Bilic Mutes the Mutiny at the Last but West Ham’s Battlers Need a Plan


London — Midway through the first half, Slaven Bilic switched his wingers. Michail Antonio went left, André Ayew went right. It was a sure sign that Bilic’s tactics were malfunctioning.

In theory it made sense for West Ham United to start in a 4-4-2 system, which plays to the strengths of both Andy Carroll and Javier Hernández, for the first time this season. Yet a plan that looks good on paper will never work if players are confused by their instructions and in practice West Ham’s ponderous approach rarely stretched Swansea City. There was no flow, no rhythm, and the disgruntled atmosphere at the London Stadium grew to a mutinous pitch when Diafra Sakho replaced the ineffective Hernández in the 78th minute.

A dire game was drifting towards a goalless draw and for the first time there was a sense of the narrative shifting against Bilic, whose hold over a hitherto adoring public seemed to be slipping, belatedly allowing the board to contemplate sacking the Croat without having to worry about a supporter backlash. Hernández furiously shook his head on the bench and the crowd sympathised with the £16m striker’s incandescence at having made way instead of Carroll.

Yet a prominent theme during the past 12 months has been West Ham’s knack of grinding out an ugly win just when Bilic is thought to be on the brink. It happened on several occasions last season and the pattern continued when Sakho, who tried to engineer a move to Rennes in the summer, vindicated Bilic’s unpopular decision by converting a cross from his fellow substitute Arthur Masuaku in the 90th minute.

There was a similar vibe when West Ham responded to losing their first three games by earning an unconvincing victory against Huddersfield Town last month and there is a temptation to conclude that winning while playing poorly is proof that a decent team will break out once confidence comes flowing back. It is partly this sense of longing that has protected Bilic, an intelligent and charismatic man who speaks articulately and wears his heart on his sleeve.

He is hard to dislike, which explains the desire to see him do well. Other teams in West Ham’s position might have downed tools in an attempt to force their manager out, but Bilic’s players continue to fight for him, masking the lack of any discernible style of play by demonstrating their battling qualities.

“I see that they want to do it,” Bilic said. “After the first three games, when we were on zero points, I didn’t see no discipline in the camp. On the contrary, I felt that we wanted to do it all together. Are they doing it for the manager or themselves? At the end of the day, it’s not important.

“You can talk about the quality of our performance today but we won the game because we didn’t give up. We didn’t raise unbelievably the quality of our game in the second half, but if I am on the pitch and I don’t care, it was the perfect situation not to care. But we didn’t. We forced that goal.”

The problem is that the longer this persists, the more Bilic will come across as a motivational cheerleader rather than a tactical mastermind. That might be enough to keep West Ham out of the relegation zone but it is not a solid foundation for success.

Having risen to 15th after picking up seven points from four games, West Ham have an opportunity to build after the international break. “Now I’m expecting for us to do much better,” Bilic said.

He is safe for now, but ultimately this was the kind of uneven performance that shows why his long-term future is less certain. Unless Bilic can snap them out of the wearying cycle of constantly needing a scrappy win to ward off a major crisis, West Ham will have few compelling reasons to extend his contract at the end of the season.

The Guardian Sport

Palace and Arsenal Epitomize Premier League’s Lack of Joined-Up Thinking

Frank de Boer has made a disastrous start at Crystal Palace but his players are struggling with an extreme transition after a relegation battle under Sam Allardyce.

Now the honeymoon period has well and truly fizzled out, extinguished by so much sideways football that soon Louis van Gaal will be making a pilgrimage to Selhurst Park to see what all the fuss is about, it comes as no surprise to learn Crystal Palace appear to be wondering whether the man who said he would make his new team play like Ajax might not be up to the task of managing in the Premier League.

Judging by the grumbling emanating from south London last week, some members of Palace’s squad appear to have made up their minds already about Frank de Boer. If the writing is on the wall for him, it is largely because his apparently dissatisfied players have wasted no time sharpening their pens and, although that kind of insurrection could be seen as yet another damning indictment of the state of modern football, it is worth remembering no manager is safe if his methods raise eyebrows rather than spirits in the dressing room.

Perhaps it reflects poorly on English football that De Boer, who led Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles in his first managerial job, has encountered early resistance at Palace (highest Premier League finish: 10th in 2015). After all, everyone was on board when he outlined his vision in the summer and demonstrated an awareness that refining Palace’s style would not be easy, promising “evolution, not revolution”. Three matches in, however, Palace fans are still waiting to celebrate a goal, let alone their first point. More worrying than the results are the insipid, cure-for-insomnia performances, the dogmatism that makes Van Gaal’s Manchester United look even more freewheeling than Brazil’s 1970 team.

But why did the Palace hierarchy not see this coming? Before De Boer, the home dugout at Selhurst Park was the domain of the Proper Football Man. Since winning promotion under Ian Holloway in 2013, Palace have employed Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce, and the result is a gritty, direct team with few frills and little creativity or flair. One has got to go back 19 years to find the only other time they had a foreign manager, Atillio Lombardo, who could not save them from relegation during a brief spell as caretaker player-manager. Hiring De Boer was a departure from the norm for Palace and maybe it was to be expected they would experience teething problems. They will be accused of impatience if they decide to cut their losses; in reality, however, their biggest crime would be failing to lay the proper foundations for such a big change to their identity.

It would hint at the kind of structural shortcomings stemming from a lack of a philosophy within the club. Allardyce one minute, De Boer the next: it was too extreme. Palace had just survived a relegation scrap and there was no sense they had been gearing up to become the English Ajax. It is no wonder the squad has struggled to adapt to De Boer, who said his players lacked courage on the ball after the home defeat by Swansea City.

