Feel Good Stories of the Week

Why Come to Wycombe?

After scraping their way in to the Championship last season, nobody expected Wycombe Wanderers to do much and after 27 games they were sitting 12 points adrift of safety. Their top goal scorer only has 4 goals, they’ve conceded a league high 49 and only Wayne Rooney’s Derby County have scored less. But that’s not to say they aren’t enjoying life in the second tier. They don’t have too much to play for at this stage; it’s clear they don’t have the quality or finances to compete in this league and when they were 2-0 down with just injury time to play before half time away at Huddersfield it looked as though loss number 17 was on it’s way. But Anis Mehmeti’s strike in the third minute of injury time inspired what I can only describe as every neutral’s favourite comeback of the season. A trademark Joe Jacobson penalty on 63 minutes after Uche Ikpeazu was fouled in the box brought them level and after a flurry of chances they completed the comeback through midfielder Josh Knight. The fight and passion that this Wycombe team have is brilliant and few teams can rival it. Most would have given up by now. They’re still 10 points off safety at the time of writing, but if they can play with the belief and heart we saw in the second 45 at the John Smith’s Stadium then who knows what could happen. The Championship is renowned for the unexpected and I for one would love to see a survival fight from Gareth Ainsworth’s boys.

Debut Double for Fulham’s Missing Link

After being touted as a top player for the future when he was at Sunderland, Josh Maja was picked up by French side Bordeaux in 2019. After making 45 appearances for the Ligue 1 side he was loaned out to Fulham in January and never has a team been so desperate for a striker in his mould. He scored twice on his full debut against Everton, with both goals being “he was in the right place at the right time” sort of goals. But that’s what Fulham have been looking for! They’re a creative side with the likes of Lookman, Decordova-Reid, Loftus-Cheek and Anguissa, but they just haven’t had anyone up-front to bury the chances these players are creating. And Maja has come along and already picked up 3 points for the relegation-threatened side. It’s already looking like shrewd business from Scott Parker and should he continue how he started, I can certainly see the young London-born Nigerian international steering his new team to safety.

A Touch of Tuchel

Obviously there are exceptions (see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Kevin De Bruyne) but I find that a lot of players find the initial move from Germany to England quite a struggle. Son Heung-Min only scored 4 goals in his debut season at Tottenham, Roberto Firmino’s first season saw his lowest goal contribution after his move from Hoffenheim, Leroy Sane never quite did it at Manchester City and Thiago Alcantara and Kai Havertz have a combined 3 goal contributions in 29 appearances (with all 3 coming from Havertz). Even Ilkay Gundogan is only just starting to show how good he really is after 5 years in England. I find it strange, because of the top leagues in Europe, the Bundesliga is the most similar to the Premier League in terms of playing style and intensity.

Timo Werner is playing under extraordinary circumstances after he moved to London from RB Leipzig in the middle of a global pandemic. Adapting on the football pitch is just one of many problems players have to deal with and after going 14 games and 1000 minutes he finally got back on the scoresheet against Newcastle with his first goal under new boss Thomas Tuchel. After spending approximately £120 Million on Werner and Havertz, hiring a German coach could be a masterstroke. Yes, football is an global language, but imagine moving to a country and trying to understand the tactics and trying to fit in with the rest of the squad when you barely speak the language. It’s tough. Players need that time to adapt. I think with the appointment of Thomas Tuchel, we will start to see the best of Chelsea’s Germans. I’m pleased for Werner; he’s played well this season without too much reward and I look forward to seeing more of the elite striker that made his name at RB Leipzig.

Stepping in to Southgate’s Waistcoat- Part 3

As I’ve gone for a 4-3-3 I’ve put wingers in the attackers post, so this will only cover central midfielders. For this reason, I’ve split it in to “Holding Midfielders” and “Attacking Midfielders”.

The Holding Midfielders 

Who starts? 

