Chelsea Handed Major Chance to Make up Lost Ground in Gentler October


London – Most of the Premier League attention will be on Anfield and the north-west derby on Saturday, even if Liverpool’s stuttering start to the season means Jürgen Klopp’s side already have seven points to make up on Manchester United. For different reasons that will probably suit Crystal Palace and Chelsea, who meet at Selhurst Park in one of the lesser London derbies.

Roy Hodgson said his struggling Palace side were like a boxer on the ropes after their last outing at Old Trafford, trying to fight in a class above their weight and taking too many blows to the chin. Just what you need in those circumstances is a visit from the defending champions, though the only sliver of good news for Hodgson and his stricken side – apart from Wilfried Zaha nearing a return – is that Saturday’s game is the last of a daunting run of fixtures. Palace take on Chelsea after two successive trips to Manchester, where City and then United hit them with a total of nine goals to no reply.

Normality resumes a week after Chelsea, in the form of a trip to Newcastle. Not exactly a doddle, but that’s the Premier League for you. After three Champions League sides in a row, Palace just have to be grateful for opponents more familiar with the Championship.

Hodgson is right in saying his side will not have to face top-four teams every week, though the awkward truth is that they have not been doing so. Admittedly mostly before he arrived, Palace were also beaten and held scoreless by such Premier League powerhouses as Southampton, Burnley, Swansea and Huddersfield. As Burnley are now sixth as a result of picking up points against some of the stronger sides around, it seems the Palace chairman, Steve Parish, blundered in not recruiting Sean Dyche in summer when he appeared to have the chance.

It remains to be seen whether Hodgson can turn Palace around in time to secure survival but no one is kidding themselves that the season will not be one long relegation battle after the most unpromising of starts. Should Hodgson succeed from here he will deserve even more credit than Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce for Palace’s latest astounding feat of escapology.

With each side having played seven games, this is the stage of the season when most of the zeros have disappeared from the Premier League table. Most of the way down there are only two that remain – no defeats yet for either Manchester City or Manchester United – but then you reach the bottom line and Palace have four of their own. No wins, no draws, no goals and no points. Hodgson’s side have twice as many zeros to their name as the rest of the division put together and, depending on what mood Chelsea are in, the situation may not have significantly altered by Saturday night.

Chelsea’s mood will not be improved by defeat in their last match against Manchester City, or by the hamstring injury Álvaro Morato picked up that is likely keep him on the sidelines for another week, though on the other hand the news from Belgium appears to be that Eden Hazard is fully recovered.

Chelsea never seem to kick on from winning the title; not since José Mourinho’s first couple of years in England has one successful season been followed by another. They managed to sack both Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho the season after their next two titles and it was hardly a surprise to hear Antonio Conte yearning for a return to his native Italy so soon after delivering the latest.

Given Chelsea’s record no one could blame him for fearing the worst, although that wily old fox Claudio Ranieri probably read the situation most accurately when suggesting Conte was simply disappointed with the club’s summer transfer business and apprehensive about what was turning into an uneven financial contest with the two Manchester clubs. Romelu Lukaku, in other words. Or perhaps, come January, Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez.

Yet before writing Chelsea off as also-rans it might be as well to remember that this time last year they were not doing particularly well either. They had just been thumped 3-0 by Arsenal and Conte was so dismayed he decided to change his system. They came back after the international break with three at the back and wing-backs, handed out a 3-0 thumping of their own to the defending champions, Leicester City, and never looked back.

It is already clear that Chelsea miss Diego Costa’s aggressive input up front, although Morata when fit has shown plenty of promise, though it is equally evident that Lukaku is working for United in a way that Conte must have hoped he would at Stamford Bridge. Especially bearing in mind that Conte probably thought Lukaku was coming as a replacement when ill-advisedly alienating Costa.

Again, it may be best not to form too hasty a judgment. While Lukaku at present leads the Premier League goalscorers’ table, United have not had the most demanding of starts to the league season. On Saturday at Liverpool they will be facing a side from the top half of the table for the first time. Chelsea, in contrast, have already come up against Arsenal, City and Spurs. Among the criticisms leveled at Lukaku after his move for an initial £75m from Everton, in addition to the legitimate concerns that his first touch is unreliable and his proportion of missed chances high, was that he does not always perform against top opposition. The cricketing expression would be flat-track bully, for Lukaku’s record suggests he picks up a lot of his goals against lesser teams and does not show up so well in games against title contenders.

The same could be said of Everton, of course, who did not always provide Lukaku with a platform to score against leading sides, so now he is at United he should have a better chance to answer his critics. Beginning this month, for in addition to Liverpool on Saturday United will meet Tottenham before the end of October. Spurs themselves face Liverpool and United in their next three games, meaning Liverpool have United and Spurs in the same period.

If Lukaku can keep up his scoring sequence through October he will go a long way to proving his worth. Conte will probably end up even more disappointed should that happen, though on paper there is no reason why Chelsea too should not have another productive October. While teams above and around them are playing each other, Chelsea’s next three games involve Palace, Watford and Bournemouth.

While it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are no easy games in the Premier League, it perhaps might be admitted that some runs of fixtures are slightly gentler than others, and Palace, Watford and Bournemouth certainly sounds a gentler October than the month facing United, Spurs and Liverpool. As ever, Champions League exertions can easily upset domestic calculations, though at least Chelsea’s game against Roma is at home, as is their Carabao Cup tie against Everton.

October, in short, could put the smile back on Conte’s face. Chelsea will know it is time to worry if he is still dropping hints about returning home come the end of the month.

The Guardian Sport

Everton’s Lukaku-Shaped Hole Leaves Praise of Summer Buys Looking Hollow


London — An ancient cliche was conspicuous by its absence when Everton’s owner, Farhad Moshiri, gave Ronald Koeman a vote of confidence the other day. Older football followers in particular might have noted that in reporting it hardly anyone used the word “dreaded”.

