Gylfi Sigurdsson: Tireless Perfectionist will be Worth the Wait for Everton


London- It turned into one of those dreaded transfer sagas, leaving senior figures at Swansea City and Everton exasperated with the snail’s pace of the discussions to the point that even those on the inside became bored with the story, yet confirmation finally arrived on Tuesday evening that Gylfi Sigurdsson was on his way from the Mumbles to Merseyside for £45m.

The passage of time – more than a month – has arguably diluted some of the excitement at one end and certainly the level of disappointment at the other.

While Everton fans grew tired of waiting and, in some cases, started to question whether Sigurdsson was really worth all that hassle and money, the mood shifted in Swansea once it became clear that the Icelander wanted out and that any significant signings would not be made until the first instalment of the biggest transfer fee in their history had been handed over.

As for Sigurdsson, the man who covered more ground than any other Premier League player last season, 433km to be exact, watched the new season start without him and has not played a match of any description since he wore the captain’s armband in a friendly defeat at Barnet on 12 July, when Swansea assumed that he would be boarding the flight to the United States the next day for the club’s pre-season tour. Sigurdsson had other ideas and informed the club at the team hotel in London, shortly before they were due to depart for the airport, that he was staying at home.

That decision took Paul Clement by surprise and went down badly with Swansea’s supporters. It would be naive to think that Sigurdsson’s actions were all of his own doing – the mechanics behind a transfer are a bit more complicated than that – and it is also true that plenty of players have behaved in the same way to force through a move. With Sigurdsson, however, Swansea thought it would be different.

A quiet man in the dressing room, Sigurdsson was always seen as a model professional, inspiring those around him with his performances and commanding the respect of players and staff with his dedication on the training ground. He was something of a reluctant hero at Swansea – an image stays in the mind of Sigurdsson on the final day of last season, during the players’ lap of honour, being cajoled by a few of his team-mates to step forward and acknowledge the supporters that were singing his name to the tune of Give it Up by KC and The Sunshine Band.

Four days earlier Sigurdsson had pretty much swept the board at the club’s end-of-season awards dinner, winning players’ player of the year for the second season running, supporters’ player of the year and away supporters’ player of the year. By the end of the evening he looked embarrassed to be spending so much time on the stage.

Kev Johns, the brilliant compere and a fanatical Swansea supporter, saw each on-stage interview as an opportunity to try – tongue-in-cheek – to talk Sigurdsson into staying, at one point jumping on the player’s description of Swansea as a “special club”. With a glint in his eye, Johns said: “You do know it’s not like that everywhere else.” Sigurdsson laughed along with the rest of the guests, yet deep down most people at the Liberty Stadium that night would have suspected that his time in Wales was up.

Certainly plenty of the players thought that was the case after another superb season from a man whose contribution over the past three years at Swansea shines through in the company that he has been keeping when it comes to the statistics that really matter. Sigurdsson has been directly involved in 53 Premier League goals since the start of the 2014-15 season, which as a midfielder is second only to Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.

To provide a bit of context, next on that list after Sigurdsson is Mesut Özil, then Eden Hazard, followed by Cesc Fàbregas, Sadio Mané, Riyad Mahrez, Dele Alli, David Silva and Philippe Coutinho – you get the picture. Ross Barkley, for what it is worth, is down in 13th place. The Everton midfielder, and the man that Sigurdsson has effectively been bought to replace at Goodison Park, has been involved in 20 fewer league goals over the same period.

Now take into consideration the fact that Sigurdsson has been scoring and creating all those goals in a team that has spent the last two seasons fighting relegation and it becomes a little easier to understand why Swansea put a £50m valuation on his head, especially given the sort of transfer fees that have been paid elsewhere in the Premier League this summer and, in some cases, for players that are nothing like as influential.

There is a misconception about Sigurdsson that he is no more than a set-piece expert. Sigurdsson, without question, is brilliant in dead-ball situations. Every direct free-kick within shooting distance carried a huge sense of expectation at Swansea and the statistics covering the previous three seasons show that he is comfortably top of the pile for chances created from set-plays (106, more than twice as many as any Everton player), yet the 27-year-old has much more to his game.

An intelligent player who likes to roam and link play, Sigurdsson is at his best when he finds pockets of space to open teams up with a first-time pass or clever backheel. That bright football brain makes up for the fact that he lacks pace: he is, by his own admission, “not the kind of player who is going to get the ball and run past the full-back”. For that reason Sigurdsson needs to play through the middle as a No10, where he can have the biggest impact on the game.

At Tottenham Hotspur, where Sigurdsson spent two seasons after joining from Hoffenheim in 2012, he was frustrated with how much time he spent on either the left wing or the bench. He made 58 Premier League appearances across two seasons with Spurs, yet was on the pitch from start to finish in only nine of those matches. Tottenham’s loss ended up being Swansea’s gain, as Mauricio Pochettino admitted last season. The Spurs manager said Sigurdsson would have been a “perfect player” for him at White Hart Lane, yet he never really got the chance to work with a midfielder who was in his starting lineup for a pre-season friendly against Seattle Sounders only to be sold 40 minutes before the game kicked off. Pochettino, who had only just taken over as manager, received a call from the Tottenham board to say that Ben Davies was joining from Swansea and Sigurdsson was going the other way.

On the back of an impressive loan spell a few seasons earlier, Swansea knew what they were getting with Sigurdsson in every sense. Managers, coaches and players came to admire his work ethic in training as much as his goals and assists on a match day. Team-mates would talk about the way the goalkeeper coach would look at Sigurdsson on a morning at the training ground and ask: “Today?” More often than not Sigurdsson would give a nod back, which meant that he wanted to do some extra shooting once the session had finished.

Sigurdsson preferred to do that work away from the rest of the outfield players so that there were no distractions. He would spend hours striking the ball from the edge of the area with both feet – naturally stronger on his right, he scored some terrific goals for Swansea with his left, and got his reward in those headline statistics. “There is no luck involved,” Jack Cork said at the end of last season, reflecting on the superb free-kick that Sigurdsson scored against Manchester United to earn Swansea a point in April. “Gylfi spends ages practising. He works so hard.”