I would start Jordan Henderson as England’s deepest midfielder on his own; at least in the group stages against weaker teams. I love Harry Kane, but why Henderson isn’t England’s captain I’ll never know. He’s such a natural leader on the pitch and has so much energy and positional discipline he allows other players to thrive. He’s decent with the ball at his feet, but it’s what he does off the ball that is the reason he’s included in my starting XI. He’s also one of the reasons I have only picked one backup centre back. With Liverpool’s recent injury problems, Henderson has shown he can slot in at a centre back position with relative ease, looking almost natural alongside youngsters and other midfielders. 

Who’s the backup? 

Although I’m only going for one holding midfielder, I’ve picked two backups who have different styles of play and the first is West Ham’s Declan Rice. He’s a top player in a team that is finally showing what they are capable of with West Ham sitting in the Europa League spots at the time of writing. He’s a similar player to Henderson in that it’s more what he does without the ball than with it, but he’s probably slightly better defensively than the Liverpool captain. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of him in the knockout stages as Southgate looks to sure-up the defence against stronger sides. As with Henderson, Rice can also play as a central defender (it’s where we saw him begin his career) and I think should we need someone to fill in, it will be the West Ham man over his Liverpool counterpart. 

My second backup is Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse. He’s currently the best set-piece taker in the league and although Southampton’s form looks like it’s faltering slightly, he’s been one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League this season, picking up 5 goals and 5 assists. He most likely won’t start and a large part of this is Hasenhuttl’s preference for a 4-4-2 formation which few other teams still play. It means he’s not an attacking player, nor is he a defensive one. However, should we see an injury to Jordan Henderson, the Southampton man is the most like-for-like swap of the options available. 

Who misses out? 

I’ve already mentioned Eric Dier in part 2 and the only other holding midfielder in with a shout is Leeds’ Kalvin Philips. Although clearly a very good player, both on and off the ball, I think the other options England have available in the central areas means he is the player who misses out. He dictates play so well in a similar fashion to the Liverpool captain and if it wasn’t for Ward-Prowse’s recent upturn in form I would probably have gone for Philips instead. 

Attacking Midfielders 

Who starts? 

This is where it gets juicy. We’ve all seen the question of “Foden, Mount, Grealish, Maddison. You can only take 2, who do you pick?” In answer to that, you don’t pick 2. All 4 of these players walk in to the England squad. Obviously, we can’t start all 4 of them so that’s where it comes down to which 2 start. Grealish is a phenomenal player and currently competing with the best in the league as the standout performer so he’s a shoo-in if you ask me. He has 6 goals and 10 assists in the league this season. Just imagine those numbers if he were playing in a more dominant side, such as England. I would then go with James Maddison. My first blog post was about the Leicester star and he was the inspiration for me to start this blog, which you can read here https://ftgotg.wordpress.com/2021/01/20/i-would-shake-james-maddisons-hand-if-he-let-me/ . I just think he’s fantastic. With the ball at his feet there’s not much he can’t do and he’s not afraid to put in the dirty work when needs be. Picking up 9 goals and 8 assists in all competitions, I think he’s a fantastic link between the more defence-minded Henderson and attacking Grealish. 

Who’s the backup? 

Mason Mount has his doubters but I really don’t know why. He’s the hardest grafter of the 4 mentioned previously and, although arguably the least talented technically, is such an important presence in Chelsea’s team, managing to keep the likes of Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic out of the XI. Every manager he works under seems to love him and there must be a reason for that. He never stops working, I imagine he’s great in the dressing room and let’s not doubt his ability to grab important goals and assists, chipping in with 4 and 5 respectively in all competitions. His ability to play centrally or out wide is also a great asset for the team.

I’m not actually going to talk about Phil Foden here, we’ll see more about him in Part 4 (Spoiler Alert!) 

Who misses out? 

The most notable absentees here are Arsenal’s shining light in Emile Smith-Rowe and Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze. Although they’re both having fantastic breakthrough seasons, I don’t think we’ve seen enough from either of them to include them over others in this England squad. Since Eze’s move to a more central role in the Palace team he’s begun to show us that he can make the step up from the Championship and has grabbed more goals and assists because of that- 3 of each to be precise. Emile Smith-Rowe has been one of Arsenal’s most productive players, picking up 4 assists in 10 league outings, but I just feel he needs to gain more experience before being seriously considered for the national team. I’m sure we will see both of them in the England squad in the next few years and I certainly wouldn’t object to that. 

