As ever, this represents our estimation of Gareth Southgate’s thoughts. And we feel like we know him well. Numbers in brackets pertain to this ladder from October…

 

1 (2) Harry Kane
Twelve goals and five assists in eight qualifying games. His goal against Kosovo saw him become the first England player to score in every game of a qualifying campaign and it also took him back to the top of this ladder, mostly because he has never grabbed somebody by the throat in a canteen. Or at least he has never been caught grabbing somebody by the throat in a canteen.

 

2 (1) Raheem Sterling
Oh you daft bugger. There is no defending that. He is still England’s second-best source of goals and best source of running really fast and scaring the sh*t out of full-backs, mind.

 

3 (5) Harry Maguire
The only player to feature in all 720 minutes of European qualifying. And yet he still looks about half a second from dropping a bo**ock and a full second slower than most strikers he faces.

 

4 (4) Jordan Pickford
His place is safer than his hands.

 

5 (6) Marcus Rashford
Three goals in his last three England games as part of a really encouraging return to form. We would be astonished if Rashford is not in every England squad for which he is fit until the end of the next decade at least…

 

6 (3) Jordan Henderson
Two victories in his absence have damaged his cause a little, but it still feels like Henderson + 2 in that central midfield.

 

7 (7) Trent Alexander-Arnold
Remarkably, that’s the first time he has started back-to-back England games. Even more remarkably, ‘he’s yet to produce a performance for his country which doesn’t look like this one did – distracted, inaccurate, lacking in the locked-in intensity which seems as standard at Liverpool’ (and I absolutely agree with Seb Stafford-Bloor).

 

8 (10) Ben Chilwell
Perhaps those three assists against Montenegro – and solid defensive performance against Kosovo – will put an end to Gareth Southgate’s lingering and needless flirtation with Danny Rose. Chilwell is and should remain England’s first-choice left-back.

 

9 (18) Harry Winks
Six England caps, six England wins. And a goal and a man-of-the-match performance against Kosovo. It might well be Henderson, Winks + 1 with Declan Rice hopefully sidelined until he learns some of the basics of defensive midfield play.

 

10 (13) John Stones
‘Needs to play football. Absolutely needs to play football,’ is what I wrote last month. Now back in the Manchester City side and an England recall duly followed. 

 

11 (16) Nick Pope
Confirmation that he is England’s No. 2. And a clean sheet is lovely.

 

12 (17) Joe Gomez
What has become very clear is that Southgate has picked his four centre-halves and Gomez is on that list despite not playing a great deal of Premier League football. Luckily for him, Liverpool have an awful lot of games coming up. He might still be the big man.

 

13 (8) Jadon Sancho
His form has dipped for Borussia Dortmund
and he failed to pad his stats against Montenegro; just one assist from 90 minutes on the wing is not a compelling return from a 7-0 victory. Right now, he has slipped some way behind Rashford.

 

14 (15) Tyrone Mings
And there’s centre-half No. 4, who has (slightly awkwardly) claimed another cap and another clean sheet. He is literally the big man.

 

15 (9) Ross Barkley
It’s telling that he has played more minutes in this qualifying campaign than any other midfielder bar Henderson and yet almost nobody thinks he should start for England. Will he eventually be ejected like a stockier Ryan Bertrand? The initials are a clue.

 

16 (11) Declan Rice
As I wrote last month: ‘He is only 20, so there are caveats, but right now he looks far from good enough to anchor that England midfield. Still, we persuaded him not to be Irish anymore, so his squad place is probably safe for the foreseeable.’ We wanted him to be so much better than Eric Dier; he isn’t.

 

17 (12) Mason Mount
He has played a part in England’s last six games so he is clearly integrated into this England squad. Unfortunately for him, he has started twice and struggled twice. Fortunately, he can do this from the bench…

 

18 (14) Kieran Trippier
Called up but then left on the bench. It could be worse; he could be Kyle Walker.

 

19 (20) Tammy Abraham
His first England goal and confirmation – were it needed – that he is Southgate’s first-choice back-up to Kane.

 

20 (22) Fabian Delph
Even grown men need a comfort blanket. Let it go, people, let it go…

 

21 (19) Danny Rose
Clinging onto a place in the squad but for how long? Until Luke Shaw gets and stays fit, you should think. Right now, Rose is holding off Aaron Cresswell and Matt Targett in the battle to be the left-sided fireguard with the thinner chocolate coating.

 

22 (32) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Back-to-back England starts for the first time since March 2018, when he was set to start in England’s World Cup midfield before injury struck. “We’ve a huge belief in him,” said Southgate. “Whether it’s as a midfield player – where he’s excellent with or without the ball, provides a goalscoring threat, works hard for the team and presses well – or a wide player or a forward player, we’ve got huge belief in him.” And that versatility might well be what keeps in this 23 ahead of more vaunted competition.

 

23 (23) Tom Heaton
The old man completes the 23. For now.

 

24 (21) Callum Hudson-Odoi
Reclaimed and then lost his Chelsea place, while his 59 wasteful, hesitant minutes against Kosovo suggested that he might be better getting some more England experience with the Under-21s this season while he searches for his form.

 

25 (24) Callum Wilson
Nobody takes three strikers for a one-striker system. Especially when the third striker on the list has stopped scoring.

 

26 (26) James Maddison
Most chances created by Englishmen this season:
Trent Alexander-Arnold (42)
Jack Grealish (25)
James Maddison (24)
Mason Mount (23)
Raheem Sterling (22)

Sorry James, but we don’t think Gareth likes the cut of your gib. Or the gib of…

 

27 (35) Jack Grealish
Though at least Southgate hinted that Grealish could be the next cab off the attacking midfielder rank. That’s progress.

 

28 (25) Kyle Walker
Sip sliding away. Slip-sliding a-way.

 

29 (31) Fikayo Tomori
They definitely didn’t bring him on for a few minutes to claim him from Nigeria (oh yes they did). But most importantly for this ladder, he was in the squad ahead of the falling Michael Keane.

 

30 (30) Dean Henderson
England’s…No. 4. England’s, England’s No. 4.

 

31 (29) Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Clearly, Southgate is not a fan of a 90s-style full-back.

 

32 (34) Dele Alli
Back in the Tottenham side at least. Shame it’s a really poor Tottenham side.

 

33 (27) Michael Keane
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

34 (28) Jesse Lingard
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

35 (33) Eric Dier
We may never see him in an England shirt again.

 

36 (40) Phil Foden
We will surely see him in a (senior) England shirt soon, but first Pep Guardiola needs to give him more than Carabao Cup football.

 

37 (NE) Aaron Ramsdale
The Bournemouth goalkeeper is making a compelling case for a long-term battle with Henderson.

 

38 (36) Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Love the player, hate the injury.

 

39 (37) Luke Shaw
Love the player, hate the injury. And the body type.

 

40 (42) Dwight McNeil

 

41 (41) Rob Holding
42 (38) Angus Gunn
43 (39) Ryan Sessegnon
44 (43) Max Aarons
45 (NE) John Lundstram
46 (NE) Harvey Barnes
47 (44) Reiss Nelson
48 (45) James Tarkowski
49 (47) James Ward-Prowse
50 (50) Phil Neville

 

Sarah Winterburn

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The post F365’s famous Euro 2020 England ladder is here… appeared first on Football365.

Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Former Huddersfield Town keeper Matt Glennon says Lee Clark ruined his career.

Clark took over at the Terriers in December 2008 and guided them to a ninth-placed finish in League One in his first season.

His second season saw them defeated in the play-off semi-final while the following year they were pipped in the final by Peterborough United.

During his time at the John Smith’s Stadium, Clark guided the club on a record-breaking 43-match unbeaten run in the league.

Never considered a shrinking violet, Clark said he took Huddersfield “from nothing to the Championship” despite being sacked three months before their play-off triumph in 2012.

