This week’s Monday Verdict names our six Player of the Year nominees, discusses the increasing pressure on Arsene Wenger and the issues at Leeds United.
DOES ANYONE AT ARSENAL ACTUALLY HAVE THE BOTTLE TO SACK WENGER?
Okay so it really does appear that Arsene Wenger cannot be touched at Arsenal and it must be true that he absolutely runs the club from top to bottom.
Another shambolic performance at Brighton led to a fourth defeat in a row for Wenger’s men, after which he said that his side “were passive, struggling for confidence and heavy legged but responded well in the second-half”.
Hang on a minute, let’s just reflect on this latest defeat and that statement.
This was an Arsenal side that had suffered back-to-back defeats against Manchester City – by no means a huge crime given their stunning form – but Brighton had not beaten the Gunners in 36 years and while the Seagulls have done well this season, scoring goals has hardly been their forte. That said they were 2-1 up at the break and it could easily have been five.
Arsenal were bullied in that first half, completely outworked and outplayed by Chris Hughton’s men. Glenn Murray could have been Sergio Aguero the way he tormented Mustafi and Koscielny – two top internationals against a 34-year-old journeyman. It was embarrassing.
Wenger’s previous Arsenal incarnations, particularly over his first 10 years in charge, also had an identity about them but this latest rabble are exactly that.
Defenders that don’t defend properly, midfielders who strut around passing it sideways and backwards and attacking players who are sick of making runs, not being found and then eventually just giving up.
This is so obviously a group of players who are no longer playing for their manager. The whole world can see it, apart from the Arsenal board it would seem.
Wenger, who it must not be forgotten has done some great things for football in England since his arrival in 1996, seems to have so much power at Arsenal that he will only leave on his terms and no others. Giving one man such power can only end in tears.
Let’s face it he should have gone at the end of last season, when a large number of Arsenal fans were calling for his head, but ended up signing a new deal instead. That pretty much sums up the situation at The Emirates.
Arsenal are in need of a huge lift to get them through the remainder of the season, with their upcoming double header against AC Milan in the Europa League now becoming must win.
That will be their only route back into the Champions League, crash out and it’s season over in March and Wenger’s legacy will be utterly destroyed.
Of course the ideal scenario is that he walks a way with at least a little dignity but we all know that will not happen.
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OUR PLAYER OF THE YEAR CONTENDERS
With most teams having played 29 games so far this Premier League season, it’s about time we started looking at possible Player of the Year contenders.
Obviously with Manchester City running away with the league it would be possible to pick six contenders who all play in Sky Blue, but to be different we’ve only gone with three…
1. Kevin De Bruyne
The first player on the list doesn’t really need an awful lot of introduction. The Belgian has been an absolute revelation for Pep Guardiola’s side this season, taking his game to a new level and staking his claim as one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.
De Bruyne has 30 combined goals and assists in 42 appearances in all competitions this season, including a league-leading 14 assists in the Premier League. There is absolutely no question that the former Chelsea man has been a driving force in a season of pure dominance for the blue half of Manchester.
2. Mohamed Salah
In terms of the best signing of summer 2017, it’s hard to look past Mo Salah. Another former Chelsea man who has gone on to bigger things, the Egypt international has been one of the key men in a blistering Liverpool attack which has scored the most goals in the Premier League.
He is currently level with Harry Kane atop the scoring charts with 24 league goals, but every time Salah scores the crowd seems to be in awe. If Liverpool can keep hold of him, and that may be a big ‘if’, then they have a forward who can lead them back to glory.
3. David Silva
Now David Silva doesn’t lead Manchester City in assists. He’s not even second on the team. However, nobody can deny the influence that the Spaniard has in Guardiola’s team.
This season, he has nine assists in the Premier League and six goals, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The way David Silva dictates play is mesmerising; often being the link between City’s pressing midfield and their potent attack. He may be 32, but the former Valencia man is in the form of his life.
4. David De Gea
It is perhaps a telling sign that the one name on this list from Manchester United is the goalkeeper. But, to be fair, he is one of the best in the world in his position – if not the best.
The 27-year-old has conceded just 20 goals in 28 Premier League games – including 15 clean sheets – and continues to be linked with a move to Real Madrid. United fans must enjoy watching De Gea while they can, because his astounding acrobatics may not be around for too much longer.
5. Harry Kane
Of course Harry had to be on the list. As already mentioned, the Tottenham striker has racked up an impressive 24 league goals this season; that coming after his usual dry spell in August.
The most exciting thing about Kane’s form, if he keeps it up, is probably the prospect of having the best No.9 in Europe for the World Cup in Russia later this year. In the mean time, he continues to lead Spurs’ golden era, and the sooner he gets a well-deserved trophy the better.
Perhaps the most shocking on this list is the inclusion of Fernandinho in the last slot. There was the possibility of including Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane, Eden Hazard or Roberto Firmino – but Fernandinho doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves.
The Brazilian is as important to this City team as N’Golo Kante was to the Chelsea title-winning team. He is the key man in the press; constantly vying to win the ball back when not in possession (which isn’t very often) but showing willingness to drive moves forward either on foot or with his impressive passing range.
Who do you think should have made the list?
FIVE ISSUES FOR HECKINGBOTTOM TO ADDRESS AT LEEDS
Defeat at Middlesbrough on Friday night looks more than likely to have condemned Leeds United to another season of Championship football.
Barring an unlikely late surge, the Whites can expect to fall short once again in their quest to return to the elite of English football after Patrick Bamford’s hat-trick brutally exposed their weaknesses.
For Paul Heckingbottom, the match represented only his fifth game in charge of the Whites. It might not be long enough to establish yourself on a new club, though in the days of Massimo Cellino, he may have been looking already nervously over his shoulder.
