In or Out of the Top 6?

The chase for Top 6 will be closer than ever this year. Whether that be the downfall of 3 of the supposed ‘Big 6’ but also the improvement and potential from a handful of teams waiting in the wings with a huge opportunity during the 2019/2020 season.

So who is that handful? Without a doubt, Leicester City. The potential in that squad, nurtured by Brendan Rogers and transfers of Tielemans and Perez with more rumoured to be incoming should they get a World Record Fee (for a defender) for Harry Maguire. Wolverhampton Wanderers were very strong last year and caused a number of ‘upsets’ especially at Molineux against the big boys – so with more consistency, bit more investment and now more experience in the PL, why not? Everton have a huge chance this year but they still haven’t filled the most important position on the pitch, the striker, the 20+ goals a season needed to be up there and pushing to break into the top 6.

Who else? Outsiders would be West Ham – after all the moaning from the fans, demonstrations on the pitch, embarrassing scenes really, David Gold and David Sullivan are HEAVILY investing into the club with some huge signings. It will be interesting to see how they do now without the excuses of the new stadium, lack of investment and management not being good enough (under Moyes). Lastly, I think Bournemouth will be a very solid team this season – if they keep the core together for this transfer window and make some more savvy investments.

In all seriousness, I don’t think the 5 above teams will have a better chance in breaking into the Top 6 for years to come.

Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea are all in disarray. Whether that be due to bad management from the top down, lack of transfer budget or just having a transfer ban altogether, these teams are going to be struggling big time to win week in, week out as expected to be able to get a top 4 spot but also Top 6 too.

 

Manchester United

The situation at Man United is precarious. The club is more divided than ever and the general atmosphere stinks at the moment. The Glazer Family have angered the majority of fans by taking billions out of the club but failing to reinvest or pump money in to keep the biggest club in the world competing on the highest stage. Ed Woodward, the businessman, has somehow ended up running the transfer business and as previous managers have stated, the whole structure of the club is toxic. Unfortunately for Ole, his hands are tied and in my opinion, he is walking the plank in this current position.. why? He has this ‘vision’ or the ‘United way’ as many like to think it.. invest in youth and get players that want to play for the shirt. I get that philosophy, this is something I want at Chelsea BUT the players they are currently attracting aren’t of the world class nature that will enable them to compete against the big boys and after last season’s calamity, they find themselves back in the Europa League.

I could be wrong and Dan James, Aaron Wan Bissaka and Harry Maguire for about £150m could be incredible business in the future, it’s certainly an investment in players that could play for United for the next 10 years and then the fees paid would be justified.

However, these players aren’t going to transform what I and others would consider to be a terrible aging squad but also one that seems to be low on confidence and a strange atmosphere from within. Players such as Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Alexis Sanchez, Rojo etc should not be in a Manchester United squad that wants to move forward and transform. Mix that with Players who seem to want to be elsewhere – Paul Pogba publicly getting his agent to try and force through a move, Sanchez looking to move on, David De Gea unable to force a move but stalling on a new HUGE contract – nothing shouts out to me that this team are going to go and have a good season. I don’t want to exaggerate too much but I can see United 8/9th by Christmas and people may slowly begin to turn on Solskjaer who’s managerial experience will start to become questioned.

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Arsenal

Banter FC as some may call them. When their biggest game for a decade was against Chelsea in the Europa League Final and they turned up and lost 4-1 it was never going to signal good things.. and since then they have failed to properly investment and signify any intent that they are going to try and compete. The fans are protesting against the owners, they’ve lost their best player to Juventus and they offered £45m for Wilfred Zaha’s left foot and got laughed out of the door. Club Captain Laurent Koscielny has refused to go on the pre-season tour to try and get out of the Emirates. How are they going to transform this? One positive Arsenal have is that they have kept Lacazette and Aubameyang together and that means goals.. but the core of the team behind that? Still terrible. Why have they not bought a top class Centre Back? Why haven’t they got a world class CM? Relying on Granit Xhaka or Sokratis in defence means that they are settling for being average in my opinion. Rumours coming out of the club is that Emery only has £45m to play with.. yet teams such as Leicester are spending that on players like Tielemans who will go into that midfield and run the show.