He was dismissed by former chairman Dean Hoyle, who said at the time:

“This was a very difficult decision; one not taken lightly or in response to one result. Concerns have been raised in recent weeks.”

Matt Glennon joined Town from St Johnstone in 2006 and was a first-team regular until Clark took over, preferring youngster Alex Smithies between the sticks.

Glennon didn’t hold back when speaking about Clark on the Talkin Fitbaw podcast:

“He’s a tw*t!

“There’s only a couple of people I don’t speak to in football, he’s one of them.

“He basically ruined my career from then onwards. He didn’t let me go out on loan, he lied to me constantly.

“His training wasn’t bad to be fair, training was decent, that was more to do with Derek Fazackerley and Blacky (Steve Black) that was in there, excellent fitness coach, Fazackerley was a great coach.

“But Lee Clark no, I wouldn’t if he was on fire.

“I had to (leave) because one of us was going to die and it wasn’t going to be me.

“There was chances to go to decent clubs on loan which he didn’t tell me about which I found out from other people.  Other managers were saying ‘we tried to sign you but he said you weren’t going anywhere but he’s not going to play you’.

“I played two-and-a-half years, we just beat Brighton, I saved a penalty and we won 1-0…we beat Leeds at Elland Road, next thing I get dropped by the youth-team manager and then I’m watching football.

“Alex Smithies has gone on to have a very good career. He let 11 goals in in a couple of games in the reserves, not quite sure that tells you you’re getting a chance in the first team.

“I wasn’t given a chance in cup games, I couldn’t go out on loan or do anything and next thing I end up at Bradford which was an absolute waste of my time because I went in with Stuart McCall, he left after a week, I don’t know if its because I turned up.

“Then Peter Taylor, another man who doesn’t particularly like goalkeepers (came in) and that was pretty much the start of my downward spiral.

“We can all pinpoint times in our career where it started going wrong and for me that was it.”

Matt was speaking to Derek Clark – follow him on Twitter and download the Talkin Fitbaw Podcast 

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Permutations are fun, and a word almost exclusively saved for attempts to make sense of contrived qualification campaigns for major football championships.

It just so happens that one is coming towards its conclusion; you might have noticed. The field for Euro 2020 is taking shape and, with one week of games left, the scenarios are becoming rather more clear.

Every country now has either one or two games left to play in next month’s final international break. The top two teams from each of the ten groups will qualify automatically, with six of those 20 spots already taken. The remaining four places will then be decided by those darn Nations League-based play-offs. So let’s take a look who should start clearing their schedules for the continent’s ambitious 24-team party next year.

 

Who has already qualified?
Ukraine
and Italy have booked their spots as guaranteed winners of Groups B and J respectively. Spain (Group F), Poland (G), Belgium and Russia (both I) will join them at Euro 2020, but whether they finish top or second in their groups is yet to be decided.

 

Who is likely to join them?
England
, who need a point at home to Montenegro or away at Kosovo next month. They would even qualify if they lose at Wembley, provided Czech Republic’s game with Kosovo does not end in a draw.

Portugal will emerge from Group B, alongside winners Ukraine, with victories against Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away.

Netherlands and Germany both know that avoiding defeat in one of their two final games against Northern Ireland will be enough in Group C, as long as they win their other matches against Estonia and Belarus respectively.

Switzerland are third but in the best position of a complicated Group D. If they get at least four points against Georgia at home and Gibraltar away, they qualify.

Croatia must avoid defeat against Slovakia in their remaining game to make it out of Group E.

Austria need just a point at home to North Macedonia to qualify behind Poland from Group G.

The top spots in Group H will go to Turkey if they avoid defeat at home to Iceland – and even if they lose that game then beat Andorra – and France if they beat Moldova.

Finland will join Italy at the finals – their first-ever – with a win at home to Liechtenstein, or if Bosnia fail to beat Italy.

 

What about the other automatic spots?
Czech Republic
qualify from Group A if they beat third-placed Kosovo next month. Kosovo must win that game, then draw at home to England in their last match, to take their place.

Serbia are relying on the unlikely event of Portugal failing to beat either Lithuania or Luxembourg. But if the reigning champions do falter, winning their games against Luxembourg and Ukraine would be enough for Serbia to emerge from Group B.

Northern Ireland will likely have to beat both Netherlands and Germany, with either of those teams dropping points in their other games. If they do beat both but Netherlands and Germany pick up expected wins against Estonia and Belarus respectively, Group C’s top three will all finish on 18 points. Head-to-head goal difference would then be used, which could still rule Northern Ireland – who have previously lost to both Germany and Netherlands by two goals each – out.

Sweden face the Faroe Islands in their last qualifier, so a draw against Romania would put them through, provided they then predictably beat one of Group F’s whipping boys. Romania take second spot by beating Sweden – a game they would have to win 1-0 or by two goals to be clear on head to head if they draw their final match in Spain. Winning both games takes them through. Norway are relying on a number of results, including the Faroe Islands beating Sweden, to have any hope.

North Macedonia must beat second-placed Austria, then win against Israel at home while Austria lose to Latvia, who have lost all eight of their games in Group G so far. Even if Austria draw against Latvia, North Macedonia would have to overcome the 4-1 defeat they suffered to Austria in June to go above them on a head-to-head basis. Slovenia are also relying on some mental results, such as winning away at Poland and Austria losing both their games.

Iceland face Turkey (a) and Moldova (h) and must win both games to stand a chance in Group H. Even then, either Turkey would have to draw or lose to Andorra, or France get no more than one point against Moldova and Albania, for Iceland to make it and knock England out in the last-16 again.

Both Bosnia and Herzegovina have to beat Italy and Liechtenstein, with Finland also picking up no more than one point against Liechtenstein and Greece, to join Italy from Group J.

 

What the f*** is happening in Group D?
Mick McCarthy, that’s what.

Ireland are top of Group D on head to head, level on points with Denmark on 12, with both one clear of Switzerland. Their only remaining qualifier is against Denmark next month, and they will qualify if they win that game and Switzerland do not draw either of their last two at home to Georgia and away at Gibraltar.

If Switzerland do draw one of those matches and win the other, Ireland beat Denmark and the Danes beat Gibraltar in their other game, all three countries will end on 15 points with matching head-to-head records after each beating one of the others once. In that event, Ireland would have to beat Denmark by two goals to join Switzerland, who would be guaranteed qualification.

Switzerland will probably make it due to their kinder games. Denmark are through with at least a draw against Gibraltar, followed by a point in Dublin. Ireland are very likely to qualify with a win over Denmark. Simple.

 

And Group E?!
Bloody Ireland and Wales, getting everyone confused.

Group E at least has one obvious leader. Croatia qualify if they at draw at home to Slovakia. But that leaves three countries fighting over one final place.

Slovakia are third but could be in the best position. They finish second by beating Croatia (h) and Azerbaijan (a) in their last two games. If they do not win against Croatia, a victory against Azerbaijan would still be enough if Wales and Hungary draw.

Wales have to win both of their final two games – away at Azerbaijan and at home to Hungary – to advance. They would then need Slovakia to fail to win at least one of their matches, and would qualify on the head-to-head rule if they finish level on points, courtesy of beating them 1-0 in March.

Hungary are second and will stay there if they win in Cardiff and Slovakia don’t beat both Croatia and Azerbaijan.

 

What about those dastardly play-offs?
Here is where that whack-off safety net just comes in and swallows the entire f***ing thing hole. It would take a substantial and presumably hilarious collapse for a repeat of, say, Netherlands failing to qualify for Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018, or Italy missing last year’s tournament in Russia, with these play-offs essentially designed as a second chance for them.

The play-offs will be contested by 16 teams across the four Nations League ‘paths’: from the best teams in Path A to the less illustrious in Path D. They are drawn from the Leagues A through D in last year’s Nations League. There will be two one-legged semi-finals in each section, followed by a final to decide who reaches Euro 2020. So each of the four ‘paths’ will produce one of the final tournament qualifiers.

