Should Paris Saint-Germain let Unai Emery go this summer, or stay the course? | The Boot Room

Should Paris Saint-Germain let Unai Emery go this summer, or stay the course? | The Boot Room

My piece for the BootRoom on PSG and Unai Emery(written before Monaco clinched the title)

 

It’s difficult to think that this is what Paris Saint-Germain envisioned when they hired Unai Emery.

The former Sevilla man, fresh of a third straight Europa League title, was brought in to replace Laurent Blanc after another failed European campaign. Success on the domestic front would have been expected given the clubs resources and the talent in the squad. Progress in Europe was the main goal. Emery is failing on all accounts as things stand.

PSG are second in the table, three points a Monaco side with a game in hand and only three remaining. This is the same Monaco side that went further in the Champions League knockout stages and announced their domestic intentions by fielding a weakened side in their recent French Cup semi-finals matchup.

A cup double and a return the Champions League is likely but that is a step back from what Blanc achieved in his final season. Had there been signs of progress on the pitch despite the lack of silverware then Emery’s situation may be less precarious he still has work to do in terms of moulding the squad in his image. It was a surprise that he was chosen, despite his success, to lead a club with PSG’s ambition and resources, and the Spaniard has certainly had his ups and downs.

PSG started off the season in Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, while playing in his more direct and energetic style. As noted in this space earlier this season, via the Bleacher Report, a request from senior members of the squad saw the club revert to the 4-3-3 possession based style that the Spaniard preferred.

While Emery’s decision to listen to his players showed a good touch of man-management in a delicate situation, the discussion should have continued from there. A season-long transformation could still have transpired but instead we have seen Emery’s style of display in fits and starts while the manager has been forced to deal with various injuries, changes in form, and so forth.

The major victory in his season, so far, has been the rebirth of Edinson Cavani as the leading man up top. The Uruguayan, no longer in the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has revelled in being the man leading the line again to the tune of 45 goals in 45 games. Emery’s words and training throughout the season surely played a role getting the best from the frontman, but the cynics can argue that any new manager could have achieved similar results with Zlatan gone.

Unfortunately for Emery, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives.

While he also reinvigorated Angel Di Maria and has overseen good performances from youngsters like Presnel Kimpembe, his additions have been a mixed bag. The addition of Julian Draxler in the January transfer window brought about a mid-season surge, but that was to be expected.

Aside from the German, only Thomas Meunier, the least unfancied of his recruits, acquitted himself well. Jese Rodriguez was sent back on loan to Las Palmas in La Liga, Grzegorz Krychowiak has hardly stepped on the pitch and Hatem Ben Arfa’s form has come and gone throughout the campaign.

While it’s not all his fault – one can certainly cannot compare relative novice Patrick Kluivert to former Sevilla director of football, Monchi – where transfers are concerned, the manager certainly had his say in these matters.

The lack of change led to a continued reliance on a player like Thiago Motta, who is much more suitable to Blanc’s system, and casts doubts as to whether Emery really has control of the dressing room. The tactics and decision-making that led to the worst performance of the season, that 6-1 loss to Barcelona, surely wouldn’t have helped.

Various poor results on the domestic front, including losses to fellow title challengers Monaco and Nice, have decreased PSG’s aura of invincibility. That, and the club’s European disappointment, might have key players questioning the club’s ability to reach the top of Europe.

While its unlikely that Cavani or Di Maria will leave, nor the recently arrived Draxler, Marco Veratti has been the subject of fluttering eyelids across Europe for a few seasons now. The Italian midfielder is a fantastic fit for Emery’s system and a major part of the PSG’s project. Convincing him to stay will be a major task in the summer while other potential departures, like Serge Aurier, must be replaced adequately. Whether Emery’s bosses think they can do the same with him is another matter.

While the failure in Europe  certainly has those in charge at PSG questioning their decision it may be hasty to get rid of Emery now. The Spaniard has proven himself in La Liga before and while his Champions League record isn’t the greatest, he is in a different situation now. If he can work together with Kluivert to mold the team in his image this summer then there will be plenty of cause for optimism heading into the 2017/18 season. There won’t be many, if any, big-name managers available for PSG to look at in any case and, as they would’ve seen with Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this season, European success does not come overnight.

Emery still has title-winning experience and PSG have a good squad. One trophy has entered the cabinet this season and they are strong favorites for the French Cup as well. The Spaniard was chosen by the PSG hierarchy last summer and, title or not, it makes sense to stay the course. Should that be the case, the manager will know that the hook will be out quickly if there is no progress next season.

Why Juventus will win the 2016/17 Champions League | The Boot Room

Why Juventus will win the 2016/17 Champions League | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on Juventus’ chances in the Champions League

Juventus are one step closer to returning to the top of the European hierarchy.

The Old Lady travel to France to play Monaco in the first leg of the semifinals on Wednesday in what will be an intriguing encounter.

