Five-a-side TOTW: May 2nd 2017

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

With ten teams keeping clean sheets this weekend, we had an opportunity to pick a more defensive five-a-side line-up. Chelsea hammered Everton, Tottenham were crowned undisputed kings of north London, and two Manchester slip ups helped Liverpool gain in the race for Champions League football.

Goalkeeper – Tom Heaton.

Big Tom is back between the sticks after helping Burnley produce their first away win of the season, simultaneously guaranteeing their safety and putting to bed any rumours that Joey Barton’s gambling offenses would rock the boat. Another clean sheet came after a busy match for the Englishman with the pick of his stops coming from Damien Delaney’s close range effort.

The Stopper – Gary Cahill

Whilst his goal against Everton was nothing more than a fortunate ricochet, six Premier League goals suggest Gary Cahill is one of the best finishers plying their trade at centre half. Another accomplished display against Everton made me wonder if I’d written off Cahill too soon. Though he’s been solid for most of the campaign, I expected Chelsea to consider replacing him in the summer. Strong end of season form suggests there is no need. He’d probably top score for this five-a-side team.

The Presence – Victor Wanyama

The slightly flashier and more refined Moussa Dembele often draws the plaudits for Tottenham but Victor Wanyama has developed into a wonderful midfielder this season. Tottenham looked better in every department against their eternal rivals Arsenal and Wanyama typified their desire. Surprisingly cool on the ball, the Kenyan came into his own in physical battles and looked exactly the sort of player Arsenal were missing. Although, in fairness, there’s about twenty seven players that Arsenal are missing.

The Acrobat – Emre Can

Emre Can is another centre midfielder who’s bridged across to a new level in recent months. The German looked a great acquisition at the start of the 2015 season but his development stalled amidst much frustration from Anfield.  His character was never in question but silly tackles and hesitance on the ball made for a difficult second season. He’s been much improved in recent months – in the absence of Jordon Henderson – and impressed again this weekend at Watford. Enough waffling… the German makes our team because of his sensational, surprising, top corner, match-winning bicycle kick.

The Runner – Pedro

Pedro’s played football for a lot of great sides and never struck me as anything more than a nuisance. Clearly skilful, the Spaniard wasn’t a roaring success when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge but has edged his way into the first team. In recent games he has looked a much better player than I ever expected. He finally seems settled under Antonio Conte and proved to be the game-changer when lashing in Chelsea’s opening goal against Everton midway through the second half. He’s a tidy finisher and deserves to the lead the line in this week’s team.

Five-a-side TOTW: February 7th 2017

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

Arsenal suffered another painful defeat this week, featuring a mazy Eden Hazard goal and old boy Cesc Fabregas lobbing into an empty net. Liverpool’s poor run also continued as both sides continue to do their best to finish in fifth spot. The relegation battle intensified with wins for Hull, Swansea and Sunderland pulling a pathetic Leicester City side into real danger. Here’s another five-a-side team.

Goalkeeper – Thibaut Courtois

Finally the man with thirteen clean sheets was asked to produce some real goalkeeping. Despite Chelsea’s superior quality, Arsenal managed to keep pushing throughout the game resulting in a handful of chances. With the score at 2-0, Danny Welbeck steered a header low to Courtois’ right. The Belgian fully extended himself to make a stretched save, flicking his right hand to knock the ball to safety. The man Courtois replaced at Chelsea – Petr Cech – was in the opposite goal and there can no longer be any doubt over who the sharper shot-stopper is.

The Stopper – Andrea Ranocchia

It’s often said that Italians have mastered the art of defending but not many mentioned Andrea Ranocchia in the same breath as Bergomi, Cannavaro or Chiellini during his time at Inter Milan. Whilst some Nerazzurri fans weren’t too keen on Ranocchia, I was shocked to see the Premier League’s biggest strugglers attract a centre-half with 21 Italy caps. He was excellent alongside Harry McGuire as the two repelled Liverpool’s best attacks. In only his second appearance, Ranocchia also showed his class by weighting a long ball to Oumar Niasse for Hull’s second goal. Against all odds, Marco Silva and his mixed bag of signings could steer Hull City to Premier League survival.

