Predicting the 16/17 PL Season

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These predictions have mostly been done as a reference point for later in the season. I’m excited for the new season, but there’s a knowing that it won’t be the ‘dreamy clusterfuck’ of last season. At the same time, Leicester should still be fun to watch and fairly good, with Champions League football on the side. There’s the well-documented influx of managerial talent and several big clubs in interesting positions going into 16/17. Spurs and Arsenal coming off failed title challenges? Manchester United and Chelsea looking to work their way back into the top 4? It’s all a bit inverted.

Quick note: some of these predictions will look stupid in a couple of months, but I’d rather move away from the current retreads of opinions. Trying to forecast the new developments is way more entertaining than going with what standard logic would dictate! Also any shot/xG stuff comes from Michael Caley’s 15/16 table which can be found here. And generally any mention of ‘advanced numbers’ refers to stuff I’ve gleaned from other much smarter people.

1st – Manchester City

It’s now been 3 years since we saw a motivated, firing-on-all-cylinders Manchester City squad. That particular phenomenon is easy to forget after two wishy-washy seasons where title challenges failed to sustain and the spring months were spent meandering safely into the top 4, rather than the battling the heat of a title race. They can’t afford to go wandering mentally as they have often done of the last two campaigns. City need to hit the ground running and prove they have that top gear still.

Pep Guardiola’s arrival gives them the edge for me as title winners. It’s not been talked about a lot but City should score bucket-loads of goals and their juggernaut status at the Etihad will be restored. At the height of their powers, a trip to the blue half of Manchester was the hardest of the lot and gave City margin for error on their travels. Guardiola’s going to do crazy Guardiola stuff with this team and the Aguero-De Bruyne axis wasn’t exactly sterile last season. The tools are there for Guardiola to create a possession-holding, shot-creating monster of a team which will destroy lesser outfits and severely test their peers.

Doubts are easy to find as well though, which is what makes this still somewhat of an uncertain pick. This isn’t the polished array of talent Pep had at Bayern. City targeted younger but also riskier prospects in the transfer market with John Stones and Leroy Sane the most notable additions. Their defence will survive often on account of some ridiculous 70% possession rate but Pep won’t get away with stuff like Kolarov at centre back. That shit won’t fly. Aguero probably needs to play 32+ games as well which is no guarantee and City have other injury risks (Gundogan, Kompany) that they’ll need to survive the absence of at times. But the potential that their attacking output has just makes it hard for me to not have them winning the league. I think they’ll be the top scorers in the league and come out on top. But it’ll be close.

2nd – Arsenal

Rory Smith once said something along the lines of “It’s so hard to write about Arsenal. Everything’s already been said.” That was at least 2 years ago and everything is much the same. New striker, central defence, soft mentality etc etc…none of these need extensive detailing. The problem for Arsenal is that their season is essentially going to become relevant in February. We know they’ll be good. Everyone is just waiting to see them redeem past mistakes. You want to be in the title conversation? Don’t get bullied by Marcus Rashford and his friends and don’t lose to Swansea’s reserves.

Those endlessly rehashed issues are often outed as myths and rightly so. The advanced numbers really like Arsenal’s defence and Olivier Giroud. A similar campaign to 15/16 would put them in range of the title without the greatest sporting story (Yes.) getting in the way. Granit Xhaka looks like a good signing who fits well into Arsenal’s scheme and also brings a bit of fire to the team. (I know we often relegate the idea of mentality and such to ‘proper football men’, but Arsenal are soft at times and could do with Xhaka’s prickish-ness. It’s just true.) Ozil is settled as possibly the league’s best creative force and Sanchez, who’s underlying numbers were still great last year and never translated into goals, should rebound even after playing another international tournament. At some point, Arsenal will have a season free of injuries to key contributors.

Unfortunately any progression Arsenal make can only face judgement once 2017 is well underway – unless they implausibly pull away from the rest of the league early on. I see the xG darlings being really good again and good enough to rub shoulders in an actual title race for the first time in ages. It’s just instinctual for me to side with Manchester City over Arsenal when it gets down to the nitty gritty in May.

3rd – Manchester United

This was the one. I really, really, really wanted to go balls out and pick United to miss the top 4. My body was willing me to make it so. But, man, Mourinho. Jose fucking Mourinho. I can’t bet against him that much. If anyone else was at the helm I’d go for it but Mourinho is a man who wins lots of football matches. His presence plus Zlatan and Pogba’s brings a bit of the trepidation back for teams visiting Old Trafford. United have global stars again. Fuck. I’d enjoyed their hiatus.

There are so many reasons I wanted to doubt them. The strains of the Europa League, Zlatan being old (I saw him mask a terrible performance with a goal in the Community Shield firsthand), Rooney being shit. Many factors. I do wonder if Mourinho might just tank Europa League this year, I don’t think the United hierarchy places much importance on it and a swift exit opens the door for a serious knock at the title. Rooney is also definitely getting dropped before Christmas and the press will make a big deal of it even though it should have happened a while ago.

Ultimately, I think Mourinho fashions his typical winning team out of a Schneiderlin-?-Pogba midfield and plenty of athleticism around Zlatan. The battles with Guardiola’s City will be particularly fascinating. The title will be in play for sure. But Mourinho has to fashion an elite attack and after United were 14th in shots last year and 10th in xG, there’s a lot of ground to make up. They should be in the mix, but the meshing that’s required and it being Mourinho’s first season, I see them falling short this time around.

4th – Liverpool

The first big shout! Choosing Liverpool over Chelsea and Spurs – two teams that I see as being really good still – is brave, if I say so myself. While the managerial narrative is one I wanted to avoid, Klopp is easily the biggest factor in my confidence about them. I think Liverpool will be that side that gets absolutely rolling and it’ll seem so obvious that we’ll wonder how we missed them before the season. This is me trying to get ahead of the curve.

Sturridge’s health remains a huge question, but the array of attacking midfielders makes me optimistic for their prospects with or without him. After a full preseason of his tuition, this team is going to be fucking relentless. Mane and Firmino can press, Coutinho’s 13/14 peak came with him tackling and battling in midfield, Lallana is intense and Wijnaldum can get about. Even up front, Origi can do some stuff and Ings can soak up a few minutes. This crew is backed up by Jordan Henderson and an ever-improving Emre Can. Teams will get flustered when Liverpool get in their faces and the attacking talent they possess should see the excellent shot numbers (2nd in total shots and shots on target after Klopp’s arrival) continue.

That number is slightly inflated by Coutinho deciding to pull the trigger from anywhere inside 30 yards but the point remains: Liverpool are going to keep coming at you and at you until you break. The defence is gradually getting there too. While the pressing further up does a lot of the hard work, Lovren gradually improved and Clyne is as solid as solid comes. They’ll need some luck and to ride out Mignolet until they can give Karius his chance, but they also have a clear schedule with no Europa League. I’m all aboard the ‘Liverpool top 4’ train.

5th – Chelsea

I’ll admit, this positioning is mostly a product of me being committed to fitting Liverpool into the top 4. It’s more an indictment of the quality of competition than Chelsea’s own failings. At least 1 good team is missing out on the top 4 this season and probably more than that.

Conte and Kante. If Chelsea can stick to the tried-and-trusted defence+Hazard recipe that has served them well before, there will be no chance of the 15/16 shambles. It’s sounding like Conte’s first priority is to plug the gaps and it helps that they’ve signed the best defensive midfielder in the league. (Yep.) N’Golo Kante is really fucking good. I know that’s not groundbreaking analysis but I hope you can see it means more coming from me. I’m going to miss Kante. Long live his only ever Leicester goal, a scuffed attempt that crept through Heurelho Gomes’ legs.

Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi seems like a perfectly fine striker rotation, even if Costa goes completely haywire with the new rules regarding on-pitch behaviour. The rest of Chelsea creative force worries me a little and is what led me to take United and Liverpool over them. I’ve never been a Willian guy and Oscar has done nothing over the last 18 months. That’s a lot of responsibility being shifted to a diminutive Belgian who has shown good form and fitness for only the last 3 months. They’ll be a difficult team to face, but I don’t see it all coming together in Conte’s first season.

6th – Spurs

Oh, Spurs. I don’t even mind Spurs. I detested them when they were bearing down on Leicester during March and April, but once Hazard curled that gorgeous equaliser in and pint after pint rained down where I was, the red mist lifted. They were Spurs again.

Nothing in their advanced numbers suggest this is a team that would regress so badly back into that familiar Europa League deadzone we call 6th place. This was the team that had shots flying from all over and were the best pressing team in the league. They’re young which suggests improvement and at the very least, no deterioration of performance. But a few factors and sheer default with 5 other top quality teams has them in 6th.

Firstly, I think they’ll start slowly. Mousa Dembele is irreplaceable. Go find yourself an uber-athletic, ball carrying midfielder that presses and defends the shit out of opposing attacks. You can’t. A Dier-Wanyama tandem to hold the fort will be solid but slightly plodding and Spurs already move the ball quite slowly at times. The other big issue is Kane. Sorry, set-piece maestro Harry Kane. Maybe I’m just a severely scarred England fan, but I don’t see Kane hitting quite the same heights this year. That’s not to say what he did in the last two seasons was flukey, Kane’s really good. I just feel like he’s really looking burnt out and will cool off a bit with Janssen taking some minutes from him as well.

Poor Spurs.

7th – Everton

This pick is provided with the condition that Romelu Lukaku stays with them throughout the season. More and more, I’m starting to think Koeman fits really well with Everton. His ultra-conservative approach was frustrating to witness from a distance when Tadic and Mane were sitting next to each other on the bench, but the results were indisputable.

Swapping out Stones for Williams is probably a net gain for Everton in the 16/17 season as well. Him and Jagielka gives them a solid base with James McCarthy being nasty just in front of them, although Gareth Barry needs to be shelved and exclusively brought out for League Cup outings. Everton were already average in xGA and any improvement there would turn the Toffees into a postively good defensive team.

Weirdly, Koeman may have his work cut out on the other end. Barkley makes for a frustrating watch at times but he posted good shot numbers and Koeman will hopefully stop the nonsense of putting Barkley in midfield which Martinez couldn’t get away from last season. Lukaku is Lukaku, a top 5 PL striker. Koeman needs to create some sort of attacking structure, even if it’s cross+cross+cross. I like the concept of Everton with a real identity and think they’ll surprise many this year.

8th – Southampton

Despite the continued hemorrhaging of players to the North-West and…China, Southampton are still in a good spot. Claude Puel looks likely to jazz things up a bit which will be a nice change of pace aesthetically. Saints also appear to be gambling on some lower-usage attacking players growing into new roles. Shane Long had as good a 15/16 season as he could have had really, but relying on him to be your main striker? I don’t know.

The low-usage gambles continue with Dusan Tadic sticking around to presumably become the focal point of the attack. You saw what Payet did last year when West Ham funneled everything into him, it’s not hard to envinsion something similar with Tadic. And finally, Nathan Redmond gets to play with a real team that isn’t using Cameron Jerome as its starting striker! I’m excited to see how he gets on and if he can really pick up consistent minutes as an out-and-out forward.

The backline looks solid again and Fraser Forster will again have two games this season where he stops 8 ridiculous shots and keeps a clean sheet. In the middle of the park it gets a bit shady and a bit reliant on younger talent. Jordy Clasie might be good, but no one really knows until he plays over 2000 Premier League minutes in a season. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is an economical pickup that will probably work out because it’s bloody Southampton and everything they touch turns into a good player. While an 8th place finish isn’t really eye-catching, the means with which they get there could be.

9th – Leicester

Hm. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. They could set a record low for points and I could live with it.

Leicester will face certain speed bumps this year. Teams will show them a lot more respect (although many seem to overlook that Leicester dealt with this for more than half of last season and won the title but, hey) especially at the King Power. Mahrez will depart in the New Year for AFCON. Kante is gone and a Drinkwater-King midfield will get shredded by any half-decent team. This puts a lot of onus on Mendy or possibly Amartey, which it’s unlikely they live up to. The defence came to be the foundation of their title-race triumphs but it’s on that end that I think we’ll get exposed more this season.

Vardy’s still here, Mahrez is just about still here and Ahmed Musa is exciting as fuck. Demarai Gray is fine as a part-time impact player. I love Jeff Schlupp. Leicester’s attack should be good once again, with that frightening quintet running at defences in turn. This season and probably the next few are free hits for Ranieri. I love him, Leicester loves him. No matter what any other team does, it just won’t quite be Leicester winning the title. Sorry about that.

10th – Bournemouth

Here’s where it gets fun. Bournemouth were a cute team that I was fond of but thought of as relegation probables until it came to the end of March and they were practically safe. Eddie Howe’s team pop the ball around really nicely and Wilson started out extremely hot before picking up an injury. Benik Afobe was a January addition who looked lively and Bournemouth even turned Josh King into a goalscorer, an understated feat. They can create chances.

Looking at the advanced stuff and there’s reason to be optimistic about their defence too. Bournemouth conceded 59 non-penalty goals last season, a whopping 13 more than their xGA. While there’s a good chance this improves, it might help if they play someone not named Artur Boruc as their starting goalkeeper.

£15M on Jordon Ibe is a gamble and they’ll also have Max Gradel returning to boost their already ample fleet of speedy attackers. Howe seems like a genuinely good manager. For the past half dozen or so seasons there has always been one second-year team that flourishes. Newcastle, Swansea, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Leicester…Bournemouth?

11th – Stoke

This is getting into the 4th year of Mark Hughes’ Stoke reign. What do we have? A super streaky team that is powered by some tempermental wingers and whatever Jon Walters is able to muster up on that particularly day. The defence is pretty unremarkable (15th in xGA) and last season saw some particularly torrid outings where they completely rolled over. Somehow I ended up watching a lot of Gianelli Imbula down the stretch of last season and wasn’t impressed in the slightest, but he’s young and should improve some. Joe Allen, is a low-risk, medium-reward signing that provides some much-needed consistency.

The good thing about Stoke is that once or twice a season they’ll smash a top side because Arnautovic will hit two in from outside the box. It’s that sort of crazy variance in their shots that makes them a bit of an unknown at times, yet it all came out even last season as their xG and xGA pretty much matched what they actually produced. Weird, weird team. Mid-table looks likely again.

12th – West Ham

Bit controversial. West Ham looked scary with Payet and a gang of athletic runners sprinting around him, but their underlying numbers were mediocre. I’m also sceptical about the chances of Payet replicating his set-piece proficiency. Remember Yaya in 13/14? Yeah, like we ever saw that again.

I’m not a fan of Andy Carroll and he’ll get hurt at some point anyway. Their team is super wide open at times as well in the middle of the park, but don’t mention that to the Mark Noble militia. This prediction is nothing against West Ham. Like everyone else, I love Slaven Bilic. But the amount of smart people saying that they outperformed their numbers last year sways me to believe they’ll sink in the bottom half. Making it into the Europa League groups should pose an interesting question regarding their squad depth too.

