Mata-Marouane: The Moyesian Odd Couple Nearing a United Redemption

Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall a phenomenon bubbled up in Eastern Europe called “ostalgie”, or nostalgia for the old east. Seized with ostalgie, citizens of the new world found themselves tiring of the glories of capitalism, with its treacly soft drinks, unfettered access to soft-rock music and a natureless ecstasy of identical consumer products; and yearning instead for the old certainties of communism, the gulag and mass-produced cardboard trousers. As recently as last year a majority of Romanians said they missed the murderous despot Nicolae Ceausescu. Presumably, again, because you knew where you stood and the statues were nice.

It goes to show you can miss anything if you really want to. With exceptions of course. For example there are to date no documented examples of what social scientists might call “Moyestalgia”, which is defined as nostalgia for the events and personnel of David Moyes’s time in charge of Manchester United over 10 grippingly doomed months between July 2013 and April 2014.

I think I know why this is. I think it’s because it was a terrible time when nothing good happened. But for the neutral there is still something grippingly cinematic about the basic category-mistake of Moyes at United, a man not so much out of his depth as tossed and tumbled head over heels in a vast tide of industrial-scale confusion. Squint and you can still just about see his pale, frazzled ghost wandering about on the touchline, still looking like a doomed wedding cake figurine in his sad blue suit, shouting at shadows, pointing at things that never happened, feeling the ground beneath his shiny little shoes shift and fall away.

At the end of which there is a still a chance to take a different memory from this. On the face of it José Mourinho’s current title contenders have almost nothing in common with the brown-paper-and-string stylings of the Moyes succession. From De Gea to Lukaku, through Bailly-Jones-Pogba-Matic and the controlled creativity of Rashford-Martial this second-season team has a classic Mourinho spine in place, those powerful interlocking units that have marked his most successful moments.

Almost nothing, but not quite. In the last few weeks it has been fascinating to see a couple of Moyesian hangovers integrated into the machine. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata were the only players signed under Moyes. Even at the time they seemed oddly mismatched, evidence in their silhouettes alone of a certain confusion. On the one hand an awkward, angular midfield wardrobe. On the other a technician whose entire career has been a triumph of vision and skill over his own slight physique.

In the years since both players have been a little bruised and marginalized. Mata and Fellaini are both 29 now and in the last year of their contracts. No other player has come to United for that much money and stayed for this long without winning a league title (even Juan Sebastián Verón got one of those). For all the good moments, they are still on some level, a part of the unforgiven.

Except there is a chance now for an alternative ending. Neither looks like a first-choice starter with everyone fit. But both have become functioning parts in a team that has drawn drooling reviews for its power, its unity of purpose, the sheer relief of no longer looking like an odd-job of high-priced parts. This is in its own way an act of genuine team building, the ability to integrate a pair of wobbly wheels and weld them to the main frame.

Even then Mata and Fellaini stand out. And not only for that air of shared survivor-dom but for something agreeably timeless and touching, a little soul, a few scars. If Fellaini can recover his fitness in time they may even appear against Crystal Palace on Saturday, yoked together on the touchline like an odd-couple man-child double act in a Steinbeck novella. Watching the pair of them answer questions in front of the post-match cameras you half expect to hear things like: “I’m sorry mister my brother he gone strangled your rabbit he don’t mean no harm he just kinda clumsy whoah put the gun down mister.”

Perhaps just me, but something does seem to be working here. The last time Manchester United lost a game that Fellaini started was the 4-0 to Chelsea in October 2016. Of his last 45 first-team appearances only three have ended in defeat. One was as an 89th-minute sub in the EFL Cup semi-final second leg. Another was the FA Cup game at Chelsea where Ander Herrera was sent off. The last was against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup in August, when United actually “won” during Fellaini’s 35 minutes on the pitch.

Still, though, Fellaini divides opinion. Some see a blunt, stodgy, elbow-flailing obstacle. Others see only his bad points. But he is a high-class team player when the system works for him. This season he has seemed to do a little less to good effect, having fewer shots, fewer fouls, fewer headers, holding his position and still able to reel out his most outstanding quality, that astonishing Velcro chest control, a footballer with a chest like a hand, able to rise like a huge, angular sea and simply clutch the ball out of the sky with a wriggle of the shoulders.

Mata is obviously a different type, all bandy-legged fine-point craft. His time at Old Trafford has been a bit easier, maybe because he looks like a United player, maybe because he is such an endearing, likeable figure, and maybe because he’s changed a bit. The idea Mata doesn’t track back should always be judged against the fact hustling and harrying for 90 minutes is so much harder for a player of his size and stamina. But this season he has clearly taken the Mourinho pill. These are early days, of course. We are still grinding through the high gears. If a United title challenge does come Mata-Marouane will add another shade to the pursuit, plus perhaps a deeper emotional tone. It is easy to dismiss footballers’ finer feelings, to see only pampered traveling contractors. But these are still creatures of ambition and anxiety. Both Mata and Fellaini may end up with more appearances for United than any other club by the end of this season, the current febrile four-year spell the dominant segment of their careers. Whatever happens this could, in its own way, end up a redemption story. Perhaps even – the pallor, the panic, the ghosts – a minor sporting exorcism.

(The Guardian)

The Making of Gabriel Jesus: How the Humble Kid from São Paulo Became a Superstar

Jesus acrobatically controls the ball during Manchester City’s 4-0 Champions League win over Feyenoord.

Gabriel Jesus’s childhood football coach, José Francisco Mamede, was the least surprised of anyone when the boy‑faced wonder exploded on to the Premier League scene with Manchester City in February against West Ham United.

