Premier League Roundtable: On Frank Lampard, Mario Balotelli and Referees
I'd like to welcome all readers to the third instalment of a weekly discussion group featuring multiple writers from the English Premier League section of the Bleacher Report's world football coverage.
Joining me in this discussion as always are some of the very best writers on this site and I'd like to take the opportunity to introduce them.
James Dudko is a Featured Columnist who provides top-notch articles in relation to Arsenal FC as well as the NFL. James is a prolific writer whose articles always receive a high number of reads and invoke good discussion.
Ryan Rodgers is a Featured Columnist as well as a member of the Bleacher Report Writers Academy. His main focus is on Manchester United but he also writes on a number of other topics related to world football. Ryan's articles are well thought-out and generally well received.
Matt Cheetham is the lone Featured Columnist for the Everton section and does an exceptional job at keeping that section entertaining. He's also one of the best at producing top-quality slideshows with regards to humorous moments in football.
Mr 999 has yet to begin his writer career here on the Bleacher Report but is a widely respected reader and discusser of articles. A knowledgeable Chelsea fan, he will certainly be an asset to the site when he begins to publish articles.
Sean Babcock is a Featured Columnist in the Tottenham Hotspur section. He features among the top writers in the Spurs section every month which is a testament to the quality articles he regularly publishes.
True Blue is a Featured Columnist who is a longtime Manchester City fan whose years of suffering are now paying. A knowledgeable football fan, he has been producing top-quality articles for a long time on Bleacher Report.
And of course, myself. I'm a Featured Columnist in the Liverpool section but sometimes venture into other areas and other sports.
This week we're going with a Fact or Fiction theme, with a question on each contributors own team. Liverpool and Everton have a shared question because the Merseyside derby had only one major talking point.
We hope you enjoy.
Fact or Fiction: Manchester United
Statement - United's Defence Frailties Will Be Their Downfall This Season
Fiction. United are having problems in defense, but the return of Vidic will likely solve a lot of those issues.
Injuries are playing a big part but unlike the 2009/10 season, United seem to have more options this time round. The quandry at goalkeeper would be the biggest concern.
The sad fact is it's hard to seen any of the chasing pack take enough of an advantage to overhaul United. As long as Rooney stays fit, expect them to comfortably retain the title.
Fiction. Let it be known that United have been without the best central defender in world football since August. Despite Nemanja Vidic being out, players like Smalling, Evans and Jones have stepped up immensely.
United barely missed a beat against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal. United have enough depth in their ranks to cope with a loss that quite frankly, not many teams would be able to cope with out.
Fiction. It is possible that it will cost them points. David De Gea has been hugely overworked so far this season and United’s exciting revamped offensive schemes do seem to leave them a fraction more exposed.
However, I still feel they will be the team to beat this season and their problems are not affecting them the same way some other teams are currently suffering. Nemanja Vidic has only played one Premier League game so far and he will certainly solidify things on his return.
The likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are only likely to improve the more they play together, so not for me.
Fiction. This is not true. I would love to see Vidic back in the side and partner Jones against Liverpool.
He is faster and stronger. Jones can bring the ball into midfield without much worry. The young ones like Jones and Smalling are expected to make errors in judgement and positioning as they learn.
People like Evra, Evans and Rio however have been recently allowing opponents way more space in the box than they should have. I think Vidic is clog that holds it all together. His presence raises everyone elses game.
Fact(ish). I wouldn't use the word "downfall," but any defensive weaknesses could come into play if United and City (and Chelsea?) remain as close to each other in the standings as they are right now.
I'm particularly thinking of the Manchester Derbies, when United will face the second most potent offense in the league who just so happen to be their fiercest competitors (at the moment) for the title.
That six-point series is going to be huge in the final tally, and United's back line better keep it together if they don't want their neighbors suddenly cheering about a perceived "power shift" in Manchester.
Fact. To be honest, I think United are weak at the back and, as I suspect Ferdinand has no more than a bit part this season, there will be a few nail-biting times for Fergie if Jones gets a knock.
Vidic is apparently having issues keeping his missus happy in England so he may become distracted when fully fit.
Even though there are definite issues Jones looks very good and Smalling has the chance to make a position his own for years to come as well.
Fact. United's defence has looked poor all season, teams have just failed to capitalize on it. Against Chelsea they should have conceded four. Even Arsenal should have put four or five past them. Norwich were happy to attack United at the weekend and that says a lot, especially since they should have gotten a draw!
