The Decline of Holland’s Football Team: Doomed by Total Obsession with Past

London — In Graham Swift’s novel Waterland his narrator, a history teacher going through a mid-life crisis, says: “And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.”

At some point analysis of decline becomes an ordeal, particularly when the causative factors seem numerous and varied and not independent of one another. Nostalgia lends itself to convenient explanations of why things are not as good as they were, which may overshadow the fact it is perhaps more important that one looks back to move forward and not vice versa. Dutch football has seen four talented generations of players, right from Cruyff and Van Hanegem’s cohort in the 70s, Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten and Koeman in the 80s, Bergkamp’s batch in the 90s and the 1983-84-born class of the 00s led by Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

In the wake of failing to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia Dutch footballers are now criticised for a lack of “winning mentality”. Marcel Brands of PSV, in a discussion in 2014 with his fellow technical directors of the so-called big three, Marc Overmars of Ajax and Feyenoord’s Martin van Geel, remarked: “We develop many intelligent, tactically strong players. We just need to improve substantially in the winning factor. I went to Portugal recently: Sporting, Benfica and Porto. There it is completely different. There it is all about winning. With us, it’s the exact opposite: ‘80% possession, played well, yes but we lose 1-0.’

“That’s not how it should be. If you look at Germany, they have taken a step. There was always physical football, a lot of running. Now, there is a lot more [technical] football than 10 years ago. They also observed us [the Dutch] a lot.”

Tellingly, nearly all of the successful recent exports from the Eredivisie have been players who were scouted between the ages of 16 and 19 – Uruguay’s Luis Suárez, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen and Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld found the Netherlands a prime location to hone their talent, having developed initially elsewhere. But even if the current Holland side lacked extraordinary talents, there was sufficient quality for them at least to make the qualification play-offs. That suggests there are deeper structural problems with the national team. It is clearly more complicated than just Memphis Depay’s preference for wearing hats.

In 2014 all the big three’s technical directors agreed that the KNVB, the Dutch FA, needed a strong technical director. Jelle Goes had functioned as “technical manager” since 2013 and played a big role in drafting the Winnaars van Morgen, “Winners of Tomorrow”, plan for reviving Dutch football; and, when Hans van Breukelen was made technical director in 2016, Goes’ focus shifted to youth.

However, this summer both Goes and Van Breukelen left their roles, with the latter resigning, having made a mess of the national coach situation after Danny Blind’s departure and saying he had not been able to make “his – and the KNVB’s — ambitions come true”.

The KNVB’s lack of a clear long-term vision seemed evident as they let Hakim Ziyech slip through their fingers. The 24-year-old, who played for Dutch youth teams up to the under-21s and was the outstanding Dutch midfielder of his generation, was injured on his first call-up in May 2015 and could not play, but then seemed to be overlooked. He then elected to represent Morocco, making his debut in October 2015.

In March 2016 Blind was asked why there had not been more of an effort to tie down Ziyech. The then Holland manager responded with the specious excuse that Ziyech was not playing as a “true No10” at Twente at the time but as more of a second striker. Immediately his then-assistant coach, Marco van Basten, sitting at the back of the room, turned to the reporter who had suggested the KNVB had failed in this regard and said: “Why? He has gone with the choice with his heart? Then, in my opinion, you should ask him.”

In May 2016 Van Basten called Ziyech and the St-Etienne winger Oussama Tannane “stupid boys” for not having the patience to wait for their chance: “How stupid can you be to choose Morocco if you are in contention for the Dutch national team?”

This, beyond the disrespect, suggests some delusions of grandeur and superiority persist despite Holland’s shortcomings on the pitch. Nearly two years later another young talent – Sofyan Amrabat –is set to follow Ziyech. He still has a chance of playing at the World Cup finals with Morocco, while the Dutch must watch a second consecutive international tournament on their TV screens, still lacking direction in their long-term planning as well as a player worthy of building a new side around.

The way in which Van Basten expressed his view is indicative of the way dynamics can shift when there are many big personalities vying for influence. For the Dutch this is not a new phenomenon. In 1981, as Ajax trailed Twente 2-3 at De Meer, Johan Cruyff, then in a vague directorial role, made his way from the stands to the bench and propped himself beside the coach, Leo Beenhakker, shouting instructions and making tactical changes. In 2004, when Ronald Koeman was manager of Ajax, Louis van Gaal, then technical director, used to sit on the sidelines and commentate on training sessions.

Recently Ruud Gullit, assistant coach to Dick Advocaat, recorded a video for his Twitter feed in the Holland dressing room. Advocaat was unaware of and unhappy with the breach of protocol, yet Gullit was excused. Less than a month later Advocaat suggested Gullit would be his ideal successor because of the way the France players seemed to approach him in reverence at full-time, after they had easily defeated Holland 4-0 in September. “The Netherlands really forgets what a great Gullit is,” said Advocaat. There is bias in choosing to remember the great player – but not the fairly mediocre manager.

Robert Maaskant, who has managed NAC Breda and Willem II, pertinently told De Volkskrant in August: “When I started as a trainer, I thought: ‘I did not have a great career as a player, so I need to get into [management] early. Because between the ages of 42 and 50, all those former internationals [Frank de Boer, Phillip Cocu, Giovanni van Bronckhorst] will start to get involved, and they will get the best jobs first.’ But the lead I had, ultimately led to nothing more. Because experience is no longer as important.

“It started with Marco van Basten’s appointment as Holland coach, without any experience. Since then you do not ‘build’ a career in Dutch football any more: it will ‘happen’ to you.”

Peter Bosz, now at Borussia Dortmund, is a Dutch rarity in breaking that ceiling in recent years but seemed to be swiftly pushed out by the powers that be at Ajax. So a picture emerges of an insular, constricted group of coaches who are granted opportunities with little or no coaching experience. Most share a common idea of possession-based 4‑3‑3 football, which makes Dutch teams predictable while other nations have either bettered 4-3-3 or moved on.

