Why Curiosity was Never Going to Kill Arsenal’s Mesut Özil


London – You’d have to try pretty hard not to like Paul Merson as a TV pundit. Even if you insisted on making a public show of not liking him – rolling your eyes, clutching a scented handkerchief, pointing out, pedantically, that he often talks a load of rubbish – it would be hard to avoid secretly liking him all the same.

Maybe not in the same way you might like Ian Wright, who has in the past few years taken a breath, realized he can just say whatever is on his mind and become in the process the best football pundit out there.

This is not as easy as it looks. Martin Keown, for example, also seems to know his stuff and has good opinions, but still talks about football like a man delivering a terse, menacing funeral elegy for his recently deceased border collie. Michael Owen is good these days but in an oddly resentful way, with an on-screen manner that suggests he’s been taken hostage in a brightly lit bunker by unseen kidnappers and is now buying time by sitting on a sofa speaking in a guarded voice about link-up play and instant finishes while a police sniper unit maneuvers into position just out of his eyeline.

Merson is the opposite of this. At times he seems to have forgotten he is actually on television and is just sitting with some other people talking about Harry Kane for ages while a man in a suit keeps trying to change the subject. But he is always watchable and passionate, and often very persuasive. As he was this week while being right, for the wrong reasons, about Mesut Özil.

Merse has had enough of Özil. “He doesn’t work hard enough for the team,” is the latest variation on the doesn’t-run-enough strand of objections that have followed Özil around the Premier League. But it is impossible to argue with the natural conclusion. Özil is available to play now and may well shimmy back in with a goal or two, or an impudently brilliant assist against Watford on Saturday. But Arsène Wenger really does have to try to sell him in January. The idea of this Arsenal team as some high-grade Özil-centered machine has flickered at times. But that ship has sailed. This is over. It’s done.

Next week it will be the six-month anniversary of Özil’s last Arsenal goal. Since December 2016 he has contributed one – one! – assist away from the Emirates Stadium. The team play better without him in it. He has already earned £30m in his time at the club. There is nothing here to justify an astronomically improved contract. The Age of Özil is over, a fascinating footnote in the wider history of why apparently well-suited player moves sometimes just don’t work out.

This is the real point. Never mind debating the exact nature of Özil’s undoubted qualities. It is more interesting to understand why he has tailed off at Arsenal. English football has always loved calling people lazy or weak. The idea that your Özils are not native enough in style, lacking the basic fiber and guts to succeed in the world’s most energetic league is clearly quite appealing.

Whereas in this case the opposite is true. Firstly, as has been frequently pointed out, Özil does run quite a lot. Last year he covered more ground per game in the Champions League than any other player with as many goals to their name.

Secondly, like it or not, Özil’s significant failings are strikingly English in nature. What has happened at Arsenal is that he has failed to develop, has failed to add any further gears to his game. Football has changed a lot in four years. But Özil is basically the same player with the same skills, the same needs, the same strengths and flaws. This is a kind of laziness. But it’s not to do with running or energy expended on the pitch; more a familiar, and very native lack of curiosity, a complacency, a failure to learn.

And please, we know the excuses by now. I’ve set them out myself in the past, mainly because Özil is just such a seductively pleasing talent, a player who in the right team and the right mood makes everything look like a kind of dance, pirouetting in search of space, gliding the ball between a series of points with such ease you half expect to look down and notice he’s wearing flip-flops or holding a sandwich.

We’ve all heard the one about needing special privileges too, the idea Özil’s work is so finely graded as to be almost invisible to the uncultured eye, like the most delicate component of some purringly over-engineered luxury car.

The problem here is that club football has moved on. Often Özil’s best moments rely on his team having enough possession for long enough periods, as Real Madrid and Arsenal may have in the recent past and Germany still do. But opponents are less stretched by these tactics now, are less likely to find themselves pulled out of shape while Özil, or similar, wheels himself into place for the killer incision. His pure style has dated, just as Arsenal’s switch to playing a little more without the ball has hardly helped.

The proof is in the success of similar players with greater range. Kevin De Bruyne is the obvious counterpoint, a player who can also pass brilliantly, who has many of the same functions, but who has learned and adapted at a thrilling speed. De Bruyne can now do pretty much anything – central midfield, No10, manage the counterattack. He will find a way to affect the game. Similarly Christian Eriksen has improved in his own four years in England, and not only in the things he already did well. Meanwhile, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase, Özil hasn’t played 166 games for Arsenal, he’s played the same game 166 times.

Perhaps he will come again. He isn’t alone in failing to progress his career under Wenger. He often plays really well for Germany. For now it is hard to avoid the feeling of fate closing in. There was a genuine shiver of excitement when Özil signed for Arsenal. He was meant to announce and define an era, the embodiment of late Wenger-ism. And so it has come to pass. This has been the age of Özil. Just not in the way Arsenal will have hoped, more as an emblem of princely stasis, and of a paradoxically English refusal to adapt and learn.

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate Must Give Freedom a Chance after Numbing England Spectacle


London – Put out more flags. Dust down the red and white jester’s hat. Root out the gumshield, the crumpled Yekaterinburg metro map. And prepare to head once more into that strangely grueling territory between bruised and fearful cynicism and the eternal quiver of tournament hope.

England have booked their place at the World Cup in Russia after surely the most meandering, flaccid qualification victory yet devised by any England team. Slovenia were beaten by Harry Kane’s goal but make no mistake – this was both a dreadful game of football and a numbing spectacle for those loyal supporters still willing to drag themselves out on a Thursday night to enter the vast money-rinsing concrete cauldron of the Wembley entertainment complex.

Victory may have sealed qualification, but it also deflated further any realistic expectations of what might happen when England get there. This should be of great concern to the Football Association. There are only so many times even England fans will be prepared to pay £40 for the pleasure of throwing paper airplanes at the pitch, which brought the loudest cheers of the night right up until Kane’s finish in stoppage time.

At the end England’s players gathered in the center circle and wandered around applauding the empty red plastic seats and the backs of people queuing to leave while the PA burbled gamely about the prestige friendlies to come. As an image of England football 2017, and the slow, gilded death for what was once football’s most compelling theater, it is probably quite hard to beat.