I don't think Vidic solves the problem either. Vidic is a great defender of crosses and a great organizer, but he struggles with players running at him because he lacks pace.
I think the biggest problems for United are that they have no bite in midfield and teams are easily playing through them, and DeGea. I think he's an accident waiting to happen. He's made a lot of mistakes already this season.
Conclusion: Bit of a split here, but the panel all agree on one thing. United miss Nemanja Vidic.
Fact or Fiction: Merseyside Derby
Statement - Jack Rodwell's red card was the sole reason Liverpool won the Merseyside Derby
Fact. Liverpool have done little to truly impress this season. While it's difficult to imagine that Everton would have been adventurous enough even with 11 men, Liverpool were far from convincing for large portions of the match.
Even though he scored, the Andy Carroll situation continues to be an issue. He and Suarez still do not look ideally suited and the midfield is forced to play in very different ways to suit each of the front two.
Fact. Playing over an hour with a man down in a heated derby is always going to make it difficult. Everton was creating some good chances and playing good football up until Martin Atkinson got card happy and produced his fourth red card in seven matches.
After that, Everton were forced to change their tactics, and Liverpool was skilled enough to capitalize.
Of course it was. Next question?
Thanks for that David(!) Well, the red card ruined the game as a contest and as a spectacle and has rightly been rescinded now. Both sides had been evenly jostling for supremacy in the opening 20 minutes with Luis Suarez missing a great opening, and Pepe Reina forced into a few good saves.
Of course I cannot truly say (with my Everton hat off) that this was the only reason Liverpool won, so technically my answer has to be fiction. 11 against 11, both sides were capable of taking the points and it had looked set to be a good game.
What the red card did do was make Everton unable to mount any significant offence, and therefore it became a case of one or nil points from then on.
Fiction. Liverpool could only beat what's in front of them. Its not their fault the ref has zero common sense.
They played well enough and they certainly had the better of the game before the sending off and I would have put my money of them going on to win the game anyway, regardless of the sending off.
It was an unfortunate incident and one I'm sure Everton use as an excuse but in all honesty, i think Liverpool would have won anyway.
I don't think it would be right for me to say, because that would imply that a Liverpool victory would have absolutely not have occurred if it weren't for the red card. I don't think that's necessarily the case.
But the decision was obviously huge, and it created a shift in momentum and the mental state of players on both sides. And it certainly contributed to the result at the end. Would the result have been different without the red card?
Maybe. It's just a shame that the fans (and the players, but derbies are so important to the fans) were deprived of the opportunity to know for sure in an 11 v 11 scenario.
Fact. Having watched with incredulity when Everton failed to attack City at all, I was pleasantly surprised by the way Moyes set-up and went for Liverpool.
It even seemed as if Everton could go on to win the game, with a bit of luck.
That said I still think a draw would have been the outcome with 11 v 11 - but it was never going to be easy to have 11 v 11 after 90 minutes.
Fact. Liverpool were awful on Saturday and that's just the fact of the matter. Everton dominated the midfield battle even with a man less on the pitch, and other than Suarez and Bellamy, no Liverpool player other than the goalkeeper and defence played well.
I think that game was destined to be a 0-0 had Rodwell not been dismissed. It was a disgraceful decision. I was actually surprised it was even a free kick!
I will say though: Luis Suarez has been accused of getting him sent off. That's nonsense. The fact of the matter is that Rodwell clattered into him after he'd won the ball, and the referee was reaching for red before Suarez had even hit the deck.
Conclusion: Majority rule says that this is a fact. Had Rodwell not gotten an undeserved red card, Everton would have gotten something out of the Merseyside Derby.
Fact or Fiction: Arsenal
Statement - Bacary Sagna's injury ends Arsenal chances of qualifying for Europe next year.
Fiction. European qualification is still a possibility.
Champions League qualification seems a lot like pie in the sky at the moment. However, a Europa league berth may be a much more realistic short-term target until this team settles on its own identity.
Sagna's injury is certainly a blow, Jenkinson has sadly looked way out of his depth in the league, and Djourou is too injury prone and rash in the challenge to be relied upon in such an important position.
Fact. Arsenal can kiss their chances of Champions League football goodbye. Sagna's injury, however, is not the only reason.
Fiction. Arsenal are certainly in a rut at the moment, but with the players they still have and the individuals that will eventually return from injury, I cannot envisage them failing to qualify for Europe next season. That would be a shock.
Bacary Sagna is sizable loss, however most teams looking up at the Top 6 would still choose Arsenal’s current line-up over their own.