Juventus have had a good few weeks since their impressive defeat of Barcelona at the quarterfinal stage. Their lead in the Serie A currently stands at nine points with four games remaining, thanks to Roma’s loss to Lazio on Sunday. Massimiliona Allegri’s men would also have been pleased to learn that Monaco, and not Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, were their semifinal opponents. The French side are impressive and potent in the attack, as Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund will attest, but they are the least experienced of the Champions League semifinalists.

Juventus know they will still face a tough test but will be confident after nullifying the trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez over two legs. That’s not to say the thought of facing either Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid would’ve had hearts skipping a beat. The Old Lady would have faced any of the semifinalists confident of reaching the final.

This Juventus side has to be considered the favorite to win the Champions League from this point on.

If the attacking prowess Il Bianconeri showed in the first leg against Barcelona wasn’t enough then the defensive masterclass at the Nou Camp should’ve vanquished any doubts. Of the four finalists, only Juventus has no questions marks over their path to the semifinals. Whether it be dubious defending, poor refereeing, weaker opponents or otherwise, Monaco and both Madrid sides haven’t been fully tested.

Juventus have gone about their Champions League campaign effectively, having topped their group while only conceding two goals in 10 games thus far. They made little fuss in dealing with Porto in the Round of 16 and upped their game against Barcelona. The confidence they showcased in those two legs are indicative of a side convinced they have what it takes to win the competition.

Juventus need not focus on the perceived luck of others though.

Allegri continues to enhance his reputation as a tactician and did so again earlier this season. The switch from the usual 3-5-2 system to a well-balanced 4-2-3-1 setup has put Il Bianconeri on the path to a treble. In each third of the pitch Juventus can match, or surpass, the main strengths of their fellow semifinalists.

With Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci as organizers and leaders at the back Juventus are a fortress defensively. The varied talents of Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and Miralem Pjanic in the two midfield roles mean Allegri’s side can control a game and withstand a physical battle. The front four of Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzuki, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain has a solid mix of speed, creativity, work-rate and clinical finishing. Juventus’ odds of a treble look very good with this group provided there are no serious injuries between now and the season’s end.

With the Serie A title virtually wrapped up, Juventus can focus fully on their two-legged encounter with Monaco even with the derby against Torino this weekend and the trip to Roma after the second leg. Monaco have a three point lead and a game in hand in Ligue 1 but the young side will be tested mentally in such an important time in the season. Interestingly enough, Juventus has a recent history with all three sides.

The Old Lady played these teams at various stages of the 2014/15 Champions League season on the way to final against Barcelona. Juventus lost and tied against Atletico in the group stages and finished behind the Spanish side in their group. A tightly contested tie against Monaco ended with 1-0 aggregate win while Real Madrid were beaten 3-2 on aggregate without a loss. Allegri’s side can take solace in the fact that only Monaco has undergone similarly significant changes in terms of playing style and personnel and the Italians will have two legs to overcome them.

Juventus have all the tools at their disposal to conquer their remaining rivals who all have flaws despite their strengths. Monaco’s potent attack leaves them wide open defensively. Atletico have the defensive resilience and tenacity to match the Old Lady but they don’t have the firepower of Juventus. Real Madrid have shown an ability to win all sorts of games while playing poorly but their defense is suspect and if Cristiano Ronaldo is marshaled properly, as you expect with the likes of Chiellini and Bonucci, then they will struggle. One wouldn’t bet against Allegri finding a solution to any problems these opponents will pose.

Juventus aren’t clear favorites but are certainly the strongest side remaining in the Champions League. Barring a freak accident or poor decisions from referees they should be in the final. Their experience two seasons ago will serve as motivation to hoist silverware the club hasn’t seen for over two decades. The Italian side has an air of destiny about them and Buffon’s quest for the one major club trophy to elude him can galvanize the legendary goalkeeper and his teammates.

Juventus’ resurgence from the days of the Calciopoli scandal will finally be complete with a European title in hand.

Why Romelu Lukaku will remain at Everton this summer | The Boot Room

Why Romelu Lukaku will remain at Everton this summer | The Boot Room

My piece on the Boot Room on why Romelu Lukaku won’t be leaving Everton

Romelu Lukaku might want to get used to remaining in Everton blue.

The Belgian striker’s future has been the cause for much debate in recent seasons and the player himself stoked the fire recently. As reported by The Guardian, Lukaku stated in an interview on Belgian TV that he will not be signing the new contract handed to him by his employers. The Everton talisman is in the midst of another fine season for the Toffees, with a league-leading 23 goals in the Premier League.

Lukaku has often made it known that his interest is to play at the highest levels. He’s done so internationally with Belgium but feels the opportunities have passed him by at the club level.

The 23-year-old has been in England for six years now, having signed with Chelsea back in 2011. His eventual departure, while Jose Mourinho was in charge, was baffling considering his impressive performances on loan.