13th – Crystal Palace

Palace are a little bit like Stoke-ish with their reliance on hot n’ cold wingers. The inclusion of Yohan Cabaye in their team has become something of a headache, with the Frenchman’s defensive contribution approaching that of a nonplussed Fabregas at times. At this point in his career, Cabaye needs two actual midfielders behind him or alongside him, which leads Pardew to drop one of Puncheon, Zaha or Bolasie. It’s certainly a conundrum that wasn’t solved for long stretches of last season and will need a prompt resolution.

Palace also need a striker. Proposed deals for Berahino and Benteke are yet to fully materialise, if either of those were to rock up at Selhurst Park then I’d probably bump their prediction up a spot or two, especially for Berahino. All I know is that the flair of Zaha and Bolasie should not be leading to Connor Wickham getting a measly 1.5 shots a game off. Get Palace a striker or I can’t see past another mediocre season.

14th – Sunderland

It’s good to see Moyes back. Seriously.

Sunderland continue to be the dumpster fire that never dies out, but this time the apocalyptic starts to their past few seasons seems less likely to be repeated. Moyes is steady and knows the league well, unlike predecessors Advocaat, Poyet and Di Canio. Jermaine Defoe does very little but create goals for himself, which is just enough for a lower Premier League side. The potential of Sunderland’s attack starts and finishes with Defoe’s individual output though, which is a bit disheartening.

More rejected centre-halves have been shot through the pipeline from Manchester United right into the Stadium of Light and Moyes is good enough to craft a passable defence from all the big bodies Sunderland have. Maybe it’ll be good enough to not sweat out a relegation battle this time.

15th – Middlesborough

It’s nice to see Middlesborough back in the Premier League, a staple of my childhood. Also Sunderland would be extremely bored with no hint of a rivalry if Boro hadn’t got promoted, so that’s nice too. I like Middlesborough, but I’m a little bit worried too.

They’ve spent some money on names. Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan, Negredo. It all feels a bit…QPR. That’s never a good thing. Negredo is an interesting case. He had one season with Sevilla where he averaged 4.2 shots a game and notched 25 goals, but since then? Mixed. There was a brief but lethal mid-season partnership with Sergio Aguero in 13/14 but shoulder issues plagued him and he doesn’t seem to have re-captured that form since.

Middlesborough should be fine. They have a solid midfield by the looks of things and possessed the best defence in the Championship last season, although this has not always translated well. I want them to be fine. Please don’t be QPR North.

 

16th – Watford

The other candidate for the breakthrough team of the year is Watford, but I just don’t see it. Quique Sanchez Flores formed a sturdy core with good defensive midfielders in Etienne Capoue and Ben Watson that stonewalled the league for a lot of the season, giving up 40.4 xGA which was the 8th best mark in the league. Goals were somewhat of an afterthought in an attack that ran on Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and…fumes. But it was a structure, an identity and it worked.

Walter Mazzari has been brought in as the new manager, a self-confessed disciplinarian presiding over a squad which was rumoured to lack discipline. Hm, sounds like a risky mix to me? What really concerns me with Watford is that the amount of teams that have gone from defensive, long-ball philosophies then adapted to something different is very short. If Mazzari wants to implement anything more intricate at Watford, I could see it ending very badly.

17th – West Brom

The demise of Tony Pulis! The rumblings around West Brom with how Pulis operates make me think his departure might be in the works. Even if he sticks around, West Brom only need a couple of injuries and a fruitless run in front of goal for things to get tight. They’re not impassable as a defensive unit and they faced the 3rd most shots in the league last year. As a deep-lying team this is not unusual, but that’s still a high number and runs the risk of a few opponents converting on those chances.

The exiling of Berahino did no good for their attack. West Brom scored the fewest goals in the league last year outside of Aston Villa. If Pulis does depart, some manager is getting rushed in to try and either: keep up Pulis’ defensive structure (unlikely) or turn West Brom into something resembling an average attacking side (also unlikely).

I think they’ll be safe, but they’ll have to work for it.

18th – Burnley

Burnley have rolled it over again with the same economical plan but essentially with Andre Gray swapped in for Danny Ings. I like Gray as the possible breakout striker from the lower half of the table and Burnley’s goals will have to come from somewhere. As much as I dislike Dyche’s endless ‘market leaders’ rhetoric, he’s a pretty good coach and Burnley will make a good fight of it.

I just don’t think their talent is up for the task again. If they had one more creator, I could maybe get on board…but it’s not there. You know what you’re getting with Burnley. They work hard, they’ll never self-destruct and beat themselves. They just probably won’t beat many other teams either.

19th – Swansea

This one really does make me sad. Swansea were the rare team that came up from the Chamionship and succeeded by dominating the ball. They were full of Spaniards and Michu was there and it was just fun. Now? I don’t feel so good. Ashley Williams’ sale was slightly surprising too and leaves more than a hole in their defensive line.

Gylfi Sigurdsson might have to go nuts and grab like 20 goals for Swansea to sniff midtable – which isn’t happening.

Andre Ayew is gone and although Nathan Dyer scored one crucial goal for Leicester, he didn’t do a whole lot else and there’s little chance he can even remotely replace Ayew’s production. Who else is there? I mean, Jefferson Montero is a nice piece but he doesn’t score. Routledge? Llorente is washed up, according to multiple people who’ve watched more Llorente than me. Borja Baston is unproven but will need to hit the ground running or this could get ugly for Swansea.

20th – Hull

Why do I still think Hull pull off some bullshit result over Leicester before slipping to the bottom of the table? I don’t know. It was this fear psychology that allowed me to survive the title race last April. Leicester should smash them, but probably won’t. Hull are a complete mess as many now know with injuries, a poisonous owner situation and no manager. Very Sacramento Kings.

There’s reason to believe that Hull won’t be completely marooned at the bottom. Abel Hernandez is a nice option for a lower Premier League side and Curtis Davies is a solid centreback. If everyone comes back healthy and stays that way, Hull could make a go of it. But envisioning that requires lots of squinting. Toxic clubs hardly ever perform well. Toxic clubs with injury issues and a caretaker manager are…fucked.

Midweek Review – from fantasybet.com

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Leicester win in sensational fashion against Liverpool, Manchester City are hot on their tails and Arsenal…are not. Here’s 5 things we learned from the midweek extravaganza:

It’s a sad sad situation

The West Midlands’ Premier League representatives, West Brom and Aston Villa, aren’t having the greatest of seasons. Tony Pulis continues to commit crimes to football, starting 4 CBs and 2 defensive midfielders against the might firepower of Swansea. But anything the Baggies are doing pales in comparison to the campaign their local rivals are having. Villa’s campaign has been so bad it’s basically transcendent.

Jordan Ayew, who’s been the one barely shining light in the past couple of months, surrendered his responsibilities in the game with a blatant elbow on Aaron Cresswell. West Ham finished the job against the sorry 10 men of Villa, but an even sadder picture was to be seen on the sideline. Do you recall Pepe Mel, West Brom’s forlorn manager in the 13/14 season? Imagine him with a French accent and an entirely different physical appearance, but with the same eyes. Those same, sad, suffering eyes. That’s Remi Garde. Let’s just expel Villa from the Premier League now?

Dele Alli’s points are no fluke

When Tottenham signed Dele Alli a year ago in the January transfer window, it seemed like a standard move to amass as much talent as possible by another Premier League. A loan move to a Championship club looked to be on the cards, or if he stayed at Spurs then a season of watching from the subs’ bench. Er, nope.

Not enough people seem to be recognising how amazing it is that Alli is ready to contribute this soon at his age. 19 year old midfielders starting week in, week out for a possible top 4 team? Yeah, that doesn’t happen too often. It’s also easy to dismiss Alli’s efforts, the goalscoring especially, as just a purple patch of form. Goals from central midfield are an elusive, inconsistent element in football and flash-in-the-pan stretches do occur for the likes of Mark Noble and James Morrison over the course of 38 games. However you only have to watch half an hour of Spurs play to see the runs Alli makes and the volume in which he makes them. Given Eriksen’s passiveness at times, Alli is essentially a second striker at times for Spurs.

