World Cup preview – Group A

In the run-up to Rio, it’s time for our preview of the group stages of the World Cup. First up, it’s Group A, aka the ‘Brazil and one other’ group.

Brazil

It’s all about this guy

A weight of expectation on the shoulders of this team and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The one-time Chelsea flop has made some tough decisions on this squad, with Coutinho, Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Moura all enjoying the tournament with a caipirinha in hand as they watch from their living room.

Their absence reflects an abundance of exciting talent in Scolari’s squad, which stormed through last year’s Confederations Cup. Neymar ran the show in their recent friendly, scoring his 32 in 49 games for Brazil. He and Fred should have excellent tournaments, with Sideshow Bob at the back providing the unpredictable entertainment.

Prediction: comfortably 1st

Croatia

Best World Cup run since 1998 for the Kovac Bros?

Disappointed not to qualify for South Africa, Croatia come into the tournament with low expectations. With the Kovac brothers at the helm, they could be the surprise team of the group stages, with an attractive-looking midfield in Modric, Rakitic and young hopeful Kovacic potentially causing a few problems.

At the back, they have in Southampton’s Lovren a player in fine form, while up from they will miss Mandzukic through suspension for their opener in Brazil. It’s 6 years since the horror tackle on Eduardo, who with 29 goals for Croatia is 2nd only to Davor Suker. When people think of great Croatian moments in tournaments, his chip over Schmeichel remains the main notable one. It’s time for them to add to it.

Prediction: 2nd, and their first knockout stages since their excellent France ’98 showing.

Mexico

Four Mexican coaches since 2013. Chaotic.

Four Mexican coaches since 2013. Chaotic.

With a qualification run that seemed more turbulent than busting a Mexican drug cartel, Mexico will need to really rise to the occasion to avoid an early trip home. Firing de la Torre, Tena, Vucetich all in 2013, and winning just two of ten qualifiers, they ultimately arrive in Brazil due to the fortune of having faced New Zealand in a playoff.

Current coach Manuel Herrera has not had a great lead-up to the tournament, losing to Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 in a recent friendly and seeing players like Javier Hernandez coming to Brazil off the back of a poor season domestically. It’s tough to see how they get out the group

Prediction: 4th, and adios.

Cameroon

Who will create chances for Eto’o?

Ever unpredictable, Cameroon also arrive in Brazil with very low expectations. And we’re not going to raise them here. Two dire qualification rounds for the Cup of Nations that saw them fail to meet the finals, and off the field there has been all sorts of turmoil.

They do of course have Samuel Eto’o as an option up front and the promising Vincent Aboubakar, but it’s tough to see where the creativity will come from as much rests on the shoulders of Alex Song. Stephane Mbia has had a great season Sevilla, putting to rest that disastrous season at Loftus Road.

Prediction: 3rd

Written by @josephclift

With Hope Everything Is Beautiful. Pochettino to Spurs

Five years.

A PR gesture, or a change of tact?

Hopefully the latter. In my opinion we’ve picked the best man for the job, considering the options. LVG would have been an interesting choice, but did he ever want it?

Poch quickly won over the Saints faithful with his attractive style, and the media with his canny attitude (photo: Telegraph)

It’s easy to see why Spurs have gone for Poch. He managed the media well at Southampton – using an interpreter to act almost like a shield at times, as everyone knows he speaks English. But he was canny in how he managed his communication. Spurs are nothing if not PR-sensitive, that would not have gone unnoticed. He will also be a young face for the Spurs brand to sell to marketing departments of brands around the world, in the US and China especially.

He was dropped into a civil war it seems with some players and fans unhappy at Adkins’s departure and the British press even more happy to jump on him at any opportunity. But he won them round. He did that by playing fantastic football, putting youth at the centre and adding smart signings like Lovren at the back.

Similarly, we can look at Espanyol, his only other job. He had 3 years there, bringing them from the bottom to a respectful place in La Liga, with Pep even saying: “There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you: Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.”

But Poch is no pushover, “He makes you work like a dog,” said Osvaldo in a fantastic piece by Sid Lowe on Poch’s time at Espanyol, “But it works.”

The Spurs squad is a funny mix. Less English than before and with players who have seen a lot of managers in their time. It will be key to see how some of those players, Lennon (if he stays) and Dawson (ditto) in particular, respond to it. Attitude is an interesting facet of that squad and of modern football, will our players respond?

The newer players, especially those from the continent – and I am guessing this is the hope – will be looking forward to it. So will, one would especially hope,  Eric Lamela. You do not make a £30 million investment without trying to bring out the best in him, or indeed Soldado. Both are players we want to see the best of, both the Club and the fans will be hoping Poch will be able to.

In youth Spurs trust? (photo: AP)

On to youth. We have the best training complex in the Premier League, bar none, if not the best in Europe. We will, and are, producing better players in the younger age groups. Bentaleb was subject to some awful abuse at times, for simply being appreciated by Sherwood. That reaction was unfair – we should want our young players to be tested. If they fail, then we learn fast, but we should be mixing youth and experienced talent. We’re not going to compete with City and Chelsea for big players, we need to be smart in purchasing the best young players and developing our own. More Dortmund than Bayern.

