Jürgen Klopp Eases Liverpool’s Pressing Game in the Search for Solidity


Liverpool – It is not something you often have to consider but what if José Mourinho was right? What if, on Saturday, there was for once no bluff or manipulation, no attempt to provoke or deflect attention: what if the analysis he gave of Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Liverpool was straightforward and correct?

There was, of course, a passive aggressive jibe dividing the world into those who watch football for entertainment (the monsters!) and those who actually understand the game but beyond that his words seemed fairly straightforward. There was a – grudging – respect towards Jürgen Klopp for the way he had held his nerve, and perhaps that is evidence of a change in the Liverpool manager. The game never broke, Mourinho said, and so “for me the second half was a bit of chess”; this is not chess the actual game, of course, which can be played in as many ways as football, but “chess” the metaphor for something cagey.

“We came for three points but in the second half we felt it was difficult to do that with the dynamic of the match. I was waiting for Jürgen Klopp to change, waiting for him to go more attacking but he kept three strong midfielders all the time.” Klopp substituted all of his forward line but kept the three of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can in midfield; had he chosen to chase the game, he could have perhaps withdrawn one of them for a forward and pushed Philippe Coutinho deeper or into a central role in a 4-2-3-1.

That restricted United’s capacity to break, something about which Klopp was clearly delighted: he kept stressing after the game how United are “one of the best counterattacking sides in the world”, yet they threatened only once, on the one occasion when Henrikh Mkhitaryan had an impact, opening up the game for Romelu Lukaku’s one-two with Anthony Martial that led to United’s only shot on target. The Armenian’s anonymity was indicative of how well Liverpool countered United’s counters.

Whether Klopp was right, given Mourinho’s set-up, to remain so cautious is a matter of interpretation – as is the issue of whether Mourinho was right to sit so deep, given Liverpool’s recent form – but it was further evidence of a general shift in Liverpool’s play this season.

The question for Klopp at Liverpool was always going to be whether his hyperactive approach could be as effective in the Premier League in which everybody plays at a high tempo. Even towards the end in Germany, there was a suspicion that with other teams also pressing hard and high, Dortmund were diminished. It was no longer sufficient to run further or faster than other sides in the league. In addition, as teams become more used to counteracting gegenpressing, as their players become more inclined to hit long balls over the press, the tactic loses its power to shock. Klopp’s approach is no longer unique; it’s not even unusual.

Familiarity is one issue; fatigue, or rather efforts to stave it off, is another. Last season Liverpool’s form collapsed in January. This season, with the Champions League to worry about as well, the sense is that Liverpool have eased back. They are no longer pressing with the same ferocity. In Klopp’s first two seasons at Anfield, the average length of each spell of possession enjoyed by an opponent was 5.9 seconds. This season that is up to 6.5, which is lower than the league average but far from exceptional. Distance run and high-intensity sprint stats have dropped.

That, presumably, is part of a conscious plan – the fear for Liverpool is that it is a result of players losing faith in Klopp and not pushing themselves to their physical limits as a result – and given what happened in the second half of last season it makes sense. The problem is that by not engaging opponents high up the pitch, Liverpool are having to do more traditional defending in their own final third – and they are not very good at that. It would be misleading to say that the high pressing of the past two seasons masked defensive flaws, for pressing is itself a means of defense. But what is true is that by pressing less hard, Liverpool are inviting a form of pressure they are ill-equipped to resist, which is why going into the weekend they had the third-worst defensive record in the league.

On Saturday, though, that vulnerability was barely tested; United had only six touches in the Liverpool box. The nature of the game and the identity of the opponent perhaps legitimized a more cautious approach but it is hard then to avoid the conclusion that Mourinho might have tried to expose that weakness a little more rigorously. Just because his analysis was right doesn’t necessarily mean his approach was. In a game of chicken, neither manager blinked.

The Guardian Sport

Kevin De Bruyne: The Grand Puppet-Master Who Makes Manchester City Tick


London – In November last year, Belgium played Estonia in a World Cup qualifier in Brussels. They won 8-1, which meant the game was at least slightly memorable. In the longer term, though, far more significant than the scoreline, and perhaps even than the fact it helped Belgium become the first European side to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, was the fact that Roberto Martínez deployed Kevin De Bruyne as one of the two holding players at the back of midfield in a 3-4-2-1.

True, it was only Estonia and Martínez, secure in the knowledge he was unlikely to be facing a blue wave, could field De Bruyne alongside Axel Witsel and behind Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard, with Romelu Lukaku as the centre-forward, focusing on moving the ball around quickly, looking to circumvent a narrow and deep-lying Estonian defence. But De Bruyne’s influence still stood out. When he returned to Manchester, Pep Guardiola took him aside. “Now I’ve seen you can play in that role,” he told him. “I might try you there as well.”

It’s in that position he’s almost certain to start against his former club Chelsea on Saturday, as perhaps the most dangerous of the trio of players Chelsea sold between 2014 and 2015 now playing leading roles at other top Premier League clubs.

Last season, De Bruyne tended to be most effective when used almost as an old-fashioned inside-forward. He did play wide at times but he looked at his best in that slightly odd 3-2-4-1 Guardiola preferred towards the start of the season. This time round, with the shape a more orthodox 4-3-3, he is in the inbetween role: Fernandinho holds, David Silva is the creator more to the left and his job is to operate on the right, shuttling between the other two midfielders, with greater freedom to interpret his role as the game requires.