Had he not joined West Ham on loan, Lingard wouldn’t have even been spoken about in relation to the England squad, but after bagging two goals on his debut against Aston Villa, he’s got the opportunity to force his way in there. He’s a versatile player and can play through the middle or out wide and has always looked better in an England shirt than in a Manchester United one (although not as good as in that lovely black West Ham kit). People always joke about Lingard’s age as he’s always been viewed as a player for the future, but with his move to West Ham I think he does genuinely have the potential to grow in to the player we all thought he could be. 

So that completes the midfield. I’ve opted for Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, James Ward-Prowse, Jack Grealish, James Maddison and Mason Mount. I think of the options available, this six are a step above the others and have shown this throughout the last season and a half. There’s a lot of quality in that selection and each of them brings a different quality to the team- Leadership, defensive-steel, set-pieces, flair, passing range and adaptability.

Stepping in to Southgate’s Waistcoat- Part 2

Today I’m looking at the defensive options England have for the Euros- I’ll be choosing one left back, one right back and two central defenders for the starting XI as we’re going with a 4-3-3.

The Full-Backs 

Who starts? 

Despite their being a lot of options at right-back, it’s impossible to look past Trent Alexander-Arnold. Despite struggling at times this season, he’s a world-class player who I believe has struggled more due to the fact he doesn’t have any natural centre backs alongside him, or Fabinho in that holding midfield role to cover him when he pushes forward. Yes, he can be a liability defensively at times, but at least during the group stages when we are playing against weaker sides, he will definitely be able to showcase his talents going forward. 

At left-back, I’ve gone for Luke Shaw. This is my first controversial decision, but I think on current form he’s the best left-back in the league. Since Alex Telles joined United in the summer, Shaw has had real competition and has had to step up his game. After almost being pushed out of the United team entirely under Jose Mourinho, he’s shown brilliant determination to come back and turn himself in to the star we thought he would become when we saw him as a youngster at Southampton. He has 4 league assists this season- already equalling his highest output in one season.

Who’s the backup? 

Our full-back positions are one of the strongest on the pitch, shown by Southgate’s use of multiple full-backs in our matches last year as well as at the World Cup in 2018. I’ve opted for Ben Chilwell on the left and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right. Ben Chilwell is an obvious pick and I think it’s highly likely Southgate will pick him over Shaw. He’s a very consistent player and is both solid defensively and a threat going forward, shown by his 2 goals and 4 assists this season. One thing to note is that since Tuchel joined Chelsea, he seems to be favouring Alonso in the left wing-back position and if that continues, I can definitely see Shaw being picked as the starting left-back.

Wan-Bissaka is a quality player, who probably hasn’t been given enough chances in the England squad. He’s more defensive-minded than the aforementioned Alexander-Arnold and will be a good option to have against stronger opponents who will look to attack us more. He has had his criticism the past over his attacking output, but has shown in recent weeks that he is much more able going forward than people give him credit for. He has 2 goals and 2 assists this season, equalling Alexander-Arnold’s direct goal contribution of 4.

When I created my shortlist, I had selected 22 players and had space for one more, with pretty much total freedom position-wise as I had cover in every position already. I managed to get it down to 2 players for that final spot and initially I had written this post and included Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka. But the more I watch Reece James the more I realise he just has to be involved. He is a special, special player and is already playing at a level we thought he would reach in 4 or 5 years. Under Tuchel especially, he has looked particularly accomplished. He is capable of playing at right-back or central midfield and I think in the next few years we will see him move across in to that central role more and more.

Who misses out? 

There aren’t too many other options at left-back. Bukayo Saka isn’t a natural left-back, but I’m going to talk about him here as I’ve just mentioned him. He will feel hard done by if he doesn’t go to the Euros, as he has been Arsenal’s star player this season, but with so much talent in his more natural position higher up the pitch, I can’t justify adding him in over others. As I said, he was originally in my 23-man squad ahead of Reece James, but he just (and I mean just) misses out. I hope Southgate does take him as he very much deserves to go, but I have no idea who he would omit in order to include him.

