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.
My piece for the Bootroom on Atletico’s Time Going to An End
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Really fantastic read here. Well worth it.
Some tactical talk from two of my favorite tactical writers. I don’t think 3 at the back will ever become a regular thing in the Premier League but it is interesting that mostly big teams have used it in recent times. That will likely be the tactical trend of the year, in the Premier League at least, especially if Chelsea continue to have such success.
The last international break of the season is complete and it comes at great time for Barcelona.
The fixture list at the beginning of the season saw the Blaugrana endure a few hiccups but the toughest tests were successfully negotiated. And by a few hiccups I mean a shock loss to newly promoted Alaves, at home, and another loss, somewhat less shocking this time, against bogey team Celta Vigo.
Regardless, Luis Enrique’s side sit second in the table only two points behind an even less impressive Real Madrid side. Barcelona have negotiated tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Celta, Valencia and Sevilla already this season. They dropped points in only one of those games. Their two toughest away games, against Madrid and Atletico, are all that remain but visits to Real Sociedad and Villarreal should be treated with caution. While injuries remain a concern the likes of Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba are on the verge of a return and there is now enough depth to cover for Andres Iniesta in midfield.
Barcelona’s first fixture upon their return sees them host Malaga and that game presents a great chance for Paco Alcacer to finally open his account with Luis Suarez out suspended. The remaining La Liga games in the year see the Blaugrana face Sociedad(away), Real Madrid(home) Osasuna(away) Espanyol(home). Barcelona should expect maximum points from all those encounters including the Madrid game. A home and away tie against Hercules in the Copa del Rey and Champions League matches against Celtic(away) and Borussia Mochengladbach(home) complete the calendar year.
Provided there are no further major injury worries or extreme drops in form among players then Barcelona will expect to be top of league entering 2017. There are still issues for the Enrique to fix defensively and a lack of control sometimes in games that can be attributed to no Xavi and an off-form Busquets. That’s why you have MSN though, and especially Messi on his current form.
Enrique will make sure his side is focused for every game until the end of the year and that should put Barcelona in a good position when 2017 begins.
There’s no right answer here. Well, maybe not. I can understand the author’s arguments at the end about goalkeepers but a very strong argument could be made for any one of those positions considered. If I had to pick one it would be central midfield. They are at the heart of everything and, from my personal view, if you lose the midfield battle you generally lose the game.
There would be a lot of kinks to work out for this to come to fruition but you can see the benefits. Especially if there is a Super League in the future. It would be interesting to see all the proposed teams in regular competition with each other. I wouldn’t want to see their respective domestic leagues take a big hit as a result and I doubt those leagues would either. It certainly wouldn’t make sense to do this league without it being the primary source of qualification for European competition but again the domestic leagues can’t be fully left out.
It seems like this would only really come about if the gap between the super clubs and every one else widens as expected given the recent changes in Champions League. We shall see