Guardiola, in his persistent reinterpretations of the tenets laid down by Johan Cruyff, seems to have gone back to basics, his fundamental template this season approximating to the midfield shape used by the Dutch at the 1974 World Cup or by Argentina four years after (for all that their manager César Luis Menotti was outwardly sceptical of the notion of Total Football). If Fernandinho plays the role of Wim Jansen or Américo Gallego and Silva equates to Wim van Hanegem or Mario Kempes, De Bruyne becomes Johan Neeskens or Ossie Ardiles, combining technical ability with stamina and directness.

There is a clear bond between player and manager. Guardiola can be a strange figure to read, at times bleakly critical of what seemed positive, at others effusive about what seemed ordinary. He is not, though a manipulator in the manner of José Mourinho. Rather, for all he can be disdainful for what he sees as banal or obfuscatory questioning, he glows when he sees something that matches his ideal of football. His critics will see something self-congratulatory in that, but the truth is probably rather that he genuinely wants his audience to share his glee in the expression of an aesthetic ideal.

It was during De Bruyne’s stint at Wolfsburg, after he had left Chelsea, that Guardiola was first impressed by him. “He had that quality, that dedication without the ball, that curiosity, that intelligence,” he said. “He is so clever. He only needs one instruction to know what has to be done. So fast. He produces a huge amount of passes and assists. He’s fast … he sees space better and faster than anybody. He is good with the ball at the foot. He is a complete player.”

But perhaps most importantly, he is a little different. De Bruyne believes he and Guardiola have a good understanding born out of a shared understanding of how football should be played. But amid all the neat passing triangles, he has a specific role: he is the accelerator, the player who gives urgency to the filigree passing.

When people described his style of play as “tiki-taka”, Guardiola railed against it, recognising its origins as an insult coined by Javier Clemente during his time as manager of Athletic, describing what he saw as the pointless, pretty-pretty passing of the Barcelona of the early 80s. De Bruyne’s role is to prevent City’s football ever becoming tiki-taka in that sense.

Since De Bruyne joined City, only Mesut Özil and Christian Eriksen have created more chances than him in the Premier League but the astonishing thing about him this season is that even that’s not really his role any more. His deadlock-breaking opener against Shakhtar on Tuesday showed his capacity for scoring goals, often from next to nothing, but it is completeness that makes him so valuable to Guardiola. He can score goals, he can create them, but more than that, he is a valve, increasing and decreasing pressure as necessary, dictating the rhythm and depth of the play. In a team full of creative talent, he is the grand puppet-master, pulling the strings of all the other puppet-masters, making sure their focus is forwards and not sideways, that the pace never drops.

The Guardian Sport

Arsenal Put at Risk in the ‘Red Zone’ by the Lack of a Commanding Midfielder

The Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, left, failed to track Jesé Rodríguez, right, leading to Stoke’s winner.

It turns out the switch to a back three was not a magic bullet, after all. It is early days still, of course, but already the sense is that for Arsenal the move to the tactic du jour was just the 2017 version of their regular upswing in April and May. Nobody has monetized mediocrity quite so well: they are masters at stimulating optimism at just the right moment to maximize season‑ticket sales.

The familiar tropes are already being wheeled out: the excellent record at Wembley (nine wins in a row if you include penalty shootouts, a run that presumably makes Tottenham’s struggles there all the more amusing for Arsenal fans); the terrible record at Stoke (one win in eight games); and perhaps most gallingly, the endlessly fragile midfield.

To an extent Arsenal were unlucky at Stoke last Saturday. Alexandre Lacazette may have been a fraction offside when he had a goal ruled out, but many officials would have regarded him as being level with the last defender. They had six shots on target to Stoke’s four – or, if that feels old-fashioned, they won 1.74 to 0.68 on Expected Goals. It was, to an extent, just one of those days; it’s just that Arsenal keep having those days, particularly in Stoke.

And through it all, one thread endures. Arsenal may have started spending (relatively) big on players. They may at last have brought in a high-grade centre-forward (even if there are doubts about Lacazette’s contribution outside the box); they may finally have, in Sead Kolasinac, a physically imposing presence; they may even for once hold on to a wantaway player (although it is probably best to reserve judgement on that for another week or so); but they still lack a commanding central midfielder. Temporary solutions may at times have been patched together, but Patrick Vieira has never truly been replaced. That’s hardly a new insight and its discussion may provoke sighs of weariness but it remains as true as it has been for more than a decade.

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won Champions League titles with both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, often spoke of the “red zone”, the central area just outside the penalty area. A team’s first priority must always be to protect that, to try to avoid, as far as possible, opponents generating shooting, passing or dribbling opportunities from that area. That can be done by pressing, squeezing the space between the lines, or it can be done by having one or more holding midfielders sitting there, but what cannot happen is for central defenders to be isolated against an opponent with space in front of him.

One of the reasons for the recent success of 3-4-2-1 is that it has such a stable base: three central defenders protected by a screen of two holding players – the same trapezium shape that was the base of the W-M formation and that has returned to fashion as full-backs have begun to shuck off their defensive responsibilities, placing greater strain on the center-halves.

Towards the end of last season, the shape seemed to bring some stability even to Arsenal. Yet Leicester rampaged through that space again and again on the opening Premier League game of the season as the two nominal holding midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny were too often drawn upfield. Jesé Rodríguez enjoyed that space for Stoke as well, but his goal was less to do with shape than with Xhaka not performing the utterly basic task of following his run into the box.

Xhaka is a divisive figure but it is hard to see why. He may have averaged almost 90% pass completion last season while making 2.4 tackles per game (although given he also conceded 1.2 fouls per game that is perhaps not quite such an impressive figure as it may initially appear) but again and again seems to lose concentration, exposing the defenders behind him. His apologists claim that his role is to create the play, keeping the ball moving, and there may be some truth to that, but nobody, whatever their role, can just let a forward run off him as he allowed Jesé to. Besides, if that is Xhaka’s role, why doesn’t he have a more robust, ball-winning presence alongside him, somebody to act as a breakwater for opposition attacks? The issue is particularly acute at Arsenal given the lack of defensive cover offered to the back of the midfield by Mesut Özil.

