Dyche returns to management in his toughest role yet

There is an old adage that states “be careful what you wish for” and that will be ringing true for Sean Dyche as he surveys the mess in front of him in his new job as Everton manager. The former Burnley boss has been out of work since April of last year and despite rumoured approaches by Championship and Scottish clubs, Dyche has been firm in his belief that he still can offer something as a Premier League manager. That something has finally arrived in the form of a move to Goodison to try and repair what is left of Evertons disastrous season. Despite Frank Lampards best efforts, Everton for one reason or a hundred proved too much for the former England midfielder who left bemused by how much had gone awry.

Everton for all intents and purposes should be a club positioned well for success but in truth they have been a badly injured animal who has been on its last legs for too long. How it hasn’t succumbed to its injuries is anyone’s guess with many now pondering when rather than if. This season, much like the past 7 seasons since Farhad Moshiri took a majority share in the club, has been one calamitous moment after another. Blaming the owner for everything is an easy game (see Mike Ashley during his Newcastle days) but it’s way beyond Moshiri; something is fundamentally broken at Goodison Park. Millions invested; most of it badly, seven managers in and out during that same time with Dyche No. 8, indecision and an overall lack of strategy on and off the pitch has lead fans to wonder what exactly is happening at their club. Making things worse, this all happened during a period of uplift at Liverpool FC, their bitter rivals who added Champions League and more importantly Premier League trophies to their cabinet.

Everton are a club in peril, languishing in 19th place in the table and staring relegation in the face. A drop to the Championship could be the death mail for the club; recovery and promotion back is not a foregone conclusion even for a club of Everton’s stature. For Dyche, the issues off the pitch will have to wait until the summer as his main focus and indeed his only focus has to be sorting the club out on the pitch. He has a lot to contend with – a talented but disjointed team, badly lacking in confidence, riddled with injuries to key players and now one shorter following the departure of one of their brightest players, Anthony Gordon to Newcastle. With hours before the window shuts, getting reinforcements in (mostly likely loans) is key although their should be some of the £40m from Gordon to spend if the right player comes along. Everton need a goalscorer badly; Calvert Lewin has been ravaged by injury after injury whilst Richarlson was allowed to leave last summer without a real replacement being brought in. He has issues in midfield and defence too but that’s a long term issue that won’t be solved with a bandage loan signing.

There are some green shoots of hope though for Everton fans. Dyche may be exactly the type of manager that the clubs needs right now; a no nonsense operator who knows how to grind out results whilst building a strong club culture at the same time. He also favours building from the back so sorting out Everton’s defensive frailties will be top of his to do list. Luckily Dyche has allies in that department in the form of James Tarkowski and Michael Keane, both former players of Dyche’s at Burnley. Building a base around them, with the addition of Conor Coady or Mason Holgate along side in a three and England keeper Jordan Pickford behind should positionally go along way to stopping the goal rot but thats only half the battle. The entire squad is desperately lacking confidence and as a result are making errors in games that are costing Everton dearly. Restoring their confidence and self belief may be Dyche’s biggest challenge and its likely he knows that. In midfield Dyche has options for how he wants to play with another former Burnley player, Dwight McNeill surely in line for a prominent attacking role. He could also make the bold move of bringing Dele Alli back to the club from Turkey with a view to regenerating a player who once shone brightly in the league. Many other managers have failed so that might prove the cautionary tale that prevents Alli’s return too. The job for Dyche has already started and he has no doubt plotted Everton’s great escape already. Whether he can pull it off however we will all have to wait and see.

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Five Premier League players Newcastle need to sign for survival

With every visible sigh from the new owners during Newcastle’s 3-2 defeat by Tottenham, it was clear how big a challenge they had just taken on. Removing Steve Bruce was one thing, hiring a new boss another but the depths of changes needed at Newcastle has surely amazed Amanda Staveley, her husband and their Saudi investors. It’s important to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day in the same way that the turnaround of fortunes at Newcastle on the pitch won’t happen overnight. Aspirations of Champions League nights and title celebrations are understandable, but first Newcastle must focus on just getting off its knees.

14 years of abuse and neglect has left its scars, some of which will take a long time to heal. Off the pitch, the facilities need some love and a lot of investment to make them appeal enough to attract bigger names. And on the pitch, the squad itself needs an overhaul to breathe life and hope back into the once optimistic Geordie faithful. Next summer is when that will likely happen but before that can happen, tactical investments need to be made to ensure survival and another season of Premier League football next year.

The January transfer window is still more than a few weeks away, yet it may prove to be the most crucial 30 odd days in Newcastle’s history. Failure to secure the players needed to improve the squad could be the difference between staying up or dropping down. But it will be far from an easy task. The January window is notoriously hard to operate in with few players willing to move mid-season unless they have been deemed unwanted by their existing clubs. Ironically there also appears to be a January premium attached to players who can already smell the desperation of a club in dire straits with limitless funds behind them. This all said, Newcastle must be bold and pursue players that will help them transform their fortunes over the second half of the season, hitting the ground running from day one. That in a sense rule out a lot of foreign imports who could take time to adjust to life in the northeast of England especially during mid-winter. Therefore, buying players already in the Premier League or at least with Premier League experience makes more sense than gambling on a player from another country adapting quickly. Newcastle needs five new players at a minimum, all of whom would be first team players and regulars in the side. Investing in youth players for their academy or glamour players from abroad can wait, for now they need instant success.

The first gap to fill would be at centre half which has been a problem area for quite some time. Despite several options including Schar, Lascelles, Fernandez and Clark, Newcastle’s centre backs look often dazed and confused and as a result leak more goals than is needed. Burnley’s James Tarkowski should be the first player in the door to help shepherd the defence towards a stronger position. The 28-year-old is in the last year of his contract and has already admitted to wanting to try something new so making a move in January may be possible. The commanding centre half is exactly what is needed likely alongside Lascalles (at least in the short term) or as part of a back three. Strong in the air, solid defensively and with an eye for goal, Tarkowski makes perfect sense. If competition for Tarkowski’s signature prevents that from happening, Newcastle would be wise to switch its focus to Brighton and Lewis Dunk who has been exceptional for them over the past few seasons.

Staying with the defence, a new right back is needed with Krafth and Manquillo far from good enough. Both have their own qualities either from a defensive perspective or an attacking one, but neither possess both leaving Newcastle more than often caught short. Norwich’s Max Aarons would be a solid investment for the club not only due to his age (still only 21) but his experience to date (132 games over 4 seasons) and his ability to not only defend well and push opposition players into less threatening positions but also his attacking flair and runs which would add another dimension to Newcastles game. With Jamaal Lewis operating on the other side plus Lascalles and Tarkowski in the middle, Newcastle could finally stop their defensive rot. Norwich are set up as a selling club so attaining Aarons is possible but if they need to look for an alternative, Everton’s Seamus Coleman could also do a similar job whilst bringing more leadership and experience to the table.

In the middle of the park, Wolves Ruben Neves offers more than exceptional vision and superb positional play. Neves can control the tempo of a match either from a deeper more defensive midfielder role or a more central one. Both suit the Portuguese international who has been playing in the Premier League now for four years and has amassed a wealth of experience in the game despite being only 24. Having captained Porto in the Champions League at a very young age, Neves could bring leadership experience too which has been severely lacking in the heart of Newcastle’s midfield for many years now. As a permanent fixture of the Wolves side, his acquisition could prove to be the most expensive but given all he brings to the table, it would be money well spent. Another option would be Southampton’s James Ward Prowse who appears to grow in stature as the seasons advance. Similar in style and approach to Neves, Ward Prowse would be a strong signing that could also bring some dead ball expertise to the club too.

Out wide, the acquisition of Wilfred Zaha could get Newcastle fans back on their feet again. That duty over the past few seasons has too often fallen at the skillful feet of Allan Saint Maximin who has obliged where possible but now sides have caught on to the need to stick close to the Frenchman and double team him as much as possible. Bringing in someone like Zaha would turn the tables on that approach and offer multiple headaches for opposing defenders to deal with. Zaha is exactly the type of player Newcastle fans want to see with his pace and trickery in line with former Toon entertainers David Ginola, Laurent Robert and of course Faustino Asprilla. Zaha like ASM has the ability to turn games on their head, change a draw into a win with one fleeting run that cuts defences open, or a dribble and shot to win a game. With ASM on one side and Zaha on the other, Newcastle would once again put fear into oppositions across the league.

Upfront Callum Wilson has been exceptional however the burden of being Newcastle’s only real goalscoring threat is too much for the former Bournemouth player. He needs support and that should come in the form of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. The Everton and England striker is the perfect foil for the towering and muscular Wilson who plays a similar role to Shearer or Ferdinand in the past. Calvert-Lewin however offers more in the box as well as being a string connector of the play through smart passes and clever runs. Good on the ground and in the air, Calvert-Lewin would be an instant success in the Northeast and would likely be a fan favourite with the Toon fans before long. 

These five players plus the return to form of Dubravka and the unchaining of Almiron in a more attack minded position should fire Newcastle well clear of the relegation zone and into mid table security. In addition, all five would prove solid long-term investments with all under the age of 28 meaning that they will be part of the team for the future. One thing is for sure, January is going to be very interesting for Newcastle fans.

Article by Martin Cowgill

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Will Hans-Dieter Flick mastermind for the next evolution of the German National team?

July 2021 marks the end of era in history of the German National team with the charismatic manager, Joachim Löw taking his last bow for ‘die mannschaft’ after the Euro 2020. Löw took over as manager after the 2006 World Cup and transformed the team fortunes leading them to World Cup victory in Brazil in 2014. His 15-year tenure revolutionized Germany’s identity as a nation and a leader in global football.  

The 1990 World Cup signified a turning point in its history. A mere few months after West Germany’s win at that tournament, they reunified with their Eastern counterpart forming the now known unified Germany. Instead of building on that success, Germany struggled to find its footing on the international scene. They did managed to win the 1996 European Championships in England but with an aging squad. There were also promising signs at the 2006 World Cup as well which was on home turf. Despite a semi-final exit, they showed the world a fun summer World Cup (breaking the typical stern-faced German stereotypes) and bright young talents (Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker, Bastian Schweinsteiger) got to shine on the big stage.

Exit stage right – Low is set to depart from the German National job after Euro 2020

The German footballing authority looked to build on this momentum with a new manager (Löw) with fresh ideologies to foster the young and hungry talents that the country bore. The emergence of Pep Guardiola and the Tiki-Taka footballing philosophy along with Spain’s dominance at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 only strengthened the notion that change was needed. International success usually comes on the heel of domestic success at club level. But German football clubs at the time were struggling to compete with clubs in the more opulent European leagues.

So, the clubs in german pivoted towards a new approach focused on developing home grown players and investing in young and upcoming managers with new ideas for long term success. The move would turn out to be a watershed moment in german football. Case in point, Jurgen Klöpp who brought success to Borussia Dortmund through recruitment and development of young players by educating them on a new chic of counter pressing style of football labelled Gegenpressing. This put Dortmund back on to the big stage again after breaking the Bundesliga dominance held by Bayern Munich with successive domestic titles.

Jurgen Klopp is one of several managers who benefited from a change in mindset in german football

This period of time in the Bundesliga also clubs spend more on international talent recruitment. It coincided with Germany as a country opening its borders more to immigrants in the hope of creating a new national identity and providing an economic stimulus. Some of the then “unknown gems” to shine in the German league at this time included Shinji Kagawa, Heung-Min Son and Roberto Firmino to name a few. Dortmund also produced several young talented german players who would go on to make up the core of the German national team that won the World Cup in 2014. Even now, the approach is being replicated with several german clubs entrusting younger managers who can relate and understand the new generation of players like Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann.

This thinking will likely also be applied to the selection of the new German national manager once Low departs. The German national team managerial job is a highly coveted position with a long line of history and pride so finding willing applicants should not be an issue. However selecting the right manager who can work with a new crop of exciting german players is the priority. Last year, four of the top five managers in European football were German coaches (Jurgen Klopp, Hans-Dieter Flick, Thomas Tüchel and Julian Nagelsmann); all of whom got their respective starts in management at a young age. Of them, Bayern Munich’s Hans-Dieter Flick seems to be the best fit for the national job. He was Joachim Löw’s assistant from 2006-2014 with the German National team before getting the nod for managerial career to begin in the Bundesliga on an interim basis taking over from Niko Kovac at Bayern. After getting the managerial job on full time basis, he guided the Bundesliga champions to a continental treble including the Champions League which he won against the Thomas Tuchel led Paris Saint Germain.

Flick waves goodbye to Bayern and hello to the German National managers job

Flick recently expressed his interest in taking over as the next manager of the national team after announcing his own desire to leave Bayern. After a long internal political struggle, Bayern Munich relinquished any chances to change Flick’s mind and hired Julian Nagelsmann from RB Leipzig for the 2021-2022 season. After successfully leading 1899 Hoffenheim to their first Champions League qualification, he then led RB Leipzig to their first Champions league semi-final spot in 2020. Despite his young age (he’s still only 33), Nagelsmann was touted by several big names in Europe to lead their club.  Bayern Munich moved quickly to secure their man and signed Nagelsmann for a hefty sum (€25 million) in order to break his contract with RB Leipzig in a move of utter dominance.

The German FA can now make a move for Flick, their first choice to take over after the Euro 2020. And rightly so. Flick mastermind the reemergence of Bayern Munich as a dominant player in Europe after a disastrous spell under Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovac. Part of his masterplan was to pinpoint the key players in the squad who he could work closely with to change the tide. The resurgence of Thomas Müller behind the striker and Joshua Kimmich’s deep runs from central midfield provided a new dynamic flow to Bayern Munich’s football. Given his relationship with Bayern Munich squad who make up the core of German national team and the vast number of talented players playing across Europe, come the summer 2021 and beyond it is hard to see Germany going anywhere but forward.  

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

PSG gamble on Pochettino. But will it pay off for them?

It is fairly recent news that famed football manager Mauricio Pochettino has taken the helm as the head coach of Paris Saint-Germain, also known as PSG. Although there are many questions surrounding this appointment,  the key question to be asked is whether Pochettino’s high press, teamwork and unit based tactics be a good fit with this PSG side or will its main players such as Mbappe and Neymar struggle to adapt into his playing style? With only 12 days since his appointment, its too early to answer this question but early indications are promising with PSG have played 3 games drawing the first against Saint-Étienne in a somewhat lacklustre performance, a somewhat more appealing 3-0 win against Brest who sit in a mid-table 11th and Pochettino’s first trophy in charge lifting the Trophee des Champions by beating Marseille 2-1 yesterday. 

While Pochettino’s first game may have seemed like a poor result and performance from the outside looking in, if you look into the game analytically and especially through video analysis you can see signs of Mauricio’s plan coming into place. You can see this through the transition from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation to the 3-1-5-1 formation that brings in a diamond shape at the back with the defensive midfielder key in allowing a quick build-up and counter-attacking phase of play to take place. Even though this may have not worked in the first game, it was a promising sign of things to come.  In his second game in charge against Brest, there was more proof that it does work and that there may be a bright future ahead for PSG. This should allow them to continue their recent dominance of the French football league system and maybe even beyond this with success in European competitions a priority.

With one of the two centre backs moving into a defensive midfielder role when PSG have the ball, it offers more to the attack.

Key to Pochettino long term success at the club is that has to develop the already brilliant and deep PSG squad that he has at his disposal, as well as to make additions that will be able to fit into his tactics and ethos. This  should ensure that he has a hard working, high-pressing well-oiled machine that will be able to use his tactics as well as their individual flair to become the dominant team in any given match. Not just domestically in France but also continentally within Europe. It is well known that ‘Poch’ as he is affectionately known by many football fans, is a successful, versatile and technical manager with one of his greater achievements being Tottenham’s 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League’s run to the final in which they were runners up to fellow Premier League giants Liverpool FC.

“I am really happy and honored to become the new coach of Paris Saint-Germain. I would like to thank the Club’s management for the trust they have placed in me. As you know, this club has always held a special place in my heart. I have wonderful memories, especially of the unique atmosphere of the Parc des Princes. This team has fantastic potential and my staff and I will do everything we can to get the best for PSG in all competitions.

Mauricio Pochettino on becoming head coach of PSG, Jan 2021.

It seems that Mauricio has a plan for PSG and as an ex-player and a person highly respected by everyone involved within PSG (whether its a player, coach or fan), he is sure to be given the best chance execute against his plan. It is extremely likely that all the players will be listening and following his orders with a laser focus and that this will be a project and something for everyone to believe in. This could make an already brilliant and dominant club become an even bigger, and by the sounds of Pochettino’s plan; powerhouse of European football and an extraordinary dominant side for many, many years to come.

But for now we will just have to wait and see how the partnership of PSG and their new coach Mauricio Pochettino works. It will be very interesting to see; and all football fans will be sure to keep a keen eye on his work and success with the club. Especially fans of Tottenham, many who were and still are of the belief that he is a brilliant manager and should have been more time at the club primarily due to the improvements and forward strides he made while manager.  PSG are a completely different club though, and due to this they are a very tough club to manage because of their focus on success, both nationally and domestically. They aim to be a world class side at all times and anything less than that is unacceptable. We will see if Mauricio has what it takes or if he falls foul to the early axe and the tough life of a manager into today’s football industry. It will also be interesting to see what signings are going to be made for the club under new management. With the start of the January transfer window, this will be a good opportunity to gain insight into Pochettino’s intent and we are hoping to see some exciting and unexpected signings for PSG before February 1st 2021 when the window closes.

Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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One On One with: Shota Arveladze

There are few strikers who can boast a more consistent strike rate than Shota Arveladze. The former Georgian forward had a natural knack for finding the back of the net which was more than apparent for his clubs and for his country – 55 goals in 96 appearances for Ajax, 44 goals in 95 games for Glasgow Rangers, 51 goals in 67 games for Dinamo Tbilisi and 26 goals in 61 caps for Georgia are a few examples. What is really remarkable about this was Shota’s ability to quickly adapt to new surroundings with ease and hit the ground running. Moving from one club to another in the same league is difficult but moving abroad and maintaining that consistency is almost impossible. During his career, Arveladze played in Turkey, Holland, Scotland, Spain and his native Georgia but never seemed to need time to settle in, find his goal scoring touch and then produce. Instead Arveladze was out of the blocks like a greyhound, more often than not scoring in his debut. 

Raised in Tbilisi during the 1970’s when Georgia was still part of the former USSR, Shota had a happy childhood and spent a majority of it playing the game he loved. Playing alongside good friend Georgi Kinkladze (who had successful spells in England with Man City and Derby County), Shota learned his trade early on and his talent would start to shine through. Football runs deep in the Arveladze blood with Shota’s brothers, Archil and Revaz also both full internationalists for Georgia. But neither seemed to have Shota’s consistency when it came to goal scoring, something that has made him a legend back home. 

We caught up with him recently to talk about his playing career, his recent move into management, his goal scoring feats and why he thinks it’s important to love your mamma. Enjoy! 

