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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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Best of the Prem 2012: Arsenal to Chelsea

No waffling for this Belgian as his team takes their first title in 44 years.

This season produced some crazy football results, where old dynasties stumbled — in Liverpool’s case, fell hard — while Premier League stalwarts faded from view.

As always, there were some players who simply shone over the entire season.  Some were the brightest jewels in a champion’s crown, while others were gold pieces in a pile of iron slugs.

Here then is the first in my annual series of the Premier League’s best.

RVP to leave ASAP?

ARSENAL
Robin Van Persie (NED) – After his injury-marred 2010/2011 season, the Dutchman stayed healthy for an entire season… and it paid off in spades for the Gunners.  Thirty-seven goals in all competitions, including 30 to win the Premier League Golden Boot.  Only Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more times in a single EPL season; lofty company, indeed.  In fact, it may be too lofty for Arsene Wenger to hold on to him.

Frustration for Warnock at Villa

ASTON VILLA
Stephen Warnock (ENG) – The biggest club in Birmingham endured a dreadful season under a dreadful manager.  But to his credit, the newly-departed Alex McLeish kick-started Warnock’s career again, after former Villa boss Gerard Houllier had consigned the Scouser to the bench.  Warnock featured in 38 out of 42 matches this season, starting all but one of them.  A defending left-back on a drearily defensive side, Warnock is the best of a lifeless bunch that sorely missed Young, Downing, Milner and Walker.

Will the Yak be back?

BLACKBURN ROVERS
Yakubu (NIG) – He’s too fat.  He’s past his prime.  He’s too old to play as a centre forward.  Almost everyone — including me — wrote off the big Nigerian.  Why on earth would Blackburn pick up a 29-year-old player who has just spent half a season in the Championship?!? Turns out Steve Kean actually did something right.  Yakubu scored 18 goals, including a magnificent four-goal slaughter of Swansea City, as well as a brace that helped defeat Manchester United at Old Trafford.   Now that Rovers have done the drop, will the Yak be back in the Prem?

Despite Davies’ best efforts, Bolton still dropped.

BOLTON WANDERERS
Mark Davies (ENG) –  Owen Coyle put his faith in the former Wolverhampton player, after leaving him on the bench for most of Davies’ first two seasons with Bolton.  Davies wasn’t a prolific goal scorer, but he was the anchor of the Bolton midfield, starting plays that would lead to others finding the back of the net. The highlight of his season was a great run against Liverpool, scoring after just three minutes. He should get picked up by a small Premier League club.

One of these players didn’t cost 50 million pounds…

CHELSEA
Juan Mata (ESP)– The gifted winger was brought in to help bring the title back to West London, and win the Champions League honours that has eluded Roman Abramovich after nearly a decade in charge.  Mata has held up his end of the bargain, bombarding opponents’ boxes with cross after cross, and helping his teammates score.  He started more than any other Chelsea outfielder and had an astonishing on-target ratio.   As Chelsea’s old guard fades, look for the Spaniard to help the Blues get back to former glories.

Brent Lanthier

Next: Everton to Manchester United

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Swings and Roundabouts

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Back in my university days, when I was a virile young rapscallion looking to meet as many women as possible, my friends and I would watch each crop of First-Year students as they arrived on campus, assessing the young ladies for — let’s say — possibilities.

Invariably, there would be one or two gorgeous creatures who would pique our interest.  But word travelled fast in my small school and we were usually disappointed that most of our targets had boyfriends back home, or at another centre for higher learning.

“Not to worry”, someone would say, “she’ll be single by Christmas.”  And lo and behold, the freshman (freshwoman?!?) would return for second semester, sans ami.

So after this last month, I can only assume most owners of English football clubs are like me at 19 years old: horny and stupid.  Why else would they be dumping old managers by Christmas, only to chase new ones, in a never-ending parade of pink slips?

Here are the stats:

– Since Christmas, 14 of the 92 Premier and Football league teams — 15 percent — have hired new managers.

– Since the end of the World Cup, 27 clubs have fired and hired their gaffers.  That’s 30 percent of teams, including five in the Premier League.

– Forty-three managers have been on the job less than a calendar year.  That’s means almost 50 percent of English teams have changed their bosses since last January.

