Bilic Feeling the Heat after Spurs Shine Glaring Light on West Ham Flaws


London – Slaven Bilic knows how it goes in his line of work. Once a manager is in danger, once the narrative becomes entrenched, it can begin to feel like the long kiss goodbye. “Once that’s opened, then it basically doesn’t stop,” the West Ham manager said after his team’s 3-2 home defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. “Game by game or two games by two games – it’s the way it is in modern football. Once you open that page …”

Bilic turned that page last season, when only a 1-0 win against Spurs with three games to go persuaded the West Ham hierarchy to stick with him. But three successive Premier League defeats at the start of this season ensured that the mention of his name were prefaced by words like “under-fire” and “beleaguered”.

In these situations, positive results like the win against Huddersfield Town and the draw at West Bromwich Albion trigger relief and respite. But the dark clouds never truly disperse and they rolled back over Bilic during a loss to the club that West Ham fans most love to hate.

The final scoreline looked tight but this was an afternoon in which Bilic and his team flirted with humiliation. When Harry Kane rattled a near post on 63 minutes Tottenham were 3-0 up and rampant, looking threatening every time they came forward. Kane had already scored two to make it six in four games for him, the outstanding Christian Eriksen had the other one and Dele Alli was having his best game of the season. The interplay between that trio was beautiful to watch.

At that point, the inquest into West Ham’s performance had begun. Bilic’s game‑plan worked well for the opening half-hour: his team had denied Spurs space between the lines, they were getting in their opponents’ faces and they had exploited the high positions of the Tottenham wing-backs to work a couple of promising three‑on‑three situations.

The way that they fell apart after Kane’s opener was worrying and Bilic had to carry the can for that. When Michail Antonio went off injured in the 28th minute his decision to introduce Andy Carroll, rather than André Ayew or Diafra Sakho, represented a tearing up of the initial approach.

A manager cannot legislate for the sort of reckless passing error that Carroll made for Kane’s first goal. But with Carroll on as the No9 and Javier Hernández pressed out wide into Antonio’s position, West Ham lost their ability to get behind the Spurs defence; to stretch and harry them. Consequently, Jan Vertonghen was emboldened to squeeze up on Carroll, which led to him nicking the ball off the striker to set in motion the move for Kane’s second goal.

The tactical flexibility belonged to Mauricio Pochettino. With Mousa Dembélé out injured, the Tottenham manager switched to a 3-5-1-1 system which got a good performance out of Moussa Sissoko on the right of the central midfield trio. From the half-hour mark, Eriksen started to drift forward into space, which was hugely dangerous.

“The second goal is more our sloppiness or giving up for five minutes than their brilliance,” Bilic said, which sounded like quite the indictment on him and his team.

The complexion of the game would change sharply in the final quarter, when Bilic could cling to a clutch of positives. West Ham did not give up. They restored a measure of pride with the goals from Hernández and Cheikhou Kouyaté. And the home crowd stayed with them. Crucially, Bilic appears to retain the backing not only of his players but also the fans.

West Ham’s comeback was influenced by the red card that Tottenham’s summer signing Serge Aurier received in the 70th minute. The right wing-back is nothing if not a risk-taker and having been booked, it was a foolish decision to jump into a tackle on Carroll. It was hardly the first time that Aurier had left the ground in order to challenge.

After the red card, Pochettino could be seen in conversation with Hernández, with the West Ham striker seeming to suggest that Aurier was crazy. “No, not crazy,” Pochettino said. “He only said to me, ‘Wow. Unlucky: mala suerte.”

Pochettino did not criticise Aurier, however great the temptation might have been. “I was a player and if you look on Google, you can find many, many mistakes from me,” he said.

In the end it was Bilic’s errors that came under the spotlight. He is into the final year of his contract and that is another factor that frames his situation. “I don’t think about that, I’m not illegal,” Bilic said with a smile. “Pressure is a part of my job.” It will be turned up on Saturday for the home game against Swansea City.

The Guardian Sport

Arsène Wenger Denies Making Example of Alexis Sánchez after Failed Move


London- Arsène Wenger has insisted he is not seeking to make any sort of point to Alexis Sánchez over his selections of the forward so far this season.

Sánchez tried and failed to force a move to Manchester City before the closure of the summer transfer window and Wenger has used him since as a starter in the Europa League and Carabao Cup but only as a substitute in the Premier League.

Sánchez was granted extended summer leave after his involvement for Chile at the Confederations Cup and he was forced to delay his return to pre-season training because of an illness. He then suffered an abdominal injury, and his first appearance of the season came in the starting XI at Liverpool on 27 August in the 4-0 defeat.

Since then, Wenger has used him off the bench in the league games against Bournemouth and Chelsea and as a starter in the cups. He completed the 90 minutes against Köln in the Europa League last week and Doncaster Rovers in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night. He scored Arsenal’s equaliser in the 3-1 win over Köln.

As ever, the body language experts have scrutinised Sánchez and plenty has been read into his moments of frustration. But Wenger maintains that Sánchez’s focus is on the job in hand at Arsenal and giving his best for the final year of his contract at the club.

