Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 3

Week 3 of the Premier League is in the rear view mirror and Transfer Deadline Day is just a couple of days away. As we head into the first international break of the season, Manchester United are the only team with a 100% winning record, while Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and West Ham are still looking for their first points. It may still be early days in the season, but already there are signs as to how the season will go for some teams. As with Weeks 1 and 2, here are my thoughts on the latest week of Premier League action:

 

Don’t rely on one man

When watching Swansea’s 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace on Match of the Day, I was shocked by the stat that Tammy Abraham’s goal was their first shot on target in the league this season… after almost 5 halves of football!

The frequent discussion amongst fans is the importance of getting a striker who will be a regular scorer, the idea being that their goals will keep the club in the league. However the sale of Gylfi Sigurdsson and the injury to star striker Fernando Llorente has left the Swans light on firepower as the season gets underway. I expect Abraham to shine this season, but this will be his first time playing such a vital role at such a high level so it will likely take him a while to reach his peak in a new team.

While having a regular goal scorer will be a big benefit to a team, it is probably more important for them to make sure they have a number of players throughout the squad who can contribute 7-10 goals a season than one superstar who can contribute 15-20.

Not meeting expectations

While a couple of regular goal scorers is important, it is vital to have a reliable defence. Despite having experienced players like José Fonte, James Collins, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart, the Hammers have conceded 10 goals in 3 games. After Fonte and Zabaleta’s stupid penalties cost them the game last week against Southampton, a big performance was needed against a Newcastle side that was still looking for its first Premiership goal… Instead, they conceded 3 more!

These experienced players need to start justifying their salaries. More importantly, Slaven Bilic needs to get something working soon or he could be at risk of becoming the league’s first managerial casualty of the season.

Time for change

Anyone who has read my blog on a regular basis will know that I am a rugby fan first and foremost. As such there have been a number of things that have been done in rugby that I have thought will benefit football. Goal-line technology has clearly helped since its introduction and the VAR will help improve the accuracy of refereeing decisions once they figure out how best to use it. I also feel that the rugby method of timekeeping could also benefit football.

Charlie Daniels’ early offering for Goal of the Season against Manchester City has not got the recognition it deserved due to the way the game ended. 5 minutes of added time were announced at the end of the second half, however Raheem Sterling’s winner (and subsequent sending off) was scored 7 minutes into injury time. In my opinion it would benefit football to take a leaf out of rugby’s book and stop the clock for injuries and substitutions, meaning that the game can then clearly end at 90 minutes rather than having a flimsy idea of when the half should finish. Not only would this reduce the controversy of late winners, it would also surely make things easier for players, coaches and fans alike to figure out how long is left in a game.

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Eyes On: WRWC2017 Final – England v New Zealand

The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup was given the send-off it deserved with a titanic battle between England and New Zealand. This match, shown live in the primetime evening slot on ITV1 started in terrific fashion with a minute’s silence for the late Colin Meads between the anthems and the haka, a start that the game lived up to. After an early New Zealand try, the Red Roses took control of the first half, only for a late try to make the halftime score 17-10 in favour of the defending champions. However the Black Ferns upped the ante in the second half and ran out 32-41 winners, earning their 5th World Cup tournament victory.

This was a disappointing loss for the Red Roses, the only fully professional team in the tournament, but there was also plenty for the players to be proud of and a good sign of things to come:

 

New stars

Though there were a number of players representing England in their 4th World Cup, there were also a number of players making their debuts in this year’s tournament, with 2 notable names in the starting XV for the final.

With many England centres having spent time in 7s recently, Megan Jones took the chance given to her to grab a place in the World Cup squad. Impressive when used earlier in the tournament, it was great to see her trusted with a starting spot against the Black Ferns with Danielle Waterman missing through concussion. She may not have been as impressive as in some of the earlier games, but she held her own at outside centre, allowing Emily Scarratt to move to fullback, from where she caused the Black Ferns a number of issues in the first half.

