With only three or four games left in the Premier League season depending on which side you are following, things are starting to get serious! The title race looks all set to go down to the wire, while the relegation battle appears closer than many thought possible just a few weeks ago. Cardiff and Brighton appear the two sides most immediately in danger of claiming 18th and the final relegation place, though Southampton are not yet mathematically safe. Title contenders Liverpool and Man City both have games where you would fancy them to win, with City’s arguably the slightly tougher game. With that said, let’s go for a 4-3-3 again and see which players are worth keeping an eye on and including in your fantasy squads this weekend.
When a weekend of Premier League action sees some unusually uniform results, it can be difficult to choose a “Game of the Weekend” from the bunch, and depends largely on your criteria. Perhaps Southampton’s 1-0 win at Brighton stands out for you, if for no other reason than it was the only game with less than two goals. If you are a fan of Crystal Palace or Leicester then no doubt you would have been pleased to see your beloved side record a home win, or maybe Everton fans could be the happiest as they won away from home with a clean sheet at West Ham – the only side other than Man City to do so. Of course, if a game could have more of an impact on the progressing season, there can surely be little argument that Liverpool taking on Spurs tops the bill.
This weekend’s Premier League action has one or two tasty fixtures coming at a great time, with arguably the match of the round closing out the weekend’s proceedings when Arsenal take on Manchester United at the Emirates in Sunday’s 4.30pm kickoff. Conversely, getting things underway with the Saturday lunchtime kickoff will be Crystal Palace hosting rivals Brighton at Selhurst Park. With the exception of Man City taking on Watford on Saturday and Chelsea hosting Wolves on Sunday, just about every other game sees a top-half side taking on a bottom-half side, and so there could be one or two surprises in store for fans attending a game in England’s top-flight this weekend.
Injuries to key players in Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham side couldn’t have come at a worse time for the north Londoners.
If losing Dele Alli wasn’t bad enough, to hear that Christian Eriksen, Serge Aurier, Jan Verthongen and Moussa Dembele were out too would likely have sent even the most optimistic Spurs fan into meltdown.
Our match of the weekend goes to a weekday game at Old Trafford which featured Tottenham Hotspur slipping into an interesting dimension of youthful spirit and togetherness waltzing with mature English grit and determination that has many Lillywhite loyalists dismissing the perception of a two-legged title race. A back four of Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, and Rose did the job as well as was needed, keeping a clean sheet away from home and earning a boatload of points between them.
Further up in the midfield, buyers of Christian Eriksen will rejoice as he puts some much needed returns on the board, assisting the first of Lucas Moura’s goals. Dembele rejoined the starting 11, seeing his stock increase with the first clean sheet of Spur’s season. Elsewhere, Dele Alli’s number of goal celebration finger displays has now outpaced his goal tally, even though he had a few chances of his own, including a gilt-edge one on one with De Gea who was out of goal.
However the real winners of this week’s Fantasy EPL round were the owners of a diminutive and unproven Brazilian, unto whom the always-vindicated manager of Tottenham Hotspur granted a third consecutive start. Lucas repaid his manager’s trust by taking some of the strain off the shoulders of the normal star man, letting Kane know there would be no need to stay late at the office that night.
He put the poorly-constructed United back line to the sword and finished with a brace. If you haven’t watched his second goal, do yourself a favor; it hearkens back to a time of static center-halves stumbling over their feet trying to stop the speedy superstars of years gone by. More importantly however, it hearkens back to a time when a select group of fantasy managers spent 7 million on an unproven goal-scorer, and were rewarded with a point haul which places the young Brazilian among the best in the league so far.
On the other side, one noticed some obvious and much needed changes from the Brighton game among Manchester United’s starting lineup. Jose opted not to stick with what he bought, but rather what was there when he arrived – replacing Lindelof and Bailly with Jones and Smalling. I’ll admit I thought Smalling did a good job of marshaling the obvious threat of Kane during what was a resilient first half for United, who looked on the whole, from Smalling, through Pogba, and up to Lukaku as if they were really trying to turn the ship around.
Unfortunately for those who picked the ladder, he missed or was denied every opportunity the enterprising United left-flank provided him. Owners of Luke Shaw, who started brightly at Leicester on the opening weekend, might be puzzled to see the lack of points he accumulated during his third consecutive ninety minute spell. But as unfortunate as the United attack proved, woe unto those who selected the ragged defensive unit which Mourinho trotted out onto the field, who were bested and bullied for most of the second half by the aforementioned tactful and mature Lost Boys of north London.
Manchester United in the meanwhile seem rooted as firmly as ever in the post-Ferguson limbo they’ve been in for years now. Jose Mourinho, who once had players breaking down walls for him, can’t quite get the best from a group who shouldn’t look this mediocre. I don’t blame Jose for anything more than the football, but even concerning that, it must be an immense challenge when such a giant chunk of world football fans are wondering whether or not you will get the sack before Christmas.