“Alexis is not distracted, not at all – I think that is coming to very quick conclusions,” the manager said. “He has been out and injured. I thought he was still a bit short physically on Sunday [at Chelsea] and I played him against Doncaster to give him more competition. Is he happy at the club? That is the impression I have, yes.

“There is no disguised attitude on my side [over the selection policy]. I just try to get him back to full fitness and for me the Europa League and the League Cup is important, as well.

“I just try to give him competition and to get him back to his best because I gave him a long holiday. He came back not really fit and it took us time to get him back and then he got injured. If you add the injury plus the rest time it was a bit long but against Doncaster, you could see that he is coming back sharp now. I left him on the pitch, as well, for 90 minutes because I wanted him to have a real go.”

Wenger confirmed that Danny Welbeck, who injured his groin against Chelsea, would be out until mid-October, at least, and the forward’s absence would appear to make it easier for him to restore Sánchez to the starting team in the league against West Bromwich Albion on Monday night.

Wenger also reported that Mesut Özil, who missed the Chelsea game with a slight knee problem, was primed to return to full training with the squad while Calum Chambers would be out until after the upcoming international break with a recurrence of a hip problem.

The Guardian Sport

Disillusioned Arsène Wenger Calls for End to FFP in Major U-Turn

Arsène Wenger admits he used to plead for financial fair play rules but says ditching them is the only way Premier League clubs will be able to compete.

Arsène Wenger has lost faith in one of his guiding principles and called for financial fair play to be scrapped. The Arsenal manager says clubs have found a way to bluff around Uefa’s regulations and it has effectively rendered them unenforceable. He feels that if the Premier League is to “remain the best league in the world” the decision must be taken to revert to no financial limits.

Wenger reflected on a wild summer transfer window in which he suggested that Liverpool had most likely tapped up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before taking him from Arsenal for an initial £35m on 31 August. Four days earlier, the midfielder had played for Arsenal in the club’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield. Wenger said he did not know whether Liverpool had spoken to Oxlade-Chamberlain in the hours leading up to kick-off. He hoped they had not.

Wenger did not make his comments in an angry or accusatory fashion; they were underpinned by realism. In short, tapping up is a part of the modern game. Everybody does it. But Wenger was less willing to shrug off what he sees as the holes in FFP.

He was asked whether he had a view on the complaint made to Uefa by the La Liga president, Javier Tebas, about the summer spending of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. PSG broke the world transfer record with their £198m purchase of Neymar from Barcelona while they took Kylian Mbappé from Monaco on a season‑long loan with an option to buy him for £166m. Uefa are investigating PSG but not City, who have threatened Tebas with legal action. Wenger did have a view and it was strident.

“Financial fair play raises new questions,” Wenger said. “I always did plead for it. Today, I am not convinced that we can maintain it. Football is maybe only at the start of a huge financial investment. It has become the most powerful sport in the world. It means do we have to open the door completely to investments? It is a question we have to raise because, at the moment, it looks like we have created rules that cannot be respected. There is nothing worse than when you create rules that are not respected.

“Maybe we are at the crossroads and we have to think, do we open it with complete freedom to investment for people like the Chinese and Americans, who want to invest here [in England]? If you want to remain the best league in the world, that is certainly the way we have to go.

“Do I want to get rid of financial pair play? I think so because there are too many legal ways to get around it. The question, at least, has to be raised. At the moment, it looks like you can buy clubs in China and get the players there, and buy them in other clubs, then get them, after, here. You can get around [FFP]. Am I convinced that, at the moment, the rules are strong enough to make it respected? I’m not sure.”

Wenger’s remarks on tapping-up came as he explained why he was in favor of the summer transfer window closing before the start of the Premier League season. “You sit there before the games and in players’ minds, they have no clarity,” Wenger said. “Are they in? Are they out? Are they half in? Are they half out? Are they tapped up in the afternoon of the game by people who want to get them out?”

Wenger was asked whether any player in his dressing-room at Liverpool on the Sunday before last had been tapped up in advance of the game or on the day of it. It was clear that the question related to Oxlade-Chamberlain. “I don’t know,” Wenger replied.

Was it his suspicion? “Have they been tapped up?” Wenger said. “Of course. But on the day of a game? I don’t think so. I hope not. But it’s inevitable. France played against Holland on the last day of the transfer window. Do you really think that not one French player or Dutch player had phone-calls in the afternoon about do they move or not? You’re not naive enough to believe that.”

Wenger insisted that he did not regret starting with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the Liverpool game. “If I am a football player, I can perform even if Liverpool is in my head,” he said. “I don’t think that should stop you to perform. Did it? I think he was not worse than any other player on the football pitch.”

(The Guardian)

Arsène Wenger Confident Arsenal Can Prosper from Champions League Absence


London – For Arsène Wenger, the boot is on the other foot – well, almost. The Arsenal manager flagged up a trend at the end of last season when he noted that Chelsea and Leicester City, the two most recent Premier League champions, were unencumbered by the demands of European football during their triumphant campaigns.

“Because the league is so physically difficult, maybe it is very difficult to cope with both,” Wenger said. “We will see how Chelsea respond next season.”

Arsenal’s league campaign ended in frustration when they finished fifth, meaning they missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time since 1997. But at least they had freed themselves up for a clear run at the domestic title. Not quite.