Lukaku’s move to Everton was certainly a step down for the Belgian star but not a huge step back considering the club’s history and status just outside the elite in the Premier League. The former Anderlecht man has definitely benefited from the move though, as he’s proven himself to be one of the top forwards in the league.

While his ambition and talent has surely attracted the attention of the elite it’s not as if he’s completely outgrown Everton.

Lukaku’s mixture of physicality, pace and clinical finishing make him a solid player but he is not the finished article. He can go missing at times, as he did in the recent Merseyside derby against Liverpool, and he doesn’t have the work-rate that has become the norm for modern forwards. Add in a somewhat dubious touch and poor link-up play at times and it’s evident there’s still work to be done. He is still only 23.

The player and his agent may have heard the rumblings in the rumour mill of a possible striker merry-go-round in the summer and decided to add his name to the pot a la Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He may be overestimating his options and the interest in his services though.

Considering his progression at Everton, Lukaku will surely want to be a key member of whatever side he may go to next. The options where that are concerned range from non-existent to severely limited with our without a musical chair for forwards.

In England, the best looks to be Chelsea, should Diego Costa leave.

Antonio Conte has already stopped the Spanish international leaving once though, and will likely prefer his compatriot, Andrea Belotti, and the work-rate he brings to the table. Elsewhere in London, there is Tottenham with Harry Kane and an Arsenal team that lacks ambition.

Further north, Liverpool are, obviously, out of the question and neither Manchester club looks like a good option. If Pep Guardiola doubts Sergio Aguero then he most certainly will find fault with Lukaku plus he already has Gabriel Jesus on hand.

At United, Lukaku may look at Mourinho’s 180 with Juan Mata for a glimmer of hope but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is likely to stay for another year and Mourinho himself may not be interested in signing a player he harbors doubts about.

Things don’t get better when top teams elsewhere are considered.

The Serie A would be a step down before considering that the likes of Juventus, Napoli and Roma all have solid options up front. The Milan giants are still rebuilding and neither of those teams are in strong position when it comes to playing in the Champions League next season.

Neither Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund present good options in the Bundesliga. Bayern have no need for him with Lewandowski in fine form, while Dortmund, with or without Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng in the way, are a project that will take another season or two to fully come together.

Spain is even less promising as one cannot see Lukaku working well under the intensity of Diego Simeone or Jorge Sampaoli at Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. He certainly isn’t needed, nor would he fit, at Barcelona and Real Madrid have Alvaro Morata and other fish to catch such as Eden Hazard. Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain have only recently entered the Edison Cavani era in Ligue 1.

There will undoubtedly be eyes wandering in Lukaku’s direction this summer both domestically and abroad. Whether the clubs mentioned above will convince themselves to commit to what will surely be a significant fee to upset their apple cart remains to be seen. Lukaku himself will have lots of questions to consider.

Will he want to move to a lesser league? Will he move to a team that aren’t in the elite, yet play Champions League just because they are in the Champions League? Would he move to a side that is only guaranteed a play-off spot? In some cases, Lukaku would just be making a sideways with the possible bonus of yearly Champions League play.

While Everton’s best bet right now is entry into the Europa League next season they could be better placed than most to be in the Champions League in the future. Win the Europa League next season and they are there in 2018/19. Alternatively, Ronald Koeman, with the backing of the new ownership, could continue Everton’s progression and have them challenge for the top four next season.

Everton haven’t necessarily lacked ambition so much as they haven’t found a way to break through the brick wall of the big six. That time may be coming. Lukaku’s best bet to play at the highest levels won’t be to clamor for a move away. It will be to lead Everton there.

Why Paul Pogba’s critics are missing the mark for a number of reasons | The Boot Room

Why Paul Pogba’s critics are missing the mark for a number of reasons | The Boot Room

My piece on Paul Pogba criticism for the Boot Room

Paul Pogba isn’t worthy of being the football’s most expensive player.

At least that’s the claim coming from all corners, whether it be the media, former players or the multitude of fans on social media, fan blogs etc. The former Juventus man returned to Manchester United last summer amid much hoopla. Despite some down years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, this was a statement signing signifying the club could withstand lean times and still make a mark. It certainly wasn’t Pogba’s fault that Juventus negotiated shrewdly and United were willing to throw out money at someone they gifted away then realized they desperately needed.

Pogba’s time in Italy allowed him to evolve into the all-around talented midfielder he is today and the YouTube clips of long-range bombs, exquisite dribbling, and sublime passing have fans expecting all of that regularly. What those clips don’t reveal is the importance of Pogba’s teammates and the tactical setup that allowed those moments. The Frenchman just turned 24 and, like many in his generation despite their talents, still has some fine-tweaking to do with his game.