This is where the glorious spectacle that was the UEFA Nations League matters again. The winners of those 16 groups assured themselves of at least a play-off place in the event that they finished outside the top two in their Euro 2020 qualification groups. For example, England would be guaranteed a play-off place if they failed to secure automatic qualification in Group A.

As is likely with England, many of the teams that guaranteed themselves a play-off place will not need it as they will qualify automatically. Their place therefore passes down the line to the next best-ranked Nations League team, and so on until each position is filled.

As it stands, the following teams will contest the play-offs. Their Nations League rank is in brackets:

Switzerland (4), Iceland (12), Bosnia and Herzegovina (13), Wales (19), Slovakia (21), Northern Ireland (24), Scotland (25), Norway (26), Serbia (27), Bulgaria (29), Israel (30), Romania (32), Georgia (40), North Macedonia (41), Kosovo (42), Belarus (43).

Three teams are confirmed to be in the play-offs already in Scotland (Path C as both a host nation and a Nations League group winner), Georgia (Path D) and Belarus, whose seeding is to be decided, based on who else qualifies. Everything else could change over the course of the next two games.

 

Is football coming home?
Only if Jonjo Shelvey gets called up again.

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Jose Mourinho was hammered for much of what he said and how he went about managing Manchester United. Maybe he was right more often than we all thought…

 

Finishing second was an incredible achievement
“I keep saying and thinking and feeling that the second last season was one of my biggest achievements in the game.”

How we all laughed when serial winner Mourinho declared that leading United to a runners-up finish was up there with the two Champions League titles and four domestic leagues he has conquered. At the time, it reeked of self-preservation.

But Mourinho knew. And he doubled down on that view after he was sacked. “If I tell you, for example, that I consider one of the best jobs of my career was to finish second with Man United in the Premier League, you will say, ‘this guy is crazy,’” Mourinho said a month after being shown the door. “‘He won 25 titles and he is saying that a second position was one of his best achievements?’”

“I keep saying this because people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.”

In the context of United’s current fortunes, maybe Mourinho deserves a stand to be named after him at Old Trafford after coming 19 points behind Man City, but comfortably ahead of Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. His squad was very similar to the one currently disgracing themselves, with Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez (the Chilean joined halfway through the season) the only major exits, while Solskjaer has the luxury of the centre-back that Mourinho pleaded for.

 

Mourinho knew Pogba can’t be trusted
Paul Pogba may have been United’s most technically gifted player of the last three seasons, but Mourinho was right. The midfielder is a ‘virus’ in the dressing room.

“You don’t respect players and supporters. And you kill the mentality of the good honest people around you,” Mourinho is reported to have told Pogba after a draw at Southampton last year. “You are like a person with a flu, with a virus in a closed room – you pass that virus to the others.”

By that time, the problems at United had split supporters and pundits into two separate factions: Jose vs Pogba. Shortly after, it was Pogba who claimed victory, and his sudden-but-fleeting upturn in form upon Mourinho’s sacking gave ammunition to those who believed the manager was the problem.

But Pogba hasn’t changed. Yet again he went out of his way to engineer a move out of Old Trafford this summer and his form this season – when fit – has been as hopelessly inconsistent as we came to expect from the Frenchman under Mourinho.

Pogba can’t claim that Mourinho didn’t try. The manager tried a raft of formations and midfield personnel in an effort to get the best out of the record signing, and even after Pogba told United he wanted to leave having returned to work with a World Cup winner’s medal fluffing his ego, Mourinho offered an olive branch in the form of the United vice-captaincy. Pogba (metaphorically we hope) wiped his arse with the armband.

But United don’t learn. The hierarchy at Old Trafford are reportedly ready to offer Pogba a pay-rise in a vain attempt to persuade him that his future lies with the Red Devils. But Pogba wants out and he could not have made it clearer, with his words or his form.

 

Marcus Rashford isn’t a natural centre-forward
When Mourinho signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in each of his first two summers in charge at Old Trafford, the worry for many was what their arrival meant for Rashford’s prospects. Their concerns were misplaced.

Rashford ended up making more appearances under Mourinho than any other Manchester United player and played the fourth-highest number of minutes. The problem for some was that Rashford spent most of his time on the pitch shunted out wide.

Around 50 of the academy graduate’s 125 appearances under Mourinho came as a centre-forward, with 32 of those coming from the start. According to Transfermarkt, he averaged a goal every 219 minutes while leading the line. Hardly prolific numbers.

Mourinho recognised that Rashford’s qualities were more suited to a wide forward, a player who can lead breaks rather than one who can receive the ball with his back to goal. But Rashford still saw himself as a No.9. The ex-manager explained his thinking last month.

“I am not going to say he cannot ever be a number nine, he can be a dangerous number nine especially if the opposition is not pragmatic, is not close and is giving spaces to attack. He can be dangerous in transitions,” Mourinho told Sky Sports. “But when Manchester United is a team that normally plays against teams who go to Old Trafford, close the door, bring the bus, bring the double bus, he is not a striker to play with his back to the goal.

“He is not the target man, he doesn’t score as many goals as a striker should do. So I think from the side you will get him to numbers of 10-12 goals per season.”

It seems Mourinho was right. Solskjaer immediately placed his faith in Rashford as his leading centre-forward – to Lukaku’s cost – but after an initial burst, the England attacker’s productivity has waned, as has his involvement in matches. Harry Maguire had more touches in the Newcastle box than Rashford – or any other United team-mate – on Sunday. Rashford looks so far off the pace as a leading striker that many people are assuming he is carrying an injury, despite Solskjaer’s insistence that he is 100 per cent fit.

The penny also appeared to have dropped with Solskjaer, who started the season with Martial as his starting centre-forward, with Rashford wide. But with Martial sidelined, Solskjaer has little option to persist with Rashford through the middle.

 

He knew Andreas Pereira wasn’t good enough
Mourinho had Pereira pegged as a continental Cleverley as soon as he got a decent look at the once-capped Brazil midfielder.

The 23-year-old spent the first two years of Mourinho’s United reign in Spain, initially with Granada before he defied the manager to go to Valencia for a season in 2017 – a decision which ‘disappointed’ Mourinho:  “His decision can be considered a young player who wants to play every weekend but also a young player that is not ready to fight for something difficult.”

Mourinho made his peace with Pereira’s choice and the manager offered the midfielder a chance to impress during United’s pre-season tour in 2018 while their World Cup players were still on holiday. In the United States, Pereira played as a No.6 where he eventually made his first Premier League start on the opening weekend. By the end of the following weekend, he was done in Mourinho’s mind. Pereira was hooked at half-time during a defeat which rang alarm bells at Old Trafford.

His next start came almost four months later when Mourinho rested key players for a Champions League group game at Valencia with qualification already assured. Back at the stadium he spent the previous season, Pereira was wretched. He was dropped again from Mourinho’s squad for the fateful trip to Liverpool, as he had been for the previous eight Premier League matches.

Solskjaer came in and having failed to convince Louis van Gaal or Mourinho, he was given a third opportunity. The current boss certainly appears to fancy the Belgium-born Brazilian more than the previous two managers – God only knows why. Pereira is a player without a position; he looks out of his depth wherever he is played. Fred may be the current poster boy for United’s slide but Pereira is equally as inept, as Mourinho quickly learned once he had the chance to see for himself.

 

He saw something in McTominay
When Mourinho brought Scott McTominay into his side and played him on an increasingly regular basis, even some within the club – his former academy team-mates among them – are understood to have been utterly baffled by what the manager saw in the gangly midfielder.

Not only did Mourinho play McTominay, he held the Scotland youngster up as an example to the rest of his high-profile, underperforming squad. Mourinho invented an award for McTominay at the end of the 2017-18 season, when United somehow finished second, so that he could be brought up on stage and paraded in front of the MUTV cameras as the template for his team-mates.