One of the keys to Arsenal’s season will be how they contend with the Europa League, with the unique Thursday-Sunday scheduling that it entails. Will Wenger rest his first-choice players to have them firing for the more serious business of the league? Yes, he suggested. That would be the plan.

“I will always play a team that has a good chance to win the next game,” Wenger said. “In the Europa League, if we can afford sometimes to rest some players, we will do it. But we have to adapt to the level of the competition and see, first, what kind of group we play in.”

Wenger had earlier been asked how he felt before a season with no Champions League football. “For us, it is a good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League,” he replied.

The manager has signposted his intentions and it may be a popular move to give some of the club’s younger players – such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock – an opportunity in the Europa League. Wenger intends to sell a clutch of players, including Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Lucas Pérez, but his squad will remain extremely deep.

Wenger offered further insight into his feelings towards the Europa League when he said the winners ought not to be granted entry into the Champions League. He even revealed he had voted against the proposal, which came into force in the 2014-15 season. To him, a big club should not view the Europa League as a kind of insurance policy in terms of Champions League qualification.

“You cannot go into the season and think that,” Wenger said. “I was always against it [the Europa League winners qualifying for the Champions League] because, at some stage, it can influence the championship. If a team is in a position in April where they have more chance to win the Europa League, they can let some games go in the championship and not completely focus on the regularity of the competition.

“Apart from Manchester United last season, who won the Europa League [having started in the competition], all the years before it was always a team who was kicked out of the Champions League [that won it]. That’s why, when we voted in Geneva [for the route into the Champions League], I was always against it.”

Wenger’s numbers do not bear scrutiny. Since the format of the Europa League – then the Uefa Cup – was changed in 1999-2000, only seven clubs have lifted the trophy after dropping down from the Champions League. Arsenal almost won it in that first season, after entering through the Champions League, only to lose the final to Galatasaray on penalties.

Wenger’s team finished last season 18 points adrift of Chelsea but they showed in the FA Cup final they could get the better of them over 90 minutes. “Last year, Chelsea did not play in the European Cup and, certainly, they were a bit more consistent in the Premier League,” Wenger said. “In the final, we have shown that the gap was not as high, maybe. I expect Chelsea to fight for the championship again and for us, when we have made 75 points, as we did last season, the target is to get 10 points more. With 10 points more, you are in there.”

Wenger is still there, in situ at the Emirates Stadium after all of the uncertainty over his contract renewal last season, and he is gripped by that eternal optimism. “I am sorry I am still here,” he said, with a smile. “I can understand that you want to kill me but, at the moment, I survive.”

The Guardian Sport

Tottenham Need to Find Their Bearings Quickly as Wembley Tenants


London- The irony was not lost on Mauricio Pochettino. “Remember when I first came to Tottenham and I was criticised for saying the White Hart Lane pitch was too small for us?” the manager said. “And now, people are saying that Wembley is too big?”

Pochettino’s comments came last season, when his team’s travails at Wembley – their temporary home for European matches – were under the microscope. It was a regular talking point, one of those things that become a thing, much to the annoyance of the manager who finds himself caught up in them.

The mind went back to John Toshack and how, when he was managing Wales, he would routinely lament the difficulty of finding the right balance, whether between defence and attack, established players and new faces or any number of other teasers. “If I pull the blanket over my head, my feet get cold,” Toshack would say. “And if I push it over my feet, my head gets cold.”

The joke was Toshack ought to find a bigger blanket and Pochettino must now do something similar, as he considers the Wembley factor and what can justifiably be billed as a season-defining issue. Tottenham will play all of their home matches at the national stadium while the building work on their new ground is completed.

Pochettino prefers to play on a bigger pitch, such as Wembley, as it better allows his team to unpick visiting sides who sit deep and mass men behind the ball. He made this point back in October 2014, in the early months of his Tottenham tenure, when his team were struggling at White Hart Lane – on what was one of the tightest pitches in the Premier League.

“Our style means we need a bigger space to play because we play a positional game,” Pochettino said. “It’s true that White Hart Lane is a little bit tight and it’s better for the opponent when they play deep. We need time to adapt to our new set-up and to understand better our position on the pitch.”

On the other hand Pochettino has built his success at Tottenham as much on what his players do when they do not have possession; the way that they press, often in packs, to win back the ball – the higher up the pitch, the better.

The old White Hart Lane, as it must now be called, measured 100m x 67m whereas the Wembley surface is 105m x 69m, making it larger than any in the Premier League. Wembley is 8% bigger than White Hart Lane or, to put it another way, Pochettino’s players have 545 square metres more to cover at the national stadium. Consequently they must work harder to close down opposing teams and it is no great stretch to say that it is more difficult for them to impose their pressing style at Wembley.

The contrast last season between Tottenham’s results at White Hart Lane and Wembley was like night and day. At the Lane their record in all competitions read: P23 W21 D2 L0. At Wembley it was P5 W1 D1 L3, with one of the defeats coming in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.

Pochettino said that his players had fed off it being the final season at White Hart Lane, with all of the attendant energy and emotion, but the reality was they had come to be perfectly in sync at the stadium. According to Pochettino, they had needed time to adapt. How they adapted.

