RAW Sport’s 2017-18 Season Preview: Leicester City

The year after winning an unlikely league title was always going to be weird for Leicester City, but what can be expected from the season after the season after dreamland? Well we can be sure there will be changes at the club with the ambitious Srivaddhanaprabha family doubtless wanting to move the club further towards their goal of consistent European football, after a dramatic season to say the least last year. Whilst a Champions League quarter-final was fantastic, the league campaign was difficult throughout, excluding a period of excellence after Shakespeare took over, and surely the owners will want improvement after some significant investment. However there is no doubt this is a team in metamorphosis. With a new manager, some big signings, and a crop of talented young players breaking through this should be a fascinating season for the Foxes. But will we be seeing a surge up the table? Or a season of mid-table mediocrity?

The Transfer Window

Leicester’s summer has been quietly impressive as re-inforcements have been provided in all four areas of the pitch and the drama surrounding Riyad Mahrez has kept a relatively low-profile. Eldin Jakupovic, who has replaced Ron-Robert Ziegler, was impressive between the sticks in Hull’s promotion campaign two years ago and Harry Maguire at centre-back has obvious top flight quality which will be important as Huth and Morgan age. The versatile and experienced Vincent Iborra impressed Shakespeare when he faced the Foxes for Sevilla last season, and will likely operate as a physical attacking midfielder who will provide a goal threat and a cool head with and without possession. Kelechi Iheanacho is a truly surreal signing for the club after the hype surrounding him over the last couple of years. Despite Pep not liking the cut of his jib, the pace, movement and the natural finishing ability should suit Leicester down to the ground and his partnership with Vardy should be fantastic to watch. The biggest plus of the summer for the team however is from within the squad. Riyadh Mahrez is yet to leave, after a distinct lack of substantial bids, and through pre-season has shown his commitment to the club, if the right offer does not emerge, with some excellent displays. Matty James has also returned from injuries over the summer being the most consistent midfielder in pre-season, after nearly 700 days without playing a game for the club. His partnership with Drinkwater took Leicester to the Premier League, and if he returns to form the two Manchester United youth players could force the Foxes up the table.

The Team

Formation-wise many will be expecting Leicester to line up in their tried and tested 4-4-1-1 formation that they have used so prominently over the last couple of years. However this year Shakespeare seems to have a squad with the versatility to play a variety of different options such as 4-3-3, 5-2-1-2, and the 4-4-2 Diamond. Hopefully this creates opportunities for Leicester to negate certain teams in personnel and formation which was a problem for them last year. Vardy and Iheanacho are certain to play together when fit and Kasper Schmiechel will obviously play as many games as humanly possible meaning the real competition is in midfield and defence. With Huth injured Maguire and Morgan will start off in defence early season with Daniel Amartey hopefully converting his international form into club success when given opportunities. James, Iborra, Ndidi and Drinkwater will fight for the two or three central midfield places with Albrighton and Gray likely operating out wide. It’s a strong squad this year with excellent depth and whoever it is that fits into Shakespeare’s early season team can’t be sure of their spot which should really push the team forward.

What Will Happen?

For the first time in our current spell in the Premier League I’m actually quietly confident of a successful season for the Foxes this year with the ability to adapt their formations and tactics against different opposition meaning teams shouldn’t be able to work them out, as they did last season. Iborra, Maguire and Iheanacho are all incredibly good signings in my eyes and should improve the team across the pitch. We also have a batch of incredibly talented young players in Demarai Gray, Ben Chilwell and Tom Lawrence, who have all attracted interest from other clubs, who could have a breakthrough season this year. With Mahrez on the way out the often magical England under-21 star will want to showcase his ability on a consistent basis after complaints of a lack of game time.

A series of difficult fixtures to start the season, including Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the first six should be a good show of the character of the team and how far they can go this season. If we can gather five points or more from those fixtures it could very well give the team some momentum as they settle into the season and push them beyond what many expect of them. Ironically it may be the lack of expectation from other clubs which could be their best weapon this season as I feel that they can be far more potent than they look this season.

All in all the last couple of seasons has been an excellent time to be a Leicester city time with Domestic and European glory beyond many’s wildest dreams. Whilst I don’t expect anything as brilliant this season, the fantastic infrastructure and fanbase of the club, alongside the commitment of the owners surely creates a possibility of great things to come for the club.