Presumably it is safe to say votes of confidence are still dreaded, because no manager particularly wants one and they still tend to mean what they always meant, that the stay of execution will be terminated anyway if results cannot be quickly improved.

But the V of C itself does not seem to belong in the Premier League era; it is a throwback to the dim and distant past and the sort of relationship between chairman and manager encapsulated in The Damned United when Jim Broadbent spells out the facts of football life to Michael Sheen in the middle of the pitch at a deserted Baseball Ground. The facts of football life being that managers are easy to remove and easy to replace, and therefore occupy the lowest rung of importance on the payroll, way below the players.

Things have changed a little since, not least owing to Brian Clough proving some of his former employers wrong. Managers are held to be highly important these days, and paid on that basis, with contractual safeguards to deter all but the most trigger-happy of chairmen from dismissing them on a whim. But what is also new in the present era is the fortnight-long international break, an uncomfortable period for any club going into enforced inaction on the back of a poor result, and Moshiri probably acted wisely and fairly in stating the club’s position clearly at the outset to try to give Koeman and his staff some backing and breathing space.

Whether Koeman deserves it after a disappointing start to the season remains a matter of lively debate, though Everton’s unfortunate opening serves to highlight another aspect of modern football, namely that it is difficult to gauge a club’s development on the field from its perceived success in the transfer window. Each year before the summer trading finishes a notional league table is drawn up based on comparative spending and quality of acquisition. Some clubs are judged to have bought well, others to have bought badly, and still others will be accused of not buying at all. Then the actual season commences, and within weeks these projections based on expenditure will be shown to be useless.

Remember Manchester City being mocked for spending a fortune on full-backs? Now those very acquisitions are being credited with the success of Pep Guardiola’s gameplan at Stamford Bridge, albeit with Fabian Delph standing in for Benjamin Mendy. Chelsea themselves were deemed to have had an underwhelming summer of transfer business, yet apart from the first-day shambles against Burnley seemed to be putting some impressive results together until injury struck Álvaro Morata.

Everton remain the attention grabbers here though, for they appear to have fallen into the trap of enjoying spending the proceeds of Romelu Lukaku’s sale without remembering why Manchester United were willing to fork out £75m up front. They were widely considered to have had a productive summer, at least up to the point where they admitted they would not be getting hold of Olivier Giroud. Koeman was praised for acting early and decisively, and the captures of Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane were greeted as signs of ambition and proof that the club was investing for the long-term.

Wayne Rooney’s return could not be dressed up in quite the same way, and the inactivity after missing out on Giroud must have been disappointing for a manager who continually stressed his desire for a goalscoring target man to replace Lukaku, but the window appeared to end happily when Everton parted with a record fee to sign the long-term attacking target Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Except when the season started it became clear that not only Rooney and Sigurdsson but also Davy Klaassen had been signed for the same position, while the gaping hole left by the departing big fella in front of them had not been filled. Not even Koeman, it transpires, can see Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Sandro Ramírez maturing in time, and Rooney, just as Manchester United watchers warned, simply looks over-mature.

Burnley, in contrast, received few accolades for activity or imagination in the market over the summer, even though they broke their transfer record by paying Leeds £15m for Chris Wood. The New Zealand striker seemed to be just a duplication or a slight upgrade on players the club already possessed – the same could also be said of Jack Cork, Jon Walters, Charlie Taylor and Phil Bardsley – but the key here seems to be that Burnley had a good balance and a strong work ethic and quite sensibly decided not to disrupt anything.

Burnley are now being hailed as a tight, well-disciplined unit who play as a team and fight for every minute of the 90. Nothing new there – that was pretty much their hallmark last season – yet suddenly they are finding points easier to come by and proving troublesome opponents for even the biggest clubs. All on a modest budget with no great dramas in the transfer window. Sometimes, in fact, the size of some clubs’ budgets gets in the way. Arsène Wenger said a couple of years ago that people would have laughed if he had nipped over to France and come back with Riyad Mahrez, because people expected Arsenal signings to cost at least £10m. Maybe Koeman felt the same when it came to replacing £75m Lukaku. He said he wanted a target man but didn’t get his wish, yet Burnley picked one up for £15m, while Spurs landed the admittedly 32-year-old Fernando Llorente for a little less.

That is not to suggest either would have solved Everton’s problems, or even that Wood’s goals have been behind Burnley’s rise to sixth place. Just to point out that options are always available. The manager who claimed he didn’t want to go down to option C or D after missing out on Giroud has been left with his option Z, otherwise known as Oumar Niasse. It is unclear what Moshiri thinks about that, though plain to see that, despite bringing in half a dozen new players over summer, Everton failed to address the most notable departure.

Collectively that is quite an embarrassment for a club that pinched Steve Walsh from Leicester to head up player recruitment. No one imagined it would be easy to replace Lukaku; there are not many players of similar size and ability around, and whoever Everton brought in might have found it difficult living up to his predecessor’s strike rate. But Lukaku was always going – whatever else Everton say they cannot pretend they were caught on the hop. And after only seven league games two of the most frequently asked questions around Goodison over the past few years – are Everton a one-man team, and however will they manage without Lukaku? – now have answers. They just happen to be unflattering ones, and there are three months to wait for the next transfer window.

The Guardian Sport

Vincent Kompany: When I Came to Manchester City it was Bouncing


London – Vincent Kompany is entering his 10th season in England and, at 31, the Manchester City and Belgium captain happily admits he is no longer the player he was when he joined from Hamburg under Mark Hughes.

City supporters need not worry, this is not a lament about age or injury slowing him up. Kompany simply feels he has changed during his time in Manchester by virtue of joining exactly the right team at exactly the right time.

“This club has given me so much, and I think I have given a lot back,” he says. “I didn’t really expect any of this when I came to England but there’s a relationship now that’s going to grow and go further. Once I finish playing I’m still a Manchester City player for the rest of my life, that won’t change.

“At the moment I’m half-player and half-fan, that’s why I spend a lot of my spare time at the academy watching the kids. There is a real vision for the future here, a long-term plan. Only the very best clubs are able to pass the baton of continuity down through the generations.