If Kroenke really wants to be at Arsenal then they need to stop using the excuse of this new stadium (which opened 13 years ago now) and balancing the books. Arsenal got nearly £200m in TV money last season.. that on top of huge sponsorship deals for the stadium, kit, shirt sponsors.. so where is this money going? They have lost players and never replaced them but also, the youngsters that have come through are yet to set the world alight. I am excited to see what Reiss Nelson can offer this season after his loan, Maitland-Niles needs to push on and cement his spot too. But with a squad still consisting of average players such as Bellerin, Monreal, Mustafi, Jenkinson, Elneny and OZIL – best thing they could do is get rid of him. Poor relationship with the manager, the fans and his wage bill is a drain for his return on Investment.

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Chelsea

Ultimately this season is going to be a rollercoaster for Chelsea and the fans. I may be a Chelsea fan but I am also a pessimist and I am not going to expect a lot to come from this season. This transfer ban couldn’t have come at a worse time for Chelsea with the current state of the squad and also the transition between managers. The appointment of Frank Lampard has already sparked some life back into the club. The positivity is back and the connection between players and fans has improved HOWEVER living in the past off Frank’s playing legacy will not mean much if we are losing games more weeks than not.

As I said earlier with United, the youth policy is about to change at the club and the saying of ‘this transfer ban may be a blessing in disguise’ could be true or these players may still not be ready for top level Premier League football.. Mason Mount looks like a player who will benefit automatically from the ban. Reece James will slowly be transitioned into the team, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will become HUGE members of the team when back from Injury. All this is good but with Champions League football, all the Cups and an aging squad then we still need to aim to knick that Top 4 spot to ensure when we do get our transfer ban out of the way, we will be able to attract the top talent in Europe by having CL football readily available..

Players such as Willian, Pedro, Giroud, Alonso and even going as far as saying Azpilicueta are possibly not good enough to be in a Chelsea team now but these are likely to be regular starters throughout this season and I am worried that many teams will find them out and without that piece of magic that we relied on last season from Eden Hazard then we may struggle to break teams down.

The fans will back Frank and Jody 100% but I hope we can sneak 4th for the long term ambition of their project.

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Best of the rest??

My favourite to break into the top 6 would have to be Leicester. The way they ended last season under Brendan Rodgers was a little sneak peek into what is potentially about to come out of the King Power stadium this season. Buying Tielemans who was huge for them last year was a great signing, keeping Maddison and allowing him to grow in the Premier League playing week in, week out and then also keeping Chilwell would be a great bit of business too.

If they let Harry Maguire go, they will do so reluctantly but I think £80m for a centre back who is good but not amazing is a great bit of business. With that money they could potentially reinvest in 2 £40m+ players who can push them again to the next level and allow them to catch up and possibly overtake teams like the above.

 

Early season prediction

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Tottenham Hotspurs
  4. Chelsea
  5. Manchester United
  6. Leicester City
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VAR too Far?

How much reliance are we going to give to VAR?

Now there will be a lot of people either side of this argument and I’m going to keep this unbiased (hopefully). The penalty in the 1st minute of the Champions League Final between Liverpool & Spurs has caused a lot of controversy. Fans of either side have their opinions and the neutrals are split, myself included.

Sissoko appeared to be pointing/ordering at a team mate as Mane crossed the ball from about 1 metre away.. on first viewing on TV it looked like it hit his hand but on closer viewing it’s hits his chest first and rolls down.

The letter of the law (12):

It is usually an offence if a player: touches the ball with their hand/arm when: the hand/arm has made their body unnaturally bigger. the hand/arm is above/beyond their shoulder level (unless the player deliberately plays the ball which then touches their hand/arm)..

So, with Sissoko pointing and having his arm away from his body, it IS in an unnatural position and it is making his body bigger.. however, it hits his chest first? The photo very clearly shows this so where does VAR come into this?

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The decision went to VAR and on the biggest stage of them all, with the whole world watching, this ‘independent panel’ of referees decided that he referee was correct, even with the unlimited amounts of angles that they have on offer. Couldn’t they see that Mane was so close to Sissoko, there was no way of moving out of the way? Could they use common knowledge and decide this? Was he stopping a goal-scoring opportunity? Mane was simply going to cross the ball and hope to create a chance. All of this added to the drama but it also has left a sour taste for Spurs fans who feel it ruined their chance of the biggest footballing trophy of all.