“I always knew he would turn out to be a top professional. When we had him as a boy I predicted he would turn pro, play for Brazil and get a big overseas transfer. It all happened exactly as I knew it would. Well, it looks like I need to make another prediction now: Gabriel Jesus will win the Ballon d’Or within three years.”

Jesus has barely stopped scoring or impressing in the matches he has played since that February night, although a foot injury last season did sideline him for two and a half months, and if City have the look of serious title contenders that is in no small part down to the 20‑year‑old forward.

Whereas last season Jesus’s impact forced Sergio Agüero on to the bench, this term they are forming a formidable strike partnership. Jesus has five goals from his last five games, including one on his Champions League debut against Feyenoord. His tally of 11 goals from 13 Premier League starts points to an extraordinarily smooth transition since his arrival from Palmeiras in January for what now looks a bargain initial £27m. Little wonder City are preparing to reward Jesus with a new contract.

A journey back to where it all began for Jesus reinforces the scope of his talent and the speed of his rise. Through a combination of dedication and the right guidance, Jesus went from playing on dirt pitches with no referee at 15 to being Brazil’s first‑choice centre‑forward four years later.

Mamede, the director of sports and one of the founders of Pequeninos do Meio Ambiente, the junior club where Jesus played his first competitive games, almost wells up with emotion when he tells the Guardian about his former charge. “The boy is a superstar,” he says. “It seems as though the ball looks for him when it’s in the area. He is always in the right place at the right time. And he’s always been like that.”

About as far north as it is possible to go within the sprawling city limits of Brazil’s biggest metropolis, São Paulo, in the grounds of a military prison, lies the pitch used by the youth football club.

Saturday morning training is a romantic scene. By the time we arrive, the sun is forcing parents and spectators to take refuge in the shade of the tall pine trees that surround the dry, uneven dirt pitch. As the young boys and girls aged between seven and 14 turn, skip and kick away, the baked-earth clouds that billow up are highlighted by shafts of light piercing through the foliage.

This is where Jesus’s football education started; dodging defenders double his size in the dust. To play on these pitches you need to develop a great first touch and speed of thought, as the bounce is unpredictable.

“It’s on dirt pitches like this that boys will learn how to control the ball,” Mamede says. “Football is simple. You don’t need to complicate it. I train the boys a lot like this: control and pass, control and pass. These bare-earth pitches develop a boy to become quick-thinking; he needs to be able to predict where the ball is going to arrive and where it’s going after he makes the pass. So he’s going to develop much better control than if he just plays on artificial turf. I think this is very important.”

By all accounts the young Jesus did not need much coaching, only a little love and support. Thankfully, he has always been guided by people with his best interests at heart.

Mamede wistfully recalls the first time he saw Jesus in action: “He arrived here, in flip-flops, about eight years old, and in the first game of the first training that he attended he scored a goal by dribbling around three much bigger boys and slotted the ball home with ease. I said to myself: ‘This kid is something special.’”

The coaches voluntarily give up their weekends to coach dozens of youngsters from the surrounding area. Mamede says he used to drive the boys to away games in his knackered old Beetle, often fitting up to 11 little footballers in the back. Inside the car he kept boots and kit to lend to players who would otherwise play barefoot.

It is not an affluent part of the city, with the surrounding area full of favelas, and many of the kids come as much for the free ham sandwich and juice as for the chance of playing in the team. Jesus, among others, used to receive a box of basic food provisions from the club to take home to his family. Mamede is rightfully proud of the work he and his small team do here.

“This club exists to take children off the street,” he says. “That’s why we love playing at the military base. We often arrive at away games to find there’s also samba and alcohol. This is never going to end well. I even get angry when I see dads smoking on the touchline. If you smoke and use bad language, the kid is going to do the same.”

With a heavy heart, he recalls attending the funerals of boys caught up with robberies and drug dealing. Jesus was never involved in this side of life, though, and Mamede remembers him as a singularly focused individual.

“Gabriel used to say that he never missed training, never missed a game. He was always first in line for exercises and drills – he wasn’t one of those who loitered at the back pretending to do the drill, like so many are … I’ve had at least 10 young players here who were as good, if not better than him, but they didn’t make it because they were lazy. Something that Gabriel never was.”

This application is combined with a quiet self-confidence that earned Jesus the nickname Tetinha, slang for “easy-peasy”. Any time the team spoke of the opposition, or needed another goal, he would smile and say “Tetinha!”

By all accounts he was like this on and off the pitch and everyone in the neighborhood where he grew up knows him by that word. The only thing that seemed to visibly trouble the young Jesus was losing a game of football.

“He would cry a lot,” recalls Mamede. “He hates losing even half a game. Imagine when we lost the final of the local championship. It was his last year playing with us, we arrived in the semi-finals to play a team who were four years unbeaten. They had a great team. We won 4-1, with all four goals scored by Gabriel. We then played Portuguesa [a professional football club] in the final, and we lost 3-1. Gabriel scored for us but we lost because they were so much better prepared, they had proper football boots, whereas our boys were slipping on the grass; we didn’t even have studs.”

This particular defeat stuck in the young player’s head. Toward the end of his final season at Palmeiras, under his own steam, Jesus returned to Pequeninos to deliver 250 pairs of new boots. “I’m the same as them,” he told O Globo Sport last October. “I’ve also had my problems. I think it’s really important for them to hold on to the dream they may one day realize.”

Jesus had a tough start in life. He grew up in very humble surroundings, in Jardim Peri, at the northern edge of São Paulo. He was the youngest of four children in a single-parent family. His father, who left his mother for another woman when Jesus was in the womb, died in a motorbike accident and had no part in the boy’s upbringing.