They also have two decent home ties coming up and six points would restore a lot of confidence in the dressing room, and perhaps re-establish some unity and cohesion on the pitch.
Fiction. The loss of Sagna is an absolute disaster, perhaps the worst possible; in every other position there is the semblance of a decent replacement.
Not so much at RB. With the totally inexperienced Jenkinson playing for the next three months, every team will be targeting that area. Not sure it will end their chances of qualifying for Europe though Top 4 does look a tough ask at the moment.
They'll comfortably finish in the Top 6, which should guarantee them a Europa League spot.
Fiction. I think anyone who says that it does is operating on the assumption that Arsenal was already heading down that road anyway, making this just the icing on the cake. And they very well could be correct, but the EPL season is long, and we're just getting started.
Last season, it was much later than this that we were all counting Chelsea out and figuring Spurs were a shoe-in for the top-four. It's amazing how quickly it all can change with a momentum shift. Both Spurs and Arsenal squandered some very good looks in the NLD.
If it had been the other side who finished a second chance to take the victory, we'd all be talking about how Arsenal are back.
Fact. Arsenal are having a hellish time with injuries this season, and the players that have been brought in were brought in in a hurry. Mertesacker, for example, is very poor so the loss of any of the experienced players from the defence was going to be difficult.
But Arsenal's chances of qualifying for Europe were on thin ice way before Sagna's injury. It just took Gooners a while to suss that out.
Fact. Unless they make a big move in January.
Arsenal were never making theTtop 4 this season. Let's just get that cleared up. It was Liverpool or Spurs for 4th and Arsenal were looking at a 6th place finish as Wenger rebuilds. Right now they are looking at 7th or 8th in my opinion.
Sagna and Varmaelen are both world class defenders, and Arsenal are now without both. What remains is a bit of a mess at the back and I don't think Arsenal will score enough goals to compensate.
With that being said, if Wenger spends a lot of money in January, it could all change.
Conclusion: Kiss the Champions League goodbye Gooners. But Europa League football should be at the Emirates next season.
Fact or Fiction: Tottenham Hotspur
Statement - Tottenham's win proves they are top 4 bound
Fact. Confidence is high at Spurs which is crucial for players like Van der Vaart, Modric and Defoe. Spurs appear better equipped in every area to achieve the consistency which they are so often lacking.
It's also tough to envisage who else other than Spurs is able to take fourth.
Fact. I think Tottenham will secure a top four finish over Liverpool.
Their performances have been brilliant so far, and now that they have a world class striker, Tottenham appear to be a favorite for a Top 4 finish.
Fact. For me, I see Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal in a three way tussle for fourth, and at the moment, Spurs look the best equipped to finish on top.
This can all change very quickly, but they have now beaten both of these rivals in the past few weeks. As has been discussed in the media, their spine of Emmanuel Adebayor, Scott Parker, Ledley King (when fit) and Brad Friedel is pretty impressive.
Throw in Rafael van der Vaart, Luca Modric and Gareth Bale and their offensive options are particularly intimidating. If they can avoid excessive defensive injuries, I see them having a great season culminating with Champions League football once again.
Fact. They are certainly in the mix. A couple of weeks ago, Liverpool looked nailed on for 4th place, but they suffered a mini-wobble with two consecutive defeats, so I'm a little hesitant in getting carried away.
It looks as though it's going to be just between them and Liverpool, unless Arsenal get their act together. So to answer the question, Spurs were top 4 bound before the season began.
Again, I have to go with an answer along the same lines as the last one: I don't particularly think that it "proves" anything along those lines, as the EPL season is long and many factors will come in to play throughout the course of it.
I thought they were top-four bound last season as well, but one of the worst slumps in recent memory managed to prove me wrong at the end of the season. It does, however, demonstrate that Spurs have the talent to make a very respectable go at it.
But Harry is going to have to take a long, hard look at what works in the long run (with or without VDV) if they're serious about it.
Fact. Tottenham have a fair chance to get into the Top 4 because of Liverpool and Arsenal's crappy form. Tottenham are OK, but certainly not good enough to rest on their laurels, and I suspect that they will just about nick 4th from Liverpool. But it will be close.
Fact. By default. Liverpool just aren't good enough to challenge them for 4th. The only way that changes is with big spending from the Reds in January. Can we move on now please? I feel ill!
Conclusion: With the exception of Sean who gives a politicians answer, the panel is in agreement. Spurs are going to finish 4th.
