Friday, 30 November 2018

Championship: November Review

The Championship never fails to entertain, and November brought us plenty of excitement, excellent football and a new leader at the top with the Canaries of Norwich soaring to the top. Leeds are hunting them down in 2nd place. While the new manager bounce hasn’t taken affect at Ipswich with the Tractor Boys bottom of the table and they are joined by Bolton and Hull in the relegation places.

It has been a wonderful month for Norwich with the Canaries winning 3 of their 4 matches during November their only blemish being a goalless draw at Hull. Prior to that, the Canaries had won 6 on the spin to send them top. Daniel Farke’s side are full of confidence, belief and more importantly goals. The likes of Teemu Pukki, Eni Buendia and Moritz Leitner are shining, and Norwich really do have momentum behind them. Leeds are hunting them down in 2nd place after another solid month for Marcelo Bielsa’s side. 3 wins from their 4 games during November keeps them in the promotion race with their only defeat coming at West Brom. Bielsa is getting his players back including Kemar Roofe after injury and slowly Leeds are getting back into their early season groove and they will hope to take top spot back during the festive period which looms. Middlesbrough themselves remain in the race with 3rd place Boro only two points off the top. Another unbeaten month for Tony Pulis’ team which saw 2 wins and 2 draws but goals seem hard to come by for Boro with Pulis bemoaning the lack of goals from his strikers. Despite their lack of perceived goals, Boro win games and are an extremely tough nut to crack. They are firmly in the promotion race as are West Brom and Sheffield United. The Baggies and The Blades are in 4th and 5th locked on 34 points just three off the top. West Brom are back in the groove following a poor October and have won their last 3 games to put themselves back in the promotion race. Jay Rodriguez continues to deliver while Harvey Barnes continues to impress on his loan from Leicester. Sheff Utd meanwhile endured a difficult November collecting just one win that coming in their most recent game against Brentford. Derby draws to Sheff Wed and Rotherham and a defeat to Nottingham Forest have seen the Blades drop off a little but remain in the hunt. Chris Wilder knows the Blades haven’t been at their best in recent matches, but he will hope the Brentford victory will allow the momentum to build once again during December and the hectic festive period. The play-off places are made up by Nottingham Forest with Aitor Karanka’s side charging up the table. Forest have lost just twice this season but have only won 7 of their games. 10 draws for Forest but slowly they are beginning to turn those draws into wins with Forest winning 3 of their last 6 while drawing the other three games. Lewis Grabban and Joe Lolley are the two stars of this Forest side both enjoying rich runs of goalscoring and assists. Matty Cash is excelling in the midfield while record signing Joao Carvalho is firmly finding his feet as his performances continue to improve. They sit in the top 6 on goal difference ahead of bitter rivals Derby and while they remain difficult to beat, Forest must continue to find wins to really charge towards the automatic places.

Sides enjoying excellent Novembers included Aston Villa, Preston and QPR. Dean Smith has firmly got Aston Villa going after a very slow start to the season. The Villains have collected 10 points from their 4 matches during November and goals are firmly flowing with 2 against Bolton, 3 against Derby, 4 against Birmingham in the second city derby and bizarrely 5 against Nottingham Forest in that thrilling 5-5 draw at Villa Park. Tammy Abraham is on a terrific goalscoring run notching 10 goals this season including 7 in his last 4 games. The striker is enjoying his football and is full of confidence with Smith having full faith in him. Smith has installed belief and confidence back into the players and it looks like the players are buying to his philosophies and Villa are playing some excellent football right now. They have clawed themselves back into the promotion race and lie just 3 points off the top 6. However, a big December looms for Villa with games against West Brom, Middlesbrough and Leeds to come and these games could defy if Villa are promotion contenders once again this season. Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Preston have been storming up the table away from the bottom 3. The Lilywhites are unbeaten in their last 9 matches winning 4 of those games. Alex Neil has truly turn things around after a miserable start to the season which saw them lose 7 of their first 10 games. They lie 16th in the table and have built up plenty of momentum as Alex Neil finally gets his side going. Alan Browne has been impressing as has Callum Robinson but his three month lay off due to injury is a blow for them but Alex Neil will be confident in the ability of his squad to cope without Robinson. Another side who have turned their season around is QPR. Steve McClaren has done an excellent job turning around the R’s fortunes after losing their first 4. Since then the R’s have lost just 3 matches. They find themselves in 9th place just 3 points off the top 6. Despite winning just once in November, the R’s are unbeaten in their last three games collecting draws at Stoke and Rotherham. The experienced signings of Angel Rangel, Geoff Cameron and Nahki Wells have been terrific additions from Steve McClaren while Eberechi Eze is the beating heart of the team with his creative flare being vital to the team.

