Team/Player of the Week: 2/5

By Kiran Balan and Joe Ballard

It was another terrific weekend of soccer in the EPL, and while our team of the week was a simple choice, there were so many great individual performances we couldn’t limit the award to just one player. So have a look at DB20’s first ever player(s) of the week as well as a team who “gunned” down their opponents this weekend. Read more of this post

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How Do You Solve A Problem Like De Gea?

Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Andy Goram, Paul Rachubka, Raymond Van der Gouw, Ricardo, Tim Howard, Roy Carroll, Edwin Van der Sar, Ben Foster, Tomasz Kuszczak, Ben Amos, Anders Lindegaard, and David De Gea. These are the 15 goalkeepers who have started for Manchester United since the legendary Peter Schmeichel retired in 1999. Whereas Newcastle had Shay Given, Blackburn had Brad Friedel, and Bolton still has Jussi Jaaskelainen, it’s been something of a circus in the United goal for the majority of the last 13 years (the Van der Sar years aside). Read more of this post

What’s Gone Wrong With United?

2010-11: Premier League winners, Champions League finalists

2011-12 (not even midway): Carling Cup quarterfinal loss to Crystal Palace (at home), 6-1 defeat to Manchester City (at home), and failure to qualify from a Champions League group that Sir Alex Ferguson might have hand-picked himself.  And now Nemanja Vidic is out for the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament.

So what on earth has gone wrong for United this season? In a word: everything.

The defense: Many people were fooled by the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal earlier in the season. The warning signs were always there; even as United were scoring goals for fun, they were conceding more goals than usual. With Rio Ferdinand clearly in the twilight of his career, the defense depends on Nemanja Vidic more than ever. This season, with Vidic injured, the kids have been forced into action and have been panic prone, particularly in European matches. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are excellent young prospects, but have made crucial mistakes that they will be expected to learn from. Jonny Evans, on the other hand, is a walking disaster of a defender.

Injuries: They’ve decimated United. A list of players who have been/are currently injured this season: Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Ashley Young, Rafael, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, and Jones. It doesn’t matter how big the squad is; that list would cripple any team’s efforts. A telling statistic: Ferguson has deployed no less than six different players at right-back so far this season (Rafael, Fabio, Jones, Smalling, Valencia, Fletcher). The defense simply cannot compete at its best when it is constantly being changed, whether intentionally or not.

But none of this excuses United from failing to qualify from what should have been an easy Champions League group. My theory is that the players were overconfident and half-assed their way through these six matches. Wayne Rooney in particular was culpable on Wednesday, missing numerous scoring chances and only looking half interested. After a terrific first month of the season, he again looks like the Wayne Rooney of last season, a ghost of his old self. With Hernandez, Berbatov and Owen all out injured, United looked to him for inspiration. They looked in the wrong direction.

We already spoke about the issues with the defense, but another problem has been the glaring lack of a creative central midfielder. Why oh why, Sir Alex, did you not go and get Wesley Sneijder when you had the chance? Depending on 38-year-old Ryan Giggs, god bless him, to be the creative spark in midfield is embarrassing for a club of United’s stature. Ferguson also tried to deploy Phil Jones (center-back) and Wayne Rooney (forward) in the same role; it was practically an admission of defeat. Without a Snejider-like midfielder, the likes of Carrick, Anderson, Giggs and Fletcher have been woefully predictable in attack, and this particularly showed in European matches.

Finally, the issue of the goalkeeper. David de Gea has been somewhat slaughtered by the English media so far this season. I’m here to say: lay the f*** off. He’s a 20-year-old kid who’s arrived in a new country at one of the world’s biggest clubs; of course he’s going to make some mistakes. It’s acceptable when Jones and Smalling do it, so why do we slate de Gea for it? He is young, and like any other kid, he will learn from his mistakes. Ferguson followed this kid for two years before signing him; he obviously believes in him. A certain Wojciech Szczesny (google/copy/paste name into document) was full of mistakes when he first got his chance at Arsenal, and look how he’s blossomed.

Another issue with de Gea is that, especially for a goalkeeper, he appears quiet and even somewhat reserved. Perhaps it is somewhat intimidating having to command all these experienced internationals, but as he becomes more comfortable, I believe he will grow into his role.

All in all, Manchester United fans may have to accept that this is something of a rebuilding year, what with the combination of kids and injuries. I personally don’t think they will win any trophies this season, so even though moneybags City appear unstoppable, I’ll be enjoying sitting back and watching the youngsters develop. Give them time, and have faith in Fergie. Remember the Class of ’92?

EPL: 3 Big Clubs Going Backwards

With each passing season, it seems that the gap between the Premier League and the Championship (England’s 2nd division) continues to grow. The teams who win promotion are usually the favorites to go straight back down. However, this could be the year that one or two (or even three) of the EPL’s mainstays shockingly fall through the dreaded trapdoor of relegation. Two years ago, it was Newcastle United. This year, it could be one or two out of several teams. Here are three possibilities:

Blackburn Rovers

What Rovers fans wouldn’t give for the good old days when they were constantly on the verge of getting into Europe under Mark Hughes’ management.  These days, they are owned by the Poultry company (yes, you read that right) Venky’s, who bought the club last year. They immediately showed their ineptitude by claiming the club would soon be playing in the Champions League.