I am excited for Poch’s arrival. It is a risk, but I hope that the players respond. I also hope that the management and fans give him time. He may just be the right one.

In the Spurs lifecycle, we’re at the ‘Hope Stage’, it’s pre-season, the best time to be a Spurs fan and we have another new Head Coach. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the last 2 years and become another Tottenham statistic.

As ever. We hope. Because with hope, everything is beautiful, right?

Written by @rktweets

 

Season review 2013/14 – Southampton

As Mauricio Pochettino is confirmed as the new boss at White Hart Lane, and with Lallana and Shaw linked with big money moves away from St Mary’s this summer, we ask @louisekyme to put aside the panic and anger and look back at another excellent season on the pitch for Southampton.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?

It won’t be a surprise for anyone to hear a Saints FC supporter say what a phenomenal season it has been. This was the season when even the most patronising ‘top 6′ fan got scared to play us. There have been peaks and troughs – from beating Liverpool at Anfield, sitting pretty in 3rd place 11 games in, followed by a tough Christmas period, then regaining form in the New Year, before finally finishing with the highest points tally the club has ever experienced. We stated we were aiming for the Champions League, and we weren’t far off. From day one to the last, following this team and their efforts has left every resident of Southampton bursting with pride. And it’s not just the results, it’s the way they did it – sublime, dominant football. With a team full of home grown talent. And proper nice guys. That has been the Southampton Way.

Who’s been this season’s hero?

England’s star at Brazil? (photo: Football365)

Adam Lallana – captain, player of the season, he took his play to the next level this season. He’s always been the most talented Saints player on this pitch, but under The Manager’s influence he got more ruthless, more direct, less lightweight. The Manager compares him to Messi, and while some might mock, the fact he’s being discussed as England’s big hope in Brazil shows how much we need him to be that great. And I think he will be – the thing about Lallana is he’s always involved – there’s never the Rooney-style risk of loss of form or ‘disappearing’ from the game. Lallana has been on form from start to end of season, and his workrate is as good as any defensive midfielder. Get ready for something special this summer.

And the villain?

Dani Osvaldo. Headbutting team mate Jose Fonte. The less said the better!

Manager’s report

The Manager had a fantastic 2013/14 – he’ll be elsewhere in 2014/15 sadly. And, knowing Spurs, somewhere else again in 2015/16 (photo: Express)

I could write so much about him, but news today is he’s left for Spurs, and right now I’m struggling to write his name. Hopefully I’ll be in a better place next week, because he deserves to be written about as a Saints legend. But right now, that’s what makes it all the more sickening.

Best signing

Lovren. Taught our defense how to communicate. Classy player.

Worst signing

Osvaldo. Needs no explanation!

Rising star

Tough to pick as so many rising stars at Southampton. But I’ll go for Sam Gallagher – an 18 year old who made his debut against Arsenal and pulled them apart. He hasn’t quite hit his stride yet, but I don’t think it will take long. His movement just needs a visionary to spot. Maybe Gaston Ramirez is the one to provide that. If he stays…

Highlight of the season

Too many highlights to choose from. But in order:

  • Rickie Lambert scoring for England on his debut with his first touch.
  • Sitting at 3rd in the table 11 games in.
  • Lallana, Shaw and Lambert selected for World Cup.
  • Beating Liverpool.

Low point of the season

Right this moment. The picking apart of the most talented team in the League. A team that were proving you can challenge the depressing inevitability of the English Premier League.

And Cortese leaving – because we all know what is happening now wouldn’t have happened under him. But, by god, what a five year journey it was under Cortese. I feel privileged to have experienced it. Thank you Nicola.

It’s now up to the Southampton board to show their hand. Are they aiming for Champions League? Or are they satisfied with lower/mid-table results? We’ll understand more once we see how ambitious their managerial choice is…

I’ll remember this season for…

The most exciting, raw, talent-filled sporting experience to have witnessed. I can’t overstate how much fun it’s been. Even if it’s now disintegrating.

Season review 2013/14 – Sheffield Wednesday

While most neutrals will have seen the cup exploits of their Steel City neighbours this season, events at Hillsborough have largely gone under the radar other than Dave Jones’s removal. Wednesdayite Neil Piper gives his take on what exactly has happened to Sheffield Wednesday this season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster? 

‘Poor, good, average.’ Those were the words Head Coach (not Manager) Stuart Gray used when asked to describe the season in three words at a recent Hillsborough fan event. It is hard to disagree with this honest assessment. The start of the season was perhaps a little more than poor, given that it took until 2nd November for Wednesday to register their first win. To put this stat in even starker terms, the game was the Owls’ fourteenth of the season in all competitions. Most Wednesday fans hoped that a similar pattern to last season would follow; that the 5-2 thrashing of playoff contenders Reading, delivering the first victory, would be a springboard to greater things. However the result was merely a ray of sunshine in a rainy autumn as three consecutive defeats followed – a run that resulted in the removal of Dave Jones on 1st December.