The most successful exponents of the “Dutch” style are no longer Dutch, and given there is little to lose now, perhaps a step in the right direction would be to experiment with appointing a foreign coach. The last one – the Austrian Ernst Happel – did not fare too badly.

Dutch football has always been a battleground of “philosophy” and winning football matches in the somewhat arbitrary “right” way over just winning. That there was still pride in losing the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany – when Cruyff’s talented side squandered a one-goal lead to their greatest rivals in Munich – seemed to set forth the belief that results were, to an extent, expendable in the pursuit of the ideal of total football.

Now, in the friction between the nostalgia for their great footballing innovations of the past and the reality of being surpassed in tactical relevance today, the Dutch seem to have lost their standing and ended up compromising on both the style for which they were renowned and the results they fail to achieve.

In retrospect their shock 5-1 drubbing of Spain at the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil signified a strange fork-in-the-road of a game, in which the defending champions had fallen into a predictable rhythm and the team who had lost the 2010 final seemed to be one step ahead. But Spain have recovered while the Dutch have regressed because that is where the insidiousness of nostalgia can lead – to regression, in the assumption that to achieve glory in the future we need to “go back” and recreate a past that has long been lost. Clearly Holland and Dutch football must now look to the future instead.

The Guardian Sport

Howard Wilkinson Calls for Review, Overhaul of Academy System he Designed

sports

London – Howard Wilkinson, the architect of English football’s modern youth development programme, has called for the system to be reviewed and overhauled, accusing the top clubs of failing in their “moral responsibility” to give young players opportunities. Wilkinson, who as the Football Association’s technical director in 1997 designed the current system, in which 12,000 boys are being trained by clubs from the age of eight, said he recognises that the very high release rate causes mental health difficulties to some, which can endure for years.

“What is needed is a serious reasoned review and a commitment from the whole game to commit to the implementation of recommendations which are designed to give these boys a morally deserved crack of the whip,” Wilkinson said. “Change has to come from the top.”

Wilkinson was responding to the Guardian’s report that highlighted depression and other mental health problems suffered by young men in academies, and particularly after they are released. One 2012 academic study of scholars, the smaller elite groups taken on full-time into clubs’ academies aged 16 to 18, found that 99% did not progress to have professional football careers.

Premier League and Football League clubs recruit dozens of young boys locally and nationally, many running development centres even for five- and six-year-olds, yet first-team managers often have little commitment to playing them, clubs preferring instead to sign ready-made overseas stars. Wilkinson cited as exceptions Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton, whose youth development systems are run by the former senior FA coaches John McDermott and Les Reed respectively, and operate more of a policy than most clubs to field young English players.

“Current youth coaches in England are as good or better than anywhere in the world: they are highly qualified, overworked and underpaid, highly committed experts,” said Wilkinson, who published his blueprint for the system, the FA’s Charter for Quality, 20 years ago this month.

“The facilities of academies are second to none; the ingredients are fantastic. One huge problem is the lack of opportunity. If you send your child to a school, you expect the school to give them every opportunity to develop their talent. It is their moral responsibility. For me, football also has that same responsibility. Lack of opportunity is a very serious problem, which can affect the boy long term and is already affecting the senior England team.”

Referring to the hundreds of boys released every year, Wilkinson said: “These are young people and many are not getting what they have been promised and a number naturally feel genuinely let down. They are adolescents, some can and do become depressed.

“There clearly isn’t the commitment to playing the players. The fault just isn’t taking too many boys in; it’s clubs not really committing to giving them the opportunity.”

Wilkinson’s charter, which gave professional clubs unprecedented involvement with children from very young ages, aimed to improve the quality of youth coaching, facilities and development, and prevent boys being overplayed by their schools and clubs. A year earlier an England team whose players had come through the old schools system, and mostly started senior careers at lower-division and non-league clubs, reached the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship. No full England team since the academy system was introduced have reached a similar stage of any international tournament and Wilkinson argues that the current manager, Gareth Southgate, lacks sufficient players for a strong squad.

“Research shows that to have a successful national team, a country needs a group of around 50 players with high‑level, including latter-round Champions League, experience, capable of playing in the team. England does not have that number of players who have been given the opportunity to go on and develop.”

In 2012 the Premier League drove through a series of improvements to Wilkinson’s blueprint, the Elite Player Performance Plan, and has persistently rejected arguments that its clubs’ reliance on overseas stars has undermined the England team. The former FA chairman Greg Dyke held a review into the issue, vowing to investigate whether the lack of opportunities for English players is partly because of top clubs being owned by overseas investors who have too little commitment to the national team. His review ultimately failed even to mention that proposition and its recommendation for a new lower division in which Premier League clubs could play B teams was widely ridiculed and later dropped.

Wilkinson said a thorough review is needed. “It seems the FA and leagues are choosing to ignore the facts; do people care about a strong England team? People [at the FA and leagues] should care; their success has come off the back of the English game, its history and heritage. Germany has shown that World Cups and Champions League success can be achieved through looking after their own.”

The Guardian Sport

Marcus Rashford Stays Grounded but is Hoping to Propel England to Russia

sports

London – As Marcus Rashford stretched out his limbs on one of the white leather seats at St George’s Park, the great young hope of English football stopped for a moment to consider how life had changed since those days when even his team-mates at Manchester United, among them Wayne Rooney, had to double-check his name on the club’s training pitches.

At 19, Rashford is now one of the more recognisable faces of the Premier League and the rising star of a renascent United side. Yet it is not even two years ago that he could probably have walked along Deansgate without being recognised. “My mum used to work in a bookies,” he said, “and my brother used to be a personal trainer. But my brothers just look after me now.” And his mum? Rashford’s boyish smile was a brief reminder that this strapping six‑footer sitting is still, lest it be forgotten, a teenager for a few more weeks. “My mum relaxes now,” he said.

