International weeks are good for a couple of things. First, it's a great time to catch up on storylines that you've been meaning to get around to but have been put on the back burner in favor of the latest twist in the soap opera that is the Premier League. The second thing it's good for is a new round of (likely baseless) transfer rumors as reporters and pundits alike are exposed to players from other national teams and other leagues that aren't generally front and center in their field of Premier League-oriented vision. This international break has delivered on both fronts. Here is a quick rundown of random thoughts that have occurred to me over the international break thus far:
Congratulations to the FA Last week in this space I was all but certain that the FA would shrink from the task of punishing Martin Skrtel retrospectively. They proved me wrong and stepped up with an appropriate three-match ban. Here's hoping that once he's back they'll continue to monitor his actions on free kicks and continue to make his life uncomfortable when he goes over the line in clutching, grabbing and generally substituting NFL football for Premier League football when trying to defend set pieces.
The battle of failed Premeir League forwards This is more of a cautionary tale for next summer when we all get excited about the team that lands the services of whatever relative unknown lights Euro2016 on fire. Just remember that the quality of play isn't always that great. Witness the performance put on by Nicklas Bendtner and Jozy Altidore in the Denmark vs USA friendly last week. Based on World Cup resume, the USA is at the very least a solid team. They've made it out of the group stages for two consecutive tournaments and were the only team not to lose to eventual champions Italy in 2006. Nicklas Bendtner scored a hat trick against the US last week. We know all about Bendtner and probably don't think a great deal of his Premier Leaugue potential because we've seen him be nothing more than a journeyman forward over multiple years. The same is true of Jozy Altidore who scored a goal and got an assist in that same match (although "journeyman" would be unearned flattery if attached to his Premier League exploits). If the names attached to those goals had been up-and-comers rather than players with Premier League histories, we'd probably be starting the "Andrey Arshavin after Euro2008"-level hype train rather than remembering that there are a lot of mediocre teams that will be competing in the group stages of Euro2016 and there will be some goal totals built on that mediocrity. If someone unexpected does it against Germany, Spain, Holland, France, England, etc. then that's potentially interesting. If a prospect is fattening his stat line against the Scotlands, Northern Irelands, and Denmarks of the world then you'd probably be well-advised not to get too excited when your club brings them in for an inflated fee.
Harry-mania is running wild It's a great story and as feature writers, we LOVE great stories. That said, it isn't hard to put "Goal against Lithuania" - whether it be the one scored by Rooney, Welbeck, Sterling or Kane - into the same category as the Bendtner hat trick. Watching much of the match it was clear that Lithuania were overmatched and just about anyone coming on to the pitch would have had a decent chance to score. Kane has been having a wonderful season and he deserved both his substitute appearance and the goal that followed (and it could have been more). On the other hand, international managers have to be wary of purple patches, hype and giving players rewards for putting in the work over time. By the next time Roy Hodgson sees Harry Kane, he might be the best forward in the Premier League. He could also have come down to earth in a huge way. Taking the long view and bringing Kane along slowly works at the international level because that's the view that managers have to take. At Spurs, Pochettino would have been insane to take a similar approach because it was to his advantage to ride Kane's form for however long it lasted. He had matches to win week in and week out and he also had very little in the way of alternatives. England's pre-Harry collection of forwards have been pretty good (but not great) and have been putting in the work to have the Three Lions undefeated at the top of their qualifying group with a significant goal differential. In other words, putting Harry Kane right into a team that is functioning well isn't the same as putting him in a Spurs side that had a huge gap. It's easy to crush Hodgson for his choice and even more so once Kane scored within 80 seconds of his introduction but he made the right move given the team he is managing.
There are a couple concepts working here that I've been meaning to get to. There are players who have played well this season and deserve at least a look from teams that would represent a step up for them both monetarily and in terms of their chances of winning things. There are also players that should probably be looking to move back a step. There are players who THINK they deserve a move up a step but aren't really as ready as they think. Finally, there are the contract situations of Raheem Sterling (who hasn't signed a new deal at Liverpool) and Theo Walcott(ditto at Arsenal) that could introduce some drama into the summer.