Perhaps, the same thing can be said about them at Wembley. Take the small details, which are so crucial at the highest level. At White Hart Lane Toby Alderweireld, for example, would hit those long diagonal passes with unerring accuracy. It looked almost instinctive. The central defender was familiar with his frames of reference, such as the distance between the touchline and the stands. Space and perspective are key. Did he play that ball quite so effortlessly at Wembley? Alderweireld and his team-mates must recalibrate their bearings.

Pochettino is a slave to his preparations and he said last season that his squad would train at the club’s Enfield base before European ties on a pitch that had been modified to replicate the dimensions of Wembley. In fact, Pochettino does this before any away game. Wherever Tottenham are playing, be it Selhurst Park, Anfield or The Hawthorns, the training pitch will be marked out to match. As an aside, they would not be allowed to change the dimensions at Wembley to mirror those at White Hart Lane.

Tottenham do not have an agreement with the Football Association to train at Wembley and so Pochettino will continue to use his replica pitch approach in Enfield, even if this cannot simulate the overall national stadium experience. The club do have a friendly at Wembley against Juventus on Saturday 5 August, after they return from their tour of the United States at the end of the month.

Pochettino had said in May that he was keen to work at Wembley. “It’s important for us to start training and to get a feel for Wembley,” he said. “That will be fantastic for us. It’s impossible now to decide which day we will start there but it is in our plan to start to train at the training ground and then to try to move there [to Wembley] for a few days to train – not just for two days. We need to plan the training sessions with the organisation at Wembley.”

The FA would be open to having the discussion with Tottenham about them using Wembley to train but, for now, the big date for the club is Sunday 20 August when they play their first Premier League game at the national stadium, against Chelsea. They are scheduled to kick off the season at Newcastle United on 13 August. There is the belief within the club the Wembley factor has been overplayed. Nobody can dispute the importance of a positive start.

Guardian Sport

Daniel Levy’s Iron Fist Controls Tottenham’s Transfer Balancing ct


London- Of all the tributes to Daniel Levy and his iron-fist-in-the-iron-glove negotiating style Sir Alex Ferguson’s is surely the most memorable. Dealing with the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, Ferguson recalled, “was more painful than my hip replacement”. It should be noted, too, that Ferguson got what he wanted from Levy. Despite all the agonies he was able to take the striker Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham to Manchester United in 2008.

Many people in the game do not get what they want from Levy. The very mention of his name can have agents and players letting out mournful signs before they launch into stories about how they thought they had a deal only for Levy to make an eleventh-hour revision to his demands.

Levy has been driving football folk to distraction since 2001 and that has included plenty of Tottenham personnel. He is a friendly, clubbable kind of guy, whom Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, has described as “shy, sensitive and funny”. But when Levy sits down to negotiate, even with people he likes, it is as if he puts on the blinkers. Relationships count for nothing. His side of the deal is all that matters.

There is an old line on Levy that says he goes to work during a transfer window only on deadline day, such is his fondness for brinkmanship and last-minute business. It is tongue-in-cheek. Levy is confronted by a ceaseless barrage of issues and right now the biggest one involves keeping Pochettino’s team together. It is a challenge he will confront with relish.

Tottenham have agreed to sell the right-back Kyle Walker to Manchester City for £50m – plus £3m in add-ons – but in terms of incoming deals they have been quiet this summer and it has been for a simple reason. Pochettino’s best XI have hit such heights over the past two seasons and polished their reputations to such an extent that the manager cannot see anyone on the market at an affordable price who would represent an upgrade.

The key word is ‘affordable’. Levy’s basic weekly wage ceiling is set at £100,000 and he also has the new stadium build to finance, the cost of which has risen to £800m. Show Pochettino an improvement, for example, on Mousa Dembélé or Dele Alli who earns less than £100,000 a week and would not break the bank in terms of the fee and he would take him. The reality is that the player is not out there.

Pochettino wants to add depth to his squad and it is clear that he needs to do so, particularly when the club’s desire to move on Moussa Sissoko and, possibly, Georges-Kévin Nkoudou is taken into account. Érik Lamela’s fitness is another issue. The winger, who has not played since last October because of a hip complaint, is doing rehabilitation work and he will miss the opening weeks of the season at least.

There was a time in the not too distant past when the club’s fans would be clamouring for action in terms of transfers and fretting about a lack of activity. It is not the case these days and that speaks volumes for the team which has been built for them, not to mention the work of Pochettino. Other managers and sets of supporters have felt the frustration.

Levy’s trick has been to enjoy elite-level performances from his players over a sustained period on less than elite-level wages. Harry Kane, for example, has won the Premier League’s Golden Boot for the past two seasons and, as such, he can lay claim to being the best striker in England. He is at the top of the Tottenham pay scale but it is stating the obvious to say that he could earn significantly more elsewhere. So could all of the club’s big names.

Pochettino has fostered a fiercely positive spirit and the players are loving being a part of something special. The fans are, too. They trust Pochettino implicitly. If he did not make a major signing this summer, they would not worry. But there is a flipside to having players who are, in effect, punching above their salaries – rival clubs believe they can tempt them away with better money.