When Mourinho went, so too it was presumed would McTominay chances of regular involvement. Indeed, in his attempt to paint himself as the anti-Jose, Solskjaer used McTominay for a single minute in his first eight Premier League matches in charge.

But the midfielder has shown the kind of attitude and ‘special character’ that Mourinho saw in him to establish himself as one of the first names on Solskjaer’s team-sheet. Unfortunately for McTominay, any praise he receives is so often prefixed with “he’s no Keane/Robson/Scholes/Edwards” but he cannot be held accountable for the decline in standards at Old Trafford, especially while he is one of the few players trying to uphold them.

 

Ian Watson

The post Five things Jose Mourinho was right about at Man Utd… appeared first on Football365.

Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Calum Chambers
“I’m delighted Calum has extended his stay with us,” said Unai Emery in July 2018. “He played an important role last season and will be part of my plans this season.”

What the Arsenal manager failed to disclose is that his “plans” involved Calum Chambers taking his new Arsenal contract with him across the city to Fulham. But as strange as the apparent U-turn was, Emery’s justification that a second loan spell “will be an important part of his development” seems particularly pertinent.

While the 24-year-old added a second Premier League relegation to his CV at Craven Cottage, the boy returned as a man. A campaign that started with him featuring at centre-half included some brief sojourns at right-back before carving out a role in defensive midfield. Upon his being named Fulham’s Player of the Season, the club’s official website described him as ‘one of our most popular ever loanees’.

And so to Tuesday, where Chambers was in sensational form against Nottingham Forest, assisting a goal apiece from either flank and balancing his new-found attacking instincts with a defensive resolve not often seen in these parts. His physical improvement in particular was eye-opening.

Rob Holding, Kieran Tierney, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli all impressed at the Emirates, but only one player was “amazing” enough to be singled out by the manager. He might well have earned a start against Manchester United in their 12-12 draw on Monday.

 

Taylor Harwood-Bellis
‘Man City already have a Harry Maguire-style centre back in Taylor Harwood-Bellis’ read the Manchester Evening News summer headline. But if one performance in a League Cup third-round game against lower-league opposition is anything to go by, the 17-year-old will surpass his new city brethren within a month.

The comparison carries little weight beyond height, of course, with Harwood-Bellis marrying obvious aerial prowess with calm and comfort on the ball against Preston. Only fellow central defender Eric Garcia completed more passes (90) than his 84, and his partner on Tuesday was making a fourth League Cup start of his career, having appeared in last season’s quarter-final and semi-final.

Pep Guardiola saw fit to praise both of his “exceptional human beings” after the 3-0 win, but for a player who only turned 17 this year, a professional first-team debut was a monumental step forward.

Regular Premier League football remains a distant objective, and Fernandinho will likely return by the weekend. But Harwood-Bellis at least justified his place in the central defensive queue, even if it is towards the back after pushing in front of Guardiola himself.

 

Danny Ings
It’s safe to say that Danny Ings expected his Southampton career to go a little differently. His gentleman’s bet that he would outscore Mo Salah was “just a bit of banter” with no money involved, but a final result of 7-22 won’t have been great for his confidence.

There was a silver lining of 23 Premier League starts, a tally beaten only by his first campaign in the competition with Burnley in 2014/15 (35), and almost four times as many as he made throughout his entire Liverpool career (6). With those injury issues thankfully and hopefully behind him, the 27-year-old is looking to push on.

Ralph Hasenhuttl ensured to freshen his competition this season with the signings of Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo, but Ings has risen to the challenge. Two goals in the derby win over Portsmouth takes his seasonal tally to three with one assist and a respectable return.

Perseverance – and a quite wonderful first touch – laid on his first strike against Pompey, while the deft finish applied to Michael Obafemi’s excellent through ball made for a rather pleasing second, and a boyhood dream realised.

Hasenhuttl has started Adams as a lone striker and alongside Nathan Redmond in Saints’ last two Premier League games, with Ings afforded 16 and 13 minutes as a substitute. He will fancy his chances from the start against a panicky Tottenham on Saturday.

 

James Justin
Somewhat lost amid Leicester’s excellent start to the season is that continuity, not revolution, has been the key. The eight Foxes with the most minutes played were all at the club in 2018/19, with Ayoze Perez the only player in the top 13 not to have been signed this summer – January arrival Youri Tielemans notwithstanding.

While Dennis Praet will need more than one Premier League start and one and a half League Cup games to prove that his purchase was not at least a little pointless, James Justin will be afforded a considerable amount of time. The 21-year-old joined under no pretences: two of the Premier League’s best full-backs are well ahead of him and Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell would both take some shifting. The versatility of being able to play on either flank mattered not.

So it proved. Six Premier League games have passed with Justin acclimatising to the bench as an unused substitute in each. Even against Newcastle in the League Cup second round he watched on from the sidelines. But when former club Luton played host to Leicester on Tuesday, Brendan Rodgers gave him the nod.

A goal, four chances created, two tackles, two clearances and what the Leicester Mercury described as ‘a dream debut’ justified the call. The opportunities for such a naturally gifted and supremely talented player will come, particularly if he makes a habit of taking them in such an impressive manner.

 

Dominic Calvert-Lewin
The standard of the opposition will likely be used as a stick to beat him rather than praise him with. There always tends to be an asterisk next to the name of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is constantly willing but not always able.

Perhaps a Premier League defence would not have afforded him the freedom of Hillsborough to score his first goal, nor would they have suffered the lapse in concentration that preceded his second. But Calvert-Lewin showcased both a fine touch and unstoppable finishing technique, as well as an awareness and instinct to put Everton through to the next round.

It will take more than that to convince many of the sceptics, but only a fool would suggest the 22-year-old is responsible for a shoddy record at set-pieces and an inability to win away. Richarlison (17) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (15) are the only other Toffees to register double figures for goals in all competitions since the start of last season, with Calvert-Lewin – who neither cost upwards of £35m nor has been allowed to settle into one position – on 11.

Whether he is part of the solution remains to be seen – although every club tends to have a similar style of player in their ranks somewhere. But Calvert-Lewin is most certainly not the problem.

Matt Stead

 

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

1) Eight months after winning at Stamford Bridge, Leicester returned emboldened by that result but aware that the public perception of them has changed. Brendan Rodgers has arrived to guide one of the most talented group of players in the country and with that comes expectation.

Ordinarily, a visit to Chelsea in August would be no kind of context, but Frank Lampard’s side are very much a work in progress. If Leicester are a credible threat to the top six, which should be their aim, then these are the days on which to prove that that’s built on something more than Rodgers’ frothy optimism.

 

2) Chelsea’s objective was simpler. Lampard could legitimately claim positives from that defeat to Manchester United and many more from the Super Cup on Wednesday night. But while it’s accepted that the club are now between eras and that this transition to something more organic will take time, the native expectations have been tempered rather than changed entirely. Leicester at home is a match to win and so, for Lampard, this was the first game with real pressure.

 

3) With that in mind, his selection of Mason Mount was significant. How refreshing to see a Chelsea head coach not just give cursory minutes to a young player, but to actually offer a proper opportunity. Mount will have good days and bad over the course of the season and most likely his potential will show as often as his naivety.

But that’s okay, because Lampard’s patronage means that he isn’t one bad game from the substitutes’ bench. Young footballers need that. Particularly one like Mount, who has to be expressive and cannot be inhibited by fear over how misplaced passes could impact his short-term career.

 

4) That faith instructed his performance; he didn’t look like someone making a home debut.