He turns 20 on Halloween and has packed an awful lot into his short career bearing in mind he has already been to a European Championship with England, with the opportunity for Gareth Southgate’s team to book a place at the World Cup by beating Slovenia on Thursday. Rashford’s debut for United owed to a stroke of fortune before a Europa League tie against FC Midtjylland, courtesy of Anthony Martial sustaining a hamstring injury in the warm-up, and to put it into context the teenager’s name did not even appear in the club programme that night. Nineteen months on, a rare appearance in front of the England press corps included one question about what it felt like to belong to the small and exclusive club of the world’s best young footballers, alongside Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.

Another player might allow it to go to his head. Yet an audience with Rashford is a reminder that he has managed to stay remarkably grounded. Indeed, time with the boy from Wythenshawe confirms that everything you might hear about him being an unpretentious and ordinary sort is probably true. He is what is known in the trade as a reluctant interviewee – or rather one who does not seem to understand why these strange journalists, with their tape recorders and inquisitive minds, keep banging on about him living the dream. One certainty: Rashford would much rather continue living it than having to discuss it with a bunch of strangers.

That makes it a slightly unusual interview in one respect, not least because Rashford manages to go from start to finish without a single line that fits into the narrative of what an exhilarating story it has been. Yet that perhaps is how they are taught at United – never to get too far ahead of themselves – and Rashford has come all the way through the system, including the club-sponsored Ashton-on-Mersey School. “There’s loads of different examples I can give you of ways they keep us grounded,” he explained of his days in the club’s academy. “If you are winning a game by a ridiculous scoreline, obviously as an attacker you might start messing about if you’ve scored three goals or whatever. But the coaches will tell you: ‘You’re beating them but still show them respect.’ They drill that into you from a very young age.

“Obviously the coaching is very good, but They also try to turn you into good people as well as good players. It’s about having respect for everyone, regardless of who they are or what they’re doing. That is probably the baseline at United, no matter what age you are. Just having that alone can get you a long way. It’s the main message they give you.”

The result is there is no self‑congratulation from the player who scored on his Premier League, Champions League, League Cup and Europa League debuts, not to mention his first appearance for England, breaking Tommy Lawton’s 78-year record as the team’s youngest-ever debutant scorer. At the same time, it is not shyness that exudes from the 19-year-old. Rashford might have the superstar’s accessories now – the fast car, the expensive clothes, the big house – but he is from a streetwise part of south Manchester and perhaps, for someone in his position, that is not such a bad thing.

Ask him about the biggest change in his life and his response makes it clear it has not all been a bed of roses. “Probably the way you have to look after yourself, and look out for yourself as well, because everyone is always trying to get something off the back of you. You have to take care of yourself. You just have to be smart and try not to put yourself in them situations as much as you can. But there are always people who are trying to build themselves up off the back of you. It can be your own friends, or even people’s family members. It’s difficult, but what are you to know? I have people around me that guide me and kind of keep me away from certain things. Sometimes as a young player, that’s what’s needed. I have friends. I just do normal stuff, to be honest. I play PlayStation and I take the dogs for a walk.”

He has two – “a Cane Corso and a Frenchie [French bulldog]” – and is already thinking about who might be able to look after them in a World Cup summer. It is a reminder of Rashford’s tender years that the first tournament he can remember was South Africa in 2010, aged 12, and even then his memory was sketchy. “It’s going back,” he said. “Lampard and … Germany? That’s the one.”

The impression he leaves is that he is not entirely satisfied operating as a left-sided attacker – “I’m a striker” – and his memories of Euro 2016 also offer an insight into his personality. Rashford was the youngest player at that tournament but he bristles when someone asks if he valued the experience. “I’ll be honest with you, it is difficult to see it as a positive. We went out before we’d expected to go out, and before we wanted to go out, so it was a disappointing end to the season for me.”

The Guardian Sport

Football is a Whole New Ball Game when Players Have Home Comforts

Brighton

London – When asked by supporters and journalists about Brighton’s game against Everton on October 15, I found myself answering in the same manner: “They are a good side with numerous top players but at home we have a great chance of a result.” Reflecting on that fairly bland reply made me think of two very important words in that sentence that logically shouldn’t make an ounce of difference – “at home”.

However, looking back over my playing career it made me realize the importance placed on home advantage by managers I’ve played for, team‑mates I’ve played with and supporters I’m wearing the jersey on behalf of. For example, as a full-back the amount of times I’ve heard from my coach: “Get forward at every opportunity, we need to play at a high tempo today,” when playing at home as opposed to: “Take the sting out of the game, slow it down,” when preparing for an away game against teams of the same level made me realize that I’ve been mentally conditioned to buy into the belief that a match at home is somehow more beneficial than playing away.

If we were to take emotions and human nature out of the game then logically it shouldn’t make a blind bit of difference where you are playing. Similar-sized pitch, 11 vs. 11, a referee and a round thing that you have to put in a same-sized goal no matter where in the world you are playing means that football should be an identical standard.

Substitute emotion for logic, however, and it’s literally a whole new ball game. Football is a sport played and watched by emotional people who are, on the whole, creatures of habit. Over the years, there have been numerous analyses examining the statistical advantage of playing at home and conclusive evidence that teams playing in their own stadium have a much higher win ratio. Admittedly the ratio is narrowing, but it remains the case and, although stats are great when looking into an anomaly, they’re limited when it comes to painting the bigger picture.

As an experienced professional I can honestly say I have always been more confident and relaxed when playing at home. In fact, it’s only recently in my career that I can say I’m truly comfortable when playing away; experience has allowed me to really not be affected by a partisan crowd, who are itching to see me fail.

