Napoli flying high under Spalletti with Serie A title their destination

After a few indifferent seasons, Luciano Spalletti has got Napoli flying high this campaign. The Naples team is top of the league after 12 match days as well as top of their Europa League group with two games left. They stand unbeaten in Serie A with 10 wins and two draws. Behind this success is manager Luciano Spalletti who has had an instant impact in his first season. This Napoli side is notably well organized and balanced under the 62 year old. In addition, the atmosphere around the club has changed a lot for the better as he appears to have reinstalled belief in players and the fans that Napoli can be contenders. 

After a two year sabbatical, Spalletti is back and has Napoli playing arguably their best football in recent history. His side shapes up generally in a 4-2-3-1 formation and plays high pressing, aggressive, attacking football. They are as adept in playing possession-based football as they are ruthless in counterattacks, especially with Osimhen leading the line but more on him later. We have seen time and time again that the foundation of success is the defence. Spalletti has not only made sure that his side doesn’t leak goals from the back but has made Napoli the strongest defensive unit in the league. Collectively they have only conceded four goals in the league and the way they defend is as impressive as their defensive stats.

Gli Azzurri play with a very high defensive line with the centre-back pairing lingering around the halfway line. They try to shut down their opponent’s attacks quickly and high up the pitch. Spalletti wants to keep the opponents far away from his goal and his system is working wonders. Napoli has the lowest average in the league for shots on target conceded per game at 2.67 alongside Torino. Kalidou Koulibaly is crucial for Spalletti’s defensive system to work. The Senegalese’s role is to close down opponents aggressively when the ball is played between Napoli’s defence and midfield and also when the ball is played in behind, which happens often against high defensive lines. This role suits Koulibaly perfectly because of his pace and strength and that’s why he is again in the conversation for the best defender in Europe. The other centre-half, Amir Rahmani acts as the last man and plays the sweeper role or libero as they say in Italy. Rahmani has been a calming presence in Napoli’s backline and has formed a solid centre-back partnership alongside Koulibaly. 

Moving up the field, Fabian Ruiz and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa form Napoli’s first-choice double pivot. Spalletti’s Napoli has a great balance between attack and defence and it’s the two central midfielders who are responsible for that. Ruiz and Anguissa coordinate well and remain in close proximity to each other. They are both comfortable performing the actions that come with the central midfielder role- screening the centre backs, dropping deep to link up play, etc.  However, Anguissa tends to focus more on the defensive burden, leaving Ruiz to the creative responsibility which has made their partnership work so effectively. 

Anguissa has been a revelation for Napoli this season since moving from Fulham on loan

The man on loan from Fulham, Anguissa has already become a vital player for Spalletti. He is the lungs of the team and works non-stop to win the ball back by closing down players or cutting passing lanes. He is among the best in the league for interceptions. The Cameroonian is a decent passer and also makes progressive runs with the ball as he is a great dribbler. With most of the defensive work done by Anguissa, Ruiz has been shining this season with his passing. The Spaniard is key for Napoli’s possession play and leads the league for most passes. He links up Napoli’s defence and attack very well and can play defence splitting passing through the lines or over the top. Both Ruiz and Anguissa linger just outside the opposition’s box during sustained attacks and are capable of belters. Ruiz has already curled in three goals from the range whilst Anguissa has come close but still to score.

Napoli builds up in a 2-4-4 shape. They either build up in wide areas with the full-backs heavily involved or through the centre with one of the CM dropping deep to link up with the central defenders. This shape allows Napoli to switch the play comfortably and also tire their opponents down by keeping possession. When building attacks from wide areas, the inverted wingers work in coordination with the full-backs. If the winger cuts inside, the full-backs provide the width and if the winger stays wide, the full-backs get in half-spaces to play crosses in the box, mostly for Osimhen. However, the skipper, Insigne plays with most positional freedom, often popping up in dangerous areas. When playing through vertical lines, the attacking midfielder looks for receiving the ball on the turn and then quickly release the cutting-in wingers or the striker. 

Osimhen has become fundamental to Napoli’s attacks. The club record €70 million striker is finally proving that he is worth his transfer fees after being unlucky with a shoulder injury and Covid last season. The Nigerian can hold up the play, run in behind, and also link up with teammates in tight areas. The no.9 already has 9 goals this season however, his finishing can be a bit frantic at times. Osimhen is a complete menace for opposition defenders and can create problems even when he is not scoring, just like the two penalties he forced against Bologna. The connection between Insigne and Osimhen has been brilliant for Napoli this season. They both are also the main counter-attacking threat for the team and look for each other in those situations. During counterattacks, Osimhen may also drag wide to get on the ball, which creates space in central areas for the wingers to attack.  

Osimhen has found form at Napoli and become a vital part of their team

Napoli’s attack is well stocked too. Mertens and Lozano had a slow start to the season because of injuries but are great options to come fill in at the attacking positions with the Mexican Lozano looking to become a regular starter. Elmas can come in as the attacking midfielder as well or at wide left giving Spalletti options from the bench. Up front, Andrea Petagna is not the same as Osimhen but he is being used to manage the Nigerian’s workload and offers something different when games are tight.

The only real issue that Spalletti has is that the depth in defence is not as good for the Partenopei as other areas. Kostas Manolas and Juan Jesus are the backup centre back options but Napoli can look vulnerable without Koulibaly as they did in the draw against Verona when the Senegalese was serving his red card suspension. Jesus can also fill in at left-back too and Malciut can come in at right-back but there is a significant drop in quality when Napoli misses someone from their preferred back four, also considering the balance in the centre back pairing of Koulibaly and Rahmani. Another worry for Napoli would be the African Cup of Nations, which will make them miss three of their most important players in Koilabily, Anguissa, and Osimhen for up to 5 game weeks after boxing day. 

There is a chance for this Napoli team to do something really special. With Juve well off the pace this season, Napoli’s main competition for the Scudetto will come from Milan. More from the red side as the Rossoneri are also unbeaten in the league and joint top, they are also in a later stage of development as a team as it’s Pioli’s third season in charge opposed to Napoli’s first under Spalletti. If Napoli can somewhat maintain the standards they have set themselves in the league and weather the upcoming storms, Gli Azuri can lay their hands on the Scudetto 32 years after they last won it with Maradona. What a tribute would that be to the man they renamed their stadium after last December.

Piece by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Newcastle and Fulham face dogfight to stay in Premier League

As we get into the business end of the season, it’s getting tense at the bottom of the English Premier League. The fates of Sheffield United and West Brom are almost sealed and can surely start thinking about their next campaign in the EFL Championship as their ships are well underwater already with 9 games left to play. 10 points separate West Brom and the safe zone whilst Sheff Utd are rooted to the bottom 14 points deep in the drop zone. Southampton and Burnley sit at 14th and 15th spot respectively, with 33 points each and are 7 points clear of the relegation zone. Things would have to go pretty wrong for them and very good for the teams below them to really be threatened with a strong possibility of going down.

A huge win for Brighton against Newcastle on Saturday has given them a 6 point cushion over the relegation zone. They are not completely safe yet but the 3-0 against the relegation rivals would give them a big confidence boost. With the quality of football they play, they should be able to see it through, but they can’t let their main problem resurface again: low conversion rate. On many occasions they have played teams out of the park but not completed their chances, dropping a staggering amount of points on the way as a result.

But it’s the fight between Fulham and Newcastle that could very well go down to the wire. Only 2 points separate them; Fulham sit in 18th place on 26 points, Newcastle in 17th on 28 points. And to make things more exciting Fulham will host Newcastle on the last match day with an anticipated return of fans in the stadiums.

English Premier League table as of March 24th

Fulham has grown to become a much better team and found themselves in the position they are because of a dreadful start to the campaign rather than how they have played recently. As Scott Parker said in the pre-match conference of their game against Leeds, “We are a different team, different animal this time,” reflecting on the reverse fixture, which was way back in September at the start of the season. The London team has shown belief and great fight lately pulling off amazing results with victories against the two Merseyside clubs. February signing Josh Maja has given them a boost upfront and Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo have gelled well to give Fulham a solid pair at the back and reduce the influx of goals. All this but they still might go down.

One of their biggest problem this season has been turning draws into a win. After 29 matches, Fulham has played the highest number of draws in the league (11), alongside Brighton. This includes draws against their relegation rivals – 2 goalless draws against Brighton alongside score draws against Newcastle, Sheffield United, and West Brom.

Fulham’s failure to beat the sides in and around them may come back to haunt them.

The football Fulham play is not bad and even worthy of staying in the top flight. They play with high intensity, press high up the pitch, attacking with pace through the channels, and are not afraid to commit men forward. They are an attractive team to watch and the prospect of them staying up and allowing Scott Parker to build the squad further is very exciting for the Fulham fans.

If Fulham are to stay up they would have to show their recently found hunger and belief till the end of the season. After going on a decent run they have lost their last two games and need to get back to winning or even drawing ways soon if they are to takeover Newcastle. The least they could do is stay within touching distance of Newcastle and then give it all against the team, which is not better than them by any means.

Fulham’s Remaining fixtures:

Aston Villa (A), Wolves (H), Arsenal (A), Chelsea (A), Brighton (H), Southampton (A), Man Utd (A), Newcastle (H)

Moving on to Newcastle, despite having a couple of points and a game in hand over Fulham, Newcastle is being given lower odds than Fulham to go out of the top flight, and if you watch their recent performances that makes sense. Magpies fans are being disappointed week in and week out, watching their team play with low intensity while defending deep and playing on counterattack. The tactics might not be the main problem but the fact is that the approach is not working and Steve Bruce has done little to nothing to refresh things up is the main issue.

Injuries to their attacking player have only made things worse. Their top goalscorer as well as highest assist maker, Callum Wilson has missed the 8 league games whilst he recovers from a hamstring injury. In addition, their biggest talent in Allan Saint-Maximin has suffered from multiple injuries, preventing him to get a foothold in the season. There have also been numerous other injuries to key players along the way which has added to Newcastles woes. The good news is that Wilson and Saint-Maximin are both expected to return soon after this current international break.

Newcastle fans protest against manager Steve Bruce following the 3-0 defeat to Brighton.

There have also been problems off the pitch for The Magpies too. Reports of a bust-up between Steve Bruce and Matt Richie followed by reports of Newcastle players being concerned with given too many days off. These issues can be reflected on their performances on the pitch. The race to stay in the Premier League will be intense and such matters can only make things worse.

Newcastle needs to find a way to start getting results soon, as Fulham are breathing down their neck. Their biggest hope is to get a boost from Wilson’s return in April, the centre forward who has scored 10 and created 5 goals in 21 league appearances this season. More than anything, Steve Bruce and the players both need to step up and take responsibility for what’s going on and turn things around before it gets too late.

Newcastle’s Remaining fixtures:

Tottenham (H), Burnley (A), West Ham (H), Liverpool (A), Arsenal (H), Leicester (A), Man City (H), Sheffield Utd (H), Fulham (A)

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Arteta’s Troubles Mount As Arsenal Continue To Slide

Arsenal’s far from perfect start to the season is turning into a nightmare with Mikel Arteta’s side languishing in 15th place with no win in their last seven games. Heading into Christmas, Arsenal find themselves in unfamiliar territory, starring down the barrel of a relegation dog fight rather than a run at the European places. The pressure is mounting on Arteta to find solutions to address the poor results and kick start the Gunners season yet all the signs appear to indicate that it’s an impossible task.

Despite a positive end to last season beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final and a strong showing in this season’s Community Shield, winning over Liverpool thanks to a penalty shoot out, Arsenal have failed to find first gear in the opening quarter of the season. The stats tell half the story – 14 games, 14 points, 12 goals scored, 18 conceded, only 3 clean sheets. But the other half of the story is written across the face of Arteta who stands on the sidelines in disbelief of what he is seeing. Despite his own promise to change the energy and the culture at the club, this recent run shows that neither have been changed which undermines anything that Arteta is looking to achieve.

If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way. And after that, we can talk about other things.”

Mikel Arteta’s first Arsenal press conference as head coach, Dec 2019.

Part of the strategy to change the energy and the culture was to bring in players who aligned to Arteta’s thinking and embraced change whilst jettisoning those in the current squad that didn’t. This summer, Arsenal spent heavily in the market with mixed results. Defenders Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari had their loan moves made permanent, whilst Runar Alex Runarsson arrived as goalkeeper cover following the sale of the impressive Emilio Martinez to Aston Villa. Of the three, only Soares has made an appearance this season and even then that has been limited to a single occasion. Brazilian centre back Gabriel came in from Lille for €26m, as did fellow Brazilian Willian from Chelsea (albeit on a free) and both have played frequently but not to the same levels that attracted Arsenal to them in the first place. Finally the biggest outlay was for midfielder Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid for a whopping €50m but injuries have limited his time on the field to a handful of times.

All six are not bad acquisitions, far from it nor should they be judged fully this early on in their time at the club. But they all fail to really inspire the type of change needed at Arsenal to move the club to the next level. Gabriel is a tough defender with superb close control and passing range but his inability to command the defence like a Virgil Van Dijk or bark orders like a Tony Adams of old, is telling. Willian demonstrates skill and mastery which entertains the fans but he doesn’ t lead by grabbing the game by its throat and pushing it Arsenal’s way. Partey may be more of the type of character Arteta needs on the field but he needs to get on it regularly for Arsenal fans to see if he is. The club lacks leaders like a Kevin De Bruyne or a Jordan Henderson who show up each week and make their presence felt, albeit in different ways. Established first team players David Luiz, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Granit Xhaka should be driving the team forward yet so far no ones has stepped up this season to do so on a regular basis.

Partey and Gabriel have been good signings but failed to help shift the culture or raise the energy in games.

Added into this, the energy on the field is dramatically lacking with key players often caught walking or not looking to make the lung bursting runs needed to get into goal scoring opportunities. Pepe, who arrived to much hype last season for a mouth watering €80m looks like a passenger in most games, whilst Dani Ceballos who came in from Real Madrid runs without purpose or vision. That lack of energy in the midfield is having a knock on affect upfront with the usually prolific duo of Aubameyang and Lacazette feeding off lose balls and scraps resulting in only 6 goals between them and a 1 goal in every 4 games ratio. The energy in games is not there with only a few players, notably young Kieran Tierney showing desire and drive both in possession and without it.

Building a squad around your own vision takes time, something that Arteta simply hasn’t had enough off having only just celebrated his 1st full year in charge. But the club isn’t helping itself by failing to offload players who are upsetting the apple cart. Both Mezut Ozil and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been excluded from Arteta’s 25 man EPL squad yet remain the club on a combined £442,000 per week. Over the past 14 weeks since the start of the season, that amounts to just under £7m in wages for players that aren’t being used nor moved along. Other problems have been pushed out on loan or resolved by handing them bumper new contracts but yet the culture remains the same. Despite Arteta’s efforts to pull the team together and push it towards a common goal, they remain divided and individualistic. January’s transfer window offers an opportunity to Arteta to once again address the culture at the club and make the changes needed to be successful under his vision. Whether he gets the time to do so, is a different story.

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One On One with: Simon Grayson

There are few managers in the modern who can show a resume as stellar as Simon Grayson. In the 15 years since retiring as a player, Grayson has managed seven clubs and gained promotion four times. He is a turn around specialist in that he is able to go into a club in trouble, grab it by the scruff of its neck and drag it towards promotion within a season or two. It’s remarkable to think that he has managed all this at only 50 which in management is still relatively young. As an accomplished defender who plied his trade at Blackpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and his beloved Leeds United, it’s not hard to see where he gets his self drive and determination from.