Even more impressive though was prop Sarah Bern. The 20-year-old just seemed to get better as the tournament went on and was probably one of England’s best players in the opening 40. She followed up her try in the semi-final with a strong early run down the right wing and was causing the New Zealand scum so many issues, helping lead to a penalty try.

Both these players should continue to improve and be even better come the next tournament in 2021, I just worry that the RFU’s decision to cut the number of professional contracts to focus on 7s will negatively impact their progression, especially that of Bern who I highly doubt will be part of the 7s setup.

Questionable England

Back when Stuart Lancaster was in charge of the men’s national team, there were often comments made about the way he often appeared to pre-plan his substitutions rather than react to how the game is going. It felt like Simon Middleton had gone to the Stuart Lancaster School of Substitutions for the final. The entire front row was replaced soon after half time, despite having a clear advantage over their Kiwi counterparts. Even more surprising to me was the early replacement of Rachael Burford, as I have often felt that she is the linchpin of the defence. The French looked much more likely to score after Burford was removed in the semi-final, and it certainly felt like the Kiwis started to get the upper hand once the substitutions began.

They were also defending very narrow on a regular basis, with Scarratt and Kay Wilson having to defend against a number of cross-kicks to their wing. While one of these was off target and led to nothing, 2 of these resulted in New Zealand tries. I understand that a narrow defence is often preferred as it is easier to scramble defence outside rather than through the middle, but if you are going to invite such a skilful team to attack you in a certain way, you need to make sure that you can cope with it.

More than that, I don’t understand the tactics that England were trying to play after the break. It felt like almost every time the Red Roses got the ball, they were kicking possession back to New Zealand and inviting them to attack again. There was clearly some quality in the England attack, so I don’t understand why they didn’t trust themselves to keep the ball and go through the phases a bit more. In an interview after the game, Scarratt was quoted as saying “Rugby is really hard to play without the ball and we didn’t have the ball in the second half”. As good as the Black Ferns were in the second half, they were certainly given a helping hand by England.

Luck of the Irish

Let me start this section by making something very clear: New Zealand were the better team over 80 minutes and fully deserved the win. That said, there were a number of decisions that they could consider lucky to have gone their way.

Selica Winiata’s opening try came from a lucky bounce that benefited her. If that had bounced almost anywhere else or been taken on the full by Portia Woodman – who England kept quiet on the night – then it is unlikely this try would have been scored.

Their 1st try after half time should have been disallowed as fly half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali presented the ball after being tackled on the line, before grabbing the ball again and offloading from the floor to try scorer Toka Natua when still on the floor. This is a clear penalty to England and would have given the Red Roses a chance to clear their lines and get possession back. Natua’s 3rd try was also questionable as to my eyes it seemed that the ball was knocked on when she initially presented the ball in the tackle and got back to her feet about 10m out. I was very surprised by how quickly the TMO awarded the try in that case as when I saw the initial replay I felt it was a knock on and I still feel that having watched the incident numerous times.

I also felt that hat-trick hero Natua was lucky not to receive a yellow early in the game for what was deemed to be a high tackle but also contained no arms and think that the Black Ferns should have received a team yellow for persistent offending much earlier than the 76thminute, considering how early in the game referee Joy Neville gave a warning to the captain.

As I said, I still feel that the Black Ferns deserved the win, but on the biggest stage it is important to get the big calls right. I think that on the whole the officials did a good job in the game, but these decisions could have easily changed the course of the match.

 

 

Keep an eye out for my views on the tournament as a whole, likely due up in the next few days as I’ve had a busy couple of days.

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 2

It feels like we have waited forever for the Premier League to return, but 2 rounds of matches have been completed in the blink of an eye. Round 2 brought us almost everything that we could have asked for: goals, cards, penalties, own goals… you name it, this weekend had it.

