How do AS Monaco stay competitive in Europe?

In recent years, AS Monaco have re-established themselves as one of France’s, and indeed Europe’s, elite. They have managed to finish within the top three in each of the last four seasons domestically and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League last year giving them their best performance in Europe since reaching the final of the competition in 2004. When the club suffered a shock relegation to Ligue 2 in 2010/11, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev became the principal owner and pumped money into the squad. A large part of their revival and success can be put down to this investment, but smart management and purchases have pushed the club even further.

Although Monaco benefit from strong finances and success in France, each summer key members of the squad leave for pastures new. One of the most impressive parts of their recent success is their ability to replace those players with relative ease. In the summer of 2014, they lost James Rodríguez, Radamel Falcao and Emmanuel Rivière to foreign clubs. These players were the three top goalscorers that season. Bernardo Silva, among others, was brought in and Anthony Martial was promoted to a more senior role within the team. These two players finished as the top scorers that season.

In the most recent transfer window, Monaco have been at the centre of attention for European talent. Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy joined Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea bought Tiémoué Bakayoko, and Kylian Mbappé has been loaned to Paris Saint Germain with an obligatory purchase clause for next season in his contract. If the rumoured fee of £165m for Mbappé is to be believed, Monaco will have brought in over £320m in player sales alone in the last two months.

Having this money is one thing, but being able to reinvest is another. Fortunately for the club, their manager Leonardo Jardim looks capable of doing exactly that. This summer Monaco rejuvenated their attack with the highly rated youngsters Adama Diakhaby, Youri Tielemans and Keita Baldé, who joined for just over £60m combined. Diakhaby has one goal and two assists in three league appearances this campaign, Tielemans already has four Belgium caps under his belt at the tender age of 20, and Baldé was only outscored by two other under 23 year olds in Europe’s five major leagues last season. Jardim did opt for some experience up front too, adding Stevan Jovetic to the ranks, but it is easy to see that his emphasis is on budding, young footballers.

Monaco have a good recent tradition of giving game time to younger players. This promise of regular football at a Champions League club is quite the attraction for Europe’s future stars. It is rumoured that Tielemans turned down both Manchester clubs among others to make a move to the Côte d’Azur. They have started the season perfectly with three wins, but the real challenge for Monaco will be keeping hold of these young talents for more than one season; after all, Martial and Mbappé were both snapped up after just one season of regular first team football.

Another reason for the sustained strong league campaign performances is retaining vital players. Last season, six players from Monaco made the Ligue 1 team of the season. Three of these (Mbappé, Mendy and Bernardo Silva) were sold in lucrative deals, but those who remained  (Subasic, Sidibe and Glik) were just as important, if not more so, to the title winners. Glik is often considered to be among the best centre halves in the league and Sidibe is beginning to cement his position in the France national team at right back. Jardim has shown that he can balance his priorities in the squad in this way, sanctioning the sales of players who he knows that he can replace, and keeping hold of other crucial members of the team.

Another important player that remained at Stade Louis II was Thomas Lemar. We were given a glimpse of the Frenchman’s future when he struck twice against the Netherlands in a World Cup qualifier last week. Despite rumours of bids being accepted, eventually Lemar stayed at Monaco and he will be a major part of any success this season.

Monaco have their work cut out this campaign with PSG spending even larger sums of money to bolster their already stellar squad. Neymar is already making a large impression in Ligue 1 and Mbappé will add even more pace and trickery to the Parisian attack. But Monaco have kept pace with them so far, with both teams winning all four games and scoring 14 goals in the process. Though if they want to challenge for the French league title this season and in years to come, Jardim will have to do his best to protect his squad in the January transfer window and beyond.

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Rampant United – too good to be true?

Manchester United have made a blistering start to the season with consecutive 4-0 wins at home to West Ham and away to Swansea. Lukaku looks to be in inspired form with three goals already scored making him favourite to take the golden boot at the end of the season and the arrival of Matic has given Pogba a new lease of life going forward. Things are looking very rosy at Old Trafford.