Despite or perhaps because of these hardships, Jesus never wavered in his pursuit of becoming a professional athlete. His neighbor in the community where his family lived, Maria Rosimar da Silva, recalls a “quiet, smiley kid, only interested in football”.

“His mum used to scream and shout for him to come in at night but he wouldn’t respond,” she says. “He just stayed in the street with his ball. He’d run out of the house with both hands clutching it, snot running down his nose.” She giggles. “I’d call him over to wipe it for him – he never let go of that ball.”

Jesus’s mum, Vera Lucia, is without doubt the single most important figure in his life and he has two tattoos to commemorate this. Maria describes her as a “warrior woman, who was always very persistent in achieving her goals”.

Those goals were to raise four children to be hard-working and respectful. “If you are black and poor, you need to study hard,” she would tell her kids and she made sure their school work was done on time.

Jesus has joked in interviews that his mum is the “toughest center-back he’s ever had to face” and that she was a mum and a dad for him, putting a loving arm around him or chastising him as needed. Vera put her first three children to work from the age of 12 to augment the income she received as a cleaner in the city but she recognized Jesus’s talent and desire from an early age and spared him to concentrate on his football.

She lived with her son in Manchester as he settled in, controlling his press commitments and making sure he is careful with money and girls. The Guardian had lined up a meeting with Jesus’s cousin but was told that “Auntie Vera has forbidden it”. She still calls the shots and is not to be messed with. It is this kind of treatment that will keep the new darling of Brazilian football’s feet firmly on terra firma, as more and more people clamor for a piece of the action.

Jesus is adored by the people who knew him growing up and he retains a strong connection to the area, where there is a mural with his image. “I can leave Peri,” it reads, “but Peri will never leave me.”

Even after becoming a local hero at Palmeiras, Jesus would often return to see friends after games and have a kickabout in the street. He also spent a lot of time there during the summer break this year, seeing old friends and playing football with the youngsters who now see him as a role model.

Another neighbor, José Cesaro Neto, showed us his “Jesus” Palmeiras shirt and describes him as “the same guy today as he was as a kid. Quiet, simple, normal”.

Jesus’s profile is in stark contrast to that of his good friend and Brazil strike partner Neymar. The two young forwards have the same tattoo, which they got before winning gold for Brazil at Rio 2016, depicting a young boy with a ball, looking up at the favela he calls home.

In Brazil, however, Neymar is generally viewed as a bit too obsessed with the showbiz side of his life. Jesus is understood to be the opposite: humble, honest and focused on nothing but his game. Whether Mamede’s prediction comes true will depend on many variables working in Jesus’s favor: team-mates’ form, staying free of injury, and not least being able to get free of defenders who will now be doubling up on him.

Should the stars align, there will not be too many surprised faces in the north of São Paulo if Brazil’s next Ballon d’Or winner turns out not to be the big-money man playing in Paris after all. Jesus has the Premier League, Champions League and World Cup in his sights over the next 10 months and no one who witnessed his rise would doubt his potential to be the oustanding player in all three.

For Jesus, though, it has always been one step at a time. Albeit a succession of very quick steps. Thanks to his dedication and two important “salt of the earth” guiding lights, Jesus has made his journey from the street kickabouts of Jardim Peri to the pressure cooker of the Premier League title race look easy.

Brazil’s No9 is the perfect combination of nature and nurture. The sky is the limit but critically, behind the scenes, he has a dedicated group of family and friends making sure his feet stay firmly on the ground.

(The Guardian)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guardian Sport

Eden Hazard Takes Himself, Chelsea to Another Level with Dazzling Display


London- It was about two minutes after the final whistle, while Antonio Conte and his victorious players were still massing to acknowledge their fans’ delirious celebrations up in the gods, when the television cameras focused in upon their man. Diego Costa was sitting among the Atlético Madrid dignitaries, initially wearing the same haggard, disbelieving look as those immediately around him, before sinking his head into his hands. It was an image to sum up the locals’ dismal night but, deep inside, even the departed striker must have admired everything his former team‑mates had done here.

Conte had always seen this contest as a means of gauging Chelsea’s real capabilities back in the elite, concerned as he was that even a year-long absence might have blunted their pedigree. In inflicting Atletico’s first home defeat to English opposition – and their first reverse in their new arena – the Premier League side have laid down a marker. The last time they travelled here, in the first leg of the 2014 semi-final, they had attempted merely to suffocate, eventually squeezing out a goalless draw.

It is a reflection of Conte’s enterprise, and the confidence he has imbued, that they sought and managed to outplay the Spanish this time round. Had they been slightly more ruthless their winner would not have been as late as the third minute of stoppage time.

This is the kind of result to alarm the other contenders, a victory crammed with positive performances: from N’Golo Kanté stamping authority all over a game at the higher level, to the effervescence going forward and the resilience and collective refusal to wilt once behind. There were other aspects that will trouble the perfectionist in Conte, though it would be hard to criticise his players for profligacy when the substitute, flung on late, goes on to score with the last kick of the contest.

Most promising of all was the instant telepathy struck up by Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, a partnership that seemed revelatory in its productivity all evening. Manchester City, watching on from afar, will fear the damage that pair could inflict on Saturday at Stamford Bridge if both have recovered physically. Costa must have drooled at the familiar quality of the supply-line. “Eden’s performance was amazing,” said Conte. “It was the first big game for him after the bad injury and his answer was fantastic, positive.”

There was reassurance to be had in Hazard’s brilliance. Conte had extended a challenge on the eve of this fixture, urging the Belgian to hoist his game to another level by dazzling in the Champions League. His response was emphatic, even if he had departed before his compatriot’s late winner. Hazard’s own moment had come just before the hour mark, collecting David Luiz’s cross-field pass on the chest, teasing space from Juanfran before whipping a glorious cross into the six-yard box. There pounced Morata, darting ahead of Lucas Hernández, to guide a header down and beyond Jan Oblak.

