Real Betis Keep their Heads to Leave Real Madrid Assessing Early-Season Damage


London – Thirty-five different teams over 73 games stretching back almost 18 months had tried and failed to stop Real Madrid scoring. Real Betis went one better.

Manchester United couldn’t do it, Manchester City couldn’t do it and Bayern Munich couldn’t do it. Juventus couldn’t do it either. Nor could Borussia Dortmund, Napoli or Sporting Lisbon. The other Sporting, from Gijón, couldn’t do it. They came from Mexico, Japan, Poland and Cyprus and failed too. Barcelona tried four times but they couldn’t do it. Sevilla and Atlético had five goes each. Nope, no good. Along came Valencia, Deportivo and Celta, Osasuna, Espanyol and Villarreal, but they couldn’t do it and nor could Las Palmas, Eibar, Athletic, Cultural, Granada, Málaga, Alavés or Leganés. Real Betis, on the other hand, could. In fact, on Wednesday night they only went and did something even better.

Thirty-five different teams from eight different countries had tried over 73 games and six competitions stretching back almost 18 months and none of them had stopped Real Madrid scoring, but Betis were almost there. There was still time for it to slip away, especially against the team with a thing for agonizing late goals and they were nervous but they were near. It was 11.47pm and the scoreboard at the Santiago Bernabéu, like scoreboards everywhere, had stopped on 90 minutes – information denied when it’s most needed. Alongside, it read: Madrid 0-0 Betis. The board went up: five minutes, one last bugle call, a record awaiting, fans screaming at them to pour forward.

Victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday extended Madrid’s run of scoring in consecutive games, equaling the record set by Santos in the sixties. Three days later, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from a five-match ban, they were set to break it. On Tuesday Marca’s front cover ran a picture of Pelé with the headline “O’Rei Madrid”: Madrid the King. Thing is, if you’re going to come for the King you’d better not miss, and Madrid had: Ronaldo had thumped over, Bale had hit the post with a wonderful flicked volley, and Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adán had flown. Twenty-seven shots Madrid had taken. But, Zidane said afterwards, “the ball didn’t want to go in”.

Actually, it did. “We had 26, 27 chances,” Zidane said, while Betis’s manager Quique Setién admitted: “They put the ball into our box 20, 25 times.” There were superb saves too and Setién added: “To win here you know you’ll suffer and you know your goalkeeper has to be spectacular: winning here without suffering is a utopia.” But while goalkeeper Adán needed to be spectacular – and on a couple of occasions he really was – while chances were wasted, the siege rarely looked as incisive as expected and, like Madrid’s draw against Levante, it wasn’t as if there were countless chances. Nor were Betis barricaded in – and proof of that came with what happened next.

Adán had just made another save, a comfortable one from Borja Mayoral, and the clock was ticking. But he didn’t boot the ball as far as possible and nor did anyone take it to the corner and keep it there. Instead, they played. Before the game, as they gathered in a circle, Betis captain Joaquín Sánchez had appealed for “personality”. “We’re going to defend with the ball,” he said, “and then we’re going to enjoy having it, eh.” As for the manager Setién, he urged them: “Don’t stress; be calm, especially with the ball. Have faith in what you do. Let’s have it, choose well.” His assistant, Eder Sarabia, paced. “We have to reach the end alive; that’s the key. We’ll have chances for sure.” And so it proved. With 92.11 on the clock, something to cling on to, Adán rolled the ball out and it began.

Javi García carried it forward. It went left, towards the touchline, inside again, across the middle and over to the other side, back to the middle, and round it went. When it came to Cristian Tello, he dashed toward and spread it to Antonio Barragán. There, on the right edge of the area, Betis outnumbered Madrid. Barragán clipped a lovely ball over to Antonio Sanabria, moving into space near the far post and he headed down into the net, before racing towards the corner flag and skidding to his knees. High, high above him, fans in green and white went wild. All around the rest of the stadium, Madrid’s supporters turned for the exit; 93.20, the clock said, and Betis were in the lead.

In a weird sort of way, for all that Madrid sought the goal and a 0-0 draw would have been huge enough for Betis, it had been coming too. They’d had opportunities early, Dani Carvajal clearing one off the line, and even as the game tilted Madrid’s way they protected themselves with possession where they could, and three or four times they had come away cleanly, only to take the wrong decision, misplace a pass, or crash into one-man wall Casemiro. Sometimes, those mistakes put them in trouble and, hearts racing, you could sense fans pleading with them to just put their bloody foot through it. On the touchline, though, the message was different.

“You have to be intelligent to have the ball, keep it, make them run, have some calm in moments of tension. In the last 20 minutes you watch them and you can think: ‘How did you miss?’ You see passes that are relatively easy they don’t make. But after all the effort, the running, you can’t ask them to have the same precision as in the fifth minute,” said Setién. What he could ask them to do was keep trying.

Betis made changes and saw Víctor Camarasa, their best player until then, forced off just before half-time. Reading the line-up on the Metro, seeing no Sergio Leon, Joaquín or Andrés Guardado, frankly the temptation was to turn back. But they had only gone and done it. Real Betis had become the first team in 74 games to stop Madrid scoring, the record shared, not taken, from Pelé’s Santos, and then they’d scored themselves. They had won at the Bernabéu – the first time anyone other than Barcelona or Atlético had beaten Madrid there in six-and-a-half years and the first time Betis had left with a victory for 19. For Setién, it was a third consecutive game against Madrid without defeat. “Is it going to be a long night?” he was asked. “As long as I like,” he smiled.

“It’s only three points but it’s three prestigious points,” said Setién. Three points that will reinforce their identity, too, one that is still being forged. And few coaches have an identity quite so clear cut as his. “In these days when everyone thinks you have to run, fight, work, compete, I ask my players to think,” he added.

For Zidane, there was a lot to think about. This was Madrid’s third home game in the league and they have not won any. With a little more luck they could, and probably should, have won all three; the shot count for the three is up near 80; that scoring run surely shows they have no goalscoring crisis. But Madrid do lack a little fluidity and the chances are not always as clear as the stats suggest. The truth is, they don’t look quite right.

“At home we’re finding it harder to generate football,” Isco admitted. This night was occasionally chaotic and clarity was rare: at one point they had briefly had 12 men on the pitch because Luka Modric didn’t realize he was the one coming off – and not everyone was happy he was – while Lucas Vázquez twice had to ask Zidane where he was supposed to be. As the ball went forward, it was too often just put into the box. Casemiro said it was “hard to understand” but also suggested they had needed to have a bit more “head”. They also need more points – and fast.

It may only be momentary but the damage done is significant. Two draws, against Valencia and Levante, and a defeat against Betis, is their worst start at home in 20 years. Only twice before – in 1969-70 and 1995-96 – have they not won in the opening three games. Worse, it leaves them, in the words of one front cover, “SEVEN POINTS!” behind Barcelona already. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it’s like that and that’s the way it is. “That’s football: you have to accept it,” Zidane said. “Maybe last year we won some games we didn’t deserve to: now it’s the other way around.” He also reminded everyone there’s a word he likes even if everyone else doesn’t, one that sums him up: tranquility.