Sigurdsson, in short, was a man who could do no wrong in the eyes of everyone at the club and few at the Liberty Stadium would have begrudged him a big move this summer. In truth, it was something of a surprise when Swansea managed to tie him down to a four-year contract 12 months earlier. Yet the way things were handled after the Barnet game last month left a bitter taste for some Swansea fans.

It is a shame in many ways, especially given the legacy that Sigurdsson could have left at Swansea, although there is nothing be gained by dwelling on the past. While Everton focus on getting their club-record signing match fit and integrated as soon as possible to help continue their positive start to the new season, Swansea need to move quickly to reinvest the money wisely. Time will tell whether all the haggling was worthwhile.

The Guardian Sport

John Terry Out of His Comfort Zone, Ready for New Chapter at Aston Villa


London- John Terry needed no reminding of the day when he was booed off by Aston Villa supporters while lying on a stretcher. It was 11 May 2013, and has gone down in the history books as the game when Frank Lampard became Chelsea’s all‑time leading goalscorer. For the visiting captain, however, it was a less enjoyable experience. “I think the [chant] was ‘let him die’,” Terry said, laughing while wearing his new Villa tracksuit.

Outside of Stamford Bridge, where Terry spent 22 years and racked up more than 700 appearances, there have been plenty of insults thrown at the central defender over the years. Villa Park, where Terry will be playing next season after signing a one-year contract with the Championship club, was no different in that respect. “Quite hostile” is how Terry described his memories of playing at the ground. “I’ve been on the receiving end of that [atmosphere] and thrived on it,” he added.

Both parties will take little time to patch up their differences, now that they are on the same side. That is how football generally works and on that same theme it was interesting to hear Terry’s answer to a question about whether after everything he has achieved in his career, including winning 15 major trophies at Chelsea, he feels fully appreciated in the game. “Maybe not. I don’t know,” he said. “I think that’s a decision for you guys [the media] to make, or the supporters. I’ve run out at Villa Park many times and given as good as I’ve been given and wound people up, and I understand that.

“But when I walk down the street, whether it be a Tottenham supporter or an Arsenal fan, they will say: ‘I don’t particularly like you but you’re a good footballer and I appreciate what you’ve done in the game.’ That’s the message. But what I do get a lot when you spend time and have photos with people’s kids is: ‘You’re actually a nice guy.’

“People see you in a way and put you in a bracket of ‘right, he’s an arsehole.’ But that’s not me. You grow up over the years as well, and you live and learn as a human being, as a professional and a player. I’ve given as good as I’ve got over the years from supporters all over the country and at the end of the day when I retire, if they turn around and say, ‘He was a decent player,’ that will do me.”

By Terry’s own admission it will be a strange feeling to wear another club’s shirt and experience everything that comes with being the new boy. He flew out to Portugal with Steve Bruce, the Villa manager, on Monday afternoon to join the squad on their pre-season training camp, and was dreading the thought of having to sing in front of everyone as part of the sort of initiation ceremony that he has enjoyed laughing at over the years at Chelsea.

At the same time, Terry said that he was genuinely excited at the prospect of a move that “takes me out of my comfort zone”. There were no shortage of offers on the table for him, but Terry claimed that joining another Premier League club was out of the question, because he was unable to contemplate playing against Chelsea next season. Teams in China and Major League Soccer also showed an interest, as did Villa’s bitter local rivals, Birmingham City.

Terry admitted that he got himself into a bit of a state over the decision – “I pretty much wasn’t sleeping” – before Bruce convinced him with his regular text messages that Villa was the right move.

“I wanted it to be that once I decided, then I was 100% in,” Terry said. “I’m not 50-50 or 70% – Aston Villa will get 100% of John Terry this year.” With Terry expected to earn around £60,000 per week on a contract that has an option to be extended for another 12 months – plus huge incentives to be paid if Villa win promotion – the former England international will be picking up a Premier League salary in the Championship. Bruce believes, however, that Terry is “worth every penny” because of the contribution he can make as a leader as well as a player to a squad that finished 13th in the second tier last season and struggled to handle the level of expectation.

For Terry, who turns 37 in December, that challenge cannot start quickly enough. “It’s down to me to perform week in, week out to prove to the players I can still play. I’m not one of them players at the end of his career looking for a pay day. I would be somewhere else if that was the case. The ambition, really, is to get us back to the Premier League and if I can, then that would be an unbelievable achievement.”

The Guardian Sport

Leon Britton: The Anonymous Soldier Who Saved Swansea from Falling

Leon Britton: ‘Swansea fans back me through anything. It’s incredible’

When Leon Britton was pulling the strings at the Stadium of Light last weekend, a journalist on the BBC’s rolling blog accused Sunderland of making the Swansea City midfielder look like Andrea Pirlo. Robbie Britton, who is a Team GB ultra-marathon runner and the Swansea player’s cousin, picked up on the comment and responded on Twitter with: “Hey, BBC Sport, Andrea Pirlo wishes he was Leon Britton.”

Sitting in the canteen at Swansea’s training ground, where the sunshine gleaming through the windows reflects the upbeat mood inside after the Welsh club secured a seventh successive season of Premier League football, Britton breaks into laughter when told about his cousin’s remarks. “That’s nice of him to say that but I don’t think Pirlo’s too worried about me over in New York. I think he would be like: ‘Leon?’”

Whether Pirlo has heard of Britton or not will make no difference to the people of Swansea. Britton is a legend in the eyes of the club’s supporters, who took him to their hearts when he arrived from West Ham United in 2002, and it is becoming increasingly clear his status in the city transcends football. This week a headline on a Wales Online article read: “Should Swansea’s Leon Britton be awarded the freedom of the city?” Within the story a spokesman for the council talked about how Britton, who was born and raised in London, continues to be a wonderful servant for the club and is also a “great ambassador for Swansea”.

“My wife, Laura, who is from Swansea, mentioned it to me. I really don’t know what to make of it,” Britton says, smiling. “I’m not saying it’s happening, but it’s just something you’d never expect. Something you wouldn’t dream of. I was actually surprised the council publicly commented. I guess it shows the affection that people in the city have. Everyone is just so nice to me, not only the fans. At the club’s awards dinner on Wednesday night an elderly lady said to me: ‘I don’t follow the football but I know who you are and I don’t know anyone else.’ She said I should take that as a compliment.”

