Manchester City Justify Pep Guardiola’s £130m Spent on Full-Backs

Manchester City’s left-back Benjamin Mendy bursts past Daryl Janmaat of Watford during the visitors 6-0 win at Vicarage Road.

Jaws dropped and heads shook when Manchester City spent around £130m on three full-backs this summer. In financial terms that sum meant little to City’s infinitely rich Abu Dhabi rulers. But on the pitch the sense of those investments is becoming clear. They nearly complete City’s team.

The two most expensive of those full-backs, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, each cost more than £50m, about double what City paid Real Madrid for the third, Danilo. Walker and Mendy could not be deployed together for the first few matches of this campaign because of injury and suspension, but they have started City’s last three games and the opposition have paid a heavy price. Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford have been demolished by a combined score of 15-0.

In those matches Mendy and Walker dominated their flanks, flying up and down relentlessly in a way that showed “full-back” to be an outdated label. They also showed how far past it last season’s counterparts were, once-fine performers such as Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov having become creaking thirty-somethings unable to contribute like the new thrusters.

“[Mendy and Walker] are having a big impact, Danilo too,” says Pep Guardiola. “They are young – Mendy is 23 and Kyle (27) is also young enough. They have huge energy to go up and it stretches our play and means we can have more players in the middle to do the short passes. I like our passes to be three, four, five or six metres, no more than that. It gives us continuity. We create spaces in behind and you need players in those positions. Without these signings it would have been more complicated.”

Guardiola’s description of the impact was particularly accurate at Vicarage Road, as Mendy and Walker’s raids enabled Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva to flit in-field as they pleased. The pair tormented the hosts. De Bruyne, mind you, is evidently exempt from his manager’s six-metre guideline, his visionary short- and long-range passing making him a marvellous law unto himself.

Silva, too, conjures at will. His cross from the left led to Nicolás Otamendi nodding in City’s fourth goal at Watford. With Sergio Agüero scoring a hat-trick, creating a goal for Gabriel Jesus and allowing Raheem Sterling to convert a late penalty, the hosts were overwhelmed despite not playing badly. City could have hit double figures.

For all that, City have also benefitted from other factors during their recent run: Liverpool were weakened by the sending-off of Sadio Mané, and Watford were missing their first-choice centre-backs through injury and complained, correctly, that two of City’s first three goals should have been disallowed for offside. Those are important details even if it can feel like nitpicking to point them out given how formidable City have seemed. Similarly, the fact that Watford hinted at lingering problems in City’s central defence when they threatened from a couple of late set-pieces does not mean that Guardiola’s team did not deserve to win heavily. But the Catalan knows his team are not perfect. “After this [win at Watford] it looks like ‘oh no, we cannot improve. But of course we can improve! There are still movements and actions we can improve.”

Guardiola notes the progress from last season but also knows that the biggest gauge so far of how much they have improved will come at the end of this month, when they travel to Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte’s team beat City home and away on their way to the title last season.

“I think we have made steps forward,” he says. “Last season we did not win a game away in the Champions League and now we have done that. We won a lot of games away in the Premier League [12 out of 19] but this kind of performance [against Watford] we did not see. We will see when we go to face last season’s champions what our level is.”

(The Gurdian)

Premier League at 25: the Best Player – Eric Cantona

London- We can’t be putting Tina Turner on for just any old hero, nor merely for the most skilful. And the toughest, longest-lasting or most prolific can go whistle because only one player can be serenaded as simply the best and it must be the one who has done more than any other to shape the Premier League years. Show us another player who has radiated as much influence as Eric Cantona and we will show you a figment of your imagination.

The rebranding of English football’s First Division as the Premier League coincided with the dawn of Manchester United’s imperial age. Before that they had been champions seven times in 89 years; since then they have won 13 of 25 available titles. There is a fair chance that followers of Manchester’s red team would be (much less numerous and) still harking back to the black-and-white era if it were not for Cantona, the enigma who exploded doubt.

When Cantona moved from Leeds United to Old Trafford in November 1992 the sole certainty was that it was shocking. Even Alex Ferguson could not believe his luck when United’s chance inquiry about buying the Frenchman did not result in the Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson slamming down the phone. Cantona had joined Leeds only the previous February but was already an idol to the Elland Road faithful. His panache and strength of will had helped the Yorkshire club to hold off Manchester United to win the last title before the introduction of the Premier League and he then scored the first hat‑trick of the newfangled top flight when Leeds thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 just a couple of weeks after his three goals in the Charity Shield victory against Liverpool.

But Wilkinson, who had acted decisively to sign Cantona when Sheffield Wednesday dithered, was not convinced that a game could be built around a player whom he saw as a wild card. Wilkinson is the last English manager to win the title but must also be remembered for his unwitting contribution to Ferguson’s survival and the transformation of Leeds’ arch-rivals into the Premier League’s dominant force. Leeds got £1.2m from the Cantona deal, and a queasy feeling that may never fully heal.

But the transfer was mostly about Ferguson’s gut. There were, in fairness to Wilkinson, good grounds for believing Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford might have worked out another way and destabilised Ferguson’s team. The player had more baggage than a travelling circus and his stays at clubs tended to be short and spectacular before ending with someone getting a face full of custard pie. Even United players had concerns, Lee Sharpe summing them up by blurting: “Yeah, right, the bloke’s a total nutter.”

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But Ferguson, under pressure to deliver the title in his seventh year in charge, erred on the side of adventure. “I’m not interested in all the tittle‑tattle … we all have to remember that he is a truly gifted player.”