Any player with Pogba’s talents, especially with the weight of that transfer fee hanging over them, will try to please everyone. Pogba’s case is especially unique as he heads into the self-professed “best league in the world.” Even if that claim isn’t irrefutable, he has definitely made a big step up in competition.

While that transfer fee sticks in the minds of critics it may be hard to step back and recognize that, like other new signings, this is a player adjusting to life on the pitch at Manchester United and the Premier League. There’s also a new coach, new teammates and different style of play. Pogba will be used to dominating the Serie A with Juventus against weaker opponents with a winter break and without the any given Sunday feel of the Premier League.

Put simply, the criticism of Pogba is mainly down to his value, one he didn’t place on himself, without considering all other factors.

As seen on ESPNFC, a look back at the last few seasons shows that Pogba’s statistics this season aren’t far off his norm. At Juventus, he had nine goals and nine assists in 2013/14, nine goals and five assists in 2014/15 and nine goals and 15 assists in 2015/16. This season he has seven goals and five assists, with at least two months to play.

He’s shown flashes of his talent at times and, knowing the impact he can bring, he could be accused of trying too hard in bigger games. That hasn’t been helped by a manager who is known to prefer more pragmatism than creativity in his midfielders. Mesut Ozil may have been the exception to some extent where that is concerned.

Jose Mourinho has seemingly failed to realize the problems Didier Deschamps had at Euro 2016 or is unwilling to learn from the examples from his peers, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri. Pogba performs best in a three-man midfield with the freedom to use his range of talents. Whether it was a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2, Pogba had two partners. Someone like Andrea Pirlo or Claudio Marchisio helped control the midfield while the likes of Arturo Vidal or Sami Khedira were all-action types. If Pogba is partnered at the base of a 4-2-3-1 then he is better off with an enforcer.

Which is why Mourinho’s reported interest in Monaco star Tiemoue Bakayoko, according to ESPN, makes sense. It’s also why Michael Carrick should be offered a new contract. Bakayoko would fill the role of enforcer any formation Mourinho chooses, as noted here by the Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe, while Carrick could be used in other situations where more control is required. In either case, Ander Herrera fits the all-action role perfectly.

Detractors may say that a player who comes in for that amount of money should be able to fit in anywhere and with anyone. It’s quite the opposite. A player like that is bought for what they bring to the team, sometimes to the extent that the team is built around them. Manchester United bought Pogba not just for 2016/17 but for a decade or more of service. It won’t work if he is not put in the best position to succeed.

Another simple bit of reasoning in some corners is that a player transferred for that amount should be the best player in the world. That’s not the case with Pogba nor with the previous player to hold that honor, Gareth Bale. Indeed, Pogba’s fee should be accepted as a product of the finances in football today, however bad a taste such expenditure leaves.

If the likes of Bale, Kevin de Bruyne, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, James Rodriquez and, yes, even Cristiano Ronaldo, can cost more than Zinedine Zidane then why can’t Pogba? And for those who scoff at Ronaldo’s name on that list consider this.

Ronaldo joined Real Madrid at 23 having won titles along with previously being named the best player in the world. Pogba won almost as many titles with Juventus minus the Champions League. Pogba is also still coming of age in an era where two of the greatest ever to play the game, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, still dominate yet his talent suggest he is among those to be next in line. For further comparison, Ronaldo didn’t win anything at Madrid until his third season while Pogba has already helped his side to a trophy and could get at least one more in his debut season.

That’s why his injury is almost a good thing. Pogba will now have time to get some much-needed rest, analyze his season so far and prepare to make a big impact in the games to come. A Europa league title coupled with a top-four finish, though one or the other will do for a Champions League return, would make for a solid season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has led the way and will continue to do so but that’s what experience in four of the five major leagues gets you.

Pogba may not be the highlight-reel fans were expecting nor, in some people’s minds, worth the title of world’s most expensive player. A decent first season is still in hand and the likelihood is that, with the right team around him, next season will be even better.

What does Luis Enrique’s departure mean for Barcelona this season and beyond? | The Boot Room

What does Luis Enrique’s departure mean for Barcelona this season and beyond? | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on what Enrique’s departure means for Barcelona

It seemed inevitable. The constant pressure, criticism, and rumours would sap the energy of any manager.

As reported by the Guardian, Luis Enrique announced he will be leaving Barcelona at the end of this season after his side’s 6-1 victory over Sporting Gijon on Wednesday. The timing may seem a little strange, but given everything that’s occurred over the last three seasons, and especially in recent months, this decision seemed likely.

Enrique has won eight of the ten trophies available to him in his tenure and overseen the fabled MSN trio so it hasn’t been all bad. His departure isn’t all that dissimilar from his friend Pep Guardiola’s a few seasons ago. Guardiola announced his decision nearer the end of a campaign that saw Barcelona lose their title to Real Madrid and get knocked out of Champions League by familiar foes Chelsea. The Blaugrana won the Copa del Rey but Enrique will be hoping to go two better.

