Ahead of Liverpool vs. Arsenal in the Premier League this Saturday evening, I wrote a piece for Just Football profiling 5 recent classic matches between the teams.
With the Premier League entering its final phase, the writers for Just Football sat down to discuss predictions for the season ahead. Who will win the title, who will go down, and will Jamie Vardy really reveal a “Brexit means Brexit” t-shirt?
(And yes, I did predict that Claudio Ranieri would not lose his job even if Leicester City got relegated…and a few hours later, he got sacked.)
On Wednesday night, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique announced that he will depart the club at the end of last season. It wasn’t as much of a shock as you might think – the writing has been on the wall since that 4-0 Champions League hammering at the hands of PSG.
With his impending departure in mind, I wrote a piece profiling the candidates to fill his shoes. Who will it be? Arsene Wenger? Mauricio Pochettino? Ernesto Valverde?
Part one, covering pre-season, is here.
Our pre-season friendlies went well. I won’t cover them in too much detail, as they’re only really for the players to get their fitness levels up and get used to my tactics (and each other). I don’t think friendly results matter, but still it was nice to go unbeaten. Of course, we didn’t play anyone good. Our own U-23 side, Darlington and a hodge-podge of no-mark German and Dutch sides provided willing opposition.
The first competitive game of the season was due to be a real test, though. The fixture computer had paired us against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at home to kick off the 2016/17 Premier League season.
I went with a 3-5-2 that had worked so well in my truncated Le Havre save. With Papy Djilobodji insured, I had a decision to make at the back. In pretty much a straight shoot-out between Jan Kirkhoff and Paddy McNair, I plumped for the Northern Irishman. No good saying I want to blood youth if I don’t give them a chance when an opening comes up, is it? The German was on the bench though, with John O’Shea as extra insurance.
I hoped Ndong and Jack Rodwell would form a hard-working, tireless duo in the middle, with Wahbi Khazri providing the creative spark. He would also be joined by Januzaj, dropping deep, with Defoe staying high up and (hopefully) finishing off any moves.
Given that this is Conte’s Chelsea, they also lined up with three at the back. It would be an interesting test…
Sunderland 1-2 Chelsea
A huge part of football’s enduring charm is the element of surprise. Just because a team has better players and more money does not always mean they will win. Sometimes hard work, a well-executed tactical plan or plain luck (or a combination of all three) can see Goliaths slayed by Davids. It’s why Leicester City won the 2015/16 Premier League title at 5000-1 odds. It’s why Greece surprised everyone at Euro 2004. It’s why the FA Cup remains so beloved, with giant-killings a relatively frequent occurance.
But of course, there’s the flip side. The flip side that, actually, the bigger, better and more expensively-assembled teams win most of the time. It’s why Leicester won’t retain their title. It’s why Greece have never come close to winning anything since the heady days of 2004. It’s why non-league sides may bloody the noses of the big boys but will never actually lift the trophy.
This game was one of those games. We dominated. Ndong and Rodwell were terriers in midfield, harrying and tackling and genuinely being a nuisance. In front of them, Khazri was a mercurial presence, and Januzaj caused consternation in his marker John Terry but dropping deep and drifting into pockets of space. And yet, it wasn’t enough.
Despite having 21 shots, we failed to carve out a clear-cut opportunity. Chelsea did, and they scored them. The first was a soft penalty early on. We failed to clear a David Luiz long throw and after a melee the ball fell to Cesar Azpilacueta just inside the box. Unsure what to do, he turned his back looking to find a teammate behind him to retain possession. It was not a huge threat, but Jason Denayer decided to come clattering in from behind. The challenge didn’t even knock the Spaniard off his feet, but it was enough for the referee to point to the spot. Unsurprisngly, Eden Hazard dispatched it for 1-0.
Only 18 minutes had gone, and I was concerned that we might have a massacre on our hands. But the players surprised me. Instead of folding like a house of cards as I expected, they fought back and wrestled a foothold into the game. Unfortunately, our chances and half-chances found their equal in Thibault Courtois, who was a constant thorn in Jermain Defoe’s side. As the game dragged on, I suspected we would pay for our profligacy. I was right. In the 68th minute Eden Hazard jerked back into life. Taking the ball into the final third on a couter attack he skipped past a sliding Svensson and then bamboozled Lamine Kone before pulling the ball back to the waiting – unmarked – Diego Costa, who couldn’t miss.