– More than 70 percent of managers have been at their jobs for less than two years.  How many of them will be in the same job come May?

McCarthy can't understand how he's kept his job so long

– Only 10 managers have been in place since the World Cup in Germany.  They include Premier League managers Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, David Moyes, Tony Pulis and surprisingly, Mick McCarthy.  Interesting note: that list would have included the much-maligned Rafa Benitez, before his departure from Liverpool.

I can’t understand why clubs will fire a manager they consider sub-standard, only to bring another with a record of mediocre results.  Example: the sad revolving door at Preston North End.

Last week,  the Lancashire side appointed ex-Hull manager Phil Brown to replace Darren Ferguson.  Ferguson — the scion of Sir Alex — started his managerial career while still a player at Peterborough United.  Joining Posh in January 2007, Ferguson helped the League Two club to a top-ten finish.  The next two seasons saw two straight promotions, and Peterborough were in the Championship.  But Ferguson would only see four months of that league; by November 2009, he was gone.

Six weeks later, he was at the helm of Preston.  Less than one year later, he was gone again.  The firing drew headlines because after his departure, Darren’s famous father withdrew three Manchester United players who were at Preston on loan.  Not to worry, Darren’s back on the touchline… at Peterborough United again! The team that thought he wasn’t good enough to manage have hired him back!!!

Bizarre methods got Brown the ax at Hull City

Meanwhile, his replacement has own history of highs and lows. Phil Brown famously pulled Hull City from the Championship’s relegation zone in 2007, and got them promoted into the Premier League the following season.  It was the first time in the club’s 100+ year history that they’d reached the top flight.  Not only did they go up, they stayed up… for a year.  But Brown’s bizarre coaching methods and questionable purchases did him in.  Hull dropped leagues… and dropped Brown in the process.  Yet Preston must have thought, if he can get Hull promoted, he can save us as well.

It must be frustrating days for the Lilywhites.  The first-ever English champions and double winners have made the Championship play-offs three times in the past six seasons, yet in the second tier they remain.  They sit at the foot of the table while they watch local rivals Blackpool make a respectable go of it in the Prem.

But Preston is just one example of the “now, now, now” mentality of clubs. Owners want results, not willing to let a manager’s methods settle in — or bring in new players to work with.  It’s either win now… or else it’s the Dear John letter.

Without sounding like an afterschool special, football clubs have become like horny college students: always on the hunt for the next big score, instead trying to weather bad times and build a relationship that could pay off in the end.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a beautiful woman who just walked into the pub.  I wonder if that’s her boyfriend…

Brent Lanthier

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10 Things I Learned This Weekend

What, me worry?

1) Firing your manager before your team faces the defending champions and cup holders = stupid.  Chelsea 7-0 Ipswich Town.

2) Firing your manager before your side faces the team that ripped the World Club Champions a new one = also not smart.   Tottenham 3-0 Charlton.

3) Howard Webb likes to insert himself in games.  Questionable calls against Liverpool this weekend.  Not outrageous… but questionable. 

4) Kenny Dalglish has his work cut out for him at Liverpool, especially since he will be without Steven Gerrard for the next three games.  Blackpool away, Merseyside derby at home, Wolves away… Liverpool have lost to all three teams this season.

5) Arsenal need a keeper.  No kidding.

6) Lionel Messi wins the inaugural FIFA Ballon D’Or as the best player in the world.  No kidding.

7) All of the FIFA Pro XI were chosen from Italian or Spanish clubs.  Stop me when you are sick of me stating the obvious…

Andros Townsend: The Future of the Right

8 ) ‘Arry still hasn’t finalized a deal to bring Becks.  I don’t understand why Spurs would sign him in the first place.

9) Becks and Posh are expecting a fourth child.  Show-offs…

10) El-Hadji Diouf is still a knob.  Discuss.

Brent Lanthier

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In Wenger We Trust?

It’s difficult to question a man who transformed your team in to one of the leading clubs in world football. Thirteen years ago, Arsenal Football Club languished in mediocrity, grinding out dull and dreary results against the likes of Coventry City and Swindon. These were my early years of going to games and it sometimes seemed like a chore. But then Arsene Wenger arrived out of nowhere and rapidly transformed my team in to a worldwide brand, a footballing success and an aesthetic pleasure.

