Premier League Contenders, part 1.

Last season Leicester City won the Premier League having been 5000/1 at the start of the season, a fact everyone must know by now.  You won’t get anywhere near that price on anyone this year though, the bookies have topped out at 1500/1 for the likes of West Brom, Watford, Sunderland and Bournemouth as well as the three newly-promoted clubs; Middlesbrough, Hull and Burnley.

I’m not going to plump for a winner at this stage myself, at least not until all the transfer business is done, but I thought I’d take a look at the contenders as the season draws closer.

Manchester City. Best price 13/5.

City were never really in it last year, at least not in the second half of the season.  I don’t think the timing of the Pep Guardiola announcement helped them really, it can’t have been too easy for Manuel Pellegrini to motivate his players with everyone knowing he was on his way out.  Expectations are high this year though following the arrival of the Catalan coach. Can he do it in his first season in England?

For: Guardiola himself is a serial winner but this could be his biggest challenge to date, will he be able to hit the ground running or will the transition to England’s top flight take a while? Only time will tell. They’ve done some good, if a tad limited, business so far this summer with the captures of Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito and Alexander Zinchenko. Gundogan is pure class, Nolito carries a real goal threat but I’ve not seen enough of Zinchenko to comment.

Against: Their defence looks a little suspect still and will anyone be able to fill the void should Sergio Aguero sustain an injury? What about Vincent Kompany? They looked poor without him last season and as yet there have been no recruits at the back should he suffer another injury-hit campaign. They are working on bringing in some defensive reinforcements but so far their pursuit of John Stones has proved fruitless.

City have every chance but at 13/5 I won’t be risking any money on them just yet, a new centre-half or two and I might change my mind.

Manchester United. Best price 18/5.

Like City, United were way out of the title battle last season but the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager has seen them installed as the second favourites.  He does have experience of winning the Premier League of course, still this price looks a little short to me.

For: Mourinho is the big draw but they’ve brought in some good signings as well.  Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a top performer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is guaranteed goals, even at the grand old age of 34, and moving Wayne Rooney back into a more advanced position could pay dividends.  If Paul Pogba joins they’ll be a real force, and the lack of Champions League football could allow them to focus more on domestic glory.

Against: United carried too many passengers last season as only a handful performed at the level required – Mourinho has to make sure everyone, or at least his first 11, are at the top of their game.  And how long will it take to get over the hangover of Louis van Gaal’s time in charge?

Chelsea. Best price 6/1.

If United and City were off the pace last season, Chelsea weren’t even in the same race. They find themselves as the third favourites this year though and again a new boss, Antonio Conte, is the reason for the optimism.

For:  The turmoil of the early part of last season appears to now be over thanks to Guus Hiddink’s second interim spell so I wouldn’t worry about that too much. In terms of transfers, N’Golo Kante is a brilliant signing and Michy Batshuayi has a lot of promise.  Like United, there is no Champions League to worry about and the Premier League will be the primary target.

Against: Conte knows how to build a team, he left Juventus years ago and the bones of his side is still winning Serie A every year.  It might not be instant success at Chelsea but if they keep the faith in the wily old Italian it will pay off, which may not translate into instant success in the coming campaign.  Again a lot will depend on how quickly Conte can adapt, and they probably need a few more additions to be truly competitive in the title battle.  Will Diego Costa stay or will a replacement be required? And if he does stay, will Chelsea see the best of him or will we see some petulance? What about John Terry, can the aging war-horse keep playing at the top level throughout a whole season?

My concern with all three of the favourites is the new manager factor.  The prices on City and United are way too short to tempt me, Chelsea look a good prospect at 6/1 though so if you fancy the Londoners I’d get on now before they bring in any more players and the odds shorten.

I was going to cover all the contenders but this already long enough so I’ll end it here.  I’ll be back in a few days with Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and champions Leicester.

As always I’ve used Oddschecker to hunt out the best prices, I’m not affiliated with them and there are other services available but these guys are the best in my experience.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.


Wayne Rooney; Time to hand over the England captaincy reins?