Grayson may be humble about what he has achieved but is hopeful of one day getting a shot at managing in the Premier League, likely through gaining promotion from the Championship but something he certainly deserves. We caught up with him recently in what was a fascinating interview about his playing career, his move into management and of course what it felt like walking out that tunnel as Leeds manager. Enjoy!

Backofthenet: You came through the ranks at a Leeds United side that included the likes of Eric Cantona, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan, David Batty and Gary McAllister. As a young player, what was the biggest thing you learned from those players that helped you as a player?

Simon Grayson: Gordon Strachan had a massive effect on me as a young pro at Leeds. His attitude to training, preparation for games and his desire to win were things I took with me into my own career. He would watch our reserve games and after he would give me praise but also some constructive criticism. His biggest advice was always to try your best, work hard every day and enjoy Football even through tough times as it’s a job so many people would love to swap places with you.

BOTN: You moved to Leicester in March 1992 and established yourself at Filbert Street winning the League Cup and player of the season in 1997. That team was managed by the legendary Martin O’Neill. What did you learn from O’Neill during your time working with him that you have now taken into your own managerial career?

SG: One of Martins’ biggest strengths was his man management skills. Yes, he understood the game tactically, but he knew how to get the best out of each individual and then put this into the team environment. Certain players would need a rollicking and others an arm round them. He created a spirit in the dressing room that we would look after each other on the pitch, work for each other and run through a brick wall for him as he had our backs as well. This is something that I definitely took into my managing career.

Grayson

Grayson at Leicester and the League Cup in 1997 (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Successful spells at Aston Villa and Blackburn followed before you spent nearly two seasons out on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, Stockport County, Notts County and Bradford City before finally securing a permanent move to Blackpool where you finished your playing days. That must have been a disappointing spell in your career. What positives did you draw from those loan moves? Did you consider calling it a day as you moved from club to club?

SG: At Blackburn, Graeme Souness was the manager and had his own view on players which I understood but I didn’t agree with how he treated certain players who he didn’t pick. A number of us were forced to train away from the first team. For two years I went out on loan just to play games as I didn’t want to just pick my money up for doing nothing. It was a tough time, but I never thought about packing football in as I loved football and felt I had plenty to give to someone. It certainly made me stronger as a person and made me want to enjoy my last few years as a player. After my contract expired, I went to Blackpool and played over 100 games winning the Football League Trophy with them (in 2003-20004).

BOTN: Your first managerial role was at Blackpool which came about in a fairly unusual way. You were working as the reserve boss and had an offer to move to another club as assistant manager. But when you told Blackpool owner Karl Oyster of your desire to leave, he refused as he was planning on sacking then manager Colin Hendry and appoint you instead. Did that cause any issues with Colin who up until that point had been your manager?  

SG: I don’t think Colin had any problems with me as I’d spoke to him about leaving and I certainly wasn’t doing anything without him knowing. I really didn’t have any real desire to be a manager at that point. When I was given the caretaker role, I was still unsure whether I would be comfortable doing it or be any good at it.

Grayson-1

From Player to Manager – Grayson began at Blackpool (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: How challenging was it to transition from being a player to becoming the boss at the same club?

SG: The advantage of the transition I had from player to caretaker was that I had been doing the reserves and still playing so the players were comfortable with it and used to it. The hardest part was dropping close mates and releasing players in the summer. But I knew I had to be ruthless and make unpopular decisions if I was going to make it as a manager.

BOTN: You led Blackpool to the playoffs and promotion in your first full season as a manager. How did you go about taking a relegation-threatened side and turning them into promotion candidates? How influential was the decision to bring in Tony Parkes from Blackburn as your assistant in that turn around?

SG: Tony was very influential for me and probably the best decision I made. Even though I’d played a lot of games, I felt I needed someone who had some great experience as a coach/manager alongside me to guide and advise me. Together with Steve Thompson, we recruited some good players and we created a good team spirit; something I had learnt from Martin O’Neil. We worked hard in training and had a strong desire to win matches. If as a manager you can get all these things right then you have a good chance of being successful.

BOTN: You left Blackpool to become Leeds United manager in December 2008. As a fan of the club, going back to manage Leeds must have been a surreal moment for you. How did it feel leading the team out in front of those fans for the first time?

SG: Getting the opportunity to manage Leeds United was an unbelievable feeling. Even though they were in League One and Blackpool were in the Championship, I had no hesitation in going. To walk down the tunnel for my first game on Boxing Day vs. Leicester and follow in the footsteps of some of the greats of Leeds like Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson was a moment I will never forget.

Leeds Grayson

Fulfilling a dream – Grayson as Leeds United manager (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: You must be happy to see Leeds promoted this season to the Premier League after a long absence?

SG: Yes, to see Leeds promoted this season is fantastic and along time in coming. The Club, City and supporters have been through a lot of dark times over the last 20 years but they are now back in the Premier League and hopefully they stay there for a long time.

BOTN: Leeds were promoted to the Championship in 2010 under your leadership and still have the club’s third-best points-per-match record of all-time, only behind Marcelo Bielsa and David O’Leary. What are your best memories of managing the club?

SG: I loved my time at Leeds even when things weren’t going too well. To support, play and manage the club is something I’m so proud of. Getting promoted on the last day of the season in front of 38,000 was the ultimate highlight. Seeing what it meant to the supporters when we were celebrating on the pitch after the final whistle and the manor how we won (going down to 10 men and 1 nil down to then win 2-1) was certainly a rollercoaster ride for everyone and one of relief as well. Winning at Old Trafford as a League One team in the FA Cup is certainly up there with the best moments as well.

BOTN: What about the Leeds fans?

The connection I had with the supporters is another great memory. They enjoyed how we played, the spirit we had and ultimately the pride that we showed playing for them and the club. To get so close to the play offs in our first season in the Championship was a feeling of disappointment really given we really thought we had enough quality in the squad to get the team close to going back to the Premier League

leeds promotion

Leeds fans celebrate being promoted to the Premier League this season (Image from LUFC)

BOTN: A month after leaving Leeds, you joined fellow Yorkshire club Huddersfield Town, and again got them promoted to the Championship. But as a manager, how much of an effect does joining a rival have on your decision over whether to take a job? 

SG: Honestly, I didn’t worry about it. I knew some people might have a problem with it but if you win matches and ultimately get the team promoted then no one should have any complaints about it.

BOTN: You took over at Preston in February 2013 with the club in real danger of being relegated from League One. But in less than three years you had transformed the club and managed to get them promoted to the Championship. Joe Garner played a key role in those squads scoring over 20 goals a season in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 campaigns. How important as a manager is it to find a striker who you can rely on to get 20+ goals per season and what did you do personally with Joe to turn around his time at Preston and make him into a prolific scorer?

SG: Strikers at any level of football are so important as they win matches for you. To have someone you and his teammates can rely on to put away the chances can be the difference between being an average team and a successful one. Joe had been at a few big clubs without making it really work but he was someone who I knew would work hard for the team but also put his head and body in where it hurts to score a goal. Joe had some good teammates who could create the chances for him as well, people like (Paul) Gallagher, (Daniel) Johnson, (Callum) Robinson and others knew what kind of service Joe liked and they had the quality to do this.

Joe Garner was in lethal form for Preston NE under Grayson (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Given your history of turning clubs around and gaining promotion, the challenge of doing the same at Sunderland must have been appealing. But you joined at a very weird time at the club, which was all captured in the recent Netflix documentary called ‘Sunderland Till I Die’. Clearly things weren’t / aren’t right at Sunderland, but just how difficult was it to manage in those circumstances with every move you made captured on film?

SG: The documentary was already in place when I moved to Sunderland. I gave them certain rules where and when they could film but as a documentary they were always wanting more and did not want to miss out on things. I’m sure the players didn’t like the cameras there as I didn’t. I knew going to Sunderland wasn’t going to be an easy job, but I certainly backed myself to do well. It probably wasn’t until I was there a week or so that I realize how much negativity and unrest there was at the club.

BOTN: There is a lot of talk that Sunderland is a club with deep rooted problems with professionalism, and an ingrained drinking culture that a succession of managers have been unable to break. Would you agree with that assertion, and if so, given time and patience how would you go about transforming the club?

SG: As a manager you go to a club with your own ideas and beliefs which you hope you can get the players to buy into but Sunderland seemed to have problems with a group of players who didn’t want to be there or some had lost the drive and desire to turn it around. With Chris Coleman following me and not able to change the attitude and culture around proved that it wasn’t the managers fault but deeper lying problems. The only way of fixing this would be to give the manager time to change it around rather than keep blaming the manager and changing manager every time a result doesn’t go the way the fans wanted it to go. I genuinely believe I would have been successful there if I was given more time but as we know in this day and age time isn’t always something you get now.

Grayson on season 2 of “Sunderland Til I Die”.

BOTN: Moving on, there is a school of thought that says the game is “better” today thanks to advances in sports science, nutrition etc. as well as better quality pitches.  Do you agree with that assertion?

SG: I think that today’s players have the best opportunities to be a success due to the things you have mentioned but I also believe that the modern day footballer also has everything done for them and therefore sometimes doesn’t take responsibility for things like players did in the past. They wait for problems to be solved by the manager rather than trying to solve them themselves. They don’t like criticism as much as past players did and anytime there is a problem, an agent seems to have to get involved.

BOTN: How do you feel you would have fared as a player today?

SG:  I think I would have been fine as I would have taken my time playing in the 90s into the modern way of preparing for games and playing.

BOTN: Over the past few years, we have seen a growing trend towards talented younger players leaving the English game such as Jadon Sancho and more recently Jude Bellingham, in favour of a move to Germany. Why do you think this is so appealing for these youngsters? Is the belief that they are leaving due to lack of playing time correct or is it more to do with the coaching they can get abroad?

SG: I think it may be a bit of both but also when one player goes and is successful then others then think more positively about going and venturing abroad. In the past, only a handful of players left to go abroad with only a few successful which in turn made others think less so of moving but now that has changed, and more may do it in the future.

Jude Bellingham has moved to Germany and Borussia Dortmund (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Before we turn to our fan questions, it’s fair to say that you’ve had a very successful career as a manager with several promotions with different clubs under your belt. That said you are often overlooked for the vacant jobs in the Premier League. Do you think that there is a bias towards appointing foreign coaches in that division? And Is the pathway to becoming a Premier League manager for English coaches therefore restricted to gaining promotion with a club from the Championship?

SG: There are many coaches including myself that believe a lot of English/British coaches are overlooked for jobs in the Premier League and that the only way you get to manage there is by taking teams up. You only have to look at people like Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Chris Wilder who have managed in the Premier League by getting their clubs promoted as opposed to getting approached for jobs while they were managing in the Championship or League One.

BOTN: Finally let’s move on to some fan questions. Of the players you played with or against, who do you think would be most likely to thrive today? 

SG: Most of the players I played with and against while I was at Leicester and Aston Villa in the Premier League would have all thrived today as they all had the basic ingredients the top players have now i.e. hard work , desire, resilience and ultimately quality with and without the ball.

Lennon and Grayson

Grayson with former Leicester teammate and now Celtic boss, Neil Lennon (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Having managed clubs in the ascendancy, gaining promotion with Leeds and Huddersfield, as well as at the other end of the table, fighting in and around the foot of the table with Preston and Sunderland, do you change your approach depending on the circumstances?  And if so, what are the differences between coaching a good team to success, vs. drilling a struggling team?

SG: As a coach you have to be able to be adaptable to where a club is at when you take over or slightly change things when you move up a Division through promotion to deal with playing against bigger clubs and better players. You may also change your philosophies depending on the players you have available to you. For example, at Leeds we had a really attacking team with players like (Jermaine) Beckford, (Robert) Snodgrass, (Max) Gradel, (Luciano) Bechio and (Jonathan) Howson so our intent was to score more goals than the opposition. Where at Preston, when we got promoted to the Championship, we had to be hard to beat and play more on the counterattack.

BOTN: I read that you were in the running to be boss at Bolton. Is there any truth you were interested in that role? And if you are looking to get back into management, what kind of role would most appeal to you?

SG: I’m definitely looking to get back into managing again when the opportunity comes along whether here or abroad. At 50, with nearly 700 games and 4 promotions on my CV, I still feel I have a lot to give and I certainly have the desire to add to the games and promotions. When the day comes that I can no longer get a managers’ job then I would like to stay in the game in some capacity whether as an assistant to a younger manager/coach, or in recruitment /scouting.

BOTN: Thank you Simon and all the best for the future!

You can follow Simon on Instagram.

Interview by Rob Latham, UK correspondent for Back Of The Net. Follow him on Twitter.

Interview Contributions by Gordon Skinner.

 

 

 

One On One with: Marcus Gayle

If you did a straw poll of 100 Brentford fans and ask them who they would classify as a club legend, Marcus Gayle’s name would come up more than any other. The former Jamaica striker turned centre half is held in such high regard that he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2015 and is now a club ambassador. But Gayle’s career is more than just his 230 appearances for the bees. He may have started off at Brentford and returned to the club in the latter half of his career but he also had successful spells at Wimbledon, Watford and FC Kups in Finland as well as brief spells at Glasgow Rangers and Aldershot during his 20 year career. We caught up with his recently to find out more about his career including his time at Brentford, why it didn’t work out in Scotland, what it was like working with Joe Kinnear and of course playing at the World Cup with “the Reggae Boyz” aka Jamaica.

Backofthenet: You were born and raised in Hammersmith and got your break into football only ten minutes away at Brentford. Apart from two seasons in Scotland and Finland, you spent your entire career in London. Was that intentional?

Marcus Gayle: For the most part I was fortunate enough to play in and around London apart from those spells in Scotland and Finland. It was nothing intentional on my part.

BOTN: When you signed for Brentford in 1988, they had an impressive mix of players including player manager Steve Perryman, Gary Blissett and Andy Sinton to name a few. How much did you learn as a youth player coming into that squad? How influential was Perryman on those early years of your career?

MG: Under Steve Perryman at Brentford it was a great education about the game but very tough going at times. Colin Lee who was my youth coach gave me the drive to excel, Phil Holder who became the 1st team manger after Steve gave me the opportunity to stay in the 1st team. They were all very influential.

BOTN: You had a loan spell at KUPS. That move to Finland in 1990 was a surprising one but one that you found crucial in your development as a player. How did that loan move come about and what did you take away from your experience there?

MG: The loan spell to FC Kups came about through a contact of Steve Perryman. I didn’t fancy getting out of my comfort zone (by going there) and said nah. I spoke to my mum later that day and she said it could be the making of me. 29 games and 13 goals proved her and my manager right!

Gayle during his loan spell in Finland (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

Gayle during his loan spell in Finland (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: You returned to Brentford for the 1990-91 season and quickly established yourself under new manager Phil Holder. You were part of a trio of exciting strikers at the club – Dean Holdsworth and Gary Blissett being the other two that guided Brentford to the old Third Division title. That season was later voted by the fans as the best ever season in the club’s history and cemented your place as a legend at the club. What do you remember about that campaign and why did everything fall into place so perfectly?

MG: We had a great squad of players that when everyone was fit we knew more or less what the team was. Squad players and the managers trust in young players to step in helped keep the competition high. All the players got on so well.

BOTN: Eventually you earned a move to Wimbledon where again you played a pivotal role in that team over a seven-year period.  That was of course towards the end of the Crazy Gang era. Was it an enjoyable atmosphere to work in? 

MG: Moving to Wimbledon was great – the whole atmosphere was healthy but challenging; work rest and play mentality. We knew when it was time to be serious.

Gayle scored 37 times in 239 appearances for Wimbledon (Image from Tumblr)

Gayle scored 37 times in 239 appearances for Wimbledon (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Joe Kinnear was your manager for a majority of your time at Wimbledon. What is your opinion of him and the job that he did at Wimbledon during that time? 