But while Leeds under Andrea Radrizzani’s ownership are a different breed, the latest Whites head coach showed he still has much to learn after one of the Whites’ most limp performances of the season.
— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) March 3, 2018
Granted, some of the problems the manager has inherited, and until the summer transfer window opens, he is stuck with the players he has.
Felix Wiedwald looks hopelessly out of his depth in goal and the signing of a new goalkeeper will be top of Leeds’ agenda this summer. You can see the sadness in the German’s eyes that he’s not up to the standard required – and the stats make extremely grim reading.
It’s painful for a neutral to watch, let alone Leeds fans – and the nervousness is seeping into the normally reliable players around him.
Heckingbottom could gamble and blood untried youngster Bradley Peacock-Farrell, but otherwise he has little choice but to stick with the former Werder Bremen keeper.
However, the keeper issue isn’t the only problem the Leeds coach has to contend with now, with the key injury suffered by Luke Ayling before his appointment hugely upsetting the defence.
Working out his best full-back combinations is the next issue to address, with Gaetano Berardi, Vernon Anita and even January signing Laurens De Bock all struggling.
The decision to play Anita at left-back at Middlesbrough hugely backfired. The versatile Newcastle star won just one of 10 tackles in the game and was ruthlessly exposed by Boro flyer Adama Traore.
It was easy to see why De Bock was not brought back into the side after his struggles away at Derby, but having only been signed a matter of weeks ago, has to be given time to adjust to the rigours of the English game. If he’s not up to it, replace him in the summer.
The alarming drop in performances from Eunan O’Kane is also in need of addressing. Leeds fans will be wondering how and why he started ahead of another January capture in Adam Forshaw at the Riverside. Leeds were badly overrun in midfield and O’Kane’s pass completion of just 71% was poor to say the least.
Looking further up the field, Heckingbottom will have to work hard to get the best out of shining light Samu Saiz. The player has talent in abundance and has largely lit up Elland Road this season. However, the Spanish star has two major flaws that need ironing out to become a truly top player: his decision-making and went to release the ball, as well as his temperament.
Having served a recent six-match ban for spitting, the former Huesca man had to be dragged away by teammates at the end of Friday’s defeat after taking exception to a bad tackle. The player had already been cautioned in the first half for unsporting conduct and another day, may have seen red again.
From a Leeds point of view, the situation was quickly defused, but there’s a madness in his eyes which Heckingbottom will need to handle with care…..
And finally, getting the best out of Pierre-Michel Lasogga up front is an absolute must if Leeds are to have any hope of rekindling their play-off push.
The German is an obvious talent, but often looks isolated and can go missing for large periods in the game. 10 touches in the first at Middlesbrough typified both his and Leeds’ struggles – and it wasn’t the first time this season.
Plenty for the new boss to think about, and while the sack talk won’t be raised any time soon, the failure to find an improvement to these issues before the end of the season, may put him on the backfoot the next…..
SOUTHGATE SHOULD STOP FANNYING AND MAKE PICKFORD HIS NO 1
Jordan Pickford may have been on the losing side on Saturday, but the Everton man is emerging from the shadows to prove himself the long-term solution in the England goal.
Gareth Southgate clearly has a problem this summer. The issue of who should keep goal for the Three Lions at the 2018 World Cup in Russia clearly hangs over the England coach – and it’s an issue that needs a rapid answer.
Step forward Jordan Pickford.
I’m certainly not the first to proclaim the former Sunderland man as England’s No 1, but on a day when he went head to head with another potential candidate in Burnley’s Nick Pope, it was the Everton star who underlined his credentials.
Granted, the 23-year-old has been prone to the odd blunder this season, but then the same accusation could be levelled at the world’s best, David De Gea, at the same age. Remember that first season he had at Old Trafford….?
It’d have been all too easy for Sir Alex Ferguson to replace the Spaniard after a humbling first season in the English game. He didn’t and from there grew the world’s very best….
Learning from mistakes is what separates the wheat from the chaff, and Pickford is quickly showing himself to be among the Premier League’s elite.
It was hard to pick fault with his performance at Turf Moor as Burnley ran out 2-1 winners (CHECK)
Pickford stamped his authority on proceedings in the first half to deny Ashley Barnes with a flying fingertip save, and was back at it again early in the second period to deny former teammate Aaron Lennon.
WHAT A SAVE 😮 Jordan Pickford denies Burnley an equalizer! pic.twitter.com/dXP06oJ5sC
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) March 3, 2018
There was little Pickford could do when he was eventually beaten by Barnes’ fierce low shot in the 55th-minute, but the Washington-born stopper was back at it again to deny the same player again. On another day, Barnes will feel he could have had a hat-trick and he was at it again to prevent Chris Wood before the powerful New Zealander popped up with a late winner.
Pickford did not deserve to be on the losing side, but the fact he could nothing about either goal should not detract from a brilliant individual performance.
So what of the other contenders…?
Joe Hart’s West Ham frustrations appear to have thrown him not just out of equation for a starting spot, but also put his place in Southgate’s 23-man squad in serious jeopardy full stop.
Pickford’s credentials are evident, and it’d be hard to question Southgate if Pope was also on the plane to Russia. Then, there’s also Jack Butland, who looks well entrenched in the squad and the most likely rival to Pickford for the No 1 jersey.
And if Pope gets the nod, is it the end of the road for Hart? You’d have to say so….
But amid all the uncertainty, it is Pickford who appears to be finding form at the right time.
Despite having just one cap to his name, Southgate could do far worse than pin his colours to the mast and confirm the Everton man as his No 1 keeper as the build-up to Russia 2018 begins to take hold.
But he needs to do so now and ensure the Everton man is prepared as he can be in international football ahead of another bumpy summer of supporting England in a major tournament.