“I’d rather be the underdogs. I’d rather people not know my name when I come out and do this stuff. Then they’ll say ‘Who was that?'”
Yesterday the PFA Team of the Year was announced. Whilst the team conjured up is an acknowledgement of the very best, this Premier League season has featured plenty of underdogs coming to the fore. The PFA Team of the Year consists entirely of players the league’s top five clubs. This alternative team doesn’t feature any players from those teams. Furthermore, those who’ve received plenty of praise, such as Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and Leighton Baines, are excluded. So here are the unsung heroes, those who’ve quietly impressed:
Goalkeeper: Ben Foster (Birmingham City)
This season could have gone very differently for Ben Foster. He may have continued to play understudy to Edwin Van der Sar before being passed the baton at Manchester United this August. Instead, Foster opted for Birmingham City. The Midlands club have had a difficult year in the league but Foster has slotted in well behind Alex McLeish’s typically sturdy defence. He was also pivotal to Birmingham’s Carling Cup success.
Left Back: José Enrique (Newcastle United)
José Enrique has been virtually ever-present in Newcastle’s team this year and has featured in every one of their eight clean sheets. Newcastle have had plenty of defensive troubles over the year but they seem to have found a very solid full-back in José Enrique. That may be about to change though as his name continues to be heavily linked with a move to Anfield this summer.
Centre Back: Robert Huth (Stoke City)
Huth may not be a popular player but he has excelled at Stoke this year. They’ve garnered a reputation as a difficult team to score against ever since they won promotion and Huth has enhanced their status. But he has also proved a legitimate threat at the other end of the pitch too. Huth’s bagged six goals in the league making him Stoke’s joint highest scorer.
Centre Back: Gary Cahill (Bolton Wanderers)
Speak to those who regularly go to the Reebok this year and they’ll tell you how good Cahill has been. Owen Coyle has transformed the ethos of Bolton Wanderers and the classy Cahill has flourished in the new style. He started the season with his first England cap and has ended it with his first England start. Expect him to remain very much in Fabio Capello’s thoughts in the future.
Right Back: Stephen Carr (Birmingham City)
Stephen Carr’s played in every minute of the nine clean sheets Birmingham have forged out. In fact, Carr has only missed 47 of the 2880 minutes Birmingham have played this year. Not bad for a 34-year-old man who announced his retirement in 2008. He has been somewhat of an unsung hero but pundits rightly cooed over his Carling Cup final performance against Arsenal.
Left Wing: Matthew Etherington (Stoke City)
It must be hard for a crafty, clever midfield technician to shine at Stoke City but Etherington continues to impress. Stoke’s long, missile balls can often bypass their midfield but Etherington does plenty of good work from wide positions. He remains a vital cog for Stoke with his deliveries from corners and free-kicks. Matt Jarvis could also be considered for this position after a bright season at Wolves.
Centre Midfield: Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United)
Last year Nolan was award the Championship Player of the Year award and he’s carried that form with him as Newcastle look set to cement their Premier League status. He’s helped himself to 12 league goals making him the division’s highest scoring midfielder. Newcastle have recorded several goal gluts and Nolan has been inspired in all of them. His finest hour was a hat-trick in the 5-0 drubbing of local rivals Sunderland. Honourable mentions for this position must go to Nolan’s Newcastle teammates Joey Barton and Chiek Tioté.
Centre Midfield: Lucas Leiva (Liverpool)
Lucas was derided for so long by football fans in this country but his turnaround this year has been magnificent. Finally we’ve started to see why he has merited inclusion for both Liverpool and Brazil. In a tough season for Liverpool, he has been their most consistent performer. Lucas saved his best performances for the bigger games with typically destructive outings in wins against Chelsea and Manchester United.
Right Wing: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)
This season was always going to be a dull one for Fulham after their heroics last year. An early injury to Bobby Zamora only confirmed that. But Dempsey has had a steady season which has gone largely under the radar. He’s weighed in with a respectable ten goals with only Kevin Nolan bagging more from midfield.
Forward: D.J. Campbell (Blackpool)
So many strikers have failed to make the colossal leap up to the top tier of football so reaching double figures for the season is a great achievement for Campbell. He had an unsuccessful crack at the big time before with Birmingham but looks to have found his feet at Blackpool. Campbell has scored against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham proving he steps up against the league’s best.