Manchester United backed up their opening victory to West Ham with another 4-0 victory, this time against Swansea, while the Hammers will rue their lack of discipline as they had a player sent off and conceded 2 silly penalties on the way to a 3-2 loss at Southampton.

For this week’s round-up, I’ve decided to stay away from talking about transfer speculation as that got plenty of focus last week.

 

Consistency please

There is no doubt that Marko Arnautovic deserved his red card for his elbow on Jack Stephens, however West Ham could consider themselves lucky to have still had 11 men on the pitch at that point, as Mark Noble had earlier put in a tackle that looked very similar to the one that earned Gary Cahill a red card in Round 1.

Like Cahill against Burnley, Noble went into contact with his studs showing and with his foot having come over the ball. I felt that Cahill’s red was a soft card, but by the letter of the law the decision last week was spot on. I can’t understand why one tackle results in a red while the other doesn’t even get a yellow. Eric Dier received a yellow for a similar challenge against Chelsea, but in my opinion this tackle was not as bad as Noble’s as, even though he was high, he was not directing his studs towards the player and instead made contact with the top of his boot.

I think that referee Lee Mason had a good game on the whole and got most of the big decisions (both Southampton penalties and the red card) correct, however it would be nice to see more consistency across the league from the referees.

The Little Pea

As a United fan, I was very disappointed by the way Javier Hernandez was treated by Louis van Gaal first sending him to Rea Madrid on loan before selling him to Bayer Leverkusen. Considering how hard United found it to score under the Dutchman, a prolific finisher like Chicharito could have come in handy.

I have remained a big fan of the Mexican and was so happy to hear that he was returning to the Premier League with West Ham, as this would be the first chance for him to lead the line in attack while also a great chance of regular football – which he often seemed to need in order to be at his best for United. Considering the stupid money being paid for players this summer, £16m looks an absolute steal and the way he played against Southampton, including his first 2 goals for the club suggests that he will be worth every penny.

He may not have the all-round ability of some strikers in the league, but he is probably one of the best poachers in the game at the moment (all 39 of his Premier League goals have come from inside the box) and he reminds me of another United great Ole Gunnar Solskjær. With the players around him to provide chances, I will be very surprised if he doesn’t finish the season with 15-20 goals.

Superstitious Spurs

Last season, Tottenham went unbeaten in the league during their last season at White Hart Lane, amassing 17 wins and 2 draws. Unless they win all 18 of their remaining home games this season, Spurs will not be living up to that record in Wembley. Since Wembley was rebuilt, Spurs have played 11 games there, winning only 2, drawing 1 and losing the other 8! This figure will be somewhat skewed by many of these games coming in the latter stages of competitions against other big clubs, however their ‘Home’ record in Europe wasn’t that great either last season. I’m not a superstitious person, but that doesn’t bode well for their home form this season.

As if that wasn’t enough, they are still waiting for Harry Kane to find his scoring boots in August. In 12 August games for Spurs, Kane has managed 34 shots on target but is yet to find the back of the net. He is making chances on a regular basis but just can’t seem to finish them. I still full expect him to end up pushing for the golden boot again, but if he doesn’t start banging them in soon, Spurs could have a mountain to climb to catch up to their rivals.

Leave it out

Probably the oddest moment of the weekend came in Watford’s game at Bournemouth. The ball was pulled back to Nathaniel Chalobah who looked set to strike from the edge of the box, but at the last moment let the ball roll past him to the feet of Bournemouth’s Harry Arter. Watching back on Match of the Day, it appears that he heard a call from Arter to leave it, pretending to be one of his teammates. This should have really been a free kick in a good position for Watford and a yellow card to Arter for unsporting behaviour, but I assume the officials missed the incident at the time.

I hope we don’t start seeing this on a regular basis as Premier League footballers are role models for children, who could see Arter getting away with this and think that means it is acceptable to do in a match.

That said, I couldn’t help but laugh at this successful piece of s***housery!