“Should you be worried?” he was asked. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

The Guardian Sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Gurdian)

Pep Guardiola’s Circular Dressing Room Offers One Way to Split Up Team Cliques


London- The butt of much public mockery when Sky’s cameras captured assorted well-heeled corporate clients peering through its walls of two‑way glass last Monday night, Manchester City’s Tunnel Club is the most amusing but not necessarily most interesting renovation to have been undertaken at the Etihad Stadium during the close season. Moving on from the well fed and watered supporters staring in slack-jawed wonder at the exhibits as they prepared for battle, the cameras also gave us a glimpse of an inner sanctum that, for the time being at least, remains closed to prying eyes on match days.

The stadium’s home dressing room is as opulent as you might expect for such a wealthy club, but it is its sheer roundness that is most striking. Returning for his early plunge in the state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool after being sent off on his home debut, Kyle Walker will no doubt have been struck by the rotational symmetry of his surroundings as he angrily flung his shin pads into one of the corners that aren’t there, before being enveloped in the life-affirming chi that feng shui experts tell us a 360-degree dwelling space provides.

Harmonising his players with their surroundings may not have been uppermost in Pep Guardiola’s mind when he signed off on the summer redesign of the home dressing room, but the decision to make it circular was a very conscious one. Much like the knights who convened around the famous table of Arthurian legend, all men who sit in Guardiola’s similarly shaped sanctuary enjoy equal status and the Spaniard is understood to have encouraged the design as a way of discouraging that most pernicious and malign of influences on team morale: the dressing room clique.

Far from exclusive to football and regularly held up as one of the root causes for the poor performances of sports teams who fail to live up to the sum of their parts, these exclusive close-knit groups within groups are the bane of managers whose desperation to eliminate them in the interests of team or squad harmony occasionally extends to actually fretting over meal-time seating arrangements for grown adults like a bride and groom meticulously plotting to minimise the potential for internecine strife at their wedding reception.

England’s football squad has long been renowned for its cliquishness and as the players gather for the first international break of the season, we can only speculate as to how damaging division among the ranks has been for morale in a national team that has consistently come up short since 1990. It would be naive to assume more inclusive England squads might have enjoyed greater success at international tournaments, or to imagine more successful teams – hello France, Germany and Spain – have not also been adversely affected by internal divides. For all that, the ease with which England habitually qualify for major tournaments compared with the horror show that invariably unfolds once the players have been confined to barracks for five or six weeks does little to dispel the notion that the more time they spend cloistered together, the less cohesive their performances tend to be.

In a newspaper column he wrote before England’s doomed Euro 2016 campaign, Rio Ferdinand mentioned the cliques which were immediately apparent upon his introduction to the England squad as a teenager. “You had [Alan] Shearer’s table and all his mates,” he said. “You had the Liverpool table and all the dregs like a couple of Arsenal and a couple of West Ham like me. Then there was the United table.”

His description of a squad divided was more or less confirmed by his fellow West Ham alumnus Dean Ashton, who seemed genuinely baffled by arrangements when he was called up by Steve McClaren in 2006. “I was warned beforehand that it [the squad] could be a bit cliquey – with the Liverpool boys sticking together, Manchester United, Chelsea and it very much was like that,” he recalled. “There was very much a feeling of when you first go into a classroom and no one really wants to talk to you. I mean, I was there for a few days, and there were some senior players that didn’t speak to me for the whole time I was there, which I just found totally bizarre.”

In an interview published in the Guardian last year, the former England rugby team psychologist Jeremy Snape cited Leicester City’s unlikely march to the Premier League title as the very antithesis of a team suffering from the adverse affects of a tribe being rent asunder by internal cliquishness. “The excitement of doing something special would have galvanised their individual differences, focused their minds on strategies and roles, and maintained their physical training until the very end of the season,” he said, before warning that future difficulties would lie in “maintaining that hunger and selflessness when so much in their lives will have changed”. Sure enough, shortly into the following season the cracks began to appear.

A thoughtful man and manager, Gareth Southgate will be aware of the need to abolish cliques in his squad while simultaneously treating his players like the grown men they are. In 2015 as head of the England youth team set-up, he was forced to deny allegations of racial divisions in the under-20 squad in the face of fairly incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. In photos published by several newspapers, either through accident or design the boys in question happened to be dining at a couple of round tables. All equal as squad members, the white players were seated together around one of them while their black team-mates occupied the other.

The Guardian Sport

Guardiola: My Debt to Andrés Iniesta and how he Opened my Eyes on Tactics


Barcelona – Late summer 2008. Barcelona lose 1–0 in Soria against little Numancia on the opening day of the league season. A tough baptism for the debutant coach, Pep Guardiola, made all the harder when the result isn’t much better in their second game against Racing Santander, a 1–1 draw at the Camp Nou. Two weeks into Guardiola’s career in charge of Barcelona’s first team and they still haven’t won.

Pressure builds, the criticism is intense. But Guardiola remains steadfast. Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodríguez, then two virtually unknown players from Tercera División, Spain’s fourth tier, are in the team. There are doubts, of course. Concerns.

In the media, it seems that only one voice defends the manager, but at least it is the voice: Johan Cruyff. That softens the blow, his authority alone enough to challenge the doomsayers, but still they prophesise doom. “This Barcelona looks very, very good,” Cruyff writes in his weekly column for El Periódico de Catalunya. “I don’t know what game the rest of you watched; the one I watched was unlike any I have seen at the Camp Nou in a long time.”

Cruyff, the great ideologue of the Catalan club, its philosopher king, had seen Guardiola coach the B team and was impressed; now he stands against the tide, alone in defending him. “The worst start to a season in many years. Just one goal scored, and that was a penalty. That’s an inescapable truth, numerically speaking,” he admits. “But in footballing terms, this must be read a different way. And Guardiola is the first to read it differently. He’s no novice, lacking expertise, and he is not suicidal. He watches, he sees, he analyses and he takes decisions.”

Guardiola himself agonized over those decisions too. He was holed up in his Camp Nou office, down in the basement where there was no natural light, going over the situation again and again, rewinding and replaying the videos, re-reading his notes, wondering what to change but convinced of one thing: his idea, Cruyff’s idea, had to be maintained. He would persevere, however hard it became. And support was about to come from an unexpected source.

He was still going over it, endlessly, when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in.”

“Hello, míster.”

A small figure poked his head around the door, and spoke calmly. “Don’t worry, míster. We’ll win it all. We’re on the right path. Carry on like this, OK? We’re playing brilliantly, we’re enjoying training. Please, don’t change anything,” said Andrés Iniesta.

Guardiola couldn’t believe it.

The request was short, but heartfelt, deep. It caught Guardiola off guard, barely able even to respond. If it was a surprise that anyone should seek him out to say that, it was even more of a surprise that it was Iniesta, usually the silent man. And then he closed the door and left.