Forward: Peter Odemwingie (West Bromwich Albion)
West Brom’s inability to stay in the Premier League in previous years had been blamed on the absence of a renowned goal scorer. In Peter Odemwingie, they now have a man to provide a finishing touch to their midfield guile. No side have scored more goals in the bottom half of the league. In his first season in English football, Odemwingie has bagged 12 goals and he also has eight assists. If West Brom stay up, he may be the signing of the season.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Let me know in the comments section.
“A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until the deadline looms large”
Another year, another deadline passes. In previous seasons the deadline day comings and goings of Ashley Cole, Wiliam Gallas, Robinho and Dimitar Berbatov have kept us all enthralled. But if one player summed up the rather tepid nature of yesterday’s deadline day it was Salif Diao.
On any other day, news of his return to Stoke City would be relegated to the lower depths of Premier League news. However, on deadline day the news was worthy of the eye-catching bright yellow ticker-tape and an exclusive interview.
For even if there is no action, the media contrived façade that is deadline day must try to live up to the hype. One of the bigger moves was Eidur Gudjohnsen’s arrival at Stoke City. The sight of Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tony Pulis together was apparently “absolutely extraordinary”. Gudjohnsen’s signing was a coup but lest we forget he spent time in the Championship with Bolton when he first arrived in this country. Yes he has played for two European giants but like Jenny from the block, he’s not forgotten where he came from. Elsewhere the rather excitable Sky Sports presenter Jim White was seen completely combusting when Franco Di Santo made another inevitable loan move back up north.
The truth is deadline day is failing to encapsulate the drama that it originally conjured up. We were all hooked when Dimitar Berbatov was held hostage by Fergie, when delirium kicked in at Eastlands and when Mark Hughes pretended that he was abreast of developments regarding Robinho. Since then, Benjani’s missed flight and Ryan Babel’s helicopter escapades aside, it’s all become rather dull and dreary despite the media’s best efforts.
There are plenty of reasons why deadline day is failing to live up to its hype. The season is already three weeks old, squads take time to blend and managers want to bed in new faces early. The 25 man squad rule has left managers needing to have a good idea of how their personnel will shape up. Clubs need to be astute rather than simply chopping and changing on deadline day (not including Harry “I’m not a wheeler-dealer” Redknapp). Prolonged pursuits like Berbatov’s can be cut short with a strong dose of petulance, as showed by Javier Mascherano. Then consider how many clubs seem to be less willing to part with money. Only Sunderland resorted to spending big to ensure a deal was made before the deadline. With their hand possibly being forced by the side-lined Frazier Campbell, they acquired Asamoah Gyan for a club record £13 million.
So it appears clubs have wised up when it comes to transfer windows. Leaving it to the last minute drives up prices as desperation kicks in. Deadline day is loaded with uncertainty for players too.
It is usually hard to feel too much pity for footballers. Doing what you love for a living and getting paid to do it creates little sympathy for the most part. But Rohan Ricketts’ tale of the uncertainity of deadline day is the other side of the coin as players face being jettisoned at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile hype and hysteria will continue to grip White and his colleagues twice a year. But in truth clubs have failed to yield to the drama and excitement, in fact the last few have been rather mundane.
“It looked to me as if the English have gone backwards into the bad old times of kick and rush”
Although he may have his detractors, Jamie Carragher is a very intelligent man and any interview with him is refreshingly candid. Last week he spoke with the Daily Mail about a variety of issues but the ones which were most intriguing were his thoughts on the state of the English game both at international level and at the grass-roots. The Liverpool defender believes the two are intertwined. He moans that at international level “there isn’t that spell of keeping the ball, just slowing the game down.” Then he points to the deficiencies of youth football in this country:
“My son is playing now and, the first thing in England is that you want your lad to get stuck in. Whereas a Spanish kid, you want him to be skilful.”
Beckenbauer’s ‘kick and rush’ comments may not have been wide of the mark after all. At the time, those within the England camp rubbished the claims but Carragher’s thoughts provide at least some evidence that the mentality in this country is way behind other nations.
It is not that England doesn’t produce players capable of carrying out Carragher’s wishes. If the F.A. wondered if the Scouser’s words should be taken onboard, they were left in little doubt when a certain Mancunian echoed Carragher’s sentiments with a masterful display last Monday night. Actions often speak louder than words and Paul Scholes’ performance against Newcastle was a delight to behold. It was a vintage display and a brilliant advert for maintaining possession, creating chances and completely controlling a football match. At the same time it was all very un-British.
