In a summer of slightly bizarre transfer business over at Stamford Bridge, Stoke City may have benefitted the most after they snapped up powerful defender Kurt Zouma on a season-long loan.
The 22-year-old has already proven himself to be an excellent acquisition this season, being influential in the narrow victory against Arsenal, and he proved his worth again on Saturday night.
Not many people would have given Stoke a chance against a rampant Manchester United side, winning their opening three Premier League matches of the season by scoring ten goals and conceding none, but Mark Hughes’ side again stood tall again performed out of their skins.
If there was one man that typified the home side’s dogged attitude it was Zouma, casting an imperious figure in the heart of the defence and setting the example for his teammates to follow.
He barely gave the in-form Romelu Lukaku time to think on the ball, closing him down and staying tight to him for most of the game, whilst he was always on hand to mop up and sweep at the back.
The 22-year-old made nine clearances at the bet365 Stadium yesterday – more than any other player on the field – as the hosts had their backs to the wall at certain stages of the game, also winning 100% of his aerial battles and making two critical blocks to stop United from finding the net.
Yet, whilst his defensive efforts will understandably take the plaudits, it was his desire and his willingness to drive from the back which had an impact on the game, showing that Stoke weren’t going to sit back.
This is the problem that Leicester City faced against Jose Mourinho’s side at Old Trafford, being stationed far too deep all match and inviting the constant stream of pressure, and manager Hughes had clearly set his side out to avoid this and attack whenever possible – with Zouma taking note.
The Frenchman completed 100% of his attempted take-ons, always looking to push Stoke forward and almost take the game to their opponents, showing that they’re not scared of the Premier League’s elite.
Perhaps most important of all he took leadership on the field in the absence of captain Ryan Shawcross, adjusting to a slightly different role in defence and ensuring the back-three kept tight.
It would have been a huge injustice had his inadvertent injury-time header found its way into his own net but, fortunately for Zouma and Stoke, the outstanding Jack Butland was on-hand again to palm to safety.
A point was arguably the right result in the end, with neither side deserving to lose a tightly match, and Stoke can be grateful for Zouma for the impact he’s had since arriving from Chelsea in the summer.
Why is Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson so under-appreciated?
The 27-year-old is a regular starter for both club and country.
No England player is derided more than Jordan Henderson. Scroll through social media after a Three Lions international and the likelihood is unfavourable comments about the Liverpool midfielder will be in ample supply.
It was no different after the recent friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam. Although England stepped up their World Cup preparations with a morale-boosting 1-0 victory, Henderson was subjected to the usual vitriol and abuse.
Charged by Gareth Southgate of shielding the back three, the 27-year-old carried out his instructions to the letter, helping the visitors keep their fifth successive clean sheet.
Furthermore, Henderson was able to have a positive influence in attack, pushing England forward with his range of passing, both short and long. His performance was commended by Southgate, who had entrusted him with the captaincy in the absence of Harry Kane.
It is not only the England manager who values Henderson’s qualities. Jurgen Klopp has frequently spoken of his admiration for his skipper.
Succeeding someone as iconic as Steven Gerrard – at a club as prestigious as Liverpool – was a daunting task, but Henderson has not been overawed by the armband. In fact, he has relished the extra responsibility at Anfield.
This season has been a hugely encouraging one for Liverpool. They have progressed to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and look set to finish in the top four of the Premier League.
Much of the attention has focused on Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, whose exploits in front of goal have grabbed the headlines. The Egyptian, in particular, has been a revelation and is the frontrunner to win the Golden Boot.
For every Salah there is a Henderson, someone who keeps the side ticking. Much of what he does goes unnoticed. Perhaps it is only the Liverpool supporters who see him at close quarters that recognise the work he undertakes.
The dropping deep to collect the ball from the goalkeeper. The pressing when the opposition are in possession. The tempo he dictates. The movement that enables more creative players the time and space to work their magic. It’s not always pretty, but it’s mightily effective.
You won’t see Henderson dribble past three opponents before smashing the ball into the top corner – that is not his function in the team. But it doesn’t make his contribution any less important. Every building needs strong foundations and Henderson is the bedrock upon which Liverpool’s most dazzling talents can flourish.
Unlike on the continent, the value of a holding midfielder is continually overlooked in England. It is a testament to the former Sunderland man that, despite the negative perception about him, he continues to hold down a place for both club and country.
As well as his attributes on the pitch, Henderson is a total professional off it, dedicated to extracting every ounce of ability he has.
In two months’ time, Southgate will finalise his 23-man squad for the World Cup. There is no question that, fitness permitting, Henderson will be on the plane to Russia.
In all probability, he will be named in the starting XI for England’s opening fixture against Tunisia on June 18. Unfashionable though he may be, Liverpool and England will continue to benefit from Henderson’s reassuring presence.
Why Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw has crossed the line
The Portuguese manager has been highly critical of Luke Shaw this season.
The fractious relationship between Jose Mourinho and Luke Shaw plumbed new depths when the left-back was substituted at half-time in Manchester United‘s FA Cup victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. The 22-year-old had been handed a rare opportunity to impress at Old Trafford but lasted only 45 minutes.
Speaking about Shaw in his post-match interview, Mourinho said: “Luke, in the first half, every time they came in his corridor, the cross came in and a dangerous situation was coming. I was not happy with his performance.”