Meanwhile, the bottom three continue to struggle. Ipswich are struggling and find themselves 6 points off safety with Paul Lambert yet to win any of his games so far. 4 winless matches have left them further adrift at the bottom and this young side must improve and fast. Despite their struggles, Freddie Sears have found some form scoring 4 goals since Lambert took over and he will be vital to their chances off getting out of trouble. Poor defending and lack of team cohesion is allowing the opposition to score comfortably. Draws against Preston and Reading offered plenty of optimism however, back to back home defeats to West Brom and Bristol City have highlighted a sinking feeling at Portman Road. December will be crucial for Ipswich because they must find a win and fast to really ignite their season. Bolton are severely struggling and after a brilliant opening month, things have declined severely, and the Trotters have sunk down the table after 1 win in their last 15 games. The fans are unhappy, and the pressure is mounting on Phil Parkinson and despite the dreaded vote of confidence from chairman Ken Anderson, things haven’t improved for Bolton. 3 defeats in 4 games during November hasn’t improved the mood of the fans and goals are severely dry for Bolton right now scoring just 12 league goals this season. As well as not scoring, they are conceding goals because of their inability to score themselves. The managerial axe could fall on Phil Parkinson if things don’t improve and things are extremely tough right now for the club but finding a win could really get their season going once again. Despite losing just once in November, Hull continue to struggle for wins and goals. Nigel Adkins’ side have lost just 1 of their last 7 games but they’ve won just twice in that period. With a takeover progressing off the pitch, on the pitch, things are slowly improving but Hull are struggling to score goals and despite Frazier Campbell and Jarrod Bowen chipping in, the rest of the team are struggling to find the net. Hull’s young side are making mistakes in matches which is ultimately costing them. Both centre halves made crucial mistakes which saw them lose 2-0 to Nottingham Forest and consequently lost them a chance of getting something.

Other sides enduring disappointing Novembers included Brentford, Bristol City and Swansea. Thomas Frank has struggled so far in the Brentford hot seat since replacing Dean Smith. The likeable Dane has collected just 3 points so far in his 7 games in charge. 6 defeats in 7 has seen Brentford’s season decline massively and now they find themselves just 4 points clear of the relegation zone. Overall, Brentford have won just 1 of their last 12 games and the likes of Neal Maupay, Romaine Sawyers and Sergi Canos are struggling to recapture their early season form. Thomas Frank is liked by the players and does have the support of the board, but things must improve during December to rescue their declining season. Another side in a bit of a rut is Bristol City. Lee Johnson’s side endured a difficult November but did end the month with a much-needed win at Ipswich. Prior to that, the Robins had lost 4 in a row which saw them drop into the bottom half of the table. While they find themselves in 14th, Johnson will hope they are looking up rather than down. Graham Potter certainly endured his most difficult month so far in charge of Swansea with the Swans winning 1 of their 4 games and losing the rest. Home defeats to Norwich and West Brom and an away defeat to Rotherham has seen Swansea drop down the table and off the pace in the promotion battle. Norwich ripped them apart with excellent football while set pieces destroyed them against West Brom and silly challenges in the area cost them against Rotherham. It is individual errors and overall defending costing Potter’s side at the moment despite them playing some excellent football at times.