This can be a consequence when clubs attempt a quick fix instead of building gradually. Last month Palace hired Dougie Freedman as a sporting director. Yet it is difficult not to conclude Freedman should have arrived before De Boer and it is baffling that clubs with Palace’s resources do not seek to emulate the model at Southampton, where long-term planning ensures they are equipped to handle a change in the dugout. The expertise of the Pozzo family helps Watford punch above their weight despite their rotating cast of managers. What mattered more when Leicester won the title: hiring Claudio Ranieri or scouting N’Golo Kanté?

The director of football role remains staggeringly underrated in England. When it was put to Arsène Wenger that Arsenal could benefit from appointing one, he sounded as if he had been told to change his name to José. “I don’t know what it means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs the players left and right?”

A director of football could have challenged Wenger’s authority, forcing Arsenal out of their comfort zone. Instead his bosses shied away from making a tough decision at the end of last season, condemning Arsenal to two more years of stasis.

These are troubled times in the capital. Only West Ham’s miserable goal difference keeps Palace off the foot of the table. Time is running out for Slaven Bilic, who was found wanting tactically a long time ago. Yet while Bilic is fortunate to have his job, West Ham’s main problem is David Sullivan’s idea of a director of football seems to be David Sullivan. Gaping holes have not been filled and the club’s decision to focus on short-term acquisitions has left the team looking slow and old. How appropriate was it for the man in charge of transfers to be on holiday in Spain on deadline day?

So nothing changes. With the De Boer project looking doomed, Freedman is expected to step in on a temporary basis before making way for Roy Hodgson. Another emergency will force Palace back to square one, but it could have been avoided with greater foresight.

De Boer, schooled at Ajax and one of the most technically gifted defenders of his generation, appeared to have the credentials. More relevant than the 85-day stint at Internazionale, however, is the way Ajax became stagnant in his final two seasons, boring the Amsterdam Arena with laborious passing. Johan Cruyff disciples came to view De Boer as a Van Gaal man. He promised to bring excitement to Palace but so far he has offered precious little evidence of his Cruyffism.

(The Guardian)

Familiar Faces are Arriving at West Ham, but Will their Short-Termisn Backfire?


London – West Ham United are feeling very pleased with themselves at the moment. Relieved, too. After making a spectacular show of themselves in the transfer market last summer, when they started out with hopes of luring Alexandre Lacazette to east London and ended up convincing themselves that Simone Zaza was the answer, this time they have been assertive. In the past fortnight alone they have signed England’s No1 on loan, one of their rivals’ finest talents and a striker who scored 59 goals in 156 games for Manchester United.

“A great window,” David Gold tweeted after Javier Hernández’s arrival on Monday – and for once supporters did not rush to complain about broken promises. Last year David Sullivan said that signing a top striker was his biggest priority, before the man who fancies himself as West Ham’s director of football produced Zaza, Jonathan Calleri and Ashley Fletcher. This time he can show off Hernández, an established poacher with international pedigree. The Mexican will be serviced by Marko Arnautovic, whose wing wizardry should get bums on seats at the London Stadium after his arrival from Stoke City, and at the other end Joe Hart will prove Manchester City were wrong to ditch him.

It looks like an excellent plan on paper. Last summer West Ham conspired against themselves by buying in bulk, opting for cheap quantity over quality. Now they appear to have strengthened by signing proven Premier League performers. With fees growing ever more exorbitant, paying Bayer Leverkusen £16m for Hernández is regarded as canny business, while spending £24m on Arnautovic is simply the kind of thing that happens in 2017. In the context of Everton’s willingness to offer £45m for Gylfi Sigurdsson, Arnautovic almost looks like a bargain.

Yet Stoke bought him for £2m four years ago. Now the Austrian is West Ham’s record signing. André Ayew previously held that mantle. The Ghanaian had been at Swansea for a year before they made a £20m profit on him.

Amid the excitement, it is also possible to have misgivings about the profile of West Ham’s recent signings. Arnautovic is 28, Hernández is 29 and Hart is 30. The window began with the arrival of the 32-year-old Pablo Zabaleta on a free from City, and an uncharitable way of framing this frenzy of activity is that West Ham are in danger of becoming a destination for players looking for their last big payday.

If there was one moment that encapsulated West Ham’s mediocrity last season, it was the sight of their players during the 4-0 home defeat to Liverpool in May. A flowing Liverpool counterattack culminated with an insultingly simple goal for Philippe Coutinho. Slaven Bilic knew that something had to change.

Aside from the obvious gulf in class, what really troubled Bilic was how leaden his team were in comparison to Jürgen Klopp’s flyers. While Liverpool boasted strength and speed, qualities that are indispensable in the modern era, West Ham looked ponderous, slow and old, and Bilic did not allow the absence of several key players to blind him to the fact that a lack of energy was a problem all season. It could not be right that Michail Antonio was his only pacy prominent attacker, which is why the manager spoke pointedly about wanting to inject more athleticism into his squad while discussing his summer plans in May.

When they signed the 33-year-old José Fonte and the 29-year-old Robert Snodgrass for a combined £18m in January, the outlay could be justified as retail therapy after Dimitri Payet’s return to Marseille. Bilic’s comments about the Premier League’s physicality hinted at an awareness of the need for more athleticism. Then West Ham signed Zabaleta.

“We had a policy up to now to buy players for tomorrow, not today,” Sullivan said this week. “We made a decision with the manager to buy players proven in the Premier League, who’ve been here before and who are of an age where they’re not being bought for tomorrow – but today. Long term it’s not a great strategy but short term it is. Hopefully we’ll buy one or two more players, investments in the future, while at the same time doing what’s best for the club.”

West Ham were desperate for a right‑back and the Argentinian was one of the best in England for many years. He is a good professional and they loved him at City. But he has not been the same since a serious knee injury; Jesús Navas was above him in the pecking order by the end of last season.