The Middleman – Didier Ndong

After 45 minutes at Selhurst Park, Sunderland were trouncing Crystal Palace 0-4. It was the most surprising half of football since Leicester put three past Manchester City. The Wearsiders had been in awful form and £13 million record signing Didier Ndong was looking like a careless piece of business. However, Sunderland’s many slumps have hardly been the Gabon international’s fault and David Moyes has kept faith with the 22 year-old. He made major steps forward on Saturday with the sort of dominant and energetic performance they so often lack. Sunderland fans have had plenty of false dawns this season and will need more performances like Saturday’s in order to stay up. Ndong scored the second goal of the match with a fine strike from the edge of the area. It’s fair to say Twitter’s response to his performance was a little over the top…

The Talisman – Gylfi Sigurðsson

Oh look at that – I’ve just picked Gylfi Sigurðsson over Eden Hazard. The Icelander returns for another TOTW appearance. Paul Clement’s much improved Swansea City side visited Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Sunday and were always going to be up against it in terms of possession. However, after 80 minutes the home side were just 1-0 up and Sigurðsson took centre stage. He drifted into a dangerous area and his fine 20-yard strike beat Willy Caballero. City’s new golden boy Gabriel Jesus poked home a very late winner but Swansea put in a performance unrecognisable from their dire early season form. Sigurðsson has been part of anything good the club has done this season and has now collected eight goals and seven assists. Only four players have created more Premier League goals and of those only Alexis Sanchez has scored more.

The Goal Machine – Romelu Lukaku

Why isn’t Lukaku the best centre forward in the world? He’s always been an impressive athlete but he’s currently displaying an increased confidence as Everton’s star player. His finishing has been excellent recently to the point where he’s almost looked arrogant. Against Bournemouth on Saturday he bagged four goals to take him to the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts. Bournemouth’s defence was utterly terrible at times but that doesn’t take away from the fact Lukaku delivered a completely accomplished performance. The big man curled, dinked and volleyed his way to a superb hatrick. He seems happy at the moment suggesting he has shelved urgent plans for a big money move to United/Chelsea/PSG. That will all change if he wins the golden boot and Everton finish sixth.

Mike Franchetti

Six players with way more Premier League appearances than you thought

As the seasons tick by at frightening pace, we often lose sight of our Premier League constants. We’ll be left watching Match of the Day asking ‘Crikey, when did Phil Bardsley turn 31?’. Some players are always in the right place, at the right time, at the right club and continue to rack up Premier League appearances. Here are six players who probably have more than you thought. Starts, cameos and stoppage time run-outs… they all count.

  1. Luke Young (378 appearances)

After a bright start to his career at Tottenham, Luke Young moved to Charlton Athletic and blossomed into one of the best young left-backs in the country. He became part of the Young-Fish-Costa-Fortune backline and was a mainstay through to the 2005/06 season by which point manager Alan Curbishley had added the likes of Matt Holland, Darren Bent and Dennis Rommedahl to the squad. Curbishley left, Charlton wobbled and a mishmash of Iain Dowie, Les Reed and Alan Pardew took Charlton to a 19th place finish. Young secured his own Premier League survival through a move to Middlesbrough and after one season upgraded to join Aston Villa. It was at the Villains that his career began a very slow nosedive. He was now very much out of the England picture but soldiered on for five more years of intermittent Premier League football (the last of which came in QPR colours). Young amassed a whopping 378 appearances – that’s ten more than Scott Parker and twelve more than Roy Keane.

