Arsenal’s defensive problems cost them again

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This week was always going to be a relatively testing one for Arsenal, as they faced Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. However, only the most pessimistic among the Gunners faithful will have predicted things would go this badly.

After losing 3-2 against Crystal Palace last Sunday, it will have been presumed by many that Arsenal would improve this week- especially as they are still in with a chance of getting their first top four finish since the 2015/16 campaign. However, the Crystal Palace performance was replicated defensively in this week’s two games, as they lost 3-1 and then 3-0 against Wolves and Leicester respectively.

The three goals conceded against Wolves all came in the first half, as Ruben Neves scored in the 28th minute, Matt Doherty netted in the 31st before Diogo Jota rounded things off during injury time. Arsenal were able to get a consolation -ironically through a defender- as Sokratis Papastathopoulos got on the score sheet in the 80th minute.

The Gunners made two defensive changes ahead of the Leicester game, as Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac replaced Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal. However, while the Gunners didn’t concede in the first half, they did damage their chances in the early stages once again. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was sent off, in the 38th minute, for a second bookable offence when he slid in on James Maddison.

Youri Tielemans struck the first blow for Leicester in the 59th minute, before a late double from Jamie Vardy made the scoreline look more convincing. Both of Vardy’s goals could arguably have been avoided, as defensive lapses played their part in giving him the chances.

That Arsenal are still struggling at the back, at this stage of the season, will be a source of great frustration for Unai Emery. There have been some brilliant and resolute performances from a defensive point of view, such as the away leg against Napoli, but this type of performance hasn’t come on anywhere near a consistent enough basis.

What will encourage the manager and his players though, is that despite these and other problems Arsenal have endured this campaign, they are still in with a hope of securing Champions League football for next season. They will travel to Valencia on Thursday for the first of their two semi final legs, to get within one match of the Europa League title- and the automatic Champions League place which comes with it.

Obtaining it through the league also still isn’t out of the question, especially after Chelsea drew with Manchester United following Arsenal’s defeat to Leicester. The Gunners’ two remaining Premier League fixtures come against Brighton and Hove Albion and Burnley, two games which are winnable on paper. If they get victory in both of these matches and Chelsea slip up against Watford or Leicester, Arsenal will go above them and into fourth (though that is dependant on goal difference if one of Chelsea’s results is a draw).

Having Champions League football at The Emirates is still a realistically achievable goal for Arsenal, though they will have to sort their defensive woes if they are to obtain it.

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EPL Weekend Picks – Week 34

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This weekend’s Premier League will see the season continuing to take shape as, with just a few games to go, there is still a wide open title race and only one relegation spot left to fill. Liverpool leapfrogged Man City back into top spot last weekend, but the Citizens have a game in hand – just how much of a say will Chelsea and Crystal Palace have on Sunday against the top two? Palace host City while Chelsea travel to Liverpool and so there could well be more twists and turns in this title race yet. Towards the bottom of the table, already-relegated Huddersfield and Fulham both have tricky fixtures, with the Terriers at Tottenham while Fulham host Everton. Let’s take on a 4-3-3 here and see which players will fancy their chances.

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Wolves 2-1 Man Utd: Top four hopes are starting to run away from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United had a big chance to go into top three spots for the first time since the start of the season, with their next fixture being against Wolves, a side that are in the top half of the table and have produced several huge results against the league’s top-six this term.

Looking at it as a whole, United created a few big chances in the first half and dominated the possession of the ball for majority of the game, but still went on to only score once throughout the whole match. Meanwhile, Wolves defended confidently in their own half and were able to use the man advantage to their extent, when Ashley Young was sent off in the 57th minute of the contest.

The Red Devils took the lead through Scott McTominay, who scored his first Premier League goal for United as his well-taken shot somehow went past Rui Patricio and into the back of the net. However, the hosts equalised and cancelled out the visitor’s lead in 12 minutes, with a tidy finish from Diogo Jota following a lack of communication from the likes of Ashley Young, David De Gea and Fred.

Things went from bad to worse for the visitors in the second half, as Young’s red card led Solskjaer with no choice but to bring off Fred, to allow defender Phil Jones to enter the pitch in order to gain stability. Not long after that, Wolves were on their way to a comeback, as a counterattack led through the flanks ended with an unsurprising mistake from De Gea whilst Chris Smalling drifted the ball slowly into the net.

