The Premiership

Stop the transfer train because I want to get off

In the early hours of Wednesday morning I tuned into the ‘Premier League Asia Trophy Preview’ while whittling my way through a packed Sky+ planner.

Said programme was an interview hosted by Sky Sports presenter David Jones, who spoke to four managers: Frank de Boer, Tony Pulis, Craig Shakespeare and Jurgen Klopp, as the title suggests, previewing the forthcoming pre-season tournament, the Asia Trophy.

Maybe watching such a show at the barbaric hour of 3am had the effect, but it seemed like I was in a world where all control had been lost, or maybe this was just an all-too-accurate reflection of Planet Transfer Market once the activity of Crystal Palace, West Brom, Leicester City and Liverpool was discussed.

Unlike in the eyes of most others though, the main issue is not necessarily people like Kyle Walker commanding circa £50 million fees – that is just the price you pay for mega-bucks television deals and English players, especially half-decent ones, being so few and far between.

No. What the real problem is, is the tremendous titillation of it all.

Presenter Jones, who emphasised the word ‘transfers’ in his introduction to the segment with so much vigour that it seemed Tourette-like, was, to be fair to him, just doing his job as the Sky Sports mouthpiece to what has long-been the entertainment within the entertainment.

In what is a ‘Chicken and Egg’ scenario, there is an issue football has now where the amount of people interested in the 90 minutes is decreasing while the hullabaloo before and after it seems to be sky-rocketing. Any print media journalist asked the difference in readership figures between the match report and the ‘Player X linked to Club Y’ story will tell you that.

How could you not be excited when, in the words of Jones, “all managers are battling the transfer spending, which is hitting new levels”?

The managers themselves are not getting caught up in it though. Pulis labelled it “ridiculous”, de Boer “crazy” and Shakespeare admitted he “doesn’t really like it, but you have to accept it.”

Klopp, who previously quipped Germany is still normal with players still moving clubs for fees such as £5 million and £7 million, put it better than anybody else, however.

When asked if he was planning any more incomings for the Liverpool fans with “baited breath” (again, a phrase fired from Jones’ mouth like a bullet out of a gun), he responded: “Look. There’s nothing I could say that could help.

“We are interested in a lot of players around the world, but at the moment I’m working with the squad I have. With all respect, that’s my job in the first place.

“If I go into training and think: Oh my God, still them? That’s not okay, but that’s the first part of the job – nobody thinks about improvement and development of the players you have.”

The crux of the matter though is why is nobody thinking about improvement and development? Is it all just too dull?

There is no flashy ‘totaliser’ for every player a manager improves instead of buying, there is no bold yellow strap at the bottom of a screen when an 18-year-old gets his first start and there is certainly no all-day event that some joke should be a national holiday quite like the perpetual damp squib that is Transfer Deadline Day.

Maybe it is time to get off the transfer train, maybe we missed our stop a long time ago, and, if so, maybe we are approaching the end of the line, we just need to hope we are not going completely off the rails.

 

 

Pep Guardiola is new, different, and fresh. Get used to it.

Manchester City’s appointment and unveiling of Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was neither normal nor run-of-the-mill, but then Guardiola is not a normal or run-of-the-mill kind of guy, or manager.

We are approaching February of 2017. This time last year – February 1, to be precise, was the day in which the Citizens announced to the world, mid-way through the season, that ‘Charming Man’ Manuel Pellegrini, nicknamed after the renowned Manchester-based band ‘The Smiths’, was to depart the Etihad Stadium in June to be replaced by ‘Enigmatic Man’ Guardiola.

That in itself was bold and some suggested less-than-charming to the Chilean, Pellegrini, but there was more to come, in the shape of a fan parade. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours, demand exceeded supply, and over 20,000 people attended the event. The title of David Conn’s excellent book suggests Manchester City are richer than God, you could be forgiven for thinking they had just hired him as well. Maybe they had.

In his first 10 competitive matches in charge, City won all 10. The critics that said the King of Catalonia was going to struggle in a ‘more competitive’ league following title wins in Spain and Germany, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, looked like fools.

City were four points clear at the top of the Premier League, eight points ahead of current clear leaders Chelsea, and they had taken Europe by storm as well, winning their two qualifiers before demolishing Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in their opening group stage match. God. Call the sport off in September. We’re done for the year.

This had all been done with Claudio Bravo in goal too, who had been signed as part of the rebuilding process being done on the blue half of Manchester, as England number one Joe Hart, who had a disappointing European Championship with his country, was ousted and joined Italian outfit Torino on a season-long loan. Things then started to get interesting.

On September 28, Manchester City drew 3-3 in a frantic Champions League night at Celtic Park and a matter of days later Tottenham got a 2-0 win against them at White Hart Lane before City drew three of their next four games 1-1 – against Everton, Southampton, and Middlesbrough. Then you add in the fact that in that ten-match winning streak, City kept just three clean sheets and suddenly you have a scapegoat. Bravo.

Football, more often than one might think, reflects society. Wherever you look in the world of politics at the moment, people are scared of the new and the never-seen-before.

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union – this is uncharted territory as they are the only full member state to do so –  and America has elected climate change-denier, sexual assault-accused and disabled reporter-mocker Donald Trump as their President. These are scary times for those that don’t like change. Pep Guardiola is a man, albeit in a more trivial sense, that wants to change things but, regardless, people are scared.