Predictions:

Position: 8th

Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy

Player of the Season: Jamie Vardy

Breakthrough Player: Daniel Amartey

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RAW Sport’s 2017-18 Season Preview: Arsenal 

Barnaby Merrill (@BRTMerrill) starts off our coverage of the new Premier League season  as he previews Arsenal’s chances this coming year.

For the first time in twenty years, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger find themselves outside the Champions League looking in, as well as looking to overtake their North London rivals Spurs. Consolation came in the form of a third FA Cup in four seasons, however, making Wenger the most successful manager in the competition’s history. The big question for the Gunners is whether they can quickly return to Europe’s premier club competition, or if this is the start of a period away from football’s top table. At this point, anything is possible: the picture will be clearer on September 1st, with the future of a certain Chilean livewire the key to determining whether Arsenal can leave the disappointment of last season behind.

The Transfer Window: 

So far the club have remained bullish on the future of Alexis Sanchez, who looks likely to leave on a free transfer next season. Mesut Ozil appears close to a new deal, while the only potential departures of note are those of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere-hardly earth-shattering, though the former would be missed. Meanwhile, Sead Kolasinac has joined on a free transfer from Schalke and looks to be a worthy addition-with Nacho Monreal moving centrally as he ages, Arsenal have needed a long-term successor on the left side of defence, especially with Kieran Gibbs looking likely to move on.

Otherwise, the big story of the transfer window has been Arsenal breaking their transfer record on Alexandre Lacazette, with the French forward being recruited after Kylian Mbappe proved impossible to move from Monaco. Lacazette comes with an impressive-looking goalscoring record, but question marks remain over his failure to supplant the evergreen Olivier Giroud at international level, as well as a tendency to pad his stats with penalties. However, if the Frenchman clicks with Ozil and Sanchez (assuming both remain at the club), Arsenal suddenly have one of the league’s more imposing frontlines. Of course, if not, Giroud remains one of the best back-up strikers in the league, and I look forward to another year of him defying his critics with goals and flamboyant celebrations.

Otherwise, it appears the club are focusing on outgoings, with a number of players including Calum Chambers, Carl Jenkinson, Mathieu Debuchy, as well as the aforementioned Gibbs, Wilshere, and Oxlade-Chamberlain all potentially leaving the club. Thomas Lemar has been pursued throughout the summer, but it appears Monaco have put their foot down on selling any more of their young stars.

If Arsenal can keep hold of Sanchez, and add another central midfielder, then the window has been a success. Otherwise, the squad remains vulnerable to injury, though the first eleven looks strong and stable for the first time in a while.

The Team

Since a late-season switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation, Arsenal have looked fairly solid. Laurent Koscielny is superb when fit, while Nacho Monreal, Shkrodan Mustafi, and Rob Holding have all thrived in the new system. Arsenal can be left wide open, and having three centre-backs appears to alleviate the risk of being caught cold. However, time will tell as to whether the new system can stay the course. Hector Bellerin and new signing Kolasinac are perfectly suited to wing-back roles, while Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey appear to be growing into a superb midfield partnership. The main risk is that the injury-prone Ramsey could be missing for a large period of time, with his replacements being Mohamed Elneny, who is a fine player but lacks attacking impetus, and Francis Coquelin, who lacks any semblance of a functioning brain, or indeed footballing ability. I remain convinced Coquelin remains at the club due to compromising photos of the coaching staff, and will not be dissuaded.

Arsenal’s attacking verve has already been discussed, and Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, and the youngster Alex Iwobi are all able deputies. The addition of Lemar would help take some of the creative burden off Mesut Ozil, but Arsenal are reasonably well-stocked in forward positions. Theo Walcott and Lucas Perez appear surplus to requirements in the new system, and could also leave the club, though Walcott may be retained due to his knack for big goals, and the possibility of a return to a back four.

What Will Happen?

I am naturally somewhat pessimistic about Arsenal’s chances, so as to avoid disappointment, but a return to the top four is eminently possible, with Liverpool and Chelsea facing the additional challenge of Champions League football. Wenger seems likely to play a weakened side in the Europa League, meaning the scheduling conflict faced by Manchester United last season may not affect the Gunners as much. Manchester City and United have both strengthened and will likely improve on last season, but Arsenal defeated both sides last season, so anything is possible. Meanwhile, Spurs have an incredibly strong side, but appear paralysed in the transfer market, and have lost Kyle Walker to City. Everton’s investment has made headlines, but not a single player they have recruited would improve the sides above them, so Arsenal should look above rather than below in their efforts to improve this year.