United were eighth when Cantona strode in and were finding goals hard to come by. Dion Dublin, the striker signed the previous summer, was out with a broken leg and United could not persuade Sheffield Wednesday to sell David Hirst. It was unclear how Cantona would fit into the team; in the end Ferguson sort of sacrificed his son to make way for the Frenchman, Darren’s run of starts for United coming to an end after Cantona’s arrival, as, with Bryan Robson injured, Brian McClair dropped into midfield so the newcomer could be deployed up front with Mark Hughes.

In Cantona’s first start United beat the league leaders Norwich City 1-0. He scored in each of his next four matches, including a 4-1 victory against Tottenham. But it was a pass against Spurs that demonstrated his most precious contribution to United: his flipped chip with the outside of his right foot to Denis Irwin for United’s second goal in that game encapsulated how he freed his team-mates from the anxiety that had hobbled them, inspiring them with his conviction that together they could be great.

“He just had that aura and presence,” said Paul Ince. “He took responsibility away from us. It was like he said: ‘I’m Eric, and I’m here to win the title for you.’”

United went on to win their first title since 1967 by 10 points. Then they signed Roy Keane to give Cantona an even more solid platform on which to perform. They won the league again, with Cantona their top scorer despite missing five matches through suspension. He also scored twice in the FA Cup final win against Chelsea and was named PFA player of the year. And he underperformed in Europe, establishing another recurring trend for Premier League teams.

Cantona’s impact on the next season’s title race was sensational in a different way. United were chasing down the upstarts at the top of the table, Blackburn Rovers, when a red mist descended on Cantona and he jumped into the crowd at Selhurst Park to dispense street justice. Later, in a more formal procedure, the FA hit him with an eight-month ban. Nerves infected a United team shorn of their strutting leader and they allowed Blackburn to creep over the line for the title.

When Cantona returned from his ban, against Liverpool the following October, he brought back the certainty. He created one goal and scored another in a 2-2 draw. And when he returned to Selhurst Park for the first time since his kung-fu lesson, he scored twice in a United victory. His temper may have been brittle but his mentality was to conquer. In the second half of the 1995‑96 season, United won five matches 1-0, Cantona scoring the decisive goal each time. He demanded a big stage to hog. After the title was clinched he completed the Double by scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final against Liverpool.

It was no surprise when Cantona, after being given the armband to go with his guru role, led United to the 1996‑97 title, the fourth in his five years at the club. But his next step was a shock. A week after lifting his latest crown, Cantona, aged 30, announced that he was retiring from football forthwith. No one had seen it coming. But his work was done. He had proved that he and United could be masters of their own destiny.

The Guardian Sport

Tiemoué Bakayoko: A Deft Midfield Monster Who Could Become a Superstar at Chelsea

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London- There was a period not so long ago when Chelsea could have looked at Monaco’s midfield and congratulated themselves on their foresight, since Tiemoué Bakayoko was being kept out of the French club’s starting lineup by another youngster who was on Chelsea’s books and still is.

Mario Pasalic, a Germany-born Croatia international six months older than Bakayoko, has belonged to Chelsea since joining from Hajduk Split three years ago but has yet to contest a single game for them. Instead, like most of the speculative investments in Chelsea’s vast player portfolio, he has been rented out to others via a series of loan moves, including one the season before last to Monaco, where for the first several months of the campaign he was regularly chosen ahead of the player on whom Chelsea have just splurged a fee that could rise to £39.7m.

That is not to say Chelsea would have been better advised to put more trust in Pasalic, who may leave Stamford Bridge for good this summer. Rather the point is to underline that it is never easy to know how young players are going to develop. At 22 Pasalic is a handy player who did well again on loan at Milan last season and looks likely to have a fine career. Bakayoko, meanwhile, has become more than that, a deft monster who can stomp or glide through top‑class midfields and could be heading for superstar status. That evolution owes much to Bakayoko’s slightly tardy awakening and the influence of a former Chelsea midfielder, Claude Makelele.

Back when Pasalic was getting picked ahead of him, Bakayoko seemed to be at risk of being written off at Monaco. The club, who are among Europe’s shrewdest recruiters and developers, bought the player as a 19-year-old from Rennes for around £6m in 2014 but a year later the manager, Leonardo Jardim, had become exasperated by the midfielder’s failure to progress. That feeling began to form pretty fast after the player’s infamous debut in August 2014, when Jardim surprisingly selected Bakayoko to start against Lorient ahead of the club captain, Jérémy Toulalan, only to rescind the vote of confidence after 32 minutes and haul off the floundering, furious teenager.

It was more than two months before Bakayoko started another match and, thereafter, the rest of his season was marred by injury, inconsistency and a relationship between player and manager that Bakayoko admitted was “a little broken”. Bakayoko felt he was being treated unfairly while the manager believed the player was not helping himself, occasionally turning up late for meetings and not always training with full intensity.

Bakayoko, who was rejected by France’s prestigious Clairefontaine academy at 14 partially because a school report suggested he was hard work, but who recovered to make great strides at Rennes, was going through another awkward phase. That pattern continued into the next season, when Pasalic, rather than Bakayoko, tended to play in the position vacated by Geoffrey Kondogbia, sold to Internazionale.

In January 2016 Monaco appointed Makelele as technical director and the former midfielder made nurturing Bakayoko one of his missions. That was the right influence at the right time because Bakayoko had realised he needed to focus more and had got in touch with one of his former mentors at Rennes, Yannick Menu, to ask for advice. If Menu was the gentle guide, Makelele was merciless. “He needs confidence but in order to be consistent in his performances he also sometimes needs to be straightened out, jolted,” Menu later explained. “He can slip into a comfort zone very quickly because Tiemoué is a peaceful person, not a rager.”

