It is a question that is asked on an annual basis after the Wimbledon tennis finals. Where do they rank amongst the all time greats? Is Roger Federer the greatest male tennis player ever? Will Novak Djokovic eclipse him? Is Serena the best female tennis player we’ve ever seen?
This phenomena is not merely confined to tennis, far from it. Any major sport you care to think of has the same ongoing debate. Is Messi the best footballer that ever lived? Is Tiger Woods better than Jack Nicklaus? LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Senna or Schumacher? O’Sullivan or Hendry? Bradman or Richards? Ali or Sugar Ray? Brady or Montana? The list is endless.
People/the media seem fixated by the issue – to use the most common example: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are constantly compared and contrasted with each other. Can’t we simply enjoy the fact that we are lucky enough to witness these two supremely talented players who have very different and individual strengths and weaknesses at the peak of their powers at the same time? They are two incredible footballers that usually come round once in a lifetime/generation. They have both set standards of consistent brilliance that may never be matched again. (For those wondering, having been fortunate enough to see both live in action on a few occasions, I’m very much in Team Messi).
I suppose part of the interest and debate stems from the intrinsically competitive nature of sport (human beings in general) and those that follow it with a passion want to know/put forward their case for who is best. There also appears to be a desire for us to say we witnessed greatness. So we can talk to our children and our grandchildren about how good Usain Bolt was. Like our parents and grandparents would regale stories about the genius of Pele, Moore, Greaves, Maradona, Borg, McEnroe and so on.
One of the major problems is that comparing people from different eras is very difficult/nigh on impossible. As equipment, technology, nutrition, sports science and so on move on so quickly.
The truth about all such arguments is that it is all very subjective. Everyone gauges who is the best by very personal criteria. Some do it in black and white terms – he/she is the most successful in terms of records, victories etc therefore they are clearly the greatest, while others do it in terms of natural talent and ability or how hard they have worked to get to the top. Some do it purely based on personality or how he/she conducted themselves and what they have done to promote/raise the profile of their particular sport.
It is a debate that has raged for decades and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. It’s certainly an interesting topic of discussion that is for sure.
Women in the Middle East and Sport are not things that you would normally suggest are inextricably linked but perhaps things are beginning to change in this part of the world?
Females across the globe encounter many boundaries in terms of their access to sport but is there a region that has more cultural and social obstacles that must be hurdled?
There is still a long way to go as these examples will show.
As recently as February 2014, four members of the Iranian women’s national football team were found to actually be men. Even more incredibly, these four individuals will be allowed to re-join the side once they have had their sex change operations. Despite the fact that homosexuality and sex before marriage are illegal in the Islamic state. Random testing now regularly occurs at clubs and subsequently seven other players have been banned.
Iran’s deputy minister for sport has only just overturned a long-standing stadium ban on women attending sporting events nevermind actually participating in the action on the field of play. This issue was brought to the attention of the international media when a woman was jailed for five months in Tehran for the heinous crime of attempting to attend a volleyball match, worse still it was a men’s game.
So what is being done to combat these roadblocks? Well, the governments in the region are concerned about the rising obesity and diabetes rates, with the figures relating to females particularly alarming. Introducing physical education into the compulsory part of the curriculum is seen as a means of tackling this worrying trend.
Football is leading the way in the advancement of women’s sport in the Middle East. The amount of sport, especially football that is shown on television has definitely increased interest and awareness. The West Asian Football Federation Championship sometimes known simply as the WAFF Championship, that was introduced to women’s football in 2005 is seen as a tremendous step forward. Qatar, Syria, Palestine, UAE, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria have all competed, which given the other difficulties these nations have had/currently face this makes it all the more remarkable.
Women’s basketball teams from the Middle East have sporadically competed in the FIBA Asia Championship but participation has been on an upward curve. The contentious issue of female player’s wearing a hijab while playing continues to be problematic and prohibitive. Football’s governing body FIFA, overturning a ban on the hijab in 2012 is a step in the right direction but other sporting association’s not following suit is less than helpful.
The wealthy Middle Eastern elite are seeing the benefits of girls playing sports as they become more exposed to the rest of the world through travelling and residing in other countries. Numerous university studies have illustrated that women who regularly participate in sport generally are more successful at school and then at work. They also exhibit greater self-confidence and levels of competiveness. Of course, there is traditional resistance to what is seen as the infiltration of Western ideas and ideals into Middle Eastern culture. But you only have to look at the success of multinational fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Burger King in the region to see that it is very possible.
It seems only a matter of time before women and men compete on a level playing field in the Middle East. External pressure, globalisation and a young population are all contributing factors to this seemingly unstoppable progression. With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar fast approaching this area of the world will want to be seen as diverse, open minded, welcoming and tolerant.