There are so many external, psychological influences that change according to playing at home or away. For example, sleeping in my own bed with my wife and children around me, allowing me to keep a strong pre‑game ritual, as opposed to sleeping in a strange bed in a hotel. Also the comfort and routine of being in your home dressing room as opposed to the smaller, less inviting away ones can have an effect, though this is something that is being addressed by many teams, who now go to the length of decorating away dressing rooms with their own colors and imagery, trying to recreate the home feel.

The pre-match messages I have heard from coaches and team-mates also, rightly or wrongly, negatively change when away from home to being more cautious or to quietening the crowd first and playing with a restriction that isn’t on the agenda otherwise – and that’s before we’ve even got to the game itself!

I have always tried to emphasize the importance of the fans’ role at a match and there’s nothing harder when playing away than when the home support is positive and vociferous. I have been on the away team trying to defend a lead and you know the old cliche about the crowd blowing the ball into the back of the net? It’s true. And there have also been games where the home team was in poor form and struggling, with the fans letting them know it, and on the pitch I could sense the nerves of the players and their confidence disintegrating. Believe me, a big home crowd can make the difference between victory and defeat.

And it’s not only the players who can be affected in these circumstances. Logically, the referee should apply the laws of the game in exactly the same way regardless of where he’s officiating, but in my experience it’s easier to give a penalty in front of 40,000 people who would be happy with the decision than a penalty that would make those people extremely upset. It’s no fault of theirs, just human nature.

When speaking of home advantage and why it makes such a huge difference, it’s part of the very reason we all love this sport – it’s a game played by human beings with emotions who aren’t immune to being affected by external influences.

The Guardian Sport

Why Curiosity was Never Going to Kill Arsenal’s Mesut Özil

Ozil

London – You’d have to try pretty hard not to like Paul Merson as a TV pundit. Even if you insisted on making a public show of not liking him – rolling your eyes, clutching a scented handkerchief, pointing out, pedantically, that he often talks a load of rubbish – it would be hard to avoid secretly liking him all the same.

Maybe not in the same way you might like Ian Wright, who has in the past few years taken a breath, realized he can just say whatever is on his mind and become in the process the best football pundit out there.

This is not as easy as it looks. Martin Keown, for example, also seems to know his stuff and has good opinions, but still talks about football like a man delivering a terse, menacing funeral elegy for his recently deceased border collie. Michael Owen is good these days but in an oddly resentful way, with an on-screen manner that suggests he’s been taken hostage in a brightly lit bunker by unseen kidnappers and is now buying time by sitting on a sofa speaking in a guarded voice about link-up play and instant finishes while a police sniper unit maneuvers into position just out of his eyeline.

Merson is the opposite of this. At times he seems to have forgotten he is actually on television and is just sitting with some other people talking about Harry Kane for ages while a man in a suit keeps trying to change the subject. But he is always watchable and passionate, and often very persuasive. As he was this week while being right, for the wrong reasons, about Mesut Özil.

Merse has had enough of Özil. “He doesn’t work hard enough for the team,” is the latest variation on the doesn’t-run-enough strand of objections that have followed Özil around the Premier League. But it is impossible to argue with the natural conclusion. Özil is available to play now and may well shimmy back in with a goal or two, or an impudently brilliant assist against Watford on Saturday. But Arsène Wenger really does have to try to sell him in January. The idea of this Arsenal team as some high-grade Özil-centered machine has flickered at times. But that ship has sailed. This is over. It’s done.

Next week it will be the six-month anniversary of Özil’s last Arsenal goal. Since December 2016 he has contributed one – one! – assist away from the Emirates Stadium. The team play better without him in it. He has already earned £30m in his time at the club. There is nothing here to justify an astronomically improved contract. The Age of Özil is over, a fascinating footnote in the wider history of why apparently well-suited player moves sometimes just don’t work out.

This is the real point. Never mind debating the exact nature of Özil’s undoubted qualities. It is more interesting to understand why he has tailed off at Arsenal. English football has always loved calling people lazy or weak. The idea that your Özils are not native enough in style, lacking the basic fiber and guts to succeed in the world’s most energetic league is clearly quite appealing.

Whereas in this case the opposite is true. Firstly, as has been frequently pointed out, Özil does run quite a lot. Last year he covered more ground per game in the Champions League than any other player with as many goals to their name.

Secondly, like it or not, Özil’s significant failings are strikingly English in nature. What has happened at Arsenal is that he has failed to develop, has failed to add any further gears to his game. Football has changed a lot in four years. But Özil is basically the same player with the same skills, the same needs, the same strengths and flaws. This is a kind of laziness. But it’s not to do with running or energy expended on the pitch; more a familiar, and very native lack of curiosity, a complacency, a failure to learn.

And please, we know the excuses by now. I’ve set them out myself in the past, mainly because Özil is just such a seductively pleasing talent, a player who in the right team and the right mood makes everything look like a kind of dance, pirouetting in search of space, gliding the ball between a series of points with such ease you half expect to look down and notice he’s wearing flip-flops or holding a sandwich.

We’ve all heard the one about needing special privileges too, the idea Özil’s work is so finely graded as to be almost invisible to the uncultured eye, like the most delicate component of some purringly over-engineered luxury car.

The problem here is that club football has moved on. Often Özil’s best moments rely on his team having enough possession for long enough periods, as Real Madrid and Arsenal may have in the recent past and Germany still do. But opponents are less stretched by these tactics now, are less likely to find themselves pulled out of shape while Özil, or similar, wheels himself into place for the killer incision. His pure style has dated, just as Arsenal’s switch to playing a little more without the ball has hardly helped.