England were at least terrible in a grimly fascinating way. Gone are the days when a poor England team sent it long, seeking out the head of some game forward battering ram. Here they were terrible in the new style, passing to each other but setting out with two lumbering central midfield wardrobes shielding a defense threatened only by its own misplaced passes. In the opening hour they produced a performance so lacking in purpose and precision it was like watching a piece of performance art, a 45-minute Warhol-style short film called Wembley Angst No94.

England did improve after the hour mark but by then they had a lot of ground to make up from a standing start as the game congealed early on into another game just like the other games. Jordan Henderson had the ball quite a lot, worrying about from side to side, always looking back into the yonic safety of his defense. Midway through the half England produced a stunningly terrible free-kick routine, working the ball very slowly backwards and finally teeing it up for Henderson to perform a spectacular falling-over air-kick on the edge of the area. Grimly, Slovenia cleared.

Only Marcus Rashford seemed really interested in trying to run forward quickly. Raheem Sterling ran quite a lot. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. And that was pretty much that for the most soft-pedaled minor chord moment of qualification imaginable, given a spark of life at the death by Kane’s opportunism.

What now then? One thing is clear. England does not expect. It has been more than a decade since the national team had the luxury of traveling in a state of doomed optimism, the mood ever more stricken since that golden, foolish summer of 2006 when the world was still young, when Crouchie did the robot with Prince William, and when the idea of some grand Premier League talent-legacy waiting to be spent died for good on the fields of Stuttgart, Cologne and Gelsenkirchen.

The challenge now for Gareth Southgate is not to try to reach the World Cup final. It is to produce a team that people actually want to watch. This has been a deathly qualification, with only 16 goals scored and a feeling of having spent endless hours watching England’s furrowed and fearful back five play a variety of keep-ball.

From here it seems absolutely clear Southgate needs to take a chance, to chuck out the Dan Ashworth handbook of mind-bogglingly dull and outmoded possession football, to accept that playing with adventure, life, pace, and risky attacking vim might revive not just the dwindling England brand but his own managerial career.

In their current guise, watching England is like watching a 12-round under-card split decision wrestle-off between a pair of ponderous 15st taxi drivers, the craft-free double defensive midfield bolt the managerial equivalent of tucking both your shirt and your vest into your underpants.

What is the point of playing this way? From here to next summer every moment of Southgate’s time should be devoted to trying to wring the most out of what he does have, a spritz of genuine forward talent in Kane, Dele Alli and Rashford. He needs a midfielder who can pass. And he needs to trust his defense to carry the ball forward.

Success for this team would involve simply playing with a little freedom, exploring their own limits and refusing to leave the competition until they have at least been beaten by a demonstrably superior team. Score some goals. Produce at least one performance that lets everyone feel giddy and stupid and deluded for four days in June.

There is a wider issue here about international football itself. When the away fans in Malta last month sang against their team, they weren’t angry or incensed or spoiling for a fight. They were taking the mickey out of the whole thing: England, us, them, the enduring disjunct between a domestic league of such screeching urgency and a national team who have withered in its shadow. Take note, Gareth. It is when they stop booing you really want to start worrying. For now England will travel with hope, as ever. But not much of it.

The Guardian Sport

Mata-Marouane: The Moyesian Odd Couple Nearing a United Redemption

Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall a phenomenon bubbled up in Eastern Europe called “ostalgie”, or nostalgia for the old east. Seized with ostalgie, citizens of the new world found themselves tiring of the glories of capitalism, with its treacly soft drinks, unfettered access to soft-rock music and a natureless ecstasy of identical consumer products; and yearning instead for the old certainties of communism, the gulag and mass-produced cardboard trousers. As recently as last year a majority of Romanians said they missed the murderous despot Nicolae Ceausescu. Presumably, again, because you knew where you stood and the statues were nice.

It goes to show you can miss anything if you really want to. With exceptions of course. For example there are to date no documented examples of what social scientists might call “Moyestalgia”, which is defined as nostalgia for the events and personnel of David Moyes’s time in charge of Manchester United over 10 grippingly doomed months between July 2013 and April 2014.

I think I know why this is. I think it’s because it was a terrible time when nothing good happened. But for the neutral there is still something grippingly cinematic about the basic category-mistake of Moyes at United, a man not so much out of his depth as tossed and tumbled head over heels in a vast tide of industrial-scale confusion. Squint and you can still just about see his pale, frazzled ghost wandering about on the touchline, still looking like a doomed wedding cake figurine in his sad blue suit, shouting at shadows, pointing at things that never happened, feeling the ground beneath his shiny little shoes shift and fall away.

At the end of which there is a still a chance to take a different memory from this. On the face of it José Mourinho’s current title contenders have almost nothing in common with the brown-paper-and-string stylings of the Moyes succession. From De Gea to Lukaku, through Bailly-Jones-Pogba-Matic and the controlled creativity of Rashford-Martial this second-season team has a classic Mourinho spine in place, those powerful interlocking units that have marked his most successful moments.

Almost nothing, but not quite. In the last few weeks it has been fascinating to see a couple of Moyesian hangovers integrated into the machine. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata were the only players signed under Moyes. Even at the time they seemed oddly mismatched, evidence in their silhouettes alone of a certain confusion. On the one hand an awkward, angular midfield wardrobe. On the other a technician whose entire career has been a triumph of vision and skill over his own slight physique.

In the years since both players have been a little bruised and marginalized. Mata and Fellaini are both 29 now and in the last year of their contracts. No other player has come to United for that much money and stayed for this long without winning a league title (even Juan Sebastián Verón got one of those). For all the good moments, they are still on some level, a part of the unforgiven.

Except there is a chance now for an alternative ending. Neither looks like a first-choice starter with everyone fit. But both have become functioning parts in a team that has drawn drooling reviews for its power, its unity of purpose, the sheer relief of no longer looking like an odd-job of high-priced parts. This is in its own way an act of genuine team building, the ability to integrate a pair of wobbly wheels and weld them to the main frame.

Even then Mata and Fellaini stand out. And not only for that air of shared survivor-dom but for something agreeably timeless and touching, a little soul, a few scars. If Fellaini can recover his fitness in time they may even appear against Crystal Palace on Saturday, yoked together on the touchline like an odd-couple man-child double act in a Steinbeck novella. Watching the pair of them answer questions in front of the post-match cameras you half expect to hear things like: “I’m sorry mister my brother he gone strangled your rabbit he don’t mean no harm he just kinda clumsy whoah put the gun down mister.”

