West Ham face season-defining trip to Newcastle

West Ham are level on points with Newcastle – their opponents this Saturday – and only four points above the bottom three. There has been plenty to be positive about as a Hammer of late, yet the table does not make happy reading.

If results go against them, West Ham could be precariously positioned above the relegation zone by Monday. Manuel Pellegrini’s team are not exactly cut adrift, though they are already six points off the top half. They are closer to 20th then they are 10th.

This is not the group of teams the Hammers were meant to be in. Sure, it’s early and a couple of results can flip it all on its head, but this is a disappointing start. A favourable run of fixtures up to Christmas are an opportunity to turn this around – they do not face a top six side until they play Arsenal on 12th January.

Having drawn away to Huddersfield and been thrashed by Manchester City, Saturday’s clash with Newcastle is a big one. A win against the resurgent Magpies would set the tone for December. A defeat or poor performance would increase the pressure for the upcoming visits of Cardiff and Crystal Palace.

The Hammers might not be at relegation threat in the minds of many. Their performances and quality in the final third make that understandable, though they will be in as much trouble as anyone if December does not start as hoped. Their contest with Rafael Benitez’s side could be a turning point for Pellegrini’s men.

Newcastle have put together three straight one-goal victories. They have ridden their luck in each match, but this is kind of what we expect from them. Benitez was always going to find a way to pick up points. In contrast, West Ham have perhaps not quite got the results that their displays have warranted. Taking just one point from trips to Brighton and Huddersfield was a disappointment.

For all the fun of Marko Arnautovic and Felipe Anderson, West Ham lack guile at times. Arnautovic needs service and too often he has to live off scraps from Pedro Obiang, Declan Rice and Mark Noble. They had a tonne of possession against Brighton and Huddersfield and, while they created chances, they should have done more with the amount of the game they had.

Newcastle will follow a similar game plan to their fellow second season teams. Benitez’s side have been far from secure at the back in their last three, but they have been a threat when able to transition quickly. Salomon Rondon holds the ball up and links play well, while Matt Ritchie and Kenedy are capable of causing problems down the flanks.

This is going to be a test for West Ham. Winning on the break like they did against Everton and Manchester United is one thing, but they still have to prove they can beat teams who will sit deeper and let them have possession. If Pellegrini is to take the club to the top-half/top-eight promised land, these are matches West Ham need to make a habit of winning.

The coming weeks will give us a clear idea of what West Ham are this season. How they get on at St James’ Park might just pick their path for the rest of 2018.

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Craven Cottage clash is one of the biggest matches of the season

It is a rare occurrence that no Premier League manager loses their job until mid-November. Fulham broke that run when they fired Slavisa Jokanovic before the international break and replaced him with former Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri.

Ranieri’s first match as Fulham manager is against Mark Hughes. Hughes was one of the sack race favourites and with good reason. In 20 Premier League matches since he took over, Southampton have won just three times. Saints have lost 10 over that period, with the draw probably saving Hughes’ job up until now. They have scored just 16 goals and conceded 33.

Hughes saved the south coast club from the drop last season. It is almost tradition that a manager who avoids relegation on a short-term deal is given a new contract. Southampton did not break such a rich Premier League tradition, though perhaps history suggests they should have done. Short-term results earning a longer deal might seem fair, but it all too often results in a cycle of mid-season hiring and firing (just ask Sunderland fans).

Southampton are far from playing perfect football, yet there’s an argument they have been unfortunate. They are massively underperforming their expected goals. This may be because of stupendous goalkeeping, but – as anyone who has watched Southampton this season will know – this is largely down to poor finishing. Hughes’ selection is to blame for this in part. Even so, Southampton should have scored more than the eight they have managed so far.

At the other end of the pitch things have not been great either. Southampton’s 21 conceded is far from the worst record in the league (this weekend’s opponents have conceded 10 more), and there have been improvements of late, but only Fulham, Brighton and Burnley have a higher non-penalty expected goals against.

Stoke’s defence got gradually worse under Hughes. Southampton’s back line looks similarly flimsy. The combination of wasting chances and leaking goal scoring opportunities is not a good one.

Hughes is a man under pressure. Failure to beat Watford or Newcastle at home in his last two might have put him into must-win territory. Away days in west London and Leicester in their next two are crucial before they face Manchester United and Tottenham.

This weekend’s clash at Craven Cottage is obviously huge for Fulham and Ranieri too. Fulham have lost every match they have played since 25th September and play Chelsea after this one. It’s hardly panic stations at this time of year, but they will be wary of being cut adrift as they are already three points off safety.