Rumours have been circulating that the legendary Spanish footballer, Xavi, having won everything there is to win in the game, is about to sign for my ‘local’ team, Al Sadd, here in Qatar. I thought this would be a timely opportunity to see one of their games and to let him know what a football fan’s perspective is on the spectator experience.
So why Al Sadd? Well firstly, they are my local team and are only a 5 minute drive away. Secondly, they boast an impressive history. Founded in 1969 with the awesome nickname ‘Al Zaeem’ (roughly translated as ‘the boss’)
You might say they are the Manchester United or Liverpool of Qatar, with one of the largest followings and having been winners of the Qatari League 11 times (more than any other team). They have also won the Asian Champions League on 2 occasions, which is why you will…
World Cup and European Championship winner, seven time league winner and three time Champions League winner – doesn’t sound like your typical Qatari league footballer does it?
But that’s exactly what Doha based club Al Sadd will be getting as of 1 July 2015, when FC Barcelona superstar Xavi Hernandez moves to the Middle East. While the Spanish midfield maestro is certainly not at the peak of his powers it is a big statement of intent for football in this region.
The links between Barça and the Gulf State are well established with Qatar Airways being Blaugrana’s first ever commercial shirt sponsor but even so it must have been a very attractive offer to convince Xavi to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world. Not to mention turning down equally lucrative offers from other European teams, the MLS, Australia or even the option of simply retiring.
The marquee acquisition of one of the world’s most famous and decorated players of the modern era is a much needed positive sports news story for the Middle East; which has been making a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons. Since Qatar controversially won the right to host the 2022 World Cup the media spotlight has been firmly fixed on the area. Allegations of bribery, countless human right abuses, migrant worker deaths and exploitation as well as corruption have routinely featured in the western media. The sudden death of Ecuadorian Christian Benitez at the age of just 27 from a cardiac arrest; after playing just one match for Qatari side El Jaish Sports Club, raised serious questions about the viability of playing football in such extreme temperatures during the summer.
These concerns have contributed to the unprecedented decision by the football world governing body FIFA to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter months.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that playing football in the Middle East is purely a graveyard for has-been footballers looking for a highly-paid semi-retirement. That may have been the case in the past with players like Real Madrid legends Fernando Hierro and Raul joining Al Sadd and Al Rayyan respectively in Qatar. It is worth noting that Raul has subsequently reversed his decision to hang up his boots and is now plying his trade for the New York Cosmos.
This trend has recently been bucked by two of Europe’s most up and coming managers in the form of Michael Laudrup and Manuel Jimenez taking up positions at Lekhwiya and Al Rayyan. The standard of the league as well as the individual players under their supervision can only benefit by having access to such top class coaching and expected levels of professionalism. Not to mention Argentinian international Lucho Gonzalez, Vladimir Weiss and Chico Flores currently turning out in the Qatari division. These are players in their prime that have turned their back on the glamour of the most prestigious European competitions.
There is a real determination to put football on the map in the Middle East and key to this is the performance of the Qatar national football team at the 2022 World Cup. President Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Thani is desperate for the national side to hold their own on the biggest stage of all and show that there is more to the country than being oil rich.
Xavi may not be the first high profile footballer to make the move to the Middle East but he is unlikely to be the last.
This isn’t a new problem or a modern phenomena but it is no less annoying…
Yet another footballing weekend has been dominated by poor decisions. It has got to farcical levels – the Victor Moses ‘incident’ was simply ridiculous. He dived/simulated/cheated whatever you want to call it but for some reason Alan Shearer was terrified to label him a ‘cheat’ last night on Match of the Day 2. I somehow think that if it had been someone like Luis Suarez who had done the same that the condemnation would have been universal. Mark Hughes couldn’t even look the camera in the eye when he was trying to defend him. It would have been nice if Sparky had just been honest and admitted that his player had conned the referee and his team had benefited. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t throw his player under the bus which is understandable but it doesn’t help the situation. Hughes did later admit that Garry Monk had been naive with his comments.
Garry Monk will no doubt be fined for his comments but I feel the Premier League has a responsibility to the coaches and fans to give this matter the proper attention it deserves. The Premier League happily takes the TV money from broadcasters and obliges managers & players to front up to the cameras in the heat of the moment just after a match has finished and then punishes them for giving their opinion, which seems pretty unfair.
No-one is suggesting that refereeing at Premier League/Football League level is not incredibly difficult but the standards of officiating are at best inconsistent and at worst are incompetent. You can pretty pick any match and see that the too often big calls aren’t being dealt with correctly. Take the Manchester City vs Tottenham Hotspur match as an example, of course it is unusual for four penalties to be given in a game but the first City penalty was an absolute nonsense and the Spurs penalty was outside the box.
Referee’s are human beings and it is clear that they are being influenced by the manager’s, player’s and the crowd. As the MOTD2 pundits pointed out you could sense that Michael Oliver was looking to even things up after giving Swansea a penalty at the Britannia. Likewise, I find it hard to believe that Soldado would have been awarded a penalty at the Etihad Stadium if the score had been 0-0 and City hadn’t already been given two spot-kicks.