The World Cup statistics show Carragher’s fears are founded. Looking at the pass completion percentages, England players don’t match-up well against other countries most notably the eventual champions Spain. England’s percentages, Frank Lampard 78%, Gareth Barry 75%, James Milner 65% and Steven Gerrard 64%, are pitiful when compared with their Spanish counterparts, Sergio Busquets 88%, Cesc Fàbregas 84%, Xabi Alonso 81% and Xavi 81%. Other major internationals have far more favourable stats too, Felipe Melo 90%, Gilberto Silva 86% and Javier Mascherano 80%. Even the more advanced players like Kaká 76%, Robinho 76% and Leo Messi 72% havefar better ball retention skills than England’s own Wayne Rooney 62%.
The only ‘major’ country who had similar stats to England was Germany, Bastian Schweinsteiger 76%, Sami Khedira 76% and Mesut Özil 71%. But consider that most of Germany’s goals and chances came from their electrifying counter attacks rather than prolonged build ups.
Paul Scholes didn’t travel to South Africa and his absence was clearly missed. As pointed out by Opta and on this Manchester United blog, Scholes was the Premier League’s most accurate passer with an 89.58% completion rate last year.
So when under intense pressure from an expectant media and fans, it seems the English players in South Africa did revert to type, the style Beckenbauer labelled ‘kick-and-rush’. Carragher himself acknowledged this:
“John Terry knocked it long to Emile Heskey into the box and I was thinking: ‘You wouldn’t have done that for Chelsea. You’d have passed it straight to Ashley Cole and just started playing again’.”
Certainly the players should know better. Enough of them play at the highest level to appreciate the importance of long periods of possession. But the system these players were brought up in is also flawed. The Spanish and the Germans have evolved but the English seem to be stuck in their traditional ways. Hard-tackling, lung busting midfielders are everywhere in England but we produce too few players of Scholes’ ilk.
Carragher’s comments this past week show that there is a concern among the professionals. Now the F.A. must look to rectify this at the very grass roots of the game.
“I can’t even spell spaghetti never mind talk Italian. How could I tell an Italian to get the ball? He might grab mine!”
In the aftermath of another dismal showing in an international competition, everybody has a diagnosis for the terminally ill English national team.
Is it the manager? Is it the egos of the exceedingly rich Premier League players? Is it the absence of a winter break? Or is it the influx of foreign players in the country’s top division? All likely theories but it is the latter which I want to draw attention to here.
It is a theory I refuse to subscribe to. All of England’s squad played in the Premier League last year and the majority play for clubs who continually play in Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League.
Nevertheless, The Premier League is certainly concerned about the development of young British players. It is concerned enough to offer a remedy, the home-grown rule. As a result, this season, clubs will need to include no more than 17 non home-grown players in their 25 man squad.
One club who this certainly doesn’t endanger is Aston Villa. Villa’s proposed squad contains 13 players who qualify as ‘home-grown’. Of these, 11 were signed by Martin O’Neill, the man who has just stormed out of Villa Park in a dispute over future transfers.
O’Neill’s gripe was obvious. He wanted more money and he wanted it to assemble a squad capable of toppling the established order. He has seen Gareth Barry depart and he fears James Milner and Ashley Young are on the verge of leaving too. But owner Randy Lerner’s counterargument was also fair. He had given O’Neill plenty of money every summer since he joined. He now faces the unenviable task of trimming a wage bill which is 85% of the club’s turnover. O’Neill may bemoan Lerner’s sudden frugality but the American has opened his wallet on multiple occasions for the Ulsterman before, it is time to close it shut.
O’Neill’s problem is that he loves to buy British. Like the old man who turns his nose up at the lasagne in Tesco, he never could take to that ‘foreign muck’. With the exception of some of those hotly tipped for relegation, Aston Villa are perhaps the least multi-national team in the Premier League. Stiliyan Petrov, Carlos Cuéllar, Habib Beye and Brad Friedel may not originate from these shores but they were already well versed in the British game when they came to Birmingham. Their current foreign legion includes John Carew and two back-up players in Moustapha Salifou and Brad Guzan. Moreover, for all the hype regarding their academy, only Gabriel Agbonlahor is a regular. Martin O’Neill assembled this squad rather than inheriting it and he has built a team with a distinctly British flavour. It is this which endears him to both the public and the media but it is also a serious flaw not to include talented foreigners in your ranks.