 The only other option at left-back would be James Justin. Although right-footed, he is just as capable on either side of the back four and painfully unlucky to miss out. After Chilwell’s transfer to Chelsea and Ricardo Pereira’s injury, he was thrown in to the Leicester first team much sooner than expected and he has thrived. Had Luke Shaw not had a sudden upturn in form, Justin would be my choice as backup to Ben Chilwell and I think he’s one of the better players that I’ve omitted from the squad.  

At right-back, we have lots of options. Kyle Walker, who is also capable of playing at centre back in a back three, hasn’t featured enough this term since Joao Cancelo has found form, playing 1200 minutes in comparison to Wan-Bissaka’s 1800 and Alexander-Arnold’s 1,666. In my eyes this isn’t enough to warrant a place at the expense of either of them.

Tariq Lamptey had a really good start to the season before getting injured and although he clearly has good potential, I think he flatters to deceive slightly, shown by his 1 goal and 1 assist.

The Central Defenders 

Who starts? 

Harry Maguire gets a lot of stick from football fans. No, he isn’t worth the £80 Million that Manchester United paid to pry him from Leicester and yes, he does have the occasional mistake in his game, but who doesn’t? He’s fantastic in the air, a good tackler and his distribution is the most underrated aspect of his game. He’s a wonderful passer of the ball, particularly to bring wide players such as Marcus Rashford in to the game. In the 3-3 draw with Everton at the weekend, he was mocked on social media for playing the opposition onside for their 95th minute equaliser. He’s prone to mistakes. There’s no doubt about that. But he is a good leader and often plays well on the international stage.

Maguire’s centre back partner is a player who, in a similar fashion to Shaw, has started to show his capabilities we saw when he was younger and again this is due to signings in his position. With the acquisitions of Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias, John Stones had to prove he deserved a place in Guardiola’s team and he’s been a vital part of the best defence in the league this season. Conceding a mere 3 goals and keeping 10 clean sheets alongside Ruben Dias, he’s beginning to show why Manchester City paid Everton £50 Million for his services in 2016. He also compliments Maguire well. He possesses more pace than the Manchester United captain, is capable in the air and strong at carrying the ball forward in the way that Franz Beckenbauer would for Bayern Munich and Germany. If that’s not a compliment I don’t know what is! 

Who’s the backup? 

I’ve only opted for one backup centre back and the reasons for that will be made clearer in part 3 (spoiler alert!). Although currently injured, if he can get back fit in time and get a handful of games under his belt at the end of the season, I would take Liverpool’s Joe Gomez as the third-choice centre back. He’s more naturally gifted than the other options and has played on a higher stage than the rest of the options. Alongside Virgil Van Dijk he showed last season the level he is capable of playing at and when fit is one of the most solid central defenders in the league. 

Who misses out? 

If Gomez isn’t fit come the start of the Euros, I would instead take Tottenham’s Eric Dier. I think Southgate will pick Dier in his team anyway, but if it were up to me, I don’t think he’s strong enough in any one position to be a starting player for England. There’s obviously something about him, shown by Jose Mourinho’s opinion of the player in Amazon’s docuseries “All or Nothing” and Southgate has always had Dier in and around his squads. I’m not saying he’s not a good player, I just think with the options England now have, particularly in midfield, he hasn’t developed enough over the past few years to be a certainty in the squad.  

The other players missing out are Wolves’ Conor Coady, Villa’s Tyrone Mings, Everton’s Michael Keane and Ben Godfrey and Burnley’s pairing of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee. Mings is too much of a liability for me, Coady’s Wolves are having a torrid season, Tarkowski and Mee wouldn’t be as solid if not played together and Michael Keane, although in the mould of Harry Maguire, isn’t the player we thought he might become. I’m a big fan of Godfrey and I think he will be an England regular in the future, but for the time being I don’t think he’s quite at the level required of a team going for glory. I don’t think he gets spoken about enough when we look at potential candidates, but for me he’s one of the better options we have. There’s a lot of options at centre back for England, and I wouldn’t be averse to any of them being picked, but along with the goalkeepers I do feel it’s the weakest position for England.