Back Of The Net: Shota, before we begin you were recently were diagnosed with COVID 19 but have since recovered. How are you feeling now?

Shota Arveladze: I feel great now. I’m in Instanbul with my family. I was quarantined three times because of the virus, i was healthy twice, and once the virus was confirmed. It’s difficult to live in these conditions, but we must take care of each other as much as possible

BOTN: You were born in Tblisi in the 70’s when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. When we interviewed Zurab Khizanishvili he said that growing up in Tblisi during that time was “difficult” due to the desire for Georgia to be independent from the USSR which eventually came to be in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What are your memories of growing up and did you look towards football as a form of escapism?

SA: No no, many people have the wrong idea about it, and we had a very happy childhood in Georgia. As young kids we were not worried about the USSR and all that, we had a normal education in good schools, we were taught languages, like any other school, such as English and Russian. Football was never an issue of survival, we played it simply because we loved it. I played football with my friends and family because I enjoyed it not because it was a survival issue. Then later of course, we got an independent Georgia and our separate identity.

BOTN: You joined your hometown club Dinamo Tblisi‘s youth team in 1987 before breaking into their first team a few years later in 1991. You joined your older brother Revaz and your twin Archil in that squad. What was that like to play in your hometown at aged 19 alongside your brothers?

SA: It was simply a dream come true. Dinamo was the best club I had ever seen back then, and it was a dream to play for them, and that dream came true. As young children we never even dreamt about playing for Barcelona, Real Madrid etc. We saw Dinamo as the dream team. Later I got to play against bigger clubs as well, including Inter Milan and many other European teams. This dream then of course collapsed due to political issues, and in 1993 we left our country to play at an even higher level. My brother went to Germany and I left for Turkey.

Brothers united – Revaz, Shota and Archil during their Dinamo days

BOTN: That was the beginning of a period where Dinamo dominated Georgian football winning 10 titles in a row. Over four seasons there where you won the league and cup double in every season and you scored an incredible 51 goals in 67 appearances. That must have attracted a lot of interest from clubs around Europe. Did any other clubs make moves for you before you ended up joining Trabzonspor?

SA: Well there was not much information about such things at that time. The borders were not that open like today, there was no such globalization and digital platforms, we had just become members of FIFA. So, there was not much information to ask about. I got an offer from Turkey, some got theirs from Germany and England, and we all just went. We were 19 years old, there was not much to think about!

BOTN: You were quite the fan favourite in Turkey as well as later in Scotland with Rangers, despite being a foreign player. Why do you think that was?

SA: First of all you must behave and be respectful of everything like a good human being. I found some places to be very traditional, held conservative values dearly, like in Georgia. Then there were more open civilizations like Holland. You must make sure to behave and respect local traditions, cultures and people at all times. These things are different everywhere. Secondly, good results and performance on the field probably translates to becoming fan favourites like you said. A combination of both of these things is important.

BOTN: Eventually you moved to Ajax which was a dream of yours as a boy. How exciting was it for you to join such a club at that early stage in your career?

SA: The team had star players like Zlatan, Sneijder, Laudrup, I was surrounded by stars. You have to learn to be a good friend and show your quality on the field. I thank God for giving me such chances in life. Later you realize that these guys are not stars, but your friends. I can call up my old teammates from this club, same with Rangers and Ronald de Boer, and ask them for advice or support, like friends do.

Shota with Ronald De Boer and Michael Laudrup at Ajax

BOTN: Back to your playing days and during your tenure at Ajax, you faced your twin brother three times while playing against NAC Breda. You have called this a memorable moment in your career, but did you ever wish for your brother to clinch the victory for the opposing team? Or did you want to outshine him?

SA: It was very memorable because we had always been on the same team and never opponents, whether in club football or Georgia national team. This was the first time I was about to play against him. The first time being on opposite sides, it was historical for us, we changed shirts at the end and our entire family was there. The 2nd and 3rd time was more regular, we played it like a normal match. But we were very competitive and wanted to beat each other the whole time, we had a lot of fun with this!

BOTN: You joined Rangers in 2001. Having signed for Dick Advocaat, he was replaced very quickly with Alex McLeish. How did you feel about the change of manager so early in your time at the club?  Did you notice an obvious difference in the methods of the two managers?

SA: You must look for your own way of playing. Every coach and player are all different, they do different things. Sometimes they also make mistakes. But I have never been against any coach. I believe that to disappoint the coach is to disappoint football itself, which is something I would never want to do. Just try your best and let them decide the rest. Still, almost 80-95% of the time I have always been in favour and on the field, not on the bench. I scored a lot of goals for Rangers, and Rangers is probably the greatest club you can hear about, see around and play in. I loved it.

Shota during his spell in Scotland with Rangers

BOTN: You forged a good friendship with Ronald De Boer first at Ajax then again at Rangers. Do you think that having a good relationship with your teammates is essential to success on the field? Or should you be able to play effectively with your teammates regardless of morale?

SA: Well it always makes things easier. You support them when they need you, and then they support you. It is very important that your social connections are intact, and you have a human sense of being a good friend. Be open and nice to your teammates, show them your culture and it will go a long way.

BOTN: Leaving Rangers, you choose to return to Holland with AZ.  Was it a conscious choice to return to a league you had been successful in previously?

SA: I was almost signed with Ajax, my friend and coaches almost brought me back to Ajax but at the last moment the deal didn’t work. I got an offer from AZ, found it a good opportunity to work with someone like Van Gaal and I took it. I also wanted to show everyone that I could still play at 33!

BOTN: Your time at Levante was unfortunately heavily disrupted by injury.  What contributed to the decision to retire? Did you feel that having missed a large portion of the season; you didn’t have another season in you?

SA: I had 2 operations done in total. First, I had one, then got into a pre-season 2-month long injury, which required another operation which did not go as well as I would have liked. I lost 6 months’ worth of football, the club was already going through financial problems, things were going badly so I decided to end the career there and call for retirement.

BOTN: After you retired, you actually got the chance to work with Louis Van Gaal again when you joined as his assistant at AZ Alkmaar. How did that opportunity come about?

SA: I had a feeling that I had the ability to become a coach. I got an offer from the Georgia national team, and at the same time I got one from AZ. Marcel Brands was in AZ then, a talented young man who is now Sporting Director at Everton, he got Van Gaal connected with me and the deal went through. Thanks to the amazing people there, plus Ronald Koeman and also Dick Advocaat, we had a successful team and a wonderful time. You know how big some of the names from that squad are now, one plays for Man Utd, while some play in France and Spain.

Arveladze and Van Gaal

BOTN: You had a long career as a player and now you recently won the league with Tashkent’s Pakhtakor FC as a manager. How are you able to communicate the things you learned in your playing days, to the young players you now manage?

SA: Like I said, you have to respect the players, people and respect the place. You must show players the respect they deserve, does not matter if they are 22, 23, 18 or 30. Then you just carry out your normal communications. You must also explain to them that every decision you make will not be right in the eyes of half of the team. That is because you have to play only 11, out of a squad of 22 or 23. They have to understand that part, that I cannot be right for everyone. But that does not mean you cannot stop working hard and earning your place in the 11.

BOTN: Do you see yourself managing the Georgian National Team in the coming years? What major changes would you bring, if you were to manage Georgia?

SA: Not really.

BOTN: Can we ask why?

SA: Well it is more difficult to do than club football. You have more responsibility on your shoulders, and if the team doesn’t perform it’s a big big pain for you and the entire nation. You just keep getting hurt.

BOTN: How close do you think Georgia are to qualifying for a major tournament and is there any Georgian players coming through now that you believe are destined to have a bright career?

SA: Very close, they are very close. Of course, players like Kvaratskhelia and rest of the squad, they are set to have a career much better than even mine, I am hopeful.

Georgian National Team

BOTN: You have competed at the highest level for a majority of your career yet suffered from chronic asthma throughout. How challenging has that been to deal with and did it cause you any significant problems when playing in a match?

SA: No no I don’t have asthma! Might be a rumour online!

BOTN: That is strange as its listed on your Wikipedia page. Moving on, we often see strikers who are clinical to their club’s success, struggle to make the same impact when the move to another league in a new country. You have been the highest goal scorer in the top-flight of three different countries; Georgia, Turkey and Holland. How did you manage to adjust to new atmospheres and succeed as a striker in such different environments?

SA: Nothing is easy, you have to concentrate at the task at hand. If you love the thing that you do, you get better, you experience things in different ways, and you get better. I never struggled at this part, thankfully. Family was always around me, my wife, parents and children.

Shota, the manager

BOTN: You have an impressive goalscoring record at every club you played for, to what do you attribute that level of consistency over 15 years?

SA: To be honest, I was never the physical kind of footballer, I think I was smart enough to understand how my team plays and will play. I was a team player. I knew that I have to adapt to how my team plays, as the striker I am the last one who gets the ball. So, you understand how your team plays, as every team is different. Find out how they play, and I think that helped me with my consistency in every team.

BOTN: When choosing a new club, what factors do you consider when weighing up whether or not it feels like the right move for you?

SA: It’s very simple. What is the worst case scenario, if I play and get injured? Then the worst case is that I go back home. For me, that is not the worst case because I have a home to return to and not many people have that, I am grateful. So I did not demand much from the right move always.

BOTN: Your favourite goal?

SA: I always say this, my best goal is my kids. I would have liked a hat trick here… but oh well!

BOTN: Your favourite game? Was it the hat trick against Livingston? Perhaps the win over Celtic?

SA: I would call every debut my favourite game. Dinamo, Trabzonspor, Georgia national team, Ajax, Rangers, Levante, every debut.

BOTN: A young Shota rose up the ranks of a Georgian league and made his name known all over Europe. However, you are one of the very few Georgians to accomplish this despite immense talent in the league. What improvements would you suggest in Georgia’s domestic league structure?

SA: Firstly, the infrastructure should be developed so that every club has its own stadium, and a nice stadium not just any stadium. There should be good training fields for players too. I would also advise clubs to organize themselves, not much but even a little bit. Of course they cannot be expected to have money like Man Utd, but a little organization would be nice. Also, make the game interesting for supporters overall. You see clubs in Germany, Spain, and they have support from people all over the world because they make the game interesting to watch.

Lastly, Georgians must remember; you have to love your own Ma! Whether she is fat, ugly or pretty, you always love your own Ma! You can go love Julia Roberts or I don’t know Cindy Crawford, but you must love your own Ma, for this game to progress!

BOTN: Your former teammate Kakha Kaladze is now heavily involved in politics since his retirement and is the current mayor of Tblisi. He follows in the footsteps of other former footballers like George Weah, Romario and Carlos Valderrama who have used their fame and notoriety to win elections. What are your feelings about footballers using their influence for political gains and would you ever follow in Kaladze’s footsetps?

SA: Look, whenever someone asks, I am genuinely proud of him. The way he does things, the way he acts, he wants to do politics genuinely. He may make mistakes, but when you choose one party, the other party doesn’t like you, if you choose left, the right will hate you, that is how it always is and that’s politics. I don’t know how it was before, but generally people act like football players don’t know how to manage things, because we spend so much time on field running, they act as if we are not smart enough to do it.

Why are doctors, engineers, painters etc told to believe that they can do politics and manage things but footballers can’t do it? We have shown everyone that we can do it if we work on ourselves and try it.  He is behaving, his way of talking, standing, maybe he has good advisors, but he is doing very well. He is actually independent generally, financial independent as well, so he doesn’t like to step back, he likes to go forward like me. Point is, we all fall, but we have to stand back up always.

Interview conducted by Sairam Hussian Miran, Special correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Follow Shota on Twitter and Instagram.

Newcastle’s Failed Takeover Was Anything But Black And White

Another season, another disappointment for the Toon Army. After 13 years under the bewildering ownership of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle fans began to believe that the end was nigh as a consortium from Saudi Arabia jumped through Ashley’s hoops in order to try to secure the club. All that stood between them and ownership of the North East club was a fit and proper ownership test by the Premier League.

Amanda Staveley led the bid team trying to takeover Newcastle

For a club known for its black and white, this failed takeover was anything but that. Indeed the failure of the takeover has left the fans with more questions that answers – why did it take 17 weeks for the Premier League to respond, why was the World Trade Organization involved and who else played a role in the bids demise? The clouds over Newcastle are a dark grey colour now as these questions lie unanswered. So what happened? Why did the Premier League take so long to respond. And what else can we read into this deal falling through.

First in was Amnesty International who took the unusual step of writing to Premier League Chief Richard Masters urging it to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before signing off on the takeover of Newcastle United. These are genuine concerns but the question is more about why Amnesty decided that this takeover over all others was the one that they had to weigh in on. In 2017, Amnesty identified human rights violations in 159 countries which included Saudi Arabia. But also in that list was the USA, Russia and China, all of which have had companies that have bought Premier League clubs in the last twenty years. Indeed Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad who won control of the club just last year. Also included was Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who have state owned ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City respectively. The decision by Amnesty to act now and oppose this takeover rather than the others appears to be motivated by factors outside of the common good.

Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad takes over Sheffield United

That was followed by BeIn Sports who challenged the Premier League to block the deal on the grounds that Saudi Arabia had been involved in piracy and should be held accountable for operating a pirate network that was illegally streaming EPL games. The Qatar based company’s staunch opposition to the deal made little sense as the two elements (piracy in Saudi Arabia and ownership of Newcastle) have little in common. It could be argued that like the Amnesty International objective, third parties could have been operating in the background in an effort to derail any deal. Ironically BeIn’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also the current president of Paris Saint Germain; a club who would not react well to another English based club gaining the same financial muscle as they currently have.

Shortly after, the World Trade Organization issued a report which found representatives of the Saudi state had facilitated the activity of the pirate network BeoutQ, which illegally broadcast a host of sporting events including Premier League matches. Why this report was produced and released is unknown nor what the WTO, whose mandate is around the regulations of international trade between nations, is doing looking into broadcast rights in the first place is a bigger question. In addition the timing of this release is suspicious given how close the Premier League were to making its decision. The release of the report only added a new layer to navigate and delayed the decision even further.

Finally there was pressure from the UK government to not allow the deal citing the need for Saudi Arabia to reform its justice system and release all political prisoners and the attempt to ‘whitewash’ them with the takeover. Eight MPs in total wrote to Richard Masters led by John Nicolson, SNP spokesperson and a member of the House of Commons on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He stated on Twitter shortly after the deal collapsed that “the Premier League must now revise its Owners and Directors Test to ensure this fiasco isn’t repeated”. He continued “Heads of States with gruesome human rights records should never be allowed to launder their reputations through sport”. Ironically Nicholson had no objection to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad’s takeover at Sheffield United despite his father being the brother of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

John Nicolson objected to the Newcastle takeover but not other previous takeovers.

Also worth noting that the position of Nicholson was not exactly backed by the Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston who distanced himself from talk of Newcastle United’s takeover saga. Huddleston swung the spotlight firmly on to the Premier League to make the decision. When asked about the government’s stance, Huddleston said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the level of expectation of involvement on government with things that are very clearly decisions for football. There is obviously the fit and proper persons test to go through with any acquisitions of this nature and I think that is absolutely appropriate. It’s something that I’m keeping an eye on but it is a decision for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere at that kind of level.” Why his understudy felt it important to push the matter without Huddleston’s blessing is unknown yet the same theory could be applied in that he was influenced to do so.

All of this along with the Premier League’s irregular delay in making a decision about whether the prospective owners passed their owners and directors test suggests that the events that led up to the PIF withdrawing its bid in frustration, were not as black and white as we are made to believe. It’s natural to assume that all these events were planned and orchestrated to derail the proceedings. When one failed, the next stepped up sometimes only days later. Amanda Staveley who was fronting the bid spoke shortly after the collapse of the deal and implied that fellow Premier League clubs, Tottenham and Liverpool had made their objections to the deal going through clear to the Premier League but its likely others were involved as well. Several clubs across Europe had a lot to lose of this deal went through primarily as it would put Newcastle at a financial advantage and provide them a better chance of challenging for silverware both at home and abroad. Whatever is the truth, this deal didn’t happen due to due diligence or because of delays at the Premier League. It never stood a chance of succeeding as others orchestrated moves to undermine it and protect their own interests.

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Where next for Messi as he calls time on Barca

After 20 years at Barcelona, the club he joined as a 13 year old, Lionel Messi has decided it’s time to leave. Following an indifferent and difficult season, the Argentine has had enough and informed the club and its new manager Ronald Koeman that he wishes to activate an exit clause in his contract. That in itself is not exactly cut and dried as Barcelona are arguing the the clause needed to be activated by June 10th for Messi to walk for free and would demand a transfer fee if he were to go. Messi and his team are contesting this notion given the season was prolonged due to the pandemic but nevertheless it looks likely that there will be conscious uncoupling of the two sooner rather than later.

There isn’t a single club in the world that wouldn’t take Lionel Messi in a heartbeat. But there are only a few that could actually afford him. Since Messi announced to the world his intention to leave Barcelona, speculation over where he will end up has reached fever pitch. Europe’s elite have been linked with him through various sources all of which report to have insider knowledge that Messi’s agent has had “secret talks” with that specific club. Chelsea, Bayern, Tottenham, Inter and even Real Madrid are “actively interested” or whatever that means. But in truth, due to the players likely wage demands plus potentially a sizable transfer fee if Barca gets its way, only a small handful of clubs stand a chance of signing him. So who are they?

Man City

Its a well known secret that Messi considers Pep Guardiola as his greatest coach. When the now Manchester City boss was in charge at the Nou Camp, Messi was at his ultimate best. Not only was he preforming week in week out, scoring for fun and winning numerous trophies along the way but he was happy too. Guardiola built his team in and around Messi, preferring to play him in the position that Messi felt most comfortable then strategically placing the other pieces around him. It sounds like common sense and really it is. Take your best player, play them in a position that makes them the happiest and sit back and enjoy the show. Reuniting with Guardiola at Manchester City would ensure that Messi gets back to where he feels most comfortable. There are other draws of course to joining City including the opportunity to play in the English Premier League, something Messi has indicated in the past that he would like to do and the added bonus of joining a team that features his good friend and Argentina teammate Sergio Aguero.

Can Pep persuade Messi to join him at Man City?

PSG

You simply cannot rule out Messi moving to the French capital for a variety of factors. The Champions League finalists might still be licking their wounds after losing to Bayern last week but the appetite to go one step beyond their current state would require something extra special. With the league almost a cakewalk, the focus is on winning that Champions League trophy. Massive strides have been made this season, albeit under unusual circumstances but the need that X factor to secure their first major European trophy since the Cup Winners Cup back in 1996. (And no the 2001 Intertoto Cup doesn’t count). That could come in the form of Lionel Messi who would fit nicely into a PSG side brimming with talent. Talent like Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and of course Messi’s former teammate Neymar. The notion of linking up with the Brazilian once more may be enough to sway Messi towards PSG as he was a key driver in the push to bring Neymar back to Barcelona last summer. That move never happened much to the frustration of Messi. But now the pair could reconnect in France and push the club towards lifting that Champions League trophy.