“Manchester United were able to do it because Sir Alex Ferguson stayed so long. Maybe you see Barcelona and Bayern Munich doing it now and I think that’s what we are on the verge of putting in place.”

Continuity was not something that struck Kompany when he arrived in Manchester for the 2008-09 season with Pablo Zabaleta and, on deadline day, the new record signing, Robinho. “When I came to City there was a gap in the dressing room with regard to the club’s history,” he says. “There was not a lot from the previous generation, Dunny [Richard Dunne] was maybe the only one in a position to tell us what players like Shaun Goater and Paul Dickov had done for the club. If you stay long enough you get to hear about all the club legends but it is more powerful when there is a direct link through the present players.

“Nothing lasts forever in football, Zab and Joe Hart and others who were heroes at the club have gone now but I’m still around to provide a link to what we achieved in the last 10 years and hopefully players will come after me and do the same.”

Two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup are what Kompany has helped City achieve. That is an abundances of riches compared to what went before, yet considering the level of investment it does not quite represent the level of dominance the club owners seemed to envisage. “If you put everything into perspective it’s an incredible achievement,” Kompany says. “First of all because you don’t end 25 years of football and financial dominance by another team just by saying: ‘We want to catch up,’ you need to put a lot of work and effort into it, as well as money. Second, this is the Premier League and it’s very competitive.

“No team here is going to win eight titles in a row. We had to scramble and fight to get the first one and then we got a second to confirm things. Since then we have been in the mix with other clubs, and that’s progress. It’s not as if any one team has been dominant over the period.”

Kompany cannot help but smile when he thinks back to the club he joined compared to the slick operation City are now. “I can’t forget about the noise in the dressing room,” he says. “It was loud. You couldn’t imagine anything more opposite to what I was used to in Germany. You would have to be quiet there and focused on the game. Even reading a book, which I thought was sensible, would be too much for the manager.

“Then I came to City and the place was bouncing. People playing pranks. Robinho and the kit man would be taking the mickey out of each other. Robinho and Elano would be doing keepy-ups with rolled up socks, making the rest of us feel like amateurs. I couldn’t do anything like that, I just joined in by doing a few push-ups instead.”

Gradually, Kompany adapted to this new environment, even learning to accept a heated dressing room as a positive sign. “Quite often there would be massive arguments at half-time if the game wasn’t going well,” he says. “Then if we turned it round in the second half we would all be embracing each other at the end. Like we were after the [first title-clincher] QPR game. The scenes in the dressing room during and after that match will stay with me forever.”

Things have calmed down a bit since and what Kompany notices most in his present manager is an ability to read a game in progress and make subtle but effective changes. “I would say Pep Guardiola’s No1 quality is that he sees the technical and tactical aspect of a game really fast.

“Sometimes when you are in a game it is hard to figure out what is going on, especially with players you don’t know, but he can break it down pretty quickly and then solve the issue. It’s not about genius it’s about having the skill to get the message across in a way the team understands it. His previous teams have been successful because of that.”

Everton are the visitors to the Etihad on Monday and any relief Kompany might feel at not having to face his Belgian team-mate Romelu Lukaku – scorer of the goal that earned Ronald Koeman’s side a point last season – is tempered by the memory of Wayne Rooney scoring what many regard as one of the best Premier League goals with his overhead kick against City in 2011.

Everton’s new(ish) striker has described it as one of his greatest goals and Kompany had a perfect view. “Top strikers do things at unbelievable times and that goal was a testimony to Wayne’s talent,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it anyway because in that game I absolutely had him in my pocket. I played a really strong game and then he pulls the overhead kick and I’m thinking: ‘Oh, come on …’ but I have a lot of respect for Wayne. He’s got the ability to recognize when he needs to get in the box.

“Even that goal he scored against Stoke last week, I don’t think many other players would have done it. We can all play the pass he played, maybe even head it like he did, but the hard bit is understanding that this is the moment I need to go. He has that timing, he sees things quickly, and just like the overhead kick it’s something that sets him apart.”

The Guardian Sport

Player Simulation Continues to Fool Football Association


London – What a disappointment. Only three weeks into the Premier League season and already it looks as if the Football Association’s initiative on diving and simulation is struggling to keep pace.

Towards the end of last season we were told, if you recall, that the FA now had powers that would permit it to punish divers and cheaters retrospectively with two-match bans, subject to their attempts to con referees being exposed by video replays to the satisfaction of a panel of experts.

The intention, it was made clear, was to charge players believed to have cheated to win a penalty or get a player sent off, be that for a straight red card or a second yellow. A new offense would appear on the FA charge sheet, to wit: “Successful deception of a match official.”

One suspected at the time that such a tricky area might not prove so simple to police, and those fears were borne out in the 1-1 draw between Manchester City and Everton at the Etihad on Monday night. Most commentators on television and in print concluded that Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin had exaggerated both the force and the nature of contact with Kyle Walker to deceive the match officials into thinking some sort of assault had taken place, possibly an elbow to the face. As a result the City player received a second yellow shortly after his first one, and the home side had to play more than 50 minutes with 10 men. When Everton themselves went down to 10 men a couple of minutes before the end of normal time there was a vehement protest from Morgan Schneiderlin that Sergio Agüero had also given the impression he had been kicked when in fact he had not. That incident was less crucial given the stage of the game by then, but few disagreed with Ronald Koeman’s suggestion that the referee, Bobby Madley, had attempted to even up the situation in recognition of his earlier mistake.

A bit of a mess, then, with Pep Guardiola refusing to discuss the officials’ performance or the disciplinary aspects of a feisty game, and Gary Neville suggesting on Sky the “high hurdle” it is supposed to require for a player to receive a second yellow when already on a booking had not been reached. That high hurdle would have been reached had Walker actually elbowed Calvert-Lewin, though television replays clearly established that he had not. One for the peacekeepers at the FA to sort out, surely.