This week, United announced the comeback of the man who needs no introduction, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This year he will find himself playing second fiddle to Lukaku, but with the team competing on multiple fronts, his presence will definitely be beneficial come the second half of the season. Mourinho has already ruled out Ibrahimovic for the group stage of the Champions League due to injury, but he could return as early as October according to some reports. I have to admit, I am one of the people who thought he would disappoint in the Premier League, and I was made to eat my words when he scored 17 goals in 28 league appearances last season. Although he is clearly not as able a runner as most strikers these days his experience means he is often in the right place at the right time. Watching his goals from last season, although not all of them are tap ins and headers, it’s easy to see that his main strength is knowing where to be to benefit from the team, be it from the excellent balls over the top from Pogba, or the pull backs from the fleet footed Rashford. He won’t play as much as last year, but Ibrahimovic will have a big influence on the squad regardless.

Two players who have drastically improved (albeit only two games into the season) from last year are Mkhitaryan and Martial. The first Armenian Premier League player has already recorded four assists just two games into the season having achieved just one in the entire league campaign last year. The majority of his goals came in the Europa League (six goals compared with four in the league) and of those domestically, two were against relegated Sunderland. Mkhitaryan has made a fantastic start to 2017/18 but over the coming months he will have to prove that he can perform against top teams. It is worth noting that as well as Paul Pogba, Mkhitaryan will benefit from Nemanja Matic’s signing as he will have fewer defensive responsibilities.

As for Anthony Martial, Mourinho seems to have given the Frenchman some tough love, telling him not to “waste” his talent recently. Although he has scored twice this season through two substitute appearances, it is not likely that Mourinho will start him week in, week out. The only player I could see him replacing in the starting 11 would be Marcus Rashford, but many United fans prefer the young English talent with Martial providing a strong option from the bench. Nevertheless, he has also proved that he can stake a claim for more game time this year in his cameo performances so far.

As for the defence, United have looked relatively solid so far; the only scare coming in a decent first half showing from Swansea. David De Gea is cementing his place as one of Europe’s best goalkeepers and Bailly is proving to be worth every penny. The concern at the moment is who the Ivorian will partner at centre half. Victor Lindelof was signed from Benfica in the summer and did not look convincing in the Super Cup in his baptism of fire against Real Madrid. Mourinho claims that he wants Lindelof to be eased into the team which is completely reasonable, but Phil Jones will be disappointed to lose out to the Swede after two clean sheets so far this season. The concern defensively for me would be the depth at centre half if Lindelof doesn’t impress.

Overall, United haven’t put a foot wrong this season so far, eight goals scored and none conceded but their fixtures will get tougher eventually. They won’t face a top six side from last season until they go to Anfield on 14th October. Before that, they travel to Stoke and Southampton with home games against Everton and Crystal Palace. United will hope to be unbeaten by the time they play Liverpool, but if they want to win the title, they will have to do better than they did last season against the top teams having only taken 10 points from a possible 30 against their top six rivals. Mourinho notoriously sets his team up defensively against the big sides, but he’ll need more ambition this season if he wants to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

Lille – the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa

Over the summer transfer window, French club Lille brought in a host of new players, but no new addition to the club was as headline worthy as the manager. Marcelo Bielsa, the 62 year old Argentine manager known as El Loco (The Crazy One), became the manager of Les Dogues in late May. Despite the fact that Lille Olympique Sporting Club (LOSC) won Ligue 1 as recently as 2011 and regularly contest for the European spots, the acquisition of Marcelo Bielsa is still seen as something of a coup.

FOOTBALL : Marseille vs Benfica - Amical - 23/07/2014

Bielsa rose to prominence mainly through his work in national teams, firstly at the helm of his native Argentina. His tenure got off to a shaky start, reaching only the quarterfinals of the Copa América in 1999 and then failing to guide his team past the group stage of the 2002 World Cup. However, Bielsa’s next international tournament was far more successful, making the final of the Copa América in 2004 only to lose out to rivals Brazil on penalties and later that same year he claimed the gold medal in the Athens Olympic Games. El Loco then moved to South American rivals Chile after a three year hiatus where he set records galore both good and bad, including a first ever win against Argentina in an official match and a first home loss in 50 years against Brazil. His European club work at Athletic Club de Bilbao and Olympique de Marseille have earned him cult status at both clubs despite spending barely three years combined with them.

A real hallmark of Bielsa teams is their up and down nature. Not only are results typically tough to predict, but the Argentine’s squad selection can also change drastically when things do not go as planned. On arrival in Lille, he overhauled the first team, telling long serving Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama to find a new club and letting another two other Lille veterans, Marko Basa and Rio Mavuba leave the club for free. Defensive midfielder Mavuba was one of the key players for the club since his arrival in 2008, making over 282 appearances for Les Dogues and starting every game of their title winning season, but Bielsa had no hesitation in letting the Frenchman move on. Following the exodus of experienced players from Lille, younger players have come in to fill the void: £58 million was spent over the summer to bring in new talent and not a single one of the footballers to arrive in the Stade Pierre Mauroy is over 25 years old.