That’s Andrés. He doesn’t say much, only what he really has to. It’s like scoring goals: he doesn’t score often, either. But when it’s needed, there he is.

Guardiola will never forget Cruyff defending him in print. And he will never forget Andrés appearing at his door. He’ll never forget that they were right, too. At the end of the 2008–09 season, Barcelona had won six titles. All six.

“People usually think that it is the coach who has to raise the spirits of his players; that it is the coach who has to convince his footballers; that it is his job to take the lead all the time,” says Guardiola. “But that’s not always the case. It wasn’t the case at the Camp Nou for me, and in my first year at Bayern Munich something similar happened as well. It’s not often things like that happen and when they do, they rarely come to light. People always think the coach is the strongest person at a club, the boss, but in truth he’s the weakest link. We’re there, vulnerable, undermined by those who don’t play, by the media, by the fans. They all have the same objective: to undermine the manager.

“You start, you lose at Numancia, you draw with Racing, you just can’t get going, you feel watched and you feel alone and then suddenly, there’s Andrés telling me not to worry,” Guardiola continues. “It’s hard to imagine, because it’s not the kind of thing that happens and because it’s Iniesta we’re talking about, someone who doesn’t find it easy to express his feelings. And after he’d gone, I asked myself: how can people say that coaches should be cold when they make decisions? Impersonal? That’s ridiculous! How can I be cold, distant, removed with Andrés? Sorry, no way. Eighty-six per cent of people didn’t believe in me [according to an online poll]. Lots of people wanted Mourinho. We hadn’t won, hadn’t got going. And then Andrés comes and says that! How am I supposed to be cold? It’s impossible. This goes deeper. This isn’t cold, calculated, and nor should it be. There’s no doubt: Andrés will play with me, always. Because he’s the best. And because things like that don’t get forgotten. Why did he come to my office? I don’t know.”

Lorenzo Buenaventura is a part of Guardiola’s coaching staff, in charge of physical preparation. He has followed Pep from Barcelona to Bayern and from there to Manchester City. He shares this memory with Pep now, offers up an answer too.

“Why? I suppose because that’s the way he felt; I suppose because it mattered to him,” he says. “Andrés doesn’t do anything he doesn’t truly believe in; he does it because it feels right to him. He’s genuine, always.” Guardiola concedes: “Maybe he spoke out because he could see that there was a method we were following, that everyone was training well, that we explained to them why we did things the way we did, and above all because that was the kind of football that he had been brought up on, ever since he was little.”

“There were other players who sent us little messages,” Buenaventura insists. “That’s true,” Guardiola admits. “But Andrés’ message was powerful. How could I forget that? I can still see him standing there at the door, looking at me. Telling me we play very well. And then he left. I thought: ‘Well, if Andrés says so …’”

Andrés and Cruyff were proven right; Guardiola’s decision to maintain that philosophy was vindicated. In week three Barcelona scored six against Sporting Gijón and never looked back; everything fell into place, it all worked so smoothly. Within a few months, they had become a model to aspire to. Not just because of the results – no one had won a treble in Spain before, still less six trophies from six – but because of the way they played, the way they treated the ball, fans, even opponents. Theirs was a different approach, a way of seeing and expressing football that was embodied by players like Iniesta.

“We never seem to treat Andrés the way we should; we don’t seem to recognize him. He’s the absolute business as a player,” Guardiola says. “He never talks about himself, never demands anything, but people who think he’s satisfied just to play are wrong. If he thought he could win the Balon d’Or one year, he’d want to win it. Why? Because he’d say to himself: ‘I’m the best.’

“I think Paco defined him perfectly,” Guardiola says. Paco Seirulo was Barcelona’s former physical coach, the man from whom Lorenzo Buenaventura learnt; now Guardiola makes Seirulo’s description his own. “Andrés is one of the greats. Why? Because of his mastery of the relationship between space and time. He knows where he is at every moment. Even in a midfield where he’s surrounded by countless players, he chooses the right path every time. He knows where and when, always. And then he has this very unique ability to pull away. He pulls out, then brakes, then pulls out again, then brakes again. There are very few players like him.

“There are footballers who are very good playing on the outside but don’t know what to do inside. Then there are players who are very good inside but don’t have the physique, the legs, to go outside. Andrés has the ability to do both. When you’re out on the touchline, like a winger, it is easier to play. You see everything: the mess, the crowd, the activity is all inside. When you play inside, you don’t see anything in there because so much is happening in such a small space and all around you. You don’t know where the opposition is going to come at you from, or how many of them. Great footballers are those who know how to play in both of those environments. Andrés doesn’t only have the ability to see everything, to know what to do, but also the talent to execute it; he’s able to break through those lines. He sees it and does it.

“I’ve been a coach for a few years now and I have come to the conclusion that a truly good player is always a good player,” Guardiola says. “It’s very hard to teach a bad player to be a good one. You can’t really teach someone to dribble. The timing needed to go past someone, that instant in which you catch out your opponent, when you go past him and a new scenario opens up before you … Dribbling is, at heart, a trick, a con. It’s not speed. It’s not physique. It’s an art.”

Lorenzo Buenaventura says: “What happens is that Andrés brakes. That’s the key, the most important thing. People say: ‘Look how quick he is!’ No, no, that’s not the point. It’s not about speed, about how fast he goes; what it’s really about is how he stops and when, then, how he gets moving again.”

Guardiola adds: “Tito Vilanova defined him very well. Tito used to say: ‘Andrés doesn’t run, he glides. He’s like an ice hockey player, only without skates on. Sssswishhh, sssswishhh, sssswishhhh …’ That description is evocative, very graphic, and I think it’s an accurate one. He goes towards one side as if he was skating, watching everything that’s going on around him. Then, suddenly, he turns the other way with that smoothness he has. Yes, that’s it, Andrés doesn’t run, he glides.”

Guardiola adds: “Sometimes in life, it’s first impressions that count and the first impression I have of Andrés was the day my brother Pere, who was working for Nike at the time, told me about Iniesta. I was still playing for Barcelona myself and he said: ‘Pep, you’ve got to come and see this kid.’ It was before the final of the Nike Cup. I remember getting changed quickly after training and rushing there, dashing to the stadium. And yes, I saw how good he was. I told myself: ‘This kid will play for Barcelona, for sure … he’s going to make it.’ I told myself that, and I told Pere that too.

“On my way out of the ground after that final when Andrés was the best player on the pitch, I came across Santiago Segurola, the football writer. I said to him: ‘I’ve just seen something incredible.’ I had this feeling that what I’d just witnessed was unique. That was my first impression of Andrés.

“But later,” Guardiola admits, “I came to really value something else Andrés does, something that he had made me see with time: the importance of attacking the center-backs. No one does it. But watch and you see it. If the central defender has to step out, everything opens up; the whole defense becomes disorganized and spaces appear that weren’t there before. It’s all about breaking through lines to find space behind them. Open, then find.

