Hal Walker reflects on Arsenal’s summer transfer window so far and whether their new arrivals can help the club challenge for a top-four spot. A year into Unai Emery’s reign at the Emirates Stadium and you would be forgiven for being just as uncertain as to what the future holds as the majority were following […]
It is 5.00pm on Saturday May 4 at the London Stadium.
The West Ham United players are completing their annual end-of-season lap of appreciation following their final home game of the season, a comfortable 3-0 victory over Southampton to ensure a rather serene summer send-off from the fans.
Familiar faces from the first team with their wives and children are present, but any attentive observer will have noticed the sad and final sight of a forgotten figure – Andy Carroll – crutches in tow, feebly walking incapacitated around the perimeter accompanied by children and girlfriend.
In many ways it was an apt final image of the player in club colours given the materialisation of a move, and career, that promised so much, to begin with, and sporadically at best since.
On May 29 West Ham announced the departure of now 30-year-old Carroll upon the season end, ending a…
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In a season where the points record for second place is on course to be comfortably beaten, it is almost predictable that the annual Professional Footballers Association Team of the Year be largely dominated by the two supreme forces likely to be duelling for the league title until the final day, Liverpool and Manchester City.
The line-up, which was voted for by fellow professionals, did not overly defer from most expectation, but it did throw a surprise inclusion for Paul Pogba. The 2018 World Cup winner has suffered see-sawing form throughout the campaign, and his presence in the PFA’s official announcement has met with collective doubt.
A certain lack of representation from clubs outside of the top 6 has also prevailed in fans’ feedback of the team award compilation, necessitating in an alternate eleven to reflect a fairer celebration of talent across the league.
Signed from relegated Swansea City for £7m last summer, it is fair to say that the 34-year-old’s arrival at the London Stadium was rather more understated than the likes of record-breaking £35m signing Felipe Anderson.
However, the former Arsenal stopper has been one of the few outstanding individuals for West Ham – who have suffered a wildly inconsistent season but at no point due to any indifferent form from their new no. 1 – displaying his highly impressive shot-stopping ability and positional awareness throughout, despite being frequently let down by an unstable back four. Outside of the top six teams, you would be hard pushed to identify a more safe and reliable goalkeeper this season.
The 21-year-old has hugely impressed for Crystal Palace in his first full maiden season, delivering a host of standout displays for Roy Hodgson’s side, and establishing himself as an established first team full-back as a result.
The Croydon-born youngster has missed just three league games so far this season, making such an impact that many pundits have bemoaned the inclusion of established stars like Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva in the PFA Young Player of the Year nominations at Bissaka’s expense.
Maintaining such form next season will inevitably pose questions about an international call-up to the England senior side and will undoubtedly trigger interest from top 6 outfits.
The Wolves captain has been a key figure in the three-man defence that Nuno Espírito Santo has deployed since the start of their 2017/18 promotion campaign, showing excellent leadership qualities alongside teammates Ryan Bennett and Willy Boly that ensure Wolves boast the fifth best defensive record in the league.
Coady’s wide-ranging passing range, combined with his physical robustness in the tackle and aerial prowess has not only contributed so much to Wolves’ season, but has made him one of the most intimidating and awkward defenders for attackers to face in the league.
One of the Premier League’s most underrated defenders. The Belgian suffered last season in a campaign blighted by injuries and contract issues but following an excellent World Cup showing, he has rediscovered his solidity and dependableness this season, delivering match-winning performances on numerous occasions for Mauricio Pochettino’s men – not least in their recent heroic Quarter-Final beating of Manchester City in the Champions League.
Possessing a proficient reading of the game, adept at dealing with aerial threats as well as being more than competent at building play from the back and, the 29-year-old can count himself unfortunate to have not been included in the season’s PFA TOTY.
The 34-year-old made an early impact in Watford’s early pace-setting form this season, scoring once and contributing four assists from the same number of opening games and has not let his form dip since, proving one of the Hornet’s key players in their run to the FA Cup Final and quest for 7th.
What the Greek full-back lacks in pace is compensated in the quality of his crossing from the left wing. Now boasting three goals and 6 six assists to his name, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the only defenders to have set up more goals in the entire League this season.
The 25-year-old Scotsman is enjoying the finest season of his career to date and has admitted that recent talk of strong interest in his services from Arsenal – with Fraser entering the final year of his contract on the South Coast – is only testament to the form he has been showing for Bournemouth.
The diminutive and robust winger, who can operate on either flank, has notched more league goals than either Mesut Ozil or Dele Alli this season, and more impressively boasts the most league assists bar Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.