There is a sense that West Ham are locked in a spiral of almost making the right decision with their money. They want to make it to the next level, but are unsure of the clearest route. Hart is a glamorous signing, a star name. At his best, he is an outstanding goalkeeper, yet his form has been worryingly indifferent for a while. He struggled at Torino last season and he might only be at West Ham for a year, at which point they will have to contend with an unhappy Adrián, who has paid a heavy price for a poor patch last autumn.

Hernández, meanwhile, is a lethal finisher who excelled in his first year at Leverkusen, but the former United forward had less joy in Germany last season, and it remains to be seen whether he possesses the physical attributes to lead the line every week for a mid-table Premier League side.

Perhaps the strategy of targeting established talent will enable West Ham to consolidate themselves as a top-half club before aiming higher. Yet it is worth pausing to consider that Snodgrass, signed as Payet’s replacement six months ago, has been replaced by Arnautovic after half a season. That is the price of short-termism: it exposes the lack of a plan. Identity disappears. It is why West Ham have signed 33 strikers in the past seven years. Bilic wanted them to think and act faster, but they run the risk of always playing catch-up.

The Guardian Sport

Europe’s Top Transfer Targets: From Mbappé to Aubameyang via Verratti


London- Andrea Belotti, Torino

After Manchester United’s pursuit of Antoine Griezmann ran into a brick wall, their search for a replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic took them to Real Madrid’s Álvaro Morata. The Spanish striker remains top of their list but United have also been keeping an eye on a young Italian who looks destined to enjoy a wonderful career. Strong and relentless, Belotti has scored 40 goals in 73 appearances since joining Torino two years ago and Milan have already seen one bid turned down for the 23-year-old Italy international. Torino are holding out for as much money as possible, though they would not mind hanging on to Belotti for another season.

Douglas Costa, Bayern Munich

The Brazilian winger fell out of favour in his second season at Bayern, making only 14 starts in the Bundesliga under Carlo Ancelotti, and he has also clashed with the club’s new board during negotiations for a fresh contract. The 26-year-old was labelled “desperate” in February by the club president, Uli Hoeness, and his departure looks certain this summer. But there is no doubting his talent and Juventus are poised to take advantage of Costa’s situation by bringing him to Turin. He would be an excellent signing for the Serie A champions, who are determined to push on after their Champions League final defeat.

Virgil van Dijk, Southampton

The centre-back remains in demand despite Liverpool ending their interest in him after Southampton reported them to the Premier League for an alleged illegal approach this month. Southampton were furious when reports emerged that Liverpool were ready to complete a £60m transfer for the Holland international and their strident response indicated their determination to keep the 25-year-old, whose contract runs until 2022. Chelsea and Manchester City continue to monitor Van Dijk, who has been outstanding since his move from Celtic two years ago, but will the asking price force them to look elsewhere?

Kylian Mbappé, Monaco

The 18-year-old is the most exciting young talent in Europe after shooting to prominence last season. Likened to Thierry Henry because of his searing speed, skill and lethal finishing, Mbappé played a starring role in Monaco’s charge to the Ligue 1 title and proved that he can flourish at the highest level by helping Leonardo Jardim’s side reach the Champions League semi-finals. And his 24 goals in all competitions saw him become the youngest player to break into the France senior team since Maryan Wisniewski in 1955. Inevitably there have been covetous glances from top clubs in England and Spain – but it may take a record fee for Monaco to do business, especially if Paris Saint-Germain make an inquiry.

Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon

The striker appeared to be bound for Atlético Madrid before the court of arbitration for sport upheld the Spanish club’s transfer ban, opening the door for Arsenal. Lacazette could be the top striker they have been trying to buy ever since selling Robin van Persie five years ago. The 26-year-old scored 36 goals for Lyon last season and the French side could be tempted to sell him for £60m. Arsenal, who have made their interest clear, should not shy away from stumping up the cash for a forward who more than makes up for his lack of height with his pace, movement and deadliness.

Alexis Sánchez, Arsenal

All the dog posters in the world may not be enough to convince the Chilean to stay at Arsenal after their failure to qualify for the Champions League. Although Arsenal ended the season on a high, beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final, there were times when Sánchez could not hide his frustration about playing for a team that constantly fall short in the biggest competitions. The 28-year-old is entering the final 12 months of his contract and can be forgiven for thinking that he is above the Europa League. Chelsea and Manchester City are interested, although Arsenal’s reluctance to sell to a rival could push Bayern or PSG to the top of the queue.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Borussia Dortmund

PSG looked favourites to sign the forward after he told Dortmund he wanted to leave at the end of last season, but the French side’s interest in the 28-year-old appears to have cooled. Not that Dortmund can rest easy yet. The speedy Aubameyang, who has scored 113 goals in his four seasons with the German side, would make a fine addition for any team in Europe. He has been heavily linked with both Manchester clubs, and he would be an obvious replacement for Diego Costa at Chelsea, but those close to the Gabon international have said his dream is to play for Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Nélson Semedo, Benfica

The Portuguese champions could do with hanging on to Semedo after selling Victor Lindelof to Manchester United and hope that an exorbitant asking price will deter clubs. But Barcelona need a new right-back. They have been chasing Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín, but Semedo also features on their list. The 23-year-old is already a Portugal international and has been linked with United, who could pounce if Barcelona fail to make their move.

James Rodríguez, Real Madrid

The Colombian was the star of the last World Cup, with his outstanding performances in Brazil earning him a lucrative move to Real Madrid. But while he shone in his first season at the Bernabéu, the golden boy has become the forgotten man under Zinédine Zidane. His attitude and commitment to training have been criticised and he was not even on the bench in the Champions League final. He badly needs a fresh start. There have been suggestions that Chelsea might offer him one, although he might not fit into Antonio Conte’s system, and United are also said to be keen. Whatever happens, Real will want a hefty fee.