Victory this weekend, on the other hand, would put Fulham level on points with 17th-placed Southampton. The gloomy days of Jokanovic’s final weeks in the job would be almost forgotten.

Hughes walked a tightrope for months at Stoke, and he’s mastering it again at Southampton. Defeat this weekend, however, could be the final straw.

With points tallies very low in the bottom-half of the table this season, the idea of a must-win match in November is bizarre. This is about as close as it gets for Southampton, though, and a positive start against a rival is invaluable for Ranieri before a tougher run of fixtures.

Four points separate the bottom seven teams. The head-to-head matches will go a long way to deciding which teams remains in the Premier League. With hope filling the west London air, this is about as tough a start as it could have been for Ranieri. Expectation against a fellow relegation candidate is a more important, more daunting task than the relative relaxation of avoiding humiliation against a top six side.

We might not have started our advent calendars and are not yet a third of the way through the season, but this is one of the biggest matches of the Premier League campaign to date.

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Celebration of Rooney’s underwhelming career is the perfect reminder of how far England have come

Wayne Rooney’s grand farewell at Wembley on Thursday night split opinion. Things that are out of the ordinary tend to, and a return special appearance of this ilk had not been seen for an England international.

It gave extra meaning to a match played in front of thousands of empty seats, it gave Rooney a last ovation (well, several of them) from the fans who saw him at his best and worst in a Three Lions jersey.

The match itself was a bit of a damp squib. A young USA team was no match for even England’s second string, which allowed Rooney to enjoy a relaxed spell on the pitch in the second half.

His international career ends with 120 caps and 53 goals. No other England international has scored more. Rooney won the England Men’s Senior Player of the Year on four occasions and captained his country numerous times. All of these things are impressive, and he will be remembered for a long time as a very good, committed England international.

The numbers are impressive, but Rooney’s international career was ultimately forgettable.

Some of that is down to the immense hype as a teenager, some is down to team failings. The now 33-year-old served the national team for a long time, his durability as impressive as his records. In those 120 appearances, though, aside of the landmarks, there is a lack of defining moments (positive ones, at least). Rooney never had his Beckham against Greece free-kick, he never had his Owen against Argentina wonder goal.

A lot of that was out of his hands. Injuries and dysfunctional teams limited his effectiveness, particularly as managers could never seem to decide where he slotted into the side best of all. Rooney suffered alongside the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard midfield mess – he was seldom allowed the freedom that he perhaps needed.

Rooney’s grand goodbye on Thursday might have been over the top for some. There’s plenty to criticise about Rooney’s international career, but he was available for England more than many others and his numbers secure him a place in England’s history. The timing of this, however, was perfect as Southgate’s younger, better England move onto the next chapter.

It might have all been about Rooney, but good performances from Jadon Sancho and Callum Wilson were just another reminder of the bright future of England’s national team. Moving on from the awkwardly named Golden Generation has understandably taken time. Rooney’s night under the arch was a full stop to an era of disappointment.

England’s performances since their World Cup heartbreak have shown that their journey to the semi-final will/should not be the peak of this generation. Southgate might not have players with the reputations of Rooney, Lampard or Gerrard, but he has a lot of talent and a clear plan.

Rooney deserved his big night. His England career, though, could look even more disappointing in a few years if the Three Lions continue on this trajectory.

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Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson is set for a special season

Callum Wilson was named in Gareth Southgate’s England squad this week. The 26-year-old striker has started the campaign in a rich vein of form, and few can question whether he is deserving of his first international call-up.

The furore ahead of the international break has centred around Wayne Rooney. The critics of the Rooney show against the USA next week suggested that it is unfair, and that it could take the opportunity of another, more deserving player. Hopefully Wilson’s selection has, somewhat at least, proved that wrong.

Wilson is making a massive step in his career, in a career that has been so cruelly blighted by injuries. Since starring in Bournemouth’s promotion campaign in 2014/15, he has started just 59 Premier League matches. In the Cherries’ first two seasons in the top flight, their main striker managed just 25 starts.

That fact reflects how well Eddie Howe did to keep Bournemouth up (and comfortably for the most part). It also shows us the struggles Wilson had to go through as injury lay-off after lay-off held back his career. He was an exciting young player in the Championship. His chance to light up the Premier League has been delayed, but he is finally realising that promise we saw back in 2014 and 2015, when he scored 20 goals and assisted seven.

Wilson is benefitting from being in a good Bournemouth side. Sure, they have had relatively a favourable schedule (they have only played two top six sides and lost both of them), but they are doing Bournemouth things.