The pair had threatened to prosper all night, clicking early into each other’s wavelength with Atlético powerless in response. Twice in the opening eight minutes Hazard had found the Spaniard in space only for Morata, his every touch jeered on his return to Madrid, to drag shots wide of the far post. This was Hazard uncoiled, a playmaker who has been patient as Chelsea understandably dealt carefully with his rehabilitation from summer ankle surgery, tearing back into the fray with relish on his second start of term.

The scuttling runs, all low centre of gravity with ball glued to his instep, were incisive. The vision of his pass, and speed of thought, disconcerted Atletico’s experienced back-line. Juanfran and Godín heaved to contain him. Saúl Ñíguez and Koke sought to track him, but the Belgian merely scurried into areas neither was comfortable occupying.

Diego Simeone had been so alarmed by the visitors’ start that he tweaked his formation in a bid to close the space between rigid lines of four where the elusive Hazard was revelling, though Antoine Griezmann still felt compelled to hack him down to quell the threat. The 26-year-old had been asked to play in a freer, more central role, flitting forward from the tip of the diamond.

His goals will come. A tally of five in 32 games for Chelsea in this competition represents a meagre tally for a player of his pedigree and he found side-netting and, via a deflection, the woodwork from distance.

Regardless, his delivery was always menacing. Marcos Alonso air-kicked from his centre, Cesc Fàbregas poked wide from a ball slid along the six-yard box and Morata, liberated into enemy territory beyond a labouring Lucas, merely managed a heavy touch and a shot that squirted wide of the far post.

For a while it seemed Chelsea might end up cursing those misses but as it was, Conte’s bold substitutions – removing Hazard and Morata seemed surprising – yielded the rewards his side’s play merited. It is hard to recall a more impressive away display in this competition by an English team over recent years.

As Costa might have acknowledged in his post-match gloom, a standard has been set in this section.

The Guardian Sport

Bilic Feeling the Heat after Spurs Shine Glaring Light on West Ham Flaws


London – Slaven Bilic knows how it goes in his line of work. Once a manager is in danger, once the narrative becomes entrenched, it can begin to feel like the long kiss goodbye. “Once that’s opened, then it basically doesn’t stop,” the West Ham manager said after his team’s 3-2 home defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. “Game by game or two games by two games – it’s the way it is in modern football. Once you open that page …”

Bilic turned that page last season, when only a 1-0 win against Spurs with three games to go persuaded the West Ham hierarchy to stick with him. But three successive Premier League defeats at the start of this season ensured that the mention of his name were prefaced by words like “under-fire” and “beleaguered”.

In these situations, positive results like the win against Huddersfield Town and the draw at West Bromwich Albion trigger relief and respite. But the dark clouds never truly disperse and they rolled back over Bilic during a loss to the club that West Ham fans most love to hate.

The final scoreline looked tight but this was an afternoon in which Bilic and his team flirted with humiliation. When Harry Kane rattled a near post on 63 minutes Tottenham were 3-0 up and rampant, looking threatening every time they came forward. Kane had already scored two to make it six in four games for him, the outstanding Christian Eriksen had the other one and Dele Alli was having his best game of the season. The interplay between that trio was beautiful to watch.

At that point, the inquest into West Ham’s performance had begun. Bilic’s game‑plan worked well for the opening half-hour: his team had denied Spurs space between the lines, they were getting in their opponents’ faces and they had exploited the high positions of the Tottenham wing-backs to work a couple of promising three‑on‑three situations.

The way that they fell apart after Kane’s opener was worrying and Bilic had to carry the can for that. When Michail Antonio went off injured in the 28th minute his decision to introduce Andy Carroll, rather than André Ayew or Diafra Sakho, represented a tearing up of the initial approach.

A manager cannot legislate for the sort of reckless passing error that Carroll made for Kane’s first goal. But with Carroll on as the No9 and Javier Hernández pressed out wide into Antonio’s position, West Ham lost their ability to get behind the Spurs defence; to stretch and harry them. Consequently, Jan Vertonghen was emboldened to squeeze up on Carroll, which led to him nicking the ball off the striker to set in motion the move for Kane’s second goal.

The tactical flexibility belonged to Mauricio Pochettino. With Mousa Dembélé out injured, the Tottenham manager switched to a 3-5-1-1 system which got a good performance out of Moussa Sissoko on the right of the central midfield trio. From the half-hour mark, Eriksen started to drift forward into space, which was hugely dangerous.

“The second goal is more our sloppiness or giving up for five minutes than their brilliance,” Bilic said, which sounded like quite the indictment on him and his team.

The complexion of the game would change sharply in the final quarter, when Bilic could cling to a clutch of positives. West Ham did not give up. They restored a measure of pride with the goals from Hernández and Cheikhou Kouyaté. And the home crowd stayed with them. Crucially, Bilic appears to retain the backing not only of his players but also the fans.

West Ham’s comeback was influenced by the red card that Tottenham’s summer signing Serge Aurier received in the 70th minute. The right wing-back is nothing if not a risk-taker and having been booked, it was a foolish decision to jump into a tackle on Carroll. It was hardly the first time that Aurier had left the ground in order to challenge.

After the red card, Pochettino could be seen in conversation with Hernández, with the West Ham striker seeming to suggest that Aurier was crazy. “No, not crazy,” Pochettino said. “He only said to me, ‘Wow. Unlucky: mala suerte.”

Pochettino did not criticise Aurier, however great the temptation might have been. “I was a player and if you look on Google, you can find many, many mistakes from me,” he said.