Here are the three valuable factors we learnt from Manchester United’s latest league game…

Big chances missed in the first half

United had the perfect start to the game at the Mollineux Stadium, right up until the equaliser from Diogo Jota, where they were enjoying the ball on both sides of the pitch and were progressing into the opposition’s half through the middle and the flanks. A few minutes into the game, Romelu Lukaku had the perfect chance to score from an inch-perfect cross by Diogo Dalot, which was unfortunately headed straight at the keeper.

On the other hand, Jesse Lingard also had a good cross from the left flank and opted to head the ball towards goal, which took the pace and height off the ball before it reached towards the defender and the goalkeeper. With these two big chances, United would have had a comfortable and straightforward 2-0 or 3-0 lead before Jota had scored, allowing the side to not drop momentum going into the half-time break.

The big game players in David De Gea and Paul Pogba seemed distracted

When it comes to intense fixtures like these and ones that can play a major role in finishing in the top four, one would expect the main key players in the team to lead by example and to help restore confidence and faith into the team. Though, this was not done at all by David De Gea and Paul Pogba, two individuals who were not at their best and have been below par in recent weeks whilst the rest have been lacking badly too.

For sure, both players are seen as the club’s two main assets on and off the pitch, and they may be linked with the likes of Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, but they have not done enough to show why they deserved a massive contract extension. The duo may feel uninterested with the club’s lack of ambitions, but they cannot be lacking professionally at this stage of the season.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a massive task from now till the end of the season

Just under a week ago, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was over the moon as he received the news that he has become Manchester United’s permanent manager for the next three years. However, he will feel the hardest part of the job will be now, as he just about beat Watford on the weekend and has now suffered a defeat to Wolves, which leaves them in fifth-place as Arsenal and Spurs have a game in hand to play very shortly.

Having a quick look at the fixtures remaining, the Red Devils have to still face the likes of Chelsea, Everton and Manchester City in the league whilst going head-to-head against Barcelona in the Champions League. With how the circumstances have changed and how quick and fast the matches are coming, it seems very unlikely that Manchester United will go on to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

Ownership: Wolves believe they are the best of the rest in the Premier League

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As the Premier League reaches week 31 all eyes are on the battle between Manchester City and Liverpool as just one point separates the two teams for the league title. Then there is the chase for the top 4, with just three points the difference between three teams. There is a lot to play for. And then we have 7th place and Wolverhampton Wanderers. and this is the club we will focus on this week.

Wolves have really punched above their weight this season with some excellent results and once we take out the top 6 ‘elite’ teams we seem to have another league within a league. And if we believe that then we can see that Wolves are leading it- and not many pundits or fans could have predicted that at the beginning of the season.

What has made Wolves progress this season even more remarkable is that they are newly promoted from the Championship and this is their first season in the top flight since 2012.

A lot of the praise has gone to the owners who recruited the Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo. The 45 year old guided the team to first place in the Championship but he hasn’t stopped there. With the help of chairman Jeff Shi Wolves are breaking all expectations and there is a feeling that England could well get 7th place as a Europa League qualifying as long as one of the big teams can win the FA Cup.

Shi and Santo realised quickly that the club would need to completely reshape after promotion to arguably the most competitive league in the world, certainly Europe and brought in 20 players to the squad even though they had done so well in the Championship the need to do better was recognised and adopted.

Santo also used his connections to being in loans, which has paid dividends. One such player who has come in and lit the place up is Raul Jimenez who was brought in from Benfica.  Nine players were sold on, with most being for undisclosed fees and to lighten the squad up another 30 players were loaned out, Wolves potentially had the biggest overall squad in the league and it was clear that Santo needed to work with a group that he believed could achieve what he set out to do in the Premier League.

There have been some inspired buys from the club. Notably Diogo Jota who first arrived in the Championship on loan from Atletico Madrid, he was bought for proper last summer and he has scored 23 times for the club in under two seasons. Joao Moutinho has been able to shore up defence and comes with bags of experience and Rui Patrico a club legend at Sporting in Portugal has guarded between the sticks as clubs regular goalkeeper.

The result has been quite incredible as the team have won 12 games this season and at home they have lost just 35% of their games claiming 24 points from 45. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Wolves, but it was never going to be. But if the club can finish in 7th place it would be a fantastic achievement for a club that many thought might finish 10 places below that at the beginning of the season.