It’s why Henderson still feels like a nice option in FPL to me. If midfielders get themselves into those positions over and over again, good things do eventually happen.

Guess who’s back, back, back

I’ve actually resisted writing about Leicester too often, just for the sake of being impartial. No longer. When Vardy’s long range strike went in my voice chords were briefly out-of-order and the second, albeit hardly as fashionable a goal as the first, led to another setback of my ability to speak without rasping. Vardy was 100% for the Stoke game and this game. You already know what happens when Vardy’s fully fit. He scores.

It wasn’t hard to notice that something was wrong with Vardy, from Boxing Day onwards. Even at Everton, where he notched 2 assists, he didn’t have that blazing speed that ripped through the league in the Autumn. After his month-long blip the England international is back and scarier than ever, if he’s now choosing to score from outside the box as well.

Nothing’s certain in FPL though. After Manchester City and Arsenal, Leicester have a pretty soft fixture list which looks ever so inviting for owners of Vahrez. However it might also present the first extended run of games where opponents hunker down against them and sit deep. Aston Villa got a result against Leicester’s doing this but that also came in the stretch where Vardy wasn’t quite his scumbag self so, who knows? It’s going to be so, so exciting to follow and you should definitely spend your Saturday morning/lunchtime watching events play out at the Etihad between the top two teams in the league.

Fraser Forster can help Southampton get back to what they do best

I didn’t watch Arsenal game against Southampton live — Leicester were busy doing things — but Twitter reports were suggesting that Forster was essentially performing some of the greatest saves of all time with alarming frequency to repel Arsenal’s siege. I was suspicious. Arsenal fans have a tendency to think every goalkeeper is having a career-best game. Then I saw the extended highlights and well, ok, Forster did evoke his performance for Celtic against Barcelona a few years ago.

The result was the essence of what made Southampton so good for half of last season, the means in which they got it was very different. Instead of limiting shots they instead relied on Forster saving them over and over again, yet they still came away with the clean sheet and a point so all’s well that ends well. A lot of Southampton’s defensive regression had been put down to losing Morgan Schneiderlin and that’s still true, but Forster’s return has led to Ronald Koeman’s team having their stingiest stretch with 4 consecutive clean sheets. That alone suggests it might be a tad too late to hop onto the Southampton FPL train, but getting their No. 1 keeper back – as it would for nearly every club – will lead to an uptick in their results.

Chelsea’s attack difficult to parse

Guus Hiddink has watched his team score 9 goals in their 4 matches prior to playing Watford on Wednesday night. They also put 5 past MK Dons in the FA Cup, but their Championship opponents elected not to play a midfield in that game, so it’s hard to put much stock into that game. Diego Costa is running a lot harder and snagged his typical goal vs Arsenal, Oscar has joined Willian on the 2015/16 list of productive singularly-named Brazilian players but it’s still feels wrong to place our fantastical managerial faith in this attack.

A trip to Vicarage Road is like quality control for Premier League attacks. Chelsea couldn’t ultimately crack it but they continued their promising play. Still, we’re left to ponder how valuable the team can possibly be in FPL. Their prices are all still bloated and will be for the rest of the season. Hiddink has certainly steadied the ship but what Wednesday night’s events proved, if anything, is that Chelsea’s attack can’t be counted on against any decent defence.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Manchester City leave it late once again, Liverpool get bullied by West Ham and god damn, Chelsea really are back. Here’s 5 lessons we learned from this gameweek:

West Ham well placed to continue challenging top sides

The only downside in the Hammers’ 2-0 victory over Liverpool was that they’ve surely used up their annual ‘Andy Carroll has a good game’ card. Indeed the pony-tailed brute rose up from Liverpool’s nightmares to crash home Mark Noble’s cross, vaulting the club into the top 6. It’s been a bit of a smoke-and-mirrors effort in recent weeks, grinding out results with bench players sans Dimitri Payet.

But now the pirouetting Frenchman is back and it is highly recommended he goes back into fantasy teams. Payet came off the bench for half an hour and showed little sign of needing to acclimatize. It’s slightly amazing how much Bilic’s side already rely on Payet to create for them even though he was only signed in the summer. West Ham face  the shoddy defences of Bournemouth and Newcastle after the FA Cup next weekend. Can you honestly turn down the prospect of a well rested Payet going up against Steve Cook and Fabricio Coloccini in consecutive weeks?

Liverpool suffering same chronic issues

Jurgen Klopp was a good appointment in the long-term for Liverpool, but it’s a fair expectation that he would improve the side some this season. Instead the performance Liverpool gave against West Ham – apathetic, soft and in the case of Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke downright awful – was similar to the corresponding fixture last season, a 3-1 defeat. It doesn’t bode well for Klopp that despite his ranting, raving and long-haired presence on the touchline Liverpool are failing to deal with the same issues that have plagued them for years.

Good teams always have bogey fixtures, but Liverpool genuinely can’t be trusted to turn up against any frisky mid-table side and it’s been this way for years. This inconsistency as well as being average in both attack and defence makes their squad a terrible option in fantasy football for the most part. They have the arrogance and tempo of a team that possesses real quality despite showing the latter sporadically. There’s issues to be fixed that run deep through the team, perhaps deeper than a managerial switch can manage.

Leicester trying to adapt

0-0’s can often be meritless ordeals to watch but the Foxes goalless affair against Bournemouth was definitely not an example of such. The battle lines were drawn early as Eddie Howe opted for a sort of ‘death by central midfielders’ approach, lining up in a 4-5-1 that clogged up the centre circle and its surrounding area. Claudio Ranieri this season has cycled through Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa to partner Jamie Vardy, but both have been ineffectual. It was Ulloa’s turn to start Saturday but the less said about his performance the better.

Ulloa was taken off at half time for Nathan Dyer, moving Riyad Mahrez into the centre. Ranieri knows that the league is starting to key in on Mahrez and Vardy, so the Italian is looking to unleash them in different ways. The space that Dyer provided allowed Leicester to beat Bournemouth’s midfielders. In the second half Vardy got in behind on several occasions, one time leading to a penalty and red card. It will be fascinating to see Leicester try to mold their team and sustain a top 4 challenge in the coming weeks, especially as it was announced on Sunday evening that Vardy was to have a ‘minor surgery’. Keep selecting Mahrez

for the next month and monitor the shots on target totals closely.

PS: Ulloa seriously sucks this season. Leave him alone at all costs.

Healthy Manchester City are serious threat to Arsenal

Before touting City as the best side in the league, it’s worth pointing out that Arsenal are topping the table despite not having their best player, Alexis Sanchez. But.

There’s always a but when Arsenal are top of the league. I can’t help it. Manchester City’s ceiling – with an engaged Yaya Toure, a fit Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany – is very, very difficult to top. Late goals come and go but with Manchester City’s 2-1 smash and grab outing against Watford, it felt like their quality just willed them not to lose. It wasn’t the first time such a late intervention has benefitted City this season either, really good teams find a way.

Can you count on their defence? Not really. Do they provide the same effort from game to game? Probably not. But even in this topsy-turvy season City have the pure talent that can override whatever the opposing team. Arsenal are clearly legitimate title contenders and quite rightly the current favourites. But it won’t stop them looking over their shoulders at all times, especially if Manuel Pellegrini can find a nice effective set of ankle braces for Aguero.