Juventus

If Juventus fans were left drooling when Cristiano Ronaldo came to town, just imagine how they will react if they have Messi join them too. The prospect of linking up two of the greatest players to have ever played the game in the same team is too much to fathom. It’s not certain that Messi would entertain the idea of playing alongside Ronaldo nor if Ronaldo himself would like sharing the spotlight with the Argentine but Juventus have the ability to make it happen. The Old Lady is going through somewhat of a transition herself with a new young manager in the form of Andreas Pirlo ringing in the changes under his vision but given the chance, its hard to see him fighting the board against signing Messi. Would he fit into Pirlo’s envisaged 4-3-3 formation is hard to tell considering Ronaldo will likely want to play as the central figure in that attacking three. But it’s a formation that Messi has played in a lot at Barcelona and seems comfortable adapting his game to fit.

Messi and Ronaldo in the same team?

Man Utd

Not to completely upset the apple cart for Guardiola but his neighbours over the fence could nip in and grab Messi from under his nose. They did it once before, signing Alexis Sanchez when it looked like he was destined for the Etihad. Ok that didn’t quite work as planned but the ability to pay extravagant wages is there so breaking the bank to sign Messi is not off the cards which makes them a real threat to City’s hopes. Manager Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer is building a new look United squad that features a cast of exciting younger players which could be a draw for the experienced Messi. The only real drawback, apart from the language barrier is that the deal would need to be negotiated and signed by Ed Woodward who by all appearances struggles when is comes to transfer dealings. The Executive Vice Chairman has hardly covered himself in glory over the past eight years after missing out on several big name players and paying over the odds for others like Sanchez and the previously mentioned Di Maria (now at PSG).

Newell’s Old Boys

Since leaving the club at the age of 13, Messi has always proclaimed that he would love to return and play for Newell’s before his career comes to an end. Moving back to Argentina certainly has its draws, especially given that Messi and his wife Antonela both grew up in Rosario and have family back there. The club itself would welcome Messi back with loving arms but it’s unlikely the would be able to afford even a fraction of his current wage demands never mind the whole thing. If he did return it would be with the understanding that he would take a significant pay cut and would be effectively signalling his departure from elite football with the Argentine league unable to match the level that he has been playing at. Messi is only 33 and has probably still got another 3-5 years at the top left in him all being well so it seems like the move home might be a bit premature at this stage.

Messi has a decision to make.

Where Messi ends up will be revealed shortly as the new season quickly approaches. Its not 100% certain that he will leave Barcelona despite what he is saying right now. There are politics in play and Messi knows how much he is revered by the fans and how much clout he has in the future of Barcelona football club. His main gripe is really with the President, Josep Maria Bartomeu and the way that he is running the club. If Bartomeu was to succumb to the pressure from the angry fans and resign, it could be enough to see Messi make a dramatic turnaround and stay. His reason for leaving is not about money nor is it really about his desire to try a new league but instead about his happiness. His love and deep connection to the club is undeniable yet something has not been right at Barcelona for a while now and all fingers point upwards. Bartomeu is unlikely to walk himself but it’s hard to see how he can stay in charge if he lets an icon like Messi leave.

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Is Lautaro Martinez Barca Bound?

As everyone knows we’re slowly getting football back and with that comes transfer news and updates. This can be said of 22 year old Inter striker Larturo Martinez. He signed for Inter back in 2018 from Racing Club where he had scored 22 goals in 48 appearances. He might have signed a five year contract for a fee of €22.7 million euros but just a few years later looks likely to leave for a much larger fee. So far at Inter he has done a phenomenal job as one of the clubs top goal scorers this season. So far he has played in 49 matches with 17 goals. He has developed into one of the key pieces Inter desperately needed. As a quick and agile player, he  pairs well with the more physical and direct Romelu Lukaku. But unlike Lukaku, Martinez is a player who is able to show up in big matches whereas Lukaku tends to struggle. Martinez is only two years into his contract with Inter and he is already being linked with an exit from the club.

With the upcoming retirement of one of the  greatest strikers of this era and in my opinion the greatest of all time Lionel Messi; Barcelona are in need of the next big thing. They are looking at replacing him with Martinez who appeared on their radar in their match against Inter in 2019 in their 2-1 loss in the Champions League when he scored their only goal. So they’ve been interested in him for a few months now. Barcelona are willing to pay his buyout clause of €111 million euros. So far Barcelona have offered €50 million euros and two players for him which has been since rejected by Inter sending Barcelona back to the drawing board to create a new offer. But no matter how much it takes, more than likely they will reach a deal and Martinez will be leaving the club which will be a huge problem for Inter as leaves a crucial opening in the attack. When he leaves this will have Inter scrambling to find a replacement.

Inter have a few options; some I agree with, other I don’t. The first name that’s been thrown around is Antoine Griezmann. This wouldn’t be a bad choice in my opinion as he is a solid goal scorer and a threat inside the box.  Olivier Giroud is another name thrown around but he has already signed a contract extension at Chelsea with 49 goals and only seven goals so he is likely now out of the equation unless Interv are willing to pay for him. Moise Kean was another name that was in the pot but he is already close to signing a deal with Roma. At this point Inter have limited options as the names continue to dwindle. The only other player that they can go after and is seeming to be the best solution for now is PSG striker Edison Cavani with midfielder Paul Pogba brought in to supply him with the ammunition. If Inter offload players such as Veccino and Valero, Pogba in the midfield would give them some much needed depth. Whilst Cavani who has played over 200 matches and scored 138 goals for PSG would be seen as a good signing, he is older than the club would prefer (the same can be said about Giroud) so he is a short term solution at short term only.  Either way nothing will replace the amazing job Martinez as done for the club. This will definitely be a loss for sure but if they find the right players to fill in the voids Inter should be just fine.

Post by Danielle Luhrsen, writer for The Galleria of Internazionale Milano.

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One On One with: Warren Barton

There is a list on Wikipedia of a group of players who have managed to pick up less than five caps for England. It’s an extensive list that includes such names as Brian Clough, Steve Bould and Tim Sherwood to name a few. But one of the most surprising names on the list, mostly because of his starring role for Wimbledon and Newcastle in the 90’s is Warren Barton. Despite his obvious talents, the former wingback like many others was a victim of bad timing and managerial preferences that ultimately restricted him from representing his country more than the three times that he did. Was it not for Lee Dixon and Gary Neville and a favouritism towards the traditional fullback at international level, Barton would have won many more caps.

When i caught up with Barton recently via an Instagram Live chat, he explained that whilst he is obviously disappointed not to have represented England more, he understood the situation and supported the decision made which is a true testament of the man he is. We talked in length about his career which started with rejection at Leyton Orient to then proving himself at Maidstone and Wimbledon before becoming England’s most expensive defender for a while when he transferred to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle and joined ” The Entertainers”. Now taking all he learned throughout his career and applying it in his coaching role in sunny California, Barton is giving back to the next generation who all dream about following his career which lead him to one of the biggest challenges of them all: the English Premier League. Enjoy!

Warren is now the Technical Director and Coach at Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks in San Diego, California as well as an analyst for Fox Sports.

Follow Warren on his official Instagram account.

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Ajax relaxed as they look to hold onto prize assets; for the time being.

There is a general feeling of relaxation about Ajax manager Erik ten Hag as he watches the first training session back after the international break. His team sit second in the Eredivisie behind leaders and current champions PSV but with a lot of football still to be played and with an exciting and youthful sides in the league at his disposal, ten Hag looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world. The same however cannot be said for Edwin van der Sar who as the club’s general director is now batting down the hatches as he prepares to ride out a very big storm approaching.

Dutch Eredivisie"Ajax v Go Ahead Eagles"

van der Sar knows a storm is coming (image from Tumblr)

Ajax and van der Sar have every reason to be nervous as clubs across Europe prepare to test their resilience by making moves for three of their emerging starlets. Scouts from the elite clubs have been arriving steadily and leaving hastily, almost giddy at the prospect of telling their owners what they have just found. Ajax has built a stellar reputation on developing young players and selling them on for vast profit with the likes of Kluivert (Patrick and son Justin), Wesley Sneijder, Dennis Bergkamp, both De Boers and van der Sar himself all having coming from the clubs youth ranks. But this latest crop is something special. In almost every position, Ajax have produced a quality player that now occupies space in their first team.

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The Ajax youth production line never stops (Image from Ajax)

From Andre Onana in goal to Donny van de Beek and Carel Eiting in midfield and Vaclav Cerny in attack, this team screams youthful exuberance and talent. But there are three stars that are standing out more than the rest and shinning the brightest – centre back Matthijis de Ligt, midfielder Frenkie De Jong and striker Kasper Dolberg. Despite being still young (De Jong and Dolberg are 21, de Ligt only 19), all three are capped at full international level for their respective countries (De Jong, de Ligt for Holland and Dolberg for Denmark) and all three are destined to become global superstars.

de Ligt and Dolberg (Image from Tumblr)

de Ligt and Dolberg (Image from Tumblr)

de Ligt has all the markers of being a total defender – strong with both feet, commanding in the air as he is on the ground, with a strong range of passing and viable leadership qualities to boot. Indeed his teammate often talks about how de Ligt takes centre stage in the locker room and rallies the players before they head out. Dolberg on the other hand is quiet and reserved around his teammates but explodes with energy and pace on the field. Despite a difficult year last season that was blighted by injuries, the blonde striker is back and firing on all cylinders this campaign. Finally de Jong who has been likened to Franz Beckenbeur, Xavi and Frank Rijkaard at one time or another is a predominately deep lying midfielder whose versatility and football orientated brain lets him control games with ease. Although he never actually came through the youth system at Ajax (he was bought from Willem II), he plays as if he has spend a decade learning at the academy. With precision passing and a good eye for goal too, he is the complete midfielder who will only get better as he gets older.

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Frenkie de Jong has been a revelation since making his breakthrough (Image from Tumblr)

Now positioned as a selling club, Ajax know that holding on to these three in particular will be almost impossible so ensuring the biggest payout possible will be the main goal. That should not be an issue given the interest levels reported in various European newspapers. de Ligt is attracting interest from Juventus and Barcelona whilst Dolberg has Napoli and Tottenham drooling beyond control. But its Frenkie de Jong who could secure the club the biggest pay out with Pep Guardiola such a big fan that he is asking Manchester City to sanction a pre-agreement with the player valued at €70 million now in order to hold off interest from his former club Barcelona. Frenkie, who was named by his parents after Frankie Goes to Hollywood is seen as an ideal replacement for the aging Fernandinho and could become Guardiola’s centrepiece as he looks to build the next iteration of his Manchester City team.

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Frankie Goes To Hollywood hit song “Relax” (Image from Tumblr)

Ajax Technical Director Marc Overmars has hinted that the club is already preparing to lose the trio but is hopeful that they can remain in Holland until at least the summer. For ten Hag, keeping all three will give him a better chance of clawing back and overtaking Mark van Bommel’s PSV side in the race for the championship. Losing them in the winter transfer window would not be preferable but would arm him with a substantial war chest of funds which could be used to bring in more players. Either way, Ajax is set to benefit from the trio in more than one way. In all of this, Overmars does not seem stressed and like ten Hag is relaxed about the prospect knowing that he only has to look over his shoulder to see who’s next coming off the Ajax youth production line.

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One On One with: Steven Caldwell

Football in its’ purest sense is about winning games and scoring goals. The need therefore for a quality striker is undeniable yet when it comes to building a team, most managers will build from the back with the belief that you keep a clean sheet and don’t concede then you stand a better chance of winning. Usually they turn to a formidable figure at centre half, one like our next interviewee, former Scotland defender Steven Caldwell. Over a 20 year playing career which saw Caldwell play for Newcastle, Birmingham, Burnley, Toronto FC and his national side, Caldwell became known as a no nonsense, reliable centre half who over the course of his career evolved into a natural leader both on and off the pitch.

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Now retired, Caldwell is using his knowledge and experiences in the game to forge ahead in his new career as an analyst for TSN in Canada where he now resides. I caught up with him recently in Toronto to discuss his time as a player, what it was like playing for Roberto Martinez and why he is looking forward to the World Cup in 2026. Enjoy!

Check out the full interview here:

With thanks again to Steven Caldwell. Check out Steven on TSN or on Instagram and on Twitter.

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Always in the Shadows

You have to feel for Neymar. The Brazilian superstar just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to his club. After making the breakthrough at Santos in his native Brazil, Neymar quickly became the player that everyone was talking about. Blessed with a natural ability that has elevated him to become one of the worlds best players, Neymar thrives as the focal point of the team. At Santos, surrounded by teammates of lesser quality Neymar was front and centre. For Brazil it is a similar story. Neymar was basking in the limelight but needed a bigger platform. In stepped Barcelona.

Front and Centre - where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

Front and Centre – where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

At first, the move to Barcelona made a lot of sense. Neymar, the latest emerging prodigy from South America moving to arguably the world’s biggest club. His name and talents would be elevated into the next stratosphere whilst Barcelona profited both on and off the pitch. At Barcelona he would be one of their brightest assets but not their biggest. That title has been held for over a decade by one Lionel Messi. The Argentine is a god amongst men in the world of football, an icon that regardless of how he is playing steals all of the limelight. Barcelona pitched a story to Neymar about coming in to play alongside Messi, learning from him day-to-day and eventually replacing him as the clubs focal point. It was an attractive proposition, one that almost guaranteed success for Neymar so he snapped it up without hesitation. Over the next four seasons, trophies would flow into Barcelona like water – two La Liga titles, three consecutive Copa del Reys, one Champions League and a Club World Cup should have left Neymar feeling on top of the football world. But despite this, all was not right with the Brazilian, something was clearly missing. The limelight.

 

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar was improving season over season. His first season started slowly with Neymar finding his rhythm part of the way through the campaign leading to 14 goals in all competitions. By the second, he was firing on all cylinders contributing 39 goals in 51 appearances. By the third season his tally decreased but his influence on how Barcelona attacked and in particular won games was evident. But regardless of what he did, Messi continued to shine brighter.  In Neymar’s second season at Barcelona, Messi racked up an incredible 58 goals in 57 appearances, 43 of which came in the league. The light was starting to blind Neymar who started to doubt the vision painted by Barcelona a few years before. Messi was not slowing down nor looked to be fading. Neymar knew that if he was to become the central figure, he was going to have to leave.

Living in Messi's shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

Living in Messi’s shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

PSG had spent a lot of money on players before Neymar arrived capturing top talents like Angel Di Maria, Julian Draxler and Edison Cavani. But none came close to the impact that Neymar had on his arrival. On signing, PSG went from Ligue 1 title winners to possible Champions League contenders. His €222m transfer obliterated the record set previously by Real Madrid when they bought Gareth Bale. Neymar entered the club like Julius Caesar returning to Rome following the conquest of Gaul. With only Cavani in his way, Neymar brushed aside the Uruguayan to take his position as the focal point of PSG. All was well it seemed until the arrival of a teenage upstart called Kylian Mbappe.

Back in the Limelight - Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

Back in the Limelight – Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

The 2018 World Cup in Russia was viewed by Brazil as a redemption opportunity; a way to final bury the memory of what happened four years previously back home at the hands of the Germans. Neymar, sidelined for that game took it as his personal mission to win the World Cup for Brazil this time around was a man possessed even if a bit dramatically. As always he was front and centre, controlling what Brazil did and scoring important goals when needed. A wry smile will have crept over his face as Messi and Argentina crashed out early on. Against Belgium in the quarter finals, Neymar’s dream crumbled as an injury time equalizer was agonizingly saved by Courtois. Brazil were out. Neymar was forced to watch as France, led by his newest teammate Mbappe swept to glory. It was a turning point in the career of Mbappe, once a promising talent now considered the real deal.

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar's disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar’s disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Back in Ligue 1, Neymar has been playing brilliantly with eight goals in eight league games to date.  A hat trick in the Champions League goes to show how much Neymar has the bit between his teeth. However its Mbappe that is stealing most of the headlines in France. Following his World Cup heroics, Mbappe has been elevated to saint status with his every touch fawned upon. Whilst his goals to games return has not been as good as Neymars’, a recent four goal haul against Lyon has the media once again eating out of his hand. Neymar is not handling it well and cuts a worried figure realizing that this youngster could eclipse him and eventually steal all of the limelight. He has a tough decision to make – stick it out and battle against Mbappe in a country that favours the Frenchman over him or cut his losses and move yet again. Real Madrid are rumoured to be monitoring the situation closely and hoping to get a SOS sign from Neymar. With the light switching over to Mbappe, Neymar needs to act fast or face further years in the shadows.

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One On One with: Mikael Forssell

In life there are times when you get a sense about someone who you talk with; a moment when you realize that their story might not be finished yet. Mikael Forssell’s career as a footballer was exceptional – his goalscoring feats for club and country remembered fondly. But now retired, Mikael is embarking on the next chapter of his story, focused solely on self development and gaining momentum towards the path well travelled into football management. It’s a path he was destined to take, one he has been learning for his entire career, and one that I am sure he will be successful in, much like he was as a player. Forssell epitomizes the next generation of football managers and coaches that are set to emerge. He is smart, well educated, passionate and level headed and sees football differently, having witnessed it firsthand progress over the past two decades or so from the old fashioned sport draped in legacy, to the evolving game embracing technology and ideas at a frightening speed. I caught up with him recently to talk about his career, both past and future.

Back of The Net: Football appears to be a key part of your family with both your father (Bengt Forssell) and older sister (Christina) joining you in representing Finland. Do you think you were always destined to play professionally?

Mikael Forssell: I think so! I fell in love with the ball at an early age and of course when you already “have that expertise” in the house it was very natural that my sport was going to be football.

BOTN: I see that you were born in Germany. Was that because your dad was playing there? When did you move back to Finland?

MF: My dad was working in Germany at the time and I was born during that time. We moved away from Germany when I was only 1 and a half to Sweden for my dad’s work and afterwards to Finland (both my parents are Finnish) when I was 4 years-old.

Image from Mikael Forssell Twitter)

BOTN: You joined HJK’s youth development team and eventually played your way into the first team, but then left on a free after only one season. What happened there?

MF: I was always interested in moving abroad at an early age. I believed at the time that I would develop better as a footballer if I joined a team in Europe. Luckily there were some chasing me at the time, and eventually I chose Chelsea. Also, maybe HJK Helsinki’s “transfer department” could have played my contract situation slightly better on their terms.

BOTN: Given how things turned out over your seven years at Chelsea with the difficulties you faced in getting a consistent run in the first team, and the numerous loan moves, do you have regrets about moving there when you did?

MF: Absolutely not! That is football! I still had amazing times and moments at Chelsea, which I’m very proud of, and also I have fond memories of people that are still working there. My dream is to go back working there one day.