Bakayoko, encouraged by Menu and challenged by Makelele, resolved to get the best out of himself: no longer could his attitude in training be questioned and he enrolled in boxing classes and began to follow a strict diet. He added muscle to his tall frame and consistency to his game. He suffered fewer injuries, became cursedly difficult to shunt off the ball and loped with it dangerously from box to box. Quickly he became essential to Monaco. When he overwhelmed Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta in central midfield as Monaco beat Paris Saint-Germain early last season, it was a powerful indication of the campaign that was to come from player and team, a beautiful stride towards the fulfilment of extraordinary potential.

That victory against PSG was also especially satisfying for a Paris-born player who had failed a trial at his hometown club at the age of 11 but likes to wear the No14 as a tribute to the arrondissement in which he grew up in France’s capital city. His parents are Ivorian and, if Didier Deschamps had not awarded him his first senior cap in March, Bakayoko might have ended up playing internationally for the same country as the player he has always said he would like to resemble, Yaya Touré.

There are similarities between the styles of the two players but Bakayoko will need to start scoring regularly before any comparison becomes tolerable. But then Touré took a little time earlier in his career to be seen as an unstoppable attacking force and, indeed, once endured a patchy season at Monaco. Bakayoko’s role at Monaco even during his marvellous last season made him the least attacking midfielder in an exceptionally offence-oriented side. Bakayoko, one feels, can get even better. He could prove a spectacular addition to Chelsea if he is encouraged to add goals to his game under the relentless prodding of Antonio Conte.

Since you’re here …

The Guardian sport

David Wagner Sticks With Huddersfield Town For Premier League Adventure

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London- Huddersfield Town’s preparations for their first top-flight campaign in 45 years got the ideal boost on Friday when the manager who led them to the Premier League, David Wagner, pledged his future to the club despite receiving more lucrative offers.

The German signed a contract extension that should keep him at the club until 2019. The Huddersfield chairman, Dean Hoyle, vowed not to sack him even if they are relegated next season. “Yes, he stays,” Hoyle said. “Unless he buggers off.”

Wagner had several opportunities to do just that even before Huddersfield’s triumph in the Championship play-off final, with Aston Villa and Wolfsburg among clubs who tried to entice him.

Wagner turned down such offers in order to see Huddersfield’s promotion push through to its conclusion but he admitted on Friday he thought, fleetingly, that the aftermath of that sensational play-off win at Wembley, when they beat Reading in a penalty shootout, might have been a good moment to bid farewell.

“At first I thought maybe this is the best moment to say: ‘Thank you very much, always when we see each other in our lives, we will celebrate together,’” he said before explaining why that thought did not last. “I always had the feeling in the last 18 months that I had an owner on my side that I really trust. He really wants to keep me at this club. I don’t have to play a role here. I can be exactly the man I am as a person and a manager.

“I think we have one of the best owners in British football, a local man and fan who supports you with everything he’s able to do. This is not something you should leave only because you have a better financial offer. And I like the people here, I like my team. I am such a happy man because I have a new challenge and still the same people around me. Nothing is better than that.”

Huddersfield are determined to ensure that Wagner remains surrounded by people he trusts: on Friday his assistant, Christoph Bühler, also signed a new contract and the club paid a record fee of £8m to Manchester City, rising to a possible £10m, to complete the permanent transfer of Aaron Mooy, who was the linchpin of Huddersfield’s midfield while on loan there last season. “Aaron Mooy is probably one of the lowest-risk signings we will make because we know him,” said Hoyle. “It was actually a no-brainer.”

The amount paid for Mooy eclipsed the record set only last week when the Belgian striker Laurent Depoitre joined from Porto for £3.5m. Hoyle said the club intend to make “lots of signings” before they kick off their season away to Crystal Palace on 12 August. “We need to spend some big money because the Premier League riches are there for everyone to see,” said the chairman. “The first season we’ve got the ability to really shape our squad for the future and bring in some real quality, high-profile signings.

“We may break our transfer record a few times but that’s the league we’re in. We’re in the biggest and richest league in the world with the most exposure and we’re a part of it and we’ll try to compete. It’s all exciting and we can really drive forward while remaining mindful of the down side.”

The chairman hopes all recruits will have similar moral fibre to Christopher Schindler, who joined this time last year after Huddersfield paid £1.8m, a fee unheard of for them at the time. The centre-back repaid that with immaculate performances throughout last season before scoring the decisive penalty at Wembley.

“On the evening after it, I said: ‘Chris, why did you take the last penalty? I’ve never seen you take a penalty before,’” recalled Hoyle. “He said to me: ‘You paid more money for me than you’ve paid for anyone else in this club so I had a duty to give a bit of value back to you.’ I just thought: ‘Wow, what a man.’ That just epitomises everything about the team spirit here, that sense of duty and togetherness.”

Huddersfield have agreed terms with the Montpellier striker Steve Mounié, whose transfer will be completed if he passes a medical. The Terriers are also hopeful of prising the winger Tom Ince from Derby County and are vying with West Bromwich Albion for the affections of the Italy centre-back Andre Ranocchia. The loan signing of the Danish international goalkeeper Jonas Lössl from Mainz was completed on Friday after Jürgen Klopp told him he wants to keep Danny Ward at Liverpool rather than let him spend another season on loan at Huddersfield.

Wagner and Klopp have been close friends for many years but the Huddersfield manager is not expecting the Liverpool manager to be able to do him many favours next season. “The clubs are not comparable so there is not the possibility that he can give me a lot of advice or I can give him a lot of advice,” said Wagner. “For sure we will speak about the experience he has had in games against Team X and I will tell him about my experience when we play Team Z, but this will be the only help we can give each other. These are two totally different clubs.”

Not that Wagner is worried. Bookmakers may have installed Huddersfield as favourites to be relegated but, after gaining promotion on a paltry budget by Championship standards, Wagner is looking forward to fighting against the odds again. “We are probably the biggest underdog ever in the Premier League but it doesn’t change our ambitions. We are not in the Premier League only to say hello and after one season it’s done. We want to stay more seasons. We know where we are, where we come from, but we will work as hard as we can. I have a very good feeling even if I know there is a difficult task in front of us.’

