Week 3 Tuesday Morning Tea: Break Point

This international break is just the worst, isn’t it?

We’ve waited patiently all summer for club football to return and have gone through months of tedious transfer rumors all in the name of our favorite teams. And now, right when it gets going again, we have to watch more international football.

Don’t get me wrong, I love WC qualifiers as much as the next guy, but this break is just a total buzzkill. International football is happening virtually all summer, so it’s honestly not the thing we need more of right now. Just give me a few more weeks of club football before this break, that’s all I’m really asking.

That being said, the break isn’t a bad thing at all for some teams.

In week 3, Crystal Palace’s horrendous start continued, Tottenham couldn’t chase away their Wembley ghosts and Arsenal were a complete and total train wreck. For those 3 teams and others, this break will serve as a welcomed reprieve and an opportunity for them to evaluate just what in the hell has gone wrong so far.

However, for clubs like Manchester United and Huddersfield, who still haven’t conceded a goal yet, this international break is the same to them as it does to you and me…a total buzzkill.

So before all the World Cup qualifier action gets going later this week, lets recap the weekend that was in the Premier League. To start, here are your week 3 headlines.

……….

West Ham Are Lost

Hoo boy. Where do we even start with the Hammers.

Week after week I continue to insist that they’ll be just fine. “Between Chicharito, Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Ayew, Arnautovic, Michel Antonio and others, there is just too much quality in this squad for them to lose again” I convince myself.

But West Ham apparently views my faith in them as a challenge to keep getting worse.

I can understand an opening 4-0 defeat to an unstoppable Manchester United squad. I can also forgive a hard fought 3-2 loss at Southampton in week 2. But 3-0 to Newcastle? Nah, we gotta talk about this now.

west ham
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

This game was competitive for maybe the first 30 minutes. Then Newcastle netted their opener on an easy counter attack following a critical error made by 18 year old Declan Rice and it was all downhill from there for West Ham.

There was little to no structure in the Hammers’ attack, leaving Chicharito on an island up top making useless runs and barely seeing the ball. West Ham remarkably held 63% possession in the match, yet only managed 3 shots on goal and 1 chance. If the strategy was to control possession, dilly dally around the middle 3rd of the field and then give the ball away and allow counter attacks, then job well done because that’s all that West Ham did Saturday afternoon.

Slaven Bilic’s seat is hotter than ever and he needs to figure his group out. Chicharito is a world class striker out high, but he’s not a Romelu Lukaku-type that can create his own scoring chances. He needs quality service and consistent traffic in order to be successful. Andre Ayew, Arnautovic and Michel Antonio need to be better.

I have no idea what to do about the back line, they just look like a mess right now. Far too many porous turnovers, shoddy coverage and just a general lack of organization have caused the Hammers to concede 10 times already this season. Everything is awful, so good luck to Bilic, I suppose.

Quality analysis there, I know, but West Ham have been that bad this season. The international break will do them well, but good heavens do they miss Dimitri Payet right now. Unless things get turned around ASAP, Slaven Bilic will actually be sacked instead of just threatened. 

Chris Wood Continues Tottenham’s Wembley Woes

I should have known that things were going far too well, but I thought this was the week that Spurs would finally begin to solve their Wembley problem. Up a goal in the 92’, a crucial 1-0 result looked pretty secure.

Lol nope.

Chris Wood’s 92’ strike ended all of those hopes and sent Tottenham supporters crashing back down to the reality that their club has won 2 out of 12 matches at its now temporary home. 

Wembley woes, indeed.

Chris Wood
Photo Courtesy of Michael Zemanek

Spurs’ Wembley record, much like Harry Kane’s lack of an August league goal in his career, is a story line that just won’t go away. Last week against Chelsea could be forgiven, but after failing to win a home league match against Burnley for the first time since 1973-74 it’s time to recognize that something about this little Wembley curse has merit.

67% possession, 28 shots, 10 corners, a Dele Alli goal, and still Tottenham couldn’t bag the 3 points they so badly needed. And now they’ll have 2 weeks to stew over what went wrong.

On the final goal against Burnley, Kieran Trippier is mainly at fault for wandering too far up the pitch and then being nowhere to be found on the cover when Wood makes his run. This seems like a good time to remind everyone that Trippier was the reason Mauricio Pochettino insisted that Kyle Walker was expendable this summer. Yeah, 50 million pounds for Walker is great business, but Tottenham still haven’t spent that money and Trippier has looks poor in the season’s first 3 games, this mistake being a particular lowlight. 