There is a vicious cycle in football – everyone says they abhor diving but referees don’t give penalties/free-kicks unless a player goes to go ground so you are encouraging players to exaggerate/manufacture contact. You get no reward for being honest in football – so if you can’t beat them why not join them?
Of course, players aren’t helping officials by conning them so it makes life incredibly difficult for the man in the middle to be 100% sure of a decision in real time especially when football these days is played at such a frentic pace.
Retrospective punishments for simulation need to be introduced if we are serious about eradicating diving from the modern game. This also would give clubs the opportunity to appeal yellow cards that players have been given for diving if they can demonstrate that the player was fouled.
I’m sure FIFA, UEFA et al. would prefer the Premier League and so on to introduce extra officials to assist referees but as the majority of recent Champions League and Europa League games have demonstrated these people contribute next to nothing and actively don’t want to get involved in the decision making process.
Real help is at hand though – why not have a video referee to review decisions? Give managers/teams three challenges as they do in tennis? The arguments to this will inevitably be the following – this will destroy the essence of football, human error is part of the game, it will take too long for decisions to be made, it will make the game too stop-start etc.
I don’t buy any of these objections – I may be alone in this view but I want the right decision to be made, even if it goes against my team. I’m fed up of watching matches that are decided by the officials not by the players. I’m not suggesting that every minute decision is reviewed and contested but the challenge system would be there for penalties, red cards and when goals are disallowed. We have goal line technology now so why not embrace the 21st century?
We live in age when replays are instantaneous so it would not slow the match down.
I very much doubt that anything will change – look how long it took before we got the vanishing spray into European football but that doesn’t mean that changes shouldn’t be made. While I’m on this subject why doesn’t the clock just stop in football when the ball goes out of play? This would eliminate the problem of everyone in the stadium and watching at home being baffled at the amount of/or lack thereof of injury time added on at the end of a match. It would also help to minimise timewasting.
Maybe I’m too naive to think that football should be about skill and effort rather than gamesmanship or are we already too far gone?
1st Chelsea: Just when you thought there was been a bit of a changing of the guard this summer at Stamford Bridge with Ashley Cole & Frank Lampard moving on they resigned Didier Drogba as a player-coach. That said the west Londoners have had an excellent transfer window, despite selling Romelu Lukaku. The ridiculous fee received from PSG for David Luiz has been reinvested wisely. Fabregas will be looking to prove a point after being allowed to leave his hometown club and will immediately inject creativity and goals from midfield. Filipe Luis looks a more than adequate replacement for Cole albeit a bit overpriced for a 29 year-old. Mourinho will be looking to see more consistency from Oscar this season.
Key man: Diego Costa – As Jose Mourinho was very keen to point out at every opportunity, all that Blues lacked was a top class forward. Chelsea fans will hope that the Brazilian born Spain forward can continue his Atletico goalscoring record and be filed alongside Drogba, Zola & Hasselbaink rather than Torres, Shevchenko and Kezman.
2nd Manchester City: The Mancunians can still boast the strongest squad in the division but with the injury to Alvaro Negredo and Aguero’s ongoing fitness issues City look a little bit short upfront at present. Stevan Jovetic has looked extremely sharp in preseason and if he can carry that form into the Premier League then Pellegrini may not feel the need to add to his striking options. Bacary Sagna, Willy Caballero and Fernando have added even further depth to a world class group, it will be interesting to see if Frank Lampard has been brought in literally just to make up the numbers or not. Hopefully Yaya Toure has gotten over his birthday cake tantrum and concentrate on being one of the best footballers on the planet, in full flight the Ivorian is simply majestic.
Key man: Sergio Aguero – while Yaya Toure & Vincent Kompany remain the heartbeat of this side, City will need Kün fit and firing if the Citizens are to retain their Premier League title. Aguero is the most complete striker in the division, a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals who also possesses the knack of delivering when his side need him the most. His injury troubles will be a worry, as he really didn’t do himself justice at the World Cup.
3rd Arsenal: This summer has been a very different one as far as Arsenal supporters are concerned, with Arsene Wenger identifying and then crucially, recruiting players in key positions. David Ospina, Mathieu Debauchy and Callum Chambers have immediately added quality and depth to the squad while Alexis Sanchez is the marquee purchase that has set pulses racing as Mesut Özil did last year. The importance of May’s FA Cup win cannot be underestimated, at 2-0 down after eight minutes the Gooners were staring catastrophe in the face and Wenger’s tenure at the helm would surely have been at end had Hull held onto an unlikely victory. As it was the burden has finally been lifted and the self-belief gained from the win will give the North Londoners confidence that they can compete for trophies this season.