No regrets for Forssell about his time at Chelsea (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Chelsea has a reputation for acquiring a lot of talented youngsters from across the world and farming them out to their various feeder clubs for development purposes. Last season they had an incredible 38 players out on loan. Do you agree with this approach? Do you think it’s fair on the players themselves?

MF: I think no player can argue what the situation will/could be at Chelsea when they are signing. It is an honour for a player to sign for such a big club. The fact is that that’s football business and there are only a limited number of players and teams in the top flight. Only the best will survive. Of course, in an ideal world all would get a chance, but unfortunately that is not football.

BOTN: After spells at Crystal Palace and Borussia Monchengladbach on loan, you decided to move permanently to Birmingham City following a loan period there. I believe that you turned down a move to Bayern Leverkusen to make that switch. What was it that appealed about Birmingham at that time?

MF: I was almost about to sign for Bayer Leverkusen but in the final moment Birmingham made a move for me. I had only just returned from a successful spell from the Bundesliga and thought that I needed to play a full season in the Premier League. Birmingham had a very good team that season and it was such a pleasure to play in that attacking minded team.

Arguably his most successful time at a club was  at Birmingham (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Birmingham proved to be one of the most successful moves of your career. Why do you think it proved so fruitful?

MF: The manager at the time, Steve Bruce, had a great atmosphere in the team and many players had played in bigger teams and were all hungry to show that they were great players that were let go. Everything fell into place that season and I formed a great partnership with Clinton Morrison, who I had played alongside at Crystal Palace earlier in my career.

BOTN: You returned to Germany with a move to Hannover which seemed to be a perfect fit for you. But it proved to be a difficult time in your career, both with injuries and lack of form, but also emotionally when the club lost its captain and goalkeeper Robert Enke, who sadly took his own life. How difficult was it for the squad in the months following Enke’s passing? Do you think enough is being done in football to support players with mental illness and depression?

MF: It’s only now that depression is being talked about. To the outside world it might look like we as footballers “have it all”. It is a fact that we are very privileged people in this world, but the fact is, depression doesn’t look at age, face, color, status…basically nothing. And even for myself, who has never suffered depression, it has been hard to understand what it is, but now after reading a lot about it and seeing it close by, it is a horrible illness. The good thing is that help is more available these days, but I still think players in some sense need courage to come out and admit it and it should not be like that.

Gone but never forgotten – Robert Enke (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: After Germany, you returned to England to play for Leeds before heading home to HJK. Was it always the plan to return back to the club where it all started? Was it easier to go back given your status as an iconic part of the Finnish national team?

MF: I actually didn’t go to Finland to “ease off football”. I went there to prove a point that I could still score goals. I scored 14 goals that season and next season earned a move to Bochum, which was 2nd Bundesliga.

BOTN: You are the 2nd highest goal scorer of all time for Finland behind the great Jari Litmanen. What did you learn from playing alongside Litmanen? Do you think you complemented each other?

MF: He was the perfect partner in crime at his peak. He was always looking forward and seeing my runs…runs that only a few could see. He fed me balls constantly from every area of the pitch and when he eventually dropped out of the team it was harder for me to get the balls.

Now a legend in Finland (Image from Mikael Forssell’s Instagram)

BOTN: Finland has never managed to qualify for a major international tournament. Why do you think that is? Do you think the new Nations League will give Finland a better chance of qualifying?

MF: I hope the Nations League is a gateway although it is not an easy process either. I think we have lacked an identity for a couple of years now and also the quality of players is currently not strong enough. We have great players in the team but the team is not broad enough.

BOTN: Since retiring you have completed an MBA in Sports Management and are now working towards getting your UEFA A licence. I know that you have ambitions to be a manager one day. What type of manager do you think you will be?

MF: I finished my MBA in Sports Management this summer. And yes, I am working on the UEFA A license too. I believe I am good with people and want to get the best out of every player. I would be demanding but rewarding and I would play football that defends on the opposition side of the pitch and plays quickly forwards after winning the ball. A mix of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp! I call it Ploppo! [laughs]

Meet Ploppo! Forssell is on track to complete his UEFA A licence soon (Image from Mikael Forssell’s Instagram)

BOTN: For a striker, is it more difficult to adapt to a club’s tactics and formations following a move than say a defender? I would imagine that there is more pressure on you to adapt quicker and start scoring goals than your defensive teammates?

MF: Well, I guess all have pressure but for a striker you are dependent of the passes of your teammates. If they for any reason can’t find you it will be very difficult to score so in that sense, yes there is more pressure!

BOTN: Finally, some quick hits: favourite international goal?

MF: First goal against Germany in the 2001 World Cup qualifiers where I went around Oliver Kahn and slotted it in the empty net.

BOTN: Proudest moment(s)?

MF: Being part of the Chelsea Premier League winning team in 2005 and the season in Birmingham where I netted 19 goals in the 03/04 season.

BOTN: Hardest opponent you faced?

MF: Vincent Kompany.

Thank you Mikael, and good luck with your UEFA A license!

Follow Mikael on Twitter and Instagram

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Why relegation may be the best thing for Newcastle this season

In the 1993 classic movie “Groundhog Day”, TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray finds himself in an never ending loop reliving the same day over and over. Frustration sets in early on for Connors as he struggles to understand why he is stuck repeating Groundhog Day no matter what he does. Eventually though he accepts his fate and spends each day repeating his steps in order to entertain himself and hopefully win over the heart of his producer Rita Hanson, played by 90’s favourite Andie MacDowell. Whilst the plot may seem fictitious to most, for Newcastle fans it has become their reality – reliving the same season over and over. Each and every season follows the same vicious circle – at the beginning the fans are filled with hope that this will be the season when things turn around for their club, that new players will arrive to improve the squad and Newcastle will become the team that many expected them to become. But that hope soon disappears as signings fail to arrive. What follows is a painful season as the squad limps through picking up just enough points to survive. At the end the season, the cycle starts all over again condemning the Newcastle faithful to their own footballing version of Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day for Newcastle fans? (image from Groundhog Day official poster)

It has been ten long years for those fans since Mike Ashley walked into their club and fundamentally changed the philosophy and approach of Newcastle from a footballing sleeping giant to a frugally driven business. Like Murray’s adventures in Punxsutawney, there have been more than a few false dawns along the way but all have ended the same way; in bitter disappointment. Whether it be Graham Carr’s French transfer revolution, Alan Pardew’s European adventure or most recently Rafa’s revival, the club has always fallen backwards rather than moving on to better things. Ashley decided a long time ago that Newcastle wasn’t going to be his hobby but instead another profit making machine within his business empire. Success on the field was sacrificed for larger numbers in the balance books. And it worked with Newcastle becoming the 17th most profitable club in the world bolstering Ashley’s reported £2.5b fortune along the way. Ashley has said publicly that despite his multi-billionaire status that the club must now be self sufficient having put £250m of his own money into the club over the past ten years but the math doesn’t stack up. in the time he has been in charge, Newcastle has raked in huge sums of money from gate receipts, merchandise, lucrative broadcast rights and player sales yet consistently spent little on bringing players in. This season manager Rafa Benitez has had to rely on loan signings, free transfers and self funded transfers (selling players to buy players) to bolster his already fragile squad. Added into this, he had to contend with the club trying to shortchange his existing squad in the run up to the start of the new season when they failed to agree a bonus structure forcing the players to take their own actions by refusing to comply with media requests. For the fans it’s a never ending cycle that shows no sign of resolving anytime soon.

For the love of Money – Mike Ashley (Image from Tumblr)

 

Hope however may be on the horizon in the form of Amanda Staveley. The British businesswoman with her Middle East connections launched an audacious bid to buy Newcastle late last year and for a while looked like she was going to be successful. With Ashley keen to sell, Staveley matched the asking price set by the Sports Direct boss (rumoured to be £320m) only for Ashley to up his price to £400m in what can only be described as a last ditch effort to get more money. It backfired with Staveley walking away from the negotiations, leaving Ashley holding the over priced baby. Staveley is still rumoured to be interested but won’t overpay for the club knowing that additional funds will be needed to vastly improve the first team as well as completely overhaul the youth development structure at the club which has failed to bring through anyone of note since Paul Dummett.

Could Staveley be tempted to buy Newcastle even if they are relegated? (Image from Tumblr)

So here is why relegation may be the best thing that can happen to Newcastle this season. It’s well understood that Ashley is becoming bored of Newcastle and would sell for the right price. It’s also understood that Ashley wants to avoid another relegation as the value of the club would drop significantly, likely to half of his current valuation. That would result in him having to make one of two choices – stick it out for another season and fund the squad rebuilding needed to get out of an increasingly difficult Championship or sell for less than the original £320m he had asked for. Given that he paid £135m to acquire Newcastle ten years ago and has likely taken enough cash out of the club since then to cover that plus his other investments, selling the club for £200m would still be a smart business move. Staveley would likely re-enter the picture (as could other potential buyers) given she sees the long term value in the club and has a desire to awaken the sleeping giant on numerous fronts. Relegation would result in several players leaving and perhaps the manager too if he has stuck around by that point. But they could be enticed back by new owners with a desire to invest that matches their long term vision for the club.

Newcastle fans make their feelings clear (image from Tumblr)

In “Groundhog Day”, Murray is caught in his endless time loop for an undetermined period. But according to director Harold Ramis, Connors is stuck for ten years before he finds redemption and escapes the loop. Its been ten years since Ashley took over at newcastle so perhaps this is an omen. With Staveley still keen on buying Newcastle and Ashley growing tired of a business that has giving him endless headaches despite being profitable, Newcastle’s escape may be on the cards. Relegation may be the trigger needed for Ashley to finally part with the club and end the fans own Groundhog Day.

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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One on One with: Karina LeBlanc

Few athletes can boast of the sort of international soccer career Karina LeBlanc enjoyed during her 17 years in a Canada shirt, including five World Cups, two Olympics and of course, that London 2012 bronze medal – and fewer still have managed the transition like she has since hanging up her goalkeeper’s gloves three years ago. A FIFA and CONCACAF Ambassador, public speaker, mentor, budding broadcaster and of late, with her own foundation just up and running and a park in her native Maple Ridge, B.C., named in her honour, LeBlanc remains a highly visible, totally inspirational figure in the game. We caught up with her as she prepared to leave for the World Cup in Russia, to take on the likes of Maradona, Ronaldinho and her one-time idol Peter Schmeichel in a FIFA Legends event around this year’s tournament opener.

Backofthenet: What are you doing at the World Cup?

Karina LeBlanc: I’m a FIFA Legend. No kidding. We play a game on the 12th, with or against Maradona, Puyol, all the real legends. I don’t know which team I’m on yet, but it’s a little mini-tournament and we’ll play against each other for fun. And I’ll be just pinching myself. Last time (at the World Cup draw) Maradona was teasing me and I was talking trash back to him – like, who does that? And then Ronaldo, Ronaldinho – the true legends, that’s my reality. We’ll sit in on the FIFA Congress for the 2026 voting, and then we all get to watch the opening game of the World Cup in Russia.

BOTN: You’ve been to five World Cups as a player, but I guess you’ve never done the World Cup like this.

Karina: Never. There’s no pressure on me, first of all. I’m literally going as a fan of the game and I get to be an Ambassador at the same time. I’ll get to be there and watch and take in all of it. I’ve never been to a World Cup game as a spectator, and get to do it with all the heroes I grew up watching and had on my wall. It’s gonna be kind of cool!

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc's instagram)

Passion is something that Karina has never lacked (Image from Karina LeBlanc’s instagram)

BOTN: It’ll be exactly 20 years next month since you made your international debut for Canada. Can you put into words how long a journey that’s been for you, and also for the women’s side of the game?

Karina: It really makes me feel so grateful for it. There’s moments I remember especially when we were fighting for things. We’d have eight people at a game and we’d be staying at a barracks – you’re fighting to find a place in this world and make a stance in the women’s game not only as a country, but also as a woman. And in the journey you have this picture, you’re actually thinking beyond what you can see, trying to pave the way as a group. In 2015 when I retired I think that was one of the proudest things – you always want to leave the game in a better place than when you came into it, and I think that’s one of the true legacy pieces we talked about in the national team. Now I think what I’m proud of is how it’s continuing to grow, how it’s continuing to take notice and I think the biggest thing now that I’m removed from the game is to see and hear and be able to be part of continuing the change and seeing how the women’s game can truly impact the next generation. I think 20 years now, when I look back, I’m proud of where the game has come to and I’m proud of being a part of helping continue to take the game where it can go. Being named a FIFA Legend – I don’t know about that, but I’m pinching myself, almost feeling that little kid within me again. The innocence of it, the excitement of the World Cup – I haven’t had a chance to do that in so long, because there was always pressure around it. I’ve never even thought of that – 20 years – that’s half my life.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina in her new role as a FIFA Ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: Do you remember that first time you put on the shirt?

Karina: It was in Ottawa, I believe, against China. I was really young and I was trying to process what it all meant. I was proud because at a young age I’d already been through some stuff – I’d been cut, I’d been told I wasn’t good enough. So when you finally get there you’re proud, but you’re also standing next to women who have paved the way for you to get there. It’s the honour of that, and the respect of that, and just the opportunity. Who gets to play for your country? That’s one thing that never left me every time I put on the jersey – how privileged I was to put that flag on my heart. That’s what I love about the World Cup. It’s not about the numbers and the TV – you’re putting that flag on your heart and representing your country. I never ever took it for granted.

BOTN: You did it for 17 years.

Karina: It didn’t feel that long. For every failure, it didn’t feel that way, because I learned so much about myself. One of the most beautiful lessons in life that sport teaches you is that failure is okay, but then you get the successes – as a goalkeeper you think of those big saves, those big moments, all the work comes down to that adrenaline rush of that moment when you’re stretching out and tipping the ball and it’s bending around the post and you know that all your work came into that matter of inches. Yes, I did it for 17 years but you know what? I think because the way my life is right now, I haven’t missed it. I miss my teammates, that part of the game, but the actual hard training and that kind of sacrifice, 17-plus years of doing it, I definitely was ready to walk away.

BOTN: A lot of players have trouble after their playing days end. Why do you think you’ve been able to handle that so well?

Karina: I think one of the biggest things was I wanted to align everything with my purpose here on this Earth. That’s why I always say that being a UNICEF Ambassador is one of the proudest moments of my life, because I remember one of my first trips before I retired and it was a defining moment, because life is about feeling that you’re doing something. When you’re doing that in service to others you feel it more than ever. I remember being in Honduras and seeing those kids in the first ever jersey I wore as a kid in Maple Ridge B.C. and so many things hit me that this was the next step for me. I think I aligned my life to feeling that fulfillment in helping others, and it helps me understand that all my difficulties as an athlete – you’re like why? and people go through this in life too – when you can align that your life is not actually about you, it’s about other people and your voice can actually help inspire people, I think that helped me in my transition. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always peachy, it wasn’t always perfect. I had my days where I felt alone and you miss those two hours of sitting around at dinner talking about nothing with your teammates in a foreign country, you miss that taking your body to the extreme. But I think what I’ve been able to fill that hole with is the ability to impact other people to be a better version of themselves.

(Image from Karina's instagram)

Karina as UNICEF ambassador (Image from Karina’s instagram)

BOTN: That’s the challenging part right?

The challenge for me is that I’ve been able to do it in multiple areas, not just one, and it’s ever growing and continuing, and I think for me that’s the beauty of it. That helps my transition. Even my speaking now, it’s taken off and got into the corporate world, which if you asked me two years ago … I speak to a lot of huge corporate gigs and it’s because people are saying, come talk a little bit about your sport life, but come talk too about this idea of living and working purposefully – not for the bottom dollar, but where we each as individuals can step into this idea of living for a purpose on this Earth and being who we were meant to me. That makes me feel so alive. And then doing the stuff with the CBC, the RBC Training Ground where we travel across Canada to find Canada’s next Olympic hopeful – even that is fulfilling because it’s these kids being given the opportunity by RBC to pursue their dreams … everything that I’m doing, I guess it all aligns to me using everything I’ve been through on this Earth where every day I wake up and I’m actually living my purpose. It’s such a cliché, but it’s a beautiful challenge and in the last four months I’ve probably had 50 appearance and they’ve all been different. And that’s beautiful. Every day I feel alive, and it’s not the same – In the smallest ways, it’s actually making people people be a better version of themselves, and when I retired I thought there’d be no chance I could impact people this way. You’re in this team environment, but when you remove yourself you have to figure out who you are as an individual and in exploring that and stay true to myself I’ve been able to create so many different opportunities.

BOTN: How has your perspective on the team you used to be a part of changed – they have a new coach (Kenneth Heiner-Moller), a new group of players, John Herdman has gone on to the men’s side of things. How do you see that now from a distance?

Karina: I think it was interesting. Everything came out quicker than John wanted to or even the players. It kind of came up in the way it wasn’t intended to. I remember speaking to John – he’s a builder, and if you ask him he probably had the practice schedule for June 10, 2020. He said there came a time when the team is so ready, and Kenneth is so perfect for them – it’s a changing of the guards but it’s like when you lose your best boss you’re bummed about it, but you’re also getting another incredible boss. I think the program’s in great hands. He knows the group and he’s also led himself so he knows how to lead, and it’s the perfect time to transition because there are a lot of younger faces on the team that they can take this change. I think it’s a positive because I think that what John’s going to be able to do on the men’s side is also different from what most of the coaches were able to do there. He is that planner. People have said he can’t motivate the men like he did the women, but I think after the first camp the response of the men was exactly that – they were like, this man is legit, he understands that you understand who you’re leading first before you decide how to lead. That’s the mark of a great leader. I think both the women’s and the men’s team will be better off from all of this.

BOTN: You’ve always spoke of the huge influence John Herdman had on you.

Karina: Huge. Me even becoming a UNICEF Ambassador came from the words of John. We were in Brazil and he said ‘I’m going to take my coaching hat off … if you think your purpose on this Earth is to kick a soccer ball for Canada then I’ve failed you.’ He brought out things about myself I wasn’t even aware of – you don’t see yourself with the eyes of others. He said I was destined to do so much and that conversation rocked me. I was like, ‘this is my purpose, I’ve been on this team 14 years and I give everything. If anyone’s been in one job for 14 years, it’s like, this is what I do.’ And had he not had that conversation with me I probably wouldn’t have taken a step back to ask myself why am I here on this Earth? If it’s not as a soccer player, then why? That openness led me to being open to different things and that’s when the UNICEF opportunity walked in – it was a changing moment in my life, to be around people asking how to be of service to others. That completely shifted my mind. Even to this day with John it’s like that. He sent me a text the other day because he wasn’t able to be at the opening of the field and he basically said this is only the beginning. That’s the voice of John Herdman in my ear, it keeps still pushing me, keeps challenging me. He’s always said his legacy is not winning that bronze medal – or in his case, back-to-back medals – but it’s what we go on to do. He really does live that.