Building Hype for the Vuelta

The 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España gets underway on Saturday and the provisional starting list has been announced. It’s time to begin the hype! With the Giro and the Tour out of the way this year, this is the final chance for teams and riders to prove their worth in a Grand Tour in 2017. This will also be the last time we see some of these riders in their current team colours as some will be retiring or moving to different teams after the season.

With this in mind, here are a few things to watch out for over the 3 weeks of racing:

 

Making history

Only 2 riders have ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta in the same year: Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and Bernard Hinault in 1978. Chris Froome will be hoping to add his name to the list. Sky’s 4-time Tour de France winner has never yet won the Vuelta, finishing second three times, including last year when Nairo Quintana denied him the double by just 83 seconds. There is no Quintana this time, so despite a strong set of competitors including Vicenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador (more on him soon), Tour rivals Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru and the 2017 Tour’s King of the Mountains Warren Barguil.

Froome may not have often looked at his best in the Tour, having not raced much before the event, so you wonder if he has timed everything to give him the best chance of winning both races as opposed to just the one.

He may not have his star lieutenants from the Tour – Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski road captain Luke Rowe and the departing Mikel Landa – however he still has a strong team around him including Wout Poels, who was a big part of his 2016 Tour de France victory.

Getting the double isn’t going to be easy, but I think this could be the year that Froome finishes in the coveted Red Jersey.

End of an era

This will be the last Grand Tour that Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador races before retiring. The Spaniard is bringing an end to a 14-year professional career that has included controversy due to doping allegations (he had victories in the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia voided) but despite this still has victories in 2 Tours (2007 & 2009), 2 Giros (2008 & 2015) and 3 Vueltas (2008, 2012 & 2014) to his name. His recent results (he hasn’t made a Grand Tour podium since his 2015 Vuelta triumph) hint that finishing on the ultimate high of a final victory will be beyond him, but expect to see him pushing for a couple of stage victories and having a big impact on the race.

Three-pronged attack

The depth of quality that Orica-Scott have for General Classification is scary! For the 2017 Vuelta, Orica have decided to name Esteban Chaves and Adam Yates as co-leaders, while also giving Simon Yates the freedom to attack in the mountains. Chaves has not had the best of seasons as he recovers from injury but has done well in the last 2 Vueltas, finishing in the top 5 both times. The Yates twins are both very impressive young riders (Adam won the white jersey on the 2016 Tour, Simon did the same this year) and Simon also looked very good on a number of breakaways during last year’s Vuelta. I look forward to seeing the dynamics of the team as the race goes on and would not be surprised to see the twins go on an attack together on at least one stage. I don’t know how well Chaves will do this year, but I would not be surprised to see a least one Yates pushing for the podium.

Predicting the podium

I’m very much going out on a limb here but I think that with my increasing understanding of the Grand Tours it’s about time to start throwing out some predictions. This is a very difficult race to judge until we see how racers are performing (Quintana certainly didn’t live up to expectations on the Tour this year), but as of now my predicted podium is:

  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Adam Yates

Football Ramble – Premier League 2017/18 Round 1

Football is back! The Premier League kicked off this weekend with a number of big results. Defending champions Chelsea lost at home to Burnley, finishing with just 9 men on the pitch. Newly-promoted Huddersfield gave their fans the perfect start to life in the top tier with a 3-0 win at Crystal Palace and Manchester United gave evidence that they could be back to their best with an impressive 4-0 win against West Ham.

I wasn’t able to watch any of the matches live this weekend, but just from watching Match of the Day I was able to notice a few things:

 

Still Building

I was surprised to see how few of the big squads appeared so far off a completed squad this weekend. While the big money and the recognition will generally go to the attacking players, there is a big need to have a complete squad. New star strikers Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku and Alexandre Lacazette all opened their accounts in the league in their first match, while Wayne Rooney also marked his return to Everton with a goal. However while many of these teams looked good in attack, the defences often seemed questionable at best. Both Arsenal and Liverpool proved this weekend that they have strength in depth going forward, but both also conceded 3 goals, which proved costly for Liverpool. Chelsea also appeared to struggle at the back, though this may have been in part due to losing Gary Cahill to an early (and correct) red card.