Moving Up - players who have earned a move up in the world
Aaron Cresswell - Andrew Robertson and Patrick van Aanholt and Andrew Robertson came out of the gates faster than Cresswell among the crop of debuting outside backs but it has been Cresswell who has sustained his performance thoughout the duration of a long Premier League campaign. He is 25 so he isn't exactly a spring chicken but if there's a case to be made for Cresswell at Arsenal (Monreal is getting older and Gibbs is frequently hurt), Liverpool (Moreno has shown little aptitude for the wingback role although he is young and just letting him improve could be Liverpool's best move here), and Manchester City (Clichy is older than you think, Kolarov doesn't play and defense and City need actual English players). In none of these cases would Cresswell necessarily be "the guy" at left back but he has shown enough that you wouldn't hate him as a rotation player.
Charlie Austin - He doesn't deserve to be relegated and given QPR's financial situation there's almost no chance that he'll be going down with the ship. Even if the Rs do manage to stay up, Austin has earned a move to a club where he will be able to see what he can do with better players feeding him the ball. The same can be said for Danny Ings who will surely be leaving Burnley after his contract expires this summer.
Riyad Mahrez - Toiling at the bottom of the table for Leicester City hasn't been the best way to put yourself in the shop window but every time I've seen Mahrez play he's been one of the better players on the pitch. His stats are never going to jump out and grab you and at 26 the Algerian international doesn't have a ton of upside. On the other hand, he feels like the sort of player that a Tony Pulis or a Mark Hughes would like as part of a rotation of high engergy wing attackers who are also willing to get back and play some defense.
Kieran Trippier - The right back bookend to Aaron Cresswell on the left. The Manchester City youth product has been integral to Burnley's defensive stoutness as they've tried to stave off relegation. He has also been one of their most prolific creators (the word "prolific" is used under advisement as Burnley probably don't create enough chances to have a "prolific" creator but you get the idea). Trippier has certainly earned himself another year in the Premier League regardless of how the Clarets end up the year. If Nathaniel Clyne or Seamus Coleman end up at Manchester United then Southampton or Everton would be wise to see how much it would cost to pry Trippier away from Burnley. Likewise, Liverpool would do well to invest in a right back like Trippier who both can and is interested in playing some defense unlike Glen Johnson/Lazar Markovic/Raheem Sterling. Manchester City could even be interested in bringing him back with Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna both getting a bit long in the tooth (and, they still need a bunch of English home grown players to make up the numbers and Trippier would fit the bill for City regardless of how you define "home grown").
Mile Jedinak - Starter on a mid-table team is probably about right for him if starting is his main goal. What is surprising is that a bigger club hasn't approached him about a squad role. At 30-years-old the Australia and Crystal Palace captain seems like he might want to go for a big payday as a role player at a bigger club. It isn't at all Jose Mourinho's MO to buy a mid-table player but Jedinak might be a very nice veteran option behind Nemanja Matic for some of the less challenging matches on Chelsea's schedule (think Cup matches and matches against the bottom half). With Mourinho clearly struggling for trusted reserves a move to some older (but not too old) heads might make some sense. Arsenal are the other obvious target as Mikel Arteta is breaking down physically and Mathieu Flamini was never meant to be a long term solution. Jedinak would be a great mentor for Francis Coquelin and Krystian Bielik as well as being a more durable reserve.
Jesus Navas - Navas has a contract that runs until the end of the 2016-17 season so there's not necessarily any reason that a change will happen but Navas has never really lived up to a hefty transfer fee. If a move comes it will likely be out of the Premier League entirely but at some point the bosses at the Etihad have to start looking to get more for what I'm sure is also a big wage packet. Samir Nasri fits into this same category but he just signed an extension over last summer so he's not likely going anywhere for some time.