We did get a goal back a couple of minutes later when Khazri lashed a shot into the top corner from the edge of the box, but despite going attacking and bringing on Kevin Lasagna and Duncan Watmore, we couldn’t get the equaliser.
Still, it was a decent performance, and something to build on. Although, I did learn after the match that Duncan Watmore was just one more league appearance away from having his wages bumped up to £30k per week. The youngster was already earning too much (£20k p/w) given his lower-level-of-the-Championship stats. If he featured again or not (likely not) I decided I would probably look to offload him in the summer, if not before.
Up next we had Burnley, away. It’s a game that would perhaps be a truer reflection of the standard of the squad. We were always likely to lose to Chelsea, but Burnley? I am expecting them to be battling relegation with us this season. Win, and all looks rosy. Lose, and I would worry.
I saw no reason to change the side that performed so well against Chelsea. In any case, the only change I might have seriously considered was denied me – Djilobodji was still injured, so McNair continued despite not yet being totally comfortable at centre back.
Burnley 0-2 Sunderland
Despite my pre-match worries, this was a simple, comfortable win. Jermain Defoe got us off to a good start, finishing inside the near post after a Januzaj through ball. The game then settled into a pattern – we played some nice passing moves but mostly fluffed our lines when faced with Tom Heaton, while Burnley’s ever-more-desperate hoofs down the middle were meat and drink for Jason Denayer, who made up for his Chelsea faux pas with a Man of the Match performance. The only dark cloud was the injury that forced Defoe off in the 38th minute. In his stead I brought on Joel Asoro, a pacy 17-year-old Swede plucked from the reserves. I had already arranged for Defoe to tutor him, and the lessons seemed to be paying off. In the 90th minute Asoro finished off a slick counter-attacking move with the kind of dead-eyed accuracy that had made his tutor’s name.
The only dark cloud was the Defoe injury – confirmed after the game to be a hip injury that would keep him out for at least 2 months.
Still, I had no real time to worry about it. We were facing Sheffield United in the EFL Cup just 3 days after the Burnley game.
In an ideal world, I would play my strongest side in both domestic cups. But this is not an ideal world. With injuries, and a short turn around time between games, I was forced to ring the chances for the match. In fact, the only player to remain in the side was Paddy McNair. Debut were given to sub ‘keeper Mika, Javier Manquillo, Jannes Horn, Victor Anichebe, Diego Poyet and Steven Pienaar, while Kirkhoff, O’Shea, youngster Lynden Gooch all came in, and Kevin Lasagna made his first start.
Sunderland 2-0 Sheffield United
With such a chopped-and-changed side (10 in all from the Burnley game) it would have been no surprise to me if we would have lost, but instead we were quite comfortable. A Pienaar long rage shot set us on our way, before Lasagna scored a scrappy goal to seal the game before half time. The visitors barely threatened, and Pienaar, Lasagna and Diego Poyet all impressed me. The latter could have scored late on after a lung-bursting run into the box, but hit the post when one on one.
Our final game in the month of August was against Watford, at home. Their squad looked a bit stronger than Burnley’s, but I didn’t think this team was any great shakes. Despite impressive performances from some of my second string in the cup, I went back to the tried and tested side that had beaten Burnely so comfortably in the last league outing – except of course, Defoe was injured, so I plumped for Lasagna in his place. I did make one other slight tweak, switching Januzaj from a False 9 to a Deep Lying Forward. Following impressive performances against Sheffield United, Poyet and Pienaar made their way on to the bench.
Sunderland 0-2 Watford
I don’t know what happened. An impressive performance in defeat against Chelsea was followed by two comfortable wins. And then this. An insipid performance in which we rarely threatened and could have lost by more. We got into the half time break somehow at 0-0, but it didn’t last long. On loan Chelsea man Kenedy smashed an outrageous 30-yard volley into the top corner. It was 1-0, and we didn’t look like scoring. Januzaj, so often a creative force, kept dribbling into defenders and falling over. Khazri barely looked interested. Lasagna, isolated. Troy Deeney sealed the win in the 72nd minute with a snapshot from the edge of the box. After all the optimism of the last two games, I felt like a Sunderland manager again.