MG: Joe done an unbelievable job as manager, had a great eye for a player that fitted straight into the squad. You could have a great laugh with him!.

BOTN: Let’s chat a little about your move to Glasgow. You tended to play regularly for most of your career, but at Rangers were limited to just 4 appearances.  Did you find the lack of game time frustrating? Given you signed a few months after Rangers broke their transfer record to sign Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo, were you mis sold on that move and the amount of opportunities you would get?

MG: I loved my time at Rangers however just the 4 appearances left me embarrassed and very frustrated. I was put in the under 23 team, played 2 and a half games scored 6 goals but was still told that I was not a goal threat. That was the breaking point and i was not given a fair chance.

A lack of an opportunity prevented Gayle from showing what he could do at Rangers  (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

A lack of an opportunity prevented Gayle from showing what he could do at Rangers (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: After a disappointing spell in Scotland, you joined Watford for £1million, linking up with Gianluca Vialli in his only season at the club. What was it like to work under Vialli and are you surprised that he hasn’t managed since?

MG: Vialli was a workaholic just like in his playing days – He made a lot of signings, me being one of them and most didn’t work out well that season. I’m not too surprised that he hasn’t gone back into management, I think his time at Watford really frustrated him.

BOTN: When Vialli left, Ray Lewington was given the job and he helped you switch from being a striker to a centre back. That change came due to a shortage of defenders in training which resulted in you offering to play in defence. You ended that season as player of the year and as a clear starter in the heart of the Watford defence. Why do you think that switch was so successful?

MG: I felt like a youngster learning the game all over again playing at the back – Ray Lewington showed the confidence in me to give it a good go and that’s what I did. I had good team-mates that made my transition easier.

BOTN: You are not the only player to have made that switch – Chris Sutton, Dion Dublin and Ruud Gullit all successfully transitioned from frontmen to defenders during their careers. It seems to be that strikers convert better as centre backs than say central midfielders do. Is that due to your understanding of how strikers think in and around the box and being able to anticipate those moves in advance?

MG: We all understand what type of ball is coming into the front man and where he wants to take his first touch. Again we all could take a ball under pressure as a frontman so naturally that would be added now as a defender. For me the majority of my career was left wing so dribbling with the ball and picking out team mates out helped a lot. 

Striker to centre half - Gayle made the transition well (Image from Gayle's Instagram)

Striker to centre half – Gayle made the transition well (Image from Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: They say you should never go back but you returned to Brentford in March of 2005 as a free agent. You joined a squad that manager Martin Allen had self-proclaimed to be a “two bob team” due to the nature in which it had been put together under a very tight budget. Yet that team was highly successful under Allen managing to reach consecutive promotional playoffs. What was key to the success of that team? And what role did Allen play in that success?

MG: Re-joining Brentford under Martin Allen was great. I probably learned the most from him than other managers in terms of man management and coaching players. He was a workaholic on the training pitch and empowered especially the young players to become great players. 

BOTN: After Brentford, you joined Aldershot in the Conference League under Terry Brown and started well scoring a few goals before hitting a hat-trick in under ten minutes against Kidderminster, the first of your professional career. The shortly after Christmas you damaged your ACL knee ligaments and cartilage effectively ending your season. How would you categorize that season looking back now and when the injury happened, did you consider that it may be the end of your playing career?

MG: Yes, it took me to the age of 36 to score my first and last hat-trick lol. The injury was a blip in my season but thanks to Suzanne Bowen (club physiotherapist) who got me back playing within 3 months. 

BOTN: You are one of a few players who have played for Wimbledon early on in their careers and then returned again towards the end of it. Warren Barton and Dean Holdsworth are two players who did similarly. What is it about that club that makes players return? Did it feel like the same club you had left all those years ago?

MG: The feeling was mutual between the fans and myself returning to Wimbledon. I’ve always had a strong connection with fans over many many years and play for them again was special. The fans make the club!

BOTN: Let’s talk about Jamaica. You had previously represented England at under 18 level but switched to Jamaica after being called up by René Simões due to your Jamaican parentage. You were called up alongside Frank Sinclair, Leon Burton and Robbie Earle as Simoes looked to build a squad capable of qualifying for the World Cup. Was the ambition of Simoes to make it to France with Jamaica a driving force behind that decision?

MG: The driving force for my decision was to represent the country of my father’s birth – the impact it would have. Oh and the chance of playing in a World Cup. That really was a brilliant time for all involved. Rene Simoes has a dream to take Jamaica to the finals and he certainly did just that. 

Gayle won 18 caps in total for Jamaica scoring twice (Image from Tumblr)

Gayle won 18 caps in total for Jamaica scoring twice (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Playing at the World Cup must be one of the highlights of your career. It started well with a good performance against Croatia, but the result didn’t go your way. In the second game however you were blown away by a rampant Argentina losing 5-0. Going into that third and final game, how was the squad feeling? Were you all desperate to make amends and restore some pride to Jamaica?

MG: There was a last minute decision to change our team shape from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. It didn’t feel or flow well in those first 2 matches. I wasn’t happy not playing those 2 matches but started the last one and very happy to come away with World Cup win.

BOTN: After your playing career finished, you made the move into management, first with a role at Wimbledon as reserve team manager then later with Staines. As a player you spend 90% of the time focused on your own development and then when you switch to be a manager, that focus shifts to 90% of the time focused on your players development. How difficult is that transition and did you find your spells in management enjoyable?

MG: I loved the transition from playing to management – development of players and giving them the opportunity was important to me. 

BOTN: Now retired, you have been a vocal part of the Kick it Out movement which is helping tackle racism in football. The events of the last month in the USA and the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has brought racial injustices to the forefront and ignited the need for change on a global level. We have seen this before, but the recent protest feels different in a sense that it may drive much needed change. How hopeful are you that changes in behaviours and perceptions towards black people come as a result of these protests and taking it back to football, how much work still has to be done on that front?

MG: The events of the last month have forced more conversations to take place; people and organizations have taken notice. I love my role with Kick it Out as it’s an important one educating players with support. I learn from the players as much as they learn from what we do at Kick it Out. What we need to see now is action instead of words of support and slogans, slogans highlight but ultimately action is the positive change that is needed.

Marcus Gayle is an active Kick it out tutor (Image form Gayle's Instagram)

Marcus Gayle is an active Kick it out tutor (Image form Gayle’s Instagram)

BOTN: You have mentioned before that you grew up listening to Reggae music and artists like Bob Marley and Gregory Issacs and that music played a key role in creating a positive atmosphere in various dressing rooms that you have been in. Was there any questionable music played in those dressing rooms and who were the main culprits?

MG: Reggae music lifts my spirits when I’m down – we wouldn’t be playing reggae in the changing room of my time. Music is important and you got to cater for everyone without going to personal with your choices.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. You broke your leg playing for England U18’S on your debut. Were you worried that it would end your career before it started?

MG: I wasn’t worried, I was 17 so if it was going to happen then that was the time for it to happen.

BOTN: Who is the toughest defender you played against as a striker and the toughest striker you played against as a defender? 

MG: Toughest defenders would be Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Marcel Desailly. As a defender, I would say Jason Roberts when he was a West Brom.

BOTN: Thoughts about Brentford’s new stadium? Did you have a pint in all four pubs around Griffin Park?

MG: The new Brentford Community Stadium looks fantastic and puts the club in a great position on and off the field. It may be a surprise, but I’ve only drank in one of the four pubs around Griffin Park!

Marcus is a club Ambassador for Brentford FC. Follow Marcus on his official Instagram account.

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Talking Heads – Discussing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on football

With the world crippled by the COVID 19 pandemic, global football has come to a grinding halt as countries focus on trying to contain the disease. To date, 39,000 people have lost their lives and just over 800,000 have been affected by the virus; with those numbers unfortunately growing by the day. The hope is that with government driven measures being introduced at a country by country level, the spread of the disease can be slowed enough to give the health care workers on the front line enough time to support those who are currently sick and the medical community time to find a viable treatment.

Like most industries, the football world is feeling the effects of the global shutdown. Clubs who have stopped operating for now have had to make drastic cuts to stay afloat with many laying off ground and administrative staff in the process. At some of the larger clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona, players have accepted temporary pay cuts in an attempt to help the club staff not on the pitch. But for other players who play in the lower divisions and operate on a pay check to pay check basis, its a more worrisome time with a very uncertain future ahead of them.

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Rhys McCabe and Maurice Ross answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

To get a better sense of how the situation is affecting the football world, we spoke to Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe. Caldwell is a former Scotland international defender who is the president of League1 Ontario club Oakville Blue Devils FC, as well as an assistant coach of the Canadian national team. Fellow internationalist Ross is working as first team coach at Motherwell in Scotland whilst former Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland Under 21 midfielder Rhys McCabe currently plays for Brechin City in the Scottish League Two. We spoke to them about the current situation, how it’s affecting football and what the future holds.

BOTN: Let’s go to Rhys first. Tell is about the current situation regarding your existing contract and what the league suspension means for you.

McCabe: My current situation is that my short term contract is meant to finish at the end of May, start of June. But I can’t think about that for now. The (league) suspension I feel is right as 100% of the focus must be on the health and wellbeing of everyone. Until we get this pandemic under control, nothing else matters.

There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment. Are they finishing this season? Will delays mean more games and more into next season? Will there be a new league structure?. There are lots of components which will play a role. Already its been three weeks without sport and people are in a pickle with what to do. Sport is a huge part of our society and without that people feel lost.

BOTN: Maurice, as first team coach at SPL side Motherwell, how are you feeling about the current situation and the suspension of the league?

Ross: Like all football people we like to be outdoors and competing. This of course is not the case due to the virus. I’m so bored. Plenty long walks and lying in bed a bit longer is no substitute for getting up and going to work! I miss that so much! Planning sessions, correcting movements of players and just that feeling of achieving something each day. Sooner this is resolved the better.

BOTN: Is the club concerned about the uncertainty of the suspension and the financial implications?

Ross: The club are doing all the planning possible to forecast what the future looks like depending on when/if we get back to playing. We are lucky we are in a relatively good position financially just now but we know there will be challenges ahead, so we will rely on our fans to help us through joining the Well Society or buying season tickets soon.

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

BOTN: Steven, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what will happen to the existing league and cup campaigns in the various different countries. How would you resolve the league situations?

Caldwell: The leagues have to be finished in my opinion. There is no way you can start a new season until the previous one has been concluded. The knock on affect might be a modified 2020/21 season but it’s my belief the previous one has to be brought to a conclusion whenever that may be.

Ross: From our (Motherwell) prospective, we will follow the advice and decisions of government and football authorities. Obviously we are third and in a European position so we would want the season to be played to a completion if there was any way at all possible, but we will accept whatever people say because this is bigger than football – it’s people’s health!

BOTN: What impact do you think this enforced break will have on the players mentally and physically? If the league is to restart at a point in the future, will players be able to pick up from where they left off with ease?

Caldwell: I don’t think they will be able to pick up with ease. There is no doubt it will have an affect. Normally at this time of the season teams are in their peak and rhythm is at its optimal point. I think it may have a pre season feel when it resumes. The players will be affected mentally and physically however I don’t see this being a great problem when the season continues.

McCabe: This pandemic is and will have a huge impact on players as its almost like an off season schedule. To then come back into things fully committed and ready when your body on a normal basis would have a 5 week period to do a pre season and prepare for the demands of a season. The risk of injury will be higher and no matter how much you train and keep fit during this time there is nothing that compares to match sharpness. Nothing in a training format can replicate this . That’s just a fact.

On the mental side, I feel it will have an impact on players but not just players; society as a whole. For over 30+ years there has been a culture of “football Saturday” where people look forward to and live for the weekend of football, wherever that may be home or away or a simple match on the tv. It’s become more social every season with the media and Sky broadcasting live matches.

This all has a knock on effect as people will be lost with nothing to do or look forward to. Trying to fill that void will be very hard but the priority 100% is the health and safety and trying to get this under control.

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Footballer like Lionel Messi and Marcelo have been keeping themselves busy in home isolation by juggling toilet rolls

BOTN: The financial implications of this pandemic will be felt throughout all levels of football with several reports suggesting clubs could go bust as a result. Do you think this will happen or is it up to FIFA or local governing bodies to stop this?

Caldwell: There is an enormous money in the game of football. Now it’s up to those that have to provide that assistance to make sure all forms of the game are protected. I sincerely hope that this happens and this unprecedented crisis creates an understanding of what truly makes this game beautiful.

BOTN: Let’s focus on the players for a moment. There will be a lot of players who are looking towards this summer with much trepidation due to the need to move clubs or indeed find a new one if their contracts run out. Do you anticipate that players will be expected to make personal sacrifices as football gets back on its feet following this pandemic?

Caldwell: Yes I think players will make personal sacrifices. They will have to. The intricacies and knock on effect of this is wide reaching and it will certainly have an impact on those who are becoming a free agent in the summer. It’s hard to tell at this moment however I think it will have a detrimental impact financially for such players.

BOTN: Rhys, your contract is up at the end of the season. How concerned are you about this summer when your contract concludes especially as it’s still unknown when the football season will resume?

McCabe: Concerned may be the word for a lot of people out of contract with Bill’s to pay and no job to do so, but for me it’s more about the love for it and when it will actually commence and what exactly the structure and format is going to be?

ContractLaw

With many players out of contract, the fast approaching summer brings further uncertainty.

BOTN: Has your club (Brechin City) been one touch with you about renewing your contract or given you any reassurances?

McCabe: With what’s going on, it hasn’t been spoken about as I would imagine the list of to dos at the club are through the roof. I’m only contracted until the end of May regardless so I will see what my options are then.

BOTN: Maurice, Are Motherwell making contingency plans for the various different scenarios and what will happen to players and staff out of contract in the summer?

Ross: I can’t comment on the final question as I am not privy to the ins and outs of all contracts. However this football club always behaves in an ethical and professional manner so I’m sure whatever happens Motherwell will act accordingly.

BOTN: There is clearly a lot of unknowns about what will happen and what decisions will come as a result. This leads us to the question around communications. Let’s start with you Rhys. Have you had any communications from the PFA Scotland about what’s happening long term?

McCabe: The PFA Scotland have been updating the players on a regular basis with knowledge, advice, help and updates they hear through the governing body. Again it’s hard at the moment because there is no definite answer on how to treat this and until the government have a plan in place we have to wait. But they have been great with regular updates and support.

BOTN: Finally Steven do you think FIFA and UEFA have been vocal enough during this pandemic or do you think they are leaving the decisions primarily to the local federations?

Caldwell: I think there is so much uncertainty that Uefa and FIFA don’t know what to say at the moment. I think they are concerned about giving definitive details and then having to go back on them. By mid to late April we will have a better understanding of how long this realistically is going to take and that’s when both organizations have to step up and be decisive with their actions.

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Is VAR Ruining the Premier League?

Three rounds into the new season and VAR (video assistant referee) took no time to make its mark on the English Premier League. The thrilling nature of the league is ingrained in English football. The sheer excitement, drama, and exhilaration are what makes the league ‘the best in the world’. However, in recent weeks the joyous action taking place on the field has been overshadowed by the introduction of VAR.

With football finally catching up to the rest of the sporting world with the implementation of technology, none has been more controversial than the video assistant referee. In fact, there is still confusion over when and why the technology should be used and that confusion is starting to show. The mere sight of seeing the referee signalling for the TV screen is slowing draining the excitement out of the league. 

