National team should lead by example.

Our current national team – following in the footsteps of the “golden generation” – is frankly underwhelming. I write this while half-watching England struggle to break down Lithuania, who are ranked 120th in the world. Thursday night’s match against Slovenia was boring too, injury time winner aside.

Gareth Southgate has been vocal in the last few days about the lack of options available to him. He has even publicly criticised the form of a number of the squad, saying that some of his players do not deserve to be there. Whilst he is right, they don’t deserve to be there, the message this gives the senior squad players is that there is no competition for places in the national team.

The cause of this situation is well documented; youth products are not being given a chance at their Premier League clubs. The reason is that Managers’ jobs are under constant scrutiny, and they are never more than a few defeats away from speculation about their future. With this sort of pressure, understandably their preference is to field a team of experienced internationals rather than including a wildcard youth team member.

How can Southgate influence this? Simple. Lead by example, and pick players who have excelled at recent youth tournaments for full national team call-ups. England has enjoyed great success at various youth levels over the last year, so if the national team is run in the manner we would like our Premier League clubs to be run, some of these players should be given game time at senior level. Having qualified for the World Cup as group winners, the next two fixtures against Brazil and Germany are the perfect time to experiment.

The positives of this approach vastly outweigh negatives. The two key positives are as follows: 

– Opportunities for youth players limit the spaces for senior team members who take their positions for granted. This will increase competition among the senior players, which, you would presume, result in improved performances for club and country as they desperately fight for their ticket to the World Cup back.

– Players promoted from the youth ranks will be given an opportunity that they haven’t been given at club level. They will have the chance to perform at senior level. They will be eager to seize their chance in the limelight. If they prove they can do it for England, they will get a chance in the Premier League. Who knows, they might even do enough to go to the World Cup.

The talent is there, they just need the opportunity to prove themselves. 

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Arsenal Have Many Problems, But Xhaka Isn’t One of Them.

There was excitement around the Emirates when Xhaka arrived last summer for a fee in the region of £35m. His hot head reputation preceded him, but if any team needs a bit of bite in midfield then it’s Arsenal. His first full season was a mixed bag; frequent bookings became a source of frustration to many in the early months, with Wenger even saying that he is “not a great tackler” at one point, but his vision and glorious range of passing saw him play a key role in a strong close to the season.

To me, and I think many others, I think it was fairly clear at the time that Kante was the midfielder Arsenal needed last season. The Frenchman’s transition from Leicester to Chelsea was seamless, and he brings an amazing engine and tactical discipline to Chelsea’s midfield. The Kante / Makelele comparison is justified, and it is players like these who great teams are built on.  When asked about Kante in a recent press conference, Arsene Wenger alluded to interest from Arsenal, but the player chose Chelsea. So much for only one team in London, ey Arsene?

Having Xhaka instead is certainly no hardship; he has an ability to do the unexpected with his distribution through the lines, and he can quickly turn defence into attack using Arsenal’s pace on the break. He is a player who cares about the team, and has displayed leadership qualities at international level and for former club BMG – both traits Arsenal players are accused of lacking. I think that in order to make the step to becoming a great player, his game needs fine tuning and the Arsenal coaching staff will have a big part to play in this. It is fairly clear that tackling isn’t Xhaka’s strongest attribute, and many of his bookings have come from desperation tackles as he tries to track back. As one of Arsenals two central midfielders, Xhaka finds himself running backwards towards his own goal far too often and it is here where he gets caught out.

So, Xhaka is not necessarily the player I wanted Arsenal to buy last summer, but he is the player they have – which is no bad thing! Despite the clear discipline issues, he has proved to be a fantastic player with potential to improve further. Arsenal may not have this generations Makelele, but they just might have the next Alonso.

Granit

 

 

The Magic of the FA Cup

I have always absolutely loved the FA Cup. One of the first football matches I ever watched was the 1993 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday and I have been hooked ever since.

I grew up in Leatherhead, Surrey, and have followed football since about the age of seven. Leatherhead’s football team, The Tanners, have a famous history as giant killers in the competition; in the 1974/75 season, Leatherhead amazingly reached the fourth round. Their cup run saw them beat Bishop Stortford and Colchester in the first and second rounds. The Colchester match was massive, and in defeating them Leatherhead claimed their first ever league scalp. It is a game my father, then 30, remembers well; not because he was at the match, but because fans had parked their cars on our road – which is a 10 minute walk from the stadium.

Victory against Colchester lined up a 3rd round tie away at Brighton. The fires were stoked before the match even began, with Brighton Manager Peter Taylor proclaiming: “We have an excellent chance to do well this season, after we swat away those minnows.” I can only imagine how disappointed he must have been when ‘The Leatherhead Lip’, Chris Kelly, popped up to make it 0-1 to Leatherhead – which is how the game ended.

