Saturday, September 7, 2013

Brazil 2014: How would England line up?

Should England qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, there are reasons to be optimistic. For the first major International tournament in almost 20 years, England won't line up with a predictable and easy to read 4-4-2 formation. For too long the traditional English formation has been our downfall. There are few countries worse than England at retaining possession, so to line up with only two central midfielders made it easier for our opponents to keep the ball. This was especially clear against the likes of  Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Ozil, the German trio that punished England so harshly in 2010. During England's 2014 qualifying campaign, Roy Hodgson has opted against the 4-4-2 that saw England fall short against Andrea Pirlo's Italy at Euro 2012. He has adopted a more compact 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 formation which makes England harder to beat and allows a deep lying midfield player to protect the defence and dictate the play when England are in possession.

Midfielder Steven Gerrard will captain England
should they qualify for Brazil 2014

Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Cole will almost certainly make the squad for Brazil, but the most problematic pair of England's 'Old Guard' have retired. England lined up with the central defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry for the best part of a decade. Both players have retired from the International set up, following a series of controversies, including the much documented race row in which Terry was found guilty of racially abusing Ferdinand's brother, Anton. Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have now established themselves as first choice centre-halves. Many doubt whether the pair boast the natural ability of their troubled predecessors, but a seemingly harmonious partnership has formed, which can only be good for morale within the squad.

Hodgson's favoured line up in qualifying is likely to be his favoured line-up in Rio. Injuries and suspensions will inevitably play a part, but the team below is what I expect from England if they make it to Brazil. (This is the team I expect Hodgson to pick, not necessarily the one I believe to be the strongest).

GK: Joe Hart - Joe Hart will be first choice goalkeeper for the first time at a World Cup. He was given the number 23 by Fabio Capello in 2010, as David James and Rob Green played in goal for England. Despite making several uncharacteristic mistakes recently, Hart has little competition for his place. England have suffered from goalkeeping errors in the past, (Green against USA in 2010, Carson against Croatia in 2007) but provided he has a good season for Manchester City, there will be very few goalkeepers at World Cup 2014 that are better than Joe Hart.

RB: Glen Johnson - Glen Johnson is set to retain his place as England's first choice right back. Having worked with Hodgson at Liverpool, Johnson knows what is expected of him and has the ability to score goals from full-back. At 23-years-old, Kyle Walker has time on his side and will provide stiff competition for Johnson, especially if Tottenham beat Liverpool to a Champions League place. Phil Jones may also challenge after becoming Manchester United right back under David Moyes.

CB: Gary Cahill - When Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, it was difficult to predict which players he would favour. David Luiz had just had his best ever season in a Chelsea shirt, John Terry was set to be restored as captain and Branislav Ivanovic switched to centre-back to accommodate attacking right back Cesar Azpilicueta. However, Mourinho decided Gary Cahill was one of his best two central defenders and the former Bolton skipper has started alongside John Terry in every Premier League game this season. Cahill can now regard himself as England's first choice centre-back. His speed across the ground is important when playing alongside Phil Jagielka. An injury to Cahill would seriously weaken England.

CB: Phil Jagielka - Phil Jagielka's bravery has been noticeable throughout qualifying. It has been said that England players don't appear to care when playing for their country, but that cannot be said about the Everton defender. He is fearless, in the mould of John Terry and would put his body on the line to prevent the opposition from scoring. His lack of pace is a worry against top International strikers, he will be 31 in Brazil but so far deserves his place in the starting line up.

LB: Ashley Cole - Everton's Leighton Baines is in an unfortunately similar situation to Cristiano Ronaldo. No matter how well he performs, there always seems to be that one player who is just ever so slightly better. Ashley Cole already holds the record for the most tournament caps as an England player, and will further that record in Brazil, should England get there. Cole is widely considered as the only member of the so called 'golden generation' to have performed consistently in an England shirt.

DM: Michael Carrick - Michael Carrick currently occupies what is arguably England's most important position. His role is to protect the defence by breaking up opposition attacks and keep England in possession with passes into both full-backs who will push forward and try to create chances. Carrick also has the ability to find the striker with forward passes along the ground, something England have lacked in the past. However, Carrick has a less than impressive International record, having retired during a period he was rarely considered for selection. The United midfielder also missed England's recent friendly with an eye infection. His ability has never been in doubt, but he must remain available or risk losing his place to Steven Gerrard, who performed this role excellently in the recent qualifier against Moldova.

CM: Steven Gerrard - Steven Gerrard will captain England at the World Cup in what could be his last major International tournament. At 33-years-old, the midfielder has adapted in recent years and prefers a more withdrawn role for both club and country. His age no longer allows for the energetic, box to box performances of old, but that suits England and will work to Roy Hodgson's advantage when it comes to improving ball retention. He has developed a promising understanding with midfield partner Jack Wilshere and will always provide goal scoring opportunities with the quality of his delivery from set-pieces.

