October’s Giraffes and Lemons

Another month gone and, at the top, the Premier League looks like it could go down to the wire as no team seems able to gain an advantage over any of their rivals. However unlike in previous seasons I fear there will be no fairy tale to follow with the top five places filled with teams who you would expect to be challenging for the Champions League places come May.

It is a similar scenario at the bottom of the table with two of three relegation places filled by the teams I predicted to finish bottom and after seeing Stoke beat both Sunderland and Hull City convincingly I can’t see either of these teams playing in the Premiership next year. So bad were Sunderland when we played them at the Bet365 they are my Team Lemon for October an award they easily justified at the weekend after they were hammered by Arsenal.

For the Team Giraffe for October there have been a number of contenders from Chelsea and their impressive run of clean sheets to the attacking delight that has been Liverpool over the opening weeks of the season but instead of the obvious my Team Giraffe for October goes to Watford. Whilst not playing the most attractive football in the division Watford have sneaked up the table to 7th place and even though I don’t think they’ll make the European places come the end of the season I wanted to reward them for the little bit of fantasy they are providing and also for being a place above Manchester United.

Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed over the course of the month):

  1. Manchester City (1st)
  2. Chelsea (2nd)
  3. Liverpool (6th)
  4. Arsenal (4th)
  5. Tottenham Hotspur (3rd)
  6. Everton (7th)
  7. Manchester United (5th)
  8. Southampton (8th)
  9. Leicester City (9th)
  10. Watford (10th)
  11. Stoke City (14th)
  12. Crystal Palace (11th)
  13. West Bromwich Albion (12th)
  14. Middlesbrough (15th)
  15. West Ham United (13th)
  16. Bournemouth (16th)
  17. Burnley (18th)
  18. Swansea (17th)
  19. Hull City (19th)
  20. Sunderland (20th)

From an individual perspective I feel I have to reward Manchester City for keeping the title race interesting by awarding my Lemon of the Month to one of their players and as a protest at Pep’s insistent on playing football from the back, no matter the cost! Therefore, my Lemon of the Month goes to the poster boy of this movement, Claudio Bravo, not for anything he did in the Premiership this month but instead for his display against his old team mates at the Nou Camp.

Finally my Giraffe of the Month is a nod to Stoke’s move out of the relegation zone and whilst Joe Allen has been in fine goal scoring form the Giraffe goes to Xherdan Shaqiri, who has been the real difference for Stoke in their recent run of good form.

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Craig Dawson Fails His Powderpuff Boys Audition

ppb

At the start of the season I highlighted the change in the modern defender and especially the decline of the hard man centre half. These dinosaurs are slowly being replaced by a new variety of defender who instead of revelling in the physicality of the challenge, often duck the confrontation and if they are unlucky enough to have to make a tackle, usually role about in agony until they realise the referee isn’t going to award them a free kick.

The two main culprits amongst the Premier League defensive ranks this season are David Luiz and Nicolas Otamendi and over the course of the season I have challenged myself to find a third in order to create a new super group, The Powderpuff Boys.

Sadly, Craig Dawson of West Brom failed his audition at the weekend when, caressed by Nolito’s head he simply looked at the referee and his team mates with an expression which asked “what’s that idiot trying to do?”

nolito-and-dawson

Instead of looking bemused the correct approach when feeling anything more than a breath of fresh air on your face is to roll around as if you have been sprayed with acid or, if a little more serious, roll around on the floor as if you have just been tasered. However, a word of warning, the camera is always watching, something David Luiz obviously forgot in the clip below:

With Craig Dawson ruled out as the third member of the Powderpuff Boys the search goes on for their final member.

Reinventing The Whole of the Wheel

positions

The diagram above shows New Zealand Football’s proposed numbering system, as detailed in their Whole of Football plan. In today’s game, with players wearing squad numbers, the number on the back of a player’s top very rarely denotes the position they are playing in so I shouldn’t really be too upset by the proposal above. But I am and here’s why:

  • Why number the players in order from the back until you get to number 7?
  • If the centre forward is going to be the traditional number 9, why can’t the centre halves be 5 and 6 like they have been for the last fifty years?

Put simply if you are going to reinvent the wheel, reinvent the Whole of the Wheel not just the parts you think nobody cares about because I, for one, do!

What Next For The 23,495 Pound Man?

In the seventies and early Eighties it was North America and for a few years in the Nineties it was Japan, then came the MSL revolution and the destination for aging or forgotten footballers went full circle and America was once more the desired destination. Nowadays, with the ever increasing expansion of the global game, footballers (and managers) have a myriad of options when deciding on their retirement plan including China and our very own A-league.

In this occasional series I will be highlighting football personalities who you may have forgotten who are now plying their trade Down Under. This time however it a footballer who is neither plying his trade nor at present has anything to do with football Down Under. Instead I look at the ex-Stoke player, Jermaine Pennant:

pounds

At times in the red and white shirt Pennant was a delight watch but most of the time he could at best be described as frustrating and at worse a passenger and his stay at Stoke was probably best remembered for his numerous off the pitch problems. Sadly, for Pennant, his time at Stoke, rather than being the exception, was typical of a career which started so when he was signed by Arsenal as a fifteen year old.