Perhaps just me, but something does seem to be working here. The last time Manchester United lost a game that Fellaini started was the 4-0 to Chelsea in October 2016. Of his last 45 first-team appearances only three have ended in defeat. One was as an 89th-minute sub in the EFL Cup semi-final second leg. Another was the FA Cup game at Chelsea where Ander Herrera was sent off. The last was against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup in August, when United actually “won” during Fellaini’s 35 minutes on the pitch.

Still, though, Fellaini divides opinion. Some see a blunt, stodgy, elbow-flailing obstacle. Others see only his bad points. But he is a high-class team player when the system works for him. This season he has seemed to do a little less to good effect, having fewer shots, fewer fouls, fewer headers, holding his position and still able to reel out his most outstanding quality, that astonishing Velcro chest control, a footballer with a chest like a hand, able to rise like a huge, angular sea and simply clutch the ball out of the sky with a wriggle of the shoulders.

Mata is obviously a different type, all bandy-legged fine-point craft. His time at Old Trafford has been a bit easier, maybe because he looks like a United player, maybe because he is such an endearing, likeable figure, and maybe because he’s changed a bit. The idea Mata doesn’t track back should always be judged against the fact hustling and harrying for 90 minutes is so much harder for a player of his size and stamina. But this season he has clearly taken the Mourinho pill. These are early days, of course. We are still grinding through the high gears. If a United title challenge does come Mata-Marouane will add another shade to the pursuit, plus perhaps a deeper emotional tone. It is easy to dismiss footballers’ finer feelings, to see only pampered traveling contractors. But these are still creatures of ambition and anxiety. Both Mata and Fellaini may end up with more appearances for United than any other club by the end of this season, the current febrile four-year spell the dominant segment of their careers. Whatever happens this could, in its own way, end up a redemption story. Perhaps even – the pallor, the panic, the ghosts – a minor sporting exorcism.

(The Guardian)

Ederson’s Bravery Exposes Liverpool’s Flaws on Jürgen Klopp’s Day to Forget


London- If you can meet a 5-0 thrashing and a messy 1-1 draw and treat those two impostors exactly the same; well, there is a fair chance you will be a testy, process-obsessed Catalan super-manager, my son. Six months ago Pep Guardiola described Manchester City’s draw with Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium as “one of the best moments of my career”. Fast forward to Saturday lunchtime and City’s 5-0 shellacking of the same opponents on the same ground left Guardiola a little restless, a little cagey in his judgments.

City’s manager was pleased and talkative but still rueful over the opening half-hour when Liverpool perhaps shaded it and when, if you had had to bet on a player being sent off, it would surely have been Nicolás Otamendi, whose performance combined ponderousness with a blind scything violence whenever he got near the ball.

City led 1-0 in the period before Sadio Mané’s red card. The goal came via Kevin De Bruyne’s perfect fizzed through-pass, some baggy defending and a fine finish from Sergio Agüero. But Liverpool had already gouged City open three times down their left side as Mohamed Salah sprinted into space between Benjamin Mendy and Otamendi, both players struggling with defensive positioning in the 3-5-2 system.

And so the wider narrative of this game had been settled long before the final whistle was blown. Received wisdom will say Mané’s red card killed the game, placing an asterisk against all that followed. Liverpool’s best player was sent off for catching Ederson with a recklessly raised boot as he ran through on goal. There are plenty who will defend an attacker’s right to challenge for the ball. Sadly for Mané these do not include football’s rule-makers, who deem dangerous contact involving a raised boot to be a strict liability offence. Mané was distraught as he left the field and has since apologised profusely for injuring his opponent in an “accidental” collision.

There are two things worth saying about the game’s central incident. Firstly, this was not some entirely random occurrence divorced from the skills and match-winning qualities of both teams. Ederson was exceptionally brave in coming for the ball. His fine goalkeeping was rewarded with a goalscoring chance snuffed out, a kick in the face and ultimately Mané’s sending off.

In that moment City’s player was more decisive and better at playing within the rules. In that moment the decision to replace Claudio Bravo with the more sprightly Ederson also found a reward – good managerial judgment from Guardiola, good play by Ederson, poor judgment from Mané. None of this sounds like a random event or bad luck, any more than poaching goals or winning tackles or making saves. The red card did not kill Liverpool’s game. Mané losing that duel to Ederson killed Liverpool’s game.

The second point worth making is that it was only a red card, not a mass contraction of the bubonic plague. Liverpool’s response was to collapse completely, conceding territory, possession and four more goals, two to Leroy Sané, who had only 22 touches but provided a bravura end note with a beautiful left-foot shot into the top corner as an exhausted midfield stood off him.

Red card or not, Jürgen Klopp did not have his best day. Liverpool are missing Nathaniel Clyne but exposing Trent Alexander-Arnold to an opponent and an occasion like this looked a vote of confidence too far. In the event Liverpool’s right-back had a brutal, exhausting afternoon. No shame there: his opposite number Mendy comes in just behind Marcelo on the list of best attacking left-backs in the world. Either one of James Milner, for his experience, or Joe Gomez, for his more specialist defensive skills, would surely have been a better option.

At the end Klopp was also strangely vague. In his press conference he seemed to think Liverpool’s next game, against Sevilla, was on Tuesday, not Wednesday, and had to be corrected. He was unsure whether his team were behind or not when Mané went off. Call them minor moments of forgetfulness but football managers, and indeed Klopp himself, tend to be razor sharp on these details – out of necessity, too. There are times you have to bristle and fib and “win” the aftermath of a 5-0 defeat. Alex Ferguson may have been a far less reasonable presence but he would have walked out bristling and full of motivating excuses. Klopp just looked drained by the day.

Similarly the best parts of City’s game may also go a little under the radar thanks to that red card. The defence did look vulnerable with Mané on the pitch. But playing against 10 men was perhaps a valuable exercise in itself, if only because for the first time this City team looked not just like a fine attacking unit but like a Pep-issue entity. At their best his Barcelona and Bayern teams would make opponents look like this even with 11 men: depleted, exhausted, incidental obstacles to the pass-and-move game. If this felt like a training game it was still a valuable training game and a moment when some of those vital cogs began to turn, the passing rhythms to settle.