September would be a tricky month. We would face potential relegation rivals Hull City and Swansea, as well as West Ham twice (in the league and the next round of the ELF Cup). By the end of the next month, I should have a much clearer idea of whether it will be a struggle to death or a comfortable lower-mid-table finish. I know which one I’m hoping for, and I certainly know which one I’m expecting.
You may remember I previously blogged about a “journeyman” challenge where I started unemployed and then took charge of Weston-Super-Mare. My goal was to work my way up the footballing ladder to become the best manager I could be. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here, but that’s as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the game got away from me and I didn’t have time to write about it. If you’re interested I did end up joining Forest Green Rovers, then Gillingham, and eventually Crystal Palace.
But I decided to start a new game with the Premier League’s most consistently hopeless case – Sunderland. And this time, I will keep on top of the updates. Could I be a better manager than the ghost of David Moyes that currently stalks the Stadium of Light dugout? Let’s find out!
I was not sure what to expect with Sunderland. Of course, they’re bobbins in real life, reliant on the goals of Jermain Defoe to plunder points. But sometimes Football Manager can be kind to struggling teams – I was, frankly, hoping the Sunderland researcher would have over-valued some of their players.
I’m playing on the original FM17 database, so I still have Patrick van Aanholt but lack the, er, singular talents of Darron Gibson.
I was not hugely impressed with what I saw. Unbalanced (four left wingers, of which an ageing Steven Pienaar was picked out as one of the best) with a lack of “quality decision making”, a “leadership void” and not enough players willing to work hard pointed to only one thing: relegation.
But in assessing the squad, I realised that all was not lost. Not quite. I picked out some key players, and promising youngsters. Ideally, I wanted to utilise young players as much as possible. If they were homegrown then so much the better.
Just like in real life, the diminutive former England frontman would be key to any hopes of survival. I knew that if we could give him opportunities, he would score.
Lamine Kone stood out in a squad lacking quality defenders. Relatively quick, strong and a good header of the ball, he could be key for us.
My coaches also rated ex-Chelsea also-ran Papy Djilobodji but his relatively poor positioning and concentration had me worried.
In midfield, I liked the look of club record signing Didier NDong, a hard-working midfielder with good physical attributes.
One of the things I want to do as Sunderland boss is bring through young players where I can. There are a few dotted around the squad, though the two with possibly the highest potential don’t actually belong to the club…
The one-time next big thing of European football, Adnan Januzaj, is slumming it with us. It’s difficult to imagine him sticking around long term even if we could afford him, but who knows? A good season might convince him to stick around instead of returning to Old Trafford to kick his heels on the bench next season. I had an early idea in my head to train him as a striker and use him as a deep-lying foil for Defoe. As well as Januzaj, we have a second loanee from Manchester, nominative determinism’s Jason Denayer. He’s pacy, which is good, and is apparently labelled as the next Vincent Kompany.
The other young starlets are all permanently at Sunderland and I wanted to try to give them plenty of game time.
Jordan Pickford would start the season in goal, and would have done even if Vito Mannone didn’t start the game with a long-term injury. If his stats improve as I hope they will, he could go on to become England’s next ‘keeper. And hopefully he will do that while still in a Sunderland shirt.
A present bequeathed to me by David Moyes, ex-Manchester United utility man Paddy McNair has the potential to be a good Premier League player. Though most comfortable as a defensive midfielder, I eyed a future for him as a ball-playing centre back.
OK, so the American midfielder’s mental and physical attributes need a lot of work, but I can see a future for him as an attacking midfielder. A few clubs want him on loan, but my plan is to give him some minutes off the bench, at least initially, then re-visit it in January. If he needs regular minutes by then, a loan move in the second half of the season might be a good idea.
So, with my squad looked it, it was time to have a look at transfers. I was given a relatively generous £12m transfer budget and there was around £30k left in the wage budget, too, for a signing or two.
I had an idea in my head of playing 3-5-2, with wingbacks. My hope was that Kone, Djilobodji and Denayer had enough differing strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and I felt Defoe up front would benefit from a striker partner. The one glaring flaw in the plan was a lack of a right wing back. Both Billy Jones and Seb Larsson were out with long term injuries, and I was unconvinced by the claims of Atletico Madrid loanee Javier Manquillo. Lamine Kone could play at wing back but he was better used in the middle.