  1. Aaron Hughes (455 appearances)

Aaron Hughes has made more top division appearances than the likes of Ashley Cole and has over 100 more than Kolo Toure. He even champions ageless goalkeepers Shay Given and Brad Friedel. Before we start poking fun at his unmemorable career, it’s only fair to applaud this feat of longevity. He played in decent Newcastle and Fulham sides, stayed almost injury-free for twelve years and was unfairly out-shone by centre-back partners with bigger names. From the 1999/00 season through to 2010/11 Hughes failed to play 30 Premier League games on just three occasions, hitting maximum apps in two Fulham campaigns. In his final three years at Fulham he navigated safely over the 400 mark yet I recall approximately no pub discussions featuring his name. He hardly ever scored – which never helps – but never made the headlines for doing the wrong things either. In his old age he tumbled into the Championship but completed a century of caps for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016.

  1. Wayne Routledge (266+ appearances)

Swansea’s Routledge has made 266 Premier League appearances (at the time of writing) and could hit 300 before his unspectacular career wraps up. After starting every game for promoted Crystal Palace in 2004/05, the Englishman made a career-stalling transfer to Spurs and played just 44 more times in the next four years (mainly through loan moves to Fulham and Portsmouth). Swansea snapped him up in the summer of 2011 and Routledge relaunched his career as a Premier League starter. He’s featured heavily in the last five campaigns and continues to make regular appearances in a Swansea side that have failed to improve their wide options. That’s not to say Routledge is a bad player – he presents an honest challenge to any full-back he’s paired against – but despite his 250+ appearances he’s never been more than fleetingly considered for an England cap.

  1. Steed Malbranque (336 appearances)

Steed Malbranque was wicked, right? The Frenchman was always a solid Fantasy Football choice with his classy displays for Fulham containing plenty of dangerous crosses and a fair share of successful strikes (he got six goals a season from 2003 to 2006). Malbranque’s talent saw him claim 40 Premier League assists putting him just ahead of the likes of Robert Pires, Emile Heskey and, erm, Matt Etherington. His transfer to Tottenham wasn’t exactly a roaring success and he grinded out 100 league games for Sunderland that pretty much nobody outside of Wearside can remember. Deep down I think we all quite liked the uncapped Frenchman and it was a shame to see him leave his adopted nation for St.Etienne in 2011. To put Malbranque’s tally into perspective, Sergio Aguero won’t reach 336 games until the 2021/22 season.

  1. Lee Bowyer (397 appearances)

Wow, Lee Bowyer came dangerously close to joining the elite group of footballers with 400 Premier League appearances. Much like others on this list, Bowyer had a solid grounding from a young age as a first team member of a successful Leeds United team. You might be more shocked to find the Camden-born midfielder netted 35 times in his six full seasons at Elland Road. He soon garnered a reputation as a footballing thug and 100 Premier League bookings prove there’s no smoke without fire. He battled on – often literally – with mixed spells at Newcastle and West Ham. Despite his obvious shortfalls, it’s fair to say he did an underrated job in the top flight. He dipped down to the Championship before returning with Birmingham City for two seasons in which he arguably played his best football in a decade. Nevertheless, I still find myself asking: how and when did Lee Bowyer sneak to 397 Premier League games?

  1. Charles N’Zogbia (281 appearances)

Narrowly missing out on the 300 club, Charles N’Zogbia has never really lived up to his teenage potential. Whilst researching for this list I stumbled across plenty of reminders of just how exciting N’Zogbia was when he burst into the Newcastle first team. The Frenchman was a dynamic and exciting player and endeared himself to the Toon Army with a succession of fine goals including a free-kick vs. Sunderland. At that point, if you told me he’d make nearly 300 Premier League appearances I’d have imagined a career at the very top level. N’Zogbia’s form fizzled out under new Newcastle management but a move to Wigan Athletic saw him reinvigorated and some sparkling performances would follow. Deemed too good for relegation-bound Wigan, N’Zogbia moved to Aston Villa in 2011 where his career ground to a halt. Apparently he played 80 times for the Midlanders but you’d do well to remember those performances. He’s been hit by plenty of injuries but they haven’t saved him from harsh judgement by both fans and the media. He’s still only 30…

Mike Franchetti