The draw for the fourth round took place immediately after the match and Leatherhead were drawn at home against Leicester. A jubilant (drunk) Kelly was asked to comment by Jimmy Hill on Match of the Day: “Leicester are rubbish. We’ll stuff them”. Demand was high for the match, so Leatherhead elected to switch the tie to Leicester’s ground, Filbert Street. The match was a cracker, with Leatherhead 2-0 up after 30 minutes, but Leicester staging a comeback to win 2-3.

41 years after Leatherhead’s famous cup run, my local team, Merstham, are preparing for the biggest game in their history this Saturday when they play Oxford United in the first round of the FA Cup at the Moatside ground. The game will be televised live on BT Sport, and I will be amongst a record crowd of 2000 fans to witness two teams separated by 4 leagues and 94 league places.

My father celebrated his 71st birthday on 1st November (happy birthday Dad!) and still lives in the family home in Leatherhead (with my mother and sister). I am now 31, my wife an I are expecting our first child in December, and I cannot wait to tell him or her about the day Oxford came to town (and how far away the fans had to park from the stadium).

COME ON MERSTHAM!

thefootballscominghomepage Post GW2 / Pre GW3 “MICRO-BLOGGING”

What a fascinating beginning to the season. I have wanted to write about each of the following teams over first two game weeks, but I decided to save everyone (not least myself) some time and effort by dumping a condensed version in one glorious blog. Behold; thefootballscominghomepage Post GW2 / Pre GW3 “MICRO-BLOGGING”.

The title needs some work, but here are my observations:

Manchester United

While other managers justify dropped points in the first few games with “no need to panic, its a long season” Mourinho recognises that 3 points now are worth exactly the same as 3 points at Christmas or 3 points at the end of the season. He gets his business done early in the summer and his teams are fully prepared going into the first game of the season. Their opening fixtures haven’t been too taxing, (arguably you have to go back to the 2013/14 season to find a challenging opening five fixtures for them – just an observation), but they have hit the ground running.

Obviously Zlatan and Pogba are massive signings and they make Manchester United strong favourites for the title in my opinion.

Hull

After a chaotic summer, a manager-less Hull lined up against the Champions of England and Wales with only 13 fit senior players to select from. They came away from the game with a win, and it is results like this and Leicesters triumph in the league last year that make Football such a special game. With a takeover of the club imminent, Phelan deserves the job full time and it sounds like he will be backed with six new signings before transfer deadline day.

Another Leicester City fairy tale? Surely not, but if they do I will write a blog post about it in my pants.

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Leicester City

What an amazing season for Leicester. I cant say anything about it that hasn’t been said already, but it is something that I am truly happy to have witnessed as a football fan. Unfortunately, it is incredibly unlikely that they will win the league again this year, but they can certainly challenge for the top six spots and a top ten finish should be comfortable. Even taking last season out of the picture, this is amazing progress considering where they were two years ago.

Yesterday was a great day for Leicester as the draw for the Champions League took place and they have been paired with Porto, Club Brugge, and Kobenhavn in Group G. Even appearing in the Champions League is a huge bonus for Leicester, but they stand a very good chance of progressing and making the knockout stages. Who knows how far they might go?

Manchester City

It has been a big summer for City. Despite Hart’s omission from the first team and seemingly inevitable departure from the club, Pep’s appointment  can only be good news for the national team and I think Stones and Sterling are already feeling the benefit. Both players have the world at their feet. Like Ferdinand’s big money move to Utd all those years ago, I think Stones will prove to be great business and become one of the best defenders in the world over the next few years and justify the price tag. Sterling struggled last year, but Pep recognises his potential and there is no better manager for him to make him realise the player he can be.

Can City win it this year? Sure they can, but Utd are ready and will pip them to the post.

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Arsenal

I’m forever banging on about the vendetta against Arsenal (and Arsene) in the media, but it does feel especially vile this at the moment. Arsenal needed to strengthen in four key areas this summer; centre back, holding midfield, attack and out wide. Arsenal have signed Xhaka and it sounds like Mustafi is basically a done deal, those two have massively strengthened the CM and CB positions. Perez in attack is (along with Mustafi) believed to be having a medical today, I don’t think I have seen him play but he has been described as similar to Vardy. Holding looks an absolute steal at £2m from Bolton. He and Koscielny produced a very strong showing against Leicester, and I would be keen for Holding to get more game time. The window isn’t closed yet, but I consider this a strong window from Arsenal (assuming Mustafi and Perez pass their medicals), and word is that there are further funds available for a “madness” signing.