Marco Verratti, PSG

Barcelona’s desire to sign the Italian is easy to understand. Verratti might not score many goals or win many awards, but he is a midfielder with a deep understanding of football, a player who can control games with his technique, anticipation and passing. It is clear to see how the 24-year-old would fit in at Barcelona, who believe that he can be the long-term replacement for Xavi Hernández. While some players can struggle to adapt to their style, it is unlikely that would be a problem for Verratti.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Milan

The Italian prodigy is widely regarded as the heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s throne, which is no surprise bearing in mind his outstandingly precocious performances in the two years since he became the youngest goalkeeper to start a Serie A game. Donnarumma made his international debut at the age of 17 and is expected to be Italy’s No1 when Buffon finally steps aside. But the 18-year-old’s future is uncertain after turning down Milan’s offer of a new contract worth £80,000 a week, a development that caused angry fans to shower his goalmouth with fake dollar bills during Italy’s victory over Denmark in the European Under-21 Championship on Sunday night. His agent, Mino Raiola, holds the club’s board to blame, however, and the stand-off could force Milan to sell, with United and Real closely monitoring the situation.

Guardian Sport

David Moyes Leads the Flops of the 2016-17 Premier League Season


London – From two underwhelming managerial stints in the north-east to a struggling goalkeeper at a leading contender, here are the Guardian Sport’s flops of the 2016-17 Premier League season:

David Moyes

It is baffling to think that they were getting ready to welcome the Moyesiah at Old Trafford this time four years ago. If Moyes could turn back the clock, it is unlikely that he would accept Manchester United’s offer to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. But how could he have possibly known that landing his dream job would lead to this nightmarish turn of events? Try as Moyes might to remind the world of his undeniably excellent work at Everton, all anyone can see now is the man whose limitations at the highest level were exposed in one of the more brutal ways imaginable, leaving his reputation in tatters and raising his inherent caution to such debilitating levels that now he is known as the Energy Vampire at Sunderland, draining the spirit of the people around him. He was nothing short of a disaster at the Stadium of Light. He arrived with a defeatist attitude, waved the white flag as relegation approached and was fortunate not to lose his job after being caught making disparaging remarks to a female BBC interviewer. It is true that Sunderland’s many problems are not all down to Moyes, but what did he do to lift the malaise? Most football supporters can stomach losing – it comes with the territory. What they cannot abide, however, is watching their team roll over every week, so the majority of Sunderland’s supporters will not be losing any sleep now that Moyes will not be managing their side in the Championship, after he resigned the day after the final game of the season.

Aitor Karanka

The Spaniard employed a different brand of negativity to the type favored by Moyes, but it was no less damaging to his team’s survival hopes. The warning signs were already there for Middlesbrough, who were goal-shy even while winning automatic promotion from the Championship last season, and Karanka stubbornly failed to rectify concerns that a lack of verve would be their downfall in a tougher league. His focus on defense was too great and while Middlesbrough were stingy at the back, they failed to find the right balance between defense and attack. They were a chore to watch and their players often looked bored and uninspired. The division’s lowest scorers should have replaced Karanka long before his sacking in March.

Simone Zaza

Taking your pick from the collection of rogues signed by West Ham last summer isn’t easy. For instance, Álvaro Arbeloa’s only league start came in an awful 3-0 defeat to Southampton and the veteran right-back, who picked up three bookings in four appearances, has not been seen since a wretched 5-1 thrashing against Arsenal in December. André Ayew, signed for £20m, tore a thigh muscle on his debut. Havard Nordtveit has threatened to redefine mediocrity. Gokhan Tore stunk the place out before getting injured in October. Presented with an easy chance against Stoke, Jonathan Calleri produced a farcical rabona. But the floppiest of them all was the Italy international who was supposed to solve West Ham’s striking woes. West Ham paid a £5m loan fee to bring in Zaza from Juventus and would have been obliged to part with another £20m if he had reached 14 Premier League appearances, negotiating that must make the taxpayer wonder how the east Londoners secured such a sweet deal for the London Stadium. Zaza made 11 appearances in all competitions, failed to score once, sent one shot out for a throw and left in January. Still, at least he wasn’t allowed near penalties.

Claudio Bravo

Here is a goalkeeper who won two La Liga titles and seven major titles overall with Barcelona and who played a starring role for Chile in their Copa América triumphs in 2015 and 2016 and in reaching Sunday’s Confederations Cup final. He arrived in England with a reputation for being good with his feet, which seemed to make him the perfect fit for Pep Guardiola, who had decided that Joe Hart no longer had a part to play at Manchester City. Yet Bravo has struggled ever since his shaky debut in the Manchester derby, when his error led to a goal for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Chilean was sent off at Camp Nou in October and at one point even his shot-stopping abilities deserted him – Bravo failed to make a single save when City lost 4-0 at Everton in January. Guardiola’s intentions are possible to understand in theory, but it isn’t working.

Wilfried Bony

The Ivorian was one of the most lethal strikers in the Premier League before leaving Swansea City at the start of 2015, but he has become an irrelevance since then. The 28-year-old has failed to impress on loan at Stoke City. Deemed surplus to requirements at Manchester City, it was reasonable to assume that Bony would regain his form once he started playing regularly again and there was a brief hint of a resurgence when he scored twice in the win over Swansea in October. But those were Bony’s only goals for Stoke. He has not featured since departing for the Africa Cup of Nations in January and clubs will think twice before making a move for him this summer.