Ever since that two million pound move from Notts County, Pennant’s career can be held up as the embodiment of what can happen to a talented young player who believes early on the hype which surrounds him. Repeatedly turning up late for training, a trait he never seemed to lose, Pennant found himself loaned out to a number of lesser teams before eventually leaving for Birmingham City.

Liverpool, Real Zaragoza and Stoke followed, with the same pattern of occasional moments of brilliance and more common disciplinary problems, before his first employment in Asia with India’s Pune City. Pennant did briefly return to England with Wigan Athletic but at the start of the year he signed with Singapore side Tampines Rovers to be their star player!

Now, less than a year after he signed, Pennant is once more looking for a club after he refused to accept a reduction on his 23,495 pound, weekly salary. Whilst this may be nothing compared to the vast sums being paid to some Premiership footballers it is still a lot more than most of us earn during a good portion of the year and it is a sad indictment of the amount of money in today’s game that a player like Pennant is comfortable to walk away from such a deal.

So in a departure from the usual What Happened To? I am instead asking the question What Next For the 23,495 pound man?

Watford – Are The English Football League Are As Much To Blame?

After watching Stoke play both Sunderland and Hull City it is reassuring to know that, unless both of these teams improve considerably, the remainder of the teams at the bottom of the table are now fighting to avoid one relegation place. So the news that Watford may be in trouble over a forged bank letter could be seen as confirming the three teams to be relegated before the kids have gone out trick and treating.

When Gino Pozzo became owner of the London club in 2014 part of the due diligence required by the Football League was proof that the company taking over, in this case Hornets Investment Limited, had sufficient funds to bankroll the running of the club. This guarantee was provided in the form of a letter from HSBC Premier which it has now come to light was not genuine.

Whilst Watford should be punished for supplying falsified financial information to the football league, and penalties touted have included fines and points deductions, what amazes me is the level of incompetence which seems to be at the cored of the English game. After the Big Sam fiasco, we now have another English national footballing body which seems to have only a passing interest in ensuring they verify what they are being told is in fact the truth and whether it would be good for the game and if you dig deeper into the story the English Football League’s grasps of the basic facts of business become evidently naïve.

Hornets Investment Limited first application of proof of funds was rejected by the Football League because the club submitted an out of date document from a different back, Credit Suisse. Didn’t anyone hear the alarm bells when a two year old banking letter was provided as proof of current funds? Then when Hornets Investment Limited reapplied didn’t anyone bother to wonder why the letter came from a different bank? I understand companies change the bank they deal with but wouldn’t you wonder why the original application was accompanied by a letter from a bank which is not the one you are now saying you bank with? And arm of HSBC which must be noted does not deal with corporate customers!

Finally, even if you had failed to hear the cacophony of alarm bells now resounding, there is a telephone number on the forged letter. How hard could it be to pick up the phone and ask one simple question?

And what of Watford’s punishment? Before fans of Burnley, Hull, Swansea or Sunderland get too excited, even if Watford are proven guilty, I doubt their punishment will have any impact on the final Premier League table. They will no doubt be fined and I would hope that they are docked points, a lot of points, but this is an English Football League investigation and I would be surprised if the Premier League, which is a separate organisation, would accept any points deduction handed out by their counterparts. This would mean that any points deduction would have to be held over until the club returns to the English Football League.

Could Watford survive this suspended sentence if they got relegated? With the parachute payments which are on offer to clubs that get relegated I have no doubt but if the points deduction is sufficiently large it would mean Watford would not be able to bounce back at the first attempt. The final question would then be would the current owners hang around a team that is going nowhere? After being allowed to massage their vanity, as the owner of a Premier League club, they will be able to walk away, if they wish, throwing their toy to the wayside as they depart unpunished.

I hope they wouldn’t but if I was a fan of Watford I would be dreading the day you ever got relegated from the Premier League.

What About The Flair?

Recently the Boy took part in the regional age group competitions for football here in New Zealand and whilst the Boy’s region didn’t set the world on fire, walking around the playing fields I couldn’t help but notice the similarity with which each team set up to play football. From match to match I watched, transfixed, as team after team passed the ball from the back, from fullback to centre-half to the central-midfielder and back out to the wing, it was as if each team was following a well-defined script and here is the crux of the problem, they were.

New Zealand Football has created a Whole of Football plan to bring football in New Zealand as close to the standards of the rest of the world as is possible and whilst I applaud this initiative I am concerned the end product may be a conveyor line of robots programmed to play a certain style of football to the best of any ability that they have. Whilst, in the long term, this approach may achieve the goal of acquiring parity with similar ranked nations I fear the vast majority of the products from this conveyor belt will end up, at the very best, utility players such as Stoke’s own Geoff Cameron. Players who do a job and nothing more.