Their first move: to inexplicably sack Sam Allardyce and replace him with his assistant, Steve Kean, who had absolutely no EPL management experience. This was followed by audacious (I say laughable) attempts to sign the likes of Ronaldinho and David Beckham. After failing to get any of their January targets, they continued to sink down the table, narrowly avoiding relegation in May. Kean proceeded to get convicted of a DUI charge over the summer.

Rovers’ biggest issue last term was a lack of goals. They’ve brought in the once-prolific Yakubu, who endured a torrid time at Everton before rediscovering some decent form at Leicester City. Doubts remain that he’ll solve the club’s scoring problem though, particularly with a lack of quality service from the midfield.

This summer, they mysteriously sold midfielder Nikola Kalinic, seen by many as Rovers’ most talented midfielder, and have also lost veterans Brett Emerton and Keith Andrews. They also lost starlet defender Phil Jones to Manchester United, although they secured a real coup with the signing of Scott Dann from Birmingham, who should prove a more than suitable replacement to partner Chris Samba.

All in all, with an inexperienced and unpopular manager, hated owners, a lack of goals, and precious little quality in the midfield, Blackburn don’t look like relegation possibilities so much as near-certainties. Zero points after three games supports this widespread theory.

Everton

This one has probably been coming for a while. Manager David Moyes has done a fantastic job at Everton, and he is thought to be one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s favored candidates to replace him at Manchester United someday. For nine years, Moyes has constantly kept Everton among the EPL’s elite with almost no money to work with, but this summer, owner Bill Kenwright revealed that he has no money left (to put into the club), they can’t borrow any more from the bank, and there are no prospective new buyers for the club. Plans for a new stadium have come to nothing, leaving an air of real negativity around the club.

In short, Everton’s normally high standards will have to come down this season. They have lost star winger Mikel Arteta to Arsenal, striker Jermaine Beckford has gone to Leicester City, and the often-injured forward James Vaughn left for Norwich City. Arteta aside, these may not seem like big losses, but Everton have had a dangerously thin squad for several years now. If injuries to key players come up, they usually have to rely on youngsters from their famed academy. This season will be no different.

After a summer with no transfer activity, deadline day saw Denis Stracqualursi (try saying that five times) arrive as an unknown forward from Tigre, while young midfielder Royston Drenthe comes in on loan from Real Madrid, a real coup for the club.

The biggest problem for Everton is the same as it was last year: where are the goals going to come from? They cannot continue to rely on the wonderfully skilled midfielder Tim Cahill, who led the team with just 9 goals. On the other hand, they still have a well-groomed back four and the always-reliable American Tim Howard in goal, as well as midfield starlet Jack Rodwell.

Expectations are down for Everton this season, and it is made all the worse by the optimism currently surrounding arch-rivals Liverpool. With such a thin squad to work with, Moyes will do fantastically well just to achieve mid-table mediocrity this season. Should a few injuries to key defenders such as Phil Jagielka or Joseph Yobo occur, they could be dark horses for relegation this season.

Aston Villa

Let’s get this out of the way: Aston Villa should not be in any relegation danger this season. That said, it’s been quite a busy and controversial summer for the club. After last year’s interesting appointment of Gerard Houiller came to an end due to a heart condition, new manager Alex McLeish arrives after being relegated with arch-rivals Birmingham, making him an extremely unpopular appointment to say the least. They have also seen plenty of comings and goings among the playing staff, making Villa one of the hardest teams to predict this season.

Star wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing have departed for Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, while midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker (Bolton), defender Luke Young (QPR), and veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel (Tottenham) are all gone as well.

The most notable newcomer is the always-confident winger Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan, while in Shay Given they have acquired one of the consistent keepers in the EPL over the past decade. Scottish defender Alan Hutton and former England regular midfielder Jermaine Jenas arrive from Tottenham, both of whom having something to prove after seeing their once-high reputations come down over the past few years.

Given aside, the new signings don’t quite measure up to the departures. N’Zogbia can be brilliant on his day, but he needs to do more of his talking on the field rather than off it. How he performs could go a long way to determining Villa’s position this season. That, and of course the goals of England striker Darren Bent.

Another important issue is that besides managing his new club’s arch-rival, McLeish was well-known for employing a 4-5-1 formation with more emphasis on keeping clean sheets than scoring goals. This will not go down well with Villa fans who became used to the free-flowing football they saw under Martin O’Neill. Villa will need to hit the ground running, otherwise the fans will (continue to) call for McLeish’s head.

The incoming signings (and the new manager) this summer seem to indicate that Villa are not aiming for the same lofty standards they held a few years ago. As I said before, they should not be in relegation trouble, but they will definitely not be among the elite. McLeish will do very well simply to get Villa to the top half of the table this season.