Guardian Sport

Claude Puel a Victim of Southampton’s Admirably Unreasonable Expectations

Oriol Romeu, here taking to the turf to battle with Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez, was among the Southampton players who had the best season of their careers under Claude Puel.

Southampton’s sacking of Claude Puel is not entirely fair on the Frenchman but the club reckon they could do better, which, in the Premier League, is fair enough. There is no guarantee that Southampton’s next manager will do as well as Puel did but the club’s rulers have decided, ruthlessly and with a boldness born of their strong record, to try to find a manager who will rise to the formidable challenge of guiding the team higher and generating a happier buzz around the place. It will be some trick if Southampton pull it off again. Especially if they sell key players. Again.

Nigel Adkins would disagree but there is entertainment to be had in the way Southampton strive to find better managers even at the risk of making fools of themselves, demanding that gaffers be close to supernatural rather than merely good. And to think, people say they lack ambition.

Southampton may accept (without wishing to have it rubbed in their faces by, let’s say, Liverpool) that some players and managers see them as a stepping stone to even grander things, but that does not mean the club have abandoned hope of reaching higher ground. Whether they let top people go willingly or grudgingly, they always back their ability to source someone better. They don’t aways get it right but they’ve proven to be cannier than most.

Puel did not fall short of the reasonable expectations that Southampton could have had when they appointed him less than a year ago, he just failed to meet their admirably unreasonable ones. In his credit column after his solitary season in charge there is a not-to-be-sniffed-at eighth place in the Premier League and a marvelous run in the EFL Cup, in which Southampton overcame four top-flight teams, including Liverpool and Arsenal, without conceding a goal before losing unluckily in the final to Manchester United. That was Southampton’s first appearance in a major final for 14 years.

Several players enjoyed the best season of their careers under Puel, such as Oriol Romeu, James-Ward Prowse, Nathan Redmond, Cédric Soares and, at a stretch, Maya Yoshida. The Frenchman was headhunted partially because of his aptitude for rearing young players and he did that pretty well on the south coast, with Jack Stephens, Sam McQueen and Josh Sims making memorable impacts on the first team.

Those achievements came despite a series of unfortunate events that might have horrified even Lemony Snicket. Puel lost his first signing, Jérémy Pied, to a long-term injury on the first day of the season, then in December lost his only reliable goalscorer, Charlie Austin, to injury for several months and then his first-choice centre-backs (his captain, José Fonte, defecting to West Ham in January and his best player, Virgil van Dijk, suffering a season-ending injury soon afterwards). Throw in shorter-term injuries to players such as Ryan Bertrand and Manolo Gabbiadini and it is clear that Southampton’s results could have been far worse.

But one can imagine them being better, too. Southampton finished just one place away from qualifying for Europe again but actually they were miles off. As the top six teams soared away only Everton grasped at their coat-tails; below that everyone bunched together in a low-brow sprawl, Southampton being just six points above 17th-placed Watford. Southampton finished only two places lower than the previous year but gathered 17 points fewer. That was no surprise after the top clubs strengthened – partially by buying Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama from Southampton, and the Saints drafted in replacements who have mostly looked inferior so far. But that does not make it an acceptable state of affairs to Southampton’s peculiar and demanding regime.

The ugliest entry in Puel’s debit column was Southampton’s Europa League campaign. After embarrassing themselves on the continent two years ago under Ronald Koeman, the club had high hopes of making a better impression under Puel – who took Lyon to the semi-final of the Champions League – and Southampton did enjoy a couple of satisfying wins over Sparta Prague and Internazionale. But ultimately they flopped out of the competition like rumbled impostors, eliminated at the group stage by a 1-1 home draw with Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Southampton’s approach to that game was damnable, as they initially played against their humdrum visitors as if aiming for the 0-0 draw that would have put them through.

Southampton often played snappily and cleverly under Puel but accusations that excessive caution was cramping their style became more frequent as the season wore on. Puel was unable to rebut those allegations during the run-in, as his team failed to score in their last five home matches. They ended the campaign with a paltry 41 goals from 38 league games, with only the bottom five teams scoring fewer. Again it seems harsh to scold the manager alone for that because part of the reason he tightened up the team was to offset the loss of his best defenders and, more significantly, some of the club’s forwards are incorrigibly erratic, especially when Austin and Gabbiadini are absent. Even when Puel’s team tore through Burnley in October and fired off 34 shots – more than any other Premier League team in any match since 2003 – they managed to win only 3-1.

In Puel’s previous job he inspired Nice to surpass expectations with much pizzazz. At Southampton he generally failed to do that despite the EFL Cup exploits and, accordingly, he achieved only a par performance. Which, paradoxically, is not good enough for Southampton.

What is more, and contrary to the cliche, football management is not only a results business. The troublesome thing for managers of mid-ranking teams is that the farther they get from challenging for the title or European qualification, the higher fans’ demands get for entertainment, at least. Critically, Puel failed to give the impression that he was building towards something more exciting. He did not connect with enough people.

Puel would flunk the entrance exam to the Jürgen Klopp or David Wagner School of Charismatic Speaking. Southampton must have known that when they enlisted him but evidently they still hoped he would create a positive dynamic. It turned out that he could not get through to some players, as too many of them became irritated by his rotation policy, seemingly unconvinced that rationing their workload was in their best interests. Similarly, too many fans suspected Puel’s instincts were negative even though the core message he tried to impart to his players from his very first match – a home draw against Watford during which he railed furiously from the sidelines – was, according to Romeu, “to be braver and to take responsibility and be happy out there”. Ultimately, it did not look as if enough of his players were able to do that as often as demanded. But by jilting Puel, the club’s rulers have followed that instruction.