Academy Award Season is coming up

Excuse the dreadful joke, but Oscar is quietly starting to get it together under Guus Hiddink. Willian has been the individual highlighted by many this season but it’s reasonable to doubt that his goalscoring will continue. For Chelsea this season seven of the Brazilian’s eight goals in all competitions have come from outside the box. That rate of blasting absolute screamers into the back of the net rarely carries on for an entire season.

Oscar meanwhile looks to be driving Chelsea’s return to form. The team as a whole has had a little more ‘pop’ to them in recent weeks, dating back to their visit to Leicester when Mourinho was still employed. But Hiddink’s appointment has certainly been a catalyst for the improvement. Against a wounded Palace team, Costa made runs and Fabregas made passes that had simply stopped happening towards the end of the previous regime. Eden Hazard left the game early with some sort of injury which leaves some creative slack to be picked up by Oscar, increasing his chances of points.

Chelsea are definitely back which evokes mixed feelings for me, but if the fantasy manager inside of you wants to benefit, Oscar should be the Chelsea midfield pick over Willian.

 

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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As it often does, the crammed festive period brought around some interesting results, plenty of goals and pretty much everything except an Aston Villa win. Here’s 5 things we learned:

Arsenal will keep bouncing back

There was a lot of talk about how Arsenal suffer under the pressure of being true title contenders, after a 4-0 hiding at the hands of Shane Long and Southampton. While a home game against Bournemouth was a pleasant opportunity to respond, Arsenal do tend to respond to their domestic calamities quite well. They opened the 13/14 season and then this season with home losses to Aston Villa and West Ham. Both losses were followed by several wins, most coming in the comfortable fashion we’re accustomed to seeing Arsenal win in.

The main issue with Arsenal is that their defeats are never all that quiet. A tough, usually televised game suddenly becomes a disastrous flaming inferno fueled by Arsenal fans screaming #WengerOut. This time however, it might have worked in their favour. The pressure was definitely lifted from Arsenal a bit after the two results this week and now they’re free to tackle what looks a soft-ish schedule in January. Barring any complete slump in form, the Gooners next big test will be when Bayern Munich come to visit in February and potentially distract them from their league opponents too.

Aston Villa are going down

Remi Garde’s reign has been very quietly documented but that’s because essentially very little has changed. Villa are awful. That is not up for debate, and the comparisons to Leicester’s grave situation last year and the possible escape are a little off the mark. At this point in the season last year, yes, Leicester were bottom but they had 13 points and were only 3 points from safety. For comparison, Villa are sitting on 8 points and are 11 points shy of climbing out of the danger zone. As well as this, Leicester were playing good football just without the results to show for it, which is a far cry from the product Tim Sherwood and Garde have trotted out this season.

Is there anything to salvage from this season, surely lost now to the waiting arms of relegation? Jordan Ayew has looked lively under the new manager, and will provide a different option all season in the sub-6.0 range. But Ayew, the small bright spot is now suspended for 1 game which sums it all up really. Rudy Gestede…maybe? That’s really starting to scrape the barrel there and shows just how devoid of quality Villa’s squad is right now. Maybe the Championship will be good for them.

Stoke reaping rewards of Shaqiri investment

Everton’s defensive faults manifested themselves at home once again, but sometimes things happen. Sometimes, those things are sweet, sweet strikes from a certain Swiss right boot. Xherdan Shaqiri’s half-volley was a gorgeous strike but Mark Hughes will have been equally pleased by the way his side is now creating and converting chances. The Potters are starting to harness the potential of summer signing Shaqiri while getting consistent contributions from Marko Arnautovic. The bulky Austrian with a spiky temperant is often a handful but his talent was often seen in flashes.

Stoke have a very similar makeup to Crystal Palace, given that both attacks are largely reliant on good performances by their wingers. Hughes in recent weeks has mirrored their South London counterparts by playing 4 winger-type players with Bojan as the main forward. It seems to have unlocked the space for Shaqiri and Co. to attack from behind but I’m sure Mame Biram Diouf still has an influential part to play this season. Peter Crouch continues to look on in lanky bemusement.

Spurs will go as far as Kane and late, late goals will take them

While their North London rivals had a more dramatic week with opponents from the South Coast, Tottenham are creeping up on the title race. Spurs scored freely in the win over Norwich before pulling out a tight one against an ever-stern Watford outfit. Late goals, often from Christian Eriksen, were a huge feature of their wins last season but their wins this season appear a lot more sustainable.

It’s easy to forget that Spurs have only lost twice this season. One of those came courtesy of a Kyle Walker OG in a stodgy season opener at Old Trafford. The second was at home to Newcastle, which has proven to be something of a bogey fixture for Spurs in recent years. Their defence has conceded the fewest goals in the league and that level of performance should be maintained during the season. But to seriously entertain title chances, they will need Kane to continue excelling. Perhaps involving Son Heung-Min more would help, as the Korean often provides another outlet up front and allows Kane to drop deep where he is most effective.

Morgan Schneiderlin could prolong Louis van Gaal’s reign

For most of the season, the main gripe with what the Dutchman was doing with Manchester United was that they were boring. Stout, solid and extremely difficult to beat – but judged by most as dull. Their defensive prowess led to many raving about Chris Smalling, but the man who really deserved credit was Schneiderlin. It was he who was dropped by LVG looking for some more inspired play going forward, but the stagnant attack remained and United had sacrificed their one redeeming quality – a suffocating defence.

Although injuries did play their part in United’s recent swoon, Chris Smalling was present while United shipped goals to below par teams. It’s clear that Schneiderlin is United’s best defensive midfielder and if Louis van Gaal wants to remain at the helm he will have to keep playing the Frenchman.  United arrested their slide with a sober draw against Chelsea, keeping a clean sheet on Schneiderlin’s first start since the 0-0 draw at home to West Ham. If he’s getting a run in the team again then picking up United defenders would be highly recommended.

 

 

 

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Embrace Jamie Vardy

Of course, don’t literally embrace Vardy, he’s most likely to spit in your face. The England International is already disliked for generally being a horrible player for everyone to play against. Watching his hardened face and busy elbows up against your club that week is rather like having a sneaky swig of someone’s gin at a house party: quick, reckless and only produces the sensation of vomit tunneling up your trachea. But like your Dad will say with the gin, “You get a bottle yourself when you’re older, more experienced and you’ll love it son.”. The same will occur with Vardy. Once he’s in your weekend lineup, you might just love him.

A feature of Vardy that often isn’t mentioned in discussion is what an intelligent player he is. Give him 90 minutes and two central defenders to hassle: he will force an error at some point. This streetwise mentality was illustrated on Saturday in drawing the foul which lead to the penalty for the opener. With power Vardy dispatched it himself, making it his 6th goal in the previous 5 league games. His performance was dominating and quite honestly, quintessentially Vardy.

Of course there is sure to be a cooling off period at some point along the schedule and Leicester also have the mother of all horrific fixture runs over Christmas. It is very possible that those two events will coincide, so be sure to uncork your highly-pressurised bottle of Jamie Vardy soon before his inevitable return to normal form or 8-game suspension. Whichever comes first.

Don’t embrace Cameron Jerome

Norwich’s Premier League campaign that preceded this one was a lesson in how not to construct your team looking for goals. Anyone remember Ricky van Wolfswinkel? Gary Hooper? If so, you shouldn’t.

There has deservedly been credit given to Alex Neil for instilling a more attacking mindset  and what we’ve seen in these first two months has shown marked improvement from the East Anglian side after their drop into the Championship. Nathan Redmond in particular has wielded far more influence over games than he was able to do two years ago. However if their last campaign was a lesson learnt, then this years is one still ongoing.