“For example, we set up our attack so that Leo Messi could attack the central defenders,” Guardiola explains. “We had to attack in such a way as to get the ball to Andrés and Leo so that they could attack the central defenders and that opened them up. When we managed that, we knew that we would win the game because Leo scored goals and Andrés generated everything else: dribbling, numerical superiority, the ability to unbalance the game, the final pass, both to the outside and filtered through the middle. He sees it all and he has that gift for dribbling that’s so unique to him. That dribbling ability is everything today. And it was Andrés who opened my eyes to the importance of an inside forward or midfielder being able to dribble too. If he dribbles, if he carries the ball and goes at people, everything flows. With time, I saw that.”

The Guardian Sport

Frank de Boer Left Crystal Palace after 77 Days. Dave Bassett Didn’t Last 77 Hours


London – Frank de Boer didn’t win a league game in his short tenure at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. Back in 1984, Dave Bassett didn’t stick around long enough to see the team play.

Bassett’s stock was on the rise in the summer of 1984. After guiding Wimbledon to the Fourth Division title with 98 points in the 1982-83 season, he had just led them to a second consecutive promotion. His style of play may not have been to the taste of the football purists but, with the club jumping up to the Second Division, the ends definitely justified the means.

Attention from Football League clubs up and down the country was inevitable and in May 1984 a vacancy opened up that tested Bassett’s loyalty to the Dons. Crystal Palace chairman Ron Noades thought his squad was “good enough to have finished in the top eight” but he had just watched manager Alan Mullery produce 15th- and 18th-placed finishes in the Second Division. With average attendances dropping, Noades decided to wield the ax.

Bassett’s contract with Wimbledon expired in October 1984 and he was immediately installed as the favorite to make the short move across south London. After spending a decade at Wimbledon as a player and then a manager, leaving Plough Lane would prove difficult. He was unveiled as the new Palace manager just three days after Mullery’s sacking but he sounded torn over the move. “It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in football,” said Bassett. “I have spent a great deal of my life at Wimbledon and you cannot turn your back on that sort of thing quickly. This is a new challenge and one that I feel capable facing. Palace can return to the top. This club can get back to where it belongs.”

The appointment was announced on May 17, giving Bassett a full summer and pre-season to assess his resources and transmit his ideas to the players, but he didn’t allow himself enough time to get his feet under the table. On May 21 he addressed the media to inform them of his change of heart. “I preach loyalty and integrity to my players at Wimbledon and I do not believe that this is the time for me to leave,” Bassett explained to shocked and confused journalists. “Having taken Wimbledon in to the Second Division, I have a big challenge here. We have a tremendous bunch of players and they are doing so well at the moment. I really should have thought more deeply about the matter before agreeing to go to Palace.”

“I know people will say I’ve ducked out, but that was never the case. I personally think mine was a braver decision to make. I’ve lost weight, sleep and years off my life not knowing what to do for the best. But my loyalty to Wimbledon proved the decisive factor. I’ve managed them from the Fourth to the Second Division and this is the time I’m needed most.”

Bassett, who had not yet signed his contract with Palace, suggested his close friendship with Noades had played a part in the decision. “Ron Noades was bitterly disappointed but I think in the end he understood my reasons because he said: ‘Go on, off you go. I’ll see you later.’ There was no animosity. I’ve known him for 20 years and I feel our relationship would have suffered if it became boss and worker.”

Noades’ loss was Stanley Reed’s gain and the Wimbledon chairman was delighted. “The door was shut but not bolted as far as Dave was concerned,” said Reed. “Now we can really get down to celebrating our promotion.” The club went from strength to strength under Bassett, gaining promotion to the top flight in the 1985-86 season.

The Palace job subsequently went to Steve Coppell, which made the 28-year-old the youngest manager in the Football League and began a beautiful partnership that would span nine years (in his first spell) and take in promotion, an FA Cup final and a third-placed finish in Division One.

Twelve years after his brief stint at Palace, Bassett returned to the club to work with Noades for over a year. Naturally, when Bassett was appointed the second time around in 1996, a lot of talk surrounded his previous spell at the club. “I was a bit younger then and it seemed a good idea at the time. I soon realized I had made the wrong decision.” Steve Parish knows how he feels.

The Guardian Sport

Transfer System Isn’t Perfect but Premier League Plans Don’t Make Sense


London – The news that Premier League clubs are considering closing the transfer window before the season starts is not a particular surprise. Complaints from virtually everyone in the game are long-standing that transfer business dragging on alongside actual football provides too much of a distraction as rumors fly, agents scheme and players sulk.

Philippe Coutinho’s situation was the most prominent recent example: a back injury was the official reason for his unavailability for Liverpool’s first four games, not Barcelona’s looming with an enormous pile of cash.

There was already plenty to do in the first month of a season: formations to mull over, players to assess, panics to calm, the optimism of pre-season shattered or inflated. On top of this managers have to deal with constant questions about who is leaving and who is coming in, the implication being that buying players is the one true way to solve any problem a team might have.

Few had a good word to say about the state of affairs. “It would have helped us this year,” said Jürgen Klopp when asked if the window should have shut earlier. “It’s a huge mistake from Uefa,” said Pep Guardiola this summer. “I think the market should finish when we start the season. It’s too long, too large.” And back in 2015 Arsène Wenger said: “Does it bother me the window is still open? Yes, because it creates uncertainties. At the start of the season everybody should be committed, not half-in, half-out.”

The sense that the whole thing is a media construct is difficult to escape, all leading up to the “event” of deadline day as exasperated Sky Sports reporters stand in car parks, bringing the nation news of what amounts to admin being completed in the buildings behind them, presumably strongly considering the life choices that led them to this point.

Changing the parameters of the transfer window would simply bring that forward but it would at least eliminate the absurdity of those times when matches are played on August 31. This year deadline day fell in the middle of the international break, which provided even more japes.

And yet the opportunity to sign players while games are still going on can be a positive too, simply because managers can make more informed decisions on what works and what does not. We are all aware that pre-season games mean little, so why should teams make decisions they are stuck with until January based on them?

“You can look at it either way really – whether it’s glass half-full or empty,” Derby County’s manager Gary Rowett told the Guardian recently. “It would make life a lot easier if the transfer window finished the day before the season starts but I think there’s an advantage in that, if you’re three or four games in and you feel like you’re missing something, you’ve still got an opportunity to strengthen.”

It makes sense. A manager might think his team are fine throughout the summer but once they play some real games he might realize the midfield is no good or the center-forward has lost his touch or the player earmarked as a wing-back cannot handle the running. A few weeks in August with the transfer window still open might not be ideal but at least it gives teams a chance to fix things based on reliable evidence.

Additionally this change would not actually solve many problems if only Premier League clubs agree to it. Any attempt to implement this change across Europe would be a logistical impossibility, given the different times at which seasons begin. Had the English transfer window closed on August 10 this year, it would still have been open for the rest of Europe for another three weeks, meaning Coutinho would still have been looking up flights to Barcelona. At least this way, if a player makes such a scene or an offer so big arrives that a club has little alternative but to sell, they can still replace him: if Premier League clubs treat themselves as an island and end only their own window early, they could be left with the worst of all worlds.