Fraser’s unyielding and relentless style has played a huge part in Bournemouth’s success story since their promotion to the top tier in 2015, and only underlines why he would be such a colossal lose to a club with such limited financial means.
The 21-year-old Portuguese prodigy became one of Nuno Espírito Santo’s first key men when he was signed for a record £15.8m from Porto last season when Wolves were not even a Premier League team, quickly establishing himself as one of figureheads behind their promotion to the top tier last season, displaying a vision and passing ability that appeared so marked in the Championship.
Neves has benefitted from being entrusted with consistent first team football by his manager, and has only matured by playing better quality of opposition this season, contributing two goals and 4 assists; the pick of which being the exquisite dipping free-kick converted in the 3-1 home victory over Arsenal on Wednesday night.
West Ham’s recently converted England midfielder has enjoyed a superb season under Manuel Pellegrini, who has utilised him to his full potential in a deep-lying role for the Hammers.
The 20-year-old has looked by far the most composed player throughout the campaign in a Claret and Blue shirt, making 35 appearances in his first full season that has seen him score his first professional goal and receive an England senior call-up.
Having primarily been a centre-back before his conversion under Pellegrini in the early part of the season, he possesses a level of technical assuredness on the ball that is sure to blossom in the future as he gains more top-level experience.
The Belgian superstar is arguably enjoying his finest season in a Chelsea shirt, in what could well be his last for the Blues and in the Premier League.
For goals and assists combined, he is enjoying his finest campaign since his arrival on English shores in 2012. He is currently one goal short – with three games remaining – of surpassing his previous best tally of 16 goals scored in the league in 2016/17, whilst his 13 assists is already two greater than his previous Premier League best, achieved in 2012/13.
Hazard’s omission from the PFA TOTY makes for all the more remarkable reasoning considering only days earlier to the announcement, the 28-year-old had been shortlisted as a nominee for the PFA Player of the year.
Such an honour would be deserved recognition for some stirring performances for the Blues this season, including vital goals against Cardiff, Liverpool and Tottenham (League Cup), as well crucial domestic strikes to keep Chelsea in touching distance of the Champions League places; namely against Waford, Brighton and an utterly mesmerising goal and man-of-the-match performance in April at home to West Ham.
A widely speculated move to Real Madrid may be on the horizon, but Chelsea’s dependency on Hazard only underlines further why they should do everything in their power to resist selling their most prized asset.
The Gabonese striker is currently the joint-highest Premier League goal-scorer this season – tied with Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah – and in his first full season at the Gunners he is beginning to prove vindication why Arsenal lavished £56m on the now-29-year-old in January of 2018.
Aubameyang’s goals have been directly responsible for winning the Gunners 16 more points than they would have done without him in the side, underling his value to Unai Emery’s side.
His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette has also been a growing influence on Aubameyang’s form, with the dynamic duo contributing to 31 goals in the league this season between the two.
When Son Heung-Min fired Tottenham’s first ever goal at their new stadium in their earlier this month, it not only confirmed his 21st goal of the season but, with the arena festooned with not only Tottenham but flags of his own country, embodied the meteoric rise to new heights as a global South Korean superstar.
For a player who has admitted he was closing to leaving North London in 2016 due to lack of first team opportunities, Son has used his cameo appearances to become one of Tottenham’s most potent attacking weapons.
Following on from leading his team out to a gold medal at the Asia Games in August, his goals, positional awareness and outstanding work-rate have played a pivotal role in Tottenham’s annual chase for the top four domestic spot and reward for their first European Semi-Final since 1962.
With Celta Vigo in the relegation zone in La Liga, Hal Walker looks at the impact of Iago Aspas’ return to the team.
There was a tangible sense of déjà vu by the end of the helter-skelter relegation encounter between Celta Vigo and visitors Villarreal at Balaídos last Saturday evening.
Nearly 10 years ago, a 21-year-old Iago Aspas scored two goals – including a dramatic 94th-minute winner – in the final 10 minutes at home to Alaves to prevent his beloved Celta dropping to the Segunda División B. It was the moment that the Balaídos crowd found a new local hero – a welcome inspiration who could not only provide goals but a character who they would identify with: gutsy, raw and committed; as if he had been plucked straight from the stands and thrown a Celta shirt.
Saturday’s climax evoked such memories in the sense that not only it…
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After Tuesday’s final whistle blew on Merseyside to curtail a 0-0 draw from the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Bayern Munich head coach Niko Kovac could reflect on a job well done, for the moment.