Harry Kane’s August goal drought has reached new stages of cursed. So far, he has produced the most shots of any goalless Premier League player. Kane’s tally of 24 shots without a goal is more than double the next name on the list. And, funny enough, that next name is Christian Eriksen with 11 shots and no goals.

Spurs chose to remain quiet during the summer transfer frenzy, much to the chagrin of their supporters. So far, it appears as though the quality of teams around Tottenham has risen while they have remained stagnant and been passed up.

Wins against clubs like Burnley will not come easy anymore, and this could be a dire reality check for Spurs that their time fighting at the top has come and gone without any trophies to show for. 

#WengerOut

Yeah, so Arsenal had a bit of a rough weekend.

If you thought that the Gunners’ 1-0 loss to Stoke last week was a tough pill to swallow, boy oh boy did they have a bloody followup.

Liverpool didn’t just beat Arsenal 4-0, they destroyed the entire club, tore them apart and then left them on the pitch to burn. It was a red onslaught from the opening whistle and a disinterested Arsenal side had no answers. Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino did whatever they pleased and scored at will. The Reds generated 10 shots on goal against a sieve-like Gunners defense while conceding 0 shots on goal. 

Sanchez
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

In every possible way, Arsenal were absolutely pitiful.

Arsene Wenger’s choice 11 was head scratching to begin with, as he left out club record signing Alex Lacazette and Sead Koliasinac, who has been the best player in the squad thus far.  Also, he decided to play normal right back Hector Bellerin as a holding midfielder and normal holding midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at left back instead of Kolasinac. And then, when things began going south immediately, Wenger’s first substitution was Francis Coquelin.

That’s like serving plain Lay’s at a party when the guests begin to grumble about the Chex Mix being stale. It just showed how much Arsene Wenger seemed to not care about what should have been a massively important match.

Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil disappeared in the midfield again for the second week in a row, as did Nacho Monreal in the back. Hector Bellerin looked uninspired and lethargic in the midfield and put a cherry on top of his performance by gifting up a pathetic goal to Mohamed Salah.

And where was the Arsenal leadership when things were going bad? Where was Laurent Koscielny or Petr Cech to grab Ozil and Xhaka by the scruff of the neck and demand better when things started going bad? Where was the fire that Alexis Sanchez was supposed to bring back into the side on his much awaited return?

Things went from bad to worse when Arsenal just seemed to quit on the match before the halftime whistle even sounded. This wasn’t just a tactically shambled club, this was a squad in total disarray that looked like they wanted to be doing anything other than playing football.

Arsene Wenger.jpg
Photo Courtesy of Reuters

Arsenal look like they need a total reset. Wenger has grown out of touch with his tactics, there is no player leadership at this club, and the roster seems completely uninterested and uninspired.

Expect things at the Emirates to be very busy over the next two weeks, and not in a good way. Possibly more than any other club in England, this international break is crucial for the Gunners.

Will they take action and demand better from a squad dragging its feet everywhere like a pouty child or will they continue to let the players mope and produce poor results each weekend?

……….

Where I Was Right Last Week:

When Manchester City went down a man and a goal before halftime against Everton last Monday, I said that their second half performance would be indicative of the kind of team City was.

The Sky Blues banded together, put on an all out, 10 man attack assault, and salvaged a point while looking like they might end up possibly snatching all 3. It was a heartening display for club supporters who watched during the 2016-17 campaign as City often folded in tough games and were unable to win ugly football matches.

This week, that resolve showed once again and City won an ugly football match.

Heading into halftime tied at 1, Bournemouth seemed content with a draw and played like it in the second half, mucking the game up to the point where it became almost unwatchable.

However, unlike in the past, City remained patient instead of folding in the face of a physical game. Pep Guardiola’s men dominated possession and continued creating chances all the way until Raheem Sterling got a fortunate deflection on his winning goal in the 97th minute.

Sterling
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

From Mike Dean’s refereeing to Guardiola playing a back 4, many things about this match can be questioned, but City’s resolve and fighting spirit can not be. Finding a way to get 3 points out of matches like this is crucial in a title chase and the resolve shown on Saturday will only be good for City going forward.

In other news, I don’t know how much more I can say about Sadio Mane that I haven’t already said, but this man is turning into a bona fide superstar. Another week, another brilliant goal, 90.2% passing accuracy and a MOTM for Liverpool in their Arsenal thrashing on Sunday.