Note: tweet refers to 3-0 win against Nantes.

The decision from Bielsa to neglect experience in his squad in favour of a younger team is certainly a bold move, and it is not paying early dividends. LOSC may have won their first game 3-0 at home to Nantes, but this was followed by defeats to Strasbourg and Caen, two sides that they would have expected to beat. Without the older heads in the squad to calm the nerves, a few losses could easily develop into a poor run of form. Bielsa earned his nickname mostly from his notorious dressing room hairdryer treatment and he is not someone who is afraid to be honest when speaking to press. Bielsa took full responsibility for the defeat in his post match interview; if there’s a lack of experience in the squad, maybe the manager can be the one to make up for it.

Bielsa’s style of play and obsession with the game is something which has earned him countless plaudits over the year. On his recent transfer to Manchester City, Benjamin Mendy cited him as the best coach he’s ever worked with. And although the formation with three central defenders seems to be taking off in the last year in the Premier League, Bielsa has been using principally his trademark 3-3-3-1 formation for decades. This tactic puts a lot of stress on movement as a team to win the ball back once it is lost but it can take a long time for a team to gel properly and it is very work intensive. The rigorous training and playstyle paid dividends in the first half of the season at Marseille for Bielsa in 2014 / 15, but the squad ran out of steam come March and faltered from the top two to a fourth placed finish. Although Marseille took to his tactics quickly, Lille may be a different proposition as there has been such a large turnover of players.

One thing is for sure, he is devoted to his work. Bielsa is said to have watched every game of the previous season before joining both Athletic Club de Bilbao and Marseille, and this enthusiasm will rub off on Lille, who have a strong following in France. And although the season has got off to a rocky start, expect a strong middle of the season from Les Dogues once Bielsa’s influence takes effect.

Olympique Marseille – Rising From the Ashes

Three years ago, the mood in the Stade Vélodrome was upbeat. Marcelo Bielsa, the highly rated Argentine manager, had joined Marseille and the likes of Dimitri Payet, André-Pierre Gignac and Steve Mandanda were in fantastic form. Marseille started the season scintillatingly, remaining in the top 2 league positions until February/March when Bielsa’s physically demanding style of football took its toll on the players. They went on to finish fourth after PSG, Lyon and Monaco had stronger finishes to the season.
I was at the final game of the season in 2015: a 3-0 win at home to Bastia. While there was a great performance from the players, the fans were mostly subdued. Not only was their team falling just short of the Champions League qualifying round, but several key players made their final appearances – topscorer André-Pierre Gignac left for Mexico, and André Ayew and Dimitri Payet moved to the Premier League. In total, OM lost 7 of their starting 11 players from that day in the summer transfer window. The reason for the exodus was the financial situation at the club – which also meant that the players were leaving at cut price in desperation to offload some of the higher earners. This loss of the first team and of control over transfers led to Bielsa’s departure after just one matchday of the 15/16 season. Things did not improve: Míchel came in as manager and was sacked unceremoniously in April with the club languishing in 15th. Following that shipwreck of a season, the only two players to have performed to a half decent standard left for London – Steve Mandanda (impressively winning Ligue 1 goalkeeper of the year despite the club ending in 13th) to Crystal Palace and Michy Batshuayi (scoring 17 goals) to Chelsea. At this point it almost looked like Marseille could be destined for relegation come the end of the following season.