Key man: Alexis Sanchez – while the fitness of Aaron Ramsey will be crucial to whether a challenge for the league can be maintained the Chilean signed from Barcelona is the world-class forward that was sorely lacking last term. Alexis, as he prefers to be known, has the ability to get the best out of those around him, only Barcelona could deem a man of his talent’s surplus to requirements. Their loss is certainly Arsenal’s gain.
4th Liverpool: It was a case of so near yet so far Brendan Rodgers’ men but a second place finish was an outstanding achievement that will be hard to beat/repeat this campaign. The scousers demonstrated at the beginning of last season that they can cope without Luis Suarez but it would be foolish to suggest that any team wouldn’t miss a player of his mercurial albeit controversial talents. Rodgers has made some excellent signings; Lovren and Lallana should slip straight into the starting eleven and make a positive contribution. The Croatian centre back in particular will improve a back four that conceded too many goals and form a solid partnership with Martin Skrtel. Liverpool will face a real fight for a top four spot this season with their great rivals Manchester United and Everton as well as Spurs but a real fear factor has returned to Anfield and that will be critical. The Reds have the ability to take games away from their opponents very quickly and not many of the top seven or eight sides can say the same. Success in cup competitions seems like a good bet.
Key man: Rickie Lambert – the homecoming of the local boy done good seems like a fitting finale to his fairytale career but this technically excellent footballer is patronised enough by the mass media. He has been brought to the club because they feel he can contribute not because of some misplaced sentiment. Rickie will be expected to share the goalscoring burden with the rather injury prone Danny Sturridge unless a big name centre forward (like Cavani, Falcao or Balotelli) is signed before the end of the transfer window.
5th Manchester United: Some have suggested that Louis Van Gaal will wave his magic wand and the Red Devils will stroll procession like back into ‘rightful’ place back in the top four this season with maybe an outside chance of regaining their Premier League crown – these predictions are wide of the mark. This is a side that has lost the experience and ability of Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra and Giggs – these are characters that will be very difficult to nigh on impossible to replace. A back three on a regular basis of Evans, Smalling and Jones does not scream Champions League qualification. Defensive reinforcements are very much needed. Rafael, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia look to have the attributes to be successful wing backs but don’t be surprised to see utility man Daley Blind come in as well as Marcus Rojo from Sporting Lisbon. The Reds will have the advantage that Liverpool enjoyed last year of not having European football to distract them. This will make Van Gaal’s life easier in terms of preparation and acclimatisation. United’s bumper sponsorship deal with Adidas may depend on Champions League football but the red half of Manchester will need to wait a little longer before returning to Europe’s top table.
Key man: Robin Van Persie – it’s no coincidence that when RVP was banging goals in United won the league and then when he was out injured for long periods last season they finished 7th. This is looking at David Moyes’ disastrous reign too simplistically but it does highlight how important the Dutchman is to the Red Devils cause.
6th Tottenham Hotspur: Despite only finishing three points off their record Premier League points tally, such were the expectations; last season was viewed (rightly) as a massive disappointment. Heavy and humiliating defeats were suffered far too frequently. In light of this Mauricio Pochettino has spent much of the summer focussing on defensive reinforcements which has seen Vorm, Ben Davies and Eric Dier brought in. However, the most significant bits of business done by the new Argentine Head Coach was to persuade Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen to stay. The former boss has been charged with getting the best out of the seven players purchased with the Gareth Bale money rather than making wholesale changes to the playing staff. A sixth place may not on the face of it appear obvious progress but if the White Hart Lane faithful can see improved performances, a side with a renewed sense of togetherness and fight alongside some cup runs then the majority will be happy. Whether Daniel Levy would agree remains to be seen.
Key man: Erik Lamela – Tottenham fans more than most love an ‘X’ factor player who can produce a moment of magic out of nowhere to decide a game. Obviously, they were spoilt with Gareth Bale but the majority of their rivals can boost at least one or two of these type of players. Christian Eriksen showed he can be that man but the Dane could desperately do with some assistance in the inspiration department.
7th Everton: Fans of the Toffees may be looking at this prediction with disbelief after pushing Arsenal all the way in pursuit of a top four finish last time out but I will attempt to justify my position. My judgement is based purely on numbers. Everton have the smallest squad of the top seven sides and Roberto Martinez will have to shuffle his pack on a regular basis with Europa League football to contend with. Everton’s best XI will be a match for any side in the division, particularly at Goodison Park but you worry for them if some of their key players are unavailable for any extended periods of the season due to injury or suspension. Such was their consistency and high quality of their football last season expectations will be higher than ever for the forthcoming season. Signing Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry permanently as well as retaining the services of Barkley, Baines, Coleman and Stones will have done nothing to dampen optimism.
Key man: Muhamed Besic – the Bosnian looked a class act at the World Cup in Brazil and will be hoping to add to what is already an exceptionally talented midfield. It looks like an inspired piece of Martinez that may prove to be the bargain of the season. On this subject, is there a more underrated player in the Premier League than James McCarthy?