In the end it was Bilic’s errors that came under the spotlight. He is into the final year of his contract and that is another factor that frames his situation. “I don’t think about that, I’m not illegal,” Bilic said with a smile. “Pressure is a part of my job.” It will be turned up on Saturday for the home game against Swansea City.

The Guardian Sport

Ashley Cole Still Burns: Forgotten Man Will not Forget His English Foes

Ashley Cole should be one of the most celebrated footballers in English history. Instead, he is isolated and forgotten at LA Galaxy.

Confirmation that LA Galaxy have failed in their quest to reach the MLS playoffs may arrive on Sunday. If not, such news will not have to wait much longer. Twenty-nine regular season games thus far have returned just 27 points. Galaxy are second bottom of the Western Conference, an embarrassing scenario for a club defined by celebrity and success, to the point where almost $4m per year is currently bestowed upon Giovani dos Santos as a base salary and five MLS Cups are housed at the StubHub Center, where David Beckham used to be their most celebrated playing star.

Galaxy’s latest capitulation took place here in Atlanta on Wednesday, where they were 4-0 – and a man – down by half-time. Atlanta United, such a success on and off the field in this, their debut MLS season, did not need to bother adding to the scoreline. Sigi Schmid, who has endured a fraught time since returning as Galaxy’s head coach in late July, bemoaned a “lack of focus” in a defense that was pulled apart by Atlanta’s menacing front four.

Included in that Galaxy back line was Ashley Cole. The 36-year-old was partly responsible for one of Atlanta’s goals as he followed ball rather than man but otherwise the veteran defender performed well. Cole’s distribution was exemplary, his bond with team-mates clear and fitness typical for a player built like the side of a £20 note. Monetary links have rather followed Cole around but he cannot be accused of using the MLS cynically as a pension top-up; his basic annual wage of $350,000 is not at all extravagant in relative terms.

If there were a hall of fame for left-backs, Cole would be an instant inductee. The Englishman possesses 107 caps, three Premier League winner’s medals – won with two different clubs – seven of the same from the FA Cup and one League Cup. Cole won the Champions League and Europa League, too, during a terrific spell at Chelsea. Earlier, Cole was part of Arsenal’s revered Invincibles side. All this after being brought up by a single mother in the East End of London.

Pieced together, Cole should be one of the most celebrated footballers in English history. Instead, he is isolated and forgotten. There should be deep sadness attached to that, regardless of circumstances and reasoning. Cole is portrayed by some as everything negative that modern football has spawned: financially and in terms of personal behavior. There were allegations of infidelity, brushes with the law and the accidental shooting of a work experience student with an air rifle. These are hardly matters for The Hague war crimes tribunal but, pieced together, shape opinion. That he is now a father and can admit the recklessness of his youth and lives a relatively quiet life in Hollywood does not widely register.

Crucially, Cole apparently harbors a grudge over the reasons why he is perceived so negatively. The fact he chose invisibility in Los Angeles after a short stint at Roma suggests he was perfectly happy to get away from it. There was no apparent interest at all in turning out for another English club despite the potential for a larger wage.

In the aftermath of that Champions League success, in Munich in 2012, Cole was requested for interview by English newspaper media as he left the Allianz Arena. “No. Fuck ’em,” was his reply. Such an approach meant an element of trepidation was natural as this reporter pondered a chat with Cole – an individual I have never met or written about – after the Atlanta defeat.

A rare interview with Sports Illustrated in June also raised doubts about how he would take an approach from a publication based in his homeland. In that interview, the defender said: “I’m never going to win. You can never win against [the press], especially in England. They’re so powerful. My friends, family, team-mates, they know who I am. It’s not good, the way they portray me. It’s not my personality. It’s not who I am.”

In a pretty desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the subject, the Sports Illustrated writer gladly castigated an English press who will “strain, lunge and take another swipe at Ashley Cole”. The article added: “American sports culture, even in far more popular leagues, isn’t as venomous or destructive as what Cole experienced at home.” Instead, prime-time television debates surround the amount of air in an American football.

Hope was raised that Cole may be of a mind to share some of his LA experiences by the club’s media officer, who before a ball was kicked in Atlanta painted the picture of an amiable and relaxed professional. By the time post-match duties commenced – and clearly upon consultation with Cole – that stance had changed. “What precisely do you want to ask him about?” became: “He will be a long time in the shower,” in an unsubtle indication of the inevitable conclusion to an hour-long wait. “Ash has declined to speak.”

I waited to hear from the man himself, with Cole initially offering a broad smile as best wishes were passed on from a mutual friend in London. The formal refusal of a chat followed, even despite an offer to minimise time spent by asking some questions on the short walk to the team bus. “No.” A final plea, that the intention is to write a positive article about Cole’s time in the US, initiates the key reply: “What’s the point in being positive now? You didn’t do that years ago.” Cole didn’t break stride, made his annoyance perfectly plain by way of facial expression, and was off.

This was not very MLS, where media duties are almost entirely carried out with a smile. But certainly, they are carried out. The affair was far from the biggest shock of my career but it was among the most disappointing. I wanted to encounter a relaxed, content Cole, far removed from the individual widely depicted, and tell others that notions about his character were wrong.

The Galaxy media officer imparts his understanding that previous articles by this specific outlet are the cause of Cole’s stance. A quick check reveals nothing even remotely approaching extreme coverage and multitudes of praise towards that modern-day rarity of an English player who did fulfill his potential.

Cole is hardly a recluse. He utilizes social media to boost his profile and sponsorship value, as well he should. At base level, media exposure attached to the Premier League boom helped to catapult Cole and his contemporaries into a fresh financial stratosphere.