Or perhaps not. It turns out neither incident was clear-cut enough for the governing body’s new machinery to get involved, because while the degree of fouling in each case was debatable, some contact was made on both occasions so it is apparently far too risky to go around accusing anyone of diving. Quite clearly, what the FA needs before it wheels its panel of experts into action is a bona fide dive, one with a take-off, a flight and a landing, quite possibly with a half-pike or two in the middle. At which point, presumably, the panel will respond with scores out of 10, including marks for artistic impression.

What this means in practice is the FA will take action over swan dives in search of penalties, the sort of thing that is usually easy to spot with a couple of television replays anyway if there is no actual contact, but stay away from more difficult areas such as players overreacting to challenges from opponents who have already been booked. That, too, is unsporting conduct. And by falling poleaxed to the floor clutching his face, Calvert-Lewin appeared to have deceived the match officials, whether or not he realized he was going to get Walker dismissed. Agüero’s overreaction, if that is what it was, seemed less reprehensible. Schneiderlin did catch him on the follow-through, and though it did not appear the most heinous act or obvious of fouls, modern professionals know they have to draw the referee’s attention to contact if they expect to win a free-kick.

That, however, is not what Calvert-Lewin seemed to be doing. The FA probably needs to add another new offense to its charge sheet as soon as possible. It should be known as “doing a Rivaldo”, in the same way that chipped penalties are now named after Antonin Panenka, and it should lead to an extremely dim view being taken of players who clutch their face in an attempt to convince the referee that they have been struck rather than simply touched. It is hard to know exactly what Calvert-Lewin was thinking without asking him, but one could readily understand why both Madley and his fourth official reached the conclusion that an elbow might have been involved. It is not always easy for referees to spot everything that takes place on the pitch but that is precisely why it was anticipated that television replays might come in handy after the event.

If we are not going to get such situations reviewed, there is probably no need for a panel of experts after all. Most people sitting at home in their armchairs are able to spot the more blatant dives. If the FA is serious about tackling simulation/cheating/deception, call it what you will, it ought to realize that not everything worth investigation takes place in the penalty area and that players who have already been booked just might be being targeted by opponents.

Retrospective trial by video might still have its uses, though. It would be worth pursuing if only to deter the face-clutchers. A clearer case of attempting to deceive the referee is hard to imagine and it would be relatively easy to stamp out. If the standard punishment for being caught doing a Rivaldo was a two-match ban, dished out retrospectively if necessary, referees would suddenly find their jobs a whole lot easier.

The Guardian Sport

Gareth Southgate: Wayne Rooney Stood out Even among Golden Generation


London – Gareth Southgate laughs when the subject of a golden generation is jokingly raised. The England manager has just named a squad of 28 players from 15 different clubs, a far cry from some of his predecessors’ moans about a shrinking talent pool and a limited number of Premier League sides worth watching, yet even though he has been able to leave out a few deserving candidates Southgate knows that particular pressure is not one he need work under for a while.

The retirement of Wayne Rooney only serves to emphasize that what is past is now past and the future under Southgate can begin with a clean slate. “There is no basis for deluding ourselves,” he says. “Very few of these players have won anything with their clubs.

“We are talking in a lot of cases about potential and we have to try and help that potential come to the fore. The great guide for me was our games against Spain, Germany and France last season. In moments we have shown we can play at a really good level, we can score goals against the top teams and we can defend well, but we didn’t win any of those games.

“That is a good marker for me about the level of improvement we still need. Our players might think they have reached the top, but we are not there yet and that’s the message. When we start beating some of those top teams we can start getting a bit more excited. Where we are is 14 months on from being knocked out of the Euros in the second round by Iceland.”

Perhaps it is just as well England are in a relatively undemanding World Cup qualification group, with games coming up against Malta (Friday) and Slovakia (the following Monday). England ought to have enough experience to take points from those games even without their most-capped outfield player and record goalscorer. Indeed, it was probably the recognition that while his squad presence was valued he was no longer guaranteed a place in the starting XI that helped Rooney reach his decision.

Southgate has been careful to leave the door slightly ajar – should Rooney continue to enjoy a rejuvenation at Everton it makes no sense to rule out a recall for the tournament – though the same calculation is likely to be necessary next summer. On balance, it is unlikely that Rooney will secure a place in the team instead of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli through his goalscoring prowess; it is more probable that Southgate will want him in the squad for his experience, example and influence on younger players. Whether Rooney will fancy that remains to be seen, though Southgate is in no doubt that the player’s contribution to the England cause over the years has been outstanding and that no one in the present squad appears capable of taking a tournament by storm as a young Rooney did in Euro 2004.

“When Wayne came through he was at a level which is different to any of the players we’ve got at the moment.” Southgate says. “I was playing with him at that time and his attributes, strengths, goalscoring, range of passing and intelligence aged 17-18 was better than any of the players in the current squad. We are talking a different level. You’ve got very good players and then there are top players.

“In my time in the England setup, Paul Gascoigne, Paul Scholes and Rooney just had that little bit more than all the others. And we are talking high‑level people there, players like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham, so the really outstanding talents are very few and far between. That’s where Rooney was and all our guys have still got that to prove.”

It was England’s misfortune that two of that triumvirate of peerless talents never burned as brightly again after the excitement of their breakthrough years, while Scholes ended up retiring from international football earlier than he might have done through being played out of position to accommodate Gerrard and Lampard in the middle. At least Rooney went on to gather 119 caps, almost as many as Scholes (66) and Gascoigne (57) accumulated between them, though in terms of tournament performances the graph after Portugal in 2004 resembles something of a cliff edge.

That is where the golden generation went, though with England Under-20s winning their World Cup in the summer Southgate is reasonably relaxed about the future, even if he does not think any of that squad are quite ready to make the step up to the senior side.

“Not that many of them are playing regularly for their clubs,” he says. “Dominic Calvert-Lewin has had a couple of games for Everton and there are one or two like Dominic Solanke who could really push a cause if they get a run of games, but Liverpool have some outstanding attacking players.