The differences between the pair now appear to be irreconcilable. Shaw, who was signed by Louis van Gaal in the summer of 2014, has been used sparingly by Mourinho. The former Southampton starlet has made just 18 Premier League appearances under the Portuguese in a career that has been blighted by injuries.
Being substituted at half-time is almost as embarrassing as it gets for a player and Shaw’s mood will not have improved after being publicly criticised by his manager. It’s certainly not the first time Mourinho has chosen to talk candidly to the media about his concerns with the 22-year-old.
Some players require an arm around the shoulder to perform at their peak, while for others it takes a kick up the backside. Mourinho, opting for the latter, does nothing without reason and has clearly tried to spark a reaction from Shaw, without success.
From being one of English football’s brightest prospects after making his World Cup debut aged just 18, Shaw, who has seven England caps to his name, is in danger of not fulfilling the potential that convinced United to spend what was then a world-record fee for a teenager.
Mourinho’s tactic of singling out individuals who have not met his standards is in stark contrast to Sir Alex Ferguson, who never blamed his players in public. It has divided opinion among pundits, with Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier claiming the United manager is ‘destroying’ Shaw.
Mourinho is an expert at using smokescreens to distract from his side’s unconvincing performances. And this latest controversy has moved the narrative on from United’s shock Champions League exit at the hands of Sevilla.
Tough love is one thing, but the sustained, public attack on Shaw is unacceptable. If Mourinho genuinely believes he is not good enough to represent United, then fair enough. But to continually vilify the youngster’s performances is a step too far and one that could irreparably damage Shaw’s confidence.
This is not to say that Shaw is a completely innocent bystander. Mourinho’s predecessor, Louis van Gaal, also questioned his desire and general conditioning when he joined United four years ago. Indeed, the Dutchman signed Shaw up to a tailored exercise regime in an effort to improve his fitness.
But while van Gaal’s treatment had the desired effect, Mourinho’s has done the opposite. Being publicly humiliated on a routine basis does neither party any favours.
In all likelihood, Shaw’s disappointing United career will come to an end this summer. A fresh start away from the toxicity under Mourinho is exactly what he needs.
Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook looks destined for a top-four club
The 21-year-old has been called up to Gareth Southgate’s squad as a reward for his recent form.
His form has largely gone under the radar, but Lewis Cook’s England call-up for the prestige friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy has brought him fully into the public consciousness.
The Bournemouth midfielder has been rewarded for his eye-catching performances since establishing himself as one of the first names on Eddie Howe’s team-sheet.
Keeping the likes of Harry Arter out of the starting XI, Cook has become a fans’ favourite at the Vitality Stadium.
With each appearance, the 21-year-old looks increasingly at home in the top-flight and is growing in maturity.
Cook had been enlisted as cover by Gareth Southgate during last November’s friendlies but didn’t feature. This time, however, he is in the 27-man squad on merit alone.
Despite being a newcomer, Cook has international pedigree.
He captained England at the Under-20 World Cup and followed Bobby Moore as only the second Englishman to lift a global trophy when the Three Lions defeated Venezuela in South Korea.
His progress has been tracked by Southgate, who wants to build a pathway from the age groups to the senior team.
It is a model that has proved successful in Germany, whose 2014 World Cup winners featured a nucleus of the dominant under-21 outfit.
Southgate has made it clear that, ideally, he wants to pick those who are performing regularly for their clubs.
With an increasingly shallow pool of players to choose from, this is not always possible.
But for the likes of Cook and James Tarkowski of Burnley, their call-ups are proof that you do not have to play for a so-called ‘big club’ to receive England recognition.
It gives hope to all those who harbour international ambitions.
Cook arrived in Dorset with high expectations after joining from Championship outfit Leeds United in the summer of 2016, but his maiden season was bedevilled by difficulties.
He lined up for his competitive debut in the 2016/17 Premier League curtain-raiser against Manchester United, only for a persistent ankle injury to sideline him for seven months.
He featured only sporadically at the back end of the campaign.
This season began similarly frustratingly for Cook, who failed to make the match-day squad for the opening fixtures.
However, he made his first Premier League start of the term against Leicester City last September and never looked back.
First, in partnership with Andrew Surman and latterly alongside Dan Gosling, it is no coincidence the Cherries’ revival has occurred with Cook at the heart of the action.
He has been instrumental in their improvement.
Cook’s style has been compared to Jack Wilshere, who spent last season on loan at Bournemouth.
Howe has credited the Arsenal man with aiding his protege’s development, culminating in this England selection.
Like Wilshere, Cook could not be described a prolific goalscorer. In fact, he has netted only two goals in 120 career appearances.
Where he shines is in possession of the football.
Linking defence with attack, Cook’s vision and ability to execute a pass are stand-out qualities. He rarely gives the ball away and always wants to move the play forward.
Occasionally he picks the wrong option, but at such a tender age mistakes are inevitable.
Despite the microscopic scrutiny involved in the top-flight, he can never be accused of hiding.
Cook always demands the ball from his team-mates, no matter how well he is playing.
Speculation has risen that Cook might be a target for some of the Premier League’s elite clubs, most notably Liverpool, who were reported to be targeting him to replace the Juventus-linked Emre Can.
Whether this interest materialises remains to be seen, but should Cook’s form continue then Howe may face a fight to keep his prized asset on the south coast.
There is little doubt from those who watch him regularly that Cook has the potential to reach the very top.
England recognition – and a spot at this summer’s World Cup – will only accelerate his rise.