So many professional footballers merely pass through clubs, like trains pulling in and out of stations, but Britton’s relationship with Swansea runs deeper. The 34-year-old has represented Swansea in every division, racking up more than 500 appearances, and even supported the club as a fan when he left to join Sheffield United for seven months in 2010.

“Swansea were playing Wigan in a League Cup game, it was October and I was a bit wary of going over because I didn’t know what reception I’d get,” Britton recalls. “But in the concourse they were all singing my name, thousands of Swansea fans. I knew I’d made a mistake leaving the club, and that moment, hearing the singing, made me want to go back to Swansea even more. It was surreal and I’ll always remember that night.”

All of which goes some way to explaining why Britton wanted to do more than just help out on the pitch when Paul Clement brought him into the team for the first time since he was appointed head coach in January, in a must-win game against Stoke City last month. Swansea had taken only one point from their previous six fixtures and Britton felt it was time for a gentle reminder about the club’s journey. He picked up 25 copies of Jack to a King, the film that documents Swansea’s rags-to-riches rise, got to the training ground early on the day before the Stoke match and placed a DVD on each player’s seat in the changing room. Britton then sent the players a text, asking them to try to find an hour to watch the film before the Stoke match to “see just see how much this means to not just the fans but also to the city”.

It is a story that says so much about Britton and there was no real surprise a fortnight later when Clement revealed after the 1-0 victory over Everton that the same person was responsible for coming up with the idea for the players to pay for 3,000 tickets for the away game at Sunderland.

“The DVDs and the tickets – I don’t do that to get praise elsewhere,” Britton says. “I was just doing things to try and help get us out of the situation we were in. During the season we’ve had so many words spoken, whether from players, different managers or different coaches, like: ‘Come on, boys, this game’s important’, or ‘This is a big one’. I’m not saying that doesn’t have the effect but it’s the same and people start to think: ‘We heard that last week.’ So the DVDs were just something different.”

As for Britton’s influence on the pitch, the fact that his return to the side has coincided with Swansea collecting 10 points in four matches to stave off the threat of relegation speaks volumes. There is also something of a theme developing in recent times, whereby managers seem to turn to Britton whenever Swansea are up against it. “Someone was making a joke to me about that the other day, saying in 10 years’ time they’ll be finding me in Morgans Hotel [in Swansea] and getting me down to the Liberty,” Britton says, laughing.

Britton lasted 85 minutes against Stoke before departing to a standing ovation that seemed genuinely to move Clement. “I suppose he hadn’t seen me on the pitch until that game,” Britton says. “I think he was surprised by the way the fans just love me. They back me through anything. It’s incredible. I don’t score goals, so I don’t get that feeling of a goalscorer. But I get the feeling of 20,000 people singing my name when I come off, and that’s special. I could never get bored of that. Even now it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

It was similar against Everton in the next home match when Britton, who is 5ft 5in, beat Kevin Mirallas in the air. “The fans go nuts if I win a header,” Britton laughs. Then came a full-blooded challenge on Idrissa Gueye that left the Everton midfielder in a heap. “That was a bit old school,” Britton says, smiling. “I wanted to win that game so much. Little things like that, we can talk about ‘the Swansea way’ and playing football, but the crowd still love a 50-50 tackle and seeing one of your players going in fully committed, especially in the situation we were in then. That sort of thing lifts the crowd.”

Although Swansea are delighted to have stayed up, Britton makes the point that they also strayed into relegation trouble last season and warns “lessons need to be learned because we’ve seen that, if you keep flirting with it, eventually you do go down”. In Clement, however, he is confident that Swansea have the right man to take the club on an upward trajectory. Britton speaks extremely highly of the 45‑year‑old’s “top-quality” training, attention to detail when it comes to analyzing the opposition and the level of thought he puts into his communication with the players.

As the captain, Britton had the job of ringing Clement last Sunday afternoon, once survival was confirmed, to see if the head coach would allow the players to enjoy a two-night break in Ibiza. Britton was in London at the time with Lilly, his daughter, and was being badgered by his team-mates to follow up a carefully worded text that Gerhard Tremmel, the third-choice goalkeeper, had sent to Clement “on behalf of the players” requesting a bit of sunshine. Although Clement made it clear to Britton that he wanted to finish the season strongly, he agreed to the players’ trip to Spain – provided they were back at the training ground for 1.30pm on Wednesday. “And he was waiting by the door,” Britton adds, smiling.

Britton is looking forward to finishing a difficult season on a high against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday as well as spending some time on the pitch at the end with Lilly, Shayne, his stepson, and Alfie and Charlie, his four-year-old twin boys, who have been pestering him for weeks about running out at the Liberty Stadium. “They keep asking: ‘How many more sleeps?’”

Given that Britton’s children were all born in Wales, as well as his wife, it is not surprising that he talks about developing a strong affiliation with the country where he has lived for the best part of 15 years. Britton stresses that he is “obviously English through and through”, yet he admits that he briefly let his guard down last summer.

“I got a lot of stick when I went to the Euros and I wore a Wales shirt,” he says. “I went to the Belgium game [in the quarter-finals] with a group of friends from Swansea. I was a bit skeptical putting the shirt on, but I did it. We were with the fans, soaking up the atmosphere, and pictures went round on social media – Garry Monk [the former Swansea manager] was on the phone to me within an hour of the photos appearing. I only did it for one day, and if England play Wales, then I want England to win. But I’ve been here so long now that in any other game I’d support Wales and want them to do well.”

The interview is drawing to a close and, as Huw Jenkins walks into the canteen, it seems a good time to check with Britton that he has only one year remaining on the 13th contract he has signed during a distinguished Swansea career. “That sounds about right. Where’s the chairman, I need to see if we can make it 14,” says Britton, laughing and looking over his shoulder in Jenkins’s direction. “I’d like to stay on longer, but that’s a decision for the club. Hopefully I’ll remain here anyway. That’s something I’d like to do when I finish, because this place is like home for me now.”

(The Guardian)

Confident and Capable: How Paul Clement Saved Swansea City


London – When Paul Clement was appointed in January by Swansea City, one of the questions at his first press conference was framed around the club’s dire predicament, specifically what made the third manager to take charge in as many months think that relegation was not a formality for a team anchored to the bottom of the table with the worst defensive record in the division.