The main reason is economical because buying British in O’Neill’s line of business is a rather costly hobby. The 11 home-grown players in the current squad that O’Neill signed are: Luke Young £6 million, Richard Dunne £6 million, Steve Sidwell £5 million, Stewart Downing £12 million, Ashley Young £10 million, James Milner £12 million, Curtis Davies £8 million, Emile Heskey £3 million, James Collins £5 million, Nigel Reo-Coker £8.5 million and Stephen Warnock £8 million. James Collins and Richard Dunne both represent their countries but only James Milner and Emile Heskey made an impact at the World Cup with England. Acquiring established international players comes at a fraction of the cost and you can’t help but feel O’Neill missed a trick by sticking with the Brits. He has signed good players, but nobody who you would consider capable of performing on the Champions League stage. The 11 players listed earlier only represent the legacy O’Neill left behind; the BBC estimates that 30 of O’Neill’s 50 signings were British.
Many believe that O’Neill is a fantastic manager and they believe he did a great job at Villa. I would concur with the first statement but I believe he did an OK job and nothing more. He spent big and ultimately produced little. Had O’Neill invested some of Lerner’s millions in cheaper foreign talent, he may have won a trophy or finished in the top four. They certainly wouldn’t have spent so much on squad players and the finances would now be in a far better state.
If the influx of foreign players has done one thing in this country it is raise the price of British players. The new home-grown ruling is only going to exploit this more. Under O’Neill’s British-first approach, Villa had no chance of progressing further.
“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future”
On the eve of the forthcoming Premier League season I have, like many others, foolishly left myself open to mockery and abuse by predicting this season’s big winners and losers. Still given the dominance of the ‘Big Four’ and the belief that it’ll be the usual names in the usual places, it should be easy, right? Maybe I should have used this quote to open instead:
“The groundhog is like most prophets; it delivers its prediction then disappears”
If you don’t hear from me come May you’ll know why…
CHAMPIONS = CHELSEA
Last time around the pitfalls appeared greater. January’s African Cup of Nations was supposed to upset the applecart and if that didn’t Michael Essien’s injury looked set to. But they soldiered on and when the title race really got going, Carlo Ancelotti’s men found the extra gear first. Their form at the end of the season was sublime and it bodes well for this season too. Ricardo Carvalho’s loss won’t be felt particularly hard with the excellent Branislav Ivanović a more than adequate replacement. Essien’s return only strengthens the league’s best midfield which won’t lose its aura even with Joe Cole and Michael Ballack’s departures. Ballack’s performances were steadily declining and Ancelotti has never taken a shine to Cole. Ramires will surely be an upgrade on Jon Obi Mikel and look for Daniel Strurridge to push on this year too; he has all the raw attributes to be a great player.The interesting situation will arise at right back. Ancelotti’s diamond formation does hinge on the production of his two full backs and José Bosingwa’s return from a serious injury will be something to monitor. Question marks remain about his defensive capabilties but Ivanović has proved adept in that slot too should Bosingwa fail to make an impression.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES = MANCHESTER UNITED, ARSENAL, MANCHESTER CITY
Chelsea’s challengers remain strong but are still half a step behind. It is United who look likely to be their closest threat once more. For all their positives they did look frail and toothless when Wayne Rooney was out of the side last year. The hype around Chicarito is intoxicating but Dimitar Berbatov needs to finally justify his hefty price tag. Sir Alex Ferguson has done little to strength the midfield which may be their downfall. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot play every week and Owen Hargreaves’ continued absence meant Ferguson really needed to purchase an attacking midfielder and/or a strong anchorman. I expect Nani to really excel this year and some predictions indicating that they will fall outside of the top four are wide of the mark.
Arsène Wenger has addressed a glaring weakness by getting Marouane Chamakh and IF Robin van Persie can stay fit, they could be Chelsea’s biggest contenders. However I still have question marks about their ability to beat the big sides. They can’t win games ugly, they are susceptible to counter-attacking football and the naivety which has haunted them in the past shows no signs of leaving just yet. United, Chelsea and Barcelona all tore them to shreds last year. They remain a young, inexperienced team and even though they have kept hold of Cesc Fàbregas they still lack the leadership and know-how of Wenger’s previous title winning teams. The purists would love them to be crowned champions but they lack a steely resolve to beat the very best.