In a world of increasingly universal players, in which they are all expected to be able both to pass and to perform basic defensive functions, Arsenal seem increasingly anachronistic, the problem exacerbated by Arsène Wenger’s refusal to sign the holding player who might mitigate the problem. It seems increasingly likely that history will judge that William Carvalho’s most significant act in football was to remain unsigned by Arsenal.

It is an area likely to be particularly exposed on Sunday as Arsenal travel to Anfield. Last season they leaked seven goals over two league games against Liverpool. In both matches Roberto Firmino prospered by dropping deep into precisely that space: if Arsenal cannot deal with a threat into that zone coming from in front of them, they struggle even more when it comes from behind them. If defenders follow Firmino that in turn creates space for wide men to cut into. Given the arrival of Mohamed Salah means Liverpool now have pace on both flanks, Sunday could be horribly messy for Arsenal as the same failing repeats once again.

(The Guardian)

Why Are So Many Premier League Teams so bad in Defence?


London- Even before the Premier League got round to the traditional kick-off time, 13 goals had been scored in two games. A total of 31 goals were scored over the opening weekend as the first three of last season’s top six to play all conceded three. Take that, Spain, with your Cristiano Ronaldo controversies! Take that, Italy, with your resurgent Milan! Take that, Germany, with your finely tuned pressing structures! Take that, France, with your Neymar, your Bielsa and your Balotelli! For drama and giggling hilarity, the Premier League remains king.

It’s not king, obviously, if you want success in the Champions League. Nor is it king if you want to develop young players for the national side. And it’s certainly not king if you believe football clubs should have a pastoral role towards the communities they at least nominally represent. But for excitement and spectacle, for the sense that any daft thing could happen at any moment, it still rules.

That’s partly to do with the number of high-quality managers and players in the league, it’s partly to do with a general competitiveness and it’s a lot to do with the fact that a number of the top sides simply cannot defend. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all have major issues to resolve before a weekend in which they face Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, all sides who have troubled them in the recent past.

To an extent, the defensive chaos is the result of changes in the laws of the game. It’s harder to defend now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Back lines cannot simply push up in the knowledge that any opposing player in behind them will be called offside. Shinji Okazaki’s goal against Arsenal, for instance, would not have counted under any but the most recent interpretation of the law: he was offside as the cross came in but not as Harry Maguire headed the ball back across goal. That means both that modern defenders have to be much more capable of reacting to specific circumstances and that they sit deeper, leaving more room in midfield for skilful players to create.

At the same time, cynical fouls are punished far more harshly now than ever before. It’s still possible for teams to break up games with rotational fouling around the halfway line, but it’s far harder than it used to be. There’s almost an expectation now with every foul that it will bring a booking. Intimidation has all but vanished from the game and it’s not possible for defenders to cover for a mistake by hauling down their opponent – or at least not more than once.

Both of those are, of course, hugely positive developments; for everything else that has gone wrong with the game’s governance over the past couple of decades, the law changes have been broadly positive, encouraging teams actually to play the game.

There are also wider tactical issues. Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s demand for the “universal player” and Pep Guardiola’s related comment that he dreams of a side of 11 midfielders may be the abstract concerns of the very elite, but the mentality has percolated the game. There’s not merely an expectation now that defenders should be able to pass, but a growing acceptance that if they can pass it may not matter too much if they aren’t especially good at more traditional defensive skills such as heading, marking and tackling.

The central defender as auxiliary playmaker is a core tenet of the Cruyffian line of thinking that has shaped the modern landscape, from Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard to Javier Mascherano and David Alaba. It’s why the likes of John Stones and David Luiz are excused their lapses, and why Arsenal on Friday started with a back three featuring two left-backs.

Almost all full-backs these days, meanwhile, are in effect wing-backs. It’s a crude measure but, last weekend, players who started as full-backs or wing-backs in the Premier League made 83 tackles and put in 123 crosses; their job is increasingly to provide attacking width rather than simply to defend. That, inevitably, can create issues: Hoffenheim’s penalty against Liverpool on Tuesday night, for instance, came because Alberto Moreno closed down the goalkeeper, leaving a huge gap on the left side when the ball was played beyond him.

The recent preference for a back three is in part a reaction to the attacking nature of modern full-backs, but the mentality often seems to be that the extra body can hide defensive flaws – only for them then to be exposed by savvy opponents.

But it’s not a coincidence that the Premier League has become the global home of shambolic defending. That seems a natural consequence of the soap opera of the market, the endless lust for new signings. A lot of defending is about drilling, about the same players – not just defenders – doing the same thing over and over and over again until they learn the patterns of interaction that maintain a shape that is difficult to break down. If there is constant flux in a squad, it becomes almost impossible to build up any level of familiarity.

Virgil van Dijk is an excellent defender but if he joins Liverpool today, they won’t suddenly become a side with an excellent defence. There will have to be time spent familiarising himself with the pressing game Klopp favours, getting used to how the full-backs push forward, to how his fellow centre-backs like to play, how Liverpool’s midfield reacts to situations. Dejan Lovren, it may be recalled, also left Southampton with a fine reputation and Liverpool remain far from secure at the back.

But it’s not just Liverpool where that’s an issue. It’s as though English football exists in such a swirl of comings and goings that the idea of working things out on the training pitch doesn’t exist any more. The one manager who did do that last season, Antonio Conte, now has to handle a squad that appears weirdly fraught and demoralised, a situation exacerbated by his own clear dissatisfaction at a lack of signings.