Of course the alternative is to scrap the transfer window altogether and return to the days when moves could occur throughout the season. Panic-buying would be eliminated and Daniel Levy could spread his work over weeks rather than cramming it into one day. It is worth remembering, too, that transfer windows take away the option for poorer clubs to raise quick cash by selling a player.

But do we really want that? Would Wenger, Guardiola and Klopp really welcome the distraction of being asked in every press conference about transfers, rather than just in August and January? At least this way they – and we – can broadly concentrate on actual football between September and December, then February and May.

The way the transfer system is set up is a far from perfect. Perhaps removing transfer windows altogether would ultimately be beneficial. But Premier League clubs voting to end it early simply because it makes things less messy for them feels like a halfway house that could simply create more problems.

The Guardian Sport

MCN to LOL: the New Super Forward Lines Set to Dominate the Champions League


London – When Paris Saint-Germain signed Neymar from Barcelona for £198m this summer they not only broke the transfer record but also destroyed one of the most successful attacking trios of all time.

Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez – nicknamed MSN – had terrified defenses across Spain and Europe for the past three years before PSG managed to lure the Brazilian to the French capital and then add Kylian Mbappé from Monaco to form their own super forward line.

That trident has now been given its own name MCN (with Edinson Cavani completing the lineup) while in Spain there is still the BBC of Real Madrid (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo). As for Barcelona, they recruited Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund and even though they have not yet been given an official nickname, someone jokingly suggested LOL.

Whatever the lineup there seems to be a plethora of superb forward lines across Europe and as the Champions League kicked off The Guardian Sport takes a look at the 14 strongest of the teams involved.

Paris Saint-Germain (rating 9.5/10)

“He could become the next Pelé. He has no limits.” Hyperbolic or not, Arsène Wenger has a point, Kylian Mbappé has everything; terrifying speed, unerring finishing and an alarmingly quick change of direction. Worryingly for the rest of Europe this simply amounts to more of the same for PSG. Between Mbappé’s pace, Neymar’s irresistible swagger and Edinson Cavani’s ninja-like movement, Unai Emery’s front three have a variety of ways to insight panic and potentially provide an avalanche of goals. Assuming, that is, the clinical Cavani of the spring holds off the infuriatingly wasteful Cavani of last autumn. Are they good enough to lead Paris to Kiev? €465m says they are.

Barcelona (9/10)

For many, it was the best front three of all time but it has gone. No more MSN. Neymar will be missed by Messi and Suárez, off the pitch as well as on it where they were good friends. The president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, described Neymar’s departure as an “opportunity” to tilt the balance back towards midfield and some agreed – they had lost a little of their identity, so dominant were the front three. And yet €145m has been spent on a player who, in theory, is a direct replacement (if a downgrade) on Neymar. It could less a frontline of three, though, with Messi now playing deeper as a playmaker, passer, dribbler and goal scorer in one. It’s legitimate to ask how long Suárez has left and just how good Dembélé will be remains to be seen but this is still potentially a hell of a forward line. Because Messi is … well, Messi.

Manchester City (9/10)

Pep Guardiola’s embarrassment of glittering forwards means Sergio Agüero, the Premier League’s most prolific goalscorer since 2012, may struggle to be a regular pick against continental rearguards, yet Saturday’s demolition of Liverpool may make the manager think twice before putting the Argentinian on the bench again. The manager’s difficulty in packing in all of his attack-minded talent is further illustrated by Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva now operating in a less advanced role as quasi-traditional central midfield string-pullers. Raheem Sterling is a further quick-footed forward who may receive unwanted bench time under the midweek bright lights of the Champions League. No defence will fancy facing this cadre.

Real Madrid (9/10)

Time for Real Madrid to change the channel? For so long, it was the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano) up front, with Zidane admitting that they were non-negotiable picks if fit, but no more. One newspaper has taken to calling them the bbC on the basis that only Ronaldo is really worth the title any more, while the performances of Isco – since he was given a chance in place of the injured Bale last season – make things far less clear cut now, as he dropped in behind the forwards and led them towards a double. Madrid looked a better team with that shift in style and personnel. With a more populated midfield came control and less of a counterattacking style. Add to that the emergence of the brilliant Marco Asensio, plus Zidane’s taste for rotation, and it’s not clear what their preferred forward line is now. One thing is for sure – it’s supremely talented.

Juventus (9/10)

The group of forwards who propelled Juventus to the final last season was already exceptional. Paulo Dybala is a one-of-a-kind talent, Gonzalo Higuaín a world-class No. 9, and Mario Mandzukic a furious competitor who recently scored one of the greatest goals in European Cup history. If Juan Cuadrado was perceived as the weak link, then how about the mercurial Douglas Costa – a man with a half-century of appearances in this competition – as an alternative? Federico Bernardeschi is new to this stage but has the talent to thrive in a deep-lying role.

Bayern Munich (8.5/10)

Robert Lewandowski is still there, as is Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman and Franck Ribéry – and perhaps that is part of the problem. While the Pole is at the absolute peak of his game, the people around him seems to be stagnating or possibly be on the way down. Bayern are favorites to win the Bundesliga and are expected to go far in the Champions League but all is not well in Bavaria. Last weekend, they lost 2-0 to Hoffenheim and looked a little devoid of ideas (although admittedly against a very compact side). Lewandowski recently criticized the club for not spending more than €40m on any player – for which he was rebuked by the club’s chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge – but maybe the striker has a point. Müller appears to have lost his magic and it still remains to be seen whether James Rodríguez, a two-year loan signing from Real Madrid, can find a way back to his 2014 World Cup form.

Chelsea (8.5/10)

Chelsea’s forward line has changed complexion without Diego Costa in the ranks – the Brazil-born striker has not been included in their Champions League squad – but, in Álvaro Morata, they still boast a Spain international of pedigree to lead the line. He will work defenders in a different way but his threat has already been clear in the Premier League and, once Eden Hazard is fit and firing, and with Willian or Pedro stretching teams on the right, Antonio Conte has a potent front three. The worry is a lack of depth. Michy Batshuayi has been only a bit-part player and the failure to secure Fernando Llorente on deadline day as a very different kind of option could still be felt.

Liverpool (8.5/10)

As Hoffenheim discovered to their cost in the play-off second leg, Liverpool possess forwards capable of obliterating opponents in the Champions League. There was no clearer demonstration of the speed of thought and movement in Jürgen Klopp’s attack than the devastating 21-minute spell at Anfield that secured Liverpool’s passage into the group phase. The intelligence of Roberto Firmino, the skill of Sadio Mané and the pace of Mohamed Salah provided an ideal balance and, with Philippe Coutinho returning to the fold, the supply line will only improve.