To give a fuller picture of just how bleak things were at the time, Swansea had lost their previous four league matches – against West Bromwich Albion, Middlesbrough, West Ham United and Bournemouth – conceding 13 times during a woeful run that poured fuel on the fire of the supporter unrest that had been simmering since the takeover in the summer. Swansea, in other words, were in a mess on and off the field, and Clement could have been forgiven for thinking he was better off staying away. Not only did he have a high-profile position in Germany, where he was working as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2 at Bayern Munich, but he was also entitled to feel that the time to take the Swansea job was in October, when Francesco Guidolin was sacked. The calamitous decision to appoint Bob Bradley instead – Swansea’s owners felt that experience was needed in the dressing room – meant Clement was being asked to clear up the mess that two men had left behind when the American was sacked after 85 days.

Yet Clement never thought for one moment that Swansea was a lost cause and his answer to that press conference question, which was phrased in a way that suggested he was on a hiding to nothing, said much about the 45‑year‑old’s self-belief as well as his way of working. While some managers would have made a big fuss about needing funds to make signings in the transfer window, or offered up a throwaway line about how many points were still available, Clement explained that he thought Swansea could survive because he would get out on the training ground and coach.

“There are capable and able footballers here,” he said. “Over recent games, to ship three goals, four goals, five goals, I’m confident in my ability as a coach that that won’t happen under my reign. I can’t say 100% it won’t – there is a lot of randomness in football. But I’m pretty confident it won’t happen because with the players that I’ve currently got, I think I can get them more organized than they’ve been, give them a bit of solidity in the defensive work and that’s the foundation to build what they’ve already shown they can be good at, which is the offensive side.”

He was right. A team who shipped 44 goals in the first 19 matches of the season, including three or more on eight occasions under Bradley, conceded only 25 in the next 18 fixtures, during which Swansea had to negotiate away trips to Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. The Welsh club’s points haul has more than doubled, only Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal have won more matches since Clement took over and a league table since his appointment shows Swansea in eighth place.

That sort of shift does not happen by luck. It is a result of hard work, especially on the practice pitches, where Clement is in his element, but also in the team meetings, which are frequent but short. Since taking over at Swansea, Clement has never gathered the players together for more than half an hour at one time – on that occasion there was plenty of video feedback used – and the longest he has spoken for in one sitting is 10 minutes. By the time the players leave a meeting Clement expects them to be able to reel off three key points without any hesitation, which is why he spends so much time thinking about the clarity of his own messages.

Everyone at the club has bought into his way of working and it also says much for the Swansea manager that three of the new faces that arrived in January made a positive impact in such a short space of time, especially as two of that trio were recruited from the Championship (Martin Olsson signed from Norwich and Jordan Ayew arrived from Aston Villa), while Tom Carroll was in effect a reserve player at Spurs.

Arguably the pivotal moment for Clement this season came in the wake of a chastening defeat. His decision to bring 34-year-old Leon Britton into the side after losing 1-0 against Watford, play with a midfield diamond with Gylfi Sigurdsson at the tip, and start with Ayew up front alongside Fernando Llorente, reinvigorated the team at a critical juncture in the season and culminated in Swansea collecting 10 points from four matches to climb clear. They were bold tactical changes that reaped huge reward.

Clement, however, is not the sort to blow his own trumpet and is refreshingly honest about his mistakes. A self-confessed perfectionist, he believes he should have put more pressure on the players at the start of a damaging six-match run that yielded one point, regrets his tactics in the closing stages of the Spurs match, which Swansea lost 3-1, and wishes he had turned to Britton a game earlier. Yet few of the club’s supporters will be dwelling on any of those decisions right now.

Survival was the be-all and end-all for Swansea this season and Clement, given the awful mess he inherited, fully deserves to be among the nominees for Premier League manager of the year after his act of escapology.

In the process he has made Derby County look rather silly for sacking him last season, when they were fifth in the table and only five points behind the Championship leaders. Mel Morris, the club’s owner, said at the time that not enough progress had been made on “building on the Derby Way”. Fifteen months and four managers later, it would be interesting to get an update on that Pride Park project.

As for Swansea, amid all the relief and euphoria of the last 48 hours, it is hard to escape the feeling that Clement has got the club’s board off the hook after a catalogue of mistakes, from flawed managerial appointments to poor recruitment last summer. Lessons have to be learned in that respect as Swansea look forward to a seventh successive season in the Premier League.

Tottenham Prove Themselves Up to the Terms of a Testing Trial at Selhurst Park


London – The only question for Tottenham Hotspur to answer in south London was a psychological one. Did the damage that Chelsea inflicted at Wembley on Saturday, in another chastening semi‑final experience for Spurs, extend to the Premier League title race?

Ideally Mauricio Pochettino would have picked somewhere other than Selhurst Park to see whether his players could come up with a response and, in the process, silence the inevitable criticism that was destined to come his way if they ended up dropping points.

Crystal Palace, after all, had vanquished Arsenal and won at Chelsea and Anfield in the space of 22 days, and there is something about Selhurst Park under the lights at this stage of the season – the mind strays back to that improbable comeback against Liverpool three years ago – that seems to turn up the heat on title challengers.

In that sense the script was written for Spurs to come up short, particularly after the way things unravelled for them at a similar stage last season – this game was almost a year to the day since they drew at home against West Bromwich Albion, leaving them with too much ground to make up on Leicester City.

All of which makes the way Spurs managed to chisel out three points against a resurgent Palace team all the more impressive. It felt like a victory for the manager as much as his players, especially after Pochettino went for the jugular at half-time, changing the system and personnel to bend this contest in Tottenham’s favour.

Much improved after the interval, Spurs kept probing and their persistence was rewarded with little more than 10 minutes remaining when Christian Eriksen picked up the ball about 25 yards from goal and unleashed a right‑foot shot that flashed beyond Wayne Hennessey and into the corner of the net. Pochettino, who had cut an anxious figure for much of the second half as he stood on the edge of his technical area with his arms folded, exploded into life as he sprinted down the touchline, thrusting two fists into the air. Seconds later the travelling supporters were singing about hunting down Chelsea and the mood had been transformed.