The festive period is upon us and this is one of the most crucial parts of the season with games coming thick and fast. Plenty of mouth-watering games to come including Sheff Utd vs Leeds, Middlesbrough vs Aston Villa, Bolton vs Wigan, West Brom vs Aston Villa, Sheff Utd vs West Brom, QPR vs Middlesbrough, Bristol City vs Norwich, Derby vs Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa vs Leeds, Sheff Utd vs Derby, Birmingham vs Stoke, Millwall vs Reading, Norwich vs Nottingham Forest, Leeds vs Hull and Norwich vs Derby. Plenty of football to be played throughout December and no doubt there will be plenty of excellent football and excitement and teams will be hoping they to really ignite their seasons as the half way stage approaches.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Times Tough for Athletic Bilbao

It has been a miserable start to the season for Athletic Bilbao and their new manager Eduardo Berizzo. The Basque club find themselves in the bottom 3 and on the joint longest winless run in the league along with rock bottom Huesca. Berizzo’s appointment in June was met with much positivity after relatively good spells at Celta Vigo and Sevilla. Despite being sacked by Sevilla during the middle of last season, Berizzo won much praise of his football and fighting against cancer. However, he has yet to get Ath Bilbao going this season and the pressure is severely mounting on his shoulders after 1 win in 13 league games thus far.

The season started very well for the Basque club with a comfortable home win against Leganes but since then their season has just dipped and are winless in 12 league games. However, while they are winless in 12, they’ve lost just 4 of those matches. Too many draws and the fans are becoming increasingly frustrated with their inability to secure a win and see out matches. Bilbao are struggling in all areas of the pitch especially in attacking areas. Their stats show their problems:
Shots per game: 10.5 = 19th
Shots on target per game: Joint 16th
Dribbles per game: 18th
Goals: 14 = Joint 12th

Ath Bilbao are struggling to create chances and clearly if you cannot score, you don’t win football matches. They also have the worst disciplinary record in terms of yellows with Bilbao accumulating 46 and have seen a man sent off twice this season. Berizzo is clearly struggling to get his philosophies across to a team full of talent and experience. The likes of Inaki Williams, Mikel San Jose and Iker Muniain are bright sparks in the team and so far, their sparkle appears to have disappeared while experienced campaigners Oscar De Marcos, Markel Susaeta and Artiz Aduriz are also finding times tough and their form has massively dipped. Bilbao’s big striker Aduriz has struggled with fitness and injury so far this campaign and is yet to score in the league this season. While Inaki Williams is their top scorer with 4 in the league this season, Berizzo has consistently played him in various positions across the front line meaning he doesn’t get a run in a preferred position.

Another major issue for Berizzo and Bilbao is their inability to secure an away win. They along with Leganes are the only sides yet to secure an away win this season and this is another added pressure on the shoulders of the likable Argentine. Defeats to Ath Madrid and Espanyol along with draws against Barcelona, Eibar, Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis. While draws at the Nou Camp and Villamarin (Home of Betis) are good results, drawing to Eibar and Vallecano are very disappointing for Bilbao’s high standards. Their issues on the road are further highlighted through Bilbao having has the least amount of shots on target per game and 2nd highest for bookings.

Bilbao is always a difficult job for somebody to take on due to their strict rules and transfer policy which only allows the club to sign players born in the Basque region of Spain. While they have received consistent praise for their policy and determination to help the region, many feel they are very restricted in terms of quality. Bilbao heavily rely on the talent coming through their B side and they have produced quality players including Ander Herrera, Kepa Arrizabalanga and Aymeric Laporte. However, the talent seems hard to come by in recent seasons meaning Bilbao has spent more money bringing the likes of Inigo Martinez and Yuri Berchiche. Both have struggled so far this campaign and Berizzo is no doubt feeling the frustration of the fans. The San Mames once a fortress has certainly lost its touch with fans increasingly hostile and frustrated throughout matches so far this season. Heavy defeats to Villarreal and bitter rivals Real Sociedad have not gone down well with fans. Both teams fully warranted their victories and simply looked a class above Bilbao. Berizzo is desperate for a change in fortunes and he will be hoping December is the month to kick start their season because the longer, this winless run goes on, the greater build of pressure on his shoulders. At times they are a good team to watch but their performances are not consistent and for a whole match hence why they’ve won once this campaign.

Ath Bilbao must get their season up and running and fast otherwise a potential relegation battle looms for one of La Liga’s biggest clubs. Berizzo is feeling the heat from all corners and things must improve on the pitch with his job severely under threat. A crucial December kicks off with a trip to Levante and by any means necessary they must find a win to ignite their season. Berizzo has been passionate in his defence of the team and his ability as a manager but something has to change soon otherwise relegation is a real possibility for the Basque club.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Big Week For Bayern Munich and Niko Kovac

It has been an extremely disappointing start to his Bayern Munich tenure for Niko Kovac. The Croatian is certainly experiencing his toughest spell in management in comfortably his biggest job to date. A terrific spell in charge of Eintracht Frankfurt seems a distant memory for Kovac with life in Munich proving extremely tough right now and the pressure is severely mounting on him.