Navigating the waters of the Manchester United squad in relation to lineups and who might score or provide from here on out is above my pay-grade you understand, so I can’t offer much advice for those looking to try. Away from home at Burnley is not an ideal place to start silencing the already enormous amount of critics, but the Special One needs some results to get the fan’s support back – and the quicker the better.
It was a tumultuous summer for Manchester United with a dreadful pre-season outing in America as well as a troubled time in the transfer window. After failing to get their top targets to the club, the Red Devils have started the new Premier League campaign without players that José Mourinho made abundantly clear he wanted.
You need to go back five years to understand where the chaos behind the scenes has started from. When Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, the club were always going to be appointing a manager that was inferior – there was no getting away from that. But where United have struggled so much is the fact that they never truly replaced David Gill’s role at the club. Gill, who now is the UK vice-president of FIFA, ran his post as the club’s chief executive so excellently and quietly that not many knew who he was; he was always a peripheral figure at Manchester United that excelled in tandem with Ferguson, working side by side.
Since Ferguson and Gill’s departures at United, the club has, quite devastatingly, taken a downturn in overall performances. Whether it is David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Mourinho, managers are finding it increasingly difficult to get United back to the top of the football food chain – a place where Ferguson dominated from.
Ed Woodward, the current executive vice-chairman and person who runs the day-to-day operations, has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. Overseeing recruitment and personnel, Woodward is also tasked with managing the job he is best suited to: bringing in commercial partners and sponsors to further revenues of the club. There are few in world football who can do what Woodward can do commercially, but that does not mean he can build and mould a world-class squad.
Last summer can only be described as a farce. After bringing in just three players: Fred, from Shakhtar Donetsk, Lee Grant, from Stoke City as a third choice goalkeeper, and Diogo Dalot, from FC Porto and a right back for the future, United have left themselves short going into this season. More was needed to be done.
Mourinho wanted an experienced centre back to partner with Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf throughout this season. Bailly and Lindelöf, both 24-years-old, are still relatively inexperienced operating at the highest level.
With the Ivory Coast international’s injury problems, he cannot be trusted to complete a full season and become the rock United so desperately need in the heart of their defence. Lindelöf, who had teething problems last season, is a great talent, but certainly needs to be playing in a defence where there is a natural born leader to guide him. None of this is rocket science, given their still youthful ages for the position they play in, but Woodward was reluctant to give the green light to who the Portuguese manager wanted.
Mourinho, quite clearly, wanted Toby Alderweireld from Tottenham all summer long. Given the Belgian’s contract has a clause in it which says he can leave for £25 million next summer (2019), Spurs were open to negotiating a fair price for the world-class centre half. That quoted fee was around £50 million for one of the best defenders in the world. Woodward, in the end, made the decision that, given he was turning 30 throughout the season, Alderweireld would not be worth the money.
Alderweireld was not the only candidate for the position, but Woodward decided against bringing in another central defender until Mourinho moved one of his four on. The position was integral to Mourinho’s plans this season, but it was not the only area that was in need of strengthening. Left back remains an issue given Luke Shaw’s inconsistency and Ashley Young’s longevity, but a move for Juventus’ Alex Sandro was abandoned early on in the summer.
The other position was right wing. Possibly the perfect target for United was Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez, who was eventually snapped up by Manchester City instead. The Algerian possesses the qualities that United so desperately long for: a player who can remain on the right and not constantly cut inside and take up space from the midfielders and strikers. Mahrez is a fantastic dribbler and has the speed needed to give the left back a troublesome time – something Juan Mata, who has been forced wide ever since joining the club in 2014, does not have in his locker.
With tensions rising between Woodward and Mourinho, the need for either a Director of Football or a Technical Director has never been higher. The executive vice-chairman has briefed to the English press that the club are searching for someone to fill the void, but it seems slightly bemusing that they had the perfect candidate in Javier Ribalta, who has just joined Zenit Saint Petersburg as Sporting Director, and yet decided to let him go.
Perhaps it is a PR stunt from Woodward to ease the pressure off him and get fans to focus on that, but the decision, if they go through with it, seems to have been made because of public pressure rather than Woodward coming up with the idea himself. Everything at the club seems reactionary right now and without prior thought.
Manchester United simply have to bridge the gap between Mourinho and Woodward. The likes of Monchi, of Roma, Edwin van der Saar, of Ajax, and Andrea Berta, of Atlético Madrid, have been talked about, but United need to make the right decision and get them on board as soon as possible.
It is testing times for the the Red Devils at the moment, but the season has just begun and there is still plenty of positives out there. United fans have to keep the faith and hope the board come to their senses and start resolving some of the problems.
Tottenham Hotspur chairman Daniel Levy has reportedly taken up the FA’s option for Spurs to remain at Wembley Stadium until 2019, delaying the opening of their new White Hart Lane ground amid “construction concerns”. The news will come as a blow to the club who were hoping to play the first game at their new stadium against Liverpool in a shade over a month’s time, and for the time being only the next two matches – and an NFL game scheduled for the venue in October. The home games against the Reds and Cardiff have been relocated to the national team’s stadium, though some reports indicate that Spurs paid a “significant amount of money” for the option to remain at the ground “for a small number of Premier League and Champions League group games”.
