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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Were Leicester City right to sack Claudio Ranieri?

Agree to Disagree – where the argument you had at the pub last Thursday becomes a well mannered discussion.

Claudio Ranieri’s gone! The man in charge when Leicester City pulled off the biggest shock in the history of English football has been sacked less than ten months after lifting the Premier League trophy. Leicester’s form has been dreadful – but should he have been sacked?


YES

Mike Franchetti argues…

Shock horror! Tactically one-dimensional manager sacked after players and fans rapidly lose faith. Uproar! Departure follows a run of five straight Premier League defeats and six games without SCORING A GOAL. The worst decision ever! Champions of England spend £60,000,000 and plummet to relegation battle winning just five games by the end of February.

Really? Is Ranieri’s sacking the worst decision ever? Worse than Birmingham City turfing out Gary Rowett – when eighth in the table – to bring in Gianfranco Zola? Worse than Swansea City kicking out their obviously talented young manager and former captain Garry Monk? What about when Gianluca Vialli was given his marching orders after winning three cup competitions in two years?

Okay – whisper this – but I actually might not have sacked Ranieri. Why? Because I value loyalty and like to see managers given a chance to turn things round. I don’t think like a businessman and I’m certainly not a multimillionaire chairman. I long for the old days where managers could mould their clubs and create defining eras; Ferguson’s United, Wenger’s Arsenal and, erm, Allardyces’s Bolton? This is probably the first pro-sacking post I’ve written. Over the years I’ve wanted them all to stay; from Andre Villas-Boas and Martin O’Neil, to Tim Sherwood and Steve Clarke.

But Ranieri’s sacking hasn’t left me with the usual sour taste. Outside of sentiment, I don’t see too much wrong with the Italian getting axed.

Let me first find a sentence or two for the miracle of the 2016 season. I still haven’t been able to get my head round what happened. Leicester winning the Premier League was at least ten times more improbable than Liverpool overturning their deficit in Istanbul. It was absolutely bonkers. They sailed to the top of the Premier League, lost to Arsenal, dusted themselves off and then went another 12 games unbeaten. Bizarre. Bonkers. A miracle.

What follows a miracle? Another miracle? Highly unlikely. Ranieri had the near-impossible job of delivering Leicester City to a safe mid-table finish without players and fans suffering from a case of apathy. He was behind the steering wheel of the most feel-good story in recent footballing history but with no idea where to go next. Somebody had to walk into the Leicester City party, turn the music off and say ‘What the f*** do we do now’? Nice-guy Ranieri was never the man for that job.

If I’m honest, I don’t even think he was that instrumental in last year’s success. During Leicester’s string of sensational victories his face often showed the same pleasant surprise as mine. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing and neither could we.

The main argument for keeping Ranieri is that Leicester should not sack the man who has helped deliver the greatest season in their entire history. It’s a fair shout but not one that would play on the mind of the King Power International Group. By all accounts they seem like reasonable owners (at least by current standards) and, even taking into account parachute payments, they can’t afford to let their club drop to the second division.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, the club would sack Wes Morgan – and his spiced rum deal – or the aging Robert Huth. Perhaps they’d sack Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez for losing interest and returning to mediocre levels of form. But players can’t be sacked in such certain terms. The club has been loyal to the spine of their title winning team but unfortunately this loyalty can’t be extended to the man in charge.

Maybe this is the true level of Leicester City; a fair conclusion considering their struggles in the last part of 2014 (no win in thirteen). But sadly there is nothing about Ranieri’s character – or managerial history – which inspires confidence that he is the right man for this situation.

With relegation looming, many thought Leicester fans would smile and say to eachother ‘Ah well, it was all worth it’ but this was never going to be the case. Diehard football fans will never settle for prolonged periods of substandard performances. Ranieri’s sacking – much like last season’s title – was written.

 

NO

Sam Simmons argues…

We all know that football managers are sacked on a regular basis. An isolated glance of the Premier League table would indicate that the sacking of Ranieri was justifiable. There have certainly been harsher cases of managerial sackings in the not so distant past.

Looking exclusively at this season and the results of Ranieri’s Leicester team is choosing to analyse only half the story. This season is only a disaster in the context of what happened last time around.

Let’s say that Leicester had finished 16th last season. Ranieri would have been congratulated for stabilising a team that had experienced a summer of turmoil. Let’s not forget that when Claudio took over he was hardly the first choice among Leicester fans and, of course, the mandatory football ‘experts’. Many had predicted him to be the first manager sacked and the bookies had emphatically decided that the Foxes were destined for the drop. “Well done, Claudio – you did your job!” Those are the words you’d imagine that the Leicester City owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, would have said to his Italian manager had that particular scenario played out. Pleased that his left-field appointment had paid dividends, the Thai businessmen could be satisfied with what his manager had achieved.

Of course we all know what really happened. Ranieri’s side lost only three games, two of which were to Arsenal, and won the title by a staggering 10 points. “Well done, Claudio. That really is incredible!” Again – I am being somewhat facetious, but Mr Srivaddhanaprabha would surely have been able to realise the enormity of what his manager had achieved.

And this is why the sacking of Britain’s favourite foreign manager is so utterly ridiculous, so utterly unnecessary, and so utterly wrong!

When sacked, his side were outside of the bottom three, still in the Champions League, and still, in my opinion at least, likely to stay up. In fact, it is worth reminding those who are less familiar of Leicester’s recent history that they were sitting in a far worse position 24 months ago. The then manager, Nigel Pearson, was given the time to turn things around then.

Would the owners have sacked Ranieri had he finished 16th last season and was sat in, say, 14th place now? Absolutely not. People would still be saying that he was doing a reasonable job with the squad he had available. The owners – likely content with the progress from the previous campaign – could board their private helicopter safe in the knowledge that the team would be enjoying a fourth consecutive Premier League season.

“Well done, Claudio. You’re still doing your job to the level we expected.”

How could Ranieri not be afforded the same courtesy as Pearson was? In many ways this question is largely irrelevant. The decision has been made. But what the decision tells us sets a worrying precedent. Essentially, by making this decision the owners have said that they value Premier League survival over the success of last season. It affirms a nasty reality of the modern game – money really is everything. Clearly Srivaddhanaprabha and his son feel the cost of getting relegated is one that is too financially hard to bear.

There are other alleged reasons for Ranieri’s departure, namely regarding whether the players had lost faith in their manager. I am sorry, but I find that particularly story very hard to believe. You’re telling me that a group of players who achieved the impossible last season have suddenly lost faith in their manager?

I mean, pull the other one! And even if they had, that only reflects badly on them. If they were not professional enough to get on with their jobs even though they had reservations about the manager, then it just goes to prove that modern day footballers are just overpaid, pampered prima donnas.

I happen to disagree with this theory. For me the reality is far more simple – Leicester are where they are meant to be. They were never meant to win the league last season, so why should expectation have been so drastically different?

Naturally anything below first is a failure compared to last season – but what else were people expecting? A Manchester United like period of dominance? What Ranieri achieved last season was absolutely unprecedented. He deserved immunity. Instead of sacking him, the owners should have been building statues.

I can’t help but feel bitterly sad and disappointed about the events of the last week. Last season was so romantic, so wonderful; it really did go a long way to restoring an element of humanity in a game that increasingly seems to lack it.

Ranieri was a key figure in that. His humour, positivity and general behaviour was a stark contrast to the macho and unpleasant bravado we have seen from many of his contemporaries.

In the words of the great man. “Dilly ding. Dilly dong. Wake up!” If only the owners had woken up and realised that they were never, ever going to have it so good.