Bayern find themselves 9 points off their bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund after another winless weekend in which they threw away at 3-1 lead against strugglers Fortuna Dusseldorf. While credit must go to the strugglers for a brilliant fightback, Bayern Munich look lost as a team with a severe lack of belief and confidence. This does stem from the management and Kovac knows things must improve and the Champions League against Benfica this week is crucial to his stay of execution. 2 league wins in their last 7 games highlights their severe struggles and they’ve conceded 17 goals in their 12 league games and that is not good enough. Kovac is clearly struggling to get his ideas across with several senior figures frustrated within the squad and injuries to the likes of Corentin Tolisso and Serge Gnabry. Kovac is also struggling to get the best out of the likes of Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery and Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker regular scores 25 goals a season in the Bundesliga but so far has 7 in the 12 games played including a brace in the recent Klassiker defeat to Dortmund but goals consistently have alluded the prolific pole. The striker’s form is a real frustration for Kovac and the fans with nobody really suited to replace him. Yes, Muller and Gnabry could but Kovac prefers them as wingers as opposed to the central attacking threat. There is Sandro Wagner, but the German has struggled for game time, form and confidence when he gets that opportunity. The strikers aren’t the only ones struggling with the defence also suffering a loss of form and confidence. The likes of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Niklas Sule, Josh Kimmich and David Alaba are all shadows of their usual selves and this can only be adding to Kovac’s problems and the fans frustrations.

Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge gave a passionately heated press conference back in October giving their full support of Kovac and again today Kovac has spoken passionately about his job status in his press conference ahead of the Benfica game. ‘Those who know me know that I am always a fighter. My whole life has been to assert myself, giving up or waving the white flag does not exist in my vocabulary. I will always fight’. "Criticism is always there if you don’t live up to the expectations - we need one point tomorrow to progress, but we want to win. And then we hope we'll perform better in the Bundesliga than we have before”. There is something not right at the club whether that be the manager, playing staff or the hierarchy at the top. A lack of summer transfer activity has highlighted some issues with only Leon Goretzka walking into the first team on a free from Schalke. Their only other recruit is highly rated Canadian winger Alphonso Davies who joins very soon following the conclusion of the MLS season. Just £10M spent in the summer on improving the squad and while they do have one of the best squads in Europe, the squad is ageing, and youthful exuberance is lacking despite some promising talent breaking through from the youth academy. Kovac is doing his best to use what he’s got but he must certainly want to stamp his authority and identity on the Bavarian giants. Bayern Munich are a huge football club that are on the brink of a crisis both on and off the pitch with just 6 wins in their 12 league games overall and the clock is very much ticking on the Kovac tenure which started excellently with 5 straight wins in all competitions. A draw to Augsburg back in September really started Bayern’s slow decline of form.

Kovac is no doubt feeling the heat and certainly the Allianz Arena is not the fortress it once was. They have won just 2 of their 6 league games at home and that is a severe problem considering it is usually one of the toughest places to go in Europe let alone Germany. They are winless in their last 4 home league games so it’s no wonder the fans are unhappy. A humiliating defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach at the start of October really hit the players and the fans hard. They were completely outplayed and outclassed by Dieter Hecking’s team and since then, they have failed to recover from that at the Allianz Arena with 2 consecutive draws against Freiburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf. Teams are finding a way to talk something away from the Allianz Arena and is clearly emphasising Bayern Munich’s struggles to take their chances, kill off games and see out results. These are factors usually associated with relegation battlers.

There is no denying Bayern Munich are in crisis certainly on the pitch and this is a crucial week for the club with important matches against Benfica in the Champions League and a trip to Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga. Surely wins in both are imperative for the club and Kovac to keep his job. They cannot surely pull Jupp Heyneckes out of retirement yet again to rescue their season but certainly it could a thought that has crossed the mind of Hoeness and Rummenigge. Their season has been very poor by their high standards and they must improve and fast to save their season and Kovac knows he must get them going otherwise it will be curtains on his very short time in Munich.