Best of all, and to Guardiola’s obvious delight, the wide areas of City’s team were finally fizzing with intent. “With the full backs we have the energy, our wingers can play more inside, they can score more goals, we have more people in the middle as a result,” Guardiola said afterwards. “Kevin and [David] Silva are different players, they make things, they create. But they are not dreaming of scoring goals in the middle. It’s very important our wide players, Like Leroy, have that sense of ’I must score a goal’.” Penetration from the flanks is vital to Guardiola’s style. Red card or not, there was a clear sign at the Etihad of how City will hope to keep on winning from here.

The Guardian Sport

José Mourinho Sticks to Type and Produces another Tall Story


London – Here’s a semi-interesting football stat, at a time when semi-interesting football stats are in short supply. If Manchester United were to win an unlikely Premier League and Champions League double next season they would, all things being equal, become the tallest team ever to win either competition.

A roughed out United first XI has them at an average height of close to 6ft 2in. Chelsea’s most recent English champions were just over 6ft. Leicester were relative titches at 5ft 11in. Only two Champions League-winning teams have struggled up to 6ft a head, Chelsea’s lofty outliers in 2012 and Jupp Heynckes’ hulking Bayern Munich a year later. There is no particular reason to suggest Mourinho’s United are about to join these teams. But if they do it will be a triumph of uniquely burly, gnarled, gangling proportions.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. It’s no secret José Mourinho loves a big man. In managerial middle-age it seems an increasingly chronic obsession, Mourinho surrounding himself with gristle and muscle in the way a decrepit Pharaonic emperor king might surround himself with camels, asses, embroidered rugs, handsome thick-necked slave boys. Right now Mourinho is just a signing or two away from being able to field an entire first team in which every player is over 6ft tall, surely a first in any major league. Give him the tools. He will build a wall.

For Mourinho, the transfer window has at least been brutally to the point. To date he’s signed one very big man. He might still sign some others. Most intriguingly Eric Dier has again been linked with a move to Old Trafford, something that still seems unlikely from the outside, but which from a neutral perspective might just make some sense for all concerned.

Spurs won’t want to sell. But £50m is a lot of money for a player who isn’t always first choice. Plus it might be good for Dier, who has clearly learned a huge amount from Mauricio Pochettino, showing himself to be that rare thing, a powerful, imposing English footballer whose chief gifts are intelligence and tactical discipline, an ability simply to occupy a position, rumbling about the place like a Panzer tank on a leisurely mopping-up expedition.

It is quite a limiting role though, a question of following, repeatedly, a set of minutely grooved positional instructions. At the same time just imagine what nasty, sly, spoiling, winning habits a player of his unfussy intelligence could pick up from Mourinho, who hoards and covets defensive midfielders; who sees the hulking – Dier is 6ft 2in – defensive midfielder as the building block of all sporting life, the football equivalent of carbon; who gave Casemiro his Real Madrid debut; who took Thiago Motta from Genoa and made him a Champions League winner; and who transformed Mikel John Obi from attacking tyro to the world’s most improbably long-serving defensive wardrobe.

Most of all Dier to United would obviously be good for Mourinho, another peg in that increasingly rugged-looking second-season team. This has tended to be the José way. His great Chelsea Mk1 team were notably tough. Inter’s Champions League winners were a gnarled, high-energy bunch. Even the second Chelsea team, the Rat Pack team of Fàbregas-Hazard-Costa, were the tallest in the league on the opening weekend of their title-winning season.

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that Mourinho really is out on his own on this one. Look back and the general trend is fairly static. Elite-level players aren’t getting noticeably taller. The first Premier League-winning team had an average height of 5ft 11in, pretty much the same as the last three. The last four Champions League winners have all been less than 6ft man for man.

It is only really Mourinho out there trying to block out the sky, a manager who these days basically only signs tall people. To date his major first-team buys at United have been Romelu Lukaku (6ft 3in) Zlatan Ibrahimovic (6ft 5in), Paul Pogba (6ft 3in), Victor Lindelof (6ft 2in) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (5ft 11in). He doesn’t seem to trust Mkhitaryan much. Probably coincidence.

What he hopes to gain from this isn’t immediately obvious. Tallness doesn’t always equal toughness. The first great Alex Ferguson team of 1993-94 were relatively small, but still a thrillingly unforgiving bunch, all wild eyes, tiny shorts and huge crunching ankles. It is more a tactical thing with Mourinho. Quite lot of the game-plan these days seems to be about reducing the play to a series of static moves, winning individual challenges, disrupting an opponent’s supply lines. Height and power, the ability to affect “rapid aerial transitions”, to dominate set pieces – all of these clearly help.

This is just talk for now. Dier probably won’t leave Spurs. Mourinho might build his annihilating title march around the hobbit-like craft of Juan Mata, a footballer who even in the dying minutes of some frantic Premier League epic looks as though he’s about to sit down on a toadstool, tap his pipe on his shoe and start telling you a story. Like so many noises off in the dead days of mid-summer the dream of the all 6ft-plus XI is still just a tantalizing prospect.

It might not be the worst thing, though. For all the talk of verve United have often been a hard-running, tough-tackling team. This is part of the appeal, a history of ball-players but also of physical strength, from the dreamy promise of Duncan Edwards, to the horrible specimens of the mid-1980s, to Eric Cantona’s flair and muscle.

The question of what Manchester United are supposed to look like, how those red shapes should move, should look to win, has been constantly debated over the last few years. The yearning for more muscle and more power might look like a managerial tic, the opposite of dreamy, flee-flowing flair. But it isn’t so far away from the old winning swagger.

The Guardian Sport

José Mourinho and Mike Tyson are the Heavyweights of Counter-punching


London – Mike Tyson has an interesting new book out called Iron Ambition. In it he talks about his violent childhood, explores his relationship with his late coach, the great Cus D’Amato, and kicks the whole thing off with a passage about wandering around his old Brooklyn neighborhood, marveling at the gentrification, tourists and, above all, the sight of people taking selfies all over the place.