He brought in the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka and Patrick Vieira, and revolutionized the way players trained, ate and generally conducted themselves. It was, for want of a better cliché, salvation.

Suddenly, however, the almost blind faith Gooners had in their gaffer led to the ‘Professor’ having total control over every aspect of the club, with no one questioning his decisions. To be honest, why would they? After all, everything he’d done until now would have Midas looking on with envy.

There is one area though, that Wnger has never mastered. One simple part of the chain that at times has the biggest impact on the biggest of games. Bill Shankly once said “you can score all the goals you want, it’s the keeper who wins games”, and he certainly is a man whose judgement we trust.

Inheriting David Seaman in the early French Revolution at the club, Wenger had struck it rich with arguably the finest English goalkeeper of the mid 1990’s. Once good ol’ Seamo took his gloves off for the last time, it immediately became apparent that Wenger didn’t really know how to choose a solid, reliable goalkeeper. Stuart Taylor liked the sauce too much, Richard Wright couldn’t catch a cold and Jens Lehmann was, well, just plain mad really.

And now the current number one. At a recent home match, Lukasz Fabianski’s own fans cheered sarcastically when a replay of him catching a corner was shown on the big screens. He really is hopeless. So hopeless, in fact, that constructive and articulate criticism doesn’t seem justifiable.

On my Christmas visit to the Emirates, I was astonished at the way the mood towards God, or Arsene as he is formally known, is rapidly turning. It all centres on one key issue, and until he digs just a little deeper and spends more than a million quid on a keeper, Arsenal won’t win a thing. And that, five years after the last trophy, just isn’t good enough.

Go on Arsene, sign Shay Given and shut us all up.

Sam Saunders

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Only two miles separate them now

You might not know it from their lacklustre loss to Wigan today, but the recent form of Champions League debutants Tottenham Hotspur has got the attention of rival Gunners fans. Today, new blogger and Arsenal supporter Sam Saunders offers some praise for the local Lillywhites, who’ve just been drawn against their neighbourhood rivals in the Carling Cup.


Whisper it quietly around Holloway, but the boys from Tottenham are narrowing the gulf that has separated them and the old enemy down the road for so many years. Though Arsenal has qualified for the Champions League every year for 13 under the tenure of Arsene Wenger, Spurs will now rub shoulders with the very best along with their North London neighbours. And boy, does it hurt.

Tottenham’s meteoric rise under Harry Redknapp is one of storybook proportions. Lying perilously close to the trap door to the Championship when he arrived, ’Appy ’Arry transformed the club within a matter of weeks, starting with the now infamous 4-4 draw away at Arsenal in October, 2008. Casual defending and a refusal to run the ball to the corner cost the Reds dearly that night, and they threw away two goals in the dying moments to a Spurs team that could smell blood.

For any member of the Yid Army, those three minutes were the highlight of the year, though it was only the start. Surprisingly, given his track record at previous clubs, Redknapp adopted a free-flowing game evocative of the Hoddle years and now not only did Tottenham win, they won with style. Rejuvenated, the team carried its form on for the remainder of the season and avoided a near catastrophic plunge to the lower echelons. A year later they pipped big-spending ManchesterCity for fourth place after an industrious and hardy campaign, and the heads down Seven Sisters Road started turning.

Let no Arsenal fan bang on about the fact that its 60 years since White Hart Lane saw a victory parade. It’s been five long years since Arsenal claimed any one of the four trophies they compete for annually. That may seem a small time frame, but this is a team that went 49 games unbeaten only six years ago, and is the third richest club in world football. Five years at that level might as well be five decades.

Where heavy purchases have bolstered Spurs’ already talented squad, Arsene Wenger continues to hold faith in his youngsters, who show promise yet little energy after fifty games in a season. All very well and good in storybook land, but it’s becoming glaringly obvious that kids don’t win prizes. Signings such as Wilson Palacios, Luka Modric and even (gulp) Peter Crouch have added experience, quality and decisiveness to Tottenham. Ironically, it was a header by Crouch, butt of many a Gooner’s joke, that confirmed Tottenham’s entry to the Champions League with this week’s victory over Young Boys.