Finally, Big Sam is in.  It took an age for the Football Association to confirm the news but on Friday Sam Allardyce was unveiled as the new England manager.

Make no mistake the former Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland boss will want to put his own stamp on the team. Could that include taking the captaincy from Wayne Rooney?

He’s keeping his cards pretty close to his chest right now. Perhaps he hasn’t made up his mind, or maybe he has but is yet to select a successor, who knows?

This is all he had to say on the matter when asked at his press conference today: “No, it’s far too early [to say whether Wayne Rooney will be captain] or make any more predictions of that kind.”

And that’s your lot. I’m going to take it at face value and assume he hasn’t decided yet.  Rooney took the armband after Steve Gerrard’s international retirement following the World Cup two years ago and until Euro 2016 it was a relatively successful stint, but then came another disappointing England showing at a major tournament and here we are.

My gut feeling is Allardyce could decide a change in captain is needed but Rooney might keep the honour for the first few games, starting with a World Cup qualifier in Slovakia in September.  In the long-term, Big Sam will want a player with a settled role and place in the side as his skipper and at the moment I don’t think Rooney has that.

In some ways his own qualities have worked against him after he was slotted into a midfield role by former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.  Roy Hodgson went down a similar path with Rooney at England level and aside from the odd solid display it just never really looked like he was comfortable in his new position, at times in France this summer he went missing completely and you just cannot allow that to happen with a captain.

LVG wanted Rooney to evolve into that midfield role and Rooney himself said it was something he’d always thought may happen but the change in manager at Old Trafford has thrown that into doubt, if not completely out the window.  Jose Mourinho has stressed he sees the former Everton man as a forward so if he does return to a more advanced role on a regular basis at club level it is pretty safe to assume he will do the same internationally.

And if that happens, will he be a regular starter for England?  Will Allardyce select him ahead of the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane, Danny Welbeck and Jamie Vardy? I’m not so sure.  Allardyce will want to build a settled team, he’ll give people a chance that’s for sure but by the time the World Cup rolls around in two years he’ll have a rough idea of his best 11 and will a 32-year-old Rooney be a part of that? Only time will tell but Allardyce has to make his captaincy call before then and that may well be the deciding factor here.

So far the new Three Lions boss has probably played it about as well as he could have done.  There’s no need to make any rash decisions or create any big headlines like ‘Big Sam strips Rooney of captaincy’ straight from the off, certainly not before he’s met with the group and spoken to the United man face-to-face for the first time in his new role.

As an aside, for anyone out there with any concerns over Allardyce’s abilities to handle players I’ll ease your mind right now.  During his time as Bolton boss he got El Hadji Diouf performing on a consistent basis and working as an effective member of a team, the Senegalese forward was a notoriously difficult character and no one managed him as well as Big Sam.  He may cite the fact Nicolas Anelka, Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro played under him at Bolton as proof of his man-management skills but there can be no better example than Diouf.

And what if Rooney were stripped of the captaincy, would he continue playing for England? Only he knows the answer to that question but I suspect he would and if not, so what? We move on.

Further reading:

Jose Mourinho on Rooney

Rooney on Rooney

Sam Allardyce press conference

El Hadji Diouf

Big Sam pros and cons

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.

Sam Allardyce for England; Pros and Cons

It’s 2006, England have just been dumped out of the World Cup by Portugal in the quarter-finals and Sven Goran-Eriksson, a meticulous if uninspiring manager, has stepped down.  The hunt is on for a new boss and Sam Allardyce of Bolton Wanderers is waiting for the call.

But instead the FA turn to Steve McClaren.

Allardyce probably thought that was his chance gone, after McClaren’s disappointing stint they went for a foreign boss again with Fabio Capello – another poor appointment that never really seemed to fit. Then came Roy Hodgson and here we are, 10 years later in an almost identical, if not slightly more embarrassing/depressing/worrying (delete as appropriate), situation to when Sven left, and Big Sam’s back on the table.

Sam Allardyce Pros.