So what does this mean for Barcelona in their present state? In reality, very little changes. Especially on the field.

Enrique’s announcement does mean the manager and his squad can focus solely on football without the distractions about his future. This side is in a better position domestically than they were at the beginning of the year and can still hold out hope for a miracle in the Champions League.

The shock loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League tie in February still sticks in the mind but Barcelona bounced back by beat Atletico Madrid to reach the Copa del Rey. Barcelona’s chances to retain La Liga have improved considerably in the last few weeks. The Blaugrana are currently first in the league having played one more game than Real Madrid. Enrique’s team has gotten some help in reeling in their rivals, including from fellow title hopeful Sevilla, but have also gotten the results necessary to keep the pressure on.

One reason for that has been the increased focus on regaining the control in midfield that has been deemed missing for most of the campaign. One of the major criticisms of Enrique’s tenure has been the increasing loss of identity and the diminishing importance of the club’s style of play. This Barcelona side isn’t feared as much as previous versions due to their inability to really control a game and their weaknesses have been exposed on more than one occasion. The loss of form and absences of key players has contributed to this, along with a lack of adequate and consistent performances by their replacements.

Barcelona has trotted out in a 3-4-3 formation in the last two games against Atletico Madrid and Sporting. Enrique stated this change was to regain the control that has been missing, as seen here on ESPN FC, and it will be interesting to see how long it continues. Celta Vigo are up next in La Liga and the hardest remaining test is a trip to Madrid for El Clasico where the title could be decided if Barcelona doesn’t slip again. A fully focused, and healthy, Barcelona squad, led by a manager who has eased some of his worries, will feel they still have a shot at the treble.

The other effect of Enrique’s announcement is that it provides clarity and forces action off the field as well. The Barcelona board can now look for a replacement, and focus on renewing Lionel Messi’s contract. Messi is unlikely to leave Barcelona given he won’t find an S and N elsewhere and especially so if the new manager is one he’ll be happy to work with. That is the major task for Barcelona president, Josep Bartomeu. Finding a manager that can deal with the juggernaut that is Barcelona and all that encompasses, from the players to the press to the fans.

The list of names that have cropped up in the rumour mill throughout Enrique’s tenure is interesting.

Some names, like Arsene Wenger, can only be classified as peak rumour-mill, while others, like Mauricio Pochettino, will be cause for plenty of debate. Two such managers have already taken their hat out of the ring as ESPNFC reports that the aforementioned Wenger only has eyes for Arsenal, while Real Sociedad’s Eusebio is honoring his contract. Eusebio does have the history Barcelona prefer in their managers, having played for the club before spending time as an assistant for the senior side then briefly managing Barcelona B, but he doesn’t have the profile Enrique or Guardiola did and was sacked at Barcelona B.

Other names include the likely front-runner, Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli, Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, Everton’s Ronald Koeman, Laurent Blanc and current assistant Juan Carlos Unzue.

The only one of those, aside from Pochettino, without any former Barcelona association, is Sampaoli but his fantastic first European season puts him at the head of the queue. Pochettino’s work with England will have eyes wondering his way as well but his Catalan past is tied to rival club Espanyol as both a player and manager. That kind of history won’t sit well with some fans nor, it seems, per ESPNFC, the man himself. Valverde had a short stint at Barcelona and his Athletic side are always a handful but his playing style may rule him out. Koeman wouldn’t be a surprising option given his tactical acumen and, of course, his history with the club. Blanc is the type of manager who could keep things ticking over without upsetting the apple cart but there will be doubts considering how is time at Paris Saint-Germain ended. Unzue is already well-established with this Barcelona squad as Enrique’s assistant and may have his own ideas to retool the squad for consistent dominance.

The possibilities are all there for Bartemeu and he has until season’s end to get a manager in place before the transfer window. No more words are needed for Enrique beyond support for him and his staff in the quest for silverware this season. That continues on Saturday against a Celta Vigo side that beat them 4-3 earlier in October. Keeping the pressure on Madrid until El Clasico is of the utmost importance and, at the very least, a noble Champions League exit a la Arsenal would save some face. Should Barcelona pull off the miracle of beating PSG and kick-start a long Champions run Enrique’s departure may be met with a bit more consternation?

For now, the Barcelona manager will want to focus on each task as it comes. With one of his last moves, Enrique has likely galvanized his squad and focused them on facing the tasks ahead, and possibly the boardroom as well. That bodes well for Barcelona’s present and future.

Why Arsene Wenger will remain at Arsenal next season | The Boot Room

Why Arsene Wenger will remain at Arsenal next season | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on the one and only Arsene Wenger

Arsenal fans may not want to accept it but Arsene Wenger will stay at the club next season.

To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon’s speech from the Dark Knight slightly, he may not be the manager they need, or want, but he is the one they are stuck with.