The proof is in the success of similar players with greater range. Kevin De Bruyne is the obvious counterpoint, a player who can also pass brilliantly, who has many of the same functions, but who has learned and adapted at a thrilling speed. De Bruyne can now do pretty much anything – central midfield, No10, manage the counterattack. He will find a way to affect the game. Similarly Christian Eriksen has improved in his own four years in England, and not only in the things he already did well. Meanwhile, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase, Özil hasn’t played 166 games for Arsenal, he’s played the same game 166 times.

Perhaps he will come again. He isn’t alone in failing to progress his career under Wenger. He often plays really well for Germany. For now it is hard to avoid the feeling of fate closing in. There was a genuine shiver of excitement when Özil signed for Arsenal. He was meant to announce and define an era, the embodiment of late Wenger-ism. And so it has come to pass. This has been the age of Özil. Just not in the way Arsenal will have hoped, more as an emblem of princely stasis, and of a paradoxically English refusal to adapt and learn.

The Guardian Sport

Martin O’Neill Is in the Managerial Elite Even If a Top Job Eludes him

O'Neill

London – Blink, and you might have missed the part Shepshed Charterhouse, in the puddles and potholes of the Northern Premier League, played in the professional life of Martin O’Neill, back in the days when aspiring managers were prepared to start at the bottom and learn the hard way.

O’Neill’s first steps in management were actually with Grantham Town, grubbing around for points in the then Beazer Homes League, Midlands Division, a couple of rungs below the Conference. O’Neill arranged the deal at a bed-and-breakfast on the A52 and had a five-year plan in place until he ended up falling out with the chairman and, still in situ, found his job being advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. Shepshed were next but O’Neill’s time at the Dovecote was distinguished only by how quickly he came and went. The unofficial website for what is now Shepshed Dynamo summed it up rather neatly: “1989 – July – appointed Martin O’Neill as manager. October – sacked Martin O’Neill as manager. Wonder what became of him.”

In fact, O’Neill was not sacked and the truth makes for an even better story. O’Neill, like many ex-pros of that time, had been embarking on a career in insurance, working in the offices of Save & Prosper while his old pal and team-mate, John Robertson, his No2 at Shepshed, was out on the road trying to drum up business. It is a situation that could never happen now: two European Cup winners adjusting to a nine-to-five office job. The problem was combining that with trying to run a football team. “On one occasion we were almost late getting to a midweek match against Frickley Colliery in south Yorkshire,” Robertson recalls. It was obvious it could not continue that way and O’Neill gave up Shepshed to concentrate on Save & Prosper.

It is a great story bearing in mind what we know now, almost 30 years on, about his list of achievements, most recently as manager of the Republic of Ireland, the conveyor belt of players who speak about him in awe and the unmistakable sense, more than anything, that they will give absolutely everything they have to get his approval.

My first professional dealings with O’Neill came at Leicester City – the club where, I always maintain, he put together his most outstanding work. O’Neill had taken over in the same week that I had moved to the city and, as a young agency reporter putting out the old rotary-dial telephones in the pressbox, it was a marvel to see, up‑close, how much the players and fans at Filbert Street disliked him when he took over and how, by the end, he had the entire city dancing to his tune.

O’Neill faced down the makings of a dressing-room mutiny and transformed a second-tier team in such an invigorating way the people of Leicester, pre-2016, could have been forgiven for wondering whether it would ever get any better. There were four top-10 finishes after securing promotion with virtually the final kick of O’Neill’s first season, in the 1996 play-off final. His team reached three League Cup finals, winning two, and lifted their first silverware since 1964. They went to Anfield four times, won three and drew the other.

Everyone remembers Dennis Bergkamp’s improvisational brilliance for his hat-trick goal at Leicester in August 1997. What tends to be forgotten is that it came in the third minute of stoppages and O’Neill’s team still found the time to conjure up the final goal of a 3-3 draw. Bergkamp left the pitch that night shaking his head in disbelief and that, in a nutshell, was the O’Neill effect. In all the years since, it is difficult to recall more than a handful of teams with such a spirit of togetherness.

It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see Ireland qualifying, at the expense of Wales, for a place in Tuesday’s draw for the World Cup play-offs and there have been so many other examples of O’Neill’s expertise in the interim years it does feel slightly unfair, perhaps, that he has never been given a chance to manage one of the Premier League’s elite clubs.

It tends to be forgotten, for example, that there was once a time when O’Neill was the overwhelming favorite to take over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. O’Neill was managing Celtic at the time, where he won seven trophies and reached the Uefa Cup final, and the Manchester press corps still talk about the 2003 press conference before the two teams played a pre-season fixture in Seattle. When O’Neill was asked about replacing Ferguson he answered with great diplomacy bearing in mind the man himself was directly to his left. Yet the journalist who asked the question was already feeling a pair of Glaswegian eyes boring into his skull. “Don’t worry about him,” Ferguson whispered to O’Neill, quietly enough not to be heard by his audience but loud enough to be picked up by the tapes. Ferguson always sounded extra Glaswegian and talked a little bit quicker when his temper had been roused.

All good fun. The problem for O’Neill if he did fancy that job was that Ferguson – “The Man Who Couldn’t Retire,” as the Daily Telegraph called him – stayed for another 10 years and when United did finally need a new manager, in May 2013, it was two months after “Squire”, as he is still known by his old Nottingham Forest team-mates (a nod to his university background), had been sacked for the only time in his career. Even the most accomplished managers tend to have one club on their CV where it goes wrong. For O’Neill, his spell in the managerial wasteland of Sunderland came at the worst possible time.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that his four years at Aston Villa are not remembered more fondly by their supporters. Villa finished 11th, up from 16th, in his first campaign and then sixth in each of O’Neill’s last three seasons at the club, qualifying for Europe and, in 2010, reaching a Wembley final. They improved their points total every season and in his second campaign they scored more times, 71, than they had since winning the league a quarter of a century before. The 1980-81 team managed 72 – but that was over 42 games, not 38.