“I saw that for myself when they played Hoffenheim. Even Daniel Sturridge has competition on his hands there and hopefully that will bring the best out of him. I spoke to Jürgen Klopp before selecting him and he was very positive. He was impressed with his physical preparation this summer, so even though he has not played a lot of games I thought it would be good to have Daniel involved so he knows he is still on our radar.

“At any big club you have competition for places, and that is certainly true at Liverpool. I even asked Jürgen after the Hoffenheim game whether Sadio Mané had any English grandparents. Unfortunately he said not.”

The Guardian Sport

Where are the Young Goalscorers Available to Buy?


London – According to just about every manager interviewed on the subject, not to mention the accumulated wisdom of more than 100 years of professional football, the hardest task in the game is putting the ball into the back of the net. It often looks deceptively easy, a tap over the line here, a well-timed header there, but at the highest level you are up against organized defenses and highly-trained goalkeepers. Opportunities do not normally come along that often in a game, and frequently most of the team will have been involved in some way in creating the space to set up the attack, so that when you finally arrive – as Pep Guardiola is fond of putting it, meaning arrive in front of goal – the pressure on the guy on the end of the move is considerable.

Some find it easy to handle and finish almost instinctively; think Jamie Vardy in Leicester’s title-winning season. Then when it becomes expected it becomes harder to do; think Vardy last term or even Diego Costa drying up for Chelsea. Some players seem to emerge from their teenage years as born goalscorers – think Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney – only to find the necessary fearlessness and decisiveness more difficult to reproduce once they are marked men in their mid-20s. Occasionally strikers manage to improve with age and experience, by looking after themselves and bringing all their knowledge and maturity to bear, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jermain Defoe demonstrated last season. A reliable goalscorer at any age is an invaluable asset, which is why Manchester United have happily handed over £75m to Everton to secure Romelu Lukaku’s best years.

Though many thought the Belgian overpriced, especially as the deal will rise to £90m with add-ons, a club such as Everton could not be expected to part with their leading scorer cheaply. United may have the wherewithal to be constantly in the market for established goalscorers but Everton will not find it easy to replace Lukaku. He was their record signing when he arrived, their record transfer fee received when he left, and in-between the extent to which the club came to rely on his goals was almost embarrassing. While Lukaku scored 25 league goals last season, Everton’s second-highest scorer was Ross Barkley with only five, and after that came Kevin Mirallas and own goals with four apiece. Not good enough, Ronald Koeman has said, indicating he would prefer four or five players contributing or approaching double figure totals to one man doing all the finishing by himself. That theory not only makes sense, it is about to be put to the test this season, for Koeman has little choice in the matter. Lukaku has gone and like-for-like replacements are thin on the ground.

There has been a lot of talk about strikers this summer, though so far not much movement. Lukaku is one of the few reliable scorers to have changed clubs. Alexis Sánchez has not yet done so; despite having only a year left on his contract. Arsenal seem happier to keep hold of him than to trade him. Sergio Agüero is still at Manchester City, even though when he lost his first-team place last season it was thought a quick summer transfer would be the likely result. City could still make a swoop for a stellar name before the end of the window, though when you already have Agüero there are not many realistic targets who would count as an improvement and even Sánchez may not score as many goals.

James Rodríguez has been snapped up by Bayern Munich, and he is not as prolific as Agüero in any case. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, perhaps a more likely target for Chelsea than City, has been told he cannot leave Borussia Dortmund this summer and, although the German club’s resolve would probably be tested by a bid of £100m or so, that is a great deal of money to pay for a 28-year-old. The same could be said of Robert Lewandowski, who has been linked with a move to the Premier League ever since a volcanic ash cloud scuppered his chances of joining Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn when still a Lech Poznan player, though by now he has spent most of his peak years in Germany.

Most of the goalscorers out there, in short, are the ones we have already heard of, the ones who have been around for a few years. Apart from Kylian Mbappé, one of the very few strikers around who may actually be worth £100m, exciting and emerging young goal-scoring talent is not exactly flooding the market at the moment. Arsenal have broken their transfer record for Alexandre Lacazette, though at 26 the French striker is hardly a new discovery. It seems unlikely that Arsène Wenger will follow that capture by shelling out more than twice as much to beat Real Madrid to the signature of Mbappé but even if he does it will be a remarkable turnaround from the way the Arsenal manager used to do business, using his contacts to unearth young French talent before any significant reputation or transfer value had been established.

Perhaps the truth is there is simply a dearth of young goal-scoring talent, French or otherwise. Manchester City seem to be putting a lot of store in the prospects of Gabriel Jesus, or at least they did last season, though they are keeping Agüero close at hand just in case. Manchester United already have Marcus Rashford but still deemed it necessary to bring in Lukaku to replace Ibrahimovic. José Mourinho praised Rashford’s work rate on many occasions last season but was not so complimentary about his strike rate.

In Premier League terms, with Defoe getting a move to Bournemouth, Rooney returning to Everton and only injury forcing Ibrahimovic out, goal-scoring seems a task for thirty-somethings rather than teenage young guns. Yet, as they used to say in all the best gunslinging westerns, there is always a kid. You may not know his name yet but rarely does a season go by without someone new making a name for himself. This year the field is wide open.

The Guardian Sport

Will the Wait for an English Manager to Win the Premier League Ever End?

London- The Premier League has been going for 25 years and it is still no closer to being won by a team with an English manager.

Actually that might not be completely true. Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth finished ninth last season and in the arid landscape of English achievement since Howard Wilkinson took Leeds United to the final old First Division title in 1992 that possibly counts as progress. There have certainly been seasons, 2015-16 being the most recent, when the top 10 positions were the exclusive province of foreign coaches.