The situation with United and Eric Dier is a case in point. United want Dier and they would be prepared to more than double his £70,000-a-week wage. Dier is tempted, mainly because he was displaced as Tottenham’s first-choice defensive midfielder by Victor Wanyama last season. The stories involve Dier at the moment but they have previously been about Alli, Kane, Hugo Lloris or Christian Eriksen and they will, most surely, come round again.

What is Levy to do? He is loth to break his pay structure, as it would threaten harmony and see everybody beat down his door for a rise, but he cannot compete, for example, with United’s proposed offer to Dier. It is the balancing act that holds the key to the summer and this team’s longer-term future.

Levy has managed it so far by granting regular and incremental rises to his best performers, in exchange for adding years to their contracts, which has enabled him to retain the element of control. But he has also needed to be uncompromising and that will remain the case. He has made it plain to the United executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, that Dier is not for sale and the Tottenham support will take heart from his hard-headedness, particularly when it is allied to Pochettino’s man-management magic.

Walker’s situation has been different. Pochettino has Kieran Trippier in reserve at right-back and, in the interests of raising funds that could be used to strengthen the squad as a whole, he has long been open to cashing in on Walker. Levy had been holding out for the basic figure of £50m from City and, after weeks of talks, he finally got what he wanted on Thursday. Walker is poised to complete the formalities of the move.

Levy has played it characteristically tough. Take his stance on Pau López, the reserve goalkeeper, who was on loan at the club from Espanyol last season. Levy had an option to make the deal permanent for €7m but he allowed it to lapse and, instead, he has offered €2m plus a further €2m in add-ons. Espanyol are not happy. But Pau has entered the final year of his contract and, if Levy has to wait until he becomes a free agent next summer, he will wait.

Levy is expected to sell Federico Fazio and Clinton Njie to Roma and Marseille respectively, where they were on loans last season, and Sissoko has compounded his underwhelming debut season with the fatal error of calling out Pochettino in public. The midfielder, who became the club’s joint-record signing when he arrived for £30m from Newcastle United, told L’Équipe at the end of May that he wanted clarity and honesty from Pochettino regarding whether he fitted into his plans. It is fair to say it went down badly.

Pochettino will see whether any of the club’s academy-developed players can help to give the squad greater depth, with Josh Onomah and Cameron Carter-Vickers hoping for more minutes this season. It will also be interesting to see whether Pochettino can find the room for Marcus Edwards, the 18-year-old attacking midfielder with the X-factor.

Pochettino says he would never block the first-team pathway for a youngster who has what it takes but, equally, if he can make a signing who fits in, he will do so. The priority is to retain the players he wants to retain. The existing balance is all-important. Over to you, Daniel.

Guardian Sport

Alexandre Lacazette: Will the £52.7m Signing Propel Arsenal to the Next Level?

Alexandre Lacazette has not been a first-choice selection for France but that may reflect the balance of team rather than his quality.

Alexandre Lacazette has the numbers to press his case. Across eight seasons at Lyon the striker scored 100 goals in 203 Ligue 1 appearances and there were a further 29 in the cups and Europe. The supporters of his boyhood club will remember the spectacular ones, and there were a number of those, but each was marked by a particular brand of precision and ruthlessness.

They have led Lacazette to an extremely big number because never before have Arsenal paid so much for a player. The 26-year-old’s transfer fee could rise as high as €60m (£52.7m) if all of the add-ons are met.

Yet, as Lacazette prepares to step into the Emirates madhouse, it distills into a single issue for him. Can he make the difference for Arsenal in their quest for a first Premier League title since 2004? Or, to put it another way, does he have the world-class quality to do so?

It might seem like a black-and-white way of considering the principal aspect of his challenge but, then again, it has long been the championship or bust for Arsène Wenger in terms of vindicating the second part of his long tenure.

Arsenal have craved a top centre-forward for some time or, at least, since Robin van Persie left for Manchester United in 2012 and Olivier Giroud came in from Montpellier. Yes, Alexis Sánchez is a world-class player and he played as the No9 for plenty of last season. But, by the end, Wenger had returned him to his roaming brief off the flank and the manager said that he preferred him there. It was Giroud who finished at the tip of the formation.

Giroud has been a lightning rod for the fans’ frustrations and the consensus on him is he is a very good centre-forward, who is capable of flashes of inspiration. His scorpion kick against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day was one of the best goals of last season and there have been other crackers, including the sumptuous touch and finish against West Ham United in April 2014.

But Giroud is not world class and he has been damned by the perception he is not quite good enough; that he is not the player to help Arsenal become the best in England.

Can Lacazette be that man? Is he the upgrade on Giroud that even Wenger – through deeds rather than words – has indicated he has needed? Wenger tried and failed to sign Luis Suárez from Liverpool in 2013, following Giroud’s first season in north London and then there was the Sánchez experiment up front last season.

The curious thing is that Lacazette has been nowhere near Didier Deschamps’ starting France team whereas Giroud has come to be the manager’s preferred foil for Antoine Griezmann. When Deschamps introduced Lacazette as a 73rd-minute substitute against Paraguay on 2 June, it was his first international involvement since October 2015. He came on for Giroud, who had scored a hat-trick.

Deschamps gave Lacazette the first of his 11 caps against Uruguay in June 2013 but has started him in only three games and did not name him in his squad for the World Cup in 2014 or Euro 2016 – when Giroud was a key player.