Manchester United (8.5/10)

This frontline has already returned eight goals in four Premier League outings with José Mourinho’s headline summer signing Romelu Lukaku registering half of those. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s direct replacement to an attack that fired United to the Europa League title, the Belgian adds greater pace and a lesser tendency to drop deep. This allows Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial more chance to cut the opposition apart, a threat Champions League opponents are sure to study. It is the addition of the holding midfielder Nemanja Matic that may be key to the line flourishing as the Serb’s penchant for clever passes is creating opportunities that did not exist last season. Juan Mata’s guile and Jesse Lingard’s directness can be potent weapons from the bench, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add yet another dimension once fit.

Napoli (8/10)

If we were assessing only starters, then Napoli’s score would be higher still. Dries Mertens’s emergence as a No. 9 has upgraded Napoli into a relentless scoring machine, with Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón carving in from either flank. Undersized they might be, but these “Marvellous Smurfs” have made Napoli into Serie A’s most prolific side. Arkadiusz Milik can provide strength and aerial prowess when a different tack is required but there is a lack of depth on the flanks.

Atlético Madrid (7.5/10)

Antoine Griezmann stayed, insisting it would have been “dirty” to leave Atlético amid their transfer ban. He is the star, a special talent, and miles ahead of his team-mates. Who he plays with is still unresolved: Ángel Correa impresses from the bench, skillful and clever, more subtle than the rest, but tends to be less significant as a starter. Yannick Carrasco plays wide rather than in a forward line but is fast and talented. The 33-year-old Fernando Torres offers a physical presence but is now used less by Diego Simeone. Kevin Gameiro is, in theory, the most likely to threaten with his pace, directness and finishing, yet even he inspires some doubts. Luciano Vietto may get a second chance but so far Simeone appears unsure. Vitolo will arrive in the winter to play wide. Chelsea’s Costa is the man they really want and the feeling is mutual but there is still no sign of that becoming a reality.

Monaco (7.5/10)

To say Monaco escaped the summer relatively unscathed seems ludicrous. But despite losing the effortless guile of Bernardo Silva and the lightning Mbappé, this is the case. Marquee sales are occasionally a necessary part of the way Monaco conduct themselves and these were losses they foresaw – keeping Thomas Lemar and Falcao are sizable victories. The shrewd additions of Stevan Jovetic and the bulldozing Baldé Keita as well as the burgeoning talent of Rony Lopes allow Monaco to retain much of the youthful exuberance, technical panache and attacking flair of last season. Underestimating Leonardo Jardim would be a terrible mistake to make twice.

Borussia Dortmund (7/10)

A potent front three, but without the devastating speed and trickery of the departed Ousmane Dembélé, lacks a little something compared with best forward lines in Europe. Christian Pulisic, only 18, has accepted the challenge of replacing Dembélé in Dortmund’s starting XI with Maximilian Philipp starting on the left and Andrey Yarmolenko also to be integrated following his £23.1m transfer from Dynamo Kyiv. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is still the focal point of the attack with Marco Reus out yet again with another long-term injury. Milan wanted Aubameyang this summer but he stayed and has looked sharp. “It is proof of what a professional player he is,” said the Dortmund chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, after the Gabon striker’s five goals in five games this season. The new manager has several options from the bench too, including André Schürrle, Alexander Isak and the 17-year-old Jadon Sancho, who joined from Manchester City in the summer.

Roma (7/10)

For now we can only guess at Roma’s first-choice attack under Eusebio Di Francesco. Appointed in the summer, he has not yet had a full squad at his disposal. Patrik Schick arrived at the very end of the transfer window, while Alessandro Florenzi – who has played at full-back in recent seasons, but previously operated as a wide forward – is just back from a cruciate tear. Edin Dzeko was Serie A’s top scorer last season but he will miss the assists provided to him by the departed Mohamed Salah.

*The Guardian Sport

Why Roy Hodgson could be Perfect for Palace


London- When West Bromwich Albion players think back to the early days under Roy Hodgson, the memories that stick in the mind are of the shift in the intensity of their work on the training ground, the way they returned to the dressing rooms exhausted, and how their new manager never missed a trick. “I can see you’re walking, you’re not doing it,” was one of Hodgson’s favourite phrases as he worked time and again on team shape.

West Brom were Hodgson’s last job in club management before he left to take the England position in 2012, and the short but sweet spell he spent in charge at the Hawthorns provides a reasonable barometer for what to expect at Crystal Palace. The 70-year-old is now working at a club operating at a similar level and faced with some of the same challenges that confronted him in the Midlands.

Then, much like now, Hodgson had a reputation to rebuild after lasting only six months as the Liverpool manager. In another parallel between life at Selhurst Park and the Hawthorns, Hodgson took over a group of players at West Brom who were crying out for leadership and a more pragmatic approach. Rudderless under Roberto Di Matteo, who ran a laidback regime, they had lost 13 out of 18 matches and had failed to keep a clean sheet for six months when Hodgson rocked up.

West Brom turned to Hodgson because he was seen as a safe pair of hands who could give a struggling team some direction. The transfer window had closed, which meant Di Matteo’s successor would have to make the best of whatever he inherited. Dan Ashworth, who was the technical director at the time, was confident Hodgson would thrive in that situation because of his desire to be out on the training ground every day.

Whatever anyone thinks of Hodgson, that sort of thing is his forte. “If there are problems in the team in terms of organisation and structure, Roy will get down to work at them straight away,” says Terry Burton, who worked alongside Keith Downing on the back-room staff at West Brom and laughs as he recalls how the two of them were left “fighting to get the cones to put out” because Hodgson was so hands on.

It was all about the players knowing their jobs with and without the ball and everything Hodgson did on the training pitch had that in mind. “Some people are session coaches and some are team coaches,” Burton says. “Session coaches will put on a passing drill or a possession practice while team coaches will coach a function of the team, such as getting full-backs to support wide players or midfielders. In terms of the team coaches I’ve worked with, I would put Roy at the top. He’s very good at getting players to understand their role within the team.”

Burton has not got a bad word to say about Hodgson and that kind of feedback is indicative of the way many people at West Brom feel about a man who spent only 15 months in charge. It was interesting interviewing James Morrison a few years ago and hearing the Scotland international, who is not the sort of person to say things just for the sake of it, talk so highly of Hodgson.


“Roy was a special guy and he taught me a lot: how to play midfield on the defensive side – backing up play, shuffling across, blocking up lines. He was very interesting, like one of those experienced men you see in a pub sometimes who you can go to for a chat,” Morrison said. “Roy probably laid a lot of the foundations at West Brom. He’s a real good man and I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”

Hodgson’s management style and way of working may not be to everyone’s liking, yet individually and collectively West Brom’s players reaped the rewards of all the hours put in on the training ground, where near enough everything they did related to a game situation. There was a big emphasis on working on the pattern of play in full-sided games, dividing the team into units in and out of possession, with no more than 10 core practises that Hodgson relied on to get his points across, which inevitably meant a lot of repetition.