A man that wants to play a goalkeeper that can’t keep goal, (Bravo has faced 59 shots this season and conceded 25 goals), because he wants his keeper to be his first attacker is one that opens himself up to ridicule from sections of both fans and the media. Being worshipped as the best thing to grace the Earth by those same sets of people does this as well, as does being prickly to those journalists that oh so adored you last weekend when you won 4-0 and those that don’t think you’ve proved yourself yet cannot wait for you to fail.

Initially, Guardiola was staunch of his philosophy. Bravo should be the first attacker, just like Victor Valdes was at arguably the greatest club side to grace the game, and just like Manuel Neuer was at his Bayern side and John Stones – a defender that, let’s face it, can’t really defend, should also be, and will become, the ultimate ball-playing centre back that gets City going.

In October he told journalists: “I think about that (changing), yeah but in the end the solution is not better than what I believe, so I cannot. In seven years I won 21 titles…I’m not going to change…if it’s not going well in the future I will go home.” By January, he was stating that “maybe (he) is not good enough for (his) players.”

Maybe Guardiola isn’t God after all, maybe for now he’ll have to settle for being Jesus. Establishing mega-rich Manchester City into the European elite is no miracle, but his second coming might not be too far away once his disciples and those who watch them, have understood his gospels.

John Terry: A Tribute to Mr.Chelsea

Chelsea’s 5-1 win over MK Dons in the FA Cup on Sunday was instantly forgotten about by anyone that has a connection with the team from west London as and when their club captain John Terry announced that he will leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the 2015-16 season.

MK Dons were not even in existence when Terry made his senior professional debut as a late substitute in a League Cup match against Aston Villa at the tender age of 17 in 1997. Six years later he would be appointed captain of his beloved Blues, four years after a brief loan spell at first division side Nottingham Forest.

Terry had benefited from years of tutoring from 1998 World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Frank Lebouef who both, like Terry, were tough, combative, no-nonsense centre halves who it is evident provided the iconic defender with many of the qualities that endeared him to the Chelsea faithful.

He first wore the armband in 2001 when he was only 21 years old – showing maturity and leadership well beyond his years.

It was Desailly that Terry took over the role as captain on a permanent basis from in 2003 following the Frenchman’s retirement and the decision to name Terry as skipper was the first of many seismic impacts Jose Mourinho made at Chelsea during his first stint as manager.

Immediate success followed as Mourinho’s men won a League Cup and Premier League double with Terry leading a team that fought the league crown off Arsenal who the year before had gone through an entire season unbeaten. It was Chelsea’s first top division title in 50 years and ‘JT’ won a number of personal awards too – he was named the PFA Player of the Year, the Champions League Defender of the Year and he also earned a spot in the FIFA World Team of the Year. His finest moment on a personal point though would perhaps be his dramatic header in the topsy-turvy 4-2 Champions League win over Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League which, prior to 2012, was probably the finest European night in Chelsea’s history. Prior to Terry’s header Chelsea had raced into a 3-0 lead inside 20 minutes but conceded two via the enigmatic Ronaldinho and were heading out – but the skipper’s winner from a corner with just 15 minutes remaining booked a quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich.

barca

Bolt from the Blue: John Terry’s late header wins it for Chelsea

Domestic trophies would continue to pile up. Back-to-back league titles were secured in the 2005-06 season and, despite not being able to retain the championship for a third year, Chelsea did win the 2007 League Cup and the first FA Cup final at the newly-built Wembley Stadium with a 2-1 win over Manchester United.

Silverware eluded him in the 2007-08 campaign but his determination for more medals never wavered. In December 2007 Terry suffered three broken bones in his foot and was expected to be ruled out for three months – he captained his club in the League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur two months later, demonstrating his commitment to any cause Chelsea were a part of as well as his own desire to win every match and trophy possible.

Another FA Cup would follow in 2008-09 and his third Premier League medal would be hung around his neck in Carlo Ancelotti’s first year in charge at Stamford Bridge, as did FA Cup number four a year later. During the summer of 2009 Terry was constantly linked with a move to Manchester City, who had recently been taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group, and his loyalty ‘was tested, as was the nerves of his fans, but a new deal was eventually signed, much to the relief of anyone who supported the team who dons the darker shade of blue and the legendary status of the captain and leader was only increased.

Ancelotti would be sacked just 12 months later after a trophy less campaign, but the finest accolade of Terry’s career was just around the corner.

Andre Villas-Boas’ tenure at Chelsea would be a turbulent one – and one that Terry received criticism for apparently leading a revolt against the inexperienced Portuguese coach, but the sacking of ‘AVB’ led to the hiring of Roberto di Matteo and the first ever Champions League win in Chelsea’s history, although their captain missed the final due to kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the lower back in the semi-final second-leg at the Nou Camp. That did not stop Terry donning full kit and lifting ‘Ol Big Ears’ with vice-captain Frank Lampard. Also, you guessed it; the Blues would also win another FA Cup.

Although Terry missed the Munich final, his leadership throughout the campaign was pivotal. Chelsea could have gone out in the group stages if they lost their last game against Valencia, but a win secured top spot in the group and then dramatic wins were needed in the last 16 against Napoli, Benfica and Barcelona, with Terry being a rock at the back in a tireless performance in defence in a 1-0 win over the Catalan giants in the first leg in the English capital.