And yet, perhaps he has a point. Maybe if Cole feels his reputation was needlessly trashed by front-page news and sniping, he is well within his rights to refuse cooperation. Nobody can accuse him of not sticking to his guns just because home is on the other side of the Atlantic.

What has he to gain, really, from assisting us now, other than marginally boosting his reputation in the event – and this is unknown – that he has any plan for life in the front line of British football when he retires? Cole’s means of articulating his position on Wednesday should have been better, especially for one so seasoned, but heavy defeat could have added to his sense of unease.

With an overhaul at Galaxy almost certain at the conclusion of this dire season, Cole’s future is unclear. He has earned sufficient money and collected enough medals not to care at all about what happens next. For the rest of us, the reality of players without an ounce of Cole’s talent being loved far more than LA Galaxy’s No3 lingers. It is an absurd situation, if one Cole himself has no apparent interest in altering.

(The Guardian)

Arsène Wenger Denies Making Example of Alexis Sánchez after Failed Move


London- Arsène Wenger has insisted he is not seeking to make any sort of point to Alexis Sánchez over his selections of the forward so far this season.

Sánchez tried and failed to force a move to Manchester City before the closure of the summer transfer window and Wenger has used him since as a starter in the Europa League and Carabao Cup but only as a substitute in the Premier League.

Sánchez was granted extended summer leave after his involvement for Chile at the Confederations Cup and he was forced to delay his return to pre-season training because of an illness. He then suffered an abdominal injury, and his first appearance of the season came in the starting XI at Liverpool on 27 August in the 4-0 defeat.

Since then, Wenger has used him off the bench in the league games against Bournemouth and Chelsea and as a starter in the cups. He completed the 90 minutes against Köln in the Europa League last week and Doncaster Rovers in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night. He scored Arsenal’s equaliser in the 3-1 win over Köln.

As ever, the body language experts have scrutinised Sánchez and plenty has been read into his moments of frustration. But Wenger maintains that Sánchez’s focus is on the job in hand at Arsenal and giving his best for the final year of his contract at the club.

“Alexis is not distracted, not at all – I think that is coming to very quick conclusions,” the manager said. “He has been out and injured. I thought he was still a bit short physically on Sunday [at Chelsea] and I played him against Doncaster to give him more competition. Is he happy at the club? That is the impression I have, yes.

“There is no disguised attitude on my side [over the selection policy]. I just try to get him back to full fitness and for me the Europa League and the League Cup is important, as well.

“I just try to give him competition and to get him back to his best because I gave him a long holiday. He came back not really fit and it took us time to get him back and then he got injured. If you add the injury plus the rest time it was a bit long but against Doncaster, you could see that he is coming back sharp now. I left him on the pitch, as well, for 90 minutes because I wanted him to have a real go.”

Wenger confirmed that Danny Welbeck, who injured his groin against Chelsea, would be out until mid-October, at least, and the forward’s absence would appear to make it easier for him to restore Sánchez to the starting team in the league against West Bromwich Albion on Monday night.

Wenger also reported that Mesut Özil, who missed the Chelsea game with a slight knee problem, was primed to return to full training with the squad while Calum Chambers would be out until after the upcoming international break with a recurrence of a hip problem.

The Guardian Sport

It’s a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain – the Margins Are Brutal

The final whistle tells the story at the Vitality Stadium last week, where Bournemouth defeated Brighton & Hove Albion 2-1.

Have you ever gone out on a Friday night full of excitement and expectation – relishing everything that’s ahead of you – only to find yourself full of guilt and remorse on Saturday morning? Well, what happened at Bournemouth last week was worse than a night out where I said the wrong thing.

The game at the Vitality Stadium was one we badly wanted to win and we were 1-0 up with 20 minutes to go. We were cruising. The team performance was good and the feeling on the pitch was that we were heading towards our first Premier League away win.

Then the ball comes to me 40 yards from goal and the decision‑making process begins – in my head, I have a choice. Do I make an easy, aimless clearance far away from our goal or try to make a riskier pass in order to keep possession? I choose the latter, the ball deflects to one of their players and five passes later it’s in the back of our net.

All of Bournemouth’s frustrations and nerves from their opening four games have evaporated, their confidence returns and five minutes later they score a second. We at Brighton end up with nothing in a game where we were comfortable enough to come away with victory, let alone a point and, worse still, an error of mine has contributed to that.

It’s not a glaring mistake, it’s not a mistake that has led directly to a chance but deep down I know that my mistake has contributed directly to a goal that turned the course of an important match. As I traipse off the pitch I can feel the sick rising in my throat.

In the dressing room it’s the worst sound, the one that always comes with defeat – silence. I sit there replaying and visualising hundreds of times that one moment where my decision has influenced the outcome. I get on the coach and I’m still going over that moment. As I drive home I’m still seeing it. I get home and crawl into bed at 2am, and for the next five hours I’m staring at the ceiling watching the same movie in my mind over and over.

I’m not even close to drifting off to a much-needed sleep. The nausea is acute and just won’t go away. We had a day off on the Saturday and when we returned to training on Sunday morning I spoke to the rest of the players and funnily enough there wasn’t a wink of sleep between us after the game. Everyone of us asking ourselves the same questions: What if I cleared that ball further? What if I made that tackle before the goal went in? Why didn’t I score that chance that came to me?

It’s reassuring that to a man we all felt the guilt and shared the responsibility. A strong dressing room doesn’t point fingers at individuals – those who made mistakes admit them and we all move on and learn from them. Perhaps the most significant is that in the Premier League the smallest error can and will be ruthlessly punished – something maybe we could have got away in the Championship.