By the end of the sessions his squad were mentally and physically drained. “All the players came off the pitch sweating, thinking we’d never worked that hard before,” Morrison said but they bought into what Hodgson was doing because they recognised the benefits. They picked up 20 points from 12 games under Hodgson in his first season in charge, climbing from 17th to 11th in the process. The following year they finished 10th.

An intelligent and well-read man, Hodgson was viewed at West Brom as someone who was just as comfortable holding a conversation in the boardroom as he was talking through ideas to a right-back on the training pitch. He formed a strong relationship with Ashworth, who would later follow him to the Football Association, and the two worked closely on player recruitment. Not the sort to take a punt on a player whom he knew little about, Hodgson adopted a safety-first approach to transfers at West Brom and preferred whenever possible to watch a target play live, travelling all over the country with Ashworth to give his verdict on a prospective signing.

Although staff and players found Hodgson’s enthusiasm infectious, especially on the training ground, where there was a sense he could not have been in a happier place (it is tempting to think he is much better suited to club rather than international management on that point alone), he also had an edge to him and was not afraid to light the fuse when things were not done right. There were no cups thrown in the dressing room but Hodgson got his point across to players passionately and forcefully when the need arose.

Generally, there were plenty of smiles during his time at the Hawthorns, where the level of expectation was nothing like as great as Liverpool, the media spotlight far less intense and the players receptive to his methods. Fast forward five or six years and Burton sees no reason to think the same will not be true at Palace.

“Certain coaches fit certain clubs,” he says. “And I think if you look at what Roy did at Fulham and West Brom, and you look at Palace and the type of coaches that they’ve had, from Alan Pardew to Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce – and Roy would be above them for me in terms of his coaching ability – they all work at the fundamentals of the game.

“Roy, I think, will do a really good job at Palace and I’m delighted for him, because I’d hate for his career to have been remembered for what happened with England last summer.”

The Guardian Sport

Crystal Palace Revert to Short-Term Policy after Itching Frank de Boer Experiment


London- Steve Parish had taken to Twitter on Sunday night on the way back from Burnley and his team’s latest scoreless defeat. There were irate supporters to address and plenty of disgruntled fans pointing fingers at a board who, up to now, have been relatively immune to criticism given their achievements in hoisting Crystal Palace from the second tier. The chairman’s responses verged on the defiant, from “football teams lose games” to “we know we are better than this”. In among the series of tweets, too, was one suggesting “we have to stick together”.

As it transpired that call for unity, echoed by first-team players on social media, did not extend to the relationship between hierarchy and manager. After a night contemplating what happens next, Palace confirmed Frank de Boer’s tenure would not extend beyond the 11-week mark, provoking an understandable wave of bewilderment from those on the outside looking in.Why sack De Boer for managing like De Boer? Surely he needed proper time, and more investment, to instigate the change in style even Parish had acknowledged was desirable? Did the improved performance at Turf Moor, where 23 chances were created but none taken, not demand a stay of execution at least until Saturday’s visit of Southampton?

Parish and the club’s American major shareholders, David Blitzer and Josh Harris, who were in attendance in Lancashire, would acknowledge that logic. They would surely concede, too, that mistakes have been made. Embarrassing errors that damn all the due diligence conducted over that month-long summer recruitment process following Sam Allardyce’s surprise resignation. The chairman, it should not be forgotten, had admitted “every time a manager fails at this club, I fail, so if Frank fails it is my failure too”.

There is no hiding from this fiasco, whether or not talk of fans’ protests is followed through on Saturday lunchtime, or even if Palace rouse themselves under Roy Hodgson to clamber clear of trouble. The fact remains that it was always unreasonable to expect a manager schooled in one clear footballing way to be parachuted into a club and an unfamiliar league and successfully change everything overnight. He is even less likely to succeed if his squad are bolstered by only two young loanees and a £7.9m signing from Ajax. There was a splurge on Mamadou Sakho, a talismanic figure for Allardyce’s side last term, on deadline day but, by then, De Boer’s influence on transfer policy had all but evaporated. Looking back, what chance did he realistically have?

Not that the owners will have warmed to the idea of Palace becoming a laughing stock. There is nothing to celebrate in a club emulating a 93-year record for dismal top-flight starts one day, then casting the manager adrift after the fewest number of games in charge the next. But at some stage, for all the desire to develop on the pitch, fear kicks in. Palace cannot afford to drop out of this division. This is a fifth year at elite level, the longest in their history, and their wage bill has never been higher. The owners – it is safe to assume the American investors, in particular – cannot contemplate slipping into the Championship. Once De Boer offered no clear plan as to how he would kickstart the team’s season in a meeting with Parish and the sporting director, Dougie Freedman, on the last Monday in August, the writing was on the wall.

Given the schism that had developed behind the scenes, the surprise was not that the axe fell after four games but that the manager had still been in charge for the trip to Burnley. This relationship had fractured beyond repair after the defeat by Swansea last month when a manager who had pledged for most of the week to revert to a more comfortable system had ended up reverting to type just before kick-off in selection and tactics. The sight of the Dutchman bemoaning his players’ lack of “courage” on the ball in his post-match observations was too much for the owners to accept. One would have hoped the interview process might have highlighted any potential personality clash but clearly something had been lost in translation mid-summer. De Boer had apparently pledged “evolution, not revolution” but his approach suggested otherwise. Parish might argue some of the Dutchman’s tactics were evidence he had been hoodwinked.

What so infuriated the board was De Boer’s apparent naivety when it came to the demands of the Premier League, as perverse as that may seem in relation to a man who excelled as a player at Barcelona, earned 112 Holland caps and claimed four Eredivise titles in six seasons as Ajax’s coach. Tony Pulis and Allardyce proved at Palace that the starting basis for any kind of success at a club of this size is a solid defence; be hard to beat first, and build any kind of progressive play from that base. De Boer could point to a fine defensive record in Dutch football but fell back on his principles, his weight of experience as a player and coach, and a favoured tactical game plan: a 3-4-3 forged on possession and patient buildup as if it was lifted from his Ajax days.

It did not seem to matter that some of the players he had inherited, purchased by Ian Holloway to Pulis, Alan Pardew to Allardyce, were clearly uneasy with the whole approach. Or merely confused. So it was hardly a surprise what they delivered wasa mishmash. Palace have still regularly flung balls forward in hope for Christian Benteke – no other Premier League side have played as many long passes this season – but they have lacked the width to exploit their target man and, before the game at Burnley, any zest in their buildup play to stretch opponents.

Before Turf Moor, when the manager’s selection had hinted at a willingness to change, the players had looked bewildered. Their only periods of dominant play had come in the final half-hour of the Carabao Cup second-round tie against the youngest team Ipswich Town have ever selected, the second half against Swansea once the visitors were sitting on a 2-0 lead, and in arrears at Burnley. On all occasions, Palace had reverted to something akin to a 4-3-3, the formation that would appear to fit the personnel.