CM: Jack Wilshere - Jack Wilshere would have 25 caps for England by now if he could just stay fit. As it stands, he has 9, but will inevitably build on that should he finally have an injury free season for Arsenal. England fans will be crossing their fingers every time the diminutive midfielder flies into a tackle, which he has a tendency to do. England have not yet enjoyed the luxury of Jack Wilshere at an International tournament, and he could potentially be the difference between a quarter-final and a semi-final. Should Wilshere not make the tournament through injury, expect Manchester United's Tom Cleverley to take his place, which would significantly limit England's attacking threat.

RM: Theo Walcott - Theo Walcott has never quite fulfilled his potential. He famously experienced his first World Cup at the age of 17 without playing a minute of football at the tournament. He continues to threaten down England's right hand side, and there is no doubt that his pace troubles opposition full-backs. His crossing needs to be improved, as does his goal-scoring record. Five goals in 35 appearances isn't good enough for a player who considers himself a striker, especially considering three of those goals were scored in the same match against Croatia. Spurs winger Andros Townsend might be a surprise contender for a position on England's right wing, should he displace Aaron Lennon at Tottenham over the coming season.

LM: Danny Welbeck - Danny Welbeck has been in superb form for England recently. Few central strikers could adapt so well to playing in a wide position, but Welbeck has made the transition with apparent ease, contributing three goals in his last two matches from the left of midfield. David Moyes has challenged him to score more goals for Manchester United this season, and his all round hold up play has seen him start the season as first choice, ahead of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. Hodgson's management style is cautious, so expect Welbeck to start on the left hand side over the electric Daniel Sturridge, who has scored three winners in three games for Liverpool. Sturridge offers much less protection from a defensive point of view, so expect him to be used as an impact substitute or start against the weaker teams at the tournament.

ST: Wayne Rooney - Wayne Rooney is still England's most talented player. After another summer of discontent, the significance of his role at Manchester United remains to be seen. Should he come into the first team picture and play alongside Robin Van Persie, he is certain to start for England under Hodgson. Rooney's performances at major tournaments have been devastatingly below par, since he first broke his metatarsal at Euro 2004. Rooney often plays well during qualifying campaigns, but owes England fans a series of good performances should they reach Rio in 2014. Expect one of Andy Carroll or Rickie Lambert to challenge Rooney for the role of lone striker.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Five Talking Points from the opening day of the Premier League

 Benteke celebrates his goal after more poor Arsenal defending.
The Gunners gave away two penalties.

1. Arsenal still need to spend money.

A 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa is not how most Arsenal fans would have expected to start their season. After a summer of positive rumours, the Gunners crowd were optimistic that Arsene Wenger might finally spend some money in order to strengthen the squad. However, several unsuccessful and misguided transfer attempts later, and the only new face at the club is 20-year-old striker Yaya Sanogo, who was injured for the opening day. The erratic performance of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, the sending off of centre-half Laurent Kosielny and the injuries to both full-backs Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna prove once again, that the defence needs to be improved, despite Wenger’s summer of flirting with big name forward players such as Suarez, Rooney and Higuain. Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Julio Cesar is still available for relatively little money as the Championship club seek to reduce their wage bill. Surely Wenger should bid for the Brazilian before the end of the transfer window, and sooner rather than later with a Champions League Qualifier away at Fenerbache on Wednesday night.

2. It was a promising day for England fans.

After England struggled to beat Scotland at Wembley on Wednesday night, there was understandably some negativity about their chances at the World Cup in 2014, should they even manage to qualify. However, on the opening day of the Premier League season, there was much cause for optimism. One of Roy Hodgson’s first choice strikers, Danny Welbeck, has seemingly taken on the advice of new Manchester United manager David Moyes, who has challenged him to score more goals this season. The forward played in a slightly withdrawn role behind Robin Van Persie during United’s 1-4 away win at Swansea. He looked hungry to get in more dangerous positions, resulting firstly in a tap in from Antonio Valencia’s clever first time cross, before doubling his overall goals tally from last season in just one game with a sublime chipped finish beyond Michel Vorm. Fellow countryman and striker Daniel Sturridge lead the line for Bredan Rodger’s new look Liverpool side, scoring the opening goal of the new Premier League season with a sweet left footed drive. Young, attacking midfielder Ross Barkley was given a rare start by his new manager Roberto Martinez and repaid the new Everton boss with an impressive all-round performance, capped with an exceptional left-footed strike from the edge of the box that most English players aren’t quite capable of producing, especially at the age of 20.  Jonjo Shelvey was also Swansea’s outstanding performer, as he dominated the Manchester United midfield in the opening stages of the game. He also delivered a series of dangerous set-pieces, creating many chances for his new club. Rickie Lambert once again made the headlines with his second late match-winner in a week, scoring in the 90th minute with a perfect penalty. Something else you wouldn’t usually associate with English players.