However, a lot hinges on whether Lacazette fits into the side, Sanchez remains at the club and motivated to play well, and whether a worthy alternative to Aaron Ramsey can be recruited in the event of the Welshman breaking down. Arsenal have been linked to Nice’s Jean-Michel Seri and Sporting’s William Carvalho-two very different players, but certainly capable of partnering Xhaka effectively.

Speaking of the Swiss midfielder, I’m tipping him to have a breakout season-he was never as bad as reported last season, and appears to be shouldering greater responsibility in this pre-season, frequently speaking to the referee and cutting out the rash challenges that blighted his first campaign. It must be remembered that he captained his former side, and so has the potential to be a crucial player for the Gunners.

Arsenal are as well-placed to do well as they were last season, but as ever a lot hinges on injuries, and the tactical performance of Arsene Wenger. He showed newfound flexibility last season, but an overreliance on senior pros might prove hard to shake, while tensions remain between him and Sanchez. With the Frenchman under continued pressure from sections of the Arsenal fanbase, a lot will hinge on his management of this talented squad, and if a title challenge can be sustained. However, returning to the Champions League must be the priority for this season-in truth, anything else is a bonus.

Predictions: 

Position: 3rd

Top Scorer: Olivier Giroud

Player of the Season: Granit Xhaka

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Opinion: Ed Farrar’s Player’s to Watch- County Championship

The Seventh of April is a very important day. Not only is it my birthday, but it is also the start of England’s domestic cricket season with the four-day County Championship getting underway. With the upcoming changes to the domestic T20 competition, pressures upon the smaller counties, and an upcoming Ashes tour this winter, this could be a defining season in the history of our domestic tournaments. With this in mind I have selected a squad of players who I expect to make a massive impact this summer. Some are established county stars, some are relatively unknown, but I expect them to all have stellar summers. So without further ado….

Michael Carberry (Hampshire) Averages: First Class: 42.63, T20: 30.93, SR:123.05

Ok so this man’s ability is absolutely no news to anyone, but I had to include him after his successful return from his cancer treatment, in which he struck a century against Cardiff MCCU last Sunday. Obviously it wasn’t against the most potent bowling attack in the country, nor does it mean that the former England opener will return to his brilliant best, but we have seen a story like his before. India all-rounder Yuvraj Singh recovered from Lung Cancer to return to the India national side and re-create some of the best form of his career, and I believe Carb’s can do the same. He certainly has the character to battle back from this adversity and I look forward to seeing some vintage stroke-playing this season.

Daniel Bell-Drummond (Kent) Averages: First Class: 37.12, List A: 38.00, SR:80.70

Rob Key once declared that this man had the talent to play 100 Tests and anybody who has seen him at his brilliant best would find it difficult to disagree. Unfortunately as stylish and exciting as his stroke-making may be, the inconsistencies in his form have never led him to being a true candidate for that England opening slot. His continued presence in Division Two may be another reason for that, and after Kent’s controversial exclusion from promotion last season, he will be determined to finally win promotion. A couple of good performances in the North vs South series also shows his worth against the white ball and I could see him performing across all formats this summer. An Ashes hopeful? If he was to push his average into the mid-forties whilst keeping his free-flowing stroke-play, I could certainly see it.

Scott Borthwick (Surrey) Averages: First Class Batting: 37.10, T20 Bowling:22.27, ER:7.90

I’ve given up on this man’s bowling completely, but I get the feeling that on a spin-friendly surface down in London he has the chance to get some overs under his belt in the shorter format’s this summer. His batting however is his real strength and having developed as a player at Chester-Lee Street at Number 3, after being promoted directly from Number 8, scoring a gluttony of runs on the flatter pitches at the Oval should be easy enough. Scoring 1,000 runs playing for Durham is quite a big deal with the seam-friendly pitches they play on, and I do believe people underestimate this under the illusion he is just that leg-spinner England threw in for a failed Ashes tour. He possesses a wide range of shots, a good temperament and ,in my opinion, the ability to bat in England’s top order for the long term. He will need a massive summer to break into the England side for the Ashes however, and will need to show he can play under pressure after being overlooked for the national side previously.

