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Premier League preview

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all favourites – but there can only be one crowned champion.

Defending champions Manchester City will look to retain their title. However, the season ahead looks to be more competitive than the previous campaign.

The pressure is on for new managers Unai Emery of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. Both managers are new and will have to adapt to the Premier League

Manchester City

No manager has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2009.

Pep Guardiola was the first to lead a team to 100 points in an English top-flight season, but retaining the trophy would arguably be every bit as special. “I am read,y” said the Spaniard ahead of the new campaign.

“The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again. I don’t like the feeling of losing games. When you lose, you feel guilty, you feel bad. Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.”

Guardiola’s desire to continue winning was showcased in City’s win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. City will want to retain the title, but their supporters – and owners – also crave Champions League success.

“It’s important to be in it every season,” said Guardiola of club football’s biggest prize. “And we are going to try with all our effort to win it. But if you ask me what the most important competition is, it is the Premier League.”

A comfortable win at Arsenal in their first fixture was an excellent start is a great start, but not th one Emery was hoping for at the Emirates.

Manchester United

Manchester United were not able to challenge City in the title race last season despite spending £400m since Jose Mourinho took over. His side were 19 points behind their city rivals and even failed to play entertaining football for the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho had said his side face a “difficult season” unless they sign a new defender, but the Red Devils failed to add anyone new to their backline.

Despite their runners-up spot in the league and reaching the FA Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea, United still seem a work in progress and Mourinho appears to have a frosty relationship with some of his players.

Many pundits believe his pre-season negativity can only have a detrimental impact on his squad’s morale, and a failure to make a good start to the season could see the Portuguese considering exit strategies.

Tottenham

Spurs had a positive 17-18 season, finishing third in the league, but have failed to add any new players to the current squad.

Tottenham are the only side in the Premier League history to have not added anyone during the summer window.

However, manager Mauricio Pochettino feels they have, “achieved their objective” and did a “great job” by keeping their best players in the transfer window.

They did attempt to sign Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, but were unable to come up with a deal in time.

Spurs have had top-four finishes for the past three seasons, but delays in the completion of their new stadium could have a negative effect both on and off the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal were restricted in the transfer market by the cost of their move to the Emirates for several seasons, and some Spurs fans fear the same happening.

Their team got off to a good start with an opening victory 2-1 at Newcastle, but bigger tests await them.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp spent over £100m in the transfer window with Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri all added to the Liverpool squad.

Klopp knows the pressure is on to deliver trophies, but said: “We are Liverpool; there is no-one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. I really love how the players have reacted this summer and I cannot praise them enough for the way they have stayed hungry.”

Liverpool had an outstanding run in the Champions League and losing 3-1 in the final to Real Madrid was devastating, however, the football played was certainly memorable.

Klopp added: “The attitude in training and in practice, matches have been outstandingly good, the highest level. And when you consider, as it has been for other clubs also, the build-up has been disrupted by players coming back at different times [after the World Cup], it is even more impressive.”

Liverpool hit four past West Ham in style in their opener and are favourites to win the Premier League according to a Sky Sports online poll.

Alisson is seen as player to end their goalkeeping woes and should create more confidence at the back where Klopp’s teams have been lacking in previous seasons.

Chelsea

New boss Sarri is looking to make his mark in the Premier League by getting Chelsea back into the top four after Antonio Conte’s reign ended in acrimony last season despite the FA Cup win.

Having spent £71.6m on 23-year old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, Sarri has been given the funds to get Chelsea back in the title race.

Their opening win against Huddersfield will build confidence, but they looked well short of Man City’s standards in their Community Shield defeat at Wembley.

Sarri has said simply “My job is to win matches”. But having kept hold of key players such as Eden Hazard and Willian, the Italian will be expected to deliver by Chelsea’s ever-impatient hierarchy.

 Arsenal

New manager Emery began his Arsenal venture with a comprehensive home defeat against defending champions Man City.

He has made it clear what he expects from his current squad: “I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want this every day, this is my ambition”.

The Spaniard is under a lot of pressure from fans to perform well following the departure of Arsene Wenger, although the Arsenal board have made it clear, he will be given time.

