Eleven-a-side TOTM: August

The Premier League is back & so is our blog! 

We have changed the format a bit this year; instead of providing you with 38 different Five-a-side TOTW’s, we have decided to provide you with an Eleven-a-side Team of the Month (TOTM) as well as our pick for Manager of the Month. Exciting stuff indeed.

Anyway, August is always a tricky month. Fans are on holiday, players are returning from holiday or from various international tournaments, and managers are trying their best to prepare their team for the challenges that lie ahead. 

After three exhilarating weeks of Premier League football, I have compiled a TOTM for August. After much deliberation I have decided to go with a 3-5-2 formation. No fewer than half of the 20 Premier League teams have gone with this formation so far. While it has yielded mixed results it certainly seems to be the in-thing. 

Goalkeeper – Jonas Lössl (Huddersfield Town)

Hands up if you had heard of this guy before the start of the season? I certainly hadn’t. The 28-year old Dane has plied his trade in his homeland for FC Midjtjylland, for Guingamp in France, and most recently Mainz 05 in Germany. 

He joined Huddersfield early this summer on a season long loan and has been an absolute rock as the Terriers have enjoyed an unbeaten start. The shot-stopper has kept three clean sheets and made an average of just under four saves per match. 

Huddersfield fans may have been concerned following the end of Danny Ward’s impressive loan spell last season, and manager David Wagner had been criticised for not investing in a new keeper. However, the ex-US international’s in depth knowledge of German football has clearly paid dividends with this shrewd signing. 

 

Centre-back – Phil Jones (Manchester United)

Since joining the Red Devils from Blackburn Rovers six years ago, the Englishmen has never really entirely convinced. Mourinho himself has shown concern, if anything his signing of Victor Lindelhof this summer for some 40€ million was indicative of his  uncertainty in United’s current defensive options. 

Nevertheless, Jones has taken advantage of Lindelhof’s indifferent pre-season form, and has established a very effective partnership with Eric Bailly at the heart of United’s defence. Their solidity, as well as the protection of United’s new recruit, Nemanja Matic, has provided the foundation for some exhilarating United performances. 

Mourinho’s men have kept three clean sheets and are the only team to have a 100% record in the league. If he stays fit, Jones could well turn out to be a key man for his club and with a World Cup fast approaching, dare I say his country? 

 

Centre-back – Harry Maguire (Leicester City) 

Maguire was outstanding during Hull City’s unsuccessful attempt to stay in the Premier League last season. It was certainly not a surprise to see several top clubs looking to prize the Englishmen away. Leicester City fought off interest from other teams before stumping up £12 million for the ex-Sheffield United defender. 

Since joining, Maguire has excelled next to club captain, Wes Morgan, in the heart of the Foxes defence. He was impressive on debut, providing an assist for Shinji Okazaki, and looked solid despite his team losing 4-3 to Arsenal. 

If his first game was impressive, his second was outstanding. He scored Leicester’s second goal and marshalled the defence in a dominating win against Premier League new-boys, Brighton. 

His form has not gone unnoticed by England manager, Gareth Southgate. Maguire has been rewarded for his excellent performances last season and his strong start to the new season with his maiden international call up. 

 

Centre-back – Ahmed Hegazy (West Brom)

Hegazy looks a real find. Tony Pulis’s sides are always built on a solid defence, and Hegazy certainly seems to fit right in. A goal and clean sheet against Bournemouth on debut endeared him to The Hawthorns faithful. He once again stood strong and tall as West Brom made it two wins out of two with another impressive 1-0 win at Burnley. 

However, his third outing for the Baggies was less successful. He was unfortunately at fault for Stoke’s late equaliser. Nevertheless, the Egypt international has made a bright start to Premier League life and looks to be an astute signing. 

 

Right-wing – Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

The Senegal man has arguably been the standout player in the opening weeks of the season. His pace, skill and eye for goal means that he is a threat to any defence. Indeed, he has scored in each of Liverpool’s opening three games, and has formed an exciting wing partnership with new recruit, Mo Salah. 

He scored his teams first league goal of the season in their exciting 3-3 all draw at Watford. He followed this up with the winner in a hard-fought 1-0 win against Crystal Palace. He then made it three in three by scoring Liverpool’s second in their highly polished 4-0 win against a dismal Arsenal side on Sunday.