 

Anyway, away from this decision, VAR is changing the game. We were told that VAR would eradicate human error, it would stop the doubt and the decisions which could prove costly to all teams. In my opinion, it’s opened the game up to more disrepute.

One piece of technology that has changed the game for the better is Goal-Line Technology. This is a huge positive to the Premier League and the one and only example that needs to be given to signify this came at the Etihad this season where Liverpool somehow missed out on a goal by millimetres which ultimately could have been the Premier League Trophy defining moment.

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Had John Stones not made that clearance, had Goal-Line technology not been available to clear up all doubt then we could of found ourselves with all sorts of question marks hanging over the Champions head. From watching it live, this looked a clear goal. So why is VAR not so conclusive?

Lots of examples available but I will look at few..

Offsides –

Harry Kane was controversially given Onside by VAR in a cup tie against Chelsea back in January. The striker ran through, was wiped out by the Goalie and a penalty was given and converted. However, on reflection, angles came to light after the game which clearly showed Kane’s top half offside… again, one up for debate and not remove the ‘doubt’ that VAR was supposedly there to do. The only part of the body that isn’t possible to score with is your hand/arm. His head is shown to be past the ‘VAR Line’ so why wasn’t this given? Why didn’t VAR have the correct angle for this decision?

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Penalties (for holding) –

World Cup 2018. 3 words which are key to VAR and this example. Never has a World Cup had so many penalty incidents – the amount given was up 174% in fact. A huge increase and it had its highs and lows.. for England it was good. Maguire, Kane and co were man-handled in most games and penalties kept being given.. there is a fine line between holding (football is a contact game remember) and dragging an opponent down. Where should the game of Football draw the line? VAR will highlight that shirt holding/tugging but isn’t that part of the game that we love? Obviously to an extent but still, if we take this side of the game out of it and allow people to have a clear run or not compete for a header then are we taking the competitive nature out of the game?

Diving/Contact in the area –

Now this is a controversial section. One which you shout for if it’s your attacker or you throw the TV out the window if it’s against you.. a player goes down in the box and the referee heads to VAR. Slow motion zooms in the contact area and you see the slightest contact, maybe even a shoe lace brushing an opponent. To the letter of the law, it’s contact and the defender didn’t get the ball and it’s a penalty.. but do we really want this to happen? As soon as an attacker gets to a goal threatening area, defenders will be afraid to make any contact and instead of making tackles they will simply just try and block or deflect away. Common sense needs to prevail. Diving is cheating and we need to be clear that contact needs to strong enough to cause someone to go down and fall over.

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VAR in the Premier League.

We all love a big crunching tackle, but as we all know, what was acceptable back in the 80s and 90s is not possible now. The game has changed in a way where it is more about flair and skill rather than passion and brute force. Some people love it, some people loathe it. VAR will be introduced into the Premier League this season, expect less big tackles and a more sterilised version of Football as managers ask players to rein it in to ensure they have 11 men on the pitch and give them a better chance of winning.

One worry I have is the infrastructure that we have in place. People have probably seen the wonky lines we currently get on the photos and in turn then more doubt around the decision. Does the English Stadia have the network in place to catch all angles and aid VAR to the extent that it needs? American Football are huge stadiums, all with cameras that follow the play overhead and capture all angles. The Premier League does not have this sort of access at all stadiums apart from a small handful of Champions League / Top 6 clubs. I can’t imagine Turf Moor or Carrow Road being able to have this set up in place so will VAR be successful on potentially trophy deciding decisions.

Are we changing our game for the better or worse? There are arguments for both sides. I would hate for our game to become reliant on computers and technology and the ‘fun’ aspect is removed. Bad decisions are swings and roundabouts in football. Every team gets bad calls against them and then the following week will pick up a call in their favour. It gives us talking points and is part of the highs and lows of being a passionate fan. Waiting 2 minutes for a VAR decision to be made can stop celebrations or you’ve just fallen down 5 rows and sent limbs flying everywhere for no reason.

In my honest opinion, use VAR with common sense. Goal-Line technology, mistaken identity, Clear penalties that are NOT given (allow the ref to use his common sense and instinct) and potential horror challenges which get punished incorrectly.

Who will win the Champions League?

First things first, what an achievement from the 2 teams to make it to a European final and the glam of the Champions League. Both of these teams has a different story but ultimately there is only one goal and that is to win. I will pick up the differences below and why that night in Madrid could be huge for both clubs involved whether it be the biggest achievement in the history of the club or break a ‘voodoo’ and get some more silverware added to the cabinet.