Man Management: Many who have played under Allardyce highlight his man management skills, he considers it one of his strong points himself and he does have a record that largely proves that theory.  Under his guidance Bolton finished in the top eight of the Premier League four years in a row (he left before the end of the fourth year but the job was basically done), Blackburn were relatively comfortable in mid table during his time as boss, somehow he kept Sunderland up last season – these were over achievements considering the squads he had. Newcastle was a blip but he’s had a long career, a perfect record would have been unlikely and in any case he wasn’t given a fair amount of time on Tyneside.

Passion: I can imagine Allardyce giving under-performing players an absolute roasting at half-time and sometimes you feel that’s what England need.  I can’t envisage that kind of stuff from the Hodgsons and Erikssons of this world.

Comedy: Let’s face it, England are a poor team and failure is inevitable at some point.  They’ve won one major trophy in their history – compare that to the Germans, Italians etc,  woeful – really, semi-finals is about as good as it gets.  Knowing this, having a manager who offers a bit of entertainment would be a welcome bonus in the painful world of following the England football team, and I for one have had enough of dour interviews; at least with Big Sam you get an attempt at wit, a sound bite for the press, some razzle dazzle of sorts. Here are a few good quotes to demonstrate this.

“I’m not suited to Bolton or Blackburn, I would be more suited to Internazionale or Real Madrid. It wouldn’t be a problem to me to go and manage those clubs because I would win the Double or the league every time.”

“I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce.”

Absolute gold.

He’s on Twitter: That’s right, you could troll the England boss if Allardyce is handed the reins. Not my thing (the odd spot of Boris Johnson baiting of late aside in my first-foray into the crazy world of cyber bullying, and he’s big enough and ugly enough to take it) but it is nice to have the option, even if there is a very real chance he hasn’t worked out how to see his mentions/replies etc, yet alone bothers to check them. Find him @OfficialBigSam.

Sam Allardyce Cons.

He’s never won a major trophy: The closest he’s come so far is runner-up in the League Cup with Bolton back in 2004, losing to Middlesbrough in the final in a game that may have ultimately seen McClaren get the nod at his expense two years later.  He has won in high pressure situations though – winning the Championship play-off final twice, first with Bolton and then West Ham, as well as countless relegation ‘six pointers’.  So yes, the fact he hasn’t landed any big silverware is a blow but by no means a terminal one to his chances of replacing Roy.

Tactics: One-dimensional, long-ball merchants, uninspiring, boring… these are among the more polite adjectives used to describe Allardyce’s teams over the years but personally I think he gets a bit of a rough ride. He’d argue that it feeds on a perception created during his time as Bolton boss, inspired by rival managers like Arsene Wenger, Graeme Souness and more, that has dogged him ever since.  There is more than a grain of truth in both the criticism and his own defence, but some of the football played under his watch at Upton Park and the Reebok Stadium was pretty decent.  Besides, have England’s tactics worked particularly well in competitions in recent times? No, no they have not.

West Ham have been much better under Slaven Bilic: This is a fair call, they have.  Allardyce guided them to 12th place with 47 points in his final season in charge, Bilic managed 62, a seventh place finish and they scored 21 more goals.  The one stat in Allardyce’s favour is goals against, with his Hammers conceding four less. In three seasons in the Premier League Allardyce’s best result was 10th with West Ham.  There are a few mitigating factors, Bilic had Dimitri Payet for one and it turns out he’s one of the best players in the world now so that always helps.  It was also the last campaign at Upton Park but I can only speculate as to what, if any, impact that had on results. My guess for what it’s worth would be it was quite the motivator.  Bilic has made the better signings – but you don’t get to do that as England boss anyway so that’s perhaps a moot point.

In Conclusion

Big Sam probably wouldn’t be my top choice in a world of endless possibilities but in terms of English managers he’s the pick of a slim selection.  Eddie Howe is also up there as a contender and again I’d be happy enough with that.  This has been a bit of a pro-Allardyce piece granted, but the English have a tendency to just slam a manager and a need to be won over, how about this time the fans get behind whoever is chosen as boss until he messes up? Rather than wait for the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’. A radical idea I know but after being humbled by Iceland anything’s worth a shot.

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