A look at the matchday squads for each of the big 6 will make grim reading for a number of fans. United and, to a lesser degree City, probably had the strongest balanced benches, while Arsenal had a strong bench in terms of attacking quality but less so in terms of defensive solidity. Chelsea’s bench especially looked remarkably weak, with Morata the only outfield player that you could imagine being a regular starter. With the league, 2 domestic cups and Europe all on offer, a deep squad will be vital and I expect many of these squads to be adding players before the transfer deadline.

I think that Liverpool need to sign a 20+ goals-a-season striker like Arsenal have with Lacazette, especially considering Philippe Coutinho seems set for a move to Barcelona, but I think that both should look to get reliable defenders in order to take the pressure off the attackers. Spurs need to find a striker that can be relied upon to ease the pressure on Harry Kane, while Chelsea look like they need options in pretty much every position. Keep an eye on those transfer rumours…

 

On their way

It’s not just transfers in that clubs will be looking at over the next few weeks, as there are a number of clubs trying to hang onto star players. Coutinho, Diego Costa, Danny Rose, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ross Barkley, Alexis Sanchez and Virgil van Dijk are all key players for their squads but were all missing from this weekend’s matches. Many of these players were cited as having injuries, however it seems convenient timing considering some are likely unsure as to whether they want to play for the club, and some have actively requested a move away.

In my view it is the right decision to not select a player who does not want to be at the club. People who read my article a few months ago regarding the transfer saga between Carl Fearns and Gloucester Rugby will already know that I would always rather have a group of players on the pitch who want to play for the shirt and will put in 100% effort. I understand that football is a business and clubs want to get a decent fee for star players, but surely it is better to get £20m for a £30m player and get his wages off the books, as this is money that can be used to get a player/players to strengthen the squad. Come September, it will be interesting to see how many of these players are still at their current clubs…

Forced into a bad move

Back in April we got the announcement that Super Rugby was being cut from 18 to 15 teams, with 2 South African franchises and 1 Australian franchise being cut from the competition. The worst kept secret in rugby was officially announced recently that the Kings and Cheetahs would be leaving Super Rugby to join the Pro12 (now Pro14). Now the news has dropped that the Western Force will be the 3rd casualty of the Super Rugby Cuts.

Those who read my article at the time the planned cuts were announced will know that I am not happy with the way SANZAAR have been running Super Rugby in recent years, first with the format after expanding the league and then the way they quickly jumped ship and forced SARU and the ARU to cut teams. I have not been overly happy with the decision to add South African teams to the Pro14 but I am willing to give it the chance. However I am very unhappy with the cutting of the Force.

It has already been said that the decision to cut the Force was primarily due to financial reasons. That is understandable as this is a business, however I wonder if this could have a negative impact on Australian rugby. The axing of the Western Force means that all 4 of Australia’s franchises are to be found in the East or South East of the country. With no top-level rugby union franchise in West Australia, there is a distinct possibility that fans will leave the sport, depriving the national team of support and young players who could have grown into future superstars.

The geographical argument may have held more sway if the Force had been poor this season, however they finished 12th overall in 2017 with 26 points, ahead of fellow Australian franchises the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels (21, 19 and 9 points respectively. Australian Rugby is not in a great place at the moment but the Force were one of the only franchises that the ARU could conceivably be proud of. They have also contributed 6 players to the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship, the same number as the conference-topping Brumbies and 1 more than the Melbourne Rebels.

It’s never nice to see a team cut and players lose their job, but I feel that the entire situation has been handled appallingly. The expansion of the competition was handled poorly leading to a controversial cutting of teams by SANZAAR. It was always going to be tough for the ARU to look good coming out of this, but the way they have handled the situation since it was announced they have had to cut a team has been shocking.