3. Di Canio didn’t get dream start he'd been hoping for.

After reports of an incredibly gruelling pre-season programme implemented by the Italian manager, many were expecting Sunderland to come flying out at the start of their match with Fulham with high tempo and attacking intensity. They did to some degree, with new signings Emanuele Giaccherini and Jozy Altidore looking dangerous in the opening stages as they dominated for most of the game. However, Sunderland failed to create any serious scoring opportunities throughout the duration of the match, and were undone by a set piece, a familiar theme carried over from last season. Young Fulham midfielder Pajtim Kasami headed in the winner from a corner in the 52nd minute, and Di Canio’s side failed to find an equaliser, despite substitute striker Ji Dong-Won going closest with a header.  The Black Cats were unlucky, but they need to avoid home defeats to the likes of Fulham if they are to stay in the Premier League this season.

4. New faces announce themselves to the Premier League.

There were plenty of new faces making an appearance in the Premier League for the first time after a busy summer of transfer window activity for the majority of clubs. Injury prevented a few new signings from making their debuts, but others took their chance at their new clubs with some eye-catching performances. Antonio Luna, or ‘Tony Moon’ as he’s hilariously known to the Villa fans, made himself an instant favourite with a solid performance at left back against Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, completed with an extremely well taken goal that compatriot Jordy Alba would have been proud of, as he finished an exciting Villa counter attack. There has been much excitement surrounding Swansea’s record transfer signing, Wilfried Bony. The Ivorian started on the bench against Manchester United as Michael Laudrup set up a cautious team, with Michu up front on his own. The £12m striker, signed from Vitesse Arnhem in the summer was eventually given a chance after being introduced at half time. In the 82nd minute, Bony opened his Premier League account, sweeping home a first time finish beyond David De Gea and in to the bottom corner. If he can score a goal in one half of football against Premier League Champions Manchester United, it’s easy to see Bony becoming a regular on the scoresheet in the coming fixtures. Norwich are another team to have spent boldly during the transfer window, and their club record signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel was in the starting line-up against Everton. Facing English football veterans Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin in your first match as a Premier League striker is not the easiest of tasks, but Van Wolfswinkel claimed a point for his team with a perfectly guided header to make it 2-2. If he wasn’t already a cult hero at Carrow Road with a name like that, he soon will be if he keeps scoring such important goals.

5. Staying in the Premier League is the most difficult task of all.

Only one of the newly promoted clubs were in action yesterday, as Malky Mackay’s Cardiff City took on West Ham United at Upton Park. The visitors gave debuts to new signings Steven Caulker and Gary Medel, but were unable to get their first points of the season as an experienced West Ham side looked comfortable during their 2-0 victory. Premier League stalwarts Joe Cole and Kevin Nolan scored the goals, demonstrating that experience and know-how is key when you’re in this league. With Hull away to Chelsea on Sunday, and Crystal Palace yet to host Tottenham Hotspur, it is difficult to see anything but three defeats for the Premier League new boys. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Cardiff City - Can they avoid the drop?

It is a recurring theme at the beginning of every Premier League season. The three teams to have just been promoted from the Championship are cast as the three most likely relegation candidates for the coming season. Cardiff City, managed by Malky Mackay and Championship winners last campaign will be looking to break that unfortunate trend as they compete in the top division for the first time since 1962.

Creative midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung could have an impact
 on the Premier League this season


Cardiff City have the strongest of the squads to have been promoted, which no doubt contributed to them finishing above Hull and Crystal Palace last season. However, there is a worrying lack of experienced Premier League playing staff at the club. Notable exceptions include Craig Bellamy, who has scored goals consistently in the Premier League for the past decade,  but at 34-years-old, he's lost the pace that was once so frightening. The club will look to Fraizer Campbell for goals, a player who only left top-flight Sunderland to join the Bluebirds last season, scoring a prolific 7 goals in 12 appearances. Tommy Smith, Peter Whittingham and Jordon Mutch have also had some involvement in the Premier League and will need to have a major influence on the rest of the squad if they are to stay in the top flight.

One player who has the ability to make an impact on the Premier League is South Korean Kim Bo-Kyung. The 23-year-old is an attacking midfielder who has demonstrated the ability to unlock top flight defences with his creative passing and technical ability. Added to that an eye for goal, with three pre-season strikes to his name, including the winner against an accomplished Chievo Verona side and it's clear to see why manager Malky Mackay has tipped him for a successful debut campaign in the Premier League.