Under Gray, the Owls secured safety with three games to spare, which considering they were six points adrift and bereft of confidence on his appointment is quite an achievement. In terms of the quality of football on display, Gray’s three words above are perhaps the best assessment I can give. There have been some excellent performances, such as the 4-1 home defeat of Birmingham and the 3-0 win over ‘Arry’s QPR. These have been interspersed with some shockers – the 2-1 home defeat to Charlton in the FA Cup with a quarter final date against Sheffield United beckoning, was particularly tough to take. Overall, we finished two places higher than last season but with less points gleaned. Average seems about right then.

Who’s been this season’s hero? 

It would be difficult to lay this accolade at one player’s door, so I’m going to go with Stuart Gray. At the time of his appointment he was considered a placeholder for a bigger name and I believe he has done as well as, if not better, than any of the names (Ian Holloway, Steve Evans, even Neil Warnock) bandied around at the time would have done.

And the villain?

Llerror-prone – the Spaniard’s leaves Hillsborough following a patchy year

It’s probably too easy to give this one to Dave Jones, although I’m sure a large number of Wednesday fans would. In recent games, the error-prone ‘defending’ of Miguel Llera has been reason for a number of goals conceded so sadly, as great a servant and fan favourite as he has been, I’m going to have to give it to the departing Spaniard.

Manager’s report

After a difficult start to the season, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Dave Jones. Jones is very much a manager in the true sense of the word, leaving the majority of the training ground work to his coaches and seeing himself as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ in the transfer market. Results on the pitch were awful and other than a couple of exceptions, the performances even worse. It does make you wonder exactly what he spent his time doing considering the turnaround his successor achieved in such a short space of time. Where Jones can be given some credit is in the development of the football side of the club off the field. The introduction of the development squad and the expansion of our previously threadbare scouting staff were areas of progress that the Liverpudlian played a hand in. It’s just a shame that he didn’t spend more time focusing on the primary objective of any football team – winning first-team football matches.

As above, I think Stuart Gray has done an excellent job with limited resources. He has played our most intelligent footballers and brought in some useful loan players. After announcing the release of eight players earlier this week, it will be interesting to see how the career-assistant /interim manager will handle building his own squad.

Best signing

There were a number of players who joined on loan or short-term deals that contributed to the Wednesday cause over the season: Connor Wickham, Matty Fryatt, Leon Best, Glenn Loovens to name a few. But I’m actually going to cheat a little here and say our best signing was Chris Maguire. Although signed under Dave Jones in the summer of 2012, Maguire saw little to no playing time in his first season at Hillsborough and under Gray he has been arguably like a new player and our best performer, chipping in with vital goals and finishing top of the scoring charts with ten goals from an unfamiliar midfield position. If he continues to develop next season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him earn a place in the Scotland squad.

Worst signing 

If you’d have polled Wednesday fans on this question at the turn of the year, it would have been Atdhe Nuhiu. The 6ft 6inch striker struggled to adapt in the early stages of the season but he has gradually won fans over and at the age of twenty-four, he could play a big role next season. So, perhaps by default, I will have to go with Kamil Zayatte. The ex-Hull defender showed promise in pre-season to earn a two year deal but was at the heart of a leaky defence in the early stages of the season before spending the final few months injured.

Rising star

Liam Palmer won the Owls Player of the Year award and his versatility and maturity beyond his years, should be valuable assets for years to come. But I’m going to go with Caolan Lavery. An early-season loan to Plymouth gave the young striker the opportunity to play league football and his goal-scoring and general play were highly praised. He returned to Hillsborough, scored twice in the 6-0 drubbing of Leeds and hasn’t looked back.

Highlight of the season

Jubilation following Maguire’s injury time winner in the Yorkshire derby (Photo: Sheffield Star)

I hate to mention that win over Leeds again and whilst that was particularly enjoyable, it wasn’t my personal highlight. Chris Maguire’s 97th minute winner over local rivals Barnsley brings back great memories not least for the celebrations that followed. The sight of the afore-mentioned Nuhiu sprinting from the substitutes bench (he had been taken off earlier having missed numerous chances) down the Hillsborough side line to slide in celebration in front of the Kop was both fantastic and hilarious to watch.

Low point of the season

The one nil defeat to Doncaster Rovers at home in late September. We had dominated the game and a quick break away led to the only goal of the match. After that result, it was hard to see where our first win of the season was going to come from, or if it ever would.

I’ll remember this season for…

…being eerily similar to last season, with a little more breathing room at the end. There are some encouraging signs at Hillsborough. Milan Mandaric’s investment at academy level is starting to prove beneficial and the cull of out-of-contract players raises optimism that one year stop-gap solutions won’t be sought as readily as they were last season. With three or four quality-over-quantity signings, we could be challenging for a top half finish, but it wouldn’t surprise me if history repeated itself for a third season in a row.

Season review 2013/14 – Liverpool

With Brendan Rodgers’s spell as David Brent in Being Liverpool a distant memory following the progress made across the previous season, expectations at Anfield were already high last August. We asked Nick Moss (@dnsandnick) for his take on their eventful season. 

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?

One prong on the Liverpool trident (Photo: PA)

This barely needs to be covered! Watching Liverpool stream forwards – the trident of Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge – was so thrilling for their movement, pace, and incisiveness. And because, like any good action film, disaster was only just around the corner. Or more accurately, at the other end.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Suarez, then Sturridge, then Gerrard, then Sterling as the season went on. Underpinned by Henderson’s persistence.