APG
But things began to look up in the summer. A few key loan signings were made including Bafétimbi Gomis, Willaim Vainqueur and Florian Thauvin, who had been sold to Newcastle the previous year. In addition, an American sports investor, Frank McCourt, was linked with the Provence club. By October, he had purchased OM and promised change. Immediately, Rudi Garcia, a former Ligue 1 winning manager with Lille, was brought in at the helm. Although the results before Christmas were not spectacular, McCourt lived up to his promise and invested in the first team squad. Morgan Sanson, the promising young French midfielder at Montpellier, and Gregory Sertic, a defensive player at Bordeaux, came to the Vélodrome. This pair of signings were followed by two bigger names: the much loved Dimitri Payet made his return to Marseille after a controversial exit from West Ham, and Patrice Evra joined from Juventus on a free transfer. Garcia’s team finished the season well, ending in 5th position and qualifying for the pre-Europa League knockout phase.
Two key loan players from last year, Gomis and Vainqueur, elected for pastures new and did not extend their stays in the south of France. However, Garcia got to work over the summer and turned his attention to two other players on loan last season – Florian Thauvin, whose form last season earned him his first cap, was resigned from Newcastle and Clinton Njie, from Tottenham Hotspur, made his move permanent. Both players scored against Dijon (with Njie bagging a brace) on the opening matchday. Valère Germain has also joined the attacking complement from Monaco and had an instant impact, scoring a hat trick on his debut in a Europa League qualifier against KV Oostende and providing two assists in his league debut. Germain was not tipped to be the starting striker when he was signed for a fee around £10m, but his early season performances have given him a platform to build on.

Note: tweet dated 6th August 2017.
Marseille have also bolstered their defence with the signings of the veterans Adil Rami at centre-half and Luiz Gustavo in defensive midfield. Both are well travelled players with European experience who will have direct impacts in the first team. They also resigned another player who left for the Premier League: their goalkeeping talisman, Steve Mandanda. The stopper has been elected Ligue 1 Goalkeeper of the Season four times in his career including his last two seasons in Marseille, so he is still in fantastic form at 32 years old. They already ran a tight ship in defence last season, conceding the 4th least goals in the league, but these signings will go even further to make them tough to score against. They’ve kept two clean sheets in two league games this season already, beating Nantes 0-1.
One player to really keep an eye on this year will be Maxime López, the 19-year-old who has been with Marseille since 2010. Having broken in to the first team last season, Garcia made him a mainstay in the midfield and it paid dividends – the youngster scored 3 goals and provided 7 assists through the campaign, earning himself a Ligue 1 Player of the Month trophy in the process. He has fantastic delivery from dead ball positions, regularly getting his assists from free kicks and corners. López is a small framed player, and will need to strengthen physically as the years go on, but now that he has the vastly experienced Luiz Gustavo alongside him to provide the brawn, he will be able to fill the role of the midfield brain.

Note: tweet dated 30th April 2017
The fans certainly feel a lot more positive about this season. Last year, Marseille’s season ticket sales hit their lowest in twenty years at 17,500. This season they reached 28,500 before the match against Dijon. Supporters can see that the owners are investing in the team and that the manager is crafting a side capable of improving on last year’s fifth placed finish. Marseille are in a much better place than this time last year, that is for sure, but what they need to do is turn draws into wins. They drew eleven matches in the league last year, far too many for a team who has Champions League aspirations.
Unfortunately for the Provence club, PSG have opened their wallet this summer and smashed the world record transfer fee for Neymar. Anything short of winning the league will be a disaster for them and surely spell the end of Unai Emery. Monaco and Lyon may have lost some key players but they have also brought in some very talented young players, Youri Tielemans and Mariano Díaz respectively, for example. Nice acquired the evergreen Wesley Sneijder and will be no pushovers either.
All in all, Marseille have a battle on their hands if they want to return to the Champions League in 2018 given that in France only the top two qualify immediately with the third put into the final qualification round. Nevertheless, with the additions they’ve made this summer and the belief back with the fans thanks to Rudi Garcia and the new board, their sights should definitely be set on qualifying for Europe’s premier competition.

 

Let me know what you think of my writing on Ligue 1; I’d love to write about the French League more. Twitter: @cketters

Premier League Predictions – 11 to 20

As promised, here are my predictions for the bottom half of the table this season. Click here to see the top 10.

11th – Southampton

Southampton kept a very good defensive record last season although Virgil Van Dijk will likely leave this summer. Last season they also scored the joint 6th fewest goals. The Saints did add Mario Lemina to their squad; he is a talented passer of the ball but can commit more fouls than he should. Another concern for me is that he’s never started more than 13 league games in a single season.

Charlie Austin is 11/10 to top score for the Saints this year.

12th – West Brom

In classic Tony Pulis style, West Brom finished last season appallingly. Nacer Chadli’s form dropped off a cliff after an encouraging start and he will be disappointed not to have continued his good early form. I really like the addition of Jay Rodriguez though and a frontline combining him, Salomon Rondon and Matt Phillips.

West Brom to finish above Pulis’s old team, Stoke, is 5/6.