The Philippe Coutinho saga has not been fun for all involved, but the Liverpool attack has purred without their star Brazilian and Mane’s further emergence has everything to do with that. He was absolutely brilliant again this week and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Mane vs Benjamin Mendy at the Etihad in 2 weeks? Yes, please.

……….

Where I Was Wrong Last Week:

I continue to mis-place my faith in West Ham and Arsenal.

I insisted that West Ham’s attacking quality is just too good for them to keep floundering at the bottom of the table. They got shut out this week by Newcastle, of all teams.

I insisted that Arsenal has too much overall quality to be in the bottom half of the table for longer than a month. The two players that I pegged to spearhead a Gunners turnaround were Lacazette and Kolasinac.

Neither of them started during the horrorshow at Anfield on Sunday.

Arsenal and West Ham have somehow managed to get even worse this past week and I don’t know if I see things changing anytime soon for either of them.

……….

Team of the Week: Liverpool

This one was clear cut. The Reds played nearly perfect football to absolutely shred a pathetic Arsenal side on Sunday and that came after a midweek Champions League qualifying win over Hoffenheim to put Liverpool back in the group stage. Sadio Mane is electric, Mo Salah has settled in perfectly, Firmino played another outstanding game and Jurgen Klopp has his club buzzing after a rocky start.

Runners Up: Manchester United, Newcastle

Player of the Week: Kasper Schmeichel

Yes, a player from a losing team is the player of the week. Leicester’s star keeper was absolutely brilliant on Saturday as his side lost 2-0 to Manchester United. Schmeichel made several brilliant saves, including a spectacular one to deny Juan Mata in the first half, and stopped a Romelu Lukaku penalty early in the second half. Yes, United ended up winning, but Schmeichel’s performance was reminiscent of Leicester’s title run 2 years ago.

Runners Up: Any Liverpool Forward, Harry Maguire, Henrikh Mkhitaryan

Moment of the Week: Raheem Sterling’s 97’ Winner

For the second consecutive week, Sterling played the hero for Manchester City, only this time his heroics came much later in the game and included scoring a winner instead of just an equalizer. Sterling’s goal leaves City in 4th place heading into the international break, a much more comfortable outlook than the alternative of 8th place. Stoppage time winners are always special, but combined with the manager, bench and fan reaction, this one felt like it meant something just a little bit more.

Runners Up: Chris Wood’s Equalizer, Charlie Daniels’ Stunner, Miguel Britos’ Horror Challenge

……….