With the future of Philippe Coutinho still very much up in the air, Mané may well become Liverpool’s key man this season. 

 

Central-midfield – Paul Pogba (Manchester United)

Are we beginning to see the best of the £89 million man? I think we may be if the first three games of the season are anything to go by.

The Frenchmen has been involved in three goals already this season; scoring in both of United’s opening games, and providing an assist. That tally is a third of his total from the whole of last season (five goals and four assists). 

Like Jones, Pogba has benefited greatly from the the signing of Nemanja Matic. Last season he seemed seemed somewhat restricted. He was often played in a deeper role and his influence on games was somewhat restricted. Matic’s arrival has allowed the shackles to be removed. United’s no.6 has been able to join in attacks knowing that he is unlikely to be leaving his teammates exposed. 

This is a big season for the 23 year-old. He was heavily criticised for not reaching the standards his hefty price tag required. He has started well, but all eyes will be on whether he can maintain this level. 

 

Central-midfield – Emre Can (Liverpool)

Jürgen – get this guy a new contract immediately! Somehow, the Liverpool hierarchy have let the 23 year-old enter the final 12 months of his contract. It is certainly not a surprise to see some of Europe’s big guns circling.

The German has made a fabulous start to the season as Liverpool have enjoyed an unbeaten start. Can has impressed as part of a midfield trio alongside Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum. The three have provided the foundations for some dynamic attacking play.

Can, and Liverpool fans, will be hoping that he can maintain his early season form and can help his team sustain a strong title challenge.

 

Left-wing – Marcos Alonso (Chelsea)

This guy seems to constantly prove me wrong. I still can’t believe this is the same Marcos Alonso who had such an utterly hopeless three year spell at Bolton Wanderers.

The Spaniard scored both goals as his Chelsea side won 2-1 at Tottenham’s new ‘home-ground’, Wembley. The first was a sumptuous free-kick that left Hugo Lloris in the Spurs net with no chance at all. The second came in the 88th minute and sealed Chelsea’s first win of the new season.

Throughout this summer, Chelsea have been heavily linked with an astronomical £60 million bid for Juventus wing-back Alex Sandro. Yet, in my opinion at least, it would be simply throwing money down the drain!

Alonso is so crucial to the way Chelsea play. He provides genuine width and, apart from Thibault Courtois, is the only other left-footer in Chelsea’s regular starting XI. Last season he scored six goals and provided three assists as Chelsea coasted their way to their fifth Premier League title. Alonso will be hoping to be celebrating again in nine months time.

 

Attacking-midfield – Raheem Sterling (Manchester City)

The inclusion of Sterling may turn a few heads, so let me just try and justify it. Sterling has been responsible for winning his side three points in August. His 82nd minute equalising goal against Everton was followed up by a 97th minute winner against Bournemouth. 

Despite these goals, Sterling has not been outstanding. He was a substitute for City’s opening two games and certainly did not look to be at his best after his half-time introduction against Everton. Nevertheless, his goal convinced Guardiola to include the England winger from the start against Bournemouth.

The ex-Liverpool player was brave on the ball but constantly ran into dead-ends, losing the ball in the process. He was booked in the 93rd minute and it seemed his afternoon would end in disappointment. Deep into added time, Sterling reacted quickest to a Danilo cross when he scuffed his shot into the Bournemouth net via a deflection.

The goal prompted raucous celebrations by Sterling, his teammates, and City’s fans. In the ensuing carnage, Sterling was sent off for over-zealously celebrating the goal prompting outrage among Guardiola and his backroom team.

 

Striker – Steve Mounié (Huddersfield Town)

Another brilliant Huddersfield signing. Steve Mounié arrived from Montpellier for some 13€ million. Considering the prices being thrown around in this window it could be argued that David Wagner has once again pulled off a real coup! 

The Benin international hit 14 goals in Ligue 1 as his side narrowly avoided the drop. Quick, strong and good in the air, the 22 year-old seems to have all the attributes for the Premier League.

He scored two excellent goals on debut as Huddersfield thrashed Crystal Palace 3-0 at Selhurst Park. If the Terriers are going to stay up this season then they will be heavily reliant on Mounié’s ability to hit the back of the net.

 

Striker – Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United)

You do expect £75 million to buy you top quality and Romelu Lukaku certainly is that. It is easy to forget sometimes that the big-Belgian is only 24!

