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Premier League Starting XI – 2013-2014

Luis_Suarez_Liverpool-377452

Many pints have been bought/drunk/spilled while friends/strangers/adversaries debate the Premier League’s best players.  In my list, I’ve tried to avoid hype and reputation… but that’s not to say it’s all about the stats.  I’ve also been liberal with the positions, using a 4-1-3-2 but frankly putting players in to fit.   For example, Steven Gerrard was praised for his reinvention as a defensive midfielder, but let’s face it, he mostly played the same as he always has… he just had farther to run.

Here then are my Starting XI:

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Mannone of the season for Sunderland

Goalkeeper
Vito Mannone (SUN) – There was a reason for Vito Mannone’s switch from the bright lights of the Emirates to the ironically-named Stadium of Light.   Like almost every other professional athlete, he probably expected to start.  So it must have been disappointing when Paolo di Canio went with Keiran Westwood, a man who had spent most of his career in the lower leagues.  The Black Cats’ start to the season was dismal — going  2-1-6 — with Westwood letting in almost one out of every two shots on goal.  Mannone got his chance when Westwood got injured, and the Mackems improved, finishing a stronger 10-7-11 with 11 of those games finishing in a clean sheet for Sunderland.  In fact, Mannone faced more shots on goal than any other keeper in the league, despite missing a quarter of the season.  Quite rightly, he was named Sunderland’s Player of the Season.

Bench: Petr Cech (CHE), Tim Howard (EVE)

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Coleman, Baines were lethal from the back this season.

Fullbacks
(LB) Leighton Baines, (RB) Seamus Coleman (EVE) – The Toffees seem to have an embarrassment of riches at the fullback position.  Under Roberto Martinez, Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman act as virtual wingers in an already offence-friendly side.  The pair fly in with crosses, complementing the Mirallas/Barkley/Osman contingent on the wings.  That leaves the two centre backs, along with a resurgent Gareth Barry and GK Tim Howard, to worry about any defensive issues.  It seemed to work: Everton had the third-best defensive record in the Prem, while the Scouser and the Irishman both scored as many goals as their colleagues in midfield.

Bench – Patrice Evra (LB), Bacary Sagna (RB)

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Skrtel, Koscielny saw both highs and lows this season

Centrebacks
Martin Skrtel (LIV), Laurent Koscielny (ARS) – I can hear the howls of protests already.  Why not players from Chelsea or City or even Everton? How can you pick one player who set a record for own goals in a season, and another with a propensity to self-destruct?  Because the game-in, game-out stats tell a different story.  In a league where goals are up across the board, both players were on sides built to throw everything forward in attractive — but dangerous — football.  Martin Skrtel led the league in clearances and was tied for fourth in block shots.  Think back to the images of him racing back to clear the ball, because Brendan Rodgers had his team playing such a high line.  (Don’t forget Skrtel scored seven goals… he’s a centre back!).  Meanwhile, Laurent Koscielny was in the league’s top ten for both interceptions and offsides won, and he was in the top 20 for blocked shots.

Bench – John Terry (CHE), Per Mertesacker (ARS)

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Jedinak might be the hardest man in the Prem.

Defensive Midfield
Mile Jedinak (CRY) – Crikey! Mile Jedinak has maintained the fearsome reputation of Aussie footballers in the Premier League — Messrs. Emerton, Neill and Cahill come to mind (like a prog-rock band! Ha!).  The Palace player led the league in interceptions per game, and was 2nd in tackles per game.  That’s all the more impressive when you realize he started every single game.  A big reason why the Eagles had the league’s sixth-best Goals-Against.

On the bench – Gareth Barry (EVE)

Ramsey was one of the league's best midfielders, despite injuries

Ramsey was one of the league’s best midfielders, despite injuries

Right Wing
Aaron Ramsey (ARS) – Mr. Arsenal this season, Aaron Ramsey set the league on fire in the season’s first half, before he was twice sidelined by injury. He was Arsenal’s second-biggest goal-scorer in the league, and tied for third in assists, despite playing in only 60% of the Gunners’ matches.