Preseason predictions and Premier League discussions never seem to veer far away from Manchester City. Few seem to be tipping them for the title but there are plenty predicting they can break into the top four and cause serious problems for the very best. I am among the believers. They have surpassed Aston Villa and Everton (taking some of their best players in the process) and now they have bigger fish to fry. City simply have too much money and too much talent to miss out on the Champions League again. After missing out on Kaka, Roberto Mancini has rightly targeted the next tier of quality players. Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov are all young talents with blossoming reputations. Yaya Touré and David Silva, along with Balotelli, have been around extremely successful teams and know what it takes to win trophies. Time will be the biggest obstacle in Mancini’s path because it is a luxury he isn’t afforded. The owners have proved they are willing to pull the trigger quickly and Mancini needs to make sure he’s in prime position by Christmas or he could endure the same fate as Mark Hughes.
EUROPA LEAGUE = LIVERPOOL, TOTTENHAM, EVERTON
Liverpool will be better under Roy Hodgson but this may be more of a rebuilding year as Hodgson clears the deadwood. Spurs have done little to improve on last year’s team and you have to think City will overtake them particularly with Tottenham enjoying Champions League football and all its trimmings. Everton could do even better than 7th with Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka back this year. Goals may be a problem though, Louis Saha has persistent injury problems, Yakubu blows hot and cold and I’m not sure Jermaine Beckford is Premier League quality. The uncertainty of both player personnel and the next managerial appointment at Aston Villa should result in a drop in performance.
SURPRISE PACKAGE = BOLTON WANDERERS
Bolton are always a tricky team to beat and they have a good nucleus. Jussi Jääskeläinen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies represent a strong core and manager Owen Coyle looks destined for big things. Matthew Taylor had a superb season last year and the free signing of Martin Petrov adds some real creativity and an attacking threat. There’s little chance Bolton can achieve European qualification but a top half finish looks very achievable. Of the group of those who dodged relegation last season they look most likely to make the next step up. Coyle is certainly a shrewd operator and I believe Petrov could well go on to be the best bit of business a Premier League side did this summer.
RELEGATION = BLACKPOOL, WEST BROM, WIGAN
The critics are unanimous in their belief that Blackpool are merely on a sight-seeing tour of the top tier. Some sides, like Hull and Wigan, have stayed up and defied the odds but Blackpool’s squad possesses no Premier League experience (excluding Jason Euell) and their manager is a novice here too. Ian Holloway will ensure they are plucky and fight in each game but I don’t expect them to spring any surprises.
Playing great football and earning all the plaudits, West Brom will lure us all into a sense of déjà vu as they head straight back down again. Roberto Di Matteo’s squad is packed full of players who look like world beaters in the Championship but fail to make the step up. It would be nice to see them buck the trend but they are still miles behind West Ham, Fulham and Birmingham and Mick McCarthy has enough knowledge of relegation dog fights to ensure Wolves don’t get dragged under again this time around. Once again West Brom will live up to their yo-yo tag and cash in those all too familiar parachute payments. Of course they’ll be back in 12 months with the same crop of players, the same style and the same results.
Wigan really look like relegation fodder this time around. I stated last year that I believed they would be one of the more fascinating teams to watch due to Roberto Martínez’s arrival. Wigan over-performed under Steve Bruce and without Amr Zaki, Antonio Valencia, Emily Heskey and Wilson Palacios; I thought Martínez faced an uphill struggle. He did well to keep the team up but they were wildly unpredictable. They lost 9-1 to Spurs, 8-0 to Chelsea and 5-0 to United despite beating Arsenal and Chelsea at home. They also had the worst defensive record of a team ever to stay up in the Premier League. Had it not been for Portsmouth’s financial issues they may well have joined Burnley and Hull City in the Championship this year. Only Liverpool and Manchester City have more foreigners in their squad than Wigan right now, an issue they must resolve before September swings around. Titus Bramble and Paul Scharner, both regulars last term, are gone. Meanwhile Charles N’Zogbia has applied the stamp and is licking the envelope which contains his transfer request. Even if they manage to keep hold of Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa, they look likely to drop out of the league.
So there you have it, my tips for the top, the bottom and the surprising package in-between. It’s always interesting to see just how wrong you are when May comes around and these predictions make you look rather foolish. So I’m off to put money on Wigan sneaking a Europa League place and Bolton imploding on their way to the Championship. There’s nothing quite like hedging your bets.