It would appear that every step of the way money has been the motivator. At the end of the day, it’s rugby that will be losing out.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

What a summer it is turning into for women’s sport in England! The Cricket team won the World Cup and the Football team made back-to-back semi-finals in a major tournament before losing to host nation the Netherlands in the Euros. Now attention turns to the Rugby World Cup, where the Red Roses begin the defence of their title in Ireland. The title defence begins on Wednesday against Spain, with further group games against Italy and the USA following in order to earn their place in the semi-finals.

Recent results suggest that the Red Roses are in fine form so, despite a couple of late injuries, they will consider themselves in with a good chance of winning consecutive World Cups for the first time ever. The build-up will have been greatly helped by 50 players spending the last season on professional contracts on either a full- or part-time basis. To go alongside this, the RFU have created a new top-tier league, the Premier 15s, as the new top tier in English club rugby, due to start in September. While this all looks like a big step forward for Women’s Rugby, things may not be as perfect as it seems.

 

With the Premier 15s having 2 teams more than its predecessor the Women’s Premiership, it would have made sense for all 8 of those teams to be included along with 2 other teams, however Lichfield were unsuccessful in their application – the only Women’s Premiership team to be excluded – as there was a team considered a better option in their geographical area (Loughborough Students), despite 3 of the 10 teams coming from the South West and a further 4 from London. This is nothing against Loughborough Students, but this is a step up in level for them, whereas Lichfield have been in the Women’s Premiership since 2003 and have boasted a number of current England internationals, who are now going to have to leave clubs that in some cases they have spent their whole rugby career at in order to keep pushing for the national team.

But it’s not just the selection of clubs that has seemed questionable from the RFU. The much-lauded 50 professional contracts will be reduced back down to just 17 full-time professional contracts, with the RFU’s international focus switching from 15s to 7s after the World Cup. This seems like a huge step backwards for a couple of reasons:

A number of players gave up their jobs for these professional contracts, now many of them are going to have to go and seek employment again, simply because they are only considered suitable for the 15-a-side game as opposed to 7s. This is not fair on the players who every couple of years will have the chance of a 15s contract but are then left to fend for themselves after the World Cup, but will still be expected to turn up and perform for the national team during the 6 Nations and other internationals. The 50 contracts spread over 15s and 7s was brilliant and really helped put England at the forefront of women’s rugby. The danger is that a focus on 7s could see the current World Champions begin to struggle, much like they did in the first 6 Nations when most of their stars were playing in the World Sevens Series.

What makes this even worse is that the RFU are switching the focus between 15s and 7s, but expecting some of the players to also switch focus. 7s and 15s are very different variations in the game, to the point that they could be considered different sports! The basic skills are the same, but there is much more focus on speed and fitness in 7s and the tactics are very different. We saw how few stars of the men’s 15 sides made it into the 7s sides for the Olympics simply because it’s something very different to what they usually play. The RFU cannot focus on just one of these variations as it will be to the detriment of the other. As I mentioned above, the 15s team struggled in a 6 Nations tournament the first season that their stars were moved to the 7s side. With many of the stars back in the 15s side in preparation for the World Cup this season, the 7s team finished outside the top 6 of the World Sevens Series for the first time in the tournament’s 5-year history. Players should be allowed to focus on one variation of the sport to be the best that they can, with perhaps a couple of players who’s skillset makes them perfect for both playing in whichever format is required.

 

Given the funding that the RFU puts into the women’s game, England should be competing near the top of both disciplines of the game rather than focusing on 1. If they were able to hand out 50 professional contracts this year, then the player base is clearly there and will just continue to grow if the Red Roses can continue to be successful. Women’s Super Rugby will help towards this, but I hope the RFU change their decision to focus on one discipline at a time. After all, we all want to see England winning tournaments, don’t we?