That’s an internal political issue; for a number of others, though, now might be a good time to start addressing basic flaws of concentration and structure.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea Looking Ill-Equipped after a Summer of Stagnation


London – José Mourinho takes so many swings at so many perceived enemies that it is easy to forget there are times that he may be right. As his final season at Chelsea spiraled out of control, Mourinho flailed in all directions: at referees, at his medical staff, at opponents, at the media and eventually at his own players.

But with retrospect a couple of his jabs look well-directed. “I gave my club the report of the season projection on 21 April,” he said after the defeat by Crystal Palace in August 2015. “This is a moment for everybody to assume their responsibilities,” he added during his seven-minute monologue after the loss to Southampton. He had highlighted targets and the club – specifically the transfer committee comprising the director of football Michael Emenalo and the directors Marina Granovskaia and Eugene Tenenbaum – had failed to deliver them.

Nobody expects a similar collapse from Chelsea this season but now, as then, they begin their defense of the title after a Community Shield defeat by Arsenal following a summer of barely explicable stagnation and frustration. It is two and half weeks since Antonio Conte landed in Beijing on Chelsea’s pre-season tour and explicitly outlined how thin he felt the squad was. Since then no further players have been signed and even Gary Cahill, the image of the uncontroversial solid club pro, was moved after the Community Shield to point out the disparity in the length of the squad lists on the back of the program.

The players who have arrived – Álvaro Morata, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Antonio Rüdiger – essentially replace players who have left (or are apparently leaving). A tight squad worked last season because Chelsea were lucky with injuries and had no European football. They cannot hope to get away with it again.

Chelsea have excelled in recent years at selling players at a profit, often when they have barely made an appearance and the aim to make the club self-sufficient is a laudable one. But their strategy clearly has flaws. The squad might look rather healthier had Nathaniel Chalobah and Dominic Solanke not become so disillusioned their lack of game time that they left, and had Tammy Abraham (among a host of others) not been sent out on loan, but given their departures, there is a clear lack of cover at wing-back, in the creative midfield positions and at center-forward.

A small part of the mess, it should be acknowledged, is of Conte’s making. Had he not sent Diego Costa that text in June telling the striker he was not in his plans for next season, then he would at least have the option of the 28-year-old. Costa burgled late goals in both Chelsea’s first two games of last season to get them off to a decent start; with Eden Hazard injured and Morata settling in, that sort of streetwise opportunism might have been quite useful this time round as well.

As it is, Costa remains in limbo, his probable transfer to Atlético on hold because of their transfer ban. But in a sense of more long-term significance than the specifics of who will conjure goals for Chelsea is the issue of why Conte sent that text in the first place. Perhaps it was just clumsy diplomacy, a desire to make a clean break. The striker’s level, after all, had dipped significantly after January when a mooted transfer to China didn’t materialize – only five of his 20 league goals came in the final four months of the season.

Even then it seems strange that Conte, who does not seem a man to shirk confrontation, would choose to text rather than meet face-to-face or phone.

There is a danger with Chelsea of seeing Machiavellian games at every turn, of assuming the spirit of Mourinho has so permeated the walls at Stamford Bridge that nobody does anything without an ulterior motive, but it does not seem a ridiculous explanation to suggest the text may have been meant to force the club’s hand. The text leaked, as Conte must have known it would, and once it did, it became all but impossible for Costa to remain at Chelsea. Even then, Chelsea allowed themselves to be gazumped for Romelu Lukaku.

Conte is clearly unhappy about transfer policy. His comment, “You have to ask the club about this,” when asked last Friday about the sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United made clear what he thought. He followed that up this week by describing Matic as “a gross loss, a great loss”.

His post-Community Shield performance, meanwhile, was a masterpiece of passive aggression, refusing to take questions about the make-up of the squad on the grounds he had answered the same questions two days earlier. If all managers refused to answer questions they have recently addressed, most clubs could probably get away with two or three press-conferences a season, as Conte must be well aware: a point was being made.

With Hazard and Bakayoko ruled out for the start of the season, and with Chelsea facing Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City before the end of September, the deficiencies in the squad have been brought into sharp relief. Conte is clearly unhappy, and the squad at the moment looks frankly inadequate. As and when new signings arrive, there will be enormous pressure on them to settle instantly.

Once again Chelsea begin a season as champions far closer to crisis that seemed possible in May. And this time, Mourinho cannot be blamed.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League Bubble Keeps on Growing before a Season Rich in Intrigue


London- This is the age of the full-back – and that says a lot. For years full-backs were scorned as players who were not defensively sound enough to play in the middle of the back four nor technically good enough to play in midfield – “Nobody,” as Jamie Carragher has observed, “grows up wanting to be Gary Neville” – but this summer an astonishing amount of money has been spent on them. Most of the money, admittedly, has been splurged by Manchester City, who made Kyle Walker the most expensive defender in history at £50m then bought a back-up in Danilo for £26.5m before breaking their own record to sign Benjamin Mendy for £52m.

This is not just a Premier League phenomenon. Barcelona and Real Madrid have spent more than £26m on full-backs, while Milan have picked up a pair for the better part of £50m. But it is a phenomenon centred on City, where Pep Guardiola, having chosen not to augment his four thirtysomething full-backs last season, has swung to the opposite extreme. In City’s outlay on full-backs, three trends meet: Chelsea’s success with a back three last season has brought the lateral centre-stage; English clubs are spending mind-boggling amounts of money; and City, perhaps frustrated at how last season turned out, are spending (or, at least, have spent) the most of the lot.