This season will begin with only four English managers in charge of Premier League clubs – Howe, Sean Dyche, Paul Clement and Craig Shakespeare. The picture is softened slightly by three more “home-produced” managers in Mark Hughes, Tony Pulis and Chris Hughton (two Welshmen and an Irishman, even though the Brighton manager was born in London), but set against that is the absence of anyone from Scotland. For the first five years it was dominated by Scottish managers and, even after Arsène Wenger arrived to break the sequence, Sir Alex Ferguson’s enormous influence meant eight of the first 10 titles went to teams led by Glaswegians. Now there are noneand it may be a while, to judge by the recent experiences of David Moyes and Paul Lambert, before one of the oldest traditions in English football reasserts itself.

At least, and we are talking small consolations here, the English managers in situ appear to have a decent chance of keeping their jobs. The bookmakers favour Rafael Benítez and Slaven Bilic as the first managerial casualties of the season, though that could have more to do with the volatile situations surrounding Newcastle and West Ham than any perceived shortcomings on the part of the coaches. The bookies’ annual sack-race betting is usually a market best avoided anyway – this time two years ago Claudio Ranieri was being quoted among the favourites for the chop, while 12 months later he was regarded as bulletproof – though there is a theory that clubs are beginning to view foreign coaches as expendable while home-grown managers tend to be granted a little more patience.

This is only a theory, and an embryonic one at that, and nothing is likely to save Craig Shakespeare or Paul Clement should their clubs struggle to put results together, though what Bournemouth and Burnley have achieved in recent seasons has been an example others are seeking to follow.

Bournemouth, in their two years in the top flight, have shown that with continuity and club spirit even the smallest operation can successfully compete. Last season Howe’s side were never in any real danger of being dragged down. Burnley were relegated after one Premier League season under Dyche but they kept faith with the manager, kept most of the squad together and came back stronger for the experience.

There is money to be made in the Premier League, not just the prize money shared around each season but parachute payments should the worst come to the worst, and clubs seem to have realised that with sensible management there is no need to take huge financial risks in order to survive.

The boom-and-bust syndrome appears to have given way to something more principled and pragmatic, at least for smaller clubs where the object is not to dispute the major prizes but to acquit themselves well in the top tier and continue to improve.

There, in a nutshell, is the position of English/British managers at the moment. They will almost always be found at smaller clubs, striving capably for survival rather than setting out with any real designs on silverware. A club such as Stoke or Swansea can make life difficult for members of the top six, though, Leicester’s miraculous 2015-16 season apart, there seems little prospect of these mid-table sides actually joining them.

While that situation persists, it is open to question whether individual managers will make the leap on their own either. There has been talk of Howe as a successor to Wenger at the Emirates, based on the similarities between the type of football both men like to produce, though when it finally comes to the crunch Arsenal are much more likely to opt for a ready-made, Champions League-hardened replacement from the continent.

Similarly Manchester United will not be making another Moyes-type mistake in a hurry. That move was made with the best of intentions – unless it was expressly conceived for the purpose of keeping José Mourinho out – but it failed because elite players now expect, and have the power to demand, elite managers. So do their agents.

The managerial jobs being done at the various strata within the Premier League are all quite different and, though there is not that much hard evidence to go on, what has been seen so far suggests that movement between compartments is as difficult for individuals as it is for teams. Even Sam Allardyce could not crack it. The only upward move he was able to make was the England job and we all know what happened there. Yet Allardyce has an impressive record. He might have done well at a top side but it will never be known now, because he was never asked.

It would be pleasant to imagine Dyche or Howe or Clement picking up a similar amount of experience and being head-hunted by a leading club, though it is unlikely to happen without a major change of attitude. As long as leading clubs can afford to take their pick from the seemingly endless supply of charismatic and well-qualified foreign coaches keen to take up positions in this country, the only source of solace for English managers in the Premier League is that their prospects are much healthier than those of Scottish ones.

The Guardian Sport

Everton Hoping Early Deals Can Help Them Bridge Gap to the Top Four


London- There is no doubt which Premier League club have made the quickest start in the race to do business in the summer transfer window. One might not go as far as Robbie Fowler, who believes Everton’s resolve and targeted investment are making the rest of the league look stupid, though there is plenty to admire in the way Ronald Koeman and his club backers go about their business.

Everton have made five major signings before most clubs are properly back from their holidays, although Henry Onyekuru will be going straight out to Anderlecht on loan. The others offer straight-down-the-middle solidity, almost literally since Koeman has brought in a goalkeeper, centre-half and striker. Everton set their transfer record when they signed Jordan Pickford for a fee that could rise to £30m, though the former Sunderland player has long been regarded the best English goalkeeping prospect around and if he fulfils his potential he will soon start to look a snip even at that price.

The club then paid roughly the same amount, £25m going on £30m, for the 24-year-old Michael Keane, another proven performer at the right age with no shortage of admirers and a promising future. By Everton standards this is a huge level of investment, particularly as the Holland midfielder Davy Klaassen has also been signed for around £24m, but as soon as someone meets Southampton’s asking price for Virgil van Dijk, or perhaps when Romelu Lukaku finally gets his inevitable move to a club in the Champions League bracket, Everton’s outlay is likely to be dwarfed.

It has not all been big spending either. Picking up Sandro Ramírez from Málaga for a fee of around £5m could be the sharpest piece of business of the summer so far, even if it is unlikely the former Barcelona striker on his own will be able to fill the hole Lukaku leaves. To an extent Everton have been rebuilding in the knowledge that they will have to react and reshape once their leading scorer departs, and to an extent they have been spending in the expectation of a large fee being received before the end of the window. They will probably need to recruit again once Lukaku goes. Koeman is still an admirer of Gylfi Sigurdsson and there are even reports of a move for Olivier Giroud, though regardless of what happens later in the summer it is never a bad idea to have your principal targets identified early and to bring them in with a minimum of fuss in time to take part in a full pre-season.

Were there a prize for this sort of thing, Everton would have just put themselves in pole position, with other clubs still dithering and debating at the back of the grid. Perhaps Everton also deserve some sort of industry award for having the foresight to recruit Steve Walsh from Leicester as football director and head of scouting. Football does not work quite like that, however, and one has to assume that the real prize Everton are after is a place in the top four. “It will be a big season for us,” Sandro said on arrival, possibly a little prematurely. “Everton have made some big signings, I’m excited about being able to compete here and win plenty of silverware. Hopefully we can achieve that aim of getting into the Champions League.”