8th Newcastle United: What will feature in the next exciting installment of the soap opera that is the Toon Army is anyone’s guess but as Sky Sports News (HQ) are so keen to tell us – no club has been busier in the transfer market than the Geordies. The renowned scouting skills of Graham Carr seem to have once again been put to good use as Siem de Jong, Remy Cabella, Daryl Janmaat all appear to be excellent purchases. Football Manger fans will sing the praises of Facundo Ferreyra and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the rigours of English football. Ayoze Perez and Emmanuel Riviere arrive with sizeable reputations from the continent and will need to deliver the goals that have departed in the form of Loic Remy. The departure of Mathieu Debauchy was not unexpected but is a blow nevertheless. Jack Colback making the move from Sunderland will certainly give the next derby match another spicy element.
Key man: Tempted to say Alan Pardew here, as Newcastle could do without their manager making the headlines this season. A return to form for Cheick Tiote wouldn’t go a miss – assuming Arsenal don’t try to poach him, the combative (to say the least) midfielder can be a dominant force in the centre of the park when he is on song.
9th Stoke City: The perpetually grumpy Mark Hughes really didn’t get the credit he deserved last season, guiding Stoke to an excellent league position while also evolving the playing style at the Britannia Stadium. As was the case last summer, Sparky has done some great work in the transfer market bringing in experienced campaigners Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell while Mame Biram Diouf will be wanting to show what he is all about after a disappointing spell at Old Trafford. This is not to forget the box-office addition of Bojan Krkic from Barcelona which is a major coup for the Potters. Perhaps Hughes’ biggest challenge this year will be to ensure that Stoke retain their defensive solidity which has been the basis for their success in the top flight while accommodating their new attacking talent. With the departures of Matthew Etherington and Michael Kightly the squad is lacking a winger or two which is something chairman Peter Coates may wish to remedy in the next couple of weeks, the transfer of Oussama Assaidi from Liverpool remains a work in progress. Getting in Victor Moses in on loan from Chelsea has partly addressed this requirement, the Nigerian will provide pace and directness in wide areas
Key man: Marko Arnautovic – Stoke have always been known for their effectiveness rather unpredictably, fortunately the young Austrian provides much needed improvisation into the City attack. After a promising debut season in English football Mark Hughes will be hoping that Arnautovic can add consistency to his extensive repertoire of skills.
10th Southampton: The firesale at St.Mary’s has been very well documented and it is hard not to have sympathy for Saints fans & new manager Ronald Koeman. It may well get worse before it gets better with Jack Cork, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez strongly linked with moves away. Ryan Bertrand, Fraser Forster, Saphir Taider and the Shane Long are all sensible acquisitions. Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic have been recruited from Eredivisie and it would be unwise to question Koeman’s judgement of two players he is well aware of. The Schneiderlin saga is rather unsavoury and needs to be resolved sooner rather than later for the benefit of all parties concerned; it is something that Southampton could well do without after a summer of upheaval. Given the circumstances, a top 10 finish would definitely represent a successful season.
Key man: James Ward-Prowse – another product from the conveyor belt of talent at the Saints Academy (as the cliché goes) will be keen to show there is plenty of life after Shaw, Lallana and Lambert et al. The set-piece specialist possesses wonderful ball striking ability. Southampton may well have another England international on their books before too long if he continues to develop at the same rate.
11th Swansea City: If I was a Swansea supporter I would be concerned. Key players Michu, Michel Vorm, Pablo Hernandez, Chico Flores and Ben Davies have all departed for pastures new and if Wilfried Bony follows them through the exit door of the Liberty Stadium then I think their Premier League status is in serious jeopardy. Garry Monk obviously lacks managerial experience but has shown himself to be an intelligent tactician who understands his players and the ethos of the club intimately during his tenure. Monk will be hoping that Lukasz Fabianksi, Bafetimbi Gomis, Jefferson Montero and Gylfi Sigurdsson all hit the ground running. With the exception of Bony the current squad looks short of goals. While the Europa League adventure was an excellent experience for the club last year, playing fewer matches this time around won’t do the Welsh side any harm at all. The Jacks could do with varying their tactics at times in 2014/2015, while their football is always pleasing on the eye their Premier League rivals now know what to expect and set up against it accordingly.
Key man: Wilfried Bony – eyebrows were certainly raised when £12m was spent to bring the Ivorian to south Wales from Vitesse Arnhem but the centre forward quickly justified that price tag with plenty of goals last season.
