and Spurs shared the spoils in the North London derby. But who made it into our five-a-side TOTW?

Goalkeeper – Jordan Pickford

This is the third time that Pickford has made it into our 5TOTW. That’s quite some achievement considering he’s playing in a team that sits bottom of the Premier League. Pickford has easily been Sunderland’s stand-out player this season, and he was in imperious form once again on Saturday. His brilliant performance ensured that Sunderland claimed their first league win of the season at the eleventh time of asking. On the numerous occasions that the Sunderland defence was breached, Pickford was there to thwart Bournemouth attacks. Still only 22, he has an enormous future in the game.

The Stopper – Jan Vertonghen

Spurs changed to a back-three for the North London derby, with Vertonghen demonstrating his defensive prowess on numerous occasions. His reading of the game was excellent, and he produced some vital headers to prevent Arsenal snatching victory towards the end. Vertonghen was also at the heart of things when the match threatened to boil over, taking particular exception to Theo Walcott’s reaction to a flailing Victor Wanyama arm. The big Belgian has been without his regular centre-back partner, Toby Alderweireld, in recent weeks, yet he has adapted well and has looked confident in dealing with most things that have been thrown at him.

The Runner – Mousa Dembélé

The North London derby was by no means a classic, yet Dembélé put in a performance of supreme quality. He was the best player on the pitch, controlling the game, winning the ball, and driving forward from midfield. His powerful run earned Spurs the penalty from which Harry Kane equalised. The Belgian midfielder looks unflappable at times, oozing with confidence on the ball, as well as possessing so much strength that opposition players seem to almost bounce off him. Spurs really do miss him when he doesn’t play.

Free Role – Eden Hazard

Yes, that’s right, another Belgian! When Hazard plays like this you can’t help but wonder what went so badly wrong last season? I’ve been critical of him at times in the past, but there can be no denying his natural talent. He ran the show against Everton, running at and taking on defenders at will, as well as chipping in with some truly audacious bits of skill. And oh, he also scored two brilliant goals. It was probably the best individual performance in the Premier League this season. His run of form has coincided with Antonio Conte’s decision to change to a 3-4-3 system; it certainly seems to bring the best out of him and his fellow winger Pedro.

The Finisher – Diego Costa

This was a difficult choice. I was tempted to go with Zlatan Ibrahimovic following his two goals away at Swansea, however, I’ve decided to go with the Chelsea striker who was once again excellent, laying on an assist for Hazard before grabbing a goal himself. Costa has been directly involved in 12 goals this season, two more than anyone else in the Premier League. If I’m being harsh he could have, and perhaps should have, had a hat-trick on Saturday. The Brazil-born Spain international has really been in exceptional form so far this season, proving last seasons doubters very wrong. He also seems to have curbed his notoriously violent temper in recent weeks, having not picked up a yellow card in any of his previous five league games after picking up four in the first six.

Six players who really should’ve been on the Ballon d’Or shortlist

So the Ballon d’Or list was announced with a fair few notable names missing. Here we look at six players who can count themselves a little unlucky to have missed out.

Claudio Bravo

People may be surprised to see him on this list, especially because I’ve been scathing about his performances since he signed for Manchester City in the summer. But the Chilean international certainly does deserve some recognition for his achievements in recent years. Having captained his national team to consecutive Copa América titles, and winning back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona, there can be no doubting his pedigree. Whether he will enjoy the same success in the Premier League is a different issue altogether.

José Fonte

This is a left field choice and one that will no doubt cause a bit of bewilderment. Nevertheless, the Southampton centre half has been in imperious form over the last twelve months. It is easy to forget that he was playing League One football just five years ago. Having captained Southampton to their best ever Premier League finish and winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, he more than merits some acknowledgement for his achievements. There are only three other defenders on the original list of 30, including his international centre back partner, Pepe. Fonte had to bide his time initially, having been overlooked in favour of veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho. However, after a 3-3 draw with Hungary, the result that sealed Portugal’s passage through to the knockout stages, he came into the team and formed a formidable partnership with Pepe. When playing alongside each other Portugal conceded only one goal in their remaining four matches.

