Matchweek 4 of the Premier League saw a number of notable performances but none better than the following Starting XI.
Goalkeeper: Jussi Jääskeläinen (West Ham United)
Jussi Jääskeläinen was at it again on Saturday, sprawling his way to five saves and a third clean sheet of the season. The Flying Fin had a number of fine parries during the match but none better than his 13th minute point-blank save on Italian international Pablo Osvaldo.
Defender: Robert Huth (Stoke City)
Robert Huth led the Stoke City backline that held Manchester City goal-less at the Britannia, handing the Potters their second straight clean sheet. The tough-as-nails German overcame getting knocked out cold by the leaping effort of Alvaro Negredo to rip into a team high five tackles and dominate the airways, winning seven of eight aerial duels.
Defender: Curtis Davies (Hull City)
Curtis Davies has been a revelation in Hull City’s opening four matches and this week the center-back finally gets recognized for his standout performances after nodding home the Tigers only goal of the game. The 28 year old was equally sharp on the defensive side of the ball, streaking his way to 10 clearances and three interceptions.
Defender: Phil Jagielka (Everton)
Holding the high-powered Chelsea offense at bay is a massive achievement and for that, Everton captain Phil Jagielka gets the nod. The England international led the Toffees back four with a game-high 12 clearances.
Midfielder: Gylfi Sigurdsson (Tottenham Hotspur)
With all of Spurs new signings, Gylfi Sigurdsson risked finding himself the odd man out this season at White Hart Lane. But handed a chance to prove himself against Norwich City and the Iceland international made the most of it, scoring a fantastic opener before completing his brace from close range. It’s performances like that which will give manager Andre Villas-Boas headaches when filling out the team sheet going forward.
Midfielder: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Speaking of doubles, Aaron Ramsey’s two goal effort in Arsenal’s victory over Sunderland brought to light just how brilliant the Wales international has been this season. The brace was his second of the season, after notching an impressive double against Fenerbahce in the second leg of Champions League qualifying.
Midfielder: Gareth Barry (Everton)
What can you say about Gareth Barry? After being left for dead by Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City, Barry was scooped up by Everton on a season long loan and in his debut for the Merseyside club the 32 year old was totally dominant. Time after time Barry thwarted the Chelsea attack, most notably when his sliding block on Samuel Eto’o denied the striker a sure-fire goal.
Midfielder: Hatem Ben Arfa (Newcastle)
Arguably the most in-form winger in the Premier League, Hatem Ben Arfa (pictured) enjoyed yet another sensational day for the Magpies. With his combination of blinding quickness and slippery skills, the Frenchman torched the Aston Villa defense, scoring the opener and creating the game-winner with a hard hit shot that Brad Guzan could only parry into the path of Yoan Gouffran.
Midfielder: Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
The German international showed no need for a Premier League adjustment period as he played his way to a fine debut for the Gunners. His assist on Olivier Giroud had Arsenal supporters cooing and when it emerged that he played the entire match with the flu, he became an instant cult hero.
Striker: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Coming back from the head gash that prevented him from appearing in the 1-0 loss to Liverpool, Wayne Rooney was fantastic once again. Rooney was all over the place against Palace, creating four chances on eight crosses, pounding five shots on goal and scoring a peach of a free kick. David Moyes has pledged to play Rooney as the supporting striker directly inside Robin van Persie and with with the destructive Marouane Fellaini freeing the England international up, his manager’s target of 30 goals is well within sight.
Striker: Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)
Olivier Giroud made it four goals in four matches for Arsenal when he latched on to Ozil’s low cross to deftly sweep home the Gunners opener. Up top, the Frenchman is a force to be reckoned with not only for his eye for goal but for his competitiveness which on Saturday resulted in winning a match high 12 duels.
The Premier League could look very different in the years ahead if the FA gets its way.
The Guardian reports that the FA is pushing ahead with its plan to cut the number of non-homegrown players in Premier League squads (effectively, players born or raised outside the United Kingdom) from 17 to 13, regardless of whether England leaves the European Union. As it stands, D-Day for the United Kingdom is March 29, 2019, when either there will be a deal to leave or there will be a “hard” exit, with the UK leaving the European body with no trade or customs deals in place.
