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Newcastle’s Tactical Nous

AlanPardew9Top-flight English football has just finished a crazy week, with a mid-week match day squeezed in presumably to make room for FA Cup ties and this summer’s World Cup.   Some teams have done blazingly well, like Liverpool who scored nine goals in just two matches.  Other clubs are in genuine, if inflated, crisis.  This would be Manchester United and perhaps a schizophrenic Chelsea.

And then there is the enigma that is Newcastle United.  Are they the club that has won five of their last six games, including victories against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United?  Or are they the overly cautious side that conceded a bizarre 3-0 loss to Swansea mid-week?  The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards has written how Alan Pardew has grown a rose out of a slag heap.   Edwards contends that Pardew has navigated crisis after crisis since the summer: the re-appointment of the megalomaniacal-delusional Joe Kinnear, the excess of hastily-signed French players in the January transfer window, the reconciliation with want-away Yohan Cabaye, the loan signing of Loïc Remy.

The Kinnear thing is just bizarre, but it’s a typical Mike Ashley move, so no surprises there.  As for the French players, they are indeed clicking and, as Edwards hypothesizes, they are probably jockeying for a spot on Didier Deschamps’ squad in Brazil (although presumably only Cabaye, Remy and Mathieu Debuchy will be going in any case).  Cabaye has definitely rediscovered his mojo: just watch his cheeky 10th minute goal attempt from just past the half-way line against Swansea, or his textbook goal against Manchester United.  Loïc Remy? He “only” has eight league goals this season.  That’s as many as Wayne Rooney and more than Robin Van Persie, good enough for fourth in the league.

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

Cabaye celebrates his goal against Man United

But if I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be worried about tactics.  Alan Pardew says that the Magpies can win with different styles.  But Saturday’s match was the first time this season that Newcastle has won playing with a solitary striker, and that win came against a club that is in complete disarray.  The matches against Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom all featured Remy partnered with Ameobi (although the goals in the Chelsea game came after Ameobi was subbed off for Gouffran).  The pair also started against Swansea, but then Ameobi was subbed off following the Debuchy own-goal, with Obertan (ugh) coming on, and Remy moving into a wide position.   That meant Pardew was switching from the oh-so-British 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 that he had previously favoured in away games, with little success.

Why would Pardew do this? Was he giving up the game, even though there was still more than 20 minutes left to play?  Or did he think that this would cauterize the bleeding? (It didn’t).  It must have been a bit of a letdown for the Geordie faithful, considering that their side barely pressured Swansea and had trouble hanging onto the ball.  The move to the classic “away formation” hasn’t exactly been frustrating for opposing sides either: Newcastle has the fourth-worst away defense record in the league.

By this time next month, Alan Pardew will be the third-longest serving NUFC manager in the 3-point-win era, dating all the way back to the club’s promotion in 1984.  He has certainly skippered the most top-flight matches in the 10 years since Sir Bobby Robson was in charge.  In hindsight, the eight-year contract that Mike Ashley gave to Pardew looks less like a flashy publicity stunt, and more like a way to keep the club stable and growing. This is admirable, but a big club with a massive local fan base needs trophies.  Arsenal fans may think they have it tough, but try going 60 years without a major honour.

During the summer, I was very close to laying money on Newcastle to go down.  Their goal difference in the previous season was atrocious and the club was a cauldron of controversy.   But the manager seems to have ridden this out.  If Pardew can remain brave and can keep picking a team that is attack-minded and applies pressure, and if he can keep his side together for the rest of the season, the Geordies might be a surprise in a Premier League season already full of them.  But if this very English manager decides to revert to very English tactics,  things will start to get tough. Then Newcastle fans will be strapping themselves in for a ride towards the end of the season.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Beckham’s future? Bet on France

After he trained with Tottenham last winter, I suspected David Beckham might wind up with Spurs once his LA Galaxy days came to an end when the MLS year ends next month. Now I’m not so certain. In my Toro Magazine column this week, I peg newly-wealthy Paris Saint-Germain as the likely club to land Becks.