That first Premier League appearance at Stamford Bridge came with a first Premier League goal and swift vindication of Lampard’s decision. Mount might actually have scored earlier than he did, breaking between the Leicester centre-backs but choking his shot into the ground. When his goal came, though, it was really his own work, robbing Wilfred Ndidi and cutting a shot across and beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

Lampard will have been delighted. With the goal, of course, and Chelsea’s quick lead, but also because it showed the rainbow of Mount’s abilities and his capacity to follow tactical instruction. Modern coaches love a press, particularly when it’s led by technically gifted young players showing a determination to impose themselves on a game.

 

5) The opening 20 minutes saw Chelsea in furious mood; there was no Istanbul hangover. Key seemed to be Olivier Giroud’s inclusion. He has his limitations and he’ll never be a prolific goalscorer, but there are few Premier League forwards who play quite as selflessly.

An urgent tone was set right from kick-off – that was very important – but there was so much activity around Giroud, too. He smartly chested into Pedro’s stride for a volley which crashed into the side netting and, minutes later, it was his movement which allowed Mount to snipe in for his early chance. On 25 minutes, his cute, clever backheel might have created a rare goal for N’Golo Kante.

Maybe it’s a little unkind on Tammy Abraham, but at the moment there’s no debate about who should be Chelsea’s starting centre-forward. With Giroud in the side, the supporting players all look more potent.

 

6) About that frothy Rodgers optimism…

Leicester’s foundation wasn’t right here. In the 15 minutes before half-time, there were a few of the sharp exchanges you’d expect to see from this group of players, but not nearly enough to present a proper challenge. Jamie Vardy was barely involved, save for that strange Kepa moment, and neither James Maddison nor Youri Tielmans was much of an attacking presence. But that seemed tied to the more general problem of security.

Chelsea moved the ball up the field with little difficulty. Even when their opponents were in proper shape behind the ball, the ease with which they were able to fashion space around – and sometimes inside – the box was alarming. Maybe this is an early season problem, perhaps it’s a consequence of Harry Maguire’s recent departure, but it was still concerning.

 

7) There isn’t an obvious diagnosis for it either. Caglar Soyuncu looks a bit immobile – that’s probably not ideal – but Hamza Choudhury and Ndidi were equipped to protect their defence better than they did and, outside the centre-backs, Ricardo Pereira and Christian Fuchs are hardly security risks, even if the latter has seen better days.

The intensity was wrong. That’s woolly and tenuous, apologies for that, but this wasn’t a side determined to control the middle of the pitch and – clearly – that’s a prerequisite to competing at these grounds.

 

8) An observation, one obviously wise with hindsight: it was interesting to note the body language during Leicester’s warm-up. Lots of smiles, all very casual. When players are pointing and laughing at team-mates for slashing their shots over during shooting practice, maybe that’s not indicative of an appropriate focus.

There’s no value in going too far down this road, because it’s over-analysis based on very little, but it certainly tallied with what followed.

 

9) And another lurching, knee-jerk reaction: has James Maddison been over-estimated?

Originally, before the equaliser, this was a deeply frustrated paragraph bemoaning his inability to release the ball earlier and also his tendency to make bad decisions at important moments. Let’s be fair, though: he got a lot better and, by full-time, he had become a big influence on the game.

Some of the issues are still pertinent, though. There’s a lot to like about Maddison, not least that ebullient self-belief which allowed him to adapt so quickly last season. On Sunday, he also played predominantly from the left, which doesn’t seem to suit him. However, if he is to have a England future, then his ratios still need to change. He cannot waste four opportunities for every one he creates and, at the moment, that’s still the difference between what he is and how he carries himself.

 

10) The shame of Leicester’s start was in how well they began to play after half-time. Chelsea lost their way and while Ndidi’s (splendid) headed equaliser wasn’t exactly ‘coming’, it was reward for their significant improvement.

Suddenly, there were the slick interchanges between the attacking players. Tielemans became a factor, Vardy’s back-shoulder running began to frighten Christensen and Zouma and, at last, Maddison started to become much more productive.

Credit to Rodgers and his players for that: Stamford Bridge is one of those places where it’s easy to roll over and accept defeat. Leicester didn’t.

 

11) And Maddison should have won it for them. On reflection, his stumbling run across the box and wild finish over the bar was an encapsulation of the issues described above. He’s so nearly a very good player.

 

12) What is the difference between Giroud and Abraham? Probably that the latter has no one outstanding attribute. He’s quite skilful, but not very. He’s quick, but not exceptionally so, and his finishing is quite good, but not all the time.

Giroud isn’t an all-round forward in anyone’s eyes, but the reliability of his hold-up play is such that it gives Chelsea a constant base around which to build.

By contrast, Abraham’s contributions remain erratic. He can do some of what Giroud does, but not to a high enough standard to engender any real confidence. Without that, his supporting teammates are unable to play around him in a pre-emptive way and, as a result, Chelsea inevitably lose their attacking fluidity with him as their pivot. If he is to have a future here, then that has to change.

 

13) Whether Jorginho has a long-term future here is a different issue. After a year in England, his tendencies are well established: when Chelsea are secure in games, he looks composed and impressive. When they’re not, he doesn’t.

There are bigger issues at work in Lampard’s team, because the regularity with which Leicester were able to transition out of defence and into attack – and the space they enjoyed when they did – suggested a serious imbalance somewhere. Against a more ruthless opponent, this would almost certainly ended in defeat.

So while the more frequent debate is over N’Golo Kante’s role and whether his abilities are slightly misused further forward, perhaps the better way of framing the issue is to ask whether Jorginho is really suited to being the deepest man. Is he good enough defensively? Is he athletically capable of coping when counter-attacks develop?

We’re still waiting to find out.

 

14)  It’s in those Leicester transitions that Rodgers’ best work can be seen. With the advantage of having two or three players who can occupy a traditional No.10 role, the range of movement around the ball-carrier – particularly on the counter-attack – is hugely impressive. Those runners splay out in every direction and they create panic in a defence; it’s exciting to watch and, as and when the passes are attuned to exploiting it, the goals will follow.

It’s possibly why Maddison is subject to such scrutiny. When those options exist and there’s an obvious path to goal, the right decisions have to be made. Leicester aren’t capitalising on that at the moment, but the framework is at least in place.

 

15)  And what are they, more broadly?

A threat to the top six, but probably not more than that at this stage. It would be easier to assess if we knew what Chelsea were and what this point was actually worth. Nevertheless, some of the associations they grew under Puel clearly remain – not least that bizarre tendency to look like three different sides within the space of a single game.

That has to go. They need to be more efficient in front of goal, that’s a given, but the teams at the top of the table are typically very consistent and keeping pace with them requires a high baseline of performance. Leicester don’t have that yet; they still play well for periods, rather than for entire games.

 

16) And Chelsea?

Don’t underestimate the size of the project Lampard inherited or how many problems Eden Hazard’s form was able to disguise last season.

The defence has been rebuilt and remains without Antonio Rudiger. The midfield continues to be nebulous in definition. And the attack is having to compensate for the departure of the best player in the country without the benefit of investment. It’s difficult and it’s probably going to look unconvincing for a while longer.

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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That it took 76 minutes to break down Aston Villa last weekend will not fill Tottenham Hotspur fans with confidence ahead of a trip to Manchester City, who barely had to move out of first gear on Saturday to destroy West Ham. Three years of Pep Guardiola’s tactical training have given City the muscle memory to pass and move in perfect triangles, making them vastly superior to any other team in England.

But Tottenham do tend to raise their game when facing Man City, pressing aggressively to create a tense and oppressive midfield battle. The win won’t come easy for Guardiola’s side, and yet with Tottenham looking vulnerable in the full-back positions and missing both Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli, the hosts should collect the three points.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Man City v Spurs:

 

1) Will Pochettino go three at the back to sure up Rose and Walker-Peters?
Tottenham lined up in a 3-5-2 formation the last time these sides met, a 1-0 victory for Man City at the Etihad in April, and Mauricio Pochettino could deploy the same formation to provide additional support to Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters. Both full-backs have an error in them, Rose having been beaten too easily by John McGinn in Spurs’ opener and 22-year-old Walker-Peters still raw. Playing with three centre-backs also has its advantages in helping to close out the inside-forward spaces in which Raheem Sterling tends to occupy.