The Gunners are in the midst of an all too familiar season of disappointment. Dumped out of the EFL cup early by eventual finalists, Southampton, out of the title race and certainly out of the Champions League, Arsenal’s only chance of silverware is the FA Cup. Having won the competition in two of the last three years, the Arsenal faithful won’t be too impressed with dominating a competition no longer high on the list of the elite.

Another year of tactical and mental failures has increased the calls for Wenger to leave the club and recent results haven’t helped. The 2-1 loss at home to Watford was followed by the somewhat expected 3-1 loss to Chelsea, though it’s the 5-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern that still sticks in the mind. Despite these issues, it seems likely that Wenger will stay at the club. The BBC recently reported that the Arsenal manager will make a decision on his future at the end of the season knowing that new deal has been offered.

And there lies one of the reasons why it is a certainty that Wenger will stay on beyond this season.

The decision makers at Arsenal are quite okay with the status quo and are seemingly in awe of the Professor. Consistent Champions League football and meekly attempted title challenges are good enough for Stan Kroenke, Ivan Gazidis, and co. No one on the board has the football knowledge to challenge Wenger, or at the very least help him improve their fortunes on the field. That also makes the possibility of finding a capable successor even more daunting. Wenger is the Director of Football, manager, and coach all rolled into one. There’s really no other manager, especially at a top club, that has such power. To expect a new manager to come in and fill all those roles is an almost certain recipe for failure. That could be negated by hiring someone to fill the role of Director Football, with the alternative being promoting Wenger to that position. Whether Wenger will want to relinquish everyday control of his team, or the new manager willing to have Wenger breathing down his neck, is another matter.

The names that have been mentioned as possible successors, Thomas Tuchel, Diego Simeone and Massimiliano Allegri favorite among them, are all exciting. Each would have his own reason for not wanting to join. Tuchel has an exciting project already underway at Borussia Dortmund, Simeone has much more ambition than yearly 4th place trophies, plus his style doesn’t fit the Arsenal way, and Allegri is doing well at Juventus where winning the domestic title is a given and actually winning the Champions League is the main concern.

There is the possibility of a lesser known manager taking the reins but that would surely require Wenger staying in an executive role or hiring from the outside. The best bet would be on Silent Stan wanting to keep Wenger around. He doesn’t seem to be the only one either.

The Guardian reports that both Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin would be more inclined to stick around if Wenger stays. The fans will have mixed feelings in this regard but will surely not want to return to the days of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie departing. Ozil’s form this season, and the continued doubts about his performance on the biggest stage means fans may not miss him too much should he go. Bellerin, as reported by ESPNFC, recently sign a new long-term contract so a departure is unlikely.

If the overwhelming majority of the team would like Wenger to stay then that makes the decision easy for the board. On the flipside, Alexis Sanchez, the one player Arsenal can’t lose, seems likely to leave if Wenger retains his place as manager. The Chilean has shown his frustration on numerous occasions this season and may feel his energy is better spent elsewhere. Should a new manager come in he might be tempted to stay.

Wenger is unlikely to want to leave on a sour note and has been in this position before. As far as his employers are concerned, he is meeting the requirements they have for him. One could argue that failure to qualify for the Champions League next season should prompt some response but, again, the likely action will be to trust Wenger to guide the club to a quick return to the competition. The board have given Wenger the utmost trust and confidence and their silence during the recent poor run does nothing to suggest a change will come.

The possibility of life at Arsenal without Arsenal is surely one that keeps “Silent Stan” screaming at night. The recent botched succession of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United is suggested as a major reason the board at Arsenal would be hesitant. That’s understandable but the club then risks falling behind by standing still. Regardless, the board have already made their decision.

A contract has been offered to Wenger in lieu of real success or progress, or silverware as the fans call it. The board is smart enough to know they lack the football knowledge to fill the gap the Frenchman’s departure would create and they probably feel he can’t be adequately replaced. While Arsenal is a club rich in history and full of talent, the elite managers may look at the lack of ambition shown from the top and be drawn elsewhere. The possibility of key players departing, however minute in some cases, also factors in.

Wenger has made himself indispensable to the current leadership at Arsenal. If they are happy with what he provides then a departure will only ever come on his terms. One can only hope Arsenal won’t be too far behind when that occurs.

Why Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Premier League start shows he’s the best forward of his generation | The Boot Room

Why Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Premier League start shows he’s the best forward of his generation | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on the one and only Zlatan.

Thirteen league titles, sixteen domestic cups, one European title and one world title amassed in four countries. Numerous individual awards and records. Dazzling goals, assists and overall play. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has it all.

The 35-year-old Swedish striker is the ultimate journeyman footballer.

Ibrahimovic has played for eight of the biggest clubs in the world during his career and no one can say he failed at any stop. Those titles, accolades and his generally excellent play are why he is the greatest forward of his generation.