On the bench – David Silva (MNC)

Yaya holds his birthday cake that's coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Yaya holds his birthday cake that’s coincidentally shaped like a trophy

Central Midfield
Yaya Touré (MNC) – What hasn’t already been said about Yaya Touré’s season?  The first midfielder since Frank Lampard to score 20 goals in a season, tied for fifth in assists, the Ivorian was Citeh’s talisman (an overused cliché, but in this case, true) and led the Citizens to their second title in three years.

On the bench – Steven Gerrard (LIV)

"Oh my God, I can't believe I made ATR's Starting XI!"

“Oh my God, I can’t believe I made ATR’s Starting XI!”

Left Wing
Eden Hazard (CHE) – José Mourinho had a rough relationship with his forwards this season, and sometimes played without a striker.  Enter the Belgian, Eden Hazard.  The attacking midfielder led his team in goals and assists, and was one of the league’s best passers.  An incredible player to watch (unless you’re a ball boy), Hazard will be a key part of Marc Wilmot’s plans in Brazil.

On the bench – Adam Lallana (SOU)

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Suarez and Sturridge: 52 goals between the pair.

Strikers
Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge (LIV) – The picking of these two players was almost a no-brainer… almost.  Luis Suarez tied the Premier League record for goals in a 38-game season, despite missing the first five matches.  He was also second in the league for assists — just behind team mate Steven Gerrard — so it’s not like he was being selfish.  Love him or hate him, he had a brilliant season and propelled Liverpool into the most exciting title run in almost two decades.

Sergio Agüero was almost equally brilliant, scoring 17 in 23 appearances.  But injuries hampered an otherwise brilliant season, and young(ish) Daniel Sturridge found his own touch, scoring 21 of his own.   That’s why he would start in my XI.

On the bench – Sergio Aguero (MNC), Wayne Rooney (MNU)

Player of the Season: Luis Suarez

Brent P. Lanthier

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Best of the Prem 2014: Arsenal to Crystal Palace

Arsene Wenger could have done with less injuries, more silverware this season.

Arsene Wenger could have done with less injuries, more silverware this season.

Best. Season. Ever. You’ve heard it since Christmas from pundits and fans alike. I have to disagree because of my allegiances (heartbreak for my two clubs, although for different reasons)…. but for the neutral, this was the year that old hegemonies were broken and glimpses of the Premier League’s new reality started to come to light.  Here then is the first installment of my picks for each club’s best player in this remarkable season.

All Hail King Ramsey

All Hail King Ramsey

ARSENAL
Aaron Ramsey (WAL)  – Oh what could have been for the mighty Gunners this season.  After a summer of selling Arsenal’s flotsam and jetsam without a single major signing,  Arsène Wenger waited until the very end of the transfer window to bring in German and Real Madrid superstar Mesut Özil.  The move turned heads amongst the media, the supporters and England’s other clubs.  But it turns out Wenger’s best signing was one he made eight years ago, when he bought 16-year-old Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff City.  Wenger never wanted to make a splashy buy, preferring his policy of youth development.  If Aaron Ramsey didn’t have to deal with the ever-present spectre of injury that has marked his young career, he would vindicated his mentor this season.  The Welshman scored 13 goals and provided seven assists before Christmas.  After he went out, Arsenal slipped from the pile of title challengers, struggling to win the last Champions League spot.  Let’s see if he can help Arsenal gain some consolation next weekend at Wembley.