However, it is more likely that Pochettino will use the diamond 4-4-2 that began the Aston Villa match, not least because Juan Foyth’s injury and apparent fitness concerns over Jan Vertonghen leaves the Tottenham manager with limited options at the back. In a diamond, Spurs can pack the midfield with bodies while giving Christian Eriksen the creative freedom he enjoyed against Villa from an advanced role – as well as pick Harry Kane and Lucas Moura to counter-attack together up front.

 

2) Will Ndombele be able to prevent De Bruyne from running the right channel?
The diamond formation, essentially using four central midfielders, should create a claustrophobic and compact game at the Etihad, more reminiscent of the three 1-0s between the sides last year than City’s 4-3 win in the Champions League. In such a cluttered midfield battle, the key head-to-head is between Tanguy Ndombele and Kevin de Bruyne.

De Bruyne’s role has changed slightly this season. The Belgian alternates between dropping alongside Rodri to help out his new team-mate defensively and drifting out into the right half-space to collaborate with Riyad Mahrez in attack. These two overloaded West Ham left-back Aaron Cresswell last weekend to devastating effect, and should be able to similarly trouble Rose on Saturday – particularly if Spurs play with such a narrow midfield.

Moussa Sissoko is likely to be the midfielder closest to Rose, but it is Ndombele’s presence at both ends that should either force De Bruyne alongside Rodri or allow him to roam up the pitch. Should the Frenchman burst forward in possession and seek to support Eriksen, then De Bruyne’s influence will be limited; theirs is a territorial battle that will go some way to deciding which side is on top.

 

3) Can Kane put pressure on Rodri?
Against both Liverpool and West Ham, Rodri was caught in possession on a couple of occasions in the opening 20 minutes, a typical sign of teething problems after arriving in such a fast and physical division. The mainstream narrative is that Rodri managed to adapt as each game wore on, but in reality it’s just that both of City’s opponents lowered the intensity of their pressing and tackling at around the half-hour mark.

Spurs are unlikely to similarly let up. Harry Kane in particular has a big role to play dropping into his favoured number ten position and nicking possession from Rodri, but it would be naïve to pinpoint just one player looking to harass the Spaniard off the ball. The only times West Ham looked close to scoring at London Stadium last Saturday was when Rodri was pickpocketed and space suddenly opened up in the final third. Pochettino will most definitely instruct his players to swarm Rodri.

 

4) How can Spurs target Zinchenko?
The obvious weak point in the Man City team is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who always looks a bit shaky and positionally unsure when playing left-back. However, Tottenham’s probable formation doesn’t provide a clear pathway to target the Ukrainian, particularly given that Walker-Peters will be instructed to play cautiously with Sterling lurking on the left.

Lucas Moura, peeling off to the right, is the only quick attacker in the Spurs team while Heung-Min Son serves his suspension, and so he is their best option to run in behind Zinchenko when Tottenham launch counters. Long balls into the channels from Toby Alderweireld would be a good idea in such a restrictive, high-pressing game.

But such is the complexity and efficiency of Guardiola’s tactic,s Zinchenko is unlikely to be exposed. In fact, he will pop up in central midfield just as often as left-back, providing cover for when Rodri strides into the Spurs half and making himself available for the connecting ball between Kyle Walker and Sterling. Chinks in City’s armour are so minute Spurs probably won’t discover them.

 

5) Will Sterling versus Walker-Peters settle the contest?
The machine-like efficiency of Sterling at the moment should strike fear into Spurs fans, particularly as the game wears on and gaps begin to open up. That he faces Walker-Peters is problematic. The right-back has the athleticism to stand Sterling up when one on one, but the bigger risk is during moments when City counter-attack on the outside of Tottenham’s narrow midfield, with Sterling particularly threatening making runs on the inside of the opposition full-back.

In all probability City’s superiority across the pitch will bring them victory, but should Spurs manage to restrict the hosts then Guardiola will look to Sterling’s one-on-one with Walker-Peters as the main source of a late goal.

 

Alex Keble

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Nicolas Pepe looks set to become the latest player to move from Ligue 1 to the top end of the Premier League. Here, we rank the last 10 stars to cross the Channel for the Big Six…

 

10) Tiemoue Bakayoko – Chelsea
The Paris-born midfielder, who joined Chelsea from Monaco for £40million – their second most expensive signing at the time – had somewhat rebuilt his reputation during a season-long loan at AC Milan after a ropey start at the San Siro, but Bakayoko has reportedly failed to impress Frank Lampard any more than he managed with Antonio Conte.

The mere mention of his name transports Chelsea fans straight back to Vicarage Road where the 24-year-old was sent off for two bookings before the half-hour in a 4-1 defeat in February last year. Milan may take him off their hands permanently but Chelsea will have to take a big hit on the once-capped France midfielder.

 

9) Michy Batshuayi – Chelsea
It seems Chelsea still don’t know what to do with Batshuayi. Presumably he would be away if they could sign replacements but circumstances could give the 25-year-old an opportunity to nail down a place in Lampard’s squad following three loan moves in the last 18 months during which he has scored 18 goals for Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and Crystal Palace.

Whatever they decide, it certainly wasn’t the plan when Chelsea paid Marseille £33million for the Belgium centre-forward three years ago.

 

8) Benjamin Mendy – Man City
Injuries have restricted the £52million signing to 17 Premier League appearances in two seasons but knee problems haven’t stopped the former Monaco man from playing the clown. Pep Guardiola would rather have a left-back than a globetrotting cheerleader, which presumably forced City to buy back Angelino. Who was ‘absolutely awful’ last week…

7) Serge Aurier – Spurs
The Ivory Coast defender showed signs of improvement last season – among some trouser-dirtying moments for Spurs fans too – but he managed only six starts in the Premier League as fitness concerns linger.

With Mauricio Pochettino having sold Kieran Trippier to Atletico Madrid, Aurier needs to get his act together in this, his third season in English football. Unless the Spurs boss has indeed decided to play Juan Foyth as his starting right-back.

 

6) David Luiz – Chelsea
The Brazilian’s £34million move from PSG in 2016 was his second stab at a Chelsea career after he was sold to the French champions for £50million two years previously and though he has largely made a better fist of it than the first attempt, most Blues would probably just have shrugged at the sight of the 32-year-old walking away upon the expiry of his contract last season.

As it is, because Chelsea can’t sign anyone else, they have given Luiz two more years to get them through a transfer ban and to give the likes of Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu time to blossom into centre-backs worthy of phasing him out.

 

5) Fabinho – Liverpool
Liverpool’s £40million capture of the Brazilian was kept weirdly quiet until it was announced shortly after their 2018 Champions League final defeat and the start of his Anfield career was equally bizarre. Jurgen Klopp appeared petrified of using the former Monaco midfielder amid the hustle and bustle of the Premier League and the Liverpool boss was reportedly considering sending Fabinho away at the first opportunity in January.

But the patient approach paid off. Fabinho was eased in and grew over the course of the season which he ended as first choice in Klopp’s midfield. The 25-year-old also proved his versatility by slotting in a right-back and centre-back.

 

4) Lucas Moura – Spurs
It didn’t seem to matter what Moura did last season – if everyone was fit, the Brazilian was usually out. Even after scoring the incredible hat-trick which took Spurs to the Champions League final, he was benched for the Madrid meeting with Liverpool.

It speaks well of his form since arriving from PSG in January 2018 that many felt Moura was Spurs’ best chance of troubling Virgil van Dijk. But Pochettino opted for a half-fit Kane and Van Dijk pocketed the Spurs centre-forward and a winner’s medal leaving the Brazilian understandably miffed.

