Analyzing the Remaining Seasons of the Current EPL Top 5 – #1: Manchester City

And now finally, we look to the club in sky blue whose exceptionally brilliant and extravagant football has taken the league by storm and cemented their reputation as a top club.

MANCHESTER CITY:

“Money alone never gets you success” was the quote repeatedly thrown at City. Their 3rd place finish last season certainly didn’t help that opinion with many people saying they’ll never be a title winning side by spending alone.

However the addition of the F.A. Cup to a trophy cabinet which had seen dust for 35 years did ease the pressure on Mancini, and seemed to be the signal for the Eastlanders to really come into their own the next season.

Which they have duly done.

Criticized heavily last season for their negative approach, looking on most occasion to just keep the clean sheet instead of go forth and finish teams off, City annihilated all who stood in their path in the opening weeks of the EPL. 36 goals scored in the opening 10 fixtures which included embarrassing first Tottenham 1-5 at the lane, then probably the biggest moment of the careers of everyone involved, a 1-6 demolition job of champions Manchester United at the unexpected of all places – the Old Trafford. It sent a clear message to the Red Devils and the rest of the world; Manchester city are here to stay for good.

Still a 100% record at home after 25 games played, the star-studded line up has really shone this season with some quite extravagant football. Regardless of whether one is a Blues fan or not, you cannot deny what City have managed to accomplish. Combining a similar style to what used to be the quick, decisive, entertaining passing of the Invincibles with the clinical finish of a typical title winning Manchester United side, City have played some of the best football across Europe and have won plaudits from managers and pundits alike.

Silva and Toure have been at the center of everything good City have done this season.

And most of that is due to the free flowing nature of the players. Yaya toure, used as a holding midfielder back in Barcelona days, has been let go of his defensive shackles and was probably the best midfielder in 2011 in England with his iconic marauding runs from the center of the park, scaring the life out of many a defender. This direct style of play has combined exquisitely with the elegance of the Spanish playmaker David Silva and has seen city develop into one of the best all around sides in Europe right now.

The Spaniard has been completely unstoppable this time around and has given nightmares to pretty much every defense he has faced. Currently leading the assists chart with 12 to his name, 6 goals and just generally brilliant in his movement, the no.21 has really epitomized what attacking football is all about and it would be a major major shock if he wasn’t in the starting XI for Spain in the upcoming Euros.

They have though recently shown signs though of their weaknesses. Losing the Toure brothers to the African Cup of Nations was a major blow to Mancini and his men and it saw City drop points in the month of January which allowed 2nd placed Manchester United to close the gap on them. This over reliance on the Ivorian duo and general dressing room arguments, including the well documented Tevez issue (not going to get into that), was criticized heavily with many people saying the team still lacked a general spirit and togetherness that money just cannot buy.

So whats next for Manchester City? Absolutely brilliant at home so far (12 wins in 12 home games, with 37 goals scored and 6 conceded) and playing some generally good  football away from home, the men in sky blue still have to face visits from Chelsea and Man Utd (being touted a potential title decider) and take a trip to London to face Arsenal. Having the Toure brothers back will be a major boost to Mancini and if they can find the kind of form they were in at the start of the season, that 2 point lead at the top of the table should see them crowned champions. Unless of course Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have something to say about it.

Its been an absolutely incredible season to watch so far and over the course of the next few games, it should become clear which team is finishing where. But then again, this is the Barclays Premier League, you never really know now do you!

(follow on twiiter @rafeyAM_MUFC)

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Analyzing the Remaining Seasons of the Current EPL Top 5 – #2: Manchester United

Time now to turn our attention to current champions Man Utd, who despite not having the star studded sides of yesteryear, are still keeping pace very well at the top and are very much in for an unprecedented 20th league title.