10 Thoughts I Have

  1. Everton are in the middle of an absolutely brutal stretch of their schedule. Their Premier League schedule has given them City and Chelsea in the past two weeks with Tottenham and United waiting to greet the Toffees on the other side of the break. This stretch, combined with the Europa League starting up its midweek schedule, will be telling for Everton. They want to be a top half club in the Premier League and this is the kind of schedule those teams face. Get used to it. 
  2. A milestone happened on Saturday at Old Trafford that will get overlooked but is still incredibly important. Henrikh Mkhitaryan equalled Ruel Fox’s Premier League record for most assists in the first 3 appearances of a season with 5. The Red Devils’ man struggled in adapting to the Premier League early last season and he certainly heard about it. Earlier this summer, there were criticisms about his weight. Mkhitaryan has been brutalized by the media during his time in England, but now that he’s playing at a world class level, it’s time to recognize it and appreciate what he’s doing. 
  3. What in the blue hell is happening with Crystal Palace right now? 2 weeks ago I teased that they could be the most talented side ever relegated. After losing their first 3 matches without scoring a goal, that thought is looking dangerously realistic. Palace have lost seven of their last 8 league matches without scoring a goal in each of those 7 and the answers don’t look readily available. Wilfried Zaha has nobody to provide service for, Christian Benteke looks hapless in the middle, and Jason Puncheon appears to have seriously lost a step. Tough times for the Eagles, who sit 19th. 
  4. On the other side of the coin, this was a massive win for Swansea. Coming into this match, the Swans had yet to even record a shot on goal this season, let alone actually scoring a goal. Star loanee Tammy Abraham finally got Paul Clement’s men on the scoreboard with a lovely finish just before halftime. A Wilfried Bony return from Manchester City looks imminent, and combining him with an in form Abraham up front provides Swansea with a fantastic attacking duo. This is a dangerous bottom half team right here. 
  5. Charlie Austin scored the undisputed goal of the weekend, month and season so far. The Bournemouth left back will never strike another football better than this.
  6. Other great goals this weekend include Gabriel Jesus’ opener for City, Cesc Fabregas’ 1-2 with Alvaro Morata, and another brilliant Sadio Mane tally.
  7. Watford are developing quite a reputation as the dirtiest club in England and Miguel Britos’ horrific challenge this weekend against Brighton only serves to further that. I haven’t been watching football for that long, but this was the worst challenge I have ever seen and is unacceptable. Watford have seen red 6 times since the start of last season and this was Britos’ 3rd red card since last season. Let’s hope we never have to see anything like this challenge again for a long, long time.
  8. If you still had doubts about Chelsea after last week’s late win over Tottenham, their 2-0 domination over Everton should subside those doubts. The champions put together a suffocating defensive performance reminiscent of the title winning side last season and held the Toffees without a single shot on goal. The only Everton threat came in the 88th minute when the game was already sealed in the Blues’ favor. The champions are fully back after their opening week failure and should only get better. 
  9. Peter Crouch is probably my favorite player in the Premier League. Skill wise, the big fella is probably past his prime but, as his equalizer against West Brom this weekend showed, the Potters’ super sub can still bag the occasional goal or two. Crouch is an absolute joy to watch on and off the pitch. He seems to never stop smiling while on the field, enjoying every second of football that he gets, and his social media accounts off the pitch have me in stitches. ‘Crouchinho’ is a treasure that must be appreciated while we still have the chance.
  10. Coming out of the international break, the obvious game of the weekend is a Liverpool trip to the blue side of Manchester. However, Everton-Tottenham is the fixture that I have pegged as match of the weekend. Both teams are coming off of tough results and are in desperate need of a win in order to put themselves back in good position to contend with the top of the table. Between the two of them, whoever wins this match will finish higher in the final standings than the other, #HotTake.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Advertisements
Week 3 Tuesday Morning Tea: Break Point

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Dortmund vs. Real, anyone? No? How about Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid? Barcelona-Man City?

The annual contesting of the UEFA Champions League is always something to look forward to on the football calendar, and after some lackluster – and, frankly, unnecessary – play in games, the group stage is all set. The 8 pools were set up today, and there are some seriously good fixtures on the slate.

Now, I just want to point something out really quickly. How weird is it to not see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Wolfsburg in the Champions League draw? It’s pretty weird for me. Anyway, let’s get straight into the most interesting group stage matches.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid

Starting off with a bang, the reigning champions draw German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund in an opening matchup that should be filled with enough fireworks to go around.

Real Madrid UCL
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Real need no introduction. They sport a front line that includes the best player in the world and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric – as if he needed any more of an introduction – made some noise at the European Championships with his sparkling play on the Croatian national team alongside Ivan Perisic.

Madrid’s squad last season was as deep and strong as we have ever seen, and the addition of Alvaro Morata and a presumably much stronger and reinvigorated James Rodriguez will make them just as dangerous.

On the other side are my dark horses in this tournament. Dortmund gave traditional juggernaut, Bayern Munich, all they would handle all the way through the Bundesliga season in 2015-16. And, sensing a potential changing of the guard, Dortmund went out and spent over $110 million on 8 transfers.

Highlighting the group is former Dortmund star, Mario Gotze – who was swiped away from the aforementioned Bayern Munich. Alongside Gotze is another German national, Andre Schurrle, and a couple of 19 year old prodigies, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. The new stable of strikers will join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and form an incredibly formidable attack.

Borussia Dortmund Squad
Dortmund Squad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now, all of those glamorous transfers were mostly made out of necessity, as Dortmund lost Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels, but I believe the strong attack will make them an incredibly dangerous team that could potentially make huge waves with an upset here.

Also, remember the last time these two teams matched up in the Champions League with Los Blancos as a heavy favorite? Yeah, watch out for Dortmund.

Group A: Arsenal vs. Paris Saint Germain

On the surface, this matchup seems like a very even matchup between French and English powerhouses, but, unfortunately, this is probably the most predictable of the fixtures i’m going to be highlighting. Does that mean it’s not going to be entertaining? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, this is an offensive GEM of a match. Brilliant players are all over the pitch from both sides. Theo Walcott, Angel di Maria, Granit Xhaka, Adrian Rabiot, Marco Verratti, David Luiz, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Calum Chambers; the quality on the pitch – with regards to strictly offense – is remarkable.