The Guardian Sport

Paolo Maldini Courts New Love to Join Grand Band of Sport Switchers


London- It was the kind of story that made one do a double take. The Paolo Maldini? The retired footballer? The five-times European champion, former Italy captain and devilishly handsome H&M model? He’s a professional tennis player now? Are you sure? There was a temptation to assume it was nothing more than a joke that had spun out of control. It would have made sense if news had broken about Maldini becoming Milan’s manager. But tennis? At the age of 49?

After all, someone of Maldini’s standing would not have had to wait long for the offers to start rolling in if he had decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a manager. Yet he has never sounded like a man driven by a desire to enter the cut‑throat world of coaching.

Maldini’s ambitions lay elsewhere and he pursued them away from the limelight, with the hunger of a competitor who spent 24 years at the top with Milan. Last weekend, however, word spread of his forthcoming tennis debut. The extent of his flair with a racket in his hand was no longer a secret. He had developed a taste for boxing after bringing down the curtain on his football career in 2009 but soon discovered a talent for tennis.

“Paolo’s gifted with a good serve in addition to some decent shots,” Stefano Landonio, his doubles partner, told Il Tennis Italiano. “He’s also improving his volleys and, while he may not be catching the eye in any particular part of his game, he does not have any weaknesses, either.”

Let’s not get carried away. Maldini isn’t about to challenge for the Wimbledon title. Instead he is set to appear alongside Landonio, a former world No975 who has been honing his fellow Italian’s game, at an ATP Challenger event in Milan this week.

But despite the intrigue, perhaps Maldini’s new direction is not so strange. He is, after all, merely following in the grand tradition of athletes who have switched sports. He is hardly the first footballer who has looked for a fresh start.

Curtis Woodhouse, say, was a promising England under-21 international who fell out of love with his chosen profession and only rediscovered the fire in his belly when he turned to boxing in 2006, earning his reward when he defeated Darren Hamilton to lift the British super‑lightweight title eight years later.

It might seem like pure greed to those of us who congratulate ourselves when we go five minutes without tripping over our own shoelaces, but some people are natural athletes who are capable of excelling at any physical activity. The former Manchester United and England footballer Phil Neville was one of the best schoolboy cricketers in the country when he was a teenager. Ian Botham was good enough to make 11 Football League appearances for Scunthorpe as a means to keep fit outside the cricket season, but as a teenager had wisely listened to his father’s advice to focus on the summer game.

One of the most impressive cases is Rebecca Romero who switched to cycling after winning silver in rowing at the 2004 Olympics. She did not find it easy. “I was probably about 10 months into it when people started saying that I actually looked like a cyclist rather than a rower on a bike,” Romero said.

But Dan Hunt, one of Britain’s top cycling coaches, had spotted her potential. “On a physiological level, the tests showed us that she had the capability to perform at the highest level,” he said. “The raw numbers that were coming out of the test were very, very impressive for a cyclist, let alone somebody who was coming at it from a different sport.” Romero won gold in Beijing in 2008.

It doesn’t always work out, though. The former sprinter Dwain Chambers failed in his attempts to make it in rugby league and NFL, while Justin Gatlin also discovered that simply being able to run fast isn’t the secret to becoming an elite American football player. Andrew Flintoff enjoyed his only professional boxing bout but most experts agreed that the former cricketer did not possess enough skill or knowhow to justify him getting in the ring again. “The day I decided to climb into a boxing ring for a professional fight was probably on the side of stupidity,” Flintoff later admitted.

Yet there is nothing wrong with giving something a go, even if Michael Jordan’s flirtation with baseball raises a few smirks. It was shortly after the first of his first three retirements from the NBA when the basketball legend signed a contract with the Chicago White Sox in February 1994. Jordan’s recently murdered father had always wanted him to play baseball, but he hadn’t picked up a bat since high school and found that he wasn’t welcomed with open arms. “He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him,” Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners said. “I’d like to see how much air time he’d get on one of my inside pitches.”

Sports Illustrated controversially accused Jordan and the White Sox of shaming baseball and the arrangement barely lasted a year. “It’s been embarrassing,” Jordan told the New York Times. “For the last nine years, I had the world at my feet. Now I’m just another minor leaguer trying to make it to the major leagues.”

Landonio has said that Maldini’s technique is a little rough around the edges. In a way, however, that adds to the beauty of his passion for tennis. Everything came easily to him for a quarter of a century but he wasn’t afraid to test himself and start again from the bottom. He could have chosen to live off past glories. Instead he is proof that it is never too late to learn a few new tricks.

The Guardian Sport

‘Iceman’ Victor Lindelof Can Bring Calm and Class to Manchester United’s Defense

FILE PHOTO: Football Soccer - Republic of Ireland v Sweden - EURO 2016 - Group E - Stade de France, Saint-Denis near Paris, France - 13/6/16

When Luisão says that there have been times when he has mistaken Victor Lindelof for a player in his 30s, the gnarly Brazilian who has never held back in his role as the leader of Benfica’s defense is paying his young colleague the highest possible compliment. Although it could be mistaken for a dismissive observation about Lindelof’s cumbersome movement, instead it is Luisão’s way of expressing his admiration for a blossoming defender whose eerie composure explains why José Mourinho was so determined to bring him to Manchester United.

Luisão is not alone in regarding the 22-year-old as mature beyond his tender age and it is that very quality, that ability to stay cool under pressure and take everything in his stride, that has allowed Lindelof to develop from a Benfica reserve into one of the hottest young talents in Europe, all in the space of 18 months.

At the start of 2016, Lindelof was little more than raw potential, a youngster who was yet to prove that he was good enough to replace his more established team-mates in the first team. People at Benfica knew that he was gifted but they had not seen enough evidence to suggest that the Swede was ready to make the jump. Sure, he made his professional debut for Vasteras at the age of 16 but his experience of playing in the Swedish lower leagues was incomparable to the intense challenge of competing with Porto and Sporting Lisbon for the Portuguese title. And yes, Benfica had bought him when he was 17. But a big move came with no guarantees of regular football. He would have to prove himself first and he would have to do it the hard way.