3) Alexandre Lacazette – Arsenal
The £46million signing carried the goalscoring burden for Arsenal before his mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang showed up six months later to share the load. Together they have forged one of the Premier League’s best strike partnerships and emerged as just about the only good thing about Arsenal last season.

Aubameyang took a share of the Premier League Golden Boot with 22 goals but Lacazette weighed in 13 while laying on another 10. Unai Emery will be expecting 20 plus in all competitions this season, especially if Nicolas Pepe is providing the ammunition.

 

2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Man Utd
We shouldn’t forget how good Zlatan was in his first season at United, which turned out to be his only full campaign in the Premier League and even that was ended prematurely by a knee injury. He notched 28 goals in all competitions and was nominated for the PFA Player of the Season for helping United to win the League Cup – he scored twice in the final – and Europa League.

Ibrahimovic didn’t hit the same heights upon re-signing for United after his knee injury but allowing him to join LA Galaxy might still be seen as a mistake given the influence he had upon the dressing room at Old Trafford. When Zlatan went, the mentality shifted, leaving Jose Mourinho to fight a losing battle.

 

1) Bernardo Silva – Man City
“For me, to drop Bernardo Silva right now is almost impossible. Right now it is Bernardo and 10 more players,” said Pep Guardiola as City geared up in February for the sprint to the Premier League finish line. “I don’t know what this guy has done this season. Playing in the middle and outside, every single game he played perfect.”

Pep likes to talk his players up but Bernardo’s contribution spoke for itself. The Portuguese schemer, a £43million signing from Monaco two years ago, was City’s best player in a Treble-winning season, combining creativity with endless graft.

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

Johnny chooses someone or something in football that deserves celebrating for what they’ve done this week…

 

Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is a footballer who has played for her country 158 times scoring 50 goals. Among many honours, she’s won a league and cup double with Lyon and the small matter of two World Cups. In 2019’s tournament she won the Golden Ball, Golden Boot and World Cup Final Player of the Match.

Although 34 years old she is still a restlessly dynamic, attacking midfielder for her country and Reign FC in Seattle.

An eloquent campaigner for equal pay and LGBT rights, the mere mention of her name makes the heart glow in many and the bile rise in some.

She has taken a knee and taken a lot of stick for that. She didn’t sing the National Anthem at the World Cup either. She’s a leading voice for the USWNT’s fight for gender equality.

A cursory glance at some of her online critics reveals she’s a real lightning rod for some serious hate, not least in her hometown, and yet incredibly she seems very resolute and wears her iconic status lightly with a playful self-possession which, of course, just winds up her intolerant critics even more. The fact her partner is Sue Bird, a basketball star, makes their sporting celebrity couple status more high profile and thus a big target for the haters.

Did a cheeky, very revealing Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition photoshoot, which displayed a remarkably sculpted body and made a lot of people very dry-mouthed indeed.

Basically annoys the living jobbies out of bigots by being sodding good at football, enjoying her life as a lesbian, fighting for decency and fairness and sticking it right up all and sundry with wit, good humour and a fiercely coherent, articulated political passion.

 

What have they done to deserve this then?
As co-captain, she lifted the World Cup last Sunday after scoring a typically nerveless penalty, her sixth goal of the tournament.

It was a tournament that her and the team had gone into with the pressure of being the holders, of being in the middle of suing the United States Soccer Federation, accusing it of gender discrimination. (listen to Hope Solo talk eloquently about this on this wonderful podcast) And the team also has an ongoing equal pay complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 2016. On top of all that, they had to contend with the, shall we say, bad vibes emanating out of the White House. And still, with all of that going on in the background, they were victorious. It was a remarkable win, made even more so by the crowd chanting “equal pay” at the end of the game. That is a great example of using football to make a positive difference. The game needs so much more of this.

As she’d played fewer minutes than Alex Morgan, who had also scored six, and had more assists than the fantastic Ellen White, she was awarded the Golden Boot, as well as Player of the Match and the Golden Ball as player of the tournament, the latter was a little controversial as there were certainly others who could’ve had a good claim for that title. But her victory here had greater reverberations and was somehow instantly iconic of the transformation of the women’s game into the mainstream.

For many it was their first exposure to Megan. Here was a fully-formed star on our TV in prime time, complete with iconic goal celebration, surely crafted to the used as symbolic. Here was someone almost larger than life, an irrepressible force of nature who is a manifestation of how far the game had come and that’s before we even think about the wider political issues.

“I didn’t know women played football this good,” was a comment I overheard in a local pub from a middle-aged man as he watched the World Cup Final, mouth somewhat agape. And I’m sure he was not the only person to say that in the last month.

Her coach Jill Ellis: “Megan was built for this, built for these moments, built to be a spokesperson. She’s eloquent. She speaks well and from the heart. I never had any worries about Megan speaking out. The bigger the spotlight the more she shines.”

 

Anyone grumpy about it?
The usual suspects. The Commander in Cheetos, obviously and his glove puppet Piers Morgan and people who don’t like loud ‘n’ proud women in general. Then there’s the people on Twitter who think they’re being bullied by snowflakes into liking women’s football which isn’t really any good and I’m just virtue signalling and a ‘woke’ idiot. Yeah, well, as the great woman herself might say, wah wah wah.

 

What was the media response?
The day after the World Cup win she uniquely made both the front and back pages of most of the serious newspapers. Despite all the other great USA players, hers was very much the face of France 2019.

All the big channels in USA ran live coverage of their parade and she’s been an ever-present on all the big talk shows since returning home. The media right now, is hanging on her every word.

Radio 4’s ‘Profile’ show this week was all about her, interviewing her father and highlighting how Redding’s more conservative residents rather dislike her stance on pretty much everything, so much so that her own dad, a building contractor, felt he had to remove a picture of her from his office wall so ‘the picture of that bitch’ didn’t anger them up. That is disgraceful on so many levels.

Some newspapers have spoken to her brother Brian, who has had his substance abuse struggles apparently, and she’s referred to him in interviews as being the person who got her into football as a kid.

As I experienced most of the World up on 5live, using their broadcasts for commentaries while watching the games, everyone concerned had nothing but praise for her play and for overall attitude. When asked about that awful confected non-story about Alex Morgan’s tea-drinking celebration, Megan gave a typically amused and forthright response.

Her goalscoring pose has been grafted into a million memes, so much so that it is already an image which represents all the issues that she carries with her. A particularly good one is of her atop the Statue of Liberty.

There were a lot of speeches and interviews in the days after the World Cup win. This is just one example of many but serves well to illustrate her fizz, brio and easy appeal.

Oh and here she just looks and talks like a 1970s rock star. She could’ve been in Jefferson Starship in 1975 and in case you don’t know, believe me, that would have been very cool.

 

What the people say
She played so well, impressed so many with her skill and temperament and gives off much-needed positivity in these days of darkness, as well as just looking so damn cool, so it didn’t surprise me that I got so many great comments and very little of the achingly cliched snark that used to be so common.

As a philosophical sidebar, I really do believe that by inviting positive comments and by sharing our collective celebration of someone’s talent and worth, we dilute the pool of hatred with our love and in doing that we help deconstruct the psychic scaffolding that holds up the house of hate. All the comments you are about to read will be read by thousands and thousands of people and in this way we can help change the fabric upon which our lives are painted. Shut up Johnny, you’ve gone all hippie on us. And you’re referring to yourself in the third person again.

We start, as ever, with a Haiku from 4_4_Haiku

I wasn’t particularly bothered about the USA winning the World Cup but I sure as hell wanted her to win it just to rile the thin skinned balloon of self important narcissism.

She’s amazing. Great footballer, great advocate. They just did a poll over here in the US and in a presidential election she beats Trump by a point. Hahaha!

The epitome of rock n roll football

A hugely impressive individual.

