My 2014/15 Premier League predictions

After a stunning domestic season and an extraordinary World Cup, the new 2014/15 Premier League season begins tomorrow – just 34 days after the final in Rio. 

Aligning with unwritten tradition, there has been the usual transfer frenzy as clubs await the return of World Cup players from their holidays.

In last season’s Premier League predictions blog, my choices of Arsenal (4th) and Spurs (6th) proved to be the only perfect predictions – but this season looks even more difficult to predict!

Nevertheless, here are my shouts for the 2014/15 Premier League season.

20. Burnley (2013/14: 2nd in Championship); Relegation odds: 8/13 favourites

The Tykes are the clear candidates to be relegated this season, but in manager Sean Dyche they have one of England’s outstanding young managers. It is a shame then, that Dyche has lacked funds in the transfer market to strengthen his squad.

Despite that, some astute cheap signings have been made, with the likes of Lukas Jutkiewicz, Matt Taylor, Michael Kightly and Marvin Sordell coming in for a combined £3.5m. Meanwhile, Danny Ings, Burnley’s top scorer last season with 22 league goals, could be crucial to their slim hopes of survival.

19. Leicester City (2013/14: Championship winners); Relegation odds: 13/5

Perhaps a surprising choice, given that The Foxes won the Championship last season, Leicester are my second pick to go down.

Boss Nigel Pearson has also found transfers hard to come by in the summer, and the over-inflated £8m paid to Brighton for striker Leonardo Ulloa might prove to be a fruitless gamble.

Pearson’s best business looks to be the free transfer of Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa, who has been in rejuvenated form during pre-season, but a lack of strength in depth could down the East Midlanders this season.

18. West Brom (2013/14: 17th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 13/5

New manager Alan Irvine has his hands full in his first season in charge of the Baggies, not least because of a light strike force. The club’s only two recognised forwards Saido Berahino and Victor Anichebe are joined by record signing Brown Ideye, who cost £10m from Dynamo Kiev.

Much will depend on Ideye’s transition to Premier League football and, if he doesn’t fire, the Baggies will be in serious trouble.

Despite that, Irvine has reinforced a strong midfield with Craig Gardner, while centre-back Joleon Lescott will look to resurrect his career after a frustrating spell at Manchester City.

Ultimately, it may be a lack of goals and a shaky defence that will relegate West Brom.

17. QPR (2013/14: 4th & Championship play-off winners); Relegation odds: 2/1

Harry Redknapp has long been a manager to sign big-name players, despite their age, and this season is no different having tempted Rio Ferdinand to Loftus Road.

QPR’s experienced midfield will be vital this season, and it has been strengthened by the arrival of Jordan Mutch from Cardiff for £6m, who will provide extra impetus going forward.

But it is in defence where Redknapp has improved QPR most, perhaps learning from Tony Pulis’ exploits at Crystal Palace, as Steven Caulker and Mauricio Isla join forces with Ferdinand.

The Hoops will survive the drop, but only just.

16. Aston Villa (2013/14: 15th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Villa’s off-field plight has dominated their summer as owner Randy Lerner struggles to find a buyer for the club.

As a result, transfer funds have been almost non-existent to Paul Lambert and new assistant Roy Keane but the manager has opted to bring in experience to compliment a youthful team as Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson join alongside £2m left-back Aly Cissokho.

With Christian Benteke set to return from a nasty Achilles injury in September, Villa should stay up despite the uncertainty over their future ownership.

15. Crystal Palace (2013/14: 11th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 3/1

Crystal Palace had their Premier League future thrown into jeopardy on Thursday as Tony Pulis, widely acclaimed for the brilliant job he did in helping the Eagles to survival last season, left the club by mutual consent.

No replacement had been made at the time of writing, but during the summer Pulis had made two cute signings in striker Fraizer Campbell and centre-back Brede Hangeland, who bring Premier League experience for a combined £900k.

Palace will also depend upon Jason Puncheon, whose goals helped elevate them to eleventh last season, but in the main they look solid once again as they look to consolidate their Premier League status.

14. Hull City (2013/14: 16th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 7/2

This season Hull step into the unknown world of Europa League football, and are just two legs away from the main draw.