The Rafa Benitez interim era was a tough one for at Chelsea. The fans hated a man who in the past had taken digs at the club for waving plastic flags at Champions League matches and John Terry especially never warmed to the Spaniard as the ex-Liverpool boss was sceptical he could play twice a week.

Someone would end up being proved wrong though, and it was not Terry. Mourinho’s return to SW6 would not end with a trophy in his first year back, but it did see the rejuvenate of Terry to the first-team fold as the captain played in 47 games and 34 out of a possible 38 of these in the Premier League.

It would be the season after though that Terry would really show Benitez what he was missing.

Chelsea romped to the Premier League title; clear of nearest rivals Manchester City by eight points, and lost only three matches and Terry played every single minute of every single game. Two games a week? Easy.

Winner: Terry's fourth and final Premier League trophy.

Winner: Terry’s fourth and final Premier League trophy.

This season has been a difficult one. Mourinho has been sacked, fans have booed their team off and the Premier League champions at the time of writing sit in 13th, making them the worst holders in recent memory, but there has been one constant in all of this – the never-say-die attitude of one John George Terry.

Terry’s goodbye at the end of the season will be a heartfelt one and one that many fans will struggle to get over. The club has lacked leadership following the departures in recent years – the likes of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and Terry’s contract not being renewed signals the last of the ‘old guard’ leaving.

Terry said in his leaving statement that: “The club will move on. No player is ever bigger than the club. Ideally I would have loved to stay, but the club is moving in a different direction” – maybe not a direction a lot of fans will like.

 

Manchester United fans will think fondly of Louis van Gaal…in about five years time

 

Manchester United’s 1-0 home humbling at the hands of Southampton was the latest in a long line of disappointments for the club that were once so dominant in England and it could lead to the departure of Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman has sewn some seeds for future successes.

Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 United have been a shadow of the sort of teams that had seen them win 13 of the previous 21 possible Premier League titles under the stewardship of the Scotsman. David Moyes’ appointment on the recommendation of Ferguson turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and on-the-pitch van Gaal has not been streaks ahead much to the bemusement and downright annoyance of the fans.

As a result of Saturday’s slip against the Saints at Old Trafford, United sit in fifth with 37 points from 23 games. After 23 matches in the Moyes season the Red Devils were seventh but had three more points.

Despite results though it is not as doom and gloom around Greater Manchester as it times it may seem – there are some reasons to think the grass is greener on the other side at the very least.

Van Gaal has rightly been on the end of vitriol for his patient and frankly boring football that has seen the club score a measly 12 home goals in the league all season and has in the past led to British record signing Angel di Maria leave England just one year after joining due to being restricted under the ex-Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s rigid system that had the Argentine playing like he was on shackles just a matter of months after he helped guide Argentina to a World Cup final.

Said system though has led to an improvement in the team’s defence.

Accidentally calling Chris Smalling “Mike” in a press conference was not the only change of identity van Gaal instilled in the centre back as the 26-year-old has been transformed into one of the finest centre halves in the league and one of the leaders of the squad.

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

In addition to this, ‘LvG’ has signed a whole host of young talent that, while needs nurturing, could make United a real force in the space of the next five years.

Luke Shaw, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have all signed on the dotted line from Southampton, PSV Eindhoven and AS Monaco respectively over the last two years and have all been tipped to be real stars of the not too distant future. Shaw in particular already looked like the real deal before he suffered a sickening leg break in the Champions League clash at PSV that still keeps him sidelined while Martial was given the 2015 Golden Boy award for the hottest young prospect in Europe.

Another signing in Daley Blind has shown that he could be the man that can be the deep-lying playmaker they have craved since the gradual decline of Michael Carrick and at 25 he still has plenty of years left in him, as does Morgan Schneiderlin who has enjoyed a few successful years in the Premier League already.

It has been youth that has always been at the forefront of van Gaal’s sometimes infamous philosophy though. Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair, Michael Keane, Tom Thorpe, Tyler Blackett, Andreas Pereira and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have all been given their senior debuts during the two-year tenure.

James Wilson has been sent  out on-loan to Championship outfit Brighton and Hove Albion and he is blossoming on the South Coast as he continues his development while Adnan Januzaj, who endured a disappointing time away at Dortmund, was recalled from his loan to the Bundesliga in early January and was introduced into the first-team fold again straight away against Southampton, albeit as a second-half substitute.

If results do not rapidly improve then van Gaal’s time at Manchester United will surely be up, if it is not already, and his sacking would be justified, but if past glories return to the Theatre of Dreams in the next few years then supporters will do well to remember where some it all began.

 

Felipe Anderson to Manchester United is not without its risks

Manchester United’s fans are crying out for new blood as a result of poor performances and tedious displays currently being seen at Old Trafford, but one target Felipe Anderson probably will not solve any problems.

There are of course obvious bonuses to the potential arrival of Anderson, which is reported to be pretty close to being done during this January window, but the signing carries more negatives than positives.

One reason for optimism for the United faithful would be the addition of more offensive talent that the Red Devils undoubtedly need as almost unbelievably they are the lowest scorers at home out of the entire 92 clubs in the English Football League with a painfully low 15 goals from 10 games.