Pochettino was quick to stress afterwards that this was not about sending a message to Chelsea, with the Argentinian refusing to engage in what he described as “mind games”, yet it was hard to overstate the importance of this win, especially in the context of that 4-2 defeat against Antonio Conte’s side four days earlier.

At times in the first half it seemed as if Spurs were still suffering. They looked flat, Palace were snapping into tackles and Spurs lacked discipline and composure with and without the ball. Victor Wanyama, booked for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, looked like a red card waiting to happen, with Harry Kane called over at one point in the first half by Jon Moss, the referee, to help get the message across to his team-mate that he was straying dangerously close to being sent off.

With that in mind it was not surprising that Wanyama was withdrawn at half-time. Mousa Dembélé, Wanyama’s midfield partner, also failed to reappear for the second half after suffering an ankle injury, prompting Pochettino to introduce the more attack-minded Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko. The back three was scrapped, Eric Dier moved into a deep-lying midfield role behind Eriksen and Dele Alli, and Tottenham, on paper at least, were unrecognisable from the team that started the game.

They were bold changes and ultimately everything paid off for Pochettino and Spurs, courtesy of that goal from the increasingly influential Eriksen. The Dane has now scored five times and created 11 in his past 12 matches in all competitions, signalling his importance to a team that refuses to give up hope of catching Chelsea.

Their next assignment is against Arsenal and it was pointed out to Pochettino that a Spurs victory at White Hart Lane on Sunday would ensure that they finish above their north London rivals for the first time in 22 years. The Spurs manager responded by suggesting his team were thinking of “bigger things than only to be above Arsenal”, and everyone knew what he had in mind.

The Guardian Sport

Claudio Ranieri’s Reign Ends in Cruel, Brutal Fashion as Leicester Lose Patience


It felt like a brutal decision to sack Claudio Ranieri, cruel in so many ways and also desperately sad in the context of everything that the Italian achieved last season, yet in the end it came down to the simple fact that Leicester City’s owners no longer had faith in the 65-year-old’s ability to keep the English champions in the Premier League.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument – and as things stand Leicester are sliding towards the Championship – the bit that makes so little sense to anyone, including people at the club, is the bizarre timing. Ranieri was given the club’s “unwavering support” 16 days ago and less than 24 hours earlier had overseen a 2-1 defeat in Sevilla that, with a crucial away goal scored, opened the door to the possibility of Leicester qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the chairman, and Aiyawatt, his son and vice-chairman, were at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium and it is hard to escape the feeling that they must have known at the time that Ranieri, to borrow the unfortunate phrase that he became synonymous with during his final weeks as Chelsea manager in 2004, was in effect a dead man walking.

Jamie Vardy’s second-half goal changed the complexion of that Champions League tie in southern Spain yet never made a blind bit of difference when it came to Ranieri’s future.

Leicester arrived back at East Midlands airport from Seville the following afternoon, their players and staff heading home unaware that Ranieri was about to be told that he had been relieved of his duties. The first most of them knew was when the story broke on social media later that evening, swiftly followed by an official statement from Leicester at 8pm that confirmed the services of the most successful manager in their 133-year history were no longer required.

Jaws dropped across the country and beyond, with the reaction a mixture of disbelief and anger. Gary Lineker was probably speaking for many football fans – not just Leicester supporters – when he reflected on the miracle of last season and described the Thai owners’ decision to dismiss Ranieri as “inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad”.

One of the most curious aspects in this remarkable story is why Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha chose to cut Ranieri loose on the basis of what had been happening in the Premier League, given that Leicester’s last match in the top flight was against Swansea 11 days earlier. Why wait for the Champions League anthem to play again before loading the gun?

What we now know for sure about the public vote of confidence that Leicester’s owners gave Ranieri just prior to the defeat at Swansea is exactly what many suspected at the time: it was issued purely with the intention of trying to engender a reaction from a group of under-performing players, rather than to give any genuine long-term backing to their manager.

By that stage it had already emerged that there was growing unrest behind the scenes among players as well as staff in relation to Ranieri’s management style. The Guardian reported that Ranieri had lost his grip on the dressing room, where players had become frustrated and bewildered by some of his tactical changes and selection decisions, and the manager also seemed increasingly distant from members of his backroom staff.

Yet any post-mortem into why things unravelled so spectacularly this season would also shine an unforgiving light on the players. The majority of the team that led Leicester to the Premier League title have been unrecognisable this season, with desperately poor individual displays compounded by the huge loss of N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea in the summer and some highly questionable recruitment decisions across the last couple of transfer windows. Throw all that together and it starts to appear a perfect storm, with plenty of fingerprints on the crime scene.

Results, from a domestic point of view, have been awful. Leicester are the first reigning champions since 1956 to lose five successive top-flight matches and they have gone more than 10 hours without scoring a Premier League goal. The Midlands club are only one place and one point above the relegation zone and by the time they kick-off at home against Liverpool on Monday night, when Craig Shakespeare, Ranieri’s former No2, will take charge of the team, Leicester could well be in the bottom three.

The key question is whether Ranieri, as a result of the incredible success that he enjoyed last season, deserved to be given the opportunity to try to turn things round across the final 13 league games as well as to see their Champions League journey through to the end. For many people the answer to that question will be yes and, with that in mind, there will not be much sympathy for Leicester if they end up getting relegated.

Jon Rudkin, Leicester’s director of football, has the job of finding the experienced manager who will prevent that from happening and it is difficult to believe the club would have sacked Ranieri without having held some encouraging exploratory conversations on that front, with the owners absolutely hell-bent on staying up.

Either way nothing will tarnish Ranieri’s lasting legacy at Leicester. He leaves them 90 minutes from a place in the last eight of the Champions League and will always have a permanent place in the hearts of their supporters after pulling off a title-winning success that arguably goes down as the greatest story in the history of English football. It is a football fairytale that will be told again and again.

The Guardian Sport

Alfie Mawson: ‘I’ve Got a Football Signed by Ranieri and the Chelsea Players … But My Dog Chewed It’

Mawson battles with the Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus during Swansea’s 2-1 defeat at the Etihad.

Alfie Mawson is thinking about the times when he would drive home from training and spend the afternoon working on his dad’s fruit and veg stall at Ealing market, happily swapping life as a professional footballer for a few hours as a greengrocer, back in the days when he was picking up apples and pears rather than Premier League strikers.