Any newly promoted side need to spend well in the transfer market to have a chance of staying up. Their budgets are hugely limited compared to established top-flight sides, so need to be wise with the money available to spend. Bluebirds owner Vincent Tam may have received severe criticism for changing the club's badge and kit colour, but he seems happy to supply manager Mackay with a generous amount to spend on players.

First to arrive was Andreas Cornelius, a 20-year-old Danish striker, signed from FC Copenhagen for a club record fee of around £8m; a dangerous amount to spend on such a young player with no previous Premier League experience, but time will tell if he is capable of scoring goals in England. The club record fee was broken again in this transfer window, to secure the services of England International centre-back Steven Caulker from Tottenham. The 21-year-old will be determined to earn a place in the England squad for the 2014 World Cup and Cardiff are likely to benefit from such an incentive. If Caulker performs like he did for bitter rivals Swansea last year, he could be the signing of the season at £8.5m, a relative bargain in today's inflated market.

It has also been widely reported that the Bluebirds are in advanced talks to sign Toulouse midfield enforcer Etienne Capoue. Capoue has been linked with prestigious clubs like Arsenal and Valencia in the past, and with five France caps, he's exactly the kind of quality Cardiff should be looking to recruit if they hope to beat the drop this season.


On paper at least, Cardiff are stronger than their newly promoted rivals Hull City and Crystal Palace. However, the issue arrives when trying to find another team in the Premier League that are likely to finish below the Bluebirds. At a push you could argue Stoke City under Mark Hughes will be in for a tough season, as well as Fulham who have failed to strengthen during the summer. It will be a long season for the Welsh club, but I think they can narrowly avoid relegation, which should give them the opportunity to consolidate for future seasons in the Barclays Premier League.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Six Timid Transfers: Not quite Bale and Suarez, but just as likely to make a difference.

People cry tears of boredom and begin to fall asleep on the back pages of their morning newspapers as another one hundred column inches are devoted to Gareth Bale and Real Madrid, Luis Suarez to Arsenal and Wayne Rooney to Chelsea. As these extremely high profile transfer debacles continue to dominate the headlines, so many other transfer dealings have gone unnoticed. Take a look at some of the quietly astute signings to have been made under the radar;

Jose Canas - Real Betis to Swansea - Free 

The 26-year-old Spanish defensive midfielder was one of the earliest signings to have been completed this transfer window. He almost joined Swansea last January as Betis looked to cash in on the player during the final year of his contract but nothing materialised and he was picked up as a free agent by Michael Laudrup on June 6. Canas is one of three Spanish signings made by Swansea this summer, as Alejandro Pozuelo and Jordi Amat also join up with fellow countrymen and established regulars Michu, Pablo Hernandez, Chico Flores and Angel Rangel. This should create an understanding between a squad of real quality that will allow Swansea to build on their impressive cup-winning campaign last season. 

Dejan Lovren - Lyon to Southampton - £8.5m

Croatian defender Dejan Lovren has already received heavy praise from new manager Mauricio Pochettino during Southampton's pre-season schedule. The Argentinian described him as a 'quality defender with the ability to read difficult situations with a great on field presence'. The Saints were thought to have fought off extremely tough competition for his signature, with Tottenham and Inter Milan both interested in buying the International defender, who has made 17 appearances for his country at the age of 23. Southampton are looking to strengthen the spine of their high-pressing team, and with hard-tackling midfielder Victor Wanyama joining Lovren as a new arrival, they look set for a top-half finish next season. 

Diego Lugano - PSG to West Brom - Free

West Brom manager Steve Clarke seems to be in a competition with himself to find the transfer bargain of the summer. As if completing the signing of free agent and former Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea exquisite finisher Nicolas Anelka wasn't enough, the Baggies have also signed Uruguay captain and no-nonsense centre-half, Diego Lugano. Lugano was named captain of the South Africa World Cup Team of the Tournament in 2010 and is known for his combative nature and merciless tackling style. Dubbed a 'natural leader' by Steve Clarke, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Lugano given the armband on his competitive debut for the club. Lugano also has excellent European pedigree after recent spells with Fenerbache, PSG and Champions League quarter-finalists, Malaga. 