(The Guardian)

Jordan Pickford: A Unique Success Story in Falling Sunderland

Jordan Pickford will not decide on his club future until after England U21s’ European Championship campaign. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

When a furious Jordan Pickford conceded a goal during a training exercise with England’s Under-21’s at St George’s Park this week, he whacked and burst one of the inflatable mannequins that had been put up to complicate the strikers’ route to goal. “I just don’t like conceding,” he explains with an endearing chuckle. There was an obvious quip that could have been made about being accustomed to it after a campaign behind the dummies in Sunderland’s defense but his club’s relegation is no lighthearted matter for the 23-year-old.

Pickford is still hurt by his hometown team’s fall from the Premier League even if things are looking up for him personally, with his acclaimed performances throughout the season likely to result in offers from several top-flight clubs waiting for him when he gets back from this month’s European Under-21 Championship, from which he is confident of returning as a winner.

“It’s hard to take that I got relegated with Sunderland and it’ll always be hard to take but I’m mentally strong,” says Pickford, who has been on the club’s books since he was eight. “[The impact of relegation] is massive – 40-odd people lost their jobs throughout the season and financially it’s not ideal for the whole club. For me, having grown up and been there since I was a kid, seeing people you’ve known for a long time losing their jobs, it’s not nice. But I feel like as a team and staff behind the scenes we did the best we could do and it was just unfortunate that we never got the results we needed.”

Of course it was more than misfortune that caused Sunderland to finish bottom of the table but the failure was certainly not the fault of Pickford, whose excellence earned him a place on the shortlist for the PFA young player of the year award. It is fair to say promoting Pickford to No1 rather than buying a more experienced goalkeeper when Sunderland’s first choice, Vito Mannone, was injured in August was one of the few decisions David Moyes got right during a miserable campaign.

“He has been great, to give me that experience,” says Pickford. “There was a lot of talk about certain keepers coming in, like Joe Hart, but the manager just brought in a No2/No3 [Mika, from Benfica] and gave me the opportunity. It was top drawer, really. I was a young lad thrown in at the deep end but I felt ready for it.”

His description of how he became ready for it begins with a memory from his early childhood, when his brother Richard, six years his senior, would invite him to kickabouts with the instruction: “Get on the tarmac and dive about lad.” He went on to hone his talent in the more formal surrounds of Sunderland’s academy and then, after turning professional in 2011, spent loan stints at a variety of Football League clubs, most recently at Preston North End in the 2015-16 season, when he kept 14 clean sheets in 30 matches. “That was proving that I was good enough,” he says with the confidence he has gained from working his way up steadily.

Another sign of that confidence, and his readiness, was the way he hollered instructions at veteran defenders as soon as he was thrust into Sunderland’s first team. “Around the place I’m just myself really but as soon as you cross that white line I feel it’s my job and I’m here to do it and get the lads going,” he says. “You don’t do it nastily, you do it to help the lads in front of you and you know you’re doing it when they look round and give you the thumbs up or, after the game, they bring up something you’ve done well and that you’ve saved a goal by talking.”

Pickford is all about the bottom line. The saves he cherishes most are not the most acrobatic or difficult ones but the ones that matter most. “I go back to the [Peter] Schmeichel thing: you save it how you have to, any way that you can. Technique goes out the window sometimes.” So his favorite stop in his career was the close-range one he made to prevent Leicester City’s Wes Morgan from equalizing in the sixth minute of stoppage time at the Stadium of Light in December. “It wasn’t an unbelievable save, it was just the timing of the game,” he says. “A match-winning save and we thought that win might have got us going.”

The win did not get Sunderland going – they were battered 3-0 by Swansea City a week later – but it lengthened Pickford’s list of admirers. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have been mentioned as potential destinations for him this summer. He admits to being torn about the possibility of having to choose between staying at his hometown club or heading back up to the Premier League, where his talent suggests he belongs. “Ideally it would have been better if we had stayed up; my heart is massive towards the club,” he says. “It’s a hard one, really. What will be will be.”

He has resolved not to think about it until after the European Championship. England kick off their campaign on Friday against the holders, Sweden, before completing their group fixtures against Slovakia and the hosts, Poland. “The Euros is massive for me and a lot of the other players. I don’t want to be getting distracted and I am really excited for it. We have got a chance to win it with the squad we have got. We have come this far, we have to get out of the group first but we are capable of doing that easily. We will see where we go from there.”

(The Guardian)

N’Golo Kanté’s Relentless Drive Takes Him to Historic Title Double

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London – The most misleading scene of this season came in late September, 40 minutes into Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Chelsea at the Emirates. Mesut Özil, facing his own goal about 10 yards outside Arsenal’s penalty area, sensed N’Golo Kanté bearing down on him and deftly rolled the would-be ambusher before galloping forward.

As he approached the Chelsea area, the German exchanged passes with Alexis Sánchez before sending a bobbly volley into the net from 12 yards. Kanté had tried to keep pace with Özil but ran as if towing a ship. Even the referee, Michael Oliver, overtook the Frenchman. Something was badly wrong.

Fast-forward seven and a half months and that all seems like a false memory. Arsenal are sputtering glumly in Chelsea’s wake, Özil is again accused of diffidence and Kanté is hailed as the Premier League’s most dynamic performer, voted the Player’s Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. He has become the first outfield player since Eric Cantona to win back‑to-back top-flight titles in England with two different clubs (the goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer also achieved that feat with Chelsea and Leicester City but was a reserve who seldom played for either).