 

13th – Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace have largely the same squad as last season. The only first team departure was Steve Mandanda, who dropped out of contention anyway after a mid season injury, and they’ve secured a few loan signings. They do have a new highly rated manager in Frank De Boer, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on in the Premier League. I can’t see them being in any danger this season though.

Christian Benteke is as low as 1/5 to be Palace top goalscorer which should be a given. They’re 3/1 to finish in the top half if you’re feeling brave.

14th – Watford

Many people have tipped Watford for the drop or to be narrowly avoiding relegation but I think they’ll be okay. It was well documented that Marco Silva has a very strong home record as a manager and I think he’ll push Watford up a few spots from last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned over Liverpool at Vicarage Road on the first matchday in all honesty. André Gray’s pace should suit playing with Deeney and Richarlison looks an exciting young player. They could do with more defensive reinforcement though.

Watford to finish above Swansea is currently at evens.

15th – Burnley

Burnley sold André Gray to Watford this window and £18m is good business from the Lancashire club. They do need to improve their away form from last year if they want to climb up the table, but their results at Turf Moor can’t drop off. I like the signings of Jon Walters and Jack Cork, but Michael Keane will be a big loss. James Tarkowski will likely come into the defence and will need to settle in quickly.

Burnley to avoid the drop is at 11/10.

16th – Brighton

Brighton had fantastic home form last year which, if they can carry it through, should see them safe. They have also signed a lot of new faces and will have a large squad for the upcoming season. Anthony Knockaert will be key if they’re going to stay up. My main concern is the lack of a strong striker, but I think their form at the Amex could be enough to keep them up.

Knockaert is 3/1 to top score for Brighton this season.

17th – Stoke City

I think Stoke could really struggle this year. Although they signed the highly rated Kurt Zouma on loan for a season from Chelsea, they need a goalscorer. Peter Crouch top scored with 7 goals last year and that figure needs to be at least double figures for a club top goal scorer. They brought in Bruno Martins Indi after a loan spell, but I really don’t rate the Dutchman.

Stoke are as high as 6/1 to go down in some places.

18th – Newcastle United

The big issue with Newcastle is their owner. Mike Ashley is always in the news for the wrong reasons, even when it’s football related; Rafa Benitez is allegedly unhappy at the lack of support he has received from the board when it comes to new signings.  The reason I am putting Newcastle in my bottom three is because if Benitez says enough’s enough and leaves, it will be an enormous blow to the club. I hope they do stay up, Newcastle are a team who should be in the Premier League, but they’ll need to turn St James’ Park into a fortress if they don’t want to go straight back down to the Championship.

Newcastle are 4/1 to go down and Benitez is 3/1 to be the first manager to leave.

19th – Swansea City

When Paul Clement came in last season, Swansea had a good run of form, including being one of only two teams to beat Liverpool at Anfield, and picked up the all important points they needed to survive. They simply cannot afford to let Sigurdsson leave, having kept them up practically by himself last year. Llorente is no doubt a great player too, but he is injury prone. If the duo stay and keep fit, they could well stay up. Tammy Abraham is also a very interesting loan signing: the 19 year old scored 23 goals in the Championship last season. If he can hit the ground running too, it will go a long way to keeping the Swans afloat.

Llorente and Abraham are both 11/10 to finish as club top goalscorer.

20th – Huddersfield

I’ve gone for the easy option of putting Huddersfield rock bottom. Although it is fantastic that they’ve come up to the Premier League for the first time, they have their work cut out. Astonishingly, they got promoted with a negative goal difference, scoring only 56 times in 46 games. As much as I’d love to see it, I just can’t see any way for Huddersfield to stay up this season. Aaron Mooy, who signed permanently from Manchester City over the summer, could be one to watch: he made both the most tackles and created the most chances for Huddersfield last season.

Huddersfield are 2/1 to finish rock bottom this season.

Player of the Season

Given that I’ve predicted Romelu Lukaku to finish top goalscorer, I think 16/1 is a very good price for the former Everton man to win Player of the Season.

Eden Hazard returned to his best last year, and is currently the favourite to win the award at 7/1.

Sergio Aguero also looks tempting at 20/1, with Gabriel Jesus a lower 16/1.

My pick of the bunch though, is Kevin De Bruyne at 14/1. If City win the title, he will be at the centre of it.

There they are. My Premier League predictions set in stone. Please feel free to comment or tweet me @cketters and tell me how wrong I am, or equally, if you think my predictions are half accurate, let me know! 