12th Crystal Palace: Tony Pulis’ sudden departure just two days before the start of season is horrible timing, as all of the preseason preparation may go out of the window depending on who the new manager is. Plenty of names are currently in the frame for the Selhurst Park hotset but I thought Malky MacKay taking over would be a sensible appointment (how wrong can you be?!). Palace are seemingly no closer to finding a new manager at this moment in time. The impact Pulis had last season cannot be underestimated and all the stats illustrate his positive influence on the club. His successor’s main priority will to be ensure that all of the positive momentum gathered in the last six months or so is not wasted with a poor start to the campaign. Back to matters on the pitch, Brede Hangeland on a free transfer from Fulham is an astute signing and will bolster a solid defensive unit that is excellently marshalled by the consistently impressive Julian Speroni. If Martin Kelly can keep himself fit he should also be a decent addition. Fraizer Campbell will add enthusiasm to the Palace attack but will need to improve his goals to games ratio. Palace fans will hope that there are at least three teams that are worse than them come May 2015.
Key man: Jason Puncheon – was the stand out performer for the South Londoners adding some spark to a well drilled outfit. After a rather nomadic career to date Puncheon finally seems to have found a home in SE25, if the midfielder can carry on from where he left off last term that will go along way to ensuring Palace’s Premier League survival.
13th Hull City: Steve Bruce can be well satisfied with his work so far in the off season, despite the sale of Shane Long – which still represents a decent profit within 6 months. The Tigers manager has been superbly backed in the transfer market with Jake Livermore, Robert Snodgrass and Tom Ince making the move to the KC Stadium. Bruce will however look to recruit another striker before the end of the window to soften the blow of Long’s departure as Matty Fryatt has also moved on. This places a lot of the goalscoring responsibility on the shoulders of Nikica Jelavic, who’s form has been streaky at best in the last two seasons. Youngsters Harry Maguire and Andrew Robertson come with good reputations from the Championship and the Scottish Premier League respectively. How seriously Hull take their first campaign in Europe may ultimately determine where they finish in the Premier League but with the likes of Tom Huddlestone in the side they have more than enough to survive and comfortably so.
Key man: Curtis Davies – you suspect if the former Birmingham City defender played for a more ‘fashionable’ club he would have been in the England World Cup squad. The centre back was outstanding last season and seems to have really matured as a player. Davies has become a real leader and if he can maintain his levels of performance it will be very difficult for Roy Hodgson to continue to overlook him.
14th West Ham United: Big Sam has been told to bring ‘sexy’ football back to Upton Park in no uncertain terms by co-chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan but can a leopard really change its spots? Allardyce is a pragmatist and makes no apologies for his uncompromising style which clearly gets results. Teddy Sheringham has been drafted in to work with the strikers and there are a few new ones on the books with Mauro Zarate, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho brought in to bolster a forward line that previously consisted of the permanently crocked Andy Carroll and Carlton Cole. Diego Poyet, Cheikhou Kouyate, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Cresswell point towards a renewed emphasis on youth over experience this season. Ravel Morrison’s future and general conduct will continue to be an interesting sub plot; the manager and the board are clearly at odds about what to do with the exceptionally talented but unruly individual. Anything less than a top 10 finish will be considered a disappointment so it is difficult to see Allardyce still being manager by the time the Hammers move into the Olympic Stadium.
Key man: Winston Reid – If West Ham are to be a more attacking side this season it will be imperative that they retain their excellent defensive record and Reid is essential to that. The New Zealander has developed into an accomplished Premier League centre back who forms a good partnership with either James Collins or James Tomkins.
15th QPR: ‘Arry wanted to tell anyone that would listen that “lessons had been learnt” from Rangers’ last spell in England’s top division but then signed 35 year old Rio Ferdinand from Manchester United on a free transfer, a classic Redknapp bargain. The QPR manager has also picked up Steven Caulker & Jordon Mutch from relegated Cardiff City who were standout performers for the Welsh side last season and will make positive contributions to the cause. The signing of Mauricio Isla has seemingly gone under the radar but is a fantastic loan signing perhaps one of the best moves of the summer. The versatile Chilean international was an integral part of the impressive run to the last 16 of the World Cup. The signings of Eduardo Vargas and Leroy Fer confirmed that QPR have good strength with the required depth to compete at this level. The addition of Glenn Hoddle may yet prove to be most influential to the set up at Loftus Road as Redknapp wishes to implement a 3-5-2 formation this season.
Key man: Steven Caulker – a tight defence seems to be the priority for the R’s and the former Tottenham centre half will be key to that. Caulker really benefitted from regular first team football at Cardiff as well as the added responsibility of being captain. Steven will feel that Gary Cahill’s central defensive partner spot for England is up for grabs and learning day-to-day from Rio Ferdinand there is no reason why Caulker can’t stake a claim for it.