In many respects the two Frenchmen, Kanté and Cantona, could not be more different. The latter was a flamboyant artist whose greatest work came when he found a way to marry his team’s need to conquer with his own instinct to subvert and be vindicated. His blend of precision, flair, composure and volatility requiring careful handling.

Kanté plays with no swagger and almost without an ego. He is so self-effacing in the dressing room that team-mates say they sometimes do not even notice him. But everyone notices the 26-year-old on the pitch. He is impossible to miss because he is everywhere, harassing opponents, piecing together moves and covering more ground than Google maps. He did so much work for Leicester last season that Claudio Ranieri said they lost two players in the summer when Chelsea bought him for £32m. Leicester fans used to refer to him as “the Kanté twins”.

The embarrassment at the hands of Arsenal was a turning point in Chelsea’s season because it forced Antonio Conte to make changes that, among other benefits, enabled Kanté’s influence to grow. Before that the raggedness of Chelsea’s defence, especially the slowness of their right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, imposed demands for coverage that were excessive even for Kanté.

He had been able to make a 4-4-2 system work for Leicester when outnumbered in midfield because they, at least, had a rigid defence. Chelsea’s shift to using three centre-backs and a pair of mobile wing-backs allowed Kanté to concentrate his massive efforts sensibly. Sensible for him, that is; most other players do not have the vim and intelligence to dominate as he does.

It is rare in the Premier League that a player is so much better than his peers at a particular aspect of the game that he resembles an adult playing in an under-age tournament. Yaya Touré could give that impression in his prime, swotting away opponents as if they were Lilliputians as he marauded forward from midfield. There are speedsters such as Jamie Vardy who can leave defenders spinning helplessly.

But no one other than Kanté sets opponents aquiver just by his relentless capacity to dispossess them and be where they mean to be and do what they want to do. He does not merely overrun them, he squats their minds. Many must have felt as if they had no choice but to vote for him as Player of the Year. That is a brilliant achievement for a man who was not schooled in any academy, having been rejected by several in France before turning professional with Caen at the age of 22.

Kanté’s departure from Leicester was the key transfer of last summer, being integral to the champions’ collapse and Chelsea’s renaissance and the player has evolved since his move. Because Chelsea tend to have much more possession than Leicester did, Kanté has not needed to tackle so much this season (but has still done so more than anyone else except for Everton’s Idrissa Gueye) or make as many interceptions (he has made half as many as he did last season, although he is still in the top five in the Premier League for that, too).

He has, on the other hand, made far more passes, not simply to deliver the ball to more creative team-mates in the way that Claude Makelele used to at Stamford Bridge, but also to undo defences himself. His beautifully executed pass to Pedro in the buildup to Chelsea’s third goal in January’s 3-0 win at Leicester demonstrated the evolution neatly.

There is still scope for Kanté to improve. Conte says his passing can be honed further and he could develop more composure in the box, his jagged thrust and finish against Manchester United in October being his only league goal of the campaign.

Most of all, he needs to show he can maintain his influence while competing in Europe as well as domestically. Playing in the Champions League is a privilege that he is yet to enjoy, a test that he is yet to endure.

Next season will be the most challenging of Kanté’s career. He has risen to every one he has faced so far. Another title is certainly not out of the question for the Premier League’s Mr Relentless.

The Guardian Sport

Uefa Must Cut Out the Slapstick, Play Straight Role in Helping Referees

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London – It would be a great service indeed if Uefa ditched the Champions League anthem for the remainder of this season’s competition and replaced it with Dance of the Cuckoos, the theme tune from Laurel and Hardy. The players could still line up and listen to it with awed reverence, of course, because that would provide an amusing and instantly shareable meme for folks wishing to illustrate the contrast between what the competition purports to be and the farce that it often is.

The quarter-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich was trailed as a high-brow duel that would offer the thrills of a blockbuster and the substance of an art-house classic. Instead it risks being remembered as a goofy skit splattered with decisions so spectacularly wrong as to provoke a physical workout, being at once breathtakingly, eye-poppingly and thigh-slappingly rum.

The game was afflicted by so many significant distortions – such as Artur Vidal’s unearned red card and Cristiano Ronaldo’s bogus goal – that Real’s victory belongs in the same category as Barcelona’s tainted comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, which might not have happened if not for rampant diving by the players and decisions made by officials who performed as if freshly graduated from the School of Rough Guesses.

Real’s victory came on the same night as their neighbour, Atlético Madrid, progressed to the semi-final by beating Leicester City 2-1 on aggregate, the first goal coming from a penalty awarded for a foul outside the box. That, too, was a significant distortion, although at least Marc Albrighton was not sent off, unlike Andreas Beck, who was dismissed during Besiktas’ defeat against Dynamo Kyiv in the group stages for a challenge made outside the box – and made on him, to boot.

Whether or not we agree with Arsène Wenger’s suggestion that Arsenal might not have lost to Bayern Munich, let alone by 10-2, if the right decisions had been made when it came to red cards and penalties, it is clear that this season’s Champions League has been devalued by a succession of flamboyantly wrong decisions.

It is not just the Champions League, of course. On Sunday, Ross County were able to nick a late equaliser against Celtic thanks to a penalty awarded when Alex Schalk’s audition for the RAF Falcons parachute display team was mistaken for a foul. And earlier this month the referee Keith Stroud was given a 28-day suspension for awarding a free-kick to Burton Albion instead of ordering Newcastle to retake a penalty after encroachment by Dwight Gayle.

Stroud’s case is different to the other examples because he was punished for not knowing or momentarily forgetting the law he was supposed to be enforcing, the law being an ass is no defence, although an ass it certainly is in this instance – why, after all, should a team be allowed to retake a penalty kick after encroaching? In the other instances the referees could plausibly claim that any mistake they made was due to more pardonable shortcomings to do with the difficulty of seeing every movement precisely when trying to keep track of several bodies and a ball all at once.