Cameron Jerome cannot lead a Premier League attack. Norwich have been attempting to rely on a striker who surprisngly allergic to finding the net in the top flight. In 125 career Premier League starts Jerome has bagged 31 goals and that total includes any he scored coming off the bench. Tony Pulis managed to pull the trick off starting Jerome for some games during Crystal Palace’s escape in that same season Norwich were relegated. But Pulis doesn’t need goals to prevent relegation, just a cap and a mild Welsh accent. Norwich will need more from their frontline and Mbokani’s goal will probably earn him the starting spot next week. At 6.0M he’s a tempter. Jerome meanwhile may continue to provide pace, strength and workrate – anything but goals.

We’ll all pick Aguero – now we’re justified

What about those premium players and their struggles? Last week Alexis Sanchez announced his arrival on the scene in dramatic fashion with a hat-trick. A similar occurence this week then, only Sergio Aguero didn’t announce his return to form – he screamed it through a megaphone to the banging tune of 5 goals.

Manchester City are near unplayable at home save for an anomalous result once a season or so (West Ham this year, Stoke the last). A fixture up against the defensively challenged Bournemouth should be circled on every fantasy player’s calendar as a day to captain the Argentine striker. It’s a mighty risk to ever leave him out and this isn’t the time to go looking for differentials up front.

Testing power of the honeymoon period

Dick Advocaat’s had resignation eyes for weeks betraying his true feelings with each passing post-match interview. Although Sunderland have been abominable much of the season, one gets the nagging sense that it could turn around for them. We’ve seen the brief honeymoon effect with Di Canio, Poyet and Advocaat at the helm. Do we dare bank on it happening a fourth time?

They showed signs of consciousness at the weekend, if not quite fully fledged life, before letting a 2 goal lead slip. It’d be worth a cheap punt on a Sunderland player or two, especially in the Tyne-Wear derby where the Black Cats transform themselves into Barcelona for one weekend.  Sunderland purely existing to be one giant practical joke on Newcastle is one explanation as to why they drift through the season just to defeat their arch-rivals once more.

Christian Eriksen will be a sleeper

I could be smug here and tell you that I transferred in Eriksen before this weekend where he bagged two freekicks. I won’t, though.

We’ve already seen how lucrative it can be to select players who are the fulcrums of their respective attacks: Payet, Silva, Vardy all returning substantial point returns. For the same price you could go for Memphis Depay or Raheem Sterling, both on the fringes of play, or instead the Danish midfielder who Tottenham channel the majority of their goings forward through.

After the international break his 2 goals may have been forgotten by some and he’ll be facing Liverpool who will probably be sans manager. Let everyone else pick the star sidekicks at the Manchester clubs, Christian Eriksen can run things just fine for Spurs.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Everton’s attack is back

After a disappointing season languishing in mid table, Everton gave all a reminder of their potential with a 3-1 victory over Chelsea. Roberto Martinez went too far in last year’s campaign to keep the ball at all times and switched things up this year, giving Romelu Lukaku a friend to play with up front in Arouna Kone. The result is far more direct play that thrives on the counter attack. With this setup Ross Barkley now plays behind two strikers and, like many attacking players in the hole, has looked vastly improved compared to previous abject showings. Martínez faffed about trying to put a square peg into a swiss roll when he experimented with Barkley in a deeper position last season, but hopefully the Spaniard is content to leave him in his current position.

The main difficulty with Everton is knowing what fixtures they thrive in. They’ll experience both ends of the spectrum with visits to Old Trafford and The Hawthorns in the next few weeks. With defence never being Everton’s forté, John Stones makes for an underwhelming fantasy pick compared to his real life performances. Lukaku looks set to be having his best non-loan season and should continue to rack up points. It’s splendid to see Everton’s enterprising attack return, after last year’s hiatus.

Beware Manchester City away from home

The league leaders have asserted themselves in every game so far. At home they’re a juggernaut, if you don’t pick any City players when the fixture is at the Etihad, think again. Their suffocation of possession and widespread talent is a recipe for fantasy success. Joe Hart kept the most clean sheets last season and 185 goals over the last two seasons speaks for City’s potency going forward.

Manuel Pellegrini’s team isn’t a one trick pony. This season has already seen them pick up maximum points away to Everton and West Brom with none conceded. If anything, they can dominate games and break down a deep-lying defence better than any side in the league. But give them a feisty tackle, a hostile atmosphere and a fired-up, possibly tipsy Alan Pardew to rile up his Argentine counterpart – Manchester City lose their way somewhat. Petulance is something that runs through their side and it was never clearer than on Saturday. Once their natural flow was disrupted the passing began to go askew and the attacks were repeatedly halted. Granted they were missing David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero but the difference in their temperament was palpable. Fortunately for them they got away with it this weekend due to Kelechi Iheanacho’s late intervention. (who else? Classic Iheanacho.)

At the Etihad City are still a banker against three quarters of the league. There’s no fixture that makes the Citizens a no-go zone for your side, but see caution in away fixtures against sides like Palace, Stoke and Leicester. The Champions League is getting into the swing of things this week, Sergio Aguero’s status is questionable after Scott Dann’s reducer and their next two away league games are at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford. Perhaps it would be wise to moderately temper expectations for City when they go on their travels.

Rodgers fails to recognise the true issues with Liverpool

This isn’t something we learnt this weekend, but it seems apt to discuss it now. Around an hour before kick-off at Old Trafford, Rodgers handed out another line-up that was difficult to parse. Danny Ings, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke could have comprised an effective diamond. Rodgers instead told Ings to man the left wing and Firmino to float around aimlessly, if we’re to go by the Brazilian’s performance. Lovren kept his spot and further enhanced Morgan Schneiderlin’s and Jose Fonté’s reputations as the rare players who made the Croat look decent. Joe Gomez, a centre-half who was signed from Charlton Athletic, a midtable Championship team, suddenly didn’t look like a ready-made Premier League left-back. Quelle surprise.

The main issue with Liverpool still is the insistence, presumably from Rodgers, to play the ball out from defence. Gary Neville touched on it when commentating, but this is something that has been a continuous thorn in Rodgers’ side for 2 years, perhaps more. Even when they had all the success in 2013/14, the defence repeatedly conceded possession with alarming frequency.

Like with many big clubs right now, it’s tough to see Liverpool’s true plan, on the field or off. There’s a plethora of attackers for Rodgers to use but it only seems to tempt him into increasingly wacky systems that couldn’t possibly be part of any ‘philosophy’. He needs to establish a core of players to build up on and quickly. You get the sense he won’t be given the time to do so.

Villa aren’t ready to push on

Fantasy football isn’t just about knowing when to pick up the in-form players, it’s equally crucial to snuff out the fool’s gold. We may have our first example with Aston Villa this weekend. They took a 2-0 lead with fantastic strikes from Carles Gil and a Peaky Blinders extra Jack Grealish. You could forgive many for thinking Villa were sneaking a win as they have often managed to do away from home the past few years. De Laet, Vardy and Dyer all piped up with objections and in the space of 20 minutes it was Goodnight, Mister Tim.

Our favourite gilet model unchained Villa from the defensive restraints imposed by his predecessor, Paul Lambert. Under the Scot, somehow the side made pace look boring with central midfielders often refusing to venture further than the halfway line. The now departed Christian Benteke was often the only player worthy of selection for a fantasy side, unless you bought into Andreas Weimann’s inevitable early season form. But with Sherwood, have some possible budget options have emerged?

Um, no, not really. The attacking options aren’t pretty. Gil picked up an injury, and Grealish’s looks promising but Bakary Sako appears one of many more favourable picks in that price bracket. The best option, Scott Sinclair, is in a random purple patch that he hasn’t shown signs of since 2012. Rudy Gestede didn’t start on Sunday. Gabby Agbonlahor still lives in 10-foot barge pole territory and manages to look overweight while being fast. Please sir, can we have our Libor Kozak back?