Benteke may need divine help to recover

Benteke may need divine help to recover

ASTON VILLA
Christian Benteke (BEL) – How bad are Aston Villa? Bad enough that three seasons of relegation escapes (16th, 15th and 15th) astound anyone who has a look at their threadbare squad.   They can’t defend: Villa gave up 12 goals in their last four games, and only the relegated teams had a worse goals-against.  Their offence was even worse… save for their young Belgian striker.  Christian Benteke was the club’s highest scorer, despite missing the last six weeks of the season.   He will likely be out until October with a ruptured Achilles tendon.  Depending on how he recovers, this next season with Aston Villa will likely be his last.

St. Peter: Upon this rock...

St. Peter: Upon this rock…

CARDIFF CITY
Peter Whittingham (ENG) – Over six years, you’ve seen your side climb from the bottom half of the Championship to promotion into the Premier League.  You found yourself at Wembley for two league finals.  You’ve watched a rich foreign owner buy the club and then turn it on its head.   You’ve watched as the man who kept his faith in you by signing you to a new contract, get turfed on the whim of said owner.  You watch as the supporters turn against vilified Bond Villain Owner, as your team sinks back in the relegation mire.  Yet even as you look around and think to yourself, “Bloody Hell”, you do your job as best you can… marshalling a midfield that is, well, middling.

Your name must be Peter Whittingham.

Care to Hazard a guess where he'll be next season?

Care to Hazard a guess where he’ll be next season?

CHELSEA
Eden Hazard (BEL) – When did José Mourinho go from megalomaniac to paranoid curmudgeon?  The Special One turned on Eden Hazard after the winger publicly criticized his manager’s negative-to-the-umpteenth-degree tactics against Liverpool and Atlético Madrid.  This season, Mourinho returned to his self-proclaimed home with the same propensity to pick internal squabbles as he did at Real Madrid.  Mourinho fought with Juan Mata, he chastized his Inter Milan favourite Samuel Eto’o… and even benched long-time loyalist Ashley Cole.  But to criticize a player like Eden Hazard — a winger who runs and swerves like he’s riding a motorcycle on its back wheel through the narrow streets of Brugge — is almost blasphemy.  The Belgian outscored all Chelsea strikers and picked up the slack when Oscar started to slump.   He rightly deserved the PFA Young Player of the Year, and he should be an absolute joy to watch in Brazil next month.

jason-puncheon-crystal-palace-transfer-363302

Puncheon-drunk love for Palace

CRYSTAL PALACE
Jason Puncheon (ENG) – No one had more fun than Crystal Palace fans this season, and Jason Puncheon was part of the reason why.  The Croyden native permanently returned to his boyhood club, after helping them get promoted last year.   He then benefited from Palace’s hiring of Tony Pulis, whose second-half revival of the club from 18th to 11th was simply remarkable.   Even Puncheon admits, after nine different clubs, he played the best football of his career this season.  The Eagles may end up selling him, but would he even want to leave?

Brent P. Lanthier

Up next: Everton to Manchester City

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A World Cup Without Them

zlatanWe are now 164 days away from the opening ceremony of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and with almost every league hunkered down for a Christmas break (with the exception of the Barmy Brits… but that’s a discussion for another post), we can start to look towards June in what should be an epic tournament.

Why epic? When you look at the teams that have qualified for Brazil 2014, there isn’t a nation that makes you think, “They shouldn’t be there”.  Conversely, I can’t think of a team that, based on recent form, has been hard done by not qualifying.   That means that all the past champions will be going, all the heavy hitters and nearly men (Dutchies, I’m looking at you).

I was recently reminded that, despite appearing in three World Cups, the great Zico had never won the thing.  That’s gotta hurt, but he’s not alone.  In fact, the list of players who have never lifted the Jules Rimet trophy is extensive.  Think about it: Sindelar, Puskas, Di Stefano, Fontaine, Eusebio, Cruyff, Platini, Stoichkov, Baggio, Maldini, Figo… none of them have ever won the biggest tournament on the planet.   It’s probably as good as any argument that football is won and lost as a team, at least internationally.