Arsenal have failed to reach the top-four in the league for the last four seasons. New defensive midfielder Lucas and centre back Sokratis were among the players signed this summer on a fairly conservative budget, with fan favourite Jack Wilshere released and signed by West Ham.

To conclude, the Premier League title race this season could potentially be more competitive and exciting than ever before. Expect Manchester City to become the first team to defend the title since 2009, but also expect their rivals to push them harder, with Liverpool hot on their heels.

Man City prospect Horsfield now thriving in Dutch football

After switching from Manchester City reserves to Dutch outfit NAC Breda last summer, James Horsfield has urged more young British footballers to follow in his footsteps and make the move abroad.

Last season he helped Breda win promotion to the top flight and is now playing regular football and experiencing a new culture.

“The facts are that I wasn’t playing at City. And at 22 years of age I need to be playing regularly. I decided Breda was my best chance at achieving that,” says Horsfield.

Horsfield’s experience at City began in the academy, later working his way up to the blues’ Elite Development Squad (EDS), headed by former France international Patrick Vieira.

Here he honed his skills among talents like George Evans and Kelechi Iheanacho. Eventually he was included in the  matchday squad to face Leicester in the 2015-16 season.

“Being involved that day gave me something to work towards. It made me think there might be an opportunity there for me, but it didn’t work out like that. I loved my time at City but I knew it was time to move not long after that.”

“I knew [when I was loaned here] last season that my situation at City might be changing. Breda has been on my mind since then.”

Silva lining

The 22-year-old is talking to me via Skype from his flat in Breda. It’s 11.15pm and a tired-looking Horsfield apologises for his tardiness – he’s an hour late four our face to face.

“I’m just home from training an hour ago and had to make dinner. Sorry pal,” he explains.

Horsfield (left) enjoying life with Manchester City’s superstars

Manchester City have just answered the title-defining question, ‘can it be done it on a cold Monday night in Stoke?’ by winning 2-0 in the Potteries with two goals from David Silva. Horsfield is full of admiration for his former club.

“They’re incredible aren’t they? But do you know what? I’m just off the phone with my Dad and I’m like… I don’t know… Silva, I don’t think that little guy gets nearly the credit he deserves.

“He just glides across the pitch, cutting passes and bagging [scoring], and nobody bats an eyelid, really, because of how long he’s been doing it and he keeps a low profile.”

Sergio Aguero’s injury meant the Spaniard was to adopt the goal-scoring mantle – not for the first time.

And although adoration for their ‘21’ has always been evident, the City faithful’s whispers of ‘our greatest ever player’ have become increasingly distinct.

“I’d agree with them. He’s a completely different player to everyone on that team. I’d have him up there as the best ever, most definitely.”

A player of poise and panache that often sits below the precipice of individual awards. ‘What’s he like James?’ I asked.

“If I said quiet would you laugh?”

A new culture

Despite being alongside the likes of Silva, Horsfield felt he had to move. A six-month loan deal to the Eerste Divisie (second tier) was presented to James mid-way through the 2016-17 campaign.

Despite spending the best part of 14 years on the blue side of Manchester, the opportunity to lace up his boots on the other side of the English Channel was one he couldn’t refuse.

That loan spell saw Horsfield play his part in the promotion of NAC Breda to the top flight of Dutch football, following a 5-1 aggregate thrashing of NEC Nijmegen in the play-off final. A feat the young man is very proud of.

“It’s the first time I’ve experienced anything like that. Winning promotion in that way and then parading the trophy around the city. It was a mad feeling. Something I’ve never felt before.

“It’s a massive club, I didn’t quite realise how big until that day. You saw how much it meant to the fans – it blew me away if i’m honest.”

‘I think lads get comfortable in England’

The defender’s professionalism and versatility saw him subsequently offered a three-year deal with the black and yellows, cementing a permanent move abroad and leaving his boyhood club behind — a challenge seldom pursued by young British footballers.

“Having been here last season and playing as well as we did, this was the move that made the most sense. [Not only] for me, but for my family and girlfriend as well.”

“I miss my family and girlfriend, of course, but they get why I came here. My girlfriend, comes to visit me every other weekend.”