And the villain?
Sad to say it but Sakho gives everyone the jitters. Mignolet does nothing to calm them, then Skrtel finds himself in a desperate situation. That trio kept one clean sheet in eighteen games. But ‘villian’ might be too strong. Moses probably takes that, for his missed open goals at crucial times.

Manager’s report
Well, as a manager might say, Brodgers has ‘done fantastic’. He tweaked and moved things around all season until the diamond shone through (anyone remember the 3-5-2?). Gerrard’s move to deep playmaker, or the ‘quarterback’ as it’s uncomfortably described, was the most publicised example of this.

Best signing
Securing Suarez on a long-term contract is the banal answer. Er, looking at other signings….it’s still Suarez.

Worst signing
Aspas? Moses? Cissokho for me, even on loan. Poor lad. Not only did he look uncomfortable playing left-back, he looked uncomfortable playing football.

Rising star

A big season for Sterling, who’s grown at some rate over the year (Photo: Metro)

Clearly Sterling. It was only at Christmas I was bemoaning his utter lack of composure in or around the box. How fickle we are! But it was the unlikely move to a more a central role that has seen him flourish. The option of going left or right, in space, with his zip, has really worked (it makes me wonder, perhaps foolishly, what Lennon may have done if freed from the right at 19). Honourable mention to Flanagan. Strange year for Coutinho – surely more to come from him next year.

Highlight of the season
Beating Man City. Even the most cautious Liverpool fans began to whisper ‘what if?’, even the most neutral fans began to say ‘why not?’.

Low point of the season
Chelsea.

I’ll remember this season for…
For the whopping 101 goals scored. And a shocking 50 conceded. For Gerrard’s chest pumping speech. And his heartbreaking slip. For Hillsborough. For making Anfield dream.

Season review 2013/14 – Chelsea

Jose Mourinho’s first season back with Chelsea certainly frustrated a lot of neutrals, but what’s the fans’ perspective? We asked Dan Northcote-Smith (@dnsandnick) for his views on the season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – victories at Anfield and the Etihad, plus not losing to any of the big five, makes the supporters happy. Have we played (as Ruud Gullit would call it) ‘sexy football’? The answer is a resounding no.

Chelsea's hero and villain for 2013/14

Chelsea’s hero and villain for 2013/14

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Jose Mourinho. Without a doubt he’s brought solidity to the back four, he’s got the team playing as a unit, he’s made John Terry into the best centre back in the league again. Three of our back four could have easily made it into the team of the year.

And the villain?
Jose Mourinho. He’s got big performances out of the players but his big mouth has made us into the least popular team in the country. Mind games are one thing but throwing unprovoked attacks at Wenger just makes us look unprofessional. And throwing your toys from the pram after losing to Sunderland was simply ungraceful.

Manager’s report
As above, but I think next season will be different. A couple of big signings will help the team play the way he wants and hopefully Jose will let the football do the talking.

Best signing
Hard to pick between Willian and Matic. The Brazilian works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen on a football pitch and has a great touch and shot, but I think Matic takes the prize. He is everything a modern defensive midfielder should be – strong, equally good in the air and on the ground, calm on the ball and can play a forward pass. If he adds a goal or five to his repertoire he could take the title back to the Bridge next year.

Worst signing
Less of the signing, more of a departure. Mata had to go apparently. No place is Chelsea’s robust, hard working eleven. I can see the thinking and £45 million is a decent return but given the shut outs we’ve been on the receiving end of to teams nearer the bottom the prem, the little Spanish trequartista could have been the man to unlock a stubborn rearguard.

Rising star
Mohammed Salah. Snatched right out from under the nose of Liverpool at Christmas. He had recently scored his second goal for Basle against Chelsea in successive years. The 21 year old Egyptian has phenomenal pace and a great touch, he can beat a player and has shown good finishing skills, scoring in successive matches. He’s a team player, not afraid of tracking his fullback. This is a requirement at Chelsea at the moment and with Hazard receiving criticism from Jose for this very matter, Salah could see a lot more game time over the next few years.

Highlight of the season
Sorry Liverpool fans but it has to be the shut out at Anfield. The win at the Etihad was a better performance but because of the significance of the game and the ‘weakened’ team we put out this has been the moment for me.

Low point of the season
Losing our unbeaten home record to Sunderland. I never believed we could win the league but losing a 77 game unbeaten streak hurt more than anything else.

I’ll remember this season for…
…Demba Ba bundling in the last minute goal against PSG – a vintage European night.

Ba bundles home (credit: NDTV)

Season review 2013/14 – Sheffield United

A third successive year in League 1, it’s been an interesting one at Bramall Lane. Co-editor Joe looks back at the season.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Such a crazy and unexpected season at Bramall Lane. There was mild optimism in the summer that David Weir would bring a new style and better fortune to a club that had failed in the League 1 playoffs two seasons running. This evaporated from the second game in. Attempts to remedy the poor start by strengthening the team at the end of August (the result of Saudi businessman Prince Abdullah becoming a co-owner of the club) only seemed to make things worse. With the Prince no doubt concerned to see his new investment spiralling towards League 2, Weir was removed.