Anderson, 22, is also touted as one of the most promising young talents in Europe, and therefore would add to an ever-increasingly youthful United side with Luke Shaw, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial who have also been given the ‘wonderkid’ label. Martial has just been crowned the 2015 Golden Boy – the best young talent in Europe. Shaw and Adnan Januzaj (on-loan at Borussia Dortmund from United) were also on the 40-man shortlist.

Furthermore, Louis van Gaal’s side are without any out-and-out wingers with any real class. Depay as mentioned has a promising future but is as yet struggling to adapt to the Premier League since his £25 million move from PSV in the summer, Ashley Young is currently being deployed as a full-back, Martial is used as a left winger but he prefers to be played as a centre forward while Juan Mata is more of a number 10 and Antonio Valencia has never been a ‘top drawer’ player.

Worth the risk? Should United welcome Anderson with open arms?

Should United welcome Anderson with open arms?

Lazio’s Anderson is an attractive prospect to United due to their aforementioned struggle to score, but van Gaal’s tactics – the main reason the club have worries in-front of goal – will restrict the Brazilian winger.

Angel di Maria is van Gaal’s biggest signing to date in terms of price tag – a British record £59.7 million, but he was sold just a year later to Paris Saint Germain for £44 million.

Di Maria was one of the finest talents in the world when he joined from Real Madrid and he was restricted by van Gaal’s rigid system. Anderson has a lot more nurturing to go yet.

Players that land on British shores from Serie A tend to struggle too.

Once upon a time the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp were impressing in England after moving from Italy but nowadays we see a generation of players who come from the typically defence orientated Italian league and fail to keep up with the pace and rigour of the Premier League.

In the last 15 years players such as Juan Sebastian Veron, Andriy Shevchenko, Adrian Mutu, Juan Cuadrado, Erik Lamela, Mario Balotelli (twice), and Stevan Jovetic have failed to make any sort of impact.

Not only this, but Anderson is not exactly setting the world alight at current club Lazio.

He has scored four goals, made just one assist, contributed only 11 key passes and created a minuscule 12 chances. Anderson outdoes Depay at all of these, but only just, and that is a player used to a league compared to one who has been described as a ‘flop’ six months into their Manchester United career.

Anderson is an attractive option for United fans, but he might not be the right one yet.

BENJAMINWILLS’BLOG PREMIER LEAGUE TEAM OF THE SEASON SO FAR (2015/16)

We are barely at Christmas and the 2015-16 Premier League season has given us plenty of talking points already. From surprise table-toppers Leicester City to Chelsea – the holders who have fallen from grace – and, of course, a certain Jamie Vardy – but more on him later.

The winter festivities bring out many celebrations and, most enjoyably, an even more bumper football fixture list. It is also the time of the year we see people start to talk about the end-of-season awards – here is BenjaminWillsBlog’s pick of the top 11 men so far.

Goalkeeper: Jack Butland (Stoke City)

Even before this season Jack Butland was lauded as one for the future for the England team – his inclusion into the Euro 2012 squad at just 19 years of age proved that but recent performances could already have him pushing for a start at the next Euros.

Asmir Begovic’s switch to Chelsea in the summer paved the way for Butland to make the number one shirt at Stoke City his own and he has grabbed the opportunity, like most crosses he has faced, with both hands.

Butland has made 56 saves and kept seven clean sheets (second to Costel Pantilimon and Heurelho Gomes respectively), but he has an average save-per-game rating of 3.29 and a 98% success rate at claiming crosses.

JB

Honourable Mentions: Heurelho Gomes (Watford) and Petr Cech (Arsenal)

Right-Back: Cedric Soares (Southampton)

Perhaps an early surprise name on the team sheet ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kyle Walker – mainly due to Southampton failing to build on their seventh placed spot from 2014-15, but Cedric Soares has filled the Nathaniel Clyne-shaped hole in the Saints’ defence seamlessly.

The Portuguese full-back has won 38 tackles – more than Arsenal’s Bellerin and Walker of Tottenham having played a game less than the former and two less than the latter and he has made nine blocks – six more than Walker and seven more than Bellerin. He also has just one fewer clearance than the pair.

Soares also plays a role in the opposing half superbly. He has created 18 chances and made 17 key passes, yes, you guessed it, six more than Walker and eight more than Bellerin.

Cedric

Honourable Mentions: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal) and Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)

Centre Back: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)

Even the most diehard Manchester United fan, in fact, especially the most diehard Manchester United fan, will tell you that the Red Devils have not been fun to watch this season – but Chris Smalling is one man who gives them reasons to be cheerful.

Louis van Gaal’s defensive tactics has stunted the normally attack-minded Manchester United in front of goal but on the flip side it makes them pretty sturdy at the back and Smalling is the finest example of that.

Smalling has had a hand in United having eight clean sheets from the 16 league matches where he has featured – the only one he missed was the humiliating 2-1 loss at AFC Bournemouth.

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal for Manchester United

Centre Back: Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)

“Best defender in the Premier League” – those are the words of Rio Ferdinand and Thierry Henry, both esteemed pundits and football legends, high praise indeed – and Laurent Koscielny has justified it this season.

The mercurial Frenchman has been ‘le Roche’ at the back for the Gunners as they make their latest bid to win the title for the first time since the historic 2003-2004 “Invincibles” side.