If they manage to overcome Lokeren they will face the difficult task of juggling European football with their Premier League campaign – a factor which almost relegated Stoke three seasons ago.

Hull have lost Shane Long to Southampton for a super-inflated £12m fee, but will need to replace him before the deadline shuts if they are to succeed domestically and in Europe.

Tigers boss Steve Bruce has spent heavily on Jake Livermore (£8m) and Robert Snodgrass (£7m) and will look to avoid another late-season dip in form which saw Hull slip to 16th, just above the relegation precipice.

13. West Ham (2013/14: 13th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

Manager Sam Allardyce dragged his side from an alarming position in the winter to comfortably survive, and has looked to address the problems he faced with some impressive signings.

£12m striker Enner Valencia brings a bagful of goals from ex-club Pachuca and seems set to be one of the best buys of the summer, while Cheikhou Kouyate (£7m) and Aaron Cresswell (£3.75m) are intriguing signings.

The Hammers should easily survive but the upper reaches of the bottom ten teams should be their ceiling position come May.

12. Sunderland (2013/14: 14th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 5/1

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet ensured the Black Cats stayed up, to his own disbelief, last season and will hope to build upon that success story with a strong following season.

The signing of Jack Rodwell (£10m) will add extra bite to their midfield if he avoids injury, and the club are working on a £14m deal for Fabio Borini. If Poyet can’t close that protracted move then Connor Wickham will inherit the goalscoring pressure after his spell of five goals in nine games steered the club to safety.

Sunderland will be fine if they can sign another defender, while in Vito Mannone they have one of the outstanding young goalkeepers in the league.

11. Southampton (2013/14: 8th in Premier League); Relegation odds: 11/2

A mass exodus to end mass exoduses destabilised Southampton this summer as captain Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren and Calum Chambers all left the club after Mauricio Pochettino headed for Spurs.

New boss Ronald Koeman has used the huge revenue of those deals to sign free-scoring Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic from the Dutch Eredivisie, while Celtic and England goalkeeper Fraser Forster will compete with the flimsy Artur Boruc for the number one jersey.

However, Koeman still needs to find a suitable replacement for Lovren, but has been scuppered as targets Stefan de Vrij and Marcos Rojo have turned down moves.

Much could depend on the Saints’ defence and whether Morgan Schneiderlin is allowed to join Pochettino at Spurs, but Koeman has restored some balance at the club after a worrying June and July and they should enjoy an unspectacular mid-table finish.

10. Stoke City (2013/14: 9th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 13/8

Another finish in mid-table obscurity would suit Stoke this season, but they will fancy their chances of creeping into the top ten after a healthy summer of transfers.

Misfiring Barcelona reject Bojan Krkic will try his luck in the Premier League, while the trio of Mame Diouf, Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley were all clever free transfers as boss Mark Hughes strengthens his squad significantly.

Hughes will hope that Sidwell’s goals from midfield will remedy a long-term problem for the Potters, while much will be expected of the maverick Marko Arnautovic, who enjoyed a fabulous opening season with the club.

9. Swansea City (2013/14: 12th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 5/2

Swansea have become synonymous with a silky possession-hogging style of play in recent seasons and they will be a top ten fixture throughout this campaign.

The promising signings of Jefferson Montero and Bafetimbi Gomis are Garry Monk’s key transfers, but the loss of Michel Vorm and Ben Davies to Spurs was tempered by the resulting return of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who will occupy an exciting midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey after Michu’s departure.

The Swans still have far too much about them to get relegated and, reliant on the goals of Wilfried Bony, they will be eyeing up a top ten finish with room to spare.

8. Newcastle United (2013/14: 10th in Premier League); Top ten odds: 6/4

Magpies manager Alan Pardew has continued his French revolution during the summer with the exciting arrivals of Emmanuel Riviere and Remy Cabella.

Another wise signing is Daryl Janmaat, who impressed for Holland at the World Cup, as he replaces Arsenal recruit Mathieu Debuchy at right-back.

The ever-expectant Newcastle fans will demand a European spot but that may prove too far beyond them, while Pardew will be out to make sure a slip similar to that of last season when their survival and lack of European football was guaranteed, won’t happen again.

7. Spurs (2013/14: 6th in Premier League); Title odds: 66/1

There is a breeze of optimism at White Hart Lane following Mauricio Pochettino’s appointment as manager.