But you can’t win the Coupe du Monde if you don’t get to go in the first place.  Some major marquee players won’t be appearing in Brazil because they and their compatriots couldn’t get it done.  Here are the top 10 players staying home in June:

Alaba: still only 21

Alaba: still only 21

10) David Alaba (AUT) — Is he a fullback? Is he a midfielder? All we know is that the Austrian wunderkind will be off the pitch, while  just about every other one of his Bayern Munich teammates will be in Brazil (except for Claudio Pizarro).  Austria actually held their own in qualifying , but were done in by double losses to Germany and then to Sweden on the penultimate match day.  No worries though, as Austria’s youngest-ever Player of the Year is only 21 years old, so he’ll have a few more shots at it.

Serbs have to sit out

Serbs have to sit out

9) Branislav Ivanovic (SER) — Speaking of fullbacks, pundits are calling Ivanovic the best right back in the world right now.   His is the first name on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team sheet, and he is a menace in attack and defence.  But after starting with a 1-1-3 record in qualifying, the Serbians were pretty much doomed, even though ultra-rivals Croatia finished with two losses.  The Croats went through, which has to sting more than a little.

Ta ra, Turan...

Ta ra, Turan…

8) Arda Turan (TUR) — There was a time when Turkey’s national football team was filled with German-born Bundesliga players who were considered too much Türken and not enough Deutsch.  The DFB has become far more progressive — look at Germany’s multicultural line-up now — and Turkish football has come into its own, with Turkish-born players staying in the Superlig.  The one notable exception is Arda Turan, the tough winger who has helped put Atlético Madrid in the running for its first Liga title in 18 years.  The good news for the Atleti?  Turan will be able to rest up this summer before they sell him off to a bigger club.  Hooray.

Trying to read the name on his kit…

7) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (GAB) — Like many African players, Aubameyang was born in France, but decided to represent the nation of his parents.   Too bad.  The young Gabonese had a high enough profile at St. Etienne, before lighting up the Bundesliga with Dortmund this season, to find a place on a troubled French squad.  Instead, he has become the African version of Dimitar Berbatov playing for Bulgaria, a great player on a team that will do nothing.   It’s just as well: that name is a nightmare for the kit makers.

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

DAMN YOU, ARMENIA!!!

6) Petr Cech (CZE) — Oh how the strong and steady goalkeeper must pine for the days of Koller, Baroš and Nedved, when his countrymen were qualifying for European semi-finals and actually appearing at the World Cup.  Alas, the veteran netminder (a 31-year-old who has looked 50 since he was 20) will have to settle for glory at Chelsea, where he and his club have won every major European and English title.

Hamsik

“Oh Mamma Mia, let me go!”

5) Marek Hamsik (SLO) — Slovakia did alright at South Africa 2010, their first major tournament since they split from the Czechs.  Hamsik captained his side to the Group of 16 by shocking the Italians 3-2, before losing to eventual finalists, Netherlands.  But when they tried to qualify for Brazil, they were outdone by a lack of adventure: only once did the Slovaks score more than one goal from open play.  Too bad… because Hamsik’s Mohawk/Kid n’ Play fade looks awesome streaking up the pitch.

Wales v Scotland

Air guitar…

4) Aaron Ramsey (WAL) — This one will elicit the most groans as undeserving,  but the young Taffy has been a revelation this season.  Arsene Wenger has kept faith in his midfielder, who has had trouble keeping off the treatment table.  But he has been Arsenal’s best player since August and has overshadowed teammates who are offensive threats in their own right.

"Will not let you go!"

“Will not let you go!”

3) Robert Lewandowski (POL) — Poland’s failure to qualify for even the playoffs is a case of a team’s parts being better than the team itself.  The squad has some great talent (with tricky names): Blaszczykowski, Piszczek, Boruc, Szczesny, and Dortmund’s highest scorer over the last three seasons, Lewandowski.  Last year, he was a goal away from the Bundesliga scoring title, and two away from being the Champions League’s top marksman.  He is among the top 10 strikers in the world, but unfortunately he will not be able to play with his peers in Brazil.