But it is the overall figures that are most eye-catching. Romelu Lukaku for £75m. Álvaro Morata for £58m. Alexandre Lacazette for £46m. Bernardo Silva for £43.6m. Tiémoué Bakayoko for £39.7m. Mohamed Salah for £36.9m. Ederson for £34.9m. Victor Lindelof for £31m. These are not normal figures. These are not prices that have undergone the usual process of inflation; it may be, as Daniel Levy has said, that they are unsustainable. This is a market in which Jordan Pickford, an uncapped 23-year-old goalkeeper who has played 31 Premier League games (most of them very well, admittedly), can move for £25m with barely an eyebrow being raised.

Whether the prices are unjustifiable or immoral depends on perspective, but looking at the flurry of £30m, £40m and £50m deals, it doesn’t take a great cynic to wonder whether there might not be some sort of mass hysteria at work. Is this a bubble just waiting to pop? Will there come a day on which someone thinks: “£50m for Kyle Walker? What were we doing?” and the market collapses, vindicating the caution of Levy and, to a lesser extent, Arsène Wenger?

There are reasons for concern. Sky’s rebranding of its sports channels comes in response to falling viewing figures last season. Illegal streaming is a major problem, so significant that more than half those surveyed by the Football Supporters’ Federation in July admitted to using a Kodi box – more than had a BT subscription. Nonetheless, the expectation is for the next broadcast deal, which will come into force in 2019‑20, to be even larger than the present one, driven by a significant increase in overseas rights. The Premier League may be coming to the top of the market but it is not there just yet.

Perhaps we get the league we deserve. English football in the 1920s was characterised by innovation and pragmatism as the flux created by the first world war gave managerial opportunities to a class of people who had previously been excluded from such positions and who concerned themselves less with playing in the right way than with winning, because that was what guaranteed an income. The result was increasing use of the offside trap and ultimately, in response to that, an epochal change in the offside law. Or England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953, followed three years later by the Suez crisis, creating an atmosphere of imperial decline that led to introspection, a questioning of tradition and the creative wave of the 60s, of which Alf Ramsey’s radical development of 4-4-2 and the World Cup win were an incongruous part.

Football is a part of culture, a reflection of the wider world – and that image is not a comfortable one. Ours is a society in which the people’s game has led to the extraordinary enrichment of a tiny few, in which we pay for our tickets and our satellite subscriptions, handing more and more money over to billionaires, and gawp when the amounts are relayed back to us via ridiculous transfer fees, salaries and agents’ commissions.

Not only do few seem to be appalled by the preposterousness of it all but there is an odd sense that for some fans this is the most enjoyable part of the season, when messiahs loom behind every contorted meme announcing a new deal and the game exists as pure, unsullied potential. The high point of Mesut Özil’s Arsenal career remains the day he signed. Far rather that, far rather the soap opera of agents and whispers, swoops and rumours, tactical projection and imagined combinations, the idealised simulacrum of the game, than the football itself. Behind those falling Sky figures a suspicion lurks that 90 minutes of play is too long to hold the modern attention span.

Yet unsettling as the nonsense of summer is, this is another season rich with promise. The fleet of new signings are part of that. This is what the Premier League is best at: turning the generation of cash and its expenditure into a spectator sport in itself. This remains the league of superstar managers and, if last season never quite ignited, that in a sense has only whetted the appetite for this campaign.

José Mourinho’s season was salvaged by the Europa League and Guardiola’s by a third-place finish, but neither really impressed in their first campaigns at their new clubs. The expected Rumble by the Irwell never quite came to pass, both too troubled by their own side’s failings – one couldn’t score; the other couldn’t defend – to be able to spend too much time needling. For this season that adds jeopardy. Neither club, having invested so much in appointing them, were going to sack their manager last season; this season they might.

Since joining Porto, Mourinho has always won the league in his second season at a club. There was little in 2016-17 to suggest he can do so again and become only the fourth manager ever to win the league with Manchester United, a club that have overwhelmed each of their leaders in the past century other than Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson – but the way they dragged themselves to the Europa League offers encouragement. The signing of Lukaku should help with the dispatching of the lesser clubs who so often frustrated them last season but the fear nags that football has moved on and Mourinho, energy sapped and charm exhausted, is struggling to keep up. Few managers, after all, have lasted more than a decade at the very top.

There is pressure too on Guardiola, all the more so now that his reaction to last season’s failure has been an extraordinary spree. Does juego de posición have any place in the harum-scarum world of the Premier League?

Elsewhere, can Jürgen Klopp’s high‑tempo philosophy prosper over a full season at Liverpool? Can Wenger survive another year with Arsenal? Can Mauricio Pochettino keep his young Spurs players invested in his project, even when they could be earning in some cases £5m more a season elsewhere? And what of Everton, expectations raised by spending unthinkable before Farhad Moshiri’s takeover?

And then there’s Antonio Conte, seemingly frustrated by his club’s transfer policy, who last season outshone them all to win the title and offered a new tactical template. Has he another trick to pull at Chelsea? It was, after all, his deployment of the 3-4-2-1 system that confirmed the importance of full-backs as attacking players, he who provided the structural underpinning for a world in which a club see their best way of reacting to a poor season as splurging £130m on a position once regarded as an afterthought.

The Guardian Sport

Africa Cup of Nations Changes Will Do Far More Harm Than Good


London- On 26 October 1863 the representatives of 11 schools and football clubs met at the Freemasons’ Tavern near Covent Garden in London and founded the Football Association, seeking to establish a unified set of laws, essentially so that those who had gone to different public schools could play against each other when they met at university. Ever since, it feels, the notion of the sport as an end in itself, as a good to be cherished and protected, has been dwindling. Short-term self-interest rules.