Like many other grouchy middle-aged men Mike hasn’t, you sense, fully engaged with the selfie craze. “Imagine trying to do that with the people I was hanging out with in Times Square,” he writes. “‘Hey man, let’s take a selfie!’ Thugs would start beating on you and leave you in a coma in the street.” We can never go back, of course. But in many ways, happier, wiser times.

This is not, yet, the most famous Tyson quote. That comes instead from his time rampaging around the heavyweight division when he was asked by a room of journalists about an opponent’s plans to dance inside, hit and run and generally pick him off. “Everyone has a plan,” came the reply. “Until they get punched in the mouth.”

It is a cool quote, albeit perhaps a little misunderstood, with an assumption among those who perhaps didn’t see Tyson in his prime that saying this marks him out as a force of untutored aggression, all front-foot brutality. Read the book and you realize the phrase has strong echoes of D’Amato, a brilliant strategist who talked first of all about not getting hit, and whose triumph was to turn Tyson into a counter-punching technician, saving his most ferocious attacks for when he’d just slipped your best shot.

What Mike and Cus were saying was: you may have a plan but ours is better. Just as all trainers and indeed football managers work relentlessly on defense, the flaws in their opponents’ attack and disrupting first of all what’s coming back at them.

Can you feel it yet? Can you feel José Mourinho’s hard, flat, insolent gaze glaring out between these words? This week another fascinating set of quotes has been doing the rounds, this time from Mourinho, extracted from remarks he made at a Lisbon university about his preparations for the Europa League final against Ajax. These were picked up by the newspaper Tribuna Expresso and translated by the football analyst Tiago Estêvão. Again the talk was about strategy and, above all, about getting your retaliation in first.

The first striking thing is the level of detail in Mourinho’s prep for Ajax, the way he really does visualize the game in advance.

The second striking thing was the response on social media to this insight, reflecting a certain acerbic reaction to Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United, the tendency to hold a perfumed handkerchief to the nose, to splutter about “anti-football”, to suggest that setting out a team defensively is in some way cynical or disrespectful. And beyond this, the idea a club like United should instead be imposing its own freewheeling, tousle-haired will, leaving the washing-up, romping about like cosseted puppies and all the rest.

This still feels a bit baffling to the neutral. Looking at Mourinho’s notes it is hard to see anything but complete respect for his opponent and indeed for his sport. He’s not mucking about here. Mourinho watched eight Ajax matches before Stockholm. He had a clear plan, a set of counter measures that worked so well that with 10 minutes gone he was already telling Rui Faria “we have them in our pockets”.

The first stage of this was to “create instability” by hustling Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax’s usual conduit from the back, forcing Davinson Sánchez to take the ball forward instead. Sánchez is hugely talented and shut Marcus Rashford down on the night but he’s not as good on the ball as his partner. So in one move a strength became a weakness.

Carrying the ball forward, Sánchez looked up and found stage two: United matched Ajax’s midfield man for man, leaving no real option but to pass long. Which he did. By the end Sánchez had made 35 more passes than De Ligt, including nine long balls, and every part of the Ajax machine had been very slightly jiggered out of place. Everybody has a plan – until they get hustled into a series of unplanned movements by a master of the preemptive smothering tweak.

Mourinho also had his defense under strict orders. Chris Smalling, who can – let’s face it – at times look like he’s playing in a pair of oversized square-toed cow-poke boots, was told to pass long every time, to make no attempt to link with his midfield, thereby negating Ajax’s powerful high press.

They followed the drill. United’s back four played 25 long balls. Smalling and Daley Blind didn’t pass once to Paul Pogba. A team of stars man-marked a 17-year-old novice defender. And United won a European final at a guarded canter by the horribly subversive pragmatism of not giving the ball to their £90m record signing. “For me beautiful is not giving our opponents what they want,” Mourinho sneered in Lisbon. I wasn’t there but, let’s face it, he sneered it, maybe even cackled it. And he’s right. This is in its own way deeply beautiful.

So why the snorts of unhappiness? Clearly defensive football isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. It doesn’t look good on the telly. Pogba’s willingness to fit the plan is admirable but his own extreme talents may get more of an airing elsewhere. Similarly Mourinho’s love of the system, his ability to wrench out an opponent’s circuit boards, have seen his greatest triumphs arrive at clubs just below the top tier, turning a B-list European power into a snarling, spitting, brilliantly obstructive champion.

Beyond this it is hard to avoid the idea that people make the mistake of conflating Mourinho’s tactics with his toxic and infuriating public persona: the sneakiness, the tedious jibes, the sight of him stalking the touchline haggardly in baggy grey shell suit trousers with the look of a man dragged from his static caravan in the wee hours and forced to walk four miles down the hard shoulder in search of a canister of butane gas, only to find he’s forgotten his wallet, lost one of his flip-flops in a gorse bush and is being taunted by a busload of primary school children.

For all that, the notion this is somehow beneath Manchester United seems a bit odd. The later Sir Alex Ferguson teams were hardly buccaneering free spirits swinging from the hip. Chewing through a third manager in three years, United have now won two Cups. This feels like progress, an ice pick lodged in the cliff face.

Mourinho may be a counter-puncher. He may be Floyd Mayweather rather than Roberto Durán. But even in a nation where an academic, systems-based approach has so often been jeeringly dismissed, the obsession with team, with winning by first of all preventing defeat, has its own kind of refined mathematics, even its own kind of poetry.

The Guardian Sport

Riyad Mahrez: A Creative, Mooching Trend-bucker English Football Should Cherish


London – Odd as it might sound given the strange, clamorous dealings of the last week, the sense of a very public meat-exchange taking place somewhere just out of sight, the Premier League transfer window doesn’t actually open until next month.

Not that you’d know it right now. Manchester United already seem to be covering themselves by simply trying to sign all the footballers, immediately, all the time. Three weeks before the window actually opens Virgil van Dijk is sitting outside St Mary’s in his car looking sad with a bunch of petrol station carnations and a card that says “Sorry” on the back seat. Meanwhile Romelu Lukaku is doing a decent job of convincing everyone he’s one of the most valuable footballers in the world, if only by weight of constant, self-regarding repetition, like the boy at school who gets to be captain because he’s got a really good pair of boots and he keeps going on about how he might have a trial with Norwich.