Some may not like Zlatan’s arrogance and bravado but few, especially now after his short time in the Premier League, can deny the player’s greatness. As with any player, legend or otherwise, Zlatan has his  fair share of critics. The main knock against him is that every team has played on has won the Champions League before, or after, his arrival. Some would say he is not a team player considering his attitude but the player himself knocks down such assertions.

In his latest sojourn, the Manchester United forward stated in an interview with ManUtd.com that his focus is on the team first. It’s hard to argue against that when you consider the results. Zlatan is a serial winner. One could argue that success was inevitable given the teams he has played on and the players he has played with but Zlatan was a key part of all those teams. His last three stops, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United have also showcased some of the leadership abilities of the big Swede.

Zlatan’s one regret, if it comes to pass, will be the lack of a Champions League medal. Another criticism that comes hand in hand with that is a perceived failure to perform in the biggest games. Goals in De Klassieker in Netherlands, Derby della Madonnina and Derby d’Italia in Italy, El Clásico and the Catalan Derby in Spain, Le Classique in France, Manchester Derby and North-West Derby in England offer a solid argument against that.

Zlatan possesses a unique array of skills that none of his contemporaries can match. The likes of Thierry Henry, Michael Owen, Samuel Eto’o have all made their mark in various ways. It’s Zlatan’s mix of physical, technical and mental skills, along with his long list of trophies, which suggest he will go down as one of the game’s greatest players. Among the number of great forwards to illuminate the game after Ronaldo, “El Fenomeno if we must clarify, Zlatan is ahead.  The fact that, at 35 years old, he can still be in the conversation against the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa, Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski among others is astounding.

No other forward could have the durability and mental strength to jump into Premier League in its current state at 35 and perform so well.

A Premier League title looks highly unlikely at this point in the season but we’ve seen enough to suggest Zlatan will play his part in the challenge. The Manchester United forward still has a chance at three trophies this season with the EFL Cup, the FA Cup and Europa League still to come. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his contract renewed for another year given his play so far and the likelihood of a trophy. A Premier League title would cement his legacy even further but his work so far speaks for itself.

Things were always going to be more difficult on the international stage despite Sweden having plenty of talent in his earlier years. Still, Zlatan is the country’s top goalscorer and certainly had his moments of brilliance as shown by his goals against Italy and England.

Zlatan has always been among the goals at his various clubs and was only below single digits a few times early in his career. Per Soccerbase.com the Swedish striker had a ratio of 0.62 goals per game in league play and 0.5 goals per game in other competitions in his club career. He was not always about goals though as his Ajax upbringing ensured he liked to be involved in his side’s buildup. His mixture of strength and technical skills made this quite easy and that side of his game has been on display more in recent seasons.

Even if we take away the two Juventus titles due to Calciopoli scandal, Zlatan still has 11 league trophies in four countries. If he stays with United beyond this season then he has the chance to make it 12 in five. Zlatan didn’t need to move to England to prove anything given his career so far but he’s definitely added plenty to his story so far at Manchester United.

Why Atletico Madrid should go all out for the Champions League | The Boot Room

My piece for the Bootroom on Atletico’s Time Going to An End

Why Atletico Madrid should go all out for the Champions League | The Boot Room

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. The progress Los Rojiblancos have built up in the last few seasons has seemingly ground to a halt in 2016/17.

Diego Simeone’s introduction as manager in 2011 culminated in an impressive rise for Atletico Madrid. The team that has Barcelona and Real Madrid looking over their shoulders domestically, and European clubs hoping to avoid them at all costs, is no longer an immovable object. Some of that is down to the struggles of a change in style this season coupled with a lack of form of key players. The fact that La Liga has been extremely competitive this season is another reason.

Atletico are currently six points off the pace in La Liga and have played one game more than the league leaders, Real Madrid. They are in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey and the Round of 16 in the Champions League. This has become the norm for Atletico under Simeone, but the club might be on the tail end of a good run.

Rumours and speculation continue to surround Simeone and the club’s star man, Antoine Griezmann, as time goes on. The future doesn’t seem particularly set in stone, especially after ESPNFC reported on the shortening of Simeone’s contract and Griezmann’s comments about playing club football with his good friend Paul Pogba. The club, players and otherwise, would surely have been affected by those actions.

Simeone has forged this team into perennial contenders and this may just be an off year. If the club comes up empty for a second season running, after five seasons with a trophy, then the two big names may head to greener pastures. They may do so even in the event they do grab silverware and there would be no better trophy to leave with than the Champions League.

Atletico has little chance of reeling in Real Madrid at this stage unless there is a monumental collapse. The Copa del Rey will add some gloss but leave an even deeper sense of missed opportunities elsewhere. It’s in the Champions League that Simeone and his side have unfinished business.