Clough has now repaired the damage caused by David Weir's first managerial job

Nigel Clough has now repaired the damage caused by David Weir’s first few months in charge

Nigel Clough began a difficult process of completely remoulding the style of a team that was low on confidence, leaking goals, and ineffective going forward. And it’s taken some perseverance at times – even on Feb 1st the club was 23rd, but thereafter the team has been a joy to watch, unrecognisable from the group Weir managed. The cup run, for a League 1 club battling relegation, was superb – with at last the club putting in a decent performance at Wembley. Rising to 7th, the season’s ended too quickly for us in the end.

What started off as a club entering difficult financial times under an untested manager with a long-suffering and despondent following has really been transformed. The club appears to have the right people off the field, and an excellent manager that’s playing exciting football at a positive Bramall Lane. It’s the worst league position the club’s finished a season in since 1982/83. And yet, it’s the most optimistic I’ve been at the end of a season since we were promoted from the Championship 8 years ago.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Harry Maguire. The third season in a row where he’s been in League 1′s team of the year, and at Christmas he was still the club’s top goalscorer. Not bad for a player that only turned 21 in March. You suspect the club may have to fend off bids this summer – a big test for the new owners.

And the villain?
David Weir by default, though by freeing up the job in October he helped enable the club to get the then-out-of-work Clough, who wasn’t available in the summer. I think most won’t therefore hold a grudge against the guy.

Manager’s report
David Weir – on paper, he should have been great. In reality it was a disaster. Not at all helped by the sale of Kevin McDonald, who he’d appeared to base his entire system around, but there was a sense he tried to change too much too quickly, bringing in the wrong people and shattering the confidence of existing players. His sacking, criticised as rash in the media, couldn’t have been better timed.

Nigel Clough – he’s surpassed all expectations. Watching some of his early unsuccessful games, I was concerned we might have made a wrong choice. I needn’t have been. Once he had re-coached the players in some basic necessities (primarily reminding them how to defend), he added some serious quality in January (John Brayford, Bob Harris, Stefan Scougall) and brought the best out of existing talent (Ryan Flynn, Jamie Murphy, Conor Coady). Above all, he’s brought back optimism to the club. With a good pre-season, and the addition of one or two players that meet Clough’s quality & character criteria (particularly up front), next season could be great.

Best signing
Stefan Scougall. I’m not sure how we’ve managed to sign Wee Scougs – his acceleration, heart, and footballing brain suggest he could be a huge player for us.

Worst signing
Marlon King. A symbol of just how desperate things got under David Weir that he signed an unfit striker, with a history of off-the-field baggage, that nobody else would touch with a barge pole. Mercifully released by Clough in December.

Rising star
Connor Dimaio. He’s made his debut and pushed ahead of other youngsters to get first team experience in the middle of midfield – the signs are Clough will use him more next season.

Highlight of the season
Chris Porter’s late double to complete the comeback against Notts Forest in the cup.

Low point of the season
On February 1st we lost 3-0 away at fellow strugglers Crewe, dropping us to 23rd. A low point, but also a turning point for the team – they haven’t looked back since.

I’ll remember this season for…
…John Brayford’s beard.

The Brayford Beard in full flight.

Written by Joseph Clift (@josephclift)

Season review 2013/14 – Tottenham Hotspur

In the first of our end-of-season reviews, 1FITG Co-Editor and Founder Roberto digests 2013/14 at White Hart Lane. The fact it can be written before the season officially finishes perhaps sums it up.

Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
Mostly very difficult to watch. Apparently we sold Elvis and bought the Beatles. But it turns out we bought N-Sync, there could be one star between them. It started with defensive resolution but too much this season we’ve lacked any fluidity and cohesion, both up front and any kind of defensive organisation apart from the first 11 games. Pepper that with a variety of humiliating defeats against decent sides (Chelsea & Liverpool) and some awful sides (West Ham 3 times, need to say more). It will be remembered for Andre’s sacking and Tim’s rise and inevitable fall. It was, in essence, the most Tottenham of seasons. Hope at the start, off the rails in the middle, token sacking with no plan and now the end of the season – hope again. Rinse and repeat. Until we die.

Who’s been this season’s hero?
Eriksen has probably been the stand out performer, certainly towards the end of the season. Hugo Lloris has had far too much work to do and you can see why he looks so fed up. Kyle Walker had a decent start, after a season of inconsistency the year before. Adebayor’s redemption and leadership qualities (no, really) came through when he was brought back from the cold. But no real consistency. No real leaders.

And the villain?
At any point different players have been poor. Naughton (especially) has not been good enough even in his natural position. Rose has not been as good as we’d hoped and seems to lose concentration far too often. Kaboul is back to the player we first bought rather than one of our best players from 2 years ago, Dawson’s pace lets him down time and time again. But for the true villain we must look potentially at the Club generally who seemingly sacked Andre Villas Boas which I can understand, broke promises and even worse didn’t have a real plan, other than transition. The Goose chase for another manager begins.