So that’s it for the defence. Maguire, Stones and Gomez as our centre backs and Shaw, Chilwell, Alexander-Arnold, Wan-Bissaka and Reece James as the full backs. The options we have at both left and right back are very promising with a lot of young players coming through. Going for a Manchester United heavy back-line is certainly controversial. They have conceded the most goals of any team currently in the top 10 of the Premier League and more even than Burnley, who sit 1 place above the relegation zone. But I think with talented players like John Stones and TAA mixed in with the likes of Maguire and Shaw, there’s potential for a solid defensive-base with strong attacking prowess which could see us go far in the tournament.

Stepping in to Southgate’s Waistcoat

With Euro 2020 finally around the corner, I’ve decided to put together who I would pick if I were in Gareth Southgate’s shoes. Obviously, this is all based on my opinion and I want to make it clear that this isn’t who I think Southgate will pick, but who would pick. I just thought it would be interesting to look at who the in-form players are and a look at some of their statistics in the current campaign. There are some controversial choices in here for sure, but that’s all part of it. The number of players currently available for selection is fantastic. There are players I’ve left out who would have walked in to England teams over the past 15 years. With the number of young players coming through, it was difficult not to select all of them, but we need to mix youth with experience. After all, you can’t win anything with kids. 

I’ve opted for a 4-3-3 formation- it’s my preferred formation anyway and one of, if not the, most commonly used in modern football.

I’ve decided to split this in to 4 separate posts; Goalkeepers, Defenders, Midfielders and Forwards so I can go in to more depth in each position. Naturally, I can’t include every player eligible, but I’ve highlighted the players I feel are in with the best chance of claiming a spot in the squad. 

The Goalkeepers 

Who starts? 

Although Pickford’s form for England in the last few years has differed massively to his club form, I don’t think he’s shown enough to be seriously considered as England’s number 1 anymore. That place instead goes to Burnley’s Nick Pope. Since taking over Tom Heaton as Burnley’s number 1, he has shown that he is one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League and the level of consistency in his game is incredible. Burnley are known for being one of the top defensive sides in the league, something that has kept them from getting relegated season-on-season, and Pope’s form is a big factor in this. Despite his team sitting 4th from bottom, the Burnley shot-stopper has conceded just 24 goals in 21 league games this season (less than Manchester United for example), compared to an Expected Goals Against of 29.4, showing that he can earn his team points single-handedly.  

Who’s the backup? 

At the European Championships, teams are required to name 3 goalkeepers in their 23-man squad. My second pick is the previously mentioned Jordan Pickford. Although he does have potential for mistakes in his game, he’s a vastly experienced keeper and one of England’s heroes during their fantastic World Cup 2018 run to the semi-finals. I also imagine he is a brilliant character to have in the dressing room. His 22 goals conceded in 17 games, with an expected goals conceded of 19.1 is clearly much worse than the Burnley number 1’s ratio. Of course, statistics aren’t everything, but I think this statistic in particular is a good indicator of the level a goalkeeper is playing at, as it doesn’t take in to account how good the defence may be, but how good they are once a shot has been taken.

 The third choice is probably the most difficult one, as I don’t think there are any obvious candidates. I’ve gone for Manchester United’s Dean Henderson. Had he been playing consistently this season and not as second fiddle to David De Gea, I think he would be battling Nick Pope for the number 1 spot, but as it stands, his lack of game time has naturally brought him down the pecking order. As third choice, he almost certainly won’t feature at the Euros, but I think it will be great experience for the 23 year old and pave the way for him to become England’s future number 1. 

Who misses out? 

As I said, there isn’t a wealth of options in this position. The only other candidates in my opinion for the third spot would be struggling Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale, signed from Bournemouth in the summer and Southampton’s Alex McCarthy would be a shock inclusion. I think we will eventually see Ramsdale at Everton as a replacement for Jordan Pickford and he will play for England in the future, most likely as backup to Dean Henderson, but as Sheffield United look likely to go down, I don’t think a back-to-back relegation goalkeeper would be a strong addition to this England squad. Especially as he has conceded 35 goals in just 22 games. As for Alex McCarthy, you could argue he has only been included on this list as I’m sentimental and he’s an ex-Reading player. I think he’s actually the weakest link in Southampton’s team, despite his knack for occasionally pulling off a wonder save (his save from Leon Osman back in 2011 springs to mind). I also can’t imagine conceding 9 goals against Manchester United recently will help his cause, or his confidence for that matter.