There is no error that a human cannot make. That, basically, has been the excuse of football’s governing bodies for decades. It has been years since that excuse has been acceptable. For a long time the refusal to use technology to help eradicate mistakes amounted to a suspicious dereliction of duty. Why would the authorities choose to leave matches so exposed to human fallibility when they know that that also leaves matches more vulnerable to human venality?

Anyone who has watched football for a while is likely to have seen decisions even more blatantly incorrect than the one made by the Ghanaian referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey during November’s World Cup qualifier against Senegal, when Kalidou Koulibaly had a penalty given against him for handball even though it was obvious to most onlookers that the ball had hit his legs. Fifa gave that referee a life ban last month but has yet to explain fully why. We could try to guess but what we are after is accuracy and transparency.

So let us be thankful that soon there will be more clarity in refereeing thanks to the increased use of technology. Following successful trials, such as in the recent France-Spain friendly when correct decisions were made on two goals following referral to an official watching replays in a truck behind the stand, video-assisted refereeing will be introduced in several competitions next season, including the FA Cup and the Bundesliga. And Tuesday’s fiasco at the Bernabéu has even got Uefa to thinking that it should finally be seen to do its utmost to ensure accurate decisions are made in the competition it trumpets most loudly.

Technology should ensure that more correct decisions are made but is no guarantee of perfection. Earlier this season the HawkEye system used in Serie A led to a goal alert being wrongly sent to the officials in charge of the Sampdoria-Genoa match after the ball hit the crossbar and bounced down well short of the line. Media reports blamed a short-circuit.

Several weeks later in France something similar happened in the Bordeaux-Rennes match – a representative of the manufacturer, GoalControl, was later quoted in Le Monde explaining that the machine may have malfunctioned after being confused by the goalkeeper’s fluorescent yellow jersey. Fortunately on both occasions the contraptions were over-ruled by the referees, who had their wits about them and struck blows for justice and the most old-fashioned of devices, the human eyes. But we don’t want to keep relying on them alone.

Video-assisted refereeing would limit the number of slapstick routines in matches and reduce the chances of every Champions League game descending into another fine mess.

The Guardian Sport

Arsène Wenger Declares himself still a Leader Full of Cheer and Fight

Mentally very jaded? Not Arsène Wenger, apparently. The manager did his utmost to suggest that his description of his players’ mindset during their collapse at Bayern Munich did not apply to him, as he emphatically declared that he intends to continue managing – although not necessarily at Arsenal.

That caveat is, of course, deeply significant. The thing is, no one other than Wenger can be certain of what it means. It was the first time that the Frenchman has openly entertained the notion of leaving the club that has become his kingdom over the last 20 years.

So perhaps a degree of weariness has, in fact, taken hold of him? Or maybe he is coming to grips with the realization that staying on his throne beyond this season would risk escalating the revolt of supporters who once viewed him universally as the most benign and enlightened of dictators but now see him as an obsolete ruler who needs to abdicate or be ousted.

On the other hand, maybe mentioning the possibility of coaching elsewhere was intended to jolt fans who have been complaining about being sick and tired of Wenger.

“Arsène Knows” used to be said with triumphant reverence by Arsenal fans but now the fact that he works in mysterious ways grates on the increasing number who see him as a fallen idol. Having said that, although his end-game remained murky, his immediate intention could not have been clearer: 36 hours after his latest humiliation in Munich, Wenger strode forth with the objective of proving that, for now at least, he remains a leader full of cheer and fight.

He was no longer the haggard figure who appeared on screen after Wednesday’s ordeal in Germany, when an agonizing Martin Keown, perhaps his most reluctant critic, suggested that the manager had reached “his lowest point”. Back then Wenger looked so haunted by the realization that his life’s work is unlikely to end as he wished, that people who know the 67-year-old well detected an unprecedented inclination to limit damage to his legacy by slipping gently into retirement. But now Wenger sought to chase away that notion with hearty vim. “No matter what happens I will manage next season, whether here or somewhere else,” he said, a man seeming neither jaded nor broken.

He was upbeat and defiant and he talked about upholding team spirit and his values; he was a leader keeping his head while all around him are losing theirs; a Frenchman showing English folk how to maintain a stiff upper lip. It was a consummate performance that nearly made one forget the traumatized figure from the Munich disaster or the fuming oaf who shoved a fourth official at the Emirates only a month ago while giving vent to almost King Lear-esque rage.

But, of course, as he sought to calm choppy waters he left one big doubt lingering. For how long will he keep all this up? He said he would not decide whether to accept Arsenal’s offer of a new two-year contract until March or April. “My personal situation is not important,” he said like a selfless club servant with concern only for the greater good.

On one level that was exasperatingly disingenuous: how could his personal situation not be important to the club when over the last two decades the club and his personal situation have been bound to each other almost like the pope and the Vatican, or Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory?

Given that, is delaying an answer until near the end of the season not the very opposite of selfless? If he intends to leave, surely the most gallant thing to do would be to trigger a kind of Article 50 as early as possible to allow the club to prepare for the momentous change ahead and ensure as successful a post-Wexit Arsenal as possible? Stringing the club along would be the sort of toying an incorrigible tyrant might enjoy.

Alternatively, it could be that Wenger, seemingly a control freak who issues decrees on everything from the menu in Arsenal’s canteen to the number of years Theo Walcott will be given to reach his potential, has decided to delegate authority for making the biggest decision in the club’s recent history.

He intimated that the question of whether he stays or leaves could be answered by the way his team ends the season. That would mean placing his fate in the hands of his players – the players he has been accused of mollycoddling to the point that they cannot think under pressure, the selfie-stars of a dressing room that critics say he has all but cleared of strong characters in order to consolidate his power. Will they – can they? – finally summon the fortitude to show through their performances that the manager who keeps sending them out to play the one true way is not a hopeless case?