John Herdman's words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina's Facebook page)

John Herdman’s words to Karina in Brazil (Image from Karina’s Facebook page)

BOTN: Let’s go back to that Karina LeBlanc Field. What’s going through your head when you see that?

Karina: If you watch the video, I bawled like a baby. It was like ugly crying. You never dream of a moment like that. You dream of winning a medal, and the irony of it was that in that park I’d be there with my brother and dreaming of the crowd going wild and you can hear your name and you make the big save, all those things. Then you fast forward all these years later and the park is actually named Karina LeBlanc Field, and it’s now the field of dreams for this next generation. That’s what I said in my speech – I want you to dream big crazy dreams every time you cross into this park, make it a moment where you don’t listen to people who tell you you can’t do anything, or cut you down. You believe in yourself, and you have fun. That’s one of the biggest thing about sports, that it can change to a business or a job. But that thank-you speech was almost like my wedding day, in that you feel like the most special woman and the luckiest woman – but for sports. I never knew that it’d have that kind of impact on me. That’s what triggered me with this foundation. I want every young girl, especially in my community, to know there’s somebody backing them. I was that young girl who had a couple people backing me other than my family, and was able to do some pretty cool things. I cried like a baby.

(interview edited and condensed for purposes of length)

BOTNBlog supports Karina and her foundation, The Karina LeBlanc Foundation which focuses its resources on adolescent girls from all socio-economic backgrounds to achieve their dreams and to produce future leaders.

Interview with Chris Young (@HighParkCy)

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One on One with: Boudewijn Zenden

There are very few players that have graced the game who were as universally loved by the clubs they played for and also by the clubs they faced. Boudewijn Zenden is one such player. The former international winger’s career took him from his native Holland to Spain, England & France. At each club he played for he became a fan favourite because of his natural abilities and his commitment to the team’s success. Zenden was a fundamental component off the pitch as well. His former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez called him “the glue that holds teams together, a fantastic professional who was always there between the players trying to keep them together”. Now in his career as a coach, Zenden is looking to transfer that same passion for the game to the next generation of stars coming through in Holland.

BackOfTheNet: Boudewijn, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

BOTN: Let’s start at the beginning. You signed for your hometown club, MVV Maastricht, before moving to PSV two years later. After six years in their youth team, you made your debut for the first team and over the next 4 years you became a fan favourite in Dick Advocaat’s side. How important were those formative years in your career and what influence did Advocaat and your first boss Aad de Mos have on them?

Boudewijn Zenden: Aad de Mos gave me the opportunity to start as a pro. He didn’t last long and then Advocaat took over. I had to work hard and fight to become a starter. I didn’t move to quick so I had time to become a favourite and it gave me the opportunity to work myself into the national team. I secured myself in the World Cup 1998 squad. Just before the World Cup I signed for Barca.

BOTN: As you mentioned, Barcelona came calling and you signed for them in that summer (’98). It was there that you started being deployed more as a wing back in order to accommodate you and Marc Overmars in the same team. You made your name as a winger, but having played in various positions on the left-hand side and in the middle of midfield, which one do you think is your best and most natural position?

BZ: I do believe that as I was a versatile player that I could do well in several positions. I always needed the freedom to go forward, as from a kid I loved to be involved in scoring or providing goals.

BOTN: How important is it for players to be adaptable?

BZ: If you are capable to adapt to different positions, clubs, competitions, countries you are more likely to have a good career.

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BOTN: After Spain you moved to England, first with Chelsea, but then later with Middlesbrough, Liverpool and eventually Sunderland. Several Dutch players over the years have commented on the similarities between life in Holland and England and how easy it is to adapt to the league. Did you find that it was easy, and was that why you stayed for so long? 

BZ: It is true that life in the UK and the Netherlands are similar but the league is so much different. The Premier league is physically harder. There are no easy games in the Premier League. I stayed long in the UK as I enjoyed the positiveness of the fans and the way the Premier League is handled and broadcasted. It arguably the best League in the world.

BOTN: You spent some time in the south of France with Marseille. Despite the surroundings, that move didn’t quite go to plan. What happened there?

BZ: I did enjoy my time in France. I played a big part as we finished 3rd and 2nd in the Ligue 1. Scoring against the biggest rival in Paris was a highlight. The OM fans are mad and are very tough supporters. I always enjoyed playing for them. Eventually I wished to go back to the UK as I missed the Premier League.

BOTN: Having played in the Eredivisie, La Liga, Premier League and Ligue 1, is there one of those leagues that you felt suited your style of play more than the rest?

BZ: I think I suited well in all competitions although they are different. In the Eredivisie you get a lot of time/space on the ball. La Liga is a tactical and technical high standard competition. The Premier League is a physically tough competition. In Ligue 1 I found the players physically tough but also many players played individually.

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BOTN: Your first ever goal for Holland came in the World Cup 3rd place play-off game against Croatia and it was spectacular – a dazzling run followed by a powerful swerving shot that eluded Ladic in goal. Was that your finest goal you scored in your career or do you have another favourite?

BZ: It’s true that it was a nice goal, especially because it was at a World Cup. I remember scoring a nice one for Middlesborough against Lazio. For Sunderland I scored a worldy against Tottenham, that one also comes to my mind.

BOTN: With Holland failing to qualify for the Euros and now the World Cup, many are looking towards its youth prospects for hope. Recently the Holland Under 17s side lifted the European Championship which will help. How do you view the next generation coming through? Are you excited about Holland’s future?

BZ: It’s true that at the moment the national team is not what it used to be. Not qualifying for two tournaments in a row is a big blow for Dutch football in general. There should always be hope. I guess that it’s a matter of time that the Dutch will be there again.

BOTN: Rafa Benitez gave you your first taste of life on the other side of the white chalk when he hired you as assistant manager at Chelsea. Since then you have taken a coaching role back at PSV. How important was it for you to remain in the game after you hung up your boots?

BZ: I got the opportunity to stay in the game. When you can help the new generation with your experience it’s a good feeling. But I also like working as an analyst for TV so I’m still very much involved in the game.

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BOTN: You played alongside Steven Gerrard at Liverpool who has now become the manager of Rangers in Scotland. How do you think he will get on and do you see yourself following that path eventually becoming a manager outright?

BZ: I’m sure Steven will do well at Rangers. As a manager you will learn along the way. I don’t know yet where my (managerial) path will take me.

BOTN: Finally, throughout your career you played with some fantastic players: Bergkamp, Lampard, Ronaldo at PSV, to name a few. But are there any players who you felt deserved more praise for their performances than they received? 

BZ: I think all of them deserved credits for what they did to make the game what it is today.

Thank you again Boudewijn.

 

Follow Boudewijn on Instagram: boudewijn_zenden

Also check out Bolo Zenden’s Design hotel in Maastricht : Zenden.nl. Stay and Sport in Style.

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Zidane, a Portrait revisited

“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all. When I retire I’ll miss the green of the field. ‘Le Carre Vert’.”

So said Zinedine Zidane a few years back, as his playing career wound down to that infamous final moment. The words appear in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a singular cinematic portrayal of one 2005 day at the office which seems as fine a place, at least to me, to go searching for meaning and echoes as the French superstar, recast in the unlikely role (at least to some) as an undefeated Champions League Final manager, goes for three in a row Saturday in Kiev.

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The idea of Zidane on the sideline now seems only slightly less strange than the moment 30 months ago when he was suddenly promoted from inexperienced reserve manager into the role of directing the world’s most successful club. It is no stranger, though, than having Portrait’s 17 cameras trained only on him, the biggest Galactico of all, with the rest of the Bernabeu – his teammates, Villarreal (including Diego Forlan at peak hair), the usual sellout house in Madrid – functioning as extras. And surely, in an age of specialty shots available at the asking on today’s big broadcasts, keeping a close eye on the superstar du jour is nothing new – there’s likely a Zidane-cam going this weekend, if you’re interested. But in this revisit, his command is not so much eye-opening – to me, Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp have always been the only two players (and very different ones) who I would wish to be teleported back to see again in their prime. And of the two, unlike the sometime-passenger Bergkamp, Zidane’s imperiousness rarely if ever flagged (although it would somewhat inevitably be doused in equally instinctive dollops of red mist).

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If you’re looking for something different for your pre-final party and haven’t already gone there, stop reading now and go find it (it’s on YouTube). The spoiler is that red mist, and the stray observations include the confirmation that as recently as 13 years ago, filthy-rich footballers remained capable of fouling or being fouled without turning into today’s flaming, disbelieving idiots rounding in how-dare-you fashion on the referee. Zidane himself stalks around, scratching his nose, hands on hips, the odd ‘hey!’ his only verbal, the camera going down and close to note the hole left by a stray spike in his left sock (by game’s end, there is a match on the other leg), panning up with his eyes to the Bernabeu’s uppermost lights, accompanied by the most subdued Mogwai soundtrack ever. Then he sees something and is off like a tiger bursting from the tall grass. As for the poor referee, he gets his, but sotto voce – “You should be embarrassed,” Zidane tells him under his breath after he awards Forlan a penalty.

Otherwise, Zidane offers the stoniest of looks, not even acknowledging Roberto Carlos’ “can you believe that?” look as Forlan lines up the spot kick. He’s the very model of the modern midfield general, a conservationist before his time. Much has been made of the man’s vision, including now, as he’s less the ruthless tactician and more the “manage by feel” type, it is said, and as loyal to his mates as the day is long. But that is all inferred here through the sweat, toil and handclaps. One of the more revealing quotes that appear below the action has him downplaying that part of his game:

“I remember playing in another place, at another time, when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score. It was the first and last time it ever happened.”

And:

“Maybe if things are going badly you become conscious of people’s reaction. When it’s not going well you feel less involved and more likely to hear the insults, the whistles. You start to have negative thoughts sometimes you want to forget. The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in ‘real time’. My memories of games, and events, are fragmented.”

It hasn’t been the best of domestic seasons for Zidane by multiple standards, including his own and the club he’s represented on and off since the turn of the century, and you wonder, hearing this from long ago, how much of this season has stayed with him, and fueled him. Real staggered through the year, finishing a vast 17 points off Barcelona in the La Liga table. But they found form, augmented by some luck (you make your own, right?) at Europe’s biggest, most important stage. For its polarity, it’s been remarkable. But then as now, he gives away nothing. Not for him the histrionics of his opposite this weekend, Jurgen Klopp a hyperactive, adenoidal teenager by comparison. Or the incandescent rage of Zidane the player best recalled in that infamous coupe de boule in his final game – or in the final moments of the movie, with Zidane’s predictable sending off accompanied by Mogwai in a shimmering ascendancy and acknowledged by a downcast grimace.

Economy. Elegance. Control. Vision. Power. Anger. ‘Le Carre Vert’. They’re all points on the Zidane scale, still. In this managerial guise we don’t see them all, with some kept well-holstered in a bespoke suit pocket. Perhaps Saturday, there will be a smile. But in even the most optimistic updated portrait, don’t count on it.

Post by Chris Young – @HighParkCy

Rangers Course Correct Again With Gerrard Appointment

After yet another tempestuous campaign for Glasgow Rangers, South Africa based owner Dave King has decided to make another change in order to course correct. The dismissal of Graeme Murty as manager was to be expected given recent disappointing results including a 5-0 hammering by rivals Celtic. Murty, who was given the job until the end of the season following Pedro Caixinha’s sacking in October, knew that it was coming after doubt started to surface about his ability to manage the club long term. The need for a more experienced manager to come in and sort the club out appeared to be the most logical next step. Thats why the appointment of Steven Gerrard, the untested former Liverpool and England midfielder as the new Rangers manager raised more than a few eyebrows.

Steven Gerrard has been appointed as Rangers new manager (Image from Tumblr)

Gerrard becomes Rangers 18th manager in its history and arguably its most inexperienced yet the failures of Mark Warburton, Caixinha and to a lesser extent Murty before him, should mean that the former Liverpool midfielder will be given much more leniency. He doesn’t officially start until June 1st but the size of the challenge that lies ahead of him (and assistant Gary McAllister) will mean that Gerrard will sleep little between now and then. His lack of experience was pinpointed by the media as his potential downfall but the same can be said about the squad he is about to inherit. Few of that squad know what it’s like to win a title or in some cases even taste cup success so turning them into believers may be Gerrard’s biggest challenge. Before he can fix the squad spiritually he must remove the deadwood. And there is a lot of it. Not only does it feature poor signings from his predecessors eras including Carlos Pena, Fabio Cardozo and Eduardo Herrera but it also features a lot of players who should have moved on along time ago. Captain Lee Wallace is one such figure who splits the Ibrox faithful when it comes to his future. There are those who believe Wallace is a symbol of a fallen period, someone who when times got tough stuck it out with the club and should be held in prestige because of that. But there are others who feel that Wallace has been a passenger for several seasons now and it’s only been the clubs turmoil off the pitch that has saved him from the axe. Wallace’s card may already be marked even before Gerrard gets his say following a club dispute that neither side is willing to go into detail publicly to clarify. His departure in the summer along with his co accused teammate Kenny Miller who happens to be out of contract soon will signal the changing of the guard and hopefully wipe the slate clean for Gerrard to build upon.

Changing of the guard as Miller and Wallace prepare for departures (Image from Tumblr)

The job however is not as easy as it seems. Yes money will be made available and to date no announcement has been made on exactly how much but he will have some to strengthen. If he needs more then he will have to find buyers for those surplus to demands which will be a task in itself. Many expect Gerrard to call in favours both at his old clubs, Liverpool and LA Galaxy but also with his numerous friends and connections in the game including former managers like Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. One person he won’t be calling to get players is Brendan Rodgers who is now in charge of Rangers arch rivals Celtic. Rodgers who is looking to complete an unprecedented back to back treble has yet to reach out formally to Gerrard to offer his congratulations however has been vocal in the press about the maturity and influence Gerrard will have on the Rangers squad. That doesn’t mean he is convinced Gerrard will be a success or even be able to stimulate his side enough to effectively challenge Celtic next season but it’s a nice gesture all the same. In honesty, Rodgers is probably delighted that Rangers have hired a novice manager rather than going for a more experienced head like Neil Warnock or even Frank De Boer. It could be argued that both have a better tactical knowledge than Gerrard having managed and won several trophies in their careers.

Gerrard will face former boss Brendan Rodgers next season (Image from Tumblr)

Time will tell if his lack of managerial experience has any bearing on where the title ends up next season. Those close to Scottish football will tell Gerrard that the most important games to win will be the ones against Celtic. Historically this was purely down to pride and bragging rights for the week following the game but now in a league with teams that have struggled to take any points off of Celtic, the Old Firm derbies are where the title destination is ultimately decided. And before the Aberdeen, Hibernian and Kilmarnock fans start writing hate mail about that last line, it’s worth noting a few things. Yes those clubs have “challenged” in recent seasons but to win the league you actually have to beat Celtic regularly, not just once or twice every five years or so. The other consideration is on resources and in particular the money that can be invested into new players. Only Rangers have the finances to compete with the budget of Celtic (and even then it’s still sizeably smaller) so it’s no wonder that Rangers are time and time again viewed as the only viable challenger.

Celtic’s 5-0 demolition of Rangers in the last Old Firm was Murty’s last game in charge (Image from Tumblr)

Gerrard arrives knowing the history of Rangers and will have been informed in no uncertain terms about the importance of stopping Celtic reaching ten consecutive titles in a row. That is the holy grail and to outsiders may seem insignificant but to both sets of supporters it’s often perceived as more important than life itself. Since Rangers ran to nine in a row back in the late 90’s, Celtic fans have stewed and pined for the day when they can get revenge. It comes down to nothing but bragging rights but in a city divided into green and blue, that all that matters. It’s here that Gerrard might actually make sense as an appointment. Having grown up in a similarly passionate city divided into red and blue (Liverpool) he will understand the desire on both sides to gain the upper hand and silence the other half of the city. Passion was what fuelled Gerrard as a player and spurned him on to become the leader he was. He will need to be the embodiment of passion and find players that complement this if he is to be a success. The four year contract handed to him suggests that the board will given him time to course correct the club but if the gap between the two clubs continues to widen and Celtic close in on ten in a row, Gerrard may find himself out of a job.

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The Best Uncapped Players Yet to Feature for El Tri

Back in 2016, FutMexNation’s Tom Harrison produced Mexico’s uncapped Xl, a team of the best players yet to feature for the national team. Then, in 2017, César Hernández produced his own version. Now, Tom’s back with a new squad of talented players yet to make it with El Tri.

GK – Gibrán Lajud – Tijuana

Lajud has cemented his place as a starter for Tijuana after Federico Vilar’s retirement, and earned a spot in the squad for the Bosnia friendly earlier this year. A first cap will likely be received after the year’s World Cup as El Tri begin the next four-year cycle.

Statistically, Gibrán sits fourth for most saves by a Liga MX keeper across 2017/18, and has been successful with all ten of his “runs out”. Improvements for Lajud need to come in possession, his pass accuracy is below 55% and he’s only completed a third of his long passes. This leaves him ranking near the bottom for Liga MX keeper pass accuracy.

LB – Gerardo Arteaga – Santos Laguna

Santos’ impressive improvements in youth development have brought the club benefits on the field and in the bank balance, and should soon start to positively impact the national team. Left-back Gerardo Arteaga could be one of the Santos products to impact El Tri, as a potential long-term replacement for Miguel Layún.

After making his Liga MX debut in October 2016, Arteaga has played over 1,000 minutes in Mexico’s top flight in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. Analysing Arteaga statistically is slightly problematic as Santos usually bypass their full-backs in build-up play, Gerardo’s average of 35 possessions per match is very low, but for players with over 500 minutes this season, he’s one of only four players to have won the ball as often as they’ve lost possession. Highly impressive, and suggests that Arteaga is both a capable ball-winner and solid ball-player.

CB – Eduardo Tercero – Lobos BUAP

The ambitious, attacking Lobos certainly haven’t performed well defensively this season, but 21-year-old centre-back Eduardo Tercero has made a large impression on many. Playing on the left-side of a back-three with “Maza” Rodríguez and long-term Lobos servant César Cercado, Tercero has put up impressive numbers both in and out of possession.

Eduardo averages 5.59 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, which puts him 15th in Liga MX this season, ahead of players like Alex Mejía, Carlos Izquierdoz, Santiago García and Igor Lichnovsky. Tercero has also won 67% of his ground duels, completed 18 of 19 dribble attempts and 86% of his passes. A 44% aerial duel win rate is concerning, but with his ability to regularly win possession, combined with class in possession, Tercero looks like a fantastic centre-back for the modern game. Plenty of Liga MX sides should look to pick him up from Lobos this summer.

 CB – Leiton Jiménez – Atlas

Colombian-Mexican Jiménez has been playing in Liga MX since 2012, so the assumption is that he’s fulfilled FIFA’s five-year requirement and that he could play for Mexico now. Injuries have often prevented Leiton from getting lengthy first-team spells, negatively impacting his performance and development, but at his best, Jiménez is one of the best centre-backs in Mexico. Physically, few are as imposing as Jiménez, with his pace and strength allowing the Atlas centre-back to excel in duels. His duel win rate of 62.1% is one of the best in Mexico’s top flight.