Leroy Fer - FC Twente to Norwich - Undisclosed

The exact amount Norwich City and Chris Hughton paid for Leroy Fer remains undisclosed, but it is thought to be in the region of £6m. The 23-year-old Dutchman is a box to box midfielder with the ability to dominate games and opposition players. His rangy tackling and incredible speed across the ground, combined with his build and physical appearance will draw inevitable comparisons to past and present Premier League favourites Patrick Vieira and Yaya Toure. There are continued concerns over his fitness after he failed a medical at Everton last January but if Norwich hope to progress, they can only improve with signings like Fer and the prolific Gary Hooper from Celtic. 

Dwight Gayle - Peterborough to Crystal Palace - £8m

The story of Dwight Gayle is an almost unbelievable one. The striker was playing as lowly as the Essex Senior League during the 2011/12 season, but finds himself an £8m signing for a Premier League side two years later after consistent goal-scoring spells with Bishop's Stortford and Peterborough United. If you are to have a chance of staying in the Premier League, you need to score goals, and it seems Palace manager Ian Holloway is putting a huge amount of faith in 22-year-old Gayle, telling Sky Sports News: "I think he'll score goals at Premier League level, I really do. He's born to score goals."

Steven Caulker - Tottenham Hotspur to Cardiff City - £8m

Cardiff City broke their transfer record to sign young centre-back Steven Caulker from Spurs in what could be the signing of the season. After an impressive loan spell with Swansea City last season and a first goal-scoring appearance for England, you could be forgiven for thinking Caulker would have been first choice at White Hart Lane. Andre Villas-Boas however decided to accept Cardiff's bid, thought to have been in excess of £8m. Caulker is a proven defender at Premier League level and Cardiff may have doubled their chances of staying up by securing his services. At only 21-years-old, Caulker has the potential to improve at Cardiff City under new manager Malky Mackay and push for a regular position in the England squad. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Well done Gareth Bale, but who's in the frame for next year?

Few would have contested the decision to award Gareth Bale a double victory at The 2013 Professional Footballers' Awards (PFA), as he claimed the prize for Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year. The Spurs midfielder became only the third player ever to win both awards in the same season, joining ex Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Bale with PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor. Who will take his
place in PFA Team of the Season next year? 

This automatically meant that he was first name on the team sheet for the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, as voted for by fellow professionals.

Here's the team in full: De Gea (Manchester United), Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur), Baines (Everton), Carrick (Manchester United), Mata (Chelsea), Bale (Tottenham Hotspur), Hazard (Chelsea), Suarez (Liverpool) and Van Persie (Manchester United.

Congratulations to all of those players, it's hard to argue with any of their selections. However, I've decided to look ahead to next season, and line up the potential candidates for next year's PFA Premier League Team of the Season, based on their potential and performances so far this term.

GK - Hugo Lloris - Tottenham Hotspur

Hugo Lloris has made several saves during the early stages of his Spurs career that demonstrate why he is France's number one goalkeeper. Andre Villas-Boas has decided to rotate him and Brad Friedel throughout the season, due to Tottenham's involvement in the Europa League. However, with Friedel almost set for retirement, there will be no doubting the first choice goalkeeper at White Hart Lane come the first game of next season. If AVB can decide on a settled centre-back pairing and choose who will play alongisde Jan Vertoghen (who made the PFA team this year), Spurs will again challenge for the Champions League with Lloris set to shine.

RB - Cesar Azpilicueta - Chelsea

Azpilicueta was signed by Chelsea during the summer transfer window. Many believed he would play a secondary role to the already established Branislav Ivanovic at right-back, but the appointment of fellow countryman Rafa Benitez saw him become first choice full back at the club. He is strong, agile and quick and has adapted to the Premier League in a very short space of time following his move from Ligue 1. If Benitez's successor at Stamford Bridge shows similar faith in the 23-year-old, he will continue to grow as a player and could even displace Alvaro Arbeloa in the Spanish national side.

CB - Phil Jones - Manchester United

One of Phil Jones's greatest strengths is his ability to be utilised anywhere on the pitch. The fact he can play a holding midfield role, full-back on either side or centre-half means that he is consistently picked by Sir Alex Ferguson for Manchester United and by Roy Hodgson for England. Sooner or later, he is going to revert back to his strongest position at the centre of defence. That's where he was playing for Blackburn when Ferguson decided to spend £16.5m on the then teenager. Rio Ferdinand has played well through a series of reoccurring back injuries this season, but is unlikely to play as many games next year. Whether Jones plays alongside Ferdinand or instead of him, he could be influential to any success Manchester United might have in the future as they aim to retain their Premier League title.

CB - Vincent Kompany - Manchester City

Class is permanent, and Vincent Kompany is up there with the most complete centre-backs in world football. He has struggled this campaign with injuries and suspensions and his Manchester City side have not coped well with the pressure that comes from winning a Premier League title. They will be out for revenge next season, and if the Belgian can get fully fit over the pre-season period, he could form a formidable partnership alongside youngster Matija Nastasic for years to come.