It is hard to know quite what, to Wenger, would constitute a compelling argument to stay at this point: would being on course to win the FA Cup and secure a top-four spot suffice again? Or would it take something truly extraordinary this time, such as overturning the first-leg deficit against Bayern or surging past Chelsea at the top of the Premier League?

“Even if I go, Arsenal will not win every single game in the future, we have to accept that,” he said. “If you look at the history of Arsenal, the club had less Champions League games in its history than I had in my career before I came. It’s not like before I arrived Arsenal had won the European Cup five times. They had played maybe 10 games in the whole history.

“So you have to put things into perspective. In the last 20 years only three clubs have played every season in Europe: Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. That means that although everything is not perfect, not all is wrong.”

Why the history lesson? Might it have been a warning to the Wenger Out brigade to be careful what they wish for? Probably it was simply a reminder that, irrespective of what fans want him to do now, Wenger and his future deserve to be debated with respect.

The Guardian

Claudio Ranieri: My Dream Died with Leicester Sacking

Sport

Claudio Ranieri has admitted his “dream died” when he was sacked by Leicester City, with the Italian paying tribute to the supporters for the “amazing adventure” which led to the club being crowned Premier League champions last season for the first time.

As numerous figures, from the Manchester United manager, José Mourinho, to England rugby union’s head coach, Eddie Jones, expressed their solidarity following his departure on Thursday, Ranieri released a statement via the League Managers Association in which he expressed his sadness at leaving the role he had occupied since replacing Nigel Pearson in July 2015.

“Yesterday my dream died,” he said. “After the euphoria of last season and being crowned Premier League champions all I dreamed of was staying with Leicester City, the club I love, for always. Sadly this was not to be. I wish to thank my wife Rosanna and all my family for their never ending support during my time at Leicester.”

He also thanked his agents, Steve Kutner and Franco Granello, for “bringing me the opportunity to become a champion”, and added his appreciation for backroom staff members Paolo Benetti and Andrea Azzalin, who departed with him.

“Mostly I have to thank Leicester City Football Club. The adventure was amazing and will live with me forever,” Ranieri said.

“Thank you to all the journalists and the media who came with us and enjoyed reporting on the greatest story in football.

“My heartfelt thanks to everybody at the club, all the players, the staff, everybody who was there and was part of what we achieved. But mostly to the supporters. You took me into your hearts from day one and loved me. I love you too. No one can ever take away what we together have achieved, and I hope you think about it and smile every day the way I always will.

“It was a time of wonderfulness and happiness that I will never forget. It’s been a pleasure and an honour to be a champion with all of you.”

As the Italian cleared out his office at the club’s training ground on Friday, it was left to the caretaker manager, Craig Shakespeare, to deny reports that a mutiny had led to the downfall of the man who only nine months ago oversaw one of the most improbable sporting triumphs in history.

Admitting he felt like “a pantomime villain” as he addressed the media, the 53-year-old, who served as Pearson’s assistant before retaining his role under Ranieri, dismissed speculation that he had fallen out with the manager and was adamant that senior members of the squad which won the Premier League title last season had not urged the club’s owners to make a change only two weeks after the club had offered Ranieri their “unwavering support”. “I can understand why the public would perceive that but hopefully I have allayed those fears that it was pure speculation. There is no foundation to it,” Shakespeare said.

“My relationship always has and always will be fine with Claudio,” said Shakespeare. “ I’ve never had a problem with him and he’s never had a problem with me. I spoke to him on the phone after the news broke and he actually thanked me for my support.”

Shakespeare, who also served as an assistant to Sam Allardyce during his ill-fated spell with England, will take charge of the team for Monday night’s crucial meeting with Liverpool at the King Power Stadium as Leicester attempt to arrest a slide in which they have picked up only one point from six league matches. Roberto Mancini, the former Manchester City manager and an early favourite to replace his compatriot, reportedly distanced himself from the job day, with Shakespeare hinting he could be interested in taking the role permanently.

“My focus is really just to prepare the team for Monday night,” he said. “Do I think I can do the job? Yes. Does it faze me? No. But again, the focus is just on Monday night. I don’t want to appear too bullish. I want to send the right messages to the players. We will have a right go at trying to turn this around.”

Pearson has been linked with a possible return to the King Power but that appears unlikely owing to the circumstances of his departure in June 2015, when the club declared that “the working relationship between Nigel and the board is no longer viable”. Meanwhile Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club chairman, took to Instagram to plead with supporters for their understanding of his decision to sack Ranieri and admitted that Leicester were in “crisis”.

“Thank you to our followers who understand and still support me in any circumstances. What you have seen is only some sides of the club which we can show to the public,” he wrote.

“We have done our best as a management. We do not have only one problem to solve, but there are millions thing to do to make our club survive. I would like to take this crisis situation to thank you all fans, and at the same time I do understand you. I really appreciate for the fans who still (have) love and understanding. And also thanks for the ones who keep complaining to me and the management team. I do understand you too .

“Please respect my decision. I will never let the club down. Seven years of my hard work here, I make the club better and better in every way. No need to talk about money. As you can see. All money goes back to invest in everywhere for the club.”

Jürgen Klopp ranked news of Ranieri’s dismissal alongside Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the most mystifying decisions of recent times, while Jones admitted he was not surprised to see the Italian leave his post. Mourinho, who attended his press conference on Friday with a training top bearing the initials ‘CR’ in “homage” to Ranieri, blamed his departure on the players.

“I thought last season, when I was sacked as a champion, it was a giant, negative thing. Now I recognise it’s peanuts compared to Claudio,” he said.

The Guardian Sport