In the middle of which the fact Riyad Mahrez is still on the market has perhaps got a little bit lost. Yes, really, that Riyad Mahrez. Remember him? It is a week now since Mahrez announced in a sensational heartfelt open letter that he no longer wanted to play for Leicester City, a sensational heartfelt open letter that will have been tucked away safely in the No-Shit-Sherlock file by anyone who witnessed his appearances on the field of play last season.

There have been plenty of noises off so far. The assumption is that some kind of deal has been half-done, or various deals raised and tendered. Mahrez has been linked with Arsenal, Chelsea and Monaco. One newspaper raised the prospect of an “amazing move” to Barcelona. Although when you think about it this wouldn’t be that amazing, given his genuine, sui generis brilliance two seasons ago.

And this is the point about Mahrez. He was, lest we forget, Leicester’s best player when they won the league. He was a genuine force in their Champions League run. He remains a lovely, louche, slouching little wedding cake figurine of a footballer. Mahrez can dribble, shoot, pass, track back and make and score goals. His touch has the precision, the alluring sense of cruelty of the very best, even when he’s ambling around the pitch looking like a disappointed minor eastern European royal, sixth in line to the throne of Syldavia out on a particularly tedious public walkabout in the crumbling city centre tiergarten.

Mahrez is in a sense one of our own, a domestic success story, from Championship to title-winning player of the year. And yet you get the feeling he might still end up being appreciated a little more outside the Premier League. Lionel Messi is a fan. Atlético Madrid’s players kept calling Mahrez “a craque” before their quarter-final in the spring. Whereas in England there is a sense Mahrez has been pushed a little to the back of things. The idea of a slightly effete one-season wonder has gained a surprising degree of traction.

No doubt Mahrez’s style is a part of this, a footballer so casual in his movements at times you expect to look down and notice he’s played the last 60 minutes in espadrilles and a linen safari suit. Even at his best Mahrez doesn’t so much run as mooch purposefully on legs so thin they resemble a single standard leg split in half, swaying like a dandelion stem one way, then gliding off in another direction entirely.

Some say Mahrez has only one trick, the one where he dummies on his left foot, cuts inside, dummies again, then dummies again. But what a trick it is – all the trick you’ll ever really need, based on the ability to stop and start quicker than any other person on the pitch, a miracle of power-to-weight ratio, and a unique kind of creative physicality, swaying and bending and feinting with a range of movements that are all his own.

The word “player” can sound slightly silly in football. Professionals don’t “play” football. They enact football. They process it. Sergio Ramos inflicts football. Mahrez is a player though, all inventiveness and gaiety of movement, with an obvious connection to the teenage street footballer who had to be told to stop kicking a ball around after midnight on the streets of his housing estate in Sarcelles, in the Paris suburbs.

It is hard to think of the last time English football threw up a player like this. Chris Waddle perhaps, who had the same mix of precision and swaying, feinting invention. Mahrez also reminds me of the great Djalminha, a mid-range Brazilian of the 1990s who during his time in La Liga could score or make a goal of such insolence it just made you want to laugh.

Mahrez sails against other kinds of modern trends, the bulked up, hard-running game of sprints and hustle. Hand-picked by Leicester’s scouts for his difference, the counterpoint of his technique and grace in a very physical league, he still gets tired. He was said to be exhausted towards the end of the title-winning season. But then this is exactly the kind of player English football doesn’t usually produce, or nurture, or garland with honours; and to whom it should perhaps be offering a little grace, a margin for failure.

Hopefully Mahrez will stay in the Premier League. Arsène Wenger has been spotted striding around the south of France with £150m in his hand looking flushed and bothered, like a man attaching himself slightly desperately to the end of the office conga line. He really could do much worse than sign Mahrez, who has the precision and the playful high-grade invention Arsenal have missed in the absence of Santi Cazorla. More than this Mahrez represents something else, a reminder that in between the collisions and the managed forms things such as invention and artistry, the outsider with a trick can still bloom and thrive and inspire.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte’s Brilliance Has Turned Chelsea’s Pop-up Team into Champions


London – The manager inherited a mess but has glued together a title-winning side with his tactical nous, fierce work ethic and by bringing back the fun. After an extended, processional run-in that started as a head-down sprint away from the peloton and settled into an imperious push from the front, Chelsea are once again champions of the Premier League. Friday night’s crowning victory at The Hawthorns was the 25th in 30 league matches since Antonio Conte’s decisive re-gearing of his team in September, the tactical switches that have coaxed such a thrilling run from this team of bolt-ons and upcycled squad players, most notably Victor Moses, who was dredged out of the laundry bin in the autumn to become a key part of the title surge.

This feels like a significant league title in more ways than one. It is now 14 years since Roman Abramovich emerged as a spendthrift presence in west London. Five titles and a Champions League win have now sealed Chelsea’s place as the dominant English club of that period. For all the glories of the Ferguson end-game, Manchester City’s rise and Arsenal’s unflinching desire to finish in the top four and occasionally win the FA Cup, this is now Chelsea’s mini-era.

Not to mention confirmation if any were needed of elite English football’s main subtext since the turn of the century, the transformational dominance of overseas billionaire investment. Just as significant in the long term, Chelsea were also granted permission this season for their new on-site mega-stadium, a 60,000-seat upgrade that will mean the current Stamford Bridge is razed and replaced by something that looks like a vast alien space yurt made of giant Martian redwood stems.

It is another pointer toward Abramovich’s vast capital expenditure. But also a firm move towards the oft-promised sustainable future. Such talk chimes with the season just past and with Conte’s own kitchen-sink achievement in taking a team with net spend of £20m this season to a dominant league title.

It is Conte’s part in this that shines through, not just as an example of ruthlessly detailed coaching and man management, but as something new also. There have been 11 changes of manager during that run of Chelsea trophies, with the implication always that the structures and hierarchy are what really keep this club rolling on.

In Conte Chelsea have something different, a manager who inherited a messy, enervated squad fresh from the worst title defense in 25 years and threw a lightning bolt through pretty much the same group of players to create a fresh champion team.

Conte has broken the mold further with the suggestion he might escape the Abramovich cleaver, becoming the first of his line to leave by his own volition. Those recurrent noises in Italy about a move to Internazionale have resurfaced this week. It seems overwhelmingly likely Conte will stay, pay rise pending. But it is a feat of rare political skill to have made himself so unusually vital to the current success.