Any player is entitled to be optimistic upon joining a new club for a considerable fee, and there is perhaps no harm in being unrealistically so, but were this an Alfred Hitchcock film the menacing music would now be building to a crescendo. Were it a Vic and Bob show there would be tumbleweed rolling across the set. Players do not generally move to Everton to win “plenty of silverware”. That has not been the case since the mid-80s, and even then the revival under Howard Kendall was a relatively short-lived affair, bookended by underachievement and far less distinguished managers. In the 21 years Sandro has been around Everton have not won a thing. Their last glimpse of silverware was the 1995 FA Cup, a couple of months before he was born.

Everton have a capable, go-ahead manager, it must be admitted, and a top-four finish seems an achievable ambition for a club of Everton’s stature and spending power, yet it cannot have gone unnoticed that Arsenal and Manchester United managed to miss out last season. That’s the Arsenal currently vying with Real Madrid to pay more than £100m for Kylian Mbappé, and the Manchester United who boast the world’s most expensive player in Paul Pogba and could well end up paying a similar amount for Lukaku.

It was put to Koeman when he arrived on Merseyside this time last year from Southampton that there seemed to be little anyone could do to elevate Everton beyond fourth-best team in the north-west. They would never be able to match the spending power of the Manchester clubs, and could hope to overtake Liverpool only on the few occasions when standards at Anfield slipped. The manager did not disagree, though Leicester had just won the league at the time so anything seemed possible.

What happened in Koeman’s first season at Goodison was that the six clubs with regular Champions League experience strengthened and improved, leaving an improved Everton still best of the rest, a nailed-on seventh. That is not good enough for Koeman, never mind the owners or fans, but it is not difficult to see the same pattern repeating itself this season. This time Everton will have to cope with the demands of the Europa League, too. They may even try to win it, and take the Manchester United route to Champions League qualification, though such a plan would inevitably have implications for their league aspirations. José Mourinho, with all the resources at his disposal, ended up having to prioritise at the end of last season. It is unlikely that Everton would be able to prosper on two fronts, and it will be interesting to see how Koeman approaches the European competition.

Yet for now, before a ball has been kicked, Everton followers can at least take satisfaction in their club doing something right. They should be a tougher proposition this season, and with their fighting spirit and the ability to make Goodison a difficult place to visit, they could prove a surprise package in 2017-18. As long as everything continues to go to plan. Any unpleasant surprises, such as potential buyers driving down Lukaku’s price or perhaps even looking elsewhere for a striker, could make life more interesting still before the start of the season.

The Guardian Sport

Romelu Lukaku: £75m is Never a Bargain but Everton Striker is Worth It


London- Romelu Lukaku has been an obvious transfer target ever since he turned down the lucrative contract Everton offered him in March, doggies in shop windows have been less conspicuously for sale, yet when reports began to emerge that Manchester United were confident of a £75m deal it still came as something of a surprise.

Chelsea had been thought favourites to sign him, for a start, and with Everton insisting no agreement has yet been reached with United there is still a chance a significant bid will arrive from that quarter.

Some are even suggesting Everton are keen on opening an auction to drive the price higher. Many at Everton believed a return to Chelsea was on the cards, and when Lukaku gave his reasons for stalling on a new deal at Goodison – “I don’t want to stay at the same level, I want to improve and I know where I want to do that” – it seemed reasonable to assume that the club now managed so impressively by Antonio Conte was the one he had in mind.

If so, especially as Conte may have played a part in edging Diego Costa towards the door, Chelsea could be embarrassed if United manage to tie up a deal for Lukaku this weekend. Costa will not be staying, Chelsea need a goalscorer and United seem to believe they are on track to sign a reliable one for considerably less than the £100m Everton were asking. Should Lukaku turn up in red and not blue at the start of the season, José Mourinho will have put one over his successor as Chelsea manager before a ball has been kicked, without even having to pay over the odds.

Of course, it is hard to dress up a fee of £75m as any sort of bargain, though in the present climate Lukaku is probably worth it. He scored 25 Premier League goals last season, he is only 24 years old and at his best he can terrorise defences through sheer physical presence and power. He is not exactly a new Didier Drogba but he is a close approximation, and for a coach like Mourinho who likes to play with a big, obvious target at the front he was always going to be of interest once Zlatan Ibrahimovic was ruled out.

The Swede was hugely successful at Old Trafford last season though his game is based on anticipation, timing and getting on the end of things. There were times last season, even with Ibrahimovic up front, when United became bogged down through a shortage of creativity in midfield. Lukaku is not a remedy for that – there were occasions when Everton were similarly ineffective – though he is the type of player who can produce something unexpected when he receives the ball, even in unpromising situations. Lukaku can make things happen, often on his own, and once he finally makes the step up to a club in the Champions League bracket his confidence will only improve if he can establish himself as the main point of attack.

At that level he will be tested as never before, and after three years spent as the big fish in a relatively small pool at Everton he will have to stand comparison with some of the best strikers in the world.

He is not as quick as Kylian Mbappé or as unstoppable as Luis Suárez, and perhaps he does not possess the all-round game of a centre-forward such as Robert Lewandowski. Yet Lukaku is four years younger than the unsettled Bayern Munich player, he can score with both feet and is strong in the air, and there is plenty of time and scope for further improvement. Everton are certainly going to find him hard to replace, and to judge by their interest in Olivier Giroud they are not even looking for an identical type of striker.

Prolific goalscorers who are 6ft 2in and around 15st are simply not that easy to come by. Because of his imposing stature it is easy to characterise Lukaku as a blunt instrument, a big fella up front, a prominent target at which to aim hopeful long balls. He can operate in such a way, in fairness, he has good touch and positional awareness and can not only hold the ball up until support arrives but usually play a decent pass to set up an attack.