Colin Ackermann (Leicestershire) Averages: First Class Batting: 40.38, Bowling: 40.66

A quality batsmen playing for Leicestershire? This must be too good to be true. Well apparently not. Mr Ackermann was leading scorer in the Sunfoil Series, South Africa’s first class competition, can contribute some useful off-spin, and is prolific across all three formats. So why exactly is he going to turn out for one of the worst domestic teams inn the world? Well after his chances of appearing on the International stage have been reduced by his home nation’s transformation policies, it’s time to cash in on an English contract. Plus Leicestershire have improved over the last couple of seasons and if he, Clint McKay, Mark Cosgrove, and Ben Raine can find some form, the Foxes may even challenge for promotion to Division One this season. So this looks like an exciting time for my county and hopefully this man will be churning out runs at the forefront.

Liam Livingstone (Lancashire) Averages: First Class: 49.86, T20: 19.20, SR:131.95

The Lancashire batsmen first gathered media attention after smashing 350 off 138 balls in a match for his club, and he has moved on from demolishing sub-par village attacks, to scoring at an average of nearly 50 at first-class level. His form last season saw him get an England Lions call-up and I’m backing him to have another stellar season and force his way into playing a part in the Ashes tour over the winter. It was now Warwickshire coach Ashley Giles faith in him that led him to his success, and if Trevor Bayliss shows similar belief, he will have a huge impact on the biggest stage of them all. His clean striking and temperament also makes him formidable in the shorter formats and he will be looking at breaking into the national one day set up as well.

Aneurin Donald (Glamorgan) Averages: First Class: 35.76, High Score: 234 (off 136 balls)

Let’s start with the fact that this man has an excellent name. Quintessentially Welsh. I really do think the name Aneurin should come back into fashion. Away from his name he’s also rather good at cricket, equalling the record for the fastest first-class double century last season at Colwyn Bay. Whilst he did score it against Derbyshire, his innings of 136 balls containing 15 sixes was still very impressive, and it just presents his destructive ability with the bat. He is one of those modern cricketers who has the ability to score runs all around the game, but he also has a solid technique to go alongside this. A talent like his can’t afford to be wasted for an outfit like Glamorgan and they will need to drive him to excellence to give them any hope of getting into Division One at any point soon.

Harvey Hosein (Derbyshire) Averages: First Class: 32.40, Top Score: 108

Not many cricketers can say they have equalled a world record in their time, let alone on their first-class debut, but that is exactly what the Derbyshire keeper achieved at the Oval in 2014. At just 18 years of age he equalled the world record number of dismissals, claiming 11 catches in the match, and instantly raised expectations of a stellar career to follow. His ability behind the stumps has never been questioned, but his batting performances have not quite matched those just yet. He will need to kick on with the bat this season to further his career, but after his impressive maiden century against Worcestershire at the end of last season, under the pressure if following-on, I think he has the ability to average far higher than 32.

Jofra Archer (Sussex) Averages: First Class: 27.28, BBI: 4/31, Batting: 24.37

Making your first class debut against Pakistan is surely a daunting task, but not for this former West Indian Under-19, as he took 4-49, dismissing Hafeez, Masood, Azhar Ali, and Misbah Ul-Haq for his wickets. Quite a prolific start and his County Championship debut followed soon after. He went on to impress with some excellent displays of seam bowling, think Chris Jordan but accurate, and also some exciting stroke-play, again think of Chris Jordan. He has a strong action which looks like it could generate another yard of pace and does move the ball around prodigiously off the seam. Sussex will be hoping they have found another Barbadian of high quality who can lift their prospects in all formats, after a poor season last year.

Mason Crane (Hampshire) Averages: First Class: 38.68, BBI: 5/35, List A: 30.91

Leg-Spin is having a massive revival across the world at the moment, and believe it or not, a group of young English players at the fore-front. Whilst in recent years the erratic Imran Tahir has been carrying the torch of the lost art, a group of young players have broken through on the international stage. Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan has ripped through Ireland, England Lions, and Zimbabwe recently, and is a future test star in the making. New Zealand has Ish Sodhi, Pakistan has Shadab Khan, and now we have Mason Crane. Having impressed enough over the Australian summer to be the first overseas player to appear for New South Wales since Imran Khan, this young man certainly has enough about him. He turns the ball prodigiously, has good control over his flight, and uses his variations cleverly enough to trouble even the best batsmen. His spell of four wickets for one run in ten balls in the last game of the North vs South series just shows his game-changing abilities. This will be a breakthrough summer for the Hampshire man and along young leg-spinners like Matt Critchley, Matt Parkinson, and Josh Poysden, this will also be the beginning of a bright future for English Leg-Spin.