Some young players might have grown impatient in Lindelof’s position. They might not have been willing to work. They might have believed their own hype. Lindelof, after all, was a captain for Sweden at youth level. He was a key member of the under-21s team that won the European Championship in the summer of 2015, beating Portugal on penalties in the final. But when he returned to his club for pre-season training, nothing had changed. He would still have to wait his turn.

Come the turn of the year, Lindelof’s moment had still not arrived and there was furtive talk of a move to Middlesbrough, but he was rewarded for his patience when Lisandro López suffered an injury when Benfica traveled to Moreirense shortly before the closure of the winter transfer window. His aim wasn’t to prove people wrong but to make himself undroppable. Lindelof played the final 30 minutes and oozed class and assurance in a 4-1 win. His nervelessness was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance – no wonder they call him the Iceman in Lisbon – and there could be no doubt that he was ready for the testing months ahead. Before long Lindelof was excelling in a Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich and he played every minute of Benfica’s final 14 league matches, helping them to pick up the 13 wins that meant they finished two points above Sporting at the top of the table.

Young centre-backs can be prone to errors but Lindelof’s outstanding form earned him a place in Sweden’s Euro 2016 squad and those who have known him since the start are not surprised that United have bought him for £31m. “He was a leader in a natural way,” Claes Eriksson, the manager of Sweden Under-19s, says. “Not shouting but leading by a good example. I think he has a good opportunity to succeed at United because he does everything at 100%. It is the top level, so you never know, but I think he can handle the pressure. Mentally he is very strong. I think that will not be a problem for him.”

His decision to leave home at such a young age was an indication of Lindelof’s toughness and he has not looked back since getting his break against Moreirense, helping Benfica to defend the title last season and becoming an influential player for his country at senior level.

Although Lindelof started as a right-back and sometimes even played as a right midfielder, he was always destined for central defense and Mourinho admires his strength, aerial power, ability on the ball and versatility. United can be confident that Lindelof and Eric Bailly, the speedy 23-year-old Ivorian who impressed in his debut season at Old Trafford, will form the solid partnership that they have lacked since time caught up with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Although Lindelof does not possess lightning speed, his astute reading of the game meant he was booked only once last season and he demonstrated a knack for the spectacular when he earned Benfica a point with a thunderous free-kick against Sporting in April.

Eriksson believes he is the complete defender and says: “He always had very good technique. He could read the game and see danger early when he was 16 or 17 years old. He is 100% an athlete. He was the captain for the national teams, so I am not surprised that he has developed the way he has now. He is the best player you can get. He was quite big and strong for his age. You could see that he was a very good player and he could go far. He is one of the best defenders we have had in Sweden for a couple of years. I don’t see any weaknesses.”

With those kinds of references, it is easy to see why Mourinho wanted him.

(The Guardian)

Arsène Wenger Wins another Small Battle in Arsenal’s Unlikely Civil War


London – After 15 minutes of tepid football, Arsène Wenger rose from the bench for the first time and went for a wander around his technical area, presumably just for a change of pace. A few seconds later, despite not having done much in the way of experimental arm waving or bellowing in a bid to raise his team’s level, he meandered back to his seat next to Steve Bould. Like everyone else inside St Mary’s, Wenger had clearly decided that there was not much worth saying yet.

The Arsenal manager’s many critics might respond to that by pointing out that they’ve heard it all before anyway, and of all the charges against Wenger, whose CV surely explains in great length how he revolutionised English football in the 1990s, perhaps the one that riles him most is that he is yesterday’s man. It depends who says it, of course. When it comes to dealing with the bedsheet artists in the stands, the seething YouTubers who rant into cameras after matches and the journalists who ask him about his future at every press conference, Wenger can smirk and speak in Professeurishly weary tones about how a culture of impatience has ruined polite society, allowing him to play the part of the wise old football sage seeking to enlighten the masses.

Before this stodgy but crucial victory over Southampton, however, the first rumblings of boardroom insurrection alarmed Wenger sufficiently for him to respond spikily when one of his interrogators asked about the possibility of hiring a director of football. After 13 years of increasing angst and inertia, a power struggle approaches and for a manager whose stubborn streak knows no bounds, the idea that there exists a person who might know better than him amounted to heresy. “I don’t know what director of football means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands in the road and directs play right and left?”

After his brief early stroll, Wenger stayed on the bench for the rest of the first half. Little of any note occurred for long spells, expectations that Arsenal would swiftly stamp their authority on proceedings after Sunday’s welcome victory over Manchester United proved misguided and Petr Cech was the busier goalkeeper before the teams disappeared down the tunnel, reacting sharply to prevent Manolo Gabbiadini and Nathan Redmond from giving Southampton the lead.

It required something special for Wenger to rise to his feet again. Enter Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, the two stars of this Arsenal team. They had been peripheral until the hour mark, when Özil’s perceptive pass found Sánchez, whose splendid turn bewitched Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens, leaving the Chilean to slip a low finish past the previously underworked Fraser Forster and maintain Arsenal’s hopes of squeezing Liverpool or Manchester City out of the top four.

Yet for all the restorative qualities of Arsenal’s first win on this ground since the Invincibles era, it will continue to trouble Wenger that he has an opponent among Arsenal’s directors. Ivan Gazidis is Wenger’s unlikely adversary, the would-be moderniser who sees compelling reasons for a drifting, irritable, anxious club to bring in a fresh voice, someone who can share some of the burden with the manager.