Now, if this match had taken place a year ago, PSG would run away with it. The French champions were firing on all cylinders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading up the attack, but now that he’s gone? I still favor PSG, but the Gunners do have a shot in both legs.

Both clubs will advance to the knockout round – considering that FC Basel and FC Ludogorets round out group A – and that could be the only way this matchup isn’t a spectacular scoring fest. But I’m going to pretend that both clubs go full bore and we get some lovely, high scoring football.

Group E: Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham Hotspur

Here’s the one you disagree with. You can’t agree with me on everything, but I really like this matchup.

Chicharito vs Alderwierld? Yes, please.

I really don’t care what you say, this game is worth watching just to see what kind of magic Chicharito pulls out of his hat against Mauricio Ponchettinho’s bunch.

Chicharito
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Also, who knows, maybe Tottenham regains the form that made them the Premier League runners up from just a season ago and put on an offensive clinic led by Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Maybe not, but still, the offensive potential in this game is too good to ignore. All hail Chicharito.

Group D: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

Holy nuts, whoever put this matchup together clearly wants to cut the riffraff and get straight down to the business of separating the best football clubs in Europe.

A rematch of one of the two semifinals from last year’s Champions League, both teams remain mostly unchanged, with the only significant transfer between the two being Bayern’s heist of Mats Hummels from their German rivals, Borussia Dortmund.

The fact that both of these clubs remain mostly unchanged is reason for excitement because holy wow what a matchup this is.

Antoine Griezemann and Yannick Carrasco have had their coming out parties, and they join Fernando Torres on a club that has silently competed in two of the last three Champions League finals. And guess what, Atletico is set to be just as good as they’ve ever been.

Griezmann and Carrasco
Photo courtesy of ESPN FC

On the other side are the German champions and their stable of ridiculous talent. From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern is almost stupid stacked with talent. Kingsley Coman, Renato Sanches, Arjen Robben (forget about him?), Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Julian Green; it’s almost unfair how talented this Bayern side are.

FC Bayern Munich v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Photo by Lukas Barth for Getty Images

I didn’t need to hype this match up any more than it already was, but Bayern-Atletico twice in the group stage? Thank you, God.

Group C: FC Barcelona vs Manchester City

And now, your main event of the group stage.

Pep Guardiola’s main task at Manchester City has been made crystal clear: win the Champions League. He’s been given all of the money the clubs has to offer, and completely free reign to go get any player his heart desires in the name of winning the Champions League.

Following two squash matches against clearly overmatched Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti, City are through to the group stage where they draw the title favorites, Barcelona.

Nolito and Delph
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Barca return to the Champions League with a vengeance following their failed pursuit of the first back-to-back title win in UCL history. But, while Barca stood pat this summer and didn’t really get any better – in their defense, it’s hard to get better when your attacking trio is Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – Manchester City went out and just about owned the transfer market.

In total, City brought in 9 transfers for just over $240 million, highlighted by Everton defender John Stones, Barcelona starting keeper Claudio Bravo, and Shalke wonder boy Leroy Sane. The talent on the field will be evident, and this will be an extremely tightly contested matchup, but let’s get to the off-field storylines that really make this a game worth watching.

The aforementioned Pep Guardiola has been clear that his ultimate goal at City is to win the Champions League, and to do that he has to go through his former club. The City boss made his name at Barcelona, and knocked them out of the Champions League last season while with Bayern Munich. Revenge will be in the air and Pep will be hungry to prove his side belongs in the upper echelon of elite football powerhouses.

As I mentioned in the transfers section of this blurb, Claudio Bravo is Manchester City’s new keeper, and the former Barcelona #1 will be making his homecoming during the leg of this matchup contested at the home of the Spanish champions. Also, the last time Bravo and Lionel Messi squared off, the Argentinian fired a now infamous penalty shot high over the bar of Bravo’s Chilean goal to give Chile their 2nd straight Copa America title over Argentina.

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile
Photo by Adam Hunger for USA Today Sports

So, on top of the fact that this is as good of a football matchup as you can possibly get, the extra storylines make this fixture as much of a ‘can’t miss’ as the Champions League group stage has to offer.

……….

Considering the madness that football has provided us with lately, we could be staring down the barrel of a Benfica-Leicester City Champions League final. Would you rather see something like a Bayern-City final? Of course you would, but for the first time in a while, I can’t confidently guarantee that we’ll see traditional powerhouses in the semifinals and final. Strap in, this could get wild.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches