Premier League Breakdown: Robbie Earle talks Southampton FC

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There are few stories in the Premier League that are more intriguing than Southampton’s start to the season. Unbeaten in their last four matches and having only conceded two goals this season, the Saints currently sit fourth in the Premier League table.

So I decided to sit down with NBC Premier League pundit Robbie Earle and get to the bottom of just what makes this side so interesting.

THOUGHTS ON SOUTHAMPTON’S FOUR MATCH UNBEATEN RUN?

It’s interesting about Mauricio Pochettino (right) because when he took the job from Nigel Adkins – who was a well-thought-of coach – there was a bit of uproar in England about Johnny Foreigner coming in.

But 12 months on and people have seen a huge change in the way the club is run and they way they’ve moved forward. Yes, we’re only seven games into this season but I think we can all see where Southampton have big hopes. So credit to the chairman Nicola Cortese, he was brave in making the decision to hire Pochettino and it’s paying off in a big way.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT SOUTHAMPTON?

I like that they have a number of young English players who they’re developing, which isn’t the case at a lot of the big clubs. There’s Calum Chambers, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, James Ward-Prowse. And I think Pochettino has brought in the right kind of quality additions who can help these young players flourish. It looks like some real thought has gone into assembling a diverse club and it has an interesting chemistry to it.

They have some young guys, some old guys, some fast guys, some powerful guys – it’s just a really nice mix of skill-sets and one that seems to make for a happy ship. I imagine going to training at that club and there being down there being a really healthy environment, one that’s competitive in all the right ways.

source: Getty ImagesWHICH YOUNG PLAYER DO YOU RATE HIGHEST ON SOUTHAMPTON?

I like Luke Shaw, he’s one who’s destined for a bigger club. This is the club where Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain started before they moved on and possibly Shaw is the next one. I like his technical ability and the understated way in which he plays. You know, with some of these young there are dips in performances but Shaw is level and consistent. He seems to accept his responsibilities and take everything in stride.

HOW DO SOUTHAMPTON KEEP HOLD OF THEIR YOUNG TALENT?

The mindset of being a feeder club is starting to change. In an ideal world I’m sure Southampton would like to breed good talent and keep them forever. But they’re not there yet. And in fairness I think if five or six of the top clubs come knocking, players are still going to want to leave.

That being said, if they somehow find their way into Champions League football over the next five to ten years there’s no need to leave because everything starts going up. Competition goes up. Money goes up. Salaries go up. And really, that’s what drives players in the end. In the meantime, they need to try their best to hold on to this talent or else make sure that they sell them for the right amount of money and continue reinvesting in the academy.

SOUTHAMPTON’S GOAL IS TO MAKE THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – HOW SHOCKING WOULD THAT BE?

It would be about as shocking as if Crystal Palace wins the league (laughing). In all seriousness, Southampton finishing Top 4 would be an unbelievable turn out. If they can finish in the Top 10 or even the Top 8 it would be a massive step forward for them.

But let’s be realistic. Their ambition should be 10th place and upwards. And then every year, they should look to take little steps forward. I’m not one to knock ambition but it will take time for Southampton to get there.

source:  IS IT REALISTIC FOR 6-7 PREMIER LEAGUE CLUBS TO HAVE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE ASPIRATIONS?

Well, I like the optimism. The Premier League used to start every season with four or five teams saying ‘we’re aiming for the Champions League’ while nine or ten others would say ‘we just want to stay in the league. But within the last two years the league has moved on with the influx of things like money and foreign coaches. The perception has changed. Clubs are no longer saying ‘I want to survive,’ they’re saying ‘I want something more.’

A good example is Tony Pulis at Stoke City. He didn’t lose his job because his club were going to be relegated, he lost it because he lacked ambition in his style. Stoke wanted more. The fans wanted more. Clubs are investing more and demanding things improve.

Merely trying to stay in the league is a mentality that could earn you £50-60M but to have that outlook each season is a turn off. You want to develop a club. Improve each year. As Pulis found out, merely surviving just isn’t good enough anymore.

TALK ABOUT THE PARITY IN THIS YEAR’S PREMIER LEAGUE

The parity makes it such an attractive league. With all the managerial changes we’re seeing an even playing field where, seven matches in, even clubs like Liverpool have the respect of all top teams. They’re competitive. Arsenal are competitive. And even though they sold their best player, Tottenham have replenished the ranks and are competitive.

Add to this the fact that, in the Premier League, players give all they have for every match for the entire 90 minutes. I’m not sure that happens in other leagues like Serie A and La Liga. But in the Premier League, the fans won’t allow anything less than 100%. So you have these teams that just keep trying and trying and trying.

We saw that mentality when Sunderland played Manchester United. They just fired their manager and have some injuries, but they never quit. They just kept biting and biting and biting – being ultra competitive. I’m not sure you always see that in other big leagues in Europe. So that’s the kind of thing that keeps the league so attractive – you never quite know what will happen until the final whistle.

Could Iniesta succeed at Manchester City

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It appears more likely with each passing day that Andres Iniesta will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

The general feeling around Iniesta’s future is that he’ll either follow former teammate Xavi Hernandez to a club in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, or follow Javier Mascherano to a club in China.

But according to reports in Spain, Iniesta has received a request from a manager who is inextricably linked with his career.

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Per Diario AS, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has reached out to Iniesta to try and gauge the 33-year old’s interest in coming to England. It’s a surprising move, considering Iniesta has appeared to have lost a step, and while his skill on the ball is still world class, he hasn’t played as big of a role for Barcelona this season as in years past.

But the big question for Iniesta – as hard as it is to believe we’re asking this – is where he’d fit into the side, and who he’d push out.

If Guardiola sees Iniesta as part of his best XI, and Iniesta played his usual position on the left side of a midfield trio or at left wing, that would see either David Silva or Leroy Sane losing their spot in the team. That’s hard to see, considering how big of an impact those players had.

Sane has scored nine goals and dished out 12 assists in the Premier League while Silva has a nearly-identical stat line, with nine goals and 11 assists in league play.

However, if Guardiola, who played a very small squad this season, wants to have a world-class player to bring off the bench some games or spot start in the UEFA Champions League, he couldn’t do much better than signing Iniesta.

After being given time to adjust to the physicality of the Premier League, there’s no reason why, even at his advanced age, Iniesta can’t make a big impact in 25-30 games for Man City in the future. You can imagine the Spanish maestro setting up 10 to 15 goals and scoring a few himself as he plays for another title-winning side.

Of course, Iniesta likely won’t earn as much money with Man City as he would in the Arab world or in China, so he has a big decision to make coming up.

Iniesta won three La Liga titles, two Copas Del Rey, two UEFA Champions League and two FIFA Club World Cup titles under Guardiola as Barcelona shined as the best club in the world during that era. Iniesta also made UEFA’s Team of the Year all four years.

Perhaps reuniting with Guardiola can bring the best out of Iniesta once again.

Report: Man United to target Rose, other full backs this summer

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Jose Mourinho has identified perhaps the most underrated position on the pitch as a place he needs to upgrade his squad this summer.

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According to a report from The Guardian, the Manchester United manager is looking to sign Tottenham wing back Danny Rose and potentially another full back in the summer transfer window. With Luke Shaw likely to leave the club, Mourinho is left with incumbents left back Ashley Young and right back Antonio Valencia, both on the wrong side of 30-years old and both converted wingers playing out-of-position.

Mourinho last December decried crosstown rivals Man City for spending more than $140 million to sign wing backs Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker last summer. Though Mendy missed most of the season with a torn ACL, Walker and fellow outside back Danilo helped give Man City’s attack another dimension out wide, as the wing backs in the 3-4-3 or Man City’s 4-1-4-1 with Fernandinho dropping back into the centerback pairing become ever more important.

Rose has had a contentious last 18-months or so at Tottenham and could be looking to leave this summer. But it will likely take a bid north of $75 million, around what it cost Man City to sign Walker last summer, to buy Rose out of his Tottenham contract.

Matteo Darmian meanwhile, another potential outside back for Man United, could also be departing the club this summer, as Man United looks to replenish its side.

Errors down, penalty kicks up after introduction of VAR in Italy

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The implementation of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in Italy has been controversial, but according to a look at the statistics, it has for the most part done its job to fix clear and obvious errors.

Italian sports paper Gazzetta Dello Sport compiled all the times VAR has been used through 346 matches, 330 in Serie A and 16 in the Coppa Italia. There were 1,736 checks (916 goals, 464 penalties and 356 red cards) with 105 corrections and just 17 errors where the referee and assistant made the wrong decision. Eight of those errors did affect the result, which is an issue that will surely be addressed by the Italian officiating organization.

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But overall, Gazzetta found that in the VAR era, referee errors only amounted to 0.98 percent during a match, as opposed to 6.03 percent in the past. In addition, fouls are down 8.8 percent, red cards are down 6.4 percent, and yellow cards are down 14.7 percent. On the flip side, penalty kicks are called 4.3 more percent of the time.

The Premier League voted recently not to add VAR to its league matches next season, while top leagues in Germany, Italy and in Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League continue to use it.

Report: New Arsenal manager will have small budget to re-shape squad

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Whoever takes the helm as Arsenal’s next manager will have to do some math gymnastics this summer to stretch every penny available.

According to a report from The Telegraph, Arsenal is giving Arsene Wenger‘s successor a little less than $70 million to work with in this summer’s transfer market, citing back-to-back transfer windows with club-record signings (Alexandre Lacazette last summer and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January) and three raises given to players. Arsenal paid around $78 million alone to sign Aubameyang and around $65 million for Lacazette.

[READ: UCL Preview: Liverpool vs. Roma]

That means whoever comes in next to lead Arsenal will likely have to sell one or two players this summer to raise additional money for world-class signings.

For the last decade, Arsenal has been crying out for a new pair of centerbacks and a holding midfielder in the mould of Patrick Vieira. In addition, with Petr Cech getting older, the prospect of needing a new goalkeeper is also on the horizon.

Luckily for Arsenal, they seem to be just fine up front. From Aubameyang and Lacazette to Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, the club has the talent to challenge for a title next season in that department.

A dozen different names have been bandied about as to who will be Arsenal’s next manager, with out-of-contract and former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique reportedly on the shortlist. Vieira, former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, Germany National Team coach Joachim Low, Juventus boss Max Allegri and Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsman have all also been linked with the job.