MANCHESTER UNITED:

Gone are the days it seems, when Ronaldo would be scoring 40 odd goals a season or Becks would be the undoubted player of the season every time around. No those were the sides of the past. The new Manchester United that has come forth this season is more of a complete team, with every single member of the squad playing an equally vital role in helping the reds do what they do best, collect trophies and medals.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not suggesting the old sides weren’t complete teams. The class of 99′ that went on to win the treble was probably 1 the most complete teams in the premier league era. But that was a team of incredibly gifted individuals. The current side has apart from maybe the exception of Wayne Rooney( even he isn’t in the current top 20 of the Castrol rankings), no real recognized world class talent.

And yet despite that, United have fared incredibly well with all the set backs and injuries throughout the season. Blowing teams away at the start of the campaign with quick, crisp attacking football, epitomized by the 8-2 hammering of Arsenal, their title hopes took a hit early on by the injury to the center of everything good they were doing, Tom cleverly and the unmovable rock at the back, Captain Nemanja Vidic.

Then came probably the most humiliating moment of Sir Alex Ferguson’s career. Annihilated 1-6 at Old Trafford by rivals Manchester City. Every1 ruled United out of the title race there and then and many pundits put the blame on SAF opting to not buy a star player in the summer transfer window.

The most embarrassing day of Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial career came at Old Trafford

But they picked themselves right back up and got 39 points from the next possible 48 (including 1 quite humiliating defeat to bottom placed Blackburn) and have kept the pressure on Man City to keep winning each game.

And the reason behind all of that is team work and dedication to the cause all the United players have shown this time around. Much criticized midfielder Michael Carrick seems to have finally picked up where the likes of Roy Keane left off and has shown very good distribution and control on the game. Wayne Rooney has been typically brilliant in terms of service to the team and though he may not be scoring as many as he’d like, no1 can deny the work rate he puts into the cause.

The new injury to Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia has come at a very unfortunate time as he seemed to have finally regained form after that horrible fracture he suffered to his ankle left him out of form and it seemed, out of ideas. He is a great asset to have for the men in red more because though he is unplayable on his day, Luis Nani is still very very inconsistent and needs to start contributing more regularly to achieve his goal of world’s best.

So whats next for Manchester United? Though they dont have to face visits from the top teams, they still have to go to White Hart lane and the Etihad stadium where they’ll be looking to get revenge for that humiliating defeat earlier in the season. Still only 2 points off the pace, the red devils have got every bit the chance to still go on and win the league for a quite astonishing 20th time and extend the record they already hold. Having Tom Cleverly back from injury will be a major boost and with Scholes back from retirement as well, expect United to soon get back to their best and challenge City right till the very end for what they believe is rightfully theirs!

(follow on twiiter @rafeyAM_MUFC)

Milan v Arsenal Post-Match Thoughts: 4-0, Gameover!

Shambolic Defending and Impotent Attack Costs Arsenal .. Yet Again!

It was a dominant performance by Milan, reminiscent of their glory years, and an equally toothless one by Arsenal – just one of the many in the past 4 years.

In my preview I spoke of the narrow formation Milan play and how this could be exploited by Arsenal. Quite the opposite happened last night, as Milan overran the Arsenal midfield and defense by playing through the middle and playing well, where Arsenal were simply outnumbered and ultimately outclassed – despite having more posession (typical Arsenal). Ineffective down the wings, they failed to test Milan’s narrow formation or their fullbacks. And it didn’t help that Arsenal’s defending was typically Sunday-league. Had Milan been a bit more clinical in front of goal, it could’ve been an all-out rout!