Safe in the knowledge that his midfield is considerably stronger than anywhere else, Pochettino has focused on the defence, bringing in Ben Davies and Michel Vorm (£13.5m), Eric Dier (£4m) and DeAndre Yedlin (£2.5m).

Pochettino will have to sort through the mass of defensive midfielders at his disposal in search of his best team, but should have an expansive attacking unit at his disposal with Emmanuel Adebayor, Aaron Lennon and Christian Eriksen all impressing last season.

A key early task will be playing Roberto Soldado into form, and it is hoped that Pochettino’s style of play will suit the Spaniard, who could become akin to a new signing if he improves upon last season.

6. Everton (2013/14: 5th in Premier League); Title odds: 150/1

The Toffees have made a statement in the transfer market by turning Romelu Lukaku’s loan move into a permanent one, paying Chelsea £28m for his services.

Meanwhile, Everton boss Roberto Martinez will have a headache in choosing a centre-back partnership with the emergence of John Stones and the combined age (67) of regular pairing Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka a cause for concern.

In the exciting Ross Barkley, Everton have a young star but he may not be preferred to the unsung Kevin Mirallas, who quietly impressed amidst the bluster surrounding Barkley last season.

Everton will strive for a Champions League place but will probably come up short, making a Europa League spot a realistic end-of-season target.

5. Manchester United (2013/14: 7th in Premier League); Title odds: 5/1

The despair and disbelief of the David Moyes era has been replaced with renewed faith under Louis van Gaal as the Red Devils enjoyed a 100% record in pre-season, beating both European champions Real Madrid and rivals Liverpool 3-1.

There are still major flaws in the side, with defence looking particularly vulnerable, and their midfield still requires rebuilding, even after the £28m arrival of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao.

New captain Wayne Rooney will partner Robin van Persie in a fluid 3-4-1-2 system and, with Juan Mata occupying the number ten role behind them, United look extremely dangerous in attack.

However, the jitters in defence still remain and United’s lack of reliable defensive options following the losses of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra may see them get picked off by their title rivals.

4. Arsenal (2013/14: 4th in Premier League); Title odds: 13/2

Arsene Wenger has again moved quickly to offset any worries over their financial clout by signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona for £35m.

Defenders Mathieu Debuchy (£12m) and Calum Chambers (£16m) will bolster a defensive line which crumbled in the biggest games, the worst being a 6-0 drubbing against Chelsea, while captain Thomas Vermaelen has left for Barcelona in a £15m deal.

Arsenal are irresistible going forward but, in tighter games they can be overpowered in midfield and that could prove a significant factor this season too.

An impressive 3-0 victory over an under-strength Manchester City in the Community Shield was a healthy confidence-boost, but they are too reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and will look towards Sanchez for help.

3. Liverpool (2013/14: 2nd in Premier League); Title odds: 12/1

Dominating Liverpool’s summer has been the £75m transfer of Luis Suarez after his appalling bite of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup.

Barcelona were the only takers for the disgraced but super-talented Uruguayan, and Liverpool will keenly feel his absence after replacing him in bulk rather than world-class talent.

Eight summer signings have been made by boss Brendan Rodgers, with no out-and-out replacement for Suarez having arrived.

With £75m to spend, Liverpool appear to have bought unwisely, with some critics musing that a move for a proven world-class striker such as Edinson Cavani would have been a better option than to reinforce his strike-force with Rickie Lambert alone.

Liverpool will still be a huge threat this season, but they already miss the craft and guile of Suarez and will lose out on the title once more.

2. Chelsea (2013/14: 3rd in Premier League); Title odds: 2/1 favourites

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have made huge strides in the transfer market as their search for a world-class striker concluded with £32m man Diego Costa.

Costa endured an awful World Cup, but his form last season for Atletico Madrid attracted Mourinho and a good pre-season has served to alleviate any doubts about the Spaniard.

Cesc Fabregas (£30m) has also arrived after Frank Lampard’s departure to add to a diamond-encrusted midfield, but it is in defence where Chelsea will come up short in the title race.

Their defensive line of new signing Filipe Luis, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill appears solid, but at times last season the latter three were exposed by a lack of pace and inexplicable losses to lesser teams.