Deschamps would say his preference for Giroud ought not to be taken as a slight to Lacazette. They are different types of No9 – Giroud the old-fashioned hold-up man; Lacazette the more mobile predator. For the balance of the team and the way Deschamps wants to play, he has considered Giroud to be the solution.

It might also be pointed out that Deschamps has an excess of riches up front, with his other choices including Kylian Mbappé, Kévin Gameiro, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Ousmane Dembélé. And that is before Karim Benzema is factored in. Benzema is technically available for selection having been dropped for Euro 2016 after he was questioned by police in connection to an alleged blackmail attempt against his then France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena. It seems unlikely that Benzema will return while Deschamps is in charge.

It has, nevertheless, been possible to feel Deschamps has not fully trusted Lacazette; that he has been sceptical about whether the player possesses the requisite class. There has also been the view that Lacazette may be more effective as an impact substitute for France, which can impact negatively on a player’s psyche.

Lacazette has been at the top of the game in Ligue 1 for the past three years and there are those in Lyon who think that the 2014-15 season was his best one, when he formed an irrepressible partnership with Nabil Fekir, a touch player, who shares certain qualities with Mesut Özil. Lacazette scored 27 league goals that season and 31 overall but most believe it was last season when he took his football to the next level and changed people’s perceptions.

The numbers were startling: 28 league goals in 30 appearances and 37 in 45 matches in all competitions. Previously, he had been criticised for going missing in the biggest games; now, he rose to them. Wenger was convinced and the call-up from Deschamps for the end-of-season fixtures against Paraguay, Sweden and England was interpreted as a sign he had been won over. On the other hand, Deschamps had named a bigger squad than usual because of the number of matches and he did not use Lacazette against Sweden or England, when he once again started with Giroud.

Lacazette’s hold-up work improved greatly last season and Arsenal are getting a striker who can pretty much do it all – apart from dominate in the air. A converted right winger, he can play off the No9 as well as in the No9 role and he is defined by his movement off the ball, work rate, pace and technique, as well as by his goal instinct. He loves to get into the box with little one-twos and the comparison that has done the rounds in English football circles has been to Ian Wright. More fleet of foot than Giroud, he will bring a different dimension to Wenger’s formation, whether it be 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or the 3-4-2-1 seen in April and May.

Arsenal’s purchase of Lacazette has been underpinned by realism. Would it have been realistic to have pushed for Monaco’s Mbappé or, say, Álvaro Morata at Real Madrid? Who else is out there? And Wenger’s need has been extreme to the point of desperate.

Lacazette’s detractors say if he were world class, he would have left Lyon two or three years ago and they also argue his statistics have been inflated by the number of penalties he has scored. Of his 129 goals in all competitions for Lyon, 23 came from the spot. Hence the unkind nickname “Penalzette”. Physically, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the Premier League and one thing is very clear – the pressure on him will be huge, particularly if Sánchez is prized away and the team have to replace his goals and assists.

Does Lacazette have the x-factor? Can he bring it to Arsenal? All eyes are on him.

(The Guardian)

Mesut Özil Wants Superstar Wages from Arsenal, but who else Really Wants him?


London – Arsène Wenger was asked about the Mesut Özil contract issue after Arsenal’s 3-2 home win over Swansea City last October. It was not the first time that the manager had been pressed on it and, goodness knows, it would not be the last. Type “Özil” and “contract” into an online newspaper archive and, at the time of writing, it brings up 4,117 hits from the British national press over the past year. “I don’t think Mesut needs convincing to stay,” Wenger said, back then. “He wants to stay here. If you have a good bank, call me.”

Wenger’s quip gave the story one of its principal drivers, even if high finance tends to go hand-in-hand with the career direction of the modern Premier League footballer. As has been endlessly reported, Özil now has one year to run on his £140,000-a-week contract and he wants a massive pay rise before he commits to another one at the club.

Yet this is a situation that stands apart from so many of its ilk, including those of the former Arsenal players Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie and Özil’s current team-mate Alexis Sánchez. Nasri and Van Persie left the club in 2011 and 2012 for Manchester City and Manchester United respectively, when they each had one year to run on their deals, while Sánchez is expected to leave this summer, with City increasingly confident that they will get him. Sánchez has one year to go on his contract.

The market was hot for Nasri and Van Persie and it is red hot for Sánchez, with Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain having also shown an interest in him. Arsenal’s dilemma with Nasri and Van Persie was that both players had refused to sign new contracts and so they had to cash in or risk losing them on free transfers the following year. The situation is the same with Sánchez.

But what of Özil? Which of the rival European clubs that could meet his salary demands actually want him? There are only seven that can offer weekly wage packets of more than £200,000 a week – the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern and PSG. And, at present, Arsenal have fielded no concrete inquiries from any of them.

It has served to leave Özil in a curious position. This is a superstar player who, depending on your viewpoint, may or may not have justified his billing, who wants superstar wages but is currently unwanted by the superstar clubs.

The starting point for any analysis of Özil’s strategy must be what Arsenal are prepared to offer him, and, happily for all parties, it appears that they do know a good bank. Their proposal is, reportedly, in the region of £280,000 a week – in other words, a 100 percent rise, which would add up to an extra £7.3m per year, before tax.