As much as I want want to blame the manager for this, it was his players and in particular his senior players who really let him down .. once again. Theo Walcott offered absolutely nothing going forward, and left Sagna exposed far too often. Ramsey has been short of confidence since the start of this season and has probably been overplayed. Another player who has been overplayed is Koscielny, we’ve now lost him to injury for God knows how long, and Arsenal are now one injury or suspension away from the mighty Squillaci. Rosicky, like his right-wing counterpart, contributed exactly nothing to the attack or defense and I wouldn’t blame him because he was being played out of position. He’s been very influential in the middle for Arsenal in the recent weeks, and should’ve started behind the striker. Someone suggested on Twitter last night that he had been deployed on the left to provide more defensive cover to Gibbs. You cannot, CANNOT play players out of position in a game of this magnitude, and the blame for the rests solely on the manager’s shoulders. As does the blame for the fact that Arsenal is currently fielding average or below-average players in their squad and offering contract extensions to such players, Johan Djourou being one. Djourou is slow, and for a big man he’s easily shrugged off the ball. He’s sluggish and clumsy, cannot tackle properly, does nothing to organize the defense, and is, in a nutshell, not fit to play in a team vying for trophies on multiple fronts. Another senior player, Thomas Vermaelen, was below par, kept losing his marker on the crucial of times and once again I would blame the manager for playing him out of position for 3 months and slotting him back to the center in an important game. The simple fact is that Arsene Wenger should’ve signed a left back in the winter window when he had the chance, even a loan deal would’ve done. Especially strange since at one point the manager said that a left-back will be signed in the winter, and then completely backtracked on his own statement!

Alex Song ‘pulled a Nasri’ and chose the perfect night to go missing, as he often does. Arteta was less influential than he usually has been for Arsenal this season. Gibbs was better, considering it was his first game back from injury.

Its also easy to point the finger towards Chezney for the first goal, it was a weak goalkick, unacceptable at this level and such goalkicks have now been a regular feature of his game – something he needs to work on in the training ground. But the fact is not one Arsenal player even went close to challenging the Milan player whom the ball fell to. He played a simple cross to Kevin Boateng who in turn scored an excellent goal, I recommend everyone re-watch Prince’s brilliant skill for the goal, at least once.

Milan kept opening up the Arsenal defense by playing simple passes between the back-four. And once Djourou was introduced, you just knew it would be a rout. He conceded a soft penalty in the second half and is now well on his way to being the next Silvestre/Eboue/Denilson.

Taking nothing away from Milan, it was a dominant performance. Like Zonal Marking noted, they played to their strengths very well. To me, they clearly had a gameplan, both with and without the ball. And they stuck to it quite well. Ibrahimovic and Robinho were in total sync and worked well together, and one could see that this is the perfect partnership up front for Milan, and should keep Pato on the bench for a while. Silva, Mexes and van Bommel worked excellently together as a unit to keep van Persie quiet.

But the fact is Arsenal were toothless, clueless, were devoid of any organisation, and let Milan take them to the dryers here. Arsene Wenger was, as usual, devoid of anything even close to something called a plan-B, got his tactics totally wrong. And sometimes and especially after watching games like this, it looks as if Harry Redknapp of all people has more tactical nous than Wenger! Arsene did nothing to change things at half-time, and its not the first time this has happened. Arsenal were sinking faster than the Titanic at Old Trafford earlier this season and lets not forget than Arsenal continued to ship 8 (eight!) goals and absolutely nothing was done to change this.

Even the most die-hard Arsene Wenger fans are starting to lose the trust and faith in him. And with these sort of results, he’s not doing himself any favors at all. Fact of the matter is that Arsenal are now on the brink of mid-table mediocrity, and right now, it would take nothing short of a miracle for Arsenal to (a) proceed to the next round of the Champions League, and (b) qualify for the competition next season. The team now smacks of mediocrity and its quite telling that long-term Arsenal targets such as Eden Hazard would now prefer a move to Tottenham Hostspur. The bench has below-average players like Chamakh and I think the fact that a 35-year old Henry was preferred last night over Chamakh or Park speaks volumes in itself!