Mourinho, despite being the winner that he is, may have to settle for second this time out.

1. Manchester City (2013/14: 1st in Premier League); Title odds: 13/5

Rarely has a side in the Premier League built a squad capable of destroying teams as readily as Manchester City.

The strength in depth available to manager Manuel Pellegrini is luxurious, and the wily Chilean has moved this summer to improve City in their most vulnerable areas.

The £32m signing of Eliaquim Mangala from Porto partners him with Vincent Kompany in what looks to be the strongest centre-back pairing in the world, while Fernando (£12m), Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard are exceptional additions to a scarily-strong team.

City are the outstanding team in the league, but anything less than a title retention will be a massive failure for Pellegrini.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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2014 World Cup: Ten young stars to watch out for

Can you hear the sound of the world’s biggest carnival yet?

When it wheels into the newly-built Arena Corinthians on June 12 over one billion viewers will be gripped by World Cup fever.

Home nation Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo to begin the month-long festival of football.

Of course, there is much expectation and pressure on the Brazilian team to win on home turf and there have also been well-documented clashes and protests surrounding the judiciousness of the finances released by the Brazilian government to host this magical tournament. (There will be more on that in a later blog).

To help get your football juices going this blog will be the first of ten special World Cup blogs to supplement your enjoyment of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Blog number one previews ten of the best young footballers to feature at the World Cup this summer.

To qualify, there are two criteria: A player must be aged 23 or under and must be making his World Cup debut.

So, let’s start the countdown. Who is set to be the brightest young talent of the World Cup?

10. Fabian Schär – Switzerland, age 22, centre-back (5 caps, 3 goals)

Perhaps a surprise inclusion at ten on this list, Schär is arguably one of the most exciting defenders in the world. His aerial ability from set-pieces is allied to an instinctive reading of the game and his impressive pace serves him well when faced with one-on-one duels. Recent performances for Basel in the Europa League suggest that Schär excels on the big stage and will be in contention for a starting place in Switzerland’s first game against Ecuador.

9. Mario Götze – Germany, 21, attacking midfielder (27 caps, 7 goals)

Undoubtedly one of the best German talents, of which there are many, but will he get a regular starting spot in Brazil? The competition for places in the German midfield could hinder Götze’s chances of making a big impact on the tournament but he has proven his goalscoring prowess at international level despite being in and out of the Bayern Munich side this season.

8. Son Heung-Min – South Korea, 21, attacking midfielder (23 caps, 6 goals)

After an impressive season with Bayer Leverkusen, Son will be carrying the affection of South Korea on his shoulders. Son usually plays just off the lead striker but such is his versatility and talent he can switch positions across a forward three and is also deployed on the wing. Son’s flexibility rids South Korea of a rigidity which had plagued their game in recent years but with their new hero they should be a threat to Belgium, Russia and Algeria in group H.

7. Adnan Januzaj – Belgium, 19, attacking midfielder (0 caps, 0 goals)

At just 19, Januzaj is part of a youthful and promising Belgium squad in Brazil. A long wrestling match between several countries is to blame for his lack of international experience but, after opting for Belgium, manager Marc Wilmots has wasted no time in including the Manchester United star in his plans. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him in the pecking order Januzaj could make a significant impact coming off the bench against tiring opponents with his jinking runs.

6. Ross Barkley – England, 20, attacking midfielder (3 caps, 0 goals)

Barkley’s place on this list is dependent upon Roy Hodgson giving him the playing time many onlookers are craving. The precocious young talent has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne but his technical ability stretches far beyond that of Gazza’s. Even if Hodgson prefers to be conservative in Brazil he is set to make substantial contributions when coming off the bench, particularly with his energetic and creative game.

5. Paul Pogba – France, 21, central midfielder (8 caps, 1 goal)

An authoritative and commanding presence in midfield, Pogba is very much in the Yaya Toure mould of footballer. He can rampage forward and score goals as a stellar season at Juventus has proven. Doubts still remain about his mentality but bearing his age in mind that is a problem he will overcome with maturity and should that process happen this summer he could be France’s star player in Brazil.