 

Gabriel Jesus pleads with the referee after his late goal is disallowed (Image from Tumblr)

Gabriel Jesus pleads with the referee after his late goal is disallowed (Image from Tumblr)

 

Although the implementation of VAR into football is still in its infancy, the technology is not and will not be perfect for some time. A long road ahead is to be expected. To ensure the technology enjoyed a smooth transition, The Premier League has been monitoring its use in other competitions over the last few years including the Women’s World Cup (were the ” overuse” of VAR was heavily criticized), the Champions League, the FA Cup and other European leagues. To help with the implementation and avoid the controversy that was seen in previous tournaments, the league ran educational sessions for players, managers and the media to ensure everyone understood how and when it will be used.

Despite the Premier League’s best efforts to ensure a smooth transition, many fans are already becoming agitated about the change. The opening weekend saw three goals disallowed courtesy of the video referee. Deep into injury time of Manchester City’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur, Gabriel Jesus seemingly won all three points for The Citizens, only for the video referee to correctly rule the goal out. In this instance, it’s hard to argue against VAR, as the check found that the ball hit the hand of Aymeric Laporte which coincided with the new handball rule. So, the goal correctly, should not have stood. However the penalty claim during the Newcastle vs Tottenham game this past weekend that was dismissed thanks to VAR wasn’t as cut and dry to call.

 

Newcastle captain Lascelles tumbles in the box pulling Spurs striker Harry Kane to the ground but no penalty is given (Image from Tumblr)

Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles tumbles in the box pulling Spurs striker Harry Kane to the ground but no penalty is given (Image from Tumblr)

The main concern from fans alike is the atmosphere in stadiums, with many complaining that it’s ruining the game by removing the natural excitement that comes with controversial decisions. One of the joys of football is erupting into celebration when the ball hits the back of the net. Those moments of pure adrenaline could soon become a thing of the past, with fans cautious of celebrating too early, just in case the goal is disallowed. Last weekend’s match between Wolves and Manchester United was the subject such caution. Inside the Molineux, there was a moment of panic and uncertainty when Wolves playmaker Ruben Neves equalized against Manchester United in the 55th minute. Although the goal stood, what should have been a moment of celebration was overshadowed, as the referee awaited confirmation in his earpiece.

It’s these small decisions that were heavily criticized at the Women’s World Cup. And these moments of uncertainty that could dampen the atmosphere and excitement in games. Having said that, waiting for the video referee to make a penalty decision in the dying minutes of a game is both excruciating and exhilarating. In this instance, I’m an advocate for VAR. Of the video referee being used for every small decision? I am not.

 

Cameroon players plead with the referee to look at the video board for a VAR call during the Womens World Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Cameroon players plead with the referee to look at the video board for a VAR call during the Womens World Cup (Image from Tumblr)

 

The introduction of the video assistant referee has split opinion amongst fans, players, managers and pundits alike. Although it is has greatly assisted officials in helping make the correct decision, the thrill of the game has seemingly come at the expense of such technology. The policy of using VAR not only needs to improve but also needs clarity of when and how it should be used. As of right now, not many fans have been won over by the modern change. 

I’m of the opinion that VAR has great potential to make life easier for officials. Like with any other new technology, there will be hiccups and those should be expected. We cannot assume that it will work 100 percent of the time at the snap of our fingers. VAR will improve as the technology gets better. As much as we fight against the change, VAR is going to stay, and we need to accept that and embrace our new overlords.

 

Post by Kevin Wong. Follow him here on Twitter.

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Time for the A-League to Scrap Finals Football?

Since its inception in 2005, the A-League has followed other Australian football codes, a regular season followed by a final series. Although finals are “engrained” into Australia’s sporting DNA and with the league expanding into 12 teams by 2020 (Western United FC in 2019 and Macarthur FC in 2020), I think It’s time for the A-League to scrap finals football.

There’s no doubt the allure of finals has conjured some entertaining moments. The 2019 grand final last season was a spectacle to witness. League champions Perth Glory were beaten 4-1 on penalties by Sydney FC in the final despite winning the league. It was a similar story to the one that played out in the NBA a few seasons ago. The Cleveland Cavaliers historic Game 7 win in the NBA Finals in 2016 was almost supernatural. They beat a Golden State Warriors that won a record 75 games during the regular season. There’s no doubt, finals can be entertaining. A simple search on YouTube can show you the greatest moments in finals series. But in both instances, surely the best team throughout the season should be given the recognition they deserve as champions?

Cleveland Cavaliers sealed the NBA Finals in 2016 in dramatic fashion (Image from Tumblr)

Cleveland Cavaliers sealed the NBA Finals in 2016 in dramatic fashion (Image from Tumblr)

Sydney FC’s achievement last season deserves to be celebrated. Winning the finals series for a record-equalling fourth time after defeating Perth Glory 4-1 on penalties is no mean feat and shows how dominant they are. But is it right to value Sydney’s achievement over Perth Glory’s achievements over the course of the season? The 2018 Grand Final was won by Melbourne Victory, despite finishing fourth and 23 points behind league champion’s Sydney FC. Is it right that the current system rewards those who scrape into the top six? It places a greater emphasis on the sprint of knock-out football rather than the season-long marathon.

League champions Sydney FC (image from Tumblr)

League champions Sydney FC (image from Tumblr)

In both instances, it takes away from the achievements of Perth Glory and Sydney FC during the regular season. In addition, finals football takes away the significance of qualifying for the AFC Champions League which is a major concern considering that poor performance by Australian teams these competitions could lead to losing an automatic spot for future tournaments. The best way to provide an incentive for the AFC Champions League would to deem third as the new sixth. Perhaps a move from the top-six model they employ to a top-three model could work? Where the top two would receive automatic qualification into the Champions League group stage. With third place gaining a playoff spot. It would provide a greater emphasis and incentive on qualifying for the AFC Champions League. While also replacing the sixth spot with third as the league’s benchmark for a successful season.

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The removal of the final series would also provide a greater opportunity for the FFA Cup to thrive as the sole cup competition. The FFA Cup unites amateur and professional clubs in the ultimate finals series. We don’t need two knock-out cup competitions to decide that. The FFA Cup has great potential and plays an integral part in unearthing the next generation of Australian talent. Last season proved how successful the cup competition can be. Suburban grounds throughout Australia were teaming with supporters. The FFA Cup will undoubtedly continue to grow and should be the only cup competition we have.

Changes to the finals format could have a positive effect on the FFA Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Changes to the finals format could have a positive effect on the FFA Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Granted elimination finals are a part of Australia’s sporting landscape. With a 10 team format and two more on the way, the finals series provides the A-League and the FFA the competitiveness and entertainment it needs. The relevance of finals football should at least be reviewed, and possibly left in the past. Football doesn’t need a final series to be entertaining. Perhaps, it’s time the A-League follow Europe’s example and reward the team who sits atop the standings at seasons end.

Post by Kevin Wong. Follow him here on Twitter.

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Should Man Utd really spend £80 million to land Harry Maguire?

A clear focus on defence has been the focal point for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s rebuild at Manchester United this summer. The £50 million signing of Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Crystal Palace is proof of that. And judging from his performances so far during pre-season, he looks like a great signing for United. You could even dispute £50 million is a lot of money for a young English defender who is fairly untested as a professional but such is the inflated market these days. However when it comes to United’s pursuit of Harry Maguire, the price climbs dramatically with his current club Leicester City holding out for around £80m.  Given that this is a player who only two years ago was playing for now relegated Hull City, the real question is can he really justify the £80 million price tag currently hung around his neck?

United new signing - Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Image from ManUtd)

United’s new signing – Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Image from ManUtd)

Harry Maguire is undoubtedly a great defender. His performances during England’s World Cup run to the semi-finals established him as one of the Premier League’s highest-rated and most sought after defenders. When Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic left in 2014, there was no doubt they had left some massive shoes to fill. Since then United have missed having a proven commanding defender – one who has the leadership skills, who can play the short and long game and is an aerial threat at both ends of the pitch. Maguire certainly fits that mould.

Maguire played a pivotal role for England at the last World Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Maguire played a pivotal role for England at the last World Cup (Image from Tumblr)

But so does former Ajax centre half Matthijs De Ligt who just transferred to Juventus for £65.5 million. That’s €14.5 million less than Leicester’s asking price for Maguire. De Ligt would have also fit Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s philosophy of young, hungry talented players. The impressive 19-year-old turns 20 in August; yet has proven himself immensely during this past season particularly in the Champions League where he captained Ajax in an impressive run to the semi-finals defeating the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid along the way. If United are willing to spend £80 million on Maguire, surely, they could’ve bid at least £66 million for De Ligt? Even the most devoted Maguire fans will tell you, £80 million is a lot of money for a defender playing for a mid-table club. Don’t get me wrong, Maguire would certainly strengthen United’s defence. But to put that into perspective – Matthijs de Ligt is viewed as one of the most sought-after defender in the world and hasn’t even hit his prime yet. In addition, the best defender in the world in many peoples eyes and a possible Ballon d’Or winner, Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk cost £75 million. Is Maguire better than both of these players? Probably not.

De Ligt has moved to Juventus for less money than Leicester wants for Maguire (Image from Tumblr)

De Ligt has moved to Juventus for less money than Leicester wants for Maguire (Image from Tumblr)

Should they fail to sign Maguire and prolong their desperate search for a new centre-back, a cheaper option and a player of higher quality to pursue would be Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. He ticks all the boxes of a strong powerful defender. He has the leadership skills, can play the short and long game and is an aerial threat at both ends of the pitch. Koulibaly also has Champions League experience and will no doubt be able to adapt to the Premier League from Italy’s Serie A. No disrespect to Maguire but The Red Devils would get a higher quality player in Koulibaly for less money.

A cheaper alternative? Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly (image from Tumblr)

A cheaper alternative? Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly (image from Tumblr)

Without Champions League football, this transfer window has proven difficult so far for United. While the acquisition of Maguire will be an upgrade, he is not the commanding centre-back United are seeking in an ever-increasing competitive Premier League. Particularly one as expensive as himself. Solskjaer should wait to see what other top clubs in Europe have to offer, as he may find a better centre-back for a lower fee. Someone like Toby Alderwield springs to mind. The tall commanding defender has long been linked with a move to Manchester. The 30-year-old only has a £25.5 million release clause (that runs out at the end of the month) – a reasonable amount and would inject some much-needed stability into United’s backline. All this said, United appear to have their sights set firmly on Maguire. Yes he is not a better defender than Van Dijk but right now, he is exactly what Manchester United need. World record fee or not, United need a strong commanding centre-back, and in Maguire, they could have one.

Post by Kevin Wong. Follow him here on Twitter.

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How Bolton Wanderers went from beating Bayern Munich to near non-existence

Twelve years ago, a late Kevin Davies equalizer at the Allianz Arena sealed a 2-2 draw that saw Bolton Wanderers knock then four-time European champions Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup. Now, just four weeks away from the start of the 2019/20 season on August 3rd, the club is in administration with no owners and just five senior outfield players – three midfielders and two strikers ensuring they couldn’t even field a balanced five-a-side team. To make matters worse, Bolton Wanderers will begin the campaign in the third tier of English football on -12 points.

Kevin Davies strike against Bayern still lives on in the memories of the Bolton fans (Image from Tumblr)

Kevin Davies strike against Bayern still lives on in the memories of the Bolton fans (Image from Tumblr)

This is the short story of how one of the English FA’s founding members fell so hard, with no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.

The good times

Last week I discovered a DVD reviewing the season that Bolton first qualified for Europe back in 2005 lurking in my collection. That team ruffled the feathers of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and more, with players like Gary Speed, Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro and cult heroes Henrik Pedersen and El-Hadji Diouf making it fun to be a Bolton fan. That crop of players came within three points of qualifying for the Champions League, then signings like Hidetoshi Nakata and Nicolas Anelka saw the club qualify for Europe again in 2006/7. But Bolton’s board failed to back the lofty ambitions of manager Sam Allardyce – and that’s when the troubles began.

Glory Days - Under Allardyce, Bolton attracted players like Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okacha (Image from Tumblr)

Glory Days – Under Allardyce, Bolton attracted players like Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okacha (Image from Tumblr)

Hard times hit Bolton

A series of failed managers followed Allardyce, including Sammy Lee and Gary Megson. While a diabolical 5-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Stoke City in 2011, a serious injury to key midfielder Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest in a cup match at Tottenham Hotspur in March 2012 contributed to the club spiralling into decline. Two months after the Muamba episode, Bolton were relegated from the Premier League after an 11-year stay. And a failure to qualify for the Championship play-offs at the first attempt saw financial ruin kick in as the club failed to get high paid Premier League earners off its books for several years.

By 2016, Bolton had racked up £172.9 million-worth of debt, which former owner Eddie Davies wrote off when Ken Anderson – who had been banned from being a company director, let alone running a football club, for eight years in 2005 – took control. Fans dreamt of a new beginning, but the reality was several winding-up petitions from HMRC, multiple unpaid debts to the local council, utility suppliers and other football clubs. A two-year transfer embargo also followed, during which the club was relegated to the third tier of the English football for the first time in 23 years then somehow got promoted at the first attempt.

Fans protest the running of the club by Anderson (Image from Tumblr)

Fans protest the running of the club by Ken Anderson (Image from Tumblr)

All-time low

A dramatic last day survival courtesy of unlikely hero Aaron Wilbraham 12 months ago only delayed the inevitable, as Wanderers were again relegated from The Championship in May. This time they did so in record-breaking fashion, suffering the club’s most defeats (30) and most home defeats (15), scoring the least home goals (13) and tied the record for least home wins (4) in a single league campaign. They even failed to play their final home match of the season against Brentford after players and staff went on strike over unpaid wages.

The writing was on the wall when players boycotted a pre-season friendly last summer over unpaid bonuses. Anderson has repeatedly broken promises to the fans – who protested against him in January – and was only every interested in trying to make money for himself. The result was dragging the club to the all-time low of its entire existence being at the mercy of a High Court judge over unpaid debts back in April.

The Bolton fans are now waiting nervously to see what happens next to the club they love (image from Tumblr)

New owners seem imminent at Bolton, but it has taken weeks for the pending consortium to agree a deal with the incumbent administrators – and they’re going to have a huge task on their hands when the deal finally goes through. Last season’s players haven’t been paid since February, while it’s unclear whether staff have been paid and whether other debts still hang over the club. Plus, they’ll have the small matter of having less than a month to build a squad capable of overcoming a 12-point deficit and competing in League One.

That Kevin Davies goal in Munich amid the era of taking on Europe’s elite seems like aeons ago, and it seems impossible for Bolton Wanderers to ever rise to those heady heights again. The good news is that there is still a club there for fans to support, but what state that club is going to be in is anybody’s guess

Post By Rob Latham (@robilaz)

Can Bolton recover from this? Will we see them back in England’s top flight soon or be forever lost amongst English footballs lower tiers. Share your thoughts and follow us now on FacebookTwitter Instagram

Three Battles That Will Decide The 2019 Champions League Final

At the end of one of the greatest Champions Leagues in recent years, there are 2 English teams still standing – Spurs and Liverpool. In the semis, both came back to triumph from a seemingly hopeless position. Here, we’ll look at some of the biggest matchups which will decide who gets to walk out with the Champions League Trophy in Madrid.

1. Harry Kane vs Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip:

Kane has declared himself fit for the Final, and if he truly is fit, he will most likely start at the Wanda Metropolitano. Kane has scored 5 goals in 8 starts in the Champions League this season, and the England talisman will want to lead his boyhood club to the greatest victory in the club’s history. He will come up against the formidable Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip. Van Dijk deservedly won the PFA Player of the Year award this season for a magnificent performance, and Matip is a very capable partner at the heart of Liverpool’s defence. Liverpool have the best league defensive record in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues this season, having conceded only 22 goals in the EPL. Furthermore, they concede the 3rd lowest shots per game in Europe, behind only Bayern and Manchester City. Kane and his teammates will go a long way towards lifting the cup if they can find a way to go past Liverpool’s miserly defense.