Milan were impressive, but this is without a shadow of a doubt one of the weakest Milan side in years, and everyone was expecting a closely-contested game, if not an evenly-matched one. Not to be, unfortunately. But the performance says a lot about the state of the current Arsenal side and the man it is being managed by. Devoid of ideas, it was a collection of 11 individuals rather than a team playing out there (just like the Old Trafford game). This was Arsenal’s biggest away defeat ever in the Champions League. I really don’t see the point of playing the return leg, Arsene might as well put the reserve team out at the Emirates as they would probably show more heart and fight than what was on display last night!

Would also like to take a moment to speak about the San Siro pitch, which from the looks of it had been relaid especially on both the flanks. Deliberate? Perhaps to nullify the threat posed by Arsenal’s wingers? Conspiracy theories aplenty on the internet.

Post-match reactions:

Arsene’s post-match reaction. We’ll see what he does about it, as another crucial game coming up over the weekend against Sunderland. Actions always speak louder than words!

Arsenal’s defeat could affect Premier League’s standing in Europe. Via The Telegraph.

Eboue, who had some hilarious things to say on his Twitter! Is that even his real Twitter? As useless a player he was during his time with Arsenal, gotta love his sense of humor!

Adriano Gilliani who says there could’ve been more than 4 for Milan, and I totally agree!

Vermaelen spot on here, and I like the attitude – something that unfortunately cannot be said for everyone in the team.

Some former players speak: Dixon and Petit. Petit (2) on shedding the dead weight, spot on!

A feature on Arsenal’s current state of affairs on ESPN.

Ibra: “We showed the right mentality.” Hard to disagree.

Alternatively, this was an interesting perspective on why people need to get behind Arsene and his team.

Questions, questions

Will van Persie sign on? Will Walcott and Song sign on? Do Arsenal fans even care if Walcott signs on or goes? Will Arsenal be able to continue to attract top talent? Will Arsenal continue to lose their best players and stick with what are clearly mediocre, mid-table-team players? Will the board and the manager continue to do absolutely nothing about the fact that clearly something is not right with this team and the setup? Will Arsene Wenger continue to mismanage players to the ground, bring the once-Invincibles down to utter mediocrity and in the process permanently stain his reputation?

Away fans

Shout out to the Arsenal fans in attendance at San Siro who had to sit through this abysmal display of football by Arsenal FC, and probably paid good money to do so.

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[Written by a long-time Arsenal fan, and a believer that the club will always be bigger than any player/manager/individual. Gooner, through thick and thin!]

Analyzing the Remaining Seasons of the Current EPL Top 5 – #3: Tottenham

Now we take a look at 3rd place tottenham who have had a quite action filled and solid season this time around.

TOTTENHAM:

When Harry Redknapp took over at then bottom placed Tottenham in 2008 from Juande Ramos, few will have predicted what was to follow! Nothing short of a dream story, Spurs are now potential title contenders and are in for a most definite Champions League spot! Long considered a mid table club, Tottenham are now a well and truly established top placed side!

Bashed in the 2 opening weeks by Man Utd and Man City 3-0 and 1-5 respectively when many wrote off their campaign then and there, the north Londoners then picked themselves up getting 31 points from a possible 33 beating North London rivals Arsenal and Liverpool along the way.

Then in December the seemingly unstoppable Spurs Express slowed down a bit and they suffered their first loss in 3 months to Stoke. Up till this point Spurs had kept right up with the leading pack and at times were level on points with second place Man Utd (more on them in the next posts).

One criticism (and it’s very hard to have much to criticise them over during the course of this campaign) of them though, has been that despite the very attacking style of football Harry Redknapp likes to play, at times the end result has been missing and Spurs have often struggled to finish teams off winning by slight margins. There have been five 1-0s that have gone their way along with eight 2-0s.

They are also blamed to rely on star man Gareth Bale too much. The Welshman has been in unstoppable form for most of the campaign and though at times seems to be  just on the verge of being inconsistent in his performances, Bale always threatens to rip apart any defence with his lightning pace and deadly left foot!