His side had delivered a dogged and resolute defensive performance in riposte to an anticipated Anfield onslaught, and despite the failure to claw an away goal to cherish, the 47-year-old was proud of the disciplined and stout nature his team carried out his game-plan and held their own in a widely adorned – arguably to mythical levels – arena.
The second leg – scheduled to be played at the Allianz Arena on 13 March – will be an encounter of higher stakes and will be unrecognisable from Tuesday on a tactical level, but it will require far more creative nous and offensive impetus from this Bayern side, and this is where doubts begin.
The fact that Bayern are seeking their seventh consecutive league title tells you everything you need to know about the Bundesliga power struggle, but this is a squad whose clock is visibly ticking and on a domestic front has been paying the price for the club’s reluctance to freshen ranks in the summer.
Irrespective of what happens on the pitch from now until May, this season will be final hurrah for a number of key players in their post-2012 hegemony. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribèry are set to depart and fans have been long calling for the replacements of their esteemed over 30’s; namely Robert Lewandowski, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.
Change was called for across all sectors of Bayern’s support last summer and the club’s hierarchical triumvirate – Uli Hoeness, Club President, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Chief Executive and the sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic – succumbed to inertia, resulting in the Bavarians’ sluggish start that saw them drop as low as 6th at one point pre-Christmas.
Their form has picked up since the Christmas break, though, and following a run of 9 victories from their last ten league fixtures, the nine-point gap that appeared seismic following their topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf on 24 November has now been cut to just three.
One theory behind Tuesday’s unyielding display of spirit and togetherness was that this was arguably Bayern’s first encounter where they have been seen as genuine underdogs – against a Liverpool side challenging for the Premier League title and who delivered a number of scintillating performances in reaching the Champions League Final last year – since Niko Kovac’s arrival.
The Croatian’s values, whose former Eintracht Frankfurt side were renowned in Germany for their fighting qualities against wealthier opposition, were for the first time evident in the faultless and workmanlike performances from the likes of Javi Martinez, James Rodriguez, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.
Such traits will be a prerequisite back at the Allianz for Liverpool’s return visit, as well as matching the composure and control shown on Merseyside, but with the onus on the Germans to attack, one would expect that they will need to summon the incisive spark and a glimmer of the offensive flamboyancy that has seen them at least reach the Semi-Final stages in the Champions League in all but two seasons this decade.
There has been an understated renaissance at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and, at this midway point in the La Liga campaign, Sevilla currently looms five points behind league leaders and title holders Barcelona, offering the merest hint of a genuine title “race”.
Most notable is that Sevilla’s excellent form this term under new manager Pablo Machin has been fronted by two players who were unfancied and expected to move on before the end of the summer transfer window.
Wissam Ben Yedder, more recently known on British shores for scoring the brace at Old Trafford that eliminated Manchester United from the Champions League last season, was deemed unfit and unsuitable for Machin’s system in the early weeks of August and did not make his first appearance until the fifth game of the season in Sevilla’s 2-0 home defeat to Getafe.
After a gradual return to favour, the 28-year-old French forward has played a starring role in Los Rojiblancos’ rise, scoring 13 times in 17 starts.
Paolo Sarabia, the immensely talented former Real Madrid trainee, was also expected to depart in the summer with a move to Real Sociedad in the offing. After the player decided against making the move, few reckoned on the attacking midfielder to enjoy such a fruitful season under the new manager.
Think again. Repositioned from the left flank to play the free role as a No 10 behind the strikers – typically Ben Yedder, who is the top assist maker for Sarabia this season, and the rejuvenated Andre Silva, with Mudo Vazquez and Ever Banega sat behind – the 26-year-old is in the form of his life, with 13 goals in 21 starts.
Ignored by Luis Enrique in the Spanish national setup – admittedly due to the plethora of Spanish attacking talent from midfield – Sarabia’s all-action style of play and his propensity to summon game-changing moments will surely deem international consideration before long.
A player who clearly has a genuine love for the ball at his feet, providing chances and goals with either foot and bewitching opposing teams with such dynamic movement – be it simply showing for the ball, making darting runs into the penalty box or cutting in off the wing.
Sevilla’s impressive form seems somewhat incongruous with the organisational turmoil that has engulfed the club in recent years, worsened by the 2017 departure of their long-serving director of football, “Monchi”, to Roma.
Remarkably, since Unai Emery swapped his Seville surroundings for Paris Saint-Germain, then Arsenal – after Sevilla’s last Europa League conquest in 2016 – five head coaches have been and gone at the club.
Unbeaten since a 4-2 loss at the Camp Nou on 20 October, there is clearly a calm and rational feeling of hope, in this part of Southern Spain, that this purple patch will continue into the New Year.