But Özil and his people are stalling. In January, Özil suggested that he wanted to know whether Wenger would stay on for another cycle before he extended his own contract. The manager committed to another two years on May 31 yet that seems to have done little to accelerate the negotiations with Özil.

One of the big questions for the Germany midfielder concerns why he should sign a new deal during this window – in the absence of a viable offer from elsewhere. It is the question that his representatives are asking and it is understood that they have resolved to sit tight until January 2018.

At that point, Özil would have six months to run and he would be able to discuss a free transfer for the summer with interested overseas clubs. He could even agree a pre-contract and, in those circumstances, would expect to receive a huge signing-on bonus, similar to what the buying club would save in transfer fees.

Would this bonus be more than £7.3m or the sum that Özil would forfeit by remaining on his current salary for another year? Surely yes, even if it is unclear how much a club would pay for Özil in terms of the transfer fee. In cases that involve colossal wages, the fee can be squeezed.

Were Özil, as is expected, to wait it out, he would hope not so much to keep his options open – with re-signing at Arsenal in the end still among them – but to broaden them. He would back himself to excel in a World Cup year and tempt some of the elite clubs out of the woodwork.

On the other hand, anything can happen in the coming months and that includes things going wrong. Özil could get injured or he might play badly and see his value drop. He could worry about injury and play within himself. If the grass does not prove greener on the other side of the conundrum, he would have lost money and put needless pressure on the relationship with Wenger, his team-mates and the Arsenal support.

The Guardian Sport

Arsène Wenger Smiles Better as He Shakes Off Arsenal Hurt and Suffering

Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, shows his pride when lifting the FA Cup trophy at Wembley. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty Images

More than anything, Arsène Wenger looked happy. For months, the Arsenal manager has furrowed his brow and tensed his body as the blows have rained down on him. He has sensed conspiracy at every turn; a trap in every question. There have been enemies everywhere, including within club ranks. It has been draining.

At Wembley on Saturday, the worry lines could finally soften and the enduring image of Arsenal’s FA Cup final victory over Chelsea was that of Wenger’s smile. Even those who have hounded and denounced him might have felt its warmth.

When the full-time whistle went, the old fighter balled up his fists and shook those long arms. He strode on to the pitch and sought out everybody who had helped him to a record seventh FA Cup for an embrace. The overall impression was of childlike delight. This is what Wenger lives for. It is the reason he suffers.

Rewind to the previous weekend. Arsenal had completed their Premier League campaign at the Emirates Stadium – in fifth place – and Wenger had stayed away from the players’ lap of appreciation. He said that he had wanted them to have “the quiet lap of honor they deserved” but it felt like an acknowledgment of the divisive status he has come to bear.

Wenger had no second thoughts about walking towards the Arsenal end at Wembley and there were roars when he pumped his fists high above his head. “No, never, there was no reluctance,” Wenger said. “I meet many Arsenal fans who are absolutely fantastic. I have just said there have been maybe one per cent [who have behaved badly] but 99% of our fans are absolutely fantastic. We play for them.

“I don’t think that we are human beings if we can say: ‘Oh, fantastic, I enjoy that [abuse].’ There’s a kind of violence in our society now where everybody has opinions and we have to live with it.

“The only thing I say is that during the game, you want people who are fans to be behind the club. I will never accept [otherwise] during a game. If people want me out, they want me out. I can accept that. During the game, you support the team.”

The season – surely the most punishing of Wenger’s career – has been scarred by fury and protest. Who can forget the planes trailing messages in the skies or the mutiny among the traveling support after the humiliation at Crystal Palace?

“I am a forgiving man,” Wenger said. “This job is basically about trusting human beings so, if you cannot forgive, you cannot trust. The only thing I advise to young coaches is that if you have a tendency to paranoia, don’t do this job.”

Wenger fished into his suit trouser pocket and pulled out the small, dark leather case containing his winners’ medal. Normally, he gives them away but, as this represented a piece of history, he said that he would keep it.

Obviously, he was asked about his future. The idea was to continue at Arsenal, right? “Look, you ask me that question at least one time every week,” he said. “Give me a little breather.” Wenger can appear pathologically conditioned to dodge and deny. But he was in relaxed mood and he talked with real feeling about what continues to drive him.

“I’m a very young man but I don’t look very young,” he joked. “That’s the difference. I have desire. I love my job. I love to win. I love to build. I love to get people going. I love what I do. It’s as simple as that. I invite you, for one day, to live with me and one thing you cannot question is my commitment.

“To me, the FA Cup is about the intensity of the emotions. Where else can you get that? Cup finals are hugely popular in every single country. It’s just the explosion of the passion of the people.”

Wenger’s triumph against Chelsea, the recently crowned league champions, owed everything to character and it was particularly evident when his team hit back immediately after Diego Costa’s equalizer. At that point, Chelsea looked on for the Double, despite having been reduced to 10 men after Victor Moses’ lamentable dive. But Aaron Ramsey’s winner would come three minutes later.

“I’ve won a few Doubles and I know that when a team is on a high, it takes something special to break that,” Wenger said.