So there’s my picks for the goalkeeping position; Nick Pope, Jordan Pickford and Dean Henderson. Despite Nick Pope being a solid option I do feel it’s one of the weaker areas for England, but if Pope can bring his domestic form to the international stage, we can be sure not to concede too many goals.

Next time I’ll be looking at the defence but in the meantime, who do you think should be starting in goal for England at the Euros?

“Really, is this what it has come to?”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget why you do certain things. But when I read David Walsh’s report on the Arsenal v Manchester United game in The Sunday Times, it made it very very easy to remember why I started this blog.

It was hardly a match that we will be telling our grandchildren about, but that’s not to say it was full of poor performances. Walsh writes of “how far standards have fallen at Arsenal” in reference to Man of the Match David Luiz celebrating blocking a Bruno Fernandes freekick. Did we forget that it was a freekick from that same player that knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup just a week before? A striker celebrates when he scores a goal, is it wrong of a defender to celebrate when he stops a goal?

Walsh then goes on to talk about Emile Smith-Rowe, who “is 20 and still a kid in this league”, turning Fred and creating Arsenal’s best chance of the first half. Somehow Walsh has turned this in to a negative. A young, English player who has forced his way in to the first team at one of the biggest clubs in the country at the expense of vastly more experienced players creates good chances for said club and this is a negative thing. I don’t get it. He states “how come a side with plenty of experience were turning to their youngest player in search of inspiration?” He’s a creative midfielder David! It’s his f*****g job! What does he expect Smith-Rowe to do? Purposely lose possession, turn to his team mates and say “sorry lads, David Walsh has told me I’m not allowed to create chances as you were all born earlier than me”.

People like David Walsh are the reason I started this blog. Defenders keeping clean sheets and young creative midfielders should be praised and supported, not jeered and questioned because they’re performing their roles amicably. As the Chief Sports Writer, I imagine Walsh stepped in to that role for the same reason I started this blog. Because he loves the sport. But somewhere, that joy has turned in to pandering. Yes, Arsenal are an easy target at the moment and that makes for easy reading. But why conform? If Arsenal play well against good sides, who have now gone 18 away matches unbeaten by the way, then praise them for it. It’s really not that difficult.

Friday 25th October 2019

This was the day Leicester City beat Southampton 9-0 at St Mary’s Stadium. 95% of managers in this situation would have lost their job. Having won just 2 league games from a possible 9, losing 9-0 against a good, but not great, team and having just 27% possession in that particular game should have been the end of the road for Ralph Hasenhuttl. But the Southampton board stuck by him and they’re reaping the rewards as they sit 5 points off the Champions League places with 29 points and a positive goal difference. 

The powers that be are often too quick to pull the trigger. Yes, it was a particularly awful result. But of the team that started that match, only Angus Gunn, Maya Yoshida and Pierre-Emille Hojbjerg have left the club, the latter taking the step up to Tottenham. It just goes to show that sometimes trust needs to be placed in the manager. We often forget that 99% of the time they do in fact know what they’re doing. The signs were there for Southampton. Prior to the Leicester City match, although they came away as winners in just two games, they only failed to score in one; the opening day fixture away at Burnley. They then went on to win 13 more games last season, finishing in eleventh place with 52 points. If you had offered that to Southampton fans in the summer of 2019, they would have bitten your hand off. 

“The Alpine Klopp” has also shown he is astute in the transfer market. By bringing in Kyle Walker-Peters, who has flourished since joining The Saints, on a permanent deal after his loan at the back end of last season, he helped to sure up a defence consisting of players that were merely out of form at the time. Danny Ings on a permanent transfer was a stroke of genius, Che Adams is beginning to hit his stride now after making the step up from Championship side Birmingham City and bringing back former Southampton academy product Theo Walcott on loan has turned out to be a shrewd signing.