While Atletico stumbled early on in La Liga they were perfect until it no longer mattered in the group stages. The home win over Bayern Munich was typical of this side and a reminder of the approach that resulted in two trips to the Champions League finals in the last three seasons. Teams will still fear facing Atletico during a two-legged tie and the road to Cardiff begins with familiar opponents in Bayer Leverkusen. Griezmann is rounding into form with three goals in three games to start the year after a barren spell in December.

There is no clear favourite in the competition currently, though Real Madrid will likely get the nod given their recent streak. It is still unknown how Zinedine Zidane will react to any period of real adversity, and that period will come at some point this season. The other big guns, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, have faced their own struggles this season and Atletico will feel confident enough given their performances against that duo already this season. It’s hard not to see them stifling the likes of Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City as well.

If Simeone decides its best to hold off on plans to introduce a more fluid, forward-minded Atletico to grab the silverware that has eluded him he must do so quickly. Atletico can gain some steam with a decent schedule in the league coming up, along with Eibar in the Copa del Rey. Should they get knocked out of the Copa then the quest for Champions League glory increases tenfold. Jan Oblak, a key part of the club’s defensive fortitude, could return in time for the tie against Leverkusen.

Atletico will be heading to a new stadium next season, per ESPNFC, and there would be no better way to celebrate that than with a Champions League trophy in hand. They might be without their two biggest stars, Simeone and Griezmann, but arguably the biggest trophy available would convince them to stay. Third times the charm Atletico.

Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first? | The Boot Room

Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first? | The Boot Room

My piece for The Boot Room on what the rest of the season holds after a fascinating first half of 2016/17

 

The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.

Teams in Spain, Germany, France and Italy will go off on their various holidays to refresh themselves while the Premier League hogs the festive spotlight. One can’t help but look out for the only source of quality football during that period with some sort of joy, amusement or, if you’re an Arsenal fan, apprehension. With a glut of games beginning on Boxing day through to the New Year, there’s a good chance we’ll see a surprise or two in the world’s most entertaining league.

Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.

There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth’s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.

While most of Europe’s leagues have a familiar look there’s no telling what will happen when the remaining leagues restart in January.

The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.

Another team that has eyebrows raised are proving the motto of their majority owner. Red Bull Leipzig might not have adhered to the traditional ownership expected in Germany but that is one reason they have been so successful. The newly promoted club sprouted wings to quickly rise up the divisions and sit second in the league right behind Bayern Munich. That, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s inconsistent domestic form, has the traditionalists in Germany breathing into a paper bag despite the challenge to Bayern’s hegemony. The other heavyweights in the league, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, are in eight and eleventh respectively while Wolfsburg languish in 13th place. As is the case in France, the defending champions have a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and their main challengers currently have no European commitments. Bayern’s talent and Ancelotti’s experience mean the Bavarians will still likely come out on top and they made sure to put their opponents in their place with a 3-0 win in final round of the year.
While things in Germany and France vary from what was expected there’s definitely a familiar look in Italy and Spain.

Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.

Cesare Prandelli took charge of Valencia at the end of September but has been unable to stop the club’s free-fall. Los Che stand 17th in the league after only one win in their last nine games. Relegation is a strong possibility. At the top half of the table eyes may roll seeing the familiar names of Real Madrid and Barcelona occupying the top two spots. It hasn’t been all easy for either side though, as Madrid have yet to look particularly dominant while Barcelona have suffered some shock results, notably a loss to Alaves at home. Atletico Madrid’s luck seems to have run out as they trail the leaders by 11 points in sixth place with Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad above them and Athletic Bilbao right behind.

Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.

There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.

Emery and Ancelotti were targeted by PSG and Bayern to improve their clubs chances in Europe but that wasn’t expected to come at the expense of domestic success. Questions may continue to be asked of Emery as he tries to steer an extremely ambitious club but Ancelotti has the experience to see his side over the line. Whether they meet expectations in Europe as well remains to be seen. In England, Jurgen Klopp has benefited from a full preseason with his side and no European distractions. There are still kinks to iron out but Liverpool look well-placed to challenge at the top. Ditto for Antonio Conte and league-leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are coming to terms with work that’s needed to fix their new teams but you would bet on both Manchester clubs to be in the running at the end. Real Madrid’s impressive streak certainly bodes well for Zinedine Zidane’s current and future prospects in the hottest seat of them all. Whether he can avoid the drop-off the team had the last time they went to the Club World Cup remains to be seen.

The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.

Soccer in 2017 to be dominated by virtual reality and the continued rise of analytics – ESPN FC

Soccer in 2017 to be dominated by virtual reality and the continued rise of analytics – ESPN FC

I haven’t done a post like this in a while hoping to get back to doing it regularly. If’ you’ve read Soccernomics you know about Simon Kuper. There’s definitely some interesting thoughts in there. I can see the rise in analytics continuing but I don’t know about managers becoming less vital or Western Europe losing it’s dominance. If the latter happens it won’t be for a while yet.