The Confederation of African Football at least last week decided that the Cup of Nations will, for now, be played in Africa and will feature only African teams, rejecting suggestions from its marketing committee to explore the possibility of inviting three or four nations from elsewhere and playing the competition outside the continent. But as of 2019, the tournament will be played in June and July rather than January and February and it will comprise 24 rather than 16 teams.

To which the reaction can only be a weary sigh as another great tournament goes the way of the World Cup and the Euros. The shift of date is problematic (not least in that the 2021 tournament will clash with the Confederations Cup) but there are arguments for it. African players at western European clubs will no longer find themselves with competing claims on their attention every other season – which should benefit the players, the clubs and the countries, and lead to fewer wrangles such as that between Liverpool and Cameroon over Joël Matip this year.

But there is a reason the Cup of Nations was held in January and February: weather. The next tournament is scheduled to be hosted in Cameroon. In June in Yaoundé the mean daily high temperature is 27 degrees, with average monthly rainfall of 170mm and 85% humidity. These are not ideal conditions for football. Whether it is worth that compromise to satisfy European clubs is open to doubt; it would certainly not have happened when Issa Hayatou was the CAF president.

The expansion to 24 teams is not even debatable. It is a terrible idea, diluting the quality and rendering the group stage a slog of largely meaningless football. There will be those who claim an expanded tournament gives a chance to smaller nations and point to the experiences of Wales, Iceland and Northern Ireland at the 2016 European Championship, ignoring the fact that all three would have qualified for a 16-team tournament. In France last summer it took 36 games to reduce 24 teams to 16. Based on the qualifying record, that in effect meant substituting the Republic of Ireland and Hungary for Austria and the Czech Republic. Neither reached the quarter-finals. This is supposed to be elite sport, not a GLC sports day.

Perhaps even that could be tolerated if there was any evidence an appearance at a Cup of Nations is an aid to development. Have Botswana or Niger kicked on since qualifying in 2012? Have Malawi benefited from being there in 2010, or Namibia from 2008? Or has the decade since Togo and Angola reached the World Cup been a golden age for football in either country?

Besides which, 24 is an awful number for a tournament if filtering to a last 16*, because it entails best third-placed teams. Comparing between groups always feels artificial and can lead to anomalies that, through the fault of nobody but the format, seem unfair. At the European Under-21 Championship this summer, for instance, the teams in Group C had a clear advantage because, playing last, they knew what was necessary for, in this case, a best second-placed team to progress: Germany, trailing to Italy, had little incentive to press for an equaliser because they knew a 1-0 defeat gave them a semi-final against England while a heavier defeat would have seen them miss out to Slovakia, the second-placed team in Group A.

At the Gold Cup, meanwhile, Honduras qualified ahead of Martinique as a best third-placed side entirely because they were awarded a 3-0 win for a game against French Guiana that had initially finished 0-0, Martinique were punished in effect because French Guiana had wilfully played Florent Malouda despite knowing he was ineligible.

Then there is the problem of hosting. A 16-team tournament requires four stadiums and even that is not always easy. In 2015, for instance, two of the quarter-finals were switched at the last minute from Ebebiyin and Mongomo because the infrastructure there was simply not good enough.

That, perhaps, is an exception given Equatorial Guinea had stepped in with a month’s notice to replace Morocco as hosts but recent tournaments are littered with new-built stadiums that will never be used again (this, perhaps, is the underlying logic of the proposal to move the tournament to a different continent: rather than the Chinese constantly funding and building stadiums in Africa, there perhaps comes a point at which it is easier to take the tournament to pre-existing Chinese stadiums). A 24-team tournament means a minimum of six stadiums and that not only reduces the number of potential hosts but means increased investment in white elephants.

Cameroon is already behind schedule in its preparations for 2019, while struggling with increasing tension between the Anglophone and Francophone parts of the country. These decisions have at least given it an extra five months to get ready but it will now have to prepare two additional venues. Morocco, having pulled out of hosting duties for 2015 over Ebola fears, is standing by (June temperature in Marrakech 32 degrees, precipitation nil).

But this is about more than 2019. It is about more than Africa. It is about sporting authorities acting not in the interests of the sport but for short-term financial gain. Increase the number of finalists by 50% and you decrease your chance of missing out. More than that, you decrease the chances of the vital markets of Nigeria and South Africa missing out.

Will the football be better or meaningful? Will it help African sides prepare for the challenge of the World Cup? Is this, in any broad sense, good for the game? Of course not but who still cares about that?

[*This is an academic point because nobody would ever do this but if 24 filtered to quarter-finals, you could have eight groups of three and avoid dead rubbers so long as you had flexibility in the scheduling so the fixtures in each group went A v B followed by C v the loser of A v B followed by C v the winner of A v B].

The Guardian Sport

Álvaro Morata May Need to Channel his Inner Costa to be Chelsea Success


London- Of the players who scored 10 goals or more in La Liga last season, none did so with a better conversion rate than Álvaro Morata. His 55 shots yielded 15 goals, which is one of the reasons he began the summer ranked alongside Kylian Mbappé, Romelu Lukaku and Andrea Belotti as one of the four most eligible young strikers in Europe. Chelsea, having failed to land Lukaku (or refused to pay over the odds for him, depending whose account you prefer), pretty much had to sign one of the other three to replace Diego Costa, who will almost certainly join Atlético Madrid at some point in the next six weeks.