Last season, Lukaku was the Premier League’s second highest scorer behind the irrepressible Harry Kane. His 25 goals came for an Everton side that finished seventh.

Following Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s injury at the back-end of last season, Mourinho was in the hunt for a leading striker. Lukaku fit the bill and the United manager was not afraid of spending the big bucks to bring him to Old Trafford.

With three goals in the opening three games of the season, United’s new no.9 has hit the ground running. Don’t be surprised to see him top the Premier League scoring charts come May.

 

Manager – José Mourinho (Manchester United)

Mourinho has been the outstanding Premier League manager this month for two reasons: 1) because he got all his major transfer business done before the start of the season; 2) because he has found a winning team and formation. 

Many of Mourinho’s fellow Premier League managers are still shopping around at this late stage in the window. The Portuguese, however, got all of his business done before August.

While there may be doubts over Lindelhöf, Matic and Lukaku have settled very quickly. Mourinho also looks to have found a system that brings the best out of last summer’s major signings Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

As mentioned earlier, United are the only team with a 100% record and Mourinho will be hoping that his side can continue their sparkling early-season form.

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Five-a-side TOTW: December 13th 2016

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

There were 29 goals in the six Saturday games, but only 7 in the four games played on Sunday. Chelsea returned to the top of the league after briefly vacating their place to London rivals, Arsenal. A Fernando Llorente doubled helped Swansea record back-to-back home wins for the first time this season against fellow strugglers, Sunderland, and Manchester United won at home in the league for the first time since August the 19th. Elsewhere, Manchester City lost 4-2 at reigning champions Leicester, and Burnley beat Bournemouth 3-2 at Turf Moor after suffering three successive defeats.

Goalkeeper – Lukasz Fabianksi

Fabianski makes his first appearance in our 5-a-side team of the week. It is hardly surprising that it has taken this long; the Pole has let in 31 goals in his 15 games this season, the most of any keeper in the league. Saturday’s 3-0 win against Sunderland was only their third clean sheet of the season. Fabianski was in good form and will be happy to have kept out his relegation rivals.

The Stopper – Phil Jones

For an awfully long time now Phil Jones has failed to live up to expectations. When he burst on to the scene at Blackburn Rovers he looked to be one of the finest prospects in the game. He did enough to convince Sir Alex Ferguson to pay almost £17 million for him when he was just 19. Unfortunately, he has never kicked on. Still only 24, this is really his make or break season. Mourinho seems to have given him confidence, and he has enjoyed a decent run in the side in recent weeks. United have a wealth of options at centre back already, and are constantly being linked with new additions to their backline. However, if Jones continues to demonstrate the form he showed against Tottenham this weekend then Mourinho may think twice before dipping into his transfer kitty.

The Enforcer – Ander Herrera

This man has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent months. Signed by Louis Van Gaal two summers ago, the former Bilbao player has often looked to lack the steel required to succeed in the Premier League. However, United’s poor form, and an inability to find a balance in midfield let to Mourinho moving Herrera into more of a sitting role. He has excelled, and has been one of the most consistent midfielders in the league this season. Excellent on Sunday against Tottenham, he kept Mousa Dembélé and Dele Alli relatively quiet. Herrera’s discipline allows Paul Pogba to have that little bit more freedom further up the field, something which United fans have been crying out for ever since he joined for a world record fee in the summer.

The Playmaker – Mesut Özil

The German was in brilliant form at the weekend, and capped his impressive display off with a deft headed lob over Lee Grant in the Stoke City goal. Özil does occasionally look to be uninterested and can sometimes look to be a bit lazy. However, when he wants to turn up he is an absolute joy to watch. Not many players would have made the run he made, let alone had the audacity to lob the keeper in that fashion. It really was an excellent goal, and an important one too, as it gave Arsenal a lead that they were not to relinquish.