Can Arsenal win the league? I think they will be battling City for second. They have already dropped five points and we are only two games in, even at this stage they can’t afford to drop much further behind.

 

thefootballscominghomepage Predictions:

Top 4

Manchester United

Arsenal

Manchester City

Hull (joking)

Chelsea

 

Bottom 3 (in no particular order)

Watford

Bournemouth

Burnley

 

Not all bad news for Arsenal fans.

I started writing this a couple of days ago, in the wake of Arsenal’s annual exit in the first knock out round of the Champions League. In all things, especially with football, I try to let my head rule my heart. But I must admit, for the first time, I was seething and calling for Arsene Wenger’s exit. There is no shame at all in losing out to Barcelona over two legs. In fact, there were plenty of positives to take from both performances. My exasperation came more from Arsenal’s overall recent form and their annual bottling it yet again in the Premier League and FA Cup. Initially, I wrote a piece considering life without Arsene and life with, fully expecting to lend my backing to Ronald Koeman, Ranieri or Thomas Tuchel to lead Arsenal to glory next year. The article proved quite the opposite to me, and I am now of the opinion that the stability Arsenal would enjoy with Arsene at the helm next season could be invaluable.

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The truth is, the seemingly annual speculation is pointless. Arsene has said countless times that he honours his contracts, and the Board are not going to get rid of him. We all know it, Wenger is not going anywhere for another season at least.

One thing he offers in abundance is stability. Come rain or shine, Arsenal are basically guaranteed a top 4 finish domestically, and progression into the knock out stages of the Champions League with Arsene in charge. With the 2016/17 season bringing managerial changes at City, Chelsea, Manchester Utd (presumably), and with Klopp still with a hefty rebuilding job at Liverpool, it should be at least business as normal at Arsenal (although hopefully more).

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On the pitch, there are some very encouraging signs for next season too. In Ozil, Sanchez (who will have a rare summer off), Cazorla, Cech and Koscielny, Arsenal already have a smattering of truly world class players and hopefully they will be added to in the summer. In Bellerin and Iwobi, (along with Chambers, Reine-Adelaide, Zelalem and Crowley) Arsenal have some of the hottest prospects in Europe in or around the first XI. Although a lot of the individual performances of late have disappointing, Elneny and Campbell, the early season form of Coquelin and Welbeck since his return from injury have all been very encouraging. Quite frankly, the rest have been nowhere near good enough this season. Don’t get me wrong, there are useful players in the remainder of the squad who will perform well against 90% of the teams faced in a season, but it is them who will fluff their lines when the pressure is on and I hope that Arsene ignores any sentiment he might have and builds next seasons squad around the above mentioned.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this season is not over yet! Assuming Arsenal win their game in hand (which is not necessarily a safe assumption), they will be 8 points off Leicester, whose run in sucks! Leicester have a very solid Southampton next, then they face a Big Sam team scrapping for their lives, followed by a seemingly invincible West Ham, and a rejuvenated Swansea. They finish the season with Away trips to Old Trafford and Chelsea, with the visit of Everton sandwiched between those two fixtures. I think Leicester will drop points in that lot, whether it is 8 or more points remains to be seen, but Arsenal need a perfect run in to make sure they are ready to capitalise on any slips the league leaders might make.

Could Debuchy fill the hole in Arsenal’s midfield?

The bad news for Arsenal today is that Francis Coquelin has been ruled out for at least 2 months. This is a particularly hard pill to swallow, with fans and pundits crying out for re-enforcements in this area during the Summer.

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But, for every injury there is opportunity, and Arsenal’s options at holding midfield stretch beyond the dubious duo of Arteta and Flamini. With club captain Arteta’s influence waning, and Flamini more or less a guaranteed yellow card a game, they are not viable first choice options for the next 2 months – especially considering the busy Christmas schedule.

Arsene Wenger has a long history of re-inventing players to play in new positions. Among his successful transformations: Toure moving from right back and holding midfield to centre back, Lauren moving from holding midfield to right back, Walcott from centre forward to right wing, and then back to centre forward, Ljungberg to right wing from central, and perhaps most famously Henry to centre forward from left wing.

The holding midfield role requires far more than “simply” the ability to tackle. Coquelin’s reading of the game means that he has the ability to close channels and intercept passes between midfield and the front line. Coquelin saw himself as more of a play maker than a holding midfielder until recently, so as well as the gritty side of the game he is very capable at picking a pass and launching attacks. Combined with these attributes, Coquelin is also one of the fittest, and most robust players in the Arsenal squad. He can close down quickly, and has the strength to come out on top in most of the scraps he is involved in. Reading the game, physicality, athleticism and vision are all traits that Coquelin has, and that you would typically associate with a full back; an area Arsenal are really well stocked.