In response, the Premier League released a lengthy statement, stating their opposition to the FA’s plan. The Premier League stated, “…Brexit should not be used to weaken playing squads in British football, nor to harm clubs’ ability to sign international players.”
The FA previously stated its intention to lower the amount of non-homegrown players to 12, per the Times of London, and now appears to be pushing through its mandate regardless of cooperation from Premier League clubs. The Guardian report states that Premier League club executives rejected the proposal from FA CEO Martin Glenn at a recent owners meeting.
It’s important to remember that the FA and the Premier League have different goals. The FA, which has a bumper crop of talented English youngsters from their World Cup winning Under-17 and Under-20 teams, wants to create more high-level opportunities for their players domestically. The Premier League meanwhile wants to make money, whether that’s using domestic or foreign players.
If the FA’s plan went through, it would force massive changes across the Premier League, especially at the Big 6 clubs who primarily rely on foreign-born players. Currently, five clubs including Manchester United and Tottenham have the maximum 17 registered foreign players, while a further four clubs have 16 registered non-homegrown players. A player is considered a homegrown player if they’ve been registered at a Premier League club for three years before their 21st birthday. This has enabled some players, such as Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin and former Arsenal (current Chelsea) midfielder Cesc Fabregas to be considered homegrown players even though they were born abroad.
In addition to massive changes in the Premier League, this plan could also have a negative reaction on the U.S. Men’s National Team. If it wasn’t already hard enough for American players to get work permits in England, it could become even more difficult, as the player will have to be good enough to be one of the 12 or 13 non-homegrown players.
Report: Paunovic close to returning to Fire, Casillas on team’s radar
The Chicago Fire brass appear to be sticking with embattled manager Veljko Paunovic for the foreseeable future.
Despite being out of contract, the Athletic reports that the Fire and Paunovic have been negotiating for weeks and are close to bringing the Serbian back on a multi-year contract. Keeping Paunovic could be a way for the Fire to keep one of its marquee players, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is also out of contract this summer.
The Fire are coming off a disastrous season, in which the side finished second-last in the MLS Eastern Conference and fourth-worst overall. It was a huge change from 2017, when Paunovic, Schweinsteiger and co. led the Fire to third place in the Eastern Conference regular season standings. The season ended on a sour note though as the New York Red Bulls came to Chicago and romped past the Fire, 4-0.
It was all downhill from there, as the Fire struggled to build momentum and keep clean sheets in 2018. The 61 goals allowed was third-worst in the Eastern Conference.
While Paunovic will be looking to upgrade his defense, his side could be adding another huge name from European soccer. According to a report in Spain, former Real Madrid great Iker Casillas is on the Fire’s radar, and should he announce his intention to leave FC Porto, the Fire would be ready to make an offer.
Considering that Paunovic started Richard Sanchez, Stefan Cleveland and Patrick McClain at various times last season, the team could use an experienced goalkeeper who can give the backline come confidence.
It’s a big leap of faith for the Fire ownership group to stay with Paunovic after a horrendous 2018, but they must see something that they like in him to bring him back. Hopefully for the club’s sake, they have more performances like they did in 2017 to bring fans back to Toyota Park.
Former Arsenal striker Bendtner drops appeal, will serve time
COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) Former Denmark forward Niklas Bendtner will have to serve a 50-day jail sentence after dropping his appeal against an assault conviction.
Early this month, Bendtner was found guilty of beating and kicking a cab driver in the Danish capital on Sept. 9. The 30-year-old Dane admitted to hitting the man but said he had acted in self-defense after a quarrel over the fare.
GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.
Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.
The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.
Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.
There isn’t much optimism around this program right now. Even the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.
Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.
The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.
After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?
“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”
In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.
There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.
As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock. Today marks four years until the next Workd Cup begins.
They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.
Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.
“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”
Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.
Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?
Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.
Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 13 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.
“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”
It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.
We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.
Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.
“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”
U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy. They pointed to the changes at the top and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, but only one thing matters to these fans.
“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”
It all hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level. Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?
“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”
Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.
A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.
“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Colorado, said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”
Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.
“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”
Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end.
Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.
Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.
“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”