Five-a-side TOTW: May 22nd 2017

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

The final day of the Premier League season is always an odd occasion. Whether it be weakened teams, barmy goal fests, emotional farewells or even suspicious devices, there is always something intriguing that occurs, and the last day of this season was certainly no different. Realistically there was only one issue that needed to be resolved; the Champions League places. With only champions Chelsea, and runners up Tottenham assured of qualification to Europe’s premier football competition, there were still two places up for grabs, with Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal vying for those final two spots. City and Liverpool knew that wins against Watford and Middlesbrough respectively would guarantee their places at the high table, while Arsenal knew they had to win at home to Everton and hope that their rivals would slip up.

Goalkeeper – Castro Pereira

Who? Yes that’s right. Manchester United’s Swiss born Portuguese goalkeeper was making only his second United appearance and his first in the Premier League. He was facing a Crystal Palace side that had flirted with relegation throughout much of the season but had recently enjoyed some fairly impressive. The twenty-year-old looked confident and assured throughout United’s comfortable 2-0 victory. Standing at over 1.90 metres he certainly looks like he has the physical attributes to become a top class Premier League stopper. His United future will largely depend on where David De Gea ends up plying his trade next season, however he will have done himself no harm with this impressive display.

The Stopper – Vincent Kompany

There can be no doubt at all that Manchester City are a different team when their captain is fit. Had he been fit for the whole season we may well have seen Pep Guardiola’s team mounting a more serious title challenge. The Citizens captain only featured 11 times in the league this season yet still managed to aid his sides cause with three goals. Going into the final round of fixtures City knew that a win would guarantee them third place and as a result automatic qualification to the Champions League group stages. Nevertheless, they faced what could have been a sticky fixture away at Watford who had just confirmed that the game would be Walter Mazzari’s last in charge. Kompany led the City charge and calmed what may have been any jangling nerves with a smart header within five minutes of the kick off. It set the tone for an easy afternoon for the two-time Premier League champions, who ran out 5-0 winners in the end.

The Middleman – Georginio Wijnaldum 

My word does this guy score important goals. Already a scorer of vital goals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, the ex-Feyenord and Newcastle man can now add Middlesbrough to his already impressive repertoire! While the opponents might not be as illustrious, the goal itself was absolutely crucial. Liverpool knew that only a win would guarantee qualification for the Champions League and prior to Wijnaldum’s intervention Liverpool had been struggling. They were extremely fortunate not to have found themselves a man down after Dejan Lovren inexplicably pulled Patrick Bamford down when through on goal. With half time approaching, Wijnaldum grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and produced a fierce strike to give the Red Men a lead that they would never surrender. Further further goals from Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana sealed an easy 3-0 win.

The Free Role – Josh Harrop 

Again, you may ask “who?” Well this young man had a Manchester United debut to remember as he opened the scoring in United’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford. The Stockport born winger looked lively on his professional debut and capped off an impressive display with a brilliant individual goal. Receiving the ball on the left hand side, the 21 year old cut inside, jinked his way around several Palace defenders before blasting the ball beyond a hapless Wayne Hennessey. United fans love nothing more than a homegrown player and it will be really interesting to see whether Harrop is able to kick on next season.

The Finisher – Harry Kane

Realistically, who else was going to get the nod here? Kane is simply the best striker in the Premier League and one of the best, if not the best, in the world. In a season disrupted by injury, the Tottenham No.10 has still managed a staggering 29 goals in 30 Premier League appearances. His four goals against a desperately poor Leicester side in midweek were followed up by an equally impressive hat-trick against already relegated Hull City. Remarkably, there are still those who seem to be waiting, even hoping, for the wheels to fall off. On this evidence they will be waiting an awfully long time.

A Conversation That Never Took Place: Pep Guardiola

*DISCLAIMER – This is not a real story.* 

I like to imagine that at some point shortly after his appointment at Manchester City Pep Guardiola was shown a map of the UK and some of the lesser-known Premier League homes were pointed out…

A clued-up Manchester City assistant decides to start by introducing Staffordshire and Stoke City; a location Guardiola would be paying a visit to at the end of August.

‘Forget what you have heard about Stoke, Pep. They are a different club these days. We will have too much class for them’.

The entirely fictitious conversation moves south to Wales and Swansea City.