16th Aston Villa: How Paul Lambert reintegrates the disguarded older players back into the first team picture will be interesting to see. The simplistic way of looking at it is that no-one was prepared to match the wages of Alan Hutton, Charles N’Zogbia, Shay Given or Darren Bent and that the players were unwilling to accept less lucrative contracts elsewhere. Whatever the truth of the matter is, if Lambert can’t get rid of these guys then he might as well use them. With that in mind there has been a clear shift at Villa Park with experience now being preferred to youth with wily old pros Philippe Senderos, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Aly Cissokho brought in. Oddly, the injury to Christian Benteke has been a blessing disguise, if the Belgian had stayed fit and done well at the World Cup the Villa would’ve faced a real battle to keep hold of the powerful striker. As it is other clubs will wait and see how he recovers from his Achilles injury before perhaps rekindling their interest in January 2015. If things don’t go well expect to see Roy Keane being promoted from no.2 to no.1 pretty quickly.
Key man: Fabian Delph – last season the aggressive midfielder reminded people of what made him so highly rated when he burst onto the scene at Leeds United as a teenager. Delph’s partnership with Kieran Westwood could really blossom this season if both players continue to progress.
17th Sunderland: Despite masterminding a great escape Gus Poyet has had to deal with a number of important first team players leaving and the ongoing pursuit of Fabio Borini coming to nothing so far. Poyet has raided his old club Brighton again to bring Will Buckley to Wearside and will hope that he can make the step up to Premier League level more quickly than Liam Bridcutt has done. Jordi Gomez will add a touch of class to the midfield while the signings of Patrick van Aanholt, Billy Jones and Costel Pantilimon are decent buys in positions that needed strengthening. If and this is a pretty big if given his injury record Jack Rodwell can string a run of games together then the Black Cats have a more than capable two-footed box-to-box midfielder to call upon. Retaining the services of Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher will be essential as this looks like a team that won’t be scoring a shed load of goals. If Borini thinks that sitting on the bench at Anfield is a better option than playing regularly, then more fool him and Sunderland supporters will trust that Poyet has a backup option up his sleeve.
Key man: Sebastian Larsson – I was tempted to go for Adam Johnson here but it appears highly unlikely that the England winger has the ability to consistently produce his best level of performance. The Swedish set piece take on the other hand is a very important part of the side and his crossing ability will be crucial to ensure that the Sunderland striker’s get the service that they require.
18th West Bromwich Albion: The appointment of David Moyes’ former right hand man Alan Irvine was greeted with a rather underwhelming feeling from Baggies fans. Irvine’s admission that he didn’t know a great deal about club record signing Brown Ideye was rather alarmingly. The other major recruits he will be well aware of. Craig Gardner, Joleon Lescott, Andre Wisdom and Chris Baird are players who will fit in well with a hard working squad. The departure of promising youngster George Thorne to midlands rivals Derby County was certainly a blow but one that will be overcome. West Brom have used the loan market well in recent years and you suspect that it will be an avenue that Irvine will be exploring before the transfer window closes at 11pm on 1st September 2014. My major concerns for the Albion are based upon a rather goal shy strikeforce and the fact that they have developed a rather nasty habit, particularly at The Hawthorns of playing pretty well but then either losing or drawing.
Key man: Saido Berahino – while it appears that he may not be the most popular man in the West Brom dressing room amid rumours that he let his bumper new contract go to his head. The striker is a real livewire who causes problems with his pace and direct style of play. Berahino adds a rather maverick edge to a workmanlike side.
19th Leicester City: Teams who have taken the Championship by storm have tended to struggle after promotion in recent years and I think the Foxes will be no exception. Perhaps teams’ problems are caused by placing too much faith in the players that did so well the previous season. Leicester’s signings are all Championship players which is perhaps a bit harsh on Marc Albrighton but certainly applies these days to Ben Hamer, Matthew Upson and Leonardo Ulloa. The arrival of Esteban Cambiasso would add a bit of international glamour and a wealth of top level experience to proceedings at the King Power Stadium. Like any newly promoted side City will sink or swim based on their home form. The Leicester fans will definitely relish their return to top flight and generate a great atmosphere. Nigel Pearson comes across as a down to earth kind of guy but you fear for him if results aren’t forthcoming as the Foxes’ ambitious owners may feel that a more experienced/bigger name is required to keep them in the division – remember how well Sven did?
Key man: Leonardo Ulloa – assuming David Nugent doesn’t come good at Premier League level it will be down to the former Brighton hitman to score the goals necessary to keep Leicester in the top division.
20th Burnley: Despite possessing the manager with the deepest voice in football in Sean Dyche, it is impossible to look past Burnley as certainties for relegation. I did however feel exactly the same about Crystal Palace last season, so there is hope. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with the signings of Stephen Ward, Steven Reid, Marvin Sordell, Matt Gilks, Michael Kightly, Lukas Jutkiewicz and Matt Taylor (who I’m surprised West Ham let go) they are all signings with half an eye on winning promotion next season in order to bounce straight back. The Clarets have been refreshingly prudent with their spending as you only have to look at the likes of Blackpool to see how quickly things can unravel after overspending in the Premier League. I expect Burnley to be competitive and they won’t be anyone’s whipping boys a la Derby County a few years ago. They were undone under Owen Coyle for being too open and expansive last time out so expect Dyche to be more pragamatic in his approach. Teams will not relish a visit to Turf Moor, commentators and pundits alike will delight in telling you that Burnley is the smallest town to be home to a Premier League club.