For those interested, I used Oddschecker for all odds on my predictions blogs.

Premier League Predictions – 1 to 10

Unfortunately due to lack of time to complete this edition I’m doing my Premier League predictions in two parts. Here’s the top 10!

2017/18 League Predictions

Hello, and welcome to my 2017/18 Premier League predictions. I’ll put forward my thoughts on league positions and also top scorers for the year. I am of course expecting my friends to slate me for this come the end of the season when I am inevitably massively wrong. I was actually advised to guess something outrageous and if it comes off I’ll look like a genius. Nevertheless, I will be putting forward my genuine predictions for the season ahead.

1st – Manchester City

I spoke in my previous blog about City. I back them for the league for a few reasons. Firstly, they have the best depth of attackers in the league; it’s hard to even predict who Pep Guardiola will play such is the strength of his frontline. Secondly, they’ve rejuvenated their defence with the introduction of three new fullbacks and a goalkeeper. The main question is if the unproven Ederson and Benjamin Mendy can adapt to the Premier League quickly. If they hit the ground running, I can’t see anyone pipping City to the title.

Manchester City are the bookkeepers’ favourites. Guardiola’s team are best price 19/10 to bring the Premier League back to the Etihad this year.

2nd – Manchester United

Manchester United had an ultimately satisfactory season last year. Despite a distinctly average 6th place finish in the league, they requalified for the Champions League by virtue of winning the Europa League, and added a domestic cup to their trophy cabinet. Even though they did win two trophies, United fans will be hoping for more this year. I think they’ll just fall short of the title. Mourinho has done well in the transfer window: Lukaku suits United’s classic wing-focused, cross heavy playstyle and Matic should prove to be a defensive midfielder who can enable the talented Pogba to put more focus on his attacking prowess. I just feel that United’s squad depth is lacking slightly compared with City which is why I think that the title will end up in the blue half of Manchester come May.

United and Chelsea are joint second favourites – both sitting around 7/2 to win the league.

3rd – Chelsea

Time for a shameless brag: I did pick Chelsea at 6/1 to win the league last season. It wasn’t a feat beyond imagination, but the absence of European competition definitely allowed the Blues to field a dominant eleven week in, week out domestically and was a factor in their winning of the title. This season they have the Champions League to participate in which should stretch their squad a bit more. It also looks likely at the moment that Diego Costa won’t be featuring, given the purchase of Alvaro Morata. Conte has allegedly criticised Morata’s fitness in pre-season so far, and the fact that he’s never played more than 1,500 minutes in a season could be cause for concern. Batshuayi has been in good form in preseason, but Chelsea will need one of the two strikers to play every week for them – title winning teams almost always boast a frontman with 20+ goals and I don’t think either Morata or Batshuayi will achieve that feat.

A bet I’m taking a serious look at currently is Man City/Man United/Chelsea Tricast (to finish 1st/2nd/3rd) currently at 25/1. It’s never easy to call the top three in order but that would be my pick.

4th – Tottenham Hotspur

This season Spurs will be playing their home games at Wembley after playing the Champions League group games there last season. They really struggled at the national stadium: keeping no clean sheets and losing to both Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen with their only win coming against CSKA Moscow. Many will say that over a full league campaign, playing at Wembley will not be an issue, but it is very common for a team to underperform during their first season at a new stadium. Last season, West Ham won only seven home games out of nineteen and will hope for better this year. I still expect Spurs to win the majority of their matches at home, but it won’t be the fortress that White Hart Lane was last year (they drew twice and won all other games).

Harry Kane is the favourite for league top goalscorer at roughly 4/1, although I personally fancy Lukaku at 5/1. Spurs are also 4/5 to finish above Arsenal this season which seems like a good price.

5th – Arsenal

As mentioned in a previous article, I am impressed with both of Arsenal’s senior signings. Kolasinac is a step up from Monreal, who I consider to be quite clumsy; and Lacazette will score 15-20 goals this season. I could easily see Arsenal contend for the top 4 but I don’t think they’ll finish higher than 4th. One key element for the Gunners will be the fitness of their midfield in particular: Sánchez, Ozil, Wilshere and Ramsey are all doubts for the league opener against Leicester. They’ll need their best players to stay injury free to challenge for the top 4.

Arsenal to finish in the top 4 is currently hovering around evens. My pick for a bet will be Lacazette to outscore Morata this season at 5/6.