Wenger only scents a threat to his authority. Unlike Sir Alex Ferguson, the art of canny delegation is not one of his strengths. Ivan or me, Wenger seems to be saying to the board, and it would hardly be surprising if it transpires that the most influential figure in Arsenal’s history is capable of garnering enough support to win this battle. Gazidis will have to tread carefully. He is the likelier casualty.

Away from the looming Arsène-Ivan civil war, Arsenal’s focus was on reeling in City and Liverpool. Victory kept up their pursuit and it was impressive that they won without the injured Laurent Koscielny, their finest defender. The returning Shkodran Mustafi coped well, producing one vital challenge on Dusan Tadic.

While he remains resistant to sweeping change, Wenger was not afraid to use tactical shock therapy after last month’s humbling at Crystal Palace, tweaking his team into a 3-4-3 system. Arsenal have had moderate success in their new formation, winning four of their five past five league matches and reaching the FA Cup final with a gutsy fightback against City, and they passed another test here, recovering when the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had to be replaced by Héctor Bellerín before half-time.

Arsenal were not at their most convincing. It felt ominous when Özil ruined a promising break by knocking a straightforward pass to Danny Welbeck out for a throw at the start of the second half.

But they had enough punch in attack to deal with Southampton. Soon Özil was creating Sánchez’s opener; Olivier Giroud, on as a late substitute, headed in the second.

It is still out of their hands, but their game in hand on Liverpool bolsters Arsenal’s belief that Champions League qualification is achievable. The players have woken up and while the big questions have not gone away, Wenger will feel empowered as he steels himself for one of the most important fights of his career.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte’s New Guard Maintain Chelsea’s Fighting Spirit of Old


London – Told all week that the game against Tottenham Hotspur would define the title race, the moment when the balance of power would swing in Spur’s way, a less durable team than Chelsea might have responded to Dele Alli’s splendid FA Cup semi-final equalizer shortly after half-time by crumbling. On another day, it would have been in the script. Tottenham, brilliant and refreshing, were on top. They were surely going to reach the FA Cup final. Then they were going to win the league.

But even when Chelsea were on the ropes, to doubt them in the moments before Eden Hazard’s decisive cameo was to fail to understand them. There is something about this club. For all the nouveau riche jibes and accusations of artificially bought success that have flown their way ever since Roman Abramovich spotted Stamford Bridge from his helicopter 14 years ago, and for all the managerial changes and bouts of dressing-room insurrection that have often made them look like a textbook case of everything that is wrong with modern football, there is also an inner toughness running through Chelsea that allows them to rebel, stand firm, trust in themselves and emerge a little battered, a little bruised, but ultimately unscathed.

It dates back to the first José Mourinho era, when the Portuguese arrived at Stamford Bridge and infused an underachieving squad with an unforgiving winning mentality. Neutrals had admired the Chelsea of Gianfranco Zola, an entertaining, infuriating team that saved its best for the cups. Mourinho replaced Claudio Ranieri, one of football’s nice guys and a loveable loser until his Leicester City adventure. The perception of Chelsea changed. You could respect their pragmatic football without particularly liking it.

But it brought them enviable success, even after Mourinho’s first acrimonious departure. A macho core of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba kept Chelsea’s fighting spirit intact, with their refusal to lie down best summed up by that scrapping Champions League triumph in 2012.

The Chelsea of 2017 do have a different, softer feel in places. They are not quite as physically imposing. Give or take a Diego Costa or a David Luiz, their players look less likely to instigate a 22-man brawl. Time has taken its toll on the old guard. Branislav Ivanovic and Mikel John Obi said goodbye in January, while Terry will leave at the end of the season.

The club captain’s departure will mark the end of a wildly successful era for Chelsea. Yet even now, in a period of change, they are the toughest of nuts to crack. They might not be the most thrilling side in England but they are by far the most efficient and controlled.

It helps that they hired Antonio Conte last summer, a manically driven winner who is yet to meet a technical area that can hold him. Chelsea were supposedly at a low ebb before kick-off against Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final on April 22. Well beaten by Manchester United in their previous match, they were without the unwell Gary Cahill, while Conte decided to rest Costa and Hazard before the visit of Southampton later that week. Four points clear of Tottenham with six league matches left, it was a big gamble from the Italian. There were rare starts for Nathan Aké and Michy Batshuayi. And there were two goals in the first half for Willian, Hazard’s replacement. Antonio knows.

“If you ask me last season, after our 10th place, this season you stay on top of the table and you reach the FA Cup final, but you didn’t change a lot, I think it’s great,” Conte said. “But we must continue to work and improve. If you compare our team with Tottenham’s, Pochettino has worked for three years.”

There is, of course, something important to point out here. As Chelsea close in on their first Double since Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 vintage, it does feel faintly ridiculous to portray them as underdogs punching above their weight. Sure, they finished 10th last season. But that was almost as much of a freak occurrence as Leicester winning the league and Chelsea reacted in the summer by hiring a former Juventus and Italy manager and spending £120m on four players. Mauricio Pochettino sighed when he spoke about Chelsea bringing on Hazard, Costa and Cesc Fàbregas when the score was 2-2. From Fàbregas’s late corner, Hazard scored to give Chelsea the lead before going on to create Nemanja Matic’s stunning clincher.

All the same, it is easy to understand why Conte prefers to talk of Chelsea as unlikely champions, arguing that his job has been much tougher than Ancelotti’s. That siege mentality came in handy after Christian Eriksen had created two fine equalizers for Alli and Harry Kane.

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition,” Conte said. “In this season, we have lost Ivanovic, Mikel and next season we lose John Terry. We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club. They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level.

“I think that in the period with Carlo – and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him – he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.”

Patience is a luxury rarely afforded to Chelsea’s managers. All that chopping and changing has made it harder to orchestrate a transition. Yet as a new generation emerges, the moment when Hazard’s drive beat Hugo Lloris was a reminder of the killer instinct of old.