Some of you may be sat there wondering why selling one of the best centre-backs in the league is even up for debate. However, it is a debate that must be heard this summer by the Spurs’ hierarchy.
Tottenham have been consistent top four finishers in the last few seasons, this is despite their spending not even touching the surfaces of what the likes of the Manchester clubs and Liverpool have been dishing out. Huge credit must go to Mauricio Pochettino, on a tight budget he has built a formidable spine that is comparable to any other spine in the league. One key factor to the success Spurs have enjoyed has been their solid line of defence. For all the plaudits the likes of Harry Kane will have received, the centre-back pairing of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen deserve just as much praise with the Belgian pair distinguishing themselves as one of the best centre-back pairings in Europe over the last few years.
So, it begs the question, why on earth would Spurs be looking to break up such a successful pairing? Why would they want to sell a player who has established himself as one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League? To a rival no less! Unfortunately for Spurs, the situation isn’t anywhere near as clear-cut as they would like it to be. The Belgian centre-half has a contract that is set to run out. The player himself has rejected a new contract at the club and has made it clear that he wants to move on. This and the added pressure of a widely reported £25M release clause being present next summer has left Spurs in a very difficult situation. On one hand, they want to keep a player who has been pivotal to the team in the last few years. Manchester United are said to be the club most keen on signing the defender, this only complicates the situation further for Spurs. Do they really want to strengthen one of their rivals? What type of message would that be sending to the likes of Harry Kane. No matter how you dress it up, losing Kyle Walker and Toby Alderweireld in back-to-back summers to the Manchester clubs will not go down well with the stars at Spurs. At the same time, fans will rightfully question if the club truly have made any progress at all in comparison to the side who sold Berbatov and Carrick to Manchester United in the past.
Looking at it from a purely footballing perspective, although Alderweireld is rightfully considered one of the league’s best, Spurs have demonstrated that they can survive without him. The Belgian made a mere 13 Premier League starts last season. Despite this, Spurs still managed to secure a top 3 finish in the league, with only the two Manchester clubs ending the season with a superior defensive record. A large part of this was down to the performances of new signing Davinson Sanchez. The club’s record-signing impressed largely throughout the season. Alderweireld’s absence was hardly mentioned throughout the season much to Sanchez’s credit. The 22-year-old Colombian has shown he is more than capable of stepping into the big shoes of Toby Alderweireld. And with his best years still ahead of him, in comparison to Alderweireld who is approaching 30, perhaps accepting a big money offer for the Belgian centre-half wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world after-all.
Something Spurs will be keen to avoid, is to keep an unhappy player on the books for an entire season. To then see him leave for less than half the price at £25M. Selling one of your star players is never a positive thing to do for any club that has intentions to challenge at the very top. However, given the situation that Spurs find themselves in, selling Alderweireld is perhaps the best course of action for the North-Londoners. Should they sell him this summer they will be set to receive a premium price in upwards of £60 million pounds. Should they wait until next season, they would likely lose him for a fraction of the price at £25M. However, there is a small chance that Alderweireld could in-fact make a u-turn on his future and commit to the club. Should this opportunity be presented to the club, it would no doubt be the best possible outcome for Pochettino and his men. However, the likelihood is that this will not happen, the player has made his intentions very clear and it is unlikely we will see any type of u-turn occur.
Despite all this, Spurs will rightfully only sell the player should they receive what they deem to be an ‘appropriate offer.’ In a time where we have only recently seen Liverpool shell out £75M for Virgil Van Dijk, Spurs could be forgiven for looking for a similar fee for their centre-half. If reports are to be believed, the sticking point for any potential move to United has been the fee. However, with Sky Sports along with many other sources reporting that Manchester United are prepared to offer almost £65 Million for Maguire, Spurs will feel they rightly should be able to command just as much for Alderweireld, if not more. It remains to be seen whether Alderweireld will indeed leave the club this summer and it is more than likely that the saga could drag on till deadline day. However, one thing that is for sure, is that Spurs have shown they can survive without Toby Alderweireld.
Vincent Van Genechten, armed with his extensive knowledge of Belgian football, is back again to discuss in Part III of our Q & A the Belgian national team’s prospects ahead of the World Cup next summer.
Q1) How far do you expect Belgium to go in Russia 2018? Can Belgium reach the World Cup semi-final?
The Red Devils enjoyed a very successful qualification campaign, racing through their group while scoring a large number of goals. They must be one of the favorites, right? Well, that is where it gets tricky. On paper, Belgium has all the quality players to lift that prestigious World Cup trophy. Looking at the squad list, which other country has a world class goalkeeper such as Thibaut Courtois, an elite defender as Toby Alderweireld, an assist-machine in the form of midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and a difference maker like forward Eden Hazard at the disposal of is manager? Believe me, not that many… Continue reading