Yet Lukaku is more like a youthful Wayne Rooney than a reincarnation of Duncan Ferguson. He is at his best with the ball at his feet, running at defenders and more often than not making inroads through his pace and control. The possibility of Lukaku linking up with players of the calibre of Juan Mata and Paul Pogba is quite an exciting one, and should the United move go through there is every chance of him becoming an instant crowd favourite at Old Trafford through his appetite for work and willingness to take on defenders. At Everton opponents would frequently detail two players to look after him, and that in itself would often create useful space for somebody else.

Lukaku probably knew all along he would be faced with a choice between his former club and his former manager. Contrary to reports suggesting the parting from Mourinho at Chelsea was acrimonious, the pair have retained respect for each other over the past three years. Mourinho said at the time that Lukaku aged 20 was not ready to be Chelsea’s first choice striker, and Lukaku aged 24 has accepted the wisdom of that.

“Choices were made by me, not by them [the Chelsea hierarchy],” the player has said. “Three years ago I was not ready, but several good seasons have changed the situation.” Everton have been principal beneficiaries of those seasons, and they stand to make a handsome profit on a player they signed for £28m but always accepted they had little chance of keeping indefinitely. Everyone will gain, in fact, except the club or clubs that end up missing out. Lukaku arrives for the next stage of his career in peak condition.

The Guardian Sport

No Sign of Austerity in Premier League’s Never-ending Transfer Spree


London- Liverpool and Everton were first, Arsenal have just joined them, and Huddersfield Town managed it twice in the same week. The transfer window still has the best part of two months to run and the real horse-trading is yet to start, but this looks like it could be the summer when almost every Premier League club sets a transfer record.

Perhaps such a development is a logical and inevitable corollary of the new television deal, the one responsible for making English clubs richer than ever before. Perhaps it is simply a matter of inflation, not just prices going up all the time but the follow-on effects from, say, the benchmark set by Romelu Lukaku changing clubs for around £75m.

Huddersfield are cited above as an example of the way even newly arrived members of the Premier League are raising their financial game (the Terriers have just added the £11m Steve Mounié from Montpellier to their squad between completing the £8m+ captures of Aaron Mooy and Tom Ince and spending lesser amounts on Scott Malone and Mathias Jorgensen), though really, what choice do smaller clubs have when the more established sides in the league are already nudging their spending to around the £100m mark?

Even a thrifty outfit such as Burnley – current transfer record £13m for Robbie Brady – will have to join the action soon or risk missing out. They have £25m of Everton’s money banked from the Michael Keane transfer, and the centre-back will need replacing.

Maybe, to the excitement of Sky Sports News, clubs spending more than ever before is simply going to be an annual feature of the English summer, like queues at Wimbledon or jellyfish massing off the south coast beaches.

Real Madrid will usually end up topping the list for buying individuals – they still look more likely than Arsenal to go past £100m for Kylian Mbappé – though the Premier League’s badge of honour continues to be a peculiar willingness to spend more money in total than anyone else. In terms of transfer fees and wages, the English league pays all the way down, and continues to do so even though only two or three clubs at most can win anything and this country now struggles to keep up with continental standards in the Champions League or acquit itself well in international tournaments.

As an economic model the Premier League ought to be unsustainable, yet the excitement and unpredictability it produces is enjoyed around the world and the television income keeps going up. People were talking about the bubble bursting two decades ago, though it never did. It just became bigger and harder to ignore. The decline of England as a force in world football suggests that, at a sporting level, the model is unsustainable – while Gareth Southgate was recalling Jermain Defoe to take Wayne Rooney’s place in the national side, Didier Deschamps was struggling to accommodate all the exciting young talents the oft-derided French league was producing – though no one seems to care.

International football is exciting for only a couple of weeks every two years anyway. Once the season starts the Premier League enthrals every weekend. Or so the theory goes. The trouble with existing in a bubble is that it is too easy to overestimate one’s popularity with those outside it.

Just ask Theresa May. Since the general election the news agenda in this country has largely featured stories about financial inequality and hardship. The gap between the public and private sectors, for example. The inadequacy of pension plans. The steady lowering of real-term incomes set against rising inflation. Austerity, in other words, and all that goes with it.

Football might be useful as a form of escapism from the greyness of everyday living, it has performed that function for well over a century, though for most of that time it managed to remain close to its community roots. Something that used to be tangible and readily accessible is now becoming exclusive and remote. Is there really an appetite at the moment for all the top teams to spend more than ever before on players who are already so fantastically well-rewarded they find it difficult to intersect with real life?

“They’re a bunch of overpaid tossers,” one respondent stated to a new survey of how much our major sports are admired and trusted. “I grew up watching a bunch of local lads who had come from nothing. Now they are not local any more, they don’t care.” Another football fan said he probably would not go again. “When I used to go as a kid the atmosphere was electric. Now there’s so much money in it, it doesn’t feel real any more.”

Those may not be typical views, and in some respects they are overly harsh. Footballers might be overpaid by any sort of metric that takes in normal jobs or levels of remuneration, but they do not start out as tossers. How they might behave once they are insulated from the rest of society by wealth and celebrity status is a subtly different consideration. Most did not ask to live in gated mansions, they simply ended up there as a result of a natural desire to make the most of their talent.

This is where football is at the moment. It doesn’t seem real any more. Players probably feel it just as much as frustrated or envious spectators. Or perhaps it is the case that after a decade of austerity it is life that seems real, or difficult, or poorly-paid, and football a frivolous exercise in money-squandering. The bottom line is that a dangerous disconnect has built up between football clubs and their communities. Clubs know this, and many have started neighbourhood initiatives or community charities to try to represent themselves as something other than mere visitors from planet wealth.

It is far too simplistic to complain there is too much money in the sport, just as it would be foolhardy to predict an imminent crash, but for most of its existence professional football has been proud to call itself the people’s game. The Premier League can hardly make that claim any longer – more clubs will break their transfer records this summer than will use their money to make admission prices more affordable – and it will not be immune if the people begin to decide it is time to get real.

The Guardian Sport