The call won’t come now, though. O’Neill recently agreed a two-year extension to his contract with Ireland. He will be 68 when it expires and he might just have to accept that some of the elite clubs could be put off by his team’s lack of artistic merit.

Equally, take a close look at the squad before questioning why Ireland don’t pass the ball more elegantly. Eighteen of the players O’Neill called up for the Wales game were from teams in the Championship, whereas only 11 came from top-division clubs. Of those, only three played for teams that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Where Roy Keane once patrolled, it is now David Meyler of Hull City. For Robbie Keane, it is Daryl Murphy of Nottingham Forest. James McClean is now probably Ireland’s best player. He will run until he drops and his goal against Wales was taken beautifully – but, as wingers go, he is hardly in the class of Liam Brady. Or even Damien Duff. Is it any wonder the opposition often have more of the ball?

The point is there are all sorts of ways to win a football match. O’Neill won the European Cup for a side whose backs-to-the-wall operation against Hamburg in the 1980 final was denounced in the German press as “Blitzkrieg football” and described by Brian Glanville in the Sunday Times as “tactical cowardice”. Do you think Clough cared when he had the trophy on top of his television? And would you imagine O’Neill will worry about the unrealistic snobbery if he makes it to Russia next summer with one of the least distinguished groups of Irish players for some time?

For now, O’Neill’s CV is the best response. It always was. Robertson remembers what his mate was like in the world of insurance. “By his own admission, Martin’s knowledge of the financial services we were trying to sell was not the best. But he came across as though he knew the business inside out.”

The Guardian Sport

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

Liverpool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

World Cup 2018 Power Rankings: Germany on Top among Qualified 23

Germany

London – Twenty-three nations have booked their places for the World Cup in Russia, with the holders and Brazil looking in good shape, but we rank England in 13th place, below Iceland:

1) Germany
If the world champions were frustrated by their failure to win continental honors at Euro 2016 they have certainly taken it out on everyone else since. Germany won 10 qualifying games out of 10 and, even if San Marino’s presence in Group C needs taking into account, a record 43 goals scored suggests things are back in their old working order. So too did their Confederations Cup title in July, achieved with an experimental squad. Joachim Löw can select from an unrivaled depth of talent and, while winning back-to-back World Cups remains a huge task, none of next summer’s contenders has an equivalent selection of tools with which to tackle the different challenges they will face.

2) Brazil
Brazil look revitalized under Tite and the light work they made of the fiendish Conmebol qualifying procedure was deeply impressive. The manager has openly stated they should be listed among the leading contenders next summer; it is hard to disagree and it is worth listening to Dani Alves when he says Tite’s human touch makes him “very distant from all Brazilian coaches”. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and an energized Paulinho are among those benefiting from the transformation and perhaps a sequence of failing to lift the trophy since 2002 will be ended in Russia.

3) Spain
Will it aid Spain that, certainly unlike most of their European rivals, they have already had to dispose of another World Cup contender in the qualifiers? Italy may well make it through the play-offs and, in fairness the rest of Group G was not up to much, but that 3-0 win at the Bernabéu last month was ominous and La Roja’s new generation appear ready to challenge seriously next summer. Álvaro Morata is developing into a genuinely world-class striker; Marco Asensio has a glittering career ahead at just 21; and the in-form Isco, who scored twice against the Italians, has been given room to express himself by Julen Lopetegui. Spain have emerged from their rough period to look a major force once again.

4) France
Qualifying was not without the odd hiccup – but for the frame of the goal that home draw with Luxembourg could have become something far more humiliating – but France did well in one of the more awkward groups and the potential of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé trumps that of virtually any side that will be playing in Russia. Can Didier Deschamps get the best out of them all? If he can then France, who have few obvious weaknesses on paper, will deserve to be ranked among the favorites next summer.

5) Belgium
Belgium put on one of Europe’s better qualifying campaigns, negating any real threat from two potentially tricky rivals in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. Perhaps the unlikely combination of the Spaniard Roberto Martínez and the Frenchman Thierry Henry can deliver where Marc Wilmots failed and produce a run of convincing tournament performances. Romelu Lukaku’s form for club and country makes Christian Benteke’s struggles all the less troublesome, while Dries Mertens is in the form of his life for Napoli. None of their other mainstays need too much introduction and there remains the tantalizing prospect that, should everything be harnessed correctly, Belgium can do something special.

6) Portugal
They only scraped into the automatic qualification place although, save for a post-Euro 2016 hangover defeat in Switzerland, there was not too much wrong with Portugal’s campaign. Now the question is whether Fernando Santos can get players such as Bernardo Silva and André Silva to perform on the highest stage, and whether Cristiano Ronaldo – who will be 33 when Russia 2018 comes around – can handle a game every three or four days for, potentially, a month. Should Santos succeed then Portugal ought to be more fluid than the team that did not win too many friends in taking the European title.

7) Argentina
The bones will be picked out of a qualifying campaign that flirted with disaster and required saving by a Lionel Messi masterclass in Ecuador, but Argentina have made it and will automatically be installed as one of the favorites. It is worth pointing out that everyone bar Brazil came close to missing out in an extraordinary Conmebol qualifying group; it will also be a big concern, though, that the gap between Jorge Sampaoli’s team and their bitterest rivals – whom they did defeat in a summer friendly – was so big. They certainly have the individual talent to bridge it in Russia – and, in what will probably be his last World Cup, Messi has the incentive to deliver more magic.

8) Poland
There is a strut to Poland under Adam Nawalka and they fit neatly into any “dark horse” assessment – not least because the world’s sixth-ranked side will be one of the eight seeded teams in Russia. That is almost entirely down to their outstanding form during qualifying, marred only by a puzzling 4-0 defeat in Denmark; goals are not usually a problem and especially not for Robert Lewandowski, who scored 16 of their 28 in Group E. They are fast and assertive at their best. The worry would be that, as seemed to be the case at Euro 2016, Lewandowski may try to do too much and blunt his own effectiveness in the penalty area.

