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: November 29th 2016

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

This weekend saw the Premier League complete its thirteenth round of fixtures,  meaning that we are now a third of the way through what has already been an extraordinary season. Leading the way are Chelsea, however the race for the title looks like it could well go down to the wire, with the gap between them and Arsenal in fourth being a mere four points. Elsewhere, José Mourinho’s Manchester United could only manage a 1-1 draw against West Ham at Old Trafford, leaving them a staggering 11 points off the top. Last seasons champions, Leicester, could only draw 2-2 at home to newly promoted Middlesbrough leaving them way down in 14th place. But who has made it into SOTP’s team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Paul Robinson

It seems like he has been around forever, and how many of us realistically thought we would ever see him keeping in the Premier League again? Indeed this was the first time in over five and a half years that the former England man had appeared in a top flight game. Deputising for the injured Tom Heaton, the 37 year old defied his age and demonstrated great agility and athleticism when producing two quite superb first half saves. The ex-Leeds, Tottenham and Blackburn player really was desperately unlucky to have been beaten twice. He will almost certainly return to the bench once Heaton regains fitness, yet if this was to be his Premier League swansong then he certainly made the most it.

The Stopper – Virgil Van Dijk

Van Dijk was imperious as Southampton defeated Everton 1-0 at St Mary’s. The win will have been all the more sweeter considering it was the much anticipated return of Ronald Koeman. The big-Dutchman really is amongst the best in the league in his position; brilliant on the ball, and crucially, for a central defender at least, excellent defensively. Southampton have kept five Premier League clean sheets and hold the joint-second best defensive record in the league, conceding only 12 goals in 13 games. Van Dijk and his central defensive partner have played a big part in that success. The Saints will do well to keep hold of him in January.

The Runner – Leroy Fer

This man has six Premier League goals this season. Yes, you did read correctly, SIX! That’s more than Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. Fer is one of the only Swansea players to have come out with any credit this season. The Swans have been on a dire run, and Saturday’s extraordinary 5-4 win over Crystal Palace was only their second win of the season, and their first since the opening day. Fer scored two goals in as many minutes to give Swansea what looked to be a commanding 3-1 lead. However, like so many times this season their defensive let them down and they trailed 4-3 going into injury time. Up stepped super-sub (unlucky to miss out on this weeks 5TOTW) Fernando Llorente, as his late double sealed a win that lifted Swansea off the bottom of the table, for now at least.

Free Role – Pedro

There were a couple of candidate for this role this week, yet the Spain international gets the nod. With Chelsea trailing Spurs 1-0, the former Barcelona man curled in a brilliant effort just before half time. The goal was not just superb in its execution, but also in its timeliness. Chelsea went in at the break with all the momentum and came out after half time with a great deal of momentum. Victor Moses second half goal gave Chelsea their seventh Premier League win on the bounce, but it was Pedro’s contribution that really changed the game.

The Finisher – Alexis Sanchez

Alexis Sanchez leads the line for the third time this season, yet Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero can count himself a little unlucky to have missed out. Sanchez scored Arsenal’s first and third goals as he took his own personal tally to eight for the season. The Chilean is such a handful; is so full of energy and such a willing runner, defenders can never afford to rest on their laurels when he’s on the pitch. If Arsenal going to mount a genuine title challenge, then they have to make sure that they keep this little maestro fit.

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.