How has he done it? Attention has focused on the much-celebrated switch to playing a back three after the defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. Chelsea were crunching about in reverse gear at the time. Reports have suggested senior management were underwhelmed by performances. Conte had arrived a week early despite spending his summer with Italy at the Euros. Exhausted, he went home during the international break to see his family and brood. On his return the team that faced Hull City had been reconfigured. Moses wasn’t overly drilled, just told he would be playing right wing-back, that Conte had seen enough to know.

It will be tempting to compare that switch to the shift Conte made in his first season at Juventus, when he rejigged his formation to find a way of placing Arturo Vidal at the heart of his team. This was different, a profound resizing of angles and personnel that has made every part clunk into place, with key players given roles that emphasize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

A moment of wider clarity, but one that Conte had been working towards. “It takes time to accept the sheer amount of work he is asking of you,” Luca Marrone, an Italy Under-21 midfielder who played under Conte at Juve told the Guardian this year. “Everything he does, in preparation or tactical organization, is done with maniacal precision and attention to detail. It can be overwhelming at first. But when you realize by buying into it you can win things, you follow.”

Senior players were skeptical to begin with, startled by Conte’s aggressively interventionist training sessions, practice constantly stopped by that barking voice, points of positional detail brutally drilled. In part Conte pulled this off because his manner and his own playing record demand respect. But also he brought back the fun, encouraging a familial atmosphere with barbecues, bottles of wine handed out, and bonding sessions with players and club staff.

N’Golo Kanté embodies both sides of this, a player whose early scratchiness was soothed with glorious results in the new 3-4-3 formation, allowed simply to be his best, most wonderfully mobile, diligent, destructive self. Plus Kanté is something new. Get this: Chelsea have the most popular player in the league, a man nobody could seriously boo, albeit even the notably lovable Kanté is perhaps a little fetishised in his humility, his scooter-riding, the Premier League’s own friendly, scuttling Bilbo Baggins.

The system locked David Luiz into his perfect role, given protection by that meaty wedge in front. Both wing-backs are allowed simply to steam up and down their flanks following the line of possession. The attacking three have also been allowed to bloom. Liberated from deep defensive duties Eden Hazard has become more expressive, more obviously, flashily complete. Not to mention more saleable too, his role closer to the way Europe’s monied giants in Spain and France allow their stars to function.

Where to rank this Chelsea team, even among recent versions at the same club, is another question. Six months old, a half-season project, they are already more watchable and more coherent than the second phase of the title-winning team of two years ago; but not at the level of the luminous, steamrollering Mourinho Mk1 team, a rare concurrence of prime-cut talent and a manager in the sweet spot of his own powers.

But then this is essentially a pop-up team, glued into place brilliantly, with certain parts already chafing and smoking. Chelsea’s two top goalscorers could be off in a month, Diego Costa to cause an international incident in China, Hazard to the usual summer suspects. Plus of course for all the excitement at Conte using only 18 different players in the starting XI in the league, rotation has been stilled only because Chelsea haven’t needed it, often playing only one game a week.

When the team might have tired from that hard-running style they have had days to rest. When first Sam Allardyce and then José Mourinho exposed a certain weakness against a two-man attack, and also when the “supply” players, Hazard and Pedro, were man-marked, Conte had a week to drill his team and patch this up.

Next season will, as ever, be a different matter, another problem for Conte to solve as he looks to extend his personal record of four straight league titles in club football across England and Italy. Given his hunger for more – more time, more detail, more work – only the brave or the foolish would bet against him.

Neymar Won’t leave Barcelona while He is Hovering Close to the Throne


Mourinho was surely right when he described the week’s most exciting transfer rumour, the notion Neymar might be lured to Manchester United, as “absurd”, “impossible” and “like trying to break into a safe”. Sadly for the Premier League, this must surely be the case. It seems almost inconceivable Neymar – who loves Barcelona – would leave Barcelona now. It also seems deeply unlikely the world’s next-best best player, still hopeful of making that generational leap up as soon as Those Other Two have shuffled off, would leave Barça for a team that for all their grandeur, have spent this season outside the Champions League.

All of which is in itself a bit of a shame. Not just for English football, which would eat Neymar up, in the best possible sense. But also arguably for Neymar himself, who is at a genuinely interesting point in his own career, smoking and juddering on the launchpad before his own planned ascent into the clouds. He perhaps needs just a little headroom now, something other than the role of Lionel Messi’s high-end support act, if he really is to explore and push back the far limits of his own talent.

Two things seem clear. First, Neymar is at his best when he simply grasps the game in front of him and plays like he’s the only superstar on the pitch, as he has for Brazil and in some of his best moments for Barcelona. And secondly, that he is only going to find his own jumping-off point, his fiefdom, a football world to bend to his own shape, if he does. For that to happen at some stage he must stop being nice and deferential, a wonderful “waiter” as they say in Brazil – with a class-leading eight assists so far in the Champions League this season – and escape from Lionel Messi’s shadow.

There is, of course, no shame in playing second fiddle to history’s own first fiddle, a player who must – even if you hate hyperbole and remember Diego Maradona fondly – be acknowledged as the most consistently brilliant club footballer ever. The problem for Neymar is that Messi is going to be brilliant for a few years yet, and most likely in the same place. His game is too good, too firmly based on touch and skill rather than physicality to fade obligingly to the wings.

Does any of this really matter? There is an element of artificially heightened expectation here. We have been a little spoilt in the last decade, able to gawp over at least two all-time attacking talents simultaneously. If this kind of endlessly prolific scoring and assisting really is the pattern now at the global super clubs, not everyone is convinced Neymar really is an heir, the world’s greatest sub-genius in waiting.

Brazilians aren’t fashionable generally these days. That terribly brittle and needy home World Cup didn’t help. The tearful press conferences, the news-helicopter shots of the crocked Neymar being airlifted on his gurney, shrouded in baseball cap and shades: it was all oddly hysterical. In many ways Neymar is similar to Virat Kohli in cricket, a beautifully engaging talent under vast pressure from a huge, nationalistic population to be not just very good but the best in the world and hurry up with it.