You can tell by the way his team plays the sort of work that is put in on the training ground. Liverpool get all the plaudits for their counter-pressing game, or “Gegenpressing”, but I don’t think there’s a team in the league that does it as well as Southampton at the moment. You can tell that the players take in every word their boss says to them and I would put money on the fact that their training sessions are full of match-like scenarios from start to finish. It’s the smoothest transition from training ground to football pitch you’re likely to see, just look at Armstrong’s goal against Arsenal on Tuesday. Every player knows their role within the team and when you add in the technical ability of players like James Ward-Prowse, who has become the best dead-ball specialist in England, you’re looking at a team that can start to compete for Europa League places.

And of course, there’s the man himself. You just have to look at the Austrian’s reaction after beating Klopp’s Liverpool side a few weeks ago to get an idea of how much this game means to him. His passion is unrivalled, very rarely will you see a manager show that much emotion after a win. In an interview he once said “Pressing. Hunting. Be hungry. When you have the ball, find a quick decision, quick transition to the front. It’s about being emotional, being full of passion. Also, keep the tempo on a high level and don’t slow down the game. That’s what I think the people want to see.” His teams play football how football is supposed to be played. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s the reason we fell in love with the game.  

I think Ralph Hasenhuttl will be at Southampton for a long time to come and I envy Southampton fans. And to the Southampton board that didn’t sack him on Friday 25th October 2019, on behalf of football fans, I thank you.

Manchester City’s Gunsung Hero

I initially wrote this prior to Gundogan’s double against West Brom on Tuesday night and had no plans to publish it until next week. But off the back of that performance, I’ve made a few tweaks and decided to post it today. People were already starting to pay attention before that game, so I’m not going to pretend I was “ahead of the curve” by writing it last week, but it is nice to write something and have it backed up with a stellar performance like that.

With the likes of De Bruyne, Rodri, Foden, Fernandinho, Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus fighting for places in the Manchester City team, you may have been forgiven at the beginning of the season for thinking 30-year-old Ilkay Gundogan may be the obvious choice to omit on matchdays. He’s older than most of his midfield counterparts, had injury issues throughout his career and spent the last 4 years as more of a squad player rather than a first-team regular.

When David Silva departed for Real Sociedad in the summer, the obvious replacement was youngster Phil Foden. I think this was probably Pep’s plan all along and he was blessed to have a player in a similar mould coming through at just the right time. And as wonderful a season as Foden is having, it’s Gundogan who has really stepped up in the Spaniard’s absence.

The former Borussia Dortmund man isn’t known for being prolific in front of goal, never previously scoring more than 6 in a single season. However, this season he’s already bagged 9 in all competitions and doesn’t look as if he’s slowing down, picking up 5 goals in January alone. In fact, no player has scored more goals than Gundogan (tied with Foden and Sterling) and only Torres has a better minutes-per-goal ratio in the Manchester City team, but only 2 of his goals have come in the league. There’s an argument to be made that this may be down to Guardiola’s reluctance to play Gabriel Jesus in favour of an extra midfielder, giving the German more freedom to break in to the box. However, I believe this just adds to the praise that Gundogan deserves and is now receiving. He is playing at such an extraordinarily high level that he has forced Guardiola’s hand and caused him to make a tactical switch just to include him in the team.

Goals are the area the Manchester club were struggling with early in the season, scoring an uncharacteristic 4 league goals in October, but they’ve started to pick up form in recent weeks and this is, in part, down to Gundogan. Whilst De Bruyne and Phil Foden pick up the plaudits as creator and goal scorer respectively, Gundogan brings a bit of extra steel to the City midfield and has added a different dynamic to his game in the form of goals. If he can continue playing at this level for the remainder of the season, he’ll certainly be giving the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes, James Maddison, and Jack Grealish a run for their money when it comes to squeezing in to the Team of the Year midfield.

Lamps flame has gone out. But I think he was a bright light in dark times.