I hear pundits who have only recently stopped playing the game fan the flames of blame with supporters who then criticise players. It amazes me they’ve all apparently forgotten the experience of losing a match and the sleepless nights they’ve all suffered in the aftermath. I feel this has helped create a damaging vacuum in terms of the relationships between players and fans, which is ironic since I can honestly say I’ve never come across a player who doesn’t care or sleeps well after losing.

After watching the game back as a team, we saw plenty of positives in our performance and in analyzing the goals we agreed they were created and scored by the quality you have to expect playing in this division. Sure, they could have been avoided but, looking back, it has been a crucial and very painful lesson for us that the Premier League is a place where you can never be comfortable and must stay concentrated from minute one to 94-plus.

Results like last Friday hurt more when your game plan has worked, as a team you have performed well, individually you have done your job but a couple lapses of concentration can be the difference between an important victory and a scenario where you come away with nothing. The margins in this league are brutal.

On Sunday, at the Amex Stadium, we face a Newcastle team who under Rafael Benítez have so far adjusted to Premier League life extremely well. We know what a big game it is for us in terms of gaining the points that will keep us on course for that magic 40 mark next May and should mean a second season in the top tier. I’m confident we have learned lessons from the Bournemouth match and will stay focused enough to capitalize on our numerous strengths as a team.

If we do that then hopefully we will all have earned a good night’s sleep.

(The Guardian)

From Essien to Cole: the Story of Five Former Premier League Players in Indonesia

Michael Essien is watched by thousands of fans during practice for Persib Bandung, where he reportedly earns an annual salary of $750,000, around £10,000 a week.

Five former Premier League stars went to Indonesia this season and their adventures have been as varied and colorful as the vast archipelago itself, with lashings of cash, recriminations, culture shock and endings as predictable as most Enid Blyton Famous Five tales. In the space of a few weeks in March and April, Michael Essien, Carlton Cole, Peter Odemwingie, Mohamed Sissoko and Didier Zokora all arrived in south-east Asia. Two have already gone, one is a hero, and the other two players find themselves somewhere in between.

For a country without much history of big-name signings, this was a change. Lee Hendrie and Marcus Bent had provided a little Premier League pedigree in the previous decade. Mario Kempes and Roger Milla were more famous but their early to mid-90s spells were fading in the memory.

In truth, Indonesian clubs have had plenty of other things to think about in recent times. In 2015, there was no league at all as Fifa banned the country from the international game because of government interference in the sport, but that almost came as a relief after years of turmoil. In 2003 the federation chief, Nurdin Halid, was imprisoned for corruption. There followed breakaway federations, leagues and national teams. When foreign players made the headlines, the stories tended to be tragic such as the death in 2012 of the Paraguayan Diego Mendieta, who was unable to afford medical bills after his club failed to pay his wages.

Indonesia’s passion for the game is undeniable but can sometimes go too far – Save our Soccer, a watchdog group, estimates that a recent fan death was the 54th football-related fatality since the mid-90s and the 36th in the past five years – and the country’s interest in the game is matched only by its impatience. Frank de Boer could spare a thought for the Austrian Hans-Peter Schaller, sacked by Bali United just two games into his new job. In Indonesia, honeymoons are for beaches, not pitches.

All imports, famous or not, had better perform from the start if they are to avoid an early exit and that is especially true at Persib Bandung. The biggest club in the country signed Cole and Essien and expectations were intense. But with the season less than a month old (and fans grumbling about the style of play from a team that were then top of the table), it was clear that Cole was not going to last long. The former West Ham forward arrived in Asia looking as fresh as a Friday afternoon commuter after a week stuck in the traffic of Indonesia’s third-biggest city. The 33-year-old spent much of his time standing in the penalty area waiting for crosses that never came. He failed to score a single goal.

Rumors soon abounded that Cole had not been wanted by the team manager, Umuh Muchtar, and that there was a battle for control being waged behind the scenes at the club owned by the Internazionale chairman, Erick Thohir. Umuh kept up his offensive, saying in May that playing with the No9 was akin to playing with 10 men and claiming that Cole had been selected for a third game – his first start for the club after two substitute appearances – only to show curious fans why the striker was not being selected.

Umuh was not the head coach, though, that was Djadjang Nurdjaman, a legend of the club who was also soon on his way out; team manager is often the more powerful position in south-east Asian clubs. Before he left, Djadjang put Cole’s and Essien’s lethargic starts down to a lack of pre-season, acclimatization and sleep. Cole’s nightmare finally ended in August after just 268 minutes of action. The former England forward, who had kept his cool when all about him were not finding his head, finally found his target on social media. “I haven’t been treated fairly but I kept my mouth shut and worked hard and kept everything professional,” he posted.

Essien is still there, better but hardly imperious. There have been touches, through-balls and the occasional assist and goal but the former Real Madrid and Chelsea midfielder has not shown the form that so endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful. If Essien, reportedly receiving an annual salary of about $750,000 (£10,000 a week), has not exactly excelled in Indonesia, then the same was true of Didier Zokora at Semen Padang. The midfielder did not score in three seasons with Tottenham and was not going to change that in just over three months in Sumatra. The Ivorian was released as the club struggled to pay his salary after eight matches and no goals.

There has been better news elsewhere. The former Liverpool midfielder Sissoko has impressed at Mitra Kukar, chipping in with five goals for the Borneo club. But there is no doubt as to which of the five is the happiest: Odemwingie may have been ridiculed in England for driving down to QPR on transfer deadline day in a failed attempt to secure a move from West Brom but the 36-year-old Nigerian has been driving Madura United up the table. In the first half of the season at least, he could hardly stop scoring: long-range howitzers, headers, tidy finishes and the occasional scuffed shot. He raced to 13 goals from the first 12 games.