But that World Cup also made quite a few converts. In the flesh Neymar is simply beautiful to watch, a wonderfully seductive mover who seems to skate across the turf without leaving an imprint, a Disney prince made out of blossom and icing sugar and dandelion spurs.

His superpower is to move the ball with wonderful precision and blurring speed, that swerving dribbling style a function of endlessly spooling calculations, an ability to writhe through the tiniest gap, all fine-point craft and perfection in miniature.

Against Paraguay this week he scored a goal that involved running from his own half, hurdling two opponents, swerving inside and tickling a deflected shot past the keeper, a 60-yard sprint that seemed to take nothing out of him at all, barely touching the grass, the ball, the players around him.

The goal was Neymar’s 52nd in 77 internationals and 25th in his last 31, a career ratio beaten only by Romario and Gabriel Batistuta among the 50-goal heavy-hitters of the modern age. Neymar needs a new story of his own. Who knows, maybe it could come here, asleader of the No1 ranked team in the world, first nation to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.

The Hexa, a sixth World Cup title, is the national obsession. Under the current coach, Tite, Brazil have looked a balanced, mobile, less-brittle team, not to mention a group of players outranked only by Russia itself when it comes to experience playing in that part of the world. In Neymar they also have the best international footballer in the world right now, a year out from an open-looking tournament. So much for predictions.

Mourinho is at least right on one score. Neymar surely won’t leave Barcelona while he’s hovering so close to the throne. Succession is rarely as simple as it looks. The tides shift constantly. But it will be fascinating to see how this compelling little sprite of a footballer finds room to grow and assert his will, a mere superstar in the presence of greatness. But a player who also perhaps needs a little more space in his prime, who shows his best qualities in those moments when he simply loses himself and leads.

The Guardian Sport

Why Eden Hazard Eclipses the N’Golo Kanté Cult and is Player of the Year


London – There are some things in sport that you’re just not allowed to say, lines that must not be crossed. For a long time it was more or less impossible to say in public that you thought Paul Scholes was simply a very good footballer, as opposed to a chasteningly complete distillation of perfection and a one-man anti-glam debunking of the Premier League star system. You might think this. But saying it out loud is still technically an offence under the Scholes Act 2009, punishable by being stabbed in the eye with a skewer by the Queen.

As Chelsea romp away on their pre-title victory lap, all that’s really left to happen in the Premier League is for the last top-four spot to be claimed, the relegation places to shuffle down and, of course, for N’Golo Kanté to win player of the year.

The general view on this is pretty clear. Kanté should obviously win it. This has become so ingrained by now that even suggesting otherwise is pretty much a deliberate act of provocation. Only an attention-seeking fool would suggest that at the moment everyone swears by Kanté, that it’s fashionable among pundits who all think he’s the best midfielder in the world, but actually that’s not the case. Or as Joey Barton put it this week: “At the moment everyone swears by N’Golo Kanté. It’s fashionable. For pundits, he’s the best midfielder in the world. That’s not the case.”

But wait! In many ways Barton is right. The cult of Kanté, the obsession with his undoubted excellence in his role, has become a kind of cliché in itself, an orthodoxy based not just on how well he has played but in other supporting agendas, even a kind of vanity.

None of this has anything to do with Kanté, of course, who is remarkably effective in the Premier League, where his main effect is to improve the performance of pretty much every other player on his team. What strikes you, as ever, is that gift of prescience, the constantly refreshing chart of angles and possibilities he carries around in his head, like a man playing with the benefit of a three-second radio delay, while everyone else is crashing about in real time.

Kanté is like a targeted footballing virus, his role to infiltrate, clog and degrade the working parts of an opposition. I remember watching Kanté last year and being convinced he reads the way players run, the way they turn their bodies, such is his ability to snaffle into the right space, utterly certain of the flickering picture in his head, like a fire engine always heading to the right fire.

It is not hard to see the appeal. The Premier League can be crass and gaudy and messy. To declare a love of Kanté, who is also patently a fine man and generous team-mate, is to suggest, or at least to crave, something more rarified, nicer, more honorable. Just as to fail to appreciate fully the beauty of Kanté’s excellent running around and blocking is presumably to misunderstand football.

Albeit this is something of a false position given Kanté is himself the most visible person on the pitch in every game, a player who dominates the tackle charts and the interception rosters, whose running around is almost a form of showboating, of athletic display in itself. There is sense in the public championing of Kanté of willed, misguided hipsterism, like announcing that, no, popular music is simply too crass, you prefer the more complex hidden emotional palette of obscure modern jazz, before triumphantly sticking on your favorite Michael Bublé CD.

There is a tribal element to this too. With relentless monotony, Kanté has been used as stick with which to beat Paul Pogba, an ongoing algebrized sneer that states that while Pogba cost X more, he has achieved Y less and performed Z fewer of N and P, without at any stage acknowledging that these are simply different players in different roles at different clubs in different states of well-being. But then Kanté is now a kind of currency unit in every deal, the ultimate judge of worth, and of a million false comparisons. Raheem Sterling, for example, cost a Kanté and a half. The controversial garden bridge across the river Thames will cost two Kantés. Get a grip, Sadiq Khan!

So who should win it then? The answer is, of course, Eden Hazard, who is the most captivating, talented, high‑end attacking midfield player in the league. The fact is, there is a reason why we tend to celebrate attacking players. Never mind the satisfying effects of seeing a man repeatedly and productively get in the way of the opposition. This is really what football is for as a spectator sport, to inspire and excite and celebrate the most vivid moments of athleticism and skill.

Hazard has done this brilliantly, playing a different way this year, with more elan, more expressive freedom, looking in the process like the kind of mesmerizing, expressive, forward-gear attacking maestro that might appeal to the only kind of clubs that could afford him.

The Premier League has been notably concussive, even quite wild, so many games marked by bruising collision and ever more physical, hard-pressing teams. It is little wonder Kanté should stand out as the most valuable, or at least most visible, player in the middle of this. But Hazard is also on the same pitch, a creative player also asked to ride the buffeting, the collisions, to still affect the game. It looks as though that move to Real Madrid may actually be on this summer. It would be a victory for the historic trend of these gongs, but fitting too, if he could leave as the league’s most celebrated player.