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EPL Game of the Weekend – Bournemouth vs Wolves

bournemouthvswolvesWith a host of games in the Premier League seeing plenty of entertaining action as well as goals in all but one of the games, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that the game of the weekend in this case should be a 1-1 draw, but when Wolves travelled down south to Dean Court to take on Bournemouth the spectacle on display was anything but a dull affair. Penalties, plenty of controversy and an unscheduled water display ensured that fans attending Bournemouth’s ground were well entertained to say the least. If former Gladiators referee John Anderson were addressing entertainment in general, he would have said “you will go on my first whistle…..”

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Wolves have been nothing short of spectacular in the Premier League this season

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Such is the gulf between teams in the Premier League now that it has been referred in the past to a three leagues in one. First you have the elite six teams who always seem to sprint away from the middle pack and create their very own league. From about 13th place to 20th you have the bottom clubs and even if you are near the top half there is every chance of getting sucked down to the bottom three.

And then there is a very important pack, the middle one which ranges from 7th-12th. These are the teams that are well capable of upsetting the teams at the top end and in effect influencing the league. These teams have been managed well, through budgets and players brought in and genuinely have quality managers. Put it this way if you are a manager of one of these clubs and you have an off season and get sacked, your next job will still be in the Premier League, you simply became an established member of the world’s most hyperbole and yet utterly fascinating league.

The only thing that honestly separates the teams is budgets. The top six might be able to spend £100m and upwards, these teams it’s more realistic to strike around the 50-60m mark.

With all of that said here comes the unofficial Premier League ‘real’ leaders, who will reside in 7th- they are the so called best of the rest and that accolade as we roar through February and into the home straight in the league goes to Wolverhampton Wanderers, or simply known as Wolves.

Under Nino Espirito Santos Wolves have been a revelation this season. They started the season brightly becoming a real force to be reckoned with. First they stopped Everton in their tracks with a 2-2 draw at Molineux and they improved on their home form by also forcing champions Manchester City into a 1-1 draw.

They took a point away to Manchester United and before you knew it Santos was picking up manager of the month. All was good before Wolves hit a slump, and it seemed that the club had simply gone through a honeymoon period with their new coach.

But their strength in character really showed and they have been back on form for the past few months. They have lost just 2 games in their past seven and have climbed deservedly so to 7th place, playing attack minded football and making games very difficult for their opponents.

Now they find themselves in 7th and 11 points from 6th and Chelsea who have hit a wall. Could Santos’ team rally on and even threaten that place? Watford are the only team at this moment who are near to the club and these two teams have really been able to punch above their weight this season.

However Wolves remain the leader of the pack and don’t look like they will be tamed anytime soon.

 

Nuno Espirito Santo

January had a big impact on West Ham’s season

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Things can look very different after a month. With six wins from seven games in December, there was plenty of optimism for West Ham United at the beginning of January. However, an unsettling Marko Arnautovic transfer saga, otherwise uneventful transfer window, FA Cup exit at the hands of AFC Wimbledon and a 3-0 thrashing from Wolverhampton Wanderers have changed the mood in East London.

Many supporters were hoping for a cup run and a chase for European football to add excitement to the end of this campaign. It is being said by many that the second half will be pretty boring for the Hammers though, stating the season is already in danger of fizzling out. It can be difficult for matches to maintain their level of importance unless there is a relegation battle or chase for the top places, it’s a problem which the Hammers have faced in the past and it can be argued will face again this time around.

January begun with Samir Nasri being brought in for free after his doping ban had ended. Despite initial concerns after the considerable length of time he’d spent out of the game there were promising early signs once he got onto the pitch. He’d done well on his debut against Birmingham City in the FA Cup before playing an instrumental role in the victory against his former employers Arsenal. He’s now injured though.

Then there was the Arnautovic drama. The Austrian was linked with a move to China, with his brother adding to the rumours by claiming that West Ham should let him leave. After waving the fans goodbye when taken off against Arsenal, then missing the following games against AFC Bournemouth and AFC Wimbledon it was announced that he’d signed an improved contract to keep him at the club. The contract was announced via a video which was released just after the club’s FA Cup exit, with the forward saying he was “back”. It’s impossible to tell whether his shenanigans were a contributing factor to the club’s recent form but the general feeling is that he’s unsettled those around him. The Wolves game did little to prove otherwise.