Marcelo

Whilst there will always be question marks regarding his defensive ability, there can be no doubt that the Brazilian is the best attacking left back in the world. Quick, strong, and technically gifted, the former Fluminese man really does have it all. He is so important to the way that Real Madrid play, offering them that extra width when the wingers choose to come inside. It can be difficult to get the acclaim you deserve when Bale, Benzema, and particularly Ronaldo are your team mates, yet Marcelo quietly and efficiently goes about his business. Despite only being 28, it feels like the Rio de Janeiro native has been around for years. Now in his eleventh season at Real, he will no doubt be looking to help retain the Champions League this season.

N’Golo Kanté

It’s absolutely farcical that this guy isn’t on the list. Quite frankly he was the standout midfielder in Europe last season as Leicester claimed the unlikeliest of Premier League titles. His omission really does go some way to devaluing the whole award. Last season he demonstrated his exceptional energy levels and reading of the game whilst forming a formidable midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater. His tactical discipline and unselfish work rate enabled flare players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to excel further up the field. Kanté carried his form into Euro 2016, and has started this season with Chelsea in equally excellent form.

Blaise Matuidi

His absence from the list is also baffling. This is a guy who has won eight trophies with PSG in the previous two seasons. Like Kanté, he featured extensively for Les Bleus as they finished runners up to Portugal at Euro 2016. However, many still choose to devalue the achievements of Matuidi and his PSG side, decrying the alleged weakness of Ligue 1. This perception somewhat overlooks the fact that Matuidi himself has been in excellent form for an awfully long time now. Having joined PSG in 2011 shortly after the club had been purchased by Qatari investors, Matuidi remains the only player from that first wave of signings to still be at the club. He, like PSG, has grown, developed, and improved and consequently now really should be considered amongst the world elite.

Harry Kane

He may have endured a miserable Euro 2016, but there can be no devaluing his achievements in the Premier League last season. Kane was simply sensational, scoring 25 league goals as Tottenham recorded their highest league finish in over 25 years. His finishing and link up play is up there with the best in the world; in a Spurs shirt he really does seem to have the Midas touch. Whilst his performances for England have often been below par, there can be no doubting that he has all the credentials to be one of the all time great English centre forwards. Having scored more league goals than Karim Benzema, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Agüero (all nominated for the award) last season, his omission from the list was certainly surprising. If he continues the form that he has shown during the previous two seasons then he will almost certainly begin to receive the acclaim he so rightly deserves.

Remember the name: Wayne Rooney

Fourteen years since Wayne Rooney burst to national, and even international, prominence, we take a look at the player he once was, and why we should appreciate his achievements.  

When Clive Tyldesley uttered the words “Remember the name: Wayne Rooney!” back in October 2002 it seemed to many that the latest England, if not global, football superstar had been born. The man, or should we say boy, was just 5 days’ shy of his 17th birthday. He had just taken down a long hopeful punt by Thomas Gravesen, swivelled, taken two further touches, before thumping an unstoppable shot past the despairing dive of David Seaman. That goal against Arsenal propelled him to almost instant fame.

He was a precocious talent, frightening in fact. He had the frame of someone who belied his young age, and the verve and arrogance of a seasoned professional. Arsène Wenger remarked after the match that he was the best talent he had seen since he had arrived in England some six years earlier.

What followed was a dramatic rise; 116 days after his effort against Arsenal he made his England debut against Australia at Upton Park, a game that will also be remembered for the debut of another Scouse prodigy, Francis Jeffers.

Jeffers actually scored England’s only goal in the 3-1 defeat, but that was to be his only goal and in fact his only cap for his country. Rooney would have to wait a further five caps before his first England goal. When it did eventually come, the equalising goal in a 2-1 away win over Macedonia, he became the youngest player to ever score for the Three Lions. Since then another 112 caps have followed, and a remarkable 52 goals.

It is perhaps poignant that 14 years on from that wonder goal against Arsenal, Rooney now finds himself at the lowest point of his career. No longer an automatic choice for club nor country, the Croxteth-born man has reached a crossroads in his career.

Fourteen years is a long time in any profession, but in football 14 years constitutes the vast majority of a career, if not a whole one. Rooney, still only 30, has, as we all do, aged. He has mellowed; thankfully we don’t see the constant haranguing of officials that used to dog his early years, nor do we see petulant acts of violence that tarred his reputation.

