Category: My Articles

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.

Is Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil more important to Arsenal? | The Boot Room

Is Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil more important to Arsenal? | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on which of Arsenal’s two superstars is more important. 

Arsenal’s two superstars have been the subject of much debate as the Gunners continue their fine start to the 2016/17 season.

Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have been key to Arsenal’s recent revival and much of their good form this season. The duo arrived in consecutive summers when their former employers sought high-quality, and highly expensive, additions from two of their rivals. Arsenal were the benefactors from those moves and two FA Cups have since arrived to end the club’s trophy drought. Success in other competitions has been non-existent but the strong start this season has increased expectations.

A major cause for that is the ever-improving on-field relationship between the two stars. Sanchez’s deployment as a full-time striker for the Gunners has led to a partnership between him and Ozil reminiscent of the days of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

Arsene Wenger has received credit in some corners for a long overdue move to place the Chilean livewire at the head of Arsenal’s attack. That decision has led to an increase in productivity and quality from both stars, as they play closer together in the central of the park with skills that complement each other well.

Both players are well on their way to their best tallies for the club, with Ozil’s nine goals and five assists bettered by Sanchez’s 13 goals and eight assists in all competitions. Both have produced match-winning performances and moments so far and its no wonder Arsenal fans are biting their nails over any bit of negative news about the duo.

The Telegraph reported at the beginning of the season that the Gunners were set to enter contract talks with both players. There has been little sign of progression where those talks are concerned and time is of essence with Sanchez and Ozil’s contracts due to expire in 2018. If either side fail to reach an agreement, or if Arsenal fail to land a major trophy once the season ends, then the possibility of one or both players leaving becomes very real.

If Arsenal were to lose either player it would come as a massive blow to the club’s reputation and chance for further progression.

Sanchez and Ozil are both in their prime and are key players for club and country. While the German is arguably the best player in his position and Sanchez is still coming to terms with the regularity of his new role, Arsenal need Sanchez more.

When comparing the two and what they bring to the club, Sanchez hits more marks. The Chilean’s form so far this season suggests that Arsenal’s wait for a long-term heir to Thierry Henry has ended. Sanchez provides much of the same power, pace and drive as the Frenchman and has showcased his clinical touch as well. One could argue that Ozil’s presence behind him is why he has been so effective in this role but there’s nothing to compare unlike the differences between Sanchez and Olivier Giroud up front. Arsenal have a few players who could play in Ozil’s position while arguably providing similar statistics but none can match Sanchez’s talents. Ozil is standing in the way of a few players, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere among them, who could eventually move on if they find a better opportunity elsewhere.

A look at the statistics favour the Chilean as well.

In their time at the club, considering only games in the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup, Sanchez has 53 goals and 30 assists in 109 games. Ozil has 29 goals and 47 goals in 137 games. Both players had their injury spells and runs of poor form but these statistics showcase two points. Sanchez is a much more productive player who has also spent the majority of his time behind the striker as Ozil has. The Chilean is also much more durable than his teammate, having played only 29 games less than his teammate, about half a season, despite joining a full year later. Ozil has shown signs of increased durability but Sanchez is already ahead in that game as shown by his quick return from injury during the November international break.

Neither player is bigger than the club, and if Wenger really wants to stick to his guns then both may leave. That would be a mistake.

In a perfect world both players would stay and do so in such a way that won’t upset the balance Wenger wants in his dressing room. Sanchez may not yet be considered a world-class striker like his teammate in attacking midfield but those strikers are hard to find, or are beyond Wenger’s taste as far as cost, while are many quality attacking midfielders around. His redeployment centrally has led to the increased dynamism in Arsenal’s attack. There certainly won’t be a replica of Ozil, but Arsenal can surely find a player of the requisite quality to replace the German.

If it comes down to a choice, then it is Sanchez who provides a much bigger need for the club in the short and long-term.

All statistics courtesy of ESPNFC

Can Borussia Dortmund really challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title? | The Boot Room

Can Borussia Dortmund really challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title? | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on Borussia Dortmund’s chances of challenging Bayern this season

Borussia Dortmund’s start to the 2016/17 season has been disappointing.

In a season in which Bayern Munich, regardless of their quality, are going through transition, the expectation was that Dortmund would provide a strong challenge for the Bavarian side.

Dortmund’s 5-2 win over Hamburg was their first Bundesliga win since September and Thomas Tuchel’s side enters the last international break of the year in fifth place. A record of five wins, three draws and two losses isn’t horrible, but slightly surprising.

One of those losses came at the hands of the Bundesliga’s surprise team so far this season, the newly promoted Red Bull Leizpig. Red Bull are currently Bayern’s sternest challengers, and are level on points with the champions, but have yet to face the juggernaut. The other teams above Dortmund include TSG Hoffenheim, who drew with Bayern at the weekend, and Hertha Berlin.

History suggests the cream usually rises to the top and these teams will eventually fall off but Red Bull in particular seem capable of pulling a Leicester, as it were. Dortmund, meanwhile, have their own issues to sort out.