‘Swansea poses little threat to us, Pep. We shall easily defeat them and their manager will be sacked. We will force them into hiring a peculiar American replacement.’

Guardiola is pleased with what he is hearing. ‘Where next?’ he smiles.

‘To North London’ his assistant explains. ‘But not to Arsenal. It is Tottenham we should fear this season. It is here we will lose our 100% record, Pep. They will not fear the way we play’.

‘We’ll see’ Guardiola grunts.

Moving a short distance down the map the pair reach Selhurst Park.

‘Our squad will be low on confidence here, Pep. It may be a good idea to recall Yaya’

Guardiola laughs. ‘We won’t be needing him this year. Where else are we visiting?’

‘Burnley’ the would-be assistant reveals. ‘Not too far from our home ground’.

‘Who?’ spurts the new City manager. ‘I haven’t heard of any of these players. We will win easily, for sure. And if they put up a fight we can always blame the ref. Tell me, when do we visit the Premier League Champions?’

The assistant steadies himself. ‘Leicester will pose a counter-attacking threat, Pep…’

‘Nonsense! We will restore order to this division. I may not even start two recognised centre-halves. John can do a perfectly good job by himself. Besides, we have Claudio in goal should they manage a shot on target’

The assistant struggles to stop himself from laughing.

‘Sorry Pep, maybe you’re right. We will also visit Anfield before New Year. I expect Jurgen will have improved his side this year…’

‘No, no. Don’t be silly – have you seen their defence? We shall out-score them. We have Sergio. They have Dejan Lovren. What about their neighbours?’

The assistant takes a deep breath.

‘It’s at Everton where every fault you’ve ignored, dismissed or forgotten about over the first five months of the season will come together in one 90-minute period. We’ll have all of the ball and do nothing with it. We won’t deal with their direct approach and our defenders will be pressured into serious mistakes. Our team will lack focus and we won’t be able to ignore our unbalanced squad any longer. A debuting teenager will come on as a substitute and nutmeg Claudio Bravo. It will be one of the worst results in your managerial career’

Guardiola had left the room.

‘What do you think of this roll neck?’


Why Stones needs more than just a Pep talk

Since joining Manchester City, John Stones has hardly set the world on fire. Poor performances in several games this season have led to questions regarding whether the 22 year old defender has what it takes to succeed at the club. But is Stones really at fault, or does City manager, Pep Guardiola, have to take responsibility for his player’s early season struggles? 

John Stones has had a poor start to the season. Anyone who fails to recognise this is really very much in denial. Since joining Manchester City for a staggering £50 million in the summer, the ex-Evertonian has been error prone, naive, and a genuine defensive liability.

Much has been expected of Stones. Ever since he left Barnsley to join Everton in late January 2013 he has been heralded as different from that of most other English central defenders. Composed on the ball, confident in bringing it into midfield, and able to pick a pass. What was there not to like about him?

Certainly his brand of football appealed to Pep Guardiola. When the Catalonian joined City in the summer he quickly identified Stones as the man to help him implement his passing out from the back style. Yet despite Stones’s outstanding technical ability, he has consistently demonstrated a lack of game awareness and an inability to perform even the most rudimentary defensive tasks.

Most people would agree that Guardiola’s teams play beautiful football. He believes that being able to play in all areas of the pitch enables his teams to attack vacated space and in turn penetrate the opposition. It has been effective – in Guardiola’s 7 seasons in management he has won a remarkable 22 trophies. He would point to this as a vindication of his methods.

Yet you nearly always get one chance against a Guardiola team. Essentially, he has hardly been a stickler for defensive discipline, and instead has very much shown a preference for attacking flare over defensive solidity. Historically, his teams have always been vulnerable at the back. It did not matter quite so much at Barcelona because he had Messi and co. to dig him out. At Bayern the relative weakness of the opposition meant that defensive lapses were not quite as readily punished. However, in his first three months in England, Guardiola has quickly found out that the Premier League is far more unforgiving. All of this may well lead to compelling viewing, yet it is hardly what Stones nor Manchester City need.

At 22, Stones is still in the infancy of his career; time is very much on his side. Yet worryingly he seems to have made little progress over the past 18 months. When Roberto Martinez was Everton manager, Stones and his team mates were given an almost tactical blank sheet. They were allowed to play their own brand of football almost wherever they wanted on the pitch. When mistakes inevitably happened Martinez would staunchly defend his players, suggesting that these mistakes were part and parcel of their development.