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2. Heung Min Son and Lucas Moura vs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson:

This might be the battle that decides the game on both sides of the field. Robertson and Arnold are the most potent attacking full-back partnership in Europe, with Arnold and Robertson contributing 12 and 11 assists each, only behind Joshua Kimmich’s 13 in all of Europe for fullbacks. Stopping them will be key as the marauding fullbacks are Liverpool’s biggest weapons to help break down a dogged defense. Spurs will need to be mindful to try and keep a lid on their offensive forays into the Spurs half – Son and Moura will have to put in a lot of defensive work to help their defense. Moura and Son will also need to be the creative force for their team, especially as Kane has only just returned from a serious injury. Moura has scored 5 goals in the UCL this season in 11 games, including the memorable hat-trick to come from behind against Ajax. Son has also been tremendous in the Champions League this season, with the highlight being a wonderful performance at the Etihad Stadium. Thus, these battles will pit quite possibly the most in-form players for each side against one another. The winner might just decide the Final itself.

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3. Sadio Mane vs Serge Aurier or Kieran Trippier:

This is where I feel Liverpool have their greatest edge. We all know about Liverpool’s much vaunted front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but Mane is the main man here considering Tottenham’s defensive deficiencies on the right side. Both Trippier and Aurier are defensively suspect and prone to lapses, and Mane has the capability to make this a Final to forget for both of them. Mane has had a breakout season and scored 26 goals in 48 appearances this season, including a brace at the Allianz Arena to take down Bayern. If Mane fires similarly at the Wanda, Liverpool might win their first UCL in more than a decade.

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Prediction:

Although it is said that most big games are won and lost in the midfield, I do not feel that would be the case here. Both teams, in particular Liverpool, are more reliant on their wings. Liverpool’s super combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the clear favourite for me. Liverpool’s superb combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the favourites for me. So, I predict a 3-1 win for Liverpool with goals from Salah and Mane and a consolation for the returning Kane

Post by Prithvi Pahwa, Analyst + Contributor

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Sorry, Not Sarri

As his triumphant Chelsea side took in a lap of honour in the half empty Olympic Stadium in Baku, a somber looking Maurizio Sarri stood motionless near the half way line. He watched with his hands behind is back as his players laughed and joked with each other, occasionally stopping to kiss the Europa League trophy they had just won. This was Chelsea’s first trophy under Sarri and indeed the Italian’s first major trophy as a manager so you would be forgiven for thinking that he would be joining in with the squad. But etched on his face was a look of solemn acceptance that despite winning UEFA’s second biggest club competition it wasn’t going to be enough. Sarri could already hear the knives being sharpened 2,864 miles away in London as the Chelsea hierarchy prepared to stab him in the back.

Sarri has cut a frustrated figure of late (Image from Tumblr)

Sarri has cut a frustrated figure of late (Image from Tumblr)

Sarri will likely be sacked, despite the win and of course a 3rd place League finish and a Carabao Cup final appearance. More was expected of Maurizio when he arrived from his native Italy last summer yet given the way that Manchester City and Liverpool have played this year, it’s hard to see how he could have achieved more. Sadly Sarri will never know as he bows out of Stamford Bridge this summer after only one year in charge. He will spend some time reflecting on what has been a rollercoaster year with many ups and downs. Sarri will feel that this was never truly his team and that he wasn’t given the opportunity to enforce the changes he wanted and both are valid points. But the underlining truth about why Sarri never quite worked at Chelsea was that the players, fans and executive team never really warmed to him. Avram Grant had a similar problem and lasted only a short while before being pushed out through a side door. Rumours of clashes between Sarri and the players were rife throughout the season but kept well under wraps so that it remained as only a rumour. The only true sign of dissident was in that Carabao Cup Final when Sarri was overruled on a substitution by the player (Kepa) he was trying to substitute. After that point, there really was no going back for Chelsea’s hierarchy who knew they would be shopping for a new manager in the close season.

The beginning of the end - Kepa's refusal to be substituted during the Carabao Cup final did more damage to Sarri than expected (Image from Tumblr)

The beginning of the end – Kepa’s refusal to be substituted during the Carabao Cup final did more damage to Sarri than he could imagine (Image from Tumblr)

For the fans who reminisce about the better days namely under one Jose Mourinho, there will be calls for Frank Lampard to be brought “home” as their new manager. Lampard has had a fine debut season as a manager of Derby County, remarkably guiding them to the Championship Playoffs Final, where they were within 90 minutes of playing in the Premier League only to fall at the last hurdle. There is no question he knows Chelsea but can he make the step up and manage the club he so loyally served as a player? Managing a team like Chelsea is no easy task under normal circumstances but that task is even harder with the London club about to start its two window FIFA imposed transfer ban. Whoever does take over from Sarri will come in knowing that they will be unable to add new faces to a squad that desperately needs freshening up.

Lampard's return? Will Frank return to the Bridge as manager (image from Tumblr)

Lampard’s return – Will Frank return to the Bridge as manager? (image from Tumblr)

Given the number of players Chelsea currently have out on loan (44 in total), having enough bodies to make up a squad won’t be an issue but putting enough quality on the pitch might be. With star player Eden Hazard almost confirming his departure in the press conference after the Europa League win, Chelsea face starting a new season without an inspirational creative spark. Being unable to replace the Real Madrid bound Hazard could prove to be a bigger headache than figuring out who will be at the helm. They could turn to Callum Hudson Odoi to fill the void left by the Belgian which makes sense given his considerable talent but those are extremely large boots to fill, not only considering Hazards prominence in front of goal but also what his overall game brings to the Chelsea team as a whole. Thats a lot of pressure to place on the shoulders of a 18 year old. More likely Chelsea will turn to American wunderkid Christian Pulisic who has arrived from Borussia Dortmund after signing a contract in January before the transfer ban was imposed.

Chelsea may turn to Hudson Odoi to fill the void left by the departing Hazard (Image from Tumblr)

Chelsea may turn to Hudson Odoi to fill the void left by the departing Hazard (Image from Tumblr)

Sarri’s representatives meanwhile have flown in to London for crunch talks at Stamford Bridge with the hopes that they can persuade Chelsea to stick with him for one more season but with former Juventus boss Max Allegri now available, Sarri will not get a stay of execution. It’s a shame that it has not worked out for him. His first four months in charge demonstrated his abilities as a coach with Chelsea operating a fast paced possession based style of attacking football that would be dubbed “Sarriball”.  But as results began to slip and Sarri’s authority began to be questioned, surface cracks began to widen as the Italian battled with his squad and the egos within it. Sarri is by no means a bad manager and will now return to Italy to try again, with rumours suggesting Juventus may be willing to take a punt on Sarriball.

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What’s next for Ajax After Breathtaking Season?

Now that their historic season is over, it is time to look at what is next for AFC Ajax. After completing the domestic double, and their heartbreaking last-second loss in the semi-final of the Champions League, the whole world is once again talking about the Dutch giants. With this increased chatter comes change both on and off the pitch. Frenkie de Jong has already made a transfer to FC Barcelona for the staggering sum of €75 million, which could reach to €86 million if certain bonus targets are met. And he is not the only player that could be set to depart this summer. Centre back Matthijs de Ligt is being chased by top clubs from all over Europe, and the rumoured amounts with which they want to buy him reportedly over between €60-€80 million. In addition, Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, and Donny van de Beek are also very popular transfer targets with clubs preparing bids. So, it is safe to say that a lot of changes are on the way and the team could look very different next season.

Ajax however has been preparing for just that. They have already brought in four young players to fill in the possible gaps either next season or in the future. They have signed 23-year old Romanian central midfielder Razvan Marin from Belgian club Standard Liége, 18-year old Kik Pierie who is a Dutch-American defender from sc Heerenveen, 19-year old Dutch goalkeeper from FC Emmen Kjell Scherpen, and 21 year old Argentine defender Lisandro Martinez from Defensa y Justicia for a combined €24.5 million. They are also reportedly interested in PSV winger Steven Bergwijn and Martin Odegaard, currently out on loan at Vitesse from Real Madrid, among others.

Lisandro Martinez will join Ajax in the summer (Image from Tumblr)

Lisandro Martinez will join Ajax in the summer (Image from Tumblr)

Head coach Erik ten Hag has also been the topic of some rumours himself, but management is eager to extend his contract, which runs until 2020. His assistant Alfred Schreuder will depart however to fill in the vacant head coaching job at Hoffenheim in the German Bundesliga. It’s a huge blow to the team with multiple players already saying how sorry they are about that and that he is one of the most important people in the first team staff. Michael Reiziger, who together with Winston Bogarde is currently the head coach of Jong Ajax, will fill in Schreuder’s spot, and that means that more changes within the staff will have to be made. Clubs have also been eyeing up moves for director of football Marc Overmars and general manager Edwin van der Sar. Overmars has already confirmed that he is staying and feels like his mission isn’t done yet. Van der Sar has been linked heavily with his former club, Manchester United but as yet neither party has made moves to indicate that this will happen.

It is unrealistic to think Ajax will repeat their performances of the 18/19 season next year. For the first time since the 1990’s they reached the semi-finals of the biggest European club competition, while being seconds away from the final in Madrid. And whilst they are the richest team in the Netherlands, they can not compete with the type of money Europe’s elite teams earn. The amount of money they earned from this season’s Champions League campaign exceeded their yearly budget. And even though they won the Eredivisie title, their first one since 2014, that doesn’t mean they automatically qualify for next year’s group stage. For that to happen they will have to beat 2 opponents in the qualification rounds. People from within the club have therefore said that reaching the group stage is the goal for next season. But even if that didn’t happen and they would be playing in the Europa League, a deep run in this competition would also be a successful performance.

Marc Overmars and Edwin Van der Sar have both attracted interest from other clubs following Ajax's success (Image from reddit)

Marc Overmars and Edwin Van der Sar have both attracted interest from other clubs following Ajax’s success (Image from reddit)

It is useful to mention that recently changes were announced in the Eredivisie. Some of them, that will be applicable to Ajax, are important to mention. This past season there was a lot of controversy about the fact that the KNVB (Dutch FA) rescheduled a lot of match weeks to accommodate Ajax in their journey. Now an agreement has been reached about this. This means that there will be more flexibility with the schedule, so they are actively working at giving Dutch clubs the best chance possible to improve performances in Europe.

Domestically the goal is and will always be to win the championship. The race between PSV and Ajax was tight, and for a long time it looked like PSV were even going to win the league with a lead of multiple points, but the gap to the rest of the teams in the Eredivisie was a ridiculous 18 points between Feyenoord in 3rd place and PSV, who of course finished 2nd just behind Ajax. This means that in the league they won’t have that much to worry about, as long as they keep their sights on PSV. Ajax won their first domestic double since 2002, and the squad should still be strong enough to repeat these accomplishments. They had the joint top scorer of the league in Dusan Tadic who is expected to stay, while André Onana and Nico Tagliafico have both committed to at least one more year in Amsterdam. If they succeed in keeping some of their other key players, and the new players coming in are able to adjust and are up to the required level, they will still have the strongest squad in the league. And the transfer market doesn’t close for a long time, so who knows what kind of surprises they can come up with to strengthen the team.

Tadic has been in blistering form this season following his move from Southampton (Image from Tumblr)

Tadic has been in blistering form this season following his move from Southampton (Image from Tumblr)

The KNVB Beker is often used by Ajax as a competition to test out formations and to give some bench players and youngsters more playing time. The focus is often not on winning the competition, but if they do get into the latter rounds the focus will be amped up and more of the main group will be playing to try to win it. Speaking of youngsters, it is well known that Ajax prides itself on their youth academy. And it is very possible that some of those youngsters will get called up to the first squad to fill up some of the gaps that will be left behind by outgoing transfers. Players like Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, Ryan Gravenberch (both midfielders, the former 19 years old, the latter 17 years old), Noa Lang (winger/offensive midfielder, 19 years old) and Lassina Traoré, an 18 year old striker who was brought over from partner club Ajax Cape town, have all made their first team debuts in the 2018/19 season, and other players have shown tremendous talent, and so they might get some opportunities as well next season.

Switching to tactics now, this season Ajax played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Ten Hag has already stated that that might chance next season, depending on what works best with the available players. This is a big chance in tradition for Ajax, as they are known for predominantly using the 4-3-3 formation, and then fitting in players to work within that formation. But this is also very exciting. Often Ajax – and Dutch teams in general – get accused of not having a ‘Plan B’ when things don’t go as planned, so this might be a good step in the right direction. It could possibly give Ajax some more weapons to drag matches over the line when they are facing tough opponents. Regardless of what happens this summer, next season is shaping up to be very interesting. There are some question marks here and there, but also a lot of opportunities on the horizon. Even though the season might not be as historic as this previous season, Ajax fans will still have a lot to be excited about.

Article by Jordy Lont. Follow him on Twitter.

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Solsjkaer Set For Summer Showdown As United Make Key Squad Decisions

It’s been an interesting season for Manchester United for a variety of reasons. Before it began, Jose Mourinho was talking about how guiding them to second place in the previous campaign was his greatest achievement as a manager. It was an amazing statement from the Portuguese coach who has two Champions Leagues, various domestic titles and cups in his resume. Indeed, some fans took offence to such a statement, believing that the ambitions of a United boss should lie higher and that Mourinho’s comments undermined that. But as always, Mourinho spoke with purpose, carefully choosing his words both in order to shock but also to enforce his point. His statement was not a criticism of his own achievements, instead a shot across the bow of United’s chief executive Ed Woodward as a way of saying that the squad he had was not good enough and to achieve more, he would need new players. Those players never really materialized or at least not the ones that Mourinho wanted and before long the Portuguese coach was out on his ear.

Was Mourinho right about United's squad and the need to rebuild? (Image from Tumblr)

Was Mourinho right about United’s squad and the need to rebuild? (Image from Tumblr)

In his place stepped a familiar face, one chosen to appease the restless fanbase and throw them back to a time when United were kings of Europe. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s temporary appointment from Molde brought smiles back to the fans faces, not because of his own resume which in itself is far from impressive but instead as it brought back memories of United’s famous Champions League Cup final win in 1999 when Solsjkaer and Teddy Sheringham scored dramatic goals to snatch the trophy from the semi celebrating Bayern Munich. Ask any United fan and they will tell you where they were for that game. That is how important it was. With Solskjaer in charge, United went on a startling unbeaten run winning 14 of their next 17 games in charge. There was a real zip to United during those games with Paul Pogba in particular impressing in a liberated role than he had under Mourinho’s regime. The fans clambered to sing the Norwegian bosses praises from the rooftops and demanded that Woodward appoint him on a full-time basis. Woodward obliged at the end of March. However, as the ink dried on his contract, United’s players form reverted back to what it was like under Mourinho just before his departure. Just as swiftly as it began, things began to unravel.

United fans hold Solskjaer in high regards after what he did in 1999 (Image from Tumblr)

United fans hold Solskjaer in high regards after what he did in 1999 (Image from Tumblr)

With United finishing in 6th place in the league after winning only 2 of their last 10 games, the conclusion of this season could not come quick enough. Solsjkaer and United now have the summer to reflect on what went wrong in that second half of the campaign but also more importantly to make some dramatic changes to the playing staff in order to prevent it happening again. Some decisions have already been made for them with club captain Antonio Valencia leaving when his contract expires, and Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera already set to end his spell at the club in favour of a lucrative move to PSG. Fellow Spaniard Juan Mata is also out of contract this summer and the club are keen to retain him but may not have the option with the player said to be frustrated over the length of time it has taken United to offer him an improved deal. With an already heaving wage bill, United ‘s hierarchy could be forgiven for dithering over handing the 31-year-old a new deal as they work out how to balance a healthy wage structure with a competitive product on the field. Mata to be fair deserves a new deal as he has been one of only a handful of players who United fans can claim to be giving his all.