9) Mexico
The urbane Juan Carlos Osorio may not be universally popular in Mexico but his team barely had to break sweat in a poor qualifying group, an irrelevant (to them) late defeat away to Honduras notwithstanding. The Colombian Osorio has been criticized for his rotation of players, among other things but El Tri play with clarity and, with Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández both in their prime, carry a serious threat. It is still hard to see them mustering a performance that can overthrow one or more of the favorites, though.

10) Nigeria
Nigeria have started to get their house in order and there is distinct optimism around a generation of players that looks their best hope of a last-eight spot in some years. Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi add Premier League quality. The coach, the German Gernot Rohr, has molded a balanced and organized side that can be lethal on the counterattack and maybe, after a series of nondescript World Cup appearances, Nigeria are now equipped for something more.

11) Uruguay
The one guarantee with Uruguay is that they will always hang in there and second place in the South American qualifiers was a pleasant tonic after a run of three consecutive defeats either side of Christmas. Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani always give you a decent chance and they have an exceptional midfield talent coming through behind them in Federico Valverde. They finished up in good form with a 4-2 win over Bolivia although, with 20 goals conceded, Óscar Tabárez may be concerned that some of their time-honored solidity needs recapturing.

12) Iceland
The Iceland manager, Heimir Hallgrimsson, believes his side should turn up in Russia with the same hope of winning as anyone else. Nobody would dare laugh nowadays: Iceland kept their heads to win a fiendish Group I after Croatia folded with the finishing line in sight, and the question now is whether they can at least emulate their last-eight finish of Euro 2016. They can be such a difficult team to analyze, sometimes lacking an obvious pattern of play, but they benefit from an exceptional knowledge of one another and unswervable self-belief. Those two factors, added to the match-winning excellence of Gylfi Sigurdsson, could leave them perfectly equipped for another eye-catching campaign.

13) England
England were barely dealt a single problem in the most sterile of qualifying groups. Performances in the last two major tournaments speak rather less favorably of their prospects and they are left in a curious position where, after years in which their potential was often grossly overstated, expectations will perhaps move a little exaggeratedly in the other direction. Gareth Southgate’s team are competent enough and have an outstanding striker in Harry Kane; the problem is that nothing about what goes on behind him seems at all intuitive. There has been plenty of talk about lessons being learned in the team’s wider approach to tournament football; that may be so but the smart money is still on England pulling through the group stage comfortably enough before floundering against bolder opponents.

14) Egypt
What a story Egypt’s World Cup qualification, their first since 1990, provided and the good news might not stop there. Héctor Cúper’s team showed at the Africa Cup of Nations, where they finished runners-up to Cameroon, that they know their way around a major tournament and in Mohammed Salah they have a talisman who can decide tight games against anyone. They have an experienced spine, plenty of momentum and an immediate target – the Argentinian Cúper has already asked them to make the last 16 and, if they can take the initiative against sides that drop deep, it should not be beyond them.

15) Colombia
Colombia spluttered over the line and will need to be better if their quarter-final finish of 2014 is to be emulated. It is almost certainly a final chance on this stage for Radamel Falcao, who so cruelly missed out four years ago, while a repeat of last time around from James Rodríguez – generally disappointing since then – will probably be in order too. José Pekerman was relieved his team secured qualification by drawing with Peru and the resilience the Argentina-born coach showed in the critical draw in Peru will be required in spades eight months from now.

16) Serbia
It has been quite a turnaround for Serbia since, almost exactly three years ago, they underwent the shame of that fateful Euro 2016 qualifier against Albania and the picture looks altogether brighter now after they came top of a hard Group D. Nemanja Matic is the linchpin of a team with a pleasing blend of youth and experience. Slavoljub Muslin probably lacks the goalscoring power for a deep run next summer, but Serbia have been under-performing for some time and should, as a minimum, provide larger countries with an awkward moment or two.

17) Iran
“Team Melli” have never been past the group stage at a World Cup and, while they topped Group A in Asia’s third qualifying round by seven points, it would appear difficult for the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz to inspire something better next summer. Iran found it much harder to put teams away than their position suggested, although they were hardly averse to grinding out a result – five away games brought just two goals in total, both in 1-0 victories. They have a solid defense and a forward of great talent in Sardar Azmoun, but may struggle against stronger sides.

18) Costa Rica
Costa Rica continue to punch above their weight and their record in qualifying against the USA – inflicting two grievous blows in winning 4-0 and 2-0 – was eye-catching. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Keylor Navas although the squad as a whole is aging somewhat. It is a stretch to imagine they have the potential to reach the quarter-finals again, although only a fool would dismiss them out of hand. Their last meeting with a European side, a narrow defeat to Spain two years ago, suggests they should compete.

19) Japan
Vahid Halilhodzic looked to be on borrowed time before Japan, in beating Australia 2-0 six weeks ago, secured their progress to a sixth successive World Cup. The chances of bettering their two last-16 finishes seem fairly remote, although the Bosnian Halilhodzic took Algeria through the group stage in 2014 and, in a funny way, looks a better fit for the final tournament than for the qualifiers. Japan have plenty of European experience these days but, like Algeria, will still need to show signs of over-performing to move up these rankings.

20) Russia
Rarely has the buildup to a World Cup brought such little local enthusiasm for the home team, although Qatar may run Russia close in four years’ time. At the Confederations Cup it was Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than Stanislav Cherchesov’s stodgy side, that brought the crowds out in their droves and there is little obvious reason for that to change. Friendly results, including a win achieved in a slightly eccentric assignment against Dinamo Moscow, have been decent enough but it would currently take an optimistic soul to look beyond a last-16 exit at best.

21) Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia thanked Bert van Marwijk for taking them to a first World Cup in 12 years and promptly parted company with the Dutchman, negotiations for a new contract breaking down amid suggestions that he was not spending enough time in the country. It means they have lost the services of a 2010 World Cup finalist – with Holland – for next year’s tournament and the Argentinian Edgardo Bauza, who had been coaching their qualifying group B rivals the United Arab Emirates, will lead them to Russia instead. They did well to pip Australia to automatic qualification and look forward to players such as the prolific Mohammed al-Sahlawi to step up and have an impact.

22) South Korea
An unconvincing set of qualifiers was compounded by friendly defeats to Russia and Morocco – 4-2 and 3-2 respectively – this month and optimism is distinctly lacking. South Korea have not won a game since March, when they beat Syria 1-0, and bar the admirable Son Heung-min they possess few names to make opponents sit up. Shin Tae-yong, appointed in July, has a battle on his hands – not least to win round South Korea’s fans, who still hold out hope of a glorious return to the fold for Guus Hiddink.

23) Panama
Barely known to most without a keen interest in the Concacaf qualifying tournament, Panama are a welcome new face and will be ready to bloody a nose or two. If we are being harsh, their form in a group low on quality was essentially middling – and they had a decisive slice of luck against Costa Rica on Tuesday when their equalizer was given despite not crossing the line – but nobody in the country will care. They disrupted the USA, among others, with some strong-arm tactics on the road to Russia – perhaps recalling Honduras’s performance at Brazil 2014.

The Guardian Sport

The Premier League’s Big-money Signings Who Need to Start Performing

London – Gylfi Sigurdsson, Everton, £45m

It wasn’t just the £45m fee Everton forked out for Gylfi Sigurdsson that was costly but also the time they spent securing his signature when they could have been looking at areas of the squad that were in greater need of strengthening. An outrageous goal on his first start for the club in the Europa League hinted that he could prove money well spent but his form in the league has been far from reflective of such an inflated price tag.

Everton fans will hope their new arrival can take confidence from a memorable international break, when he helped Iceland book a place at the World Cup for the first time in their history. He scored in the game that clinched qualification but is yet to do so in the Premier League for his new club (only two of his 11 shots so far this season have been on target) – and he hasn’t registered an assist in 479 minutes of action. With Ronald Koeman’s men hovering above the relegation zone, they need more from their record signing.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool, £40m

Having made a relatively bright start to the season in a struggling Arsenal side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season took an almighty dip around the time of his £40m transfer to Liverpool. His last match for Arsenal ended in a 4-0 defeat and his first for Liverpool ended in a 5-0 defeat. He has been given limited opportunities at Liverpool – he hasn’t started a Premier League match yet – but he did himself few favours when given his full debut against Leicester in the EFL Cup. Liverpool lost the game 2-0 and Oxlade-Chamberlain was truly awful.

Another disappointing display on international duty for England in their drab 1-0 win over Slovenia offers little encouragement for an imminent upturn in form; he looked isolated while he was on the pitch and was the first England player to be substituted. Oxlade-Chamberlain needs to get out of this current funk or risk becoming something of a comedy figure. Sadio Mané’s injury could give the 24-year-old a route into the side in the coming weeks. Putting in a good performance against Manchester United on Saturday would be a good way to kickstart his Liverpool career.

Michael Keane, Everton, £25m

Michael Keane’s start to life at Goodison was very promising. His first four starts ended in victories and clean sheets – and he even managed to score in the last of those games, a 2-0 win over Hajduk Split in the Europa League. Keane’s form has taken a concerning downturn since, however. Ashley Williams has taken the brunt of the criticism at the back but he hasn’t been helped by his 24-year-old central defensive partner, who has looked particularly shaky recently.

His distribution from the back has been found wanting at times, particularly against teams willing to press high up the pitch. Keane’s confidence seemed to dip as Everton suffered four straight defeats without scoring a goal. They faced strong opponents in that run but conceding 12 goals in four games is not good enough for Everton. Keane must prove that he can cut it against the better sides if Everton are to move up the table.

Nathan Aké, Bournemouth, £20m

A successful loan spell on the south coast last season was enough to persuade Bournemouth to part with a record £20m fee for Nathan Aké, but the Dutch international hasn’t reached the same heights since his return. There was some cause for optimism that the youngster was beginning to re-adjust ahead of the international break, however, with his strongest showing of the season coming as Bournemouth were held to a stalemate against Leicester, securing a first clean sheet of the campaign.

The 22-year-old was impressive last season, weighing in with three goals and one assist in his 10 league appearances, but his form has dipped since he signed a permanent deal. He hasn’t scored or set up a goal but, more concerning for Eddie Howe will be his drop in pass accuracy and tackles (down from 2.2 to 1.6 per 90 minutes), clearances (down from nine from 6.4) and blocks (down from one from 0.4) per 90 minutes. Howe put a lot of faith in the Chelsea graduate but as yet he has been far from convincing.

Andre Gray, Watford, £18.5m

Another record signing for his new club during the summer, Andre Gray has plenty to live up to following a modest debut campaign in the top flight. He only scored nine league goals for Burnley last season but Watford were still willing to splash out £18.5m on the 26-year-old, who has struggled to make a real impact under Marco Silva.

He scored his first league goal in 510 minutes in Watford’s 2-1 win at Swansea last month but other than that he has been quiet. Gray has mustered just seven shots in as many appearances for his new club – and just two on target – and he doesn’t offer the same link-up play or aerial threat as out-of-favour Troy Deeney. Four of Deeney’s five league appearances this season have come as a substitute but he has managed to register an assist (unlike Gray), while also winning eight aerial duels in just 123 minutes compared to Gray’s three in 460 minutes.

The Guardian Sport

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

Chelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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