The laundry list of outgoing and incoming changes at Signal Iduna Park makes the slow start somewhat understandable. Dortmund finished 10 points off the pace last season in second place but three key faces left during the summer. Any team would have found it difficult to replace the varied talents and experience of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Dortmund’s approach saw the club bring in players who have failed to live up to their full potential, like Mario Gotze and Marc Bartra, and wonder-kids like Ousmane Dembele. The effect has been mixed.

The stand-out performer so far from the new signings is Raphael Guerreiro, the Portuguese left back who has been extremely impressive in a midfield role. Both Dembele and fellow wonder-kid, Emre Mor, have shown flashes of their potential while Bartra put in some decent performances early on. Gotze and Andre Schurrle haven’t been hugely disappointing so far but more is expected from two well-established senior internationals. Marco Reus’ constant injury issues are further cause for frustration and one can envisage a much stronger side when all the senior players are fit and firing. In total, seven new players have been brought that have played a decent role so far.

Tuchel has tried to rotate things to keep players happy and that has played a part in the early form. Those decisions will help keep legs fresh towards the end of the season, but also means players like Shinji Kagawa have yet to find their best form. Consistency across the board has been a key issue for Dortmund so far this season.

There have been good signs from some players though, with Christian Pulisic continuing to progress well and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang retaining his prolific form. Aubameyang’s goals are the cherry on top of a league-leading 25 goals, to go along with 11 in the Champions League.

That attack hasn’t suffered too much after the departures but there is work needed in the defense.  The 12 goals conceded in the Bundesliga is the worst among those currently in the top seven although it is keeping in line with the 34 goals conceded in 34 games last season. More time to adapt to Hummels’ departure and the new talents to adjust defensively should fix that issue.

The January transfer will be key for Dortmund, as Tuchel will need to streamline the squad without ridding it of too much depth or quality. A place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League has already been secured and a decent run will be expected in the German Cup. Bayern will also be fighting on three fronts and their focus on the Champions League might leave them vulnerable domestically.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side has only shown glimpses of the imperious form that was on display under Pep Guardiola. The Italian’s track record in league campaigns isn’t the greatest and that has shown in Bayern’s rocky start. The league leaders will visit Dortmund when league play resumes and that game will show how much work needs to be done. It is only 10 games into the season, 11 after the derby is complete, but if Bayern find a groove it will be hard to catch up.

There is a long road ahead and certainly no need for Dortmund to panic. This is a youthful squad shorn of a few leaders, both through transfer and injuries, so some growing pains can be expected. Dortmund has the talent to surpass those ahead of them not named Bayern Munich. If the likes of Gotze, Schurrle and Reus provide the quality they are capable of then the end of the Bundesliga season will be a lot closer than previous seasons. A win against Bayern in their first meeting would be a good way to start. Dortmund bought for the future over the summer but they can get something out of the present as well.

How far can this resurgent AC Milan go under Vincenzo Montella? | The Boot Room

How far can this resurgent AC Milan go under Vincenzo Montella? | The Boot Room

My piece for the Boot Room on a resurgent Milan.

AC Milan’s 1-0 win over Juventus last Saturday set them apart as one of the surprise teams so far this season. The Rossoneri followed that up with a loss to Genoa cool any over excitement following the big win. Milan now sit third in the Serie A table but there’s no telling where they’ll be when the season ends despite the promising start, and that’s just the question: how good can this Milan side be?

A resurgent Milan is definitely good for Serie A and football as a whole but cool heads need to prevail. The long talked about takeover by Chinese investors was finalized at the end of this summer transfer window. Before that, the club made what was a shrewd and intelligent decision in recruiting Vincenzo Montella to take charge of the squad. The former Fiorentina manager proved in the past he can create solid and stylish teams in a way that would please Silvio Berlusoni. He’s youthful enough be in charge for a long time to come and had the experience that many of the most recent candidates, bar Sinisa Mihajlovic, lacked.

Montella will get the credit for Milan’s start but the foundation was certainly laid out by his predecessor.

This Milan side has already beaten Juventus, Torino, Sassuolo Lazio and Fiorentina so far this season. A loss to Napoli is the only negative among the big games thus far. Montella’s team has showcased a mental fortitude that Mihajlovic began to forge in his reign and it would’ve been interesting to see how the team would have reacted had Juventus’ goal not been, incorrectly, ruled out. Montella has also continued to show faith in young players with M’Baye Niang, Alessio Romagnoli and, of course, Gianluigi Donnarumma playing key roles. Most eyes are now wandering to the newest of the bunch, 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli, after his second game-winning goal of the season. The future looks good with those talents as well as the likes of Davide Calabria and players in their prime like Giacomo Bonaventura. Make no mistake though, this is not a typical Montella side.