Of course what Martinez said had a certain amount of truth behind it; young footballers will often make mistakes, that in itself is not new nor surprising. However, what we tend to see after mistakes is a change and a realisation that things have to be improved. Martinez did not enforce that on his players, and particularly on Stones. Time and time again we saw the same schoolboy errors – playing passes in dangerous areas, diving into tackles, tactical naivety, and an inability to mark properly.

There would be those that argue that these mistakes are offset by Stone’s supreme talent on the ball. Michael Owen in particular has been vociferous in his praise for Stones, declaring he would be the only England player that would get into the Barcelona team. A somewhat sweeping statement, and one that is hardly a compliment to defenders who pride themselves on clean sheets and rock solid defending.

Others such as Rio Ferdinand, Phil Neville and of course Roberto Martinez have been forthright in their positive assessment of Stones. Yet this constant praise regardless of whether mistakes are made, seems to be having a negative effect on him. From the outside looking in it really does seem to have gone to his head – it is almost as if Stones believes his own hype.

If this is the case then it sets a dangerous and worrying precedent. Stones should not be allowed to think that he has played well, because, if we are being brutally honest, he has not.

When England played Scotland on Friday night there were reminders of just how vulnerable he is. His passing was lacklustre, his reading of the game was poor, and most worrying of all he seemed completely inept at marking from set pieces. In the first half, with England holding a slender 1-0 lead, he lost Grant Hanley at a corner. Stones’s body position, his inability to track the run, and then his petulant reaction shone a light on his defensive fragility. It was something more akin to Sunday league football, let alone an international fixture at Wembley.

Twitter was less than kind…

Although Hanley’s header was poor and sailed well over the bar, the incident was a reminder of how quickly things can change in football. Had he scored people would have been rightly criticising Stones and an inquisition into his defensive capabilities would have begun. Yet because Hanley missed, and England went on to record a comfortable 3-0 win, people chose to forget and avoid an issue which simply had to be addressed.

The worry is that Guardiola probably saw that mistake and yet will not have been particularly concerned. Stones will go back to City and little if anything at all will be done to ensure there is no repeat. Yet if Stones was still an Everton player he would be returning to a manager who prides himself on defensive resilience.

Ronald Koeman was one of the finest central defenders of his generation. A remarkable defender, his record of 253 goals in 763 games would please most centre forwards – for a central defender those sorts of stats are unprecedented.

Koeman played in the same Barcelona team as Guardiola, even captaining and scoring as they recorded their first triumph in Europe. That Barcelona team was managed by Johan Cruyff, seen by many as the father of the tika-taka football that Guardiola has employed throughout his managerial career. Koeman has also looked to adopt a possession style, yet he has never allowed his teams to be quite so readily exploited defensively. He simply would not have tolerated one of his central defenders defending like that from a set piece.

There are certainly parallels between Koeman and Stones; both excellent on the ball, neither conventional centre halves. Under Koeman, Stones would have prospered. The Dutchman would have been rigorous with Stones, ensuring that he learnt when to play and when not to. He may even have dropped him had he deemed it necessary.

Koeman has proved so much at Everton. Stones’s international team mate, Ross Barkley, has not been immune to criticism this season. Koeman’s approach is one of tough love, he is not one to pander to his players if he believes they are letting the side down. He came out and publicly criticised Barkley, and explained the reasons why he was being dropped and the ways in which he could improve and get back into the team. It is impossible to imagine Guardiola doing the same thing to Stones. Nevertheless, it increasingly seems that Stones would benefit from a Koeman-like approach.

However, there will be those who argue that Stones’s development is entirely normal and the mistakes are a small sacrifice for the other things he brings to the team. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that the immediate priority for any central defender is to keep clean sheets. That should be a pre-requisite, and it should give them as much satisfaction as a striker gets when scoring a goal. Quite frankly, anything beyond that should be considered a bonus.

The important question here is whether people see Stones as that sort of defender, or one that brings the ball out of defence and plays slightly more on the edge. Those who favour the latter would argue that such is his precocious talent on the ball that restricting it would ultimately be counterintuitive to his game.

It remains to be seen whether signing for City was the best for Stones’s career. Only time will tell, yet is he continues in the same vein of form then the signs are ominous. Something has to be done to address Stones’s failings, and the sooner the better.


 

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.

conte-2


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