If Beckham doesn’t come to Tottenham, it’s not a major loss. There’s no need for Spurs to overpay for a 36 year old winger who would really only be a luxury addition to the squad, no matter how much experience and savvy he might bring (or how much Rafael van der Vaart moans about playing out wide).

The Galaxy may miss Beckham a bit more, although they’ve always got Robbie Keane, and his lovely lady, to brighten up life in La La Land.

Ian Harrison

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Hammer Time?

Ba Humbug for West Ham's opposition...

It doesn’t happen very often.  But sometimes, I get it wrong.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to your computer screen, “That’s not true, Brent.  You’re being modest.  Give your head a shake and have a beer on me…”

Alas, faithful readers, I have erred. It turns out that I am not the reliable prognasticator I once thought I was.  And it’s all thanks to a certain Israeli manager who manages a certain East London club.

I had predicted in early December that Avram Grant would be fired by Christmas.  West Ham were at the bottom of the table and were up against the wall.  I said how the holiday swing was going to kill the team — and the career of the gaffer.  Indeed, through December and the first half of January, with the Hammers going 2-3-3, it seemed like curtains for both Grant and the club’s Premier League hopes.

But then a couple of cup runs seemed to give the Irons a spark.  They won their 3rd round FA Cup tie against Burnley 2-0.  Then three days later, they beat fellow Premier League strugglers Birmingham in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.  Since then, they have gone 5-2-3 in all competitions.

It could be that Avram Grant finally has a team that is “too good to go down”.   The team has scored thirteen goals in their last four games.  It’s likely no coincidence that this spurt is due to the arrival of striker Demba Ba (you don’t say his name, so much as let it spill out of your mouth) from TSG Hoffenheim in February.  In the five games he has played, both Ba and strike partner Carlton Cole have each scored four goals.

Parker does his Christian Bale impression...

But the keystone of West Ham’s mini-turnaround has to be Scott Parker.  The midfielder and captain has been bossing the centre of the park, marshalling his teammates both physically and mentally as they have clawed their way out of the relegation zone… at least for the time being.  Many of his teammates — as well as English pundits — say Parker should be named Player of the Year for his pluck in the face of West Ham’s dreadful first half of the season results.

I’m not going to say that they won’t go down.  West Ham are only just above Brum in the relegation zone… and the Blues still have two games in hand.  The Hammers still have to face Spurs, Chelsea and Man City away, as well as play first-place Manchester United at home. Plus, they still have to continue their FA Cup run, facing sinking Stoke again for the second time in a week.

With the Boleyn Ground averaging about 33-thousand fans a season — and the brand spanking new Olympic stadium waiting to be taken over — West Ham is a biggish club that thinks it has a brighter future.  I’d tell you where that future lies… but I’m afraid of being wrong again.  That would be just scary…

Brent Lanthier

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Sunk in Stratford, Spurs stadium search heads back to drawing board

I respect tradition as much as the next bloke. But I’m also a pragmatist, which is why I would have been perfectly happy to say yes to Stratford if Tottenham, and not West Ham, had won the right to take over the Olympic Stadium.

It might be West Ham territory, but the Stratford site would have been a great opportunity to build in an area free from residential neighbourhoods, next to the best transit links in East London. Sure, there are two train stations within a few blocks of White Hart Lane. But they’re both tiny, and there’s no tube or DLR for miles. And everything in Tottenham is hemmed in by rows of tiny houses, not wide open plazas and park space.

Given the increased financial pressures clubs will face when UEFA’s Fair Play rules take effect next season, Spurs clearly need a home that will maximize revenues, whether it’s on the supposedly hallowed ground of the High Road in Haringey, the Olympic Park of London’s East End or up north in Enfield.

But all that’s happened on the stadium front for Spurs over the past three months is the team has gone out of its way to trash its own Northumberland Park proposal, even as that plan was winning approval from the Mayor’s office. Then they went out of their way in a different direction, alienating tradition-minded supporters in the process, by trashing the requirements of the post-Olympic plan, choosing brutal honesty instead of the Hammers’ blue-sky thinking. Hey, mind if we knock down your brand new stadium and build a football pitch with no running track around it? You do? Really? Damn. Well, back to the drawing board.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so cruel and corporate that I wouldn’t prefer a plan that keeps the club in N17, even at a higher cost. But impeding progress for the sake of staying in the borough is folly. Besides, while the address might be the same, there’s not much else about the current White Hart Lane that my grandfather would recognize from the ground where he had a season ticket in the 1950’s. Change is inevitable, whether it’s the addition of luxury boxes and giant video screens, or a new location altogether.