Horsfield celebrating NAC Breda’s play-off win

A common theme in the Premier League is young players being brought through the system, but then unable to break into their respective first-teams. I asked James whether he’d recommend moving abroad to similarly struggling professionals.

“What I would say is that sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. I think lads get comfortable in England, it’s all there for you.

“You have to do very little for yourself. Moving to a different country, having to play a different style of football, different coaches, different language, different city — it all changes then.

“As a player, learning a different approach to football is useful I think. I’ve been at City pretty much my whole life and you get used to stuff. A change of scenery has been good for me.”

Pep talk

A recent UEFA study concluded that 69.2% of Premier League players were born overseas – a damning statistic for young British talent. However, despite not making the grade at City, James believes the completion of Manchester City’s £200 million-pound academy complex is an indication that the English powerhouse are progressing in a different direction.

“I think it’s something that’s wanted, from the club and the fans. The money they’ve spent across the bridge is evidence of that I think.

“That development squad is filled with talent. It’s just a case of finding the right time to bring them in. I’ve heard Mansour (City chairman) is keen to give the younger boys a platform. Pep’s been good for that in the past hasn’t he?”

When Pep Guardiola was appointed City manager at the start of the 2016/17 season Horsfield spent an invaluable pre-season under one of the most decorated managers in world football.

“As soon as we got there he was putting together that style of play you’re watching now.

Pep’s City: “You’re seeing the results of that hard work”

“The first thing we did was learn how to switch the ball from the back. And he explains it to you. He breaks it down, why he wants this and that and why it works and how it will work and why you need to do this and the other thing.

“[In training] he’s pulling you up constantly during drills, telling you stuff like where you should be looking at this point and what to be aware of. You’re seeing the results of that hard work now.”

The ‘Pep Guardiola way’ has always been that of good football and harvesting young talent. Most recently he gave  the 31st debut of his managerial career to local central midfielder Phil Foden.

“He looks like a Guardiola player doesn’t he?” declares Horsefield. “Good on the half turn, fine line passing. He’s from Manchester as well isn’t he? Good for him.”

Leaving the comfort zone

Although Guardiola often exhibits belief in raw talent City’s fixture at Burnley was overshadowed by controversy when injuries resulted in Guardiola naming only six substitutes when having the option of naming seven.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described the decision as “a joke”, suggesting the right thing was to give an EDS player the invaluable experience of first-team preparations.

“Yea I don’t know what’s happened there,” says Horsfield. “You’d think it was a perfect chance to give a younger lad a go but I don’t know. There’s obviously more to it than that.

“You’ve gotta think there was probably something behind it. He’s not forgot to give someone the nod has he?”

Horsfield is loving life in the Netherlands

The prospect of a winter break is one that the FA and Premier League have flirted with in recent years and it’s a strategy adopted by most of the major European leagues.

“Obviously I’m biased; as a player. I don’t think anyone playing the game would choose to be at work across Christmas,” says Horsfield.

“It’s for the fans, it’s an English tradition the Boxing Day fixtures. And I get it. But players would for sure benefit from a break.

“It’s like any job I suppose, you need a bit of down time to refresh and reset.”

James’ first season of a three-year deal will come to an end in the coming months. NAC Breda currently sit seven points above the relegation zone with as many games still to contest.

What the extended future holds for our Brit abroad is still unclear.

However, within an increasingly coddled and catered for industry, abandoning professional-comforts, broadening horizons and venturing outside the confines of British football is only to be applauded.

James is on Twitter @HorsfieldJ

Betting shop

Football’s addiction to betting sponsorship puts fans at risk

When Leicester City announced a new ‘official betting partner’ in August 2017, few would have begrudged the former Premier League Champions their deal.

This close and special relationship with Dafabet was, according to the club website, going to allow the club to “build its international profile” and “help engage Leicester’s huge worldwide fanbase.” Well, what was the purpose of Walkers Crisps, then?

Just a week later, the club took to the website once again: “Leicester City announces Ladbrokes as new official UK and Ireland betting partner for 2017/18.” Yes, that’s right. One club, one season, two separate gambling company sponsors.