Leiton does make a few errors, and isn’t always great in possession, but Mexico currently don’t possess a centre-back with the physical power of Jiménez, Néstor Araújo is strong, but lacks pace. Perhaps something Juan Carlos Osorio is missing.

RB – José Maduena – Cruz Azul

Right-back is the most difficult choice in this team. Rodrigo “Stripper” Salinas has impressed for Toluca recently, Santos’ Jorge Sánchez is as exciting a prospect as teammate Gerardo Arteaga, and Chivas’ Jesús “Chapo” Sánchez excels defensively. However, Chapo isn’t fantastic going forward, and as a result he lost the right-back spot to José Maduena.

Maduena isn’t as good out of possession as Chapo, but going forward Maduena is fantastic at making overlapping runs, taking on opponents and delivering dangerous crosses. Dribbling is the most impressive facet of Maduena’s game, with the former Atlas man completing 60% of his attempts. The move to Cruz Azul hasn’t panned out well so far, but if Osorio wants to use to natural right-back who’s capable of contributing greatly to the attack, Maduena is the best option.

DM – David Cabrera – Pumas

Cabrera’s been a solid, dependable part of the Pumas midfield for many years. An accurate passer, capable of picking out through balls and switching play effectively, David can play as both a “number eight” and “number six”, as a deep-lying playmaker.

Unfortunately for Cabrera, Mexico have plenty of defensive-midfield options right now, including; “Gallito” Vázquez, “Burrito” Hernández, Diego Reyes and Jonathan González. As a result, a national team call-up is a long way off, but if given an opportunity Cabrera would be unlikely to disappoint.

CM – Víctor Guzmán – Pachuca

One of the defining factors of Diego Alonso’s spell at Pachuca has been his desire and ability to change young Mexicans from defensive players to attackers. He helped Rodolfo Pizarro switch from a right-back to an attacking-midfielder, he’s currently changing Erick Aguirre to a left-winger, and Víctor Guzmán was altered from a defensive-midfielder to a more advanced, goal-scoring midfielder.

Unlike a traditional attacking midfielder, Guzmán’s game is all about scoring goals, rather than creating. His numbers for dribbles, crosses and key passes are very poor, as he usually just plays simple passes, but with nine goals from 38 shots this season, Víctor’s shot conversion rate is one of the best in the division. The secret to Guzmán’s goal scoring, as well as his finishing ability, is the timing of his runs. The former Chivas man has scored all nine of his goals from inside the box, and has, extraordinarily, only been caught offside twice across 2017/18. Without injury, Guzmán would have likely been given his Mexico debut in recent friendlies.

CM – Dieter Villalpando – Necaxa

Forget the attitude problems of old, forget the disappointing spells at Tigres, Atlas and Morelia where he was played out of position, if at all, Dieter Villalpando has, alongside Erick Gutiérrez, been the best Mexican playmaker in Liga MX for the past two seasons. Sergio Bueno is the man to thank for Villalpando’s revival, trusting the attacking-midfielder to play in a deeper, “number eight” role, in a central midfield pair last season at Chiapas. Overlooked at first by Nacho Ambríz at Necaxa, Dieter is now back playing a similar role, and has become a key part of an improving Necaxa side.

Villalpando has all the technical attributes that make up an excellent playmaker; superb dribbling, brilliant vision, good pass and cross accuracy, plus an ability to strike from range. Dieter’s very intelligent too, capable of finding space in tight spots, often dictating where teammates should pass, and he displays outstanding knowledge of la pausa, a tactical concept that refers to delaying a pass or dribble in order to wait for a more advantageous game situation for your side. Villalpando is Mexico’s most underrated player, and has been for a while. He should be considered for Russia.

LW – Rodolfo Vilchis – Morelia

Rodolfo Vilchis may be a right-footed left-winger, but in Roberto Hernández’s more structured attacking system, he spends the majority of his time close to the left touchline, rather than drifting inside. Vilchis is a big risk taker, with just over 40% of his plays non-key passes (under 50% is rather rare). This makes him both an exciting player to watch, and a useful attacking force, even if his efficiency at completing crosses and dribbles needs improvement.

The Morelia winger unfortunately lost a huge amount of his career to short, unsuccessful loan spells with Ascenso MX sides, but Rodolfo has finally been given opportunities with La Monarquía in the last year or so, and has shown his talents.

CF – Eduardo “Chofis” López – Chivas

Chofis is extremely unfortunate to have not yet received a look-in from Juan Carlos Osorio. There is plenty of competition for attacking midfield spots in Osorio’s squads, but López has developed his consistency this season to become Chivas’ stand-out player. Statistically Chofis is extraordinary, displaying both high attacking output and sensational efficiency (comparing successful attempts with unsuccessful ones). With a 60% dribble completion rate, 81% pass competition rate and above 35% cross success, Chofis far exceeds the Liga MX averages for attacking midfielders and wingers. The only concern is that not enough of López’s creations aren’t leading to goals or the creation of “big chances” for teammates, which could suggest that Chivas aren’t patient enough in front of goal.

In this side, due to a lack of striking options for Mexico right now, Chofis is being used as a false-nine, and considering his intelligent movement and creativity, he could generate plenty of opportunities for the forward-running Víctor Guzmán. It’s a combination that we could have seen at Chivas, but will hopefully enjoy in the colours of Mexico in the future.

RW – Roberto Alvarado – Necaxa

When the youngest player to ever appear in an Ascenso MX game moved to Pachuca, his future seemed mapped out. The winger had the perfect opportunity to replace the soon departing Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, develop at Los Tuzos as so many others have done recently, before moving onto Europe or a Liga MX giant. However, Diego Alonso evidently wasn’t much of a fan, and Alvarado was surprisingly sold to Necaxa in the 2017 summer transfer window.

Los Rayos have greatly benefited from Pachuca’s decision to let Alvarado go. Roberto has started 20 times in Liga MX this season, usually as a right-winger, and been excellent, particularly during the Clausura. Alvarado doesn’t threaten the goal often, usually staying wide, but has proven to be a good creator this season, and statistically “El Piojo” is an excellent dribbler, completing 4.07 dribbles per 100 possessions for just 2.47 failed dribbles per 100 possessions. The average Liga MX winger fails more dribbles than they complete, and numbers as strong as Alvarado’s aren’t seen often.

Honourable mentions

CB – Carlos Vargas – América

19-year-old Vargas followed Miguel Herrera from Tijuana to América, and often gets game time either at left-back or centre-back. One to watch.

RB – Jesús “Chapo” Sánchez – Chivas

Chapo is Mexico’s best natural right-back from a defensive point of view. If he were taller, Sánchez may have been starting for Mexico in Russia.

DM – Michael Pérez – Chivas

With over 5 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, Pérez is one of the best ball-winning midfielders in Liga MX.

CM – Rafael Baca – Cruz Azul

The definition of an all-round midfielder. Baca can play as a “number six” or “number eight”, provides good energy and is dependable in his distribution, if unspectacular.

CM – Erbín Trejo – Querétaro

The majority of Trejo’s career has unfortunately been wasted on the Toluca bench, but he’s displayed good quality in possession since being given a run in Liga MX.

W – Jordi Cortizo – Querétaro

Cortizo has put together some remarkable stats since receiving opportunities in the Querétaro first team. Excellent at completing dribbles and winning fouls, but Cortizo’s low number of missed passes really catch the eye.

CF – Alexis Vega – Toluca

A well-rounded young attacker who’s destined for national team minutes if he can continue to develop and stay clear of injuries at Toluca.

Post by Tom Harrison: @tomh_36  , Founder of @Performance_100

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Mourinho’s Shaw Shank or Redemption?

As England took to the Wembley pitch against Italy in the recent World Cup preamble, the figure of Luke Shaw was no where to be seen. Out of the national team reckoning and in danger of exiting from his current club, Manchester United sooner rather than later it’s fair to say that Shaw’s career is at a cross roads even at the tender age of 22. By this point, Shaw should have been a permanent fixture in the England team and have been on the plane to Russia this summer as part of their World Cup squad. But instead he will be house hunting as his agent desperately tries to seal his departure from Manchester United after being once again publicly shanked by his manager Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho has publicly shanked Shaw several times during his reign (Image from Tumblr)

In prison, the shank is a makeshift knife used to injury another inmate with a blow to the abdomen. Whilst the analogy may not be spot on, it does feel to Shaw that his manager continues to stab him where it hurts with his repeated remarks. The latest came after the game against Brighton in the FA Cup when Shaw was substituted at half time. Mourinho was critical of both wing backs (Shaw and Valencia) but in particular of Shaw who was failed to get his positioning correct in order to shut down crosses into the Manchester United box. In the post match interview, Mourinho was quizzed about shaw’s removal and answered bluntly that too many dangerous crosses were coming into the box from Brighton from his side of the pitch so he had to remove him. It was the latest criticism of the player by the Portuguese coach who last year claimed that despite a good performance by Shaw he played with his body, but Mourinho’s mind. Whilst the comment may seem to be extremely harsh, its not uncommon for managers to publicly criticize their players usually with the end goal of generating a positive reaction from them. However in Shaw’s case, it seems to be having the opposite effect with the player visibly becoming more retracted and downhearted from the continuous nit picking of his game by his manager.

To be fair to Mourinho, this is not the first time that Shaw has been criticized by a manager. There have been questions about Shaw’s weight not just under Mourinho but under Van Gaal as well. Less that the player is fat; instead more about his desire to improve himself. Others have questioned his motivation levels too wondering if he is taking life as a professional seriously enough. Shaw isn’t one for being caught out and about during the small hours of the night so instead the criticism stems from his demeanour in training and effort on the pitch that have lead to queries about his desires to play at the highest level.  finding a way to motivate Shaw has been the source of much of the frustration from Mourinho who has tried a variety of different techniques with the player to encourage him to come out of his shell and finally live up to his potential. Former Southampton youth coach Jason Dodd said in a recent BBC radio interview that Shaw is the type of character that needs a cuddle first then a jab in order to get him going but it would already appear that Mourinho has tried this approach unsuccessful. Shaw looks likely to depart Old Trafford in the summer much to the players disappointment.

Luke Shaw’s condition and motivation have been questioned by different managers raising more questions (Image from Tumblr)

This is hardly the ending that Shaw would have hoped for his United career when he signed from Southampton back in the summer of 2014. After bursting onto the scene at St Mary’s aged only 16, Shaw became a fan favourite and was highly sought after by England and Europe’s big guns. Signing for Manchester United for £30 million turned out to be one of the players proudest moments and for many they expected him to become a mainstay in the United side much like Denis Irwin and Patrice Evra had done years before. Whilst a series of injuries including a nasty double leg break have restricted his playing time somewhat, Shaw has struggled to really grab the attention of his managers and his erratic form has left them wondering if the wrong player joined from Southampton four years ago. Shaw has slowly become a bit part player used sporadically by the club much to everyones frustration. In the last four season, Shaw has made only 39 league appearances for United compared to the 60 he made in two seasons at Southampton. Of those 37, he has been subbed 13 times compared to the 12 at Southampton. To be fair he has featured more in cup and European games for United taking his overall appearance number to 67 (this doesn’t include preseason or International Cup appearances) but primarily in games of less significance or in Champions League/Europa League games after United have qualified.

Redemption is possible for Shaw but he will have to earn it. Manchester’s need for a solid left back is obvious given the extended use of winger by trade Ashley Young or central defenders come left backs Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo in that role. England too need a fit and in form Shaw as they have struggled to find a consistent left back since the international retirement of Ashley Cole. Shaw has the talent as we saw at Southampton but needs to find tune his craft to become one of the worlds best left backs. He needs to learn how to take criticism and turn it into positive motivation to help him improve whether that be at United or at a different club. Maybe its too late under Mourinho so moving away from Old Trafford to a new club and a new coach could be the best thing for him.  However If he cant, he runs the risk of slipping into obscurity and wondering where it all went wrong for a player that many believe had/has talent in abundance.

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One on One with: Landon Donovan

It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to sit down with a genuine legend of the game. With six MLS Cups, four Gold Cups, four U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year titles, and a World Cup Best Young Player Award to his name (just to name a few), Landon Donovan isn’t short of accolades to support that legend status. His career over the last twenty years has taken him from his native US to Germany and England, and now to Mexico, where he is playing for Club Leon in the Liga MX. His illustrious international career has seen him represent his country at three World Cups and score numerous important goals along the way. Through his achievements in the game, Landon has played a pinnacle role in the growth of soccer in the US over the past two decades. 

BackoftheNet: Landon, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.

Landon Donovan: It’s my pleasure.

BOTN: Let’s start off by talking about your experiences in Germany in the Bundesliga where you had spells at Bayer Leverkusen and later at Bayern Munich under Jürgen Klinsmann. How important were those moves for you in terms of your development as a player? And what lessons did you take away from that time in Germany?

LD: My time in Germany was extremely valuable to me in many different ways.  On the field, I became a much better player because of the training and playing environment I encountered in Germany.  Off the field, having the ability to travel and experience a different culture is something that will help me the rest of my life.

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(Image from Facebook – @landondonovan)

BOTN:  The majority of your career was spent in the MLS and as a pivotal player in the league you have been part of its rapid evolution. How far do you think the league has come over the past twenty years, and do you think there will ever be a time when soccer becomes the No.1 sport in America, ahead of the NFL, NBA and MLB?

LD: It’s only a matter of time until soccer becomes equal with all of the other major sports in America.  You have to remember that MLS has only been around for 20+ years while the other major leagues have been around for significantly longer.  I’m extremely proud of the progress we’ve made and I look forward to seeing it continue to grow.

BOTN: Let’s move on to the Men’s National team. You are widely considered to be the greatest American men’s soccer player of all time. Having been capped over 215 times for your country at various levels, including playing in three World Cups, you must have some special memories in that shirt. What were your defining games and goals for your country?

LD: My defining games were the games that I played in World Cups and the games where I won championships.  As a soccer player, the ultimate goals are to play in a World Cup and win trophies at every level.  I was fortunate to be a part of many teams that were successful and those were the most meaning accomplishments for me.

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Donovan scores deep into injury time against Algeria during World Cup 2010 to helped the US win their group for the first time since 1930 (Image from Instagram – @landondonovan10)

BOTN: How far do you think the US is away from winning the World Cup?

LD: The US still has a way to go to win a World Cup but I believe we can absolutely achieve it if we focus our energies in the right way.

BOTN: You had two short spells on loan in England with Everton in 2010 and then again in 2012. It’s fair to say that despite your limited time there, you became somewhat of a cult figure. Did you ever have the opportunity to make that loan deal permanent? Where there other clubs who were interested? We hear that Fulham and Manchester United made enquiries at one stage.

LD: I absolutely loved my time at Everton and fell in love with the club.  Although I did have the opportunity to make the loan deal permanent, I wanted to keep my word to the Galaxy that I would return to the club after my time in England.

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Donovan had two spells at Everton and loved his time on Merseyside (Image from Twitter – @landondonovan)

BOTN: Recently you came out of retirement again for the second time to sign for Liga MX side Club Leon. What was the motivation behind that decision – was it simply a burning desire to get back onto the pitch or was the opportunity too good to refuse?

LD: There were a few reasons I wanted to return:  Leon made a great pitch to me and my family and really made me feel wanted, I’ve always wanted to play in Liga MX, and this was a life experience for my family that I simply couldn’t pass up.

BOTN: In the past you have talked openly about how you suffered from depression throughout your life and career. Do you think enough is being done to help players who suffer from mental health issues, including depression, both at the club level and by the governing bodies? In your opinion, do you think players feel like they can talk about it openly to their colleagues?

LD: I don’t feel there is enough being done for the population in general about mental health, not just within sports. Society as a whole suffers greatly from mental health issues and I think our world would become a much happier and safer place if we put more emphasis on helping those in need. My hope is that the stigma is slowly waning and people will feel comfortable and safe to speak up about their feelings. Additionally, on a sporting level, I do believe clubs and organizations can do much more to help athletes speak openly about their emotional/mental issues just like they do with physical issues.

BOTN: When you eventually do hang up your boots, will we see the evolution of Landon Donovan the player to Landon Donovan the manager? Do you see yourself as US men’s national manager one day?

LD: I do have some desire to become a manager one day but I have a lot of learning to do before that may become a reality one day.

Donovan with former US national teammate Stuart Holden commenting on USA vs Trinidad (Image from Twitter - @landondonovan)

Donovan with former US national teammate Stuart Holden commenting on USA vs Trinidad (Image from Twitter – @landondonovan)

BOTN: Recently you became a dad for the second time – congratulations on that! How has fatherhood changed your perspective on life and your plans for the future?

LD: The main way fatherhood has changed my life is that I have become ultimately selfless.  Life is now about my children and trying to give them the tools to become healthy and happy human beings.

BOTN: Finally, your former teammate David Beckham revealed that one of his sons did not want to become a professional footballer because the pressure of following David and the legacy he left in the game would be too much to cope with. Will you be encouraging your sons to follow in your footsteps or do you believe that the expectations may be too much as well, given all that you have achieved in the game?

LD: My sons can do whatever they want in life, whether that includes soccer or not.  Most of all, I just want them to be happy and have meaning in life.

BOTN: Landon, thank you again for talking with us, and good luck for the rest of the season!

Landon supports the work of a local San Diego Charity called TravelingStories which empowers kids to outsmart poverty by providing the literacy and money management skills they need to become productive members of society.

Follow Landon on Twitter: @landondonovan, Facebook: @landondonovan and Instagram: landondonovan10

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Analyzing Mexico’s Attacking Midfield Options Ahead of the World Cup

As the World Cup approaches, thoughts turn to Mexico’s preparations and the squad that will be taken to Russia. The attacking midfield positions are some of the most hotly contested, with Juan Carlos Osorio having plenty of varied creative options. Assuming that Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Jesús “Tecatito” Corona and Carlos Vela will all make the 23-man squad, and that Víctor Guzmán won’t be fully fit and ready, let’s take a look of some of the other players available, using Performance 100 data to assist analysis.

The experienced

Experience

With over 100 appearances for Mexico, few have the experience of Giovani dos Santos. At 28, in theory this should be Gio’s World Cup, the one where the precocious talent reaches the peak of his powers. This appears highly unlikely though, with recent performances for El Tri and LA Galaxy extremely underwhelming. There are question marks over the desire of the ex-Barcelona youngster, and even more questions regarding whether or not he’s deserving of a place in Russia. Statistically, dos Santos’ numbers from the 2017 MLS season are clearly distinctive to the attacking midfielders he’s being compared to in this article. Gio’s Performance 100 map arguably looks more like one of a central midfielder, rather than an attacking midfielder.