The boy wonder grew up. He became a dad, a family man, the captain of both club and country, a man with responsibility. Yet for all of these positives sadly Rooney is no longer the same player he once was. His burst of pace has gone, his driving runs and unpredictability are no longer in his armoury and his ability to beat people has sadly left him being an often quite one dimensional player. In essence Rooney now does not offer the threat, nor strike fear into opposition players like he once used to.

Yet to dismiss Rooney as a bad player would be verging on sheer ignorance. Football fans are notoriously fickle, and they have particularly bad memories. Rooney in his heyday was an extraordinary player. People seem to forget that he scored four goals at a major tournament at the age of just 18. People rarely talk about the fact that he scored a hat-trick on his Manchester United debut, nor do they remember the way he carried United during the 2009/10 season, winning the PFA Player of the Year award in the process.

No. For most fans Rooney’s legacy is his current form; the form that has seen him axed from the first XI for both club and country.

Since the age of 17 Rooney has harboured the hopes of a nation. That is not an exaggerative comment; Rooney has been the player that England fans have laid their hopes on ending their now 50 plus years of hurt.

Back in 2006, when he clashed rather innocuously with Chelsea’s Paulo Ferreira in a league match at Stamford Bridge, the country held its breath. Back then fans knew and appreciated the gravity of the situation; the prospect of going to a World Cup without their talisman seemed incomprehensible.

Even Chelsea’s England contingent that day, Terry, Lampard and Joe Cole, despite lifting the Premier League trophy at the end of their 3-0 victory, seemed somewhat distracted and concerned for their injured international colleague. They knew, as did everyone else, that should England have any chance of success at the tournament, a fit and firing Wayne Rooney would be required. He was still only 20 years old, yet questions over his fitness amounted to little short of a national crisis. Imagine dealing with that pressure at 20 years of age?

Rooney had to, and he did. He recovered from injury, and figured in the latter part of the group stage and the Round of 16 win over Ecuador. The following match, the Quarter-Final against Portugal, will always be remembered his now infamous red card for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho, and the behaviour of his then Manchester United team mate, Cristiano Ronaldo.

It could be argued that Rooney’s expulsion ultimately led to England’s exit. Yet Rooney wasn’t pilloried by either the press nor supporters in the same way David Beckham was for receiving a red card in similar circumstances eight years earlier. In many ways the events of that day only seemed to further endear Rooney to the English public.

For most back then Rooney still embodied everything that they loved in an English footballer. That street fighter mentality, dogged spirit, and a never say die attitude really struck a chord with passionate England fans. For them Rooney was the future, and with him England had a genuine chance of ending all those years of hurt.

Yet despite the extraordinary talent Rooney demonstrated in his younger years, he never reached the heights that many people had hoped and expected.

Players peak at different times. Whilst some may have their best years in their mid- to late-twenties, Rooney seemed to peak around the age of 18. Rooney at 18 was better than Messi and Ronaldo at the same age. Through the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that Rooney peaked too soon. Certainly if Rooney were now playing at the level he was 12 years ago, people would be waxing lyrical.

His goal scoring record was never as spectacular as some of his contemporaries, yet his all round play was nearly always of a high standard. Assists, driving runs, picking his team up when they were down were all things that seemed to come naturally to his game. That ability to change games made him stand out and made him such an enigma. Opposition teams feared Rooney and his unpredictability.

Nowadays this is sadly not the case. The writing does seem to be on the wall with regards to Rooney’s immediate future. On current form alone it is unlikely that he will ever regain the prominence he once held. Younger, more athletic players have come and dislodged Rooney from his favoured attacking roles. The midfield experiment has been tried and despite early promise looks unlikely to be revisited at club level at least.

But now is not the time for vitriolic sneers from so-called football aficionados. Now is not the time to dismiss Rooney’s prior achievements. Perhaps he has not had the career, that many of us had hoped for, yet he has still achieved infinitely more than most other English players will during their careers. Five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups, and a Champions League trophy goes to prove that his achievements are certainly not to be frowned upon.

Whilst it may seem that Rooney’s days are numbered at Old Trafford, he will continue to be part of the England squad. In truth he does deserve to be. Having said he will retire at the end of the next World Cup, the least England owes him is a swansong. Realistically though he can’t offer the same breathtaking displays he once did. In many ways Rooney’s own footballing future really lies in his own acceptance of that fact.

But on the anniversary of his rise to international prominence, we should take a moment to remember the player that Rooney once was, the things he achieved, and the brilliant moments he gave us.