There was only one occasion when Mawson can remember someone doing a double take. “It was December and Dad sells Christmas trees at that time of year,” Mawson says. “I was on loan at Wycombe from Brentford and was putting the trees through the ‘netter’ when one of the Brentford physios turned up. He just looked at me and said: ‘What on earth are you doing?’ But that’s the person I am. I used to help out last year when I was playing for Barnsley. I’d still do it now, although I guess I might get recognized: ‘There’s that ginger one from Swansea!’”

Mawson, who does a nice line in self-deprecating humor, laughs at that last remark. After making his way to the top in a hurry, climbing from the Conference South to the Premier League in the space of three years, including playing in every division in between, Mawson doubts whether his Premier League opponents know who he is, let alone the wider football public.

Plenty of people have struggled to keep up with his meteoric rise, including the recruitment agencies that were still sending Mawson job alerts on his mobile phone long after he was making a name for himself in professional football and his proud parents, Gary and Paula, who were watching their son play in front of a few hundred people not long ago.

“My dad said to me last Sunday: ‘Agüero came on against you, Alf,’” Mawson says, smiling at the excitement in his father’s voice. “It’s mad and a bit surreal. But you’ve got to take it in your stride. You can’t give these players half a yard or they’ll punish you. Because these players don’t care who you are – they won’t know who I am.”

To fill in a few gaps, Mawson grew up in Hillingdon, in west London. He supported Chelsea, started his career at Brentford and joined Swansea from Barnsley for £5m in the summer. Powerful in the air – he scored last month in Premier League wins against Crystal Palace and Southampton – and comfortable on the ball, the central defender won his first England Under‑21 cap in November and has impressed since Paul Clement took over as Swansea manager last month.

As well as being a promising young footballer, Mawson also happens to be a thoroughly nice guy and there is no better example of that than the heart-warming story that he tells about the lovely friendship he formed with a seriously ill boy in Barnsley during his time at Oakwell. Alfie Ledgeway, who is four years old, suffers from Chiari malformation, which means the lower part of his brain is being pushed towards his spinal cord.

“He was a mascot one day,” Mawson explains, “and before the game they come in and have a walk around, so I said: ‘Hello mate. What’s your name?’

“He said: ‘I’m Alfie. Alfie Ledgeway.’ I said: ‘That’s funny. That’s my name.’ He said: ‘What, you’re Alfie Ledgeway as well?’ I said: ‘No! I’m Alfie Mawson.’

“After that he’d always run to me whenever he saw me and say: ‘Hello Alfie Mawson.’ It was never ‘Alfie’ because he was worried people would get us confused. I later got speaking to his mum and his nan, and I got him a shirt with ‘Little Alfie’ on the back. I became known as ‘Big Alfie’. We went on Facebook and my mum started talking to the family as well, so they then built up a good relationship.

“Alfie used to FaceTime me on his iPad and ask if I was going to see him, so I’d pop round with Beth, my missus, and play with him. An hour of your time is like a day for him. He’s a little legend. He’s had surgery again recently and I haven’t seen him this season because of the distance. But I want to sort out for him to come and watch a game, probably Everton, because that’s who his family support.”

It is a tale that breaks with all the stereotypes about modern footballers and partly explains why Mawson was wearing the captain’s armband at Barnsley at the age of 21. He is an old head on young shoulders and it is not surprising that comparisons have been drawn with Ashley Williams, who left Swansea for Everton in the summer and also had a stint in the non-league game.

Mawson smiles at that suggestion. “When I signed for Swansea my agent asked me what number I wanted. I said 26 because it’s my favourite – it’s my dad’s birthday and John Terry’s number. But Kyle Naughton had that number – my mum had already told me that, she’s my No1 fan and knows everything before I do. So I looked at the other numbers and there was only one I was going to take – No6, which was Ashley Williams’s old shirt.

“People were saying that I had big boots to fill and that I was coming in to be Ashley Williams. I wasn’t. I was coming in to be me. Ashley’s a class act. He arrived at Swansea when he was a bit older than me and he got promoted with the club and was on that journey. But it’s a different task for me because I’m coming in to fight for a place in the Premier League.”

Top-flight football was a long way from Mawson’s mind three years ago. Brentford had offered him a second chance after he was released by Reading at the age of 15, but there was little sign of a breakthrough as he reached his late teens. “I wasn’t getting any games in the reserves, so I applied to loads of job websites,” Mawson says. “Growing up working with my dad on the fruit and veg stall, you learn people skills from a young age and so I wanted to do something hands-on. I remember going on loan to Maidenhead and wondering if I could nick a move to a Conference South side and have a job on the side.”

A season-long loan at Wycombe Wanderers in 2014-15 proved to be the turning point as Mawson swept the board at the League Two club’s end‑of‑season awards. Brentford offered him a new contract but he signed for Barnsley instead and went on to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and promotion from League One via the play-offs. Swansea decided to make a move and had a bid accepted at the end of August.

Excited rather than daunted by the prospect of playing in the Premier League, Mawson was blown away by Swansea’s training facilities and the surroundings – he has an apartment in Langland, overlooking the beach – but not everything clicked. “I wasn’t involved for the first couple of weeks and I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been in that situation for the last few years. I’d find myself getting the weekend off. It was 3pm on a Saturday and I was having lunch with my missus. Not being rude but the weekend seemed too long.”

Mawson had to be patient and it was not until Bob Bradley replaced Fransceso Guidolin in October that he got his chance. He was named man of the match on his debut against Watford but soon discovered what an unforgiving place the Premier League can be during a damaging run that led to so many “stupid goals” being conceded and Bradley losing his job.

Swansea appeared doomed, but Clement’s arrival has breathed new life into the club. “We’ve come on in leaps and bounds with the new gaffer and everything’s looking up,” Mawson says. “Training has got so much more intense but in the right way. He’s reinstalled the basics, which we needed. He shows us clips of Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid and how they work so hard. If one player goes into press and gets beaten, there’s someone else to back him up and then another. If you see those clubs doing that, then there’s no excuse not to do it.”