Manager’s report
Andre Villas Boas – it all seemed to go wrong so early. Another summer of players a manager wanted not being bought in, with people perhaps he didn’t want taking their place (as with the summer before, Moutinho anyone?). He seemingly got bored of it all, with PSG having flirted with him perhaps he had his head swayed, I don’t know. He probably thought he’d have more say. But alas. He didn’t.

Tim Sherwood – Tottenham’s best manager in the PL era. He won’t let you forget. He has brought goals and a barrow boy spirit to the Club. But what really changed? We got hammered like we did with AVB with seemingly no game plan against the top Clubs. His demeanour has been that of a work experience boy trying to show he’s hard. An English Mourinho – brash and funny in press conferences, but unlike Mourinho lacking in any substance or experience. Having watched him with the U-21s the year before I cannot say I am surprised. People suggest AVB could not get his players playing and alienated some and that Sherwood bringing Adebayor back shows he’s inclusive. A few players may disagree, especially Club linchpin Sandro, Lamela, Capoue and more.

Best signing
Eriksen. Guile, technique and crossing to die for.

Worst signing
Very harsh but difficult season for Lamela. I thought he would be fantastic at Spurs and I still think he may be. But at the price and the lack of appearances it’s hard to look past him. People may point to Soldado but his goals have won us more points than any other player (it wasn’t a high bar).

Rising star
Bentaleb. Unfairly criticised by some. But the boy has quality and is still playing slightly out of position. Tom Carroll served a good apprenticeship at QPR and should come back into the first team squad next year.

Highlight of the season
The day before the start of the season was good. Ledley King’s testimonial will probably be it. Beating United at Old Trafford again was nice.

Oh this last night may have been it, for so many reasons, the awful tweet in the first place (human error, get over it) to the even worse handling (lies?) of the aftermath.

 

Low point of the season
Too many to mention, not even getting close to Arsenal in 3 ties, losing three times to West Ham, being spanked by City and Liverpool twice.

I’ll remember this season for…
…being another definition of Tottenham. Hope. Sackings. Repeat.

Written by Roberto Kusabbi (@rktweets)

Crossing the Atlantic – an MLS XI

Off the back of our last piece on the continued rise of MLS, there are a number of players from the English leagues that you thought you’d forgotten about – all seeking success in the MLS. You could probably make up a complete XI from them…

1. Julio Cesar (Toronto FC – base salary $192,000 in 2014)

The signing of Julio Cesar at QPR looks on reflection to be highly symptomatic of what went wrong at Loftus Road. Signed to a long-term deal on good money from Inter (reported as £100k/week), it was a position they had decent options for going into that summer – in contrast to other areas of the pitch in desperate need of investment if QPR were to avoid the drop.

Nevertheless, Cesar impressed in his first season but his heroics weren’t enough to keep QPR up. Keen to trim the wage bill, he was unsuccessfully offered to clubs last summer. But rather than use his talent, Harry Redknapp bizarrely decided to freeze the Brazilian out of the squad. He joined Toronto on loan earlier this year, and you have to feel his time at QPR, regardless of whether they gain promotion, is over. This, for a player who may captain Brazil at the World Cup this summer. It’s remarkable Toronto have him at the club.

2. Bradley Orr (Toronto FC – base salary $75,000 in 2014)

The former Bristol City legend joined Cesar on loan from Blackburn this year, linking up with former team-mate Ryan Nelson, Toronto’s head coach. After initial early success at Neil Warnock’s Championship-winning QPR, Orr fell out of favour in the Premiership and was packed off to Steve Kean’s Blackburn, featuring regularly in the terrible side that was relegated two years ago.

After a couple of loan spells in the Championship, the versatile defender has been called upon to play in the middle due to injuries in the Toronto squad. He’s already looking at making the move permanent, and is hoping that by the end of his career he’ll no longer be best known as the player that got a red card for head butting teammate Louis Carey while at Ashton Gate.

3. Jordan Stewart (San Jose Earthquakes – base salary $140,000 in 2014)

Jordan Stewart: still playing, still running somewhere down the left

It’s fair to say that Stewart has been around a bit. It’s easy to forget that he also played in the Premiership, for the relegated Leicester City and relegated Watford. Following that, each of his moves seemed to be downward, with an unsuccessful spell in Greece mixed in, before he headed for the MLS last season.

Stewart’s always been a bit of an odd footballer, often average but with the out-of-the-blue occasional screamer. His Wikipedia page describes him as “either a left-back or left-winger, and if required, can play at centre-back.” I saw him play for Sheffield United mid-career-decline down the left-hand side, and he was quite possibly one of the worst left-backs/left-wingers I have seen for the club. His versatility seems to stem from the fact he is equally poor in both positions – he looked like a winger forced to play full-back, or a full-back forced to play on the wing, depending on his position at the time. Good luck to him at San Jose.

4. Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $184,000 in 2014)

Of all the current MLS players that have made the move from across the Atlantic, the star of ‘Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story’ stands out as perhaps the most successful. The long-serving Watford centre-half has used his limited ability well over the years, scoring in the 2006 playoff final for the Hornets, playing in the Premiership, and even putting in a decent shift for the USA at the last World Cup despite being released by Watford.