Morata is clearly hugely gifted. He is decent in the air, mobile and looks the part. He impressed at Juventus as well as Real Madrid, which should offer encouragement about his capacity to thrive in different environments against varying styles of defending. He has played in three of the past four Champions League finals, scoring in one of them. At 24, he is used to the rhythms and pressures of playing for an elite club.

And yet there must be concerns. Perhaps in the modern world £58m is a reasonable price – Lukaku, who cost around 25% more, has never scored in the Champions League – but this is a player who has never started more than 16 league games in a season. His role, certainly at Madrid, was largely to come off the bench to pick off tired opponents. Nine of his 17 goals in La Liga and the Champions League last season came after the hour. That is not to say he cannot score important goals – after all, in 2014‑15, he registered twice against Borussia Dortmund, twice against Madrid and against Barcelona in the knockout stages of the Champions League – but it is to say that he rarely had the opportunity to do that for Madrid, and certainly never had the pressure of being expected to do that.

A quick scan of the stats from last season suggests he had fewer shots per game, won fewer aerials, made fewer key passes and dribbled less often than Costa but the disparity in style of play, opposition and role in the side makes such comparison all but meaningless.

More fundamental is the fact that Morata is just not Costa. He does not exist in the same fug of fury, raging perpetually against sleights real and, more often than not, imagined or exaggerated. He does not wage a one-man war on the opposition and the referee. He will not antagonise his marker just by looking at him. He will not lurch about, in a metaphorical cloak and top hat, like an Edwardian villain seeking an innocent maiden to bind to the railway tracks. He will not playwith the same snarl and/or simper, needling and wheedling, prising the slightest chink of opportunity into a bona fide chance.

Morata does not have the same capacity to magic a goal from nowhere, by inspiration or aggravation, that Costa does. The Brazilian’s late goal at Stamford Bridge against West Bromwich Albion last December was typical as he chased what seemed a lost cause to force an error from a defence that had been all but impeccable before finishing classily. He also got the only goal in away games against Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace, the late winners against West Ham United and Watford, and a late equaliser at Swansea City, as well as opening the scoring against Leicester City, Hull City and at home against Middlesbrough.

It is not only that Costa scored 20 goals last season, it is that nine of them were goals that had a decisive impact on the game – and that was in a season in which his form dipped significantly after Christmas as he began to eye the exit. Certain players have a quality of winningness, a capacity to take the tide at the flood that leads on to fortune, and that in turn imbues a whole side with confidence and decisiveness. That is hard to quantify but nobody, surely, would deny that Costa, when motivated, made Chelsea a tougher, more ruthless team.

The problem is he is also moody. Conte just about got enough out of him in the second half of last season but José Mourinho certainly did not in the first half of the previous campaign. Morata will not be so turbulent. He has patiently waited for his chance, his frustration at never being a regular showing only occasionally, acting as professionally as could reasonably be expected.

Morata has looked for two or three years as though he was just waiting for the opportunity to explode. This is that chance. He has all the technical attributes to be a success in Conte’s system: the questions now are whether he can cope with the pressures of being the No1 striker and whether he can find a way of replicating the edge Costa gave Chelsea.

Guardian Sport

Kyle Walker for £50m? Collective Madness has Gripped the Premier League


London – Kyle Walker for £50m. £50m for Kyle Walker. There is no way of saying it that does not sound a bit, well, odd.

That is not to do down Walker, who was probably the best right-back in the Premier League last season. But still: £50m for Kyle Walker.

In part it is to do with the changing role of the full-back. Gianluca Vialli used to say the right-back was invariably the worst player in a team, the one left over when the good defenders had been moved into the center and the technically gifted players had been moved into midfield. Left-backs, being left-footed and therefore having a scarcity value, were somehow a different case, something exemplified in the way the first three great attacking full-backs were left-sided: Nilton Santos, Giacinto Facchetti and Silvio Marzolini.

That is not true any more. The full-back, even in a back four, has become an attacking presence and that means he must have not merely pace, stamina and defensive qualities, but also the ability to beat a man and deliver a cross.

Walker can do all of that – even if there are some at Spurs who feel Kieran Trippier, who averaged 50 percent more accurate crosses per game last season than Walker, is the better deliverer of a ball. Having missed out on Dani Alves, a high-class, low-cost option, Walker is an understandable alternative for City; he has not won as much and he, to put it bluntly, is not as good a footballer, but he has Premier League experience. Whether he has the technical qualities to operate in that tucked-in, defensive midfield role Pep Guardiola often demands from his full-backs is debatable, which perhaps signals that City will return to a more orthodox understanding of the full-back role, but Walker will clearly be an asset to the squad.

But that does not address the central point, which is that he cost £50m, with potentially more to come in add-ons. Perhaps that is what the market demands but the market increasingly seems to be going crazy. Walker is only the latest of a series if extraordinary deals this summer: Romelu Lukaku for £75m, Alexandre Lacazette for £53m, Mohamed Salah for £37m, Jordan Pickford for £30m. It’s usually a cheap dig at football to point out how many hospitals or schools could be funded for a player’s weekly wage but, really, how are historians of the future going to explain a society that has dragged itself on under austerity for seven years and yet smiles benignly at a decent right-back going for £50m?

Even within football’s gilded bubble this is a deal that stands out. Walker is 27. He has only ever scored five goals (now, perhaps this is a sign that football has at last realized that goals are not the be all and end all of a player’s worth, but the point is that Walker is not merely far from being Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he is not even Stuart Pearce or Steve Nicol). He has won only 27 England caps (he may be the clear first-choice right-back now but a year ago no one would have been overly concerned if Roy Hodgson had preferred Nathaniel Clyne). And yet now he is the most expensive defender in history.