To that end, I went out and signed Rosenborg right back Jonas Svensson. Naturally fit, hard-working and with a good engine, he would be able to get up and down the flank with gusto.
I was happy with Patrick van Aanholt on the left, but I had no cover in that position. Not wanting to break the bank for a back-up left wing back, I brought in German younger Jannes Horn on loan from Wolfsburg. Happily, his versatility meant he could provide cover at centre back or central midfield if needed.
I also brought in Diego Poyet, son of ex-Sunderland manager Gus, on a free transfer. I didn’t have a pressing need for him but he was 21, homegrown and had a lot of potential. For free, his signing was a no-brainer.
The other gap in the squad was up front. I had Defoe, sure, but our second best striker Fabio Borini was yet another out with a long term injury (in the treatment room alongside Mannone, Jones, Larsson and Lee Cattermole). I did have Victor Anichebe, but I knew he was injury prone too. Also, he was not very good. I planned to give Januzaj a go up front, but behind him there was only Swedish younger Joel Asoro. The 17-year-old would be a part of my first team squad to gain experience, but was not really ready for regular Premier League football.
I hunted around for a young striker to join my squad. Real Madrid Castilla striker Mariano was bid for on loan, but he chose a move to Sassuolo instead. Young Brazilian striker Everton rejected any move to us outright. Other bids for promising strikers across Europe were rejected or simply laughed at. In the end, I did manage to prise the wonderfully named Kevin Lasagna from Carpi. At 23, he has room to improve, but mostly solid stats across the board is a good place to start from.
I had no plans to make wholesale changes to the squad (and, frankly, good players were skeptical about joining Sunderland’s annual relegation dalliance) so I was happy with the signings of Svensson, Horn, Poyet and Lasagne. With that done, it was on to my backroom team.
I got rid of the club legend Paul Bracewell as my assistant, replacing with the Dutchman Michael Linderman. Having worked at Ajax for many years, I was hoping he could bring some of that tactical knowledge and eye for a young player to Sunderland.
I also got rid of my existing Head of Youth Development and replaced him with Phil Cannon, because…well, look at those stats.
And, for a little sprinkling of stardust, I brought in two Premier League and England legends: Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham. Frankly, if my players could not learn from those two then there was no hope.
There we are. Transfers done (for now). Backroom team re-arranged (for now). I had, more or less, picked a formation and had a reasonable idea of my best eleven. The season loomed large. First up: a game against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, at home. Gulp.
How do the press and the bookies think we’ll do this year? Have a guess…
Part 2 will follow, covering the first month of the season. Let’s hope I can do better than real life Sunderland did in August…
If you want more stories from my weird mind, you can buy my latest short story collection Static: Collected Stories on Amazon Kindle for just £1.99.
After a weekend of FA Cup shocks, Spurs ensured they didn’t follow Burnley and Leicester City by making an easy procession of their away cup tie against London rivals Fulham.
I wrote the match report for Just Football and rounded up 10 Tweets to sum up the game.
As part of my role at Just Football, I had the opportunity to interview Niall McGuinness, the manager of Welsh Premier League side Rhyl FC. McGuinness is unusual in his profession in that he is just 25-years-old.
McGuinness provided some fascinating insights into his job, and you can read the full interview over on Just Football here.
It’s January transfer window time, and the newspapers are chock full of transfer rumours. And though it’s exciting to see your club linked with a big name start, plenty of transfers that do actually happen make you wonder exactly why clubs bother.
I picked out 7 summer transfers that were totally pointless for Just Football. Take a look at the list here and see if you can remember that these players signed for these clubs.
On Sunday, Manchester United and Liverpool played out a 1-1 draw in the Premier League. Not quite the epic game it was billed as, it saw a poor performance on Paul Pogba (even with that hashtag) and a late equaliser for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to cancel out James Milner’s penalty.
You can read the full article – and the best 13 Tweets to sum up the game – over on Just Football here.
After Bob Bradley’s sacking by Swansea City, I wrote about the Welsh club’s problems, which run much deeper than their American (ex)manager.
Paul Clement looks likely to take over, but can he save Swansea’s listing, sinking ship? Read the full article here.