If Wenger continues to play the role of Scrooge, and Tottenham keep scoring at will on the counter attack, this could be the first year in many that Spurs are crowned Kings of North London.

Sam Saunders is from Southend-on-Sea in Essex, England. He now lives in Toronto, working as a bartender at Steam Whistle Brewery and has interned at TheFAN590. The Gunners may be in his blood, but he also has room for Southend United.

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Premonitions for the Premier League

Will it be two in a row for the boys from Stamford Bridge?

By Kevin Hoggard & Brent Lanthier

It seems like only yesterday that Chelsea beat out United on the last day of the season, while Arsenal sputtered through the last six weeks without Fabregas, and Spurs squeaked into the Champions League… pushing out the other so-called “Big Four” team all the way into seventh place.  

Not much should change at the top this year. For the last seven seasons, the Blues and the Red Devils have swapped Premier League honours. Can we call them the Big Two now? The newest Manchester millionaires — City — may beg to differ.  

Here then are our picks for top eight:

Kevin’s picks Brent’s picks
1. Chelsea 1. Chelsea
2. Manchester United 2. Manchester United
3. Manchester City 3. Manchester City
4. Arsenal 4. Tottenham Hotspur
5. Everton 5. Arsenal
6. Tottenham Hotspur 6. Liverpool
7. Liverpool 7. Everton
8. Aston Villa 8. Aston Villa

Chelsea – Kevin, Brent: Champions  

Kevin: Liverpool, ManU and Arsenal just haven’t strengthened their squads to challenge Chelsea over a long season.  The Blues are old, they’ve lost Ballack… but Essien is back to full fitness. Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world in Drogba.  Lampard still puts out 20 goals a season. What other big clubs are getting that output from a midfielder? An experienced and settled squad who just know how to get the job done.  

Brent: Essien’s return will more than compensate for Michael Ballack… but the real story with Chelsea is goals. 103 of them, actually.  It was a veteran squad that broke the Premier League record for goals in a season… and it was a veteran squad who shelled West Brom this weekend. Potential problem: what to do with the squad’s stable of foreign stars under new League quotas.  

Manchester United – Kevin, Brent: Runners-Up  

Kevin: Ferguson has failed to fill a glowering hole in the centre of midfield. Scholes and Fletcher are good… but they’re far from world-class, and beyond them the cupboard is a bit bare.  The defence is creaky with perma-crock Ferdinand and lumbering Vidic (what’s the over-under on his red card count this season?).  Strength in attack with Rooney, Nani, Valencia… with Berbatov and new signing Hernandez in to give some relief.  

Brent: Scholes and Giggs showed this weekend that they’re not ready to hang up their boots just yet.  But Giggs came off the bench, and Scholes certainly won’t start every game. Which Rooney will show up this season? Valencia should shower him with crosses… and Berbatov looks like he has something to prove.  Defense is worrisome.  Last year, they were the league’s stingiest.  But Rio is hurt, Vidic is undisciplined and got caught looking several times last season.  Good… but not good enough.  

Not this year, Roberto

Manchester City – Kevin, Brent:3rd   

Kevin: The title is a step too far for Man City at this early stage. You can’t buy a complete squad and expect them to be cohesive. Another couple of years before they are truly challengers for the title but it will come, barring any financial meltdown. You can’t spend this much money and be disappointed forever. Although Amsterdam 2001 springs to mind… but I blame that on the beer.  

Brent: Not cohesive, but check out the parts of the sum. City poached other supposed “big clubs”, offering untold riches to those who came to Manchester proper.  But who will see the pitch on a regular basis… and who will see the back of Mancini’s fine Italian coif? Besides, the manager used three holding midfielders on Saturday and three forwards, begging the question: who will feeding the ball to the attack? Shades of Maradona… which worked out well for Argentina, didn’t it?  

Arsenal – Kevin: 4th; Brent: 5th  

Kevin: It’s hard not to like Arsenal unless you’re a yiddo.  Their fluid attacking football is the closest thing English football has to Barcelona.  But Arsenal’s downfall is Wenger’s reluctance to open the purse strings and buy some bloody players.  He needs a decent goal keeper and a quality center-back to partner Vermaelen before they can challenge for the title. Arsenal are being fiscally sensible and and paying off debts from the new Emirates. But Arsenal fans must be tearing their hair out, knowing that until the debt is paid, they’re forever the bridesmaid and never the bride.  

Brent: Arsenal looked ordinary this weekend at Anfield. Almunia is, well, Almunia… and they lacked the flowing football they’re known for.  Their two best players — Fabregas and Van Persie — are perpetually hurt… and Fabregas doesn’t even want to be there.  Arsenal were in the title hunt last season until Fabregas picked up an injury in the last six weeks, and I don’t see his replacement yet. Wenger’s only edge may be in the new league quota rules, due to his long-standing policy of scouting young players. But I don’t think they will be playing in the Champions League next season.  

"Why won't anyone sign?!?"

Everton – Kevin: 5th; Brent: 7th  

Kevin: David Moyes might be the best manager in the Premiership.   Despite dealing with a lot of injuries and poor early form, Everton still managed to finish two points behind Liverpool.  With more luck this year, I think Everton can push on.   They have a solid settled side that are just hard to beat, and with Cahill fit they have a match winner on any given day.  

Brent: The Prem’s third-longest lasting manager, Moyes can wring the best out of his players.  After an awful start to last season, Everton were among the best after Christmas: only Chelsea and Man U had better records. But they are still a small squad and can’t seem to sign anyone.  They will fatigue and drop off, as better teams push for the finish line.  

Tottenham Hotspur – Kevin: 6th; Brent: 4th  

Kevin: I like this Spurs team a lot. They have flair, creativity and one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership.  If they get past the Young Boys (and that’s never easy: ask my uncle!),  they’ll be fighting on four fronts and I think it will be a stretch too far.  They have a big squad — thanks to their massive spending in the last few years — but I think inexperience will tell and the Champions League will affect their league results.  

Brent: No one expects Spurs to win the Champions League.  But everyone on this North London team expects to be back in it next year. ‘Arry hasn’t signed anybody (except for Sandro?!?) but Tottenham has a solid and offensive-minded starting eleven.  If they can get some super-sub performances from Keane, Pavlyuchenko, dos Santos and Palacios — along with regular displays from Defoe, Crouch, Bale, Lennon and Huddlestone — look out. Let the kids play in the cups… these boys have gotten a taste and they like it.  

Liverpool – Kevin: 7th; Brent: 6th  

Kevin: I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict another season of struggle for Liverpool.  Unless the Chinese take-over is imminent and Roy has oodles of Yen to spend, I just can’t see them being better than last year.  I know the Scouse fans are optimistic but I just don’t like their side.  They are a Torres injury away from trouble.  He is the class act in a workmanlike team.  

Brent: Liverpool were not that bad last season.  Their defence was top-notch: only Chelsea and Man U allowed fewer goals. But off the pitch, the team was in turmoil and on the pitch, they relied too much on Torres and Gerrard.  Worse, the team only scored 15 times away from Anfield.  Hodgson has done some nifty little bits of business, bringing in Joe Cole and a cast of others. But this is not a squad of title winners… and other teams are catching up. Liverpool pride will return this season… Liverpool’s form might not.  

Aston Villa – Kevin: 8th; Brent: 8th  

Kevin: Martin O’Neill transformed Villa into perennial contenders for Europe.  They have finished 6th for the last three seasons.  But O’Neill has gone, the coffers are bare at Villa Park and Milner has to be sold before acquisitions are made. The team has a huge wage bill and must trim their ranks, but they can’t unload those players to create some wiggle room.  I think this will be Villa’s worst season in a while.  

Brent: Saturday’s 3-0 victory over West Ham must seem like a cruel joke to Villans. Wantaway Milner scored the final goal, showing why he would (will?) be missed in the Midlands.  But Villa is not known for its goal-scoring and their huge wage bill doesn’t make up for their shallow squad.  They are playing without a manager… with his replacement rumoured to be the biggest court jester in all of football.  It might be generous to pick Villa at eighth, when all is said and done.

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