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.

Advertisements

Why the FA Cup is dying

Football is a game now built on money. For a long time now sentiment and history have ceased in having any influence on the beautiful game. New found riches and the prospect of even greater financial reward has led to the decrease in stature of one of the bastions of the English football calendar; the FA Cup. In this article, Simmo looks at why the FA Cup is dying and why its sister competition, the League Cup, is continuing to go from strength to strength.

The FA Cup has always had this magical, mystical, even mythical side to it. It is the only competition in English football where a real battle between David and Goliath ever seems to take place. Right from its very first appearance in the English football calendar, way back in 1871, it has taken on an importance that no other major cup competition is able to replicate across Europe’s premier footballing nations.

Yet now, in an age where it increasingly seems that money takes precedence over both pride and history, the FA Cup is sadly losing its status as Europe’s most important national cup, and perhaps, even Britain’s.

That final sentence in particular may cause a few gasps from readers, however, there is certainly considerable evidence to suggest that top clubs are now putting a greater emphasis on the League Cup. Whilst it is certainly true that the League Cup lacks the prestige of its sister competition, it has a lot of elements that lie in its favour.

One of elements is something that big teams find especially advantageous. Premier League teams that qualified for a European competition in the previous season are automatically placed in the third round. Unlike the FA Cup, where all Premier League and Championship teams get an automatic pass to the third round, the League Cup usually sees all Championship teams begin their campaign in round one.

 

Number of Games

Either seventy or seventy-two teams enter the first round, with the winners progressing to round two. Here, the Premier League teams not involved in European competitions are added to the pool. When round two is finished the Premier League teams who qualified for Europe are added. It is at this point when the cup really does begin in earnest.

The reason why this is often so favourable for bigger teams is that they are often entering the competition when many of their league rivals have already been eliminated. Let us take the 2014/15 competition as an example. By the beginning of the third round a total of seven Premier League teams had already been eliminated. A quarter of the 16 fourth round ties were all Premier League affairs, with only nine teams from Britain’s top tier progressing.

There are other advantages too; for example, the number of games that have to be played to get to the final. Round three in the League Cup has only 32 teams as opposed to 64 in the FA Cup. Additionally, there are no replays in the League Cup, meaning that up until the semi-final, teams only have to play one game per round. The maximum number of games that a Premier League team playing in Europe has to play to reach Wembley is five.

The replay issue is a contentious one. It has been violently debated by those wearing suits at the FA. Whilst we all love to see a lower league team battle valiantly and earn a replay at a big club, there is a strong argument to suggest that replaying ties has a detrimental impact.

For example, let us take a Premier League team who have qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League. They are drawn against lower league opposition in the fifth round. The match is a dull affair with the minnows frustrating their more illustrious opponents for 90 minutes. The result is a 0-0 draw and all those at the smaller club are delighted that they have secured a replay at one of Britain’s biggest clubs.

For the Premier League team however, this is the nightmare scenario. The replay is sandwiched between several important Premier League games and the first leg of their Champions League knockout round.

Where is the incentive for them? Whilst those at lower league clubs are delighted to secure replays, partly due to the financial windfall that comes with achieving such a feat, the Premier League clubs know that finishing even one place higher in the league could bring about greater financial rewards than winning the FA Cup.

 

Financial Reward

Manchester United, the current FA Cup holders, won £1.8 million for their Wembley triumph. This does not include television money, nor gate receipts. When these have been calculated in, the money received from an FA Cup run increases substantially. Ultimately a run to the final can prove to be extremely profitable, yet like all things in football, it has to be revaluated in comparison to the revenue streams that can be had elsewhere.

All things are relative – £5 million to Huddersfield Town is the equivalent of about £40 million for Manchester United. There is no factual basis for this statement – it is just merely to demonstrate how bigger clubs have a different outlook on the financial side of the game. For Huddersfield Town, winning the FA Cup and receiving that sort of money would constitute a major success. For Manchester United winning the FA Cup would only be success if they had also managed to secure other financial success.