The Finisher – Jamie Vardy

It took 12 games, but Vardy finally broke his goal scoring duck for Leicester. His hat trick was his first since scoring one for Fleetwood Town against Ebbsfleet way back in February 2012. All his goals were very much vintage Vardy. He timed his run impeccably for the first goal and finished superbly beyond Claudio Bravo. His second was a wonderful team goal. Christian Fuchs’ searching pass picked out Riyad Mahrez who laid the ball perfectly into the on rushing Vardy’s path. He rounded Bravo before finishing well. The third was just pure opportunism. Manchester City had been aimlessly passing the ball around their defence all match, and Vardy used his intuition to read a predictable back pass from his England colleague, John Stones. Once again, Leicester’s No.9 rounded Bravo before finishing brilliantly from an acute angle. Leicester have been struggling in the league this season, however the performance against City will certainly give them some much needed confidence. Vardy’s hat trick was also a timely reminder to all those who had been saying he was just a one season wonder.

Five-a-side TOTW: November 22nd 2016

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

Sunderland claimed back to back victories, and Manchester City claimed a valuable three points at Crystal Palace. But who made it into our five a side team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Jordan Pickford

What a season Jordan Pickford is having! Last season he was on loan at Preston North End, this season he is keeping Sunderland from sitting at the foot of the table. His recent performances have been great to watch and against Hull City he was on top form, again. Five crucial saves and a clean sheet helped Sunderland to their much-needed second win of the season. At the moment, he is one of the best shot-stoppers in the league. A long career ahead.

The Anchor – Virgil van Dijk

Saturday’s fixture at St Mary’s looked set to be a difficult tie for The Saints as they hosted an inform Liverpool team who have scored on average three goals a game this season. However, it was the performances of both van Dijk and José Fonte that stood out at the full time whistle. Though, lucky to not give away a (much debated) penalty, van Dijk was in commanding form epitomised by a superb last ditch sliding tackle on Sadio Mané. There is not doubt that Southampton will need to fend off a few of his suitors come January.

The Middleman – Yaya Toure

Yaya Toure has resurrected from the Manchester City reserve team, much to the demise of Crystal Palace. After a behind the scenes bust up with Guardiola (and a not so behind the scenes rant from his agent) Toure was given a surprise start at Selhurst Park. He was yet to feature in the Premier League the season but you wouldn’t know it. Toure was commanding against Palace. He was a constant threat going forward and ultimately made the difference for City with his brace. It is difficult to say how much he will be involved in City’s title challenge, but he certainly provided the surprise of the weekend.

The Box-to-Box Midfielder – Ander Herrera

This is a player who has come alive under José Mourinho. Since joining in 2013, Herrera has done little to prove he is up to the standard at Old Trafford but this season he has been one of their best players. His work rate and distribution were a joy to behold against Arsenal, keeping United on the front foot and allowing players like Paul Pogba to acquire positions further up the field. If United are going to make it back in to the top four they will need more of their squad to make such improvements.

The Finisher – Victor Anichebe

If you are a Sunderland fan: Victor Anichebe might be the man to save your club this season. Last year Jermaine Defoe saved them from relegation but thus far it is looking like a tall order for the striker to carry the club on his own. Up step Anichebe. The hold up and link up play between Defoe and the Nigerian forward caused Hull City all sorts of problems. He was strong, physical, perhaps at times fortuitous, but most importantly he was clinical with two goals to show for it. His first Premier League brace since 2006. Sunderland will need performances from him to ensure Defoe, and their survival hopes, doesn’t burn out before May.

Jack Parker

Six reasons Juventus might not win Serie A this year

Serie A featured highly in this transfer window with Manchester United capturing Paul Pogba and Gonzalo Higuaín upsetting the entire population of Naples in a move north. Juventus start as overwhelming favourites for the new season. Their squad has tonnes of experience and a winning mentality to rival any side in Europe. Nevertheless, all good things come to an end and could the sale of Pogba disrupt the happy camp? Anything other than a sixth straight title will require a serious dip in form, or the likes of Napoli and Roma to overachieve and amass nearly 90 points. Here’s six reasons it might just happen.

1. Their desire for European success

Juventus have won five straight Serie A titles and have been the main Italian flag-bearers in elite European competition. They’ve not done badly either, making the Champions League final in 2015 and having a pair of wonderful games against Bayern Munich last time out. It’s easy to assume the likes of Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will never get bored of winning Scudettos but the squad seemed to suffer from a bout of the ‘lack-of-ambitions’ at the start of last season and were supposedly put back on track by the words of Buffon prior to the Derby della Mole. Napoli had waltzed to the top of the league and a sleeping Juve were rudely awoken. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that Juve will wobble again as they target a return to the latter stages of the Champions League.