An added bonus for Swansea has been Mawson’s aerial threat in the opposition area. The 23-year-old has scored 19 times in his career already and last month’s goals for Swansea were crucial. “I’ve got a big head, that’s what everyone says to me,” Mawson says, laughing. “But I do love scoring. If you haven’t got that confidence to go and get a goal, then what’s the point in going up for a corner or a free-kick?”

That Gylfi Sigurdsson delivers the set-pieces helps. “Every ball is spot on. Gylfi’s like an angel for us at the moment,” says Mawson, smiling at his choice of words. “He just does things that you don’t expect. Even when we weren’t playing as well as we are now, he’d still come up with an assist or a goal. He’ll always be involved in something – and that’s not luck.”

Mawson knows that Sunday’s home game against Leicester is huge and although his total focus is on winning, he could be forgiven for having a wry smile when he looks across at Claudio Ranieri in the visitors’ dugout. “I’ve got a ball signed by Ranieri and the Chelsea players,” Mawson says. “My dad bid for it at an auction. I’ve still got it at my mum’s house, but the ball’s got a bit of a hole in it now because my dog chewed it. I was gutted about that at the time.”

(The Guardian)

Swansea Must Stay Up or Face Struggle to Get Back, Says Alan Curtis

Swansea’s coach and current caretaker Alan Curtis keeps an eye on proceedings in training.

It was a chilling warning that Alan Curtis issued and there was no reason to suspect that Swansea City’s caretaker manager was scaremongering. Spelling out why he thought it was crucial that the board focused on the club’s short-term future when choosing their new manager, Curtis spoke with typical honesty when he predicted that Swansea would struggle to return to the Premier League any time soon if they suffer relegation.

“Somebody has got to get us out of trouble,” Curtis said, reflecting on the predicament of a team who are bottom of the table, four points adrift of safety. “If we were to go down – and there is obviously that possibility – then if you look at the Championship, it seems to have got a lot stronger. There are so many big teams in there that there is no guarantee we could make our way back quite as quickly as some of the other boys. I know Norwich and Burnley have done it but I think it would be difficult if we were to go into the Championship.”

Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County were mentioned as examples of former Premier League clubs that have toiled in the second tier and, in some cases, beyond. Curtis, who had three spells as a player at Swansea and has filled just about every position going at the club since hanging up his boots, warmed to his theme: “It’s taken those clubs a long time and you’re talking big powerhouses there. I don’t think we’d come into that category. We’ve done it our way. So if we go down, it could be tough to get back.”

By “our way”, Curtis is referring to what became known as “the Swansea Way”, which is the playing philosophy of the club as it climbed through the divisions. There is a board on the wall at the top of the stairs at the club’s training ground, at Fairwood, that runs through the principles behind that mantra, serving as a permanent reminder of what Swansea are all about and, essentially, what makes them different.

Yet these days there is nothing particularly distinctive about the way Swansea go about their business in the Premier League, on and off the pitch. They hire and fire managers, just like so many other clubs, the owners are from overseas rather than lifelong supporters, and that easy-on-the-eye brand of fluid, attacking football which won so many matches as well as admirers is no longer so recognisable.

Swansea, in short, have lost a bit of their identity. “I think absolutely we have done,” Curtis said. “Maybe it’s just the change of management all the time. I think everyone has maybe diluted it a little bit. Certainly the best eras were probably Roberto [Martínez], Brendan [Rodgers] and Michael [Laudrup]. No disrespect to the ones who followed – Garry [Monk] was obviously a big part of the team who went up – but we’ve probably lost a little bit of the Swansea Way. It has been diluted.”

The irony was not lost on Curtis that Bournemouth, who are Saturday’s opponents at the Liberty Stadium, have plenty in common with the Swansea of old. “We are the role model which they set out to copy,” he said. “I remember when Eddie [Howe, Bournemouth’s manager] was out of a job he came to watch us train on a regular basis when Brendan was manager. I think a lot of the blueprint they have followed has come from us.”

Yet while Bournemouth are thriving, Swansea are going backwards and Curtis questioned whether selling players and not adequately replacing them had contributed to the malaise. He spoke about how Ashley Williams’ voice had been missed on the pitch and in the dressing room, highlighted a lack of leadership within the current squad, and expressed his hope that a “dominant centre-half” would be brought in during the transfer window to strengthen a defence that has conceded 41 goals in 18 matches. Bob Bradley, who was sacked on Tuesday, tried just about every defensive combination going during his 11 games in charge and as Curtis ruefully admitted, the end result was nearly always the same.

“We work on defending on a regular basis. We work on set pieces. But come game time, for whatever reason, players either haven’t got the ability to do it, can’t take instructions, or they freeze,” he said. “That’s why all the different combinations have been going on – we could all pick a different back four at the moment. None of them seems to have worked. If it’s one thing we need, it’s probably a dominant centre-half and ideally a leader. We probably haven’t had a big dominant centre-half for years. We’ve probably concentrated on how good he is on the ball. Even the players would know that we need a centre-half.”

The obvious problem for Swansea is finding one. Curtis has been privy to some of the transfer discussions and said that some of the fees being asked for players who are not even making the substitutes’ bench elsewhere are “astronomical” and, realistically, well beyond what Swansea would be able to pay.

First things first, though, Swansea need to appoint a manager, with Paul Clement, who is currently working as Carlo Ancelotti’s No2 at Bayern Munich, now the clear frontrunner to replace Bradley. Curtis, who was thrust into the same position this time last year, when Monk was sacked, has no idea how long the managerial search will go on. The 62-year-old said he is just taking things on a day-by-day basis, trying to bring some stability to the chaos at a club that means so much to him.

After the poisonous atmosphere at the Liberty Stadium on Boxing Day, when Swansea were beaten 4-1 by West Ham, Curtis fully expects the supporters to get behind the team against Bournemouth. As for the players, he will demand nothing less than total commitment. “I will certainly remind them that we don’t want to give up without a fight,” he said. “It’s not quite time for a call to arms yet, but they have to do better. They have to do everything they possibly can, so that when we come off the park, whether we win or lose, they have given their all. That’s all we can ask.”

(The Guardian)

Bob Bradley Had to Go but Blame for Swansea’s Plight Lies in the Boardroom

Swansea picked up only eight points from Bob Bradley’s 11 matches in charge.