The issue had been raised with the manager before the Swansea match, the hierarchy almost pleading with him to give himself and the players the best chance of thriving, but it fell on deaf ears. By the end of that plod of a performance, Palace had reverted to playing Joel Ward at left-back, Lee Chung-yong on the flank and Martin Kelly at centre-half. It came as little surprise that the latter’s display was so frazzled given he had effectively been made available for transfer only to be thrust back into the picture almost overnight.

Maybe those players’ involvement reflects the inadequate nature of Palace’s squad, a highly paid yet imbalanced playing staff blessed with seven centre-halves but only one fit centre-forward. Plenty of players were permitted to move on but their contracts are bloated and prohibitive for suitors outside the Premier League. That they were not shifted limited what changes the new man could implement.

Other issues alarmed the ownership. The fact Luka Milivojevic, a revelation in defensive midfield after signing in January, featured as a centre-half throughout pre-season before being deposited back in midfield on the opening day against Huddersfield seemed self-defeating. The same could be said of Ward – deployed at centre-half for much of the summer only for De Boer to pick him as a right wing-back in the first competitive fixture. Ward duly laboured, scored an own goal and appeared utterly lost.

Plenty about the selection for that game against Huddersfield had alarm bells ringing, not least the fact Jairo Riedewald, at 20, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the 19-year-old secured on loan from Manchester United a few days previously, flanked Scott Dann in the new-look back three. As talented as the two youngsters may be, it seemed unwise to fling them into the fray in tandem in such a brutal division, even against promoted opponents. Better teams than Palace would struggle if reliant on such a green backline.

Then came the inevitable rumours of player discontent, always the precursor to managerial change, which had been seeping out for a while. Some did not take kindly to De Boer’s showboating in training, tricks and flicks and free-kicks bent in from distance, a la Glenn Hoddle. Others, it should be said, had no such complaints and felt they were steadily growing accustomed to his demands. The corner would be turned. Palace would revive. We will never know whether that was realistic.

Perhaps De Boer and Palace was never going to be the right fit. Even after four years dining at the top table, this club can still feel like a throwback. A set-up where only a certain kind of manager can thrive and, even then, not necessarily for very long. Sean Dyche, linked heavily with the post in the summer, would have been a more appropriate appointment in the circumstances when money is relatively tight and the implications of failure so immense. De Boer probably realised how awkward the alliance felt as quickly as the owners. He might argue he was too progressive at this stage of Palace’s development. The club would presumably counter by pointing at the dreadful results which have left the team playing catch-up, and ask whether De Boer is equipped for a dogfight.

Hodgson, in contrast, suddenly feels a safer option. He is anything but a leap into the unknown, and can come in and be as pragmatic, as he was with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. Yes, he is saddled with memories of Iceland but the Croydonian will consider Palace a homecoming and a chance to restore his reputation. Coping with the unremitting scrutiny of Premier League management will arguably be his biggest challenge because there is quality aplenty in this team which, if tapped properly, will steer them clear of trouble.

Turning to a 70-year-old hardly smacks of long-termism but Palace have probably waved goodbye to that aspiration. Four games in and everything is about survival once again. The board decided De Boer was not the man to achieve it.

The Guardian Sport

Kevin De Bruyne’s Perfect Touch Delights Pep Guardiola, Keeps Silvas at Bay


London- Just before the hour mark, and as Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Leroy Sané amid applause from the home supporters on the back of a devastating display in front of goal, Kevin De Bruyne could be seen speaking with David Silva and Sergio Agüero. The Belgian went over to each in turn and appeared to be telling them what to do. It was impossible to pick up what he was saying, but given everything that had happened up until then, it would not have been a surprise to have learned that his message was a simple one: “Keep going, lads, I’ve got this.”

Manchester City’s biggest home win over Liverpool since September 1935 was a collective pummelling – and one aided by Sadio Mané’s initially controversial, but ultimately justified, sending-off – but what it highlighted amid the showers and sunshine of an early autumn afternoon is just how good De Bruyne is, and just how central he could be, in more ways than one, to City reclaiming their status as champions.

The 26-year-old was sensational here, assisting City’s first two goals, scored by Agüero and Jesus, playing a role in their fourth – put away by Sané – and generally providing a muscular, intelligent and technically excellent display from an advanced midfield position.

De Bruyne did not stand out by a distance among those in blue, but he did stand out, and at times appeared to be playing a completely different game to everyone else, such was the time and space he was able to find on the pitch. Little wonder Agüero and Silva listened so intently to his instructions – they knew as much as anyone that De Bruyne was in control of proceedings; that he well and truly had this.

“I am so happy with his performance,” said Pep Guardiola of City’s No17. “He is good on balls on the feet. He is good running, attacking the space. He is a complete player, one of our captains.”

With his two assists here, De Bruyne has now provided 39 in all competitions since arriving from Wolfsburg for £51m in August 2015. There have also been 23 goals and numerous man-of-the-match displays. Yet he cannot consider himself undroppable, and especially while Guardiola continues to deploy a system containing a three-man midfield in which Fernandinho provides the defensive support to two playmakers.

De Bruyne is competing to fill one of those spots not only with David Silva but also Bernado Silva, who is increasingly getting up to speed after his late arrival from the Confederations Cup and having signed from Monaco for £43.6m in May. Then there is Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gündogan to consider, with the latter returning to City’s matchday squad on Saturday for the first time since tearing cruciate knee ligaments in December. The competition is fierce and standards for those involved in the battle for recognition simply cannot drop.

De Bruyne appears to be aware of that if his display here is anything to go by. Deployed alongside David Silva for a fourth league match in succession, he tormented those in red from start to finish, starting off in a right-sided position but continuously moving across and through the lines. On 20 minutes he popped up on the left and caused Liverpool’s right-back Trent Alexander Arnold such concern with his incisive running that the teenager, so assured so far this season, found himself with no other option but to yank the midfielder down just outside the area and subsequently receive a yellow card.

Five minutes later came De Bruyne’s first assist and it told you so much about his assurance and ability. There was a touch to control the ball after it came his way from Fernandinho inside the centre circle and then, with nonchalant ease, a perfectly weighted through ball to set Agüero running free through the heart of the visitors’ defence. The Argentinian’s goal made it six from six home league games against Liverpool.

The second assist, in first-half stoppage time, was more straightforward but no less perfectly executed – a left-wing cross that Jesus fired past Simon Mignolet via a header from an unmarked position – and then, on 77 minutes, came the pass to Sané, which eventually led to the German scoring the first of his two goals. Again De Bruyne was in a central position and, again, Liverpool had no idea how to handle him.

It should be noted that post-Mané’s sending off Liverpool were incredibly poor, all but giving up en route to their heaviest defeat under Jürgen Klopp, but that should not take away from City’s performance, one full of swagger and ruthlessness, and which suggests that for all their defensive frailties, which again were on show here, they have enough in attack to win the title.

And at the heart of it was De Bruyne, the reserved figure who catches the eye time and time again. Drop him if you dare, Pep. “This season he is in a good mood, maybe because he is a father,” said Guardiola. “We are a lucky club to have Kevin.”

The Guardian Sport