Bale hearts Wales... which means no World Cup

Bale hearts Wales… which means no World Cup

2) Gareth Bale (WAL) — Surely the world’s biggest tournament should feature the world’s most expensive player.  When Gareth Bale went to Real Madrid for €100M, most people thought that the whole affair was ridiculous.  But the spectacle of the transaction should not take away from a player who is starting to reach the height of his powers.  Nine goals in fifteen games for Madrid: he’s no Ronaldo, but he doesn’t need to be.  Unfortunately, he plays for a nation that has never fully embraced association football and may not qualify for a major tournament for some time.

1) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE) — You could hear the collective groans around the soccer world when Sweden was paired with Portugal in the qualifying play-offs.  We knew that either Christiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not be playing in this summer’s tournament.   That’s a shame because if there is ever a place for massive egos, it is the World Cup… and they don’t get much bigger than CR7 or Ibra.   In the end, it was a battle between two huge talents on otherwise mediocre teams.  After a tight first leg, it was left to the big striker to tie everything up on aggregate. Unfortunately for the Scandanavians, Ronaldo showed why he is better than everyone else… include Kung Fu Zlatan.  Still, we will miss the sound bites, the temper tantrums, and the awesome, awesome goals.  Ibra’s take on the loss: “One thing is for sure, a World Cup without me is nothing to watch.”

Brent Lanthier

No Ibra means none of this...

No Ibra means none of this…

... or this...

… or this…

... or this.

… or this.

 

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It’s grim up north

sam allardyce

Sam Allardyce recently claimed he could coach the likes of Inter Milan and Real Madrid successfully, and that in essence the jobs there are much easier than his present one at Blackburn Rovers. He even went as far to declare himself the perfect candidate as the next England boss. Well Sam, you’ve got one thing right, you’re perfect for England. That’s because they’re woeful.

Week in, week out, we football fans are subjected to the brute force and “get up ‘em” attitude that certain clubs in the North of England hand out to free-flowing teams. You know what I mean here; think Arsenal’s troubles almost every time they play Bolton and Blackburn.

And herein lies the problem. The Northwest is typical of what the game once was. Brash, unashamed, fiercely proud, and accepting only of the highest commitment. Teams such as Leeds in the 70’s would kick if it moved, or kick until it did. The strategy worked for decades.

But then came the 1990’s and the influx of foreigners and their attractive new style of play. They were quicker, smarter and an awful lot more talented.

The likes of Allardyce are perfect for England. Let’s face it, England were awful at the World Cup because they clung to the belief that if you try hard enough, you will always succeed. Sorry kids, but here’s a sobering lesson. Talent always prevails. No matter how hard you try, if you’re not good enough you’ll lore far more often than you win.

Teams such as Bolton and Blackburn (them again) have supporters who fall in line with the English mentality of football. I’ve been to games at Ewood Park and heard them chant “Get into them!” In short they mean, “Yes, we might not win, but at least we can give them a damn good hiding.” Well I’m sorry, but that really only applies to war.

So while Chelsea prevail with foreigners in the Premier League, and the Spanish win the World Cup by not retaliating to Dutch brutality, the likes of Rovers and England will never grasp what it means to win with satisfaction.

Aaron Ramsey injury

It’s no coincidence that all of Arsenal’s major injuries in recent years have occurred north of the Watford Gap: Eduardo (Birmingham), Diaby (Sunderland) and Ramsey (Stoke). It happens because of the continued aggression faced and, dare I say it, the violence dished out. Every one one of those injuries was avoidable. Sadly, each guilty culprit was an Englishman.

So while Allardyce may think he’s a great candidate for any top-flight job, the footballing elite will just smirk and overlook him. He’s stuck in a time warp. Go back to the 1970’s Sam, and take your boxing gloves with you.

Sam Saunders

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