Koscielny’s display in the recent 2-1 win over fellow title-chasers Manchester City was arguably his performance of the season with Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and Wilfried Bony all failing to cause him much trouble – only a wonderful Yaya Toure goal prevented Arsenal from keeping their eighth clean sheet.

Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry

Under the Kos-h: Best defender in the league? Yes according to Ferdinand and Henry

Honourable Mentions: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Cook (AFC Bournemouth), and John Stones (Everton)

Left-Back: Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)

Patience is a virtue, as is hard work, Nacho Monreal has both in abundance. Just two years ago you were more likely to see Monreal on the Arsenal bench while Kieran Gibbs occupied the left-back role, now roles have reversed and Monreal has even became one of the league’s finest in the position.

He also finds himself overlooked in the Spain squad with Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta of Barcelona and Chelsea respectively preferred over him but if he carries on like this he may get his deserved chance.

Arsenal, as ever, are impressing with their flair game of pass-and-move, which Monreal does contribute to too, but it is his work rate first and foremost that has endeared him to his fans.

Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter

Quite a Dish: He had to wait, but Nacho is proving to be a great starter

Honourable Mentions: Nathan Ake (Watford) and Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)

Centre Midfielder: Ross Barkley (Everton)

What a yo-yo player Ross Barkley is proving to be – down, up, down, up…

Barkley properly burst onto the scene in 2013-14, three years after he broke his leg, and scored six goals in 34 games in his debut full season in the Premier League but last season he only scored two goals and registered two assists.

This campaign however he has truly blossomed, he already has six goals and six assists to his name, he has made 31 key passes and created 33 chances from the heart of the Everton midfield, pulling the strings like many expected of him at an even earlier age. France, here he comes.

RB

Centre Midfielder: N’Golo Kante (Leicester City)

Every good side needs a midfield enforcer and league leaders Leicester City (yes, really), have one in N’Golo Kante.

The previously relative unknown Kante was snapped up in the summer from Ligue 1’s SC Caen for £5.6 million, just one year after playing in France’s second tier for the same club and, for the time being at least, he finds himself top of the Premier League table.

Practically everyone in Leicester’s path have been outfoxed from August to December and, if Claudio Ranieri’s men keep up the story of the season, Kante could be commanding a higher transfer fee in six months time.

Unpredicted star: N'Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can

Unpredicted star: N’Golo Kante believe how well he has done but Caen can

Honourable Mentions: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur) and Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace)

Right Midfielder: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

A Leicester player for Player of the Season? Only in 2015-16. Riyad Mahrez has been a star for the side many tipped for relegation before a ball was kicked.

Mahrez has been involved in 18 of Leicester’s 37 goals this season (11 goals, seven assists) which is more than any other player in the league.

He only scored three goals in the year Leicester got promoted to the Premier League from the Championship and netted a solitary one more last season. Keeping hold of the Algerian beyond January seems crucial if the Foxes want the fairytale to have a happy ever after.

Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria's most dangerous export since petroleum

Wing Wizard: Mahrez is Algeria’s most dangerous export since petroleum

Honourable Mentions: Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace), Willian (Chelsea) and Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)

Centre Attacking Midfielder: Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)

Blink during an Arsenal match and you will probably miss an assist from Mesut Ozil. The 27-year-old German has set up 15 league goals already, as many as David Silva has in a single season and only five fewer than the Premier League record over an entire season held by Henry, also of Arsenal.

Ozil has found the back of the net of his own accord twice, made 52 key passes and created a whopping 67 chances for the rest of Arsene Wenger’s squad.

If the Gunners are going to win their first title in 12 years, the King of Assists is going to need to keep providing moments of magic as, at times, he completely runs the game almost single-handedly.

MO

Honourable Mentions: Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) and Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)

Left Midfielder: Dmitri Payet (West Ham United)

West Ham United’s impending move to the Olympic Stadium is expected to attract some big names to east London, but that process began as early as this June when Dmitri Payet signed for the happy Hammers for around £12 million.

Payet recorded the fourth highest assist total in Europe last season for Marseille (17), only then Wolfsburg man de Bruyne (20), Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi (both 18) provided more.

He started in England how he finished in France too, he scored five goals, made three assists, created 46 chances and fashioned 43 key passes in just 12 games. Unfortunately, an ankle injury sustained in November stopped him in his tracks and it could rule him out for up to another two months.

Child's Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies

Child’s Play: Payet has made Premier League defences look like dummies

Honourable Mentions: Gerard Deulofeu (Everton) and Sadio Mane (Southampton)

Striker: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)

Where do you start with Jamie Vardy? His story? Only naturally. Non-league Halifax Town to Premier League Golden Boot via Fleetwood in four years is literally film worthy if the DailyMail are to be believed. In fairness, his rise has been something more akin to Hollywood film sets rather than English football pitches.

Vardy only scored five goals throughout last season as Leicester narrowly stayed up but the Sheffield-born striker has 15 in 17 currently, with 13 of them coming in 11 consecutive games – overthrowing Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of adding to the score-sheet for ten games on the trot.

While Wayne Rooney continues to struggle for United, England could may well have a trick up their sleeve in Vardy to lead the line at next summer’s European Championships in France.