Jason Puncheon advertises Crystal Palace’s betting partners

My discomfort at the close bond between football and betting, unfortunately, does not stop with Leicester City. It is the bombardment of ‘price boost’ adverts everywhere you look.

Gambling on the shirt

This season nine out of the 20 Premier League clubs have bookies’ names plastered across their famous jerseys in deals worth a combined £47.3 million. Gambling is also infiltrating the supposedly sanctimonious BBC.

Research conducted by University of London, Goldsmiths, showed that during one episode of Match Of The Day on April 15 2017, out of 85 minutes of total programme running time, gambling brands were visible to viewers (through shirt sponsors, pitch-side billboards or post-match interview backgrounds) for 33.5 minutes (39%).

The figures balloon when you look at broadcasts on commercial channels.

We assume that technology is making our lives better, but is it really? Many will argue that having the option to watch at least one elite level European match every day of the week is a good thing.

Whether all-consuming football makes you happy or not, the fact is it’s done so the clubs can generate as much exposure for their shirt sponsors who pay millions for the benefit.

How many of those in favour of midweek mediocre mid-table clashes such as Swansea versus Watford actually watch for the love of Troy Deeney’s insatiable goalscoring appetite? Maybe they’re just praying for a return on their hours spent researching Watford’s away record at the Liberty Stadium.

Getting hooked

FA rules ban replica shirts in child sizes that display products considered, “detrimental to the welfare, health or general well-being of young persons.” So what message are we sending out to our young people by making the beautiful game synonymous with gambling? If we, as adults, can’t enjoy football purely for what it is, how ever will we get our children to grow to love it?

Newcastle United players model their famous black and white jersey for the 2017-18 season

In the 2002-03 season, Fulham became the first English club to emblazon their shirts with a bookmaker’s name, the fairly innocuous Betfair. Since then it has snowballed and now logos include words like ‘fun’ and ‘man’, they’re target markets obvious.

It’s not to say there is anything wrong with an occasional flutter, but gone are those days when a well-gained insight gives way to a hunch. The constant reminders and promotions, on commercial TV and radio alike, encourage incessant wagering on an unnatural scale.

Martin Calladine, author and football blogger who also works in advertising, believes there are even darker motives at play: “I don’t think there is any doubt that the plan for bookmakers is to hook football fans in with betting on matches they attend or watch on TV and then move them onto more profitable forms of gambling, like FOBTs (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals).”

These FOBT machines in bookmakers allow punters to stake large amounts on casino games like roulette.

“It’s a classic marketing strategy,” Calladine explains, “for industries concerned that the truth about where their profits come from would be publicly unpalatable — you promote a product that feels homely and unobjectionable to protect your image.”

Barton ban

One man who knows all too well about football and gambling is Joey Barton. The much-travelled midfielder fell foul of FA rules banning players from betting on the sport and was banned for 18 months, effectively ending his career.

Joey Barton playing for Burnley and advertising another bookmakers

Barton, along with many others, was angered at the severity of the ban.

“I think if they found out everyone who had been betting and cracked down on it, you’d have half the league out,” declared Barton. “I think 50 per cent of the playing staff would be taken out because it’s culturally engrained.”

How hypocritical of the FA to, on one hand take sponsorship money from bookies like Ladbrokes, and then act surprised when it realises there is a negative culture existing.

A public backlash in 2017 led to the FA abandoning its partnership with Ladbrokes after just one year. It also reduced Barton’s ban by five months.

Clearly the FA was accepting some responsibility for the mess, but for the Premier League and Football League to follow suit would be unlikely considering the appetite for increasing annual revenues.

These days, it might seem a bizarre suggestion to look across the pond for wisdom. However, attitudes in the United States against gambling are so strong that, in 2015, the NFL banned players from attending a fantasy football event in Las Vegas merely because it was being held in an exhibition centre adjoining a casino.

Of course the US is a different beast because of different gambling laws throughout the states and nobody is calling for measures that draconian.

It may be wise however, for the football authorities to consider how the entanglement of football and betting will impact on the sport and its fans down the line.

Betting shop image by Kake via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)