Attacking output (crosses, shots, dribbles, etc) is low, with 68.9 of Gio’s 100 possessions resulting in a non-key, or regular, pass. Efficiency is good, with low numbers for missed passes and failed dribbles and crosses (cross efficiency is quite extraordinary), but the data suggests that recently dos Santos has simply not provided enough creativity to significantly impact matches. An improvement at the start of this MLS season is critical for Gio to nail down his place.

The main concern about Marco Fabián is fitness, with the ex-Chivas creator having played just 23 minutes of Bundesliga football this season. As a result, the graphic looks at Fabián’s stats from 2016-17 in the Bundesliga. Marco impressed last season with his cross efficiency, and although he failed more dribbles than he completed, Fabián was fouled extremely regularly for Eintracht Frankfurt. Perhaps the most impressive stat is the one in the top left corner though, 1.1 goals + assists per 100 possessions, one of the best figures for the players compared in this article, and that’s come whilst playing in the Bundesliga. Marco’s also displayed flexibility during his spell in Germany, often playing on the right-side of the midfield, after spending the vast majority of his career so far through the middle or coming inside from the left. However, Fabián’s low key pass figure is concerning, and surprising.

Javier Aquino displays the numbers of a winger who’s more involved in the early build-up of an attack, rather than latter stages. Aquino rarely attempts shots on goal, and his goals and assists per 100 possessions figure is just 0.44. This makes sense considering the role he plays at Tigres, with the likes of Eduardo Vargas, André-Pierre Gignac and Enner Valencia more advanced. In terms of efficiency, essentially the comparison of successful actions with unsuccessful ones, Aquino sits above the average Liga MX winger in terms of; dribbles, crosses, key passes vs. failed passes and fouls received v dispossessions.

However, the Tigres man doesn’t stand-out as excelling in any part of the game, and whilst consistent good performances can be expected from Aquino, perhaps his lack of a major strength will stand against him as Osorio puts together his World Cup squad. Javier’s defensive capabilities and work rate may salvage his hopes of making it to Russia though. Aquino is known for being able to contribute more defensively than the average attacking midfielder, and his rate of 1.38 clearances per 100 possessions backs up this claim.

The wingers

wingers

It’s rare to see out-and-out wingers completing more dribbles than they fail, but his superb dribble stat isn’t enough to make up for the lack of efficiency in the rest of Jesús Gallardo‘s game. 6.39 failed crosses per 100 possessions for 1.33 completed is a very poor rate, and the low figures for key passes and shots on goal, plus the huge numbers of missed passes, don’t impress. Gallardo may not lose the ball too often when taking on opponents, but there’s been a remarkable lack of end product to his game this season. Considering Gallardo’s height and flexibility, as he can also fill in at left-back (the high clearance figure suggests he’s played in defence at times this season), JCO will likely consider the Pumas man as an option for Russia. But judging by his Performance 100 numbers, which are clearly below the average Liga MX winger, he shouldn’t be given a second glance.

Part of a direct León side, Eliás Hernández evidently creates enormous attacking output, with his non key pass circle smaller than any other player featured in this article. Elías has long been regarded as a superb creator, via crosses and through balls, and his Performance 100 data backs up this belief. Key pass and completed cross numbers are huge, and whilst Hernández does fail a cross 12.7 times out of every 100 occasions that he receives possession, his cross efficiency is still well above average. The average cross efficiency for a Liga MX winger would result in 16.9 failed crosses for 5.47 completions, Elías is performing considerably better than that. These crosses, key passes, and shots, are having impact when it matters most as well, with 1.9 goals and assists per 100 possessions.

Elías appears an excellent option for Mexico if Osorio wants a player that can regularly create opportunities, however, there’s concern over his quality with the ball at his feet. Dribble efficiency is low, dispossessions are high and the León winger barely wins fouls. If Hernández is struggling when taking on defenders in Liga MX, the World Cup is perhaps a step too far.

For those that have long criticised Jurgen Damm of failing to back up his blistering pace with consistent attacking output, these stats provide some vindication. Dispossessions are, somewhat surprisingly, very low, but all other figures don’t make for pleasant reading. Particularly concerning is Damm’s 15% cross success rate, and it’s difficult to see what else Jurgen can offer El Tri. Considering a lack of game time this campaign, it may be felt that purely looking at Damm’s 2017-18 data would be harsh on the right-winger. Fortunately, the tweet from Soccer Nurds, below, compares Damm’s three previous seasons.

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A clear regression in performances can be seen when comparing Jurgen Damm’s previous three Liga MX campaigns with Tigres. Back in 2015-16, Damm certainly looked good enough to be considered for a Mexico call-up, but banking on him re-discovering that form would be a risky decision.

The outsiders

outsiders

If Osorio is looking for an attacking midfielder that can play in multiple roles, Rodolfo Pizarro must be considered. Pizarro, who began his career as a right-back, can play as a traditional ‘number ten’, a direct inside-forward, regularly attempting to get in-behind opposition defences, and even a box-to-box midfielder. Wherever he plays, the Chivas man offers excellent dribbling ability (the highest number of completions per 100 possessions in this comparison), creativity and good shooting proficiency, as his stats show. Pizarro also has impressive stamina, speed and work ethic.

Statistically, the main concern is the large dispossessions number. Dispossessions are occasions when possession is lost whilst a player isn’t attempting a dribble, pass, cross or shot. Exactly why Rodolfo’s dispossession figure is so high is unclear, but it’s certainly a worry that he’s losing the ball at such regularity. Furthermore, whilst the tactically flexible Osorio will probably like Pizarro’s ability to play in multiple roles, it could be seen as a weakness of his game. Pizarro may benefit in the future by specialising in a certain role and maximising his talents that are specific to this role.

View image on Twitter 

Arturo “Ponchito” González was a forgotten name. A prospect of yesteryear failing to receive regular football in an outstanding Monterrey team. But all has changed in recent weeks. Ponchito has worked his way into Antonio “Turco” Mohamed’s starting line-up, and has even prompted Turco to alter his formation in some recent matches, using Ponchito as a ‘number ten’ in a 4-2-3-1, rather than the 4-3-3 we usually saw in the Apertura. Arturo has impressed, and statistically dribble and shot efficiency is excellent, as is Ponchito’s 4.91 key passes per 100 possessions. On the other hand, figures for missed passes, failed crosses and dispossessions are rather high. Certainly an outside option, but whilst these stats wouldn’t instantly attract attention from Osorio, if Marco Fabián isn’t fully fit and Giovani dos Santos is deemed to be too out of form, then Ponchito might become a possible ‘number ten’ option.

Javier “Chofis” López has phenomenal numbers this season. Just compare him to teammate Rodolfo Pizarro. More shots on goal per 100 possessions, with fewer missed shots, slightly fewer dribbles completed for significantly less fails, not far off twice as many key passes, more crosses at a much better completion rate, around half the number of dispossessions andmore fouls received. Chofis greatly outperforms Pizarro, and stands out amongst the attacking midfield competition in this piece. One stat raises alarm bells though. Despite this fantastic attacking output, at incredible efficiency, Chofis gets a goal or an assist just 0.55 times out of every 100 possessions. Nearly half Rodolfo Pizarro’s figure, with the pair averaging almost identical possessions per 90 minutes. There’s an element of misfortune about this figure, Chofis has picked up two assists from seven big chances created, with Pizarro getting six assists from the creation of eight big chances.

Evidently Lopez’s Chivas teammates are failing to regularly put home the opportunities that he makes. However, it’s curious that Pizarro has created eight big chances from 41 key passes, whilst Chofis has seven big chances created from 68 key passes. The data suggests that Chofis is creating more, at greater efficiency, but Pizarro’s creations are more likely to result in goals. Analysis of expected assists would be required to dig deeper. Chofis is yet to become the complete package as a creative player, but his Performance 100 numbers prove that López is a fantastic attacking midfield option, who deserves lengthy consideration for the 2018 World Cup squad. As an unknown quantity to the rest of the world, he has the potential to provide a surprise spark to the Mexico attack.

Piece by contributor Tom Harrison – follow him on twitter at @tomh_36

The Performance 100 idea was developed by Tom Harrison, with raw data provided by Sofascore and graphics produced by Soccer Nurds

Rangers Ready To Ride The Storm With Murty Now At The Helm

The weather in Florida may have been a little colder than expected but that didn’t seem to bother Graeme Murty. Following his promotion from caretaker boss to permanent manager of Rangers in December, Murty was taking charge of training in Orlando ahead of his sides participation in the Florida Cup. Rangers face two competitive matches over three days against Brazilian sides Atletico Mineiro and Corinthians before jetting back to Scotland to resume their domestic season. It’s a welcome break for the new boss who has helped the club to pick up the pieces following another tempestuous period.

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Rangers in the US at the Florida Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Two impressive friendly wins in Florida may not be worth lot but it does put the team on a good footing as they return to Scotland for the second part of the season.  And boy do they need it. Much was expected of Rangers this year with a new manager at the helm and a  bevy of new players. There was an optimistic vibe around the club, one that has been absent for some time now. But after a nervy 1-0 home victory over Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn in the Europa League qualifying, that optimism quickly disappeared and was replaced with dread. Five days later Rangers were knocked out of Europe following a 2-0 defeat which cancelled out that win in Glasgow and put Progres through to the next round. It was by far one of the clubs lowest points (and for a club which has gone through administration and relegation to the bottom tier of Scottish football, that is quite a statement).

Things barely improved during the rest of Pedro Caixinha’s short reign. 14 wins out of 26 doesn’t sound like a terrible return but for a club that has grown used to always winning, it wasn’t good enough. The noose around Caixinha’s neck tightened a little bit more each week as his signings failed to perform on the pitch and his paranoia increased off it. Eventually Rangers board would be forced to eat humble pie and eject the man they saw as a potential game changer – someone who could leap-frog the club forward by a few years. The plan before Caixinha was to build slowly, construct a team on a sound footing then eventually challenge for honours both at home and abroad. But with Celtic getting closer to nine in a row and Caixinha whispering tempting tales of quick victories and epic rises in their ears, the board ditched the careful approach in favour of gung-ho. The cheque book was flung open and in came a host of new players, most of whom few people had ever heard of. Morales, Pena, Cardoso, Herrera, Candeias, Alves, Dalcaio all arrived to fan fare and with much hope attached. Some familiar names came in to –  Ryan Jack of Aberdeen and Graham Dorrans from Norwich adding options to a growing squad. Others departed as Caixinha looked to remould the squad in his image. That in itself was a gamble for the manager given the need for his new look side to gel quickly and perform. Ultimately that gamble never paid off and Caixinha was dismissed.

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Caixinha and Murty (Image from Tumblr)

Picking up the pieces once more was Graeme Murty. The former Scotland defender who joined the club in 2016 as head coach of their development squad had previously been in charge when Mark Warburton had been sacked so taking the reins again felt familiar. Whilst the search for a new boss rumbled on, Murty plugged away trying to reignite the passion amongst the group of players he inherited and instill some belief that the season was not over despite sitting far behind Celtic and now Aberdeen in the league. The group was low in confidence and splitting at the seams when Caixinha departed. Two groups had formed – the Scottish contingent led by Kenny Miller who had found himself pushed out to the sidelines in the latter part of Caixinha’s reign and the Portuguese speaking players made up of most of the new signings. Separation within a club is never a good thing and more often than not leads to disaster. Murty knew he had two months to pull them together again and get some results on the board before regrouping over Christmas with a view to making the necessary changes in the January transfer window. By then he expected a new manager would be in charge and that he would once again be back focusing on youth development but instead he is the man in charge at least until the end of the season.

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The Boss – Murty takes charge on a full time basis until the end of the season (Image from Tumblr)

Seven wins, four defeats and one good draw against arch rivals Celtic has left Rangers third in the league, three points behind Aberdeen and eleven behind their city rivals. Not much better than when Caixinha left but the side feels different – more together than before. The opening of the window along with a much-needed break to the sunshine has refreshed the Rangers squad in preparation for their next bunch of domestic fixtures. There are a few new faces amongst the mix – Sean Goss has arrived from QPR and Jamie Murphy has been brought in. Scotland defender Russell Martin and Jason Cummings should be arriving shortly too. There is also two returning faces. Andy Halliday and Michael O’Halloran are back after Murty cancelled their loans which were approved by Caixinha who saw them both a disposable. And back at the club following an almost 30 year absence is Jimmy Nicholl who has been brought in as Murty’s assistant manager.

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Jimmy Nicholl played for Rangers in the mid 80’s, now back as assistant manager (Image from Tumblr)

The changes have been slow yet steady as Rangers look to get back on track and return to the original plan. Their experiment to expedite success failed miserably and likely set the club back even further. Yet the club seems more positively charged than ever before. Murty may not have been the glamorous appointment that most fans were looking for and may not even keep the job beyond next summer but for now he is exactly what the club needs – a steady hand on the wheel as the club battles through another transitional stormy period.

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Will Scottish Pride Survive Hampden Exit?

Scottish pride is hard to define but it is a feeling that starts on the outside and quickly travels inward triggering a variety of emotions not commonly seen from a scotsman – shivers start to migrate down the spine, the hairs on your legs and arms stand at attention, your feet start to move in a bouncing motion and a broad smile creeps onto your face. There have only been a few times in my life where this type of pride has overtaken me and more often than not it was in Hampden Park. Standing on a cold windy day in the upper terraces of Scotland’s national stadium alongside 51,000 fellow Scots, the first chords of The Proclaimers 500 Miles would start to blast over the loud speakers. The crowd slowly starts to jump as one, eventually becoming one as the vocals kick in. When i wake up well i know i’m gonna be i’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you!  The stadium eventually erupts as scottish pride reaches fever pitch with the chorus – tadalalala tadalalala tadalalala tadalalalalalal.

Those are the memories along with the hundreds more created over the years on that pitch – Scotland battling the Magical Magyars of Hungary in 1954 in front of 113,506 fans, Dalglish goal against England in ’76, McFadden’s goal against Holland in 2003 just a few examples that the fans will take with them if Scotland is to leave Hampden. After a 111 year stay, the Scottish Football Association is considering whether or not to renew its lease (which expires in 2020) of the national stadium or blow the final whistle on the Mount Florida Stadium. The SFA are consulting with various groups as they review the options including renewing the lease for another ten years or parting ways in favour of playing the games around the country or at another stadium like Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Traditionally a Rugby venue, Murrayfield has played host to several big events over the years since it refurbishment in 2005 and could easily accommodate the Scottish football team as well.

Murrayfield - the new home of Scottish football? (Image from Tumblr)

Murrayfield – the new home of Scottish football?

That option has been met with much publicized rejection primarily by former players who maintain that Hampden’s history and legacy should be saved despite the crumbling stadiums growing list of problems. However the fans appear to feel differently and are hoping that their voices are heard. A recent survey of 2,293 fans by the Scottish Football Supporters Association found in favour of leaving with only 15% of the fans wanting to stay with 34% favouring a switch to Murrayfield. Of the remaining, 25% believe that the national teams should play their games on the road across Scotland’s various stadiums whilst 24% believe that a new Hampden should be built. That option seems incredibly unlikely given that the SFA has barely two pennies to rub together.

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Hampden has changed over the years but it could now be time to say goodbye (Image from SFA)

Leaving Hampden makes the most sense. Whilst a negotiation would be needed to secure either Murrayfield as a central base or with the various grounds it would likely be cheaper than renewing the existing lease. Those savings could be diverted into improving Scotland’s future chances of qualification with youth investments in line with Project Brave ( the SFA’s blueprint for future development). Those concerned that moving to another stadium will result in a loss of atmosphere need not worry as it wasn’t the stadium that filled me with Scottish pride but the fans themselves. There is a reason why the Scottish fans are missed at major tournaments and it has nothing to do with whats happening on the pitch. The fans make the atmosphere and will do so regardless of where the national team plays its games. Hampden’s legacy will be maintained in our memories and in the archives but its time for Scotland to move on, leave home and write a new chapter filled with lots of scottish pride.

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Playing Games – The Evolution of FIFA

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The Evolution Of FIFA by Clubline Football.

Fair Market Value – The Need for a Structured Transfer System

In 2001, France’s Zinedine Zidane was considered as one of the best players on the planet. That summer he moved from Italian side Juventus to Spanish side Real Madrid for a record breaking €77.5 million. At the time, the amount seemed astronomical but given the recent transfer of Neymar to PSG for €222 million and the expected move of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool to Barcelona for €150 million, Zidane’s move appears to be a snip. Even with inflation (2001 to 2017), the amount paid by Real Madrid for Zidane would only be €100 million which would suggest that Coutinho is considered to be better than the former World Cup winning Frenchman. Transfer fees have in recent years grown to unexpected levels with not only the top players moving for considerable fees but most players in the top five divisions moving for amounts well above the expected market value.

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Zidane scores against Bayern Leverkusen in the Champions League Final (Image from Tumblr)

Market value is defined as the price at which an asset (in this case the player) would trade in a competitive auction setting. To achieve market value or more specifically fair market value, comparisons are needed to gain a true understanding of the starting price. In football, those comparisons come from other players of similar stature and position who have been sold recently. However there are issues attached to doing it this way. For example take two recent transfers in the Premier League – Michael Keane who moved from Burnley to Everton and Harry Maguire who moved from Hull City to Leicester. Identical players in many ways including stats, background and experience. Both players are 24 years who play at centre back and are seen as future England defenders with a recent call up to Gareth Southgate’s team an indication of this. However Keane’s transfer value was considerably more than Maguire’s (£25m vs £12m) which in a fair value system would mean that either Everton overpaid or Leicester secured a bargain.

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Maguire – a bargain? (Image from Tumblr)

The reason why this has happened is that there is no set system in place used to calculate market value. Instead it is up to the clubs themselves to work out how much their player is worth under current conditions. That in itself is problematic as some use a plethora of data and research to construct a detailed analysis of the players value to the club whilst others appear satisfied with a licked finger in the air. The introduction of a wealth of riches of the years thanks to lucrative broadcast deals has only heightened the problem with clubs now chasing the holy grail of getting as much as they can for their player by simply asking the buyer how far they will go. Think about a world were you walk into a store and the owner asks you how much you are willing to spend to purchase the item you want.

Einstein would not have approved of clubs approach to the current transfer system (Image from Tumblr)

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Clubs across Europe especially in England appear in no rush to address escalating transfer fees despite warnings from financial experts about the long term ramifications of such. The clubs appear blinded by the money that is flowing into their coffers like water at present and are spending without due consideration. Some are taking note and have acted accordingly like FIFPro who filed a legal action against FIFA and UEFA in 2015 for negligence around its handling of the transfer system. Whilst taking more about the impact it has on players, FIFPro did suggest that the current systems fuels and sustains the increasing competitive and financial imbalance whilst also inviting commercial abuse by third parties and individuals looking to profit from transfers. It suggested scrapping transfers all together, a proposal which was understandable railroaded by those who benefit from it – the clubs, the agents and the governing bodies.