It was just gone 7pm on Boxing Day and a small group of reporters were walking away from the Liberty Stadium when a Swansea City supporter approached. “Has he gone yet, boys?” asked the fan, smiling in a way that made it clear it would be viewed as good news if there was confirmation that Bob Bradley was clearing his desk.

That moment arrived 24 hours later, when Swansea announced that the first American to manage in the Premier League had been sacked after less than three months in charge. Bradley won only two out of 11 games, picked up just eight points, conceded 29 goals, shipped three or more on eight occasions, made a total of 33 team changes after starting his reign with a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal and fielded six different back-four combinations.

Quite a set of numbers, all in all, and it is fair to say that by the end of the drubbing at the hands of West Ham United on Boxing Day, during which a significant number of Swansea supporters chanted “we want Bradley out”, the former U.S.A. coach was none the wiser as to what was the best starting XI to select from the woefully ill-equipped squad that he inherited.

Swansea’s American owners, Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien, had been determined to stand by their man and give Bradley a chance to bring in a few players of his own in January. Yet the West Ham match shredded those plans. The performance was abject and the atmosphere inside the Liberty Stadium poisonous. Swansea had been well beaten for the third successive game and Bradley had reached the point of no return.

His position was untenable and there is no escaping the fact that results were awful under his watch, yet anybody conducting a wider inquest into where everything has gone wrong at Swansea, in particular the question as to how a model club have turned into such a mess in the space of a season and a half, would not spend too long going through Bradley’s 85 days as manager.

Instead the spotlight is likely to shine an unfavorable light on the people running the club, especially the chairman, Huw Jenkins, who was as influential as anybody in the rags-to-riches story behind Swansea’s rise from the depths of the Football League to the top flight. Once the man who could do no wrong, Jenkins has presided over a number of desperately poor decisions in recent times, both managerially and in the transfer market, and the result is that Swansea have lurched from one crisis to another.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the club’s decline is the speed with which everything has unraveled. In May last year Swansea finished eighth in the Premier League with a club-record points total. Their attractive and distinctive playing style – “The Swansea Way” – was deeply ingrained and integral to their success. Garry Monk, a bright, young, homegrown manager was in charge of the team, supporter representation on the board won admirers, and the club operated in the black. Swansea, in short, provided a blueprint for many to follow. Fast-forward 19 months and they have become just another Premier League club.

Monk lost his job last December after a bad run of results and it will not have escaped the attention of many Swansea supporters that while they were being thumped 4-1 by West Ham this Boxing Day, their former manager was overseeing a victory at Preston by the same scoreline for his promotion-chasing Leeds United side.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision to sack Monk, the bottom line is that so much of what Swansea have done since has made little sense, arguably no more so than when Jenkins announced in May that he was giving Francesco Guidolin a permanent contract to continue as manager. It was a decision that stunned people within the club, never mind outside, and meant that Swansea missed a crucial opportunity to rebuild.

Guidolin had been appointed in January on a short-term basis after a protracted search for Monk’s replacement initially ended with Alan Curtis, the highly respected and long-serving first-team coach, being given the job until the end of the season. Curtis, however, was asked to stand aside 11 days after being handed the reins to make way for the Italian. Swansea ended up finishing 12th, on the face of it vindicating the decision to bring in Guidolin, yet there was little appetite among staff and players for him – a likeable man but uninspiring coach – to stay on as manager.

Jenkins would have known that was the case – the chairman has his ear to the ground and canvasses opinion from time to time to gauge the mood – yet he still opted to give Guidolin the job. Five months later came the predictable news that Guidolin had become the first Premier League managerial casualty of the season.

By that point, though, it was clear that Swansea’s problems ran much deeper than their flawed choice of manager. Some poor dealings in the transfer market over the course of the past three windows left the squad looking painfully short of quality, with the ins and outs in the summer compounding the errors that had been made before and raising serious questions about the recruitment strategy headed up by David Leadbeater and ultimately overseen by Jenkins.

One of the more bizarre issues that has come to light in recent years and prompted a level of bemusement among some working at the club, including managers, is the frequency with which Swansea scouts turn up for Swansea matches. It is a curious practice to say the least.

Kaplan and Levien soon realized that the process of identifying players needed to drastically change and take on a much more analytical approach, yet in terms of what happened in the summer, the damage was done. Ashley Williams, the captain, and André Ayew, last season’s top scorer, were sold without being adequately replaced, so much so that players such as Jordi Amat, who would have been on the fringe under previous regimes, were thrust into the role of being regular starters.

A club-record £15.5m was spent on Borja Bastón, who has scored only once since joining from Atlético Madrid and looks set to follow in the footsteps of Éder and Alberto Paloschi, two strikers who were brought in from overseas in the last 18 months and failed to make any sort of impact.

Other decisions have been odd. Nathan Dyer was farmed out on loan to Leicester at the start of last season because he was deemed surplus to requirements, returned after failing to make one Premier League start for the champions and was rewarded with a new four-year contract.

If there was one key error of judgment, though, it was the failure to re-sign Joe Allen from Liverpool. Allen was available and everything seemed to be set up for the Welshman to return to the club, yet Swansea dragged their heels over the finances and Stoke jumped in to take a midfielder whose ability and character would have been invaluable at the Liberty Stadium this season.

During that period Swansea were undergoing a change of ownership that earned Jenkins and several other board members millions from selling shares and at the same time, prompted accusations from some supporters that those directors had taken their eye off the ball and put their own interests before those of the club.

Jenkins, who has supported Swansea for more than 50 years and continues to run the club on a day-to-day basis, would no doubt deny that was the case. He did, however, concede prior to the win over Crystal Palace last month that mistakes were made in the close season. “I will be the first to admit that there are a number of things I personally could have dealt with differently in the summer which may have helped us to start the season in a far more upbeat and positive way,” Jenkins wrote in his program column.

Either way, the focus for Swansea now has to be forward rather than back. All eyes are on the managerial search and the long list of candidates, including Ryan Giggs, Roy Hodgson, Chris Coleman, Gary Rowett, Paul Clement and Alan Pardew. Yet anybody who has watched Swansea on a regular basis this season will know that the players need to be changed as much as the manager if the club are to have any hope of avoiding relegation, and therein lies the huge challenge facing Jenkins and Swansea’s American owners.

(The Guardian)