The Cherries are a fun side to watch and always will be under Howe. The freedom they play with makes them a threat to anyone. They can outscore their mid-table peers, in part down to Howe’s approach, in part down to the quality of Wilson and his teammates.

A striker’s hot streak is often down to superb finishing. Wilson’s case is different. According to understat’s expected goals, Wilson is underperforming this season. His xG is 7.49, but he has scored just six. A couple of six-yard box shots were saved which counts for a big chunk of that. The key, though, is that Wilson is getting chances at a rate only bettered by Alvaro Morata, Jamie Vardy, Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah (of those who have played over 400 Premier League minutes).

Getting chances – as Harry Kane’s career shows – is the real skill. Playing in an attacking team aids that, of course, but getting as many shots inside the box as Wilson has had is an achievement. If Bournemouth can keep this up – and they have a good shot at finishing in the top eight – Wilson has a chance at 20 league goals this term.

His creativity has been key too. Bournemouth give Wilson plenty of support in the final third, and he’s shown his ability to link play with the runners. He is creating chances at a similar rate to Leroy Sane and making the same number of key passes per match as Paul Pogba. The combination of finding his own shot and making the right decision to create for his teammates is a special one.

Wilson’s England call-up has come later in his career than expected. At 26, though, time is still on his side and, in Southgate and Howe, he has the ideal pair of managers to turn this good start into a stellar season.

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Harry Winks is the future for Spurs and England

Harry Winks was kept to under 800 Premier League minutes last season due to injury. The 22-year-old midfielder had impressed in his brief career, but an absence of that length impacts any footballer, particularly at a key age for development.

Winks had become an integral cog for Tottenham and was edging towards an England starting berth. His return from injury was capped by an impressive display in England’s historic 3-2 win away to Spain during the international break. Gareth Southgate’s decision to call up Winks might be seen as premature – he has started just four matches this season – but it is a reflection of how valued the youngster is by the England manager.

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Arsenal’s Unai Emery is very fortunate not to be under pressure already

Positivity is as high as it has been in years at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal have won six straight in the Premier League and are two from two in the Europa League.

After a difficult introduction to the job, Unai Emery has the Gunners flying high. Arsenal are a mere two points off the top of the table and currently occupy a top four spot – albeit on goal difference – ahead of their north London rivals.

The results only tell part of the story. Arsenal have not been playing like a title-contending side. Defensively, they have been vulnerable. Going forward they have got goals, but it’s not been the fluent, chance creating feasts we see from Liverpool or Manchester City.

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Ross Barkley can offer something England have lacked in midfield

Maurizio Sarri believes it is time for Ross Barkley to get back into the England squad, “I think he can return to the national team. He is improving week by week.”

Barkley agreed with his manager, he said, “I’m playing a big role in the side at the minute and I believe my performances show I’m capable of being in the England squad.”

Barkley spent the majority of last season recovering from a serious injury. Sarri, even in his first few weeks as Chelsea manager, has shown more interest in the former Everton man than Antonio Conte did last term. Barkley started the Community Shield, has appeared in six of Chelsea’s Premier League matches and played the full 90 minutes as Chelsea beat PAOK in their opening Europa League group match.

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Southgate opts for potential and talent over form, and that can only be a positive for England

Gareth Southgate’s new contract keeping him as England manager until 2022 was announced on Thursday. In the same press conference, Southgate named his 25-man England squad for the upcoming Nations League matches against Spain and Croatia.

In keeping with all of his tenure to date, Southgate backed the youngsters. Jadon Sancho, James Maddison and Mason Mount were all selected, with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard out injured.

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Arsenal are playing a very risky game with Aaron Ramsey


Aaron Ramsey’s contract negotiations have stalled, and it looks likely that the Welsh midfielder will leave Arsenal either in January or at the end of the season, when his current deal expires. According to David Ornstein, Ramsey and Arsenal had agreed on a new four-year contract, but the club recently withdrew it.

We might never know if this had anything to do with Ivan Gazidis’ recent departure. It’s pretty much irrelevant if it did or not, but it does represent a significant risk for the club, particularly when Ramsey has so clearly been an integral part of Unai Emery’s plans.

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Aubameyang and Lacazette are no more than a short-term fix for Unai Emery

Fitting two players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang  and Alexandre Lacazette into a team is a problem most managers can only dream of. They boasted superb goal scoring records for Borussia Dortmund and Lyon respectively prior to teaming up in north London.

Either striker walks into the starting line-up of at least 14 Premier League teams. That number would be even higher in several other European leagues. Quality, and multiple options in a similar position, causes problems for managers, though. It can be difficulty with balancing the side or troubles keeping players happy, but, whatever it is, it’s seldom easy.

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