2. Improvements lower down the league

One of the biggest factors in the Serie A title race will be the performance of the teams outside last year’s top three. When Napoli were chasing Juventus at the end of last season they found no favours from Inter, AC, Lazio and Fiorentina. In fact, against that quartet of Italian giants Juventus dropped just two points (a draw with Inter in October). Both Milan clubs made hard work of their seasons whilst Lazio were inconsistent and Fiorentina won just twice in the last three months. All four will be expecting better from 2017. Milan are in dire needed of a return to European football and will be hoping the talent packed into their squad can start performing on a regular basis. Lazio would love new man Ciro Immobile to get close to 20 goals having lost star player Antonio Candreva this summer. The Italian international will now ply his trade under new Inter manager Frank De Boer. Whilst none of these sides will likely surface as title challengers, stronger and longer patches of form will make for a tougher division and less chances for Juventus to disappear over the horizon.

3. Hell hath no fury like an ‘Ultra’ scorned

The first of two big summer stories involving Juventus saw last season’s record-breaking goalscorer Gonzalo Higuaín arrive for a staggering fee. The sometimes underrated Argentinian bagged 71 league goals in three seasons at Napoli and (surprise, surprise) scored on his league debut for Juventus. However, when the three-time La Liga winner was prized by league favourites Juventus he caused an uproar of Neapolitan proportions. The stories immediately began to fly out of Naples – a pizzeria offered free food the first time Higuaín gets injured and toilet paper was printed bearing his face. A coach arrived spelling out ‘core ‘ngrato’ (search it) and an exchange was set up for unwanted Higuaín shirts. The lethal finisher has the talent to respond to his haters but perhaps their unrelenting feeling of betrayal – combined with his lofty price tag – is enough to make him buckle.

4. Replacing Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata

Regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba was worth the money dropped by Manchester United, he will be sorely missed in the Juventus midfield. There is nobody else in the squad – perhaps the world – that can make the same offering as Pogba; fast yet tall, skilful yet strong, equally as likely to rifle the ball home from 30 yards as he is to win possession and dispatch a pass across the pitch. This isn’t to say Juventus can’t replace the sometimes misfiring Frenchman, but their midfield will surely have a different feel. Juve sent another message to the south when pinching Miralem Pjanic from Roma, and the Bosnian looks the likely replacement in their starting XI. Real Madrid further proved Juventus’ transfer dominance is bounded by Italian borders when activating a clause to re-sign Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard settled better than ever away from his home club, striking strong friendships with a number of Italians in the squad. He was Juve’s most willing runner and had an eye for important goals. On the brightside, Juventus made over €100 million sending players back ‘home’.

5. Ridiculously high standards

After a rocky start to last season Juventus lost just one of their last 28 games. Frighteningly, they racked up 26 victories from October to May with a 15 match winning streak across the winter ended by a 0-0 draw against Bologna. Realistically, this form will not be replicated throughout the 2016-17 campaign. Games at the Juventus Stadium will continue to shower the home side with success, but no side has left with so much as a point since last September (respect to Frosinone) and I expect this to change before Christmas. Napoli, Roma and Sassuolo will be visiting Turin in the next few months and won’t want to leave empty handed.

6. Blooding new stars

The Juventus academy has seen plenty of graduates go on to have international careers – Alessandro Del Piero, Claudio Marchiso, Sebastian Giovinco – but ‘The Old Lady’ have often relied on signing established players from other clubs and nurturing them into the next champions of Turin. A prime example is Andrea Barzagli who, despite winning the World Cup in 2006, has seen his best year’s post-Wolfsburg and post-30. He is now 35, the same age as Patrice Evra and a handful of years older than Giorgio Chiellini. This season’s transfers have suggested more of the same with Dani Alves arriving at the age of 33 and €90 million being thrown behind the 28-year old Higuaín. There are a number of hot prospects in the squad but those brought into the first team will need time to adjust to the 3-5-2 formation established by Antonio Conte. Daniele Rugani is Juve’s centre-back heir apparent whilst Marco Pjaca arrives from Zagreb to offer some dynamism to the frontline. ‘Juventus’ translates to ‘youth’ in Latin and the club will hope the passing of the torch goes as smoothly as possible.


Mike Franchetti