Karren Brady, the Wicked Witch of West Ham, said giving the Olympic Stadium to Spurs would have been “a corporate crime.” Seems a bit strong to me,  and Tottenham are so unimpressed with her scaremongering, and the Olympic decision that they’re considering appeals and legal guarantees to ensure she keeps her word, retractable seats or not, about retaining the track. Brady had better hope the view, from whatever distance, is worth paying for. Otherwise there’s not much chance 60,000 people will pay to watch West Ham eke out a meagre existence at the bottom end of the Premier League…or worse.

Of course, that’s spilt milk now, and Spurs have to move forward. But where? Having rubbished it for weeks, chairman Daniel Levy insists the Northumberland Park plan, even though it’s been approved by the city, is dead in the water, too expensive and too tied up in red tape that’s limiting the scope of surrounding housing developments meant to recoup some cash.

Levy might not have put all his eggs in one basket with his Olympic plan, but the ones he left behind in Tottenham are cracked and broken. And unless he can come up with a working plan for a new home sometime soon, his team is in danger of ending up in the same state.

Ian Harrison

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Fergie’s Fantasy – Rating the Transfers

Bent already has one goal to show for his kit change

You may have notice the jerseys on some of the players on your fantasy team have changed colour.   This is not because they were bored with what they were wearing.  It means your man has been transferred to a new squad in the January transfer window.

A move can be good or bad news in terms of fantasy points.  A benchwarmer on one team could be a starter on another and vice versa.  Here’s a few of the more notable transfers and what they mean for you…

Darren Bent – Sunderland to Aston Villa
Bent immediately became Aston Villa’s deadliest striker upon his arrival and he showed it, scoring moments into his first game with the club.  I don’t think he will regain his amazing form from last year, but I see more goals in his future.  Buy him if you need a striker.

This transfer is also good news for owners of other Sunderland forwards Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck who will reap the awards of more playing time in Bent’s absence.

John Carew – Aston Villa to Stoke City
Carew has struggled this year for playing time, which has resulted in the once-powerful striker having a grand total of zero goals so far.  The change of scenery might help, but a better option would be his cheaper and more proficient teammate Kenwyne Jones.

David Bentley – Tottenham to Birmingham
I’ve always thought Bentley was better than he showed in his limited playing time with Tottenham. But without a born goal scorer up front,who is going to get on the end of his crosses at Birmingham?  I’d steer clear for now.

Steven Pienaar – Everton to Tottenham
The speedy South African midfielder finds himself in a very crowded midfield with the likes of Gareth Bale, Rafael Van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon, and Luka Modric.  Again, I’d steer clear until we see whether he gets enough playing time to merit picking him for your squad.

It's like he never left...

Roque Santa Cruz – Manchester City to Blackburn Rovers
I like this one.  RSC is bound to get more playing time with Blackburn and he’s a proven goal scorer.  He can be picked up right now for a bargain price.

Wayne Bridge – Manchester City to West Ham United
I want to say something nice about Wayne Bridge because he’s had a tough go of it lately.  But you don’t want any West Ham defenders on your squad right now.  Just don’t trade him in for John Terry because that’s been done and it was awkward for all involved…

Scott Ferguson

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Even Don Draper couldn’t sell this team

Draper gets a red card… for looking so damn good!

Well, so much for the MLS SuperDraft reviving the hopes of the Toronto FC faithful. On a day when clubs are expected to get better, the Reds appear to have gone in the opposite direction – trading away a potential double-digit scorer in Chad Barrett while bringing in a prospect with an interesting bill of health and Ecuadorian soccer Smurf Joao Plata.

The diminutive playmaker promises goals, but until he can prove it the mantle of secondary scoring falls to Maicon and his 2010 tally of three.