A mixed, and expensive, bag then. But the most successful import of all could end up being Simon McMenemy. The 39-year-old manager from Aberdeen has led unfashionable Bhayangkara, owned by the country’s head policeman, to the top of the league with a third of the season remaining. Sometimes it is not all about the money and these days in football, that really would be a story.

(The Gurdian)

There is Irony in Diego Costa’s Deal with Atlético


London- There is an irony that Diego Costa’s tortuous departure from Chelsea should be finalised, pending the results of a stringent medical, just after a fixture when his absence had been so keenly felt.

Not the Champions League stroll beyond Qarabag or even the midweek saunter past Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup. But, last Sunday, Arsenal ventured across the capital and earned a point with Shkodran Mustafi, in most people’s eyes, emerging from the stalemate as man of the match. Even accepting that the centre-half is a Germany international and clearly a player of pedigree, it is hard to envisage he would have been quite so unruffled had Costa lined up for the hosts at Stamford Bridge.

Neither is that supposed to be a criticism of Álvaro Morata, the striker filling the void. The Spaniard secured from Real Madrid has been excellent, scoring goals and buying almost instantly into everything Antonio Conte demands of one of his players. Chelsea’s record signing will be a roaring success at Stamford Bridge. It is just that Costa would have disturbed Arsenal in a very different way.

Once it was clear the visitors were steeled for the contest, he would have bullied their backline, resorting to those same sly tactics that provoked a reaction from Gabriel in late 2015, when he was only retrospectively sanctioned for raising his hands at Laurent Koscielny moments before Gabriel’s dismissal. He would have niggled, scrapped, pinched and whinged, driving Arsenal to distraction until they let down their guard, and then he would have pounced.

That is the theory but it is a familiar scenario and one most Chelsea supporters celebrated regularly during the striker’s three‑year spell in the Premier League. That stint resulted in Costa scoring 52 goals in 89 top-flight appearances, finishing as leading scorer in each campaign and playing a major part in the winning of two league titles. He was downright prolific and not all those finishes were bludgeoned.

There could be subtlety to his game when the mood took him. But, most memorably, he led the line like a man possessed, fuelled by streetwise aggression and canny opportunism. There were 33 yellow cards but only one red, for two bookable offences at Everton in an FA Cup tie, for all the times he pushed gamesmanship to the limit. The 28‑year‑old was a player Chelsea readily cherished when he was one of their own and his last appearance, in the FA Cup final in May, was one of his brutal best. His performance that day warranted more than merely his 58th, and last, goal for the club.

José Mourinho had praised him as complete and Conte as fundamental to the team’s all-action approach. There was even a time when the Italian appeared to be transforming the player’s disciplinary record. The striker went 10 games without accruing a fifth booking of the season, and a one-match ban, towards the end of last year.

When he was finally cautioned for dissent at Crystal Palace in December he still departed Selhurst Park having scored the game’s only goal and, upon his return from the ban, would go on to play another 10 domestic matches without a yellow. Aside from his impact on the pitch he was popular among the playing staff – some team-mates have been in regular contact over the summer during his self-imposed exile in Brazil – a bundle of energy in the dressing room, a source of practical jokes and positivity when it suited him and a figure who had to be involved at all times. He was an edgy life and soul and his enthusiasm could be infectious.

The problem was that he was so high maintenance and just as likely to be stroppy as playful. The unpredictability was always likely to become a problem in the end. Rewind to January when Conte had instigated that remarkable revival within a group who had finished mid-table the previous year, Spurs having just curtailed a 13-match winning run, and it was Costa threatening to disrupt the newfound harmony at Cobham by expressing a sudden desire to depart for a money-flushed Chinese Super League. Or retreat to when he had pined for a move back to Atlético in the summer of 2016 or even further to 2015 when he had returned for pre-season overweight. There were regular reminders this was an unsettled player.

Management is about steering a route through such crises. The Italian readily recognised the forward’s qualities at the tip of his team and, in truth, felt he had no real alternative option available in January, with Michy Batshuayi still adjusting to life in England. Conte’s show of strength was designed to ensure Chelsea were not knocked off their stride. But once it became clear the negatives outweighed the positives, and with good warning conveyed to the board to find a replacement, Costa’s time was up.

The brevity of Chelsea’s 30-word statement, posted on the club’s website, announcing an agreement over an eventual £57m transfer had been reached in principle with Atlético on Thursday hinted at a club who had tired of the circus that comes with Costa. The same could be said for Conte’s text message over the summer, which prompted public outrage from the striker’s camp but was hardly revelatory in its content. The divorce had become inevitable back in January. That Chelsea squeezed six league goals from 16 appearances from the forward post‑dispute is testament to Conte’s motivational skills and Costa’s desire to be involved but it was only an uneasy truce. The fact the champions included the forward in their 25-man Premier League squad, submitted this month, was effectively for show. It made clear a potential route back into the fold existed, though, in reality, neither side ever truly thought it would be required.

Everything since ‘textgate’ has been horribly messy, all legal threats and weekly fines played out to a backdrop of painfully slow negotiations between Chelsea and Atlético while Costa trained on his own back in Brazil. Sold at a profit with loyalty bonuses waived, he will relish playing for Diego Simeone again and can now work more concertedly on his fitness to ensure he can feature from January once his new club’s transfer embargo has been lifted.

It seems inevitable that he will be in the stands next week when Chelsea visit the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League and it would be in keeping with his provocative character if he finds himself on screen at some point brandishing an Atlético scarf. Yet the visitors will not rise to it. They saw the best of him over two of his three years at the club and Conte has long since moved on.

The Guardian Sport