Newcastle are the same as last year, sans drama

West Ham and Dimitri Payet, who is looking very tidy indeed, took up much of the analysis on Monday Night Football with Carragher and Neville. A less exciting takeaway is that Newcastle look absolutely identical to last year and the year before, just without the overbearing farces regarding Alan Pardew, John Carver or Mike Ashley.

For all the supposed ‘overhaul’ in the summer with McClaren’s hiring and a few purchases of permanent players. It shows how the narrative switches with some noisy activity in the transfer market. Newcastle’s side has gaping holes. Vernon Anita is their main playmaker and Andreas Pirlo he most certainly is not. Papiss Cisse has quietly evolved into a poor man’s Defoe. They won’t be relegated, but if anything this season will be duller than the last. Rather than the typical pre-Christmas spike in form then a catastrophic drop off, the Magpies look set to turn their 2015/16 campaign into one big grey mush.

England Squad Round-up – Part Two

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England’s season is now finished completely after a peaceful — and utterly useless — friendly against Ireland, as well as a frighteningly exciting affair against a frisky Slovenia side. It seems an appropriate time to take stock of how the squad is evolving one year away from Euro 2016.  The tournament held in France will be the measuring stick for Hodgson for which no excuses will be made to cover inadequacy. He had a free shot at Euro 2012 and the World Cup was a disappointment but once you peeled back the initial layers of outrage at a group stage exit, there were little bits of hope to excavate from the ruins if you were willing to look hard enough. However even some of these have been marred by recent events (looking at you, Raheem).

It’s hard to see the FA sticking with the former West Brom boss if the side fails to show improvement. There has to be something there to take from the tournament, be it a quarter-final at the very least, because the safety net is well and truly gone. So Hodgson is facing the most pressure he ever has to shape his squad to an optimum level.

Unfortunately for him, it’s coincided with the most difficult period of time during Hodgson’s reign, in terms of injuries and simple lack of talent. Realistically England do not have the talent of sides who are expecting to win the tournament — Germany, Spain, maybe Belgium — but Hodgson has viable options to make a deep run in the tournament.

This time we look further up the field and also have the benefit of knowing how dire the England U21s were. Whoop de fucking do.

Central Midfielders

Michael Carrick is back! Who knew great positional sense and a solid passing range could look so sexy? Perhaps the stout midfielder’s best showing was in the Slovenia game where he didn’t actually play, kind of like how Malky Mackay’s reputation grew right after he was sacked by Cardiff. We saw the benefits of a liberated Jack Wilshere in that qualifier that ended up a legitimately exciting match. Granted, Wilshere won’t score two screamers on every showing but his optimal position is in a 3 man midfield with someone to sit back a little, which Carrick is comfortably the best at for England. Wilshere’s stint as a holding midfielder was interesting, but never appeared sustainable.

Jordan Henderson started the season in terrific form, linking together play in the same unsung manner that he did the season previous. He tailed off, but his versatility to play in the diamond or the 4-3-3 makes him an asset for Hodgson. Although his inability to carry the ball forward himself accentuates England’s main midfield issue. Fabian Delph and James Milner bring a very beige tone to the side, perhaps splashes of yellow when Delph makes a predictably rash tackle. Somehow Milner, after being unappreciated for a couple of years, is suddenly seen as the indispensable glue to a quality side and I’m not quite sure when that transition happened. But England’s midfield depth really isn’t all that, so Roy will have to hope the trio of Henderson, Carrick and Wilshere can stay healthy. Mark Noble still won’t get in and everyone outside of Upton Park frequenters isn’t really all that bothered about it.

The two formations Hodgson has shown with England – the diamond and 4-3-3 – would both work with a Henderson-Carrick-Wilshere lineup, and would be my personal choice. But Hodgson could get a little kooky and put Oxlade-Chamberlain there to jumpstart the midfield and help carry the ball upfield (a long standing issue with England, seemingly terminal). Lallana has slotted in there a few times, but against challenging opponents I can’t see Hodgson going liberal enough with his lineups to select either. Barkley had a poor season, Roberto Martinez even refuses to play him further back in midfield so he won’t feature there for England. If Ox and Lallana are left-field choices for midfield, then Barkley is a communist choice he’s that far left. Henderson-Carrick-Wilshere seems to be the inevitable group and it’s a decent one at that, but it features the huge caveat of the fitness of Wilshere, and Carrick to some extent.

Wingers

When evaluating England’s wingers, we’ll assume they’re being deployed in a 4-3-3 given that it’s the only formation Hodgson has used consistently that features them. It’s been an interestingly changeable aspect of Hodgson’s England. Routinely he would provoke pained screams from living rooms around the country as Milner was plopped in there time and again to exacerbate England’s punchless attack. But then Hodgson boldly started Oxlade-Chamberlain against France and it worked well. Who knows what’s next? All we know is he’s called the Stig it won’t be Downing, because the West Ham curse is real.

Let’s start with Raheem Sterling, who’s had a quiet summer. Maybe. Hodgson will no doubt disapprove of Sterling’s antics but has consistently found a place for him over the past year. The next step is to make sure he can fit around Rooney. Everyone knows how well he functioned in the centre for England but he also has acquitted himself well in a front three with Rooney as the striker and Welbeck (worth considering that every manager loves playing ‘dat guy’ out wide) on the opposing flank. One issue Sterling seemed to have is his overdependence on picking the ball up from midfield and trying to generate attacks by going past his man. Without Suarez, Sterling found himself with ample amounts of the ball during games and the trade-off was that he lost his scything off-ball movement. (The same thing happened with Sturridge, whose regression might not be all down to injuries). One of Brendan Rodgers main priorities should be to get Sterling moving off the ball again, if either are still at the club in the upcoming season. Looking past Sterling though, and there’s many question marks. I wrote a fair bit on the Ox here. In short, he’s still struggling to break into Arsenal’s side and risks stagnating. Three pleasant counter-points: he’s still young, always looks really bright for England and just has had really shit luck so far.

Andros Townsend. Andros, Andros, Andros. I’ll say about Townsend what I’ll say about Welbeck: People need to get over themselves and recognise what he brings, which is pace and reliable ferrying of the ball up the right wing. Like Welbeck, he seemingly performs better for England than his club. Sure, he’ll cut inside three times too many a game and have two shots blocked by a fullback in close proximity. Yes, Townsend is predictable and blatant in how he plays, but when England are into the second half of a crucial game in the Euros it’s funny what you might find yourself wishing for. There’s only so much to expect from bench contributions and I’d take Townsend in a heartbeat. He’s ballsy and in tournament football that’s more useful than you’d think. Am I wrong to call him England’s ideal impact bench player? Am I wrong to think Walcott could hold that position if he can’t force himself into the XI? Probably, on both counts.

James Milner will be in and around the squad forever. There’s a bunch of blah players that never look like making the leap again such as Wayne Routledge, Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson. I’m not quite buying the Ashley Young renaissance after being force-fed a couple years of his past England performances, but a midseason call-up wouldn’t surprise anyone. This leaves Theo Walcott as the last meaningful discussion here. But Walcott’s situation going into next season is so, so intriguing. It’s coming up to a decade since his surprise call-up from Sven. After many fits and starts (and Fabio Capello being a prat and a cruel pre-World Cup injury) Walcott could be on his last chance to get into the England side. He’s supposedly in his prime yet will have to fight past several factors:

  • A couple of players now more established than him in the pecking order in Sterling and Kane. Not a mountain to climb but there’s not a Walcott sized hole in the team. Hodgson hasn’t been lamenting his absence in every press conference. There’s some serious earning to be done here.