The new owners are expected to provide Montella with funds in the January transfer window. While a complete overhaul is unlikely in the middle of the season, a few changes should be expected. A lack of creativity in midfield beyond Bonaventura should see that area targeted first, and both the attack and defense lack quality depth beyond the starters. The likes of Keisuke Honda and Jose Sosa have been used sparingly in attack while the same goes for Leonel Vangioni in defense. If a quality player becomes available in any position then Milan would do well to look but half a season of good work won’t be enough to tempt the real difference-makers. Montella may just as well stick with what he has come to know, and worked with, so far this season but that may dependent on where the club stands at the winter break.

If Milan remains in the top three heading into the new year then expectations and excitement will rise.

Beating Juventus, however fortuitous, means Milan will be closely watched by their Serie A rivals. Montella will be keen to ensure his charges keep their feet on the ground for all the upcoming challenges. The loss to Genoa showed there is still lots of work to be done and might have solidified any idea Montella had of strengthening in January. Realistically, the best, and most likely, outcome for Milan is a return to Europe preferably the Champions League. Then the real work would begin.

Milan has shown signs of resurgence under Montella this season. The key will be performing well for the rest of the campaign and building on that both in January and the summer. It will take some time for Milan to really become the Milan of old but the Rossoneri have started moving in the right direction after seasons of disappointment. A return to Europe beckons if all goes well.

Is Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette the man Arsenal should sign to win the Premier League? | The Boot Room

Is Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette the man Arsenal should sign to win the Premier League? | The Boot Room

My Piece for The Boot Room on a possible Lacazette to Arsenal move.(I highly doubt it will happen but the primary source of an Arsenal fan’s sanity nowadays is hope so what the hell)

In the Arsene Wenger era, Arsenal and French forwards go hand in hand. Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Olivier Giroud have been prominent in their compatriot’s plans since joining the club. It seems that this summer, they could be followed by another.

The Telegraph reports that Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette is a now on the Gunners’ radar after they missed out on Jamie Vardy. In truth, missing out on Vardy may actual be a blessing in disguise if a move for Lacazette comes to fruition.

Arsenal have been in need of a top-level forward for the last few seasons and have missed out on a few targets in that time. Gonzalo Higauin and Luis Suarez are the two names that stand out and; while not on their level yet, Lacazette would still be a fantastic signing, and has the potential to become one of Europe’s most feared hit-men.

The Lyon star is only 25 years of age and yet to reach his prime, so Arsenal can expect to pay a premium. The Frenchman has all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Wenger forward – able to boast fabulous pace, techinque, finishing, solid dribbling and mobility. Those are traits that every one of Wenger’s previous French forwards; Giroud aside, possessed. Lacazette has been consistent in front of goal over the last few seasons and possesses European experience as well.

Lacazette had 21 goals and three assists in 2013/14 followed by 31 goals and six assists in 2014/15, while the 2015/16 campaign saw him score 23 goals at the same time as adding 3 assists. He has done most of this as a part of an impressive but youthful Lyon side, and would certainly benefit from playing with the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.

Özil would thrive with another speedy target ahead of him, but it is the potential partnership with Sanchez that should excite Arsenal fans. Some of the Chilean’s best performances for The Gunners came when Danny Welbeck started up front for Arsenal. Lacazette would provide the Alexis with a similar partner who would be more productive in front of goal.

Sanchez has played his best when partnering another mobile forward, as he did with Antonio Di Natale for Udinese, and still does with Eduardo Vargas on the Chilean national team. If Wenger wants to get the best out one of the driving forces of his squad, then a move for Lacazette makes sense.

Lacazette has the versatility to play out wide as well if necessary, and that will aid the side when it comes to other line-ups. A starting front four of Lacazette, Sanchez, Özil, and one of Welbeck, Alex Iwobi or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have more than enough creativity, pace and goal-scoring punch for the Gunners. With the ability to select the likes of Giroud and Theo Walcott instead to suit the opponent or situation, Wenger would have no shortage of options.

Welbeck is; unfortunately, likely to be out half the season, and that makes signing someone like Lacazette even more important. He too can mirror the high-energy game that Sanchez employs and make Arsenal’s pressing game that little bit more dangerous.

With doubts surrounding the futures of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal need an injection of fresh blood. Targeting Vardy made sense, but Lacazette offers a better option for both the future and the present. The North London outfir will have to move quickly though, as interest in the Lyon forward is high.  ESPNFC reported back in May that West Ham had a bid for the forward rejected and the same source presented rival club Spurs’ supposed interest in the Frenchman.

Arsene Wenger has made steps, slowly but surely, to fill the holes necessary to get his squad to the level required to win the Premier League. Petr Cech, the essential top-level goalkeeper, was required last summer and Granit Xhaka is soon to join up with the squad to control the midfield. A defender and a forward are still required. The longer Wenger waits to pull the trigger on a deal like this could come back to haunt the Gunners.

Lacazette is reminiscent of many of Wenger’s forwards during his best seasons at the club. His versatility, finishing and overall play would be beneficial for key players and the entire team. He may not fit the bill of a superstar just yet, but he is a top striker and one who can certainly help the club to win the Premier League title.