Will Mata follow Herrera out of the door? (Image from Tumblr)

Will Mata follow Herrera out of the door? (Image from Tumblr)

In order to trim the fat, several squad players who have failed to spark since joining will be sold if buyers can be found of course. Italian defender Matteo Darmian looks set to return to Italy and could be joined there by Alexis Sanchez who is rumoured to be attracting the interest of Juventus. The Chilean striker has been an expensive failure at the club and United will be eager to get him and his wages off of the books even if it means taking a hit on the transfer fee. Also potentially heading to Italy is Romelu Lukaku who has publicly stated that it would be a dream to play in Italy. That statement could encourage one of the Milan teams, AC or Inter to make an offer which at this stage Man United would likely accept. The Belgian has ability in front of goal for sure but his overall game leaves much to be desired. With Marcus Rashford waiting for his opportunity, United could cash in on Lukaku and spend his transfer fee on other areas.

Time for Lukaku to leave? (Image from Tumblr)

Time for Lukaku to leave? (Image from Tumblr)

Besides the obvious ones, there are a host of players that United will have to make decisions on this summer. Players like Fred and Nemanja Matic have underwhelmed since arriving whilst Eric Bailly’s inconsistency at centre half leaves a lot to be desired. Decisions will need to be made on the futures of Marcos Rojo, Andreas Pereira, Lee Grant and potentially even Jesse Lingard who has gone from a mercurial talent to an inconsistent squad player in less than a few seasons. But it’s the future of two of the club’s biggest stars and what to do with them that will keep Solskjaer and Woodward awake at night. Goalkeeper David de Gea has one year left in his contract and has indicated that he would stay if offered a more lucrative deal. The Spanish stopper has been a consistently good player for the club over his tenure so offering him a new deal now rather than losing him for free next summer appears to make a lot of sense. Added into that the logic that if they do let him leave, they would have to spend between £70-100m on a similar replacement plus that goalkeepers’ wages. Giving de Gea a £350,000-a-week contract now would prevent that from happening, but it would make him one of the highest players at the club. That in itself poses an issue for the club that is looking to bring down the wage bill rather than increase it.

The De Gea contract situation is a real conundrum for United's management (Image from Tumblr)

The De Gea contract situation is a real conundrum for United’s management (Image from Tumblr)

De Gea’s contract situation should be resolved within the month but the same can’t be said for one of their other star players. The future of French World Cup winning midfielder Paul Pogba is undoubtedly the biggest headache. Pogba has had an indifferent season often switching from the most important player on the pitch for United to a reluctant passenger who goes missing in games when he simply doesn’t feel like playing. The player has made noises about a move to Real Madrid and Los Blancos in turn have added fuel to the fire by stating through their manager Zinedine Zidane that the club is very interested. It’s clear that Solsjkaer would like Pogba to stay and has offered him the club captaincy for next season as well as a more relaxed marauding role in the team, something that Pogba has been clambering for since the Mourinho days. But the uncertainty for Solsjkaer and United is around which Pogba will turn up next season and if they can get him to stay focused throughout the entire campaign. Selling him might be the best option especially if Real Madrid or another club in Europe can offer United more than the £89.3million they originally paid for him. His wage demands could scupper any deal but its rumoured that Pogba is willing to take a cut in that department in order to secure a move. All in all, It’s going to be a busy summer at Old Trafford.

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The Grasshopper Who Lost Its Spring

In November 1996, Grasshopper Club Zurich flew to Scotland to take on Glasgow Rangers in the Champions’ League group stage, in a game that I watched from the stands. Led by Swiss icon Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Grasshoppers were looking for all three points as they attempted to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Having hammered Rangers 3-0 a few months earlier, the team were confident that they could get the result but found themselves taking on a Rangers side with the bit between their teeth who were eager to forget what had been a terrible group stage (they had lost their first 4 games) and get a vital win on home soil. In a highly competitive match, Rangers ran out 2-1 winners with Ally McCoist scoring a brace whilst Andy Goram performed miracles in goal to deny Grasshoppers.  Despite the defeat, both sets of fans were impressed by the way Grasshoppers performed that night and would have been forgiven for thinking that they would be a regular competitor in the Champions League going forward.

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Fast forward 23 years and Grasshoppers are at their lowest ebb following relegation from the Swiss Super League, ending their 68-year stay. Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 titles could no longer dream of electric Champions League nights against Europe’s elite. Instead they are facing up to an uncertain future, one that is less of a dream and more like a nightmare. Financial mismanagement since 2003 and a plethora of changes in the boardroom have contributed to Grasshoppers current situation, one that doesn’t look to be resolving any time soon. In the last 15 years, the Zurich club have had 13 coaches and 8 different presidents and have effectively been homeless after their Hardturm ground closed in 2007. After its demolition in 2008, the proposed plans for the new stadium got trapped in a never-ending tug of war between those politically motivated by visions of grandeur and those motivated by money. Finally, after a decade of frustration for the club and its fans, the city of Zurich approved the construction of the new ground.

Former home - The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

Former home – The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

The lack of a place to call home has hurt Grasshoppers deeply. Forced to play at the Letzigrund athletics stadium, the home of rivals FC Zurich has been tough on the club in terms of trying to connect with their fans but more importantly financially with little revenue coming in because of the ground share at the smaller stadium. The construction of a new ground should solve those issues but it’s not as if that project will be easy to get done, despite it being green lit. Grasshoppers only just managed to get approvals to proceed winning a close 53.8% of the vote meaning that there is still plenty of local distain for the project that could derail it.

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

On the field, Grasshoppers have struggled too. Despite finishing 2nd in the league and winning the Swiss Cup in 2013, they have failed to pull together a consistent challenge leaving the fans to wonder if the club will ever return to its dominant position it once held in the 70’s and 80’s. Their last title 15 years ago seems like an eternity. A failure to unearth the next Kubilay or develop an effective youth progression program has resulted in a mediocre team on the pitch. Added into this a lack of funds to purchase new players and a ground to attract them in the first place, it was always going to be a difficult slog regardless of the manager. But with uncertainty in the boardroom also comes indecision about how the club should be run, its playing style and who should be enforcing that. That led to some baffling appointments as manager/head coach including the hiring of Tomislav Stipic in March of this year. Starring relegation in the face, Stipic was brought in to replace Thorsten Fink much to the disbelief of the fans as Stipic’s resume hardly screamed success. A lack of experience at a top flight team and two relegations at lower league sides in Germany left many wondering how this guy would save them. In the end he lasted only 6 games and was sacked after failing to win any of them. Uli Forte, who led the club in that 2013 season returned much to the protest of the fans who were still bitter about the nature of his departure six years before, but he couldn’t turn around the club’s fortunes with Grasshoppers eventually relegated in early May. He has agreed to stay on as the club looks to bounce back and gain immediate promotion.

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board  (Image from Tumblr)

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board (Image from Tumblr)

The demise of Grasshopper is a startling warning to all the other clubs in the Swiss Super League that even the mighty can fall. Other European leagues have witness similar iconic clubs fall from grace, most notably Glasgow Rangers who suffered a financial meltdown which led to administration and relegation to Scotland lowest tier and AEK Athens who dropped down in Greece following similar financial difficulties. Financial issues tend to be the leading cause of these demises and things may only get worse in the future as teams spend beyond their means with the hope of gaining quick successes both domestically and in Europe. UEFA’s introduction of their financial fair play rules was a vain effort to curb this overspending but has faced fierce criticism of late as Europe’s elite have found clever ways to bypass or take advantage of the federations inability to accurately track and enforce its rules. As a result, the gap between the elite and the chasing pack widens reducing the likeliness of one of them fielding a team capable of going all the way and lifting one of the major trophies like the Champions League. For Grasshoppers, the focus is not to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition again but simply to recover. The road to recovery can be a long and treacherous as Rangers and AEK can attest to, one filled with more than a few bumps. But it’s a necessary journey that the club must take if they are to regain what many see as their rightful position back in the Swiss Super League.

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The Stats Don’t Lie – Manchester United’s Holding Midfielder Problem

With Ander Herrera’s alleged move to PSG being seemingly the worst-kept secret in football, Ed Woodward and Manchester United face one of the most crucial summers in their recent history. Various new players are needed with the United squad riddled with holes in crucial positions such as right back, centre back, holding midfield and right wing. However, United’s most acute need is that of a holding midfielder. United are in dire need of a holding midfielder, primarily because their current options for the role  – Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera aren’t good enough.

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Manchester United have several options for holding midfielder like Scott McTominay but none are quite right (Image from Tumblr)

Matic is the current first-choice for the role. Unfortunately, he simply isn’t good enough for a top quality team anymore. At the age of 30, he doesn’t have the mobility required to do the incredibly physically demanding role of a holding midfielder. Matic cannot screen an already vulnerable United backline – attacking players are able to simply breeze past him. This is evident in his drop in defensive activity from his Chelsea years. In 2014-15, during Chelsea’s title winning season, Matic averaged 3.58 tackles and 2 interceptions per game. These numbers have dropped to 1.92 and 1.21 respectively. Even last year, he averaged 1.94 tackles per game and 1.78 interceptions per game. Never blessed with tremendous mobility, the slight drop-off has made a whole lot of difference for Matic. While he is a decent passer, he doesn’t offer enough playmaking and/or ball-carrying ability to justify his place in the team on that basis.

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Declining – Matic stats show an alarming trend downwards in form (Image from Tumblr)

Moving on to McTominay, the young Scot is too limited in his overall abilities as a player. He offers neither enough defensive activity (0.74 tackles and 0.89 interceptions per game), nor adequate ability on the ball to make him fit for a team in the top half, let alone Manchester United. Although McTominay may still improve and become a good squad player for United, he isn’t going to be the answer to United’s woes right now. As for Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba, even if the former stays at United due to a last minute change of heart from either Herrera himself or the United hierarchy, he isn’t a defensive midfielder by trade. Herrera is best as a traditional central midfielder (or an 8), in a role where he’s allowed to do a little bit of everything. Similarly, Pogba is also best utilized in a much more advanced role where he’s given the license to be creative and get himself into the box.

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Herrera and Pogba – Great players but not holding midfielders by trade (Image from Tumblr)

Thus, United lack any good options for the holding midfielder role. Considering how important the role is in modern football where fullbacks are instructed to bomb forward, this is an essential requirement for United to be competitive in the title race next season. At the top of United’s wish-list should be Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves. Neves might not be the best defensively, but he is almost certainly better than United’s current options. He averages 2.25 tackles and 2.32 interceptions per game. More importantly, what makes Neves such an attractive option is his passing ability from the base of midfield. Neves has the ability to effectively break the lines and feed accurate balls to his forwards and wingers. Matic is able to do this to some level, but he’s not as proficient as Neves. Furthermore, Neves is only 22, has Premier League experience and is very mature for his age (he captained Porto in the Champions League when he was only 18 years old).

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Hard to believe Neves is only 22 given how he controls a lot of the games he is in. United would face competition for his signature (image from Tumblr)

A cheaper alternative for United is Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi. He is tremendously active defensively, averaging 3.87 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game. He is physically strong and mobile, and shields the backline very well. His only issue is his lack of ability on the ball. Ndidi is a fairly safe passer who prefers to simply recycle possession with backwards and sideways passes. His lack of technical ability will be amplified if playing for United, when every midfielder needs to be a good and ambitious passer. However, despite this, Ndidi will provide United with a good defensive midfielder and would be an astute purchase.

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Having impressed at Leicester,Wilfred Ndidi’s stock has risen considerably making him a potential target for bigger teams (image from Tumblr)

Finally a player United have been linked with recently is West Ham midfielder, Declan Rice. Unfortunately he too is very far from the required quality that United need. He is a poor passer whose technical limitations will be too much for him to overcome in a midfield role. He might transition into becoming a good centre back but United don’t really require another young, talented centre back, especially with Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu Mensah coming back from their respective loan stints.

Post by Prithvi Pahwa, Analyst + Contributor

Inside Football in India – What next for the I-League clubs?

One more year gone. One more season of I-League is over, amidst uncertainty of its future. Chennai City FC became the new Champions. But before they play their final match and celebrate their title, there were news reports going round with quotes from I-League CEO Sunando Dhar saying this was the last ever season of I-League, from next season Indian Super League (ISL) will be the new top division of the country. Seems like AIFF has finally decided to put an end to the 5- year long two-league saga. No one knows how AIFF is going to do this. Will they merge I-League & ISL, or ISL will get expanded by adding only East Bengal & Mohun Bagan?

Before we get into this, let’s first take a look at how football ecosystem works and where I-League & ISL are placed in that context.

A league is one that takes care of ALL stakeholders, either big or small. One that is fair and just has a same level playing field for football clubs from all the regions. There needs to be a proper pipeline. A proper structure that can provide a pathway for any club from any part of country to one day make it to the top tier.

For now, I-League is the only national league in India which works on this principle. The 2nd Division league champions win promotion to top division every year. The team who finishes last in the top division is relegated to the 2nd Division. Though in last 2 years, the relegated teams got reinstated back for different reasons, they have never blocked the way for new 2nd division champions. These new clubs bring new pool of players & new fans from their localities. And these clubs has kept I-League alive and fresh despite facing all the odds.

While ISL is a franchise-based league. It works like many other leagues in India (IPL, PBL, PVL, PWL, ProKabaddi etc), where Highest bidders get to play. It doesn’t have promotion-relegation system.

It’s understandable, in other sports, we didn’t have club structure in place. But in football, we have had clubs playing in two divisions of the I-League. ISL was created as a separate tournament with new teams, outside of the existing league structure.

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In 2014, @praful_patel reassured us that #ILeague will be the “League of India”, ISL was just a “booster dose” and that some ISL clubs were in talks to “progress to the I-League”. If lying and deception decided FIFA rankings, we’d be no.1 (on merit).
Tweet by Akarsh Sharma (@Akarsh_Official)

In 2010, IMG-Reliance became the marketing partner of AIFF and in 2014 they brought a new league cum tournament that is ISL. I-League & ISL were running in a separate window periods till 2017. In 2017, ISL got reorganized by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as a national knockout cup tournament and from then, ISL is running simultaneously alongside I-League.

AFC report from last year, where it has clearly mentioned Chennaiyin FC (winner of ISL) as a National Knock-out Cup Champion.

ISL teams knew if they played in same league with other I-League clubs, they might not succeed. So they established their brands by playing in their own separate tournament. Good players moved to ISL because of better salaries. That was not a problem. But problem started when AIFF (under pressure from Reliance) began to treat I-League like a second-fiddle competition in spite of it being the top division. I-League matches got piss poor & irregular telecast. And Because of all the attention towards ISL in last 5 years, It has systematically drained the resources & sponsorships of small I-League clubs. It would never happen if all the I-League & ISL clubs were playing in the same league. Due to lack of clear roadmap for the future, Some I-League clubs pulled out, while many kept playing & kept producing good players & providing them to ISL.

Gradually, Reliance have taken full control over every activity of the national federation (AIFF). They now working as an agency, where if clubs pay them money, they get to play in the league & Reliance will arrange everything for them. They convinced Asian Football Confederation to give one AFC Cup slot to ISL. For that Reliance had to let go the full control over its teams, but still they have kept control over players & coaches recruitment & many other things via Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), which is run by Reliance personnel. Last year, IMG exited from FSDL stating “IMG is focused on delivering services globally and it didn’t want to own the league.”