A fine footballer who clearly inspires her team-mates and is not afraid to speak out about issues she believes in. More power to her.

Talented, smart, funny and unafraid. It can’t be overstated how important she is in current climate. Hope she doesn’t become overburdened by the role she’s taken on and continues to wear it well.

How can you not love someone who takes the responsibility of being a figurehead for a sport and a societal change with such gleeful relish.

Excellent speech from her yesterday. She’d make a fine politician. Love the way she stands up to Trump and the US conservatives. Hard to judge her as a footballer as that is only part of who she is. A great icon for the lgbt community.

Thrives on pressure. Love her.

In a moment in time where we have people protesting in the hope of denying to children we exist, for the icon of the female game to be out, loud and proud is elixir for the soul

I despair sometimes when a woman like Megan Rapinoe gets flak for standing up and saying something and then gets flak because she may have not said enough

Excellent player and a proper role-model for kids. Confident, articulate, and candid. And she’s reached the peak of her chosen sport and will leave it better than she found it. There’s not many — men or women — who can say that.

A Star, with an opinion

An icon of the US #Opposition , a rainbow coalition rebel pressing Trump’s buttons.

Great footballer. Progressive equality activist. But saddens me a little that there is a chance the #FIFAWWC could be remembered for her political stances/comments rather than her exceptional ability and the overall entertainment the #FIFAWWC brought.

Outspoken hero who doesn’t shy away from any big talk, and seemingly isn’t intimidated by those trying to put her down. And she plays with a smile on her face

She is magnificent in every way, she is a player that transcends the sport, we are all massive fans in my house.

The only people who don’t like her are the people worth not being liked by.

Not much of a team player, very much all about herself. Which is not uncommon in very good players. Craves being the centre of attention, in the same way C. Ronaldo does.

One of the most fascinating, engaging people involved in football anywhere in the world and is now using her newly found platform/fame in an intelligent and meaningful way. A fabulous statesperson for the sport. (Her Randy Orton impression does need work though!)

She was the first white athlete to kneel during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick / against racial injustice

As a footballer she’s reminiscent of the Barry Davies line “Samways uses Lineker by not using him”. Capable of beating opponents on her own or creating space for teammates to do the damage just by being on the field.

World Cup Champion example of a footballer not ruled by corporate sports sponsorships. Half of a sports power couple! Celebrates scoring & winning joyously & unabashedly and plays football the same way. Speaks frankly. Love her. There’s no professional athlete pantomime with her

The old lady I was stood behind in the bus stop turned to me for no apparent reason and said: “Megan Rapinoe? You’ve got to admire the way she stands up against institutionalized gender discrimination.”

A shame that there is no-one in the men’s game prepared to use the platform and profile they have earned through talent to be a voice for change the way she has.

Her swagger and belief is a big part of her game. It’s an advantage on the pitch as well as off it. And that makes you think about how swagger is seen as a negative by much of the British football press. Do our teams suffer from having to be humble?

 

What does the future hold?
Seems keen to do the Olympics next year; after that she’ll be mid-30s and the competition for places in the USWNT is so strong that it seems likely retirement will be her choice at that point. Then what? Politics seems far from unlikely in some capacity. We always need compassionate, inspiring, articulate people with a brain to run things and not blowhard psychotic idiots, though disappointingly, this isn’t a universal view of the electorate. But the American political system seems to require anyone running for office to be far beyond the normal level of wealth and there is an argument that she can inspire and drive change more effectively without getting elected to office.

Clearly, history will judge her as a pivotal figure in the development and advancement of women’s football and of women’s rights too for what she has done so far, but my sense is that this is all really just the start for her. She wants, and possibly also feels a responsibility, to be a difference maker, even though the road she is choosing to walk will guarantee she will not have a quiet nor smooth life. But then, she didn’t get to where she is today by giving an inch or backing down.

At the homecoming parade through Broadway, New York she said: “This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better, we have to love more and hate less. Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

What a woman.

 

John Nicholson

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League

The Women’s World Cup concluded on Sunday with the United States triumphing in the final over Holland. England enjoyed a hugely creditable campaign – even if Phil Neville isn’t so sure – by coming fourth following defeat int he third-place play-off in Nice.

Here, PA Sport rates Phil Neville’s squad…

Goalkeepers

Karen Bardsley: Made some very good saves as well as having the odd shaky moment. Missed the 2-1 defeat to the United States in the semi-finals due to a hamstring problem and also subsequently sat out the third-place play-off – 7/10.

Mary Earps: The only member of the squad not to feature in any match during the campaign – N/A.

Carly Telford: Performed pretty commendably across her three appearances. The first of those, in the 1-0 group-stage win against Argentina, was a World Cup debut for Telford after being an unused squad member through two previous tournaments – 6.

Defenders

Millie Bright: Looked as reliable as ever at times, and unconvincing at others. Injured her shoulder in the group stage and was sent off in the semi-final – 6.

Lucy Bronze: The right-back frequently demonstrated her class, most memorably in the 3-0 quarter-final victory over Norway that saw her set up the opener, have a hand in the creation of the second and then score the third with a stunning strike – 8.

Rachel Daly: Played well in an attacking role as England completed their group matches by beating Japan 2-0, then had less of an impact when she came back into the team in the semi-final – 6.

Alex Greenwood: Made some eye-catching contributions in attack, including scoring as Cameroon were beaten 3-0 in the last 16, and had some suspect moments defensively, with her attempted clearance teeing up Sweden’s first goal in the play-off – 6.

Steph Houghton: The captain – one of Johnny Nic’s heroes – produced some fantastic work at the back and also got on the scoresheet, against Cameroon. Her only really notable negative moment was a significant one – having a late penalty saved in the semi-final – 7.

Abbie McManus: Delivered a very composed display against Argentina after being brought in for Bright, and also started against Sweden – 6.

Demi Stokes: Began the tournament nursing an injury and went on to play three times. Did not react quickly enough for the cross when the US made it 2-1 in the semi-final – 6.

Leah Williamson: Made her only appearance when she came on in the 84th minute against Cameroon – 5.

Midfielders

Karen Carney: Slotted in well when coming off the bench in the group stage and the play-off game. She won her 144th and final England cap in the Sweden match, having announced on the eve of the contest that she would be retiring afterwards – 6.

Jade Moore: Did a quietly efficient job in the middle of the park at the times she was called upon, whether from the start or off the bench – 6.

Jill Scott: The tall, energetic 32-year-old showed she is still a key player for her country. Became the player to have made the most World Cup appearances for England in the Cameroon game, surpassing Peter Shilton – her tally now stands at 21 matches – 7.

Lucy Staniforth: Like Williamson, made her sole appearance as a second-half substitute against Cameroon – 5.

Georgia Stanway: The PFA Young Player of the Year made a very positive impression in the one game she started, the win against Japan that saw her set up the first goal – 7.

Keira Walsh: While she had some struggles, the 22-year-old also demonstrated her fine passing ability – 7.

Forwards

Toni Duggan: Came into the team for Beth Mead after sitting out the first two games with a thigh issue and did well in the win against Cameroon before being dropped for the semi-final – 6.

Fran Kirby: Some nice involvement in build-up play but overall may feel like she has not had the impact she would have hoped for. Scored a good goal in the Sweden match – 6.

Beth Mead: Responded well when given the chance after losing her place to Duggan, setting up goals in both the quarter-final and semi-final to take her assists tally at the tournament to three – 7.

Nikita Parris: Has had a mixed time of it. Looked very threatening on occasions and scored a penalty in the opener against Scotland, before having two further spot-kicks saved – 6.

Jodie Taylor: Made her mark with the winner against Argentina, the Euro 2017 top scorer netting an international goal for the first time in 14 months – 6.

Ellen White: Superb. Registered six goals and was unfortunate not to have scored more – 9.

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Posted in EPL, FA Premier League