So, if the ad men who operate out of 170 Princes Boulevard are able to come up with a plan to sell its wares to the growing group of south end malcontents, I suggest AtTheRails acknowledge the impossible with a first-annual Don Draper Award.

With that in mind, ATR is here to help with a few suggestions on how to sell the Reds in Season No. 5.

(Disclaimer: If any of the ideas listed below are adopted in any shape or form, ATR is entitled to one set of tickets to a Toronto FC playoff game of its choice. Said playoff tickets can also be written into any will.)

Winter year-round

Has anyone mentioned to coach No. 5 that his surname is a Canadian marketer’s dream? That said, for Reds’ marketing purposes the idea of Winter all year is a positive, for it means there will be just one coach instead of the token two fans have come to expect.

Season F-I’ve seen better

In Season Four the Reds cleverly (no, not Tom Cleverley) took the ‘our’ from ‘four’ and made it theirs. Fail. So in Season Five why not take the ‘I’ve’ from ‘Five’ and market better days, like when the team won 10 games and missed the playoffs on the last day. Nostalgia is a powerful drug.

At Least Our Guys Are Eligible

Sometimes the best way to build yourself up is to tear down those around you. With that in mind, remember that with the first overall selection, the expansion Whitecaps FC chose 17-year-old striker Omar Salgado. Due to his age and FIFA transfer rules, Salgado likely won’t be able to play a game for Vancouver until he turns 18 in September.

Of course, this marketing campaign would only be good for one season. By summer 2012, I fully expect Salgado will single-handedly win the undercontested Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

Now for a bit of Prem chatter, with a side of pub-bashing.

This is where Rafael goes, "Lalalala, I can't hear you..."

The best part about Sunday’s goalless draw at White Hart Lane was that it confirmed my local is no longer a reliable place to watch a match. While the breakfast fare is fine and the Caesars are spicy, the suggestion that volume is not necessary and may bother the other patrons sealed the deal.

Anyhow, my audio-free observations of the stalemate are that as long as the Premier League continues to be hotly contested this season, goals will remain at a premium. There is far too much at stake for the big clubs to play the football fans want to see.

Biased Man of the Match: Nemanja Vidic. The captain’s partnership with Rio is arguably the only reason United remain unbeaten.

Ryan Johnston

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What’s so super about it, anyway?

The inappropriately-named MLS Super Draft is a tough place to generate super results, especially when all your picks are outside the top 25. With that in mind, Sportsnet.ca’s RJ will weigh in Sunday with his thoughts on TFC’s draft day activity…I believe the working title for his piece is is “Rejected TFC Marketing Slogans for 2011.” At least the local XI are getting DeRo back from bonnie Scotland.

For now, our friend Paul Attfield of the Globe & Mail did a nice job documenting TFC’s picks today:

Highlight #1: Multitple sclerosis cost  newly-drafted defender Demetrius Omphroy a contract in Portugal, but after returning to the US and  playing college soccer at Cal, he hopes he has the disease under control.

Highlight #2: Late pick Joao Plata of Ecuador stands just 5’2″ and was the leading scorer at the MLS scouting combine with three goals. I’d say that’s no small achievement, except it is. But the man I’m dubbing The Wee Assassin seems to have a nose for the goal.

Vancouver used the top pick on Omar Salgado, even though they need FIFA permission for a full transfer before his 18th birthday on Sept. 10, ruling him out for nearly all their debut MLS season. The Whitecaps like Salgado and know him: he trained with the team last year. And they didn’t want to get the Steve Francis treatment from Darlington Nagbe, who went second to Portland and had made noises about not wanting to leave the United State. Because Vancouver and Toronto are such foreign, scary, evil, ugly places.  What a doofus. He deserves to get booed in both cities this summer.

Englishman John Rooney doesn’t mind going abroad for a game of footy – he went to the New York Red Bulls in the second round. Henry and Rooney on the same team, they can’t lose.

Back in Blighty, big brother Wayne and his Man. Utd teammates will take on Tottenham this Sunday…RJ’s team against mine. He’s promised to deliver a reasoned, rational, FOXNews-esque account of the EPL encounter. Don’t miss it.

Ian Harrison

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