For a club to join the top flight, the FSDL have to approve it and if they reject it then that’s it. No other recourse. It’s all up to the whims and fancies of a single entity. There is no accountability.

WHAT NOW?

Reliance want ISL as a top division. But ISL teams have 10 years contract with them which also includes ‘One City One Team’ rule, means exclusivity of a team over a particular city for 10 years. Though Reliance is now ready to include more teams, but they are asking hefty franchise-fees from the I-League clubs. Small budget I-League can’t afford that. And even if they afford, why would they give money to Reliance? They already are a top division clubs and most of them reach the top by winning promotion from the 2nd Division. If Reliance don’t change their stand, all the current I-League top division clubs (except EB & MB) may get forcefully demoted to the new 2nd Division. That is unfair in every aspect.

There is no guarantee they will open the league even after next 5 years.

Our national federation can’t do anything, they have sold all their rights to Reliance. Tired of all this, I-League Clubs have wrote a letter to AFC to intervene. I-League are ready to play with ISL teams in the same new league.

Perhaps, ISL teams are still afraid of the competition from these small I-League clubs.

If ISL becomes top division & if there won’t be promotion & relegation, top division teams will take their top division status for granted, while lower division clubs will be restricted to academic purpose only. What will be the motivation for these lower division clubs? What they would play for? Why people would support theses clubs knowing they won’t get promoted even if they win, only to see them playing in the same division again & again? Why any investor would invest in the lower division? It will not be a pyramid it is supposed to be. New Top Division (ISL) will remain a separate entity from the other two divisions. Same teams will keep playing against each other at top. Indian Football will become stagnant. Lower division clubs will eventually die due to lake of opportunities. If these clubs die, club football will die in India.

Think about the clubs from far outskirts of the country who are dreaming to reach the top & make it big one day. If ISL never ever open bidding from the cities where these clubs are operating in, They will never get a chance to play at top despite capable of beating top teams. What about their dreams?

Enter a Bengaluru FC vs Churchill Brothers, Kanteerava Stadium | April 29, 2017

League is about competition. And if small clubs can beat the big clubs with better facilities & players, they deserve their spot in the top division. Clubs who can’t compete will eventually get relegated at the end of the season. Big clubs can’t/ shouldn’t throw them out only because they are small.

If ISL wants to become top division, it must need to become inclusive for all. ISL teams must have to prove their superiority by playing in the same league with the I-League clubs. They can’t call themselves better by playing in a separate tournament.

Recently, Sunil Chhetri & Bhaichung Bhutia have come in support of the small clubs & put a weight on the need to continue pro/rel.

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The Field@thefield_in
Smaller Indian clubs must be taken into account while making future plans: Sunil Chhetri | @ArkaTweets10 reports.
Read: https://scroll.in/field/a/913470 

 

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TOI Sports News@TOISportsNews
Big question mark over ISL’s future if I-League clubs are ignored: Bhaichung Bhutia http://toi.in/Nu7Nna

In a country obsessed with franchise-based leagues, the I-League was the only relief.

Now when ISL is all set to become the new top division, it remains to be seen whether it will adopt the I-League philosophy or it will remain that same boring closed league.

Article by Dharak Makwana. Follow him on Twitter and at Sportsbieindia

From maestro to manager – four exceptional midfielders aiming to make their mark as managers

In the wake of some troubling times at his old club and the uncertainty surrounding current coach Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard’s name started to be linked more often with a Chelsea return. Perceived as one of two potential candidates being evaluated by Chelsea (the other being Zinedine Zidane), it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back at the Bridge anytime soon. Which in itself is remarkable given that less than 18 months ago, Lampard was a million miles away from becoming their next boss. But an impressive start to his managerial career at Derby and the need to return to something familiar has provided food for thought within Chelsea’s hierarchy. Lampard gained most of his reputation playing for the club as a star midfielder who provided guile but also goals to boot.

Lampard scored 147 goals for Chelsea during a 13 year stay (Image from Tumblr)

Remarkably he is one of several former star midfielders who are making their transition into management with the world watching on intrigued by how they will fare on the other side of the white line. Many expected Lampard not to make the transition well and to flop at Derby but his level headed yet tactical approach appears to have rubbed off as the Rams push eagerly for one of three lucrative promotional places to the Premier League. Derby sit 7th in the Championship with another 45 points still up for grabs so anything is possible between now and the end of the season. The fans will be hoping that Chelsea don’t come calling anytime soon and that Lampard can finish what he has started by getting Derby promoted.

New Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard (Image from Tumblr)

Just under 300 miles north of Derby in Glasgow, Lampard’s central midfield partner for England is also proving that rookie managers aren’t to be afraid of. Steven Gerrard may have switched the Merseyside derby for the Old Firm one when he took over at Rangers but so far he hasn’t looked out of place. The former Liverpool legend has galvanized the former Scottish champions and has help transform them from the shambolic mess he inherited from Pedro Caixinha to potential title challengers in his first full season in the job. Gerrard, who appears destined to manage Liverpool one day, has taken management in his stride and is flourishing in the cauldron that is Scottish football. Having is former manager, Brendan Rodgers across the city at rivals Celtic will have helped not only with his transition but to give him added motivation to “get one over his former boss”. Whilst Celtic maintain a healthy lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership, Rangers are closing the gap slowly but surely. That might accelerate now that Rodgers has departed for Leicester but only time will tell.

Scholes and Brazilian legend Pele at Old Trafford (Image from Tumblr)

Whilst Oldham may not have had the recent success of Rangers or Derby, the League Two side still had its rich history to drawn on when it went looking for their latest manager. In the end they turned to another great midfielder, Paul Scholes who jumped at the chance only a few weeks ago. The former Manchester United and England star grew up supporting the Latics so starting his managerial career there was a no brainer for both parties. Regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation, Scholes tenacity and eye for a killer pass made him one of the most respected and all rounded players of that era. Now Scholes is applying that same approach to management but success will take more time as Scholes is finding out. One win, one draw and two defeats so far will not have dampened his spirits but it will have demonstrated to him the gap in quality between what he is used to and what he has to work with. The test will be if Scholes can take what he learned during his days at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson and apply it to Oldham.

Fulham handed Parker the managers job after sacking Ranieri (Image from Tumblr)

Scott Parker didn’t expect to be managing in the Premier League this season but when the axe fell on Claudio Ranieri earlier this week, it was Parker that Fulham turned to to step up into the fray. Parker has no managerial experience at this point however he has been operating as a coach for a couple of years first, at Spurs in the Under 18’s then at Fulham as a first team coach. Like Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes, Parker will lean heavily on his experiences during his playing career which spans over twenty years and 600 professional games. He takes over at Fulham with the Cottagers in a precarious position, ten points adrift of safety and staring relegation in the face. But perhaps with ten games to go, this is the best time for Parker to take control. With nothing to lose, Parker cannot fail. If he is unable to improve performances then Fulham will go down as many currently expect they will. If he manages to turn things around and can save them, then his stock as a manager will soar and will likely result in him getting the job on a longer term basis. As a player, Parker was a formidable force in the centre of the park, a no nonsense battling midfielder who lead by example often under the role of captain. He will be looking to get a reaction from his new team immediately both on and off the pitch as Fulham fight it out over their remaining ten games.

Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and Parker (Image from Tumblr)

All four managers have something to prove. All four were exceptional central midfielders both for club and country and gained reputations to match that. As they transition into managerial roles, will they be able to transfer their natural ability on the field to their coaching off it? Time will tell.

One On One with: Kenwyne Jones

Once compared by his manager as ‘another Didier Drogba in the making’ and by former Chelsea captain John Terry as “one of the best players in the air in the Premier League”, it would be understandable if it had all gone to Kenwyne Jones’ head. But for the 6th most capped Trinidadian of all time, the compliments were just another part of the game and reassurance that he was doing his best to take his family name to greater heights. I caught up with the former Soca Warriors striker recently to find out what it was really like to play for Roy Keane, what drove him to leave Stoke, and why he holds a special place in his heart for Sheffield Wednesday.

Back Of The Net: Firstly Kenwyne, thank you for speaking with us. Not many people will have a good understanding of what growing up in Trinidad & Tobago is like and what role sport plays there. How would you describe your childhood, and what did football mean to you as a boy growing up there?

Kenwyne Jones: Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago is like any other Caribbean Island really – warm weather, beaches, sea and sand, but it is also industrious as well. As a young boy growing up, I played every sport and was quite good at all of them. When the school vacation came along, all my friends would come out to play and over the coming days and weeks we would run various competitions for bragging rights amongst our peers. Football is a sport that was a part of my family and it came naturally to me but my first love was athletics. I had a sporting family name to live up to and it was a seamless transition into professional sporting life.

BOTN: In terms of influences in your life, you have spoken in the past about your father, Pamphile, and uncle Philbert who inspired you to play football. But what influence did the likes of Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy have on you as fellow Trinidadian’s playing in Europe? Were they a key driver behind your decision to go to Europe to find a club?

KJ: Dwight And Russell were magnificent players and did tremendously well to have the careers that they did but I wasn’t looking at them as my driving force to get into a European club. Coming up through the ranks at various youth national teams, I just wanted to push as far as I could reach, mainly to fulfil a desire I had to take my family’s name to the greatest heights I could attain.

Trinidad's 1989 winning team including Kenwyne's uncle (Image from Kenwyne's Instagram)

Trinidad’s 1989 winning Caribbean Cup team including Kenwyne’s uncle Philbert (Image from Kenwyne’s Instagram)

BOTN: After playing back home with Joe Public and W Connection, you got a move to Southampton. It was here that you were finally converted into a striker having been tested at various other positions including at wing back, as a holding midfielder, and on the wing. How pleasing was it that you finally got your chance in a central position upfront?

KJ: Well firstly I never played a game for Joe Public and spent only one season at W Connection where I played the positions mentioned but at school where our league was pretty big on the island, I played upfront and was quite successful. The other positions I played because coaches thought that I adapted well and read the game brilliantly. So the first opportunity I got at Southampton to do so, I grabbed it with both hands.

BOTN: During a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday early on in your Southampton career you appeared to find your footing and scored seven goals in seven appearances over the course of a month. How important were those early loan spells (at Sheffield Wednesday and Stoke) in your career in terms of helping you adapt to English football?

KJ: I’m grateful for that opportunity to play for Sheffield Wednesday that early on in my career and they will always have a place in my heart, but I didn’t know that the loan period would’ve gone so well. I met a great team and a fantastic fan base that helped me to do as well as I did, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.

A young Kenwyne showcased his eye for goal early on during a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Kenwyne Jones media)

A young Kenwyne showcased his eye for goal early on during a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday (Image from Kenwyne Jones media)

BOTN: The following season, you hit 16 goals and were compared by your manager George Burley as another Didier Drogba, making comparisons to your physical attributes, strength and power. When a manager comes out with a statement like that, does it give you encouragement or does it heap pressure on you to live up to that comparison?

KJ: The next season I had a lot of confidence so I always wanted to do better each time. I didn’t pay any attention to the comparison to Didier because I know that I never wanted to be him. He is a fantastic player but I always learned to never be like another man, only be myself, so whilst it can be complimentary to most, I just tried to forge my own pathway.

BOTN: Your form earned you a move to Sunderland with fellow Trinidad & Tobago striker Stern John moving the other way. Moving to your first Premier League at only 23 years old for £6 million must have been a daunting prospect. How difficult was it to settle in at the club and how did you feel working for Roy Keane?

KJ: The following season was another step in my career, I wasn’t concerned with the fee as I had no control over that. Going into the Premier league was a dream come true and I was happy to work with Roy Keane. I think we had a great working relationship and he taught me quite a few things and I’m also grateful to him for that.

Jones played under Roy Keane at Sunderland (Image from Tumblr)

Jones played under Roy Keane at Sunderland (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Over the next three years, you established yourself as a firm favourite at Sunderland but were constantly linked with bigger moves to the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. How did you cope with that speculation? And what made you eventually decide to leave Sunderland for Stoke?

KJ: The speculation was good for me, it was a measuring stick of my progress. Moving to Stoke wasn’t my choice, I was pushed there by Steve Bruce (who took over from Keane at Sunderland), he pushed a lot of players out the door and I guess I wasn’t one of his players. In my last season at Sunderland I was going through a rough time at home and I wasn’t hitting magical heights but Liverpool wanted me, everything was good to go, I was settled in my mind I was going to Liverpool. Steve and I had a few words, then he shipped me to Stoke, I guess he didn’t want me to go on to do better.

BOTN: It’s probably fair to say that your time at Stoke was a mixed bag. Things started well there but a series of personal problems off the field, the arrival of Peter Crouch in the summer of 2011, and further transfer rumours made your latter years more difficult. How would you categorize your time at Stoke and was Pulis’ direct style of football problematic for you?

KJ: To be truthful I was having a good time at Stoke the first season, then my agent being greedy brought Peter to Stoke without telling me first and then I just got sidelined for a new player. It was frustrating with the manager as the team in that season was separated; a team for the league and a team for Europe. Then at the end a pretty bad incident happened without cause, my locker was broken into and a pig’s head was placed in my locker. I reacted and got fined for it, while the perpetrators got away freely. No one at the club cared how I felt, no one bothered to find out. It was all brushed aside and I was made to look like a crazy person when at no time in my career I’ve ever fallen out with a teammate at any club, but I guess that’s how it is when you’re not from that country.

Kenwyne celebrates a goal with his trademark celebration (Image from Kenwyne Jones Instagram)

Kenwyne celebrates a goal with his trademark backflip celebration (Image from Kenwyne Jones Instagram)

BOTN: That was a really unfortunate situation and no player should have to go through that. I’m sorry that it happened to you.
As a 6ft+ striker, there must be a lot of coaches who believe that the best way to play with you in the side is to go direct and long. But given your work rate and ability on the ball, playing the ball into your feet with a view to you turning to goal seems like a stronger approach. Do you agree?

KJ: I think that they saw an ability I had and decided to use it to their advantage, but I think it’s what people remember most: the ‘air balls’ – it was a storyline , so they stuck to their ways the best they knew how and didn’t change.

BOTN: Moves to Cardiff, Bournemouth and Al Jazira followed before you ended up in the MLS with Atlanta. At the time, you said that you thought you could play for another three to four years but ended up retiring a year and a half later. What brought about that decision, and now looking back was the switch to Atlanta the wrong move?

KJ: Well before I ended up at Cardiff, I was set to go to Everton and the hierarchy at Stoke didn’t want that to happen, so along with agents the plan was hatched and I ended up at Cardiff. At that point I wanted to leave Stoke after the previous situation. I felt that I was not comfortable in my work environment and that it wouldn’t be safe for anybody. I felt at that point that I had to watch over my shoulder so that I wouldn’t be a prop in another “bad joke” so I went to Cardiff and had a fantastic 2 1/2 years.

I made a decision to try something new as I was in England for 12 1/2 years at that point and I need to be in a different situation, so I went to UAE for 6 months, then onward to Atlanta. I loved the moved to Atlanta and was happy, but unfortunately, I got an injury during the season that if I need to continue to play professionally after the first year it was impossible, as I would’ve never passed a medical, so I made a decision to retire.

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Jones moved to Atlanta with hopes of prolonging his career until injury got in the way (Image from Kenwyne Jones Instagram)

BOTN: Following in your uncle’s footsteps by representing your country it must have been one of the proudest moments of your life. How did it feel when you found out that you were going to make your full national debut against Finland in 2003? Do you remember much about that game?

KJ: I didn’t know much about it really. I returned from a trial with Glasgow Rangers and came back to a situation where the senior team was on strike due to money issues and was given the opportunity to play as we were about to play Finland, so I grabbed it with both hands. I knew my family would’ve been proud at that time.