We will continue with Manchester United because it is a good example. The 2014/15 season had seen them qualify for the Champions League after a two-year absence. Although they were eliminated in the group stages they made almost 10 times more in that competition than they did for winning the FA Cup. That is even before the TV revenue is added to the total.

Then there is the Premier League. Despite finishing fifth Manchester United were able to rake in a staggering £19.8 million in prize money. Once again, this is before the TV revenue is counted. When it is you can multiply the money received by five.

Now, before we go further it is important for us to talk about the finances involved with the League Cup. The winners of the competition only receive £100,000 – an almost irrelevant sum when placed in the grandeur that is the world of football.

 

Not just financial

It would seem then that there is a bigger reason as to why the League Cup has taken on an increased importance in recent years. It clearly is not down to financial reward – there is obviously something else that sways teams to take the competition seriously. Whilst winning the League Cup is worth substantially less than lifting the FA Cup trophy, there is no difference in the actual footballing reward.

With both finals being played at Wembley, and winners of both competitions are automatically entered into the Europa League, Europe’s second tier competition, there is little to distinguish the two competitions. One way this could be done is by introducing a Champions League qualification spot for the winners of the FA Cup. The financial rewards on offer there would encourage teams to take the competition more seriously.

Another major problem with the FA Cup is its timing. It is something that particularly affects the bigger clubs. The third round of the League Cup typically kicks off in late September, just one month into the Premier League season. In comparison, the FA Cup third round begins in early January – just after an extremely busy festive period. By the time the fourth round has started the two League Cup finalists have already been confirmed.

Essentially, a run in the League Cup comes at a better time than the equivalent run in the FA Cup. Players are fresher, and perhaps most importantly, the fixture list is less congested.

 

The Shocks

Yet there will always be the purists. The people who say, “well the FA Cup is the FA Cup, and nothing will ever beat it.” In many ways they are right. People, particularly those of older generations, have a real affinity with the FA Cup.

It was the Cup of the people. The one every young boy or girl watching football wanted to win. It was a Saturday not long after Christmas, a Saturday when the best teams came to play the smaller teams. The most famous players in the country were being tested in uncomfortable surroundings. It was the perfect recipe for a shock.

Shock is very much the operative word associated with FA Cup. There have always been shocks. Hereford vs Newcastle springs to mind, along with Wimbledon vs Liverpool. Games where the favourites were stunned, where the minnows triumphed against the odds. That was the magic of the FA Cup.

Nowadays they are less common. Indeed, Bradford were the last team to really cause an FA Cup shock when they won 4-2 at the Premier League leaders, Chelsea, after being 2-0 down. Even when surprising results do occur there are question marks regarding whether they can be truly classified as a shock result.

West Ham United, a Premier League club, lost 5-0 at Nottingham Forest, a team in the second tier, two years ago. In most normal situations people would describe this as a shock. Yet on the day West Ham had rested a number of first team players and had clearly set their sights elsewhere. Bournemouth did the same earlier this month, fielding a weakened team at League One Millwall, and in turn losing 3-0. Again, it went to prove that the FA Cup was not a priority.

Indeed, the League Cup has provided more shocks in recent seasons. Seasoned cup team, Bradford City, a club from the fourth tier of English football, enjoyed a miracle run to the final after competition four years ago. They knocked out no fewer than three Premier League teams en route to Wembley. Although they lost 5-0 to Swansea City in the final, their run had inspired many. It had brought a bit of magic to the competition.

Non-Premier League finalists are rare occurrences. In fact, since 2000 only four teams from outside the Premier League have reached the League Cup final. You have to go back a further 19 years to reach the same number in the FA Cup. Prior to that there had been six finalists from outside the top division, with three even going on to claim the trophy.

It could be argued that the League Cup has provided more memorable moments in recent years than the FA Cup. Whether it will ever overtake its rival as English footballs premier cup competition remains unlikely. Yet whilst the football rewards remain the same and the money in other competitions continues to rise, clubs will continue to treat it as an important trophy, and one that is worth competing for.