Harry Podmore (Middlesex) Averages: First Class: 24.27, T20: 28.50, ER:9.05

I really like the cut of this young quick bowlers jib. His first real exposure to professional cricket was in the shortest format of the game, making his debut in 2014, where he impressed at the death with his ability to use his natural bounce as well as nailing his yorkers. He is not just a white ball specialist however, his pace, natural height, and power gives him the ability to perform with the red ball. His first class debut for Middlesex last year produced figures of 4/54, and having impressed in the season opener against the MCC in Abu Dhabi, I think he can break in to the Middlesex team this year, especially if Stephen Finn is away on England duty. He will certainly be in competition with Middlesex team-mate and fellow young quick bowler Tom Helm this season, but I think Podmore is ahead in the pecking order and is in the best place to perform.

Ben Sanderson (Northamptonshire) Averages: First Class: 22.45, BBI: 8/73

After being released by Yorkshire in 2011, it seemed unlikely that the quick bowler from Sheffield was going to make the impact that his potential warranted. However good performances in club cricket, after a spell playing minor county cricket for Shropshire, earned him a trial with Northamptonshire and since he hasn’t looked back. Last year he starred in the struggling counties T20 Blast triumph, taking 3-31 in the final, as well as taking 55 wickets at 21.04 in the 14 County Championship he played. Few have seemingly picked up on his success however, potentially due to his team or the division he plays in, but there are few better seamers around the circuit at the moment and I fancy he will enjoy another prolific season.

Twelfth Man

Jack Burnham (Durham) Averages: First Class: 25.64, High Score: 135*, List A: 17.25

After announcing himself at the Under-19 World Cup in 2016 with three centuries before England’s exit in the Quarter Finals, Paul Collingwood gave this man the chance to bat at 4 throughout the 2016 season. Whilst his form was solid, rather than spectacular, he will have learned a lot from Durham’s troubling season both on and off the pitch. Now with the departure of Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick to Surrey, Durham will need this man to score heavily to keep their heads above water in a campaign that will be very difficult for the county. Whilst his team may not get too many positive results, I think we will see this man develop into one of the finest young players on the circuit.

So here is my team of players to look out for. There are so many bright young prospects in County Cricket at the moment and i’m backing players like Matt Parkinson, Tom Helm, and Shiv Thakor to have big seasons as well. If you are looking for an insider’s view, look out for Ben Raine, Lewis Hill, and Callum Parkinson at Leicestershire, they all have a great amount of talent.

Here are my predictions for the competition winners this year also:

Specsavers County Championship Division 1- Surrey

Specsavers County Championship Division 2- Leicestershire. Please? (Probably Kent)

Royal London One Day Cup- Warwickshire

Natwest T20 Blast- Middlesex

Disagree with any of these views? Well make your views heard by getting involved with RAW Sport now! You can follow our twitter at @RaW_Sport1251 to keep up to date with our events, our Mixcloud at RaWSport to listen back to all our shows and podcasts, and like our Facebook page RAW Sport to get in contact and get involved.

 

Opinion: Barnaby Merrill’s Premier League End-of-Season (P) Review and Predictions

With most sides facing nine or ten more games before the end of the season, we can now comfortably call this the ‘run-in’ period of 2016/17’s Premier League campaign. The idea of a ‘run-in’ is nebulous and poorly defined, so I’m going to define it there. Like that. Defined. Bam.

I digress.

It’s time for a few late-season thoughts, predictions, and even some hot transfer tips, straight from the shadowy figures that haunt my dreams. One of them is called Jorge. Continue reading “Opinion: Barnaby Merrill’s Premier League End-of-Season (P) Review and Predictions”

Opinion: Ed Farrar’s Lions XV Pick

The time is approaching for Warren Gatland to select his British and Irish Lions squad for this summer’s tour to New Zealand, and the kiwi has some difficult decisions to make across the field. Given the poor form of his Wales side over the last couple of years, I Ed Farrar, Head of Sport at RAW and staunch supporter of the GatlandOut campaign, decided to provide my opinions on the subject to help the Lions coach with his selection issues. Continue reading “Opinion: Ed Farrar’s Lions XV Pick”

Opinion: Why I Won’t Support Nottingham Nightmare

Southampton Storm, Manchester Magic, Nottingham Nightmare. Please give me a break.

That’s what it’s going to be. Eight teams with gimmicky names fighting it out in the ECB’s ingenious answer to the success of the IPL and the Big Bash. I do wonder whether these franchises will go down the, somewhat, tasteful route of Australian franchise teams such as the Perth Scorchers or the Sydney Sixers. Continue reading “Opinion: Why I Won’t Support Nottingham Nightmare”