Jamie Vardy's having a party: The Leicester man can't stop scoring

Jamie Vardy’s having a party: The Leicester man can’t stop scoring

Honourable Mentions: Odion Ighalo (Watford) and Romelu Lukaku (Everton)

Why Jurgen Klopp is a perfect fit for Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp’s long-awaited appointment as Liverpool manager sparked mass excitement among Reds fans all over – and rightly so – he is a perfect fit for the club.

A quote by Klopp back in September that stated he would probably not end his sabbatical from management for a “top club” has been resurfaced by fans mocking Liverpool’s fall from grace but Klopp also said he would rather work on an exciting “project”.

Despite jibes, five-time European Cup winners Liverpool are still a big club, huge in fact, but restoring a team who has not won a top flight title in 25 years to contenders again is without doubt the “project” that tugs on Klopp’s heartstrings.

“The intensity of the football, how the fans live football in Liverpool, around Liverpool and all over the world (attracted him the club).

“It’s not a normal club. It’s a special club. I had two special clubs in Mainz and Borussia Dortmund and this is the perfect next step for me”.

The German also joked in a mesmeric first press conference that if he has not guided Liverpool to at least one title over the course of his four-year contract, he will move to Switzerland.

Chief Executive Ian Ayre was openly delighted with his new man saying:

“When we started the search (for a new manager), it was important that we found somebody that we thought could bring success to the club. It was important we could find someone who could take on the size, the might and the ambition of the club and Jurgen certainly ticks those boxes”.

A sign of progress: Klopp's appointment could be the start of big things for Liverpool

A sign of progress: Klopp’s appointment could be the start of big things for Liverpool

The size of the project will not daunt Klopp in the slightest. His transformation of Borussia Dortmund into a European heavyweight for a brief period is not to be understated

Dortmund would have gone out of business in 2003 had it not been for a 2 million Euro loan from Bayern Munich and they came close to bankruptcy again in 2005.

Klopp was appointed at Signal Iduna Park in 2008 off the back of a season in which Dortmund almost got relegated but nevertheless qualified for the Europa League as they got to the DFB-Pokal final (a 2-1 loss against Bayern).

Just two years later, Klopp guided them to fifth and the following season they were champions and the year after that they were defending champions – with a then record of 81 points. Dortmund also claimed the DFB-Pokal (German FA Cup) in a famous double winning year.

They lost their title in what was ultimately a cruel 2012-13 campaign as they finished second to Bayern in the league, the Supercup and the Champions League, but it was no doubt a tremendous achievement nonetheless. Dortmund finished second again in 2013-14 before the slump last season that ended in them finishing seventh and Klopp’s famous tenure ending via resignation.

Under Klopp, Liverpool should also become a lot wiser in the transfer market. The club currently work with a transfer committee, which includes the manager, where the group work on who the club should sign.

During Brendan Rodgers’ three-year spell in charge, Liverpool spent just over £210 million and only Daniel Sturridge (£15 million), Phillippe Coutinho (£8.5 million), Simon Mignolet (£9 million) and Mamadou Sakho (£15 million) could be described as relatively successful buys.

Most notable flops include Fabio Borini (£10 million), Joe Allen (£15 million), Luis Alberto (£6.8 million), Iago Aspas (£7 million), Dejan Lovren (£20 million), Lazar Markovic (also £20 million) and the infamous Mario Balotelli (£16 million).

Of that not-so-secret seven, only two (Allen and Lovren) are currently part of the first team squad while Alberto, Markovic and Balotelli have been loaned out to Deportivo, Fenerbache and AC Milan respectively and Borini and Aspas have been sold to the likes of Sunderland and Sevilla.

Klopp is likely to be more astute. At Mainz and Dortmund he has picked up a reputation of signing unwanted or underrated players on the cheap and moulding them into some of the finest talents in the modern game.

Mats Hummels was acquired for Dortmund from Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich for just 4 million Euros, Ilkay Gundogan joined for the same fee from FC Nurnburg and Shinji Kagawa initially moved to the Black and Yellows from native Japanese outfit Cerezo Osaka for a modest 350,000 thousand Euros.

Klopp for the Kop: Could domestic silverware be coming to Anfield soon?

Klopp for the Kop: Could domestic silverware be coming to Anfield soon?

His finest achievements though are the players that left his Dortmund for arch-rivals Bayern.

Mario Gotze, scorer of the goal that won Germany the World Cup last summer, is a product of the BVB youth system and was given his first-team debut by Klopp. Robert Lewandowski, currently on a scoring streak of 15 goals in six games, also became a household name under Liverpool’s new boss after he was prized from Lech Poznan for just 4.5 million Euros.

With the mercurial Klopp at the helm, Liverpool could and should be wiser in the transfer market if the boss is given control and the esteemed youth academy could be used to good effect once again to produce the next Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher that the Merseyside club are crying out for.

What is arguably most important though, as the reaction to his unveiling proved, Klopp has the power, the prestige and presence to unite Liverpool supporters and give them a reason to shout once more.

Rodgers’ appointment led to mixed views, from the young exciting coach who transformed Swansea and to do the same for Liverpool to take them to the next level, to the manager who was inexperienced with a big club and only had a Championship play-off final trophy to his name.

Klopp however has got lips moving, hearts racing and fingers tapping excitedly on keyboards at the prospect of Liverpool becoming great again, to be feared again, and more importantly respected again.