During the, aforementioned, regional tournament I found it disturbing that players who showed a glimmer of individuality were harangued by their coaches for not playing the ball they had been drilled to play over, and over and over, again in training. It didn’t matter that the innovation may have resulted in a chance on goal, they were being criticised for displaying a trait that is revered at the pinnacle of the game but is treated with ever increasing suspicion as you move down through the football pyramid, flair.

Growing up as a kid in the eighties when I thought about flair players it was South Americans who came to the fore, then the Eastern Europeans came to the fore, before, in the early part of this century African footballers began to grab the headlines. As time progressed the number of flair players who heralded from the big European football powerhouses dwindled, the recent Spanish team being the exception that proves the rule. My theory for why this is the cases is that these footballers when they were growing up played football for fun, their own version of jumpers for goalposts, where rules were thrown out of the window and nutmegging your opponent was worth more than being on the end of a slick passing movement. The Whole of Football plan details in depth how a child should be trained but can you train the improvised on a practice pitch?

In the UK it is now standard procedure for children identified early in their lives to be snapped up by academies but what is probably not common knowledge is that these children are often banned from their clubs from playing football for their schools or even kicking a ball around with their mates. Is this the end product which the Whole of Football plan is working to? Do we really want our kids thinking of football as an activity which stops them enjoying spending time with their fellows? And out of the hundreds (or thousands) of children who give up the pleasure of playing jumpers for goalposts how many actually make it?

The Whole of Football plan is a step in the right direction but ours is a small nation with an even smaller number of children interested in the round ball game and therefore we need to ensure these children remain in the game. This means nurturing their individuality not indoctrinating them with conformity therefore, along with the standardised coaches’ playbooks, let them also be themselves because the games at the regional football tournament were, if I am honest, dull because every team knew what the other team was trying to achieve.

Holland in the seventies and Germany in the last decade may have had success with a one system for all approach to their age groups but this is because they had the numbers to make this work, New Zealand doesn’t.

One More Match

After a drab, but effective at least in points terms, performance against the mighty minnows of Malta and a lucky escape against the footballing superpower of Slovenia, the current incumbent of the England Manager’s job is one match victory away from securing the role full time. If Gareth Southgate does manage to wrangle a victory against an Auld Enemy who are in almost as much disarray as their southern neighbours would he deserve the job?

Based on the two matches he has overseen so far I would have to say no but, and it is a very important but, could any of the other contenders touted have done any better?

There seems to be a common misconception in the English press that the current generation of footballers are on par with most of the rest of the world but if you look closely this is by no means the case. England do not posses a stand out superstar such as Portugal’s Ronaldo or any of Barcelona’s MNS, yet even Wales have Gareth Bale? Superstars aside teams such as Germany and Spain may not have a definitive world beater but they do possess units of players who have grown up together and can be counted on when the going gets tough, what do England have? Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson. Be honest and you have to admit the majority of the England team would struggle to get into most of the top international teams or even the squads of the big players.

But what of John Stones or Dele Ali I hear you ask? Stones was grossly overpriced whilst I am not yet convinced that Ali is half the player he or the English press think he is. Joe Hart is a top class goalkeeper but he can’t get a game for the club which owns him and whilst Harry Kane has proven he is no flash in the pan, is he really in the same class as the previously mentioned MSN or Lewandowski of Germany? Which brings us to the future of the English game, Marcus Rashford. Here is a player who has played less than twenty senior league games being touted as a world class talent. One of the games was against Stoke and Rashford was the player I was looking forward to seeing the most but in the end he disappointed and was outshone by two true international greats Zlatan and Pogba.

This is the real paucity of talent any England boss would have to work with and in this context maybe Southgate should be lauded for keeping England’s undefeated streak in qualifiers alive. Maybe a draw against Slovenia would have been easier to swallow if we had Arsene moaning about the quality of international refereeing but at the end of the day it would still have been only a point.

If you accept there is a problem with the lack of world class talent coming through the English football system the obvious next step is to ask what is the solution. And it is here that I think that Southgate is the answer.

England have consistently been impressive at age level football under Southgate so he knows the players and because he knows the players I hope he would be more inclined to blood them in the remaining, easily winnable, qualifying games. Sure we may lose the odd one but even England’s current incumbents should make easy work of our qualifying group and in today’s modern football world the emphasis has changed from the country to the club.

For the lesser football nations, and England has to be classed in this bracket, international football is a pathway to being recognised by the bug clubs. So if talented players are seen playing for England the pressure on their club bosses to play them increases because they are now in the shop window and as a result, hopefully, we begin to see more young players gaining the first team experience which they need, such as Marcus Rashford.

But you just criticised Rashford I hear you scream!

No, I criticised the English press for building him up and said he was disappointing when he played against Stoke, but the important thing is that he did play against Stoke. Maybe he will justify the hype or maybe he will be another Fabian Delph but either way he will have the chance and the more players like Rashford who are given that chance the better the odds of producing a truly world class player.

So if I was to be responsible for choosing Big Sam’s replacement I would hang my hat on the current incumbent and tell him to ignore the press and give youth a chance.