LB - Luke Shaw - Southampton

Luke Shaw is frighteningly young at 17-years-old. Despite this, he has started 19 games for Southampton in the Premier League this season, and has rarely looked out of his depth. It may be a long shot to predict him featuring in next year's Team of the Season, but Southampton are only going to improve when Mauricio Pochettino gets a full pre-season with his side and is able to reinforce the high pressing style of play he has managed to introduce so far. Even if Shaw doesn't quite make the grade next season, he will be an integral part of whatever Southampton manage to achieve, as they do not look as solid or as threatening without him, even now.

RM - Shinji Kagawa - Manchester United

Shinji Kagawa is widely regarded as one of the linchpins of Borussia Dortmund's recent success. Before German wonder duo Mario Gotze and Marco Reus dominated the attacking midfield positions for the Champions League semi finalists, Kagawa was influential in his role just off central striker Robert Lewandowski. Kagawa showed early promise during his first few games for Manchester United, scoring on his home debut before a knee injury halted his progress at the club. If the Japanese midfielder can get back to full fitness in the closed season, he should be guaranteed a spot in Sir Alex Ferguson's line-up ahead of the inconsistent Nani and Antonio Valencia. Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney will benefit hugely from Kagawa's vision and passing range.

CM - Phillipe Coutinho - Liverpool 

Many Inter Milan fans must be scratching their heads as to why the club allowed Phillipe Coutinho to leave for just £8.5m, a price that can only be described as an absolute steal in today's transfer market. Since arriving at Anfield in January, the young Brazilian has lit up the Premier League, with an exciting flurry of goals and assists for Brendan Rodger's side and produced a Man of the Match performance during Liverpool's 6-0 thrashing of Newcastle. Provided he stays clear of injury and continues to enjoy living in England, Coutinho is also my tip to win the Young Player of the Year award next time round.

CM - David Luiz - Chelsea

Rafa Benitez has received nothing but stick from the majority of Chelsea fans, despite making many positive changes at the club, including the shocking transformation of David Luiz. Luiz had struggled in the past at Chelsea and was regarded by most as an error-prone centre-back, before Benitez pushed him forward into midfield. Since the Brazilian has lined up alongside Frank Lampard or Ramires, he has performed exceptionally well, making important challenges, dictating the tempo of matches and has even scored several sublime goals. Chelsea's new manager must keep him in this position, as he could grow to become one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League, starting next season.

CM - Jack Wilshere - Arsenal

It must surely be time for Jack Wilshere to fulfil his potential. The young Arsenal midfielder has been described as the future of English football for as long as most of us can remember, but it is still yet to materialise. Fitness is the key for Wilshere, as it is for many of next season's potential candidates. If he can go a whole campaign unhurt at the centre of Arsenal's midfield, he will dominate teams both domestically and Internationally, as he has shown all too briefly recently against the likes of Bayern Munich and Brazil.

LM - Gareth Bale - Tottenham Hotspur

It is impossible to look beyond Gareth Bale. Provided he stays in England and isn't tempted by the likes of Real Madrid, there is little doubt that he will cement his place in next year's Team of the Season too. Whether he is deployed in a central role behind the striker or wide on the left, his combination of pace and fiercely accurate long-distance shooting means he has the ability to stand out, hence his double award this year.

ST - Romelu Lukaku - Chelsea

Admittedly, this position will probably be filled by an already established Premier League striker such as Suarez, Rooney, Van Persie or Aguero. Whilst it is hugely unlikely that Romelu Lukaku will feature in next year's Team of the Season, I don't doubt that he has the necessary ability. If Chelsea weren't too bust trying to justify spending £50m on Fernando Torres, the young Belgian wouldn't have even been loaned out this season. If however the striker was to be kept on by the new Chelsea manager, he could stake a claim for the lead role in Chelsea's attack. Lukaku has proved this season at West Brom that he is more than capable of scoring goals and playing up front by himself. If he has the magical trio of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard behind him next year, who knows how many goals he could score in a young and exciting Chelsea team.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Football is primarily a business for Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger will soon be held accountable for Arsenal’s eighth consecutive season without a trophy. As fans continue to revolt against the Frenchman’s willingness to settle for fourth and a place in the Uefa Champions League, Wenger remains defiant over his careful management of the club’s finances.

Arsene Wenger is the perfect manager for an owner
who prioritises financial stability over trophy wins

Arsene Wenger graduated in 1971 with a first rate degree in Economics at Strasbourg University. It shows. After becoming Arsenal manager in 1996, Wenger made the club his own, and oversaw a transformation that changed modern day football as we know it. He altered the diets of his playing staff to the nearest calorie, and concluded through science and statistics the exact minute a player would begin to tire and therefore need substituting.