When the Whitecaps gained their MLS status, DeMerit was recruited to be their captain and the focus of the team to be built around him. He was, and still is, on all of their promotional material. The MLS All-Star enjoys a celebrity status at the club that should give hope to any centre-half with moderate success in the English leagues – come to the MLS where you can be the lynchpin of the team, live in a great city, and marry an Olympian.

5. Andy O’Brien (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $250,000 in 2014)

A trademark tackle from O’Brien on Robbie Keane earlier this month (Photo: The Canadian Press)

DeMerit’s other partner is the former Bolton and Ireland centre-half, who perhaps seeing the Jay DeMerit story thought he could replicate it. Unfortunately for him, he’s picked a team already with one central defensive late-developing star, so he’s having to settle for being “the other centre-half”, albeit the one being paid somewhat more.

O’Brien had a bit of a rough time at his previous club Leeds – suffering from depression at a time when the club was doing poorly. 35 in June, contract up in December, the tough-tackling O’Brien is looking to bounce back and end his career on a high. Two things were noticeable when watching him recently against LA – he’s as rough a play as ever, and he’d never get away wearing orange boots in Bolton.

6. Steven Caldwell (Toronto FC – base salary $325,000 in 2014)

The other Caldwell is another of the UK contingent in Toronto, currently captaining the side after joining from Birmingham last season. Best known for his time with Sunderland and Burnley, the former Scottish international is enjoying his football after an excellent first season in the MLS.

What Caldwell may have lost in pace in recent years is made up for by his whole-hearted attitude to defending, which saw the MLS retrospectively given a ban after this vicious tackle against Real Salt Lake this month. A tackle he described as “not looking good”.

7. Nigel Reo-Coker (Vancouver Whitecaps – base salary $400,000 in 2014)

Where did it all go wrong for Nigel Reo-Coker? He captained a West Ham side to promotion and an FA Cup final before even turning 22, and despite his form dropping off in 2006-07, Aston Villa were still prepared to pay a whopping £8.5 million to secure his signature.

His time at Villa was mixed, shifted by Martin O’Neill into a number of positions to accommodate him. At times he captained the side – at others, he had major failings out with the club, including a training ground bust-up with O’Neill. He joined Bolton on a free in 2011, ditched them the following summer after relegation, and played half a season at Ipswich before heading to Vancouver.

The Whitecaps were willing to part with their 2nd round SuperDraft picks for 2014 and 2015 to get Reo-Coker. And after initial success, he’s struggled to even get a game so far under Carl Robinson. Again it may be off-the-field where the problems lie – troublesome contract talks before the start of the season, tripping over a bike rack (giving him concussion) and now a mysterious illness keeping him out of the squad. On issues with him in training, Robinson stated that “he just needs to show a willingness”. Ominous signs as to his future at the Whitecaps, particularly considering he’s the highest paid of this XI by some margin.

8. Lloyd Sam (New York Red Bulls – base salary $136,500 in 2014)

While Sam suffered two relegations at The Valley, I always felt he was an underrated player that would eventually get snapped up by a bigger team. Decent speed, comfortable on the ball, and a good eye for goal – all desirable attributes for a winger.

But it never really happened for him after Charlton had to part company with him due to the financial reality of life in League 1. Early promise at Leeds was followed with a series of niggling injuries, before his release in 2012. And after injury followed him in his first season with the Red Bulls, he bounced back last season and has started this season well – currently tied with Obafemi Martins for the number of assists and scoring a late-winner recently against Philadelphia. Encouragingly, he also survived being speared by Tim Cahill amidst the goal celebrations, as Cahill momentarily forgot how injury-prone Sam has been.

9. Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls – base salary $330,000 in 2014)

Sam is joined at the Red Bulls by the other Wright-Phillips. Bradley made history at the weekend by becoming the first Englishman to score a hat-trick in the MLS, coming in a 4-0 thrashing of Houston.

Wright-Phillips is another that has had an odd career. Early promise at Man City was followed with off-the-field issues at Southampton. But he rebuilt his career at Plymouth and then had a superb season at Charlton as they won League 1, in no small part due to his 22 goals. But then he disappeared without a trace again. So deadly the previous year, he had a poor season in the Championship to the extent he was released at the end of last season.

In a contrast of fortunes, he’s now on decent money, playing up front alongside Thierry Henry. 5 in 8 already this season – he’s off to a flyer.

10. Luke Moore (Chivas USA – base salary $120,000 in 2014)

Once a promising forward at Aston Villa after winning the FA Youth Cup alongside brother Stefan, Moore has been blighted with injury throughout his career. Despite West Brom paying £3 million for him in 2008, but ultimately had a fairly fruitless time in front of goal. He failed to regain his form sufficiently at Swansea, and Michael Laudrup released him last summer.

A failed spell in Turkey, where he failed to score in 17 appearances at Elazığspor, was cut short and this is his first season in the MLS. No goals in his 5 appearances just yet, and no goals now for over a year.