MUNICH, GERMANY - DECEMBER 10: Philipp Lahm of Muenchen runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Manchester City at the Allianz Arena December 10, 2013 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)
A look to the Bundesliga, and Arsenal’s opponents a couple of weeks ago, Bayern Munich. Bayern had one of the best right backs around in Philip Lahm, and they now have one of the best holding midfielder’s around in the same player.

Mathieu Debuchy was bought to Arsenal as Frances first choice right back ahead of the departing Bacary Sagna. He enjoyed a solid start to his career in North London before suffering a broken leg, and it is only through the truly remarkable emergence of Bellerin that he is not starting every game. Debuchy was a world class right back a year ago, and he is sitting on the Arsenal bench at the moment. He is desperate to play first team football, and has all of the attributes needed to excel in the vacant position. He can have a future at Arsenal, but in the same way my article last week spoke about Rooney re-inventing himself, this vacancy in Arsenal’s midfield could be his chance to re-ignite his career – and with fixtures against Norwich, Sunderland and Villa coming up, when better to try this out than tomorrow night against Zagreb.

Rooney re-invented

When I think of Wayne Rooney, the image that immediately comes to mind is of a raw young man with the world at his feet. The potential to be one of the best players in the world, but with a fiery temper bubbling away beneath.

Over a decade later the stats talk for themselves, but 2015’s Wayne Rooney is a very different man. Rooney is England’s record goal scorer, and it is surely only a matter of time before he scores the 13 goals required to become Manchester United’s top scorer too. He is England and Manchester United captain, he has 108 caps, and he has a list of honours as long as your arm (notably a Champions League and 5 Premier League winners medals) with Manchester United, and numerous individual honours. But despite what is undeniably a hugely successful career, there is a widely held opinion that Rooney has never set the world alight as his early potential promised, and his underwhelming form so far this season has led to claims that he is a player in decline.

A trait of Rooney’s early game was his pure physicality and aggression. He was fitter, stronger and hungrier that his piers, and he combined this with a fearlessness that really set him apart from everyone else.  He was confrontational, and while playing inside the rules of the game, had no problem going toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in football. Sir Alex Ferguson deserves a lot of credit for channeling these qualities in a young man who you feel could quite easily have gone off the rails without the right guidance.

His play had a directness to it, and any youtube video of his greatest moments will demonstrate this, aggression, physicality and audacity – all of which are lacking from his game at the moment.

Rooney is in a good place in his life. The ‘Man Behind the Goals’ documentary gave an insight into the personal life of a man appears to be a good father and doting husband. Family is the main thing in his life now, and he has realised his responsibility to lead by example both at home, and on the pitch with the Manchester United and England captaincy. Whilst these are admirable qualities, they have detracted from the traits that set him apart from the rest at the beginning of his career.

The greatest players re-invent themselves when they realise that they are perhaps not as quick as they used to be, or they realise that they may not physically be able to perform as they used to, and Rooney is at that juncture now. For me, the experiment to use him at central midfield has not given us an insight into his future. While he can learn plenty from the likes of Ryan Giggs, who famously re-invented himself to great effect to great effect towards the end of his career, I think a glance towards a God like figure at one of Manchester United’s fiercest rivals could offer Rooney a blue print to extend his career at the top level.

Dennis Bergkamp started his career as a right winger before being moved to centre forward and becoming a legendary number 10. He could read the game several moves ahead and spot passes no-one else could see. In my opinion, he boasts the greatest first touch the Premier League has ever seen, and this was an area he worked on very deliberately in training to prolong his career. In the latter years of his playing days, his first touch compensated for his lack of pace by creating space that a younger player might have generated through pace and out-muscling an opponent. Described by himself and opponents as fiercely competitive, Bergkamp played at the highest level well into his mid 30’s. Like Rooney, Bergkamp naturally had a fiery side and was sent of a number of times in his career, but he earnt the nickname of The Ice Man during his time at Arsenal because of his composure.  He was an inspirational figure at Arsenal, and it is well documented that a number of players, both at senior and youth level, stepped up their game when Bergkamp joined.

Crucially, Bergkamp trained at least as hard in his 30’s as he did at the beginning of his career in order to adapt his game and remain at the top level, and this is something Rooney must also do. Rooney’s physicality is not as it once was. He can no longer embark on lung busting runs with the ball from his own half, brushing of several opponents on the way with a pop shot at the end. He has to use his knowledge of the game and undoubted skill to gain the upper hand, and he has certainly demonstrated the audacity earlier in his career to perform a similar role to  Bergkamp. Rooney and Bergkamp share a lot of the same characteristics, and I for one would  delighted to see a new re-invented Rooney producing the magic he is undoubtedly capable of.