It soon became clear that Wenger’s brain worked differently to other managers. It worked on the basis of mathematics and logic, and where he really excelled, was in the area of financial management. The Frenchman sold troublesome striker Nicholas Anelka to Real Madrid for £23 million, and as a result was able to assemble ‘The Invincibles’, the most successful football team in Premier League history. Kolo Toure, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry were all bought in to form the spine of a side that would go unbeaten throughout an entire season, 38 games without defeat in 2004.

Arsenal enjoyed dominance under Wenger’s fast-flowing, eye-catching pass and move football. Other teams were unable to cope with the tempo of passing inspired by Arsenal’s midfield triangles. By this time, clubs had decided to compete in the only way they could; financial muscle. A certain Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich had taken over at Chelsea and was quick to make his mark on the transfer market, buying sought after players for hugely inflated transfer fees, which other clubs simply couldn’t afford, including Arsenal.

Even if Arsenal did have the money to spend, there was a feeling that Wenger would have persisted with his own transfer philosophy of buying players at extremely low prices and selling them on for profit after they had developed under his guidance. It was Wenger’s belief that players begin to digress at the age of 28, and so introduced his own age restriction policy. His ‘Invincibles’ side had finally lost to Manchester United, and things were never to be the same. It was time for a period of transition in English football.

Patrick Vieira, who was bought by Wenger for £2.5m, was sold for £14m. The trend continued, and the height of Wenger’s profit making transfer policy came following a deal that would see the club sell Cesc Fabregas back to Barcelona for a staggering £30m profit. Despite such an incredible return on the player, the move came at a price for Wenger. Fabregas was club captain of Arsenal and one of the best players in the Premier League. Wenger’s decision to sell the most talented and influential individual on his playing staff sent out a signal to fans that Arsenal were no longer able to compete at the highest level. Rival clubs took advantage of this fact and Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie all followed Fabregas out of The Emirates, leaving behind them a set of angry Gunners fans demanding that Wenger should spend heavily on their replacements.

But he didn’t. Arsenal are rumoured to have a transfer fund of £136m, but Wenger didn’t spend more than £11m on a single player during that same transfer window. Simon Kuper of The Financial Times believes this is because Wenger thinks so deeply about football’s potential economic collapse, that he is trying to protect the future of the club: “Wenger and Arsenal think that the football economy is a bubble: clubs are spending beyond their means and risking collapse. The argument is at bottom one about football being a business. Wenger manages Arsenal as if he is going to be there for the next 100 years.”
Kuper is not the only one who has likened Arsene Wenger to a businessman. Many believe that Wenger has kept his job at The Emirates despite his lack of silverware because of his ability to bring money into the club. The aforementioned player sales will have compensated and replaced any outgoings from the pockets of board owners Ivan Gadiz and Stan Kroenke, so what reasons do they have to fire a man who has a proven track record when it comes to earning money?

Wenger has wrapped himself into the foundations of the club, literally. His visions and planning were an integral part to building Arsenal’s 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium, following their move from Highbury. Arsenal Football Club now earn £3.3m each and every home game on ticket sales alone, making them the most profitable club in the country, further proof that Arsene Wenger sees football as a business. He played the game at an extremely low level for a modern day manager, so perhaps his management style isn’t clouded by blind passion and dressing room experiences of the past. He is able to analyse football from the outside, making decisions he feels will be of most benefit to the club, and it’s clear he chooses to place more importance on financial reward than titles and trophies.

“To other managers, £15m might be simply ‘a big number, but not to Wenger. When he weighs up potential signings, he judges like an economist pricing assets as much as like a coach seeking quick wins”says Kuper, the author of Soccernomics, a book based on football’s troubled financial underworld. Wenger’s rule at Arsenal has been fuelled largely by business, but also by stubbornness and strong personal morals. Arsene Wenger is so against the Abramovichs’ and Glazers of this world, spending money that they don’t have, funding wage bills on insurmountable debts, that he installed his faith in youngsters and products of the club’s youth academy. Whereas Wenger used to scour the globe to buy unknown young players from abroad, these same players are now choosing to go to ‘bigger’ clubs than Arsenal, such as Chelsea and Manchester City who are willing to offer the mind-blowing wages demanded by footballer’s agents and advisors.