Calum Chambers - Arsenal paid a pretty penny for Chambers over the summer and the kid is only 19-years-old so this isn't a pronouncement that he should be sold off at a loss right away. Rather, this is a suggestion that he's not ready for the big time any more than he was last season at Southampton where he wasn't a starter on a team with less talent. Based on the evidence we've seen and where the game appears to be going (more and more speed on the wings), Chambers will probably never be a right back, he's just not fast enough or athletic enough. What he might be is a Phil Jones-type who can play either as a center back or a holding midfielder in a very good team. What seems clear is that Wenger doesn't trust Chambers sufficiently to give him a try in either of those positions right now, why not send him out on loan either to the bottom end of the Premier League table or to the top half of the Championship to get him a full season of playing time?
Rickie Lambert - Last season's Charlie Austin/Harry Kane story (albeit a far older version of it), Lambert got his dream move from Southampton to boyhood club Liverpool. We'll be kind and say that it hasn't worked out particularly well for anyone other than maybe Lambert's boyhood friends and family who have, presumably, had unprecedented access to their favorite club with Lambert as an extremely well-paid tour guide at Anfield. I wouldn't blame Lambert if he wanted to take another victory lap at Liverpool after a career spent in the trenches of lower league football but if he actually wants to earn his wages then a move back to the middle of the table (West Brom was knocking on the door in January) would make sense.
Adnan Januzaj - The Belgium international has a big reputation but he hasn't actually shown a lot since that famous brace for United last season. He has played some under Louis Van Gaal but he certainly hasn't shown much when he has. He looks like someone who needs a high volume of minutes in a competitive and physical environment. There are a lot of players both at United (Wilson, Blackett, McNair) and at the top end of the Premier League in general (Ibe, Gnabry, Loftus-Cheek, etc.) who fit this profile but none with the buzz and hype that accompanies Januzaj. A loan to a club like Aston Villa or Sunderland (both in dire need of any attacking impetus) would give United a strong sense of whether Januzaj is a keeper or just a lot of sound and fury.
Probably Moving Up But Shouldn't
Fabian Delph - He looked GREAT against Lithuania this past week so this isn't the ideal time to be delivering this message but he's a good mid-table player that will almost inevitably pale with a move up in competition. Perhaps he realized this when he signed an extension with Villa in January despite being five months away from a free transfer. Perhaps he was just repaying a Villa team that bought him in his late teens. Whatever the reason, Delph should stay put in the middle of the table where it seems likely he can have a productive career as an above-average player on an OK team.
Saido Berahino - Berahino's contract runs until the end of the 2016-17 season meaning that West Brom don't HAVE to do anything just yet. On the other hand, teams seem disinclined to let an unhappy player linger so there's every chance that Berahino will get that "big" move that he has likely been pushing for behind the scenes. My sense is that Berahino will be a Jermain Defoe-like character. That's not a bad thing to be but Defoe, even at his prime, was a very good mid-table player but not a Champions League-level player. If Liverpool, as has been rumored frequently, make a big money move for the England youth international it seems likely that they'll end up being a bit disappointed in the results. A potential Harry Kane/Saido Berahino partnership might be an interesting "big/small" partnership but that implies a 4-4-2 which is so not Mauricio Pochettino's deal.
Morgan Schneiderlin - What? An Arsenal supporters who isn't excited about the potential of Schneiderlin moving the to Emirates? Hard to believe, I know, but there's method to the madness. Schneiderlin is a fine player but I'm not sure where he fits at Arsenal. He isn't the destroyer-type deep-lying midfielder that the club has been looking for for years and seemingly now found in Coquelin. His success at Southampton has been as the more passing-oriented partner to a destroyer-type. There's nothing wrong with that but Arsenal currently have a combination of Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky playing that role with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at least occasionally discussed as a great fit there as well. Unless Wenger is going to give up on Ramsey as too injury prone then I'm not sure that buying Schneiderlin is the answer. Look around at the other "big" clubs and the answers are pretty similar. Fabregas is playing that role at Chelsea. There are a bunch of guys playing that role at United with Ander Herrera and Daley Blind providing more attacking and more defending-oriented versions depending on the match-up. Manchester City have invested heavily in Fernando and Fernandinho recently in that part of the field and Liverpool are chocked full of midfielders. Spurs are often connected with the France international but it's hard to see how that would be viewed as a "move up" given that they're even in the standings on points. Perhaps a move abroad would make sense as a move up but it's hard to see a move up in the Premier League that gets him his stated goal of Champions League football where he'd be a clear starter.