The deadly quick Welshman has been one of the players of the season so far in the EPL!

Another solid performer for the men in white has been Adebayor. Cast off from Manchester city’s star studded line up, The Togo International has reinvigorated his career at White Hart Lane, scoring 10 and providing 10 over the course of 22 league games! The tall 6’3 striker has provided the much needed height and deft touch to Tottenham’s already impressive attack!

So whats next for Tottenham? They still have to host Manchester United at home and pay visits to Arsenal and Chelsea! Having missed out on a Champions League spot last year, a top-3 finish is almost certain this year and only 7 points adrift from the top with 13 games still to go, they can still put up a fight for the title in the hope that the top 2 stutter over the course of the remaining season!

(follow on twiiter @rafeyAM_MUFC)

Big-Game Preview: “A story of Arsene Wenger’s kids against the Milan old guard”

milan kitars kit

It’s the biggest competition in the footballing world. Its the Champions League. The location is Milan, Italy. It’s a showdown between the giants of Italian football versus the once-invincibles of English Premier League. The stakes are high. The stage is set. The teams play for Munich. The teams play for European Dominance!

The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, or a place more commonly known in the footballing world as the San Siro, hosts, what on paper, looks like the biggest game of this year’s Champions League Round of 16. Two giants of Europe face-off on Wednesday, February 15th 2012. Two of, undoubtedly, the biggest teams of Europe play in what should be an absolute cracker of a game.

Arsenal:

Arsenal travelled to Milan on Monday without Per Mertesacker, who suffered an ankle injury during the weekend League game against Sunderland where he had to be stretchered off. He was immediately ruled out of the Milan game and he’s posted a picture of a nasty bruise on his ankle. He has since travelled to Germany for further scans. A lot has already been said about the appalling turf at the Stadium of Light, and quite honestly I’ve seen League Two teams with better playing surfaces. It means however that Thomas Vermaelen moves to a position he says he prefers playing in – along side Laurent Koscielny in the heart of Arsenal’s defense. Kieren Gibbs is back from injury and was an unused substitute against Sunderland, will slot back into the left wing-back position. Here’s hoping he gets some decent match-time under his belt this time around, instead of his customary 30 minutes every 3 months.

Another interesting aspect would be to see who starts for Arsenal on the left wing. The manager will in all likelihood rest Gervinho, who’s back from his African Cup of Nations duty, and had some good things to say about compatriot Robin van Persie. It will be either Arshavin or The Ox on the left, the latter most likely to start, as has been the case recently. In addition, we could also see the return of Ramsey as the chief playmaker behind the striker, although the boss might also prefer to stick with the in-form and Champions League-experienced Thomas Rosicky.

Other than that, Arsenal should line up as expected:

van Persie

Ox Rosicky Walcott

Song Arteta

Gibbs Vermaelen Koscielny Sagna

Chezney

Subs: Gervinho, Henry (who spoke of his desire to see Arsenal go through to the quarters), Fabianski, Coquelin, Arshavin, Djourou. Strong line up on paper, but with the Arsenal of late, you just never know do you.

Milan:

Last year at this time, Milan were knocked out of the Champions League by another North London team, with Aaron Lennon in particular impressing for Tottenham on the flanks, and eventually getting a reward (an assist) for his efforts in the 1-0 win. We could once again see a similar tactical battle on the wings, when Theo Walcott of Arsenal will be deployed on the right to take on Milan’s Gianluca Zambrotta. It is interesting to note that Milan play a very narrow 4-1-2-1-2/4-3-1-2 formation, which means their fullbacks would always be vulnerable to fast, pacy wingers who like to take their man on in one-on-one situations, which also plays to the strengths of Oxlade-Chamberlain.