It feels as though a collective madness has gripped the Premier League, which now has the most expensive back five in history: Walker, John Stones, David Luiz, Eliaquim Mangala and Luke Shaw. In part it’s a result of the latest broadcast deal, which means that every one of the 20 Premier League clubs ranks in Forbes’s top 30 clubs in terms of annual revenue. And in part it’s because to the sheikhs, oligarchs and hedge fund grandees who own Premier League clubs, £50m is not actually that much money. The old scale, whereby a club’s wealth was in direct correlation to gate receipts and therefore had some grounding in the everyday world of fans, simply does not apply any more.

In the early 17th century, the trade in tulip bulbs in the Netherlands reached unprecedented levels, particularly after the infection of some plants with the mosaic virus led to an exotic streaked effect on the petals. For years, despite warnings from guilds and the church, prices went up and up, seemingly without end until, abruptly, one day in February 1637, perhaps because of an outbreak of bubonic plague, buyers did not show up at a market in Haarlem. The bubble burst, the outrageous sums bulbs fetched suddenly seemed nonsensical and hundreds of investors were ruined overnight.

There is a danger always in being scandalized by transfer fees. Some of the reactions to Middlesbrough breaking the £1,000 barrier to sign Alf Common from Sunderland in 1905 look laughable now. The football boom has outlasted the financial crisis. Perhaps the sport’s internal economy is robust and these fees do make sense. Perhaps the Haarlem moment will never come. But on the other hand, Manchester City have just signed Kyle Walker for £50m.

The Guardian Sport

Transfer Window Frenzy Provides a Buzz But It Does Football No Good


London- Even after the exposure of familiar failings by familiar opponents at a familiar stage of the Under-21 European Championship, a rosy glow remains about English youth football. World champions at under-20 level, victors in the Toulon tournament, finalists in the European Under-17 Championship and semi‑finalists in the European Under‑21s, we have never had it so good. Call this generation golden and prepare for the bitter retrospectives when they have won nothing in a decade and the question of whether the Lewises Cook and Baker can play together in the same midfield remains frustratingly unresolved.

But enough of that: the transfer window has officially been open for three weeks, but as aficionados know it is on 1 July, after all those contracts that expire on 30 June have expired, that the wheeling and dealing really gets into full swing. And, amid the decadence of late capitalism, with recent falling viewing figures leading some to theorise that younger generations can no longer endure a full 90 minutes of actual football, it is trading far more than any naive ideal of sporting prowess that really gets social media humming.

The two, of course, are not unrelated. While it is obviously better that England field a strong side at the Under-20 World Cup than having 36 players withdraw for reasons of injury and indifference, as they did for the same tournament in 2011, it is perhaps worth asking why.

Of the 11 players who started the final against Venezuela in Suwon, only four had begun a Premier League game. Between them, that XI had 13 Premier League starts and 30 substitute appearances. Of those starts, nine had been for three players at Everton – Jonjoe Kenny, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin – and the others from Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook. That suggests that the reason Premier League clubs are now happy for their young players to head off in alternate summers to play in youth tournaments is not some recognition that tournament football will be good for their long-term development but that they just do not really need them. Who actually suffers if one of the three Chelsea players in that Under-20 squad comes back a little weary? Not Chelsea, but the club to whom they were going to loan him.

This is the curse of growing up in a Premier League academy. Whatever the impact of EPPP or the England DNA programme, or any of the other ways the FA is claiming credit for the sudden upturn in youth results, there remains an enormous hurdle for those players in actually getting in to first teams.

Chelsea are not the only guilty party, but given their success at youth level – they have won four FA Youth Cups in a row and six of the past eight as well as two of the past three Uefa Youth Leagues – and the fact they had a league-high 48 players out on loan last season, their fault is more obvious than others.

They had three players in the England Under-20 squad – the defenders Fiyako Tomori and Jake Clarke-Salter and the forward Dominic Solanke – and three players in the Under-21 squad – Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker and Tammy Abraham. Those six players have between them started one league game for Chelsea. Little wonder Solanke, top-scorer at the Under-20 World Cup, got sick of waiting for his chance and opted to move on a free to Liverpool. Would it be any great surprise if Chalobah, watching Chelsea eye up Tiemoué Bakayoko, who is just five months older but has started 49 league games for Monaco as well as being a mainstay of the side that got to the Champions League semi-final, decided he did not fancy being loaned out to a seventh club? At last, perhaps, young players are recognising the dangers of being stockpiled.

The example of Nemanja Matic, sold to Benfica and bought back three years later, feels increasingly emblematic, almost as though the only way Chelsea could get him the necessary experience was effectively to pay another club to be a finishing school. The question then is why?

Ronaldo Koeman has shown, both at Southampton and Everton, how young players can thrive in the Premier League, yet managers of the next tier of club up – with the possible exception of Mauricio Pochettino – seem terrified of trusting youth. Disappointingly that seemed true last season even of Pep Guardiola, despite his promotion of youth at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

But it is not just managers who are to blame. It feels as though there is a cultural issue here, a consumerist lust for the buying and selling of players that is all-pervasive. Players love transfers because they tend to improve their contracts and often take a slice of the fee. Managers love transfers because they always have the excuse of needing just one or two more players. Agents love transfers because they get paid for them. Directors of football and other executives love transfers because it justifies their existence and gives them the chance to pose with new signings. Journalists love transfers because it gives us something to write about. Fans love transfers because a new toy is always the best toy.

In the short term, everybody benefits from the frenzy of buying and selling. Except, of course, in the end, a world based on spending ends up reifying the power of the wealthy, stifles tactical experimentation and hampers youth development.

And so, ultimately, football and everybody loses.

The Guardian Sport