4. Mario Balotelli – Italy, 23, striker (29 caps, 12 goals)

Commeth the spotlight, commeth the maverick. Balotelli relishes attention and a World Cup in Brazil presents him with an opportunity to display his skills in the biggest arena of them all. His superb performances at Euro 2012 saw a coming of age for the rebellious striker and he has built upon that with some assured displays at AC Milan. He will be the spearhead of Italy’s attack versus England but can he control his temper to replicate his Euro 2012 showing?

3. Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, 22, goalkeeper (15 caps, 8 clean sheets)

Some may be surprised that a goalkeeper makes third place on this countdown, but Courtois will be one of the stars of the tournament. His potential is staggering and his acclimatisation to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid at a young age has been exceptional. A series of assured displays coupled with some outstanding saves shows why Chelsea paid €9m for him when he was just 19.

2. Eden Hazard – Belgium, 23, winger (43 caps, 5 goals)

A world-class talent but inconsistent with it, Hazard has the chance to exorcise his critics with a memorable display in Brazil. His tally of five goals in 43 games for Belgium is underwhelming but after enjoying a spectacular season for Chelsea there are signs he could flower into an international star this summer as part of a dangerous Belgium team.

1. Neymar – Brazil, 22, forward (47 caps, 30 goals)

There has been no expectation as high as this on any player in history. A home World Cup in a land where football is a religion. It seems made for Neymar and all his astonishing skill, but can he deliver under such a burden? His goal-laced performances at the 2013 Confederations Cup would offer a resounding yes to that question, even after an unconvincing opening season at Barcelona. Despite that, the Brazilian team is built to utilise his incredible talent with some tipping him to earn the Golden Boot. Could this tournament belong to the darling of Brazil?

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The Manchester United conundrum

It seems that some people think solving the Manchester United conundrum is as easy as flying an anti-David Moyes banner over Old Trafford.

Others believe it to be a task that will require more than a £100m splurge in the summer transfer window to complete.

Whichever way Manchester United’s current plight is observed, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

Perhaps the most startling difference between the 2012/13 title-winning side and the current 2013/14 squad is the defence.

Nothing has changed in terms of personnel yet it looks completely dysfunctional.

Having watched several Manchester United games this season from the comfort of a local pub, it has even appeared to be frightened, almost paralysed with fear.

This was so devastatingly demonstrated by Manchester City’s bludgeoning of their arch-rivals in the very first minute at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

City swarmed forward and fizzed around the United defenders as if their legs had been soaked in a concrete bath. They were motionless, scared and lacked aggression.

David Silva danced around two United defenders with embarrassing ease, before Samir Nasri’s simple shuffle and shot hit the post and fell straight to Edin Dzeko who tucked the ball away with the sort of unchallenged freedom strikers can only dream about.

Who would replace this ailing defensive unit, then?

Unfortunately for David Moyes, summer signings will be hard to come by.

Not only is the World Cup a traditional obstacle in transfer dealings, but the cunning Old Trafford executives have arranged a pre-season tour of the United States just weeks after the final in Rio.

This means that not only will world-class players be recuperating on holiday and therefore be unavailable to negotiate with, but any prospective signing would not have the chance to integrate with the squad.

Manchester United’s troubles don’t end there.

In midfield they lack energy, creation and combativity. Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be a dazzlingly questionable signing, while Juan Mata has failed to make an indelible impact since his £37m January move from Chelsea.

Tellingly, both new signings have failed to score since their arrival at the club.

Moyes has been very active on scouting missions throughout the winter and has reportedly had Sporting Lisbon’s holding midfielder William Carvalho scouted 12 times.

Carvalho would be an ideal fit at United but the English champions are not his only suitors – and there Moyes faces another problem.

It is becoming harder and harder to believe that world-class players and those of similar potential would choose United as their next club over another one such as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Moyes could do much worse than blooding the promising Nick Powell if his pursuit of Toni Kroos is fruitless, but it would be a blow similar to the failed chases of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas if Carvalho decided against a move to Old Trafford.

Would Manchester United’s under-fire manager then be forced to panic buy as he has apparently done with Fellaini and Mata?

All the current criticism of Moyes is not only misinformed, it is premature.

The Scot has barely had a chance to construct his own side, allowing the new recruits to gel and then getting them to play in the manner he wants.

Therefore he should be judged midway into the 2015/16 season, when it will become clear if his forthcoming transfer strategies have worked or not.