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Pushing for change (Image from Tumblr)

So if the system can’t to be scrapped, can it be contained? There is no clear answer to that question but some believe that the introduction of a market value system for players would help. Indeed three students from Amsterdam University in Holland took a stab at creating one and eventually produced a model for La Liga which they believed would be scalable to other leagues. However their model relied on transfer data attached to each player which was not actively available (given players dont move every year) so assumptions were made. That said, their model was on the right path using not only player information and data to calculate the players value but also economical, social and other conditions that could affect it. Their system may not be perfect but its a start towards a model that does work and hopefully long term curbs the current financial insanity that plagues football’s top five leagues.

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Evans Pursuit Pushes City Closer Towards Much needed Back Three

Manchester City’s pursuit of Jonny Evans may seem strange to some but to those close to the clubs manager Pep Guardiola it makes perfect sense. It’s no secret that Pep harbours ambitions to move to a back three. However with a lack of plausible options at centre back, bringing in another one or two has become a priority. The ongoing fitness concerns of Vincent Kompany and sub par form last season of both Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones meant that Pep had to shelf his plans until this season. All three mentioned before will  feature in this campaign to some degree or another depending on form and fitness but Guardiola needs is stability and a centre half that can offer this on a regular basis. He has strengthened well down the flanks with Kyle Walker, Danilo and Bemjamin Mendy arriving but now his attention has switched to the centre of his new look defence.

Form and injuries lead to a constant shuffling of the City defence last season (Image from Tumblr)

Form and injuries lead to a constant shuffling of the City defence last season (Image from Tumblr)

With an owner willing to give him whatever or whomever he wants, why chase Jonny Evans? Simply put he fits the mold perfectly. Evans offers not only experience both in the Premier League and in Europe but can also possess great positional sense and a deft touch for a centre back. Simply said he is a rare breed of old school centre half with a twenty first century brain. He clearly impressed Pep last year enough for him to write off giving £42m defender Eliaquim Mangala another chance in favour of pursuing the 29 year old Northern Irish centre back.

Buying Evans makes a lot of sense as City look to switch to back three (Image from Tumblr)

Buying Evans makes a lot of sense as City look to switch to back three (Image from Tumblr)

Playing with a back three is hardly new but it’s becoming increasingly popular in a division that lacks originality. Chelsea’s success last year with a makeshift back three (converting Azpilicueta from a right back to centre half  to play alongside Cahill and Luiz was a masterstroke by Conte) has planted the seed in many fellow managers heads who likely spent the summer pondering if it could be applied to their club. Some clubs did test it towards the back end of last season including Arsenal and Everton but neither had the players needed to pull it off. Perhaps their summer investments suggest that a back three may be used again this campaign as a back up option to their starting systems. Either way more clubs will follow Chelsea’s and City’s lead in rolling this out with varied levels of success. Pep however is convinced that its the way forward for his side based on the evidence of last season and the opening couple of games of this one. Opening day jitters at the back against new boys Brighton and some suspect defending against Everton last night highlight the need for Guardiola to correct things before the season gets too far along.

Pep knows he has to change things at the back to avoid a repeat of last season (Image from Tumblr)

Pep knows he has to change things at the back to avoid a repeat of last season (Image from Tumblr)

At present Evans current club West Bromwich Albion appears in no mood to let their captain walk out of the door. Three bids, the last of which was for £18m have all been rejected outright with West Brom insisting that he is not for sale at any price. The truth however is that West Brom are prepared to let him go for the right price – closer to £30m and with the player wanting to move, its likely that Evans will become a Manchester city player by the end of the window if Guardiola continues his pursuit. Evans wont force West Brom’s hand like other players in the league have done to their clubs but will make it clear to Albion boss Tony Pulis that the club should cash in on him sooner rather than later in order for them to secure a suitable replacement before the window shuts at the end of the month.

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Jordan Pickford is a great signing for Everton

In the awkward few weeks after the league season has ended and before any summer tournaments have begun, fans are left with new signings to pretend to be outraged about. There is a new unspoken rule that all players must be written off and doubted before they have even been unveiled these days.

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Pickford’s transfer fee raised some eyebrows but will it turn into a good investment by Everton in the end? (Image from Tumblr)

Next up was Everton’s new signing Jordan Pickford, signed from Sunderland for around £30m. Never mind that he is an exciting, young, English goalkeeper (and boy are they needed), many were quick to bring him down a peg or two. Whilst the fee may sound crazy, perhaps looking at the deal from Sunderland’s perspective offers some insight. The Black Cats, newly relegated, in serious debt and selling their most valuable player, were hardly going to sell cheap. From Everton’s point of view, you have to ask yourself 3 questions:

Does he improve Everton?
Yes, bloody hell yes. Everton have struggled badly in goal for years now. Maarten Stekelenburg was a terrible signing and Joel Robles, who has been at the club for 4 years, isn’t up to scratch either. Signing a new keeper and a replacement for Romelu Lukaku are the top priorities for Ronald Koeman this summer.

 

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Pickford is a solid shot stopper who will only improve over time (Image from Tumblr)

Would any of Everton’s rivals sign him?
Pickford was undoubtedly one of the breakthrough players of last year. Any team in the top six would like to have Pickford either as a starter or future No.1, so Everton are conceivably beating off some stiff competition for Pickford.

Can Everton afford it?
It’s worth remembering that Lukaku will probably leave for upwards of £70m this summer so I’d say they can easily afford to invest in other areas. Everton have already spent similar amounts of money on Morgan Schneiderlin and Yannick Bolasie in the last 12 months.

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Long England career ahead for Pickford (Image from Tumblr)

In a previous post, I talked about how important and undervalued goalkeepers are and how it’s about time teams started spending big money on their keepers. Everton have identified that problem in their team and Pickford, at 23 years of age, is a long term solution. From an England point of view, its great news too. An up an coming talent is moving to a big club to learn and improve. At Goodison, he’ll play in a strong team (Everton had the 6th best defence last year) and hopefully get good experience in the cup competitions and play European football. Try and ignore the price in today’s market, just look at the player. Pickford’s a real prospect, a great keeper and much needed at Everton. You’d love him at your club.

Post by Tough Tackler – @thetoughtackler (www.toughtackler.co.uk)

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If it’s not broke, don’t fix it

There is a famous American idiom that states “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. It’s a simple informal saying that, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is said when you recognize that something is in a satisfactory state and there is no reason to try to change it. This saying appears to be lost amongst the members of the International Football Association Board (Ifab) who this week announced their latest list of ideas of how to improve football by developing the laws of the game over the next five years. Under the guise of their overarching strategy entitled ‘Play Fair’, the board have included a variety of suggested changes to tackle “on field issues” with three main objectives  – improving player behaviour and respect, increasing playing time and increasing fairness and attractiveness – core to all of their ideas put forward.

The Ifab have named their strategy "Play Fair" (Image from Tumblr)

The Ifab have named their strategy “Play Fair” (Image from Tumblr)

The board, which is made up of members of FIFA and the four home nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have proposed a variety of topics for discussion, some of which would require no rule changes and could be implemented immediately whilst others would need to be drawn into the global rules of the game. These suggested changes include:

  • A proposal to switch to two 30 minute halfs instead of 45 minutes
  • players allowed to pass to themselves at a free-kick, corner and goal-kick
  • a stadium clock which stops and starts along with the referee’s watch
  • allowing the goal-kick to be taken even if the ball is moving
  • a goal-kick being taken on the same side that the ball went out on
  • a “clearer and more consistent definition” of handball
  • players who score a goal or stop a goal with his/her hands gets a red card
  • a keeper who handles a back pass or throw-in from a team-mate concedes a penalty
  • the referee can award a goal if a player stops a goal being scored by handling on or close to the goal-line
  • referees can only blow for half-time or full-time when the ball goes out of play
  • Only captains allowed to speak to referees about decisions
  • Adjustments to the order of penalty takers in shootout to make it fairer on both teams
  • a penalty kick is either scored or missed/saved and players cannot follow-up to score to stop encroachment into the penalty area

To be fair to the board, some of the suggestions are creditable idea which if implemented could improve the quality of the match day experience not only for the fans but for the players as well. Changes like blowing for half time or full-time when the ball goes out of play will allow the game to flow better, only captains to talk to referees will help with fairness whilst a clearer and more consistent definition of handball is needed given the greyness that surrounds some calls at present (i.e. is it handball if it hits the player’s foot, rebounds and hits the hand at pace?). Others including goal kicks to be taken on the same side as the ball goes out and sending players off who score a goal with their hand be sent off need further discussion and research into whether it’s a growing issue.

Suggested changes are meant to help the game flow better and assist referees (Image from Tumblr)

Suggested changes are meant to help the game flow better and assist referees (Image from Tumblr)

However other suggestions are quite simply absurd, namely allowing players to pass the ball to themselves from a free kick, corner or goal kick or my personal favourite reducing the playing time down from 90 minutes total to 60 minutes in an attempt to deter time-wasting. The reasoning behind their logic is that they see only 60 minutes of effective game time at present with teams time wasting for the remaining 30 minutes. Some current and former players are in agreement including Peter Cech and Gianfranco Zola who both feel a reduction in overall time would see an increase in the amount of football played. I would have to disagree though. Football is much like chess, it’s a tactical game where each team is set up in advance with a strategy for attack. That strategy starts from moment one and builds during the course of each half, with often two steps forward and one step back. Reducing the time does not immediately lead to better football nor does it mean that time wasting wont be a factor. That will always be part of the game no matter how long the game is. In addition the move would likely be met with opposition from the fans who already feel short-changed in the stands, paying over inflated prices whilst the clubs they watch get richer and richer. TV viewers will suffer too with more programming stuffed in and around the game (including advertising) rather than less.

Supporter - Zola has backed calls for a 60 minute game (Image from Tumblr)

Supporter – Zola has backed calls for a 60 minute game (Image from Tumblr)

I can understand the need for this board to make suggestions and as stated earlier, some proposed changes look promising. But a majority of the suggestions appear to have been done with little thought with more glaring ones ignored. Why not embrace video action replays and goal line technology at all matches or give referees more power/help to control the game through additional off field support. Or introducing bans for player simulation/diving retroactively. Change can be a good thing but in some occasions its better to leave things as they are. It’s human nature to want to constantly improve things but often it’s not needed. When it comes to football, the lawmakers need to involve a wider group including the fans to see if these changes should be made. Only with a consensus will football evolve and continue to be the beautiful game.

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Are EPL clubs too fiscally irresponsible?

Money. It’s something we all want and need. After all it’s what makes the world go round. We all clamber to make more than our neighbour and be better than our rivals. Football clubs especially in the EPL are no different. With the pressure to continuously improve and be better than everyone else in the league, more money than ever is being spent by the twenty clubs in the EPL. That ability to spend is unlike any other time in the leagues history as overpriced TV deals and lucrative rule bending sponsorships flood the clubs with an abundance of cash. That allows the clubs to pay over the odds for players in transfer fees and salaries but at what cost long-term? Are the EPL clubs acting fiscally responsible with the money at their disposal or instead whittling away their cash like a recent lottery winner at an expensive car dealership?

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Like lottery winners, clubs are spending money without thinking long term (image from tumblr)

In the last week we have seen three transfers already concluded. Newly promoted Huddersfield have been quick to move to secure the full-time services of Aaron Mooey after the Manchester City midfielder impressed during a loan spell at the club last season. A fee of £8m with add ons has been agreed for the Australian international who failed to make a single appearance at the Etihad. Former champions Leicester have sealed a deal with relegated Hull for their central defender, Harry Maguire. The clubs have settled on a fee of £17million for the player who many believe is tipped for bigger things. Finally Everton completed the transfer of  Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. The youngster leaves the Stadium of Light in a £25million deal that could rise to £30millon thanks to add ons.

Pickford moves to Everton following an impressive debut season with Sunderland (image from Tumblr)

Pickford moves to Everton following an impressive debut season with Sunderland (image from Tumblr)

Whilst none of these deals have been surprising and all appear as good business sense for the selling clubs (Mooy was a free transfer, Maguire a £2.5m acquisition and Pickford promoted from Sunderland’s youth ranks), it is baffling how no one appears to be questioning the vast amounts of money being paid out for these players. Not an eyelid was blinked when they were announced which is an indictment of how crazy transfers have gotten in the EPL. The transfer fees of players in England have been rising for a long time, since Trevor Francis became the countries first £1m signing. But with an influx of cash now flooding in to the league from over hyped TV deals, the sublime has become the ridiculous in regards to fees paid.  Take for example Jordan Pickford. He was without doubt the single shining light in Sunderland’s abysmal season last year and is quite rightly considered a future England national star but is he really worth £30m?

TV deals like Sky's are pumping billions into the EPL (Image from Tumblr)

TV deals like Sky’s are pumping millions into the EPL clubs (Image from Tumblr)

In the past, Everton’s transfer budget has been limited at best with their average net spend for the past ten years coming in at £7.3million (half of those years saw Everton post a profit with their player sales more than covering their purchases). So an outlay of £30million for one player seems extravagant. But with wealthy new owners, soaring profits from those tv deals and lofty ambitions, Everton are a club on the rise and prepared to spend big. The rumoured amount available to manager Ronald Koeman is said to be close to £150 million which would rise if he were to sell key assets like Lukaku and Barkley. That might seem like a lot but with a market of over inflated priced and mad dash to get ahead of the chasing pack, that money wont stretch far. It wouldn’t even be enough to buy Europe’s current hottest prospect, Monaco’s french striker Kylian Mbappe who would be allowed to leave for a cool £165million. Ironically it may be enough to secure arguable the worlds best player, Cristiano Ronaldo who rumours suggest is ready to leave Real Madrid for £95million.

Mbappe is the hottest prospect in the world right now (image from tumblr)

Mbappe is the hottest prospect in the world right now (image from tumblr)

That in itself highlights a problem. Like the housing markets in cities like Toronto, New York and London, people are paying over the odds for properties that are not worth half of what they are shelling out. The same is happening in football and the fear is that long-term (like the housing markets) a correction or crash is just around the corner. Clubs are foolishly banking on the money still pouring in by the dump truck loads but what if it suddenly dries up? What if TV companies like Sky, BT and NBC refuse to buckle to the EPL’s demands for more and more cash leaving the league with no option but to sell it for less. The returns to the clubs would be less leaving them with potential shortfalls and gaps with a realistic possibility of being unable to afford to pay the astronomical wages of the players they have just expensively acquired. Financial ruin could be around the corner for clubs who are not acting fiscally responsible.

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Housing markets like Toronto are seeing over inflated prices for commodities much like the current football landscape (Image from Tumblr)

The argument has been and will remain so whilst the money is there that to be competitive you have to spend even if that means paying over the odds. But for clubs like Stoke, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and West Brom being competitive means finishing mid table with a potential good run in the cups. Winning the league is not likely (not impossible as we saw with Leicester but given the growing gap in wealth between the top eight and the rest is getting harder) so for them does it make sense to break to bank and their financial future to do so? UEFA have tried to enforce financial fair play rules to restrict the threat of clubs spending beyond their means but they were too vague and open for manipulation which some clubs are now actively exploiting.

UEFA's financial fair play guidelines - more of a nice to know than an enforced policy (Image from Tumblr)

UEFA’s financial fair play guidelines – more of a nice to know than an enforced policy (Image from Tumblr)

So what is the solution? To be honest it’s not an easy answer. Should clubs stop buying all together? No of course not. Should the clubs be restricted to amount of money they spend per season (similar to a salary cap)? Possible. Should clubs look to put away some of the cash for a rainy day or invest it in other ways? Definitely. Using the cash to build long-term infrastructure developing youth prospects and creating world-class facilities can be an investment in the clubs future. It may not deliver results straight away but it could be a valuable fall back plan if things do start to go belly up. But most of all clubs need to think more carefully about how they spend their money and on who. This is not to say that Mooy, Maguire or Pickford are not good signings but when it feels like you are paying too much for someone it usually means that you are.Share your thoughts now on

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Does he play outside of the Premier League? Never heard of him mate

Ray Wilkins was on Sky Sports this week speaking about Manchester United’s new signing, Benfica defender Victor Lindelöf. Instead of talking up an exciting new prospect, signed by his former club, he chose to highlight how English players like Michael Keane keep getting overlooked. If you missed the Ray Wilkins interview, watch it, its gold. It has just about everything you’d expect from an out of date, football dinosaur.

Wilkins feels that Manchester United should be re-signing Michael Keane rather than going abroad (Image from Tumblr)

Wilkins feels that Manchester United should be re-signing Michael Keane rather than going abroad (Image from Tumblr)

He starts by saying “This guy (Lindelöf) has done nothing”. For the record, Victor Lindelöf has won Primeira Liga three times, three Portuguese cups, and the Under-21 Euros with Sweden, at just 22 years of age. Granted, I didn’t know all this about Lindelöf but it takes 10 seconds to look up such things, also known as basic research. He ends with “Give him (Keane) a chance”, unlike the chance he’s given Lindelöf who has been judged before he has even been officially unveiled. It is at this point I must remind everyone that Keane has already played for United so has had a “chance” and was deemed not good enough. He also has time to have a go at the foreign market for being so expensive, but who in their right mind would sell to Man United on the cheap?

Victor Lindelof - not Wilkins cup of tea (Image from Tumblr)

Victor Lindelof – not Wilkins cup of tea (Image from Tumblr)

When Wilkins was at Chelsea they spent £50m on Fernando Torres, which remains a record at Stamford Bridge to this day, and spent big on David Luiz and Ramires from Benfica (where United are buying Lindelöf from of all places). Oh and before I forget, Wilkins, who was assistant to Carlo Ancelotti for 3 years, signed just one English player in that time.

Ancelotti and Wilkins during their Chelsea days (Image from Tumblr)

Ancelotti and Wilkins during their Chelsea days (Image from Tumblr)

It was the same when Marco Silva joined Hull City and was laughed at in spite of managing in the Champions League and winning several titles. I find it staggering that UK pundits do little or no research. I don’t expect every football talking head to know about every single player the world over, but mate do you Googles. Some of these guys are paid very handsomely and I doubt they watch anything other than the Premier League. In a month spent laughing at politicians for publicly getting their facts and figures wrong, how many pundits know their numbers? How many do simple research? Knowing who the next big thing is from Holland or Brazil could be the difference in getting paid work and a television or writing opportunity could depend on it.

The Chosen One - Marco Silva is wanted by several clubs (Image from Tumblr)

Marco Silva was ridiculed by the British pundits when he arrived in England (Image from Tumblr)

This week, Sky Sports announced their lowest audiences since records began, which makes sense, I mean who pay would listen to this nonsense for £70 a month? The modern fan is very clued up, they crave insight. That’s why Monday Night Football has been such an incredible success. I’d suggest Sky Sports get rid Ray Wilkins, Paul Merson and “the lads” and getting some proper experts in. Hopefully Sky have learned a valuable lesson.Wilkins was rightly mocked on social media as he clearly didn’t know anything about Lindelöf. If he isn’t an expert, why should we tune in?

Post by Tough Tackler – @thetoughtackler (www.toughtackler.co.uk)

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