Theo and Raheem
Finally, that brings us to the cases of Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling. When Walcott looks into his personal rearview mirror, he must see the Raheem Sterling story and one path for how it migth unfold. Both burst on to the scene as slight, short, speedy wing attack players envisioned as "the next big thing". In the nearly 10 years since his inclusion in the 2006 World Cup team, Walcott has had his share of highs with the 2012-13 Premier League season where he netted 14 goals and assisted on 10 more representing his high water mark. He has also seen his Arsenal and England careers consistently interrupted by injury. With only one more season to run on his current Arsenal deal and playing time at a premium with Arsenal relatively healthy and flush with fungible attacking players, the question is whether Walcott deserves inclusion on the "Moving Down" list. The opposite question could be posed about Sterling who broke out last season with 9 goals and 5 assists despite only 24 Premier League starts. For a 19-year-old player, that's a lot of production. Walcott was a couple years older in 2010-11 when he had an almost identical season for the Gunners (9 goals and 7 assists in 19 starts). With Sterling's contract on the same cycle as Walcott's (due to expire at the end of the 2015-16 season), Liverpool have to decide at what point they sell to maximize his value to the club if he doesn't sign an extension. The question for Sterling is whether he should be considered seriously for a move up to one of the few clubs in the world that represents an upgrade over Liverpool.
In the case of Walcott, it really does seem like his time at Arsenal has come to an end. Players who count speed as their biggest asset don't age gracefully on the pitch unless they develop the rest of their craft to compensate for declining physical gifts. Thierry Henry did this as he started leaning on his passing and shooting excellence in his later years in Barcelona and New York. Theo Walcott hasn't shown much inclination to move beyond his go-to move (flying down the wing, cutting inside and shooting across the face of the goal and into the far left side netting). It's a great first option to have when things are working but coming off serious knee issues there are legitimate questions about whether he'll ever get that back. With Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry all younger direct replacements and with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez very flexible when it comes to where they play in an effective attack, it wouldn't require that Arsenal acquire a Marco Reus over the summer to see Walcott as expendable if someone (Manchester City or Liverpool?) came with a big offer. The question is whether either of those two teams should come with a big offer is probably a better question given Walcott's history of injury and inconsistency. My inclination would be no but obviously it would depend on what the alternatives would be for each club.
Liverpool's interest would stem primarily from a situation where Raheem Sterling made it clear that he was willing to play down his contract and leave on a free at the end of next season. Sterling's name has been connected with some of the biggest and richest clubs in the world with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City and Arsenal all mentioned at least occasionally in regards to the young England international. The interest from Spain seems unlikely given the quality of attacking players who would be in front of Sterling at either team. You could see some sort of scenario where Real Madrid might sell off a Gareth Bale to Chelsea or Manchester United and then fund the purchase of Sterling (and maybe one or two other players) with the proceeds but it's hard to see that as an out-and-out upgrade for Madrid regardless of how the supporter base may feel about Bale right this minute. Manchester City makes a ton of sense for either Walcott or Sterling given their need to get younger and more English and they certainly have the money to make a move worthwhile for either player. If City has their choice, you suspect that they'd go with the younger model even if Walcott might come at a significantly lower price.
When all the moves have been made, it seems most likely that Liverpool will find that they, once again, are a selling club and that Raheem Sterling ends up at Manchester City. Theo Walcott might not be the perfect replacement but he might be part of an interesting job share with Jordan Ibe who has shown great promise in limited opportunity this season. Hard to call either move an incredibly significant one from a "standing" point of view for either player. Moving from Arsenal to Liverpool is the difference of one or two spots in the table. Moving from Liverpool to City is probably more significant from a pay packet point of view than a prestige point of view but they have won two of the past three league titles so while it isn't a move to Barca or Real, it is a move up. Somehow, in the wacky world of international week transfer rumors, that particular set of moves seems downright plausible.