Key man: Danny Ings – at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the importance of goalscorers in the Premier League cannot be overstated. If Burnley are to have any chance of staying up Ings and Vokes must continue their exploits against some of the world’s best defenders and Chris Smalling.
As soon as the curtain fell on a glorious World Cup in Brazil my attention quickly turned to the start of the Premier League season.
Becoming Tottenham manager or ‘Head Coach’ these days is a pretty daunting prospect, having to work with a chairman who has a notoriously itchy trigger finger as well as keeping an incredibly fickle and demanding fanbase at bay. Here are some things that should be on Mauricio’s to do list…
Buy a left back (please)!
Tottenham fans are a bit of a broken record on this subject but it is a position that we desperately need to strengthen. Worryingly, Liverpool seem to be sniffing around Ben Davies which would be a massive blow given that we have been interested in the Swansea left back for quite some time. Daley Blind would be another high quality option but given his performances in the World Cup it seems unlikely that Tottenham would be at the front of the queue. Ryan Bertrand is another name that been touted about but I’m not altogether convinced that he would be a significant improvement on Danny Rose – that said I’d take him as a last resort. It does appear that Spurs (Daniel Levy) are working on a sell before you can buy policy at the moment. On the subject of full backs I think we could promote young Ryan Fredericks to Kyle Walker’s deputy in order to sell Kyle Naughton.
Adapt our tactics, formation and personnel for home and away games
This is something that AVB and Tim Sherwood really struggled with. Villas-Boas’ tactics for away matches were absolutely spot on – we were designed to hit teams on the counter attack. The best example of this was probably away at Old Trafford a couple of years ago when Spurs probably produced their best 45 minutes of AVB’s reign. Obviously, having Gareth Bale in your side makes life a lot easier. Sherwood on the other hand got Tottenham playing more aggressively at home particularly against the lower placed sides reverting to a traditional 4-4-2 which generally worked. This formation however massively backfired whenever we played better opposition.
I feel Pochettino is well equipped to remedy this problem as Southampton played with a great deal of variety both at home and away last season. His preferred 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-2-1/4-3-3 formations will suit the current personnel, particularly away from White Hart Lane and against the bigger sides. The challenge is breaking down teams who come to N17 looking for a 0-0 draw or to nick one on the break against us. Bar the top 5/6 sides most teams come to Tottenham with the same game plan. AVB’s insistence on playing two defensive midfielders with a slow tempo at home played into our opponents hands as it allowed them to get men behind the ball. It seems unlikely that we will play with two out-an-out strikers (although I wouldn’t be against it if we did) so a defensive midfielder can be sacrificed in order to accommodate a more attack minded midfield player. The defensive midfielder can then drop deep almost becoming a third centre back in order for the full backs to push on and provide additional width on the overlap – as is the modern way.
Prioritise the Europa League
Hear me out on this one! The way I see it the Europa League is our best (maybe only) route into the Champions League next season. Some may see this attitude as negative and defeatist but I feel it is just me being realistic. Finishing in the top 4 next season will be incredibly difficult. Chelsea and Manchester City seem pretty nailed to finish in the top 3 while Arsenal have made some good signings as well. Man United under Louis Van Gaal will be an altogether different proposition to the mess they were under David Moyes. It will also be interesting to see how Liverpool cope with the additional pressure of Champions League football and the loss of Luis Suarez. Brendan Rodgers has made some good additions (on paper at least). Therefore, I think a top 6 finish (including a sustained challenge for a top 4 place) and some good cup runs would represent a good first season for Pochettino and a definite step in the right direction.
Our league form in AVB’s first season certainly suffered as a result of his strong team selection in the Europa League – so I am not naïve enough to think that Pochettino will not be well aware of the fact that the Premier League is our bread and butter and what Levy will ultimately be judging him on.
I still think that we can use the group stages of the competition to rotate the squad and give youngsters experience but still qualify for the knockout stages. I certainly questioned the wisdom of making senior members of the squad travel to Europa League games, not play them and then start them on the Sunday last season.
Once we get into the knockout stages it becomes much more of a juggling act as it would be dangerous for us to place all of our eggs in one basket but it is definitely a winnable competition for us. Spurs fans have a bit of a snobby attitude towards Europe’s secondary club competition and I’m not sure why given our history in it and the fact that we’ve only ever been in the Champions League once but I can safely say that our supporters would love us to win a trophy of any description next season and qualifying for the Champions League as a result would be icing on the cake!