With all the talks of exits hanging over the club, there had also been a mention of players who were potentially coming to the London Stadium. Names such as Maxi Gomez have been thrown into the mix and there was mention of potentially bringing someone in on loan from Chelsea. However, when the transfer window ended there were no further recruits aside from Nasri, as Gomez remained at Celta Vigo. There was clear disappointment from many West Ham supporters at the news (or lack of it) as they felt it was an opportunity missed.

The only point gained outside of the win against the Gunners was in a 2-2 draw against Brihgton & Hove Albion. However, as frustrating as January was, it can be argued that this it’s not season ending. The three disappointing results came in the space of 10 days and with the transfer window now closed everyone can get on with the football rather than speculating over moves for now. The FA Cup exit is certainly a big blow, especially considering who is left in the competition this year and it hasn’t helped that two losses against opposition around the Hammers came either side of that shock exit.

However, February brings matches against Crystal Palace, Fulham and Newcastle United. These are all games which West Ham will feel they should be winning and if they do so it could put the men in claret and blue back in with a chance of taking seventh in the league. February –like any other month for a Premier League club- won’t be simple though; the Hammers host Liverpool tomorrow evening and will also face Manchester City. Get wins on the board and some excitement could return to the London Stadium. After all, things can look very different after a month.

 

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Jesus back among the goals as Manchester City suffocate Wolves

Following Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday, the pressure was back on Manchester City ahead of their clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Reds had extended their lead at the top of the Premier League table to seven points with their success on the south coast, meaning that Pep Guardiola’s side could not afford to draw or lose against a team who had performed very well against them earlier in the campaign.

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Who have been the best pound for pound teams in European football so far?

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We are two months into the domestic league seasons and each league is starting to take shape around Europe. The usual suspects are either sitting on top of the league or ominously close to that. But who have been the best pound for pound teams so far in Europe? The teams that clearly do not have the same budget as the Manchester City’s and PSG’s. And perhaps the following teams will be able to keep up their good starts to the season and cause some surprises. Whilst they may not be crowned new champions of their respective leagues they will all have the ability to try and qualify for European football and possibly have deep runs in their respective cup competitions.

Premier League- Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves as they are commonly known were not supposed to cause much of a fuss in England this season and many expected them to finish in the bottom half of the table. However currently they are in 7th place and have 15 points from a possible 24. Coach Nuno Espirito Santo has been a revelation and has struck a fine balance between attack and defence. Wolves are the only club to take points from champions Manchester City so far and have also come away with a 1-1 draw at their rivals Manchester United. They have lost just 1 game all season so far and are only 5 points from the top of the league.

Ligue 1 – Lille

Lille have struggled in recent seasons so this is a real surprise to see the team in 2nd place and 3 points clear of Marseille in third position. Whilst they won’t be catching league leaders PSG anytime soon as they are 8 points adrift of them their aim will be Champions League qualification for next season. Lille have been superb and have recorded such results as beating Marseille 3-0. They have won 6 of their 9 games so far and are scoring goals too, they currently have 17 which is the 3rd highest in the league.

Serie A- Sampdoria

Sampdoria got off to a slow start in Serie A but their form has been constantly improving week by week. So much so that they find themselves in 5th place behind the more traditional teams who we are expected to see in the top four. Form is good where they have lost just 1 game in their past five matches and have only been defeated 2 times this season. But it has been the clubs away form that has impressed where they have the 3rd best record in the league.

La Liga- Sevilla

This choice is easy, Sevilla, because they have taken the Spanish league by storm and currently sit in 1st place above both Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have already comprehensively beaten Madrid in the league and have won 5 of their 8 games so far. They have won their last 4 games in the league and have scored 14 goals alone in those games. Indeed only Barcelona have scored more goals. It remains to be seen in such a difficult league if Sevilla can keep up their form but they are definitely added to the mix which is sure to make La Liga experience one of the most exciting seasons in years.

 

EPL Best XI – Hat-trick hero Hazard

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The fifth weekend of the 2018-19 Premier League season saw Chelsea and Liverpool maintain their winning starts, while Manchester United picked up their second victory in a row with a 2-1 win over Watford. Let’s take a look at which players stood out to make the EPL Best XI of the Weekend.

GK: Wayne Hennessey, Crystal Palace – seven points
After being deducted two points in each of his last three games, Wayne Hennessey got back on track this weekend by keeping a clean sheet in Crystal Palace’s hard-fought 1-0 win away at Huddersfield.

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