  • Can Walcott get into Arsenal’s side again? There’s four positions that he can fill for Wenger, and although it’s cliché to say Arsenal look good for next year…Arsenal do look pretty good for next year. Santi Cazorla is kicking into vintage mode, Sanchez is half-dead right now but once Wenger’s witch doctor fully resurrects him he’s a top 5 player in the league. We all kind of know the deal with Ozil. Walcott can’t just get by on 20 minute bench cameos and midweek starts if he’s going to get back onto the international stage. You’re looking at a serious run of form or a significant injury to dislodge that front 3 permanently. Walcott must look to hit the ground running and capitalize on Sanchez’ three-week rest at the start of the season. Alternatively his best chance may come at the expense of Olivier Giroud, which leads us onto…

  • What is Walcott’s true position? Around the time of Walcott’s long-forgotten contract dispute in the winter of 2012/13, there were reports that he wanted to play through the centre. Wenger has shown that he feels differently. It only makes it harder to reintegrate Walcott with England if he’s flip-flopping between the two positions with little success. It doesn’t really make him more versatile either given that Rooney is back to being a full-time forward again.

– Finally, Walcott just isn’t an easy player to build with. Not enough people realise how idiosyncratic Walcott is now he’s older. I, with my admittedly short memory, can’t remember many like him; an inconsistent instinct finisher who features predominantly on the right but can’t cross. Outside of counter-attacking situations he can be fairly average on the ball and fades drastically in many games. Multiple factors are going to have to break perfectly for a successful Walcott return with England.

So there you have it. For what it’s worth I think Walcott does make it back into the squad, if not the XI. My prediction is England’s attack is comprised of Rooney, Sterling, Welbeck and Kane, in some variation with one left out. There isn’t a winger who looks inviting enough to sacrifice one of that quartet, at least not for Hodgson.

Attacking Midfielders

A brief discussion here and not a particularly happy one. England have struggled to summon No. 10s from the academies for whatever reason. There’s only two worth mentioning from the Premier League: Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley. If you’re willing to squint a little bit there’s almost a parallel to be drawn between the pair. Both entered the season injured. Both struggled to find the form of last season. Both…play in Liverpool. Yeah, almost a parallel.

Lallana was partially drowned by Liverpool’s plethora of attacking talent and bright moments were sparse throughout the season. Barkley’s hype still exceeds his performance and his appearances often carry the illusion of more value than they really hold. Barkley carries the ball forward albeit in a very head-down-steam-train sort of way. His vision lacks for long stretches of games and it was noted by many that his goalscoring vanished this season.

In the context of England it’s an equally gloomy picture. Barkley is surprisingly relied upon by Hodgson off the bench (he was his first sub against Italy in Manaus) but his versatility goes as far as one position. As mentioned before, even Roberto Martinez flinches when he thinks about putting Barkley deep in midfield. Lallana has played there for Hodgson but only against much inferior opposition and it seems unlikely that he’d get in over Henderson or others. Hodgson has shown a preference for athleticism in midfield with Henderson and Delph which Lallana cannot provide. Their contributions for England in the next year will likely be off the bench.

An iffy campaign of halted progress for England’s true attacking midfielders.

Strikers

Just putting it out there now, the discussion around Rooney is too difficult to simply sum up here. It’s like trying to make a 2 minute explanation on finding peace in the Middle East. The whole debate is also complicated further by the short piece of fabric wrapped around his  left arm when he represents England. The whole ‘Rooney in behind the strikers’ phase didn’t work out and he’s gone back to his roots up front. I’ll just say if he’s fit he’ll be in there and that’s that.

Hands up if you thought last year “I’d definitely think about starting Kane for England in the Euros.” would be a sentence you could say not punishable by death? Tottenham’s very own Harry Kane was the jewel of Tottenham’s typical season, a distraction from the fact they had identical issues to the Spurs side of the previous year with their backline offering a pleasant buttery resistance and the midfield a perplexing jumble of indecision.

A sincere question here about Kane – If he was black, would the whole storyline about how he was ‘England’s Harry Kane’ and ‘One of Tottenham’s own’ be so played upon? I don’t remember Welbeck receiving the same narrative when he was scoring, irregularly, for Manchester United. Sturridge’s performances during Liverpool’s title challenge weren’t accompanied by a furor of surprise that someone English was scoring. You can argue that Charlie Austin didn’t receive the same treatment with a similar goal tally, superior to Welbeck’s best season, which suggests the narrative really was based on Kane’s rise from Tottenham’s academy. But I don’t know, it just seemed slightly racially tinged to me.

Anyway, back to tangible football things. From about March onwards, Kane’s season stopped mattering. This might sound odd for an in-form striker still sort of competing for the Champions League. But from that point it became all about what Kane would do the following season. The second North London derby epitomised what his season had been all about: a bumbling, stumbling goal off a corner and then a glorious looping header into the far corner. Inexplicable fortune and then undeniable talent. 2015/16 decides whether Harry Kane will be the striker none of us predicted he could be or the subject of a brilliant Pub Quiz question in 20 years.

The issue England may face trying to shoehorn what attacking talent they have is the similarities many have in their game. Rooney has acted independent of whatever role he’s supposedly playing for years. Kane looks like a target man but is at his best dropping deep and sprinting at a bemused defence. Sterling will hang back for the ball more than he really should. Not everyone can be the one to create.

Which leads us onto Danny Welbeck. Part of Welbeck’s success with England comes down to how he actually will play like a striker. Unconventional, I know. If Welbeck continues his scoring then there is no reason why he shouldn’t start for England. Imagine Kane and Rooney as a duo with Sterling in behind. The opposition back four would have nothing to be really challenged by given the tendencies of that trio to hang back. England needs Welbeck for his pace to stretch the defence and by the looks of Arsenal’s squad Welbeck needs England to have a chance of playing. Side note: I’m tempted to make #whynotwelbeck a thing.

This has all got a bit wordy so let’s whip through a few. Austin will be in the Premier League but I doubt he scores at the same rate and his England prospects are slim. He would have to be in that same 20-25 goal range to get a sniff of the squad, mainly because…well would you pick Austin to play with Rooney? Ings with his movement and mobility seems an appropriate match with Liverpool’s attack. the problem here is envisioning Rodgers giving him 30 or so starts. You see, Ings while signing for Liverpool also signed up on the Rodgers Tactical Express™ so at various points of the season Firmino will inevitably be played as the main striker and Ings had probably prepare to play some wingback. Sturridge can hardly be evaluated after his stop-start season really.

Berahino is still yet to make his debut for England, despite his call-up in November 2014. West Brom is where he should and probably will ply his trade for the next 12 months and he will look to kick on without the burden of expectation that accumulates on players at ‘big clubs’. I personally still credit Berahino for Leicester miraculous escape by the way. His decision to shoot instead of playing in a wide open Chris Gardner in the second half allowed Jamie Vardy to steal a win for Leicester. Nice one Saido.

Speaking of Vardy, his call-up legitimately made me laugh when I first heard about it and his tenacious 15 minute performance vs Ireland will live long in the memory of Vardy’s family I’m sure. If Callum Wilson starts every game for Bournemouth he’s in with a chance of a call-up in the Autumn or Spring, but any true dark horses for the Euro squad will only reveal themselves once the season is in full swing.


That’s pretty much it. Just to wrap up the whole thing, here’s a sort of cross between my preferred line-up and what I think Hodgson will really do:

England Preferred July 2015

Chances are I’ll pull this post up in 7 months time and laugh at one of the predictions. Here’s to the multiple sad renditions of ‘The Great Escape’ we’ll hear racket around Wembley during some dire friendly.