Chelsea’s poor run of recent form has lead to Frank Lampard’s dismissal. After spending in the region of £220 Million in the summer, not having the results to show for it and the boards history of sacking managers, it’s hardly come as a surprise. But with Chelsea’s transfer embargo affecting Lampard’s first season, I think there are a lot of positives from his reign that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Youngsters.

Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi. The first three are all first-team regulars and Hudson-Odoi, wanted by Bayern Munich last year, would certainly feature more had he not had a long injury lay-off. Chelsea fans were naturally worried with the sale of Eden Hazard, one of the leagues greatest players in the last decade, and no opportunity to replace the Belgian superstar in the transfer market. But Lampard showed faith in the young academy boys. Mount, James and Abraham had all shown their ability out on loan at Derby, Wigan and Aston Villa respectively, but were they ready to make the step up to Chelsea’s first team? Under usual circumstances, I doubt they would have been given the chance, but they repaid the faith Lampard showed in them by becoming three of Chelsea’s most important players over the last 2 seasons.

The Signings.

There’s no doubt that Werner, Havertz and Ziyech haven’t lived up to expectations yet. But in Eduoard Mendy, Lampard has solved the huge goal-keeping problem they had in the form of Kepa Arrizabalaga. Thiago Silva is not only a solid central defender himself, but also a wonderful mentor for the recently rejuvenated Kurt Zouma and if you take the Scottish duo of Robertson and Tierney out, Chelsea have the best left-back in the league in Ben Chilwell. That’s 3 hits and 3 misses, but players always need time to adapt to English football and I think Werner and Havertz in particular will light up the Premier League in the next few years.

I think it’s harsh on Frank Lampard. Yes, Chelsea are sat in 9th at the time of his sacking, but they’re only 5 points off of a Champions League spot in a season that is ridiculous and unpredictable. There’s a reason we’ve seen so few sackings this season and it’s because clubs want some kind of stability in such uncertain times. I think Chelsea should have stuck by their former midfielder, at least until the end of the season. He won’t struggle to find another job. I imagine he’ll stay in England and take the next job available at a mid-table club. And I think one day we’ll see him back at West Ham, where his story began.

I would shake James Maddison’s hand… if he let me.

When James Maddison burst on to the scene in 2017 with Norwich, picking up a nomination for EFL Championship Young Player of the Season, we were all aware of how good he was at that level. Upon his move to Leicester just a year later, for around £20 million, the question was whether or not he could make the step up. And now, just 2 years on, he’s proving that he’s one of the finest players in the Premier League, both on and off the pitch. 

He’s never been one to make headlines, aside from the occasional long-range thunderbolt, or a Lampard-esque strike from the edge of the box. But in recent weeks he’s been the focus of the media, and for all the right reasons. 

As we’ve had to change the way we work and even the way we live, footballers have been lucky in that they’ve been able train as normal and play matches as normal, albeit without fans. That’s not to say they’ve had it easy, I don’t think anyone has. However, it’s been difficult for some of us watching them hug, high-five and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the occasional pat on the butt. The FA had spoken of their concerns regarding celebrations, and after rifling home to open the scoring for Leicester in their 2-0 victory over high-flying Southampton, Maddison got creative with his socially-distanced celebration, allowing us to relate to him in a way we haven’t been able to with our icons in recent months. This lead the way for others, namely De Bruyne and Manchester City. 

And just a few days later, after coolly finishing past Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy to put Leicester 2-0 up and top of the league, we saw something we haven’t seen much of during this pandemic. Honesty. In his post-match interview with Geoff Shreeves we witnessed a breath of fresh air in the form of the delightfully insightful Maddison. He spoke of Chelsea’s tendency to switch off at corners, Leicester’s half-time change to a 4-4-2 shape out of possession and doing the “dirty work” for boss Brendan Rodgers. There are very few footballers out there with that level of tactical awareness, especially at the age of just 24. 

It’s refreshing.  

There are so many people involved in footballers lives these days, that often everything they say feels like it’s coming from the mouth of someone else, but occasionally you get moments like this. More often than not it’s in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and sometimes it comes in the form of Charlie Austin screaming “It’s a joke!” However this time around it’s James Maddison, who is doing a fantastic job of quickly becoming my favourite player.