Fact or Fiction: Chelsea
Statement - Lampard's hat-trick is proof that he's still got a lot to offer.
Fact. It's amazing that a player as productive as Lampard has ever been doubted. He remains vital to the success of Chelsea.
A midfielder who is always a threat to score and, in an injury free season, can usually be relied upon for around 15 goals is priceless.
Chelsea are no longer the force they were defensively and need to maximise their firepower, so they should continue to lean on Lampard.
Partially fact. Lampard is one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. I just don't see Andres Villa-Boas finding a real spot for Lampard in his starting XI.
I think Lampard still has another year or two in the tank, but I don't think he is going to find his chances at Chelsea.
Fact. He is only 33, has never relied on pace in his game and proved on Saturday why he is still one of the Premier League’s elite players.
So he scored one in nine this season before his recent batch of goals, yet how many times has he reached 20 goals a season for Chelsea? Last season, he still scored almost a goal every two games, phenomenal for a midfielder.
Andre Villas-Boas will have introduced new methods and tactics that every player has to adapt to. Every player has lulls in form, but it is far too early to write off a player of Lampard’s ilk. I see him as a focal point at Chelsea for another three years at least.
Fact. All this "Lamps is finished" or "Lamps is back" nonsense makes me laugh. He has been used more sparingly recently and it is getting the best out of him. Excellent management by AVB.
It's not a new concept. Ryan Giggs is used less and less by Ferguson the older he gets, but is used at important moments when his old legs are rested. And he scores and creates some of United's most important goals even though he is 38!
I suggest that Lamps has as much as 5 years potentially left in him, but don't expect him to be an ever present in all that time! I expect that Drogba can benefit from equal longevity if managed the same way.
Great to see him respond with a hat-trick. After all the negative press he's received in the week leading up to the Valencia and Bolton games and in the week where Tevez's antics got so much coverage, Lampard's attitude has been a breath of fresh air.
Fact. But that still doesn't mean he's on track to find the form he enjoyed in his youth. I think a player of Lampard's quality inevitably trades a bit of physical ability for maturity and mental awareness with age and experience, and there are plenty of ways in which those qualities can be beneficial.
His touches aren't what they used to be and lost a bit of pace, but we're still going to see moments of brilliance from time to time, and they're going to do their part in helping Chelsea secure victories.
Is he heading downhill? Probably, but that's aging for you. It doesn't mean he's forfeiting everything that makes him great.
Fact. I don’t think any serious football fan had written off Lamps TBH. He isn’t the player he has been—that's a given—but which players are in their later years and after injuries? I imagine that he will be more of a defensive midfield player with less box-to-box runs, but he is still a class act and well worth a squad place in any Premier League team.
Fact, but he needs to be correctly managed, which Villas-Boas has done so far.
Frank needs to be used ala Scholes and Giggs over the last few years. Starting the big games and the odd other game here and there.
I do think he needs to retire from international football and focus on Chelsea from now on.
Conclusion: Don't write him off just yet, Frank Jr still has some gas left in the tank.
Fact or Fiction: Manchester City
Statement - Balotelli can carry City in Aguero's absence.
Fact. Balotelli is certainly capable. The abiding question concerns his attitude.
Being thrust into a starring role could be enough to get him to behave and try hard long enough to offset the loss of Aguero. City can also benefit from increased goalscoring potential from elsewhere in the team.
Players like Silva and Nasri, who looks like a different player altogether since he left the Emirates, can chip in with a useful number of goals, and YaYa Toure has proven he can be a threat in a more advanced role as well.
Fiction. Balotelli had a decent game against a lowly Blackburn. I would hardly label him with enough quality to carry City like Aguero has been doing.
Fact. He can. He has the quality, but I’m saying yes simply because Aguero only seems to be out with a minor injury. With the international break, Balotelli should not have to carry City for much more than the home fixture against Aston Villa, which I would back him to do.
Were Aguero out for longer than is being reported I would re-evaluate my answer.
A very odd decision for City to allow Aguero, who is suffering from a groin injury, to link up with the Argentina squad.
News from Italy is that Balotelli is now suffering from a back complaint and has been sent back to Manchester so with 'Tevezgate' still rampaging on. It looks as though City only have Dzeko fit for their next home game against Aston Villa; a week on Saturday!
Current rules are crazy, making players fly around the world injured instead of being back at their clubs rehabilitating to get match fit. They run the risk of prolonged absence through injury.