Arsene’s faith in the club’s own youth academy has yet to be rewarded. An 18-year-old Denilson was expected to develop into a ready-made replacement for Gilberto Silva, a strong, combative midfield captain. It never materialised and the Brazilian has since been loaned back to his native South America, and is set to depart permanently in the summer. Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Larrson and Fabrice Muamba all promised to break through at the same time and form a new first-team spine, but were deemed not good enough and shipped out to various other Premier League clubs. Several promising Englishman also came through the ranks, Jay Simpson, an explosive striker, is now plying his trade with Hull City after failing to make an impact under Arsene Wenger. Kieran Gibbs remains at the club but has struggled with a series of muscle injuries that have prevented his development. Simon Kuper believes Wenger’s decision to rely on the club’s academy was a mistake. “Separately from economics, Wenger made another fundamental misjudgement. He dreamt of building a team produced in Arsenal’s youth academy, rather than bought as adult stars. Another truth of football is that it’s almost impossible to predict whether a great untried teenager will make a great adult footballer. Only really once a teenager has achieved success in actual professional football, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale, can you know he is the real thing, and by then richer clubs than Arsenal will be chasing him.”

Arsenal are unlikely to win a trophy again next year. Their playing squad is not good enough to compete with Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, and those clubs are set spend sufficiently in the summer before FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules come into fruition. As Tottenham and Everton continue to improve, they might even find it difficult to finish in the top four. That still won’t be enough to make Arsene Wenger open his chequebook and make ‘big-money’ signings. That is not his approach to business, or indeed life. Whilst he continues to oversee financial stability and generate such great revenue at The Emirates, his job will be safe. His bosses will be happy. Club owners and Chief Executive types in football boardrooms will always take money over cup wins and tournament glory. That’s why they are happy to make him the highest paid manager in England on £7.5m a year.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tottenham need a striker to banish end of season curse.

Andre Villas-Boas has had a relatively successful first season in charge of Tottenham Hotspur as they sit fourth in the Premier League and occupy the final Champions League place. However, a poor result at home to Basel in the Europa League and an inconsistent run of domestic form, could see a season full of eye-catching performances and impressive results go entirely unrewarded.

Spurs have been far too reliant on Gareth Bale's
goals from midfield this season

Spurs often suffer from end of season syndrome, and have been known to implode at this time of season in the past, which usually means granting success to their North London rivals Arsenal, who sit two points behind with a game in hand. It has been well documented that Tottenham have been over reliant on Gareth Bale's goals season, and the Welshman may well be angling for a move away from the club during the summer transfer window. Emmanuel Adebayor was absent for over a month whilst on International duty with Togo at the 2013 AFCON and has struggled with league goals this season, scoring just three times. Jermain Defoe has a typically impressive goals to minutes ratio with 10 league goals in 25 starts for the club, but has struggled with a series of muscular injuries and doesn't always seem comfortable as the lone front man in AVB's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Tottenham need strength in depth up front and Daniel Levy must add to his strike force if his club are to challenge for honours until the final game of the season. Here's a look at some of his likely targets.

Loic Remy

Remy has taken no time to settle in England
and has always been a target for Spurs

Loic Remy only joined QPR in January but his agent secured a release clause of just £8m should the Hoops be relegated. That looks increasingly likely following Wigan's last minute equaliser at Loftus Road on Sunday to leave Harry Redknapp's side 7 points adrift of safety. Remy has adapted seamlessly to English football and has scored 5 goals since his arrival, making him the club's top goalscorer. Tottenham owner Daniel Levy had previously shown interest in signing the French striker from Marseille, but was deterred by the £15m valuation. His versatility could make him Tottenham's number one transfer target, as he can also be utilised on the right side of midfield to provide competition for Aaron Lennon should he not be first choice striker at White Hart Lane.

Christian Benteke

A move to Spurs would help Benteke become
Belgium's number one striker

The Aston Villa target man has been unstoppable at times this season. 15 league goals for a team that have been fighting relegation is an achievement that makes him a potential candidate for the player of the season award. Villa's young side have struggled under Paul Lambert and have often had to rely on the Belgian striker's goals and influential line-leading performances to get results. At just 22 and with three years left to run on his current deal, he won't come cheap, but it would be difficult for him to resist a move to Spurs and the lure of European football should they secure it.

Leandro Damiao

Damiao is a natural finisher and became top
goalscorer at the 2012 Olympics

The young Brazilian striker Leandro Damiao is another player Daniel Levy has been watching for some time. The Internacional forward was the top goalscorer at the London 2012 Olympic Games and is a reported target for a host of top European clubs including PSG, Napoli and Arsenal. Damiao lacks pace and is nowhere near Benteke and Remy in terms of speed, but he has an unteachable eye for goal and always hits the target when in and around the penalty box. He would add another dimension to Tottenham's strike force and provide a good alternative to either Defoe or Adebayor. He has the ability to operate alone up front, but whether he would be able to settle in England and adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League remains to be seen.