6th – Liverpool

Liverpool just have not done enough this transfer window to convince me of a top 4 finish this year. They have improved where they didn’t need work (signing of Salah) and have neglected to sign a new centre-half, although Virgil Van Dijk handing in a transfer request may change that. Although Andy Robertson came in, there are still doubts about who will start at left back. To add to their worries, Philippe Coutinho has reportedly handed in a transfer request and there is no sign of a replacement. I just don’t see Liverpool’s squad being strong enough to contend domestically and in Europe which is why I put them in 6th.

Sadio Mané is favourite to be Liverpool top goalscorer at 5/2, but Roberto Firmino’s odds are generous at 9/2 given that he’s been taking penalties in preseason ahead of Milner.

7th – Everton

Everton have made a number of good signings this summer. Michael Keane should be a good improvement to their defence and Wayne Rooney will get goals. I don’t know an awful lot about Davy Klaasen, but he is highly rated among pundits, so it will be interesting to see his impact in the league. Jordan Pickford too was a much needed addition; Joel Robles was the worst goalkeeper in the league last season and Pickford had many noteworthy performances even in a relegated team. I do think that the gap between 6th and 7th last year was a little too much for Everton to bridge this season, but it should be much closer this time around.

Everton are currently 3/1 to finish in the top 6 which is definitely not a bad price. I know I haven’t predicted it, but I still feel it is decent value.

8th – West Ham

The signing of Javier Hernández has been tipped by many as one of the best of the summer for the Premier League and I have to say that I agree. West Ham have not had a fit, prolific striker for years now: in the five years since their return to the Premier League, a striker has only top scored in one of them (Diafra Sakho with ten). Hopefully for the Hammers, Chicharito will provide the goal scorer they need. Joe Hart had a mixed season with Torino, but should be a solid performer for them after joining on loan.

West Ham are roughly 5/4 to finish in the top half for the season.

9th – Leicester

Leicester had their Champions League dream last season and managed to be the last standing Premier League team in the competition. They can certainly take heart from the performances in Europe, but this campaign there will be no distraction from the continent. This should allow them to kick on domestically and the signings of Vicente Iborra and Kelechi Iheanacho will definitely be of large benefit. It looks like Riyad Mahrez will be on his way after submitting a transfer request early in the summer, but the Algerian did not have a stellar season last year and Leicester did not look as reliant on him.

Leicester are hovering around evens or just 5/6 for a top half finish, which I do not think offers massive value. Kelechi Iheanacho is 3/1 to be Leicester top goalscorer which is more tempting for the brave, with Vardy being his main opposition.

10th – Bournemouth

Bournemouth had a phenomenal 2016/17 season – finishing with their highest ever league position. They also kept their squad together from last season and haven’t lost any notable players. In addition to that, they have brought in three good Premier League quality players in Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, and Jermain Defoe. All three players improve the first team directly and all have played at Dean Court in the past.

I quite like the look of Bournemouth to finish above their south coast rivals, Southampton, at 15/8 especially as the Saints could yet lose Virgil Van Dijk.

The bottom half of the table will be coming tomorrow.

Twitter: @cketters

Liverpool – Work to be done

This weekend, I was lucky enough to go to Liverpool’s final preseason game of 2017 in Dublin, thanks to my uncle, and I was even luckier to get a photo with Roberto Firmino (despite the fact that everyone seems to think that he looks like a waxwork in the picture).

WhatsApp Image 2017-08-08 at 17.55.48

As a result, I wrote about my thoughts on the game and Liverpool’s chances this season.

Liverpool should be pleased with the 2016/17 season. The target was to finish in the top 4 and they did exactly that, just about scraping over the line on the final day of the season. There is still a large hurdle in the shape of Roberto Firmino’s old side, Hoffenheim, to get over before Liverpool can announce an official return to the Champions League though, which takes place within the next two weeks.

Their last preparation match against Athletic Club de Bilbao finished 3-1 to Liverpool. Although in the end it was comfortable enough, it was not a fully satisfactory win. In the first half, the Reds played arguably their strongest available eleven (barring Mané and Wijnaldum, who featured in the second half) and went in at half time level at 1-1. 45 minutes is not a large amount of time to base predictions on, but it was a display typical of Liverpool’s last campaign on a few levels.