Fact. Roberto Mancini sure has an affinity for the more eccentric personalities, doesn't he? There's still a bit left to be desired in Mario Balotelli, but he would certainly thrive as an easy first-team pick on just about any other squad.
For City, he makes for a great developmental prospect in the shadow of the likes of Sergio Aguero.
This means he needs his minutes on the pitch when City's more profound talents aren't available (or perhaps a loan?), but he's growing in ability week-in and week-out, and I can't think of a squad that he's more likely to fit in (personality wise) than Manchester City.
Fact. Balotelli has the potential to be one of the greatest footballers in Europe, and as such could be more influential than Rooney at United, Torres at Chelsea or Van Persie at Arsenal.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that he is ready to show what he is capable of now that he is more settled and Tevez is a player in the club's past.
I would suggest you all get ready to be amazed.
Fact, fact and fact again. This boy has all the talent in the world and if his head is in on straight, he can become a great player. He's in the mood right now and the goal and performance against Blackburn will do him the world of good.
I think himself and Dzeko can link well, and it will be a good competition between the two to see who partners Aguero when he returns.
Conclusion: Majority rule says this one is a fact. As long as he stays away from backheels of course!
Fact or Fiction: Referees
Statement - The standard of Premier League officiating is getting worse each week
Fact. Without question, the standard of officiating is alarmingly bad.
The scary part of it all is that the worst decisions usually happen in the biggest games. It seems that match officials are more concerned with making sure everybody abides by the respect laws instead of being bold enough to make decisive and correct decisions.
Worse still, those guilty of terrible areas appear again the next week overseeing another big clash. Respect for the official is important, but it cuts both ways.
Fiction. Part of the reason we love the game is because of the human aspect of the game. Mistakes happen from both players and referees.
Now in the case of a red card like the one Jack Rodwell was shown, maybe it would not be a bad idea to offer the receiving team to challenge the red card, similar to what the NFL does.
Fiction. Probably a surprise coming from me after Martin Atkinson’s howler, but I do feel it is too easy to chastise referees. It’s a tough job. Every season there is a period where a number of prominent errors gain recognition, but I do not think the standard has dropped.
If anything, it has slightly improved over the years. Often referees are just applying the rules to which themselves are incredibly ambiguous and confusing. To take three simple examples, there is so much transparency surrounding handball, jostling in the area as opposed to anywhere else on the pitch and, of course, offside.
Many rules in football seem open to interpretation when they need to be far more openly clarified. Although referees make some colossal errors, how many of these calls are picked up on correctly on when first viewing at full speed?
Fiction. A lot has been said in the past week but IMO it isn’t any worse or better than it was 2-3 years ago. An almost identical incident took place a few years ago when Lampard got sent off against Liverpool for a similar challenge on Alonso as the one Rodwell got his marching orders for.
It were 0-0 at the time, just as it was at the weekend, and Liverpool went on to win 2-0, just as they did at the weekend. It’s crazy how not a single week goes by without a massive hoopla about a wrong decision.
The officiating in our league is absolutely horrendous, and it makes you wonder if they're being controversial just for the sake of it.
Nah, they just had a bad week. And I'm sure they'll be analyzing every call and working to improve in the wake of the harsh criticism.
But, for full disclosure, I'm a pretty passionate fan of Major League Soccer in America as well (thought EPL definitely takes priority), so I've seen so much worse. EPL, at its worst is better than, American officiating at its best, so that may be skewing my view of it.
And it certainly helps that some of those controversial calls went my way in the NLD, so Arsenal fans in particular are more than welcome to ignore my opinion of this one entirely.
Fiction. I don't think that the officials are any worse than at any other times but I do think the players behaviour is. Sky TV is also now looking for excuses to blame the officials in order to deflect from their mostly crass and amateurish pundits (MOTD you are not much better either) with the rare exception of Souness who has been magnificent.
I would heartily recommend watching the games with the sound down, ignoring the half time and full time bore-fests and make up your own minds.
Fact. And it's not just the mistakes that are becoming more frequent which leads me to that conclusion. It's the blatant arrogance displayed by certain referees, Mark Clattenburg for example, that is affecting the game.
The "Respect" garbage is meant to work both ways, but players can't book referees for talking back. Referees need to be held accountable.
Liverpool have played seven Premier League matches thus far this season, and in every single one the referee has made at least major mistake.
At the weekend there were no fewer than three games decided by disgraceful officiating decisions. That's unacceptable
Conclusion: Majority rule says no, but Editor's power of veto says YES. Premier League referees have a lot to answer for!
Thanks for Reading
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