BOTN: You played at the 2001 under 17’s World Cup in Trinidad, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and captained your country on several occasions. What is your most memorable game/moment for Trinidad & Tobago?

KJ: My most memorable moment would always be representing my family and my country at that World Cup, being able to fulfil a dream of so many, being able to go down in my country’s history and world history.

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Kenwyne played for the Soca Warriors on 91 occasions including some as captain (Image from Kenwyne Jones Instagram)

BOTN: Finally, some quick hits. Your acrobatic goal celebration was a replica of your uncle’s. It’s spectacular to watch but did it ever not come off, leaving you flat out on the grass?

KJ: I’ve never failed at my celebration and will never.

BOTN: What would you say is your best ever goal scored for club or country?

KJ: The best goal I’ve scored for a club would be my FA cup semi-final goal at Wembley (Stoke vs Bolton, 2011)

BOTN: Who is the most under rated player you played with?

KJ: The most underrated player I played with is Djamel Belmadi at Southampton.

BOTN: What does the future look like for you now that you have retired?  A move into coaching perhaps?

KJ: Now I’m enjoying retirement, but I’ll slowly move into coaching and punditry.

BOTN: Thank you Kenwyne and good luck for the future!

You can follow Kenwyne on Instagram and Twitter

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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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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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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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One On One with: Marco Negri

There is a unique club in football that has a very high bar set to gain entry. It’s a club usually reserved for strikers, and includes members such as Klose, Lewandowski, Shearer, Falcao, Messi and Ronaldo. Getting in requires a goalscoring feat that few have achieved: scoring five goals in a single match. Our latest interviewee, Marco Negri, is a member of this club having scored five times in a match against Dundee United in August 1997. Negri had only just arrived at Rangers when he performed this feat and would go on to rack up an incredible 33 goals in 26 games in his first season. Everything was going perfectly well for the Italian striker before an eye injury changed his career forever. We caught up with him recently to talk about his career, his move to Rangers, and that injury.

BackOfTheNet: Marco, great to see you and thank you again for sitting down with us. What are your earliest memories of football growing up, and when did you know that you wanted to be a footballer?

Marco Negri: I was 12 and the Italian national team won the World Cup in Spain. I remember everybody was crazy in the streets, partying and enjoying the win during an amazing summer. My friend and I played football for hours in the court, no matter the time, imagining we were Rossi, Tardelli and Cabrini, the heroes, and dreaming one day of being a professional player.

BOTN: You started your career at Udinese before moving to Ternana, then eventually on to Cosenza, Bologna and Perugia. Tell us about those years.

MN: I grew up playing for Udinese youth development, an amazing journey since I was 13. I became a better player every year, and became a young man through positive, but more often negative, experiences. I did make mistakes, but learned quickly how not to repeat them and how to improve. Then one day when I was 17, I got my debut in Serie B with the first team – my dream coming true after so many sacrifices. I knew that was what I wanted to do in my life and I was ready to fight for my place. Ternana, to me, meant moving forward and away from home, from the place where I grew up, to something new and unknown. The talented young kid who became a key player for a club that after more than 20 years had returned to Serie B.

BOTN: Why did you leave Ternana?

MN: Financial troubles made me move from Ternana to Cosenza, another Serie B club. The target now was even higher and my first season there was more difficult than I was hoping. Bologna (on loan) is where I found confidence in myself and my football capacity, a very important club, who won 7 Scudetti in the past, and had loyal fans. I played a great season, falling in love with the city, and that’s why I’m still living there. When I went back to Cosenza, I got my best record season: I scored 19 goals and I started, at 24, to show everybody my potential in the penalty box.

Negri during his time at Perugia (Image from Marco Negri)

Negri during his time at Perugia (Image from Marco Negri)

BOTN: Then Perugia?

Next stop in my mind was the Serie A and, thanks to Perugia, my dream when I was kid became reality. With 18 goals I helped the club to win the Serie B after 25 years. The day of my debut in Serie A we won, and I scored the only goal. At the end of that season I scored 15 goals showing that I could play at the maximum level in the best and most difficult league at that time.

BOTN: The move to Rangers came amidst interest from some fairly large Serie A sides. What made you move to Scotland? What was it like to play alongside the likes of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Barry Ferguson?

MN: I chose Rangers because I was desperate to prove myself at a higher level. I could play in the Champions League alongside superstars like Laudrup, Gazza (Gascoigne) and so many others legends. It was an honour and privilege play together with such talented players that made it look so easy with every play. I realized from the first day that my job on the pitch was scoring goals, it wouldn’t have been as easy if it wasn’t for my fabulous teammates. When I arrived at Rangers, Barry was a very young talented player, but I already knew he would have been a cracking figure in the future for the Club.

BOTN: The transition from Italy to Scotland must have been difficult. On the pitch you flourished by doing what came naturally – scoring goals – but off the pitch, was the language issue a barrier, and did that lead you to being more reclusive?

MN: Of course, moving abroad is never easy, especially because there is a new language and a new style of living. But all the people at the club were fantastic, helping me in so many ways, and making me feel at home from the first moment. I had a lot of English lessons after training at Ibrox with Rino Gattuso to speed up the process. For the bad words my best teacher was Gazza! [laughs]

With fellow Italians Rino Gattuso and Sergio Porrini (Image from Marco Negri)

With fellow Italians Rino Gattuso and Sergio Porrini (Image from Marco Negri)

BOTN: Let’s talk about that now famous game against Dundee United when you scored five goals. The third goal in particular was pretty spectacular, as you lifted the ball over the defender twice before lobbing the keeper for your hat trick. Did you sense at the time that you could get more that day? Was that the most complete performance of your career?

MN: The game against Dundee United remains my perfect match. Scoring in front of 50,000 unbelievable fans, the most loyal and passionate in the world sounds amazing…scoring 5 is crazy. Not even when I was young did I dream so much, and I understand I made something special because everybody remembers that day. On top of that my third goal was tremendous. The Goalie (Andy Goram) to Gazza (Gascoigne) then me, double sombreros, two defenders down on the pitch and a lob from outside the box. A peach! My goal against Celtic in the Old Firm is the most important one of my career though; the one against Dundee United was the most beautiful.

BOTN: Those five goals contributed to a stunning 33 goals in 26 games. Things must have been going well at that stage. Your form had Italy coach Cesare Maldini touting you as a possible striker for his World Cup squad for France ’98 and several Italian sides were rumoured to have wanted to bring you back home. Why do you think you started so well at Rangers?

MN: At the time I was on fire, my confidence so high and for a striker this is a psychological status that makes the difference. Last but not least, I consider myself a very lucky player, because having teammates like Brian (Laudrup), Gazza (Gascoigne) & Jorg (Albertz) that pass you the right ball at the perfect time, gave me a bunch of great opportunities in the games, and my job was to be focused and to transform them into goals. 33 is a very high number, 30 in December was insane, that’s why my performances moved the Italy coach Maldini to think about a national call for me…I’m still thinking about all the ‘what ifs’, if it wasn’t for my damn squash injury.

BOTN: As you mentioned, after that amazing first season you got injured playing squash with teammate Sergio Porrini. The ball struck your eye with such ferocity that it detached your retina requiring painful laser surgery to reattach it. I know that you have stated that you don’t blame him for what happened, but do you still think about that incident and wonder what could have been?

MN: Being a footballer, you know that you could have to deal with some bad injuries during your career, the worry is always around the corner. But to be hit by a squash ball during a football day off was not even in my mind. In fact, that remains the most bizarre injury in Scottish football. Why I was there? No day off in Italy, so Wednesday I was training for myself with some boring runs and now trying this new damn sport. Better to just be lying on the sofa! I have no problem with Sergio (Porrini). Sometimes something positive happens with no reason, other times bad luck takes advantage. By the way Porrini’s hands were even worse than his feet! [laughs]

Negri during his Rangers days (Image from Marco Negri)

BOTN: In your book “The Moody Blue” you talk about the after effects of that injury and the loss of peripheral vision, which you attribute to having a key impact on the rest of your career. Do you think that was the main reason why you couldn’t recapture that early form that you showed at Rangers?

MN: For a striker and a penalty box player peripheral vision is obviously so important, but after the injury, I couldn’t train for almost 40 days; no running and no going to the gym as it was too dangerous for the eye’s pressure. I lost my shape, my confidence, and that magic atmosphere around me, and scored only 3 goals in the rest of the season shows that I was never back to my best.

BOTN: What characteristics do you think makes a player a natural goal scorer? I have heard a few managers say that the striker needs to be greedy. Would you agree with that?

MN: Two special gifts for a striker: instincts that you have to follow always when you’re in the box, and confidence that make you feel unstoppable. Together they seem to explain to you where the ball is coming from or going to a few seconds before all the other players on the pitch know. And you perfect yourself during a solid work out during training, each and every day, every season…because believe me, there is not a better feeling than putting the ball through the keeper, watching the net move and seeing all the fans go crazy around you.

BOTN: What happened at the end of your time at Rangers? Real Betis were keen on signing you but couldn’t afford the transfer. Did their interest turn your head?

MN: So many things happened after my first season at Rangers that I decided to write a book about it [laughs]. I made a lot of mistakes and some wrong decisions but I was young. I’ve paid my dues because I never had the chance to wear that glorious blue Rangers strip again in that fabulous Ibrox atmosphere; something special for every single player in the world who has done it.


BOTN: I noticed that you have been doing some coaching with kids recently. How was that?

MN: Being on the pitch with young players is the best thing that can happen to a former footballer because I can see in their faces the same enthusiasm I had when I was a kid. It is time now to pass on some tips to the new generation, especially my passion for the most beautiful sport in the world. I’ve done various camps for AC Milan and for the Champions International Camps with Costacurta, Ambrosini and Cannavaro around the world, but I’m also very proud to be part of many camps for Rangers, in Australia for example. Travelling with the Rangers logo on my shirt and speaking about Ibrox, and letting people know about the most successful club in the world is very special and fantastic for me.

BOTN: Is coaching something you are keen to do more of?

MN: Recently I’ve been involved in a new job with Serie A side Udinese, as part of the first team staff, taking care of the strikers with a specific role. It’s been a great adventure and experience and I hope to be on the pitch ASAP to start again.

BOTN: I hear you have your own beer? Has that always been a passion of yours?

MN: I usually say watching football with a good beer is fantastic but this beer tastes even better than that. It is not my beer, but some crazy football fans working in the Railroad Brewing decided to honour me and my amazing season at Rangers with a special edition bottle “One Season Wonder”. So now I have my face with the Rangers colours on a beer! Honestly, it’s a very tasty beer.


BOTN: Finally, we like to end with some quick questions: Who was your idol growing up?

MN: Marco Van Basten.

BOTN: What job would you have had if you weren’t a footballer?

MN: My mom said once a thief [laughs], but probably a surgeon.

BOTN: Best player you played with?

MN: Paul Gascoigne (Gazza) is my special one, by miles.

BOTN: Lesson you learnt from playing that you have passed on to your kids?

MN: Talent is a special gift but it doesn’t win games. Hard work always beats talent.

BOTN: Thank you Marco!

“Moody Blue” is available now at all good bookstores and online retailers.

One Season Wonder Beer is available from Railroad Brewing Co.

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Football’s Data Epitome On The Horizon


 

The evolution of technology within football over the past decade has dramatically changed the game arguably for the better. Whilst goal line technology is still in its infancy, other hi-tech advancements especially in the treatment and conditioning of players are more broadly accepted and are being incorporated into clubs across the world. But one area that had for a long time been untouched and against change is now undergoing a much needed makeover. The sourcing and scouting of players has traditionally been a simple affair – with a manager identifying the player(s) he wants and clubs scouting network travelling to games to watch them. But with every match being recorded in one shape or form, the need for bums on seats in the stands is become less important. Of course there is no substitute for seeing the player first hand and the scouts in particular will tell you that there is no other way to see or catch a player’s weakness than to see him or her in the flesh. But the process of finding and scouting players can be altered thanks to new technologies and with it the data that it brings.

Heat maps like these show how players are moving across the pitch (Image from OPTA)

Heat maps like these show how players are moving across the pitch (Image from OPTA)

Using data to judge players suitability is a fairly new concept but one that more and more clubs are turning to. Companies set up specifically around data collection, processing and display such as OPTA, Stats Inc and Prozone are revolutionizing the way that players are viewed. The data can show things that potentially the scout couldn’t detect by seeing the player on the field such as an underling problem in their game or a long term injury. With more knowledge about each individual player than ever before, clubs can make smarter selections in order to enhance their team and performances. The idea of using data in such a fashion may be slow in the adoption by soccer teams but in baseball in the US, clubs regularly use stats to their benefit. Highlighted in the book turned movie “Moneyball” where Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his team use data to put together a winning baseball team on a budget with great success, the use of data to analyze all aspects of a players game has now become common practice. Soccer has been reluctant to date and slow to adopt insisting that data can be inaccurate and is secondary to experience and knowledge of the game. But slowly clubs across various leagues are realizing that instead of data being a threat to the way they run their club, it can hand them a huge advantage over the teams who are not.

Brad Pitt (sitting) starred in the film version of Moneyball (Image from Sony)

Brad Pitt (sitting) starred in the film version of Moneyball
(Image from Sony)

Brentford, in the English Championship are not exactly the first team you would think of when it comes to this approach but are very much a club in transition. Under the ownership of forward thinker Matthew Benham, Brentford are paving a new path for themselves by embracing the data available and using it in an effort to uncover gems across Europe. Benham, who made his money by running a sports betting and football stats business, has taken the brave step of giving successful manager Mark Warburton his notice as he attempts to switch the clubs direction to this new model. Warburton, who is considered one of the best managers in the lower leagues, has guided the Bees into the Championship and has them on course for a potential shot at promotion to the Premiership for the very first time. But regardless of what happens Warburton will part ways with the club in the summer after agreeing to terminate his contract due to a difference in philosophy with Benham. Far from being opposed to using data in the scouting process, Warburton feels that as a manager he would still like to own the decision of who to buy and who would work well in his squad, something Benham and the club disagrees with. Benham will spend the next few months identifying a new head coach rather than manager who will work alongside Director of Football Frank McParland as part of a new setup. It may be seen by many as a risky move but Benham believes it is the right thing to do for the future of Brentford FC.

Brentford owner Matthew Benham is embracing the use of data (Image from Getty)

Brentford owner Matthew Benham is embracing the use of data
(Image from Getty)

This move follows a dramatic shift in the mindset of some owners in England from the conventional British approach where the manager owns and controls the team to a European approach where a Director of Football or Sporting Director takes care of transfers, scouting and youth development leaving a head coach to coach. Recently QPR appointed Les Ferdinand into a Director role with Chris Ramsey as Head coach and although Ramsey is only in place temporarily until the summer, QPR will likely maintain this structure going forward regardless of whom they choose. It’s a similar situation at Newcastle where Managing Director Lee Charnley and Chief Scout Graham Carr are tasked with the buying a selling of players whilst temporary manager John Carver manages training and the team. They too will likely hire a full time head coach during the summer with several names already being touted for the job.

Ferdinand as Director of Football will help Ramsey with the business side of the game (Image from Getty)

Ferdinand as Director of Football will help Ramsey with the business side of the game
(Image from Getty)

Adjusting to this new approach will not be easy, especially for managers, coaches and scouts who have been in the game for considerable amounts of time but the evolution of technology will continue with or without them. Data, like in baseball will start to play a more significant role in how teams operate both on and away from the pitch. Mangers who cannot adapt will be pushed to the sidelines and replaced by new coaches who can. It is an evolution of football that has been coming for some time now but only in recent years has picked up enough steam to push its way through to the end.

To see more on how OPTA is helping the data revolution, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bCp0pHuHqQ

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