Firstly, Divock Origi squandered two golden opportunities; one of which was a one on one with the goalkeeper only for the ball to roll two feet wide of the left hand post, the other was an unchallenged header 8 yards out which sailed over the crossbar. Simply put, the young Belgian is not good enough for the Liverpool first team at this stage of his career. Secondly, Dejan Lovren’s loose tackle allowed Iñaki Williams a few yards to score an equaliser for the Basques. Lovren can defend, but slacks at times resulting in catastrophe. I can recall mishit clearances and clumsy tackles which have led directly to goals during his time on Merseyside. A new centre-half is needed if Liverpool are serious about improving their team.

Note: tweet from 28th April 2017.

There were certainly positives though; Liverpool’s high pressing worked well, with Salah and Firmino particularly impressive on the front foot, closing down the Athletic defence. The Brazilian’s hard work eventually payed off as he drew a foul in the box and converted the subsequent penalty. Alberto Moreno also had a very strong performance to add to his good showing in other preseason games. Not only was he causing havoc on Liverpool’s left side going forwards, but he made some good interceptions and calm passes at the back. The issue with Moreno is that he has shown this before: there aren’t many who doubt his ability to come forwards with the ball, but he can be very sloppy when in high pressure situations at the back. As much as I want to say that he deserves another crack in the starting eleven, in a few weeks he will most likely capitulate in a key game and cost the team a win.

Moving on to the second half and Moreno’s fellow left back, Andy Robertson, also had a good showing. He got up the pitch regularly in support of Sadio Mané, albeit not providing as potent an attacking outlet as Moreno, and looked assured at the back. At this stage, I am not certain who Klopp will be looking to start in the position, but if it were my choice, I would pick Robertson.

As for the other players in the second half, the senior outfield duo of Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mané looked very solid. Mané in particular created a real buzz every time he picked up the ball and provided exactly what you might expect of him: driving at players and high energy closing down. He looked in good form ahead of this weekend’s Premier League opener at Vicarage Road and Liverpool will need him to be at his best if they want to repeat last season’s top 4 finish. For the period when Mané was injured or away at the African Cup of Nations Liverpool looked toothless while still being vulnerable at the back which led to a disastrous run of fixtures. The hope on Merseyside is that Salah will provide a similar threat to Mané – a high energy, fleet footed wide player who can turn defence into attack as quickly as possible. A concern might be that the two players are too similar and don’t provide an immediate solution to breaking down teams that sit deep and look for a draw. Liverpool have strengthened up front, though they had no real issue in scoring last season. At the moment they have largely neglected defensive improvements – where they really needed some work.

Note: tweet from 4th April 2017.

Another player who impressed me was Dominic Solanke. The young striker’s third goal this preseason reminded me a lot of the chance Origi had missed in the first half. Both deliveries were lofted balls into the box at similar heights, but Solanke’s effort beat the Athletic goalkeeper. After the opportunities that Origi has had and failed to take, Solanke surely has to be ahead of him in the pecking order at Anfield.

On the other side of the coin, Joe Gomez started the second half very shakily, misplacing several passes. Although he slowly settled in to the game as it went on, I think Gomez could benefit from a loan spell in the Premier League. He is not ready to play week in, week out for the Reds and should only really be featuring in the domestic cups. This also highlights Liverpool’s main problem: the centre half position. I am an admirer of Joel Matip and think that he should be starting every week for Liverpool. The issue is who he will play alongside. Klavan and Gomez are not good enough to play there for a full season and as mentioned previously, Lovren is very error prone. Anyone who’s not been living under a rock over the summer will know that Virgil Van Dijk has been heavily linked with a move to Anfield, but there are now serious doubts about the move happening, although the Dutchman has made a transfer request in the last 24 hours. Van Dijk is exactly the kind of player Liverpool need, but there seems to be no plan B if they don’t get their man.

There are also whispers that Philippe Coutinho is Barcelona bound to replace Neymar. Once again, if this transfer happens, there seems to be no backup plan. Despite the signing of a strong first team player in Salah, this could yet be a disastrous window for Liverpool. They desperately need more players who can fit into their first team if they want to compete on multiple fronts. Liverpool need to keep their targets modest for next season – finishing 4th domestically and reaching the quarter finals of the Champions League should be deemed a good season.

Assuming that they manage to hold on to Coutinho and do not sign other players, I would put Liverpool at 6th place in the league this season. If they lose Coutinho, Klopp should be using that money to sign two or three more players – but time is running out.

My starting eleven for Liverpool (assuming everyone is fit and no more squad changes come in): Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum; Mané, Coutinho, Salah; Firmino.