If he is to succeed he can afford no repeat of his previous transfer dealings. That said, the World Cup barricade might prove to be his maker.

Then there is the spectre of European football.

Before the home game against Aston Villa, a five-point gap separates United in seventh and Spurs in sixth. The final Europa League place is awarded to sixth place with a Champions League spot all but mathematically beyond United.

If United do miss out on European football they could struggle to attract the biggest names to the club – and that is a focusing chastisement of their deficiencies this season.

Given all his current challenges, and the ones that inevitably lie ahead, Moyes will be hoping that he is afforded the time he needs to reconstruct a side so alarmingly in decline – and with a six-year contract in hand it is logical for him to be given it.

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

Man City see off disappointing Chelsea in FA Cup clash

Goals in each half from Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri gave Manchester City a simple win over a lacklustre Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round clash at the Etihad Stadium.

Jovetic had already clipped the bar with a chip before he placed an effort beyond Petr Cech after 16 minutes.

Despite the introduction of Mohamed Salah and Fernando Torres, Chelsea lacked spark throughout with the threat of Eden Hazard particularly nullified by a hungry City defence.

But it was a City substitution that finished the game off, with Nasri exchanging passes with an offside David Silva before slotting home to earn City a place in the quarter-final draw.

Before the highest-profile fifth round tie there was an impeccably-observed silence for Sir Tom Finney, the England and Preston legend, and the home side made a timid start amidst an understandably subdued atmosphere.

When City eventually settled, the opening goal was not far behind. Yaya Toure was the catalyst when his fierce shot was fumbled by Petr Cech, presenting Stevan Jovetic with a chance to score but his delicate chip grazed the crossbar.

City’s Montenegrin striker would not have to wait long for a goal though, and when Edin Dzeko found him on the right flank he finished off a quick passing move with a superbly-placed shot to Cech’s right which found the net via the post.

The goal confirmed City’s growing confidence but that was undermined by a shaky Costel Pantilimon, who ignited a goalmouth scramble with a flap at Branislav Ivanovic’s cross but, luckily for the 6ft 8in Romanian, his alert defence saw off the danger.

At the other end the hosts quickly resumed their silky attacking play and after 24 minutes another flowing attack culminated in Dzeko working Cech with a low shot from outside the box.

Chelsea’s disappointing start to the game was reflected by Eden Hazard’s anonymity, with the Belgian kept quiet by the City defence until some smart footwork drew a foul from compatriot Vincent Kompany who was booked by referee Phil Dowd.

Dowd was in action again just before the break, eventually booking David Luiz for a mis-timed challenge on Jovetic, but from the resultant advantage James Milner wasted a good opportunity when his heavy cross proved too strong for Dzeko to reach six yards from goal.

Jose Mourinho, who had been playing mind games all week with his title-hungry adversaries, reacted to a passive opening half by replacing Samuel Eto’o with new signing Mohamed Salah.

Salah replaced Eto’o up front in a move which continued Mourinho’s apparent lack of faith in Fernando Torres.

Mourinho would also have been keen to see his side establish themselves in the second half, but City continued to dominate without coaxing Cech into serious action.

Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, would have been angry when Jovetic proceeded to blemish what had been a diligent display with an embarrassing dive – prompting Dowd to brandish a yellow card.

It was to be Jovetic’s last action of the game, but he was replaced by the returning Samir Nasri on the hour with Mourinho giving Torres the chance to impose himself on his future plans at the expense of the quiet Ramires.

Nasri’s introduction would emerge as the crucial substitution when the Frenchman doubled City’s lead with a wonderful move after 67 minutes.

The attack began with Kompany, an imposing figure throughout, drilling a low ball to Nasri who fed David Silva before collecting the Spaniard’s square pass to calmly place the ball into a vacant net.

Television replays suggested that Silva was marginally offside when he received Nasri’s pass, but the officials went some way to redeeming themselves when correctly disallowing a Joleon Lescott tap-in from an offside position.

Chelsea could only muster a brief spell of pressure late on and duly failed to test Pantilimon in what was a microcosm for the whole match.

By then it was far too little far too late as City ran out comfortable winners to avenge their league defeat just 12 days previous and advance into the quarter-finals with ease.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89