“Liverpool think they’re a big club, but the real big clubs are not too worried about them, who they buy, what they are going to do”, according to Carragher, but now they have Klopp, that might just change.

Mesut Ozil has quietly proved he is the best number ten in the Premier League

Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal arrival in the summer of 2013 created shock waves for fans in north London who felt the £42.5 million acquisition from Real Madrid was a sign of Arsene Wenger finally being a little less tight with the club’s money.

Since then Ozil has been something of a Marmite footballer with some thinking he has been the best thing since slice bread, and the rest being of the opinion that his Premier League future could be toast in the not too distant future.

One major criticism of him is the claim that he goes ‘missing’ in big matches, despite the fact that two of his four league goals last season came in the north London derby with Tottenham and in the home clash against Liverpool as well as two of his seven assists in all club competitions during the 2014-15 campaign coming in the FA Cup Semi-Final win over Reading.

Ozil of course was also superb in Sunday’s 3-0 win over rivals Manchester United, creating one goal and scoring another as the Gunners romped to victory at the Emirates stadium.

David Silva of Manchester City is considered the best number ten by the majority of fans and pundits, and with good reason too as he topped most of the important stats for the required position last season against fellow number tens.

The Spaniard registered seven assists, more than Ozil (five), Phillippe Coutinho (also five) and Juan Mata (four). Oscar contributed more however with eight as Chelsea won the Premier League for the first time in five years.

Silva did create more chances, scored more goals and made more key passes than all of the above though. Ozil created 23 less chances (70) than Silva (93), scored four goals compared to Silva’s 12 and made 21 less key passes (65 to Silva’s 86).

However, Ozil played just 22/38 games whereas Silva featured in ten more and therefore was on a football pitch 781 minutes more than his German compatriot.

Stat off: Ozil vs Silva

Stat off: Ozil vs Silva

If you do the maths, on average, if Ozil played those 781 minutes, his numbers would be higher than Silva’s.

He would have seven assists, level with Silva, 92 key passes, higher than Silva’s 86 and he would have created 99 chances, six more than the ex-Valencia man.

Silva would still top Ozil in the goals stakes. Arsenal’s number 11 would only score one more goal.

It is a similar story if you take his totals from the early stage of the 2015-16 season.

Out of Ozil, Silva, Mata, Coutinho and Oscar, Mata has featured the most with eight matches, having played for 664 minutes.

Mata’s stats for assists, key passes, chances created and goals are three, 13, 16 and three respectively, and he is only the best amongst his fellow centre attacking midfielders at scoring goals – and that is without the average score coming into effect.

City’s Silva is the most efficient assister with six. Ozil has four, Coutinho has two and Oscar does not have any.

Ozil is numero uno (or nummer Eins) in terms of key passes (27) and chances created (31), compared to Silva (ten and 16), Mata (13 and 16), Coutinho (five and seven) and Oscar (three and three).

SQ

Once you calculate all five players to have played as much as Mata, the results are as follows:

Assist king is still Silva with ten, next is Ozil with five, Mata and Coutinho are level on three and Oscar is still stuck on zero (although, in fairness, he probably would have registered at least one if he played another six times).

Again, Ozil is the most creative in terms of key passes and chances created with Silva, Mata, Oscar and Coutinho behind him in that order for both stats.

Mata remains the top scorer too, closely followed by Oscar, Silva, Coutinho and finally Ozil.

Number tens are often judged on their assist totals, and that makes sense, but Ozil is let down in this tally, not for his lack of creating ability (as his key passes and chances created amount prove), but because of the strikers who are supposed to finish off his good work.

At Real Madrid Ozil played behind one of the best forwards and players in the world right now, and that the sport has ever seen, in Cristiano Ronaldo and, failing that, Karim Benzema, a very good striker in most people’s eyes.

During this time in the Spanish capital Ozil racked up 47 assists in three and a bit seasons, whereas his numbers have gone down since he has started playing with a good, but wasteful, pair of attackers in Oliver Giroud and Theo Walcott. If those two could finish as well as Ronaldo, then Ozil would get a lot more assists.

This works in a similar vein to Silva who is fortunate enough to be in the same side as one of, probably the best, centre forward in the Premier League – Sergio Aguero.

If Aguero was up front for Arsenal, Ozil would have a better option in front of him to score the chances he creates, therefore increasing the amount of assists he gets. The point is made often that for this reason Ronaldo makes Ozil look better than he is, potentially valid point, but on the flip-side, surely that means Giroud and/or Walcott could or do make him look worse than many seem to think he is?

Not that it was needed, but that must give Arsenal fans even more reason to want Wenger to splash out on a world class centre forward, to not just get more goals for the FA Cup holders, but to get Ozil the credit he deserves as truly the Premier League’s best number 10 right now.

Fellaini Could be a Useful Striker, Just Not on His Own

Central midfielder Marouane Fellaini was deployed as a makeshift lone striker in Manchester United’s 3-1 win over arch enemy Liverpool last Saturday and was largely ineffective, but he could be useful in that role in the future.

Wayne Rooney’s injury and Louis van Gaal’s reluctance to expose new signing Anthony Martial, the world’s most expensive teenager at £36 million, to a debut start against one of United’s fiercest rivals led to Fellaini’s inclusion up front.