A.C Milan were once the all-conquering team in the Champion’s League, one of the greats of Europe. They’ve been labelled as Europe’s ‘retirement home’ in recent times, however Milan’s midfield-enforcer Mark van Bommel says that the two games are anything but a matter of “Arsene Wenger’s kids against the Milan old guard”. While only time will tell if that indeed is the case, van Bommel and Robinho are still wary of the threat posed by Arsenal. Kevin Prince Boateng however  thinks otherwise, and one cannot help but think that his words do hold a bit of truth to them. Nonetheless, Milan can hardly afford to be complacent here, and Clarence Seedorf believes Arsenal are still ‘one of the teams to beat’ and that Milan need to be wary of Arsenal’s most potent weapon – his Dutch International compatriot and a man in blistering form Robin van Persie.

Milan are fresh off a league away win against Udinese, despite having 10 players out due to injuries and suspensions, including the likes of Gattuso, Nesta, Falmini and most importantly Pato all of whom are still in the battle for fitness for tomorrow’s game. But perhaps Milan’s biggest threat – a certain someone called Zlatan Ibrahimovic – should start. Ibra’s stats this season are excellent – 21 goals and 5 assists in 26 games in all competitions for AC Milan.

Expected line up:

Ibra Robinho

Seedorf

Boateng Ambrosini Emanuelson

Zambrotta Silva Mexes Abate

Amelia

Will Arsenal’s fragile defense once again prove to be their downfall? Will Milan’s poor form in recent weeks and an injury struck squad give the Gunners an edge? Hopefully, we have another classic on our hands, a 180 minutes of football that will be remembered for some time. Goes without saying, but this is one you certainly wouldn’t want to miss!

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As an added bonus, a tune you’ll all soon be hearing as Tuesday’s games kick off in a bit:

Analyzing the Remaining Seasons of the Current EPL Top 5 – #4: Arsenal

Continuing with the individual analysis of each of the EPL’s top 5, it is now time to turn our attention to the Gunners, who in recent seasons have looked a mere shadow of what were once The Invincibles!

ARSENAL:

The team currently 4th have had a very mixed season this time around. Normally what happens is the Londoners fly high till about mid-season and then they suddenly fizz out. Epitomized most by what happened to them last season. Challenging for 4 titles and on the verge of winning their first in 6 seasons, then came a loss to Birmingham in the Carling cup final and as witnessed by all, it was pretty much downhill from there. They slowly but surely went out of all competitions they were challenging for and in the end it proved to be another trophy-less campaign for Wenger’s men!

Although still in contention for 3 titles this season (F.A cup, Premier League and Champions League) few expect them to win much this time around either. Many fans and pundits alike point the blame towards the Gunners’ inability to finish teams off when needed. This combined with the fact that apart from Norwich, Arsenal have conceded the most amount of goals in the top half of the table and one can begin to see where the problems lie for the men in red and white!

One thing though that has been quite amazing and frankly jaw-dropping has been captain Robin Van Persie’s form over the past year and form he has brought into 2012 as well. 35 goals scored in the calender year, just 1 short of Alan Shearer’s EPL record, and the 22 goals & 8 assists this season have been a major part in keeping Arsenal’s hopes for a Champions League spot alive.

Robin Van Persie has been in blistering form over the past 14 months

More great news for the Arsenal faithful is that young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain signed from Southampton in the summer really seems to have found his feet at the Emirates and has already taken over from Arshavin on the left side of their attack. His dribbling, trickery and creativity have really set the Premier league alight and just like D. Sturridge over at Chelsea, ‘The Ox’, as he’s referred to by the fans, seems destined to be a future Arsenal and possibly England legend!

So whats next for Arsenal? They still have to cope with visits from rivals Tottenham, Man city and Chelsea and pay a visit to Anfield. Still very much in for a Champions League spot and a possible 3rd place finish, Arsene wenger needs to make sure he can keep his teams spirits high and most importantly keep the likes of RVP fit if they are to continue their record of having not missed out on a champions league place in the last 16 years!

(follow on twiiter @rafeyAM_MUFC)