The Guardian Sport

Pep Guardiola Needs Time to Prove Naysayers Wrong at Manchester City

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola looks dejected at Wembley.

Should Pep Guardiola have happened to find himself in front of a television on Sunday night, he might have been drowned by a wave of nostalgia. A few hours after his lukewarm Manchester City team had unravelled at Wembley, a spectacular clásico was about to reach a stunning conclusion at the Bernabéu. The 10 men of Real Madrid had fought back from the dead to equalise with five minutes left and they were seconds away from all but ending Barcelona’s title hopes. They just had to resist one final, desperate attack. In fact, it was simpler than that. They just had to keep the ball away from Lionel Messi.

We all know what happened next. Sergi Roberto won possession deep in Barcelona’s half and the right-back ran and ran before moving the ball to André Gomes. Jordi Alba overlapped on the left and pulled the ball back and if his pass had found any other player, the game probably would have finished 2-2. Instead it found Messi. In a split second, the narrative had changed dramatically. The story was no longer about yet another Madrid comeback. Barcelona ended the night top of La Liga and while the goal owed plenty to Sergi Roberto’s surge, Gomes’s composure and Alba’s assist, only one player could have delivered the killer blow so nervelessly.

It was a reminder of the potential for the greatest footballers to tear systems apart with moments of individual brilliance that bend games to their will. As Messi curled that shot past Keylor Navas, it was tempting to wonder whether Guardiola, feeling the strain after City’s FA Cup semi-final defeat by Arsenal, really made the right decision to give up the right to work with the best player in the world five years ago.

Under Guardiola’s guidance, Messi maximised his awesome potential to astonishing and devastating effect. With Messi leading the attack, Guardiola won 14 trophies in his first managerial job. But theirs was not an equal relationship. Messi has continued to win the Ballon d’Or. There have been three more La Liga titles. When Barcelona won the Champions League in 2015, Messi destroyed Guardiola’s Bayern Munich more or less single-handedly.

By contrast, while Guardiola has not exactly failed since deciding he could no longer stand the intensity of daily life at Barcelona, life without Messi has not been straightforward. Here is where it must be acknowledged that Guardiola made a brave move to willingly let go of such a good thing by looking to test himself and develop his ideas in foreign lands.

But now the critics who were waiting for him to stumble are getting what they wanted. Because he has enjoyed and made the most of considerable advantages, there have always been doubts about Guardiola – La Liga is a joke, the Bundesliga is a farce, I could manage Xavi, Messi and Iniesta with my eyes closed – but he managed to keep them in proportion at Bayern, even though he failed to reach a Champions League final after inheriting the European champions from Jupp Heynckes.

Having left Germany as a qualified success, however, a disappointing first year at City has given further encouragement to the Guardiola knockers who believe his reputation was falsely enhanced by Messi. The drab defeat by Arsenal means that this will be Guardiola’s first trophyless season and even if City hold off Manchester United in the battle to finish in the top four, it is impossible to say that this is what the club’s owners had in mind when Manuel Pellegrini left last summer.

It is, of course, always possible to detect a strange kind of glee whenever Guardiola falters, a curious mistrust of intellectualism and expertise, a sense that some people really do get a kick out of witnessing the demise of a foreign manager who likes sweeper keepers, wingers as full-backs and full-backs as midfielders, but who says that he “doesn’t train tackles” after a shambolic 4-2 defeat at Leicester City. You can lift Barcelona off the floor and turn them into the greatest team of all time, outlast Madrid in suffocating title races, outwit Sir Alex Ferguson in two European finals and bewitch the players of Bayern Munich. But it means nothing if you cannot cut it in the Premier League. Call it the Allardici Principle.

None of which seeks to shift the blame from Guardiola for City’s meekness against Arsenal or for the way they have allowed Chelsea to skitter off into the distance. City began the season like a house on fire, but their title challenge fizzled out long ago. They exited the League Cup early, defended woefully against Monaco in the Champions League and find themselves a point above United before hosting José Mourinho’s rejuvenated side on Thursday.

Guardiola has been unable to eradicate City’s defensive flaws. He has placed too much trust in Claudio Bravo, a goalkeeper who turns to sand whenever the ball heads in his direction, unsuccessfully experimented with Pablo Zabaleta in midfield, picked Jesús Navas at right-back, decisions that have left him open to a charge of needless complication, but ones which might not have been necessary if City’s squad did not contain so many holes.

Either way, experimentation and innovation have set Guardiola apart in the past. When it comes together, as it has done on fleeting occasions for City, the results are joyous. They have beaten Barcelona convincingly and played United off the park at Old Trafford.

Against Chelsea in December they lost only after Kevin De Bruyne had spurned a glorious chance to make it 2-0. The margins can be so fine at the top. How different would City’s season have been without those serious injuries to Ilkay Gündogan and Gabriel Jesus?

Guardiola is like any other manager in this regard, a hostage to fortune, his job defined by little moments of big significance and, ultimately, whether his players are good enough and motivated enough to carry out his instructions.

He arrived at City looking to build a legacy. He may have to adapt and adjust to England, but he will also need time and patience. He has not been in Manchester long, so cannot be held accountable for the club’s indifferent transfer policy or for the way this squad has drifted and aged and grown too comfy since winning the league in 2014.

Such is life as a manager. In the modern game, individuals can make or break you. “At Barça, my tactics consisted of getting the ball to Messi,” Guardiola once told those closest to him. Now Luis Enrique’s reputation largely rests on a little Argentinian genius. Without that luxury, Guardiola has to find another way to prove himself. But he will be allowed to succeed only if City’s board accept that the buck does not always stop with the manager.

(The Guardian)