 

I probably speak for most people who said 10 days ago, neither of these teams would be battling it out for the pinnacle of European Football, the Champions League trophy. That night at Anfield will probably live long in the memory of all Liverpool fans. 3-0 down against the Greatest player of all time, missing Salah and Firmino who are instrumental in terms of goals but also the style that Liverpool play in. Moments of magic from Gini Wijnaldum and Trent Alexander-Arnold allowed Liverpool to run riot over a Barcelona which were completely outwitted in all areas of the pitch. Tottenham on the other hand were down and out. 2-0 against a young Ajax team which were always looking dangerous and creating chances but as soon as Ziyech started missing chances, maybe it was meant to be? Lucas Moura produced his inner Ronaldo 9 and the 96th minute left limbs still being picked up around Amsterdam by the travelling faithful.

 

Liverpool have 5 European Trophies in their trophy cabinet, Spurs have 0. Maybe that is the 1st advantage given to Liverpool. The club is built on European success and I have no doubt that they won’t need reminding. For Spurs however, the pressure is off. Win and they become the greatest ever Tottenham team in history, instant legends. Lose and they lost to a team that have just got 97 points and somehow not won the league? Beaten Barcelona, Bayern Munich and PSG along the way so you may have to give credit where credits due, still a monumental occasion for the club and they will be hopeful of the future under Pochettino.

 

Liverpool are back to full strength and will be ready to fire on all cylinders after last year’s defeat to Real Madrid. They have won both Premier League fixtures vs Spurs this Premier League campaign by 2-1 at Home and Away so maybe that will also add a psychological advantage? Spurs are possibly going to risk Harry Kane for the big one and he won’t be 100% for sure, but a calculated risk and this occasion will not hold him back. Jan Vertongen is rumoured to be struggling which would also be a massive loss when having Salah and Mane charging down the wings so again, another advantage to Liverpool.

 

But, have you ever heard of the term ‘Spursy’? Well this has the potential to not be it.. Underdogs and 2 key players possibly not 100% BUT nobody wants to write Spurs off. Even getting to this stage has defied the odds. A headline in the Evening Standard on 12th December 2018 shows why.. PSV have told Tottenham to “thank us later” after holding Inter Milan to a 1-1 draw at San Siro to help Spurs reach the Champions League last-16 stage. I am sure PSV are even more delighted that the team they helped have now managed to knock out their arch rivals Ajax out in the semi-finals and saved themselves the antagonisation from Ajax fans that would of followed. With counter attacking football, Spurs are able to get from front to back very quickly with link up play between Alli, Son, Moura, Kane with the occasional cameo from Moussa Sissoko.

 

I think this final will come down to Full backs. Yes, I said Full Backs. Both strike forces have the ability to punish either team and create chances right until the end and maybe it could be an absolute goal fest? But with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson vs Trippier and Rose, this could be the real game changer. May be an easy selection to pick out but I really feel both sides are fairly even all over the pitch except here. Both have average to good midfielders (Liverpool maybe edge it with Fabinho, Gini, Henderson) A solid centre-half partnership and a very very good front 3.. so this full back mismatch could win it.. in Liverpool’s favour. Overlapping and Assists have been key to Liverpool’s success this season, TAA and Robertson have managed to transform that position into their own and nobody can get close to the levels that they have reached this season in the whole of world football.

 

Who is this game bigger for? Liverpool and Klopp are still chasing silverware as they have not managed to get one since 2006 in an FA cup Final at the Millennium stadium (yes it was that long ago) **2012 League Cup actually, I stand corrected** . They have obviously come close and are improving massively but they need to go that one step further and get the winning mentality back in the club and they could become a force for years. Spurs have an opportunity to be written into Folklore but again, they have not won a trophy since 2008 in the League Cup Final (if that counts). The winning of the Champions League is one that every footballer dreams of and for sure this game will be one to remember.

 

The fans will be there in their thousands and I’m sure the atmosphere on the streets will be like a carnival. Whatever method of transport people have been forced to use to get there due to the greed of the airlines and the hotels, this will be one to remember forever.

 

May the best team win but I believe Liverpool will edge this 2-1.

 

 

**Photo Courtesy of sportinglife.com**