“When they equalized, I thought: ‘Here we are. That will give them momentum. We will feel guilty and they will take advantage.’ I was worried at that stage. But we responded straight away.”

Wenger’s back line had stretched the definition of makeshift. Per Mertesacker made his first start for 13 months and he had never played in the middle of three central defenders while Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain, who returned from hamstring trouble, had never played at left wing-back.

“I think I said a few weeks ago that I might play left-back soon,” said Oxlade‑Chamberlain, who has occupied a wide variety of roles. “I was only joking. For it to happen in the final was a bit of surprise.”

It was comfortably the biggest game of Rob Holding’s career but, together with Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal, he stood up to Costa. Mertesacker said that Holding had been the bad cop to his good cop. “We went to work on Costa,” he said. “Rob was giving him a really hard time and I kept patting him on the back. I was being friendly while Rob kept on talking to him. It was a good double-act.”

Arsenal had gone into the final on a run of eight wins in nine games and with what Mertesacker described as a “new direction”, since Wenger’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation. They were still the underdogs but they found a way to the upset. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly things can turn,” Mertesacker said.

Wenger’s smile betrayed vindication but, more importantly, hope for the future. The frustrations are practically a part of the Wenger Experience. Why can’t Arsenal play like this every week? We will miss him when he is gone.

(The Guardian)

Rainbows and Tears on Tottenham Hotspur’s Last Day at White Hart Lane

Mauricio Pochettino and his Tottenham squad embarked on a lap of honour around the White Hart Lane pitch just as a rainbow broke out across the sky. Photograph: Rob Harris/AP

Over by White Hart Lane’s East Stand, underneath the halfway line, lie the ashes of Bill Nicholson – the late, great Tottenham Hotspur player and manager who, more than anybody, left a lasting impression on the club.

Nicholson’s remains were placed down there, together with those of his wife, Darkie, at a family ceremony and, when the club push ahead with the move to their new 61,000-seat stadium on this site, great care will be taken to reposition those ashes under the playing surface.

The spirit of Nicholson will transfer from old to new and the symbolism will not be lost on anybody who loves Tottenham and was present for the grand finale to this storied venue which, on the field, turned into the most comprehensive of 2-1 victories against Manchester United.

It was a celebration from start to finish, albeit one that veered off script for about 20 minutes after the full-time whistle, when thousands of fans ignored the appeals to stay off the pitch and came yomping on. Maybe they simply could not help themselves.

Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Jan Vertonghen were caught up in the crowds and had to fight their way through them to reach the sanctuary of the tunnel. When uniformed police officers massed in that area, it briefly threatened to turn into a spectacle that nobody wanted.

But it was quickly forgotten when order was restored and the abiding memory of the occasion was of the post-match ceremony, which featured the parade of legends. One by one they walked on, oblivious to the rain, the kings of White Hart Lane and the senses tingled. Cliff Jones, the Welsh wizard, at 82 years young, jogged on and there were tremendous ovations for Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle and David Ginola – among many others.

Almost providentially, the rain stopped and the most vivid of rainbows arched up over the stadium, as Mauricio Pochettino and his current squad joined the party for a lap of honour. It was impossible to imagine a more perfect scene.

Every supporter could feel the pull of 118 years of history, the churn of their individual memories and Daniel Levy, the chairman, summed it up when he said they “should take a moment to look around and recognise the momentous and poignant occasion of which we are now part”.

There were numerous lump-in-the-throat moments and it all kicked off when the teams walked out prior to kick-off and were greeted by white-and-blue flags waved from virtually every seat. The roar that went up set the tone and it was an afternoon of song from the home fans.

Pochettino had predicted that he would struggle to hold back the tears and there was plenty of love for the manager of whom Nicholson would surely have approved. The crowd serenaded him on more than one occasion with the song about him being magic and the thought occurred that precious few Tottenham managers in recent times have been feted in such a way.

Pochettino’s team have now set a new club points record for a single season – on top of all of their other eye-catching numbers – and it certainly feels as though the future is in safe hands. As has been the case all season at this venue, Tottenham played with a swagger. The club had only said, for certain, on 28 April that they would decommission the Lane at the end of the season and so there has not been the sense of a long kiss goodnight – the like of which, say, West Ham United gave to Upton Park.

That said, the expectation has always been that it would be the final campaign here and, according to Pochettino, the players have been intent on wringing every last drop out of it. This was a 17th consecutive victory for them here in all competitions. The dynamics have also been finessed by the simple fact that Tottenham will not actually leave the footprint of the existing site – apart from when they play next season at Wembley. They are not moving and the new pitch will overlap the old one.

This is a big thing. It has helped to dampen the sadness and fire the excitement about the progress to the new ground. As Pochettino says, the “soul” and the “smell” of White Hart Lane will endure. The on-pitch action felt almost incidental – despite Tottenham’s excellence – as the home fans went through their repertoire of songs, including tributes to many former players, from Teddy Sheringham and Steffen Freund to Ledley King and Aaron Lennon. Chas and Dave were even brought on at half-time but, unfortunately for United, it was not for Jones and Smalling.

Pochettino’s players wore special edition shirts and the special edition crest was seemingly everywhere, including on the giant, big-screen in the corner of the stadium. The one-offs underscored the occasion. There will never be another one.

(The Guardian)