11. Giles Barnes (Houston Dynamo – base salary $230,000 in 2014)

Giles Barnes – enjoying his football again

Giles Barnes really had a real buzz about him when he broke through at Derby aged 17. Lots of energy to his game – a really exciting player to watch, who became a key part of their promotion to the Premiership. But following injuries in the years that followed, Barnes’s career took a different path – with disappointment towards the end of his time at Derby followed by further woe at West Brom. By the time he reached Doncaster Rovers in 2011, he was only worth a 6-month deal before being released.

Barnes moved to Houston in 2012, and has since relaunched his career. He had an impressive season last year where he stayed largely free of injury, scored a few crackers, and appears to be enjoying life again. At still only 25, perhaps an English team may be tempted to bring him back for one last go in the top tier.

MLS prospects rising as lucrative expansion beckons

This blog in the past has tended not to dip too much into Major League Soccer, but with one of the editors relocating across the Atlantic what better time to give the MLS a closer look…

It’s an exciting time in the MLS. The league continues to attract a growing number of established players from Europe, most notably with the return to MLS of Clint Dempsey in Seattle and the surprise big money move of Jermaine Defoe to Toronto. Added to existing converts Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, it’s becoming harder to simply ignore the league as it becomes more lucrative for decent players.

The latest star to head to the MLS (credit: Guardian)

It’s easy to forget just how young MLS still is. As the Football League comes to the end of its 125th anniversary celebrations, the MLS enters just its 18th season. And as the league continues to grow in reputation, so too it grows in number. In the last five years it’s added five new teams – two of which are based in Canada – bringing the league up to 19 teams. That’s still short of the total in just the top league in many European countries, but relatively speaking it’s still in its infancy.

Expansion

Plans are also afoot to expand further, raising the total up to 24 teams by 2020. Next season we’ll see the league return to Florida with Orlando City joining – the first Florida team since teams in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2001. Their Head Coach will be pint-sized ex Everton player and former Burnley and Sheffield United boss Adrian Heath, who has been managing in the United Soccer League, the Conference equivalent to MLS, since 2008.

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer Man City

Inner circle courtesy of the Yankees, outer courtesy of Man City

Orlando will be joined by New York City FC – the most visible result of the partnership between Man City and the New York Yankees. With ex City and US player Claudio Reyna as Director of Football, NYC FC will play at Yankee Stadium until an alternative ground is sorted. In March they announced their official club badge – which looks like the Man City digital team have simply played around a bit with the Yankees’ logo. Season tickets are already on sale for anyone willing to gamble on a club that doesn’t have a full set of staff yet.

Last week, MLS announced they will be joined in 2017 by a new team in Atlanta – currently the biggest market in a North America without a team. And, assuming the club can find a stadium, a new team in Miami will join them. If David Beckham’s contract with MLS hadn’t already been pretty rewarding, he had an option written in the deal that brought him to LA Galaxy that he could buy an expansion team, worth $25m. And while there are local concerns over building a new stadium in Miami (not to mention the memory of failed franchise Miami Fusion), you feel that this is the project that Beckham will personally invest his time and energy in for the foreseeable future to ensure its success.

Challenges

I saw my first live MLS match in 2011 when then new team Vancouver Whitecaps lost 1-0 to the Portland Timbers in what was one of the worst games of football I’d seen in years. To say it was bloody awful would be a big understatement. The stadium (the then newly renovated BC Place) felt dead, with the lack of quality matched by a lack of passion in the stands. Needless to say, my first impressions of MLS were therefore not exactly filling me with a strong desire to return any time soon. It could have been an off-day for both clubs, but both sets of players while ok with the basics seemed clueless about what to do in the final third. Creating space, where to run, what to do when near the box, how and when to cross – these concepts all seemed alien to to two teams on display.

Three seasons on, and following a move to Vancouver (undisclosed fee), I’ve now taken in a few more Whitecaps games and the improvement in quality and atmosphere was immediately clear. In fairness, it is a completely different team – only two of the XI that started that first game remain. It’s a new coach (former Wolves and Wales midfielder Carl Robinson), a better tactical sense in the team, and a set of fans that seem more comfortable with their new surroundings. The Whitecaps, though celebrating their 40th anniversary as a club, have only been in the MLS since 2011. The difference between that team and the current one is perhaps an indicator to the new expansion teams that establishing themselves as viable teams will take time.

The key challenge for MLS as a whole though remains attracting people to the sport in a highly competitive sports market. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight recently crunched the numbers on comparative popularity among North American teams across sports based on Google searches. The challenge for MLS is plain to see – you have to scroll down quite a way before the LA Galaxy, top of the league’s teams, comes up. That’s a challenge that can only be taken on over a long stretch of time, if indeed it’s even possible. Success for the MLS in the short term is continuing to gradually build up interest, both among the public, players, and increasingly media attention from abroad. It’s tempting to look at team names like Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City – names which make the Hull City Tigers seem inoffensive in comparison – and mock the overall league. But those looking at the league from the outside need to look past this sort of oddity and past the stereotypes of how North American fans view the sport (brilliantly parodied by NBC last summer) and watch this league increasingly finding its feet.

If the MLS can use the expansion of the league to increase their fan base, and can continue to increase the quality of the league at the same time, there’s a huge potential here waiting to be unearthed.

Written by @josephclift

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