Initially it seemed that van Gaal may have been naïve to offload forwards Javier Hernandez and Robin van Persie this summer to Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen and Fenerbahce of Turkey respectively, but a strong second half performance, including a stunning goal from the aforementioned new boy Martial off the bench, secured the three points for the Red Devils.

The first half at Old Trafford was a tame, tedious and tepid affair that largely reflected an afternoon kick-a-bout at the local park rather than a red hot derby clash that stretches back decades and was once upon a time the encounter that decided titles and trophies.

Fellaini looked isolated up front and through balls were going astray as he simply did and does not have the speed to get to them. The passes were begging out for the pace of Martial to run onto and create goal scoring opportunities, and he probably would have had a lot of joy too, as the Liverpool back four of Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez failed to win a single tackle in the first half.

United were a different team after the interval, they ripped Liverpool apart with three second half goals. Daley Blind’s cultured, curled finish came just five minutes after the break before Ander Herrera’s penalty and Martial’s well taken goal with his first shot in a United shirt finished Brendan Rodgers’ side off after Christian Benteke’s outrageous overhead kick got them back in it at 2-1.

Despite the complete change in United’s display in the second half, Fellaini’s was very much more of the same, as he failed to make an impact and was not involved in any of the goals scored by the home side.

As part of a two though, Fellaini could be a great option as a striker.

Attribute wise, Fellaini would work perfectly as a target man. His six foot, four inch frame makes him a handful for any defender in an aerial sense, and the Belgian does have a reputation for using his elbows, which, although dangerous play and a risky strategy, it did work well for traditional English striker Alan Shearer – the Premier League’s all-time top goal scorer, formerly of Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.

Fellaini and Martial could work in a partnership similar to that of Emile Heskey and Michael Owen for Liverpool in the 2000-2001 campaign that saw the Reds win the treble of the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup (Robbie Fowler played instead of Owen in the League Cup).

Although not renowned for his goal scoring ability, Heskey did net 14 that season, but was most used to link up play and knocking long balls down to Owen which led to the then 21-year-old winning the Ballon d’Or.

Contrary to perception, Fellaini does know where the back of the net is. With 14 goals in 63 caps for the Belgium national team he is the joint 21st record scorer for the side now ranked second in the world. Fellaini has found the back of the net six times in his last four outings in a Belgium shirt.

In the bag: Fellaini scores a spectacular equaliser against West Brom

In the bag: Fellaini scores a spectacular equaliser against West Brom

Goals have come in a large amount for the man who sports a unique afro at club level too. When used as a number 10 at Everton during the 2012-13 season he ended up on the scoresheet on no less than 11 occasions in 31 games. During that campaign he managed to score against the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and current club Manchester United.

He was also United’s joint fourth top scorer last season with six goals, one of which was a fierce piledriver from just inside the box against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns.

If he is given enough game time, Fellaini could even adjust to being a lone striker, but for now van Gaal has to introduce him slowly, using Rooney or Martial as an out-and-out strike partner, otherwise the man signed by David Moyes could well be accused of being a Manchester United flop once again.

If you liked this article and others from BenjaminWillsBlog then you can vote for me in this year’s Football Blogging Awards.

To do so simply follow these links: 

Harry Kane’s Slow Start is no Surprise

He burst onto the scene in October last year and took the Premier League by storm after waiting six years to become an overnight success, but this season Harry Kane is off to a stuttering start, this should be no surprise, however.

Kane scored 21 goals in 34 matches last season, finishing the season as the top English goalscorer as Tottenham ended the campaign in 5th.

Spurs’ star striker was rewarded for his fine form in March with his first senior England call-up and repaid the faith Roy Hodgson showed in him by scoring on his Three Lions debut in the 4-0 win over Lithuania within 80 seconds of replacing captain Wayne Rooney.

Goals dried up for Kane after April, with his hat-trick in the 4-3 win over Leicester on March 21 ironically seeming to be the start of a downfall before his strike at Everton on the last day of the season.

As soon as Tottenham’s season ended, they jetted off to Malaysia to play a local League XI, who Mauricio Pochettino’s men beat 2-1 with Kane scoring both for the English side before they were clocking up the air miles once more, this time flying to Australia to beat Sydney FC 1-0 where Kane again.

Kane scores in Malaysia as he impresses in pre-season

Kane scores in Malaysia as he impresses in pre-season

The U21 European Championship followed three weeks later which Kane, a first-teamer for England, refreshingly put himself forward for where others have felt the under-21s have been beneath them.

England and Kane were lackluster, however, only two goals were scored in the three games played with Kane failing to find the back of the net.

Tottenham’s pre-season friendlies for 2015-16 started on July 29 with a 2-1 defeat to MLS All-Stars (Kane scored Tottenham’s goal), but more travelling for the north Londoners, this time to Munich for the Audi Cup, took its toll on the 22-year-old.

Real Madrid beat last year’s League Cup runners up 2-0, but they responded with a 2-0 win of their own against AC Milan, with Kane failing to score in both games.

Pochettino has already admitted the long pre-season has left his star “tired”, and his failure to sign a striker over the summer has led to him rushing Kane back.

Two bids for West Brom’s Saido Berahino have already been rejected and if Tottenham do not secure his, or someone else’s signature soon, they could be forced to keep burn out a talent whose career is only just starting.